Chapter 11: Collecting Shells at the Drowning

Parables of the Beautiful Country

by Jack E’Dalgo

Chapter 11: Collecting Shells at the Drowning

“To pursue Doc is to pilot largely in the dark.” – Bruce Olds

Surprisingly, Holliday complied with Masterson’s request, too lost in thought to consider further resistance. He didn’t remove his hat but he unbuttoned his waistcoat and his shirt without rising or disturbing his empty holsters. He allowed Fox to dutifully apply his stethoscope beneath the loosened fabrics.

Fox spoke to Holliday quietly from time to time. Holliday did not respond initially. For several moments there was only the sound of the coal snapping in the stove, Holliday’s breathing on command, and Masterson’s shuffling papers. Masterson steadfastly refused to look at Holliday directly, trying to afford the man at least the semblance of privacy.

Fox worked circumspectly, respectful of both Holliday’s decorum and his dignity. Holliday leaned forward or back when requested. Despite Masterson’s promise, Fox palpitated Holliday’s lungs expertly, but not too forcefully, avoiding the bruised area at his right shoulder.

Fox then had Holliday lean forward while he pressed his fingers along Holliday’s spine, his hands lost under the shirt fabric. Holliday winced several times, which Fox noted as a sudden tension and Masterson noticed as a grimace, quickly suppressed. Fox got similar results when pressing Holliday’s kidneys. This time, Holliday actually jerked involuntarily.

Fox asked sotto voce, “Has that been painful for long, Doctor Holliday?”

“Nothin’ personal, Doctor Fox, I’d prefer to leave that kind of squeezin’ for my wife, thank ya.”

Which, of course, avoided the question. Masterson sighed. “Doc, Would it kill you to not be sarcastic?”

“Possibly. Why take the chance?” Holliday abruptly began re-buttoning his clothing.

Masterson shot Fox a look, but the older doctor merely sat and began making notes.

“May I ask you a few questions?” Fox asked. In the silence that followed. Holliday glanced up and realized the question had been directed to him.

“Ya may ask,” he conceded. “I reserve the right ta decline specific answers.”

“Of course,” Fox agreed. “What color is the blood you are coughing from your lungs recently?”

Masterson noted the doctor’s phrasing, not if Holliday coughed blood, but what color it was. Masterson felt like he’d been suddenly frozen in place. He’d not mentioned Kate’s laundry to Fox.

Holliday’s answer was so soft it was just short of non-existent. “It varies.”

“Varies from what to what? For example, pink and foamy to dark red, thin or…?”

“Dark red. Viscous.”

“I see. And when did you do this last?”

Holliday shrugged, but his voice was low. “A few hours ago.”

“Any lung tissue in it?”

“A bit.”

Masterson was almost afraid to breathe. Lord above.

“Any blood in your urine, Doctor Holliday?”

“I decline ta answer.”

Fox made another quick notation. He pointed his pencil at Holliday’s dormant cigar still on the desk. “You know you shouldn’t be alive the way you live.”

Holliday raised, then lowered his eyebrows. “Oh, yes. The lecture. I’ve heard it already, if ya don’t mind. My physician in Dallas warned me ta — how did he phrase it?” Holliday began mimicking a high nasal tone, “‘Ya may live another six months if ya choose an ennoblin’ lifestyle, and be consoled by the notion that this disease will purify ya and edify your friends.’” Holliday’s wrath flared again, but he kept his tone level. “So I ennobled myself for five miserable months. I woke on my twenty-second birthday and realized I hadn’t a friend ta my name. No one was edified as far as I could tell. I was so enfeebled I was tangled in my own goddamned blanket and damn near suffocated. I fought my way out of bed and was too exhausted to move for two hours.”

Holliday paused, apparently waiting for some kind of reprimand from Fox. Fox merely nodded for him to continue. Holliday did so, but with an obvious effort to bank the fire of his bitterness. “I decided ta give up on waitin’ for ol’ death ta drag me through his damned door. Hell, even he didn’t want me. I thought then that I’d spend my final month actually livin’, just ta console myself that I had at least tried a bit of life. I got the bellhop ta bring me a bottle of whiskey and once it got me on my feet, I went downstairs, found a woman and I misbehaved. I’ve been misbehavin’ evah since. I’ve gotten five years. Not the best trade possible, you might be thinkin’, but I can certainly live with it.”

