Smoke River Family(5)

By: Lynna Banning



 “Doctor not come,” Sam replied.

 “Oh? Why not?”

 “Go to hospital. Wife of sheriff having twins.” He grinned at her, revealing straight white teeth and an unexpected dimple in one cheek.

 Disappointment swept over her. She had worked up her courage to speak with him; now the matter would have to wait.

 “You like fish, missy? Catch fresh from river and cook quick.” Sam waited, his hands folded together at the waist of his blue knee-length tunic. “Or I cook chicken, very nice fat hen.”

 Winifred nodded. “Chicken, please.” She wasn’t the least bit hungry. In fact, her head still ached, but she knew she must eat to keep up her resolve. She could not argue her case on an empty stomach.

 “I go cook chicken.” The houseboy bobbed his head and turned away.

 “Sam, wait. When do you expect the doctor?”

 “Not know. Sometimes baby take long time.”

 “What about Rosemarie?”

 “Sam take good care of baby. Feed, rock, change and more feed.” He grinned again. “I good mother.”

 Winifred bit her lip. No one but a real mother was a good mother, she thought. She and Cissy had known that from the time her sister was barely out of diapers. That was why—never mind. Her head hurt too much to think about it now.

 After her meal of succulent chicken breast and wonderfully flavored green peas and rice, she retired to her room, listening for the doctor’s step in the hallway. Sam brought up hot tea for her headache, and the last thing she remembered before falling asleep was his queer crooning from the next room as he walked up and down with the baby.

 The next morning when she came down for breakfast, the doctor was already seated at the table.

 “Good morning,” she offered. She slid onto her chair, then glanced at the man sitting opposite her. His face was chalk-white with fatigue. Dark stubble masked the lower part of his chin and dark circles shadowed the skin beneath his eyes. His once-white shirt was rumpled and open at the neck, the sleeves rolled up to his elbows.

 He gazed at her with unfocused gray eyes as Sam bustled in with a pot of coffee. The doctor stirred three spoons of sugar into his cup while the houseboy poured Winifred’s cup full. She lifted the brew to her lips. Now. I must speak to him now.

 But he looked so completely spent she hesitated. He was in no state to hear her out.

 Sam tapped the doctor’s shoulder. “Boss want eggs now?”

 He dropped his head into a loose-necked nod.

 “Missy?”

 Winifred stared at the man across the table from her. It was obvious he was only half-awake.

 “Missy, you like eggs?”

 “What? Oh, yes, thank you.” She turned toward the Chinese man for an instant, then swung her gaze back to the doctor. His head was tipped back against the high ladder-back chair, his eyes closed, his breathing slow and even. Good Lord, the man was sound asleep!

 “Up all night,” Sam murmured. “Babies come slow.” He moved the coffee cup away from the doctor’s hand and tiptoed into the kitchen.

 Winifred stared at Nathaniel Dougherty. She could not tell him what she had come all the way from St. Louis to say. Not while he was this tired.

 In a few moments, Sam slid a plate of scrambled eggs in front of her, motioned for her to eat, then laid one long finger across his lips to signal silence. She nodded, picked up her fork and quietly devoured the perfectly cooked eggs.

 She studied the plate of toast at her elbow and lifted a slice to her mouth but could not bring herself to take a single bite. The crunching sound might wake him.

 He slept on, his breathing guttural, his chest rising and falling. Winifred drank her coffee in silence and watched him. Her throat felt tight each time she swallowed.

 A faint wail floated from the floor above and suddenly the doctor jerked awake and bolted for the stairway.

 Sam shot into the dining room and shook his head at the empty chair. “I feed baby. Doctor must sleep.” On silent black slippers he padded up the stairs after the doctor.

 Winifred couldn’t help smiling at the houseboy’s retreating back. Sam was obviously devoted to Dr. Dougherty. Perhaps he had also been devoted to Cissy. As for the doctor...

 Well, she had to admit she had been prepared not to like Nathaniel Dougherty. But since breakfast, a tiny niggle of doubt had lodged in her brain.

 “Missy like read book?”

 Sam’s voice brought her bolt upright, and her coffee cup clanked onto the saucer.

 The houseboy’s black eyes snapped with delight. “Baby sleep. Doctor sleep. Maybe you read book? We have library.”

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