Chapter 8: Faith
After Will left, Alice and Mark sat together on the floor until the boy began to squirm and she reluctantly released him. He scrambled to his feet and watched as she got up as well, far more slowly, wincing at the unpleasant soreness in her body, especially between her legs.
She forced herself to look at the bed. The quilt draped across it had been a wedding gift from the women in her family, but the mere thought of ever sleeping under it or in the bed itself made her swallow down bile so that she didn’t retch. She could still feel the coppery tang of Hollander’s blood in her mouth and the slime between her thighs where he had used her. This time, she couldn’t stop her disgusted reaction, and barely reached the bucket Mark had put on the floor before she heaved violently into the water there.
Mark looked on helplessly as she emptied what little was in her stomach. When she had been reduced to the occasional dry heave, he held out a crumpled towel for her to wipe her mouth with.
"Thank you," Alice croaked through her tortured throat and got back to her feet. She was a little more in control now, but never in her life had she wanted a bath more than she did right now. Every place on her body that Hollander had touched seemed to burn with his filth and she wanted to scrub it away.
"You should take a bath," Mark said, peering up at her with a slight frown on his face.
She froze for an instant at his words. Was it so obvious, what the landowner had done to her, that even her youngest son would not be spared from knowing? She hesitantly met his gaze but there was no confusion, shame, or worse, accusation, in his eyes, just the simple concern of a boy worried about his mother.
"You always feel better when you take a bath, I know it makes you feel special," he continued and picked up the bucket. "I’ll start filling up the bathtub." Mark took a few steps and turned with his head slightly lowered, biting his lip as he mumbled, "I’m sorry we wasn’t here to stop him from hittin’ you. We shoulda been here. Boys shouldn’t hit girls and men shouldn’t hit ladies. I don’t know why he hit you but I’m glad that Will is gonna make it so he never hurts you again." He seemed on the verge of saying more but gave a slight shake of his head and went into the sitting room.
Alice leaned weakly against the door frame and watched as Mark built up the fire to warm the room and set the pot of water there to boiling. Then he hauled the small bathtub across the floor to put in front of the fire before heading outside with the bucket. "Be back in a jiffy," he announced.
Tears stung Alice’s eyes briefly at his uncomplicated display of love and kindness, and she inhaled and exhaled slowly. Standing here feeling sorry for herself wasn’t doing anyone any good. She straightened and looked around her bedroom.
A scrap of white fabric on the floor near the foot of the bed turned out to be the drawers that Hollander had stripped off of her body while she was unconscious. Without really thinking about it, she picked them up, carried them to the living room and threw them into the fire. Watching them light up and burn felt surprisingly satisfying. She briefly debated stripping right then and there and tossing the rest of her clothes into the fire, but Mark came in just then to dump a bucket of water in the bathtub. They weren’t a rich family and thus, didn’t have many clothes at all. If he saw her burning her dress, he was liable to ask questions she wouldn’t (or couldn’t) answer.
She decided she could bear wearing her clothing for a little longer and went to her dresser to withdraw a clean dress, chemise, and drawers. To the small stack of clean clothes, she added her bar of vanilla soap, a towel, and a washing cloth.
Mark had worked quickly to fill up the bathtub ahead of the coming storm, and as she poured the boiling water in to heat up the tub, he said, "I’ll go do some of my chores in the barn while you’re in here… and don’t worry, I’ll try to stay out of the rain, I promise." Impulsively, he gave her a quick hug and a smile before he ran outside.
No sooner had he closed the door behind him than Alice began stripping out of her dress and tossed it into the fire, followed shortly by her chemise and her socks. She stood there watching it burn, naked and shivering despite the heat of the roaring fire. Outside, it had started raining so hard the sound of the large drops pelting the roof was almost deafening.
After a moment’s consideration, she went into the bedroom and pulled the soiled quilt off the bed. She was on the verge of putting that into the fire as well when she realized the fabric would be too thick and heavy to burn all at once, it’d just smother the fire. So she got her scissors out of her sewing basket and cut the blanket into smaller pieces before burning those as well. Her hands throbbed with pain by the time the last scrap of the quilt had been thrown on the fire, but she didn’t care.
