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"I think I'm dying."
If her eyes had not been filled with tears, and her expression so woeful, Winston Gray might have smiled. As it was, he adjusted his spectacles and cleared his throat. Clearly, the young woman huddled in a straight chair on the other side of his desk was in dire straits. But, dying? If clear skin, soft brown eyes and a full head of dark, waving hair gave any indication at all, he'd say she was in the best of health.
True, her form was slender, but not unduly so. And yet, there was a significant thickening of her waist and a suggestion of recent weight gain, if the fit of her dress was anything to go by.
"What's the reason for you to be so worried?" he asked, watching as her slender hand lifted to swipe at the tears on her cheeks. Concern was written all over the girl, and suddenly he lost his urge to smile. Rising from behind his desk, he moved slowly to where she sat, pulling a second chair closer.
She looked up at him, her mouth working as though she might burst into a full-fledged crying spell any minute. "My mama died from a growth in her belly," she whispered, and one hand spread across her own abdomen as she spoke. "I was only six years old, but I remember how she just got skinnier and skinnier, and her belly got bigger and bigger, till one morning she just stopped breathing."
Dr. Winston Gray knew heartbreak when it stared him in the face, and he sensed the girl's need for comfort. His large hand reached for hers, clasping it within his palm. "And you think you might have the same affliction?" he asked quietly.
She nodded, allowing the tears to flow now. "I've been feeling poorly lately, maybe for three months or so now. And my belly's getting bigger all the time."
And if his training had taught him anything, Win knew exactly what the girl's problem was. "Is there any chance you might be in the family way?" he asked.
Her eyes widened and her head shook with a violent movement. "Heavenly days, no," she blurted. "I'm not married, Dr. Gray."
"That doesn't always preclude a pregnancy," he told her. "Perhaps you " How to phrase it delicately, so she would not take offense? "Do you have a gentleman friend?"
Her flushed cheeks lost their color and she wilted in the chair, tugging her hand from his grasp. "No." The single word was abrupt, and she straightened her shoulders. "Not anymore, anyway. Tommy Jamison used to come calling, but his folks moved back East a couple of weeks ago, and" Her shoulders lifted in a telling shrug. "My pa didn't like Tommy anyway, and now, with me probably dying, it's just as well. His folks wanted him to go to college to get a good education."
And likely, the mother had taken a good look at Tommy's young lady and hustled her son as far away as possible from the problem he'd caused, Win surmised. He leaned his arms on his thighs and looked down at the wooden floor. How any young woman could be so ignorant was a puzzle he'd come across once before, and that time it had been solved neatly by a hasty marriage, aided by an angry father with a shotgun.
This particular situation didn't look as promising.
"How old are you?" he asked, glancing up to see her blinking back another deluge of tears.
"Almost nineteen," she whispered. "That's too young to die, isn't it?"
"You're not going to die." He hesitated, unwilling to speak further without at least knowing the girl's name. "You're George Mitchum's girl, aren't you?"
She nodded. "I'm Ellie. Eleanor, after my mama."
"Ellie." He tasted the name, liking its simplicity. "Do you have any female relatives? An aunt, maybe? Is there a housekeeper at your father's ranch?" From what he'd heard, Win was certain the man could afford to hire a woman to live in and keep up his ranch house.
"No, there's just me," Ellie said, dashing his hopes. "I do the housework, and wash and cook for my pa and me."
Win cleared his throat. This was getting stickier by the minute. "Would you mind coming into my examining room, Ellie? I'd like to take a look at you and listen to your heart."
"My heart? What's that got to do with it?" she asked. "One of these days it's probably going to stop beating. Right now, it's doing just fine." She rose, and Win's gaze fastened on her slender form.
"Come along, Ellie," he said firmly, rising to his feet and grasping her elbow. "I'd like to check you over."
She nodded slowly. "All right. If you say so. But I can't imagine that listening to my heart is going to do much good," she said glumly.
Probably not, he agreed silently. But it was a beginning.
