Sweet Everlastingby Patricia Gaffney
The novels of Patricia Gaffney have enraptured countless readers. The New York Times bestselling author of The Saving Graces tells the tale of a small-town doctor and the healing power of love...
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By Patricia Gaffney
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1993 Patricia Gaffney
All rights reserved.
"Say, Doc, what the hell is this?"
"That's guaiacol carbonate, Hoyle."
"Yeah, but this is pills. I can't swallow no pills."
"Grind them up in a little cod-liver oil, they'll slide down like sardines. One in the morning, and then one—"
"No, but this ain't the right thing—Doc Stoneman always gives me Graves' Tonic for my rheumatism."
Tyler Wilkes reached up to rub the kink out of the muscle in his right shoulder. "Graves' Tonic," he repeated in the slow, thoughtful tone he used when pretending to consider one of his predecessor's lunatic prescriptions. Doc Stoneman had also carried morphia granules in his pocket and had given them out for anything from diarrhea to diabetes. "Well, there's nothing wrong with Graves' Tonic," Tyler conceded gravely. Except that it was about ninety percent alcohol. "But try these for a couple of weeks, why don't you, Hoyle, and see how they suit you."
"I dunno, Doc." Hoyle Taber scratched his chin stubble while he peered down at the little package of tablets in his palm. "Don't seem right, swallowin' a pill. Like it ain't what God intended, know what I mean?"
The doctor's bad leg began to throb. He slid a pile of advertising circulars aside and propped his thigh on the edge of his desk. "How's that, Hoyle?" he asked mildly. By concentrating hard, he kept his eyes off the clock over the door to his waiting room.
"Well, it don't come like that, does it? In nature, I mean. All squashed into this little white dot, stuff I can't see, can't even pronounce. How do I know what's really in here?" Warming to it, he hunkered down with his hands on his knees, fixing the doctor with an intense look. "Same with an atom. Know what an atom is?" Tyler opened his mouth, but not in time. "No, and nobody else does either! That's the trouble, there's too much a man's supposed to take on faith."
Tyler folded his arms and nodded a few times, as if deep in thought. "I see what you're saying. Makes sense, Hoyle, no question about it. I feel the same way about soap."
Hoyle straightened up. "Soap?"
"Who really knows what's in one of those little yellow cakes?"
"Could be anything. Or take a salt lick. I ask you, is that how God intended salt to look?"
Hoyle, who owned the livery stable, looked vacant, then confounded. "Okay, but a salt lick, now—"
"Or take Mrs. Stambaugh's blueberry cobbler over at Pennicle's."
"I've never made a blueberry cobbler, have you? She says it's berries and flour and sugar and what-not, but how do we know? It's a lot to ask a man to take on faith."
Hoyle finally got it. He sucked in all his breath and blew it out in a violent whoosh. "Hoo-waw," he said, chuckling and snapping his elastic suspenders against his chest. "Hoo-waw, Doc, you're something."
Tyler got up and thumped him on the back. "You try these subversive little pills for about ten days, Hoyle. If they don't help, come back and we'll try something else."
Hoyle stuffed the pills in his pocket, still grinning. "I'll do 'er, and we'll just see. Yessir, we'll just see."
He went to the coatrack beside the door and took down his old corduroy jacket. While he pulled it on, he leaned over to peer at something tacked to the wall. From experience, Tyler knew it wasn't his diplomas—Harvard College, 1893; Johns Hopkins Medical School, 1896—that had Hoyle's rapt attention. It was the photograph under them of himself, Tyler Arbuthnot Wilkes, M.D., on horseback in the jaunty uniform of a Rough Rider, only a pace or two behind Lieutenant Colonel Teddy Roosevelt himself. Ty had been reluctant at first to hang the photograph, but now he was glad he'd overcome his reservations, because the picture had done more to instill blind faith in his doctoring skills among the folks of Wayne's Crossing, Pennsylvania, than anything else he'd done in the four months since he'd come here.
