Carefully, Doc lifted the odd glass contraption out of its wooden case. He ran a finger around the bulbous silicon, checking for flaws. Finding none, he attached a rubber hose to a small valve near the bottom.
“You gonna smoke opium, Doc?”
He glanced up at Pete, who was staring at the device in his hands.
“It’s for delivering anaesthesia.” Doc pointed at the sponge suspended in a glass globe in the middle. “One soaks that sponge with ether, and this end goes over the patient’s mouth.”
“She’s already out. You really need that stuff?”
“I’d rather she not wake up in the middle of surgery.”
“More often than you’d think.” Doc stared down at his patient—Pete called her Z, ass odd as that seemed—and felt panic creeping up in his chest. He had never been the principal cutter on an operation such as this. Surgery required a well trained team, and all he had was a young Indian man who was overly fond of peyote.
Pete helped him set up the glass Ether jar on a low three legged table. Using a clothespin, he pinched Z’s nose shut and applied the triangular mask over her mouth.
“How long does it take?”
“Not long.” Doc pulled out his silver plated stopwatch and gave it a few winds just in case. He took the woman by her wrist and noted her pulse. When it had slowed just a bit—he hadn’t used too much Ether—he nodded to Pete.
The two men dragged her cot out from the tent wall so they could position themselves on either side. Using a bucket of frothy water, both washed themselves thoroughly on the arms, face, and neck. Doc selected a thin bladed scalpel from his case and forced himself to calm down.
“You look nervous, Doc,” Pete said. “You sure you wanna go through with this?”
“I’m sure. It’s for Jimmy’s sake as much as hers.”
“If you say so, Doc.” Pete crouched next to Z and brushed her hair lightly.
“What is that supposed to mean?”
Pete stiffened. “Nothing. Forget I said anything.”
“Peyote Pete, I’m about to cut on this woman’s skull. Do NOT leave a dangler like that in the pond!”
“Jimmy is...” Pete sighed. “He’s different than you remember. Darker.”
“He was always surly-”
“Him and Big Man kept getting into it. I think it was a relief for both of them when Hung Fat proposed this hostage exchange.”
“I see.” Doc fought down a wave of guilt. Right now, he needed to concentrate. There would be plenty of time to rake himself over the coals for abandoning his brother later.
Using his free hand, he peeled a bit of Z’s hair away from the wound. When he pressed his blade into her scalp, pus as well as blood oozed from the wound. Doc ended up cutting away a section of skin the size of a silver dollar.
Once he had exposed her skull, he gritted his teeth in frustration. Sure enough, the bone was fractured, the white shell crushed inward and applying pressure to her brain.
“What’s wrong?” Pete asked, having seen his expression.
“Lots.” Doc gestured toward his bag. “Drag that over to me closer, please.”
“What do you need out of it?”
“Your what now?”
Doc grinned in spite of himself. “It will look like a bore to your eyes.”
Pete dug out the described item and handed it to Doc. “Coulda just said bore.”
“I didn’t train to be a doctor so I could use layman’s terms. How else am I supposed to look smarter than everyone else, if I don’t use jargon?” Using the bore, he drilled around the crushed section of her skull. The actual hole was originally only the size of a buffalo nickel, but the bore doubled its width.
“Why are you making the hole in her head bigger?”
“Shut up, Pete,” Doc said, blinking sweat out of his eyes. “Take that damp cloth and wipe my forehead, will you?”
Pete did as he was bade. You had to give the Indian credit, when he knew he was getting on your nerves he usually stopped whatever he was doing to get on your nerves.
Once he had a hole large enough to work with, he asked Pete for his tenaculum. Using the metal clamps, he gently plucked a bit of bone from the membrane containing her brain. It came out with minor effort and only a few drops of blood.
“One down,” he said, depositing the fragment in a metal dish with a clank.
All told, he removed nearly a dozen bits of her skull. Her gray matter was a bit the worse for wear, but there was no sign of an infection. He did treat the incision in her scalp with antiseptic, but figured that removing the diseased tissue would probably be enough on its own.
Once he’d finished bandaging her head, Doc stood up and flexed his sore fingers. There was a knot in his back that was screaming about the long time he spent stooped over, but he felt confident the girl would live.
“That’s it?” Pete didn’t seem impressed. Maybe he had been expecting more fancy tricks.
“That’s it.” Doc washed the blood from his hands, wrinkling his nose in disgust when he realized that it had been stained with crimson as well.
