Amos wiped the sweat off the tip of his nose; blood and remnants of afterbirth mixed with the perspiration, and he scrubbed angrily at the mess with the rough cloth he kept wadded in his trouser pocket.
Phoebe Cook had very nearly survived, as had her infant son. Amos battled death for hours in an effort to save both their lives. A very young mother, Phoebe had had an uneventful and ordinary pregnancy. Dr. Hale had only been out to the small homestead she shared with her husband once or twice, since the young couple were married the previous fall.
Cursing to himself, and doing what he could to comfort Phoebe's husband John, Amos gathered his things and left the house, now one of abject mourning. In truth, there was nothing to be done. Young Mrs. Cook was dead, and there was no bringing her back. Amos felt the too-familiar sensation of defeat and failure prick the lining of his heart.
It can't be helped. Tend to your business now; get back to the surgery and see what else can be done before the day is out.
Swinging into the saddle, and pulling his heavy cloak close against the biting cold of the October evening, Dr. Hale squinted into the setting sun, pulled his tricorn low over his eyes and trotted along the lane that led back to town. The journey back to Little Falls would take some time, and Amos allowed his mind to wander, the rhythmic beat of his horse's hooves against the packed earth lulling him into a reminiscent state.
Medicine hadn't been his calling. The youngest son of a maid and stable groom, Amos spent his formative years in the household of Francis Bellamy, whose influence led young Amos to consider entering the Clergy. For years, Amos gave himself to the pursuit of Christian thought and academics. Even after Mr. Bellamy left the City of Little Falls, Amos thought a lifetime in the pulpit would be his destiny. Over time, however, and through continual correspondence between the two, the impressionable Amos became jaded to what he came to consider as an unjust and unfair God- influenced by the fiery and tireless work for the rights of working people which Mr. Bellamy wrote constantly of.
A profound disbeliever in anything remotely religious or spiritual, Amos turned to science- especially drawn to the discipline of medicine. His desire to help people never wavered, and by the time he was in his early 20's, he'd established a successful practice with many area residents believing he could cheat death and banish illness.
Not this time, he mused, spurring his horse forward to beat the setting sun.
The path home to Little Falls took the doctor through thick forest, over broad, rocky creek beds, and around grassy bogs. The last rays of sun had dimmed into murky twilight, leaving a golden glow behind to replace the pearly evening light. The trail became increasingly hard to see, and although his trusted mare was light of foot, she stumbled time and again, eventually stopping suddenly, one leg cocked.
Amos dismounted to see what was amiss, dislodged an offending stone, and decided to walk a ways to soothe his saddle sores, and relieve his mare of his weight while her sore foot eased.
Only 2 or 3 miles out of town, the darkness became unnerving. Amos didn't believe in ghosts or demons. His religion was science, and that never failed him. Regardless, even as the stars emerged to light his path, Amos felt nervous. A rare evening wind picked up and stirred the crunchy fallen leaves into strange noises, which Amos's seldom used imagination began to play with.
Enough, he chided himself. There's no point inventing something to fear. Disease is to be feared. War is to be feared. Man is to certainly be feared. Not spirits. Those people are dead. Gone.
The doctor remained skittish, and to relieve his anxiety, began talking to his mare.
"You scared, Liberty?" The velvet nose of the mare sniffed and blew into Dr. Hale's ear, but aside from a soft nicker, didn't reply. "Don't tell anyone, but I'm feeling a bit spooked. Darned upset about young Phoebe on top of that." Liberty was silent. "You know, sometimes I feel like shaking my fist at the Almighty. His justice is unfathomable. Maybe I'm just not the doctoring type. Everyone else seems to have all kinda faith in me. Everyone but me."
Dr. Hale froze.
Reaching up to the saddle, Amos quietly withdrew his old musket, and set the butt on the ground. He loaded it with a charge and ball, filled the firing pan, and pulled back the hammer. He wrapped his reigns around the nearest branch, and crept forward along the trail, squinting into the inky darkness. The war was long over, so although he wasn't worried about Redcoats, there were plenty of bears and wildcats roaming the nighttime woods, so if he had to use the one powder charge he had, to clear the way home, he'd be ready.
Aside from the unusual wind, the woods were quiet. He thought the sharp noises had come from further down the path, but now he wasn't so sure.
Jumping upright, he shouldered his weapon and began shouting. “Hey! You there! I'm armed! Now git off the trail and be on your way!” He felt foolish for yelling at an animal.
Striding boldly down the path with his musket ready to fire, he stopped periodically to listen.
Nothing. Only wind.
Lowering the gun slightly, he turned to retrieve Liberty, stumbling over a fallen log that partially blocked the path. Peering down to free his boot, Amos was shocked by what he saw.
There, illuminated only by starlight, but clear enough, was a word carved into the bark of the log.
Amos stared, swallowing hard. Straightening, he looked around again, and then quickly made his way to Liberty, trying not to spook her in the process. Out of the corner of his eye, he glimpsed something quick-moving and light, assumed it was a cougar, and spurred Liberty to a gallop, heedless of the darkened road.
Both man and beast were breathless and sweating as they skidded into the dooryard of the doctor's home. It was also his place of business, with a stable attached. He handed off Liberty to a small boy who emerged out of the shadows, and stalked into the house, where his wife Mary was waiting. She saw the look on his face, combined with the disheveled state of his hair and clothes, and was alarmed.
