The young man’s arms were folded tight across his canvas coat, hands cradling each other as if he might be holding a baby bird. It was a position that Dr. Thomas Parks recognized instantly— pain clutched close to center, nothing else mattering. The man, perhaps twenty-two or three, sat astride a large, rangy mule, and he was accompanied by another young fellow who slouched in the saddle of a scruffy horse.
The injured man swung a leg over the mule’s saddle without moving the position of his hands, and his companion stirred enough to reach over and take the abandoned reins. When the fellow’s boots hit the ground he let out a little yelp, then walked around the mule with a big grin pasted on his face.
“Mornin’, Doc,” the young man called cheerfully, but his pale countenance confirmed that it wasn’t an injured fledgling songbird that was the issue here. A few minutes before, Thomas had looked down the steep, rutted lane of Gamble Street and seen the two men rein up under the portico of the clinic, where they waited for his approach.
He had spent the last hundred yards of his morning walk to the clinic trying to imagine what injury the loggers—for that’s surely who these young men were—might have inflicted upon their persons this time: the deep, clean chop of a four pound Plumb double-bit axe, the raking laceration of inch-long teeth from a eight foot ribbon saw, the hideous burn inflicted by one of the steam boilers, a hand crushed to pulp when a log kicked or the rigging tackle snatched the unwary. An occasional knife or bullet wound kept the mix interesting.
“Gentlemen, good morning,” Thomas said affably. “You have something for me this fine morning?” He found the key for the front door and as he opened the lock and pushed the heavy door inward, the young physician watched the injured man shift from foot to foot, sucking quick breaths through his teeth.
“The animals are fine where they are,” Thomas added, and the rider on the horse nodded without much enthusiasm. He turned in the saddle, looking this way and that, bending at the waist with his elbows close as if what he really wanted was a handy privy.
“Around behind the stables, if it’s relief you’re looking for,” the physician said.
“He’s got the shits,” the first man laughed nervously, still dancing in little circles with the pain. “He’ll be all right. You think you could take a look at this thumb here?”
“Let’s see what you’ve done. Come in. Your name?” “Buddy Huckla, Doc.” Of medium height, the young man was dressed in clothes that smelled of the timber and hard work layered with camp smoke and tobacco, grease and alcohol. Thomas held the door wide and Huckla sidled in, keeping the injured wing away from any knocks or bumps. He stopped just inside the door, as if afraid to clump across the polished wood floor of the waiting room.
“Well, Mr. Huckla, you’re out and about early this morning. You rode in from the mill?” Bert Schmidt’s sawmill and shingle factory two miles south of Port McKinney on Jefferson inlet employed two of every three village residents.
“We’re out at the Dutch.” The young man referred to one of the many tracks of timber that surrounded Port McKinney. “Ah.” Thomas unlocked the door to the examination room.
The supply of morphine and other opiates sometimes posed an attractive nuisance. All of the gas jets in the examination room and dispensary were turned up, and that meant Nurse Bertha Auerbach was at work making her preparations for the day. The night nurse, Helen Whitman, would have already gone home, and Bertha would be upstairs, tending their single young patient. Huckla hesitated again, perhaps struck by the characteristic odor of the pharmacy, perhaps by all the alien hardware. The young man kept flinching as if the very cabinets and tables in the room were reaching out to rap his injured member.
Thomas patted the end of the high examination bed and slid the rubber pad into place. “Sit yourself right there,” he said. “What have you managed to do?” It was clear that Buddy Huckla didn’t want to extend his arm, and he gritted his teeth in a comical grimace that was more theatrical anticipation of pain than the real thing. Slowly, as if presenting a gift, Huckla unwound his arms and held out his right hand.
“Well, well,” Thomas observed. Three of the five fingers were straight and true. Huckla’s right index finger appeared to be trying to point in several directions at once, and his thumb was grotesquely swollen at the base. “When did this happen?”
“Oh, last night, at the camp.”
“There is assistance here at all hours, you know. You didn’t need to suffer through to dawn, my friend.”
“Thought it might be better by this mornin’,” Huckla said, and Thomas worked hard to keep a straight face. In his seven months of experience in this place, he’d discovered that the rough loggers as often as not would go to considerable lengths—medically absurd lengths—to avoid appearing the sissy.
“Bones are remarkable things.” He straightened. “But they don’t heal over night. You work for Mr. Schmidt?”
“Sure enough do. You think it’s broke, Doc?”
