The Vet

Written: December 2001 - my first fic, I believe.
Posted here 'as is' without any editing since it was first published at a Lancer writers group.

The Lancer brothers have to stay the night with a disreputable veterinarian, who has to tend to a wounded Scott.

Osmosis Hogschwaller was just sitting down to a dinner of seven-day stew when there was a loud knock at his cabin door. Hoping the annoyance would just go away, he ignored another set of loud knocking. Only when the banging became heavy enough to threaten the construction of the flimsy door did he rise from his chair. Osmosis shoveled an exceptionally large spoonful of food into his mouth, pushed the barely touched bowl of stew away and went to the door.

"Jussaminnut! Holyerhosses!" he called out as he swung wide the trembling door. He opened his mouth to inquire what was so blasted important as to interrupt a man's dinner, but the sight before him stopped him in his tracks.

In the gathering dusk he saw two young men standing on his stoop. The dark one was supporting the blonde one, whose head was bandaged with what appeared to be a shirt. Blood was seeping from a head wound, through the cloth and down the cheek of the man's face. He looked to be barely conscious, held upright almost entirely by his companion. Two horses bearing full travel gear were tethered to the front porch railing.

"You Hogschwaller?"

"Whaddayou want?" Hogschwaller slurred in reply, forgetting he still had a mouthful of food. Some of it spat out when he talked, a gob landing on the dark stranger's embroidered shirt. The young man looked at the substance sitting on his chest, then slowly raised his narrowed eyes to meet Hogschwaller's. Osmosis suddenly found it difficult to swallow. He managed to gulp down his mouthful of stew, eyeing the pair before him.

"You the doctor?" the stranger asked, none too hopefully as he scraped the substance from his shirt and flicked it on the ground. It landed on the scruffy boot of the man in the cabin doorway.

"Can't you read, sonny?"

The dark man raised his voice impatiently, "Read what? Look, my brother needs help, and the lady at the end of the road said you do the doctoring hereabouts."

"Yup. That's what the sign says," Hogschwaller retorted, pointing to a sign hanging crookedly over the door, swinging from one nail in the evening breeze. Almost illegible in the dusky gloom, compounded by years of grime and worn off paint, it read "Osmosis Hogschwaller: Veterinarian". In small letters underneath that declaration: "Payment Accepted in Cash or Grain".

The look on the young man's face appeared comical in its disappointment, but an instant later his face hardened, taking on a determined appearance. He glanced at the man he was holding close and shifted the limp body a bit higher. Holding the slack arm around his own neck, he pushed his way in, past a protesting Osmosis Hogschwaller.

One look around the cabin confirmed his fear that he'd made a mistake in coming here for help. It was a one-room shack, equipped with the minimum of furniture. Before him was a table for eating, two chairs, pot-bellied stove, an enormous cabinet, and one bed in the far corner. Every surface was littered with veterinary paraphernalia, trade catalogs and dirty clothing. Indescribable piles of debris covered much of the floor. One heap moved and revealed itself to be a scruffy longhaired liver and white hound dog, who took one glance at the visitors and proceeded to scratch its ear with a back foot. The odor was a mixture of rotting cabbage, unwashed man, and dog flatulence.

"Now lookee, boy, I don't tend no people. Just God's gentle creatures…"

"Well, you're going to be making an exception, because this is my brother, and he needs tending to. Now." He gently lowered the blonde man onto the straight-back chair, keeping one hand on his brother's chest to ensure he stayed upright.

Hogschwaller sighed and moved to the side of the injured man. He peeled back the bandage and saw the corner of an ugly gash, bleeding freely. The patient appeared semi-conscious, his eyes unfocused, but not quite keeling over. A quick check of the eyes elicited a groan from the blonde and a fast move from the dark one. Hogschwaller found himself being hauled upright, a fist grabbing his shirt, a dark and dangerous looking face pressed near his own. "Listen to me. I expect you to doctor Scott and I expect you to wash your hands first. Even I know that much."

