Valley of Shadow
When he rounded the curve and saw the bridge spanning Lodge River, Clive Bennett's sigh was a mixture of relief and dismay. In a short time, he would be back in Bordertown. It had been a long ride, but it wasn't the hours spent in the saddle that made him glad he was almost home. It was the realization his vacation would be officially over.
He sighed again. The last week hadn't turned out the way he'd planned. When his friend, Mike Aire, had invited him to Medicine Hat to meet his new bride, Clive had looked forward to the reunion. Not even Jack Craddock's dire warning could dull his enthusiasm. How the American would crow when he discovered the blushing bride had propositioned her husband's childhood friend. Rather than fight off the woman's advances, Clive had chosen to retreat back to Bordertown. Thus, he would arrive back a day sooner than originally planned. He knew Jack wouldn't let the matter rest until he found out why. Life was going to be very unpleasant for the next few days.
The mare paused before reluctantly stepping onto the bridge. Her hooves thundered loudly on the wooden planks. A flash of light caught Clive's eye. Pulling back on the reins, he focused his gaze on the area. There didn't seem to be anything. He was tempted to ignore the instinct urging him to investigate. He was tired and hungry.
A dust devil swirled by, reminding him it had been a dry summer. Though already a few weeks into September, they'd still had no appreciable accumulation of rain. Could what he'd seen be sparks from an insufficiently doused camp fire? Or a piece of broken glass waiting to reflect a ray of sun and ignite the dry tinder? As a Royal Canadian Mounted Policeman, it was his duty to prevent a catastrophe, not ignore possible signs just because he was tired.
Laying the right rein on his mount's neck, he turned the mare. They picked their way slowly through the tall grass to the edge of the trees. Here he paused to get his bearings. The flash that had caught his eye was closer to the river, he finally decided.
They'd only taken a few steps in that direction when the river seemed to explode. The mare screamed with fear and pain. As he struggled to regain control, Clive felt something tear into his thigh. A blazing fire traveled up his leg, making him feel weak and nauseous. His fingers lost their grip on the reins. He felt himself falling, but could do nothing to prevent it. He hit the ground hard, driving the breath from his body. His vision blurred as he surrendered to the fire.
Jack leaned back in his chair and put his feet up on the desk. Cradling his head in his hands, he yawned. It wasn't an expression of exhaustion, but of boredom. He'd fully expected to delight in his vacation from Bennett as much as the mountie savored his visit to Medicine Hat. Instead, Jack realized, he was counting the days until Clive's return. Who'd ever have believed such a thing would happen?
Heels clicked loudly on the wooden sidewalk. The sound carried through the open door and echoed around the room. Recognizing the distinct steps, Jack quickly dropped his feet and sat forward in his chair. Picking up a sheet of paper, he pretended to be studying its contents.
"Jack Craddock, look at this place!" Marie Dumont angrily ordered.
Perplexed, Jack obediently looked around the room. "What's wrong?"
"Wrong?" Marie softly repeated. "I'm quite sure Clive didn't leave a bowl of moldy chili on his desk." Lifting a dirty shirt with the toe of her boot, she added, "There's a place for dirty clothes. The floor is not that place."
Finally seeing the room through her eyes, Jack sheepishly admitted, "I guess I should do a bit of cleaning."
"A bit?" Marie's voice rose an octave. "This isn't a law enforcement office, it's a pigsty."
Holding out a soothing hand, Jack rose from behind his desk. "Now Marie, it's not that bad."
"It'll be interesting to see if Clive agrees with you, when he gets back tomorrow."
Craddock visibly paled. "Maybe I better tidy things up?"
"No maybe about it," Marie agreed, turning on her heel.
"Hey," Jack protested. "I wouldn't say no to a little help."
"I'm a doctor, not a maid," Marie said, smiling sweetly. "You made the mess. You can clean it up."
Jack's eyes absently followed the young Frenchwoman as she retraced her steps. Sighing unhappily, he realized he better get to work. If Bennett ever saw this mess, Jack would never hear the end of it.