"Mmm mmm," said Hoyle in apparent awe, jamming on his leather cap and tugging the earflaps over his cheeks. "My, my, my." But he was the town wag, and awe didn't set right with Hoyle for long. "I gotta tell you, Doc," he couldn't resist on his way out, "you looked a whole lot better down there in Cuba."
"Well, thanks, Hoyle. Thanks a lot."
"Don't mention it. Say, if these pills are so damn good, maybe you oughta try some yourself. No offense, but you ain't exactly a walking advertisement for good health. Haw!"
Tyler's weary smile was as good-natured as he could make it. When the door closed behind Hoyle, he went to the sink to wash his hands, and a glance in the mirror confirmed—no surprise—the old buzzard's appraisal. By now he'd recovered from the worst of the yellow fever he'd contracted in Havana, but the aftereffects still plagued him. He hadn't gained all his weight back, and he still suffered headaches and sudden, debilitating attacks of neuralgia. Thank God he was over the jaundice, though, and most of the depression, and the Mauser bullet in his thigh only pained him at the end of his longest days.
But Hoyle was right, he didn't look like a well man. Luckily he was a hero, or as close to one as Wayne's Crossing was likely to get. Otherwise he might not have any patients at all.
He still had one in the waiting room, the last of the endless, exhausting day. She stood up when she saw him, setting aside her ancient magazine—part of Dr. Stoneman's office legacy—and smiled a coy welcome. Spring Mueller, the lawyer's blue-eyed daughter, looked suspiciously healthy. She had last week too, Tyler recalled, and that mysterious ringing in her ears had cleared right up as soon as he'd said yes to a dinner invitation at her father's house. He sighed, aware that besides being the town's new hero, he was also its most eligible bachelor. Spring wasn't the only unmarried lady who had found cause to visit him with ingenious, nonspecific complaints. But he had to admit she was the prettiest. And the most determined.
"Why, hello, Tyler," she greeted him, with the slight lisp she affected for reasons he couldn't fathom.
"Spring," he returned pleasantly. It wasn't worth getting into another argument over what he should call her; "Miss Mueller" would have suited him better, but it always brought on one of her coquettish lectures, and he was too tired today for the rigors of flirtation. He widened the door and stood back to let her pass. "How are you—"
A sudden crash made them both jolt and Spring whirled around with a little cry of shock. The door to the street hit the inside wall and swung back, butting in the chest the man who burst into the waiting room on a blast of icy air. Boy, Tyler amended on second look, although he was over six feet tall, thin and hatchet-faced, his chin sprouting the beard stubble of an adolescent. Dirty yellow hair shot out on all sides of his head like straw from a haycock. When he spotted Tyler, he shouted, "Hey, Doc, come on, quick, come on!"
Spring Mueller recoiled. "Broom," she cried, "what on earth—"
"Come on!" the boy insisted, red-faced, bony limbs twitching as if electrified by violent, uncoordinated jerks. "Hurry, come on, quick!" He started backing out the door.
Tyler rushed out after him.
A girl was standing in the frozen, rutted road behind a mule-drawn wagon. In the fading light he saw that she was tall and angular, with a woolen shawl around her shoulders that looked too thin for the raw February afternoon. She appeared distraught, alternately wringing her hands and hugging herself to keep warm. When she saw Tyler she took a few steps toward him, stopped, and darted back to the wagon. He spied something small huddled under a blanket on the floor of the wagon bed and hurried closer, thinking it was a child.
But when he pulled the covering away, he started back in consternation. "What the hell—!" Under the blanket lay a dog.
"Shadow's hurt," babbled the boy named Broom, spraying saliva in a wide, foot-long arc. "Fix it, come on!"
Tyler dropped the blanket back over the scruffy black mongrel and dusted his hands. "I'm a doctor, I don't fix dogs," he snapped, exasperated—then amused, hearing the sound of wounded pride in his voice. Was anything more fragile, he wondered, than the dignity of a new doctor?