"Guess I just got drug up wrong," Hogschwaller replied sourly. The veterinarian scratched his belly through a tear in his shirt, inquiring, "What's your name, compadre?"

The rough hand released him. The young man sighed, removed his hat and ran his hand through his hair. Osmosis Hogschwaller had a good look at the man before him. Hair and skin dark enough to pass for a Mexican, but blue eyes that shone bright enough to stand out in the tense young face. His clothes and rig looked well worn but of good quality. The gun belt may have been ordinary, but the way in which it was worn left no doubt as to the experience of the wearer. His attitude spelled trouble if crossed, and the young man was obviously very concerned for his brother. "Johnny. My brother is Scott. He is very important to me. Understand?"

"Well, Mr. Johnny, I'm Osmosis Hogschwaller, and I'm a vet'narian."

"Yeah, well I get that. There's no doctor hereabouts?"

"Nope. What you see is what you get, sonny." Immediately after calling Johnny that, Hogschwaller realized he'd made a mistake. The glare he received made him hang his head for a moment and scratch his rear end. He sighed as if hard pressed, "My Pa and his Pa before him and his before that were all of the medical persuasion. Could say we've got it in the blood. Let's get your Scott on the table, where I can take a look-see in the light." Osmosis quickly moved his dinner bowl out of the way and put it on the stovetop.

Johnny shifted his brother up and onto the table with a minimum of fuss. He removed his jacket, balled it up and put it under Scott's head. When Scott moaned, Johnny touched him gently, smoothing the blonde hair, stroking him as he would to calm an animal.

Hogschwaller lit the lamp hanging directly over the table, started to lean over his patient, then thought better of it. He moved to the sink, pumped water and washed his hands. He wiped them down his shirtfront for lack of any towel to dry them on. The movement was not lost on Johnny, who was eyeing him with distaste.

"You ever clean this place, old man?"

"Nope, got no time, tending animals… and peoples who stray in here, thinking I can do their doctoring for them. I charge extra for humans, you know."

"You'll get paid. And not in grain," Johnny drawled. "Now get to my brother."

Osmosis Hogschwaller pulled the makeshift bandage off, revealing what appeared to be a bruise and a large gash across Scott's temple. There was still considerable bleeding and the torn flesh was going to need stitching. Dropping the bloodstained shirt on the floor, he poked and peered at the wound. The bruising was extensive and turning purple already.

"What hit him?"

"A tree branch."

"Don't your brother know enough to duck?"

"It wasn't his fault. My horse shied and his moved out of the way."

"Don't you know how to ride?"

"My horse was spooked by a huge animal, just came crashing out of the woods. Big black thing with white spots."

Osmosis stared at Johnny for a second then stated, "Your horse was spooked by a cow."

"Believe me, it weren't no cow. I told you, it was black," Johnny insisted. "With white spots," he added as if to convince the vet.

"Uh-huh." Osmosis spoke as if he didn't believe Johnny. He opened his mouth to say something, but thought better of it. He went to the sink to get water in a bowl, then to the cabinet to gather some medical equipment. He rifled in a drawer and pulled out a huge pair of forceps. "No, no, that's not it." He found the items he was searching for: a bottle, a jar, cloth and lint, sponge, tweezers and other small probing tools. He returned to the table where his patient lay quietly, Johnny close at his side.

When Osmosis started washing the blood off Scott's face, his patient's eyes opened, blue as the sky and definitely unfocused. Johnny watched the vet like a hawk, flinching every time Scott did, holding his brother's hand tightly.

When the vet probed at the bleeding wound, Scott's eyes shut, his face contorted in pain. "Ow! Ow," he cried out, his hand raising instinctively, hitting Osmosis in the belly.

Johnny grabbed the loose hand and held it in a firm grasp.

"Easy, brother," to Scott. To Hogschwaller, "Do you know what you're doing?"