“Will she wake up now?”
“Hard to say, but I think so. The broken bits of skull were putting pressure on her brain, so now that they’re out...”
“But she might not.” Pete’s jaw was set hard. “That’s what you’re saying.”
“She might not.” Doc sighed. “There won’t be any way to tell until she either wakes up or doesn’t.”
“Doc,” Pete said grimly “we have a time limit here. Z needs to be at least able to open her eyes and talk by Sunday or we’re gonna be belly up.”
Doc patted him on the shoulder and exited the tent. They had begun at first light, and now it was nearing dusk. The cool fall breeze was balm to his sweat plastered skin, and he allowed himself to feel good for the first time since Big Man had come striding into his office a week ago.
He spent a couple of hours walking among the men, treating them for minor maladies. Mostly he was greeted with blisters and saddle sores, but one of the coolies had what sounded an awful lot like consumption. Doc made sure to put the man in his own solitary tent, so no one would have to breath the corrupted air from his lungs.
Inevitably, he found his boots taking him to Big Man’s tent. He was perplexed by a strange sound emanating from within.
His father was laughing.
Peeling back the front flap, Doc was greeted to the sight of his father, legs splayed wide like he was riding a horse. A short distance away, perched on a padded stool, Rose hung on his every word.
“...and then he grabs his britches like this-” Big Man pantomimed the act “and shimmies on out of the cave, firing off shots while trying to keep his balls covered!”
Rose laughed, a stranger sight than Big Man. She opened her mouth wide and almost gasped her mirth, her voice dissonant and grating.
“...of course, he can’t hit shit like that, and I just relaxed-” Big Man straightened into normal posture, hand bent like a gun “-and pow put one right between his eyes.”
Big Man noticed Pete for the first time when a bit of the outside breeze made it through the flap and tickled his hair. He put his hands on his hips and cocked an eyebrow.
“The surgery went well,” Doc said. “Unless there was more damage to her brain than I think there was, she should be waking up any time now.”
Big Man came up to him, looming close, his eyes inscrutable. Doc forced himself not to cringe. Then his father’s face split in a toothy grin and he cackled his good humor.
“I knew you could do it, son!” He put a hand over Doc’s shoulders and turned him to face Rose, his face full of pride. “That’s my boy! Saved the alliance and your brother!”
I also saved the young Chinese woman’s life, but I guess you’re not counting that.
Rose didn’t seem to understand what was happening, but Big Man’s good mood caused her to smile.
“I think I smell Cookie’s famous possum stew,” Big Man said, taking a deep whiff. “Why don’t you go and get some grub, let us men talk?”
“Okay.” Rose left, licking her lips. Food was the only thing that really seemed to inspire enthusiasm in the strange young woman.
“You should be ashamed,” Doc said once he was confident that Rose was out of earshot.
“Of what?” Big Man’s eyes narrowed in a wicked glower. “I would never try to force myself on-”
“That’s not what I meant.” Doc matched his father’s glare. “Exploiting her trust, because you want to use her as a, as a living weapon!”
“Exploiting her?” Big Man crossed his thick arms over his chest. “That’s rich. What would you have me do with her? Throw her in an asylum?”
“Dad, you’re not being-”
“Oh, wait, maybe I should drive an ice pick into her brain, or maybe shock her with electricity.” Big Man shook his head. “That’s what usually happens to women like Rose, son. Don’t try to deny it.”
“I...” Doc stammered “well, maybe not an asylum, but a facility with trained staff-”
“Listen to yourself,” Big Man said, his eyes softening. “You don’t believe what you’re saying at all. I’ve gotten to know her these past few days, son, and let me tell you that Rose belongs out on the range, riding hard with men like us. If you stuck her in one of your ‘facilities’ she’d wither and die, like a flower in the cellar.”
Doc’s lips became a thin, tight line. Long ago he had learned that arguing with his father seldom bore fruit. Big Man wasn’t deluded enough to think he knew everything, but once he’d made up his mind about something that was that.
“If you don’t need me anymore, I’m exhausted. Going to turn in early.”
“As you like.” Doc tromped toward the exit. “Son.”
Doc turned around, expecting another debate. He was surprised by the tender light in his father’s normally cold, cold eyes.
“You did good today. I couldn’t be more proud.”
He let the flap fall shut so his father couldn’t see the disgusted grimace on his face.