Too Late to Say I'm Sorry
by Carol Pahl
Somewhere north of Cedar City, Colorado
"Poppa, I think he's wakin' up!"
The young woman danced from foot to foot, a huge smile decorated her round face. Waist length, shiny, black braids swung from each side of her head.
She tenderly touched the injured man's bare arm. A gray tinged bandage wrapped around his chest while a matching cloth wound tightly around his swollen upper left arm. The woman's callused fingertips scratched his inner arm as she licked her lips.
The long dark eyelashes fluttered and small slits appeared between the black and blue eye sockets. He opened his mouth and sucked in the warm air, trying to climb above the throbbing pain in his arm. His tongue gingerly ran around the inside of his cheeks, feeling the shredded skin.
"Daisy! Girl! What yah doin' in here? I told yah ta stay out. Ain't proper yah seein' an unclothed man."
"Oh, Poppa. Stop treatin' me like a child. I'm as old as Momma was when she got hitched. How many fellows you see coming round here, offering their blanket?"
"Hush up! Don't be talkin' so vulgar; yore mama would be ashamed, hearing yah carrin' on so."
Daisy glared at her father, daring him to order her from the room. She was seventeen. She'd watched the livestock and wild animals that lived in the forest near the small cabin. Why did she have to wait, when there was a gorgeous, though injured, man lying naked in her bed?
"Go get him some of that broth while I check our guest," he said, emphasizing the last word.
The deep base voice soothed the panic JD felt upon waking in the strange bed. The man's large hands gently pulled the cloth from his arm. Crusty edges of the scab stuck to the bandage, reopening the oozing wound. JD jerked, unable to stop the knife-like pain shooting through his shoulder and up to his brain. Gasping for a deep breath, he panicked when his throat closed, like a giant hand squeezed his airway.
"Settle down, boy. This is gonna hurt some but ya'll feel better when I'm done."
The man grabbed the tin cup sitting next to the bed and held the cool metal to JD's lips. Warm water bathed the cracked and chapped skin. Slowly, the strange man tipped the cup and JD drank eagerly.
"Whoa now. Too much'll make yah sicker den yah already is. That's it, nice and slow. My Daisy went to git yah some soup."
As the injured man started to open his lips to speak, Daisy's father put two dark fingers on the tender flesh.
"We can all git acquainted later." Raising his voice he called out to his daughter. "Girl, yah makin' that broth?"
JD watched the young woman enter the small room, an earthenware bowl carefully carried in her hands. He tried to scoot back on the soft rustling mattress but hissed in pain when he put pressure on his injured arm.
The room filled with black spots and the once clear voice faded into an annoying din. Large hands grabbed him and effortlessly positioned him and the room came back into focus.
"None of that, young man. I didn't spend all that time patchin' yah up just to have yah mess up my tendin'."
'When did Nathan get here? I'm gonna be alright, Nathan is here,' JD thought. The aroma of the warm broth near his nostrils encouraged JD to open his eyes. He looked around the tiny, dimly light room. Where was Nathan? He was just here, wasn't he?
The spoon touched his lips and, instinctively, he opened his mouth. The delicious liquid soothed his anxiety as it slid down his throat. He ate several more spoonfuls before the need to sleep overtook his mind. Safe, he was safe because Nathan could fix anything.
A strange glow lit the small cabin room while a fine cold mist settled on his exposed skin. JD looked around the room, remembering Nathan tending to his injuries. He pulled his bare arm under the rough blanket and pulled the covers up to his chin. The moisture continued to fall on his face, the cold sending slight shivers through his body. Trying to snuggle deeper in the covers, the young man jarred his injured arm. The pain brought him wide awake and a moan escaped.
He searched the room, trying to discover a clue as to where he was. Something moved in the darkness beyond the little lamp's light. The sound of metal against metal rumbled in the small area. The small squeak grew in volume as the dark shape moved into the doorway.
"Thought you might like some more broth, son," said a familiar baritone voice.
The shape maneuvered closer to the bed and offered a spoonful of liquid. "Eat some and then we'll talk. Don't want yah wearin' yoreself out 'fore I git some food in yah."
JD drank the offered broth and felt warmth radiating from his belly. Though injured and lost, he felt safe in this man's home, safe from the elements and safe from dangerous humans.
"Sorry ta disappoint yah, but I'm Oscar. Can't say I know the Nathan yah keep askin' after. I found yah up on the mountain. Barely saw yah with the snow coverin' yah."
"What happened to the car?"
"Car? Didn't see no car, just you. No way any vehicle kin get to where I found yah. Yah must have walked a ways, though the way your ankle's swollen, I doubt yah traveled very far on it."
"I need to get back to Denver. Folks'll be worried about me." JD mumbled.
"Got us an old-fashioned March blizzard, son. I'll have Daisy ride you out to Whistleville soon as yah kin travel."
"JD. My name is JD."
The older man reached out his huge hand and shook JD's. "Mighty pleased to meet yah, JD. Yah go back ta sleep, now. In the morning, we'll talk some more."
