Thursday, July 23, 2009
As the weeks went by, Sarah and Honorea Carter began to have a pleasant, if not a bit strained, friendship. While Honorea worked to be as pleasant as a spoiled rich girl could be, Sarah worked to make things as strained as a strong willed girl like she could be.
There was little time though for much of any real playing for the girls who, along with everyone else in the group, had to help unload and load the many wagons to hoist them up and over mountain ridges or pull and push them out of mud bogs.
Not a single day went by that a wagon didn’t break down, an animal get hurt or lamed, or a member of the company come down with Cholera. Life was tough on the long arduous journey.
Half way to Fort Kearny the company doctor died of Cholera, leaving the doctoring up to the women. Mostly up to Mary who had the best supplies of ointments and treatments, and whose expertise as a seamstress made her the logical surgeon.
“It’s just got to come off,” Mary said to Percy’s wife. Percy, a member of the company, had gashed his foot with a hatchet and in spite of Mary’s ministrations had developed gangrene. Mary had worried about this from the start knowing that Percy, who was a good 50 pounds over weight and had poor circulation wouldn’t take care of the wound properly. And so she began. Her first amputation of a human body part. And she had to have Sarah assist her.
“I don’t think I can do this Mother,” Sarah said as she watched Mary cleaning her knife by holding it over the fire.
“We don’t have a choice child,” Mary replied, her voice giving way to her worry. “If we don’t remove that foot, Percy will die.”
“But, we don’t know what we’re doing Mother,” Sarah pleaded softly, her face turning gray as she walked with her mother back into the tent where Percy lay moaning in pain and fever.
“All I know Sarah, is that we have to remove the bad part and then cauterize the wound. I will do the work, and the fellas will hold Percy down, I just need you to hand me the branding iron when I call for it.”
Percy let out a howl of pain as Mary poured whisky on his wound to sanitize it, and began cutting away the putrid green flesh. Mary unconsciously wrinkled her nose while two of the men holding Percy down, fainted, and a third man ran out of the tent trying not to puke as the stench continued to fill the already steamy, stuffy tent.
At Mary’s request, Sarah brought the red-hot branding iron in and handed it to her mother who deftly held it onto the now bleeding stump where Percy’s foot had once been. The heat of the iron coupled with the reeking burning flesh caused Percy to finally, mercifully, pass-out as the remaining assistants, choking and gagging, ran out of the tent leaving Mary and Sarah alone with their unconscious patient.
“That was the bravest thing I ever saw anyone do Mother,” Sarah said, suddenly seeing her mother in a different light.
“Oh, that’s not bravery darling, that’s fear,” Mary replied wiping the perspiration from her brow. “I just kept thinking about how I would feel if that had been your father lying there and me unable to help him. I would hope someone else would rise above the terror and help him. You see, fear can cause a body to do foolish things or honorable things.”
“And what you did was honorable?”
“I hope so. Just the same, it could have been foolish. I don’t know about cutting no foot off a man. All I know is that gangrene doesn’t stop growing ‘till it gets to the heart, so it had to go. The rest is in the hands of the Almighty.”
Just then, Percy started to moan and Mary got up to tend to him. “You should go get some sleep,” she said to Sarah, “I’ll watch him for a while.”
Percy survived the surgery and recovered enough to make it to Fort Kearny where he could get rest and hopefully join another group later. Mary and Sarah never heard what became of him and his wife thereafter, but Sarah learned a lesson that would follow her the rest of her life. A lesson about fear and bravery, and how if her mother could be that brave, so could she.
Elsie marked her stopping point in the diary and lay back in bed to go to sleep. She thought of Mary and how brave she had been (even if she did deny it was bravery), and how it so impressed Sarah.
It then occurred to her, in that twilight time just as the rational thoughts of the day give way to the dream state, that if her ancestor could reach down for some guts like that, surely, she could do her public speaking class.