15. June 2013 · Comments Off on The Quivera Trail – Excerpt · Categories: Chapters From the Latest Book

(Dolph Becker has been kicked in the head by a panicking horse, during a violent confrontation with the fugitive Randall Whitmire at the very door to Jane and Sam’s new atelier on Houston Street . The boy Alf Trotter, who now wants to be known as Tom, was acting as a bodyguard, and in turn killed Randall Whitmire before he could harm anyone else.)

Chapter 28 – The Door Between Life and Death

            Jane set out her little array of tea-cups; it had amused Sam very much that she had never become accustomed to coffee. Tom stood by the the stove, his hands hanging awkwardly.  Jane thought he must be horribly shaken; he looked shrunken inside of his clothes, as if a boy had dressed in a man’s garb. Tom worshipped the ground that Dolph Becker walked upon. It must be a hard thing to kill a man, and perhaps not been able to save the life of another that he reverenced.

“Tom, will you be so good as to bring some more water?” Jane suggested gently. “There is a well by Mr. Knauer’s back door.”

“Yes, Miss G.” Tom gulped. He still looked very green. As she handed him the buckets, she contrived to pat him on the shoulder, by way of comfort and approval. “You did very well,” she said. “You kept your head and shot well and true. Whitmire was a very wicked man – he might have meant to hurt the children, or Lottie – any of us. If Mrs. Becker not caused him to miss his aim and if he had gotten his pistol back again, we might have been killed. He was that close to all of us – and that kind of villain. You’re a true hero, Tom, stopping him as you did. I am sure that Sir would – will be proud of you.”

“I didna think there’d be such a manky mess,” Tom mumbled. Jane swallowed a little of her own revulsion. “Mess or no, it was, bravely done. There – the water now, Tom.” She pushed him gently in the direction of the door, but as she did, it opened from the outside. A man stood there, a diffident and courteous man of middle age who asked, in a softly husky Irish voice as he took off his hat, “May I come into th’ house, marm? They are bringing the poor gentleman upstairs, with every care. Is there a bed where he might be put to rest?”

“Yes,” Jane answered swiftly, “Through this door. The bed is made already. Go fetch the water, Tom,” she added again.

“I would speak with you all, then,” the man continued, “As to what you saw of this unfortunate event. I am Thomas McCall, with the duty of sheriff in this county. I was doing business at the Turner Theater, and came as soon as I heard the ruckus.”

“Jane Becker,” Jane answered. “And this is Tom – who is Mr. Becker’s – that is, Mr. Rudolph Becker’ ward. He protected us all against that madman after Mrs. Becker – that is, my mother-in-law struck his pistol out of his hands …”

“Indade?” Mr. McCall’s mild gaze held a look of respect. “A very brave and composed lady – and excellent shooting, lad, excellent; I will have some questions for you, after I pay respects to the ladies.”

“They are in the parlor, Mr. McCall,” Jane said, unaccountably feeling rather shaky in the knees herself. “Tom, you should join us there, when you have fetched the water. They are composing themselves – and seeing to the children…” she added to the sheriff. “I hope that your questions will not take long. This horrible event happened so suddenly!”

“Ah, the poor wee mites,” Mr. McCall shook his head. “’Tis a sad thing to happen, on such a fine day! Y’r good man has already gone for the doctor; I saw Dr. Herff his very self, as I was passing by the Menger this morning – an’ certain I am that he was still there.” There was a trampling off feet on the stairs, as if a number of men bearing a burden, and Mr. McCall added, “That will be the poor gentleman – he breathes still, an’ that is a good sign. I have seen w’ my own eyes the good doctor working miracles. There are men as good as dead, today walking around hale an’ hearty, thanks to him. When Mr. Rudolph comes ‘around, you must send for me at once, day or night.” Jane noticed that he said ‘when’, not ‘if’; that confidence expressed was bracing. Likely it was bracing for Isobel, too; her face as pale as the sheets that Jane had dressed the day bed in the corner of the studio with. Isobel followed Mr. Knauer, his apprentices and a stranger. Each man bore a corner of a window shutter, hastily pressed into service as a litter. On it lay Dolph, his head roughly bound in a strip of calico cloth – someone’s handkerchief and already soaked through with gore. Jane hoped that Isobel did not notice the erratic trail of blood droplets spattering across the floor. Isobel herself was composed, although her eyes looked bruised.

