The sun was already hanging high at midday when Castiel heard the tell-tale sound of hoofbeats pounding down the dusty road towards his home. He sighed and stood, rinsing the blood from his hands the best he could in the dish of water he’d prepared the night before; it’d had gone cold by now, hours since it had been set to boil when Miss Ellen’s wagon pulled up, her hand Ash stretched out in the back. It had been a bad break, the worst Castiel had seen since he arrived in the little town of Perdition, in the Montana territory. The bone had broken clean but the man’s fall had sent the sharpened femur piercing through muscle and skin.
Castiel had done what he could. At best, Ash would walk with a limp for the rest of his life. At worst, infection would set in and he’d lose the leg, if not his life. Only time would tell. For the moment, he was out cold, the laudanum and ether having quelled his pain and allowed him some sleep while the young doctor had plastered his leg.
Castiel was young by most physician standards, but a town like Perdition took what they could get. Not yet even thirty, the doctor had arrived on a stagecoach a year or so prior, all the way from Boston, and his practice had been booming ever since. The townspeople had been kind enough to grant him the deed to the old judge’s home on the edge of town; it was large and had space enough for him to create his own small hospital on the lower floors, and besides, it had been all but abandoned since the old crook Crowley had been run out of town. It was far enough away from the town proper to afford some privacy and quiet, so the sound of horses on the oncoming road when he had no appointments could only mean a new patient, most likely an emergency.
“Is there a doctor in this heap of trash town or ain’t there?” a voice hollered, and Castiel sighed. The last he had wanted to deal with on a day like this, when he hadn’t had sleep since being roused from his bed the night before, were the rough and tumble cowboy and outlaw types that rolled through Perdition now and again, and it sounded like that was just who he was about to greet.
He took off his pocketwatch and family ring, tucking them away in a dresser, before putting on his coat and heading down to the porch to greet his visitors. It never hurt to be careful, after all. There weren’t many folks in Perdition who could pay for his services, and the few who could never had much to give. When rowdy horseman showed up, he made sure to put away his meager valuables for safekeeping.
He held back an exasperated sigh when he made his way out the front door. There were six men on horseback, each looking more worse for wear than the next. The one in front was particularly ugly, with a thin and haggard figure. A jagged scar crossed his face, one eye gone milky white, and he rasped as he spoke.
“You the doc?” he asked.
Castiel resisted the urge to cringe. “I am,” he relented. “Though I’m afraid I may be too late to help you, Mr…?”
The man gave a throaty cough and then spat, righting his hat that had gone crooked with the motion of his expectoration.
“Hobble your lip! Ain’t here for me,” he growled, clearly offended. “For thissun,” he added, and pulled at a hand that had been gripping his belt. It was only then that Castiel saw the woman on the ugly man’s mount, and he had to restrain himself from stepping forward in anger when the man twisted her by the arm and nearly pushed her from the saddle.
She landed on her knees in the dust and didn’t stand, just stayed knelt there, straightening the old-fashioned bonnet on her head and brushing gravel from her calico dress. Castiel wanted to go help the lady up, but knew better than to make such a gesture in front of a man like this, the type who clearly saw her as property.
“What… what seems to be the problem?” he asked with forced calmness.
“Been dragging thissun ‘round on my horse for damn near two years and she ain’t never stopped with her bleedin’,” the man replied. He moved to continue but another fit of coughing took him and he was at it a good minute or two before he spat into the dirt once again. If he noticed the tinge of red to the spittle clinging to his lip, he didn’t mention it; Castiel didn’t either.
“Every damn doctor out this way is a shave tail if there ever was, you’re the first any town seems right by. Got no room on my horse for a woman I ain’t beddin’. Word is you could fix’er up right,” the man went on, earning some sniggering from his compatriots.
“Ain’t no use for a woman can’t unlock her knees!” one shouted, earning another round of laughter.
“Sure got purdy lips though,” another added, and the leader gave a greasy grin.
“Say doc, you gonna help me out? Me and the boys headin’ back to the town proper, try some of that boss whiskey they got at your roadhouse. Figure I’ll leave the woman with you, see if you can’t straight her out,” the leader said.
Castiel frowned. “I don’t know that there is much I can do for her here,” Castiel began, and when he noted the slump of the woman’s shoulders, he quickly added, “But I’ll do my best. Take your time in town, maybe I’ll have an answer for you when you return.”
The ugly man whooped, and ground his heels into his horse’s sides, turning quickly and heading back down the road he had arrived on. The rest of his gang soon followed, the lone woman left shivering in the dirt.
Castiel quickly moved down the stairs of his porch, striding towards the cowering woman with definite purpose. He felt miserable for having left her to suffer through such a shameful display, but it was delicate work, dealing with the likes of the ugly man and his gang, and Castiel knew he’d be no good to anyone at all if he was shot dead on his front porch for running his mouth.
“I’m sorry, miss,” he said, extending a hand to help her to her feet. She struggled a moment before she stood, and Castiel was surprised to find her nearly as tall as he was. She kept her gaze lowered, face obscured by the bonnet that Castiel thought must be at least fifteen years out of style; it vaguely reminded him of what he’d seen his mother wear in his youth.
“Why don’t you come on inside? I’m a physician, but I won’t press on with anything you don’t want. You’re safe here. I’ll get you a cup of tea and a meal, see if we can’t find a way to help you, what do you say?” he said, voice as gentle as he could take his gruff tenor.
She looked up at his words, gratefulness shining in the greenest gaze that Castiel had ever set eyes on. She was a pretty thing, all long lashes, sweet freckled skin, dark blonde hair falling out of curls pinned up beneath her bonnet, and a full pretty mouth. Castiel was surprised such a lovely thing could be tied up with such an angry creature, but even more surprised when she nodded her assent; the high collar of her dress fell just slightly, and the doctor squinted and frowned when he spotted his guest’s Adam’s apple.