Hickman, Kentucky, 7:58 a.m.
“I refuse to perform an examination under these conditions!” the doctor from the town of Hickman protested.
He swung his black leather medical bag about the campsite vigorously, silently pointing out the inadequacies of the rustic examination room. His trousers were buttoned incorrectly, suspenders dangling loosely and he wore a dingy nightshirt tucked in hurriedly. He had also layered himself with a woolen hunting coat—perhaps thinking his pilgrimage to the wreck might last until the winter months, a man truly out of his element. The strange outfit was topped off with a ridiculous stove-pipe hat with crushed sides that had been re-animated often. Bags hung beneath his eyes hinting interrupted sleep as the cause of his scrambled attire.
“I can’t buy that, Doc.” Silas fretted. “This is as good a place as any. I have seen army surgeons perform many an operation in battlefields far less obliging.”
Herc puffed nervously on his pipe, nodding in agreement. In his worried state, he had neglected to fill or even light it, but he puffed away.
Silas was building his steam, his entire body tensing as he crossed over to the medicine man.
Herc stepped in between them in order to head off Silas’ temper. “Here, now, Doctor Holloway, it was a bad idea to move our friend at the time, seeing as how he has such a high grade of fever and—”
“Oh!” the doctor interrupted, “If you have the proper medical training, why did you kidnap me down there at the wreck? You do not need me then, correct?”
“Let’s not get all peeved,” Herc said. “There was no need for your expertise down yonder, as nary a man survived aside from us three here and Sharp down there. He’s fitter than a fiddle and our friend here is the one in need of attention.”
“Hmph. It is not necessarily the conditions I am dissatisfied with–unless one of you are a direct relation . . .? A father or brother, perhaps?” He waited and received silent negative reactions from both. “In that case, I think it inappropriate to examine this young woman in the presence of a gawking male audience.”
“How . . . how did you know?” Silas asked, as the doctor’s casual unveiling of their secret forced the raging storm in his skull to squall out.
“I am a physician, but I am also not an idiot,” he replied. “I have eyes, and in one instant, I could see this was actually a young girl and not a boy.”
Silas and Herc waited none too tolerantly for some enlightenment.
“The patient here is lacking a Pomum Adami,” he said plainly, as if they spoke mumbo jumbo and knew what he was pointing out that any fool should know.
The two men looked at each other and back at the doctor as they shrugged.
He barely contained his irritation at their ignorance as he lectured on, “No adam’s apple, you dolts. Were you two unaware she was a female?” This suspicion lightened the doctor’s mood as he grinned and shook his head.
“No, Sir—I mean, yes,” Herc said, his own storm of irritation welling up. “We are accompanying her to some relatives out West and thought it best she travel as a boy, seeing as how roughly the highways of the country can treat a female.”
Silas glared at Herc with wide, angry eyes, trying to stop him from divulging any other information. Herc shrugged.
The doctor surveyed them suspiciously, “You all have some tale to tell, but does not matter a whit to me.” He shooed them away from her. “You all have lodgings nearby? We risk her health every moment we waste in these damp confines. I would suggest my offices, but I have a pair of highly contagious twins hospitalized there now and seeing as how I cannot presently ask this young lady if she has ever had measles . . .”
“We explained we are—were—passengers aboard the Lula Belle,” Silas replied. “Therefore our ‘lodgings’ were of a mobile nature and are now a sunk and burning wreck.”
“Hmph,” the doctor replied absently, for he was devoting his full attention to a cursory but thorough examination of the patient.
Herc pulled Silas aside. “What in the world are we gonna do? We take her into town and parade her through the streets, that is just more people who will see us.”
“I agree, but if her health and safety are in question, would we not be doing her more harm by keeping her from proper treatment?”
Herc took off his hat and vigorously rubbed his hand through his sweaty mop. “I recon if she falls ill and dies, we done her the worst service ever. Better her to be discovered and dragged back to St. Louis healthy than carried back in a box.”
Wordlessly, the concession had been given. Herc found his horse and came back to camp. “Doc, I am going to ride in to town and find a place for her, any guidance in that?”
He did not answer at first, for his examination was garnering his full concentration. Finally, “Hmph—What was that? Oh, yes! Find your way to Moscow Street and ask about for the home of one Mrs. Bertram Higgins. She runs a small boarding house and may have a room.”
He returned to the patient and was using both his hands to probe her abdomen through her layers of clothing.
Herc was leading his horse out of the clearing when Silas came to him—out of the good doctor’s hearing. “What are your thoughts on taking Edgar up on his offer?”
Herc weighed the idea.”As long as it ain’t too far or rough to get there. I will see how far. And if it is too treacherous for any reason, I will double back and inquire at the inn.”
“Maybe we should just ask the doc. The less people knowing our plans the better.” Silas whispered. “We’ll cross that briddge later. I will stay with her for now.”
Herc went out to the shoreline, which was a beehive of activity. Several more boats had come up to the long beach. With daylight fully upon the scene, the boats mostly parked outside the area of salvage and gawked. Only a few official craft moored nearest the wreck as retrieval of bodies—and parts of machine and man—were the main order of business.
Sharp was wrapped with a blanket and given a cup of some steaming beverage, as he held vigil over his brother and answered questions as asked. Official-looking fellows gathered around the curious survivor.
With such a buzzing about, Herc was able to circle around the scene unnoticed and begin his search for the road Edgar had spoken of.
Silas returned to the camp and sat cross-legged along the edge of the clearing, facing the woods.
The doctor continued his examination, but peppered Silas with questions about her behavior and activities over the last days, since they had joined up. Silas kept the loose talk to a minimum so as to not divulge too much about their voyage. It was a worrisome precipice he straddled, for he wanted the doctor to be armed with as much information as necessary in order to help Emma, but too much and he risked letting on about the law looking for them and why.
He recounted her demeanor and diet over their time together and went into detail about her near-drowning and subsequent rescue. He even described the methods employed by Herc to expunge Emma of the extra river water.
“That administering of alcohol was somewhat barbaric, but a wise choice nonetheless,” the doctor said, standing. “It appears she has indeed been poisoned by ingesting too much of the Mississippi. It will take some time, but I think in a proper environment and with careful watching over, she should recover nicely.”
Silas let out a heavy sigh.
“I also think there will be no damage to her child, either.”
Ingesting the first half of the news greedily, Silas had not yet processed the entirety of Doctor Holloway’s comments. Silas absently nodded, looking off into the trees. “That’s fine news, doctor, I sure—” then the rest of his words were bitten into. “Hold, now! What did you say?” He jumped to his feet and spun upon the poor physician. “She’s with child?”
“Oh, my,” the doctor said, as he stood himself and backed away from the crazed-looking fellow. His color drained to the point Silas thought the Doc may himself be needing a Doc, “I assumed you were the father . . . I assumed she told you.”
Silas stopped his approach dead, his knees buckled and he once again sat heavily by the campfire remains. He swept his hat off his head and slapped it to the ground, stirring up a cloud of fine ashes. “Why, if this just don’t burn all the biscuits!”