The girl made a grab for his arm when he started to turn away. She let go immediately, but the pleading in her eyes stopped him. "I'm sorry," he said more kindly, "I'm not a veterinarian. I can't help you."
"But Shadow's sick. Help, Doc, come on!" The boy jerked and hitched, arms and legs jumping as if yanked by strings. Acute chorea with possible retardation, Tyler diagnosed automatically. So far the girl hadn't opened her mouth, and he wondered if she was slowwitted, too.
Holding his gaze, she put her hand on the panting dog's side, pointed to her own ribs, then back to the dog's. "Broken ribs?" he asked reluctantly. She nodded and sent him another entreating look. "Look, I'm sorry, but there's nothing I can do. I'm a doctor." The excuse was beginning to sound craven even to him. Without warning, her eyes flooded with tears. She twisted away to hide her face—too late—and buried her fingers in the dog's shaggy coat.
"I've got a patient," he said gruffly. "Bring the animal inside, and I'll look at it when I have time." Without waiting for an answer, he stalked back into his office.
Spring Mueller's complaint today was dizzy spells. He listened to her sparse history, looked into her eyes and ears, and told her not to lace her corsets so tight. That brought on a flood of eyelash-batting and fraudulent blushes. "Oh, Doctor," she giggled, "what a silly goose you must think I am."
He denied it with suave mendacity.
"What was the matter with Broom?" she asked, buttoning her coat slowly, not ready to be dismissed yet.
Conscious of an odd unwillingness, he told her about the girl and the dog in the wagon.
"Oh," Spring said, laughing, "that's Carrie. She's dumb."
He managed, just barely, to keep his smile in place and said evenly, "Not very bright?"
"No, dumb—you know, mute. She can't talk. Broom's always hanging around her. He's crazy, always has been. People call him Fireman because of the way he spits when he talks. Aren't they a pair?" She laughed again, indulgently.
Tyler thought of the girl's silent beseeching, and the boy's agitated loyalty to her. "Quite a pair," he agreed quietly.
Spring strolled to the waiting room door and opened it. She looked back over one shoulder, demurely flirtatious. "I'm having a little poetry reading at my house on Friday evening, Dr. Wilkes. Just a few people, you know, the cognoscenti of Wayne's Crossing," she simpered, enjoying the word at the same time she pretended to mock it. "Everyone's going to bring their favorite poem to recite, and I thought—"
"Doc, Shadow's sick. Come on, look at Shadow, okay?"
Spring spun around, startled. Through the waiting room door, Tyler saw Carrie and Broom and the dog, all huddled on the floor beside the coal stove. A strange sight, he supposed, and Spring was visibly offended by it. She turned a look on him that said she was delicately appalled, and shoved her dainty hands into her fur muff.
"Thank you for the invitation," he said, moving her toward the outer door with a light hand on her elbow. "I'll let you know in a day or two, may I? Be careful going home, now, I think it's starting to snow."
"Yes, all right," she faltered, thrown off her stride. "Well. Good- bye." Ty opened the door for her, and she sailed out with her nose in the air.
The girl was sitting on the floor cross-legged, cradling the dog's head in her lap. Tyler squatted down beside her, changing a grunt of pain into a hum of doctorly speculation just in time. "Is your name Carrie?" he asked. She nodded.
"Hello, Broom. I'm Dr. Wilkes." He reached out a hand to scratch the dog's ears, murmuring, "Good dog, Shadow's a good dog." The long nose was dry and hot with fever; the bright eyes rolled toward him in a feeble panic. A quick touch told him its ribs were broken. "Hold his head," he told the girl, and bent down to press his ear to the side of the dog's chest. Its lungs were filling with fluid. "What happened to him?"
Carrie ducked her head.
"Did Artemis do it?" Broom asked her. She wouldn't look up. "Artemis done it," he said positively.
