A thunderous roar pounded in her ears as waves of throbbing pain assailed her aching head. Both sensations were too strong to ignore and were pulling her slowly and relentlessly toward consciousness. As if waking from a deep, drug-induced sleep, she groggily put a hand to her head, flinching as she brushed a tender spot above her right eye. Finding her fingers sticky and wet, she opened her eyes and found them covered with blood. Cautiously touching her forehead this time, she discovered a large lump and broken skin. As she tried to collect her jumbled thoughts, she closed her eyes against the agonizing pain.
The last thing Janelle remembered was driving along I-80 toward Salt Lake. Shaking her head slightly, she grunted in frustration at her fuzzy memory. She didn’t remember how she’d gotten to bed. With hazy, blurred vision, she reached for the tissue box on her nightstand. It wasn’t there, nor was the Tiffany lamp, or her digital clock. Her eyes flew open, and her gaze swept her surroundings. Dread and awareness set in, along with the realization that this wasn’t her room.
Her first clue was the iron bars of the jail cell. Her second, the man staring at her from behind the desk across the room. He was watching her closely, and she returned the favor. He was wearing faded jeans and an off-white shirt, or maybe it was just dirty. Her vision was off, so she really couldn’t tell. What she could see was the red bandana tied loosely around his neck and his leather vest with a brass star pinned to it. The oddest thing of all, however, was the pearl-handled gun he wore on his hip in a leather holster. He looked like an actor in one of the westerns her daddy used to watch.
Weakly, Janelle pushed herself to a seated position and looked down at the lumpy mattress where she’d been lying. The dirty fabric and filthy straw poking out through a hole in the material were disgusting. She grimaced as she realized that no sheet separated her from the remnants of dirt and sweat left by the countless other bodies that had lain there before her. She didn’t even want to think about the body fluids that had caused the multitude of dark brown stains that dotted the tattered fabric. Squinting, she tried to make out the tan colored lump at the head of the bed. Although still fuzzy, she was able to identify it as the pillow where her head had so recently lain. It also was filthy and had surely been white at some point in time. Gross! A bug crawling across the surface at that moment was the final straw, and she squealed shrilly as she pushed to her feet.
With a bleeding head wound, quick movements were a bad idea, and her stomach rolled as her head spun. The nausea swept through her in waves, and she lurched across the room toward the pot in the corner. She didn’t make it, her legs giving way as she fell heavily to her knees, vomiting on the wooden floor.
“What the hell is going on, Jamison?”
A harsh voice broke through her misery, but she was too sick to care who it was. She collapsed to her side on the floor, not caring that she lay in her own puke. She moaned, and tears overflowed her eyes. The sound of keys jingling and the clanging of metal jarred her ears before she was lifted by strong arms.
“What were you thinking, bringing her here instead of going straight to Doc? She has a gash on her head that obviously needs stitches. Get that mess in there cleaned up. I’ll be back to kick your ass directly.”
The nausea rolled again, and she whimpered in distress. Her head throbbed intensely with the sudden change in position, and she clutched frantically at his broad shoulders.
“Easy now, I’m taking you to see Doc Morgan. He’ll have you fixed up in no time.”
Heavy steps thudded against the wooden floor as they moved. A slamming door and a waft of warm air hitting her face told her he’d carried her outside. Flinching against the bright sunshine, Janelle put a hand up to shield her eyes, squinting as she tried to open them and focus on the man who carried her. All she saw was a broad chest covered with a rough, textured leather vest with a gold star pinned to it that read “Marshal”. Raising her eyes, she couldn’t make out his face, shaded as it was by a wide-brimmed hat.
“I know. Doc’s office is just right up the street.” She felt his eyes on her face and grimaced. She knew she must be a mess, and she could smell the mixture of blood, sweat, and vomit that clung to her. In too much pain to care, she lay limply in his arms. “I can’t believe he put you in that filthy cell as sick as you are.”
She flinched as his voice boomed above her.
Why was he yelling in her ear?
“Doc, hold up. I’ve got a young gal who needs seeing to.”
“I was just about to head on home, Marshal. You almost missed me. Bring her right in and set her on the examination table.”
“No, I’m fine.” Her feeble attempt at a protest came out in a whispered, husky voice. “Please, I just need to lie still for a bit. Then I can call my parents to pick me up.”
Janelle’s protests were ignored, however, as she was jostled and placed on a hard surface. The room had a strong pungent odor, like nail polish remover. Not the strong, sterile, antiseptic smell of a usual doctor’s office. Looking around, she was shocked at her surroundings. Rough wood plank cabinets and floors, an old, wooden cane-backed wheelchair, and was that a hand pump at the sink? It looked like something she had seen in an Old West museum in an amusement park once. She tried to sit up, wondering what in the world was going on.
