Sand Creek Serenade

Chapter 1

Fort Lyon, Colorado Territory—November 2, 1864

“Doc?”

The office door flew open, startling Sadie Hoppner from her reading. Sunlight flooded through the opening.

“Doc! We got an injured man here.” Three uniformed soldiers barged through the outer doorway and on toward the separate examination room. The center man’s pale face contorted as his friends helped him across the room.

She stepped from behind the desk. “What happened?”

All three men stopped short and cast nervous glances around the small space.

“Uh, howdy, ma’am. You wouldn’t happen to know where Doc Hoppner is, would ya?”

Uncertainty wound through her middle. She preferred Ben to oversee her treatment of patients when it was clear the men were uncomfortable.

Just stop, Sadie. You’re twenty-two, and you’ve studied and trained for this for the past seven years. You’re ready, even if they aren’t.

She eyed the one in the middle. Obviously in pain, if his pinched features, tight jaw, and panting were any indication. His shirt, torn at the shoulder seam, revealed skin darkening with a fresh bruise. His right arm hung limp, the shoulder on the affected side sitting lower than it should, and there was a tell-tale depression where none should be. The uncertainty fled. This she could handle. “If you’re referring to Dr. BenHoppner, he’s out of the office. However, I’m sure you know I’m a doctor as well.” News of any single woman at a military fort would travel fast enough. News of a female doctor would have traveled faster still. “How can I help?”

He cleared his throat. “We meant the otherDoc Hoppner.”

“You’re more than welcome to wait for my brother, though I don’t know when he might return.” He’d already been gone half an hour, seeing to a patient. “I can tell you’re in great pain. I’d be more than happy to help you now.”

The two soldiers flanking their injured friend darted glances between each other.

At the injured man’s slight nod, she marched to him and grasped the fingers of both his hands. He yelped at the slight jostling of his arm. His right hand was colder than his left.

“How did you injure yourself?”

Other than to gulp, he made no attempt to answer.

“Are you losing feeling in your fingers?”

Again, silence.

Irritation flared. “I suspect it could be a shoulder dislocation with restricted blood flow to your hand. If you’d like to step into the examination room and remove your shirt, I can tell you more.”

“Dislocation?” Confusion ruled the man’s features.

“Yes. Your humerus bone—that’s this one in here.” She traced her fingers from her own shoulder to her elbow. “That bone has a ball at the top.” She made a fist with her right hand. “It fits into a socket in your scapula, or shoulder blade.” She cupped her left palm over her fist. “Sometimes, that ball can be forced out of the socket, resulting in a dislocation.” She twisted her hands apart, mimicking the process of the injury.

All three cringed.

“It hurts something fierce,” the blond man wheezed, his eyes a mixture of pain and hope. “You really think you can fix it?”

“What d’ya think you’re doing?” one man hissed under his breath. “Wait for Doc to get here.”

Sadie nodded. “I know I can.” She walked through the door and patted the exam table. “Please have a seat.”

After a long moment, the man unwound his left arm from around his friend’s neck and followed.

“Once your shoulder is back in place, the pain will ease, and the blood flow should be restored.”

He nodded as he sat. “Sure hope you’re right, ma’am.”

“What’s your name, private?”

“John Ellis.” He struggled to unbutton his shirt one-handed.

“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Private Ellis. I’m Dr. Sadie Hoppner.” She motioned to his buttons. “May I help?”

Positioned near the exam table, Private Ellis’s friends snickered, causing his face to turn a peculiar shade of red. Sadie ignored them as she fetched the lantern from the desk and hung it from the hook above the examining table, then assisted the private in removing his shirt.

She noted the deformity of his shoulder. “Definitely a dislocation. I’ll need to apply counter pressure to relocate the ball back into its socket.”

The private winced. “Sounds painful, ma’am.”

“I won’t lie. It’ll be excruciating—for a moment—but after it slips back into place, the pain will dull to a manageable ache.” She produced a sturdy stick from the supply cabinet and wrapped it in a cloth. “You can bite on this if you’re so inclined.”

“You’re sure you know what you’re doing?”

“I’m certain, Private.”

His outspoken friend stepped nearer. “Ellis, just wait for Doc to return.”

Ellis glared at the other fellow and defiantly took the stick, clenching it between his teeth.

She motioned to the far side of the surface. “Move toward that edge of the table and lie flat, please.” As the others helped him get settled, she removed her right shoe and set it aside. Folding a cloth, she pushed it against Ellis’s armpit, perched on the near edge of the table, and checked that the stick was firmly in place.

“This will be easier if you can release any tension in your muscles.” Sadie wedged her stockinged heel against his armpit.