Fox seemed to be seriously considering Holliday’s rhetoric. “You’ve got the better of me there, Doctor,” he admitted. “In my experience some patients do seem to do well in ignoring sound medical advice. Please, do not quote me. My wife followed strict medical protocol and only survived a year from her diagnosis.”

Both Holliday and Masterson finally gave the man a second glance. Fox was consulting his notes, and Masterson realized the doctor’s knuckles were bruised like he’d recently been in a fist-fight. The man bore watching, Masterson thought.

To Holliday, Fox said, “I couldn’t help but notice you have several scars indicating prior serious injuries.”

“They have nothin’ ta do with my condition.”

“Understood. May I at least ask if they were inflicted pre- or post-diagnosis?”

“Post. Mostly.”

“Excellent healing capacity, then. Thank you for your candor,” Fox returned to scribbling on his paper. Holliday was now watching him with almost clinical fascination.

In the interest of full disclosure, Masterson asked matter-of-factly, “How many times you been shot, Doc? I mean, the times you were actually hit.”

Holliday frowned at him. “Five. So far.”

Fox glanced up. The phrasing of the answer had one of his eyebrows climbing. Masterson smirked and returned to his paperwork. Welcome, he thought, to the wonderful world of Doc Holliday.

Fox recovered quickly enough. “May I check your mouth and throat, Doctor Holliday? You are, of course, not obligated to indulge the request.”

Holliday blinked at the man slowly, then submitted, turning his chin to the better lighting over Fox’s shoulder as the older man stood. Fox peered into Holliday’s mouth carefully, frowning and gently pressing either side of Holliday’s throat. “You do not use Calomel, I take it.” His mouth still open, Holliday shook his head no. “That is good,” Fox responded. “Evil stuff, that Calomel. Is swallowing ever a difficulty?” Fox released Holliday’s throat and moved behind him.

“Yes,” Holliday answered.

Fox laid his hands firmly against Holliday’s upper back as though searching for something.

“Does it hurt you to speak?” Fox asked. “I notice your voice fluctuating as though you are having to speak around something against your vocal cords. Do you sense that or is this raspiness part of your normal voice?”

“This has been my normal voice for a few years. And, yes, I feel somethin’ at my vocal cords continually now. Like gravel.”

“You do understand,” Fox said softly, “that this is yet another indication that the illness is spreading into more of your body’s other systems?”

Because simply strangling him from the inside out is not enough, Masterson thought.

Holliday closed his eyes a moment, unwilling to speak. Masterson took the blame for that. Holliday was sharp as a straight razor and had to have noticed that Bat had been staring at the final page of his reports for far too long. Not reading it, just staring, waiting for Fox to finish. Listening.

How much more humiliation did he expect Holliday to endure? Masterson shuffled his papers as though looking for a particular statement. Holliday rolled his eyes.

Fox, still calmly explaining his intentions aloud, had moved his hands to investigate a network of small tight nodules under the skin just below Holliday’s right shoulder blade. He’d no sooner pressed the area than Holliday twisted to relieve the pressure of his hand. Fox released him instantly, but Holliday gagged, struggling with a sudden violent fit of coughing that had him gripped in spasms, attempting to inhale and exhale simultaneously.

Masterson stood, uncertain what he should be doing, but he’d be damned if he’d sit there and watch a man choke to death. Holliday pressed his left fist into the upper right quadrant of his chest and kept it there, knuckles white. He used his free hand to grab his handkerchief from his waistcoat pocket and tried to smother the cough into some kind of normalcy.

Fox dug in his bag and then waved a plume of spirits of ammonia in front of Holliday’s face. The smell had Masterson holding his breath momentarily, but it seemed to turn the tide for Holliday. Holliday took a shuddering gasp and coughed heavily, followed by another deep gasp and more coughing. Fox swung open a shutter and tossed the plume out the window then jerked his stethoscope from around his neck and shared a wary look with Masterson. Masterson, however, was damned if he knew what the look was supposed to convey.

Fox moved around behind Holliday, putting his stethoscope to his ears. Holliday, still working to get his cough under control, stood on sheer force of will, holding to the table with one hand. With his free hand he held Fox back none too gently.

Pickett stood to intervene but Masterson waved him back.

