Unfinished Business, Doctor Who, Dr. Who, Chris Eccleston, Christopher Eccleston, Doctor who Fiction

The sky above the campsite was a perfect hemisphere, big and velvet black except where the stars pricked it with silver. The dark of night was relieved at ground level by numerous camp fires and the wild sounds of the lazy, meandering Platte river and distant calls of birds of prey were augmented by the calls of domestic cattle, oxen and mules in their corral. This late at night of all the cooking was done and the smell of fires made up of grass and dried cattle droppings in this treeless region was predominant.

It wasn’t as bad as it sounded.

Grace Holloway looked up at the stars, listened to the sounds and enjoyed the smells of an authentic wagon train camp in the late spring of 1846. When The Doctor had suggested a long holiday from ‘real life’ for both of them she had immediately thought of this. As a Californian, after all, she existed because her ancestors over a hundred and fifty years ago had journeyed more than two-thousand miles across every extreme of territory imaginable, from dry, low deserts to freezing mountain passes and raging river torrents, from baking sun to rain that threatened to wash away what passed for roads.

Eight months on the Oregon Trail with the TARDIS in low-power mode hidden beneath the flour sacks and barrel of salt pork in the back of the Murphy wagon was certainly a holiday from her real life as a top San Francisco cardio surgeon. Here, The Doctor was ‘the doctor’ to the two hundred souls on this expedition. Every female in the medical profession knew that Elizabeth Blackwell, the first woman doctor in America, was awarded her degree in 1864 – another eight years in the future. She had been able to attend three childbirths – midwifery had always been the preserve of women, after all – and thanks to her post-natal efforts the mothers and babies were doing well, still. Two more women were due to give birth in the next two months and four had become pregnant since setting off, so she had work enough to do, but The Doctor was taking care of all the broken bones, strained muscles, sprains, dysentery, chicken pox, typhoid, tonsillitis and bunions two hundred people could suffer from on an arduous trek across the backbone of a continent.

Footsteps nearby made her wary, but it was only The Doctor coming back from one of his duties. He climbed into the wagon and brought an enamel basin along with a dish of soft soap and shaving tools in a rolled up cloth. Grace watched him perform those ordinary ablutions using the contemporary tools. It was that sort of thing - the sheer ordinariness of it all, that she had wanted to experience. In the TARDIS there was a sort of helmet, like a cross between an old fashioned hood drier from a hair salon and an instrument of torture. It provided a full shave and hair trim in thirty seconds. It could style her hair and give her a deep pore facial in the same time. Out here, on their 'holiday' such things were banned.

She didn’t mind apart from not being able to get a deep pore facial. Daily exposure to dust and baking heat did nothing for the complexion. But that was the price she paid for getting away from ‘real life’. The Doctor’s was shaving with a cut throat razer by lamplight. It evened out somehow.

When the shave was done, he cleaned the razer, threw away the dirty water and put it all away before coming to lie next to her in the nest of grey blankets and sheepskin rugs that was a far cry from any duvet covered spring mattress divan. They cuddled close, sharing warmth.

"Was it appendicitis?" Grace asked after a while. "Young Peter Wilmot?"

"Yes. The operation was straightforward, but I wish I could have used laser sutures. I told his father to bring him over before we break camp in the morning. Our wagon jolts as much as theirs, but we don’t have six children and an extra supply wagon to manage. There's room for him to lie down fully and if his stitches burst I can attend to them right away."

"Good idea," Grace agreed.

"'I'm enjoying the challenge of the Oregon Trail, the slow pace of life in these times, even the communal hymn singing and Pastor Oates' exhortations against sin every evening, but it chafes having to stick within the medical knowledge and procedures of these times. I couldn't even give the boy a blood transfusion because the classification of human blood is still nearly sixty years away."

"You're complaining to the woman who can't practise medicine at all because people in these times would find a native witch doctor more credible than a woman doctor,” Grace reminded him.

"I'm not complaining," The Doctor assured her. "I'm just wondering if I can stick to the rules we decided on if it means letting somebody die. That won't be easy."

"I know. I've thought about that, too. But you said it would be cataclysmic if we interfered in the natural order of life and death."

