Summary: Nels wonders what he will do if Doctor Baker is unable to get Harriet’s appendix out in time. This takes place during the episode “Circus Man”, and some dialogue comes from that episode. (2,667 words)
Nels first noticed something was wrong with his wife one morning when they were stocking the shelves in the storeroom. When she thought he wasn’t looking, Nels noticed Harriet holding her side and wincing.
“Harriet, are you in pain?” he asked concerned.
Harriet jumped at the sound of his gentle voice. “Oh,” she said. “It’s nothing Nels. “I just slept a bit twisted.”
Nels looked at her in concern, but nodded. He decided not to pursue the matter.
But later that day, Nels was preparing to drive out to the Prescott farm to deliver a plow that Jack Prescott had ordered. He came into the store to remind Harriet he was leaving for a while.
Harriet was behind a counter, dabbing her face with a handkerchief. Nels noticed small beads of sweat on her forehead. “Harriet,” said Nels, “is that pain still bothering you?”
“Oh Nels, I’m fine” she grumbled.
“I think you should go see Doc Baker,” he said.
“Nels I told you!” she snapped in her shrill voice. “I’m fine!”
Nels just shook his head. Harriet was a strange stubborn woman. Harriet had no problem inventing a reason to visit Doc Baker when she was trying to get out of something. However now that something was actually wrong, she seemed reluctant.
Nels shook his head. “I’m going out to the Prescott farm to deliver the plow Jack ordered,” he said. “I’ll be back in a while.”
Harriet grumbled a goodbye with her back turned to him.
Before he went to hitch up the buckboard, Nels stopped at Doctor Baker’s office. If Harriet wasn’t going to see him, he would have Doc Baker come to Harriet. It wasn’t usual to have a pain in the side like that and Nels worried that something might be legitimately wrong. When Nels knocked on the door, no one answered.
“Oh Nels,” said Mrs. Foster approaching. She had been inside minding the post office where she alternated shifts with Grace Snider. “The Doctor is out making rounds. Is something wrong?”
“Oh no, it can wait,” said Nels. He was concerned about Harriet but she was able to mind the store, so she couldn’t be too bad off. “I’ll check back later.”
Nels returned home from the Prescott farm after having shared some tea with Jack’s wife Dolphia. He figured Harriet would scold him for being gone so long, but he would simply remind Harriet that the Prescotts were looking to order a hand-carved headboard, so it would pay to be kind to them—literally. His wife, however, said not a word about his extended absence. By this time Nels had forgotten about checking with Doctor Baker. That night while Nellie and Willie were upstairs (hopefully) doing homework, Harriet and Nels sat in the sitting room.
As Nels read the paper, Harriet went into the kitchen to retrieve a glass of water. She sat down and emptied some kind of powder into it.
“What’s that dear?” said Nels.
“Oh well, that Mr. O’Hara was in here today while you were out,” said Harriet. She took a drink of the concoction. “I gave him a piece of my mind about his powders,” she said spitting out the word.
“It looks like that’s what you’re drinking now,” Nels pointed out.
“Oh yes well,” she continued taking another gulp, “I wouldn’t have believed they could work, but he was able to pick up that weight we have by the counter.”
Nels put his paper down fully. “With his broken ribs?” he said.
“Yes,” said Harriet emphatically.
“I can’t believe that you paid for medicine that’s competing with our stock,” said Nels.
“Oh well,” said Harriet. “It was free.”
Nels rolled his eyes.
“Anyway, I’m feeling much better now.” Harriet continued. “So there is no need for me to see Doc Baker. I told you I was fine.”
“Yes, dear” he deadpanned.
The next morning Nels was surprised to see that Harriet was still in bed when he woke up. She was never one to open the store late as she liked to get every minute of business possible out of the day.
Nels shrugged. He decide to let her have some rest. After all, she was probably still recovering from the pain in her side yesterday. She could be mad at him later.
Nels made breakfast for Nellie and Willie and sent them off to school. He decided to go check on Harriet who he figured would be up by now.
He was surprised to find her still in bed, she was awake though, squeezing her eyes shut. “Harriet-“ he reached out to her and drew his hand away.
“Harriet you’re burning up!” He looked at where her left hand was. “Do you still have that pain in your side?”
“Oh Nels,” she said weakly. “Just go visit Mr. O’Hara get me some more of those powders.”
“No,” he said. “I’m getting Doc Baker.”
Harriet raised her other arm, but was too weak to bellow a protest.
Nels returned with Doctor Baker who examined Harriet. When he was finished, Doctor Baker came into the hallway and shut the door.
“What is it, Doc?” said Nels.
“Appendicitis,” said Doctor Baker. Nels gasped. “It’s bad. I need to operate now.”
“I’ll be in there when you tell her,” said Nels.
They went back into the room and Nels kneeled and took Harriet’s right hand while she still held her side with her left.
“Oh Nels,” said Harriet looking at his troubled eyes. “What is it?”
“Mrs. Oleson,” said Doctor Baker kneeling beside Nels. “You have appendicitis. Now I can help you, but I need to operate right way.”
“Operate?” said Harriet. “No! I won’t have you cutting me open. Not when I can take more of Mr. O’Hara’s powders.”
“O’Hara!” Doctor Baker spat. “He gave you some of his powders?”
“Yes,” said Harriet taken aback. Nels looked shocked by the change in the Doctor’s demeanor as well. “Harriet,” said Doctor Baker sharply getting her attention by using her first name. “That man in a fraud. The only way to treat appendicitis is surgery, which you need now.”
“I won’t have you cut me open,” said Harriet. “No operation.”
Doctor Baker glared at Nels. “Harriet,” said Nels. “Please. Listen to reason. You know as well as I do there is no other way-“
“You’ll die without it,” said Doctor Baker. “I’m sorry to be blunt, but it’s true. If you won’t have that surgery for yourself think your husband and children.”
Harriet shook her head in fear. She had heard too many horror stories about operations. Doctor Baker had to be wrong. “I won’t Doctor,” she said. “There is another way. Get me Mr. O’Hara.”
Doctor Baker stood up. “Oh I’ll get O’Hara all right,” he said. He got up, grabbed his bag and ran. Nels followed him.
“What are you doing?” said Nels and they ran down the stairs. Doctor Baker didn’t stop running, so Nels followed him.
“I’m going out to the Ingalls farm to get O’Hara. That wife of your is stubborn. The only way to get her to listen to reason is to prove to her O’Hara’s a quack.” By this time they were at the livery.
Nels watched as Doctor Baker hooked up his rig and flew out of town like a bat out of the belfry.
Nels went back to tend to his wife. “The Doctor is getting Mr. O’Hara now. He’ll be back soon,” he said.
Harriet looked up at him and smiled. “Oh good,” she said.
Nels closed his eyes and silently prayed that O’Hara could make Harriet listen to reason.
Nels heard Doctor Baker’s rig outside. The two men came in and Nels ushered them upstairs. “This way, please” he said.
Nels watched from the doorway as O’Hara entered and fixed another dosage of the powder for Harriet. Doctor Baker was about to intervene, but Nels held him back. “No, no wait. Wait” said Nels quietly putting his hand on Doc Baker’s shoulder. Nels knew his wife, and figured that O’Hara had something up his sleeve that would convince Harriet.
And boy did he ever! O’Hara spun a yarn about Harriet joining the ranks of royalty by having her appendix taken out. Of course, it could be true; Nels had no real way of knowing. Once Harriet agreed to the operation, Doctor Baker was already removing his tie before O’Hara had even left the bedside.
And now came the most difficult part: the waiting. As wont to happen in a small community, word had spread quickly about Harriet’s condition and people began to gather around the store. Nels smiled in spite of himself. If Harriet could only see how many people were worried about her, maybe she would try to be kinder to them. Or maybe not. He glanced at his watch then, noting the time in horror.
It was nearing time for morning recess. Nellie and Willie had no idea what was going on with their mother.
Nels pushed past the crowd gathered around the mercantile and ran towards the schoolhouse. On the way, he noticed the concerned look of his friend Charles Ingalls. He approached the back of the schoolhouse and knocked.
“Mr. Oleson?” said Miss Beadle answering. “Is something the matter?”
“Can I see you for a moment outside?” he said.
“Children” said Miss Beadle. “Please continue copying the problems on the board.”
They went outside in the back of the schoolhouse by the water pump. “What’s wrong?” said Miss Beadle in her gentle way.
“I need you to keep the children in for recess today,” said Nels. “I know it’s a lot to ask, but Harriet has appendicitis and the Doc’s operating on her right now.”
Miss Beadle gasped. “Mr. Oleson, I hope she will be all right.”
“I hope so, too” said Nels. “Everyone’s gathered around the mercantile, and I don’t think any of the children need to see that.” Since Nels and Miss Beadle were in the back of the schoolhouse, they could not see the mercantile from where they stood.
“I agree,” said Miss Beadle. “I’ll think of something to tell them.”
“I’m going to take Nellie and Willie out,” said Nels.
“Of course,” she said. “I’ll get them for you.”
“Thank you,” he nodded.
As she went back inside, Nels closed his eyes fighting back tears. Not yet, he told himself. He had to be strong for just a little longer.
Nellie and Willie came out the schoolhouse then, shutting the door behind them. “Father,” said Nellie, “what’s wrong?” Her big blue eyes widened in concern
“Yeah you never take us out of school!” Willie exclaimed.
Nels didn’t have the energy to admonish Willie. “It’s your Ma,” he said looking at his children.
“How is she?” said Willie. “You said she needed her rest this morning.”
Nels looked down and sighed. “Your Mother is having an operation,” he said.
“What?” said Nellie.
“Ssh,” Nels hushed them. He opened his arms and Nellie and Willie went to him. “Now it’s going to be all right. Doctor Baker’s there now. Come on now. I’m going to take you two to sit with Mrs. Snider until it’s over.”
They walked around the schoolhouse and Nellie and Willie were surprised to see the crowd gathered around their house. Everyone turned to glance sympathetically at the Oleson family as they walked toward the post office.
Grace stood up when Nels, Nellie and Willie entered the post office. “Nels I heard-“ she began.
Nels held up a hand to stop her from saying too much. “I’d appreciate it if you could look after the young’uns, for a while.”
“Of course,” she said. She came out from behind the counter and took Nellie and Willie by the hand. The two children looked positivity frightened by what was going on. “Now come on you two,” said Grace. “Your Ma, needs you to be strong.”
“Is she going to die?” asked Willie tears forming in his eyes.
Nels was about to say something when Grace beat him to it. “Now Willie, your Ma’s one tough cookie. She’s going to be just fine. Why don’t I show you two how the telegraph works?”
They nodded. As the three turned to go behind the counter Grace exchanged a look with Nels who nodded a silent thanks.
Besides the storeroom, where Nels liked to go to cool off with he got angry, Nels also loved being in his kitchen. He was a far better cook than most men in Hero Township and actually enjoyed it. Now he sat in the kitchen looking around at everything.
“God,” he said aloud. “Did I do the right thing sending them to Mrs. Snider? Should I have kept the children here with me?”
But Nels shook his head. He knew it was right. He needed some time gather himself. Now, finally able to be alone, Nels let the tears come as he spoke. “Nellie and Willie need their mother. Sure she spoils them rotten, but she’s also done a lot of good. I already see that my children have her eye for business. I mean Willie’s always finding some new way to trade for marbles, making deals with the schoolboys twice his age. Nellie’s good with figures if I do say so. Just other day, she pointed out to me that I had totaled up a purchase wrong. You should have seen the look on Lem McCary’s face when she told him he owned another nickel.” He laughed through his tears for a moment before looking serious again. “And then there’s me, God. I know I’m always saying that Harriet wears on my nerves. I guess that’s true, but I would be lost without her. I can’t imagine life without her. For all the trouble she causes, she holds everything together. If it were left up to me, we’d extend credit to everyone who asked and go out of business as a result. Although I wish she was kinder about it, she’s usually right when she turns down credit to someone usually. I mean, look how well we’re dong. Some said we’d fail, that Walnut Grove was too small a town for a general store, but we didn’t. A large part of that is thanks to her.” Nels sighed and fingered his wedding ring. “God please, guide Doc Baker. Let him save her.”
A while later, a hand appeared on Nels' shoulder. “Nels,” said Doctor Baker. Nels looked up with the question forming on his lips.
“I got it,” said Doc Baker looking extremely haggard. “I made it in time. She’s going to be all right.”
Thank you, said Nels silently looking upwards. He looked at Dr. Baker. “Thank you Doctor,” he said gratefully. “I knew if anyone could save her, you could.”
They went outside then and Nels looked around at everyone and smiled. “She’s all right. She’s going to be good as new thanks to Doctor Baker!”
That evening Nels came in to look in on his wife. Nellie and Willie were back at home and relived their mother would be okay. She was still very weak but had talked to them briefly. She would be in bed for a week. The couch was temporarily upstairs in their bedroom so that Nels could sleep in the same room as her without jostling the bed.
Nels came over and kneeled by Harriet. He touched his forehead to hers. “Thank God, Harriet,” he said. “You gave me such a fight.” He wanted to scold her for not listening to Doctor Baker in the first place, but decided that could wait until she was better.
“Oh Nels,” Harriet smiled weakly. “You didn’t think you were going to get rid of me that easily did you?”
Nels smiled and touched her cheek. “I’m just glad you’re all right.”
His wife smiled. Harriet Oleson— wife, proprietor, and mother of two young children—would live to see many more days.