An Inspirational Mystery
In blind confusion, a coatless Jed Sutton stumbled outside his tiny cabin and moved awkwardly down the porch steps into the bitter January night. Although a sharp wintry blast quickly extinguished the exaggerated warmth of the wood fire still lingering on his skin, his outer discomfort was insignificant compared with his inner pain. His breath created frosty puffs in the blackness as he paused to listen. But there was no escape. Even the sharp staccato of the icy drizzle on the tin roof couldn’t muffle his daughter’s cries of pain. Each one pierced his heart.
Jed raised his face to the heavens, but couldn’t find the words. It was a blasphemous admission coming from the head elder of the True Covenant Shepherds, but for the first time in his fifty-one years, Jed was unable to pray. How could he possibly ask God to look down on the terrible evil which had erupted in his home tonight?
Jed spun around as the cabin’s rough, plank door slammed open. His wife’s petticoats churned with agitation under her floor-length skirt as she paced frantically back and forth on the back porch squinting into the winter night. A lock of her waist-long, chestnut hair had loosened unnoticed from its tightly woven bun, and she was clutching her heavy woolen cape at an odd angle. Even in the darkness, Jed could make out the deep lines of anxiety etched across her forehead.
When she spied her husband, Margaret blurted out, “Jed, Becky’s in bad trouble.” Her voice quivered. “I can’t stop the bleeding, and she’s hurting real bad. Please, I’m asking for your permission to call Bella.”
In the dim light of a kerosene lantern radiating through the kitchen window, Jed caught sight of the sharp crimson stain splashed across Margaret’s white starched apron, and he knew what had to be done.
“I’m going to call the young Doc down in Sommerville,” he said. “Should have done it right away.”
Without another word, he raced along the path toward the front of the cabin.
Margaret’s eyes widened in horror.
“Jed, wait!” she cried out frantically as she scrambled along trying to find her footing on the wet ice. “Wait! We can’t! What if Reverend Henderson finds out? Jed . . . .”
But her words were lost in the raw blackness. Jed had already reached his old pick-up truck and was barreling down the hill from their isolated settlement toward the closest telephone located outside Arnold’s General Store several miles away. He was a man on a mission.
Dr. Paul Abrams was savoring an unusually quiet evening at home. He was in his easy chair completely immersed in the latest issue of American Medical Quarterly when his wife called his attention to the late news channel she was watching.
“Paul, look at this. They’re closing down a portion of the Northway.”
He glanced up from his reading to comment, “It must be getting pretty bad out there. Looks like the snow has turned to freezing rain.”
“Well, I’m just thankful you’re not out in it tonight. I’d be worried sick.”
As soon as she finished speaking, the phone rang. Ignoring Maria’s annoyed expression, Paul automatically reached for the receiver: “Dr. Abrams.”
“Doc, I’m sure glad to reach you. This is Jedidiah Sutton from up on Hayden Hill. We got us an emergency here and need your help right away.”
Abruptly Paul’s body tensed and his eyebrows shot up. In the local vernacular, Hayden Hill meant the True Covenant Shepherds who were known for shunning modern medical practices based on their strict religious beliefs.
“What seems to be the problem, Mr. Sutton?”
“Listen, Doc. We’ll talk when you get here. You will come, won’t you?”
“I’m a little confused. If it’s an emergency, I can send the EMTs up there.”
“No, please, Doc! We need a real doctor right away. Somebody who knows what he’s doing!”
Aware that something extraordinary must have prompted a Shepherd to call for help, Paul reacted to Jed’s request in the only way he knew. “Of course, I’ll come. But I’ve never been in your settlement. How will I find your house?”
“Take the turn at Arnold’s General Store and come straight up Hayden Hill Road for about two miles. When you cross the bridge over Sanborne’s Creek, look for the first cabin on the left. I’ll be watching for you.” Jed choked as his voice became almost a whisper. “Doc, it’s my daughter Becky. . . She’s real bad.”
As soon as he put down the phone, Maria made no attempt to hide her displeasure.
“We can’t even have one decent evening together,” his wife complained. “This is definitely not what I signed onto.”
“We’ll talk about this later, Honey. This is not the time,” said Paul evenly as he started towards the stairs.
“When will it ever be the time?” she persisted. “I’m sick and tired of living like this. You always put your patients before me.”
Paul was getting tired of Maria’s constant whining, but his irritation instantly dissolved when he remembered her earlier statement of concern. He turned and walked over to where she was curled up dejectedly in the corner of the couch. When he bent over to kiss the top of her head, she ignored his gesture.
