A PATIENT FOR THE HOSPITAL
When the Hardwick carriage drove up in the heavy, ill-odoured August night, and stopped at the gate to let Johnnie Consadine out, Pap Himes's boarding-house was blazing with light from window and doorway, clacking and humming like a mill with the sound of noisy footsteps and voices. Three or four men argued and talked loudly on the porch. Through the open windows of the front room, Johnnie had a glimpse of a long, stark figure lying on the lounge, and a white face which struck her with a strange pang of vague yet alarming resemblance. She made her hasty thanks to Miss Sessions and hurried in. Gray Stoddard's horse was standing at the hitching post in front, and Gray met her at the head of the steps.
Stoddard looked particularly himself in riding dress. Its more unconventional lines suited him well; the dust-brown Norfolk, the leathern puttees, gave an adventurous turn to the expression of a personality which was only so on the mental side. He always rode bareheaded, and the brown hair, which he wore a little longer than other men's, was tossed from its masculine primness to certain hyacinthine lines which were becoming. Just now his clear brown eyes were luminous with feeling. He put out a swift, detaining hand and caught hers, laying sympathetic fingers over the clasp and retaining it as he spoke.
"I'm so relieved that you've come at last," he said. "We need somebody of intelligence here. I just happened to come past a few minutes after the accident. Don't be frightened; your uncle came down to see you, and got a fall somehow. He's hurt pretty badly, I'm afraid, and these people are refusing to have him taken to the hospital."
On the one side Himes and Buckheath drew back and regarded this scene with angry derision. In the carriage below Lydia Sessions, who could hear nothing that was said, stared incredulously, and moved as though to get down and join Johnnie.
"You'll want him sent to the hospital?" Stoddard urged, half interrogatively. "Look in there. Listen to the noise. This is no fit place for a man with a possible fracture of the skull."
"Yes--oh, yes," agreed Johnnie promptly. "If I could nurse him myself I'd like to--or help; but of course he's got to go to the hospital, first of everything."
Stoddard motioned the Hardwick driver to wait, and called down to the carriage load, "I want you people to drive round by the hospital and send the ambulance, if you'll be so kind. There's a man hurt in here."
Lydia Sessions made this an immediate pretext for getting down and coming in.
"Did you say they didn't want to send him to the hospital?" she inquired sharply and openly, in her tactless fashion, as she crossed the sidewalk. "That's the worst thing about such people; you provide them with the best, and they don't know enough to appreciate it. Have they got a doctor, or done anything for the poor man?"
"I sent for Millsaps, here--he knows more about broken bones than anybody in Cottonville," Pap offered sullenly, mopping his brow and shaking his bald head. "Millsaps is a decent man. You know what he's a-goin' to do to the sick."
"Is he a doctor?" asked Stoddard sternly, looking the lank, shuffling individual named.
"He can doctor a cow or a nag better'n anybody ever saw," Pap put forward rather shamefacedly.
"A veterinarian," commented Stoddard. "Well, they've gone for the ambulance, and the surgeon will soon be here now."
"I don't know nothin' about veterinarians and surgeons," growled Pap, still alternately mopping his bald head and shaking it contemptuously; "but I know that Millsaps ain't a-goin' to box up any dead bodies and send 'em to the medical colleges; and I know he made as pretty a job of doctoring old Spotty has ever I seen. To be shore the cow died, but he got the medicine down her when it didn't look as if human hands could do it--that's the kind of doctor he is."
"I aim to give Mr. Passmore a teaspoonful of lamp oil--karosene," said the cow doctor, coming forward, evidently feeling that it was time he spoke up himself. "Lamp oil is mighty rousin' to them as late like he's doin'. I've used copperas for such--but takes longer. Some say a dose of turpentine is better lamp oil--but I 'low both of 'em won't hurt."
Johnnie pushed past them all into the front room where the women were running about, talking lot and exclaiming. A kerosene lamp without a chimney smoked and flared on the table, filling the room with evil odours. Pros Passmore's white face thrown up against the lounge cushion was the only quiet, dignified object in sight.