“Yes. You did a fine, workmanlike job of it, my friend. How did you manage?” He stepped across the small room and opened the door of the new gas clave. Sure enough, a full surgical kit had been made ready for the day. He removed a sterile hypodermic barrel and needle from the enameled pan. A half grain of morphine made a formidable injection, but Buddy Huckla didn’t impress Thomas as the steely-nerved, leather strap-between-the-teeth backwoodsman who could amputate his own arm if caught in a bear trap. The lad’s knees were bouncing, his face pale, sweat standing on his brow and upper lip.
In fact, Huckla’s face drained of the last bits of color the moment he saw the hypodermic, and he swayed dangerously on the end of the bed.
“How did you manage this?” Thomas repeated. Huckla’s eyes were locked on the needle.
“We was finger wrestlin’,” Huckla said. He made a twisting motion with his good hand. “Had a dollar bet on it, too.”
“A dollar? Really now, that’s a lot of money, my friend.” Huckla nodded, his grin returning.
“But you didn’t win, apparently. And perhaps what this is going to cost you will be a bit sobering.” He patted the man’s left shoulder. “Drop your shirt off your shoulder so I have some place to put this.” At that moment, Nurse Bertha Auerbach entered the examination room, took in Buddy Huckla with a single, swift surveying glance, and walked around behind him to assist with the grubby flannel shirt. “Actually, all the way off, Berti. We’re going to have to do some fancy splinting, and the shirt will just be in the way.”
Huckla finally had something to eyeball besides the needle, and the nurse’s familiarity at managing his wounded awkwardness hinted that they knew each other. Certainly, Bertha Auerbach’s lovely face, with its dark features, riveting eyes, and flawless skin, took the logger’s breath away. While he was thus captivated, Thomas jabbed the needle into the heavy muscle of the young man’s shoulder, and the burn of the morphine brought a yelp.
“Jesus, Doc,” Huckla protested, but he looked relieved. “I thought you was gonna stick that spike in my finger.”
“Just relax, now.” Withdrawing the needle, Thomas then released the catch on the bed and folded the wooden foot rest upward for support as Huckla sagged happily backward. “Don’t jerk away now.” Closing his eyes, the physician used two fingers to trace the deformity of the patient’s index finger. “Finger wrestling,” he muttered for Bertha’s benefit. “Medial joint is fractured and,” he stopped without removing his own finger. “There’s a large bone fragment right there, by the joint.” He transferred his attention to the thumb, tracing the bone outline.
“Mr. Huckla, how are you doing?” “I’m feelin’ poorly.”
“Hurts some, doesn’t it.” “Oh, yeah. It hurts.”
“You dislocated the thumb, I see.”
“Doc, you shoulda seen it. It was stickin’ out to one side.” Huckla held up his other hand proudly and extended his uninjured thumb. “All mangly. That damn Cooper just got a hold of it and God damn, I thought I was like to faint.”
“I’m not surprised.”
“Lost the buck, though,” Huckla said dreamily. “That’s too damn bad. Gonna have to get him back somehow.”
“Who pulled your thumb back into joint, then?”
“Oh, Coop did that. I couldn’t do it myself.” He laughed weakly. “He pulled it out, so it seemed only fair game that he put it back.”
“Thoughtful of him. He almost managed to do it…almost.” Thomas straightened and regarded Huckla critically. “Let me tell you what we need to do, my friend. Your index finger is a mess, with several breaks. Now, the one that concerns me is right here, at your knuckle. There’s a large, loose chip of bone right there, and if we just bandage you up with a splint, that finger is going to freeze utterly useless. The joint will have no hope of ever working properly, and you’re going to end up walking about with one hand like this,” and he held up his right hand, all the fingers clenched into a fist except for the index, which he extended rigidly.
Huckla looked across at Berti, and then at the Seth Thomas clock on the wall behind her. “They’re gonna dock my pay,” he slurred. “We’re supposed to be out at the flume today.”
“Well, I suggest that you won’t be working anywhere today. Or tomorrow. Or for a fortnight, unless you can do so one-handed. We have to remove that bone chip and straighten things out.”
“Can’t do that. I mean, geez, Doc. I can’t be laid up like that.
You’re talkin’ about cuttin’ me?”
“Yes.” He gently lifted Huckla’s hand at the wrist. “You see this?” He indicated a sharp lump just under the skin in front of the median knuckle, projecting sideways from the proper line of the finger. “That’s a chip of broken bone, sir. We leave that, the finger is useless. You’d be better off having it amputated.”
If it were possible, Huckla’s face drained of still more color until his usually swarthy skin was the hue of flour paste.
“Can’t you just throw a fix in ‘er without all that?” he pleaded. “Just wrap it up or somethin’?”
Thomas laughed gently. “When a gear breaks in the guts of one of the steam donkeys out on the tract, don’t you have to fix it? The break doesn’t just go away, Mr. Huckla.”
