The Pain (Part Two)
Part 31 of the Ranch Days series
By Maz McCoy
Sweat ran down Doctor Ellis Hale's face as he concentrated on the open wound. He'd located the inflamed appendix and the precise point he was supposed to cut. The description given in the medical text book was accurate and surprisingly easy to follow for such a weighty tome. He reached for an instrument and noticed his hand shaking. He looked up and Annabelle Tyler met his gaze.
"Guess I'm kinda nervous."
"You're doing fine," she encouraged.
"How's his breathing?"
"Regular, just like you said."
"Any change let me know, I want to make sure he stays out."
The doctor picked up the bloody scalpel and forceps, then replaced them on the white sheet. Did he need a ligature first? He cast a quick glance at the text book before proceeding.
Outside the bunkhouse the ranch hands sat in silence, each lost in his own thoughts as the doctor operated on the ranch foreman. Jeff Collins wasn't just their boss, he was their friend. Bill Napier sat on the top porch step slowly unwinding and rewinding a piece of string. Marty sat in a chair on the porch and rocked it back and forth on two legs. Henry sat on the porch bench peeling a potato. A pile of skins and a bucket of peeled potatoes sat beside him. Heyes was escorting Clementine Hale up to the ranch house to have tea with the Culvers while his best friend Jed Curry sat balanced on the porch rail throwing pebbles at a larger rock several feet away.
No one spoke. Everyone waited.
Heads shot up at the sound of horses approaching fast. Two horses and riders came galloping down the hill pulling to a halt in front of the bunkhouse; hooves dug a groove in the dust.
"What's happening?" Bobby Cavender, Jeff's bull-riding brother, vaulted from the saddle.
"How is he?" Rosalind Tanner wanted to know as she climbed down from the other horse.
"No news yet," Bill informed them, grabbing hold of the reins of both horses.
Bobby took the steps two at a time but Marty was quickly on his feet blocking his path to the bunkhouse door. "You can't go in there."
"He's my brother!"
"I know that, Bobby, but it's the doc's orders. No one comes in while he's operating."
"Oh, God!" Rosalind's knees buckled and she sank down onto the steps. "He's doing it now?"
"Yes, ma'am." Marty remained where he was as Bobby decided what to do. "Mrs Tyler's in there with him."
"It should be me, I should be there." She buried her face in her hands as she fought to compose herself.
When the bunkhouse door finally opened a sea of faces focussed on Doctor Ellis Hale. He looked tired, his sleeves were rolled up to his elbows and his collar was unbuttoned. When he saw Rosalind Tanner he was glad he'd removed the blood stained apron before stepping outside.
"Doc?" Bobby prompted.
"The operation is over. He's resting now."
"Can I see him?" Moist female eyes implored.
Ellis couldn't remember a time he'd ever seen Rosalind look so vulnerable. "Of course. You too, Bobby." He raised a hand, pre-empting the question on everyone's lips. "No one else. For now."
Despite their obvious disappointment the men understood.
The bunkhouse was awash with shadows cast by the numerous oil lamps placed strategically around the room. Jeff lay, eyes closed, on the table; a white sheet covered him like a shroud. His face was deathly pale causing Rosalind to gasp. "He's not…?"
"No! No, Rosalind, he's alive." Annabelle Tyler rushed to her friend's side and the patient's fiancée let out a sob, the first since Bobby had told her the news.
"He's sedated," the doctor informed him. "Will be for some time, then I'll have him on painkillers, but rest assured, he's still with us."
Holding tightly to Annabelle's hand, Rosalind stepped forward to stand beside the man she was going to marry. Reaching out she brushed a strand of hair from his forehead, then let the back of her fingers rest on his cheek.
"Will he be different?" she asked, not taking her eyes from Jeff's face.
"In what way?" Ellis stepped into view.
"Without his appendix." She looked up at the doctor. "Will it affect him?"
"Not at all. It's not something we use as far as we currently know. Folks seem to manage just fine without it." She nodded, reassured. "We'll carry him into his room later, he can't stay out here. Bobby will you help us with that?"
The bull rider didn't answer. All eyes turned to look at the young man, still standing with his back pressed to the door.
"Bobby?" Annabelle took a step closer but he didn't look at her, instead his gaze was fixed on the inert form of his brother. "Bobby?" She approached slowly and he jerked away, startled when she placed a hand on his arm.
Annabelle smiled sympathetically. "Are you all right?"
"Sure," he said with false bravado, then returned his eyes to his brother.
"He's okay. Why don't you come over and see him?"
"I'm fine here."
