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Idaho Territory, September 1868
High on the board seat, Mercy Gabriel sat beside the wagon master on the lead Conestoga. The line of the supply train slowed, pulling into the mining town Idaho Bend. Panicky-looking people ran toward it with bags and valises in hand. What was happening here? Like a cold, wet finger, alarm slid up Mercy's spine.
She reached down and urged her adopted daughter Indigo up onto the seat beside her, away from the onrushing people. Though almost sixteen now, Indigo shrank against Mercy, her darker face tight with concern. "Don't worry," Mercy whispered as confidently as she could.
She looked down at a forceful man who had pushed his way to the front. He was without a coat, his shirtsleeves rolled up and his colorfully embroidered vest buttoned askew. From the flamboyant vest, she guessed he must be a gambler. What would he want with them?
With one sweeping glance, he quelled the people shoving each other to get closer to the wagons. A commanding gambler. In her opinion, an unusual combination.
"Are there any medical supplies on this train?" he asked in a calm tone at odds with the mood of the people crowding around. "Two days ago, we telegraphed to Boise, asking for a doctor to come. But no one has. We've got cholera."
The dreaded word drenched the brave, brawny wagoners; they visibly shrank back from the man. It set off the crowd clamoring again.
Mercy's pulse raced. No, not cholera. Yet she hesitated only a second before revealing the truth about herself. Until this moment, she'd just been another traveler, not an object of mirth, puzzlement or derision. She braced herself for the inevitable reactions and rose. "I am a qualified physician."
Startled, the frantic crowd stopped pushing. As usual, every head swiveled, every face gawked at her.
"You? " the gambler challenged. "You're a woman."
Mercy swallowed a number of sardonic responses to this silly comment. She said, "I am a recent graduate of the Female Medical College of Pennsylvania. I also worked alongside Clara Barton as a nurse throughout the Civil War."
"You nursed in the war?" The gambler studied her, a quizzical expression on his face.
"Yes." Leaning forward, she held out her gloved hand. "I am Dr. Mercy Gabriel. And this is my assistant, Nurse Indigo."
He hesitated only a moment. Then, reaching up, he grasped her hand for a firm, brief handshake. "Beggars can't be choosers. I'm Lon Mackey. Will you come and help us?"
She wondered fleetingly why a gambler was taking charge here. She would have expected a mayor or
Renewed commotion from the crowd, almost a mob now, grabbed her attention. People were trying to climb aboard the supply wagons. "Get us out of this town!" one of them shouted.
No, that would be disastrous! "Stop them," Mercy ordered, flinging up a hand. "No one from this town should be allowed to leave. They could infect everyone on the supply train and spread the disease to other towns."
At this, the wagoners rose and shouted, "Keep back! Quarantine! Quarantine!"
This only spurred the people of the mining town to try harder.
The head wagoner put out an arm, keeping Mercy and Indigo from getting down. "Wagoners, use your whips! "
The drivers raised their whips and snapped them expertly toward the mob. Mercy was horrified. Still muttering mutinously, the crowd fell back until safely out of range. Mercy swallowed her fear, her heart jumping.
"We will unload the shipment of supplies," the wagon master barked, "then we're leaving for the next town right away. And we're not taking on any new passengers."
People looked ready to make another charge toward the train, their expressions frantic, desperate.
"Thee must not give in to fear," Mercy declared. "There is hope. I am a qualified physician and my nurse is also trained." A silent Mercy stood very straight, knowing that her petite height of just over five feet didn't add much to her presence.
"You have nothing to fear, Dr. Gabriel," Lon Mackey announced, pulling a pistol from his vest. "I came to see if anyone could send us assistance. I didn't expect a doctor to be on the supply train. Please come. Lives are at stake."
Mercy moved to descend from the high buckboard. The wagon master let her go, shaking his head. Again he raised his whip as if ready to defend her. Barely able to breathe, Mercy descended, with Indigo in her wake. She addressed Lon Mackey. "I have medical supplies with me. Someone will need to get my trunk from the wagon."
"Get her trunk!" Lon ordered. "We need help. Thirteen people have already died in only three days."
The wagon master roared names, and another two wagoners got down and started to unload Mercy's trunk, one cracking his whip to keep people back. The sullen mob still appeared ready to rush the wagons.
"No new passengers! Now back off or I start shooting!" The wagon master waved his pistol at the people about to surge forward. The sight of the gun caused a collective gasp. The mob fell back.
A wagoner pulled Mercy's bright red trunk, which was on casters, to her and Indigo. He touched the wide brim of his leather hat. "Good luck, ma'am."
Lon Mackey, also brandishing his pistol, led Mercy and Indigo through the crowd.
Indigo hovered closer to Mercy. They both knew what damage a bullet could do to flesh. And how a crowd could turn hostile. Mercy held tight to her slipping composure. Father, no violence, please.
Mercy called out a thanks and farewell to the gruff yet kind wagoners who had been their traveling companions for the past ten days on their way to Boise.
Lon Mackey led Mercy into the charcoal-gray twilight. She drew in the cool mountain air, praying for strength. The crowd milled around them, following, grumbling loudly, angrily.
Mercy tried to ignore them. She understood their fear but knew she must not get caught up in it. "Lon Mackey, has the town set up an infirmary?"
"We have concentrated the sick in the saloon. It was where the cholera started and it's the biggest building in town."
Mercy touched Lon's shoulder. "Cholera can snatch away life within a day. I'll do my best, as will my nurse-assistant. But people are going to die even after treatment. Cholera is a swift, mortal disease."