Alice climbed into the small tub and soaked in the hot water for a few moments, stretching out her hands in an attempt to work the ache out of them. When the pain had lessened to a more manageable level, she set to lathering her hair with the vanilla soap, rubbing it into her scalp until her fingertips hurt before she was willing to rinse it clear. By the time she had finished washing every inch of her body with the soapy cloth, her skin was pink and raw from how hard she had scrubbed, and even then she was unable to completely scour away the memory of the landowner’s touch.
That made her start crying again, the thought that even when—not if—Hollander was dead, she would still remember what he had done to her and how it had felt. The bathwater was lukewarm when her weeping finally subsided and she splashed some onto her face, wincing as she touched her swollen left cheek. She still hadn’t had a look at herself in a looking glass, but imagined she looked a horrible sight. That just means I look as bad as I feel, she thought to herself and grimaced.
Alice climbed out of the small tub and began toweling off, realizing that at some point during her bath, the rain had stopped. She had just dried off enough to pull on her drawers when she heard hoofbeats approaching the house. There followed some muffled sounds as the rider apparently dismounted, and a rising sense of panic filled her. Had Hollander returned? Frantically, she grabbed her chemise and was struggling to pull it over her head when suddenly she heard Mark’s high pitched exclamation, "Will!"
Will had returned. Thank God. Her hands were still shaking with anxiety when she slipped her arms through the short sleeves and she took a deep breath, trying to regain control of her emotions. She had to be strong, not for herself but for her sons. There was no sense in making them also suffer the effects what of Hollander had done to her.
Joshua’s deep and unmistakable voice spoke a moment later from just on the other side of the door. "Open it," he commanded, and his tone brokered no room for argument.
Mark opened the door a breath later to Alice’s shock and dismay, and she didn’t even have time enough to grab the towel to cover herself before Joshua came in, carrying Will’s body cradled in his arms. Any fear for herself or concerns about modesty vanished when she saw her son, and her spirit shrivelled at how much blood there was on his clothes. Hadn’t their family been through enough? "Will?" she rasped out, anguished.
Joshua only glanced at her for a moment when he followed Mark into the house and he cast about for a place to set Will down. "Where can I put him?" he demanded, hefting the boy upward once to maintain his secure grip, and Will shuddered and moaned in a pained response.
That sound startled Alice into action. Her son was alive, for now anyway, but she couldn’t stand there like a frightened ninny and expect him to get better. She pointed toward her bedroom, ordering, "Put him in there, on the bed," as she grabbed her dress and put it on, fumbling in her haste to button the front as quickly as possible. She tied her wet and tangled hair into a knot at the base of her neck to get it out of her way.
Mark was anxious with fear as he followed Joshua into the bedroom and watched as the man carefully lay Will down on the down mattress. "Is he gonna be all right? What happened? Did he get shot?" he asked in a rush of questions without taking his eyes off his brother.
Joshua didn’t answer straight away, just stood staring down at William. When Alice hurried to the bedside, moving past him to reach her son’s head, he glanced away from the boy long enough to look at her. She was dimly aware that his lips tightened and his blue-green eyes lit up with anger at the sight of her face and neck, but she only had eyes for her son.
Will’s hair and muddied clothing were still wet from the rain and the bloodstain on his shirt was enormous, the darkest part of the stain centering on his upper left part of his chest, about a hands-breadth below his shoulder. Small shivers were beginning to shake his body and Alice reached out and felt his forehead. His skin was cold and clammy.
"Help me get him out of these wet clothes," she directed Joshua, her voice harsh and strained as she started unbuttoning her son’s shirt. "Mark, go get him some dry clothes." The boy ran out of the room and she added, "Bring me the blankets from your room, too."
As the two adults worked together to get Will out of his shirt, pulling it up and over his head, Alice gasped audibly as she saw the small ragged hole seeping blood in his upper chest.
She hurried back out to the main room and grabbed her damp bath towel, returning quickly to begin wiping the worst of the mud off of Will’s face and chest.
She was about to blot the wound itself as well when Joshua spoke up, quietly directing her, "Don’t touch the towel to it… just all around it. Look how much dirt you got on that cloth already, if you rub it against the hole, all that mud will get in there, an’ it might make him even worse off. Get a clean cloth that ain’t been used and press that against it instead."