-- M - 7 --
"Poppa's making you some breakfast. We already ate. I'm Daisy. Poppa said your name is JD. I've never met anyone with a name made of letters. Course I ain't met all that many folks, stuck up here."
"Girl, quit your prattling. Give our guest a chance ta wake up before yah wear him out with yore chatter. Gotta forgive my Daisy. We don't have many visitors, especially during the winter months, it's just her and me. I want ta change yore dressin' 'fore yah eat."
The large dark skinned fingers rested gently on the pale forehead. The man's eyes closed and he frowned. "Yore runnin' a fever. Got a know, son. The law huntin' you? I don't need a bunch of badges showing up on my doorstep."
The young agent looked up at his benefactor, choosing his words carefully. "If the law is looking for me, it's because I got taken during a robbery. I wasn't the one holding up the store."
"Ya got a bullet in yore arm, that's where the fever's coming from. I stitched up da forehead and put a splint on yore ankle. Cleaned yore back, where the bullet cut a gully fore it entered yore arm. I kin do lots of healin' but digging bullets out of human flesh, that's where I draw the line."
"Appreciate all you've done." JD's eyelids drooped closed.
"Need to eat, keep up your strength."
JD sighed, "Ain't hungry, too hot."
-- M - 7 --
"Poppa, why ain't he waking up? What's the matter with him?" Daisy stood beside the small bedframe and stared at the fevered guest who hadn't been coherent since the previous day.
Oscar rested on his crutches and sighed. "He needs that bullet dug out, needs a real doctor tendin' to 'im. Snows meltin'. If'n me and you git him tied on the mule, you'll ride him down to Whistleville, get him to that doctor's clinic."
"Me? You want me to go to Whistleville by myself?" The young woman shook her head. "I ain't never been there by myself. Them folks like to stare. No way!"
"Then he'll die. We'll hide him in the barn till we kin dig the garden and bury him there. Girl, yah know as well as I do, that we cain't have no law pokin' their noses around here. If'n I go ta town there'll be too many questions. Neither Mule and Tonk kin handle two riders."
Daisy looked at the injured man and realized her father was right. Would someone come looking for him, once the weather warmed up? They couldn't risk keeping the body or marking a grave.
"Guess I'd better go find some rope." She pulled on her warmest jacket and left for the barn, mentally designing a harness to hold the nearly unconscious man on the old mule's back.
JD tossed in the bed, the fever burning the life from him and soaking the coarse bedding. The injured arm swelled with infection, sending poison into the young man's bloodstream, while random recognizable words, mixed with incomprehensible gibberish, tumbled out of his mouth between gasps for air. "Casey, Buck, so sorry, so sorry."
-- M - 7 --
"Tie the strap around that leg," Oscar instructed. The two worked to secure the injured man in the saddle.
"Don't seem right, Poppa. If'n Mule decides to run, he'll be trapped."
"Can't take the chance him fallin' off. Yah won't be able to git him back on Mule."
JD lifted his heavy head and forced open his swollen eyelids. The crisp spring air cooled his fevered skin. He inhaled the fresh mountain smells, the evergreens perfume competed with the musky odor of wet earth. He felt hands on his legs and jerked. "What the..?"
Resting a large hand on the younger man's thigh, the man's deep voice cut through the fog. "Whoa, boy. Securing yah to the saddle. Getting' yah to a real doctor."
Gently touching the fevered face, Oscar soothed. "Packin' yah out on my mule. Daisy'll git yah to Whistleville. You ever ride before?"
JD nodded his head, "I can ride."
"Glad to hear that. Dem straps'll help hold yah in the saddle."
Daisy, on the old horse, lead the way. A lead rope, tied to Mule's bridle, pulled the other cantankerous animal. Unable to fight the pain, JD's chin rested on his chest. With his left hand secured tightly to his side, his right hand rested on the saddlehorn. Instinctively, his thighs held him in the saddle.
The cool mountain air lowered his fever and gave his mind a chance to clear, but everything seemed jumbled. One minute Nathan tended him, the next, a gentle stranger carefully helped him. Mile after mile, he struggled to remain upright in the seat but the adrenalin rush wore off and his injured body went limp.
Daisy approached the small medical clinic, hoping the office would be open. She'd never met the doctor nor liked to visit the little town. Tying the two animals to a stair railing, she untied the ropes binding JD in the saddle.
"Come on. I gotta get yah inside. Yah gotta help me. I cain't carry you." JD slipped off the mule and grabbed the saddle with his good arm as he waited for the ground to stop rolling. Daisy snagged his belt and put his good arm around her shoulder.
"Umph. Glad yah ain't no bigger," she grunted, half dragging him toward the clinic door. "Yah gotta help me, JD. I can't carry yah up these stairs."
The young man opened his eyes and tried to support his own weight. Barely conscious, he concentrated on putting one foot in front of the other.
Together the pair made it up the two steps. She leaned him into the wall beside the door and reached for the doorknob. It turned and she sighed. Someone was here, someone who could help JD.
