The day is May 7, 1878. The sun is setting on the dusty Kansas road that heads west out of Dodge City toward the newly-settled town of Cimarron. Miss Hargrave is taking it all in from the rocking-chair on the porch of her inn, as she always does after her boarders are fed and have ambled off to the saloon, leaving her with the dishes. Miss Hargrave will get to those dishes soon enough, but for now she has the sunset and the sounds of the early cicadas, a short respite from her inn on the outskirts of town.
A ways upstreet, but still a good twenty paces shy of the Long Branch, Jess Pellom steps out of his watchmaker’s shop and shuts the door. As Jess reaches into his pocket for the key, he turns to get a glimpse of the sky, the first day this year he has closed up before sunset. This is when he spots the wagon heading toward Miss Hargrave’s place. Kind of late for anyone to be rolling into town, Jess thinks to himself.
Jess Pellom twists the key in the lock and takes a second glance down the street. There’s a man on the back of that wagon. And he’s laying sideways, just limp. Instinctively, Pellom turns and heads off toward the storefront next to the saloon, the place where Doc Adams sees folks and keeps a sickbed. Let’s hope Doc is still there, Pellom huffs to himself as he lopes down the mustard-brown street, each of his steps spraying a hawktail of grit.
Now Miss Hargrave also catches sight of the wagon and widens her eyes. That looks like Mr. Fremont, from Cimarron, laying across the back of the wagon, his legs propped up. And that must be the Fremont boy up in the seat. She stands up and calls, “Mr. Fremont! Are you all right?” but the wagon is already rolling by and her call seems to go unheard above the sound of hoofbeats and rusty axles.
The wagon pulls up in front of Doc Adams’s office, where Jess Pellom is now standing. The office door is open. Two full heartbeats after the wagon comes to a stop, Doc puts on his hat and emerges from the doorway. (Pellom takes note of his timing.) Doc looks at the boy holding the reins. “Who do you have there, son?” he hollers over the din of the saloon.
“Will Fremont, Doc. He’s my pa.” Doc steps off the boardwalk and joins Jess Pellom at the back of the wagon. Fremont, short-haired and middle-aged, is wearing an undershirt and muddy overalls. He turns his head and grimaces at the men, letting forth a moan. “Can you help me, Doc… my leg.”
Doc Adams takes a moment to survey the man and the bloody wrapping on his leg. “Jess,” Doc barks, “go round up Ike at the general store and you two get this man into my office.” Pellom hurries off and Doc walks around to the front of the wagon where the boy is tying up the horse. “What happened to your pa?” Doc asks, squinting into the glare beyond the boy’s head.
“We were out in the cornfield getting ready to sow,” the eleven-year old begins. “We got a late start this spring ’cause we needed rain to soften the ground. Well, Pa was on the plow when the horse got scared — for no reason at all! Agnes bucked and made Pa fall on top of the plow. Pa gashed his leg pretty deep, all the way to the bone.”
Doc peers down at the boy and then up at the horse. “That’s kind of odd, son. Draft horses are even-tempered animals. It’s not like them to buck for no cause.”
“Agnes did,” the Fremont boy insists. “Pa asked me to help take his shirt off and wrap it around his leg. Then he asked me to bring up the wagon. Then he climbed on and asked me to drive us here.”
“All right then. What’s your name, son?” Doc asks.
“Well, you did real good, Anthony. I’ll get your pa fixed up right away.” Doc looks up and sees Jess Pellom has come back with Ike from the general store, and the two have helped Will Fremont slide off the wagon and onto his good leg. Jess and Ike struggle for a while to hoist the hobbled man onto the boardwalk, with Will Fremont trying his best to elevate his shredded leg. The three men finally make it to the walkway and they shuffle sideways, disappearing into Doc’s doorway. Doc and Anthony follow them inside, then someone closes the door as the last slice of sun gives way to the twilight.