Uncertainty tried to take root. Lord, I know how to help this man. Just please let his shoulder realign itself easily. For both our sakes. “Ready, Private?”

Fear clouded his eyes as he nodded.

Taking his hand in both of hers, she pulled on his arm while straightening her leg.

Ellis screamed, the sound muffling as he bit the stick, and clawed the table. As she released the tension, she felt the telltale clunk of the bone slipping into place.

Her patient sagged, his eyes half-closed. Ellis’s outspoken companion took a wide-eyed step back and, face paling, settled his hands on his knees. He puffed out a shaky breath, and the third man escorted him from the office.

 “Sadie?” Her brother’s panicked call rang from outside. He and his best friend, Lieutenant Gabriel Farrington, raced into view of the doorway as she slid to the floor and removed the stick from Ellis’s teeth.

“You all right, sis?” red-headed Ben asked as he entered.

Gabriel remained outside, talking to the other soldiers.

She nodded. “I was attending to Private Ellis’s dislocated shoulder.”

Ben crossed the room and looked at the patient. “How are you now, soldier?”

Ellis’s eyes opened. “A heap better, sir.”

She ran her palm gently over the man’s shoulder, then squeezed her patient’s fingers. Warmer already. “How’s your hand?”

“It’s tingling pretty fierce, but that’s an improvement.”

She smiled. “Rest for a few minutes, Private. When you’ve caught your breath, I’ll wrap your arm and finish up.”

Ellis nodded as he flexed his fingers. “Thank you, ma’am.”

Concerned about Ellis’s friend, Sadie grabbed her shoe and limped toward the door. Ben stopped her and looped an arm around her shoulders. “I’m real proud of you, sis,” he whispered. “You handled that one without me.” He planted a kiss on the top of her head. “Well done.”

She grinned and, footwear in hand, limped outside where the three other men waited. Ben followed.

“Good job, Dr.Hoppner.” Gabriel squeezed her shoulder as she passed, causing her cheeks to warm.

She turned to Ellis’s friend. “I thought I was going to have a second patient. Are you all right?”

It took him an instant to answer. “You didn’t even flinch, doin’ what you did in there.”

Ben grinned. “What is your name, Private?”

“Henry Warner, sir.”

“Well, Private Warner, let me tell you, my sister doesn’t flinch easily. She’s been nursing patients in our father’s medical practice since she was nigh on ten years old. She’s been studying Pa’s medical texts since she was fifteen. She performed her first medical procedures under his supervision four years ago, and after his death this past spring, I took over her training. She’s a very competent doctor, and because of that, she’s at Fort Lyon with Major Wynkoop’s permission. She has his blessing to treat any patients who consent to her care. Any man who does is getting first-rate doctoring.”

“I’d put my life in her hands.” Gabriel locked gazes with her.

Her heart swelled at the glowing recommendations from both men. If only she could believe in herself as strongly as they did.

“Thank you for helping Ellis, ma’am. I’m sorry for doubting you.”

“Your apology is accepted, Private.”

From around the corner, a black dog with white muzzle and chest darted into view, took a bounding leap at Sadie, and settled its front paws against her hip. Startled, she dropped her boot and backed up, the mutt settling on all fours again. The playful animal dipped its chest low to the ground, its ears erect, rump in the air, and tail wagging furiously. As Sadie laughed, the dog grabbed her shoe and raced past.

Her jaw went slack, and she dashed several paces to the corner of the building. “That mongrel stole my—”

“We’ll get it back for you, ma’am.” Private Warner and his cohort dashed off in pursuit of the dog, straight toward the large encampment of Cheyenne and Arapaho, who’d moved roughly a mile from the fort, seeking peace after the October meeting with Colorado’s governor and the army.

Sadie took a limping step toward the sea of Cheyenne lodges. How many times a day did she stare off at that encampment and watch the stir of activity? Women and girls tanning hides or hauling water from the Arkansas River. Older boys tending the sizeable herd of horses. Younger children playing on the outskirts of the settlement. While their nomadic lifestyle was completely foreign and different from anything Sadie had experienced, there was an idyllic peace that seemed to hover over the huge encampment. Too many times a day, she fantasized about walking the mile between the fort and the nearest tent and taking a closer look. She took another shoeless step. Maybe this was her chance to—

“Don’t worry, sis.” Ben caught her arm. “I’ll go after ’em. You see to your patients.”

Her brow furrowed. “Patients?”

“Yeah. Gabriel cut his hand and may need stitches.”

“You’re just telling me this now?” She faced the handsome lieutenant several feet behind her, noting the bloodied handkerchief wrapping his left hand. A twinge of regret gripped her. It was obviously not her chance to explore the neighboring camp.

