Western Short Story
Old Man Dying
Old Doc Evans cared about four things in this life: sitting in the hot sun and warming his aching bones, smoking a pipe stuffed with Gallaher Irish Tobacco, a good cup of hot coffee, and paying patients. IN THAT ORDER.
A rider approached on a dusty mustang. He was all hunched over and swaying in the saddle. Doc Evans's keen eyes saw the drifter was badly hurt. He also noted the scarred saddle, the worn-out boots, and ragged dress of the rider. Here was a broken-down cowboy with no money. Doc firmed his lips around his smoking pipe. Under no circumstance would he work a charity case.
The cowboy stopped his horse under the faded DOCTOR’S OFFICE sign.
“You the doc?” asked the hunched over rider, grasping the reins in one hand and, holding a ragged coat closed with the other.
“That’s what the sign says. What’s the trouble?”
“A mountain cat jumped me back in the hills—tore me up pretty good. The claw marks are putrefying, and it hurts like Hades.”
“Four bucks up front. If you need more doctoring, four bucks a day after that.”
“Aren’t you even going to look first?”
“What kind of doctor are you?”
“A poor one! Cause every broken-down case in the county has paid me with promises, sacks of meal, chickens, and all kinds of junk. If every person I treated paid me for my services, I’d be retired, out of this town, and living my ease up in Denver. Four bucks!”
The doc puffed furiously and in pent up anger. A cloud of smoke arose around his head and nearly obscured the wrinkled old man's visage.
“Mighty hard dealings, Doc,” said the rider.
“Four bucks! No more charity cases!” fumed the doctor.
“Alright. I got my lucky twenty dollar gold piece. Carried it since the conflict. Saved my life at Chickamauga…stopped a bullet…”
“Don’t need no hard-luck stories. Let me see it.”
The rider reached in his shirt front pocket and pulled something out. The cowboy held the object, looked at it briefly, and then tossed it to the old man on the porch. Surprisingly, the doc caught the heavy coin deftly with one hand and then examined it. On one side of the bullet indented coin was stamped Clark Grubner & CO. 1860, and on the other side, barely legible, was Pikes Peak Gold, Denver. The gold piece was badly damaged by a bullet that had pierced the coin through the middle.
“You fought at Chickamauga?” asked the doc.
“Does it matter?” asked the rider gruffly.
“Suppose not. I was there. Treated men from both sides.”
“Bet you made a pile of limbs…”
The doc rose angrily to his feet.
“Sonny!” shouted the doc. “I been accused of that all through, and after, the conflict! I never did nothing but what had to be done—with what we had to work with! If’n you want to be taken care of, don’t insult the only medicine man in theses parts!”
When the doctor stopped shouting, he commenced to cough. He bent over in a fit of agony. The wracking sound came from deep down in his chest and revealed a very sick old man. It was some time before the man recovered and stood up. A handkerchief held to his mouth revealed specs of blood. The young man on the horse saw it.
“Alright, Doc,” said the rider softly, now swaying weakly in the saddle. “As you say.”
“This gold piece is damaged!” shouted the doc. “Give you fifteen dollars credit!”
“You’re a hard man…,” began the rider and then he slumped sideways.
The cowboy caught hold of the pommel and weakly slid off the saddle and onto his feet. Then he fainted dead away and slumped unconscious to the ground. A barefoot kid skipping down the street, ran over to look at the prone man.
“Well, just don’t stand there!” growled the doctor at the boy. “Harvey, you git yourself up to the sheriff's office and bring him and that deputy back. Tell him I’m too old to be hauling drifters and hard cases.”
The boy named Harvey grimaced at the mean-mouthed doc and ran up the street.
* * *
“You’re a fraud, Doc,” said the injured man lying on the cot in the back of the doctor's office. “You’ve got a soft spot in you a mile wide.”
“Shhhhhhhh! Tarnation man! Don’t let anyone hear you!”
“How long have I been here?”
“Seven days—eight—if you count this morning,” answered the doc.
“You said four dollars a day, I figure I’m five days past that fifteen dollars I paid you. And that Indian cook of yours brought me a big breakfast. How much do I owe you for that? How come you didn’t throw me out?”
“That mountain lion tore you up pretty good,” replied the doc. “I sewed over a hundred stitches in your back! And you were all infected and clean out of your head with fever. I couldn’t throw a sick man on the street.”
“Doc, you could have, but you didn’t.”
“Just say I got a soft spot for any soldier who fought at Chickamauga.”
“If you say so, Doc. But as soon as I'm able, I’ll get a job and pay you back every penny I owe you.”
“You better, son. And you can start by telling me your proper name.”
“It’s Fisher, Doc. Daniel D. Fisher.”
“Well, Danny, soon as you’re able, I’ll send you over to Pepe Lopez.”
