Broken Bone by Martin Crabtree

A doctor travels from the seedy frontier town of Sawnick to a puritanical outpost to help deliver a baby, but danger and surprises are in store; by Martin Crabtree.

Sawnick, Colorado Territory, mid-April, 1872

"By donkey, Sawnick to Greeley Colony's a full day's ride," Mrs. Trudy Tremolo told her lodger. Dr. Zachary Ritenour stood in front of his rooming house with his short, ample landlady. They were inspecting her two donkeys tied to the hitching post in the street that ran along Sawnick's main, only, dusty road.

"Mrs. Tremolo," said Dr. Ritenour, "they need me urgently in the Greeley Colony. I'm a stranger in this part of the world, and it is not at all like Boston. Riding the train here is one thing, and riding horses, but I don't know where to begin with these odd looking animals, much less how to get there."

"It's an easy ride, Doc. Just sit, the donkey knows the way. Greeley Colony's yonder that way," she said, pointing toward the rising sun. "Keep the mountains behind you and you'll be goin' in the right direction. Comin' back, of course, do it 'tother ways around. And don't worry none about Alma, that donkey can find her way home in fire or flood, even I reckon a passel of snakes.

"Got her and her stupid cuss of a sidekick here from one'a them Ute Indians. Told me they were kitsaan, been told that means no good, bad, ruined. Yup, told me they was tizipe. Even I know that means evil. Said they found 'em in that place, in that place between Jackson and Camp Bell. Utes call it Hell on Earth in their Indian-talk, must'a been pretty bad if they didn't like it."

She clucked at the animal to get her attention with no results. "I'd say take Margaret here, she's a bit easier for a tenderfoot, but lately she's been runnin' round in circles, goin' nowheres fast, her long ears floppin' real funny. But both them asses can kiss my pants!" Mrs. Tremolo rose on her toes - her long skirt a dull bell, her small feet dusty clappers - and leaned over the hitching rail; she spit snuff with gusto into the dry road. She continued, her voice thick with phlegm.

"And 'nother thing," she said, "don't talk too much 'bout bein' from Sawnick. Far as they think, this here town is chock full of runaways from Greeley. Who could blame 'em, for runnin' away I mean, what with no drinkin' or fleshpots, haventa dig water ditches, and who knows what. Put up a big ole fence 'round the whole place, too. Old man Greeley came out ta see what he started, 'bout two years back, but -" she spat again, "he turned right around and lit outta here and ain't been seen 'round here since."

Zachary Ritenour stood beside the stinking animals and clutched his saddle bag of medical supplies. "Thank you for your help, Mrs. Tremolo. I should be glad they called me over to Greeley to deliver the baby. Most folks don't trust doctors to deliver babies, I guess I should thank Mrs. Gipson for insisting on me. Especially a doctor who believes Dr. Semmelweis is right, good hygiene can prevent childbed fever. Maybe this will encourage others, so I won't have to go back to Boston."

She helped the doctor onto his mount, checked his saddlebag, and gave the animal's rump a good slap. "Name the kid after me, how's about? Just don't give him the donkey's name, we sure don't need 'nother Alma! Or, God help us, Margaret!" Mrs. Tremolo stood on the unpainted porch and watched the tall, thin man ride slowly eastward. She could hear him repeating her advice about keeping his back to the mountains. Turning back in to her rooming house, she muttered "Kick her real hard, doc, she needs it. Who knows, maybe she likes it?"

The Greeley Colony

The rising sun was a red arrow in Dr. Ritenour's open eyes, a red blot when he closed his eyes. Alma juddered along the earthy path, stopping often to paw the flat dirt, nibble, and nudge rocks. "Hate to do this to you," Dr. Ritenour said the first time he kicked her. "Sorry," he said the second time, with more feeling in his feet than in his words. He offered no further apologies as he urged her along the way to Greeley Colony.

"So here I am," he said aloud to the world too far away to hear him. "Feeling like Don Quixote abandoned by Sancho Panza. I might look a little like him, but you, donkey, are the size and shape of mortal sin." Alma stopped to nudge more rocks as he spoke. "Another kick start, eh, my stubborn doongi." The donkey snorted at his last word. "Oh, yes, I heard Mrs. Tremolo call you that, it must be Ute for donkey, yes?" An extra hard kick, and they were on their way again.

The day drummed Dr. Ritenour's senses into a new awareness. The sun spun, the mountains slid behind them. The wind insinuated, hissed rumors, never spoke directly. Man and beast were a weary dot and dash, each moment more punishing for the tenderfoot.