Sensing something in the tone of his voice Rosalind turned and held out her hand. After a long moment his eyes met hers. "Bobby, please come and see him."
He took a deep breath and then a step forward. For a man used to clinging to the back of a raging bull walking suddenly seemed the hardest thing he'd ever had to do. Finally he stood beside his brother. He gripped the hand Rosa offered, tightly.
"Last time I saw someone laid out like this…" He didn't finish.
"He's not laid out," the doctor reminded him as he surreptitiously moved a bucket of bloody cloths, under the table, with his foot. "He's alive and sleeping. But he's not out of the woods. It was a very new procedure and I'm still worried about infection."
They nodded their understanding.
"When d'you want to move him?" Bobby asked.
"Later. We'll let him rest a while yet."
They'd carried him carefully, three men on either side, into his room and laid him gently on his bed. The doctor had explained about aftercare, left a packet of powders to ease the pain and another to use if Jeff developed a fever. Then, with other patients to attend to and a promise to return the next day, Doctor Hale collected his niece and departed.
Rosalind sat beside Jeff and let out a heavy sigh. In the next room the ranch hands could be heard returning the room to its normal state. Tables and chairs scraped the rough floorboards and then it fell silent except for a few soft footfalls.
"They're creeping about in there like mice," Rosalind informed Jeff. "I'm not sure if it's so as not to disturb you or because they know I'm here. Either way it's nice of them." She took his hand in hers, his strong fingers hung limply between her own. "I just want you back, Jeff."
The bull snorted and eyed the man standing on the other side of the fence, suspiciously. Hooves pawed at the ground as Bobby rested his folded arms on the fence and planted a boot on the bottom rung. The bull trotted around the enclosure with an air of indifference but when he stopped he eyed the man again.
"You and me, boy. We're going head to head real soon."
The bull snorted derisively and turned his back.
"I reckon he thinks he'll win," Heyes stated as he stopped beside Bobby on his right side. He leaned on the fence mirroring Bobby's stance.
"That's 'cos he's never seen me ride."
"Neither have we." Jed Curry stood on Bobby's left, looked at the others and placed his own boot on the bottom rung and his arms on the fence.
"We never saw him 'cos he got thrown off so fast," Heyes reminded his friend.
"Yeah and we only have his word he's any good."
"Maybe he gets thrown off all the time."
"I am here, ya know!" Bobby reminded them.
"Just sayin' is all," Jed said with a shrug.
"Glad you boys have so much faith in me."
"Oh, we do, Bobby, we do."
"Try to sound a little more convinced, Heyes."
"So d'you reckon you could ride him?" Jed pointed at the bull.
"You gonna try?"
"No, Heyes, I'm not."
"Jeff'd kill me."
"Don't reckon he's in any condition to do that now."
With lightning reflexes Bobby spun, grabbed Heyes by the shirtfront and pulled him to within inches of his face, boot tips barely touching the ground.
"Bobby!" Jed's cry and the startled expression in Heyes' eyes brought the man to his senses. He let go and Heyes staggered backwards.
"I'm sorry. Jeez, Heyes, I'm sorry. You all right?"
"Yeah. Guess I hit a raw nerve, huh?" Heyes straightened his shirt.
"Guess you did." Bobby turned back to the corral to hide his embarrassment.
"We're worried about him too." Jed leaned back on the fence beside the bull rider. Heyes mirrored them once more. No one spoke for a long time and the bull eyed all three of them.
"So, d'you really think you can ride him?" Jed asked.
Bobby smiled. "Hell, yeah!"
"How is he?" Annabelle asked as she entered the room. Rosalind sat in a chair beside the bed, sewing by the light of an oil lamp.
"It's probably for the best."
Annabelle crouched in front of her friend and rested a hand on her knee. "And how are you?"
"Tired. Terrified." Annabelle gave her a reassuring smile. "When he asked me to marry him, I began making all these plans in my head. Imaging all the wonderful things we'd do together. The life we'd have."
"You can still have that. Still do those things."
"Only if he lives."
"Only if he lives."
"You're what?" Jed asked as he descended the ladder from the hayloft in the barn that evening.
"I'm thinking of taking him up on his offer."
"To be a locksmith?"
"Apprentice, yeah." Heyes brushed down Jeff's horse as he spoke.
"You'd leave the ranch?"
"Can't do it staying here." Brush, brush, brush.
"I know but…" Jed stood outside the stall.
"You'd split us up?"
"It's gonna happen sometime. We ain't joined at the hip."
"I know, I just…"
"I'd only be in town. We'd still see each other. You'd come into town and I'd be out this way fixing locks and stuff."
"Not that often."
