The Healer of Briarwood
A Historical Western Romance Novel
Book 7 in the Montana Gallagher Series
Brody read over the latest issue of The Lancet by lamplight in the pre-dawn hours. His focus shifted from a case on typhus to a lecture on the diseases of children as he jotted down a few notes to study later. The quiet hours of morning allowed him to study, for as his mentor once told him, “When a doctor stops learning, he ceases to be a doctor.”
Pounding, hard and urgent, shook the front door of his clinic. “Anyone in there?”
Brody pushed away from his desk and rushed to the door. On the other side, a man of small stature struggled to hold a woman in his arms. She lay limp, though Brody could not determine the extent of her injuries in the darkness lurking outside. Brody lifted her into his own arms and hurried to deposit her gently on the examining table.
“Is she your wife?”
The man shook his head, his face pale and chest moving with heavy breaths. “I found her like that, just lying on the road into town. I’m thinking she’s been shot, but I can’t rightly tell. She was bleeding some. Don’t reckon it makes sense me finding her before the critters, what with all the blood.”
Brody had already moved the light closer and saw the blood-darkened area of the dress covering her abdomen. He probed gently. “Not a gunshot. What’s your name?”
“Cletus Drake, sir. I come through town here now and again. Ain’t never seen the likes of this before.”
“Most people call me Doc or Brody, Mr. Drake. Sir is for fathers and politicians.”
Brody recalled seeing the man a few times. A tracker, trader, and as far as Brody knew, a man who had never caused trouble in Briarwood. “You’ve done a good thing here, Mr. Drake. I’ll need you to wait outside, if you’re of a mind to stay.”
“I have business with Mr. Baker at the general store when he opens, and I reckon I ought to tell . . . this town got a sheriff yet?”
Brody hovered over his patient, his eyes never moving away from his careful search around the wound. “Tom Culver, former ranch hand at Hawk’s Peak. He’s the sheriff now when one’s needed. There was a man in jail last night for causing a commotion at the saloon, so the sheriff will be in the rooms above the jailhouse.”
“I reckon then I ought to go. I didn’t find nothing with her.”
Brody looked away briefly to take in Cletus. A story that she’d been robbed and left for dead was plausible, if not provable. “No horse or other means of transport?” He perused her simple dress and practical boots.
“Just her. I didn’t see no one else. It was too dark to search. Found her ’bout a mile east by Molly, my mule, but she could only carry the lady. I should’ve got her here sooner—”
“You did well, Cletus. Someone must miss her.”
“I promise I didn’t see nothing with her, Doc.”
Brody gave his full attention for a minute over to Cletus. “I never thought you did, good man.”
“It’s just that some folks might think different, me being—”
“The color of your skin does not matter here. This woman owes you her life, and that is all I am thinking. Go on now and get the sheriff.”
“Sure thing, Doc.”
“Oh, and Mr. Drake. Thank you for bringing her into town.”
The man paused at the doorway. “Will she live?”
Brody stared down at the tangled fair hair framing pale skin. “I don’t know.” He bolted the door when the man left and returned to the woman’s side. The bleeding had stopped, thanks to Cletus, though Brody suspected she had already lost too much before the trader found her.
He spent the next hour gently removing her bloody clothes and inspecting bruises and cuts during the examination. Her corset had been no match for the blade that sliced through the thin layers. “The knife missed your organs. Good. Your recovery won’t be easy, but it could have been worse.” He spoke aloud to his patient, as much for her as himself. Later, he’d complete a medical chart. For now, he committed every detail to memory, first with the actions of his hand, then with his recitations.
“Bruising on one wrist, scratches on both hands. She fought someone.” Brody sucked in a breath, briefly closed his eyes to pray, and examined lower. He kept his curse silent for fear she might hear him. “You’re a strong lass to have fought back, to have survived.” Why did they not finish the job? he wondered. Had Cletus scared them off? He could suspect the traveling trader, but a man who saves a person is rarely the same who tries to end a life.
“A single bruise along the left chin. Another next to the right eye and cheek. They will spread before they heal.” He made a mental note of the herbs and medicinal powders he would prescribe, some for pain and others to help speed along the healing.