When the sun touched the Rockies behind them, Zachary Ritenour stopped and squinted at the flat landscape in front of them. "I think that's it, don't you doongi?" he asked, with no response. He repeated the question, using both feet.

As they rode closer, he saw the wire fence around the Colony. "Prickly wire fence runs clear 'round the whole place," Mrs. Tremolo had said earlier, "said it was to keep cows outta their gardens. Just 'bout seven feet high, nearly fifty miles long, and the fence ain't finished yet. Even put up two gates, so's they can lock 'em tight from spring to fall. Donkey'll know where to find the gate."

Alma earned her keep and took Dr. Ritenour to the western gate; it was open. A large sign painted on the wire fence beside the gate said "Welcome to Union Colony. Population: 1,000 souls. Enter here all who believe in Faith, Family, Education, Irrigation, Temperance, Agriculture, and Home."

"I would be hard pressed to argue with that," Dr. Ritenour told Alma. "Though the Temperance might chafe." He pulled a letter out of his saddlebag, the letter from Mrs. Lina West Gipson asking him to come to Greeley. "You'll know our home instantly," Mrs. Gipson wrote. "It is quite square, surrounded by a wide front porch, deep blue trim, and two prominent bay windows. Four large columns hold up a pediment with Greek and Roman figures. Quite garish by the Colony's standards, but in keeping with my husband's fondness for Italian architecture."

She enclosed a hand-drawn map of Greeley Colony. "Come on now, doongi, I know the way from here." He used kicks and the reins to make his way over and across the grid of Greeley's streets. Dr. Ritenour stopped in front of a large white home with the name A.E. Gipson above its doorway. But he didn't need a map or a description or a sign in front of the house: Mrs. Lina West Gipson's screams, a thrilling contralto of pain, could be heard throughout the Union Colony.

Dr. Ritenour threw Alma's reins over the hitching post, grabbed his saddlebag and bounded up the front walk. At his first sharp knock on the ornate door, it swung open. "Doctor, come in. Quickly!" said a tall, balding man with big ears, and extended his hand. "Albert Gipson. Wife's this way. Follow me." Before they could shake hands, Mr. Gipson grabbed Dr. Ritenour's elbow and led him up the heavily carpeted stairs in the front hall. "First door on the left," he said. Richer, deeper, longer screams confirmed his directions.

Dr. Ritenour leaned against the balustrade at the top of the stairs. "Mr. Gipson, I will need all the fresh linen you have, a large basin of boiling water, and some strong soap. Quickly, please!" Dr. Ritenour knocked once, opened the bedroom door, and began to earn his keep.

Dr. Ritenour nearly tripped on the layers of oriental rugs scattered inside the doorway to Mrs. Gipson's bedroom. The room was dimly lit, the curtains drawn against the setting sun and the early Spring chill. The only light came from the fireplace in the corner. In a large brass bed, the sweat-drenched blonde curls of a woman's head tossed back and forth among a fort of pillows. "Doctor, doctor, doctor," she moaned.

"Here, Mrs. Gipson. I came as quickly as I could. Your letter to me in Boston made me think you would not be ready for several more weeks." He opened his saddlebag and spread out his medical instruments on the trunk at the foot of the bed.

"Do you have the Twilight Sleep I wrote to you about? Please, please, I'm in such pain!"

"Mrs. Gipson," he said, reaching for her hand. He checked her pulse, felt her forehead, and lightly touched her through the sweat-soaked sheets. "Mrs. Gipson, I would not advise any medication. Twilight Sleep may help you cope with the pain, or even forget the pain, but it is made from morphine and scopolamine which I don't -"

From out of the shadows, a young woman stepped beside Dr. Ritenour and touched his hand; he pulled back in surprise. He felt warm where her flesh touched his. He thought the fire burned brighter.

"Doctor, I hope you do not think she should, as they say, bring forth children in sorrow!"

He pulled himself up to his full height, and took his measure of the woman in front of him. She is not exactly pretty, I believe a writer would call her handsome. He flushed. Before he could speak, she said softly, "I'm afraid it's my fault. I misjudged her time. And I'm sorry to have startled you. I'm Octavia, Mrs. Gipson's assistant." She looked directly at him with clear gray eyes and held out a hand to him. They were evenly matched for height.

Dr. Ritenour was still for a few moments, then gave her a small bow. He did not take her hand. "No, no, not at all, it's just that -"

"Perhaps you believe that the pain will make her love her child more, and that childbirth is a noble feat?" Octavia placed her refused hand on her hip, the other hand rested on the lace collar around her neck. Her voice was slightly sharper. She arched an eyebrow.

