Western Short Story
The Doctor's Lament
Tom Sheehan

Western Short Story

Mal Bisbee, from his porch on the Box Z Ranch between two tall but scalable cliffs near Trumpet, Texas, saw Eddie, his son, riding hell-bent for home, his arms waving either alarm or celebration. He had not seen Eddie moving, on horse or foot, that fast, in years. At his ankles came the jolt of spurs he was not wearing; the man, folks said, understood readiness, preparation, news on the hoof.

His head shook in another round of disbelief; some days came flat and dull, and then there were other times where newness itself came as alarm.

“Found another one, Pa,” Eddie yelled out, “just like the last one, like Doc Reineger’d been working his best knife, but that was more than two years ago. It’s over on the edge of our property, near the highest cliff, no blood on the ground or the grass, clean as a new pair of boots, but dead and gut-cleaned like them two others we found. And right near where the ridge line leaves the last shadow of the morning.”

That last direction contained a belief the young rider held concerning “other forces at work about us,” an element his father figured was known to the young of the region, and yet never a whisper of it at the saloon or across the kitchen table. Grown men didn’t talk about such things or squeeze them into normal conversation.

Young Eddie Bisbee, large for 15, nearly as big as his father, face redder than either embarrassment or a stupid blunder a crowd could make of it, apparently and judiciously out of breath, leaped off his mount as it nudged the tie rail, his whole body aching to release all the news he carried at once.

“I got there, Pa, before the vultures did and they was up overhead and not a soul in sight on the whole spread of grass. Not a horse track on the ground, just like as before, like they was walking on feathers or Injun slippers.” His hands slapped his thighs and he said, “Beats the heck out of me, Pa, like before.” He added, his eyes almost announcing his added words, “like we got ghosts out on the grass and they ain’t home near the house yet.”

A widower for five years, and his keen eye having locked on Betty Hult, widow, blonde of blondes, sweet in the kitchen but also in the eye of another rancher without a mate, Shug Simmons. Mal Bisbee knew a sudden movement of anger plunge down through his whole frame like it was gushing through a dam break. The other two apparent surgical-like deaths of two young cows from his herd, with no signs or interpreted directions as to who and why such precocious steps had been taken in old butchery, and Simmons, he made himself believe right from the outset, was capable of such butchery but perhaps not so artfully, yet as if sending a message that his neighbor would not mistake its intentions: I have my eye on that woman and you best know it, Mal Bisbee.

Hell, cattle come high in the order of things: your woman, your kids, your horse, and when you’re a widowed man, women move higher on the saddle.

Explanation of mysterious deaths of three cows would again cause Bisbee some decent night’s sleep, even as he dreamed of Betty Hult on horseback or any dance at which she appeared. More times than he could count, he recalled the image of her framed in a broad doorway with lights behind her, as if shaping her for his eyes alone. As much as he believed he loved the woman, he feared Shug Simmons had a built-in mean streak that’d do her more harm than good if those two were ever paired. He’d seen Simmons in too many scrapes with men and women to ever entrust him with a single favor or duty, like a line had been drawn in the ground between them.

To remove his instant assumptions versus Simmons, Bisbee said, “Have you seen any strangers in the valley, son? Anybody at all? Anyplace out there on the grass?”

“‘Ceptin’ for them two lookin’ for town, the ones with the broken wagon wheel, perhaps two weeks ago, I ain’t seen a soul.” His daily attempt at humor pushed him to add, “or a ghoul.”

He accepted his father’s affable grunt at his joking and continued, “The last other stranger I seen in the valley was that gent months ago over at the scribblin’s on the stone cliff he says are so old none of us can count that high.” The boy could not hold back his latest pun, and added, “or that low.” His grin was as warm as his father figured the day would be, with the sun high and directly overhead.

Mal Bisbee, looking over the valley between the two rocky ridges that marked his property, said, “I’m goin’ in town to see Doc and then old Gurney at the store. Keep your eyes open, and make sure the ranch hands do the same, keep a good watch. And any Tannor hands as well messin’ in our bounds. Sounds like there really is somethin’ spooky goin’ on.”

He put a cap on that thought by looking high in the sky and then let his gaze seek out a new and plausible scenario, some other way life might swing its attention for most ordinary men trying their best to do their best.

“What cha think the cutter does with the meat, Pa, leavin’ only skin and bones behind him like they was market-cut?”

“We know he don’t cook it. We ain’t smelt burn-fry or roast fry floatin’ on the air since that hoo-haw we had after the last drive.” Even as he mounted his horse, his head was shaking with question and doubt. Before he left for town, he told Eddie, “Make sure you cover the carcass as quick as you can with a wagon canvas top. I want Doc to see as much of it as he can before the buzzards start feeding on it or what’s left. Git it done fast.”