“He’s my Mexican partner. He and I own a pig farm. We supply all the pork and ham this town can eat. I earn more off that place then I ever did doctoring. Seems people will pay up front for food.”
“You want me to work for this Lopez?”
“Well, you don’t have a job, do you? And you owe me money! Don’t tell me you’re too proud to slop hogs!”
“Well, Doc, a man does have his limits.”
“Tarnation fellow! There’s a drought on, the grass is sparse, and the cattle are dying. There’s not a job to be had in fifty miles! If you’re serious about paying me back, you’ll work for Lopez!”
“Like I said before, Doc, you’re a hard man.”
* * *
“Well, Pepe?” said the doc. “Tell me all about it.”
“Senor, this young man you send me, he all the time work. He never sit still.”
“Good. Tell me what he has done.”
“He drive me crazy, all the time fixing things—the fences, the pig pens, the cabin roof. When the pigs are fed, he look for other work, and cuts and chops the firewood and looks for more to cut. He works on the well and the irrigation ditches. All the time talks about plowing more land and planting and irrigating more corn.”
“He ask me questions and talk, talk, talk.”
“What does he talk about, Pepe?”
“Sometimes he asks about you. Questions I can no answer. He ask about our little ranch, how many pigs we raise and sell each year. He asks me about the well and the dry creek bed and how much water runs in the spring. Sometimes he ask me the same questions—who owns the land beyond the ranch and how much an acre costs.”
“What do you think of him, Pepe?” asked the doc.
“I think for a cowboy he know a lot about farming and pigs.”
“Is that a bad thing?”
“See, Senor. Before he come I sleep in the morning, take my siesta during the day, go to bed at night, and sleep in peace. This young man come, this Danny, all he do is work, work, work, and ask the questions. I think if he no go soon, then I go loco.”
“Alright, Pepe. When you go back, send him to me.”
“You promise he not come back? Before he come Pepe happy; now he come, Pepe tired…want things like before. We shake hands Senor Doc, this Danny, he not part of promise…”
“All right, Pepe. I’ll see to it that he won’t bother you any more.”
The doc shook Pepe’s proffered hand, and Pepe Lopez smiled in relief. Then the doc bent over in one of his coughing fits, and did not stop for a long time. When Doctor Evans recovered and wiped the blood from his mouth, his Mexican partner was gone.
* * *
“You wanted to see me?” asked Danny Fisher.
“Yes,” answered the doctor.
“What’s it about? You’re not happy with my work?”
“No, just the opposite,” said the doc and he attempted a smile, making his wrinkly old face turn up in a surprising expression of warmth. “Pepe told me, you more than paid me back.”
“Then what is it?”
“Pepe can’t stand the pressure of all the work you’re doing. He wants you off the place.”
Danny Fisher looked up in shocked and disappointed surprise.
“He wants me off the place? Because I work…”
“Calm down, son,” said the doc, who actually laughed. “You know, people surprise me all the time. Now when I first saw you, I thought you were a no account drifter, not worth…”
An older Indian woman in a plain print dress came onto the porch carrying a tray with cups of coffee. Next to the coffee were two plates and on them, large slices of cake. The men sitting on the porch both thanked her and she disappeared back into the doctor’s quarters.
“Take Rosita there,” said the doc. “She’s genuine one-hundred-percent Cheyenne. Showed up at my door one day looking for food and work. I had my doubts, but took her in. You know, she’s the best darn cook I ever had? She can boil a mighty fine cup of coffee and she’s the one who cured those infections. Turns out she knows a heap about Indian medicines and remedies. She brewed up several plants and that’s what we applied to your back. Since she came to work for me, I haven’t lost a patient.”
“You say Pepe Lopez wants me off his place because I work too hard?”
The doc laughed and slapped his knee. Then he picked up a fork, took a bite of the cake, and then a sip of coffee. After a long pause he spoke.
“Don’t pay no attention to Pepe. A man like him gets set in his ways and he doesn’t like change. Especially on his own place.”
“What will I do now?” asked the young man in a dejected tone of voice. “I don’t have a red cent to my name.”
“Why don’t you start by telling me something about yourself. If you don’t mind.”
“Well, Doc, there’s some things a man don’t…”
“Why don’t you tell me about how you came to fight in the war.”
“I was young and foolish, Doc, full of all the wrong notions. I thought it would be a grand adventure.”
“Didn’t turn out that way, did it?”
“There isn’t a morning…a day…a night…that thoughts of that war don’t come into my head,” said the doc.
“I know,” said the young man. “The nights and the dreams are the worst. Can’t shut the images off then.”
“That war was an awful thing,” said the doc in a low stern voice. “It killed and wounded a lot of men, tore the nation apart…scarred a generation.”
“That's a fact,” answered the young man.
