The Heart Burns by Marlene Renee
Under the ribs where pulses thud”
On one stifling hot August day my life went from high tea and maids to guns and death threats. In my naiveté I’d caused the drastic change – I challenged the Universe in a rash moment. No one does that and gets away with it. But as I was wont to bend the rules rather than dance to them I did, then the Universe dumped everything I asked for and more on me.
My life altered the moment I stepped off the train in Missoula, Montana. Well, to be truthful the change started with my hasty decision to leave Chicago. I could have climbed right back on that train at Missoula and returned to the relative sanity of my parents’ home. But the West and the Universe caused something to shift inside me and I’ve never been the same person since.
Missoula was the first of two legs of my journey from Chicago. The second would stop at Bandit Creek, Montana: a small town in the shadow of Turtle Mountain whose population had exploded since the recent discovery of gold. My Uncle Rob is the one and only town doctor. And Sheriff Dan is the one and only lawman. When I think of Dan I feel . . . I best leave that part until later.
I’d decided to take control of my life, satisfy my craving to use my medical training before my impending marriage, head to Bandit Creek, and doctor with Uncle Rob for one month.
My plan would be so easy.
I was soooo naïve.
Three days earlier . . .
My plan erupted, rather like a volcano blasting forth rock and lava after weeks and months of building pressure. It was a few days before the end of a stifling hot July. Daddy, my mother and I were having breakfast in our over-large dining room, French lace curtains gently swaying at the opened windows. With a flourish, our butler presented Daddy with a telegraph from Uncle Rob.
Daddy read, “Congratulations to Mackenzie on her medical degree. Congratulations on her engagement. Won’t be able to attend the wedding. Practice is busy. Could use Mackenzie to help me before she starts having babies.”
“Imagine,” my English-born mother snorted delicately as she sipped tea from a fine china cup at the far end of the highly polished table. “Imagine a woman setting up a medical practice, let alone doctoring in the Wild West. We’re far too delicate for that sort of thing.”
Mother already thought I was an anomaly in society, and had elegantly restrained her glee when Daddy had put his foot down and stopped my plans to set up a medical practice. But she used every opportunity to reinforce her displeasure with my choices in life.
“True,” Daddy answered. “I’m not sure why Rob would suggest it.”
My heart had soared as Daddy read the telegraph. It sank like a heavy rock at Daddy’s words. My boring life would plod on until I accepted Tepid Tom as my mate. Privately, that’s what I called my fiancé. Don’t get me wrong, Tom was a good man and would treat me well. He just wasn’t as exciting as I’d hoped.
But beggars can’t be choosers as my mother pointed out multiple times a day. I was a grown woman, a few months short of 24, very dusty after shelving myselffrom the marriage market at the tender age of sixteen. You see, at fifteen I’d declared my wish to pursue an education in medicine rather than trade meaningless compliments with spoiled rich suitors. My mother had thought my brain addled.
She still did.
Luckily for me, I’d always been my Irish daddy’s favourite. Of his four daughters, I was the only one who resembled him: dark-haired and with a serious bent.
I’d cajoled, pleaded, smiled and outright pestered him until he’d given into my request – and sent me off to university at sixteen.
Having three younger sisters who were actively on the hunt for husbands hadn’t hindered my plan. All three were sweet-looking blonds like my mother with a liking for the frivolous in life. Their suitors, wardrobe demands and dramas had been more than enough for my parents to handle and had siphoned most of our parents’ attention towards them.
Hence, I’d gone off to get an education. Just a few months before I’d put Dr. in front of my name. In the past seven years my sisters had found themselves suitors, then husbands, and finally babies.
Which brought my parents’ undivided attention back to me – their sole single daughter living in their house – a full-fledged medical doctor but an old maid at 23.
In my mother’s words, It just wouldn’t do.
I thought it did just fine.
To be fair, Daddy had allowed me to gain an education at a time – the year of our Lord was 1885 – when it was highly rare for a female to go to university – let alone study medicine. I owed him. But my dearest wish was to have my own practice. I sincerely hoped at 23 I was too old, too studious, and too uninteresting for any man to offer for my hand.
As it turned out I was wrong.
My mother, eager to finally marry off her eldest, had found me the perfect match.
Tom was pleasant, clean, polite, passably attractive and Daddy’s age . . . not a man that would set a girl’s heart to fluttering or her breath to catch. But we could manage a conversation.
He asked Daddy for my hand within a week of meeting me.
I was stunned speechless.
On my behalf, Daddy agreed.
I was quietly enraged.
When Daddy set the wedding for two months hence, I felt like I’d been charged and sentenced to life imprisonment.
I had five weeks, thirty-five days, or exactly 840 hours before my parents expected me to step into my wifely duties in high society Chicago.
Everything about that life made me want to vomit.
But I’d choked back my opposition to the betrothal, heavy with guilt that I owed Daddy – owed him for seven years of academic bliss.
Uncle Rob’s telegram prompted me to try for one last chance at heaven before I said my vows.
My hunger dried up as my heart thumped harder. I folded my napkin, set it to the side of my plate as manners demanded. “Daddy, I’d love to work with Uncle Rob.”
My mother’s teacup clattered onto its saucer.
“Mackenzie girl, you’re not serious.” He continued to eat his toast and eggs as though my comment had been an irritating fly he’d swatted away.
“Yes, Daddy. I am.” When he didn’t answer, I fisted my hands in my skirt under the table. I was about to repeat myself when he jammed his napkin into a ball and threw it on his plate.
“No, Mackenzie. You’re not.” Daddy was a handsome man with dark hair touched with grey. But when his eyes turned to black and his voice sounded like cold metal, not one person in his three factories or in this household defied him.
Today, I did.
