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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Doctor: A Tale Of The Rockies - Chapter 16. The Challenge Of Death
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The Doctor: A Tale Of The Rockies - Chapter 16. The Challenge Of Death Post by :angiecook Category :Long Stories Author :Ralph Connor Date :May 2012 Read :3143

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The Doctor: A Tale Of The Rockies - Chapter 16. The Challenge Of Death


"Be aisy now, ye little divils. Sure ye'd think it wuz the ould Nick himself ye're dodgin'."

Thus Tommy Tate, teamster along the Tote road between the Maclennan camps, admonished his half-broken bronchos.

"Stiddy now. The saints be good t'us! Will we iver git down this hill alive? Hould back, will yez? There, now. The saints be praised! that's over. How are ye now, Scotty? If ye're alive, kick me fut. Hivin be praised! He's there yit," said Tommy to himself. "We're on the dump now, Scotty, an' we won't be long, me bhoy, till we see the lights av Swipey's saloon. Git along there, will ye!"

The bronchos after their fifteen-mile drive along the unspeakable bush roads, finding the smooth surface of the railway grade beneath their feet, set off at a good lope. It was now quite dark. The snow was driving bitterly in Tommy's face, but that stout little Irishman cared nothing for himself. His concern was for the man lying under the buffalo robes in the sleigh. Mile after mile the bronchos kept up their tireless lope, encouraged by the cheery admonitions and the cracking whip of their driver.

"Begob, but it's cowld enough to freeze the tail aff a brass monkey. I'll jist be afther givin' the lad a taste."

He tied the reins to the seat, gave his bronchos a parting lash, took a flask from his pocket, and got down on his knees beside the sick man.

"Here, Scotty," he said coaxingly, "take another taste. It'll put life into ye." The sick man tried to swallow once, twice, choked hard, then shook his head. "Now, God be merciful! an' can't ye swally at all? An' the good stuff it is, too! Thry once more, Scotty darlin'. Ye'll need it an' we're not far aff now." Once more the sick man made a desperate effort. He got a little of the whiskey down, then turned away his head. The tender-hearted little Irishman covered him over carefully and climbed into his seat. "He couldn't swally it," he said to himself in an awed voice, putting the flask to his own lips, "Begorra, an' it's near the Kingdom he must be!" To Tommy it appeared an infallible sign of approaching dissolution that a man should reject the contents of his flask. He gave himself to the business of getting out of the bronchos all the speed they had. "Come on, now, me bhoys!" he shouted through the gale, "what are ye lookin' at? Sure, there's nothin' purtier than yerselves can be seen in the dark. Hut, there! Kick, wud ye? Take that, thin, an' larn manners! Now ye're beginin' to move! Hooray!"

So with voice and lash Tommy continued to urge his team till they came out into a clearing at the far end of which twinkled the lights of the new railroad town being built about Maclennan's camp No. 1.

"Hivin be praised! we're there at last. Begob, it's mesilf that thought ye'd moved to the ind of nowhere. We're here, Scotty, me man. In ten howly minutes we'll have ye by the fire an' the docthor puttin' life into ye wid a spoon. Are ye there, Scotty?" But there was no movement in response. "Howly Mary! Give us a little more speed!" He stood up over his team, lashing and yelling till the tired beasts were going at full gallop. As he drew near the camp the sound of singing came on the driving wind. "Now the divil fly away wid the whiskey! It's pay day an' the camp's loose. God send, there's a quiet spot to be found near at hand!"

Through the driving snow could be seen the dim, black outlines of the various structures of the pioneer town. First came the camp building, the bunkhouse, grub-house, office, blacksmith shop, and beyond these the glaring lights of a couple of saloons, while back nearer timber the "red lights," the curse and shame of railroad, lumber, and mining camps in British Columbia then and unto this day, cast their baleful lure through the snowy night.

At full gallop Tommy drove his bronchos up to the door of the first saloon and before they were well stopped burst open the door, crying out, "Give us a hand here, min, for the love o' God!" Swipey, the saloon-keeper, came himself to the door.

"What have you there, Tommy?" he asked.

"It's mesilf don't know. It wuz alive when we started out. Are ye there, Scotty?" There was no answer. "The saints be good to us! Are ye alive at all?" He lifted back the buffalo robe from the sick man's face and he found him breathing heavily, but unable to speak. "Where's yer doctor?"

"Haven't seen him raound," said Swipey. "Have you, Shorty?"

"Yes," replied the man called Shorty. "He's in there with the boys."