“Through here,” Jane told Mr. Knauer and Isobel, and ran for another armful of coarse huck towels – clean ones, which she could sacrifice to bloodstains. When she carried them into the studio room, Isobel knelt by the day bed, Dolph’s slack hand in hers. “The doctor is on his way, I am certain. I think we should clean the wound, as best we can. I have sent Tom for more water. And I’ve a pot of tea brewing, then,” Jane added. As hoped, that elicited a faint smile from Isobel.

“The sovereign remedy, Jane?” For a moment, Isobel’s composure nearly broke. “He has neither moved nor opened his eyes, after that horrible blow! How cruel this is! What shall I tell my children – whatever will I do?”

“What you can,” Jane answered, firm and kind. “A single thing at a time; then another. Lottie and Mrs. Becker are in the parlor with the children – I told Lottie that she ought to take them all home, if Mr. Richter does not come for them at once … there is Tom with the  buckets. I’ll bring in some warm water.”

“Thank you, Jane – your hospitality is bountiful, even in emergencies, and so appreciated.” Now Isobel’s resolve firmed and steadied. “I am more grateful than I can say. When Sam returns, I will need him to take some messages to the Western Union office. That old man – he was a veritable bandit king, Jane. I will not let whoever survived him prey on our properties. They all must be warned at once – Seb, and Uncle Fredi and Mr. Inman … and Uncle Richter must know of this.”

“Of course.” Jane was heartened; Isobel was thinking with her mind, not merely following the erratic dictates of her heart. She hurried to the kitchen, found the kettle purring on the stove. The tea she had set to seep was a good color; in this case, the stronger the better. She poured a basin of warm water for Isobel and hurried into the parlor with the pot and a tray of cups. There she found Lottie, the children curled up beside her like kittens seeking the warmth and reassurance of the mother cat. Maggie and Caro were quiet, no longer crying; Lottie had recovered color to her face, although the pale freckles across her nose still stood out. Jane took a cup and wrapped her mother-in-law’s cold fingers around it, saying, “There now – this will do you good, Mrs. Becker.” She didn’t answer, but at least there was some life in her eyes.

Sheriff McCall took a cup with a nod of absent thanks; he was listening with deep attention to Tom explain how Old Randall Whitmire had threatened the Becker cousins over the hanging of his kin for stealing cattle in the Palo Duro all those months ago. To Jane’s vague surprise, McCall did not appear to think this of particular moment, or even that Tom had been nominated himself as a body-guard all this time. He asked a deft question or two, in that soothing Irish-tinged voice, so mild and fatherly as to put Tom entirely at ease. Finally he observed,

“It sounds like a clear case of self defense, lady; so I dinnae think you’ll hear any more about it from the city marshal or mesel’, although I will look to Mr. Richter to confirm what you have said. Ran’ll Whitmire was a wanted man, several times over; I’ve no doubt there is a bit o’ reward in the offing, for the removin’ of a public nuisance. An’ speaking o’ public nuisance, the fellows from the undertakers will be along presently for the remains o’ the late Mr. Whitmire. The city pays for buryin’ th’ indigent, y’know. Dr. Herff will take a moment, I am certain, to certify the death.”

Tom moistened his lips, looking more of his usual self. “Thank’ee, Sheriff. It’s not an easy thing in my mind, knowing I have killed a man.”

“Aye, but knowing he was well-deserving should make it aisier, then?” Sheriff McCall answered. From her chair, Mrs. Becker spoke for the first time. “He was an evil man. Justice was done,” she said, “Perhaps not as customary and as a judge would have allowed – but it has been done. And you were its instrument.”