“Well, hell, no, I don’t fix it. Them mechanics don’t let us no where near the machinery,” and the young man leered with morphine-stroked silliness at Berti Auerbach. “I ain’t no steam donkey, Doc. Just do the best you can, no cuttin’.”
“I can’t do the best I can without surgery,” Thomas said. “If I don’t fix this properly now, I can guarantee that you’ll be back here, and our problems will be just that much worse.”
“I’m a bettin’ man, Doc,” Huckla said. “Just splint it up and I’ll kind of favor it for a little while, and then we’ll see.” He leaned forward unsteadily and slid one leg off the high bed as if about to leave. “Thumb sure as hell is sore, though.”
“That’s because it’s still partially dislocated, Mr. Huckla. This Mr. Cooper you talk about didn’t finish the job. Do you want me to position that properly for you, or are we going to let that molder as well?”
“That’s going to hurt like a bitch, ain’t it.” His voice had taken on a nice wistful tone from the morphine.
“With the nitrous oxide, you won’t feel so much as a twitch, my friend.”
“Don’t know anything about that.”
“It’s a little bit of gas. You inhale it just like an Indian sucking on his peyote pipe or however they do it, and then you take a nice nap for a few minutes. You can dream about all the bets you’re going to win from now on. You won’t feel a thing during the procedure. Why, up in the women’s ward, we have a ten year-old child who underwent surgery as bravely as any trooper. And she has recovered so well that she will be homeward bound tomorrow. So you see, there is nothing to worry about.”
“You can do the finger at the same time? I mean, I won’t feel it?”
“Absolutely. You’ll wake up completely repaired.” “When do you figure to do this?”
“This very moment,” Thomas said. “Without delay. We will tell your companion that he might as well return to work. There’s no point in him waiting for you. Perhaps this afternoon, we’ll be able to bundle you home. Certainly by morning.”
“I gotta get out to the flume. I mean, you oughta see that, Doc. Ain’t nothing like it.”
Bertha patted Buddy affectionately on the shoulder. “First you take care of yourself, Buddy,” she said. “If you don’t have that hand fixed, you won’t be any good to my brother on the next fishing trip.” She caught Thomas’ glance, and nodded. “Mr. Huckla and I are old friends,” she said. “Last year he managed to catch a gang of fish hooks in one hand, didn’t you, Buddy. It took some time for Dr. Haines to put that right.”
“Then you’re experienced at this,” Thomas said. “Your friend’s name? The chap outside?”
“That’s Ben Sitzberger. Him and me share a tent out at the camp.” Huckla grinned crookedly. “When he ain’t shacked up with his lady friend, anyways. Him and me and Gunnar and Todd Delaney. We all share…” The morphine was taking a firm hold, and Huckla’s voice drifted off.
“I’ll speak with the young man,” Bertha said. “And doctor… remember that Carlotta Schmidt is coming in at nine this morning.”
“I do, I do.” Thomas glanced at the clock, its loud ticking always a reminder that the day was far too short. “We shall hope for a simple answer for her.”
“And a reminder that Dr. Hardy is expected today.” “Thank God for that. And we will do all possible to make sure his first hour in Port McKinney is less eventful and far more welcoming than mine.” He grinned at his nurse as if the painful memory of his own misfortune the previous autumn was but a trifle. “And the Snyder child?” The three-story, brick clinic’s only patient at the moment was 11-year-old Matilda Snyder, a delightful child easily coddled.
“Her parents are with her. She had a fair night, somewhat restless of course, but it helped to have her mother staying with her. I agreed to that. The ward is otherwise empty, and a child is apt to imagine all manner of ghosts and ghouls in the dark corners when left alone. And by the way, I should mention Howard.”
“Yes?” At the mention of his clinic handyman and ambulance driver, Thomas looked at her sharply.
“I couldn’t help noticing that his leg is giving him significant discomfort, Doctor.”
“You think so?”
“I am certain. He does his best to disguise it, but on occasion, his discomfort is obvious.”
Bertha Auerbach had a wonderful capacity for mixing sternness and sympathy in the same expression, Thomas thought. “He has said nothing to me about this.”
“You’re a busy man, Doctor.” Bertha’s smile was a ghost on her fine features. With no small chagrin, Thomas ducked his head in agreement. Busy or not, and despite his pride at his own skills and observations, he had found long ago that he was no match for Bertha Auerbach, whose sharp eyes and keen brain saw and recorded virtually everything in the world around her…so much so that Thomas had come to depend on her in a thousand ways. If Bertha Auerbach said that Howard Deaton was suffering, then he was. It was that simple.