Of course it wasn’t. Proper women didn’t dream of such experiences. Forcing her mind away from the Indian encampment—and her stolen shoe—she crossed to Gabriel and unwound the soiled cloth, revealing a bloody gash in the heel of his palm.

“Oh, goodness.” She peered into his blue eyes. “That will need stitches.”

“I know.”

“It’ll hurt.”

His smile mingled with a wince. “I know.”

Sadie rewrapped the cloth around the wound. “I’ll have to stitch it at the desk in the outer room. My exam table is in use right now.”

“Yes, Dr. Hoppner.”

Stomach fluttering at his continued use of her title, she stepped into the examination room and quietly gathered the supplies she would need. Before she exited, she paused beside Private Ellis.

“How’s your shoulder, Private?”

His eyes opened halfway. “You were right, ma’am. The pain’s much better.”

“Good. Continue to rest. I have to attend to another patient for a few minutes.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

She exited and drew the door shut. “I’m sorry, Gabri—” She stopped short. Two chairs for their waiting patients as well as the small corner table were gone. She hurried outside to find he’d set the furniture up in the sun. “Gabriel, what’re you doing?”

“Figured you could stitch my hand out here.”

“Pray tell, why would I do that?”

Gabriel stepped nearer, his voice confidential. “When the soldiers see you working on fellas like me, they’ll be more likely to let you work on them.” He nodded toward the barracks across the parade ground.

Of course. He always looked for ways to earn her more patients. “Despite the benefits, this table is too short for our purposes. We’ll need to move inside.”

“Stay right here.” He strode into the sturdy stone building.

As she stood outside pondering what he might be up to, a distant clatter of hooves drew her attention toward the front of the fort. Numerous uniformed riders arrived and dismounted outside Major Wynkoop’s office. Despite being too far off to see the specifics of their uniforms, she quickly discerned one—a smallish man with dark, wavy hair and a full beard—must be in charge by the way the men with him seemed to jump each time he spoke.

Gabriel returned with three thick medical books balanced in one arm. His gaze also traveled to the newcomers, and he squinted. “What’s going on there?”

Sadie turned toward him, looking at the books, then meeting his eyes. “You would know better than I.” She waved at the books. “What’s all this?”

He laid the thick stack on the tabletop. “Does that make the table tall enough?”

She laughed. “That’ll be fine. Thank you.”

After laying out her instruments, they sat, and he settled his hand on the top book so she could unwrap the makeshift bandage. “What did you do?”

With a sheepish grin, he shrugged. “You know me. Clumsy.”

She’d known him for years. The blond, bearded lieutenant was anything but clumsy. To the contrary, his uniforms were always sharp, his hair and beard perfectly groomed, and every movement deliberate. Yet since her arrival at Fort Lyon, he’d become her most frequent patient.

***

Five Kills listened to the discussion between the Tsitsistasand Hinono-eino chiefs. He appreciated Black Kettle’s insistence that he sit with the elders during their talks, despite the fact his feats in battle should not have earned him such an honor. It was his knowledge of English and French that netted him the seat. His fluency in both languages, plus his passable knowledge of Spanish, often proved useful in knowing whether the white men told the truth during their various interactions. He may not feel he deserved such an esteemed place in the counsel tent, but out of respect for the leader of The People, he came when called, listened carefully to all sides, and offered his thoughts when asked.

From outside the tent, voices rose, and the commotion stalled the conversation within. As the ruckus grew, Black Kettle told a brave to see what was happening. The man slipped from the tent and returned a moment later, eyes settling on Five Kills.

“Your dog has angered the soldiers.”

Heat blanketed his body. Of course it would be his dog, Hótame, to cause a problem. And with the white men, of all people. He reached for his musket, rose, and excused himself. A chill swept his shirtless skin as he emerged from the overly warm tent. He waded into the knot of his tribesmen and women as they faced three soldiers. Their discordant voices silenced as he stopped beside the dog who lay on her belly, attention focused on the white men, her large ears erect and swiveling.

Without a word, he looked at each soldier, waiting for them to state their business.

The man with fiery hair stepped forward. “Your dog stole my sister’s shoe.”

Five Kills furrowed his brow, pretending he didn’t understand.

“The dog.” He nodded at the animal. “It stole my sister’s shoe. Can we have it back please?”

Hótame did, in fact, have a strange-looking object resting between her paws. As Five Kills bent to retrieve it, she snatched it up and bounded sideways. Scowling, he reached for it again, only she backed up, tail wagging.

“Give it to me,” he snarled in the tongue of The People. Hótame woofed around the object, darted past him and the three soldiers, and dropped to her belly. Laughter rippled through the crowd.