"Yes." The Doctor sighed over the self-inflicted dilemma and snuggled closer to Grace as they settled to sleep under the stars along with their fellow travellers.

The next day began at a little after four o’clock in the morning with a clanging bell that roused the camp. The livestock were fed and watered while porridge boiled and salt pork strips were fried alongside buckwheat pancakes. Coffee bought by the sack load at the last staging post was ground up and brewed. Hearty breakfasts were eaten before oxen were yoked and the wagons lined up. Two hours after rising to that bell the wagon train set off on another day's journey following the sun into the west.

Usually Grace sat beside The Doctor behind the two mules or sometimes walking beside the wagon or in company with other women in the party, a gaggle of starched poke bonnets with dreams about prosperity and lifelong happiness at the end of the trail.

Today she rode inside, under the osnaburg canvas stretched over the hickory ribs. She was keeping a close watch on Peter Wilmot. The sutures were holding, but the boy was feverish and passing from one bout of fitful sleep to the next with only brief periods of waking. The jolting of the wagon's iron-rimmed wheels along a road made by the hundreds of wheels that had gone before in as little as five years of mass migration was doing him no good. At least the going was relatively flat here along the North Platte flood plain. In a few weeks’ time there would be very steep inclines and rough going through mountain passes. By then, the fourteen-year-old, eldest of the Wilmot children, would have to be recovered sufficiently to help his father with the work. There were no long convalescences on the Oregon Trail.

He was stirring again. Grace bathed his face with bitter aloe sap boiled in water and allowed to cool. By rights, the medicinal properties of aloe weren’t really known, yet, but herbal remedies generally were an accepted part of family medicines. Grace had recognised the spiky succulent growing wild along the route and picked as many leaves as she could use for her pregnant ladies and to soothe fevers and headaches among the general population.

"Mother?" Peter whispered.

"No, its Mrs Smith," Grace told him gently. She was well used to being known by that name by now. "Your mother is taking care of your brothers and sisters. She'll come to see how you are when we stop at noon. You try to rest up, in the meantime."

The back left wheel hit something hard and the whole wagon jolted. Peter cried out in pain.

"I know, not an easy task while we're rattling along here."

"Pa says 'bout six weeks on from now we'll be in the Rocky Mountains and this’ll seem like the easy part of it all."

"Your father is absolutely correct, “Grace assured him. "Here, take a drink of this. It will ease your pain a little.”

She had told herself this wasn’t really cheatingt. The analgesic properties of the white powder extracted from willow bark were known by Socrates. Headache powders in paper sachets could be bought in the drug stores in Independence, Missouri, where the wagon train had assembled and she had stocked up on essential medical supplies. When The Doctor analysed them, though, he concluded that they were mostly cornflour with only a very small active ingredient, and no two sachets had the same quantity of it.

That active ingredient wasn't yet known by the generic name of 'aspirin' and the soluble sort with a less unpleasant taste was nearly a century away. But the medicine WAS in use, now, so giving Peter Wilmot a cup of water with two modern soluble aspirin dissolved into it wasn't completely anachronistic. She was simply making sure the dose was accurate. She wanted to ease his pain without the risk of thinning his blood when he had a wound that needed to heal. Experiments with boiled bark would not do in the circumstances.

It had the desired effect, anyway. Peter fell back into the sleep he needed to recover. Grace sat beside him, her view of the journey defined by the round 'window' in the taut canvas at the back and front. She saw before she began to feel the change from flat ground to a slow ascent as they left the flood plain during that morning's drive. The ascent took most of the morning and when noon approached and it was too hot for the beasts of burden pulling the wagons they made their corral on a dry tableland above the wide Platte valley.

The travellers ate simple, quick but nourishing food for their midday meal - sourdough bread made the night before, cold slices of buffalo meat saved from the same hot meal. This was a short stop and campfires would take too long.

The Doctor made an exception to that rule. He lit a small fire and Grace cooked a meat broth on it for Peter. He needed food that he could swallow easily. As she helped the boy eat she thought about the lack of fresh fruit and vegetables in the everyday diet of the migrants. Of course, there was plenty of protein and carbohydrates as ballast against hard work and long hours, but she wondered if there would be a long term effect on the children of an eight-month journey without a regular supply of vitamins.