"No," the doctor said again, and turned toward his patient. "Mrs. Gipson, you seem to be in more pain than I would expect this early. The pain medicine would make it difficult for you to speak, and difficult to push. It may be necessary for me to use forceps, or even a perform a cesarean section."

Mrs. Gipson moaned louder, her fists pulling hard on the linen sheets. Dr. Ritenour turned back to Octavia.

"Babies born to heavily medicated women can be very sleepy and have to fight hard to breathe. They often need resuscitation." He stepped around her to reach his medical supplies; Octavia touched his hand again as he passed her, and again he felt the same strong warmth. Perhaps, he thought, the long journey with little food and water is making me giddy. This handsome woman is magnetic. But I must focus on my patient...

"In that case, Doctor, I will make her my special tea. I was just about to do that when I heard you arrive."

"May I trouble you for some tea, too? It's been a very long journey."

Octavia laughed. "I don't think you'd care too much for this tea, doctor. It's for healing. I make it from bear root and the bark of ponderosa pine. An old Ute secret. But I will make you some of my special three leaf sumac tea, that should revive you." She was out the door before he could reply.

"Trust her, doctor," said Mrs. Gipson, her voice husky. "Trust her."

The doctor pulled up a chair beside the bed, facing Mrs. Gipson. "She's a very unusual woman, isn't she?" He mopped her forehead with a compress from the basin beside the bed. "Very unusual."

Mrs. Gipson grimaced from a new wave of pain, then relaxed as it subsided. "She's spent quite a bit of time among the Utes, learning their ways so she could teach them ours. She came out here with us two years ago. I think -" she stopped to breathe deeply, then continued, "- I think she's become more like them than she is like us. Though she comes from a very fine New York family."

"Mrs. Gipson, rest as much as you can now. Your husband will be in shortly with some supplies, and with God's help -"

"And Octavia's," whispered Mrs. Gipson.

"- we'll bring your first born into this world. Mother and child will be fine, I've done this many times before." He mopped her forehead again and settled in for a long evening.

Twenty-three hours later

Dr. Ritenour staggered down the stairs and nearly fell into the parlor. Mr. Gipson was asleep in a wing chair by the fire; the doctor folded himself into a corner of the couch beside the chair. He called Mr. Gipson's name until he started out of his slumber.

"What? What?" He blinked and stretched, then saw the doctor. "How is she? I must know immediately!" He grabbed the chair's arms and pulled himself to his feet.

"Mr. Gipson, she's fine, fine," said Dr. Ritenour. His voice was weak, he did not rouse from his position. "Fine, indeed. Mother and children are fine." He tried to sink down into the couch to get some sleep.

"Mother and... did you say children?" The doctor did not reply. "Children? Doctor?"

"Yes, Mr. Gipson, two fine young men. Twins, to be precise, born nearly forty-five minutes apart. Your wife is amazingly strong. Healthy, each of them. Twins often come early." The doctor roused himself and stood beside the fire, one hand balancing on the mantle. He looked around the living room with dull astonishment. Mrs. Gipson's letter only hinted at the frenzy of Italian furnishings: a clutter of ferns on pedestals, a pair of brocade footstools, a rococo room screen, a pair of overstuffed couches, and a large statue in the corner of Venus de Milo. From the center of the ceiling hung a chandelier that, even unlit, sent light flying around the room. An ebony Forneaux Pianista, ready to play tunes from its folding cards, was visible in the adjacent room. Can it be a lack of sleep, or is this room in entirely the wrong place? Dr. Ritenour wondered. And who is that strange woman, Octavia? Her tea is a miracle. Made a very long delivery one of the easiest. Must ask Octavia... his knees buckled , he slid toward the floor, but caught himself on the mantle.

Mr. Gipson grabbed him under his arms and steered him back to the couch. "Sit there for a few minutes, Doctor. I'll have Octavia bring you some refreshments." Mr. Gipson almost danced out of the room and up the stairs, calling Octavia and his wife as he went.

Sitting on the edge of the couch, Dr. Ritenour drifted in and out of sleep for several minutes until he heard his name being called.

"Dr. Ritenour, here, sit back and drink this. It's some wild onion soup, and I've brought you some warm chokecherry wine. My own recipe." Octavia helped him settle back, and arranged the soup and wine on the table beside him. "Looks like heavy weather out there," she said, pulling the velvet curtains back from one of the windows. "Heavy weather." She sat in the chair where Mr. Gipson spent the previous night.