"Mandy," said Johnnie, catching the Meacham woman by the elbow as she passed her bearing a small kerosene can, "you go up to my room and get the good lamp I have there. Then take this thing away. Where's Aunt Mavity?"
"I don't know. She's been carryin' on somethin turrible. Yes, Johnnie, honey--I'll get the lamp for ye."
When Johnnie turned to her uncle, she found Millsaps bending above him, the small can in his hands, its spout approached to the rigid blue lips of the patient with the unconcern of a man about to fill a lamp. She sprang forward and caught his arm, bringing the can away with a clatter and splash.
"You mustn't do that," she said authoritatively. "The doctors will be here in a minute. You mustn't give him anything, Mr. Millsaps."
"Oh, all right--all right," agreed Millsaps, with decidedly the air that he considered it all wrong.
"There is some people that has objections to having their kin-folks cyarved up by student doctors. Then agin, there is others that has no better use for kin than to let 'em be so treated. I 'low that a little dosin' of lamp oil never hurt nobody--and it's cured a-many, of most any kind of disease. But just as you say--just as you say." And he shuffled angrily from the room.
Johnnie went and knelt by the lounge. With deft, careful fingers she lifted the wet cloths above the bruised forehead. The hurt looked old. No blood was flowing, and she wondered a little. Catching Shade Buckheath's eye fixed on her from outside the window, she beckoned him in and asked him to tell her exactly how the trouble came about. Buckheath gave her his own version of the matter, omitting, of course, all mention of the bandanna full of ore which lay now carefully hidden at the bottom of old Gideon Himes's trunk.
"And you say he fell down the steps?" asked Johnnie. "Who was with him? Who saw it?"
"Nobody but me and Pap," Shade answered, trying to give the reply unconcernedly.
"I--I seen it," whispered Mavity Bence, plucking at Johnnie's sleeve. "I was in the fore room here--and I seen it all."
She spoke defiantly, but her terrified glance barely raised itself to the menacing countenances of the two men on the other side of the lounge, and fell at once. "I never heard nothin' they was sayin'," she made haste to add. "But I seen Pros fall, and I run out and helped Pap and Shade fetch him in."
Peculiar as was the attitude of all three, Johnnie felt a certain relief in the implied assurance that there had been no quarrel, that her uncle had not been struck or knocked down the steps.
"Why, Pap," she said kindly, looking across at the old man's perturbed, sweating face, "you surely ain't like these foolish folks round here in Cottonville that think the hospital was started up to get dead bodies for the student doctors to cut to pieces. You see how bad off Uncle Pros is; you must know he's bound to be better taken care of there in that fine building, and with all those folks that have learned their business to take care of him, than here in this house with only me. Besides, I couldn't even stay at home from the mill to nurse him. Somebody's got to earn the money."
"I wouldn't charge you no board, Johnnie," fairly whined Himes. "I'm willin' to nurse Pros myself, without he'p, night and day. You speak up mighty fine for that thar hospital. What about Lura Dawson? Everybody knows they shipped her body to Cincinnati and sold it. You ort to be ashamed to put your poor old uncle in such a place."
Johnnie turned puzzled eyes from the rigid face on the lounge--Pros had neither moved nor spoken since they lifted and laid him there--to the old man at the window. That Pap Himes should be concerned, even slightly, about the welfare of any living being save himself, struck her as wildly improbable. Then, swiftly, she reproached herself for not being readier to believe good of him. He and Uncle Pros had been boys together, and she knew her uncle one to deserve affection, though he seldom commanded it.
There was a sound of wheels outside, and Gray Stoddard's voice with that of the doctor's. Shade and Pap Himes still hovered nervously about the window, staring in and hearkening to all that was said, Mavity Bence had wept till her face was sodden. She herded the other girls back out of the way, but watched everything with terrified eyes.
