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Ottawa Falls, Colorado, Spring 1878
AARON MCBAIN. HIS NAME was Aaron McBain,
and he was lying in a narrow bed, surrounded by a bevy of cots, similar to his own. Perhaps not so many, he decided, maybe three other men occupied this room, one cot containing a familiar figure, that of an elderly man who frequented the bench in front of the Mercantile.
A man he'd notice while making his rounds. His mind dwelled on that thought. Rounds of the town, a twice daily task as part of his job. He was Sheriff McBain, his memory reminded him--a lawman. His gun...he knew its size and shape, knew the leather holster that tied to his thigh, and the feel of bullets in his hand as he loaded the cartridge.
The sound of footsteps approaching caught his attention and the figure of a woman, uniformed in white, filled his vision. "I'm your nurse, Sheriff McBain," she said softly, reaching one hand to press gentle fingers against his forehead. "Your skin is cool, and that's a good sign." She smiled, a dimple appearing in her right cheek, catching his eye and blurring his thoughts. She resembled the angels in his old Sunday-school lessons.
But no angel ever stroked his forehead so nicely before, and unless he'd gone to heaven, it was unlikely this was an ethereal being come to visit. But it was lovely to dream, to coast along easily, the vision before him whispering his name.
"Sheriff McBain? Are you with me?" At his nod, she smiled, lifting her hand from his skin, leaving only the warmth of long, slender fingers behind.
"I'm happy to see you finally awake, and on your way to recovery," she murmured.
"Recovery from what?" His tones were rasping, the soundimpatient--his mind blank.
"You were shot by a man attempting to rob the bank, Sheriff. You've had an infection, causing a high temperature and giving us quite a scare." Her smile faltered. "Do you remember being shot?"
Aaron searched through the fog in his head, found the image of a grizzled man, pistol in hand, and nodded his head. "Yeah, I remember," he said. "At least I think I do."
"I'm going to call the doctor in," his nurse said, her gaze sweeping from him, across the large room, where an open door seemed to lead into a corridor.
"Just lie quietly, Sheriff, and I'll fetch Dr. Grissom."
Since there seemed no alternative to her plan, he merely nodded and closed his eyes.
Within minutes, a young man, dressed in a white coat, stethoscope hanging from his neck, lifted Aaron's hand, ostensibly to check his pulse. "You seem to be doing much better, McBain."
"I need to go home. How long have I been here, and, for that matter, how long am I going to be kept here?" Aaron asked impatiently. "Who's taken over at the office? Do I still have a job waiting for me?"
"So far as I know, they haven't found a new lawman, sir," Dr. Grissom answered. "You're quite a hero over at the National Bank. And after just a week in the hospital, I doubt the town council is about to take your position from you."
The mist that had gathered in his mind lightened, even as the doctor spoke, and Aaron saw a mental picture of the town he served. One long street, business establishments on both sides, and beyond the town proper were houses and fields. Ottawa Falls General Hospital was at one end of the main street. "When can I leave here?" he asked more impatiently this time. "I've got a bed at home that's a hell of a lot more comfortable than this miserable cot."
"Just give us another day or so, allow us to be certain of your condition, and we'll see about turning you loose," the doctor said, a smile that appeared to approve of his patient's condition appearing on his face. "In the meantime, we'd like you to try eating your dinner. Your nurse will bring you a tray and help you with it."
"I think I remember how to use a fork," Aaron said sharply.
"You've been a sick man, Sheriff, and we're only trying to get you on your feet as soon as possible."
Aaron felt a bit embarrassed, as if he'd been scolded and put in his place. And so he had, he decided, and by an expert, no matter how youthful the medical man appeared. Nodding his agreement, he allowed himself one last word of dispute as he watched the young doctor leave his side. "I want out of here, today. Tomorrow at the latest."
The young man glanced back with a dark look that vied with the amused grin he wore and walked through the doorway, disappearing into the hallway.
Dinner. The thought of food was not appealing, but if eating whatever appeared on his tray was the solution to being discharged from this place, he would do as he was told. For long moments, he watched the doorway, aware of the other occupants in this room, of moans and murmurs from men he assumed were patients in this place.
"I've brought your dinner, Sheriff." The same woman appeared beside his cot and he watched as she placed a tray on the table beside him. "I'll help you sit up a bit," she offered, and bent to him, lifting him from his pillow, deftly shifting him into a better position to eat.
Aaron filled his lungs with the soft scent she carried, a blend of soap and fragrance of some sort. Whatever the woman had used to bathe in, he'd like to borrow a bottle of it, to remind him of her.
"I think you'll need another pillow to lift you a little higher," his nurse said cheerfully and turned to a rack near the door. Taking two plump pillows from a supply there, she returned to his bed, offering him her hand and with his cooperation fitting the pillows behind him. He held her long, slender fingers in his, glancing down at the narrow wrist, then noted the closely clipped length of her nails.
His shoulder felt the impact of his movement, a sharp pain piercing the area just above his collarbone, and a soft groan from his lips brought instant attention. "Do you need something to help with the pain?" his angel of mercy asked, her brow furrowing as she bent toward him. "No," he muttered. "Just the food will do. It's my understanding that if I eat well and appear to be healed up, I'll be allowed to leave."
She pulled a chair beside the bed and lifted a bowl to rest against his lap. "Not exactly," she said, lifting a spoon full of food to his lips.
"Yes, exactly," he muttered. "I'm leaving here, tomorrow at the latest." And then he eyed the un-appetizing broth she stirred. "What's that? It looks like dirty dishwater."
"Chicken soup," she answered, returning the spoon to the bowl, perhaps in hopes of finding some bit of vegetable or meat in the liquid.
"Doesn't smell like the soup my mother used to make," he told her.
She laughed softly. "It probably doesn't taste much like it, either, but let's give it a try."
He opened his mouth, accepting the bland liquid she offered, and his gaze swept up to meet hers as his nose wrinkled, disdaining the offering. "Don't they have anything more substantial in the kitchen here?"
She considered him a moment. "Let me check with the doctor. I'd think you could handle a soft dinner."
In a few minutes she returned, a fresh tray in her hands. She deposited it again on the table and sat down, her smile a welcome sight. "Let's try this," she said, lifting a fork to his lips. It contained a gluey mass that had been cooked and mashed almost beyond recognition, and he accepted it from her hand and then moved it about in his mouth, wishing it tasted like something other than paste.
"That is supposed to be a potato, isn't it?" he asked dryly.
"Hmm, I think so. Mashed potatoes, the menu said. But it doesn't look to be very tasty," she whispered. "The cook is not gifted, sir. Why don't we try the meat loaf?" So saying, she again filled the fork, offering its contents with a smile that tempted him much more than did the gray, unappetizing bit of meat he was given.
"Is that better?" she asked, casting a dubious look in his direction.
"No. I'm sure I'd find more appetizing food at the hotel restaurant." In fact, if memory served him, the fried chicken offered by Hayden Hitch-cock's establishment was top-notch.
"I'm certain you would," the nurse said. "But for now, this is all we have to offer."
"I'll eat it, if it'll get me out of here," he told her, awaiting the next bit of nourishment, valiantly chewing and swallowing the bits and pieces of food she gave him over the next few minutes. And then he shook his head. "I've had enough."
"All right, Sheriff," she said quickly. Lifting the tray and rising easily, she left his side, and for a moment he wished for her return, felt the need to fill his senses with her faint, flowery scent, the sight of wide gray eyes and dark hair twisted up beneath the white starched cap she wore.
Not your type. As if the words had been spoken aloud, they rang in his mind. And what was his type? he wondered. A lady from one of the finer homes in town, virtue intact, reputation spotless? Certainly not the slender nurse who carried out her duties with a smile, even though she likely was not happy in her work. She didn't seem to fit the mold, he decided. Nurses were notorious for having dark pasts, reputations that prevented their working at a decent job. For what woman would choose to work in a position where she might be required to lay hands on a man, even though her touch might bring healing and comfort?
Nursing was not an occupation chosen freely, of that he was certain. Most of the women in the profession were at the bottom of the barrel, professionally speaking. They accepted the job no decent woman would apply for.
Still, this female had struck him in those few minutes as a lady, as a woman who deserved his respect. And Aaron McBain had been taught to treat ladies decently. His mother had been vigorous in her methods, making her son toe the mark when it came to being polite and respectful of all adults. And mostly of women.