Susan Wiggs
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Stand-Alone Novels

The Drifter The Drifter
Mira (March 2003)
ISBN-10: 1551666898
ISBN-13: 978-1551666891
Published in 1998

Excerpt

Whidbey Island, Washington 1894

"Don't scream, or I'll shoot," warned a low-pitched voice.

Leah Mundy jerked awake and found herself looking down the barrel of a gun. Sheer panic jolted her to full alert.

"I'm not going to scream," she said, dry-mouthed. In her line of work she had learned to control fear. Lightning flickered, glancing off the dull blue finish of a Colt barrel. "Please don't hurt me." Her voice broke but didn't waver.

"Lady, that's up to you. Just do as you're told, and nobody'll get hurt."

Do as you're told. Leah Mundy certainly had practice at that. "Who are you," she asked, "and what do you want?"

"Who I am is the man holding this gun. What I want is Dr. Mundy. Sign outside says he lives here."

Thunder pulsed in the distance, echoing the thud of her heart. She forced herself to keep the waves of terror at bay as she blurted, "Dr. Mundy does live here."

"Well, go get him."

"I can't do that."

"Why not?"

She swallowed, trying to collect her wits, failing miserably. "He's dead. He died three months ago."

"Sign says Dr. Mundy lives here." Fury roughened the insistent voice.

"The sign's right." Rain lashed the windowpanes. She squinted into the gloom. Beyond the gun, she couldn't make out anything but the intruder's dark shape. A loud snore drifted down the hall, and she glanced toward the noise. Think, think, think. Maybe she could alert one of the boarders.

The gun barrel jabbed at her shoulder. "For chrissakes, woman, I don't have time for guessing games -"

"I'm Dr. Mundy."

"What?"

"Dr. Leah Mundy. My father was also a doctor. We were in practice together. But now there's just me."

"Just you."

"Yes."

"And you're a doctor."

"I am."

The large shape shifted impatiently. She caught the scents of rain and brine on him. Rain and brine from the sea and something else ... desperation.

"You'll have to do, then. Get your things, woman. You're coming with me."

She jerked the covers up under her chin. "I beg your pardon."

"You'll be begging for your sorry life if you don't get a move on."

The threat in his voice struck like a whip. She didn't argue. Spending three years with her father back in Deadwood, South Dakota, had taught her to respect a threat issued by a man holding a gun.

But she'd never learned to respect the man himself.

"Turn your back while I get dressed," she said.

"That's pretty lame, even for a lady doctor," he muttered. "I'm not fool enough to turn my back."

"Any man who bullies unarmed people is a fool," she snapped.

"Funny thing about bullies," he said calmly, using the nose of the Colt to ease the quilt down her body. "They pretty much always manage to get what they want. Now, move."

She yanked off the covers and shoved her feet into the sturdy boots she wore when making her calls. Island weather was wet in the springtime, and she'd never been one to stand on high fashion. She wrapped herself in a robe, tugging the tie snugly around her waist.

She tried to pretend this was an ordinary call on an ordinary night. Tried not to think about the fact that she had been yanked out of a sound sleep by a man with a gun. Damn him. How dare he?

"Are you ill?" she asked the gunman.

"Hell, no, I'm not sick," he said. "It's ... someone else."

For some reason, his hesitation took the edge off her anger. Another thing she'd learned about bullies - they almost always acted out of fear.

"I'll need to stop in the surgery, get some things."

"Where's the surgery?"

"Downstairs, adjacent to the kitchen." She pushed open the door, daring to flash one look down the hall. Mr. Battle Douglas was a light sleeper, but despite his name, he wouldn't know the first thing to do about an armed intruder. Adam Armstrong, the newcomer, probably would, but for all she knew, the handsome timber merchant could be in league with the gunman. Aunt Leafy would only dissolve into hysterics, and Perpetua had her young son to consider. As for old Zeke Pomfrit, he'd likely grab his ancient rifle and join her abductor.

The gunman jabbed the Colt into her ribs. "Lady, don't go doing anything foolish."

Leah surrendered the urge to rouse the household. She couldn't do it. Couldn't put any of them at risk.

"You may call me Dr. Mundy," she said over her shoulder. Her hand slipped down the banister as she made her way to the foyer. The man wore a long, cloaked duster that billowed out as he descended, sprinkling rainwater on the carpet runner.

"You're not a lady?" he whispered, his mouth far too close to her ear. His voice had a curious raw edge to it.

"Not to you."

She led the way along a hall to the darkened surgery. In the immaculate suite that occupied the south wing of the house, she lit a lamp. Her hands shook as she fumbled with a match, and her anger renewed itself. As the blue- white flame hissed to life, she turned to study her captor. She noted a fringe of wet hair the color of straw, lean cheeks chapped by the wind and stubbled by a few days' growth of beard. An old scar on the ridge of his cheekbone. He pulled down his dripping hat brim before she could see his eyes.

"What sort of ailment will I be treating?" she asked.

"Hell, I don't know. You claim you're the doctor."

Leah told herself she should be hardened to doubt and derision by now. But some things she never got used to. Like someone - even a dangerous man hiding behind a gun - thinking gender had anything at all to do with the ability to heal people.

"What are the symptoms?" She lifted the flap of her brown leather medical bag, checking the contents. Capped vials of feverfew, quinine, digitalis, carbolic acid disinfectant. Morphine crystals and chloroform. Instruments for extracting teeth and suppurating wounds. A stethoscope and clinical thermometer sterilized in bichloride of mercury, and a hypodermic syringe for injecting medicines into the bloodstream.

"The symptoms?" she prompted.

"I guess ... fever. Stomach cramps. Babbling and such. Wheezing and coughing, too."

"Coughing blood?" Leah asked sharply.

"Nope. No blood."

It could be any number of things, including the dreaded scourge, diphtheria. She tucked in some vials of muriate of ammonia, then took her oiled canvas slicker from a hook on the back of the door. "I'm ready," she said. "And I might add that forcing me at gunpoint isn't necessary. It's my calling to heal people. If you want to put that away, I'll still come."

He didn't put the gun away. Instead, he pushed the flap of his duster back to reveal a second gun. The holster - darkened with grease for quicker drawing - was strapped to a lean, denim-clad hip. The gun belt, slung low around a narrow waist, bore a supply of spare cartridges in the belt's loops. Clearly, he was a man unused to being given what he asked for. He jerked the barrel toward the back door, motioning her ahead of him.