Heyes met his friend's gaze then looked away, brushing the horse hard. Brush, brush, brush. "Anyway, Mister Robinson mighta changed his mind by now or he might have found someone else, it's been a while." Brush, brush, brush.
"You told anyone else?"
"Nope." Brush, brush, brush.
"When you gonna leave?"
"Well, I'm going into town with Marty soon so I'll ask Mister Robinson then and if he says, yes, I guess I'll leave as soon as I can." Brush, brush, brush.
Jed watched his friend but he had no idea what to say.
Jeff groaned and slowly opened his eyes. A pain screamed in his side and he moaned again.
Turning his head she came into view. "Rosa?"
Rosalind smiled. "It's me." She took his hand in hers as tears moistened her eyes. "You're okay."
"Where's the doc?"
"He had to go back to town."
"Did he leave anything for the pain?"
"Yes, oh, you want something?"
"Yeah." He struggled not to cry out, gripping the sheet instead until his knuckles turned white.
"I've never ridden a horse as fast as I did getting here," she informed him as she busied herself mixing the pain powders into some water. "When Bobby told me what was happening I didn't know what to think. He rushed off to the livery stables after yelling something about an operation. I just grabbed my coat and the next thing I knew I'm clinging to the back of this giant horse galloping out here…" She turned back to the bed.
"I could sure do with those powders, Rosa."
"He's awake," Bill announced as he stepped out Jeff's room the following morning. "He's talking; told me to get you boys back to work."
They laughed with relief.
"He's in a lot of pain." Bill turned serious. "I don't reckon he's out of the woods yet. Whatever it was the doc left, don't seem to be helping much. I'm going into town to see him before he heads out here."
"I could go." All eyes turned to Heyes.
Marty smiled. "You thinkin' to spend some time with Susanna or you hoping Miss Hale's willin' to go for a walk?"
Someone chuckled but Jed just stared at Heyes.
"Neither. I just thought I could go see the doc; tell him what you want, if that's okay?"
"All right, Heyes, you get going."
Heyes headed to the door. Sitting on his bunk, Jed watched him go.
Jed looked at Heyes sitting on his horse. "So, you're really gonna do this?" he asked.
"Go into town for the doc? Sure." Heyes smiled at Bill who was standing on the bunkhouse porch.
"You know what I mean!" Jed lowered his voice so Bill couldn't hear them.
"I know what you mean."
"See you later, Jed." Heyes looked up at Bill and waved. The man nodded in reply as Heyes turned his horse.
Jed watched his friend ride over the hill.
"What's going on?" Bill asked as he descended the steps to stand beside the boy.
"Nothin'!" Jed spun on his heels and marched off towards the barn.
Rosalind looked up from her needlework. Jeff's brow was covered in sweat and yet he shivered. She put down her sewing and went to his side. He was breathing fast. "Jeff?"
"No, Jeff, it's me, Rosalind."
Jeff's reply was another shiver. She placed a hand on his forehead. Too warm. "Mary, I…I…Rosa? Rosa?"
He shivered once more, then sank into a fitful sleep. Rosalind perched on the edge of the bed beside him.
Bobby led his horse into the barn refreshed after the ride. He'd needed to get away from the bunkhouse for a while; needed time alone to say a few prayers for his brother and maybe do a little atoning while he was at it. His horse balked at entering the stall and the man peered inside.
"Jed?" The boy was sitting in the corner, knees pulled up to his chin. As he approached he realised the kid was sleeping. Marty would tan his hide if he caught him. Bobby tied his horse to the rail and crouched down beside Jed. Placing a hand on his knee he shook the boy's leg. "Jed?"
"Huh?" Jed's eyes flew open, he looked startled and scared. Backing away he pressed himself further into the corner.
"Hey, it's all right! Jed, it's okay. It's only me. I didn't mean to scare you." Jed fought to catch his breath and it was then Bobby noticed the lines carving a path through the dirt on his face and his puffy eyes. Had the kid been crying? "You okay?"
Jed got quickly to his feet. "I'm fine. You just startled me is all." He looked around. "Is Heyes back?"
"Yeah, he's up at the bunkhouse with the doctor, I saw them arrive when I rode in."
"If something's wrong…"
"Nothin's wrong. I got work to do." He brushed past Bobby and out of the stall.
Bobby turned to his horse. "We both know he was lyin' right?" The horse gave a snort. "Yeah, me too."
"How is he?" Bobby asked as he slipped quietly into the room.
Doctor Hale did up the button on his left shirt cuff as he stood beside the bed. "Feverish, but in less pain. I've given him something stronger. He'll sleep a lot for a while." He turned to Rosalind. "Now remember what I said. No more than it says on the label and try to reduce the dose each time you give him some."
