“Gentlemen, we have a crisis. Engineering, what seems to be the problem?”
“We are having an overheat in the control circuits of the inertia dampers. The longer we are in hyper-drive, the more force it takes to move us. If we continue to move as we have been trying, the system will completely melt down.”
“Repairs will take how long?”
“I’m afraid we don’t have the spare parts. This is one of the five systems that are considered to be worry-free. No allowances were made for this type of problem.”
“Can we build the components we need?”
“Unfortunately, the problem lies in the yttrium-based semiconductors. These are the components that are considered fail-proof. We do not have enough yttrium, or the means to process it.”
“If we wait here for another ship, will we have enough fuel and hydroponic supplies to hang on?”
“Certainly not enough hydroponics.”
“Nor enough fuel.”
Then we need a place to go. Engineering, how far can we get, and how long will it take us to get there?”
“If we take short enough hops, we can last about ten light-years before it fails completely. It will take us about two weeks.”
“Then we will take even shorter hops, and accept three weeks as our target time. Navigation, what do we have within ten light-years?”
“Only two stars, sir. One is a trinary with several lifeless planets. The other is called Flonstola. It is on the black list.”
“The trinary is not a good choice. Why is the other on the blacklist?”
“They never reveal that to mere lieutenant commanders, sir.”
“Nor to ship’s command personnel. They only stress the importance of not going there. Is there anything unusual or unhealthy about the radiation from this Flonstola?”
“Perhaps there is something dangerous about one of its planets?”
“I do not know, Mayor. They do not even say whether it has any.”
“Odd. I thought that kind of pertinent information was provided on all stars.”
“Yes, Captain, all but the black-listed ones.”
“Do you suppose there may be intelligent life there that they don’t want us in contact with?”
“Why would they not just say so, instead of hanging this veil of ignorance?”
“Good question, Alderman. It looks like we have two options then. Either we sit here and die slowly, or go to Flonstola and maybe die quickly.”
“But it is only a maybe, is it not? Perhaps we can solve the mystery of this place and find a way to survive. It is at least better than doing nothing. If we’re going to die, we can at least have something to keep our minds occupied.”
“Well said, Mayor, and totally in keeping with the spirit of this mission. Everyone discuss it with your departments. Mayor, spread the word to the colonists. Unless I get some reasonable objection by morning that is where we will go.”
“I say we have no choice. We have to move on.” Henessey’s voice was growing louder each time he spoke. Clearly there was no way he was yielding.
And the strength of his reasoning was also pretty convincing. If the group didn’t reach the Snake River soon, they would get caught in the high country’s November snows. Their provisions were too low to survive a winter in that barren land, and one early storm would slow them until the snow was too deep to move at all. There was also evidence of Indian hunting parties in the area that weren’t the local Arapaho.
But Doc Williams stood his ground. “Jennie has complications. Cesarean is the only thing that’s going to save her or the baby. And she won’t be able to take the pounding of a wagon moving for several days after.”
He wasn’t saying anything that he hadn’t repeated at least fifteen times by now, and they also knew that he felt she had one more day at the most. But Henessey was making the stronger case, based on pure practicality. The doctor was speaking only out of compassion for the Mackeys and their baby. Will was a good man, and had the respect of the entire train, but Doc Williams was asking them to face starvation and death to save one member of the group, who would then starve along with the rest by February.
By now, dark had fully settled itself down for the night, and the group’s fire was starting to leave the outer ring of people feeling the chill that was common in high altitudes at night. Johnson knew he had to end this conversation and get to a decision. He rose to his full, lanky, six feet, and his gravelly southern drawl started even before his pants cleared his log. “It’s pretty clear to me that we’re not going to come to a decision we’re all happy with, so as the wagon master, I suggest we simply vote on it.”
Henessey started them wrangling over how the vote would be counted. He knew that some of the women folk would come down on the side of compassion. After twenty-five minutes, he had it down to one vote per wagon, giving himself the best chance of victory. For a short, scrawny little man, he was a powerfully strong debater. Will Mackey found himself wondering if this was the result of having to constantly deal with bigger and stronger men in everything he did. He also found himself wishing that he had let his brother Mike buy a separate wagon of his own. Not that one wagon was going to make much difference.
