I vaguely remember them bringing me here, even though the whole chain of events that led me here was just a blur. The doctor in Reno doped me up with Laudanum for the pain, so I was pretty well out of it when they shipped me down to Sacramento. Sacramento did what they could for me, but my injuries were too severe, plus gangrene was setting in, so they loaded me on a ferry with a doctor to watch over me, and shipped me down to Frisco.
That was only the beginning of my woes. The Sisters Of Mercy is one of the best hospitals in the state, but I was pretty far gone when they got me. Over the next several weeks, they amputated three toes, three fingers on my left hand, and two on my right. They had to stop there to give me time to recover before continuing to hack away frost-bitten parts of me. My weight dropped sharply, and the fevers racked me to where they thought I would die. I almost did. As well as frostbite, they said my lungs were scorched by the bone chilling cold, and my body was so depleted by starvation that they wouldn't believe I was only out there for a night and a day. The one thing that kept me alive was my first rate physical condition...and the faint memories of what happened...the memories of her.
I became a local celebrity after the story got round, and my injuries were enough that the doctors wanted to keep a close eye on me, so I wound up in a single room under the tender loving care of Sister Grace. This place is first rate, as hospitals go. The walls are painted a restful tan, and there is a gas light and a small fireplace which the boy keeps stocked with coal. My bed has a firm horse hair mattress and a warm wool blanket, and the window next to my bed gives me a view of the bay. When I'm awake, I lay there listening to the Yuletide carolers and the fog horns in the distance, and feeling sorry for myself. At times, when the wind is right, I can hear the faint whistles from the factories along the bay. They sound like train whistles: they bring back the memories, and when that happens, I cower under my cover trying not to relive it again.
I didn't remember much at first: disjointed bits and pieces which made just enough sense to scare the hell out of me. But the pain brought blessed, merciful Laudanum, and the Laudanum brought the memories back bit by bit. They would dope me up until the pain faded and I sank into a numb semi-sleep, and the memories would come, one tiny fragment after another. There were a lot of gaps between moments of sheer terror and hot passion, and I couldn't tell what was what for the longest time. It went on like that for weeks. Why I kept going, I can't understand, but I knew I had to. They kept filling me with hot soup and Laudanum while they worked on me and I recovered in turn, and the memories added up one by one.
And as the memories began to stitch themselves together, an incredible story emerged. I couldn't believe it at first, and then I was afraid to believe it, but it must have happened: it explained too much. I thought about it endlessly, trying to make sense of it, and trying to decide if I wanted to tell the doctors about it. The railroad police hounded me for a while at first, and after they quit coming around, the doctors kept after me. They couldn't understand why I was so gaunt and thin, like I had starved for weeks. But in plain fact I was only missing off the 'Overland' for twenty-four hours before I stumbled half frozen into a trackside telegraph shanty the next evening. I should have frozen to death long before. Not that it mattered as far as my treatment, really, but there were too many things that just didn't add up. So even after they quit, I continued to agonize over it.
I wanted to tell them at first while the story was no more than incoherent fragments, but the more sense it made, the more afraid I was that they wouldn't believe me. Hell, I didn't believe it either. And as time went by, I worried more and more that they would put me in a mad-house if they knew. They would be tempted: a sanatorium might be more merciful than turning what was left of me loose to fend for myself. So I kept the truth hidden, and tried to shrug off their curiosity.
My fight promoter, Howard, came to see me at one point. He was all concern and forced cheer, of course, but I knew he was here to say goodbye. He said the fight was cancelled and the prize awarded to Wild Man McGurk when I didn't show, and he hoped I would recover soon so that maybe he could arrange a rematch. We both knew better. Even if I survived, my career as a heavyweight boxer was over. I could hardly sit up just then, and I would never be in shape to go back into the ring. He left after doing his duty, promising he would visit me often. I never saw him again.
I was more or less coherent when Christmas week came, although it was still all I could do to sit up in bed.
"My, but you're looking better every day," Sister Grace would say as she changed my bandages. "We'll have you back on your feet in no time, and then you can look to doing honest work."
She's a good-hearted soul, and as attentive as could be, for all that she can bark like a drill sergeant. Don't let her ruddy cheeks and silver hair fool you: she can be a holy terror. She didn't approve of prize fighting, and didn't hesitate to make her feelings plain.
"This is the Lord's will, you know," she said primly as she bound my left hand. "This is your calling to turn away from violence, and become a man of peace."
"I don't have much of a choice, do I?" I flexed the two fingers I had left once she was finished. "But what can I do? I've got no schooling."
She paused, and gave me a smile of reassurance. "Don't you doubt the Lord's purpose, Nate Poole. He has turned you to a new path, and called you to serve humanity in His name. You'll find a way."