“I know you’re worried about me having to go out in this weather, but I’ll be fine. I’ll try to get home as soon as I can.”
“Well, don’t expect me to be waiting up for you,” she snapped as she pointed the TV remote and turned up the volume.
Without another glance in his wife’s direction, Paul rushed down the stairs from his living quarters and through the darkness of his medical clinic. Unfortunately, Paul had become an expert at glossing over Maria’s discontentment and that is exactly what he did tonight. A call from a Shepherd was enough for him to handle.
He paused at the main desk. Usually, he automatically logged-in each emergency call for follow-up later. But the odd circumstances surrounding this call prompted him to break from his usual routine. Instead, Paul briefly bowed his head in prayer before snatching up his medical his bag and zipping his goose-down parka.
Feeling the wheels of his Jeep constantly churning to find sufficient traction on the rapidly-forming black ice, Paul strained to see the road through the frozen rivets reflecting back in the headlights. It hadn’t taken long for him to realize it would be a real challenge to reach the Shepherds’ community tonight. Unlike Maria, he appreciated the seasonal changes which enhanced life in these mountains and had eagerly embraced the whole package when it was offered to him two years ago. He described the quaint village of Sommerville to his New York City friends as incredibly beautiful, cushioned on three sides by a shimmering lake, and nestled comfortably into the foothills of the Adirondack Mountains—like a living postcard. What he purposely neglected to mention were the intense winter storms, like the one tonight.
When Paul replaced the retiring Dr. Collins two years ago, he didn’t expect to have any contact with the Shepherds. He was told their health issues were taken care of within the confines of their own community under the supervision of their leader, Reverend Henderson. So the call from Jedidiah Sutton was quite a shock.
As Paul switched to low beams, one question persisted: Why would a Shepherd call me?
He tried to recall the few vague items of information he learned from Cindy, his office manager and a life-long Sommerville resident.
Apparently, the Shepherds represented a respectable group of families who established a small settlement for religious reasons during the early 1960s about fifteen miles outside Sommerville. Cindy described them as kind people who took their Christian faith very seriously, but preferred to separate themselves from others living “in the world.” The Shepherds were easy to spot because of their somber, old-fashioned style of dress.
Now that Paul had time to think about tonight’s emergency, he was relieved he had not recorded it in the night’s log. After hearing Cindy’s description of Rev. Henderson, Paul was almost positive Mr. Sutton would prefer this medical visit to remain confidential.
About thirteen miles outside Sommerville, Paul had to slow down even more because the slush was smearing directly across the windshield in Paul’s line of sight. When he finally caught sight of Arnold’s General Store, he breathed a sigh of relief and reached down to shift into a lower gear. The deep growl of the Jeep’s engine spewed confidence as it made the sharp turn onto the unpaved road’s rutty incline leading directly toward the True Covenant Shepherds’ colony.
After the few rough miles, Paul crossed a small bridge and spotted a flickering light ahead and off to his left. A determined-looking Shepherd was standing wide-legged in front of a shoveled driveway leading to a small cabin. The man was swinging a large lantern back and forth with one hand while motioning toward the Jeep with the other. Edging closer, Paul saw the cabin was the first of many lining either side of the road like somber soldiers.
Paul followed the gestures of the grim-faced Shepherd and pulled up next to a pick-up truck in the open garage. Before he could turn off the engine, his door flew open from the outside. He barely had time to grab his medical bag before he felt himself being propelled towards the house.
“Right in here, Doc. She’s real bad.”
“I can’t thank you enough for coming tonight, Doc,” the Shepherd said as he led Paul through a small, cozy kitchen. When they reached the doorway of his daughter’s bedroom, Jed turned and said, “She’s right in here. I’d appreciate it if you’d wait for a minute.”
Paul was stunned by the scene playing out in front of him. In spite of the raw, chilly night, the closeness of mingled sweat and blood permeated the small room as distorted shadows from a single kerosene lantern danced across the walls. A young girl with exquisitely delicate features was writhing in great pain under a light sheet. Her long, blond hair was plastered to her head and her nightgown was soaked with perspiration. Bath towels stained with blood were piled on the floor next to a Shepherd woman, most likely her mother, who was bent over the bed trying to keep a wet compress on the girl’s head. But there was so much movement on the bed, her task was nearly impossible.
Jed stepped into the room and said, “Margaret.”
The woman turned abruptly. Although her husband was standing in front of her, her focus moved immediately to the outsider standing in the doorway. She bit her lip, and tears filled her eyes as she whispered, “Please, God. Please forgive us!”