Twenty-one wagons voted to move on. Three men, trying to stay out of trouble with their wives, abstained. Johnson, Doc Williams, Mackeys, and Oly Thorsen, who had lost his wife to Indians on the trip, all voted to stay. Before the vote was over, Jennie Mackey had started to weep, her bulging stomach heaving painfully with each gasping breath.
Doc Williams was at her side before the third moan, muttering about the callousness of man, and spitting out in the general direction of the meeting. Mike and Will had noticed from the first day they met him that he had the mannerisms of their grandfather, crotchety and brusque, not common in most men in their early thirties. Yet like their grandfather he was also gentle, soft and caring behind the gruff, opinionated persona. While the group plotted their desertion, he stayed at her side, working to calm her and bring her back to reason.
But it soon became obvious that there was no more time. “Mike, find your brother,” he yelled out the opening at the back of the wagon, “and be quick about it.” Looking back to Jennie, he started in again with the softness of the experienced bedside physician. “Now calm down girl, everything will be just fine.”
Jennie sucked up a breath and gained control of her lungs and lips just long enough to ask, “Why do you need Will?”
“Because it’s time, girl. You want him to miss the birth of his first-born child?”
Eighteen years was not enough to prepare her for the fear of childbirth, and now she had the guilt of endangering her family and destroying her husband’s dreams. The wail that proceeded from her froze everyone in camp dead in their tracks. The guilt they bore for deserting her was suddenly apparent on the faces of all of them, even if only for a brief moment. Henessey broke the ice in full form, “Shut her up before she drags them injins down on us!” in his loudest voice yet.
Will broke through the front opening just as her last scream was ending. “It’s time,” Doc Williams said before he could catch a breath. “You need to find a kettle of about four or five gallons and boil a full pot of water.” Will rummaged through the stores on the outside of the wagon for a minute, then ran full out to the nearby stream, his anxiety as evident as the sweat that suddenly broke out on his face.
“You are a cruel man,” said Amanda Williams, who had been watching unnoticed from the back end of the wagon for some time now. “How long will you keep him at the fire this time?”
“Long enough to keep him out of my hair! Are you going to be useful, or just stand around and aggravate your husband, as is your usual wont?” Doc waited a moment before looking up at the hazel eyes and long auburn hair that still distracted him every time she was around, even after nine years. “Have I told you today how beautiful you look?”
Amanda smiled and went around front to enter the wagon. After four months, she still hadn’t found a way to enter from the back gracefully and so always climbed into the wagons from the front. “Why don’t you just send him hunting or something?”
Having rested a bit, Jennie began sobbing softly. Now Amanda took over the comforting duties. “Rest, dear, you’ll get the baby all worked up.”
Jennie looked up and asked weakly, “What’s he doin’ to my Willy?”
“Nothing, not really. Will needs something to do to feel useful and to take his mind off of what’s happening, and Andrew just wants to keep him busy without going too far away. Everything’s fine now, dear.”
Jennie tightened suddenly as the first contraction hit. Fear rose up afresh in her heart and her eyes. Before she could start the screaming and crying, Amanda started the soothing babble that she had practiced over the nine years of being a doctor’s wife. Doc Williams knew instinctively that she was signaling him about Jennie’s contraction.
“I’ll be right back,” said Doc as he headed out the front of the wagon. He moved swiftly now, as Jennie’s condition would soon demand his total attention. He had been making sure for the past few days that his wagon was behind Mackeys’ every night, so he had to walk no farther than the length of the wagon’s tongue. Climbing up the first step of the side ladder, he reached under the back of the seat and pulled out his black leather bag. Then he rummaged around inside the front of the wagon until he found a small alcohol lamp and a bottle of rubbing alcohol. Back inside Mackey’s wagon, he cleared a spot and set up the lamp. Lighting the lamp, he made sure there was nothing that was likely to disturb it, or to catch fire from it. He carefully removed a scalpel and some surgical needles. Then he stopped to check with Amanda.
“How’re we doing here?” he asked as casually as he could pretend to be.
Jennie sensed the tension in his voice and began to panic anew. “My baby’s in trouble, isn’t it? We’re both going to die, aren’t we?”
“Now, where on Earth did you get an idea like that? I’m not going through all of this just to have my patient dead from that which God designed her to do!”
“Elisabeth died and now I’m going to die.” Suddenly Jennie seemed to surrender to her own death, as though it were the only thing left to do.
