The young man burst into the tavern, bringing swirling flakes of snow through the door with him.
"Is there a doctor here?" he panted.
I turned back to my ale. No point in calling attention to myself. I was just here to sell the buck I'd shot, then back to my cabin. I still wasn't very comfortable here. It had been the best decision I could have made, after Bonnie Price Charlie fled the field and left us there. A stolen uniform and an Irish accent let me claim status as a legitimate prisoner of war, subject of the King of France rather than a rebel, transportation rather than the noose.
But I was a defeated Jacobite in a colony full of Hanoverians. Best not to mix too much. Better than the alternative, for now.
The man looked frantically around the silent room.
"It's my Molly," he pleaded. "She's been in labor all day, but the baby won't come, and the midwife is at a loss."
"Is there anyone who can help?"
I turned back to him. "When I was a soldier, I used to assist the surgeon. I've done a bit of physicking."
He looked around the room, hoping for better. Finding no other takers, he extended his hand "I'm John Campbell."
Wonderful. At least it wasn't Cumberland.
"William Roberts," I replied, taking his hand in mine.
I lay my hand on the woman's belly, feeling the pain, the struggle within. I tried to calm her nerves while I sent my awareness deeper.
The baby was turned, and the mother's pelvis far too narrow. She was exhausted, drenched in sweat, coming to the end of her strength. There was no way this child was coming out the usual way.
I really had hoped that I could get by just blocking some pain and stopping the bleeding. That way I could have kept a low profile. Now, I had to do something drastic or watch mother and baby both die.
Couldn't do that.
I could worry about the consequences enough to hesitate. It wasn't all that long ago they'd been hanging witches in this colony.
"The baby hasn't turned," I said.
The midwife, already irritated that I'd invaded her domain and brought my manhood into the room, gave me a withering look. In a Catholic country, I'd have earned a vicious tongue lashing, but not from a good Puritan.
Unfortunately, I was going to have to test her pious reserve a bit more.
"I can bring this child out," I said.
"How many babies have you delivered?" asked the midwife. "You were a soldier."
"I was an assistant to the surgeon."
"This isn't a battle wound," she said.
"There were always camp followers," I replied. "Even in Protestant armies."
Her lips compressed into a thin angry line. She turned to the farmer. "This man has no place here."
"My apologies," I said, trying to look contrite. It's not my best look. I don't try often. "You've done good service, but you've been here for hours. And this woman has endured all she can. If we keep on this way, Goodman John will have no family come morning." I gave her my expression of honest concern. I'm better at that one. "Please, let me do what I can."
The farmer and his wife both turned pleading eyes on the midwife. To her credit she sighed. "It's not as though you can do any harm. I'll pray for your souls." She speared me with her glare, "All of them."
I pulled at John's sleeve. "Boil water. Put in a needle and thread. And find bandages."
He nodded, eyes wide in his pale face, and rushed off. The young mother looked up at me, her face lined with pain and fear and exhaustion.
"You've done this before?"
"A time or two, madame," I replied.
What I was going to do wasn't actually complicated, and for me, it wasn't really all that dangerous to the patient. I was going to cut the baby out, then close up the incision. For anyone else, the risk of bloodloss or sepsis was high, but I was different.
For as long as I can remember, and that's a long, long time, I've been able to heal other with a touch. I don't know why, I just know that I can urge the body to heal itself quickly and cleanly. It wants to heal anyway, I just speed things up. I've been patching together battle wounds for ages. A neat slice in the belly was no great challenge.
The biggest danger was to me if anyone accused me of black magic. People fear what they don't understand, and lash out at what they fear. That's why I spent so long as a soldier. Armies move, men muster out and new ones join. People are sued to strange faces, and you're seldom in one place long enough that people notice you don't seem much older.
That's another thing about me. I don't seem to age. Again, useful, but not something it pays to advertise.
I sent some energy through my fingertips to help ease the young woman's pain, quiet the contractions. They weren't doing any good. She was too small, and the baby was oriented wrong. The heart still beat, so if I could get it out, it had a chance.
John brought me the pot of boiling water and bandages. I dipped a corner of cloth in the water and cleaned my knife, then the mother's abdomen.
"The baby is too big and turned wrong," I told him. "The only way it's coming out is through a cut. I've seen it done, and I've treated worse wounds. I need you to trust me. This can get bloody."
"You're going to cut the boy out?" he said in horror.
"It was good enough Julius Caesar," I replied, "and it's the only chance. The baby is still alive. If I bring it out, mother and child can both live. If I don't, they'll both die."
He paused, then gave a shaky nod. "Do what you must."
The job itself was easy. I made a neat transverse slit in the skin, low on the belly, then the abdominal muscles and finally the uterus. I dulled the mother's pain and slowed the bleeding as much as I could without making anyone too suspicious. I eased a hand in and lifted the baby out. I cleared the mucus from his mouth and nose, and the baby gave a cough and a cry. I tied a quick knot in the cord and cut it. and wrapped him in a blanket.
"You have a son," I told the new parents, handing the baby to John. "Have the midwife take care of him, I'll stitch up this wound."
As the father departed and the midwife gave a cry of pleasant surprise, I delivered the afterbirth, then pulled the wound closed and urged the tissues to knit, the bleeding to subside, the natural defenses to combat any fever. I left the skin incompletely healed and put in a few stitches for show.
I did worry about this. I know that physicians had done this with success a time or two, but sure never here in the woods, and usually only to save a baby. Saving the mother was very unusual, and not something that might be believed of a battlefield sawbones with a hunting knife.
John returned to the bed. "How is she?" he asked me, pitching his voice low.
"Weak, but I stopped the bleeding. With rest, she may recover."
The midwife brought the baby over, looked down at the young mother. "Here's your son, deary." she handed the baby over. "Let her hold him while she can," she grunted softly.
"She'll dance at his wedding, John," I told the father. "I'll take my leave, before I lead Goody Poore into temptation."
He looked pained. "I'm sorry. We can't thank you enough."
"Don't worry. I stepped into her world. Did a job she couldn't. Can't expect her to be happy."
"Thank you again."
I looked at the mother and saw her smiling through the exhaustion, sweat shining on her face, but her eyes sparkling as she looked at her son.
"I'm just glad I could help." I put on my coat and hat, picked up my musket and opened the door. "You can buy me a drink next time I see you in the village."
I stepped out quickly. Let them forget me in the joy of the moment, let the fact that his family lived blur the circumstances of how.
As I walked from the small farmhouse, I felt the cold seeping in through my coat. The wind blew in from the northwest, pulling a biting cold down over the mountains from the French colonies along the St Lawrence. A bad night to be out.
I stopped and raised my head. The wind carried the tang of smoke. Not the dry smell of seasoned firewood. Rather the sour tang of greenwood, pine branches.
Some silly bastard was sleeping out of doors tonight.
And what kind of man would be doing that?
I raced back to the farmhouse.
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