“Just so, lad,” Sheriff McCall agreed. “Just so; I’ll take m ’leave of you all, then. ‘Tis sorry I am that this happened in our city, to as foine a man as young Becker. You’ll have as many as know him wishing well, lightin’ a candle and sending up a prayer.” Jane saw him to the door, hearing through the part-opened window in the parlor that someone else was coming up the wooden steps. It was Sam, taking them two at a time, gasping, “I found Dr. Herff, thank god – he is on the way. He said that we should take care in moving Dolph – and not to do so any more than necessary. I told him what had happened. He said that he may have to operate at once.”

Jane’s heart sank. “Here? In the studio?” Sam nodded, “He does his cutting and bone-setting wherever he happens to find himself and someone in need. Dolph couldn’t be in better hands.”

“Isobel is with him now,” Jane was braced by Sam’s confidence. “Everyone else is in the parlor – your mother, Lottie and the children. Isobel wants you to send some telegrams – and to fetch your uncle.”

In the studio the afternoon light fell softly across the floor, moved by the shadows of the feathery branches of the cypress trees which dotted the river bank. Isobel knelt by the day bed in a pool of her skirts spread around her, gently sponging the bloody gash on Dolph’s head. The only sounds within the room were the sound of his hoarse breathing and the gentle dripping of water as Isobel rinsed the towel and wrung it out.

Mein gott!” Sam whispered, as they looked from the doorway. Jane saw that he was suddenly nearly as pale as his brother – this was the first time in her memory that Sam had slipped into his childhood language in speaking to her. He looked at her, stricken. “It is like when they brought our father’s body home. Mama fainted dead away when she saw.  I had not thought of that in years. We built the coffin – Tio ‘Firio, Mr. Brown and Dolph and I – and Mrs. Brown washed and dressed him for the grave.” He turned abruptly from the door way, as if he could no longer bear the sight or the memory that it recalled so vividly. The door to the bedroom closed behind him. Jane thought of the day that her own father died, a day now cushioned and cob-webbed with the passing of many years. She recalled the desolate incomprehension, the stab of grief like a knife to the heart, how she had climbed into lower branches of the gnarled apple tree at the foot of the garden behind the store in Didcot and remained for many hours, while her mother called for her. Within the studio, Isobel lifted her head from the task. “Is Dr. Herff come?” She asked with her eyes desperate with hope. Isobel closed the studio door at her back, and answered, with careful calm. “Sam says he is on his way – he may have to perform an operation. But he will do it here. He is said to be the very best doctor surgeon in the district,”

“I know that!” Isobel seemed to choke on a brief laugh. “He was sent to attend to me, in my confinements. He is a very gruff man, but a most excellent doctor.”

“Has … Dolph shown any sign of returning to sensibility?” Jane asked, and Isobel shook her head. “I thought that he groaned once. I just don’t know…”

“Perhaps he can hear you, just a little,” Jane said. “My aunt told me once of a man having been so ill as to be thought beyond this world – but when he recovered at last, he recalled perfectly those words that had been said in his presence, in spite of not being sensible. Perhaps you should speak to your husband; your voice may hold him with us.”

“I will do that, Jane,” Isobel answered; Jane sensed she was in such desperate hope that she would indeed. “I will tell Sam to carry the message to the telegraph office,” Jane continued. “And then to the Richters’ – to tell them of what has happened, if they do not already know. This is a small town, and the hue and cry will be very great. Is there any one else that Sam should send a telegram to?”

“No,” Isobel answered. “Thank you, Jane.” She swallowed bravely, conquering her fears and uncertainty all over again. “You have been so steady and composed. I do not know how we would manage, without you, as a friend … and a sister.”

“It is my duty to the family,” Jane answered, “And to those in it who have done the like for me, since they held me in affection and esteem – and whom I also love.”

“Sometimes I fear I am not worthy of such devotion and friendship,” Isobel answered Please tell me when Dr. Herff arrives. Bring him here to this room immediately.”