He rode into town, away from his spread and the two high ridges, like bulky eruptions made in the face of the Earth, had a long time ago stuck their noses out and got pushed higher to see what was goin’ on around  ’em. At a slow pace he rode, his mind full of all kinds of mysteries, the strange deaths, the possibility of Tannor having a hand in all things he had interest in, and Grace’s string-dangling he might understand on a better day and discard it once and for all as a woman’s way of handling a man. He wished all his doubts could be handled so easily said, or contrived for that matter.

Doc Reineger, he had already decided, would throw some light on things mysterious as soon as they began talking things over, “gittin’ to the heart of the matters,” as Doc often said of their discussions. This time, with some assurance, he’d have remains for Doc to look at, that is if Eddie did as he was told. Earlier, on the other two instances, the vultures had thoroughly cleaned up skin remains and tossed bones in a wide aside.

In Doc Reineger’s office, across from The Kick-in Saloon, Bisbee slipped through the door and said, “C.mon, Doc, and I’ll buy you a drink and tell you about the latest mystery happened out our way.”

“Just what I’m waiting for,” the Doc said, “an old patient with deep pockets. I got me a powerful thirst working its way up from my boots. So, you got another mystery on hand, eh? Might as well save it for the first few rounds.” Carefully he arranged the paperwork on the top of his desk, placed a stony weight of unknown origin atop one pile, surveyed the desk, nodded in self-admiration, and lead the way out of the office and across the street, Bisbee smiling every step of the way as if a known machine was his company.

Obviously between the two men a comfort zone had been reached with few words said and long habit continued. They made their way to the saloon and were soon at their first drink, after a dozen hellos were accomplished to and for other patrons scattered about the room on any regular day.

But both men knew it was not a regular day.

“Well,” Doc said as he toasted a salute and sipped at the drink, “what’s it this time?” He lowered his eyes and was seriously intent on liquor’s after-taste as well as coming news. His eyes and expression carried interest and importance as steady partners, characteristics that made the doctor an accepted favorite to the whole community and for miles around on a dozen huge spreads.

“Same thing as afore, Doc,” offered Bisbee; “A young steer of mine cut and sliced, meat all gone, nothing but his thin skin and bones left and not a sign of foot or hoof traffic in the area. Clean as a new saddle, that small pile, like a knife sharp as lightning had done the carving, maybe the kind of knife you’d like to own.” He tipped his drink and his hat to the doctor in full admiration, and continued; “Eddie come rushin’ home and told me in all his excitement and I sent him back but this time with a canvas to cover it up so you could take a look and give me your pitch on it. Eddie said the vultures or buzzards were already circlin’ up above like they was waitin’ for him to leave the table, a half dozen of ’em.”

“No strangers around, I mean strangers from elsewhere, out of the territory?”

“Not a one, Doc, not eve that odd duck readin’ the writin’ on the rocks last year like they was from his teacher.”

“Funny you mention that gent, Mal, because I heard he was in Grover’s Hill last month and doing some more of his rock reading. Like the man’s not going to let go any of his favorite pastime unless we shoot him off the task. His name’s Peter Princeton, a professor of some sort, probably deep into our past, or more like the Indians’ past, and chases down all sorts of stuff that seem to go way back in history’s ranking. I’ll tell you something highly believable about those kinds of folks, they don’t let go very easy, whatever it is they’re after, like the good cowhands you know at work, riding drag, sleeping on hard ground, eating near unbearable food at times, facing hordes of hungry Bidals or Tonkaws or even the kind of secret Karankawas we have down here in this corner of Texas, or any of those small tribes fighting for their lives every day.”

“Yeh,” Bisbee replied, “I know you wouldn’t turn one away from your office any day of the week.” His eyes studied the doctor, how he had aged in his tasks, hiding some thinness of face with a beard and whiskers, part of him fading away in the march of months, never mind the measurements of years. Admiration filled the rancher, even as he wondered what the doc would say when he saw the delicately cut remains of his third artfully sliced cow. He also wondered what the whole territory would do when Doc Reineger took his last breath.

“Not if they were hurting,” Doc Reineger replied, smiling, understanding his friend, and suddenly holding his glass up for a refill, not caring who heard their conversation, knowing his short place in this long life, what pain is to body and soul, how man faces the end one way or another, all coming at some time, some command, some foolish pull of a trigger or the snap of a bow and arrow. The odd relationships between Texans and Indians had always intrigued him, but never gave him worry, though they pushed curiosity to a high level. And now this new twist in the life of a friend; he couldn’t imagine fully what was to come his way.

Bisbee knew the doctor was not through talking; he saw the interest spark again in Doc Reineger’s eyes, as he suddenly said, “Let’s go send him a message and tell him we have something else for him to look at. It shouldn’t take him more than a day to get here, and then we’ll all go out to your place for a visit, see what he says about this latest operation.” The last word carried a slightly different tone to it, but he offered no accompanying smile to highlight any other excuse or intention.