"Sure thing. Learned everything from my Pa and him from his Pa and him from the one before him. Just getting some dirt and bark bits out of this wound, then we'll put some of my patented Osmosis Hogschwaller Cure-All Salve on it, and sew him up."

Then Hogschwaller turned and looked straight at Johnny, saying tartly, "Unless you want to do that part yourself?"

CHAPTER 2

"And don't you think I couldn't, old man. I've had to do some stitching in my time." And in a quiet voice, "Even on myself, upon occasion."

Hogschwaller looked at Johnny's serious face and saw that this young man had been around some. "Takes a lot of grit to sew up your own wounds," he said, nodding sagely.

"'Fraid I didn't always have the luxury of a doctor. Or even a veterinarian."

The vet opened a large pot, stuck his finger in, and came out with a big glob of dark brown salve. He applied it liberally to Scott's forehead, smoothing it right into the wound, causing the blonde man to flinch.

"What's…" Scott mumbled, his first words since their arrival at the veterinarian's cabin.

Johnny leaned over to smell the offensive salve. He pulled back and glared at the vet. "What is that?"

Osmosis started, "My patented Osmosis Hogschwaller Cure-All…"

"Now don't you start that again. What's that smell?"

"Nicorimi."

"Come again?"

"Nicorimi. Tobaccy. Boiled down with barley meal and suet. Sage and a little gunpowder. Makes a fine salve, and it'll help the megrim he's sure to have tomorrow, when he gets his senses back. You'll see. Besides, it'll stop any suppuration. Works on most of my patients."

Johnny thought a moment, looking hard at the grimy vet, "Well, Mr. Hogswilller,"

"Hogschwaller, " Osmosis Hogschwaller corrected.

"Mr. Hogschwaller, I've heard of all sorts of salves and poultices and herbal remedies, but never this one. I guess I have to trust you to help my brother. We're still a day away from home but as soon as Scott is able to take to the saddle, we are out of here."

"Well, this ain't no hotel."

"I noticed," Johnny agreed, watching the veterinarian take out a curved needle and thread it with rough black catgut taken from a jar smelling of vinegar. When Hogschwaller was about to stick the needle through Scott's torn flesh, Johnny held his brother down. Scott woke up with the sharp pain, and Johnny had a fight to keep him still enough for the vet to get several stitches in place.

Johnny tried not to compound Scott's hurt by crushing him, but found he had to employ the weight of his body just to stop his brother's thrashing. "Take it easy, brother. We're just fixing you up." Turning to the vet, "Can't you give him something? Got whiskey?"

Hogschwaller stopped stitching the head of the struggling man, wiped his sweaty brow with the back of his hand and replied, "Well, I'm plum tuckered out and we've only got him halfway stitched up. I'll get some sour mash. Guess we could all do with a snort. Most my patients don't give me half the trouble you two have done." He looked at Johnny for protest, and when there was none forthcoming, Osmosis left the side of his patient and pulled a rope-wrapped jug out of a corner. Johnny noticed it was the only item in the house that did not require dusting off before use.

"One swig," he warned the veterinarian. Johnny took a long pull himself and poured a cupful for Scott. Raising his brother's head, and eliciting groans despite his gentleness, he encouraged the contents of the cup down Scott's throat. A second cup did not fare as well, as Scott coughed at the fiery liquid and raised his hands in protest.

"You trying to drown me?" Scott mumbled.

"We have to finish sewing you up, and I thought this might help a bit. The doc will be done soon and you can sack in. We'll go home tomorrow, brother."

Johnny's words seemed to calm his brother, and the drink slowly took effect. Scott relaxed back onto the table, and the vet had another go at sewing up the blonde's torn forehead. By the time he finished, Johnny was sweating and exhausted, the veterinarian's hands covered in blood, and Scott nearly unconscious again. The vet pulled out surprisingly clean bandaging material and the two men worked together to bind up Scott's head. Osmosis patted Scott on the chest when they finished, as he would a wounded animal, "All done, boy."