Tommy swore a great oath. "Like our own docthor, he is, the blank, dirty suckers they are! Sure, they'd pull a bung hole out be the roots!"

"He's not that way," replied Swipey, "our doctor."

"Not much he ain't!" cried Shorty. "But he's into the biggest game with 'Mexico' an' the boys ye ever seen in this camp."

"Fer the love av Hivin git him!" cried Tommy. "The man is dyin'. Here, min, let's git him in."

"There's no place here for a sick man," said the saloon-keeper.

"What? He's dyin', I'm tellin' ye!"

"Well, this ain't no place to die in. We ain't got time." An angry murmur ran through the men about the door. "Take him up to the bunk-house," said the saloon-keeper to Tommy with a stream of oaths. "What d'ye want to come monkeyin' raound my house for with a sick man? How do you know what he's got?"

"What differ does it make what he's got?" retorted Tommy. "Blank yer dirty face fer a bloody son of a sheep thief! It's plinty of me money ye've had, but it's no more ye'll git! Where'll I take the man to?" he cried, appealing to the crowd. "Ye can't let him die on the street!"

Meantime Shorty had found the doctor in a small room back of the bar of the "Frank" saloon, seated at a table surrounded by six or eight men with a deck of cards in his hand, deep in a game of "Black Jack" for which he held the pot. Opposite him sat "Mexico," the type of a Western professional gambler and desperado, his swarthy face adorned with a pair of sweeping mustaches, its expressionless appearance relieved by a pair of glittering black eyes. For nine hours the doctor had not moved from his chair, playing any who might care to chip in to the game. For the last hour he had been winning heavily, till, at his right hand, he had a heap of new crisp bills lately from the Bank of Montreal, having made but a slight pause in the grimy hands of the railroad men on their way to his. At his left hand stood a glass of water with which, from time to time, he moistened his lips. His face was like a mask of death, colourless and empty of feeling, except that in the black eyes, deep-set and blood-shot, there gleamed a light as of madness. The room was full of men watching the game and waiting an opportunity to get into it.

"The doctor's wanted!" shouted Shorty, bursting into the room. Not a head turned, and but for a slight flicker of impatience the doctor remained unmoved.

"There's a man dyin' out here from No. 2," continued Shorty.

"Let him go to hell, then, an' you go, too!" growled out "Mexico," who had for the greater part of the evening been playing in bad luck, but who had refused to quit, waiting for the turn.

"He's out here in the snow," continued Shorty, "an' he's chokin' to death, an' we don't know what to do with him."

The doctor looked up from his hand. "Put him in somewhere. I'll be along soon."

"They won't let him in anywhere. They're all afraid, an' he's chokin' to death."

The doctor turned down his cards. "What do you say? Choking to death?" He passed his hand over his eyes. His professional instinct began to assert itself.

"Yes," continued Shorty. "There's somethin' wrong with him; he can't swallow. An' we can't git him in."

The doctor pushed back his chair. "Here, men," he said, "I'm going to quit."

A chorus of oaths and imprecations greeted his proposal.

"You can't quit now!" growled "Mexico" fiercely, like a dog that is about to lose a bone. "You've got to give us a chance."

"Well, here's your chance then," cried the doctor. "Let's stop this tiddle-de-winks game. You can't have up more than a hundred apiece. I'll put my pile against your bets, there's three thousand if there's a dollar, and quit. Come on."

The greatness of the opportunity staggered them.

Then they flung themselves upon it. "It's a go!" "Come on!" "Give us your cards!" Quickly the cards were dealt. One by one the men made up their hands. The crowd about crushed in upon them in breathless excitement. Never had there been seen in that camp so reckless a stake.

"Now, then, show down," growled "Mexico."

The doctor laid down his cards face up. One by one they compared their hands. He had won. With an oath "Mexico" made a grab for the pile, reaching for his hip at the same time with the other hand, but the doctor was first, and before anyone could move or speak "Mexico" was lying in the corner, his toes quivering above his upturned chair.

"Look after the brute, someone. He doesn't understand the game," said the doctor with cool contempt, crumpling up the bills and pushing them down into his pocket. "Where's your sick man?"

"This way, doctor," said Shorty, hurrying out toward the sleigh. The doctor passed him on a run.

"What does this mean?" he cried. "Why haven't you got him inside somewhere?"

"That's what I say, docthor," answered Tommy, "but the bloody haythen wudn't let him in."

"How's this, Swipey?" said the doctor sternly, turning to the saloon-keeper, who still stood in the door.

"He's not comin' in here. How do I know what he's got?"