“Well, Danny!” said the doc, suddenly changing the subject. “Eat your cake and drink your coffee! I want to talk to you about something, but before I do, tell me about your folks—where you came from. I’m interested to know you better.”
There was a long silence. Several ranchers’ wagons went up the main street of the small dusty town. The sun began to throw bright light onto the porch, and the old doc turned his body to it and seemed to welcome the extreme heat.
“Doc, I don’t want to talk about it.”
“As bad as all that? Pepe tells me you know a lot about farming and that you’ve been around pigs before.”
“If you must know,” sighed Danny.
“My old man, he owned a farm back east, ran mostly milk cows. If you know anything about that…ever since I was a little kid…up in the morning, attend to the pigs, the chickens, the cows. Regular as clock work and I came to hate it.”
“Yes?” said the doc. “Go on.”
“I grew up slopping hogs, doing farm work. When the war came I talked of joining. My old man was hard to deal with. He wouldn’t have none of it. Told me it would be a sin to take up a gun and kill my fellow man. I was young—didn’t see it that way. We argued, I left, and he told me to never come back. So after the war, I drifted…”
“And that’s how you know about farming?”
“And once you got started at Pepe’s,” said the doc, “you discovered you liked the work—that you were good at it.”
“Yes! How did you know?”
“By the way Pepe described your work. He told me you asked who owned the land next to his place.”
“Yes, I did. I thought maybe…”
“That you could work that land, maybe put up a damn, sink several wells, plant more corn, raise more hogs.”
“Why yes!” answered Danny. “Not just hogs, but a few steers. And horses. I always wanted to raise horses. I thought about breeding Morgans with Mustangs and getting a better riding mount…”
The doc held a cup of coffee in his hand and his wrinkled face was smiling. It actually made his sour expression completely disappear. Danny Fisher stared at the old man.
“Well!” said the doc. “Sounds like you got ideas and a good head on your shoulders. How about if you and I become partners? I just happen to own that land, far as the eye can see, clear to that ridge of mountains back yonder.”
“But, Doc,” said Danny with wonder in his voice. “It would take money to…”
“You supply the plans and work, and I’ll supply the funds.”
Again there was a long silence. Quietly, the Indian woman with the unusual name of Rosita, returned with a fresh pot of coffee and carrying a tray of freshly baked cookies. When she took up the old pot and the two forks and empty plates, Danny saw her smile and then she winked at him. The young man's mouth dropped open in surprise.
“Well!” shouted the doc. “Don’t just sit there with your mouth open! Tell me what you think!”
“Doc, how could you trust a drifter like me? Why would…”
“Pshaw! Hasn’t Pepe Lopez given me a good report? Didn’t Rosita and I doctor you when you had the fever? Didn’t we hear you go on about your Ma and Pa and your kinfolk back in O-hi-o? Can’t an old man know when he’s met a good, decent, hardworking young fellow?”
“I don’t know what to say. It’s more than I ever dreamed…”
“Say yes!” called out Rosita from inside the doc’s quarters.
“You see!” said the doc. “Even Rosita agrees.”
“Alright, Doc,” said Danny Fisher, putting out his hand. “You got yourself a deal.”
The old physician smiled and his homely wrinkled face again changed into a pleasant visage. The young man smiled back and shook the outstretched hand. Then quite suddenly the oldster began to cough. Out came the white handkerchief, and after, there was blood on it. Danny stared in stony silence.
“Alright, son" said the doctor. "It's no surprise to anyone. I got the cancer.”
“How long?” asked Danny.
“It’s been coming on for quite a while. Who knows about these things? I got maybe a month—maybe six—that’d be my professional opinion.”
“I see,” said Danny. “And what about our agreement?”
“Well? What about it?”
“After, who would get your half?”
“I don’t have a living relative. I already gave Pepe his. You just take Rosita and have her work for you. Promise me that, lad, and the rest is yours.”
“Is there anything else, Doc?” asked the young man in a subdued voice.
“Now that you mention it,” said the doc. “There’s a Saturday night dance coming up. You missed the other dances working out at Pepe’s place. Now there’s a young lady I’d like you to meet. She runs a little dress shop in town. Twenty years ago I brought her into this world myself. Her names Margaret, but everybody calls her Peggy…”
“Well? What’s wrong? Can’t an old man look after people he cares about? Before it’s too late? Oh, and by the way, here’s your lucky coin back.”
The doctor pulled the dented gold from his pocket and handed it to the young man.
“Doc!” said Danny Fisher, rising to his feet. “You’re not at all what you pretend to be.”
“Careful boy! Watch what you say, or you’ll git me all riled!”
From inside the doc’s quarters came the warm laugh of Rosita. Out on the boardwalk a pretty young woman in a smart dress and hat walked by on the opposite side of the street. She was carrying a basket of food items.
“In case you’re interested,” said the doc smiling broadly. “That’s Peggy!”