Jane closed the studio door , already hearing Isobel’s low voice. In the bedroom, Sam sat on the side of the bed. He was already struggling to regain his composure. By his eyes, Jane knew that he had been weeping as well.  “There are times, Jane – when I hate this place,” he said. “Times when I wish that Opa had taken all our family to the North, instead of accepting the offer of the Verein…”

“So many wherefores and therebyes,” Jane answered. “What might you have been for this chance? A clerk in a shop in Cincinnati, or not even having been born at all? Your brother might never have come to England, married a lord’s daughter.  So many perhapses!  There is no way to chart them all. In the end, it makes no difference, anyway. Isobel wants you to send telegrams; to Mr. Inman at the Comfort ranch, to Seb, and to your Uncle Fredi; she is afraid that any of the Whitmire gang might strike at the cattle herds – or even at the ranches. You probably ought also to inform Mr. Vining in Austin. He and your brother are so very close… when that is done, fetch your uncle.” She sat for a moment next to her husband, and set her arm around him for comfort. Had it only been a single day since they were reunited at the train station, after a year apart? And only half an hour by the chiming of the bells church bells, since they had come up Houston Street? In the space of those few moments, every assumption and assurance of their lives had been upended. Now Sam leaned a little against her; there was no need for further words. At last he laughed, short and hollow, like a man facing the gallows.

“A good reason to pray for Dolph and for Doctor Herff’s skills … if my brother dies, I’ll have to set aside the painting ambitions, and take his place with Uncle.”

No – Jane wanted to cry. No; think of yourself, of your skills and talent, my dear! But she knew better than to say so. Duty bound Sam to his family and their interests, more than it had ever constrained her, even when it appeared as if she would spend the rest of her life as Isobel’s shadow. Anna Vining, and Lizzie Johnson talked sometimes of the duty that bound women in chains of silk – but their chains were as nothing compared to those which bound a man of honor.


Isobel folded a clean towel into a pad, and dabbed carefully at the blood-oozing wound; she could not bear using any but the lightest pressure for fear of causing more harm. The darkening gore matted Dolph’s wheat-pale hair together in a way horrible to look at, almost more horrible than the perceptible dent in the top of his skull.

“I cannot bear this, Dolph,” Isobel whispered. “I cannot bear that you would be taken from us like this. Not after loosing dear, darling Fa. It’s simply too cruel – and your mother; she can’t be asked to endure this again. Don’t you dare give up; not when Caro and Maggie are so little … and Lizzie might never know you at all? She will make up stories in her head, to make up for never having known her father, just like Lottie does. Don’t you dare die like this, Dolph – I won’t have it, and Uncle Richter will be furious. He will storm in here, and order you to stop this nonsense when you have the ranch to run and important matters to see to. Listen to me, Dolph – come back from wherever you have gone. Stay with us, we love you so dearly …”

She went on talking in this vein, coaxing or ordering in a whisper; Dolph lay silent, unresponsive and marmoreal-pale, save for the unnatural blue shadows around his eyes. The minutes ticked past, without change. When Jane opened the door without any ceremony at all, Isobel’s heart near leaped from her breast from relief; behind Jane loomed Dr. Herff, burly and reassuring by his mere presence. His beard was as untidy as a windblown dark haystack strewn across his magnificent waistcoat.

“The doctor’s here,” Jane announced, unnecessarily, as Dr. Herff strode into the room without a glance at any but his patient. He set down his bulging satchel next to the bed.

“How long has be been in this condition?”

“Since it happened … half an hour? No forty minutes past,” Isobel answered, and the doctor grunted noncommittally. He lifted Dolph’s eyelids, first one and then the other, studying each eye for some moments, then parted the front of his short, and listened to his heart with an oddly shaped ivory cone, with an earpiece connected to the top of the cone by a length of rubber wrapped in silk braid. His findings seemed to satisfy him.

“Has there been any sign of returning consciousness?” Dr. Herff demanded, and Isobel shook her head. “Can you do anything for him, Doctor?” she asked.

“I will operate, of course,” he answered gruffly. “There is a piece of the skull bone, you see – pressing upon the brain. Not good, of course – and there is probably hematomeous materiel pressing against the brain; such pressure must be relieved promptly. Otherwise …” the Doctor seemed to recall himself. “Recovery may be impaired significantly. I have called on two colleagues to assist me; they are military surgeons … eminently qualified but somewhat lacking in experience in performing surgery of this degree. I feel that your husband will have the benefit with persons of some skill assisting me, and they will gain some experience in observing.”