Alice inhaled quickly at the thought of inadvertently making Will even sicker, and she carefully avoided the gunshot wound though she continued to wipe up the congealed blood on his chest with the damp towel. She set it aside and went to her chest of drawers and pulled out some large handkerchiefs and gently pressed a couple of them against the boy’s injury as a compress. "Is that the only place he was hit?" she asked, looking up at the man on the opposite side of the bed.
"Yes," he replied briefly as he dropped Will’s shirt to the floor and then worked to pull the boy’s boots off.
"Are you sure?" Alice pressed, staring hard at him.
Joshua met her gaze and for the first time that she could recall, he didn’t bother shuttering his emotions behind that detached expressionless façade or sardonic amusement he usually displayed. Alice found herself taken aback by the helpless frustration and anger she saw in his eyes. He blames himself for all of this, she immediately realized, not just what’s happened to Will, but what happened to me as well.
"I’m sure," he stated grimly as he dropped the boots.
She didn’t trust herself to respond aloud so merely nodded instead and focused on working Will out of his trousers as quickly as possible. He was now shuddering violently, his teeth chattering and his breath shallow.
Alice glanced at Joshua as they worked together, suddenly realizing that he also had blood on his clothing, and that they were just as wet the ones they were working to peel off of Will’s body. "Are you hurt, too?" she asked, straightening to examine him.
He seemed surprised by her question until he followed her gaze to where she was looking at the blood on his shirt front. "I’m all right. It’s his blood, not mine," he explained simply, bending over the bed again to lift Will’s leg up to pull the pant leg off.
Mark returned, his arms laden with clothes and blankets and dumped them on the chair by the door. "I got it all," he announced, watching as the two adults pulled the clean and dry pair of pants onto Will and then spread the blankets out over his lower body. A slight frown appeared on his face as he noted something was missing from the scene, and he wondered, "What happened to the quilt that was on the bed? Couldn’t we use that to keep him warm, too?"
Alice faltered at the question, darting a quick glance at Joshua to see if he noticed, but he seemed to be focused on tucking the blankets around Will. "Never mind that," she ground out, though internally, she was regretting her hasty and emotion-driven decision to burn the thick blanket in the first place. The quilt had been well-made and she’d shared many a cold night under it curled up against Dan during happier days.
"Does Bisbee have a doctor?" Joshua asked gruffly, straightening and staring down at Will’s wound. "That bullet’s still in there. A Derringer ain’t a powerful enough pistol to make a bullet go clear through, not where he’s been hit."
She hesitated a fraction of a second before changing out the blood-soaked handkerchiefs on Will’s injury for some of the unused ones she still held in her hand. While the blood wasn’t gushing from the injury, it was still seeping at a steady enough pace that she’d soon be running out of kerchiefs to use.
"Yes. There’s Doc Hall…" her voice trailed off uncertainly.
"But Ma," Mark regarded her anxiously, "You said Doc Hall weren’t nothin’ but a snake oil peddler and a drunk, ‘member? You sure you wanna get him to see to Will?"
Joshua looked sharply at her at Mark’s words. "Is he the only doctor in the whole damn town? Bisbee’s twice as big as it was when I was here two years ago, and it still doesn’t have a damn doctor?"
Alice shook her head, "We haven’t had a doctor that’s stayed more than six months since Doc Potter… and he was just an animal doctor," she added with a sad little smile. She’d been fond of the red-haired and speckled Potter.
Exhaling in irritation, Joshua stared down at Will. "Doc Potter may not have been more’n an animal doctor but he had enough skills to get Byron McElroy on his feet again after he got gutshot," he noted, his voice tinged with something resembling grudging respect for the dead physician.
Sighing with resignation, Alice leaned down to get a closer look at her son’s injury. For the first time in her life, she truly regretted that she’d been too young to help out nursing the Union soldiers who’d ended up in some of the Boston hospitals during the War Between the States. Knowing firsthand how to tend gunshot wounds and remove bullets would have been invaluable right now.