"I will." She looked anxious but determined and Bobby was grateful yet again that his brother had found her. He cast a glance at Jeff, still deathly pale and again unconscious.
"Did you see him?" Jed asked as he sat down on his bunk.
"Who?" Heyes folded his shirt carefully.
Jed bristled. Heyes knew exactly who he was talking about. "The locksmith!"
Heyes looked around the room before answering. Most of the men sat at the table, playing cards. Henry could be heard clanging pots together in the kitchen. "I saw him."
"And?" Jed felt his heart beat faster.
"We spoke about his offer."
"We came to an agreement."
Jed's felt his stomach drop. He didn't want to hear the answer but he had to ask. "What agreement?"
"I don't want to talk about it right now." Heyes pulled himself up onto the top bunk.
"Tell me what you agreed. Are you gonna leave?"
"Anxious to get rid of me?"
"I'm kinda tired from the ride, can we talk about this in the morning?"
"No! I wanna know now!"
Heyes peered at him over the edge of his bunk. "Maybe I don't wanna tell ya."
"'Cos it's my business."
Jed stared at him, incredulous. "Heyes…"
"G'night, Jed." His friend turned away pulling the blanket up to his ears. Jed stood beside the bunk stunned but then anger began to build. Reaching up he pulled the blanket off. "Hey!"
"Tell me what happened!"
"Why the hell not?"
"Hey you two cut it out!" Marty walked towards the bunks.
"Give me that back!" Heyes made a grab for the blanket but Jed pulled it further away. Heyes grabbed again, lost his balance and fell from the bunk, landing with a THUD on the floor. He groaned and held his right knee. "Dammit this is your fault!"
"Tell me what happened and you can have your damn blanket back!"
Heyes shot a glare at his friend. "I told you it's none of your business."
"If you two wanna fight, take it outside." Marty scowled at them.
"Fine by me," Jed glared at Heyes.
"I'm not gonna fight you."
"Then tell me what happened."
"It's none of your business."
"Fine! Be like that!" Jed picked up his jacket and headed for the door. Heyes grabbed the blanket and climbed back onto his bunk. After a few curious glances were exchanged the men returned to their card game. Heyes lay on his side. Now he couldn't sleep!
"Hey, big brother, you're lookin' good." Bobby smiled as he entered the room the next day.
Bobby pulled over a chair and sat down next to the bed. "Well, if I'd said you looked tired and exhausted, what kind of brother would I be?"
"An honest one."
"All right, you look bad." Jeff smiled and held out his hand. Bobby took it and their eyes met. "So, what did the doctor say?"
"You mean you didn't grill him the minute he left the room?"
"I left that to Rosalind."
"He's glad I made it through the operation but warned me it's gonna take a long time to get better. No lifting bales of hay or riding for a while and there's still the possibility of further infection."
"Best stay away from Henry's food then."
"No, don't go all mushy on me. You're gonna be fine."
"I was only gonna say…"
His brother stood up. "I'm going to get Rosalind back in here."
"Bobby, I just…"
"Jeff, I really don't think…"
"Will you just let me say something? OW!" Jeff held his side grimacing as he did so.
"It's okay." He met his brother's worried gaze. "I just wanted to ask you something."
"Promise me something."
"Don't get on that darn bull until I'm well enough to watch you fall off it."
Bobby grinned. "It's a deal."
Two days later, Bill sat on the top porch step twirling and un-twirling a piece of rope. He watched as the hands struggled to move the bull into a new pen. Jed Curry carried two buckets of water towards the barn. He passed Marty on the way and the man snatched Jed's hat from his head. The boy spun around, water sloshed everywhere and Marty laughed. Once Jed had dropped the buckets on the ground Marty tossed his hat back to him and continued on towards the bunkhouse. Jed's Mama woulda used a lot of soap if she'd heard what the boy yelled after the man.
Bill smiled as Marty approached. "Ain't you worried one day he's gonna reach for that gun you keep teaching him to use?"
"Nope." Marty cast a glance up at the porch. "How is he?"
"Still sleeping." Bill stood up. "I'll send Heyes up here in an hour." He adjusted his hat then headed for the corral.
Marty crept quietly up onto the porch and lowered himself into a chair. Reaching into his pockets he pulled out a piece of wood and a knife and began to whittle. Beside him sitting in a chair and wrapped in a blanket, Jeff Collins slept peacefully.