“Certainly, Doctor – whatever you need to do that will restore my husband,” Isobel agreed. “What will you need of us?”

“I think that you should leave the room during the operation,” Dr. Herff answered, still gruff but kindly. “I cannot risk a moment of distraction from what I must do – and I fear that you may become distressed. I have become accustomed – indeed, hardened – to the most revolting sights, and think nothing of them, but to allow a gentle lady to witness them … no, no, consideration for tender sensibilities urges me to take such care.”

“I believe I am made of sterner stuff,” Isobel protested, but the doctor shook his head. “No, Mrs. Becker – comfort your children, while I do my utmost for your husband.”

“Come away, Isobel,” Jane urged, helping her to her feet, and led her from the studio. “I have already promised the doctor my own assistance … he thinks me merely the wife of the householder, and thus proof against any megrims and hysterics,” she added in a whisper. “Come away to the parlor; you look nearly as unwell as Dolph.”

Isobel consented to being led away from the studio, now that Dr. Herff had arrived, tut-tutting under his breath as he continued his examination. The doctor’s very assurance was heartening. In the parlor Jane settled her onto the settee and put a cup, of tea in her hands. “I sent the boy with Lottie and the girls, to see them safely back to the Richters’.” She whispered, “But Mrs. Becker would not go with them…”

“I would not,” the older woman answered, clearly composed and recovered from the shock which had taken her. “I am well accustomed to nursing the sick and injured – and this is my son. My place is here.”

“Yes, Mutti Magda,” Jane answered. With a corner of her mind, Isobel wondered where and how by what talent Jane had come to be on such good and familiar terms with the wholly intimidating elder lady. Thinking on it, though – it was obvious; once Isobel considered it for a moment. In that same moment she envied Jane; so much better suited by background to meld seamlessly into their husbands’ family, and to be more comfortable there already than Isobel had ever been in months of seeking her way to it. Certainly, Isobel had never considered calling her mother-in-law ‘Mutti Magda.’ Mama would be horrified – and Isobel reproached herself for even caring a rap what Lady Caroline thought. There was England, and Mama’s world; I never wanted it, so why should I still care, but from old habit? Should my husband not survive – and Isobel considered this with a twist of grief in her breast – I will not return Home, and take up residence in that place that Fa left for me, against expectation of an accident like this. I cannot possibly crawl back into the strait-jacket of Society and their expectations. Not even for love of Upton and the folk there. Dolph did not want that for his girls – and where would I ever feel so free and happy again?


Jane hastily excused herself, upon hearing someone coming up the steps – Sam, breathless and panting from the run and the exertion of his errand. “Onkel Hansi is on his way,” he gasped. “The telegrams are sent – is Dr. Herff here, and what does he say?”

“He will have to operate,” Jane answered. “But I think that he is confident – he sent for two of his doctor friends to assist. I don’t know why they delay…”

“Likely they have to come all the way from the new fort, with all of their traps and gear,” Sam answered. “I see that the buggy is gone – did you manage to send all to Onkel Hansi’s?”

“All but your mother,” Jane replied, and Sam sighed in resignation. “No, Mama would remain regardless – if not to nurse Dolph herself, then to see to you and Isobel …”

They sat in the parlor with Isobel and Mrs. Becker for some time; a restless wait for word from Dr. Herff. Sam paced, unable to settle at anything, while Isobel made a pretense of occasionally sipping at a cup of tea, hardly noticing that it was stone cold. Mrs. Becker sat contemplating her own thoughts, the calmest among them. Jane took refuge in pattering back and forth between parlor and kitchen. Dr. Herff had requested that his surgical instruments have the metal parts of them dipped into boiling water, and then laid out in tidy order, on a tray lined with a clean towel. Jane couldn’t even begin to guess, thinking that it must have something to do with the doctor’s well-known fastidiousness in dealing with his patience, although to her own eyes the things looked clean enough. It was almost a relief to hear heavy footsteps on the staircase; thus warned Jane reached the door and opened it, even as the first man had raised his hand to rap upon the door panels – two men, neither of them young, nor absolutely old.  After a moment – so used was she to summoning up people – that they were actually young, not very much above the age of Sam and his brother – but that they looked older, as if several lifetimes had gone past, while they held a surgical knife and the power of life against death in their hands.  They were both clad alike, in blue uniform frock coats. Two other men in similar blue uniforms followed after, carrying an odd contraption of wood and metal between them. The first two – who had rather much more gold braid about their persons, especially on their shoulders – swiftly doffed their hats.