The square kerchiefs Alice had been using to clean up Will’s injury were rapidly becoming stained with blood, and she knew she’d need more cloths soon. She walked out into the sitting room where the linen chest was and unlatched the lid, opening it wide. As she piled the linens and towels into her arm, she happened to catch sight of the red Bible, sitting next to the Jules Verne book she’d been reading the previous night. That seemed like an eternity ago.
She absently shut the linen chest and walked back into the bedroom, her brows drawn together in thought. Mark was gathering up Will’s bloody and wet clothes from the floor, holding them somewhat away from his body with a wrinkled nose.
"Just put those in the tub for now, they’ll need to soak if the blood’s ever going to come out," Alice told him as she lay the linens down at the foot of the bed. When the boy left the room, she stared across the bed at Joshua, coming to a decision. "Mr. Mason…" she said haltingly and then gave a slight shake of her head. Given what she was going to ask him to do, she saw no point in maintaining the stilted formality she had used with him in the past. She drew in a deep breath and opened her eyes to find him staring at her, a questioning look on his face. "Joshua. I don’t suppose you’ve read any medical books, have you?"
Her question caught Joshua completely off guard, not only because she had used his name for the first time, but because for some reason, he was reminded of that moment when he’d been in the train depot, waiting for the 3:10 train to Yuma to arrive (late, as it turned out) when Dan Evans had announced out of the blue, "I ain’t stubborn."
His reaction now was pretty much the same as it’d been then. "What?" he blinked, cocking his head and wondering if he’d misheard her.
Alice injected a little more strength into her question, though her voice was still rough and sore from the damage Hollander had done to her neck. "I asked if you’d ever read any medical books. You told us you never forget anything you read," she reminded him, "and that got me to wondering if you’d read any books about caring for wounds or injuries and the like."
Joshua was on the verge of laughing it off until he studied her bruised face. The very sight of her and knowing what she’d endured at the landowner’s hands made him wish Will had not been around when he’d caught up with Hollander, because he would have made the bastard suffer for so long, it’d make what he’d done to Bill Gardner seem like a tender mercy. There was no hint of humor or jest in her serious green eyes. "Even if by chance, I’d read some books like that, it still wouldn’t make me a doctor," he eventually said.
Mark returned from his errand to stand beside his mother and looked between the two adults, sensing that he’d walked in on some manner of important discussion.
The barest hint of a smile touched her lips at his words. "I’m well aware of that." Alice paused and continued, "However, I’m more willing to put Will’s chances of survival in the hands of a man who never forgets a word he reads, regardless of whether or not he’s a doctor, than I am to put them in the hands of a so-called doctor who spends all day in a drunken stupor because he’s spent too much imbibing his own miracle cures."
Joshua turned away from her, resting his hand on one of the bedposts as he stared down at Will. He was still shivering, despite the heavy blankets wrapped around his legs and lower torso. The boy’s injury was fairly innocuous as far as bullet wounds went, but left unattended, the small .40 caliber round in his body was as good as a death sentence. He didn’t look at Alice or Mark as he spoke, "He could die. You know that, right? You understand what you’re asking me to do? If I do something wrong and he dies…" He couldn’t complete the sentence.
"You wouldn’t let him die," Mark said immediately, with the absolute certainty of a child’s simple and unshakeable faith.
Alice’s voice was quiet, "I know he will die if the bullet isn’t taken out… and I know that if it’s taken out by Doc Hall, assuming he is sober enough to get here sometime this evening, his chances probably won’t be much better." She walked deliberately around the bed to stand beside him and when Joshua still wouldn’t meet her eyes, she put her hand on his forearm. "You can do this. I have faith in you. We both do," she added as Mark came up beside her and she hugged her son with her other arm. "If Will were awake and aware enough, he’d be of a like mind, but I think you know that."
He closed his eyes at her words, at the trust she was offering, and his chest hurt from the effort it took him to stifle the unfamiliar emotions welling up inside him. After a long silence, the man who had once been known as Ben Wade turned to look at them and his expression was tortured. "How can you, of all people, have faith in me, knowing the things I’ve done and who I am?"
She stared up at him, struggling on how exactly to express her reasoning and simple belief, when suddenly the words came to her, and she quoted, "’Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.’"
Mark tilted his head, looking at his mother. "Is that from Proverbs?" he asked curiously.
"It’s Hebrews 11:1," Joshua informed him automatically, though his blue-green eyes lingered on Alice’s. He squared his shoulders and gave a decisive nod. "Alright, I’ll do it… but I’m going to need some help."
Alice sighed with relief at his answer and nodded, removing her hand from his arm. "Of course, we’ll do whatever we can to help."
"You need my help too?" Mark inquired hopefully.
The boy’s eagerness made Joshua smile, "Yes, I’ll need your help too." He turned his attention back to Will and tried to remember everything he’d ever read about doctoring people, caring for gun shot wounds and removing bullets. That turned out to be a surprisingly large amount of words and pages. The biggest problem was that much of the information was conflicting. Medicine and wound care had vastly improved after the many lessons learned during the War Between the States, but even so, a minor bullet wound could very easily lead to infection, gangrene and death.
He decided his best bet was to focus his attention on the newest sources of information, figuring that the latest methods of treating wounds were probably the best. For starters, he needed to see how deep the bullet had gone into the boy’s body. A one-shot Derringer like the one Hollander had used fired a shot that moved so slow, it could literally be seen in flight. The tiny pistol was really only useful at close range as a surprise weapon… which was exactly how Hollander had used it. Joshua gingerly removed the cloth compress with his fingertips and leaned over Will, staring down at the wound.
He put his hands on the boy’s chest, wincing at how cold his flesh was to the touch, and stretched the skin around the small ragged hole wider in an attempt to see deeper into his body.
That clearly hurt, because Will arched his back upward and bucked, grunting with pain, though he never opened his eyes.
"Hold him still," Joshua ordered, and Alice moved to the opposite side of the bed to press down on the point of Will’s shoulder. Mark followed his mother’s example, but remained on Joshua’s side of the bed, putting all of his weight on his brother’s shoulder.
"Can you see the bullet?" Alice asked breathlessly, her face only a few inches away from his as they all hovered over Will’s body.
He squinted, daring to spread the wound slightly wider, which made Will groan in agony as the blood welled up to flow freely out of the hole and down his chest and he decided against further examination for now. He straightened and shook his head. "I can’t quite see it."
Alice’s eyes welled up with tears at his words, "It’s that deep?"
"No, I’m sure it’s not gone very deep at all," Joshua said reassuringly and hoped he was telling the truth. "The hole’s just filled up with blood. And there’s not enough light in here for me to be able to see clearly. I’ll definitely need more light, especially with it getting dark outside shortly." He considered his options and asked, "Mark, is there a tool box around here? I’m going to need a set of pliers to get the bullet out."
"Pliers?" Mark repeated, thinking for a moment. "Yeah, we got the ones in Pa’s toolbox, out in the barn. I can go get ‘em."
He ducked out from under his mother’s arm and was nearly to the door when Joshua added, "Make sure you get the ones with the sharpest, longest point possible, they’ve got to be able to fit in the bullet hole, or they’ll just be makin’ it bigger and worse."
"Gotcha," the boy said and left the room at a near run.
"Alice," Joshua shifted his attention to the woman who was standing at his side, gazing at him expectantly as she awaited instructions. "I need you to fill up the two biggest pots you have with water and get them boiling. Then, we need to tear these into smaller pieces," he said, picking up the pile of linens she’d brought into the room in his arms, "and put them in the boiling water to get them good and clean."
Alice frowned up at him, looking almost insulted. "They are good and clean. They haven’t been used since the last time I washed them a week ago Monday."
Joshua shook his head impatiently at her response. "You asked me to tend to Will. You’re trusting me to do the best I can to make him better, just based on what I’ve read, having no other clear knowledge or experience as to what the Hell I’m doin’… Well I’m willing to help him, but it means that I’m gonna be asking you to do things that may not make sense or that don’t seem like they need doin’, when to me, they do. And I need you to help me, by doing what I ask, no matter how odd it sounds. Can you do that?" he challenged, staring into her worried eyes.
She seemed far more torn by that question than she had been in asking him to doctor Will up in the first place, but she agreed finally, "Yes. Yes, I can do that."
He nodded approvingly and followed her out to the sitting room and set the rags down on the table. While she put logs on the fire, he hauled in buckets of water from the well to fill up the kettle and pot she’d provided. Once the water had started heating up, he worked to tear up the cloth into strips of fabric, adding them to the larger kettle and using a soup ladle to stir the fabric around in the water, while she went back to the bedroom to sit with Will, changing out his compress as needed.
Mark returned with not one, but two pairs of pliers. Both had narrow tips, but the smaller of the two sets expanded widely as it got closer to the hand grip. The second pair of pliers had slightly broader jaws, but over all it was a longer and narrower tool. "I wasn’t sure which ones you’d want more," he admitted, offering them to Joshua.
He examined both sets of pliers before tossing both into the water boiling in the smaller of the two pots. After a moment’s thought, he grabbed up a knife and added it to the water as well. As he turned away from the stove, he noticed that both Mark and Alice, who had just walked out of her bedroom, were staring at him wide-eyed and confused.
"Why are you boiling the pliers?" Mark asked, though Alice appeared to have been on the verge of asking the same question.
Joshua used a pot holder to protect his hand as he used a long spoon to stir the pliers in the water as he explained, "Because we want anything that touches Will’s wound to be as clean as we can get it. Boiling this stuff in the water will kill the germs on it."
"But I told you," Alice reminded him with a frown, "I already washed those linens. They were clean."
Mark was puzzled by different aspect of his explanation. "What’s a germ?"
"Germs are microbes," Joshua answered, glancing at them.
Neither of the Evans looked any further enlightened by his words, so he put it in simpler terms, "Germs are the reasons why people get sick. It’s kind of like living dirt that we can’t see, is the easiest way to put it."
"’Living dirt we can’t see?" Alice repeated incredulously. "How can dirt be alive?"
Joshua sighed, "All right, that was a lousy way of putting it... let’s just stick with the idea that the pliers have been in the barn with cow and horse shit," he stated bluntly. "They’re dirty, and I didn’t want to be using them to pull a slug out of Will’s body without cleaning them real good first. The best and easiest way to do that is by boiling them."
She seemed somewhat mollified by his response, but still wondered, "What about the linens? How could they be dirty too, when I haven’t used them for anything?"
He spared her a quick glance before turning his attention back to stirring the kettle of boiling water, "Ever found any bugs in the linen chest? A scorpion or anything like that?"
Alice’s eyebrows drew together in a thoughtful frown. "Yes… she said slowly.
"You reckon they wash their feet before walking all over your linens?" Joshua dryly inquired.
Mark snickered at that question, while his mother inclined her head, acknowledging that he’d made his point. "How long are we going to boil it for?"
"These have boiled long enough," Joshua stated, again wrapping his hands with the thick potholders before taking the both pots off the fire and setting them on the floor. "We’ll let them cool for a bit while we move some more lanterns into the bedroom, so I can see what I’m doing. Mark, can you see to that? Two or three lanterns should be enough light, I think."
The boy quickly nodded, "Yessir," and went to collect the lamp from the front porch and from the room he shared with Will.
"There’s a couple more things I need, and then I think I’ll be about as ready as I can get," Joshua told Alice and allowed the barest hint of a smile to touch his lips, "Well, as ready as I can be without going to some fancy school and learnin’ how to be a doctor."
"Of course, anything you need, if we’ve got it, you are welcome to it." Alice asked uncertainly, and he could tell she had no idea what else he would need at this point.
"I need some bran… like what you use when you bake bread and such. We’ll wrap it in cloth and use it as a poultice, to draw some of the blood out of Will’s wound. And…" Joshua actually smiled as he met Alice’s green eyes with his own, knowing his final request was unlikely to go over well, "I need some whiskey."
To her credit, she didn’t say a word in complaint or protest, though her eyes widened at the request. After studying his face for a moment as though trying to gauge whether or not he was serious, she walked over to the cupboard, opening the topmost door and reaching into the back. The whiskey bottle she withdrew was dusty and clearly had not been touched in years.
"Thank you, ma’am," Joshua said easily as she handed it to him. He pushed the metal latch that held the top on, opening the bottle to and waving under his nose, inhaling deeply. "Oh that’s real nice… not watered down at all, is it?"
Alice responded warily, "It’s good whiskey, yes."
"I got the lanterns all set up in the room, hangin’ from nails and the like," Mark announced from the bedroom doorway, his face drawn and worried. "Are you gonna take the bullet out soon? Will don’t look too good. He’s shiverin’ real bad."
Joshua sighed in resignation and closed his eyes, but he knew there was nothing more he could do to prepare himself for the monumental task he was about to undertake. "All right, let’s do this."
A few minutes later, they were all in the room and Joshua was giving them final instructions as he washed his hands in lye soap and water. "Mark, I need you to take that whiskey bottle, and unstopper it, and pour it over my hands. Now after you do that, I can’t be touching anything else but the pliers, the cloth bandages and Will, so everything stays clean. And I’ll need both of you to hold Will as still as you can hold him, because what I’m gonna to do to him is gonna hurt like hell and the more he moves, the more it’s gonna end up hurting him in the long run. Do you both understand?"
They nodded and Joshua held out his damp hands, ordering, "Pour it slow, so I can make sure it gets all over my hands."
Mark opened the whiskey bottle and barely breathed as he poured the pungent amber liquid over the man’s hands, watching as he rubbed the whiskey all over his fingers and palms.
"I can’t boil my hands, but the alcohol works just as well," Joshua explained, rubbing his hands together one last time. Then he squatted and dipped his hand into the kettle with a wince, for the water was still painfully hot. He withdrew the largest piece of fabric he could find and wrung it out. "Pour some whiskey on this," he told Mark, and the boy quickly complied, soaking the rag with the grain alcohol.
"Hold him," he ordered and as they restrained Will, Joshua used the cloth to wipe all around and over his wound. The boy writhed in pain, but for now at least, it didn’t matter much if he moved. He retrieved another large rag and squeezed the water out of that as well before folding it once and stretching it flat between his two hands. "Alice, put a handful of the bran on here, please."
She quickly obliged, glancing up at his rugged face as she let the grain filter through her fingers, but he was focused on the task at hand.
"That’s good," he stated when he figured she’d put enough on there, folding the fabric over the bran before he pressed it to Will’s wound. They waited in silence for a few moments before Joshua moved the poultice aside. This time, between the additional light and the absorbent capabilities of the poultice, he could see the mottled dark round shape of the bullet, down a couple of inches in the boy’s flesh. "I can see it," he announced.
Alice’s sigh of relief was audible.
Joshua drew away from Will long enough to pull the larger but narrower pair of pliers out of the hot water. "Let’s pour a bit of whiskey on these too, just to be on the safe side."
"Yessir," Mark said, moving away from Will’s shoulder and picking up the whiskey bottle again. "You gonna get the bullet out now?" he inquired, peeking up at the tall man while he poured a bit of alcohol over the hand tool.
"I’m gonna do my damndest," Joshua stated firmly, meeting the boy’s dark green eyes for a moment before turning back toward his ‘patient’. "Ok, you’ve got to hold him real still for this," he informed them. "I’ll try to make it fast."
With that, Joshua splayed his left hand out over Will’s ribs and bent over his body, holding the pliers at the ready with his right. There, he hesitated, not quite believing what it was he was about to do. A nervous sweat broke out over his skin and he was terrified in a way he’d never before experienced, not even when he was staring down another man in a gunfight.
"You can do this, Joshua," Alice quietly said, and when he looked into her green eyes, he could tell that she believed it, believed in him.
He closed his eyes and drew in a deep breath, giving a quick nod of acceptance. "Hold him," he warned and then plunged the pliers into the bullet hole.
Will immediately screamed, writhing in pain and bucking enough that despite his best attempts, Joshua was unable to grasp the bullet, though he could feel the tips of the pliers touching the metal. "I can’t quite get it," he ground out through clenched teeth. "He’s squirming too much."
Alice was laying across Will’s shoulder to hold him still, and ordered, "Mark, climb up on the bed and push his shoulder down with all your weight on your hands… hold his arm under your legs."
The boy quickly obeyed, and when they had repositioned themselves, Joshua dug the pliers into Will’s chest again. This time he was more prepared for the movement and half laying across the boy’s torso. He opened the pliers a hair more and gave them a slight twist, feeling the sudden tension between the gripping teeth as they clamped down on the bullet. Swiftly withdrawing the slug, he rocked back on his heels and announced with an unimaginable sense of relief, "Got it." He dropped the pliers and bullet into the bucket before retrieving some more clean rags and squeezing the water out of them. They were then pressed to Will’s injury, from which bright red blood now flowed anew.
Alice’s eyes were shining with tears as she murmured soothingly at Will, brushing his sweaty hair away from his forehead. "It’s all right… you’re going to be all right now."
Though his chest still heaved in reaction and his face was still twisted with pain, her quiet words seemed to calm him. A few moments later, he was resting more easily, and his face relaxed in slumber.
Mark jumped off of the bed to give Joshua a tight hug, catching the man off guard. "I knew you could do it!" he exclaimed, grinning up at him.
Joshua couldn’t help but smile at the boy’s reaction, but he cautioned, "Will ain’t out of the woods yet. Getting the bullet out was important, but these next couple of days will be touch and go. His wound needs to stay clean and we’ll keep dressing it with clean bandages like these. Put those bran poultices on him every few hours. And he needs to drink lots of water… some willow bark tea, if you’ve got it handy, Alice. That’d help with the pain and fever."
She immediately nodded and got to her feet, wiping tears away from her cheeks. "I’ll start brewing some straight away."
Her voice quavered and she took a deep breath, trying to calm her racing heart. The pot with the pliers and the bullet that had nearly taken her son’s life were still in the room with them and she wanted it gone, as quickly as possible. "Mark, would you take this on outside and empty it?"
"Sure, Ma," Mark nodded obediently, giving Joshua another quick hug before he hefted the pot up with a grunt and awkwardly manoeuvred it toward the door.
Bemused, Joshua watched the boy lurch off and suddenly realized that he was physically exhausted. The back of his head where Atkins had hit him with a shovel had started throbbing in pain as the day’s stresses caught up with him all at once. He sank down into the chair by the bed, closing his eyes and resting his elbows on his knees with his body hunched over in fatigue, face directed at the floor.
He sensed, rather than saw, Alice make her way around the bed and come up beside him, but honestly he just didn’t have the energy to look up at her, or even acknowledge her presence.
"Thank you," she whispered after a moment. Then she placed her hand on his shoulder and gave it a gentle squeeze, that simple gesture conveying the extent of her gratitude in ways that her words could not.
The memory of her touch burned through his shirt clear to his skin for a long time after she left the room.
Vanilla is actually native to Mexico, which is about 10 miles away from Bisbee, Arizona. While Alice’s use of vanilla soap might have seemed like an anachronism, in reality, she would have had access to vanilla beans by virtue of being so close to Mexico, and thus the means by which to create her own vanilla soap. It likely would have been the only luxury a woman like her would have.
Robert Koch was the first scientist to postulate the germ theory of disease and publish articles on the subject in and around 1875, though Louis Pasteur certainly played a huge role by proving that micro-organisms did not spontaneously appear back in the 1860s. At the time, the miasma theory of disease (also known as bad airs) was the common belief. However, a definite link was made between washing hands and reduced mortality due to infection during this time period, though it was slow to catch on.
Many doctors in this era were little more than quacks and ‘snake oil peddlers’, selling bottles of miracle cures that were little more than flavored alcohol and other more dangerous substances. President James Garfield himself was subject to foolish doctors after being shot by an assassin. They continually poked and prodded him with dirty fingers and rudimentary tools in attempts to locate the bullet (one reportedly suggest they just roll him over and the bullet would fall out on its own), until he eventually died of infection… and this was the kind of care provided for the most important man in the United States!
Derringers were a pocket pistol created in the 1800s. They were for the most part, one-shot pistols, though Remington made a 2-shot Derringer pistol that sold after the Civil War. Their accuracy was only good for about 10 feet, the bullet was literally so slow you could see it flying in mid-air towards its target, but as it was almost always used in close quarters, it must have served well enough to get the job done, given its popularity. A Derringer was used by John Wilkes Booth to assassinate Abraham Lincoln.
Due to the large amount of ethanol in them, grain alcohols like whiskey and vodka really are good antiseptics, though I bet they hurt like hell when poured over open cuts and wounds. And bran is excellent for use in poultices, as it draws excess moisture out of wounds, decreasing the chances of abscesses forming.
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