“You’ll not touch me again,” Holliday managed to choke out. The words were directed at Fox.

Fox had not been injured by Holliday’s shove and he protested, “You know something is wrong, Doctor Holliday. If you’ll just let me listen–“

“Localized hemoptysis, damn ya,” Holliday gasped. “I’ll deal with it.” His eyes were black as pitch and he collapsed back into his chair, simply unable to stand any longer. His voice remained defiant, however. “I’ll not repeat myself.”

“All right, Doc,” Masterson said. He knew that look. Somewhere in Holliday’s mind a line had been crossed and Holliday would die before he would relent. And he would not go down without a fight of some kind even if it took him a week to get a weapon back in his hand. “Fox, sit down,” he ordered.

Fox protested, but quickly realized no one was listening. He sat. “For God’s sake,” he moaned. “At least give the man a whiskey.”

Holliday meanwhile had recovered his breath and finally lowered the fist from his chest. He propped himself up with one elbow on the desk and, still breathing too heavily, hid his face resolutely behind that one hand, keeping Masterson out of view.

Masterson’s hand appeared in his field of vision, pushing a generous glass of whiskey.

Holliday dropped his hand but did not immediately drink. He refused to look at the glass, and Masterson could have sworn he was trying to hold his breath. The effort didn’t last long but it did seem to bring him some level of control over his wheezing.

Holliday applied his handkerchief with extra care, wiping his mouth and mustache. Masterson was reminded of Holliday doing something similar on the trail not three days ago. He also noted that this time there were bright flecks of blood on the linen handkerchief.

Fox noticed the blood as well and put out both hands to plead his case. Masterson shut him down with a shake of his head. Holliday’s well of anger was deep and was often directed at himself as quickly as anyone else. Certainly, Holliday would only tolerate so much compassion.

At long last, Holliday sat back in his chair. He kept his focus on the patch of desk in front of him, still studiously avoiding looking at the glass of whiskey. His voice was almost his normal rasp. “I apologize, gentlemen, for bein’ a drunkard. In my family’s defense, I was taught ta never drink in public. The fact that I do so, should be no reflection on their good efforts.”

That was a deflection if Masterson had ever heard Holliday come up with one, but it was far from his best efforts.

Fox shook his head. “I asked the marshal for whiskey for medicinal purposes for your cough, not as a reflection on your fine character, I assure you, doctor.”

“Medicinal or otherwise,” Holliday hissed. “The result is the same.”

Fox would not be deterred. “I palpitated something I shouldn’t have. It was an entirely clinical curiosity and I apologize for causing you such obvious discomfort. The pain in your upper chest. Is it better now?” Holliday said nothing. Fox continued, “You drink to control your cough and the pain.” It was not a question and Holliday again did not answer. “Do you have anything else?”

It took Holliday a moment to realize what the man was asking. “I’ve a little laudanum,” he admitted.

“The laudanum is a recent addition to your regimen?” Fox asked.

“More or less.”

“And with the increasing pain you are finding it difficult to find an appropriate dosage between the alcohol and the laudanum, not to mention the difficulty of estimating doses given your continued weight loss.” By this point, Fox wasn’t waiting for disclosures from Holliday, merely making observations. “I confess I have no prescription for that myself. I am sorry.”

Masterson meanwhile had poured a second, smaller drink for Fox then one for himself. Pickett declined the offer.

Masterson drank. Fox followed his lead with a gulp that would make a barman proud. With everyone else drinking, Holliday finally picked up his glass with both hands and took a decent swallow.

He sat the glass back on the desk and placed his hands out of sight in his lap. This was not Holliday’s usual habit when in custody; he was habitually careful to keep his hands in plain view, but they were simply shaking too hard at the moment to be trusted, Masterson realized. Perhaps Holliday hoped to entice Pickett into putting him out of his misery.

“So,” Masterson waved his papers, before settling them onto the desk. “According to witnesses, you and McDawes were playing Russian roulette before it turned into an outright duel.”

Holliday did not even favor him with a glance. He said softly, “Was that what I was doin’? Well. Yes. I suppose I was.”

Masterson knew Holliday was distracted and aggravated, and in pain he would never admit to. Holliday obviously didn’t know what else to say. What else was there to say at this point? Masterson would not coddle him, however. It would only embarrass him further.

