There was a quiet beauty to the rolling back woods mountains that Tom found appealing. The people that populated the hill country kept to themselves and lived nearly untouched by the world around them. He’d ridden west on a whim, following the roads that soon became little more than beaten trails west from Virginia, letting the road take him south to touch briefly into North Carolina and Tennessee and now he was securely riding around a beautiful Kentucky mountainside.
A damp, misting spring rain had been playing hide and seek with the sun all day and it was enough to settle the dust on the road but not enough to make the mud a real rain would spawn. He pulled the collar of his coat up a little bit but kept his horse, a dapple gelding he hadn’t bothered to name, on a loose rein and steady pace. He wasn’t really headed anywhere, just west and he wasn’t in a hurry to get there.
The horse whickered slightly, a sound Tom had learned to trust in his short acquaintance with the animal, he slowed up and strained to listen. Sure enough, after another moment Tom heard the faster hoof beats coming up the trail behind him. He ran a hand through his dark brown, now slightly damp hair, and made a mental check of any sins he might have committed lately. He was pretty sure none were serious enough to send anyone charging after him.
When the road widened out he guided the animal to the side and eased them both to a halt. The horse was even tempered but he wouldn’t be amused to have some crazy rider spooking the beast unnecessarily. He scratched his nose and waited, sitting easily in the worn leather saddle.
It wasn’t a long wait. A single rider charged up the trail on a horse that was more made for the plow than a saddle. The man saw Tom, sitting idly with his coat open enough to show the butts of the pistols he wore and reigned his horse in tightly. The horse was skittish and had to be reigned in a tight circle to bring it under control but the man didn’t seem worried about being thrown.
“Mister,” He called out breathlessly. “I ain’t meaning no trouble, Mister.” His droopy eyes glanced to the displayed weapons. “I heard that a doctor been riding up this trail, have you seen him Mister?”
Tom took stock of the man, maybe nineteen or twenty, dirty short cut hair and a good three or four days stubble on his chin. He was a big fellow, wide and thick, strong in his arms and shoulders but Tom had a sneaking suspicion that the man wasn’t the most quick witted of fellows. He leaned forward in the saddle, seeing the rifle tucked in the old saddle behind the stranger. “What’re you looking for a doctor for?”
“Please, Mister, my brother’s real sick, I ain’t got time, have you seen him?”
“I’m sorry to hear about your brother but I’m not working right now.”
Tom watched the information slowly sink into the farm boy’s brain and when understanding dawned it was like a light going on. “Doc, please, doc, we ain’t got much but we’ll pay you. We’re just over this hillside, a few hours ride, that’s all, he’s hurting real bad, Doc, you gotta help him.”
“No, I don’t and I don’t need the money.” He hitched the reins to the horse’s side and the animal starting walking back out onto the trail.
The other man looked baffled for a moment but than a new angle formed. “It’s going to rain awful hard tonight, Doc. Dumping rain tonight for sure, I wouldn’t want to be caught out on the road in the rain that’s coming. We got a good roof you could sleep under.”
“A little water never hurt a soul.” But Tom wasn’t sure this fellow would grasp that comment, from the dirt that clung to him, it had been a while since he’d tangled with water long enough to bathe.
“You’re in a hurry, Doc, I see that, this road, it’ll take you two, three days out of your way. It curves all around these mountains. From our home, you just ride down the valley and up a hill and you pick this same road up on the other side. Ain’t no one local follow the road lessen they have a wagon or cart. Shoot, single man on horse back would be wasting time this way. I’ll show you, you help my brother and stay in out of the rain.” The man followed behind Tom and the clean fresh afternoon air was clouded with the scent of unwashed body.
Tom sighed and pulled his horse up again. “You won’t quit will you?” A faster way around the mountain would make it worth his while.
“No, doc, what do you say?”
The thick eyes looked hopeful. Tom nodded. “Very well, but you’re still paying me.”
The young man nodded hard enough to rattle most folks brains and grinned. “Thank you, doc, thank you. Come on, we should hurry, Abe’s real sick.”
“And who are you?”
“Oh, I’m Billy, Billy McTaggert.” He offered a paw like hand in greeting. “What should I call you, doc?”
Tom ignored it. “Thomas Lambry.”
Billy withdrew his hand with a scowl and turned his horse off the trail. “Been a long time since we had a doctor down in these parts. I was riding to see old lady Miller but she said you’d been through not a day or two before and you’d be closer to home than she was. So I said I’d done right by Abe, and get him a real doctor if I could.”