Amanda cut in before Doc could get a chance. “Who’s Elisabeth, dear?”
“Mike’s wife. She died trying to have a baby and now I will, too.”
Doc held the scalpel over the lamp for a minute, then poured a little alcohol on it to remove the carbon. “Well, I wasn’t there to help this Elisabeth, and I suspect her doctor wasn’t either.” He laid down the scalpel on a clean, white towel and used a pair of tongs to repeat the procedure with two of the needles.
Will came up the front of the wagon holding a kettle by the bail with a pot holder. “Here you go, Doc.” A big smile crossed his face.
Doc Williams worked his way around past the women to the front of the wagon, reached out a hand, then stopped. “That’s not boiling!”
Will looked at the water and got a confused look on his face. “Well, it was when I took it off the fire!”
Amanda had to turn herself away and face the back of the wagon so Will wouldn’t see her trying to swallow her laughter.
“Well, it isn’t now! I need it to be boiling!”
Will opened his mouth, but before he could speak, Jennie hit a contraction and let out a moan. Will instantly forgot whatever it was he had wanted to say and stared at his suffering young bride.
“Well, don’t just stand there, get me some boiling water!”
Will clambered down clumsily, spilling a little of the water, and headed back to the campfire.
It would be about four minutes until the next contraction, and Doc Williams knew that would have to be the time when he made the incision. Amanda had managed to get Jennie’s dress up out of the way and clean cotton sheets under and around her. Doc took a few seconds to feel the girl’s stomach. Fortunately, this was her first. That, combined with her fear, would hold up a natural delivery for sixteen hours or more. Now he was not rushed in preparing for the cesarean.
Jennie heard Will outside letting out a curse as the water quit boiling again. She still couldn’t understand why Doc Williams was doing this. Only a look was needed to ask the question.
Amanda answered for him, “It’s only meant to keep him out of the way, dear. God just didn’t design men to be useful at times like this.”
Will had been joined by Mike now, and a conversation was under way, too quiet to be comprehended from inside.
Doc Williams made one last examination of Jennie’s stomach. The baby was not moving, something it should be doing. It was also breech.
“Jennie, I want you to listen very carefully.” Doc’s voice was suddenly very stern, and Jennie snapped to full consciousness at the sound of it. “When the next contraction comes, you will have to try very hard to relax and not move. There will be an extra pain move through you, but it will be normal. Do you understand me? You mustn’t move.”
Jennie smiled weakly and said, “Will it help my baby?”
Amanda stroked her forehead and smiled back. “Yes, it will make all the difference in the world.”
Doc had his needles threaded and the thread soaked in alcohol. This was probably as close to sterile as even Miss Nightingale could get it out here on the prairie. He was ready and was moving back to Jennie’s side, scalpel held down out of sight.
The contraction came, and both Williamses were ready. Amanda squeezed both of Jennie’s hands and locked her gaze on Jennie’s fear-filled eyes. Doc laid his right middle finger on the right side of Jennie’s abdomen, with the blade of the scalpel resting just above the surface. He counted in his head to three, took a deep breath, and lowered the blade. Before the young girl realized what was happening, he had slit her midway between the navel and pelvis, from side to side.
Just then, Will swung the kettle of hot water through the front opening, said, “I’ll be right back,” and disappeared without even looking at what was happening.
Jennie was distracted by her husband, and Doc took advantage of this to reach into her open womb. Now he could see what the baby’s problem was. Lifting carefully, he unwrapped the umbilical from around the frail thing’s arm and twisted the baby around to where he could get the cord loose enough to untangle it from around the neck. While he was working it around, he got a chest full of urine. “Yep, looks like a boy.”
The pain of the incision was getting to Jennie, and she was sobbing too hard to hear him. Just then, Will came back in with a shovel full of rocks. “Here you go!” he shouted triumphantly. He poured the rocks into the kettle, spilling hot water everywhere. The heat of the rocks, fresh from the fire, set the kettle to boiling furiously for about five seconds. He looked up just in time to see Doc Williams sever and tie off the cord.