Another hour passed while Brody removed every thread transferred from her clothes into the wound by the knife. He placed precision stitches through her pale skin to close the wound. He could do nothing about her blood loss except try to replenish her fluids. The scratches and bruises he treated with ointments. The wrapping he used on her injured wrist was almost the same color as her skin.
“You’ve lost too much blood, lass.” Brody poured fresh water from a pitcher into a washbasin and dipped the end of a clean cloth into it. With gentle care, he parted her lips and twisted the edge of the cloth until the water dropped into her mouth. To his enormous relief, her tongue moved when the water hit it. “Stay with us, lass. You’ve come too far to give up now.”
Brody repeated the ministrations until she fell into a deeper sleep. It was a start.
Rivers of majesty surrounded by mountains tall enough to soar above the clouds, and valleys so vast, one could never travel them all in a single year, spread before her. Katharine Kiely had seen much of the West, but it had always been the majestic Rocky Mountains that she yearned to explore.
This was her first foray into Montana Territory, and it had taken all her charm and considerable powers of persuasion to gain this assignment. In the end, it was a father’s inability to deny his daughter that brought her to this part of the country. She wondered, though, if there had more to his acquiescing.
Katharine was not as confident that the Gallagher family of Hawk’s Peak would be as easy to convince as her father. Gazing upon the expanse of meadow surrounded by hundreds, if not thousands, of trees, she tried to look at the proposal from the Gallaghers’ point of view. She had never been a part of a project that sought to invade a piece of land as untouched as what lay before her.
She glanced at the coach where Bessie, her maid and confidant of seven years and Stewart’s younger sister, waited for her. Bessie preferred to remain in the private stagecoach they hired in Butte, for she did not enjoy what she referred to as “rough country.” The man from whom they rented it owned three such decommissioned stages and appeared to delight in charging an exorbitant weekly rate. Katharine, however, was as shrewd a negotiator as her father. The supply wagon stood half-empty a few yards behind the stage.
Katharine lifted the edges of her skirts to walk the short distance back to the road through tall grass. “Oh! Oh, no—” She found her balance before her legs catapulted her forward. With eyes closed, she took another careful step forward and lifted her skirt hem out of the way. An impression from her beautiful leather boot separated what had once been a pile of something she didn’t want to think about. She counted them blessed that the animal itself was nowhere to be seen.
The grimace remained on her face as she brushed her boot against the ground and tall grass. By the time she reached the coach, she was relatively certain there would be no repairing the shoe, even after a good cleaning.
She peered in through the coach window. “We won’t be much longer, Bessie. It is beautiful outside, and a walk is wonderful for one’s constitution.”
“I am quite content sitting here, Miss Katharine . . . unless you need me.”
Katharine smiled. Bessie had been with her long enough to speak her mind, but the proper way of doing things was too ingrained in the maid for her to dismiss her mistress completely. Katharine had always found her father’s staff to be too rigid in their disapproval of her less formal behavior around them. It had taken her many years to show Bessie it was all right to be herself, at least when they were alone.
“I have always thought you enjoyed these adventures.”
“We have never been so far from . . .” Bessie poked her head out the window, “civilization. I have heard stories of savage men and animals, and with no train or—”
“Bessie. How many times have I told you not to listen to the men’s stories? They only wish to have a little fun and frighten you.”
“Well, it has worked.”
Katharine made a mental note to speak with their traveling companions again. They were all good men, and would do anything required to keep them safe, but the younger two—brothers three years apart in age—liked their amusements. She watched the surveyor and his two junior assistants carry their gear back to the wagon. This had been their third stop to verify the mine’s calculations, and thus far, she had been unimpressed by the survey conducted by the mine owners.
Her father’s head surveyor, Stewart Jaffey, a man of fifty-three years, who had sneaked her hard candy as a child, walked over.
“How does it look?”
Stewart wiped his brow with the edge of a kerchief. “Beg pardon, Miss Kiely, but it’s the same as before. The measurements don’t add up to what the mine gave your father.”
Branson Kiely, dubbed “King of the Spur Lines,” had laid track for two dozen lines of track in the West, built a successful import company in Oregon, and ruled business meetings with unimpeachable morals. He also believed in verifying everything. His refusal to move forward on a project until they confirmed land ownership, with every penny properly budgeted, is why people called upon him to see the job done right.
Katharine admired her father’s business acumen and often asked herself the question: “What would Branson Kiely do?”