“I need some light,” Doc demands. Ike retrieves a box of matches from the secretary desk, while Jess lifts the chimneys of the lamps around the bed. Ike strikes a match and lights the first lamp, and then the second and the third, all on the same match. Doc looks up and decides he has enough light in the room to operate. “Jess, go next door and get a bottle of whiskey,” Doc says, and Pellom bolts to the door. “Doesn’t matter what brand!” Doc yells after Pellom disappears. “Dang, he’s going to get something I can’t afford,” Doc mutters. He shakes his head, takes off his hat, tugs his waistcoat and looks down at his patient.
“Mr. Fremont,” Doc Adams addresses the man on the rumpled bed. “I have to ask you one question before I start. Do you have my card?” Will Fremont raises his eyes and scowls, puzzled and distressed. “Card? I don’t know…” A drop of sweat from Will’s forehead rolls into the corner of his left eye and makes him blink uncomfortably as he tries to maintain his focus on the doctor’s face.
“I figured not,” Doc Adams replies. “I don’t have many patients out Cimarron way. Most of you folks are out of my area. But we can take care of that later. What about the missus, though? Was she ever a patient of mine?”
“Doc, what are you saying?” Fremont gasps. “Allie died a year ago when we were staying at Miss Hargrave’s. You couldn’t get there in time. I don’t…” Will trails off. “Consarn, Doc! Stitch up my leg!”
Jess Pellom scrambles into the room with a whiskey bottle and a shotglass. “Just in time,” Doc says to Pellom. “Pour him one.” As Pellom uncorks the bottle, Doc Adams turns back to Will Fremont. “I need you to sign this consent form. It says you agree to be sedated for this operation.” Doc offers the man laying on his back, whose bloody leg is wrapped in his own sweaty shirt, a sheet of paper and a freshly-inked pen. Fremont stares at Adams, then over to his son — who returns his look as a wall returns a ball — and finally back to Adams.
“Give it here, I’ll sign it,” Will Fremont says weakly. “Just get going, Doc! I don’t have a barrel of blood in me.” The wounded man grabs the paper and scrawls his initials on it. Anthony peers out the window to see whose dog is barking. Doc plucks the piece of paper from Fremont’s outstretched hand and tosses it onto his cluttered desk, then takes the shotglass from Pellom’s hand and places it into Fremont’s. “Get my tray,” he tells Jess. “Hot water!” he orders Ike. “Down it,” he directs Will.
The dog stops barking and the doctoring starts.
• • •
The day is November 16. It is late afternoon and most folks in Dodge City are washing up for supper. Will Fremont limps into the nearly-empty Long Branch Saloon and takes his usual seat near the end of the bar. “Top shelf, Sam, ” Will calls to the barman. “Afternoon, Will,” Sam replies. Sam starts to reach for the bottle next to the lamp but then pauses and says, “Will, it’s getting a little dark… I think we need some light first.”
Sam puts a match to the lamp, humming a few wavering bars of “The Old Chisholm Trail.” After replacing the chimney, he takes the half-empty bottle, sets two glasses on a tray and carries them over to Will. “Same as always?” he asks. “Yep, thanks, Sam,” Will says.
Sam fills both shotglasses and then takes the bottle away and returns it to the top shelf. Will downs the first shot, then closes his eyes until the burn fades. He opens them to see Miss Kitty sitting at his side. “Hello again, Will. You’re getting to be a regular here. I see you here more often than I do Dodge City folks.”
“I have regular business in town, Miss Kitty,” Will says, turning his lips inward to taste the traces of the shot a second time.
“Good harvest?” Kitty asks.
“Good for my first year, Miss Kitty. Doing my best to keep up, with my leg and all.”
“Will…” Kitty pauses to collect her thoughts. “Every time you come to Dodge, I watch you hitch up outside the Long Branch, then you haul three of four sacks of corn next door, and then you walk in here for a drink, always from the top shelf. Tell me… what’s this about?”
“Well, Miss Kitty, I don’t rightly know I should be going into this. But since you asked…” Will fumbles with the second shotglass but doesn’t down it. “See, when I tore up my leg this spring, Doc Adams asked me for my card but I didn’t have one. Didn’t know what a card was — didn’t know I needed one. So he fixes me up anyway, and I figure he’ll tell me how much I owe him the next time I’m in town.