I had to wonder if she was right. Lord knows there has been enough violence in this world, in my life. That brought to mind the memories of what happened up there in Donner Pass: she didn't know it, but my life as it was would have lead to unspeakable horror. Perhaps this was the Lord calling me to a new path.
My non-existent fingers hurt. "Well He didn't need to beat me over the head with it," I grumbled.
Under her relentless care, I regained my strength a little at a time. My ordeal continued with another toe and more skin lost, followed by another bout of infection. But despite the fevers and the amputations, I began to slowly recover. Christmas day brought me my first solid food in two months. My weight loss stopped when I hovered at Death's door, then began climbing again. They hailed me as a medical miracle, which I guess I was, and it brought a new bout of curiosity about what happened up there. A reporter from the local paper did a follow-up interview, but I didn't tell him much. I kept my mouth shut, and tried not to think about it.
They finally finished cutting, and started to wean me off the Laudanum, which was an ordeal in itself. They would give me just a bit when the shakes and cramps got to be too much, enough to ease the pain, and I would drift off in a semi-sleep for a few hours before emerging once again to face the world. And during those drugged sleep times, the memories continued to surface one by one.
I had a pretty fair picture of what happened by then, and it made me wonder if I should have stayed out there and died. That would have been the simple, fool-proof way. For the life of me, I couldn't see how I could serve humanity better than by dying. Maybe the Lord did have a purpose for me; but I was darned if I could see it.
It was shortly before the New Year that I received an unexpected visitor. "He's right in here," Sister Grace's voice came through my Laudanum haze. I came out of a stupor to find someone sitting at my bedside with Sister Grace hovering over him. "Now you mind that he's been through a lot," she lectured him. "Don't you excite him or over-strain him, and if he has any trouble, you call me at once."
"Of course, Sister," he said. She gave him a stern look, and left.
I stared at him dully for a bit. He seemed familiar, but in my state I couldn't put a name to him. He was a bit taller than me, average built, about my age, dressed in a respectable suit; and he studied my face with obvious concern.
"Hello, Nate," he said, softly.
I finally connected with the voice. "Wha? Well...hello, cap'n." This was someone I never expected to see again. Tom Clark was an old friend from Southern Illinois. We enlisted together in '62, and since he had some schooling, he got a field commission, and rose to command what was left of our company of the 27th Illinois. I struggled to sit up, which took some effort. "Ain't seen you since we mustered out in '65. How you been?"
"Managing, I suppose. Doing better than you, it seems."
My strength gave out, and I sagged on the bed again. "You got that right. So what you doing here in 'Frisco?"
"I came out here after the war to make my fortune in the gold fields." He shook his head and gave me a wry smile. "Idealistic youth, eh? I run a dry goods emporium now, doin' all right. I heard you were going to be in town for that big prize fight, so I was planning to look you up, but then you went missing. I saw a story about you in the paper the other day, so I came to see how you're doing." He paused and looked me over with a worried frown. "Lord Almighty, Nate, you look terrible."
"You don't know the half of it, Tom."
He gave me a forced smile. "But don't you worry; you'll get better. You always were the scrapper, and I've never seen you back down from a fight."
I sighed, and raised my left hand to show him the bandaged stumps. "There are some fights a man can't win, Tom."
He eyed my bandaged hand uneasily, no doubt remembering the horrors we both witnessed during the Civil War. "If...you need work after you get out, look me up. I'll find something for you, something to give you a new start, anyway."
I was touched by that. "Thank you, Tom."
There was a painful silence as we regarded each other. "What happened, Nate?" he asked at last.
"It's...kind of hard to explain."
"The doctor said you fell off the train, and must have wandered around up there in Donner Pass for a month, you were so depleted. But that can't be: nobody'd last an hour in those blizzards in nothing but street clothes, and you weren't up there for a month, anyway."
"I...don't know for sure what happened, Tom." I hesitated for a time, wondering if I should tell him-if I should tell anyone what I think went on up there in the High Sierras. The thought of winding up in a sanatorium haunted me almost as much as the thought that a sanatorium might be where I belonged. But if I couldn't trust my old friend and comrade in arms to believe, or at least to keep it to himself, who could I trust? And I had to know. "Tom," I said at last. "I'll tell you what I remember, but you got to do me a favor in turn."
"What's that, Nate?"
"I want you to listen to what I have to say, no matter what, then I want you to tell me honestly if I've gone mad."
He considered that, then nodded solemnly. "All right, Nate."
I settled on the bed and stared at the ceiling for a bit, trying to marshal my thoughts. The cold was what I remembered the clearest; I pulled the heavy woolen cover up to ward off that memory. "It...started in Omaha..."