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The physician shook his head as he slowly straightened and raised gray eyes to meet Faith Butler's anxious gaze. "It's not good, Mrs. Butler," he said, his tone gentle and solicitous.
Faith glanced at her daughter, lying so still on the bed. Her heart twisted with grief and fear. Becca's skin was nearly transparent. Even her lips were colorless. Her frail body-small for a five-year-old -seemed to cause barely a wrinkle in the blanket that covered her. As Faith touched the child's brow, brushing limp strands of hair away from Becca's face, she felt apprehension slice through her.
"I believe it's her heart," Dr. Telford continued. "You say she was diagnosed as having rheumatic fever some time ago?"
Looking up, Faith nodded, the lump in her throat making it too difficult to speak.
The doctor removed his glasses and rubbed his eyes with the thumb and index finger of his right hand. "Did you understand rheumatic fever is a chronic disease, Mrs. Butler?" He met her gaze again, not waiting for a reply. "Of course, I'm not an expert on diseases of the heart, but I believe, if your daughter is able to rest and get the proper care, she may recover from this episode. It will take a great deal of time, and you mustn't delude yourself into believing she'll ever be strong."
Faith's own heart felt as if it would give out. Becca couldn't die. She had to get well. She simply had to.
Dr. Telford continued grimly, "You must understand this, Mrs. Butler. If you put your daughter back into that wagon, she won't live out the week. She can't take any more jouncing around on rough roads. She must have complete rest and decent nourishment. She hasn't the constitution for such a vagabond existence."
Faith sank onto the chair beside the bed, fighting despair. "But what am I to do? The stage is how I make my living. Acting is all I know. If the company must go on without me ..." Her voice trailed into painful silence.
When sorrows come, they come not single spies But in battalions.
Shakespeare's words echoed.
"Well," Dr. Telford said with a note of disdain, "if you must go on, there's a home in Cheyenne for orphan children. I suppose my daughter-in-law might agree to keep the child until she's well enough to send to the orphanage."
"No!" Faith shot to her feet. "I'm not deserting my daughter." She stiffened her back and lifted her chin. "I'll stay here as long as it's necessary. I'll do whatever I must to take care of Becca."
The doctor cleared his throat. "That's very commendable, Mrs. Butler."
For an actress, she could almost hear him thinking. No doubt he also wondered if there actually was a Mr. Butler.
There wasn't. At least not anymore.
She shoved away thoughts of her ex-husband, George, and the hurt and anger that came with them. She hadn't time to indulge herself in those emotions. Or in self-pity either. She had to take care of Becca and Alex.
Mentally, Faith added up the money she'd tucked away during this most recent tour. There wasn't much, and Raymond Drew, the company manager, wasn't likely to part with any of her unpaid wages if she left the troupe without notice, especially out here in the middle of nowhere.
She shoved away thoughts of Raymond Drew as quickly as she had those of her children's father.
"Dr. Telford, perhaps you could suggest where I might find work in Dead Horse and where we might stay until Becca is able to travel?"
He raised an eyebrow. "I'm afraid there aren't many opportunities for employment here, Mrs. Butler. As you could see when you came into town, there's little left of Dead Horse these days. The stagecoach quit coming through nearly two years ago. The bank closed its doors six months after that. Folks've been moving out ever since. It's a wonder this hotel's still open. Wouldn't be if my son didn't believe the railroad will come north through this valley soon." He scratched his temple. "About all that's left hereabouts are the cattle ranches, and those are few and far between. Of course, women are scarce, too. If you're looking for a husband, you might find a cowboy or a rancher who is-"
"I don't want a husband."
"Well, then, I don't know what there might be for you. The general store isn't hiring; the Golds have their six children to help them." He squinted as he gave the matter more thought; then he said, "I suppose Stretch Barns over at the saloon might have work for you."
"A saloon?" Her heart sank. She knew what the work was like for women who dressed up in revealing costumes and served drinks to already drunken patrons. At least onstage she was protected from pawing hands and other unwelcome advances. "There must be something else."
