Chapter Seven

The next few months passed in a blur of frenzied activity. Eager to repay the kindness of her neighbors, Isabelle plied her trade of midwifery and healer with Rory often accompanying her. Through inclement weather, sunny, brisk days and even the dark of night, they journeyed throughout the settlement to nurse sick children, ease the pain of the dying and witness the joy of new life.

Rory turned the calendar to February with an anxious sigh. Despite the swift passage of time and the hectic schedule, her thoughts turned to the mysterious, still absent, Dawson more often than she cared to admit. His words about love at first sight reverberated through her dazed mind. She heard his voice, recounted every inflection and expression. She even dug through one of Isabelle's trunks and read the copy of David Copperfield that Dickens published in 1849 and 1850. And on one occasion, she asked her sister if she believed in instant love.

With a knowing smile, Isabelle had replied, "Not until I met Jon. Why do you ask, lass?"

Rory had returned her smug look with one of her own. "I read David Copperfield again."

"Yes, a splendid story. And?"

"I think it's a far–flung notion."

"Do you, lass?" Isabelle had said, and without missing a beat asked, "You believe it's impossible?"

Knowing her sister was eager to know her feelings about Dawson, Rory turned the tables. "Not until we met Jon."

Isabelle gave her another perceptive grin, leaving Rory to sort out the dilemma of her twisted emotions on her own.

On a cold night in February, when the earth fell dormant and a full moon stood guard over the night sky, sleigh bells rang clear outside their door. Jon rose from his chair near the hearth and answered the frantic pounding at the door. A cold blast of arctic air followed a stout man in.

Rory looked up from her embroidery. Bright orange wisps of hair escaped the man's woolen cap, emphasizing the white pallor of his skin and cornflower blue eyes. "Jon, I must speak with your wife right away! Jane's been laboring for hours and.…" He fidgeted with his gloved fingers, his words tumbling forth in a rush. "She's delirious from pain; I don't know how to help her."

Jon ushered him toward the hearth. "You're Hiram Miles, aren't you, son? We met the day of the barn raising."

"Yes, and my wife is Jane, a delicate little bird."

"Warm yourself by the fire, son. Isabelle is putting the little ones to bed but I'll go fetch her."

Jon returned with Isabelle in moments. Holding and twisting his wet, knit cap, Hiram's voice took on a somber tone. "It's our first child, Mrs. Caldwell. Folks 'round here say you're learned about bringing babes into the world."

"How long has she been in labor, Mister—?"

"Miles. Hiram Miles. She took to our bed early this morning." Blue eyes softened. "You met Jane the day we raised your new barn."

A veiled memory of a childlike woman standing next to a redheaded man surfaced in Rory's mind. The woman had been smitten with Sophia and Eliza that day, declaring she'd soon be joining the ranks of motherhood. "Give me a few moments to gather my supplies, Hiram, and we'll accompany you home."

Rory knew we meant Isabelle expected her to join them. While the women donned several layers of clothing, Jon hitched the horse to the cutter and loaded the seats with heavy blankets. The horses labored through mounds of snow that reached their hocks at times. On several occasions, Hiram and Jon climbed from the cutters and led the horses through a sea of white pyramids.

A log cabin, illuminated by a lonely lantern in the front window, welcomed them to the Miles' homestead. Inside, Hiram ushered Isabelle and Rory into a small bed chamber. Awash with strains of amber from oil lamps on the night tables, Rory almost missed the frail woman in the massive four–poster bed. Eerie shadows chased the dim light around the room.

Hiram knelt beside the bed and clasped her hand. "Jane, I brought help."

Amid a sweat–drenched face, soft brown eyes fluttered open and then closed as if the acknowledgment had sapped her strength. Jane reminded Rory of a wounded wren, wing–clipped and left to fend for herself against a cruel world.

Isabelle advanced toward the bed and placed a palm to the woman's forehead. Her voice a thin whisper, she didn't bother to turn around. "Jon, take Hiram into the kitchen. I'll need a large tub of hot water and strong, black coffee."

Rory sensed her sister's dismay. The coffee wasn't for Jane, or them. Isabelle wanted Hiram out of the room while she worked.

"Lass, dig through my satchel for the white willow and burdock and then search for clean linens.

Rory retrieved the medicine bag Isabelle placed on a chair upon entering the room and rifled through the contents. "Found the willow and burdock, now what?"

"There's a pitcher of water on the bureau. Pour a glass of water and add three pinches of each."

Rory brought the concoction to Isabelle when she completed the task. "What will this do for her?"

"Cut the fever and the pain. Help me lift her shoulders high enough to get it down her throat."

Spasms of chortled coughs followed the liquid down. Easing her down to the pillow again, Rory looked up. "I'm off to search for the linens if you can spare me."

"Go on, lass, and hurry. We don't have much time."

With an arm load of cotton sheets, Rory returned to the room to Isabelle's quiet voice near the woman's ear. "Jane, can you hear me?"

Garbled words spilled forth, none sensible.

Rory gasped. "Isabelle, blood, it's everywhere. Look at the sheets!"

Isabelle swiveled her neck toward the bed. "Dear, God."

The crimson's stains fanned out on the white sheets like ripples in the water. Rory's stomach somersaulted. "Do something . . . anything."

"I think we're too late. Her pelvis is narrow and the babe is lodged in the birth canal, probably for hours now."

Rory hugged her elbows. "Is she going to die?"

"I have to get the baby out. If I don't act now, we'll lose them both."

Isabelle crawled onto the bed between Jane's legs and her arms disappeared beneath the linen. Mournful wails split the air in the silent room. Bile rose in Rory's throat. Until now, never in her life had she longed to evaporate like mist. Her heart ached for Isabelle and the woman emitting the gut–wrenching screams.

Jon's voice came to Rory through a tunnel. "Don't open that door, lad. They're doing everything they can to help her."

Isabelle drew in a gulp of air, pushed it from her lungs and drove in deeper. "I feel the baby's head now. I need a shoulder, an arm. Dear, God, help me."

"Is the child alive?" Rory asked over the pitiful groans from Jane's lips.

"I don't know."

The child emerged, reminding Rory of a slippery eel. "It's a boy! Is he breathing?"

"Praise the Lord, he's breathing."

Feeling faint, Rory clutched the nearest poster of the bed. Blood seeped between Jane's thighs like a scarlet river. She'd never seen so much blood. The taste of rusty metal spiraled up her nose.

"Take the baby, Rory, wrap him in something warm."

"Her face is the color of gun metal." Rory took the child with an anguished sob.

Still on her knees, Isabelle leaned over Jane's lifeless body and placed two red–stained fingers against her throat. "We lost her, lass. She's gone." She clasped her hands together, said a silent prayer, climbed from the bed and collapsed into a chair.

"What will I tell Hiram?"

"You did everything you could."

"Except spare Jane a wretched death."

Rory took a last look at the woman. She looked serene, peaceful. If one hadn't borne witness to what passed moments before, they might think she'd drifted off into blissful slumber. Except for the blood. "You can't bring Hiram into this room until you remove the bed linen."

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