“What's amiss, husband?” She asked, handing him a mug of hot mulled cider.
“Nothing.” He replied, accepting the cup and dropping into a nearby chair. “Just an animal spooking Liberty, flighty creature. Thought I saw something, but wasn't staying out there to find out what.”
“Just as well. You've got a morning full of patients to see. Best be getting to bed.” She knew his self-doubt, and tried to sound nonchalant.
“Yes, you're right. Go on up, and I'll join you shortly.”
Mary picked up a candlestick and disappeared up the stairs in a halo of flickering light.
Amos rubbed his face, heaved a sigh, and went to rinse his empty cup. Leaning over the basin, he glanced out the low-hung window into the dooryard, where he had just left Liberty and the small stable boy. The strange wind still blew, picking up dust, and leaves, driving them in whirls and torrents through the air.
Then, suddenly, a dim light appeared from the corner of the barn. Amos peered out through the glass. The light seemed to tighten and form into a long, slim shape. Shaken, the doctor couldn't take his eyes off the specter. Growing fear worked to glue his feet to the floor, and immobilize his legs. The eerie shape continued to solidify and drift closer to the window, until it stopped and Dr. Hale could finally see what was there.
It was Phoebe Cook.
She hovered in front of the window, her dead eyes seemed somehow alive, swimming in the sea of mist that shaped her face. Her mouth opened and closed, speaking, but only silently- unable to relay her message.
The scream of terror choked the doctor, and he simply turned and fled up the stairs, the empty cider cup rolling off the basin to smash itself to bits against the wide floor planks.
Mary was up the next morning, long before her husband, who'd struggled through the night, fending off nightmares and insomnia, his self-doubt working to convince him that everything he'd experienced the day before was the result of a weak mind and constitution. Mary woke him just before his first patients arrived, and he dressed, dreading every minute that lay ahead.
The morning was cold. Heavy frost lay on the windows of the reception rooms, as the fire, which had been banked overnight, sprang to life. Amos sat behind his desk and glared at the windows. A small corner of one pane caught his eye, and he rose to examine it. A fear rose as he neared, so acute it was painful, for there, written in the frost with a shaky hand were the words:
He backed away and sat heavily in his desk chair. The morning sun rapidly washed away the mysterious words as the heat from the rays hit the glass.
Murder. Thought Amos. Phoebe thinks I murdered her. I couldn't save her, I might as well have murdered her. She must have written those words on that tree out on the trail too. I'm doomed. A patient is HAUNTING ME! Oh MURDER MURDER MURDER! What will I do?
In the doctor's horrified state, he forgot that he didn't believe in ghosts or demons. His usually disciplined mind fell away as his fevered imaginings took complete control. Throughout the day, as Dr. Hale saw to several people, whose ailments and injuries ranged from coughs to a broken nose. There was also a message to see a woman on the other end of town, who seemed to be down with yellow fever, the prospect of which occupied the doctor's thoughts entirely for the rest of the day. A yellow fever outbreak had to be avoided at all costs.
The outbreak he so feared happened. Amos worked night and day to extinguish the flames of the contagion. As people died, the doctor's confidence fell lower and lower. Although he didn't see her during his waking hours, Phoebe visited his dreams, mouthing her accusations and pointing a spectral finger at him. Finally, nearly a week later, the last of the victims began to recover. In all, 54 people perished- too many for a small town. Dr. Hale was inconsolable.
Mary's worry increased until one morning her husband descended the stairs and sat at the table. His hair was disheveled and there were dark circles under his eyes.
“I'm finished with medicine, Mary,” he said quietly.
Knowing her protests would fall on deaf ears, she continued with her duties, leaving the house to tend to her chickens, leaving Dr. Hale alone.
In the pit of despair, Amos let his head fall to the table. A soft scratching at the window drew his attention. To his utter disbelief, there, in the frosty window across the room, words formed on their own:
YOU MUST NOT STOP
Breathless, Amos stared at the haunted window. In his distraction, he barely felt the touch on his shoulder. The whisper at his ear felt like a breeze:
You must not stop being a doctor. My death is not your fault. It was my time to go. I am happy. My son is with me. Do not despair. As my time on Earth is over, yours still continues, and people need you. You were meant to heal people. If you were not, it would not be so. It has never been in your control. You must have faith.
Gasping, Amos leapt to his feet, overturning his chair. The room was empty. The sun was quickly erasing the words from the window while it filled the room with light. As the sun's rays filled the room, Dr. Hale felt the anguish and darkness leave his heart, leaving only lightness and confidence. If he was still a man of God, he would have called it faith.
He never saw Phoebe again, or witnessed her haunting words. The purpose of her life wasn't his to fulfill, her life had it's own autonomy. He finally understood his place in the universe, and where he was meant to go in the future- without doubt, or hesitation.
In reality, Dr. Amos Haile lived in Fairfield, NY, and served as the town supervisor in addition to his work as a physician. He is buried at the old cemetery in Eatonville, NY. He was married to Mary Potter. He helped bring together the first group of people who established the Fairfield Medical College, but sadly died at the young age of 39, just days before his 40th birthday.
Francis Bellamy did live for a time in Little Falls, NY, but only for a short time. He died in Tampa, Fl, still fighting as a Christian Socialist for the rights of working people.
The names of all the characters are taken from notable family names of the Kuyahoora Valley.