Dr. Ritenour ate his meal quickly. They sat in silence for a few minutes, then he stood up and looked out the window. "In Boston, I'd say those are snow clouds. The clouds look like ironclad warships, some would say. They look far away, but I better leave before the storm starts."

"You are correct, Doctor. But you are in no shape for your trip back. I suggest you rest before you head for home. And Alma may not take kindly to another trip so soon."

Dr. Ritenour stood at the window for a quiet minute. He turned and looked at Octavia, the pearly light on her face giving her a satin glow. "Octavia, I... must. I must return, or risk getting caught in the storm or worse." He paused, and looked out the window as he spoke. "I just don't know... You were really..." He fell silent, and returned to the couch.

Octavia stood slowly, smoothing her long, wrinkled skirt. "I think I understand, Doctor." A smile, a sigh. She held out upturned palms toward him, as if to say that words are not enough. "Let me help you get ready for your trip back." He held out his hands so she could help him off the couch.

"Doctor, before you leave, will you please look at my hands? They feel curiously warm..."

The Ride Back

The snow spun, the mountains slipped away. Heavy clouds disguised themselves as snowy mountain tops. Dr. Ritenour was exhausted and lost. He knew it, and kicked Alma repeatedly as if it were her penance.

"Devil, devil!" he cried as Alma stumbled on a rock and threw him to the ground. His foot twisted as he broke his fall. "Beast!" he yelled again, but she was gone, gone along with his saddlebag and part of his sanity.

He didn't need his degree from Harvard Medical School to know he had a broken foot. "It's only a fracture of the base of the fifth metatarsal," he said aloud. "Ankle rolls inward, fragment of the bone is pulled off by peroneus tendon. Often heal nicely with conservative care - no operation is needed. At least, that's what they told us in medical school."

The snow fell against the earth, against more snow, against the doctor.

Dr. Ritenour pushed through the storm, ignoring his injured foot. He shouted into the wind for his beast, letting snow and cold fly in. He shouted for the donkey long gone. He shouted his despair. "Why couldn't Mrs. Gipson have had just one child? Or been quicker if she had to have twins?"

He stumbled, he fell, delirious, angry, hopeless. On the ground, the snow felt warm, it was heavenly-clean linen, it spoke of sleep. Dr. Zachary Ritenour slid into unconsciousness.

Another Birth

The air was warm and fragrant, and Dr. Ritenour woke refreshed. And confused. The ground beneath him was damp, and he could see the grass. There was a light dusting of snow, but the deep snow was gone.

He sat up, squinting against the rising sun. He stood. He saw two cloth sacks near where he had slept, and a leather water bag. A few feet away, a fire burned with a small pot suspended above it; steam rose from the pot. Beyond the fire, he heard running water and saw a small creek nearby.

He walked to the creek, knelt, and drank deeply. From the corner of his eye, he saw movement in a stand of trees. He stood to turn - though he did not know where to go. He heard a woman singing, a clear soprano. He squinted at woods in front of him: It was Octavia.

In the sweet by and by,

We shall meet on that beautiful shore.

"Ahoy!" the doctor shouted, at a loss for a more appropriate greeting in his particular circumstance. "Ahoy!"

"Ahoy back, Doctor!" Octavia sang to the same tune. "Ahoy back." Within moments she was standing beside him. Her chestnut hair was free of its earlier restraints and cascaded around her shoulders. Gone was her modest lace blouse and long, soft skirt. She wore a buckskin dress decorated with intricate quillwork in vivid black, yellow, and red. Leggings and moccasins took the place of the shoes and stockings she wore in the Greeley Colony. She held a large pointed stick in her right hand, and several plants in her left hand.

"Before you ask, I shall tell you what I imagine you want to know." She handed him the plants and led him by the elbow, not needing to kick or cuss.

The doctor stood by the fire; she took back the plants, ripped them apart, and put them in the steaming pot. "I was certain you would get lost. I've seen Alma in action," she said before he could comment. "She's devious, she's tizipe. Evil. Besides, Mr. Gipson is suddenly a very attentive husband, now that he has two heirs. One would have thrilled him, and he believes this miracle is somehow your doing. So Mrs. Gipson will be fine in his care for quite a while."

"But, really -"

"Please be patient, Doctor," she said and laughed at her own joke. She touched his hand again, and he felt the familiar warmth. "When I saw how bad the storm was, I simply followed you. These are the clothes I wore when I lived with the Utes."