The examining room was small, centered by a black, leather-covered table, which Ellie approached as if she were heading for the gallows. "You want me to sit up on this thing?" she asked hesitantly.
"No," he responded. "I'd like you to lie down on it. On your back, please."
She took his offered hand and hoisted herself up, stepping onto the small stool, then sitting erect for a moment on the side of the table. "You sure you want me lying down?"
He nodded, taking his stethoscope from a drawer in his metal cabinet. He turned back to her, watching as she tucked her skirts neatly beneath her legs. "Let me help you," he offered, easing her head to the pillow he'd provided for his patients' comfort. "I'm going to unbutton two buttons, Ellie," he said easily, his fingers loosening the large, black buttons from their holdings. Sliding the bell of his stethoscope inside the bodice, he pressed it to her skin, just left of center, where her heart tones would travel up the rubber tubing he'd attached to his ears.
Closing his eyes, he listened, aware of her hesitant breathing, as if she must take the smallest breaths possible, making herself shrink into the surface of the table in order to escape the pressure of his hand. Her heart was a bit rapid, but he'd expected that. And, as he'd also expected, it was strong and regular.
He slid his hand from her dress, noting the flush that tinged her cheeks with color. "I'm going to press against your stomach, Ellie," he told her, one hand judging the size of the fetus he was sure she carried. Indeed, it was a growth, one she would likely be carrying for a few more months, if he knew anything about it. Both hands measured her belly, pressing firmly against the expanded womb, and he wished he could perform a more accurate examination.
"You have a problem, Ellie," he said agreeably, offering a hand to lift her to a sitting position.
"I told you so," she muttered. "I knew it."
"Have you spoken to your father?" he asked.
She shook her head. "We don't talk much."
"I think you have something you need to tell him. And if Tommy were handy, you'd be telling him about it, too," he added.
Her eyes widened, their brown irises almost obliterated by black pupils. "What's Tommy got to do with me dying?"
"Ellie, listen to me," Win said slowly. "You're not dying, my dear. Not for many years. The problem you have will be solved in about four months, if my calculations are correct." He drew in a breath and tilted her chin with one long index finger, in order to look into her eyes. Bewildered eyes, he noted.
"You're going to have a baby, Ellie. I would guess that Tommy is the father. Am I correct?"
"A baby? Tommy told me " She halted, flushing deeply now. "He said if I loved him, I'd do what he wanted, and he was going to marry me anyway, so it would be all right." Her eyes squinted shut. "He lied, didn't he?"
"Maybe he intended to marry you," Win told her. "Maybe he would have if his folks hadn't taken him back East."
"Maybe," she agreed, and her eyes opened, a fierce anger darkening their depths. "I think I was a fool to believe him, Dr. Gray. I just needed somebody to love me." The words were an anguished whisper, and Win's heart jolted in his chest.
"We all need that, Ellie."
She lifted her head and turned to look out the window, where white curtains hung to ensure privacy from the outside. Through their gauzy fabric, his backyard offered a bleak landscape. Dried grass and clumps of bedraggled perennials dotted the dry ground, and at the back of the lot an unpainted picket fence delineated his property line. "You need somebody to tend your yard," Ellie said quietly. "Those flowers could use some watering."
"I suppose," he agreed, aware that she struggled to face her dilemma. "What will you do, Ellie?"
She slid from the table. "Go home, I suspect."
"Will you tell your father right away?" He followed her from the room, through his office and to the waiting room, fortunately empty of patients this late in the afternoon.
"Maybe. I don't know. He'll probably figure it out for himself soon enough."
Win was surprised he hadn't already, given the tight fit of Ellie's dress. She was carrying high, and her waist had expanded enough to pull the buttons taut. "Will he help you?" Win asked.
Her shrug expressed doubt. "He don't much care about me, Dr. Gray. So long as I keep things up, he lets me be. But he's got a temper. I've seen him pretty near kill a horse that made him mad, and one day he beat the bejabbers out of a ranch hand who got drunk and didn't get out of bed the next morning. Sent him on his way afoot, just carrying his saddle and a bundle of his belongings."
"Are you afraid of him?"
She turned to face him, and Win saw the hesitant working of her mouth. "A little, maybe. Depends on how bad he needs me to work for him, whether or not I need to be dodging his fists."
His stomach knotted as Win noted the lack of color in Ellie's face. "Has your father abused you?" he asked.
She hesitated. "Not bad, no. He's smacked me a couple of times, but he pretty much lets me be. I just know he's going to be awfully upset when he finds out about this." Her hand touched her abdomen, fingers widespread as if she could somehow protect the child within.
And wasn't that a pretty future for a girl to face, he thought with a lump of despair in his throat. "If I can help in any way, Ellie, you know where to find me."
He held the door open for her and she walked out into the late-afternoon sunshine. Hesitating on the stoop, she looked up at the sky, where clouds floated on currents of air. Those same winds held birds suspended aloft, wings outspread as they circled high above the wheat fields outside of town. "Sure is a pretty day, isn't it?" she murmured, then, stepping to the ground, she trudged down the path to his gate.
"Come back to see me," Win called after her impetuously, waiting for her nod as she unhitched her horse and climbed into the buggy next to his gate. He watched the slow movement of the horse as Ellie turned in a half circle, heading toward the main part of town. The dainty mare picked up her feet in a trot as she moved toward the mercantile, where townsfolk were still moving in and out of the wide double doors.
Ellie slid from the buggy seat, and Win watched as she tied her horse, then stepped onto the wide boardwalk and into the store. Her hand on the door, she turned in his direction and hesitated, then lifted her other hand in a small salute.
Grim. Her prospects were grim, he decided, walking back to his house, where the small waiting room, office and examining room took up fully half of the downstairs space. He straightened a chair near the door, then walked on through to where his cluttered desk awaited his attention. Several files, yet to be noted with patient information, were stacked on the right side of his blotter, and he settled into his chair to do the jotting of symptoms and treatments he'd diagnosed and prescribed for each patient.
Paperwork was the bane of his existence, but it was a necessary thing, and he bent to it with a will, aware that he must make notes while his mind still retained the information from today's patients. Swiftly, he tended to business, moving the stack from one side of his desk to the other, noting with relief the absence of dire illness in the day's allotment of sickness. The usual chronic ailments were to be expected: dyspepsia, a cough that seemed to have no reason for being, a broken arm to be checked and sutures to be removed from a ranch hand's legthe result of a horse's misplaced hoof.
A clean file was taken from his drawer, a clean sheet of lined paper inserted and a name written on the top line. Ellie Mitchum. He looked at it, then added, in parenthesis, Eleanor.
Age, eighteen. The next line was filled in neatly. Heart tones normal, skin clear, eyes eyes, brown, he thought, his pen held over the paper. Hair, dark and waving.
Abdomen, filling slowly, but surely, with a baby whose mother could find no joy in the news of its conception.
Tess Dillard cast Ellie a glance, then took a second look, her forehead furrowing into a puzzled frown. "I haven't seen you in a while, child," she said softly. "You haven't been to town lately, have you?"
Ellie shook her head. "I wouldn't be here today, but for some things my pa forgot when he came in last week. I usually just give him a list of what we need, but he left it home last time." And besides, she'd wanted to see the doctor. For all the good that had done her.
"Well, let me see what we can do for you," Tess said, reaching for the folded slip of paper Ellie held. Her fingers touched the back of Ellie's hand and lingered. "Are you feeling well?" she asked kindly.
Ellie stiffened, looking around for listeners. "Of course, I'm fine, Mrs. Dillard. I just have to hurry along today. I've got supper in the oven, and I need to be home before the roast gets overdone. Pa doesn't like his meat cooked all the way through."
Tess reached to the shelf behind her and lifted a metal container to the counter. "I've got spices in here," she said, sorting through the tins it held. "Here we go. Cinnamon, and there's another of nutmeg. Are you doing a lot of baking these days, Ellie?"
Ellie nodded. "I make pies for the men. Clyde does their meals, but I fix cookies and such for them. I only cook for Pa and me in the house."