Clive's unfocused eyes stared up at the darkening sky. Once the sun went down, it would get chilly. Though he knew he would have to find some kind of shelter, he was reluctant to move. He had no desire to re-ignite the fire simmering in his leg. But he also wasn't ready to give up and die. Gritting his teeth, he cautiously sat up. The throbbing increased, sending him a warning. Pausing, he breathed deeply and studied the wound in the dimming light. A piece of wood had pierced his thigh about four inches above his knee. Though it would be awkward to try to move with it in such a position, he knew he didn't dare remove it. It hadn't nicked any arteries going in or he would've bled to death by now. He might not be so lucky if he tried to pull it out.
A little over two miles of rolling tree-covered hilltops separated him from Bordertown and Marie. There was no sign of his horse. At least, he gratefully realized, if she'd been hurt, it couldn't have been badly or she'd still be around. Could he drag himself that far? Angry, he acknowledged there was no choice. No one would be worried about him yet. He wasn't expected back until tomorrow night. He didn't want to die. Not out here. Not alone.
Jack's stomach growled, reminding him it was long past dinnertime. Leaning on his broom, he looked around to see what he'd accomplished. His shoulders sagged in defeat. Hours of cleaning had barely made a dent in the mess. How could things have gotten so bad in such a short time? In his excitement before leaving, could Bennett have contributed to the disaster? The thought had no sooner entered Jack's head, then it was quickly rejected. If he couldn't convince himself of the possibility, he'd never to able to convince Clive.
Instinct told him someone had entered the office. He didn't bother to look up. If it was an old foe out for revenge, they were welcome to shoot him. In fact, they would be doing him a favor.
"How's it coming, Jack?" Marie's accented voice inquired.
A hand swept the width of the room. "You tell me," Craddock dejectedly replied.
"I see you got rid of the cultures that were growing on Clive's desk."
"I'm never going to get done in time."
Curling an arm through his, Marie suggested, "If you buy me dinner, I'll come back and give you a hand."
"I thought you said it was my mess, so I should clean it up?"
"I did, but I don't think Clive should have to suffer for your sins."
Though he was disappointed she was thinking of Bennett rather than himself, Craddock wasn't about to look a gift horse in the mouth, "You got a deal."
They were crossing the street headed for the saloon, when Jeb Wilson intercepted them. "Marshal, there's somethin' over at the stable you best come see."
"What is it, Jeb?" Craddock asked. A wistful glance strayed to the saloon before he reluctantly followed the farmer.
The older man's only reply was to shake his head and pick up his pace.
Flashing his companion a silent apology, Jack quickly closed the distance separating him from the agitated man. He wasn't surprised Marie chose to accompany them. His curiosity piqued, Jack was on the farmer's heels as they entered the brightly lit stable.
Jake beckoned him to a corner stall. "Look what Jeb just brought in."
Peeking over the door, Jack saw a bay mare. She was so covered in sweat and blood it took him a few seconds to recognize her.
"That's Clive's horse," Marie gasped.
"I found her in my north pasture, Marshal," Jeb explained. "Figured you'd wanna know right away."
His mouth dry, Jack asked, "Was there any sign of Constable Bennett?"
"I took a look around, but it was already gettin' dark. Way she's all foamed up, it looks ta me like she's run a fer piece."
"What do you think happened, Jake?" Craddock asked, entering the stall.
"Darned if I know. I'm findin' wood imbedded in some of these cuts," Jake said, offering the marshal a bloody specimen. "Luckily, none of them were very big. She should be all right."
"Thanks for bringing her in, Jeb." Craddock patted the farmer on the shoulder. "I'll take it from here."
Back peddling, Marie said, "I'll change my clothes and get my bag. It won't take me ten minutes."
Craddock gently grabbed her arm. "I thought we were going to dinner?"
"Dinner!" Her accent thickening with her distress, Marie demanded, "How can you think of food when Clive needs our help?"
"We can't help him, if we can't find him," Jack logically noted. "And we can't find him until it gets light."
Reluctantly falling into step with her friend, Marie allowed herself to be led to the saloon. "I'm going with you in the morning."