“Well, he sends me his bill the next day. He finds someone heading out to Cimarron and he asks them to stop at my place and hand it to me, in person. Now, that didn’t sit right with me but that ain’t the worst of it.” Will pauses. “Sam, some soda please?”
Will turns his attention back to Kitty. “This bill Doc sends me — it was for a lot more than sewing me up. There were all sorts of feather-headed things on that piece of paper.”
Kitty knits her painted eyebrows. “What kind of things, Will? I’ve known Doc a long time and I wouldn’t call him feather-headed.” Sam strolls over and slides a small glass of water toward Will. “Anything for you, Miss Kitty?” Sam asks. Kitty shakes her head, keeping her eyes on Will Fremont.
“I have Doc’s bill in my pocket,” Will says as he reaches into his jacket. “I bring it with me when I give Doc his corn, so he can scratch off the things on the list that I’ve paid him for. Here are the ones I just paid off.” Will points to two lines crossed-out with red ink. “This says $25 for anesthesiologist and this one is $15 for anesthesia. I asked Doc to explain it to me. He tells me the $25 was for Jess Pellom’s professional services.” Will looks up. “Jess is a decent enough man but I thought he just fixed busted watches.”
Kitty shakes her head and looks back at Will. “And the $15?”
“Top shelf,” Will says, gesturing above Sam’s head. “That was my anesthesia, Doc said. One shot before he started and one shot after he was done.”
“Was the second shot for you, or for Doc?” Kitty jokes, but since Will does not smile back, Kitty stops smiling too. “You can buy a whole bottle of top shelf here for that price, Will. Guess you know that by now.”
“Doc told me he has to mark up the whiskey to make up for people who can’t afford to pay. Apparently that don’t mean me.” Will shows Kitty the bill. “You think I can afford this?”
Kitty scans the ledger paper and points to another crossed-out line. “What is this, Will? Did Doc really charge you for kerosene and matches?”
“He called them operating room supplies, Miss Kitty. Three sacks of corn for that one.” Will sighs, folds up the bill and puts it back into his jacket. “Guess I should be grateful that Doc didn’t have me bite on a bullet for anesthesia. That might have cost me $10.
“Anyway, here’s to you, Miss Kitty,” Will says as he picks up the second glass. “Say what you will, but Doc did give me a taste for the top shelf. I can’t afford that either, but it does ease the pain on the ride home.” With that, Will tosses the second dose down his throat.
“Will Fremont,” Kitty says, touching his arm, “your drinks are on The Long Branch today. But Will — I don’t want to see you at this bar again. Not until your leg heals and your pain goes away on its own. You can stop by for soda here after you make your payments to Doc, but I’m not going to let Sam serve you the top shelf or anything else.”
Will looks down and notices how the boot on his game leg barely reaches the footrail now. “I hear you, Miss Kitty. I know. I also know that doctoring shouldn’t be like this. A doctor should be caring about folks from start to finish and don’t be asking if we live around here and don’t be charging folks extra for all his blamed this’n’that.
“I may be barking at a knot here, but I hope Anthony has it better than me and someday he gets the help he needs.” Will pauses as if readying himself to say more but instead decides to dismount from his seat. “Thanks for your kindness and hospitality, Miss Kitty. So long, Sam.” Will touches his hat, limps unsteadily out of the saloon, unhitches the horse and rides his empty wagon into November’s setting sun.
• • • •
We say our own “so long” to Mr. Will Fremont, age thirty-six, dutiful Kansas corn farmer fighting a pain-killer dependency, and the widowed father of Anthony, a disturbingly reticent boy with an ominous future. We must also give a tug on our wide-brim hat to one Galen Adams, a doctor whose disdain for top-shelf spirits along with a healthy interest in profit inspired a healthcare innovation: the itemized medical bill. Whether this represented an advance in medical practice would not be for Mr. Fremont to decide. Mr. Will Fremont: Patient Zero for western medicine… in the Twilight Zone.
This actually would make for a good Twilight Zone episode…..nicely done, Mr.Collins! :)
I’m going to have to print this out because I want to savor my reading of this short story. (At the airport on my phone now.)
I always wonder who’s reading and what the hell am I doing spending all this time on it, but your comments make it worth it. Thank you – Craig