“You know damn well what you were doing, Doc. You removed five bullets from your .45 and laid them on the table in full view of the entire room, spun the chamber, then held the Peacemaker to McDawes head and forced him to deal cards. Then you pulled the trigger. You did it next to your own head. You did it four times, once with every hand played. You could have killed him or yourself doing that alone.” Masterson sounded disgusted and Holliday surely couldn’t blame him. “Is this some kind of perverse death-wish between the two of you–“

“Jesus wept.” Holliday swore. “I carry two Colts, a derringer and a damned knife. Does it sound like I want to die?”

“You can claim a love of life all you like, Doc, but you were the one holding the pistol.”

Holliday said nothing. Masterson knew from experience he could do that all day, too. Masterson tried a different tack.

“Look at it from my point of view, Doc. You don’t find it remotely suspicious that the only two men in the camp with consumption just happen to–“

Fox interrupted. “Actually there are four in the camp. Well, three now, of course.”

Masterson glared at him. “TWO MEN with consumption just happen to decide to have a game of suicide. But only one of the men is actually holding the six-gun. Kind of a one-sided arrangement for a suicide, as far as I can see. Were you trying to decide between suicide or murder? Was he not willing to pull the trigger on you to help you out?”

“Have you looked at the six-gun, Bat?”

“Excuse me?”

Holliday didn’t repeat the question; he simply waited until Masterson fetched the weapon from the desk drawer. The Navy Colt’s nickel plating glowed as brightly as its ivory grips under the lamplight.

“How many bullets remain?” Holliday asked simply.

Masterson opened the .45’s ejection gate, pointed the barrel skyward and methodically shook the weapon. No shells spilled out onto the desk. He spun the cylinder, checking visually for the unspent bullet. The revolver was empty. He looked up at Holliday. “Every witness says you unloaded five bullets before the game. And that you shot McDawes in the street with your .38. There should be one unspent bullet in this pistol, Holliday.”

“I confess ta removin’ the five bullets and that I killed him with the .38. The point is I only evah load five bullets. It’s a… habit developed in me since I was given my first pistol as a child. I leave the weapon paused on the empty chamber for safety’s sake.” Holliday shrugged. “I knew, of course, that everyone would assume the presence of a sixth bullet remainin’ in the chamber. In reality, there never was a sixth bullet. McDawes was never in danger and frankly, neither was I, thank ya for askin’.”

Masterson jerked Holliday’s Colt Lightning from the drawer. He opened the .38’s ejection gate and emptied the cylinder onto the desk. One spent shell and four live rounds. Five bullets total. Not six.

Holliday helped himself to another deep swallow of his whiskey. His hands were steadier this time and he only needed one hand for the task. He sat, simply breathing, eyes hollow.

“Doc,” Masterson sighed, replacing both weapons back in the drawer, sweeping in the shells and witness reports before slamming it shut. “I’ll be good goddamned.”

“I hope not, Bat.”

“If you weren’t planning on killing either one of you, what was the point of the game? I don’t understand any of this.”

“McDawes had some asinine notion that he should like ta die in some glorious legend so he could be remembered always. Or some such nonsense. I was tryin’ ta activate some sense of self-preservation in the boy. I thought he was healthy, I spoke of how, if he just walked away, he could find a good woman, raise children, build a home.” Holliday propped his elbows on the desk and hid his eyes behind both hands, “I had no idea I was makin’ it worse. He must have thought I was tauntin’ him.” Holliday wiped his hands down his face before looking back at Masterson. “God is my witness, Bat, I did not know the man was ill. I would have walked away. He just wouldn’t let me walk away.”

In the uneven lighting, Holliday’s eyes were watery and all the black of just moments before had drained away. They were so much paler than usual that he looked like a blind man.

Masterson made up his mind in that split-second way he had. He turned to Fox. “Well, Doctor. What do you think of our retired dentist here? Does he stay?”

Fox, however, didn’t address Masterson. “Doctor Holliday, an abrupt change in altitude can affect the body’s ability to exchange oxygen between vascular and cellular level, causing undue stress on even the healthiest among us. As you seem certain this…” he waved an uncertain hand at Holliday’s shoulder, “eruption in your lungs will pass without intervention, I would still advise a day or two of rest for your body to compensate for the altitude before you resume your duties. You can, of course ignore me, but–“

The door slammed open. All four men reacted by jumping to their feet. Pickett actually drew his Colt. Holliday had reached for his before remembering he had nothing in his scabbards. Kate flew in with a whirl of mustard charmeuse. Masterson noted she had no apron tonight. Her decolletage was redolent with emeralds, however.