"You'll only slow me down."
"Clive could be hurt."
"If his horse is any indication, he probably is."
"Which is why I need to go."
"No," Jack contradicted, his tone indicating he would not be swayed into changing his mind, "you're not. I know enough first aid to get him back here. The faster I find him, the better chance he has."
He couldn't tell her the real reason he didn't want her along. If Clive was struck by the same debris that had injured his horse, it was possible he hadn't survived. Jack didn't want any witnesses to his grief.
Sweat streaming down his face, Clive dragged himself over to the trunk of a tree. Leaning against its rough support, he closed his eyes. From his low vantage point, he was having trouble picking up landmarks. How far had he come? How much further did he have to go? His rest periods were becoming more and more frequent. While at the same time, it was getting harder and harder to force himself to continue.
A breeze whistled through the trees, blowing against his hot face. In its wake, it left a pungent odor. Clive's eyes snapped open. Staring down at his wound, he tried to remember what he'd learned about gangrene. Blackened flesh meant the tissue was dead. This accompanied by a foul-smelling gas left the patient with only two options - death or amputation.
He shook his head in denial. His fevered thoughts desperately searched for an alternative diagnosis. There was none. He wrinkled his nose in disgust as the wind carried the odor to his nostrils. Wiping the sweat from his eyes, he stared down at the black flesh circling the gaping holes in his thigh.
What did he do now? Had he come so far, suffered so much, only to be defeated in the end?
Drawing his gun from its holster, he ran his fingers along the smooth barrel. It offered him an escape, not only from the pain, but from the future stretching bleakly before him.
Craddock angrily threw a piece of wood into the river. Even after he'd told them not to, the Jaspers had gone ahead and blown the beaver dam. From the traces of blood he'd found a short distance away, it was obvious to him Clive had gotten caught in the blast.
Leading his horse, Jack quickly followed the trail of blood to the edge of the woods. All indications pointed to a wounded animal dragging itself along the ground. Jack could only hope the animal was human and the human was Clive Bennett. Though the blood was evidence his friend was injured, it was better than the alternative he'd imagined all night long and on the ride from town.
The further he walked, the fewer traces of blood he found. Eventually, they disappeared. Though the ground was hard, there were parallel lines that could have been made by dragging boots. Continuing to follow these, Jack ultimately emerged in a small clearing. His initial relief at the sight of his quarry propped against a tree soon turned to dismay when he saw the gun in the shaking hands.
Tying his horse to a tree, he slowly approached the injured man. It amazed him that Bennett hadn't heard or felt his presence. "Hello, Clive."
Dazed eyes rose to rest on his tired face. "Go away, Jack," Bennett wearily ordered. "You came too soon."
"Looks ta me like I got here just in time," Craddock contradicted. "Let me take you to Marie."
"A doctor can't help me, now." Patting the barrel of his gun, Clive whispered, "This is the only thing that can help me."
"You're not a doctor. You can't know that."
"I don't need a doctor to know the only cure for a gangrenous limb is to cut it off."
Craddock winced as he caught a whiff of a foul-smelling odor. While he could understand, even sympathize, with Clive's despair, he couldn't stand by and let the young man kill himself. There was always hope. Taking a few cautious steps closer, he repeated, "Let me take you to Marie."
Raising his gun to his temple, Bennett warned, "Don't come any closer, Jack."
"I won't," Craddock reassured him, lifting his hands in supplication.
"Please understand," Clive begged, tears filling his eyes. "I can't live as a cripple."
"That's the fever talking," Jack argued. "The Clive Bennett I know could overcome any obstacle in his path."
"I can't fight anymore. I'm too tired." Clive sighed, shaking his head.
"Then go to sleep," Craddock urged.
A single tear rolled down a dirty cheek. "You're my friend. Will you help me die?"
"I'm your friend," Craddock agreed, taking a few cautious steps closer to the injured man.
Heavy eyelids dropped over tired blue eyes. "I'm so tired."
"Go to sleep," Jack encouraged, "I'll take care of you."
"I . . . knew . . . you . . . would."