“Thank you, Stewart. We will settle into town, and then a meeting with Mr. Jameston from the mine is in order. I have a letter to write and then we can be on our way.”
“Very good, Miss.”
Stewart opened the door and helped her inside. To Katharine’s surprise, Bessie climbed out.
“Stewart. We need Miss Katharine’s small trunk.”
In all their years with her family, Katharine never once heard Stewart question a request from Bessie. He never asked for a reason, either.
“Very good, Bessie. Give me but a minute.”
Bessie looked into the coach and directly at Katharine. “You cannot arrive in town with those boots.”
The rising warmth in Katharine’s cheeks lasted long enough for her maid to say, “I see everything, Miss Katharine.”
She leaned against the back of the cushioned seat and released a sigh. Bessie would put her wardrobe to rights to ensure her mistress arrived in grand style, just as her father would want.
Katharine breathed in the unfamiliar scents emanating from the quaint, one-street town of Briarwood. The usual bouquet of livestock fragrances permeated the air, and yet somehow the aroma of grass, pine, and delicious baking overpowered the hay, horses, and privies.
“Bessie, I believe we need a visit to whatever eating establishment is responsible for that wonderful smell. We can settle . . .” Katharine looked around the town with equal measures of amusement and concern. “Do you see the hotel?”
“Perhaps it is around the corner.”
“Perhaps.” She doubted it, though. She had hoped for a hot bath and a comfortable bed rather than more nights in the tent. The men set up a luxurious camp, but Katharine longed for a private bath in which to relax and wash away the dust from the past two days. What should have been a day’s travel had become two. She considered it a necessary sacrifice to obtain the information she needed on the survey.
A boarding house at the end of the road in front of them displayed a vacancy sign. Katharine decided she would prefer the tent rather than stay in a place near the saloon. Another cursory study of the buildings presented one large enough to possibly have accommodations, though she could see no sign from her vantage point.
“Let us look into this building here.” She pointed to the large wood structure on the corner.
“If they do not have rooms, Miss Katharine?”
“Then it will be the tent for us.” Katharine nodded to the boarding house. “Unless you prefer to sleep there.”
Bessie shook her head and remained quiet.
“Goodness, Bessie, this is an adventure.” Katharine opened the door and accepted Stewart’s assistance out of the coach. She smoothed the front of her dress and stopped when she realized they’d drawn the attention of passersby. “Stewart, please assist Bessie. I will see about accommodations.”
“Miss, you need not do that. I will—”
“I know, Stewart, and I thank you, but this is one thing my father never allowed me to do when traveling with him. He is not here, and so I wish to explore the town, or what there is of it.” Katharine raised a delicate brown brow when she next said, “And we will not be reporting everything to Mr. Kiely, will we?”
Stewart answered with a grin. “No, Miss, I don’t suppose there’d be much to tell, anyway.”
Katharine nodded once, smiled, and with her parasol in hand, she allowed her wide-brimmed hat to be all the shield she needed from the sun as she walked across the dirt road. She had one foot on the first step up to the general store when Bessie spoke up behind her.
“Miss, you shouldn’t be walking about alone.”
“This town is not big enough for me to find myself in any trouble.” Katharine twisted her torso a little to look up and down the boardwalk. People entered and exited buildings, strolled down the road, smiled at each other, or stopped for a few minutes to enjoy conversation. It appeared to be a nice and clean town of residents content to go about their quiet lives. “It is cleaner than I expected.”
Bessie brushed dust from her sleeve. “The roads are made of dirt.”
“You’ve been on many dirt roads before, Bessie, and that is not what I mean. There is no one fighting in the streets, no unfortunate smells, and the buildings all appear in excellent condition. You may as well find a reason to enjoy your time here, because we are not leaving until our business has concluded. Now, let us see what this mercantile offers.” Too many thoughts preoccupied her mind at once, and Katharine missed hearing the greeting called out to her by a kind-looking older man wearing a black vest over a white shirt and a starched, white apron around his waist. “I am sorry.”
He continued to smile at her and said again, “Welcome to Briarwood. How may I help you today?”
Katharine returned the warm smile. “Thank you. We will need a few supplies, though I would like to look around if you do not mind.”
“I don’t mind at all. The name’s Loren Baker.” He pointed to the window with his thumb. “Are you passing through?”