Johnny wiped down Scott's face and neck, then in his ear, where blood had pooled. He and threw the cloth into a bucket with the dirty shirt and rags used in the operation. He was relieved to see Scott's eyes open and watching him. Johnny smiled, "We'll get you to the bed now. Just take it easy. We'll do all the work."

Osmosis was holding his hands against the small of his back, groaning. "Almost as much trouble as birthing a calf, your brother. Put my back out, I reckon."

Johnny looked at the man sharply, "Well, let's hope your bed doesn't have as many fleas in it as you have on your carcass, Hogschwaller, because my brother is mighty particular as to where he sleeps."

"Well, if that's the case, he might as well sleep out in the barn with you, Johnny, because no-one but me sleeps in my bed. Except for the dog, when it gets cold at night."

"Well you sack out in the barn and I'll stay near my brother. He needs a proper bed tonight. Put it on the bill."

Osmosis Hogschwaller could see that he wasn't about to win any argument with this man, especially over the welfare of his brother, so he heaved a great sigh and said, "In that case, how about moving him to the bed, and heating up some more of my seventh day stew. Need my supper, which you interrupted."

Johnny eased up and the two men got Scott to the bed in the corner of the room. Johnny pulled off his brother's boots and gun belt and left it at that. He covered him with a blanket that sported enough holes in it to indicate a family of mice inhabited the bed.

"You rest easy now, Scott. I'll be close if you need me."

Scott murmured something unintelligible, shifted a little under the covers and fell asleep.

Johnny left his brother to join the veterinarian at the stove. "So what's seventh day stew? You a religious man?" Johnny asked, peering in the black pot bubbling gently on the stove.

"Hell, no. You just put everything in the pot what's left over from the rest of the week. Six days worth of leftovers makes enough food for the seventh day. My Pa learned that from his Pa…"

Johnny finished Hogschwaller's sentence,"… and him from him before him." Tasting the stew, he admitted it wasn't bad grub. He also had the sense not to inquire what went into the pot.

They ate quietly, except for the noise of Osmosis Hogschwaller slurping down his meal. Johnny shoveled his food into his mouth, his appetite strong after coming down from the stress of getting his brother repaired.

"You want milk?" Osmosis asked, getting up from the table.

"Sure, "Johnny replied, surprised the old man had milk.

Osmosis walked to a side door, opened it, and entered another room. Johnny leaned back in his chair to see where the vet had gone, having thought the door led out to the back yard. He could just make out his host leaning down in the dim light of the other room. There was the metallic sound of streams of milk hitting the bottom of a pail. A couple of minutes later Osmosis walked out with the pail in hand. He glanced up at Johnny as he poured milk into two chipped mugs on the table, "She's on loan," he explained. "Got bad hooves but her milk is good." Ignoring the quantity of hairs floating in the pale, warm milk, Johnny drank deeply and agreed.

After dinner Johnny went out to tend to the horses. At least Osmosis Hogschwaller's barn was cleaner than his shack, even if it looked as if a strong wind would make the entire structure come crashing down. There was plenty of fresh hay and grain for the horses. It looked as if most of the veterinarian's clients did not pay in cash.

The two men toed off their boots and settled before the stove, propping their sock-clad feet on the fender. Johnny tried to ignore the strong smell issuing forth from Osmosis's feet, focusing on counting how many of the man's toes stuck through holes in his socks. The vet may not have the best grooming habits in the county, but he had shown his true calling in tending to his two-legged patient. Johnny had to give him credit for being skilled and, surprisingly, gentle at times. He knew good doctoring when he saw it.

Johnny had a great variety of medical encounters in his time, all of which he would be glad to forget. Some were still as clear in his mind as the day they had happened. Those were the harrowing ones, from a time of darkness, memories he carefully locked away in a room in the far recesses of his mind. Sometimes they escaped, came out at him at odd times, for no apparent reason. He'd be doing a chore at home, or just riding along, and a memory would jump out at him, blinding him to whatever was before him. It was like being slapped from behind, with someone whispering in his ear. "You can shove us back here, but you can't get away from us."

