Walk on Earth a Stranger Page 59

“The shock could kill him,” I whisper.

“. . . heard that . . .”

“He’s going to die anyway—slowly, and in a lot of pain. If we amputate the leg, he has a chance.”

“I’ll take it. . . . Even a small . . .”

A knot of fear is forming beneath my breastbone, and I swallow against it. “What do you need me to do?”

“Be my assistant. Hand me the tools I need, when I ask for them. Do what I tell you.”

“All right.”

“Thank you. Now, go wash up—scrub with soap and hot water. Tom’ll show you. Do you have a clean shirt to put on?”

“I’m going to get all bloody! Why would I ruin a clean shirt?”

“Dr. Liston—the man who invented that splint I used— he’s shown conclusively that clean hands and clean clothes mean clean wounds, and that means less infection.”

It’s been weeks since I did laundry. “I don’t have any clean shirts.”

“You can use one of mine,” Henry says from outside the wagon. “Put it on over the other one. I’ll wash it when you’re done.”

“Thanks,” I say, relieved he doesn’t expect me to change in front of them.

“I’ve boiled some water for you to scrub with,” Tom says. “And I’ve got a fresh bar of soap.”

Jasper turns to the Major. “I don’t have any ether. It’s going to hurt bad.”

The Major closes his eyes tight. “Just . . . do it.”

I pause at the edge of the wagon. “The Joyners,” I say. “They have laudanum. Would that help?”

Jasper’s eyes widen. “That would ease things considerably.”

“I’ll be right back.”

I hop down and dash across the circle to the Joyners’ wagon. Jefferson is still curled up beneath it, snoring softly. I peek inside the bonnet. “Mrs. Joyner?” I whisper.

“Lee?” she responds blearily. “Everything all right?” Someone murmurs beside her, and she says, “Go back to sleep, darling.”

“We’re about to amputate the Major’s leg,” I tell her. “Jasper says it’s the only way to save his life. Could you spare some of the laudanum?”

She hesitates before saying, “Mr. Joyner needs it.”

Mr. Joyner must be sicker than I realized. “It would be a real blessing to the Major right now.”

A soft sigh. I hear rustling, the sound of a trunk opening, a slight thunk when it shuts again. “Here.” Her hand thrusts from the bonnet, holding a small glass jar with a cork. “Bring back whatever’s left.”

“Thank you so much.” I grab the jar. The skull-and-crossbones label gives the recommended dosage: only one drop for a three-month-old baby. Surely something suitable for babies isn’t truly poisonous?

I jog back to the college men and hand the bottle to Jasper.

“Hallelujah,” he says, popping the cork. “All right, Major, two full swallows, but no more, or that leg will be the least of your worries.” He holds the bottle to the Major’s mouth, so he can sip it. “That’s good. I need to scrub my hands again. We’ll be back in a minute, and it will be over before you know it.”

We climb down and find that Tom has set up a wash area with towels and soap and fresh water. I take off my hat and splash hot water on my face to wake up my eyes. Jasper starts scrubbing, and I follow his example.

“You ought to think about coming to San Francisco with us, Lee,” he says, rubbing suds all up and down his arms.

“Why’s that?”

“Gold mining is hard work.”

I laugh. If only he knew.

He grins. “Seriously. People work hard for gold, but they spend it easy. They might as well spend it buying services from the likes of us. Plus, I’ve seen how you look at Jefferson sometimes . . . You’re one of us. Scrub under your nails. That’s where the worst dirt hides.”

“You sound like my mama,” I say, but I clean under my nails, one at a time, making each one gleam. “What do you mean I’m one of you?”

“A confirmed bachelor. San Francisco is a new world, with more money than laws. There’s a place for us out there. To live the way we want to live, without interference.”

He looks up to gauge my reaction.

“I . . .” Tom and Henry are staring at me too, waiting to see what I’ll say.

Jasper must trust me completely to be so frank. Or maybe secrets have a way of making people so lonely that they eventually take a risk on someone.

“Do you want to get married someday?” he persists.

And never have anything of my own? “Lord, no. But . . .”

I shut my mouth. I have thought about marrying Jefferson. All because of that fool-headed proposal, which he probably wishes he could take back.

“So you’re a confirmed bachelor?” he says.

My breath feels tight in my chest. Jasper is on to the fact that I have a secret or two; he just hasn’t figured out what they are. Maybe I could trust him. Maybe I’m lonely enough to take a risk on someone.

The Major groans in the wagon, and I realize Jasper has been distracting me from the unpleasant task at hand.

“We must work quickly,” Jasper says. “Dr. Liston can amputate a leg in two and a half minutes. I won’t be that swift, but speed is of the essence. The faster we cut, the better his chances.”

It’s a good thing I didn’t stop for a bite of breakfast.

Henry returns with his best shirt. At Jasper’s instruction, I lift up my arms, and Henry pulls it on over my head, so I don’t have to touch it. Henry is much taller than I am, and his shirt hangs on me like a dress.

He steps back to check me over, and his eyebrows go up. Jasper is also studying me; a tiny grin quirks the edges of his mouth.

My heart is suddenly pounding like a herd of buffalo. I resist the urge to check whether Mama’s shawl wrapped around my chest has come loose. “Um . . . into the wagon now, right?” I say.

“Yes, of course.” Jasper climbs inside, with me on his heels. Tom helps us up by the elbows, so we don’t have to touch anything. There’s hardly room for the three of us, not with the Major stretched out.

“Stay on my right, near the Major’s head,” Jasper says. “I’ve got all my tools laid out. Knife, saw, towels, needle. Hand me whatever I ask for, but don’t touch anything I don’t tell you to. If the Major tries to jump up, you hold him down.”

“Ain’t gonna jump,” the Major slurs. His voice is less pained, thanks to the laudanum. I hope that’s a good sign.

“First, we tie down his wrists,” Jasper says, looping a rope around the Major’s wrist and tying it to a bolt in the floor. He indicates that I should do the same on the other side.

“How tight?” I ask.

“Loose enough that he still has blood flow, tight enough that he doesn’t punch me in the nose when I’m cutting through the bone. Sure wish we had leather buckles. His wrists are going to be a mite sore afterward.”

I do as Jasper asks, while he quickly ties down the Major’s good leg. He props the broken one up on a wooden box. My heart is racing, like I’m the one who’s going to be cut.

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