“Beg pardon, ma’am – is this where Dr. Herff is attending on the gentleman suffering a depressed fracture of the skull?”

“It is,” Jane answered, “And he has been waiting impatiently on your arrival … with – whatever is that?”

“Portable operating table, ma’am,” answered the first man, “If you will show us to Dr. Herff, we can get it set up in two shakes,”

“Spares us having to use your kitchen table,” the second officer explained.

“I am grateful for the consideration,” Jane answered, not being entirely certain that they weren’t making sport of her. “The best-lighted room is this way.”

Dr. Herff looked up from where he sat at the bedside; he was in his shirtsleeves, now, and barely spared a glance aside. Apparently he had been examining the wound, touching Dolph’s skull with careful fingers, for his own hands were now dabbled with smears of blood. “Ah, there you are – have your orderlies set up your marvelous contraption, gentlemen, and let’s get to work; there’s a life of a man to be saved and returned to the full usage of his limbs and intellect. The longer we delay, the more damage will be done.” He briskly outlined the nature of the injury to the two younger men, who hovered over the day-bed, utterly fascinated. “I would trouble you for the use of a pair of scissors,” he added in an aside to Jane, and when she produced them, he began clipping Dolph’s hair from around the clotted gash. That done, the orderlies had unfolded the narrow, metal-legged table and set it it before the windows, where the light was best. Dr. Herff directed the other men to carry Dolph from the daybed to the table, “We will begin, as soon as we wash our hands. It may seem to you gentlemen to be an action, of little practical use – but I have long found that scrupulous cleanliness of the surgeon’s hands and instruments reduces the occurrence of wound fever in surgical patients. I am uncertain as to why this would be so, but the practice does no harm, and in my own experience there is a positive correlation.”

Dutifully, the two Army surgeons followed Dr. Herff’s example, and Jane brought the tray of cleaned instruments to the table. Standing at Dolph’s head, Dr. Herff took up the first of them – a long-handled razor with a shining steel blade.  When he began to slice calmly into the edge of the wound, Jane suddenly felt a high-pitched kind of buzzing in her ears. The metallic smell of blood in the room was suddenly oppressive; she hastily excused herself and stumbled to the door. She rather thought no one noticed, so complete was the absorption of all those hovering around that tall narrow table in what Dr. Herff was doing.

In the parlor, the Baron sprang up from the best chair – Jane had not heard him arrive. Sam, pacing up and down, was still the closest to her. Jane gratefully allowed him to steer her to the settee, next to Isobel.

“They have begun the operation,” Jane said. “I thought I could bear to stay and be of assistance, but then I began to feel quite faint.”

“He would not allow me to remain for much the same reason,” Isobel observed. “I am just grateful that he has begun – do you know how long it will take?”

“I don’t know,” Jane answered, frowning in concentration. “He was telling the other doctors that he must lift out a broken piece of skull pressing in on the brain inside – and that there was likely blood underneath that must be allowed to drain. Once the blood drained, and the broken piece was no longer pressing down … that Mr. Becker might very well awake with nothing more than an awful headache. The doctor seemed quite cheerful … as if he did not anticipate anything but success. He also said that Mr. Becker should not be moved, until the broken bone begins to knit together again. ” Jane added. She took Isobel’s hands within her own.

“What must we do now?” Isobel asked; her voice remarkably steady.

“Wait. Until they are done … and then wait some more.” Jane answered. It was already late afternoon – and when the sun dropped behind the cypress trees, Dr. Herff would no longer be able to see as well as he needed to. The birds were already gathering in the cypress branches, swooping back and forth, chattering carelessly together. Across the room, the Baron nodded in grave agreement.




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