#FridayFlash: A Friend In Need

The muddy water didn't do much to get the blood off his cuffs, but the doctor's hands came out of the basin cleaner than they went in. He washed with the regular soft soap until the water went scummy and gray, then dumped it out the window and rinsed the basin with fresh from the ewer. In the clean water, he washed again with the special hard lye soap. It was from a recipe he'd read in an issue of the New England Journal of Medicine, designed specifically for use after childbirths and gynecological examinations. It stung like hell and it smelled of witch-hazel and kerosene, but the article had reported good results in keeping the lingering effects of the female anatomy from being absorbed into a doctor's hands.

From his front porch, the sound of a footstep on the stair tread made him look up. He'd been fetched out of bed at two o'clock to assist Granny Osterholm with Jenny Winfield's delivery. Granny was an old hand and a good midwife, but this was Jenny's first, and the labor had been long. Two days she'd struggled with it, such that by the time the moment came, she was exhausted and couldn't deliver. He didn't fault Granny for what she did... he'd have probably done the same. Reaching in to ease the baby out, helping it to turn in the birth canal was a mercy on poor Jenny. That the baby died before the young woman could suckle her was one of those tragedies that too often came with long labor. The doctor was just glad that Granny had had the sense of mind to come get him when the bleeding wouldn't stop. It would be a month or more before Jenny could get out of bed, and there was no way to know if she'd ever be able to carry again, but she was alive. That was more than could be said in many such circumstances.

Another footstep, now on the porch itself. He didn't recognize the tread. Who would be calling now? The news must surely have spread through town that he'd had to ride out to the Winfield homestead in the small hours. It was clear five miles out on the northwest platte, a solid hour each way, and in the dark of the moon, too. Unless it was a true emergency, who could be so inconsiderate as to not hold his complaint until he'd had a chance at a change of shirt and maybe a cat nap?

Now, a knock on the door. A man's hand, to judge by the weight of the knock, but restrained enough. No pounding crisis, then. He considered feigning sleep, but thought better of it. Even after being well established out here for more than ten years, a doctor's trade came from his reputation. His hands left neither mud nor blood on the gray towel. After taking a fresh set of cuffs from the box and buttoning them on, he shrugged into his day coat. Before he left the room, he retrieved his spectacles from the pocket of his mud-spattered traveling coat.

As he approached the door, he heard the man's weight shift on the porch, as though he'd been about to knock again. The doctor opened the door into the gray light of mid-day.

"Good day, sir. Are you, by chance, Doctor Johannsen? Doctor Ivar Johannsen?" The stranger bore all the marks of a trail rider - lean face, knife-cut hair, worn tackle, gunbelt - but his voice was measured, even cultivated. He was also literate, since he must have read the sign card in the window to get the doctor's full name. If he'd just asked in town, it's doubtful they would have given out his Christian name along with the "Doctor Johannsen".

"I am, yes. What can I do for you, Mister...?"

"Cooper, Samuel Cooper. It's not so much what you can do for me, Doctor, but it's my friend who needs the help."

The doctor looked past his visitor. He was alone on the porch. Two horses were tied up at the rail, but only one was saddled. The other, a pack horse, was laden with gear that could have been for prospecting or for surveying. Neither horse looked like it had been ridden hard.

"I'm sorry, your friend? Where is he? Back at your campsite, wherever that may be? I have to tell you that I'm just back from a house call, an overnight delivery of a woman come to term before her time. I perceive that this isn't a grave necessity. If you could come back in an hour or so, I could -"

"Excuse me, Doctor, but I have him here with me."

Again, the doctor looked at the horses, then back at his visitor. "Ah. And... where is he, exactly?"

Cooper turned and waved at the pack horse. The doctor's eyebrows came together in a brief twitch of a scowl, then smoothed back into professional politeness.

"I'm sorry, Mr. Cooper, I'm a physician, not a veterinarian. I suggest you take your horse around to the livery stable. Mr. Carpentier does an excellent job of horse doctoring. Now, if you'll excuse me, I must -"

"No, Doctor, not the horse. I'm talking about my friend." Seeing that the doctor still didn't understand, he stepped away from the porch and unhitched a bundle from one of the side packs. It was bulky, a Navajo blanket wrapped in oilcloth, tied with twine. The bundle looked heavy, but Cooper lifted it with wiry grace. "May I come in?"