"I'll take that responsibility," replied the doctor. "In he goes. Here, take him up on the robe, men. Steady, now."

Swipey hesitated a moment, but before he could make up his mind what to do, the doctor was leading his men with their burden past the bar door.

"Show us a room at the back, Swipey, upstairs. It must be warm. Be quick about it."

Swearing deep oaths, Swipey led the way. "It must be warm, eh? Want a bath in it next, I suppose."

"This will do," said the doctor when they reached the room. "Now, clear out, men. I want one of you. You'll do, Shorty." Without hurry, but with incredible speed and dexterity, he had the man undressed and in bed between heated blankets. "Now, hold the light. We'll take a look at his throat. Heavens above! Stay here, Shorty, till I come back."

He ran downstairs, and, bareheaded as he was, plunged through the storm to his office, returning in a few minutes with his medical bag and two hot-water bottles.

"We're too late, Shorty, I fear, but we'll do our best. Get these full of hot water for me."

"What is it, Doctor?" cried Shorty anxiously.

"Go quick!" The doctor's voice was so sharp and stern that before Shorty knew, he was half way downstairs with the hot-water bottles. With swift, deft movements the doctor went about his work.

"Ah, that's right. Now, Shorty, hold the light again. Now the antitoxin. It's hours, days, too late, perhaps, hardly any use with this mixed infection, but we'll try it. There. Now we'll touch up his heart. Poor chap, he can't swallow. We'll give it to him this way." Again he filled his syringe from another bottle and gave the sick man a second injection. "There. That ought to help him a bit. Now, what fool sent a man in this condition twenty miles through a storm like this? Shorty, don't let that teamster go away without seeing me. Have him in here within an hour." Shorty turned to go. "Wait. Do you know this man's name?"

"I heard Tommy call him Scotty Anderson. He's from the old country, I think."

"All right. Now, go and get the teamster."

The doctor turned to his struggle with death. "There is no chance, no chance. The fools! The villains! It's sheer murder!" he muttered, as he strove moment by moment to bring relief to the sick man fighting to get his breath.

After working with him for half an hour the doctor had the satisfaction of seeing him begin to breathe more easily. But by that time he had given up all hope of saving the man's life. And it seemed to increase his rage to see his patient slipping away from him. For do what he could, the heart was failing rapidly and the doctor saw that it was simply a matter of minutes. Before the hour had elapsed the dying man opened his eyes and looked about. The doctor turned up the light and leaned over him, trying to make out the words which poor Scotty was making such painful efforts to utter. But no words could he hear. Finally the dying man pointed to the chair on which his clothes lay.

"You want something out of your pocket?" inquired the doctor. The eyes gave assent. One by one the doctor held up the articles he found in the pockets of the clothing till he came to a letter, then the eyes that had followed every movement expressed satisfaction.

"Do you want me to read it?"

It was from the mother to her son Andy in far Canada, breathing gratitude for gifts of money from time to time, pride in his well doing, love without measure, and prayers unceasing. It took all the doctor's fortitude to keep his voice clear and steady. The eloquent eyes never moved from his face till the reading was finished. Then the doctor put the letter into his big, hairy hand so muscular and so feeble. The fingers closed upon it and with difficulty carried it to the man's bosom. For a moment the eyes remained closed as if in peace, but only for a moment. Once more they rested entreatingly upon the doctor's face.

"Something else in your pocket?"

The doctor continued drawing forth the articles one by one till he came to a large worn pocketbook.


With an effort the head nodded an affirmation. From the innermost pocket he drew a little photograph of a young girl. A light came into the eyes of the dying man. He took the photograph which the doctor placed in his hand and carried it painfully to his lips. Once more the eyes began to question.

"You want something else from your pocketbook? If so, close your eyes." The eyes remained wide open. "No? You want me to do something for you? To write?" At once the eyes closed. "I shall write to your mother and send all your things and tell them about you." A smile spread over the face and the eyes closed as if content. In a few minutes, however, they opened wide again. In vain the doctor tried to catch the meaning. The lips began to move. Putting his ear close, the doctor caught the word "Thank."

"Thank who? The teamster?"

The man moved his hand and touched the doctor's with his fingers.

"Thank me? My dear fellow, I only wish I could help you," said the doctor. "Anything else?"

The eyes looked upward toward the ceiling, then rested beseechingly upon the doctor's face again. Vainly the doctor sought to gather his meaning, till, with a mighty effort, poor Scotty tried to speak. Once more, putting his ear close to the lips, the doctor caught the words, "Mother--home," and again the eyes turned upward toward the ceiling.