“Bat Masterson! I want to see– John!” she cried and flung herself at Holliday. “What have they done to you now, kincsem–“

Holliday shushed her, apparently grateful for the burst of cool air through the open door as much as Kate’s arms. He turned, taking intermittent gulps of the air from the open door. He was laying the hug he gave Kate on thick, a diversion from his lapse of health just moments before. God forbid he should bother Kate with such trifles, Masterson thought.

“Oh,” Holliday sounded a bit breathless, “‘Tis my good wife come to visit the sick and the prisoner in his hour of need as commanded by our Lord.”

“Two for the price of one, no less,” she agreed, offering Holliday a kiss.

“How very thrifty of you, dearest.” He pecked the proffered cheek. He was white as Georgia marble.

God help me, Masterson thought and resumed his seat. Fox and Pickett followed Masterson’s lead. Holliday settled Kate in the empty chair next to his before he sat, the damned half-dead gentleman that he was. Masterson noted Holliday had turned his chair to favor the door, his back almost to Fox. He briefly wondered if Holliday was considering fleeing. But no. Holliday never ran from anything short of a lynching party.

“Where was I?,” Masterson moaned.

Kate slapped her reticule down on Masterson’s desk. It hit the wood with a thwack that far exceeded the bag’s bead-work. He wondered just how much gold or silver Kate was walking around camp with. Of course, no one would be dense enough to rob Doc Holliday’s woman.

“You were just about to tell me,” Kate fumed, “what you are doing with my husband in custody and how much I need for his bail.”

“Kate, you know how this works by now. The judge will need to have a hearing when the court sits in Pueblo in a few days. There is no bail until then. Doc will be held in custody in your tent–“

Kate grabbed Doc’s hand in a kind of triumph, then whispered harshly, “What did you do, John? Don’t spare my feelings, now. I want the truth.”

“He shot a man,” Masterson said.

“Then set him on fire,” Pickett offered drily.

Masterson shot Pickett a glance, but Pickett merely shrugged. Kate had as problematic an effect on some people as Holliday did.

“Oh, how terrible for you, John,” Kate mourned. “The horrors you have to put up with in these places. People just bursting into flames like that. No breeding, obviously.”

Holliday frowned at her. “Mary Kate. There’s no call to be ugly about–“

“Oh, shame on the both of you.” Her accent was suddenly more pronounced, which seemed to happen when she was angry, Masterson noted for future reference. ‘If you do not wish to tell me what happened, all you have to do is say. I see no need delving into such fantasies as flambe corpses.”

Fox interrupted, “I was just telling your husband that he needs a few days rest. I think I may be able to provide something a bit stronger than he is used to, to help him sleep. I’m assuming he no longer sleeps without interruption, at least, that he doesn’t get a full eight hours uninterrupted sleep very often.”

“Eight hours?” Holliday scoffed. “There is no need to stretch a point beyond credulity, Doctor.”

Masterson noticed Holliday’s breathing was a bit harder than it had been a few moments before, despite the open door’s ventilation. Masterson motioned for Pickett to open another window for a better cross breeze.

Fox conceded, “Pain and difficulty breathing keep you from sleeping more than… a few hours?”

Holliday nodded, but Kate was shaking her head vigorously.

“No? An hour or so at a time?”

Kate nodded and Holliday scowled at her.

“Yes,” Fox agreed, “that can be a very serious complication. Medication should help. Of course, the medicine in question will be short-term use, while you’re under my care in camp, Doctor Holliday, you understand. It is highly addictive and could add to your problems significantly without careful supervision.”

“Sounds forebodin’,” Holliday said. “Will I be conscious for my trial?”

“You’ll be there, Doc.” Masterson said “And it’ll just be a preliminary hearing.”

Looks were passing between him and Fox as though there was a second conversation the Hollidays were not to be privy to. Masterson didn’t know Fox well enough to be certain what Fox was saying. But he could read Holliday well enough to know something wasn’t right.