I sucked in a breath and grabbed hold of my courage. This was my last chance at an adventure. Likely my only chance to use the training I’d worked so hard at. I was 23. I couldn’t cajole and plead any more. I had to stand in my boots and tell Daddy what I wanted.
“Daddy, my wedding is in five weeks.”
“After I’m married, I won’t be allowed to practice medicine.” The word ‘allowed’ had become a bitter pill for me these past few weeks.
“We’ve already gone over that Mackenzie, get to the point.” Daddy’s eyes were hard. We’d both drawn a line in the sand over what I would be allowed to do in my life. Daddy had swiped my line clean in one easy stroke. If I chose medicine I would have no home, no financial support, no family. To be blunt, I would be kicked out, forced to survive on my own.A stark choice even for someone of my independence.
But the need to practice medicine burned at me. So much that the stark choice seemed almost more palatable than marriage and babies. So I softened my tone, tried to use this fresh opportunity for compromise. “I’m thankful that you allowed me to go to university. I love medicine. You know that. This may be the only chance I get to be a doctor.”
“You can tend to the ill in your household.”
“True but perhaps there’s a better use for my education even if it’s only for a few weeks.”
Stunned silence rocked the room.
A muscle jumped in Daddy’s jaw.
I braced myself.
“Mackenzie Delaney, I’ve humoured you long enough. It’s high time you got yourself a husband and gave me some grandbabies!”
That declaration shot through me and shattered any remaining illusions I’d had in my heart. Humoured me! Daddy wasn’t the only one who could put iron in his voice. I admit, I was shaking but I got the words out. “I thought you understood my need to learn, to stretch my mind, to do something that would help people?”
“Everyone needs a hobby. Your sisters paint and do needlework. You read medical books.”
My eyes grew wide. “A hobby! You think medical school and dealing with chauvinistic professors was a hobby!”
“Your bodyguard dealt with those men.”
“Mackenzie, you didn’t think I would allow you to go without supervising your education. After those first incidents, I warned the University I would withdraw my funding if it happened again.”
I slumped back in my chair as though someone had just punched me in the gut. Had it all been a lie? “And my marks? My degree?”
His voice gentled. “You earned those. You’re an intelligent young woman. And now you’ll use that intelligence to do your womanly duty.”
Maybe my breakfast eggs weren’t sitting right in my stomach, maybe it was the boredom of the past three weeks but whatever the reason this morning I dug in my heels and pushed the issue, “I want to help Uncle Rob.”
I knew I’d pushed too far when my mother gasped and clutched her throat.
Daddy’s face flamed red.
“Mackenzie Delaney, you’ll do as I order!” Daddy’s Irish temper shook the room and the dishes jumped as his fist hit the table.
And that was the end of that conversation.
Telling a Delaney they can’t is like waving a red cape in a bull’s face – something’s bound to explode. And I was definitely more my Daddy than my obedient mother.
Usually Daddy’s anger pushed the entire household into tiptoe mode for a few days with lots of ‘yes sirs’ and ‘no sirs’ and long stretches of silence in between. This time was no different – except for me. My brain was so noisy with ideas I thought it would burst. The news that Daddy had protected me through medical school hurt as I thought I’d won my battles independently. Reflection helped me realize my perception of winning the battles had honed my independence, my confidence and nurtured grit. But his behind the scenes help irked.
Yes, I owed Daddy. But the gnawing to go to Uncle Rob chewed through any residual obligation I had to Daddy.
On the third day after his dictum, I packed my satchel with three of my simplest dresses, some undergarments, donned my fashionable green jacket and skirt, tucked the little cash I had into my grandmother’s reticule and strapped a derringer to my leg.
Yes, I know how to use it. One of Daddy’s caveats when I went to University with all those men was that I knew how to shoot. He bought me the gun, personally instructed me and made me practice. I’ve worn a derringer on my leg for the past seven years. Even at fancy parties. I smile when I think of the fans and sharp looks the other women used to parry off unwanted advances at the balls.
Me? If a man got too fresh, I had my gun.
Not that the opportunity ever arose to use it.
I kept to the shadows at those affairs, escaping at the polite moment to rush home, put my nose in a medical text.
But I digress.
On August first, just as the sun was drying the morning dew from the grass, I boarded the train in Chicago. By August second I put my foot on dusty Montana ground, inhaled a lungful of vibrant air, and stared at massive mountains jutting high and proud on the horizon. My heart threatened to swell outside my chest.
Sometimes pure emotion tells a person their life is about to change. I felt that that day. As I stood outside the Missoula train station, the air around me seemed to shiver and morph like a mirage on the horizon. I wondered if I was simply light-headed from lack of nourishment. But as I gazed at the mountains they seemed to loom larger, expand, reach out to me. Startled I stepped back, sucked in a lungful of air. The mountain’s potency kicked me like a shot of aged whiskey. What in heavens was going on? I closed my eyes, huffed out a breath – then peered at the granite range with one eye. Their power hit me harder the second time. More like the spread of whiskey warmth rather than the initial punch. My reaction was so utterly bizarre, I chanced another two eyed view. The effects went deeper this time. Something in my core shifted, changed.
It startled me – that feeling – and for a moment I considered trading in my Bandit Creek ticket for a return trip to Chicago. To what end, I argued with myself. To be under Daddy’s thumb once again?
I looked back at the mountains and answered their call, spoke to them and to the universe that made them. “Whatever you’ve got in store for me, I’m ready. I’ve only 30 days. I want to experience as much of life as I can.” I’d always been more spiritual than religious – another trait that had my mother wondering how she’d ever borne such a child. I put my inclination for the spiritual and the fanciful down to Daddy’s stories of faeries I’d soaked up as a young girl.
Ominous shivers ran up and down my spine the moment the words were out of my mouth.