Tom sighed and followed Billy’s steady pace off into the trees. The young man refused to shut up and nothing rubbed him the wrong way than a man that prattled on. There was a peace in silence that he liked and as he’d seen too often, a man that ran at the mouth either was a simpleton or had something to hide. He already guessed Billy was a touch of the first, it made him wonder if he was also the second.
It was a long, not always easy, afternoon ride and Tom was ready to shoot the boy just to shut him up but he could see they were heading almost directly over the mountains instead of around them. As the day wore on, Tom caught a scent on the air and it only grew stronger until his informative guide broke into a clearing and Tom found himself in a small cabin’s front yard. It was made of logs and had the appearance of having sat in that same spot for decades. The roof was in good repair but there were torn curtains in the open windows. A few hogs were separated in a pen to the side of the house and a larger than necessary barn sat across the clearing.
A man stepped out from the house onto the porch. His pants were dirty and his boots old. The suspenders crossed his graying long john top. Unlike the talkative Billy, this man had made no efforts to shave and a thick beard clung to his face. He scratched his stomach and stood on the porch one hand on the railing.
“What’s this now?” He called out, eying Tom suspiciously.
Billy dismounted the horse and clutched at the reins. “Adam, this is Doctor Thomas Lambry.” Billy said the name with extended care as if he’d been practicing it in his head the whole afternoon. “Doc, this is my brother Adam.”
Adam sniffed. “He ain’t no doctor.”
“Old lady Miller says he is.”
“What kind of doctor rides around wearing pistols like that?”
Tom stayed on his horse. “The kind that takes care of himself.”
The man spat. “Damned Yankee too.”
“I’ll gladly ride on.”
The threat hung in the air. Adam spit again. “You really know doctoring?”
“Better than some, not as well as others.”
“I don’t suppose Abe can wait for the old lady to get her tired bones up here. We put him in the barn but we’ll bring him out for you.”
“Don’t bother, I can smell the stills. I don’t care what you’re brewing up here.”
Adam scratched again and eyed his brother, wondering what the man might have said on the ride back. “Good, smart man staying to his own affairs.”
Tom slid easily off the back of his horse, comforted now that he knew the secret that had Billy so nervous. He felt a distaste for this trio of brothers and he hadn’t met the third yet. “I’ll need water, boiled and clean.”
“Creek’s clean, we’ll get some fetched up. Billy, see to the doc’s horse.” Adam turned. “Alice! Get out here!”
Tom untied his medical bag, soft sided and made of well made tan leather, and let Billy lead his horse away. There was a clinking, dragging sound and Tom turned around, his distaste grew at the sight before him.
Alice was a frightfully skinny young girl, given that neither of the brothers looked shortened on their meals, it made her thin skin stretched over bone appearance painful to see. The skirt hung from narrow hips, the hem frayed over bare, dirty feet. A blouse hung on her frame, exposing a glimpse of sharp collarbones. Her hands were slender but raw red from work and use and nearly as dirty as her bare feet. Hair the color of hay fell in tight waves half way down her back, it would have been pretty if it was tangled and filthy, pulled back by a cord that had tangled into the waves.
The face would be pretty when she matured, and put some weight on. A sharp, clever chin stood under full soft lips, a cute, small nose was dominated by high cheekbones and large eyes the color of walnuts. Cleaned up and fed, the child would be stunning one day, her skin, now pale from starvation would glow peaches and cream with some care. The dark, bruised half moons under her eyes would fade, her hair would shine with a good washing and brushing.
It wasn’t the dirt, or even the starvation, that turned Tom’s stomach. There was terror in the child’s eyes and chains around her ankles. The cuffs of the shackles were three inches wide and hung loosely around the slender ankles. The chain was rusted but strong, thick linked and heavy. There was just enough slack to almost allow the child to take a full step, but not quite.
The beauty of the girl stirred Tom, fascinated him and confused him. He’d never been interested in children, and his efforts to be interested in women had left him cold. It hadn’t been an easy thing to accept, the conclusion that men were far more to his tastes than women, but it was something he’d come to terms with while he was still younger than Billy. It wasn’t like him to be attracted to any child, let alone a dirty little mountain girl.
“Alice, go get the doctor water and heat it up now.” Adam ordered.
The girl bobbed her head and tried to slip by, the chains rattling as she walked.
“Fine way to treat a young girl. She’s your what? Your wife? Your sister?” Both, he added mentally, starting to really hate that he’d accepted this job.