“Conscious for my lynchin’ party, then?” Holliday insisted. He sounded almost strangled for a moment and Pickett closed the vent of the little heater in the corner without needing to be told.

“There’ll be no lynch mobs here,” Masterson insisted. “Not while I’m in charge. If anyone has a problem with how I do my job I will personally toss them into the gorge. I’ll run the evidence by Judge Hallett but I think I can guarantee there will be no charges. The witnesses all back up your story. The shooting itself is a pretty clear case of self-defense.”

Kate tried to interrupt but Holliday laid a firm hand on her arm and she closed her mouth, finally actually looking at him. Her brow furrowed.

Holliday was looking at Masterson. He said, “So. Mutilation–” he paused for breath “–of a corpse will–” another breath “–get me what? Surely… a fine, at least?”

Masterson found himself speaking rapidly, just watching Holliday pretending not to fight for air. “The fire was started with the flash-burn of McDawes’ own Walker and from his having already spilled black powder on himself a few hours previous,” Masterson said. “It’s hardly your fault that he never cleaned his clothes, let alone his weapon. If I’m going to bring charges for the fire, it’ll be against the man’s so-called friends for pouring a bottle of liquor onto an open flame expecting it to extinguish the fire. The idiots. As I said, I’ll have to talk to the judge. You’ll be confined to your tent under house arrest. Let Doctor Fox here give you something to help you get some sleep.”

Kate was staring at Holliday’s hand on her arm. Despite his grip, the hand was trembling again. Kate’s eyes were large and she watched Holliday’s face, trying to catch his eye. Holliday refused to look at her. His body was betraying him in public again and that had surely reignited his temper.

Kate, frustrated, turned to Fox, who was at least willing to give her the time of day. She demanded, “What is this snake oil you’re giving my husband?”

Fox squinted up from his medical bag, “It is a morphine derivative being used in European surgical settings. In very low doses I believe it is safe as a sleep aid–“

“A morphine? Doc has odd reactions to morphines. Even laudanum leaves him seeing visions. And paranoid.”

Kate had a few more things to say about the situation, but Masterson knew that ultimately she was simply diverting attention back to herself and away from Holliday, buying Holliday time for whatever it was she thought he needed time for.

Masterson noted that Holliday wasn’t interrupting or asking questions of his own now. Very uncharacteristic of him. Instead Holliday was holding his free hand over the right side of his chest again, rubbing it absently. Masterson snapped his fingers for Fox’s attention.

Masterson interrupted Kate and asked, “Are you in pain, Doc?”

Holliday grunted, and turned in his chair, staring out the open door. “I may have miscalculated the situation,” he whispered. He jerked suddenly and without a sound, spewed a mouthful of blood onto the floor.

Kate screamed in horror, leaping from her chair. Masterson threw himself across the desk, grabbing for Holliday as he slumped. Masterson tried to shout over Kate’s continued screaming. Pickett slid in the streaks of blood trying to reach Holliday. Harry Jenkins, the telegraph operator, dove out of his office two doors down and appeared in the door with a carbine.

With Pickett keeping the unconscious Holliday upright, Masterson slid the rest of the way across his desk and took one of Holliday’s shoulders. Meanwhile, Fox had finally come alive. He made motions and commands Masterson couldn’t hear for Kate’s continued screaming, and between him and Pickett, they managed to lay Holliday on the desk.

Fox grabbed Pickett. “I need blankets, lots of blankets. And ice. As much ice as you can find. Immediately.” Fox shoved Pickett toward the door, and dumped the contents of his bag into Masterson’s vacated chair, scraping together supplies, syringes and God knows what all.

Masterson yelled to Jenkins to go with Pickett for blankets, and to the saloon for ice. “Tell John Shanssey to get in here yesterday! Go, go, go, go, go!”

Pickett and Jenkins disappeared, their boots slapping at top speed. Masterson grabbed the water ewer and set it in one of the chairs at the desk, ready should Fox need water. Kate, acting on instinct and still wailing compulsively, stumbled for the ewer, lifting her skirt to rip bits of her petticoat and dip them in the water.

“John, oh, sweet John. Édesem , Édesem János,” she wailed repeatedly, seeming unable to control herself, sloshing water over Holliday’s chest, trying to wash the blood from his face. Seeing less blood on his mouth, her mantra became softer, but she was still speaking it, just in whispers.