There was blood and birth water everywhere. Doc slapped the infant’s rump, set the crying child on a blanket on the sideboard, and wrapped it. Then he reached for the umbilical cord and began coaxing the placenta loose. That was all Will’s constitution could handle. He was suddenly overtaken with dizziness, stepped back, and fell over the front seat of the wagon. His right shoulder hit the tongue, spinning him onto his left arm with severe force. He lay motionless, with tears streaming from his eyes, as the pain swept over him.
Mike, who had been standing next to the steps, was there instantly. “Doc,” he yelled, “I think he broke his arm.”
“Wonderful, just wonderful! Amanda, can you get down and look at what that fool boy has done to himself?”
By the time Amanda reached the ground, Johnson, Oly Thorsen, and Jim Alstead, one of the scouts, had all been aroused by the ruckus, and were on their way to the scene. Amanda took one look at the twisted forearm, and knew immediately. “Yes, Andrew,” she said loudly enough to be heard over Jennie’s crying, “I’d say it’s definitely fractured.”
“Well, hold him still until I get finished here.” Then in a lower tone, Doc Williams said, “I can see this will be a long night.” He continued to work and mumble to himself for another few minutes. After finishing the last stitch, he dipped a cloth into the kettle of hot water and wiped his hands off. Squeezing Jennie’s hand, he smiled and said “Now you know why I wanted him to boil water. He’s the first to actually get it to boil in front of me, though. I’d better go down and patch him up. Amanda can handle the rest of your needs.”
Jim Alstead had already rustled up three good size sticks and a couple of bandannas to use for a splint. Doc got to the ground and sent Amanda up to tend to the new mother and child.
“I’m sorry, Doc,” whimpered Will. “I guess it just got the better of me.”
Doc Williams talked as he surveyed the arm and the makeshift first-aid supplies. “Well, I’d say you definitely topped off your evening nicely. You managed to break both bones in your forearm. You also were the first to think of hot stones. Where’d you learn that trick?”
“It was Mike’s idea,” said Will.
“It seemed like a simple enough problem,” added Mike. “You just needed some way to bring the heat to the wagon without catching it on fire. I didn’t know you’d go and get yourself all tore up, though.”
Doc Williams was ready to work, and cleared the other men out of the way. He spoke slowly and clearly to Will. “I’m going to lift this arm and set these bandannas under it. Then I’m going to arrange the bones as close as I can to where they are supposed to be. Lucky for you, they didn’t pierce the skin. You will have to relax and hold yourself absolutely still. Is that clear?”
Will closed his eyes and nodded. Doc Williams figured that was as good an answer as he would get. He lifted the arm carefully and signaled to Jim to pull the bandannas in place. He set Will’s arm in place over the bandannas. Then he gently worked the bones in to where they felt as good as he could tell. He looped the first bandanna a full turn around one stick. Then he lined the stick up along the upper side of the ulna. He wrapped the other bandanna around the other end of the stick. Picking up the second stick, he noticed in the lantern’s light that it had been whittled down to the proper length, not just broken off. He laid it in a similar fashion along the radius and wrapped it with the bandannas, adjusting it as he pulled them tight. Setting the third stick along the underside, midway between the bones, he made his third set of loops, and tied the loose ends together. When he was done the bandannas lay tightly against the arm all the way around, with the sticks holding the bones in line from the outside.
He looked up at Jim and asked, “Did you carve those sticks while you were waiting for me?”
“It looked like you were gonna be a while,” replied Jim, “so I measured them up whilst we had the time.”
“I take it you’ve been around broken arms before,” said Doc.
“You learn a lot of useful things, trapping beaver for a living.”
By now it was after two in the morning. Amanda had the wagon pretty well cleaned up and was showing Jennie how to nurse. Jennie’s joy had overcome the pain and she was smiling weakly, beaming with pride. When Doc stuck his head in, she looked over and smiled. “It’s a boy.”
Doc Williams made a brushing gesture against his damp shirt and grunted. “I know.”
Jennie let out a shiver. “I’m really cold, Doctor Williams. Am I dying?”
Amanda tapped her lightly on the arm and smiled. “Now Andrew already told you he wasn’t going to let that happen. No, dear, it’s a normal thing. You’ve been through a lot tonight and your body’s having trouble making the adjustments. By morning you’ll stop having contractions and start feeling better. For now, I’ll lend you a couple of extra blankets.”
It took about another hour to settle in, and another hour after that for Will’s exhaustion to be stronger than the throbbing in his arm.