Of course, that was something else that wasn’t fully understood in this time. Food groups and the proportions from them that made a balanced daily intake weren't understood. As long as they had flour to make bread and wild buffalo meat to divide amongst the families they thought they were well fed.

Grace set aside ideas about writing a paper on the nutritional difficulties of the migrant trails. How could she possibly publish her findings?

Mrs Wilmot came to see how her son was just before they set out again.

"My eldest girl, Louise, is going to take the driving of our second wagon this afternoon, and the second eldest, Martha, will mind the little ones. I can look after Peter."

Jane Wilmot was in her early thirties. Peter was born when she was seventeen, the strong, capable daughter who could drive a wagon full of provisions at thirteen came a year later, and the other four were survivors of a pregnancy once every fifteen months ever since. Grace had tried and failed to imagine that sort of life. Jane had been pregnant five times by the age that she completed her first year of medical school. Producing children and raising them healthily was her whole existence.

When she was planning her future in those early years, Grace had fully expected to have a baby sooner or later, but her career had always come first. Besides, her relationships with men had tended to be too short term to consider having children.

Then she met The Doctor and the subject never came up. She wasn’t even sure if having a baby was possible, given that he was an alien from another world. In any case, they had never talked about it, and it had become less important as the years slipped by. She was one of many women of her generation for whom a worthwhile career was more important than family.

But a woman of her age without children was an oddity among the migrant families. She knew she had been the subject of speculation among the women. She knew that they mostly felt sorry for her, assuming that her childlessness was a tragedy. They couldn’t imagine a woman choosing a fulfilling career that didn’t involve marriage and babies unless it was as something like a nun.

She spared a thought for Elizabeth Blackwell, that first American female doctor, who never married and adopted a daughter it was said, out of loneliness.

She had never been that lonely, but even in her own time most of the men she had been close to expected that her career was less important than theirs and either resented the time-consuming nature of cardio surgery or expected her to give it up to be the little woman at home.

Even so, she had choices. Jane, and indeed, almost every other woman in this wagon train, had married young, expecting little else from life. Then they had come along on this venture, children and all, working as hard as the men, and looking after the babies that came in their turn regardless of the daily toil.

Jane did it well, it had to be said. Her children were clean. They were literate, spending the hours on the wagon with a half a dozen text books and a Bible, learning what they could, and now, with one of them suffering what was often a fatal illness in these days, she was thoroughly attentive to her son’s needs. When the wagon train moved off again with the sun past its zenith and leading them westwards towards the sunset, Grace was able to take charge of the pair of mules pulling their wagon while The Doctor ‘did his rounds’ of other people needing medical assistance. There were some broken bones to be checked and an elderly man called Samuel Dooley who, in Grace’s professional opinion ought to have been in a hospital, not a covered wagon.

Pastor Oates had been visiting the wagon where old man Dooley was resting while his grandson, another Sam, drove the mules. He and The Doctor conferred about the patient of one and parishioner of the other.

“It doesn’t seem right,” The Doctor commented. “Him travelling all this way riddled with arthritis and with a heart like an old clock winding towards its last tick."

“I agree,” Oates answered him. “You know the reason, of course.”

It was one a minister of the Church could hardly reconcile. Dooley was travelling all that way because adult males were able to claim an acre each of free land. A two-acre farm was obviously more use than one acre. Dooley only had to live long enough to register his claim and write a will giving the claim to his grandson to ensure that the young man was ahead of the game.

“I don’t blame them,” Oates went on before The Doctor could venture an opinion. “Two acres isn’t exactly a country estate. Young Sam Dooley is planning on doing the work of two men, he deserves to reap the rewards. But it’s a hard trip for an old man, all the same.”

The Doctor thought of the Cloister Room deep within his TARDIS. Sam Dooley senior could rest there and gather strength instead of sinking lower every day. Peter’s stitches would heal so much better in the rarefied air. He could think of a dozen more people with ailments that a few quiet hours in the Cloister Room could benefit. Indeed, even the able bodied would enjoy the respite it offered.