Anger flared in his chest, both at Hótame and the laughter. He stalked past the soldiers. With a gathering of the elders in progress, now was not the time for her games. As he drew nearer, she mouthed the stiff footwear and raced off. His people’s tittering followed him. Five Kills refused to look back. He’d laugh once he returned to the camp, but at the moment, the odd situation did nothing but knot his muscles.

Over and over, the dog allowed him to draw near, but dashed a good distance away before he could grab her. The difficulty continued, drawing them toward a building at the white man’s fort. Again, Five Kills reached for the object, and when Hótame dashed out of reach, he stopped.

“I am done with your games,” he warned in The People’s tongue. “Just see what the soldiers will do to you.”

He turned, but the three white men had fanned out to block his path.

Hair-On-Fire spoke. “My sister’s shoe. I need it.”

Five Kills tightened his grip on his musket.

“Please?”

Behind him, Hótame barked furiously, and when he faced her, she scooped up the shoe and trotted toward the corner of the building where a slender, dark-haired woman appeared. The dog bounded toward her, staying just out of her reach.

Five Kills strode to where Hótame played, and when he drew near, she finally dropped the shoe and panted happily. Squatting, he scooped it up and, laying aside the musket, dried the dog’s saliva on his breechcloth.

“Sadie…” Hair-On-Fire’s voice dripped concern as the woman’s long shadow fell across him.

Five Kills grabbed the musket and rocked to his feet, eyeing the three soldiers, the woman, and a yellow-haired man he only now noticed lingering at the front of the building.

“Easy now.” The yellow-haired one came up beside the woman, his hands raised, some sort of dark string dangling from the meaty part of his hand.

In an instant, Hótame was at Five Kills’ side, a growl in her throat.

“Enough,” he hissed in The People’s tongue.

She stopped, though her hackles still stood on end.

When the pretty woman took an uneven step toward Five Kills, the yellow-haired man tried, and failed, to hook her arm.

She smiled, kindness in her brown eyes. “May I please have my shoe?”

The melodious tone of her voice caused him to draw back in surprise. It had been fifteen summers since he’d heard a white woman speak, the last one having a voice like a horde of angry bees. This woman’s voice was expressive. Soothing—like sun-warmed honey. 

When he didn’t immediately answer, she edged nearer and touched the shoe, her fingers brushing against his, ever so lightly. “May I have this?”

His heart beating faster at the feather-light touch, Five Kills stared at the dotting of light freckles sprinkled across her nose and cheeks. Shaking off the potent effect she had on him, he thrust the uncomfortable-looking footwear at her.

Her brown eyes lit with gratitude. “Thank you.”

The yellow-haired one stepped closer and, hooking her elbow, drew her behind him. “Yes, thank you,” he bristled. “It would be best if you went back to your camp now.” He jutted his chin toward the encampment a mile away. “Do you understand?”

“Gabriel, don’t be rude,” the woman spoke. “Our new friend is causing no harm.”

“Sadie,” Hair-On-Fire spoke in a warning tone.

She looked at her brother. “The Cheyenne and Arapaho are here seeking peace. The least we can do is be mannerly, especially since he did us a favor.”

Hair-On-Fire and the bristly, yellow-haired one didn’t look pleased.

“No offense, ma’am, but maybe you could leave the soldiering to us soldiers.” One of the other men inched nearer.

Hótame shifted toward the man, growled, and bared her teeth.

Five Kills quieted the dog, then turned to the bristling one. “I understand your words, and I will return to my camp.” He pronounced the statement in his people’s tongue, grinning inwardly at the confusion clouding the man’s light eyes. “You and your friends would do well to listen to the wisdom of your trilling bird.” He nodded in the woman’s direction.

He headed toward the Indian encampment, but before he reached the corner of the building, two chairs and a table outside the building caught his attention. A strange place for white people to sit, though what sparked his curiosity were the three thick books stacked atop the table. Distant memories flooded his mind. He arced toward the table and cocked his head to look at the spines of the thick volumes. The markings were gold like those he remembered, though he couldn’t recall how to make sense of the peculiar shapes. He touched one, hand shaking.

“Go.” The man with the prickly attitude spoke. “Back to your own camp.”

He straightened. The four men had moved in, blocking any retreat he might’ve made in that direction.

The raven-haired woman stood behind them, an apologetic look on her face.

“Come,” he called Hótame in his people’s language and headed toward the far side of the building. As he rounded the corner, the dog trotting beside him, he marked the structure in his thoughts. He would return when Trilling Bird was alone. Perhaps she would allow him a moment to look at the books and recall forgotten pieces of his past.