"How -"

"Now, Doctor, why do you always, never... please. I learned much from my time with the Utes, they are really brilliant. Besides, we're not much more than an hour's walk from the Colony. And, Doctor, how is your foot?"

Dr. Ritenour gasped. He had forgotten his broken bone completely! "Now, Octavia," he said, and sat on a large rock nearby, "you can't tell me that the miracle tea you gave me -"

"No, not at all, Doctor. No tea. It was a compress, just like that you used on Mrs. Gipson. I told you the Utes are brilliant! They use bear root for indigestion, infections, and even wounds."

The doctor squinted in disbelief, as if that could establish his credentials with her. He stood quickly, then looked at his foot. "By all that is holy, you don't think..."

"No, doctor, I don't. But I DO think YOU think you broke your foot. When I found you, you were muttering broken bone over and over. I think," she said, and gave him a sunny smile, "I think you simply hurt or bruised it, and that the compress eased the pain." She sat on the rock beside him. He felt her warmth through her deer-hide dress.

"And the snow, the cold, surely the Utes cannot..."

"Yes and no," she continued, "by the time I found you, a Chinook wind had come up. They warm up the coldest winter days in just a few hours, they can even melt snow. As you can see," she said, looking around. "I got a fire going, and used my digging stick here" - she banged the ground with the long sturdy stick, and showed him its sharp point - "to get you some nice healing medicine."

Before he could respond, she leaned into him, unmistakably into him, and said, "If we're going back, or on to Sawnick, we should leave now. It won't stay warm long."

"But I... I... did you say if?"

"Well, yes, yes I did." She got up to stir the pot. "But I have a better idea."

Dr. Ritenour sighed. "I am afraid to ask. But I believe you will tell me regardless."

"While you were sleeping -"

"I was unconscious, nearly in a coma, been awake for many hours..."

"While you were sleeping, I had a few ideas. I think we both think things can be better. Yes?"


"Greeley Colony is not much of a utopia. Places like Sawnick will come and go, once the thrill of being able to drink and gamble again wear off." She got a metal cup from the cloth sack, poured hot liquid from the pot into it and offered it to him.

"Hmm... interesting," he said.

"Which? What I said, or the soup?"

"Both. Pray continue."

"So," and she drew a deep breath, gray eyes locked onto his brown eyes, "let's start our own place. One that gives respect to the Utes and to everyone else. One that has guiding principles, but is not a prison. One that does not drug women."

"Yes, but -"

"Doctor, you always never let me finish. And, and... let's call it Broken Bone." She gave him a pleased-with-herself smile. "Not," she added, "because of your foot, but we will break tradition, down to the bone."

She continued her song where she left off, and the doctor joined her in harmony, singing aloud to each other, close enough for just the two of them to hear. "In the sweet by and by, We shall meet on that beautiful shore..."

Mrs. Tremolo looked up from her sewing when she heard a familiar snort outside the parlor of her rooming house. She hurried outside, and held up a hand against the blowing snow. A dark form stood in front of her porch. It was Alma: braying insinuations, hissing rumors, never speaking directly. "Well, it's about gol dang time you got here!" Mrs. Tremolo pulled the donkey by her reins and dragged her into the shed behind the rooming house. "There!" she yelled into the donkey's ears, "there's water, and over there's food. Drink, eat, you fool." She gave the donkey's rump a slap and returned to her parlor.

She started to pick up her sewing, but hesitated. Aloud, to the world too far away to hear her, she said, "Must be gettin' soft in the head, seems I'm forgettin' somethin' or somebody, but don't rightly recollect what it is. That damn Alma!"


  1. A novel hides in this text.... take this further, it is intriguing with strong characterisations and reaches into a longer story, many thanks,

    1. You're right about the longer story! This is one of a series -- many in present day. Thank you. -- Martin

  2. I enjoyed reading your story. Unexpected plot twists. Monica

    1. Thank you! The plot surprised me, too, as I wrote it! -- Martin

  3. i also think there is a lot more to this, Octavia is a truly mysterious and brilliantly drawn character, somebody i would like to learn more about. Fine story.
    Mike McC

    1. Thank you! Octavia intrigues me, too. She'll be back, I think. -- Martin

  4. I think the characters are interesting and the story could go a lot further. The character of Octavia is particularly intriguing. Nice job.

    1. Glad to hear you liked the story! This story is one of many in a collection I'm writing; Octavia will be seen again. -- Martin