She peered out the same window and saw her coach through one pane. “We will be here through the week.” She approached the storekeeper. “Might I arrange an account and pay in advance? I would like those I am traveling with to charge to it.” She imagined Mr. Baker had already seen the others through his window.
“Oh, that’s not a problem, Mrs. . . .”
“Miss Kiely.” Katharine offered no other information about herself or the others. It was not her intention to deceive. However, the fewer people who knew of her business in the area the better, at least until she spoke with all the concerned parties.
The store was situated in a way that gave Mr. Baker a view of most of the town. Katharine realized now that the single street rounded a bend, though she could not make out what was beyond the extensive building on the corner.
“Does the building there, just across the way, have rooms to rent? We were told there was lodging in town.”
“That’s Doc Brody’s clinic. I reckon you’ve seen the boarding house. It’s a nice place on the inside but can get a little noisy at night on account of the saloon. I’ve rooms to rent upstairs. They might not be what you’re looking for, but they’re clean.”
Given the present options, Katharine was inclined to take the storekeeper up on his offer. “How many rooms?”
“Four, and all empty.”
She hoped the vacancy was not an indication of the rooms’ comforts. Her attention, and Mr. Baker’s, temporarily shifted when a woman about the storekeeper’s age approached carrying three empty baskets.
“This is my wife, Joanna.”
The neat-as-a-pin woman with bright and gentle eyes decided it for Katharine. “It is a pleasure to meet you, Mrs. Baker. We will take the rooms for one week, if they will be available.”
“Yes, please. I will pay in advance if that is a concern.”
“Not at all.” Mr. Baker held out his hand and Katharine accepted the delayed gesture. How could she not when presented with such an enthusiastic grin?
She started her browsing near a basket of soaps and wondered if Mr. Baker’s rooms had hot and cold running water. Bessie appeared preoccupied with an assortment of parasols. Katharine counted it a minor victory, even as she puzzled over whether she should send Bessie back to Oregon until her business in Montana concluded.
The subtle jingle of a bell announced the entry of a new arrival, and the storekeeper’s boisterous greeting confirmed it. When Mr. Baker’s voice shifted from jovial to solemn, Katharine looked toward the front of the store. A tall man, broad through the shoulders and chest, stood with his back to her. His thick hair of deepest, darkest brown curled at the edges and appeared almost unruly. He was without a hat or coat, leading Katharine to suppose his visit to the store required a quick journey from another part of town.
It was his voice that intrigued her most, and the pensive expression Mr. Baker wore told her the conversation was not a pleasant one. Something about the man drew her away from the shelf with various ladies’ accoutrements to a table of blankets. She believed listening in on a conversation to which one was not invited showed a level of rudeness she did not think herself capable, and yet she made an exception this time.
“You’ve heard nothing about a missing woman?”
Mr. Baker shook his head. “It sure is a shame. Is she going to make it, Doc?”
“She’s survived the night, so I am hopeful.”
“Tom’ll know what to do. So will Ramsey. He’s found missing folks before.”
Katharine tried to follow the conversation and store each name in her memory. She watched the doctor shift his weight, his discomfort about discussing a patient apparent.
“Joanna said the new bandages were ready.”
The storekeeper nodded. “She wrapped them all up for you.” Mr. Baker disappeared into a back room and returned a few minutes later with a large bundle. “More than usual.”
“There has been an influx of accidents at the mine.”
Katharine leaned a little closer at the mention of the mine.
The storekeeper passed the bundle to the doctor, and Mr. Baker made a note in a logbook. “Don’t they have a doctor up there?”
“They did. He left two weeks ago.”
“Makes no sense. That’s always been a safe place for the miners.”
“Not any longer, it seems.” The doctor started for the door, but Mr. Baker stopped him with one more question.
“You tell Ethan about the doctor leaving the mine?”
The taller man nodded. “As soon as I heard. Thanks, Loren. Please keep the bandage orders steady and in the same quantity for the time being.” He stood below the threshold with one foot outside and stared at Katharine.
She did not know who recognized whom first or even how. Twenty years changed people, and yet she remembered the deep, gray eyes as though she gazed into them yesterday.
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Excerpted from The Healer of Briarwood by MK McClintock. Copyright © 2020 by MK McClintock. Published by Trappers Peak Publishing. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the author or publisher.