Seeing Fox donning his stethoscope, Kate grabbed Doc’s knife from his boot and frantically began slicing Holliday’s waistcoat and shirt open. She went instantly silent as Fox listened to Holliday’s chest, his eyes closed in concentration. Kate had removed her hands from Holliday’s chest and, unwilling to release him completely, laid them on Holliday’s thighs instead, hiccuping compulsively, shaking in spasms.

Men were gathering around the little building, filling the door, openly gaping. They disappeared at Masterson’s approach. Instead of slamming the door, Masterson yelled “Jenkins! Pickett! Where the hell are you?!”

Fox was talking to Kate. “He is hemorrhaging in the upper lobe of his right lung. It is not good. I am going to try to pack ice around his chest to encourage his blood to clot. Until that happens, we are helpless. Meanwhile, that lobe is filling with blood and he cannot use it to breathe.”

As if on cue Shanssey arrived bearing two buckets of ice. Pickett was right behind him with blankets. Jenkins had an armful of each. Both men had to shove past Shanssey who had frozen at the sight on the floor. His eyes were wide with questions he didn’t ask.

“Good, good,” Fox declared. “Help me set him up and get some of these blankets behind him.” It was a concerted effort but they managed the feat and piled the load of blankets behind Holliday’s back, creating a slope for him to lay against. The topmost blanket was stretched behind Holliday like a sling, and allowed to drape to the floor.

Shanssey, quickly restraining his initial shock, helped spread a thick layer of ice along the blanket as Fox directed him. Holliday was laid back against the ice, then more was poured on his chest and wrapped with the trailing ends of the blanket to keep the ice tight against him.

Holliday began shivering almost immediately but did not regain consciousness. Kate remained just inside the circle of Holliday’s out slung arm, hugging herself. She reached out to Holliday intermittently, but never touched his chest, not wanting her own body heat to melt the ice, Masterson guessed.

“He gonna make it?” Pickett asked. No one answered.

Fox checked Holliday’s pupils and pulse. “He is still with us, my dear,” he assured Kate. “He has a strong will to live.”

“Oh, you bet,” she whispered.

Holliday’s breathing rattled in his throat and he shook with every breath. Fox was digging in his bag. Again.

“How strong is your stomach, young lady?” Fox asked Kate, then looked at her. She was spattered in her husband’s blood, still making no move away from the obviously dying man beside her. “Never mind,” Fox said. “I need your help if he’s going to live through this.”

“Anything,” she said.

“Good girl. Hold this.” He handed Kate a large glass syringe he had gutted of plunger and needle. “Clean this by filling it with this.” He handed her a bottle of clear liquid and she set to work. “You four men,” Fox said over his shoulder, “if he regains consciousness during this procedure I’m going to need him held down. I don’t dare sedate him and further compromise his breathing. There will be a great deal of pain and since he will already feel he is drowning, he will panic. His reaction will be strictly instinct and there will be no reasoning with it.”

Masterson assumed the space at Holliday’s right, with Shanssey on his left; Pickett and Jenkins moved to Holliday’s boots. Fox tugged at the ice wrap to uncover a portion of Holliday’s chest and then unwrapped a scalpel from its paper. “Dear lady, if you could pour a bit of that disinfectant on my blade? And on your husband’s chest just there? Thank you. Here we go.”

As thin as Holliday was, it was not difficult to find a space between his ribs and Fox plunged a small hole in Holliday’s upper right side no larger than an entrance wound from a .22 slug. It looked to Masterson to be deep enough to hit an organ. Holliday jerked and tried to rise, choking harder as he came to. The four assigned men held him fast. Despite the blood loss and his disease, Holliday was surprisingly strong and he fought like a savage.

The wound began bleeding instantly and Fox dropped the scalpel to the floor and inserted one end of the syringe he had handed to Kate. He held his ear near the other end as though listening to something as he adjusted the depth of the syringe. Finally satisfied, he angled the free end of the syringe toward the floor and blood ran freely from the open end.

Masterson couldn’t help himself. “What the hell, Fox? Hasn’t he lost enough blood?”

Holliday was panicking like a man drowning. He was indeed making choking noises. Kate was trying to help, Masterson supposed. At any rate, she could hardly be expected just to stand there twiddling her thumbs while Holliday fought for his life. She laid light hands on Holliday’s neck, letting him smell her scent, or get a sense of her presence to calm him. It didn’t help.