Adam laughed and caught a thick hand into the blond tail and pulled. The child whimpered and fell stumbled back against the stronger man. “Alice ain’t my sister, and Alice sure as the day is long ain’t a young girl, but in a way Alice is our wife!” He groped at the girl and laughed a bit more before releasing his grip on the thick hair. “Go on now, get the water.” The child hurried away, heading down the slight hill to where the creek cut around the mountain. Tom watched her and couldn’t quite figure out what Adam had meant, there were no signs of breasts yet, so the child wasn’t old enough to be called a woman. He was staring after the child trying to understand when Adam came up beside him and watched the retreating back.
“Almost would think he was a girl. Some nights, I forget.” Adam nodded to the barn. “Abe’s in here, we weren’t getting no sleep with his moaning so we hauled him out here.”
A boy, Alice was a boy. Tom could have been knocked down with a feather. He shook his head, oddly comforted that he wasn’t thirty and suddenly finding women attractive and disturbed that he’d be even the least bit roused by a child of no more than twelve or thirteen. His feet followed Adam to the barn but his mind was too stunned to offer any direction.
The smell of the brewing moonshine whiskey was strong inside the dimly lit barn, but under it was the distinct smell of infection and fever. That broke Tom’s train of thought and snapped him to the task at hand. He squinted into the dim interior. “Open all the doors and windows, let light and air in here and I’m going to need some lamps to see what I’m doing.”
Adam didn’t move. “The sick need to be shut up.”
“Do you want to doctor him?” Tom snapped, his grey eyes flashing. “I didn’t think so, now do what I said.” His eyes had adjusted to the dimmer light and he was surprised to find a fireplace, cold and unlit, along the wall. “Get a fire going too.” The barn wasn’t cold, the small fires under the stills were keeping the chill out but the added light would be welcome. Tom glanced to the two able bodied brothers, one stalling the horses and one opening doors, and moved to the softly moaning lump of the third.
It was almost an hour before Alice lugged in a pot of steaming water, large enough that it should have weighed half her, his, weight. She set it down on the stones round the old fireplace, now burning crisply. Adam watched the child with narrowed eyes.
“Thank you.” Tom responded to the water automatically and the child actually flinched from his voice.
“Billy, go help Alice get dinner together.”
The elder brother watched the younger drag the child from the barn and toward the house, it was starting to rain outside, softly now but looking to really pour soon. “We can’t let Alice cook unwatched no more. It did that to Abe the last time.”
Tom suddenly felt less sympathy for the man below his hands. The knife slash had been shallow enough, painful and bloody but not a killing blow. Infection was doing that for him, the wound was septic and angry red lines were streaking from the wound. Fever raged in the man and pain had him delirious.
“Is that why you keep her chained.”
“We call Alice, it, not her,” Adam grinned at his joke. “Naw, it came to us like that, Alice likes to fight but we’re going to break it to be ridden.”
Tom’s stomach turned over but he settled it by telling himself it wasn’t any of his concern.
“I named it Alice after a cow we once had. Damn fine cow.” He nodded. “So, Doc, Abe going to make it?”
“Not without a miracle.” Tom glanced up from where he knelt on his coat, his sleeves rolled up. “The wounds infected, badly. I can try but you’d be better off shooting him and putting him down.”
Adam spit. “That’s a hell of a thing to say.”
“Well, you try, you try hard. Abe’s strong, he’ll be fine.” Adam spit again into the dirt of the floor. “I’ll fetch you for supper.”
Tom wasn’t sorry to see the man leave. He kept washing the infected wound, pulling moans of pain from the semi-conscious man, but the pus wasn’t showing signs of ending. His temper was too short to tolerate both annoyances at once.
He’d cleaned the reeking wound as best he could but the infection was so deep that there was no point in making a tincture or using any of the few real supplies he carried. There was no hope of finding a clean bandage either and the man’s fate combined with the charm of his family, made Tom disinclined to use any from his supplies, but because he wasn’t a total, heartless bastard, he washed out the bandage that had been in place when he arrived. Washed it better than the fabric had probably ever been washed and partially dried it by the fire before re-bandaging the wound.
The rattling of a chain broke into his work and he glanced up to see the boy, Alice, hovering uneasily in the open door way. The rain had splotched the thin blouse to the pale skin, leaving little doubt to the lack of female anatomy. Tom glanced back down.
“I won’t hurt you.” He rumbled out, feeling large and awkward next to the smaller boy.
“Supper’s ready.” The child spoke but the voice was feminine, soft, light, and with no more than a trace of a hint of the real gender in it.