“Lay back now, miss. You’ve got a nasty cut on your forehead” the doctor stated the obvious before looking up at the marshal. “She’s going to need stitches, Aaron.”
“Technically, she’s my prisoner, so I’ll cover the expense.”
“That wasn’t my worry. This is likely to hurt, and I’m out of chloroform. I’ll have to use the ether.”
Ether? Chloroform? Dear God, had she heard him correctly? Was she dreaming, or trapped in some sort of old west delusion? It seemed very real to her, and she couldn’t just lie there meekly and do nothing.
“Are you freaking nuts? You can’t use ether! At the very least, you’ll blow us all to kingdom come with that shit. Not to mention, I’ll probably never wake up from it.” Her vision was finally starting to clear a bit, and she looked up into the face of a startled white-haired gentleman who she assumed was ‘Doc’. “Don’t you have some butterfly bandages or steri-strips? Just clean it up with some Betadine. Who the hell uses ether for a gash on the head, for crying out loud?”
“Marshal, I barely understand a word coming out of this poor child’s mouth. Except for the cuss words, that is. She must have taken quite a blow; she’s addled.”
“I am not addled, sir. I am a registered nurse and know what I’m saying. Give me a mirror, and I’ll do it myself.”
“Give me a minute with her, will you, Doc?” The familiar deep voice captured Janelle’s attention, and she turned her head toward its source. Her jaw gaped in amazement, because looming over her, not an inch away, was the spitting image of Joe Manganiello, her favorite werewolf from her favorite show—True Blood. His dark hair and soulful brown eyes, along with the scruff of a dark beard, were the same as werewolf Joe’s from her sexy dreams. Only this man was taller, hotter, and a lot more muscular. He also appeared to be a heck of a lot angrier.
The doctor nodded, tucking a soft wad of linen into her hand. He quickly gave her instructions to hold pressure against the wound to slow the bleeding and then quietly left the room.
As soon as the door clicked shut, Joe’s lookalike walked closer to the table and stared down at her. “Let’s get some things straight, right now. You will do exactly what the doctor says; you will do it politely and will thank him when he is done. And if I hear another foul or disrespectful word out of your mouth, I will turn you over my knee and paddle your little butt until you can’t sit for a week. Is that understood?”
Stunned, her mouth gaped open in disbelief. Who did this guy think he was? Talk about a mood swing, sexy Marshal Joe had just flown out the window and been replaced by some jerk wad with a spanking fetish. “How dare you! You can’t talk to me that way and threaten to… to… spank me! That’s police brutality or harassment, or something. I read police novels and watch TV, you know.”
Ignoring her protests, he eyed her curiously, then began asking questions. “Do you live around here? Where is your husband or family?”
“I’m from Cheyenne, and I don’t have a husband. Listen, I was driving up I-80 to Salt Lake to visit my parents.” She dabbed at her wound with the cloth. “It’s all a little fuzzy, but the highway was wet from rain and crowded with semis or tractor trailers—whatever you call those big trucks. I was sleepy after working last night, so I must have fallen asleep at the wheel. The next thing I remember was waking up in that nasty jail cell.”
“He’s right, you’re addle-headed. Doc, you’d better get back in here.” The marshal crossed his arms and stared down at her in concern as he waited for the doctor to return. When he came in and stood beside Joe, silence encompassed the room. Now she had both men staring at her, wearing matching frowns.
“What’s with you two, anyway? I’d like to leave. Could you call me a cab?”
Finally, Doc asked, “Were you able to understand anything she said, Aaron?”
“Barely a word, Doc. Do you think her brain is swelling?”
“It must be, for every other word out of her mouth is foreign, but she sounds like she’s from this neck of the woods.”
Tired of being talked about as if she weren’t in the room, Janelle sat up unsteadily, swinging her legs over the side of the exam table. “Can I have a mirror, please?”
The doctor handed her a small hand mirror, and she frowned at her reflection. Her hair was matted with blood, dirt, and other things she didn’t even want to think about. The gash on her forehead was deep and about two inches long. It needed stitches for sure, but she didn’t think she trusted this old country doctor to do it.
“Maybe I’ll wait till I get to Salt Lake and look up a plastic surgeon. I wouldn’t want it to scar.”
“Young woman,” the doctor began, “it will take you days on horseback to get to Utah territory, and I hear the Great Salt Lake City is only full of gold seekers and polygamists. You’ll find no surgeons there. You’d best stay here and send word to your folks.” Looking again at Aaron, he shook his head sadly. “We just need to stitch her up and let her rest. Time will tell if the swelling goes down and she returns to normal.”
“There isn’t anything wrong with my brain. It’s you two who are acting strangely.”
The marshal stepped closer and leaned over her. She looked into his troubled brown eyes and despite her predicament, melted a little inside.