"He'll jest about come to hisself befo' he dies," the older conspirator muttered to Shade as the stretcher passed them, and the skilled, white-jacketed attendants laid Pros Passmore in the vehicle without so much as disturbing his breathing. "He'll jest about come to hisself thar, and them pesky doctors 'll have word about the silver mine. Well, in this world, them that has, gits, mostly. Ef Johnnie Consadine had been any manner o' kin to me, I vow I'd 'a' taken a hickory to her when she set up her word agin' mine and let him go out of the house. The little fool! she didn't know what she was sendin' away."
And so Pros Passmore was taken to the hospital. His bandanna full of ore remained buried at the bottom of Gideon Himes's trunk, to be fished up often by the old sinner, fingered and fondled, and laid back in hiding; while the man who had carried it down the mountains to fling it in Johnnie's lap lay with locked lips, and told neither the doctors nor Himes where the silver mine was. August sweated itself away; September wore on into October in a procession of sun-robed, dust-sandalled days, and still Uncle Pros gave no sign of actual recovery.
Johnnie was working hard in the mill. Hartley Sessions had become, in his cold, lifeless fashion, very much her friend. Inert, slow, he had one qualification for his position: he could choose an assistant, or delegate authority with good judgment; and he found in Johnnie Consadine an adjutant so reliable, so apt, and of such ability, that he continually pushed more work upon her, if pay and honours did not always follow in adequate measure.
For a time, much as she disliked to approach Shade with any request, Johnnie continued to urge him whenever they met to finish up the indicators and let her have them back again. Then Hartley Sessions promoted her to a better position in the weaving department, and other cares drove the matter from her mind.
The condition of Uncle Pros added fearfully to the drains upon her time and thought. The old man lay in his hospital cot till the great frame had wasted fairly to the big bones, following her movements when she came into the room with strange, questioning, unrecognizing eyes, yet always quieted and soothed by her presence, so that she felt urged to give him every moment she could steal from her work. The hurts on his head, which were mere scalp wounds, healed over; the surgeon at the hospital was unable to find any indentation or injury to the skull itself which would account for the old man's condition. They talked for a long time of an operation, and did finally trephine, without result. They would make an X-ray photograph, they said, when he should be strong enough to stand it, as a means of further investigation.
Meantime his expenses, though made fairly nominal to her, cut into the money which Johnnie could send to her mother, and she was full of anxiety for the helpless little family left without head or protector up in that gash of the wind-grieved mountains on the flank of Big Unaka.
In these days Shade Buckheath vacillated from the suppliant attitude to the threatening. Johnnie never knew when she met him which would be uppermost; and since he had wearied out her gratitude and liking, she cared little. One thing surprised and touched her a bit, and that was that Shade used to meet her of an evening when she would be coming from the hospital, and ask eagerly after the welfare of Uncle Pros. He finally begged her to get him a chance to see the old man, and she did so, but his presence seemed to have such a disturbing effect on the patient that the doctors prohibited further visits.
"Well, I done just like you told me to, and them cussed sawboneses won't let me go back no more," Shade reported to Pap Himes that evening. "Old Pros just swelled hisself out like a toad and hollered at me time I got in the room. He's sure crazy all right. He looks like he couldn't last long, but them that heirs what he has will git the writin' that tells whar the silver mine's at. Johnnie's liable to find that writin' any day; or he may come to hisself and tell her."
"Well, for God's sake," retorted Pap Himes testily, "why don't you wed the gal and be done with it? You wed Johnnie Consadine and get that writin', and I'll never tell on you 'bout the old man and such; and you and me'll share the mine."
Shade gave him a black look.
"You're a good talker," he said sententiously. "If I could do things as easy as you can tell 'em, I'd be president."
"Huh!" grunted the old man. "Marryin' a fool gal--or any other woman--ain't nothin' to do. If I was your age I'd have her Miz Himes before sundown."
"All right," said Buckheath, "if it's so damn' easy done--this here marryin'--do some of it yourself. Thar's Laurelly Consadine; she's a widow; and more kin to Pros than Johnnie is. You go up in the mountains and wed her, and I'll stand by ye in the business."
A slow but ample grin dawned on the old man's round, foolish face. He looked admiringly at Shade.
"By Gosh!" he said finally. "That ain't no bad notion, neither. 'Course I can do it. They all want to wed. And thar's Laurelly--light-minded fool--ain't got the sense she was born with--up thar without Pros nor Johnnie--I could persuade her to take off her head and play pitch-ball with it--Lord, yes!"
"Well, you've bragged about enough," put in Buckheath grimly. "You git down in the collar and pull."
The old man gave him no heed. He was still grinning fatuously.
"It 'minds me of Zack Shalliday, and the way he got wedded," came the unctuous chuckle. "Zack was a man 'bout my age, and his daughter was a-keepin' house for him. She was a fine hand to work; the best butter maker on the Unakas; Zack always traded his butter for a extry price. But old as Sis Shalliday was--she must 'a' been all of twenty-seven --along comes a man that takes a notion to her. She named it to Zack. 'All right,' says he, 'you give me to-morrow to hunt me up one that's as good a butter maker as you air, and I've got no objections.' Then he took hisself down to Preacher Blaylock, knowin' in reason that preachers was always hungry for weddin' fees, and would hustle round to make one. He offered the preacher a dollar to give him a list of names of single women that was good butter makers. Blaylock done so. He'd say, 'Now this 'n's right fine-looking, but I ain't never tasted her butter. Here's one that ain't much to look at, but her butter is prime--jest like your gal's; hit allers brings a leetle extry at the store. This 'n's fat, yet I can speak well of her workin' qualifications,' He named 'em all out to Zack, and Zack had his say for each one. 'The fat ones is easy keepers,' he says for the last one, 'and looks don't cut much figger in this business--it all depends on which one makes the best butter anyhow.'
"Well, he took that thar string o' names, and he left. 'Long about sundown, here he is back and hollerin' at the fence. 'Come out here, preacher--I've got her,' He had a woman in his buggy that Blaylock had never put eyes on in all his born days. 'Wouldn't none o' them I sent ye to have ye?' the preacher asked Zack in a kind of whisper, when he looked at that thar snaggle-toothed, cross-eyed somebody that Shalliday'd fetched back. 'I reckon they would,' says Zack. 'I reckon any or all of 'em would 'a' had me,' he says. 'I had only named it to three o' the four, and I hadn't closed up with none o' them, becaze I wasn't quite satisfied in my mind about the butter makin'. And as I was goin' along the road toward the last name you give me, I come up with this here woman. She was packin' truck down to the store for to trade it. I offered her a lift and she rid with me a spell. I chanced to tell her of what I was out after, and she let on that she was a widder, and showed me the butter she had--hit was all made off of one cow, and the calf is three months old. I wasn't a-goin' to take nobody's word in such a matter, and hauled her on down to the store and seed the storekeeper pay her extry for that thar butter--and here we air. Tie the knot, preacher; yer dollar is ready for ye, and we must be gittin' along home--it's 'most milkin' time,' The preacher he tied the knot, and Shalliday and the new Miz. Shalliday they got along home." The old man chuckled as he had at the beginning of this tale.
"Well, that was business," agreed Shade impatiently. "When are you goin' to start for Big Unaka?"
The old man rolled his great head between his shoulders.
"Ye-ah," he assented; "business. But it was bad business for Zack Shalliday. That thar woman never made a lick of that butter she was a packin' to the settlement to trade for her sister that was one o' them widders the preacher had give him the name of. Seems Shalliday's woman had jest come in a-visitin' from over on Big Smoky, and she turned out to be the laziest, no-accountest critter on the Unakas. She didn't know which end of a churn-dasher was made for use. Aw--law--huh! Business--there's two kinds of business; but that was a bad business for Zack Shalliday. I reckon I'll go up on Unaka to-morrow, if Mavity can run the house without me."