“Hold on, Honey,” Jed said as he reached out toward his wife. “You know we’re in over our heads here.”
“In the name of all that’s holy, how can you defy the Covenant like this?”
“It’s gonna be alright now the Doc is here. He came to help us . . . to help Becky.”
Although Margaret was conditioned to submitting to the authority of her husband, she initially resisted Jed’s embrace before finally collapsing in his arms.
Paul saw his opportunity and quickly stepped into the bedroom. After moving around the grieving parents into Margaret’s previous position, he spoke quietly to his patient. “Becky, I am Dr. Abrams. Your father asked me to come.”
He hesitated. When there was no response, he raised his voice and said, “Becky, can you hear me?”
Margaret and Jed anxiously waited, watching for their daughter’s reaction.
“Becky, I know you’re scared and in a lot of pain, but I need to examine you,” Paul continued as he gently took her hand. “Will you let me do that?”
His simple gesture seemed to reassure her. As Becky turned toward him, she tensed up to battle another wave of pain. In a harsh, half-stifled gasp, she cried out, “Oh, Mama, it’s starting again!”
But Paul waved Margaret away and said, “Becky, point to the pain. Show me where it’s coming from.”
While arching her back in agony, she managed to touch her abdomen. And, as Paul pulled the sheet aside, his first impressions were confirmed.
“How long has she been in labor?” he asked the parents over his shoulder as he reached for his medical bag.
A long silence filled the room.
When Jed made no attempt to answer the doctor, Margaret reached into her apron pocket and began dabbing her eyes. “Dr. Abrams,” she said rapidly, “when Becky woke up with cramps this morning, we thought she had the flu. She wouldn’t let us near her, just curled up on the bed and whimpered. It wasn’t until she started to have a . . .” She searched for the right word before continuing, “a discharge that we got real worried. Jed and me, we didn’t know what to do. Is she gonna be alright?”
Paul turned to face the distressed parents, speaking slowly and with great care, he said, “I’m going to level with you. This is a tough situation, but I want you to know I’ll do my best . . . for both of them. How old is your daughter?”
Margaret looked over at the suffering form on the bed before dropping her eyes to the handkerchief she was balling tightly in her hands. In barely a whisper she said, “She’s only thirteen, won’t turn fourteen for three months.”
As Paul concentrated on examining his young patient, Jed wrapped his arm protectively around his wife; this time she didn’t resist. They involuntarily flinched with each of Becky’s cries as they waited for the doctor’s decision.
Finally, the Paul leaned back and turned to face them. His face was grim. “This is a difficult situation, for both of them. Labor is too far along to risk moving Becky now, and the baby has a weak heartbeat. I’m going to have to deliver the baby right here.” Paul rubbed his forehead with his hand. “I’m very sorry, Mr. and Mrs. Sutton, but I can’t make any promises.”
“Oh, no!” Margaret gasped.
“I’m going to need your help,” Paul said.
“Of course, Doc,” Jed said. “Anything.”
“Mrs. Sutton, can you find two or three clean sheets, more clean towels, a pan of warm water, and can you heat up a small blanket for the baby?” He looked around. “We’ll also need more light.”
Obediently, Margaret bustled out of the room still dabbing at her eyes as Paul motioned to her husband. “Mr. Sutton, bring the lantern closer and sit over here by Becky’s side. She needs her Dad right now.”
As Jed awkwardly stroked his daughter’s arm, his heart was pumping so hard and fast he thought the Doc would have to treat him too. His own precious baby having a baby!
Jed took a large breath and began to speak very quietly in a confidential tone as if he were confessing his sins. “Listen, Doc. Margaret and me, we didn’t know about any of this until today—had no idea. Becky told us nothing . . .”
Paul abruptly cut him off. “We’ll discuss this later. Right now we need to focus on Becky and the baby.”
“You’re right, Doc,” Jed quickly agreed as he handed over what he loved most to an outsider he had never met before. He figured he had no other choice.
Only a few minutes passed before Margaret hurried into the bedroom with another kerosene lamp and a deep scowl.
“You’ve done it now, Jed Sutton,” she announced with a grim expression. “I knew we’d be in trouble. We’ve got us a visitor, and he’s waiting for you on the front porch.”
Jed was stunned. From his wife’s disapproving stance, he knew the unexpected visitor was a fellow Shepherd. Somehow, he hadn’t managed to prepare himself for that possibility just yet. A deep dread rolled over him as he slowly stood, rubbing his wet palms against his homespun trousers and squaring his shoulders. Without a word to Margaret or Dr. Abrams, Jed headed towards the front room.