“What’s your name? Do you recall?”
“Of course, my name is Janelle.”
“Do you know where you are?”
“Well, I was driving along I-80 for about an hour or so. I guess I’m still somewhere in Wyoming?” She waited for a nod or some kind of verbal confirmation, but the man gave her neither, only continued with his interrogation. “What day is it, and the month?”
“It’s Saturday, August 17th.”
“Who is the president?”
“Obama, of course.”
“Barack Obama. Come on, you’re trying to make me think I’m crazy. Barack Obama was elected back in ‘08 and reelected to a second term.” They were looking at her as if she were crazy. “I’m not crazy. You think I wouldn’t know the first black man elected president of the United States?”
She watched as the two men stared at each other across her pain-wracked body.
“Most of that she got right, Aaron, but a black president?”
“Yeah, and we have no way to corroborate anything else she’s told us.”
Leaning back against the hard exam table, she ignored them as they rudely talked over her, as if she were a child or as if she weren’t even there. Tentatively, Janelle lifted the cloth from the stinging, throbbing gash on her forehead. Squinting against the pain and the harsh light, she saw that the cloth was nearly saturated, but she didn’t panic. Her nurse’s training told her that head wounds bleed profusely, even when they are minor. Frustrated, she huffed a deep sigh, which came out more like a sob, and pleaded aloud to no one in particular. “Please, if this is some kind of fucking nightmare, I wish I’d hurry and wake up.”
“Her language is quite rough, Aaron. She doesn’t look like a painted lady, but those clothes…”
“She certainly has a foul mouth, and what decent woman runs around in trousers? Let’s get this done, and I’ll take her back to the ranch for a few days. Ma would love to have a girl to fuss over for a change.”
“You think I’m a hooker! Are you two for real?” Outraged, Janelle scowled at them, crying out in pain when her wrinkled brow pulled at her cut. “I don’t have to stand for this. I’m leaving.”
“You’ll have to hold her down while I administer the ether.”
“No way! Didn’t you hear what I said? I don’t want stitches or any of that damn ether!” Beginning to panic, Janelle struggled to get off the table, but mammoth-sized Joe the Marshal easily pushed her back down, pinning her by the shoulders. “Let me go, you big brute! Haven’t you heard of self-determination or the patient’s bill of rights? I’ll sue both your asses for this.”
With a little tsk of his tongue, he shook his head. “I see you didn’t heed my warning about cussing. It’s a shame for such a pretty lady to have such a foul mouth, but I’ll let it slide for now since you’re injured.”
“How generous of you,” was her caustic response as she continued her futile struggle.
He looked away as Doc’s shuffling movements sounded behind her. “Sadly, you’re just gonna have to wait on that lawyer until after doc stitches you up, cause it looks like he’s about ready.”
Tears flooded her eyes suddenly as she craned her neck around and watched the doctor approach with an odd contraption hanging around his neck. He held a cone shaped mask in his hand that connected by a hose to a metal tank. Looking up at the marshal, she pleaded for mercy. “Please, Joe, I’ll be good and lay real still. I don’t want that ether.” Her struggles were useless against his strength. “Please, don’t do this.”
As she lay on the hard table, looking up at him, pitiful cries for mercy echoing throughout the room, tears overflowing her eyes and fear radiating from every square inch of body, she thought she saw a crack in his determination. Maybe it was the slight downturn of his mouth, or the pang of regret she read in his eyes, but she thought he was almost ready to give in and release her… almost. Instead, he shifted position—one arm holding her hands, the weight of his wide upper body pinning her to the table—then he lifted his free hand to her injured forehead and smoothed back her hair, gentling her. His deep voice whispered soothingly, “Hush, darlin’, I won’t let anything bad happen to you. Doc’s plan is for the best, and he’ll have you fixed up in no time.
She cried and struggled against his hold, to no avail. “Please, Joe, I’m scared. Don’t let him do this to me.”
“Hurry, up, Doc; she’s breaking my heart here.”
He went back to murmuring soft reassurances as the doctor, who also ignored her pleas, quickly slipped the cone over her nose and mouth and administered the ether. In just seconds of inhaling the powerful anesthetic, everything went black.
* * *
“That should do it,” Doc murmured as he lifted the cone from her face and set the ether inhalation tank aside. “How come she keeps calling you Joe?”
“If I knew half her story, that’d be more than I know now.” Unable to pull his gaze from the now unconscious, bedraggled, and helpless woman, he continued to hold her although it was no longer necessary. He felt his protective instincts bubble to the surface and knew he needed to get her home before she woke up. “How long will she be out, Doc?”
“I only gave her a little, but it was either that or have her fight the entire time. She’ll be asleep for about an hour, I’d guess.”
“While you stitch her up, I’ll fetch a wagon.”