“He can’t always breathe well on his back. Can we roll him to one side?” she gasped.

Fox exclaimed, “Yes, yes!”

They rotated Holliday to his right side, Pickett and Jenkins hanging on to Holliday’s struggling boots. Once on his side, Holliday bled even faster through the tube of the syringe.

Masterson could no longer distinguish Holliday’s cough from his breathing and he was certain that no man could possibly afford to lose so much blood.

“He’s strangling,” Fox announced dully. “We need to raise his head higher–” He glanced around for more blankets, but Kate crawled onto the desk and slid beneath Holliday’s shoulder, pulling him up against her, his head pushing against her neck. Masterson and Shanssey shifted their positions but did not loosen their grip. Jenkins and Pickett also maintained their posts.

If Holliday had suspected his death was to be this horrific, Masterson could well understand why Holliday was such a bastard some days. If Masterson had such a prognosis, he would have probably shot half of Dodge just for them being so damned healthy.

Holliday’s desperate struggle slowed. Probably because he was bleeding out, Masterson thought. But Holliday, white as a ghost, was still gasping.

Fox was digging in his infernal bag again. He brought up a small curved needle and thread this time, squatted onto his haunches and began stitching the scalpel damage from the inside, suddenly pulling the syringe loose and tossing it aside on the bloody floor. Another minute’s work and Fox exchanged his sewing for his stethoscope. The room collectively held its breath as he listened.

Except for Holliday. He was wheezing heavily but his breathing seemed deeper, the rattle not quite so pronounced. Masterson wasn’t trusting his own senses any more.

Fox pulled out his watch and managed to get the cover plate up in spite of his bloody hands. He listened to Holliday’s chest some more, eyeing his watch. Holliday pushed his chest against the stethoscope suddenly, unable to remain still. Kate tried to shush him, repeatedly saying, “You’re gonna be okay, now, John. Everything’s gonna be alright.”

Holliday shook his head, still struggling. Kate took the shaking of his head as disagreement and repeated her encouragement.

Fox abruptly pulled Holliday’s torso forward, encouraging Kate to slide forward a few inches more, lifting Holliday to an almost seated position. Holliday immediately responded by taking a deeper breath, followed by another, and then a third, his struggle stilling finally.

Shanssey and Masterson released their grips and Holliday laid his hand along Kate’s thigh, as a kind of comfort perhaps, but for himself or for Kate, Masterson did not know. Jenkins and Pickett stepped back. Kate had stopped her pleading, burying her head behind Holliday’s neck. She shook periodically but made no further sound.

The room was silent aside from Holliday’s efforts to breathe. Even the men swirling beyond the walls seemed incredibly distant. Holliday’s rattle had either gotten less frequent or had simply become part of Masterson’s world now, existing in that area of his hearing beyond awareness.

Fox reapplied his stethoscope a few moments, then took another minute to slide his bloody watch back into his waistcoat pocket. “His breathing is improving,” he announced. “We seem to have been able to release most of the hemorrhaged blood from his lung and I believe his heart is trying to stabilize.” He looked sadly at Kate. “He will either live or he will die. I am sorry. There is not much else I can do.”

Kate said nothing, looked at no one. She still held tightly to Holliday although he was no longer fighting them, as though she would hold him to this world by sheer force of her will. And for the second time Masterson was ashamed of his contempt for and distrust of Holliday and his wife.

“Doctor Fox,” Pickett asked quietly from beyond Holliday’s boots. “Does this make Doc, ah, Doctor Holliday more likely to get pneumonia or some such?”

There was something in the deputy’s question, the simplicity of it or its unexpectedness. Fox began laughing. Covered in blood and laughing. Even Kate squinted at him. Fox recovered and mused. “Pneumonia. Yes. I would say he has an active case of pneumonia. Pulmonary edema. Malignant pleural effusion. You name it. Anything you want. Does that get him out of your hateful confinement?”

Pickett looked at Masterson. “Maybe we should get him to Canyon City. They have better facilities–“

“We can’t move him now,” Fox hissed. “All this damned bureaucracy. We’ll know in the hour if this man will be going to a bed or to a grave. Then you can write all the paper you want and be damned.”


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *