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CHAPTER ONE–A Deadly Diagnosis
Kaw City, Oklahoma
Nelly Duncan’s breath caught in her throat as the doctor’s bushy gray eyebrows drew together in a frown. With a solemn expression, he slipped the stethoscope from around his neck and placed it in the black bag, avoiding her eyes. Bad news was coming. News she’d rather not hear.
“Reckon you got an infection, Missus Duncan.” The doctor turned toward Will, Nelly’s husband, who hovered anxiously at the foot of the bed. “I’ll give her some tonic for now and check back in a day or two.”
“She gonna be all right, Doc?” Will asked. He was a stout man, and tall, with dark hair and brown eyes. His round face was drawn with worry lines, and his eyes were puffed and red. He shoved his hands deep in the pockets of his faded blue overalls.
The doctor sighed, picked up his bag, and peered over horn-rimmed glasses. “Might be nip an’ tuck.” He jerked his head, motioning for Will to follow as he trudged to the door, pulled back the feed sack curtain, and stepped into the hall. Will’s head barely cleared the door frame as he trailed after the doctor and disappeared from view.
Nelly clutched the edge of the bright patchwork quilt. She curled into a fetal position and faced the door, listening to the muted voice of the doctor.
“It’s a bad infection, Will. Might be too late to save her, but we’ll treat her for a couple of weeks to see if she responds to the medicine.”
“Aw, come on, Doc. Ain’t there somethin’ more you can do?” Will’s husky murmur was thick and unsteady.
Nelly twisted the sheet between her fingers. Will had always been an emotional man. Soon as the doctor left, he’d be hunting for that hidden bottle of whiskey he thought she didn’t know about.
The doctor’s voice was low and composed. “It’s up to the Lord, Will. I’ve done all I can. There’s nothing I can do for her.” He sighed.
She heard the clump of the men’s footsteps as they descended the hard oak stairs of the old two-story farm house. Icy fear spiraled through her, and panic formed a cold knot in her stomach. A spasm gripped her chest, and she took deep breaths to fill her lungs until it passed. Tears slipped down her cheeks. The frightening words sliced through her fevered mind. She was going to die.
In her heart she knew the reason. Her mind burned with regret, but she couldn’t change the past. It wouldn’t help to dredge up old memories. She prayed for forgiveness.
The touch of her arms against her body burned her flesh. She knew she had fever . . . a high fever. Pain hammered in her head, her throat burned, her stomach and legs ached, and it was difficult to breathe.
The cool Oklahoma breeze—what little there was this morning—drifted through the bedroom window. A lone fly split the air with its buzzing. She turned on her back and watched it land on the cracked plaster walls, whitewashed but yellowed with age. In the next instant, the fly took flight to light on the windows, the muslin curtains, the window screen, and finally, the Holy Bible on the handmade walnut nightstand that rested beside her iron bedstead. The fly crawled over God’s Holy Book. Of course, the fly had no way of knowing about God; it was too busy searching. I should shoo it away, she thought, but I don’t have the energy.
The fly reminded her of her husband. He was too busy flitting from town to town and too busy carousing to be a real husband and father, even after she’d birthed five babies during their sixteen years of marriage. The last, a stillborn, had been buried five days ago without Nelly’s presence; she’d been too sick to go.
Light footsteps skipped up the stairs, pulling her from her tortured thoughts. Evie, her youngest, peeked around the door covering. “Mommy, can I come in?” Her bright blue eyes shined, and her oval face was framed by fine, golden hair. A warm grin brightened her features.
Nelly forced a smile. “For a moment, precious. Mommy doesn’t feel much like talking. Where are the girls?”
“Downstairs. Poppy told Hannah and Lena to make potato soup for supper. An’ Wray is cleaning out the barn.”
“He’s a good son,” Nelly said.
Four-year-old Evie tiptoed barefoot into the room and crawled up on the bed beside her mother. She still carried the roundness of baby-fat. Sitting cross-legged, she spread her gingham dress over her knees and leaned over to stare into her mother’s face. “How come you got purple circles under your eyes, Mommy?”
“You’ll have to ask the doctor about that,” Nelly answered. “Mommy doesn’t know.”
Evie patted her mother’s cheek. “I’m gonna pray for you, so you can get well.”
Nelly smiled. “That would be nice.”
A gust of air cut through the room. The fly, disturbed by the current, soared up, buzzing frantically. Drops of sweat beaded on Nelly’s upper lip, and moisture drenched her nightgown.
“Close your eyes,” Evie ordered as she put her chubby hands over her mother’s eyes.
Her daughter’s childish voice drifted over Nelly like a cool blanket of mist.
“Dear Jesus, Mommy needs help,” Evie whispered. She reached over and stroked her mother’s temples. “I prayed to You when my doggie cut his foot, an’ You healed him. So can You please heal Mommy, too? An’ thank You, Jesus. Amen.” She patted her mother’s cheeks again.
“Open your eyes, Mommy,” she begged, lifting Nelly’s eyelids with her finger.
Nelly’s gaze rested on her daughter’s face. “Thank you, little one. Come now. Give Mommy a kiss, and then Mommy needs to rest.”
Evie’s sweet lips on Nelly’s cheek were like a spring breeze wafting by; then the four-year-old twisted her bottom sideways and scooted slowly until her bare feet reached the rag rug below. She ran across the room and stood on tiptoe, looking out the window.
“Is Poppy leaving?”
From her two-story vantage point, Nelly glanced out the window and saw the doctor driving off in the buggy. “No, dear. Poppy just walked the doctor out.” Will’s shoulders drooped as he shuffled toward the big barn behind the house. Like a light wind skiffing through her mind, she wondered if he would miss her once she was gone. How would he handle the responsibility of raising four children alone?
The buzzing fly soared frantically, lighting for a brief moment before taking to the air again, looking for the place it had entered through the window. The frenzied flight of the insect annoyed her, yet she felt sorry for it. Maybe the fly would escape.
And maybe the doctor’s tonic would work.
She didn’t want to die.