Marty had just fashioned the shape of the pipe he was working on when he heard a shout. He looked towards the barn and couldn't quite believe what he saw. Heyes and Jed were brawling. He put down his tools and headed for the barn. There was a lot of rolling around in the dirt, hands grabbing shirts, boots trying to gain purchase on the dusty ground, cussing and name calling as one boy tried to get the other to concede. Like that was gonna happen! Heyes pulled away and as Jed staggered to his feet the older boy swung. When Heyes' fist collided with Jed's jaw the boy went down hard.
"All right enough!" Bill grabbed Heyes pulling him away as Marty went to Jed's side. The blond boy sat stunned more from the fact that Heyes had punched him than the force of the blow itself. His mouth was bleeding where his teeth had cut his gum. "This ends now!" Bill informed them as Heyes finally stopped struggling in his grasp. "Heyes? You hear me?"
"I hear ya."
"All right, it's over."
Bill released Heyes. "Jed?"
"He punched me," the boy stated without looking up.
"So, d'you wanna hit him back to make things even?"
"Shut up, Heyes!"
Jed looked up. His gaze moved from Bill to Heyes. "No, I reckon I'll just save 'em all up 'til I got enough to shoot him."
"Don't you even think that!" Marty tapped Jed on the arm. "If I ever catch you…"
"Well you taught me to use it!" Jed shouted. "Now you don't want me to? Make up your mind, Marty! What's the point of knowing how if I can't shoot someone when they deserve it?"
WHAP! Marty slapped Jed's head. The boy staggered backwards. When he looked up disbelief, anger but mostly hurt filled his eyes. He looked at Heyes then back at Marty, still stung by what the man had done. Reaching down Jed picked up his hat and without another word, walked off. Marty watched him brush off the hat and position it on his head.
"He deserved that," Heyes muttered.
"And you deserve more!" Marty snapped.
"I'm not the one who threatened to shoot someone."
"Don't!" Marty pointed a finger at Heyes. The boy had never seen him this angry. "Because of you I may have lost that boy's friendship. A friendship I valued. Now you suck it up and show me that it was worth it. You talk to him. Sort this thing out because if I had a friend like him I'd treat him a darn sight better than you have." Marty turned and headed back to his seat at the bunkhouse.
Heyes looked at Bill.
Napier shook his head and walked off, leaving Heyes alone with his crumpled black hat.
Jed Curry sat on the fence staring at the bull. The large animal snorted and whacked his bulk against the pen. Jed rested his elbows on his knees and his chin in his hands.
"Thinking of riding him?" a voice asked and the fence swayed as Bobby Cavender climbed up to sit beside him.
"Leave me alone, Bobby."
"You know Jeff and I had our share of fights…"
"I don't wanna hear about 'em."
"Yes, you do."
Jed sighed heavily. "No, I don't."
Bobby ignored him. "There was this one time we didn't speak for a couple of weeks. Drove my folks crazy. We never said a word. We'd just glare at each other over the breakfast table. Then one day Jeff went out after some strays and never came home. He wasn't back by suppertime and didn't show up the next morning."
Bobby removed his hat and set about straightening the hat band. Jed looked at him. Bobby ignored the boy and brushed off some invisible dirt from the hat's brim.
"What happened?" Jed asked.
"Huh?" Bobby looked at Jed and feigned surprise. "Oh, right. Well, we set out to find him. I gotta tell you all thoughts of the fight we'd had disappeared when we didn't know what was wrong. Eventually we found him. He'd been thrown off his horse and broke his ankle. He sure did yell when the doc fixed it." Bobby smiled at the memory.
"And the moral of your story is…?"
"It just reminded me how much I cared about my brother and how stupid our argument had been. Imagine if he'd been killed out there and the last thing we'd done was fight."
"So you think I should apologise to Heyes?"
"No, but you should talk to each other. Settle whatever it is between you."
"He won't tell me something."
"Do you tell him everything?"
"Even about the girls you like? If you had yourself a lady friend you'd share all the details with him?"
"Then let him have his secrets too."
"What if they concern me?"
"Then I imagine he'll tell you when he's ready." The boy shrugged. "You might want to talk to Marty too."
Jed looked away. "Why bother?"
"'Cos he's your friend."
"Yeah, and I reckon I'm a real disappointment to him."
The boy turned to face him. "Did you see the way he looked at me? Just like my Pa." He turned away and Bobby watched Jed fight the tears welling in his eyes.
"What happened with your Pa?"
"Just something I did. I let him down." Jed swallowed.
"But you made it up with him, right?" The boy remained silent. "Jed?"
The kid stared off at the horizon and a tear ran from the corner of his eye. "They killed him before I got the chance."
End of part 31.