Osmosis broke into Johnny's thoughts, asking carefully, "You a railroad detective, Johnny?"

Johnny knew this was a polite way of asking if he was a hired gun, and took it in the spirit in which it was asked. "No, no, not any more. I've changed some."

"Walking in the right side now, are you?"

"Trying, anyhow," Johnny admitted.

Osmosis stated, "Your brother's not used to dirty work."

Johnny eyed the old man, and quietly replied, "Not the kind you mean. Pulls his weight at the ranch, that's for sure. He's real smart. Book smart, you know? Scott's a fine brother. He don't have to worry who'll meet him on the other side."

"Well, I don't know you, boy, but your heart seems to be in the right place. Your brother'll be up and about by daylight and you can be on your way. My Cure-All should help take some of that headache away. You can buy a bottle to take on the road with you," he added hopefully.

Johnny grinned, "Well, we'll see about that."

Johnny laid out his bedroll near Scott's bed, and Osmosis Hogschwaller repaired to the barn. It was an uneventful night, Scott sleeping through it without making a murmur. He woke at first light, hand to his aching head, and rolled over to find he was sharing the bed with a large and smelly hound.

"Johnny! Get this animal off me!"

Johnny awoke in time to have the dog trample him in his bedroll as it was pushed off Scott's bed. "At least you're alive, brother, so quit complaining," he told Scott.

"Why, what happened? Where are we?" Scot wrinkled his nose in distaste when he looked around at his surroundings.

Johnny explained about Scott hitting his head on a tree branch then pulled his brother up to a sitting position. Johnny helped him put his boots on. Figuring he'd better find some food for Scott, Johnny scrounged around the stove area. The bread he found on a shelf was too green to offer to his brother, but there was some milk in the pail. He poured Scott a cupful, and encouraged him to drink it all up.

Scott, still befuddled, asked, "Whose shack is this? And wasn't there a doctor? I recall someone…"

"Brother, you were bleeding bad, but I got you doctored by Hogschwaller, and now you're fine to ride, right?"

Scott still looked puzzled, "Hogswiller?" He put a hand to his head, gingerly feeling the bandaged area.

"Listen to me. You've had a knock on the head, and now you're all fixed up, so let's hit the road. We'll be home in no time, and you can sleep in your own bed. Murdoch'll be getting worried." That last sentence seemed to have the most effect on Scott, who stood up carefully, reaching for his gun belt.

Johnny nodded, "I'll get the horses." He turned and left the cabin in a hurry, stopping only to retrieve his stained jacket and leave a generous amount of money on the table. There was no sign of Osmosis Hogschwaller, but Johnny thought he could hear the veterinarian singing out behind the barn. Probably doing chores, tending to his animals. In the light of day, Johnny realized Scott wouldn't be too pleased if he knew who had tended to his wound. The cabin's putrid condition did not improve in the daylight.

By the time he had the horses saddled up and out front, Scott was leaning in the doorway. Johnny hustled a protesting Scott onto his mount, and was urging him up the road. As Osmosis came around the barn, he was just in time to see his two visitors rounding the bend, the blonde one looking back. Osmosis raised his hand in farewell. He could just make out Scott's raised voice exclaiming, "You what? A veterinarian? In that filthy place? What possessed you to take me there? Remind me never to trust you again…"

Johnny looked back and raised his hand in farewell to the veterinarian, but any reply voiced to his still-protesting brother was lost in the distance. Sighing, Osmosis turned back towards the barn, taking a bucket of leftovers (eight-day stew) with him. He leaned over the pigpen and threw the contents into the corner for the largest hog in the county to enjoy. The vet scolded the enormous pig, who was the size of a cow, and whose black coat with white spots stood out in the muddy pen, "Clementine, my girl, next time you insist upon breakin' out of your pen, try not to scare strangers. I swear, you're just like your mama and her mama before her, and the one before her, always running off…"

~ * ~ End ~ * ~