“Thank you.” But the child didn’t leave and Tom glanced up again and saw the child had a battered pot clutched in one hand, steam rose slightly from it.
“I,” The boy glanced down. “I heated some water, for you to wash up in. It’s not boiling but it’s not cold either.” Shyly, the child carried the pot in and set it near Tom but well out of arm’s reach.
“Thank you again.” There was a lilting tone to the child’s speech, an accent, soft and light, gently southern.
“I brought soap too.” The child set the pale lavender colored slip of soap down near by.
“I didn’t think they’d have anything like that on hand.” Tom muttered as he knotted off the last of the bandages. He glanced up again and the child was hovering near the door like a spirit, a very tiny, very shy, smile touched his pretty face.
“It’s mine, not theirs. They just haven’t let me use it since I got here.”
Tom glanced to the sliver of soap, scented in sharp lavender, and obviously a prized possession to the child. He felt like he’d been kicked in the chest. “I’ll be right in as soon as I wash up.” He gruffed out coldly, scaring the skittish child away.
He reminded himself it was none of his concern as he scrubbed the blood and infection from his hands and arms. The world was a bad, horrible place. Unfair, awful things happened to everyone and there wasn’t a spot anywhere that was safe. None of it was his concern or problem, he only had to look out for one person and that person was him. As he rolled down his sleeves and darted across the lawn to the house, he’d managed to remind himself of his place and priorities.
The cabin wasn’t much to look at outside and it was less so inside. The small space was split into two rooms, the front had a small cook stove with a bucket set beside it was slender sticks of chopped wood. They’d shuttered the glassless windows against the rain. The room was dominated by the plain wood table and two long benches. The table was set with three plates and three tin cups. An empty wood bucket sat in one corner with a scrub rag hung over the side to dry. It was cleaner than he’d expected, subtracting the recent muddy footprints they were tracking in. The other room was obscured from easy sight by a blanket hanging in the rough hewed door frame in lieu of a door.
Alice was forking out slabs of ham from a sizzling frying pan, dropping one on each plate before forking out mounds of greens and cut up turnips that had been fried in the ham drippings. The child’s stomach was growling at the smells but those wide brown eyes stayed lowered.
Tom didn’t miss it, nor did he miss the limited amount of cooked meat and the heaping amounts of greens. “What about the boy?” He asked and saw the child pause for a second before returning the pan with food still in it to the stove.
Adam poured out the strong home brewed whiskey they made into the tin cups. “It eats what we don’t finish.”
Tom watched the child quietly lower himself into the corner to sit and wait, watching. He lost his appetite but sat down at the table anyway. Adam and Billy folded their hands and bowed their heads, Tom just watched them, fascinated.
“God, thank You for this bounty and Your mercy. Thank You for bringing a doctor to tend to our brother Abe. Amen.” The brother’s raised their heads, scooping up the two tine forks and digging into their plates.
Tom ate more slowly. He sipped the moonshine carefully and actually found it to be quite good, he was betting it was a safer drink than the water. After the brother’s initial glut Adam glanced up and grinned at Tom.
“Hey, doc, what say we let you have the first ride on Alice tonight? What do you say Billy?”
Billy laughed around a mouthful of food.
“No, thanks.” He wasn’t able to keep his disgust from his voice.
“It ain’t like that doc, you can’t tell it’s not a girl.” Billy mumbled around his food.
He hated his curiosity. It was better the less he knew but he needed to know. “Where’d you get him from? He sounds like he’s from Virginia.”
“This old coot brought him up here. The man was a drunk, he traded us Alice and the satchel it had with it for a couple of gallons of our shine. He lit out of here before we got to figuring she was an it but it’s learning it’s place. I don’t think that old drunk even knew it weren’t a girl, he was half blind and what.” Adam boasted. “We made the best of the situation, seeing that we were cheated and all.”
“Quite kind of you.” Tom muttered sarcastically. Billy didn’t notice the tone but Adam narrowed his eyes.
“You sure should take the first ride tonight.” Adam nodded. “Ain’t right for a man to be alone too long.”
Tom downed the last of the shine in his cup in long, practiced swallows and put his fork down. “I can’t, I should stay near your brother. Speaking of which, I need to return to him.” He stood and with deliberate, cautious moves, and carried his plate to where the boy sat. As he would for a dog, he set his dinner plate on the floor. The child’s eyes grew wide, Tom had left the better portion of his meat and most of his greens. The boy was shoveling the food into his mouth before he could reach the door.
“Thanks for dinner.” Tom nodded before stepping out into the rain to hurry back to the barn.