"May I help you?" asked the voice of the high-pitched receptionist.
Supporting most of the man's dead weight, Daisy spoke slowly and she hoped, clearly. "He's got a bullet in his arm. He needs the doctor."
The older woman helped sit JD in a chair, where his head could rest against the wall.
"I'll need you to complete some paperwork. His name is?"
Daisy's eyes grew large. Poppa never said anything about this. All she was supposed to do was get the injured man to the doctor and hightail it home.
Raising her hands, she backed away, eyeing the door. "He's JD. We, I, well, I found him, hurt. I gotta git, 'fore the sun goes down."
A hand grabbed her arm and she screamed in terror before bringing her free hand around, her fist ready to punch whoever grabbed her.
Another hand stopped her mid-swing and a voice yelled "Stop!"
"Let me go. I gotta go. Let go!"
"I'm holding you for the sheriff, young lady." A man, dressed in a white coat held her arm.
A loud thump echoed through the room as JD's body tumbled to the floor. Three sets of eyes turned to the fallen man.
Overcoming her terror, Daisy yelled, " What kind of doctor are yah? Help him. He's been shot and he's burning up. Poppa said yah'd help him."
The doctor and receptionist lifted JD's limp body into a wheelchair. Before pushing him to the examination room, the doctor turned to the older woman, pointing at the cringing girl. "Keep an eye on her. Sheriff sent out a bulletin about a dark haired man and Indian girl who robbed a bank down in Rifle. The male was shot." Glaring at Daisy, he added, "I'll tend your boyfriend's wound, just until the law gets here for both of you." He turned sharply and strode from the room.
Surprised by the doctor's rude and rough behavior, the receptionist guided Daisy to a chair near her desk. "He's just doing his job. The sheriff'll get everything straightened out."
"Please, yah gotta let me go. I need ta git home 'fore dark. Neither of my animals kin go very fast."
"You rode here on horseback, holding him?"
Daisy shook her head, "No, tied him in the saddle but he did a good job of using his legs to hold on, too."
The young girl looked at the closed door of the examination room. One moment she'd been too slow to get JD help and the next minute she wished she'd never brought him to town. Now her father's life depended on the decision she made.
Poppa tried so hard to stay away from other people, never making friends with the white residents in the remote area because he didn't want anyone else hurt because of his past. Was his fragile quest for freedom about to evaporate? Oscar grew up in poverty in Fort Worth, Texas, and joined the Army to escape the endless cycle of welfare perpetuated in his neighborhood. Military officers recognized his sharp mind and natural leadership ability. Though he was a large man, standing over six feet tall, he held a respect for life and learned many healing skills at the side of the base surgeon, earning him the nickname 'Doc' by his fellow soldiers. The military, though denying the existence of prejudice, still segregated whites from blacks.
Oscar served in Vietnam before transferring to Fort Reilly in Kansas. Putting natural leadership skills to work, the man started a twenty-year career. Part of the time he trained new recruits, making them into Army material and the rest he traveled to world hot spots like Kuwait and Bosnia. His orders were firm yet fair and the soldiers under him feared, and revered, him at the same time.
Life as a career soldier ended abruptly one night shortly after he returned to Kansas from being stationed near Baden-Baden, Germany. A drunk army private accosted a woman trudging her way home from working as a waitress in a bar near the base. Oscar grabbed the soldier and threw him into the street. Before he could see if the woman was safe, she dissolved in the darkness. He stepped into the street to retrieve the white soldier when a transport truck struck them, crushing his leg and killing the other soldier.
A blemish free record didn't stop the review board from charging him with murder in the death of a U.S. Representative's son. The trial, scheduled to begin after the sergeant was released from the hospital following the amputation of his right leg, never took place. The soldier with the spotless 23-year record deserted, disappearing into the mountains of northern Colorado.
Daisy remembered him stumbling into the small town where she lived with her mother and other assorted relatives. The hint of snow, and the remoteness of the settlement, made the choice simple. Oscar became one of the People. By spring, he married the petite woman who'd welcomed him into her home, accepted her ten-year-old daughter as his own and shared his healing skills with the community. They provided him with the peace he'd been searching for and hid him from those wanting to collect on the reward offered by the military. Thinking of her mother brought a warm feeling of peace to Daisy's hammering heart as she tried to think of a way not draw any attention to her home, Poppa's sanctuary.
She watched the receptionist as the older woman talked on the phone. Her eyes darted toward the closed door and back to the clinic entrance. She didn't dare wait much longer to start for home. The woman stood and walked away from the desk, disappearing into the small room behind her.
Daisy grabbed her chance and shot out of the door. She leaped onto the horse's back and swiftly wrapped the mule's lead rope around the saddlehorn. Within a minute, she was riding down the alley and headed for the hills, in opposite direction from her home. No one would follow her back to Poppa!
The receptionist stood in the doorway, smiling. She knew the girl would flee at the first opportunity; her body language projected fear, fear of the doctor and terror of being held for the law. She'd better inform the doctor one of his 'prisoners' escaped.
I'd love to know what you think. Carol