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New Orleans, November 1879
Gasping for breath, Abigail Neal pounded on Charity Hospital's enormous oak front door, bruising her fist and driving a splinter into the heel of her hand. She'd covered the six blocks from the District at a flat-out run, but no one had offered to pick her up and take her to her destination. Not that she'd expected it.
"Come on, come on," she muttered. "Someone answer the door." She pounded again, this time with the flat of both hands. The sound echoed off the tall columns and wooden floor of the porch and reverberated through the hallway inside.
Where was everyone? Yanking the splinter out of her hand and sucking away a welling drop of blood, she peered through the little pane of glass in the door. Why lock the door of a hospital? To defend against marauding sick people?
Tess wasn't going to make it if a doctor didn't come soon.
Abigail was about to bang again when a pair of filmy, protruding eyes met hers on the other side of the window. The latch scraped back and the door opened, revealing a short, barrel-chested man with a pockmarked face. "You'll have to go to the back door," he said, squinting up at her. "Nurses are all in evening prayers."
"I don't need a nurse. I want a doctor." Abigail forced herself to stand still, clutching her fingers together to keep from wringing her hands. People often wouldn't help a person who seemed desperate.
The man scratched his head, disturbing the few wisps of gray hair clinging to his shining scalp. "Ain't no doctors here to the front. That's why I says go to the back and waitthat's where the clinic is." He looked her up and down. "You don't look sick, no ways."
"I'm not sick," Abigail said, striving for patience. "I want you to fetch a doctor so that I can take him back to theI want him to come with me."
"Ain't none here right now," the guard repeated stubbornly. "Doc Laniere's teaching a surgery lesson"
"Doctor Laniere?" Abigail grabbed the man's arm. "He's the one I want. Someone told me he's very kind and he's the best doctor in the city."
"He's the best all right. But he's busy, and"
"Take me to him immediately." Abigail straightened, well aware of the intimidating effect of her full height. "What is your name?"
"They call me Crutch." The man glanced uneasily over his shoulder. "Mayhap I could see if Nurse Charlemagne"
"I told you I don't want a nurse. I want the doctor." Abigail found herself on the verge of frustrated tears. Every moment of delay endangered not only Tess's life but that of the baby. Pride hadn't done a bit of good so far. "Please, Mr. Crutch. My friend is having her babyshe's been laboring all day and most of last night. She's getting weak, I don't have a way to get her here and I don't know what to do."
An enormous sigh was followed by a clicking of tongue against teeth. "He's gonna squash me like a mosquito," Crutch muttered, then to Abigail's relief, disappeared through a white pedimented doorway beyond the staircase.
Even though Crutch left the door standing wide, allowing an unobstructed view of the unadorned entryway, Abigail remained on the enormous two-story porch, unwilling to risk expulsion. She stood watching horse-drawn carriages rattle down Common Street. Some turned on Baronne before reaching the hospital, some continued to Philippa, where they rounded the corner of the beautiful green sward of grass which gave Common Street its name, then disappeared beyond tall rows of businesses. The scene was infinitely refined and orderly.
And she was going to bring the great doctor back with her to a tenement in the District. Well, he would just have to take her and Tess as he found them. She sat down on the broad top step of the porch and linked her fingers across her knees.
An interminable time later, Abigail heard the clatter of footsteps on the stairs behind her. She jumped to her feet and turned, expecting to see Crutch returning with the doctor. Instead she found a young man striding toward her with a black leather case in one hand and a fine felt hat in the other.
"I'm John Braddock," he said with curt nod. "I understand you need a doctor."
"Yes, but" Wide-eyed, she stared at him. That name. What an odd coincidence. She blinked. "Mr. Crutch went for Dr. Laniere. He should be right back."
"I sent him to bring the mule cart around for us."
"ButI wanted the house surgeon. Where is he?"
Braddock frowned. "Dr. Laniere is conducting a surgery. Do you or do you not need a doctor?"
"I do, but"
"Then we'd best hurry. Here's Crutch with the cart." He ran down the steps to the drive path, where the messenger was alighting from a small wagon pulled by a lop-eared mule.
Abigail picked up her skirts and followed. "But are you a doctor?" He was very young, perhaps in his mid-twenties.
Braddock vaulted onto the seat of the cart and took the reins from Crutch. "This is a medical college," he said, reaching a hand down to Abigail. "I'm a second-year student, top of my class. Professor Laniere wouldn't have sent me if he didn't think I could deliver a baby. Come on, get in."
Abigail stared up at him. A student? But Dr. Laniere was in surgery and Tess needed help now. She allowed young Braddock to pull her up onto the narrow seat, settling as far away from him as she dared without pitching herself onto the pavement.
"Where is the patient?" he asked, glancing at her.
"That's a long street. Which part?"
"The District," she managed, burning with humiliation. "We're next to the saloon on the corner of Poydras."
"I might have known." He flapped the reins to set the cart into motion.
Abigail refused to look at him again, although the jostling of the cart forced her elbow to brush his again and again. She gritted her teeth. By the time they traversed the short distance to the tenement room she shared with Tess, her nerves were a raw jangle of anxiety, fear and resentment.
The young doctor spoke not another word to her until he stopped the cart in front of the saloon and lightly jumped down to tie the mule to a hitching post. He reached for his bag, then offered a hand to Abigail. "Perhaps you could tell me what the trouble is and who I'm to treat."
Disdaining his hand, Abigail got down from the cart on her own. "My friend Tess has been laboring to deliver her baby all day and most of last night. She was so weak and frightened I didn't know what to do."
"When did contractions start?"
Abigail hurried for the door of the tenement. "About this time yesterday."
Braddock grabbed her arm. "She's been in labor for twenty-four hours and you're just now asking for help?"
"I've delivered babies before." She jerked away from him. "It's just that I've never encountered this difficulty." Not for the first time she wished she'd had the opportunity for training this rich boy had. Then she'd have known what to do without incurring his disdain.
"Never mind. Which room?" They were in the tiny ground-floor entryway. Narrow unpainted doors opened to the right and left and the treads of a rickety staircase wobbled straight ahead.
"This way." Abigail turned to the door on the right and lifted the door latch. There was no key because there was no lock. "Tess?" She entered the dark, shabby little room, frightened by the silence. She could sense the silent young doctor behind her.
A soft moan came from the shadows where Tess's pallet lay against the wall.
Relieved, Abigail hurried over. "Tess, I've brought a doctor. He's going to help us bring the baby out."
"I can't I'm too tired, Abby." Tess's voice was a thread.
Abigail fell to her knees and laid a gentle hand on Tess's distended belly. "Yes, you can. Dr. Braddock is going to help you." She looked over her shoulder to find him setting his bag on the table.
He looked up. "We'll need all the extra linens you have. You've a way to boil water?"
Abigail swallowed. "Of course."
"Abigail? Abby?" Tess's voice sounded terrified. "It's starting again. The pain" A scream interrupted her words, ripping from the center of her being.
Torn between compassion and the practical need to attend to the doctor's wishes, Abigail hurried to find the pile of clean rags she'd been collecting against Tess's lying-in. As she mended the fire she'd left burning low in the tiny cookstove that squatted against the only exterior wall of the room, she was conscious of Tess's inhuman, wailing accompaniment to Braddock's rather jerky movements.
He laid out a collection of shining instruments on one of the rags, arranging them with fastidious neatness. He seemed slow, reluctant.
She watched him with resentment. She should be the doctor, not him.
By the time she had a tin pot of water boiling to her satisfaction on the stovetop, Tess's screams had subsided to whimpers. Abigail gestured for Braddock's attention. "Now what?"
He got to his feet. "We need to let the water cool a few minutes. I want to wash my hands and instruments. Do you have lye soap?"
She frowned. "We need to hurry. She's not going to be able to stand another contraction like that."
Braddock scowled. "I'll remind you that you came to me for help. Professor always washes everything."
Abigail stared at him. If she argued with him, he would stand there until Kingdom Come, and Tess would die. Tight-lipped, she found him the soap, then knelt beside Tess to bathe her head with a cool cloth. "Hold on," she murmured. "Just a few more minutes."
Behind her John Braddock doused his instruments one by one in the boiling water, then returned them to the clean cloth. After removing the pot from the stove, he stood waiting for it to cool, hands in the pockets of his trousers, staring at nothing.
Abigail watched him. His body was tall and strongly built inside those fashionable clothes. He'd laid the beautiful hat on the shaky pine table, revealing a headful of wavy golden brown hair. She supposed one could call him good-looking, although her perspective on handsome men was admittedly skewed. She had yet to see him smile, but his nose was firmly arched, with fine nostrils, and the eyes wide-set and intelligent.
His brain was the most important part of his body as far as she was concerned.
Finally, just as Tess started screaming again, he decided the water was cool enough to the touch and proceeded to thoroughly soap and rinse his hands. Catching Abigail staring as he dried them, he gave her a mocking bow.
"Now, your ladyship, I'm ready."
John knelt beside his moaning patient and stared at the baby in his hands. For the first time in his life he uttered the name of God in prayer. He'd never lost a life before at least not on his own.
He laid the stillborn infant on a ragged towel, then turned to the woman who had been quietly hovering behind him for the past two hours. He held out a shaking hand. "Give me that needle and suture."
She handed him the implements he required, watching his every movement with vigilant, protective eyes.
He began the job of sewing up the woman's torn body. "Here, hold this sponge."
His provisional nurse knelt and followed his gestured instructions. "What about the baby?"
"You can bury it later. It's more important to take care of your friend."
Abigail gasped, dropping the sponge. "The baby's dead? How could you let it die?" She picked up the infant and cradled it against her bodice. Her face twisted and silent sobs began to shake her thin body.
John swallowed against a surge of sympathy but kept stitching. Crying wasn't going to bring the baby back to life. He finished the sutures, efficiently mopped the wound and sat back on his heels. He studied his patient's chalky face. At least she was still breathing, harsh painful gasps between bloodless lips. Her eyes squeezed shut as he drew her dress down over her knees. She would live.
"Where's her husband?" He got up to rinse his hands in a bowl of sterilized water, wiped them on the last clean towel, then opened his bag to stow his instruments.
"I'm not married." The gritty whisper came from his patient. Grunting, she tried to sit up. "Abigail, let me see the baby."
"Here, lie down or you'll start the bleeding again." John knelt to put a hand to her shoulder, which was almost as thin as the skeleton that sat in a spare chair in his boarding house bedroom.
The patient speared him with pain-clouded eyes. "I have to see him."
"It'sit was a girl," John stammered. "She didn't make it."
"A girl. Please, let me hold her just a minute."
John met Abigail's eyes for an agonized moment. She looked away.
"Give it to her," he managed.
His patient took the infant's naked, messy little body against her own, cuddling it as if it were alive and ready to suckle.
What was a fellow supposed to do? He was no minister capable of dealing with these depths of grief. Inarticulate anger seized him as he took a deliberate look around. The tiny, shabby tenement room was scrupulously cleanapparently the lye soap had been put to usebut the odor of mildew and age infused every breath he took. This was no place for two young women to live alone, no matter what their morals.
Dr. Laniere would have known exactly how to deal with the situation. But back at the hospital, Crutch had interrupted the professor demonstrating the amputation of an infected finger for a ring of medical students. The professor had sent John, assuring him he was perfectly capable of delivering a baby.
Eagerly he'd accepted the assignment. John had always assumed he could do anything he set his mind to. But his confidence had diminished as he realized the breech presentation had left the baby in the birth canal too long.
Capable. A crack of despairing laughter escaped him. Lesson learned.
Unfortunately, there was nothing more he could do here. Snapping the latch of his bag, he turned toward the door.
He'd taken no more than a couple of steps when he found himself deluged from behind by lukewarm water. It streamed down the back of his neck, plastered his hair to his forehead and nearly strangled him as he took a startled breath.
With a choked exclamation, he turned to find Abigail glaring at him, the cracked pottery bowl held in her hands like a battle mace.
"Where do you think you're going?" she demanded, looking as if she might fling the bowl at his head, too.
Speechless, John dropped his bag and swiped water out of his eyes with his sleeve. Intent on getting to the patient, he hadn't properly looked at the woman who had summoned him.