Taking the gun from the suddenly limp fingers, Jack slipped it through his belt. He took a moment to study the ugly wound. Black flesh surrounded the wooden spear. Up close, the pungent order was even more pervasive. Jack guiltily studied the lax features of the younger man. If their positions were reversed would he want to live as a cripple? Honesty made him answer the question in the negative. His hand curled around the butt of his pistol. His arm shook as he tried to pull the weapon from his holster. Hanging his head, he finally admitted defeat. Pushing sweat dampened hair off the fevered brow, he apologized, "I'm sorry, Clive. I can't let you go."
As he crossed to retrieve his horse, Jack realized right now he would rather kill himself than the man lying helpless under the tree. He'd never thought he could be so selfish.
What lay beneath his cheek wasn't rough and hard, but soft and feathery. Was this how it felt to be in heaven? Curious, Clive slowly opened his eyes. An unfocused gaze rested on a young woman. As his vision cleared, he saw it wasn't an angel, but Marie Dumont.
His initial pleasure turned to panic, then anger. "No! I'm supposed to be dead. Why aren't I dead?"
"Careful," Marie warned, putting her hands firmly, but gently on his shoulders, "you'll tear out the stitches."
"What difference does it make?" Clive fell back onto his pillow and closed his eyes. He didn't want to see what was left of his leg. While it felt like it was still there, he knew that wasn't unusual. He'd often heard amputees talk about their "phantom" limbs. Now he knew what they meant.
Indignant, Marie snapped, "I'll have you know I did some of my best work repairing that leg."
"The butcher could've done just as good a job," Clive boorishly returned.
Sitting on the edge of the bed, Marie took one of his hands in hers. "Clive, the wound wasn't gangrenous. I didn't have to amputate your leg. In a month or two, you should be as good as new."
Opening his eyes, Clive gazed in wonder at the young woman. "I didn't lose my leg?"
"No," Marie gently replied, laying the hand she was holding on his injured thigh.
Fingers, swollen from dragging his body along the ground, curiously inspected the thick bandage encasing his leg. Grunting with the effort, he shifted. As his hand closed around his knee, he released a quivering sigh, "Thank you."
"While I don't believe your gratitude was meant solely for me," Marie smiled, looking up, "I accept for both of us." Rising, she crossed the room. "There's someone who's been extremely anxious to see you." Opening the door, she called, "You can come in now, Jack."
Hat in hand, Craddock reluctantly entered. "Thanks, Marie."
Clive stared at Craddock with a mixture of emotions. On the one hand, the man had saved his life. But he'd done so against the patient's wishes.
"Don't be too long, Jack," Marie softly admonished. "He needs his rest."
"Yes, Ma'am," Craddock uneasily agreed.
Clive waited until the door closed behind the young Frenchwoman, before starting his attack, "Did you know?"
"Know what?" a puzzled Craddock inquired.
Lifting himself up onto his elbows, Clive clarified, "That it wasn't gangrene."
"Then why didn't you do what you promised?"
"Why not?" Clive demanded, pounding the mattress with a clutched fist. "You've been trying to get me out of your hair for a long time."
"Not that way," Craddock exploded.
Dropping his head wearily onto his pillow, Clive asked, "How can I ever trust you again?"
"I wasn't worried about that at the time," Jack confessed. "I only knew I couldn't let you die."
"Even though it was what I wanted?"
Though Clive was happy to be alive, he was also deeply disappointed. While he wouldn't classify his relationship with Craddock as a close friendship, they had shared a mutual respect. Jack's actions had destroyed that.
Rolling his hat in his hands, Craddock backed toward the door, "I better let you rest."
"Yes," Clive bluntly agreed.
One hand on the doorknob, Jack paused, licking dry lips. "I know you think what I did was wrong, but try to look at it from my position. If I'd asked you to kill me, could you have done it?"
The door closed softly behind the American. Clive was too stunned to notice. Honesty finally made him admit it would be easier to live with a live Craddock's condemnation, than a dead man's trust. He would've selfishly put his own needs before Jack's. And never been sorry he did.