"You wish me to tell your mother that you are going home?" And once more a glad smile lit up the distorted face.

For some minutes there was silence in the room. Up from the bar, through the thin partition, came the sounds of oaths and laughter and drunken song. The doctor cursed them all below his breath and turned toward the door. A spasm of coughing brought him back to his patient's side. After the spasm had passed the sick man lay still, his eyes closed, and his breath becoming shorter every moment. Once again the eyes made their appeal, and the doctor hastened to seek their meaning. Listening intently, he heard the word, "Pray." The doctor's pale face flushed quickly and as quickly paled again. He shook his head, saying, "I'm no good at that." Once more the poor lips made an effort to speak, and again the doctor caught the words, "Jesus, tender--." It had been the doctor's child prayer, too. But for years no prayer had passed his lips. He could not bring himself to do it. It would be sheer mockery. But the eyes were fixed upon his face beseeching, waiting for him to begin.

"All right," said the doctor through his set teeth, "I'll do it."

And above the ribald sounds that broke in from below on the solemn silence, the doctor's voice, low but very clear, rose in the verses of that ancient child's prayer, "Jesus, tender Shepherd, hear me." At the third verse,

"Let my sins be all forgiven,
Bless the friends I love so well,
Take me when I die to heaven,
Happy there with Thee to dwell."

there was a deep breath from the sick man, a sigh as of great content, and then all was still. Ere the prayer had been uttered the answer had come, "Happy there with Thee to dwell." Poor Scotty! Out from the sickness and the pain, from the wretchedness and the sin, he had been taken to the place where the blessed dwell and whence they go no more out forever.

Silently the doctor composed the limbs, his eyes dim with unusual tears. As he was thus busied he heard a sniffle behind him and, turning sharply about, he found Tommy and Shorty standing at the door, both wiping their eyes and struggling with their sobs.

"Confound you, Shorty!" burst forth the doctor wrathfully, "what in the mischief are you doing there? Come in, you fool. Did you ever see a dead man before?" The doctor was clearly in a rage. During the weeks Shorty had known him in camp he had never seen him show anything but a perfectly cold and self-composed face. "Is this the teamster?" continued the doctor. "Come in here. You see that man? Someone has murdered him. Who sent him down here through this storm? How long had he been ill? Have you a doctor up there? Are there any more sick? Why don't you speak up? What's your name?" In an angry flood the questions poured forth upon the hapless Tommy, who stood speechless. "Why don't you speak?" said the doctor again.

Recovering himself, Tommy began with the question which seemed to require least thought to answer. "Thomas Tate, sir, av ye plaze. An' sure it's not me ye'd be blamin' at all. Didn't I tell the foreman the man wuz dyin'? An' niver a breath did I draw fer the last twinty miles, an' up an' down the hills like the divil wuz afther me wid a poker."

"Have you no doctor up there?"

"Docthor, is it? If that's what ye call him, fer the drunken baste that he is, wallowin' 'round like Micky Murphy's pig, axin' pardon av the pig."

"Are there any more sick?"

"Sick? Bedad, they're all sick wid fear, an' half a dozen worse than poor Scotty there, God rest his sowl!"

The doctor thought a minute, then turning to Shorty he said, speaking rapidly, "Go and bring to this room the foreman and Swipey. And say not a word to anyone, mind that. And you," he said, turning to Tommy, "can you start back in an hour?"

"I can that same, if I must."

"You know the road. We'll get another team and start within an hour. Get something to eat."

In a short time both the foreman and the saloon-keeper were in the room.

"This man," said the doctor, "is dead. Diphtheria. There is no fear, Swipey. Shut that door. But you must have him buried at once, and you will both see the necessity of having it done quietly. I shall fumigate this room. All this clothing must be burned and there will be no further danger. You will see about this to-morrow. I am going up to No. 2 to-night."

"To-night, doctor!" cried the foreman. "It's blowing a regular blizzard. Can't you wait till morning?"

"There are men sick at No. 2," said the doctor. "The chances are it's diphtheria."

In an hour's time Tommy was at the door with the best team the camp possessed.

"Have you had something to eat, Tommy?" inquired the doctor, stepping out from the saloon.

"That's what I have," replied Tommy.

"All right, then. Give me the lines. You can have a sleep."

"Not if I know it, begob!" said Tommy. "I'll stay wid yez. It's mesilf that knows a man whin I see him."

And off into the blizzard and the night they sped, the doctor rejoicing to find in the call to a fight with death that excitement without which it seemed he could not live.

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