The doctor stepped aside and Cooper laid the bundle down on the floor of the waiting room. With a twitch of practiced fingers, he undid the half-hitch knots that held the oilskin closed. The bundle opened so easily, it almost seemed as though it were unrolling itself. When the bones were exposed to the air, they gave off a whiff of mold, sage and desert cinnamon. On the brightly patterned red and yellow blanket, the skeleton of a man was arranged in perfect order from skull to metatarsals. At a glance, he could see that it was complete and correct, with each vertebra in its proper place.

A single bullet hole pierced the skull right between the eyes, surrounded by jagged stellate fractures of the lachryma fossa.

For a time, the doctor stood silently, looking down at the remains. Finally, he said, "What exactly is it that you want from me, Mr. Cooper?"

"I'd like you to bring him back, if you would be so kind. We had a... a falling out, which got somewhat out of hand. I cleaned him up as well as I was able, but the spirit healer over at the Navajo settlement wasn't able to work any magic for him."

"And what on earth makes you think that I could bring someone back from the dead?"

"I've heard stories about your skill as a physician. I thought maybe you'd be willing to help."

"Help? 'Help'?" The doctor's voice rose with indignation. "I am a doctor, sir, not a charlatan fabulist. I will thank you to take up your... "friend", and leave my office at once. This is an insult to -"

"I have one hundred and forty-eight souls." Cooper had drawn a small pouch from an inner pocket of his vest and waved it gently. "When the Navajoes couldn't help me, I killed them all and took their souls. Surely that's payment enough for you to forgo your, ah, professional reticence with respect to death magic?"

Again, the doctor stood silently for a time. Then, with a sour face, he held out his hand for the pouch. Cooper offered it without another word. When it was tucked away inside the breast pocket of his day coat, the doctor said, "Close the door."

===== Feel free to comment on this or any other post.

21 comments:

  1. Ok, there's apparently some classes they teach in med school that we don't know about. That's a chiller, Tony...

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  2. Tony, are you getting soft? Instead of killing people, you're bringing them back to life! Bring on the grisly murders!

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    1. Where's your compassion? The poor guy got shot right in the lachryma fossa... have you no pity?

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    2. What? There were 148 people killed there...

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  3. I really loved that story! I wonder what happened next? The Dr. is not what he seems outwardly to be.

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    1. Ha! No, he's not at all what he seems.

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  4. Tony, does the death magic include holding all the bones of a skeleton together, since without muscle & sinew to hold them in place & various organs to act as spacers between them, the human skeleton would just collapse into a pile of bones?

    marc nash

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    1. It was bulky, a Navajo blanket wrapped in oilcloth, tied with twine... The bundle opened so easily, it almost seemed as though it were unrolling itself.

      True, if he'd just dumped the bones on the floor, they would be a jumble. However, the skeleton was rolled up in the blanket, like those thick felted mats that are used to roll up jigsaw puzzles. Arranged carefully on the blanket, it was rolled up, holding all the bones in place. Then the blanket roll was wrapped in oilcloth and tied with doubled half-hitches to secure it all.

      That's how I transport all of my flensed and scoured human skeletons... is there a better method I should be using?

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    2. No, that would do it I reckon ;-)

      marc nash

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  5. You have GOT to continue this one!!

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    1. Westerns + dark magic... I knew you'd like it!

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  6. This is terrific Tony! You have the chilling atmosphere set so perfectly I could hear the frightening silence between their dialogue. Superb story!

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  7. Great story Tony, immediately compelling and full of engaging detail. A proper story all round and definitely one I'd like to see you continue, maybe linking the two events together with more intrigue. Off you go!

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  8. Well, that was an unexpected turn. Nice one.

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  9. I really liked the twist there. :)

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  10. Well, that was an unexpected turn of events. I did wonder if the "friend" was a vampire & the good doctor was an intended meal. The doc has a reputation in certain circles, it seems.

    I, too, would like to read more about this necromancer turned doctor… or is it the other way around?

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  11. What a perfect -- and plausible -- cover-up. Great period tone in the writing, too.

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  12. Like those above, I liked the twists. Didn't know where this was going and that was enjoyable. Maybe this could be a new project post Grammarian?

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