The doctor seemed to hear the note of desperation in her voice. He reached out and patted her shoulder, his attitude suddenly changed. "It just might be you could get work up at the Rutledge place. Can't be sure, of course. I heard their cook quit earlier this spring. Don't know that Mr. Rutledge has hired anybody new yet. Even if he has, he's got that big house up there on the hill and a large crew working cattle for him on his range. Maybe he needs himself a housekeeper, too. There'd sure be plenty of room for you and your children. I know the ranch foreman. Parker McCall. He's an honest, hardworking fellow. I imagine he'd put in a good word for you if I asked him to." He gave his graying head a shake. "Never have met Mr. Rutledge myself. Don't know anyone in town who has. But I hear the cowhands like working for Parker. I think you'd do all right there."
A housekeeper or a cook. She could manage that. Not that she'd had much experience with keeping a house. She'd lived her entire life out of a trunk-traveling in wagons, staying in hotels, living in tiny rooms above theaters for a week or two at a time. As for her cooking ... well, it left something to be desired, but at least she had some experience. She could make coffee over a campfire, and she could fry most foods without burning them. Surely she could cook well enough to satisfy a bunch of hungry cowboys.
After all, it wouldn't be for long. Only until Becca was well enough to travel. Then they could all go back East, and Faith could find work with one of the theater companies in New York.
Of course, if she had been able to find work in New York City, she would be there now instead of in a wide spot in the road appropriately called "Dead Horse."
'Tis true that we are in great danger;
The greater therefore should our courage be.
"You must trust Jesus," Fannie Whitehall would have said. "You've made Him your Savior; now you must trust Him, no matter what."
Oh, how she wished Mrs. Whitehall, the elderly wardrobe mistress, hadn't left the theater troupe last month. Faith could have used her advice. Her own faith in Christ was still so new and her understanding so small.
Lord, show me what to do.
Faith drew a deep breath, looked at the doctor, and asked, "How do I find Mr. Rutledge?"
"I've got a patient to see at the Jagged R tomorrow. I'll take you along if you'd like." He took his black leather bag in hand and crossed to the door, then glanced over his shoulder. "I'll be by first thing in the morning to check on your girl. My daughter-in-law, Nancy, can come to stay with her while we're gone."
"I'm most grateful, Dr. Telford."
He left, but before the door could close behind him, Alex slipped through the opening.
"How's Becca?" Concern creased her son's brow. Faith could see that he was trying hard to be strong for her, and she fought new tears as she observed his bravado. He was only seven, but every so often she caught glimpses of the young man he would soon become.
What will I do if-?
Faith sank onto the chair a second time and motioned for Alex to join her there. When he did, she put her arm around his back, pulling him close against her side. Then she took hold of Becca's hand and looked down at the sleeping girl.
"Becca's going to be all right," she whispered. "She needs rest, so we're going to stay here for a while."
"I'll help take care of her, Ma."
Faith gave her son a squeeze. "I know you will. You've always been a big help to me." She kissed his cheek. "Would you tell Mr. Drew I need to talk to him?"
Alex nodded, then hurried to do as she'd asked.
After the door closed behind the boy, Faith leaned forward and placed a kiss on her daughter's feverish forehead. "Jesus," she prayed, "please help Rebecca Ann. Please, Lord. I couldn't bear to lose her."
Faith loved both of her children equally, but she'd always worried more about Becca. Rebecca Ann Butler had nearly died at birth, and her health had remained fragile. But she was perfect in every other way. As an infant, she'd rarely fussed, always smiling and cooing, never any trouble to care for. Even as a toddler she'd been well behaved, obeying her older brother, both of them sitting quietly behind the scenes during rehearsals and performances.
"Lord, there is so much I want for her and Alex. I want them to have the home I never had. I want them to know security instead of fear. I want them to know You while they're young instead of waiting until they're my age. I want-"
Her words were interrupted by another knock, and the door opened to reveal Raymond Drew.
"How's she doing?" The company manager nodded toward the bed as he entered.
"She's sleeping." Faith moistened her lips. "The doctor said Becca can't travel again until she's better. It's going to take time. Weeks. Maybe months. The children and I will have to stay in Dead Horse."
"Stay here? Great Scott! And do what, Faith? We've got a show in Cheyenne next week. You can get another doctor to have a look at her once we're there. This one doesn't know anything. What kind of doctor can he be if he's living in this forsaken place? He probably doesn't know what's wrong with her. He's nothing more than a quack, if you ask me."
"Look at her, Raymond. You don't have to be a doctor to know he's right. It will kill Becca if I put her back in that wagon. If we were in Green River City and I could take her by rail ..." She shook her head and met his gaze with a determined look of her own. "You'll have to go on without me."
"And where do you suggest I find an actress to replace you? We have a contract, Faith Butler, and I mean to hold you to it." His tone became harsh, menacing almost.
She drew back, feeling as defiled as if he'd slapped her. Softly, she said, "She's my child, Raymond. What would you have me do?"
He swore and spun away. "All right, then. Stay here, if that's what you want. Christine can do your part as well as her own until I find someone else." He jerked the door open. "Just don't come looking to me for another job when you're ready to work again. You're not that good, you know." He disappeared into the hall, muttering something derogatory about actresses.
Faith slept little during the night that followed. Each time she drifted off, she awakened with a start of fear only moments later. Fear for Becca, fear for the future.
What if Mr. Rutledge wouldn't give her work? She'd already told Raymond to leave her behind. The troupe would be gone by morning, and then it would be too late to change her mind. What would she do if she couldn't get work? What would happen to Becca and Alex then? Would she save Becca's life only to watch both of her children starve?
By morning, there were dark circles of worry beneath Faith's eyes. Her body ached with a weariness that went beyond the physical. One look in the mirror told her it wasn't likely Mr. Rutledge would want to hire her. She didn't look strong enough to lift a frying pan, let alone run a household.
She dressed with care, all the while sending up little cries for help. She could scarcely call them prayers, but they were heartfelt. Mrs. Whitehall had said God always listened to His children. Faith hoped so, for she needed Him to hear.
It was midmorning when she and Dr. Telford left Dead Horse in his buggy, headed south.
"That's where we're headed." He pointed. "That's the Jagged R Ranch."
A three-story house sat on a high bluff about five miles outside of Dead Horse. It seemed severely isolated, cut off from the rest of the world and the small town below. A terrible loneliness swept over Faith as she stared at the house in the distance.
What sort of man sought such solitude? she wondered, a shudder of trepidation racing along her spine.
When they drew near the top of the bluff, Faith realized that the Rutledge house was larger than she'd at first thought. It was painted gray, all of the windows framed by charcoal-colored shutters. There were numerous outbuildings-some large, some small. There was also a corral holding about a dozen horses, all of them sturdy, well-fed animals.
As they came into the yard, the front door opened and a man stepped onto the front porch. Hetipped his hat back on his head and leaned against the post as he waited for the buggy to stop.
"Is that him?" Faith asked the doctor.
"No. That's Parker McCall, the ranch foreman."
She was disappointed. There was something kind and friendly about Mr. McCall's leathered face and the half-smile tipping the corners of his mouth.
"Howdy, Rick. What brings you out this way?" The foreman's dark eyes slipped to Faith's as he stepped down from the porch.
"I'm here to remove Gertie's stitches." The doctor inclined his head toward his passenger. "This is Faith Butler. Mrs. Butler, Parker McCall."
Faith nodded. "How do you do, Mr. McCall?"
"I do right fine, ma'am."
Rick continued, "She'd like a word with Mr. Rutledge."
Parker raised an eyebrow, his smile disappearing. "See Mr. Rutledge?" He rubbed his chin. "The boss don't receive company. You know that, Rick."
"But I must see him," Faith blurted. Then, embarrassed by her frantic outburst, she clenched her hands in her lap, drew herself up straight, and said with as much dignity as she could muster, "Mr. McCall, I've come to seek employment. I have two children to support, and we are unable at present to travel elsewhere to look for work. The good doctor has given me to understand Mr. Rutledge may be in need of a cook and a housekeeper. I should like to apply for the position."
Parker McCall glanced at the doctor. "A cook and a housekeeper?" He was silent a moment; then his gaze returned to Faith. "Might not be a bad idea at that." A moment later, he grinned. "In fact, I think it's a mighty fine idea. You come on with me, Mrs. Butler."
Excerpted from Speak to Me of Love by Robin Lee Hatcher Copyright ©2003 by Robin Lee Hatcher. Excerpted by permission.
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