But he couldn’t. Quite apart from the problem of revealing its future technology and his alien origins to a people who hadn’t even heard of H G Wells or Jules Verne, that really WOULD be interference contrary to those Laws of Time he struggled with so often. Old Sam, young Peter, and the rest would have to live or die according to the fate dealt to them by the circumstances of their own time and place. Extending the old man’s life by a single day would warp the time continuum. Improving Peter’s chances of getting over his appendectomy could have huge consequences for the Human race.

Even he had trouble imagining what they might be, but it was on the same lines as stepping on a prehistoric butterfly.

“Well, I’ll do the little I can,” The Doctor promised, pulling his mind back to the harsh reality for everyone who wasn’t a Time Lord. Oates nodded.

“I will pray for him. We will not fall out over which will help him most, my prayers or your medicine.”

“I would not dare to dispute that,” The Doctor replied. In truth, there wasn’t much he could do medically, anyway, without resorting to the Cloister Room. He wasn’t sure about prayer, but a Time Lord who travelled beyond the Transduction Barrier was required to give respect to the beliefs of others and he had, at least, never heard of anyone dying from a prayer.

Old Sam was awake, but lying very still on the narrow cot that was his bed. He was pale, not only from illness, but because he had rarely been outside the wagon under the relentless sun that had bronzed every other man and those women and girls who neglected their poke bonnets. His skin had that translucent look of the very old, and his eyes were rheumy. When he spoke it was with a barely audible whisper.

"It’s a waste of your time coming to see me, Doc," he said. "The only thing wrong with me is old age. You can't cure that. Nobody can. Time catches up with all of us.”

"Some of us outrun it for as long as we can," The Doctor replied. He could remember being old. He knew just what sort of aches and pains Sam was suffering all the time. Even Time Lords had no cure for those ailments except for eventual regeneration.

"I'm going to give you some pills that help with the inflammation around your joints. I've written exact instructions for taking them on the box. Promise me you'll remember to take them and you won't take too many."

The old man showed The Doctor an old but still well maintained pocket watch.

"I can tell the time of day by the way the sun shines down on the wagon canvas. Most days that’s good enough. But if you insist that I keep a closer eye on the time I can so that, too."

"All right, two of these, every four hours," The Doctor told him. "It’s not much. You ought to have better medicines and a softer bed, one that isn't rattling along for fourteen hours every day. But...."

"I chose to come. They tried to stop me back in Independence but I wasn't having it. You can't turn me back. Either I get to the Oregon country or they bury me on the way, that's all there is to it."

"Then give yourself the chance to sleep with a bit less pain in the meantime with those tablets."

He promised. The Doctor was satisfied. He night have been wary in other situations of giving somebody with chronic pain the means to kill themselves, but Sam Dooley didn't want to die. He was hanging on to every inch of life. Everyone else except his one grandson was gone, his wife to cholera thirty years ago, his son and daughter in law to influenza. He was making the Grim Reaper wait for his own soul and getting his grandson that extra acre of farmland just by staying alive to claim it.

The Doctor didn't know if he was going to make it or not. One of his innate skills as a Time Lord was seeing people's future timelines. If he chose, he could see when and how anyone would die.

But he had long ago decided that was a curse, not a gift. He built himself strong mental barriers to stop himself knowing these things. He was especially careful about not knowing about the people on this wagon train. There was much harder terrain to come. Few parties that went before avoided fatalities. There would be some among the people he counted as friends, but he didn't want to know which they were. He wanted to look them all in the eyes without that sort of soul destroying foreknowledge.

After talking a little more with old Sam and giving his grandson an encouraging word, The Doctor jumped down from the wagon and turned to walk back to his own. They made little more than twenty miles a day. Walking back and forward between wagons was not only possible, but a social activity just like popping around to each other's houses. Wives got together to gossip, men shared their hopes for the future. Children played and the young adults met by the roadside. Pastor Oates would have a few marriage ceremonies to conduct before the end of the journey.

New babies, new couples, old men... life moved along in the same way that the wagon train moved.

The Doctor was two wagons away from his own, level with the front end of the Salinger family wagon. Mr and Mrs Salinger both raised hands in greeting. Neither expected the deep rut beneath their wheels and the sudden jolt that pitched their eight-year-old child, Margery, off the plank seat and into the path of the heavy, iron-rimmed wheel.

The Doctor had seen it about five seconds before it happened as a latent precognition overrode his determination not to use any of his telepathic skills. Reflexes rather better than most humans had allowed him to grab the girl and step away from the danger a split second before Mrs Salinger screamed.

"She's all right," The Doctor assured the mother as he passed Margery back up to her family. As he did so, he accidentally saw the girl's timeline. It was a long and distinguished life, not one cut off abruptly under the wheels of her own father' s wagon, though he wasn’t sure if it had always been that way, or if it came about because he was in the right place at the right time.

The whole thing happened in seconds. The wagon didn't stop and nor did those behind it. Mr and Mrs Salinger called out heartfelt thanks as he carried on walking against the forward momentum of the train and jumped up to sit beside Grace.

His description of the small tragedy avoided shocked her. She was also proud of him and said so.

"I acted on instinct. The child fell - I grabbed her. I didn't even think about causality and fracturing timelines. I couldn't not try to catch her."

"Of course, not," Grace agreed. "Anyone would do the same."

"Anyone else isn't bound by the Laws of time," he mused. "They don't have to decide whether saving a life will unravel the future. Except, I didn't decide. I just grabbed her. And don't think that would be any good as a defence if some pedant on Gallifrey wanted to make a fuss about it. I'd be in court defending myself against charges of interference again."

"I don't care. You saved a child from a horrible death. That's all that matters."

it wasn't really, but they couldn't fully discuss the circumstances in which the Laws of Time might be set aside in the name of necessity. Mrs Wilmot was still inside their wagon with her son.

“I’m going to take a look at him,” The Doctor decided, sliding around on the seat and insinuating his body through the gap in the canvas.

He was surprised to see Mrs Wilmot fast asleep on the bed while Peter sat, wrapped in the blankets his father had carried him over in before the wagons broke camp.

“She sat up beside me all last night, then drove the provisions wagon all morning, and sat with me again.”

“We’ll leave her be, then,” The Doctor replied. “Let’s take a look at your stitches.”

“They feel all right,” the boy assured him. “I’ve just had a drink of the medicine water that Mrs Smith left for me.”

“Easy on that stuff,” The Doctor joked. “It could get as habit forming as whiskey.”

Peter laughed, then winced as the stitches tugged.

“If it only hurts when you laugh, it’s a good sign, but let me look all the same.

He made the boy lie down beside his mother and unwrapped him from the blankets and a cotton sheet with embroidered lace edges that was probably a little older than Peter himself, part of Mrs Wilmot’s ‘bottom drawer’ that she brought with her on her marriage to Mr Wilmot. He carefully undid the bandages and was pleased to see that the wound was starting to look less raw. The stitches were starting to knit the edges together. The whole area was red, still, but not badly swollen and there was no sign of infection. He put new dressings on and let him sit up with the sheet his mother had embroidered before he was born and she had the time for such delicate work wrapped around him.

“You’re going to be fine,” he concluded. “You’re over the worst.”

“That’s good,” Peter replied. “I heard ma and pa praying last night… asking God to spare me, because without my help they couldn’t manage the farm once they get to Oregon.”

The Doctor half smiled. He was sure Mrs Wilmot didn’t sit up all night out of concern about the free labour Peter would provide at the end of the journey. There was deep, unwavering family love, too. But it was the same pragmatism again that kept old Sam Dooley alive through the privations and hardships of the trail. Peter was nearly a man. He was going to be doing a man’s work alongside his father, providing for his younger siblings who weren’t yet old enough to shoulder the burden.

“Doctor Smith….” Peter began. He glanced at his mother. She was breathing softly and evenly, and very clearly deeply asleep. “Sir… I heard something of what you were saying to your wife, outside. I didn’t mean to pry or nothing, but it sounded as if you know about the future.”

“I….” The Doctor was lost for words. He ran the conversation he had with Grace through his head, wondering if there was any innocent explanation for what they had been saying. There was none.

“You have the Second Sight. Pa said it. When I was taken ill and you came to our wagon, and you hardly had to look at me to know it was appendicitis. Pa said you were wise beyond your years, and you must have the gift. He said there had been a man in New York State where he comes from who told folks there was a bad winter coming and they should lay in provisions until late April. Some folks laughed. But those who did suffered from cold and starvation. Those who laid in fuel and food made it through to the spring. He said his father had listened to the man. His father believed in the Second Sight and would never dismiss a man who had it.”

“Well, there are charlatans claiming that sort of thing,” The Doctor pointed out. “Don’t you ever give hard earned money to anyone promising to tell you the future. But a man who could tell you there was a bad winter coming is either very good at reading the signs nature leaves or….”

“Or he has the sight, like you.”

The Doctor said nothing.

“Pastor Oates would not like it. He’s hot against any sort of thing like that. I guess you and he wouldn’t be such good friends if he knew.”

“The Pastor just wants to protect you all from the sort that would rob you of your money pretending to have gifts of foresight. He’s a good man. He’s kept the hot-headed young men from fighting over games of cards at night and been a source of solace and advice to those who’ve found the journey wearisome. Who knows, his prayers may well be what are keeping old Sam Dooley in the land of the living more than my medicine.”

“He’s a good man. Ma hopes he’ll set up a church near enough to where we settle that we can go regular and hear him preach. Her one worry about coming to a new territory is that there might not be a church to go to. She was hoping you and Mrs Smith might settle close, too, so that there’s a good doctor on hand. But Pa said you might not stay anywhere for long. He said you had a gypsy sort of air to you and you’d be moving on again once we reach Oregon territory.”

“Your Pa is probably right,” The Doctor confirmed. “Though it must be a puzzle to men like him where men like me expect to go once they reach the far side of a continent like America and look at another ocean.”

“I think you’ll know,” Peter told him. “I think, maybe, once I’m twenty-one and a free man, I might go on back east and train to be a doctor. Then at least one of ma’s hopes will co me about.”

It was then that The Doctor knew the rules would have to be broken. He had to know if the son of a migrant farmer could achieve an ambition like that in this country where anything seemed possible if a man – or woman – had ambition enough. He reached out and grasped Peter’s hand in his. He dropped the carefully constructed guard that self-preservation had made necessary and felt the boy’s timeline stretch before him.

He smiled widely. This time, at least, there was no doubt.

“This is a secret,” The Doctor told him. “A sworn secret. And you have to understand, just because I’m going to show you the future as it appears at this moment, it CAN still go wrong. If you decide to take up tightrope walking over chasms as a hobby I can’t say you won’t fall to your death and everything will go wrong, but if you keep to your present course….”

He kept Peter’s left hand in his right and place his own left hand on Peter’s forehead. He closed his eyes and slowly touched his future. The immediate part of it was simple enough. Tomorrow night the wagon train would reach the end of the tableland. The morning after, when Peter was able to sit up front of his father’s wagon and hold the reins while Mr Wilmot walked alongside the mules, they would descend a perilously steep incline that tested the wagon brakes every inch of the way. When they reached the level ground again, though, it was a place that offered almost as much respite for the weary travellers as the afternoon in the Cloister Room The Doctor had thought about earlier. Ash Hollow, known a little over a hundred years later as Ash Hollow State Historical Park, would prove to be a wooden glen with fresh, sweet water running in accessible brooks. Just drinking that clean, clear water without the bitter, alkaline taste that spoiled even good coffee and had accounted for a lot of the minor stomach problems The Doctor had treated in the past weeks would prove a welcome change. The shade of the trees would be a balm for tired eyes and dusty faces.

After that respite there was a month of hard going towards the Laramie Mountains, passing rock formations that fans of Saturday afternoon Western films would recognise immediately - Courthouse and Jailhouse Rocks, Chimney Rock and the citadel like Scotts Bluff, before reaching Fort Laramie, a place where the wagon train could rest for a few days, where tired animals could be reshod, wagons repaired and food stocks replenished.

Then, perhaps the hardest part of the journey would begin. The Oregon Trail led up into the Rocky Mountains littered with abandoned goods from the trains that had passed before them in the first years of the migration. Rusting iron stoves, tools, chairs and tables were thrown out by people who realised that getting over the mountains was more important than holding onto heavy, bulky possessions. There, too, would be the skeletons of animals that had died in the effort and the shallow graves of men, women and children who succumbed. This train would leave a few more sad reminders of how dangerous a trail it was.

“Not Sam Dooley?” Peter whispered.

“No, not Sam,” The Doctor assured him. “Nor anyone in your family. But don’t ask me to reveal anything more about that. Some things you shouldn’t know.”

Another respite along the way would be Sweetwater Valley where fresh, cool, perfectly PH balanced water was available and the going was easy as far as Independence Rock, so named because any wagon train making good time would arrive there around about Independence Day, July 4th – having set off from Independence Missouri, named for the same holiday. Mr Wilmot would be among those who carved their names into the rock that would, in the future, be a famous landmark of the yet to be founded State of Wyoming. The Doctor would leave his mark there, too, but he would do it secretly, using his sonic screwdriver to laser cut the Gallifreyan letters that spelt his real name – incomprehensible to anyone else ever likely to pass that way.

The next problem to be faced high up in the mountains would be, despite it being July, freezing cold weather at night and bitter, shivering starts when the wake up bell sounded. At a place called the Ice Slough, they would be able to break off huge chunks of permanent ice to cool the water in the casks and even use to make ice cream. They would be, when they enjoyed this treat, at the Continental Divide. From here, rivers flowed West instead of East and the trail gradually began to go downhill. The cold, high places would be left behind as they finally reached the somewhat arbitrary border of the Oregon Territory.

“But that’s not the end of the trail,” Peter told The Doctor. “There are still hundreds of miles to go. From Pacific Springs on the edge of the territory its more than a fortnight’s journey to Soda Springs. Pa told me about that place. He heard of it from Mr Gannt, our guide. The water there is full of bubbles.”

“Carbonated,” The Doctor said. “If you’re planning to be a medical man, a bit of natural chemical knowledge wouldn’t go amiss. Carbon dioxide pushes up through the rocks and dissolves in the water, making it effervescent. Pastor Oates will have some trouble there, stopping some of the men mixing it with liquor and drinking far too much of it for their own good. But your mother and other resourceful ladies will make lemonade.”

It was a small thing to look forward to, like the ice cream in the mountains. The rest of it was more hard work, crossing dry plateaus, raging rivers where, even at natural fords the water threatened to carry away wagons and mules, and more steep climbing into the Cascade Mountains, more slow descent and more even more dangerous rivers to cross or to float down on rafts made of the wagons with their wheels taken off to make them easier to balance.

Finally, in late November, the wagon train would reach Fort Vancouver, the end of the trail, the end of the travelling community. Here Young and Old Sam Dooley would go to the claims office and get the acres of land they came for. So would Mr Wilmot and all the other men who had come so far. Now they would use up what was left of their savings on lumber to build shanty houses on their claims, on tools and seed to plant in the spring, on food stores to last through the imminent winter.

Then the great adventure of their new lives would begin in earnest. Nobody had ever promised, and nobody expected, an easy job of it. But the Oregon land was fertile and crops grew. Communities were established. Towns and cities rose up. Peter Wilmot’s future was inextricably linked with the growth of the place he had come to call home.

“As I said, you DO have to avoid dangerous hobbies like tightrope walking or wrestling bears,” The Doctor reminded him. “But if you can make it to Willamette Valley by this November, without being discouraged by any of the hardships or tempted to stay at Soda Springs and open a lemonade stand, you’ll be just fine.”

“I believe you, Doctor,” Peter told him. “And I won’t tell anyone your secret.”

“That I have Second Sight?”

“That you are a Time Lord from the planet Gallifrey in the constellation of Kasterborus, and you travel in time and space. And Mrs Smith is a doctor, too, but she is from California.”

“California is as much a dream as Gallifrey, yet. It won’t even become the Thirty-First State until four years from now. And I need to stop my mind from wandering when I’m psychically connected to somebody as clever as you.”

Peter laughed and promised once again, faithfully, to keep The Doctor’s secret.

“What secret?” asked Mrs Wilmot sleepily. “Goodness, I fell asleep. How silly of me.”

“The Doctor’s secret is that he likes fizzy lemonade, and he is looking forward to getting to Soda Springs,” Peter answered. “And it’s all right to fall asleep. You were tired.”

Despite his assurance, Mrs Wilmot was still a little embarrassed. Falling asleep in somebody else’s wagon was a social faux pas of the highest degree.

“And your secret is safe with us,” The Doctor assured her. “Now, let’s settle Peter down for a bit more rest and you can sit with us up front for a little while. I’ll take over the driving and you and Grace can talk about hats and calico and the things women talk about until we make camp later.”

She was leaving her duties as a wife on the Oregon Trail to others. One of her daughters was driving the provisions wagon, another minding the children. She knew she ought to have felt guilty about that. But it had been a worrying day or so and the chance to just sit and talk with another woman as the wagons rolled on was welcome.

“It’s all right,” The Doctor whispered to Grace as he took over the driving. “Our secret is safe.”

Salem, Oregon was in celebratory mood on February 14th, 1859 when Oregon became a fully-fledged State of the Union and the small city that had only come into existence during the twenty years or so of the migrant trail to the Territory became its State Capitol. Outside City Hall a podium was erected. The Mayor made a speech. A band played patriotic songs. Neatly dressed children sang in chorus.

The Doctor and Grace enjoyed the festivities as much as anybody else, even though neither of them were citizens of Oregon. When they reached Willamette Valley in the late autumn of 1846 they had sold their wagon and what was left of their provisions to young Sam Dooley and said goodbye to their friends. They told everyone that they were heading back east in order to provide medical assistance to next spring’s wagon train.

Of course, they did nothing of the sort. The Doctor set the TARDIS for the lovely planet of Hydro-Magnus, famed for its numerous health spas. Two weeks of mineral baths, facials and massages were just the holiday Grace needed to recover from her extended holiday from real life.

Then they returned to Salem on its proudest day, feeling that they had contributed in their own small way to the birth of this Thirty-Third State.

"There he is," The Doctor said, taking Grace by the hand towards a young man who waited near the Salem Bank.

"Doctor! Mrs Smith" He knew them at once. It took Grace a few moments to recognise him.

"Peter Wilmot!" She cried in delight. "How lovely to see you after all these years. You look well."

"You look as if it were only last week!" he exclaimed. "Both of you. I suppose that's because you...."

"We took a short cut," The Doctor explained. "But you... no tightrope walking or bear wrestling?"

"No, sir. Just hard work all the way. I got my doctor's qualification and my license to practice in the brand new State of Oregon. And next month I'm getting married... to Margery Salinger.... The girl you saved way back on the trail. Pastor Oates is conducting the ceremony. He has the church he wanted here in Salem."

"Oh, wonderful," Grace told him. "Congratulations."

"Come to dinner with us," Peter asked. "She will be thrilled."

"We can't," The Doctor said. "Too many awkward questions. But do give her our regards and have a marvellous life."

"Thanks to you in so many ways I already have," Peter answered.

"Then our work was not in vain."

They exchanged more pleasantries before saying goodbye. As they walked back to the TARDIS, Grace wondered about Sam Dooley

"Old Sam died last year," The Doctor replied. "Young Sam..."

He pointed to the name on a brass plaque on the bank.

“Manager, Samuel Dooley,” Grace read. “He made it, too. I'm glad."

"So am I,” The Doctor admitted. “All our friends found what they were looking for in Oregon.”

Something in the sigh that The Doctor let out as he said that made Grace frown.

“Once I went looking for a better life, a more perfect society to live in,” he said. “Never found it. But I think my expectations were too high. I needed to be satisfied with imperfect worlds where people at least tried their best. I think that’s why I found Earth in the first place. And these past few months have reminded me that I already have a lot to be content about.”

“Am I one of your reasons for contentment?” Grace asked.


“That’s ok, then. Now, take me back home to 1990s California to do a few shifts of what I trained to do, then you can sweep me away into another adventure like that one, with no unpleasant aliens spoiling things.”

“Sounds like a plan,” The Doctor decided.