"That's why we got to get out of town, lady," one of the people in the surrounding crowd complained.
She looked at them. "Go to thy homes. If there has been anyone sick in thy house, open all the doors and windows and begin scrubbing everythingclothing, walls, floors, ceilings. Everything! Scrub with water as hot as thee can stand to use and with enough lye soap mixed into it to make thy eyes water. Use a scrub brush, not a cloth. That's thy only defense."
The crowd gawked at her.
"Now! Go!" Mercy waved her hands at them as if shooing away children. Several in the crowd turned and began to leave. The rest stared at her as if unable to move. "If thee acts quickly, thee and thy families may not succumb!"
This finally moved the people. They began running in several directions.
Lon Mackey started walking faster, waving for Indigo and Mercy to follow him. Mercy didn't complain about the brisk pace he set, but she had trouble keeping up. She forced herself on. People were dying.
The sun was sliding below the horizon of tall green mountains. How many evenings like this had she been faced with? People were dying. And she must help them. It was her calling and her privilege.
The gaudy front of the saloon loomed above the street, sticky with mud. Mercy and Indigo followed Lon Mackey inside, where another man was lighting the hanging oil lamps. Mercy gazed around and assessed the situation. Perhaps twenty people lay on blankets spread over the floor and the bar. Most were alone, but some were being ministered to by others, probably relatives.
Many of the patients' faces were bluish, the sign that cholera had already accomplished its pitiless, deadly work. The gorge rose in Mercy's throat. Father, let my knowledgeas flimsy as it issave some lives. Help me.
Mercy took off her bonnet. "Good evening!" she announced in a loud, firm voice, though her stomach quivered like jelly. "I am Dr. Mercy Gabriel. I am a graduate of the Female Medical College of Pennsylvania. I nursed with Clara Barton throughout the war. I am here to see if I can save any of the sick. Now first"
As she expecteddreadedhoped to avoid, a sudden cacophony of voices roared in the previously quiet room.
"A woman doctor!"
"Is this a joke?"
Mercy had heard this so many times before that it was hard not to shout back. A sudden wave of fatigue rolled over her. She resisted the urge to slump against the wall. As was common on most wagon trains she and Indigo had walked most of the ten days from the nearest railhead. She'd been looking forward to a hotel bed tonight. And now she must face the ridiculous but inevitable objections to her profession. The urge to stamp her foot at them nearly overwhelmed her good sense.
She endeavored to ignore the squawking about how she couldn't be a doctor. Who could trust a female doctor, they asked, and was that the best the gambler could do?
"Quiet." Lon Mackey's solid, male voice cut through the squabbling voices. He did not yell, he merely made himself heard over everyone else. The people fell silent. "What should we do to help you, Dr. Gabriel?"
In this chaotic and fearful room, Lon Mackey had asserted control. He was an impressive man. Mercy wondered what made him so commanding. She decided it wasn't his physical appearance as much as his natural self-assurance.
Mercy cleared her throat and raised her voice. There was no use sugarcoating the truth and doing so could only give false hope. "I am very sorry to say that those who have been sick for over twenty-four hours are without much hope. I need those cases to be moved to the far side of the room so that I can devote my energies to saving those who still have a chance to survive."
Again, the babble broke out.
Lon Mackey silenced all with a glance and the lifting of one hand. "We don't have time to argue. You wanted help, I got a doctor"
"But a woman" someone objected.
He kept talking right over the objection. "The mayor's dead and no one else knew what to do. I went and got you a doctor, something I thought impossible." He propped his hands on his hips, looking dangerous to any opposition. "If Dr. Gabriel nursed in the war, she knows more than we do about taking care of sick people. If you don't want her to nurse your folks, then take them home. Anyone who stays will do what they're told by this lady doctor. Do you all understand that?"
Mercy was surprised to see the opposition to her melt away, even though Lon Mackey's pistol was back in his vest. She looked to the man again. She'd been distracted by his gambler's flashy vest. Now she noted that the shirt under it was of the finest quality, though smudged and wrinkled. Lon Mackey had once bought only the best.
He wasn't in his first youth, but he was also by no means near middle-aged. His face was rugged from the sun and perhaps the warhe had that look about him, the look of a soldier. And from just the little of him she'd seen in action, he was most probably an officer. He was used to giving orders and he expected to be obeyed. And he is a man who cares about others.
Mercy raised her voice and repeated, "I will set up my medical supplies near the bar. If thee isn't nursing a friend or loved one, I need thee to get buckets of hot water and begin swabbing down the floor area between patients.
"And get the word out that anyone who has any stomach cramps or nausea must come here immediately for treatment. If patients come in at the start of symptoms, I have a better chance of saving their lives. Now please, let's get busy. The cholera won't stop until we force it out."
The people stared at her.
She opened her mouth to urge them, but Lon Mackey barked, "Get moving! Now!"
And everyone began moving.
Lon mobilized the shifting of the patients and the scrubbing. And, according to the female doctor's instructions, a large pot was set up outside the swinging doors of the saloon to boil water for the cleaning.
He shook his head. A female doctor. What next? A tiny female physician who looked as if she should be dressed in ruffles and lace. He'd noted her Quaker speech and the plain gray bonnet and dress. Not your usual woman, by any means. And who was the young, pretty, Negro girl with skin the color of caramel? The doctor had said she was a trained nurse. How had that happened?
He heard the Quaker woman calling his name and hurried to her. "What can I do for you, miss?"