She glanced up then, but Tyler couldn't read the expression in her eyes. Unusual eyes, troubled, the color of the sky before a violent storm. She'd thrown off her shawl, revealing reddish-blond hair tied back in an artless, disheveled knot. Her clothes were poor and patched, painfully neat, country-plain. But she was pretty, and her long, fine-boned face looked intelligent.
"Where do you live, Carrie?" he asked. Her cloudy eyes darkened; an awkward moment passed, and then she put her fingertips to her lips. She was about to explain her handicap to him—somehow—and he wondered with a stab of regret what had made him ask her the question, any question, when he'd known she couldn't answer.
But Broom spoke up for her. "Lives on Dreamy. Carrie and her pa, they live up on Dreamy."
"Do you? It's beautiful there," he smiled, hoping she would smile back. But she only nodded in agreement. He laid his hand on Shadow's grizzled muzzle. Even though his touch was light, the dog let out a weak, fearful snarl. "I'll keep him overnight if you like," he decided. "He won't suffer. I'll make sure of it."
"Her," Broom corrected. "Shadow's a girl dog."
The distress in Carrie's face lifted at once; she put her fingers on Tyler's wrist, just for a second, and her mouth curved in a wisp of a smile. Her silent gratitude moved him. He and Broom clambered to their feet at the same moment, constrained by the same refinement of feeling, when she bent her head to Shadow's and put her lips on the old dog's temple in a soft kiss. Then she rose, too, in a long, fluid movement at odds with her graceless clothes, blinking back tears.
He told her to come back the next day, and she nodded and thanked him again with her eyes. He stood in the doorway as she walked out to the road and climbed up on the seat of the wagon, settling her worn skirts around her. "Bye, Doc!" called Broom. Carrie waved, a wan, forlorn twitch of the hand that matched her good-bye smile. She gave the mule a light slap of the reins, and they started off, Broom trotting alongside.
Tyler watched them to the corner at Broad Street until they turned east and disappeared. The low twilight sky looked mean and menacing; the wind blew a gust of sleet in his face. How far up High Dreamer Mountain did the girl have to go? Dreamy, the locals called it; he could see its pine-dark silhouette off to his left, hazy with distance and the milky swirl of snow. He shivered and went back inside, where it was warm.CHAPTER 2
It smelled like A big snow coming. You could tell by the sky sometimes, but this late in the day you could only tell by the smell. Carrie took a deep breath of damp air, feeling the prickly frozen pinch in her nostrils. The juncos and tree sparrows had been singing all afternoon, and that was another sure sign a storm was coming. How did they always know? She'd had enough of snow, enough of winter, but the sparrows' music had lifted her heart a little today in spite of everything—for a bird singing on a dark day was a special blessing, and God parceled those out in February pretty sparingly.
"Shadow'll get well, Carrie. That new doc, he'll fix her up, so don't worry, okay?"
She nodded, pulling on the reins to slow the mule down so that Broom wouldn't have to walk so fast to keep up. She put her ice-cold hands between her knees, wishing she'd brought her mittens. But she'd left home too fast this afternoon to think about anything except Shadow.
"He's nice, ain't he? And a good doc, too. Ain't he, Carrie? Did you see how he touched Shadow? So soft and everything? Remember, Carrie?"
She nodded again, remembering it fine. She remembered how tired Dr. Wilkes had looked, as if he didn't get enough rest. Or food, either—he didn't have enough flesh on his bones for the size of man he was. But mostly she remembered what kind eyes he had once he'd gotten over being angry because she'd brought him a dog. "I'm a doctor, I don't fix dogs," he'd scolded, mad as anything. But Shadow was lying beside the warm coal stove in his waiting room, and Carrie bet he was tending to her at this very minute.
Excerpted from Sweet Everlasting by Patricia Gaffney. Copyright © 1993 Patricia Gaffney. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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I really don't want to give any plot twists away, so I'll only say: Read it! It's the best historical romance this reader has read in years - and that's saying a lot. I enjoyed it completely it's definitely a keeper!