They sent the message to Peter Princeton from the back of Gurney’s store, Gurney adept at most things coming down the line, and being at the same time the center of news in the town, the gossip core, the unprinted headlines, the communication center with the rest of Texas and the world beyond.

He said, “Mal, I heard already that you got another smooth skinning out your way. And not Indian as I heard also. Curious enough to get the doc here involved. Good move, and I bet the doc come up with the idea of calling in that history guy been here before.” He looked at the remnant of the message doc had scribbled on a piece of paper, “that Butler gent who reads sign like an Indian does, but for a different reason.”

Late the next day, just before dusk, a small wagon rolled into town and Peter Princeton parked his rig, had his horse taken care of, got one drink, one room over the saloon and went to sleep. Early in the morning he was at Doc Reineger’s door and the pair ride out of town, into the face of the rising sun, Gurney from his store saw them pass by and knew they were headed out to Mal Bisbee’s Box Z spread. A strange feeling edged at his curiosity and he knew the day would be different for most folks in Trumpet, perhaps in other parts of the territory, he added as a second thought, or then, all over.

He wondered what Doc Reineger and Peter Princeton would talk about on the way to the Box Z.

What he might have heard, if in their company, was Doc Reineger carrying on in his own way, saying, “William, if I may be so amiable, we have had as I said in my message, a new and just as artful slicing up of a steer at almost the same exact spot we told you about on your last trip.”

“The exact same spot?” Butler said, not at all surprised, as if such things were metered, molded, and measured in a certified strain of events. He’d seen such event locations before, the repetitions, the associations between miraculous entities. “Well, I surely hope I can present some conclusions to you and Mr. Bisbee and, of course, his son, who seems to be in the right place all the time, as though he’s a bellwether of some arrangement or odd prediction. I have managed to read such messages from the old carvings, the voices from old if I may say so.”

Somewhat surprised, Doc Reineger said, “You mean Eddie’s been picked somehow someway as a messenger of sorts?”

“Yes, I suppose I mean just that, the way some old societies spoke through the young or the very old, which must be some kind of attribution I can’t explain, except that of the difference in times itself, or in age, like paragraphs on a page or whole chapters in a book, different means or methods.”

“I understand what you mean, William, but I could probably have sliced these animals if I had the same tool. Mal, who’s seen two of the three kills, thinks I could.”

“Not that I’d throw anything at your profession, Doctor, but I do not believe either you or I could do the job in the same way, at the same cut, if I may say so. We are dealing with far different applications.”

“And far different applicators?” Doc Reineger said assuredly.

“Exactly my intended words, Doc. And Mr. Bisbee is no dummy in his own right, calling you and me into the situation. We shall soon see and thanks be.” In the near distance, high against the blue sky and the early sun, the left ridge against the Box Z bounds loomed and filled him with an energy he had difficulty keeping under control. He wished the horse would rush on its way.

Doc Reineger understood and felt the researcher’s reactions, the rush of energy from him was broadcast in the air.

When they got to the site, they saw Mal Bisbee and his son standing close together. Beside the father and son was a bare spot and another darker spot proved to be the folded canvas in a perfectly square format, not a line out of whack.

“It’s all clean, Doc, Mr. Butler,” Eddie blurted. “I come out here and everything’s gone and the old wagon canvas folded up like it was brand new.” He looked around him and added, “And every bone and every chunk of skin is gone. Everthin’!” His shoulders shook and he looked around again as though he expected something to materialize right near his father and himself.

Peter Princeton stood up in the wagon, stared at the ground, at the folded canvas, looked at mostly unbroken ground marked only by the horses father and son had ridden here from their ranch house, and slowly nodded his head in unmistaken belief. None of these people were playing games with him, he knew, having experienced such tricks and tactics before in his long years of study.

He looked over at the scribed cliff-face he had read more than two years before, climbed down from the wagon, and in a near whisper, as though something or someone was listening to him, said, “Please stay here until I come back.”

He set off walking in cliff shade toward the base of the cliff where scratches, indentations, images of odd and awed sorts were scribed into the very stone.

He stayed at the cliff face for almost two hours, and the sun had risen high and the shadows had gone.

When he returned to the others, his face stern, unreadable otherwise, he said, “Gentlemen, I have news for you; since I was here last a new message has been inscribed into the stone, an entirely new message. It will take me weeks or months to decipher it, if I can do that. I think it’s in a new language or a twist of the old language, but you, Mr. Bisbee, and Eddie, and you too, Doc, have been visited anew. I hope you’ll grant me quarters to stay at while I do my new studies.”

He looked overhead at the sky, shielded his eyes from the sun, looked off at the other far cliff, like Columbus might have looked one day, setting sails west.

The four of them stood in the midst of utter silence, none of them imagining anything but human forms in the visitation, and Indians at that.