Part 30 of the Ranch Days series
By Maz McCoy
“Get those cows moved!” Jeff bellowed at a group of ranch hands, and then turned towards the corral where a group of men stood around talking. “Bill, what the heck you doin’? You fellas take a break when I tell ya!”
The men, who’d been branding calves all morning, looked up at the Boss, then over to Bill. Napier took a deep breath and headed towards Collins.
“I got nothing to say, Bill, just get the job done.” He turned away, striding back towards the barn.
“Wait up!” Bill jogged to catch up but the ranch foreman kept walking. “They need a break.”
Collins stopped, turned his head to look at Bill. Their eyes met but Bill knew better than to try to outstare his friend. “Ten minutes, then get ‘em back to work.”
“Take ten!” Bill called then continued to follow Jeff. He finally caught up to him beside the barn. Collins kept his back to his friend. “Jeff.”
“You been a little…”
Jeff spun around, his expression angry. “A little WHAT?
Collins’ eyes narrowed. “Abrupt? I don’t have time to sweet talk the men into doing their job!”
“That’s not what I meant. You’ve been…”
“Short with the men.”
“Uh huh, anything else you don’t like about the way I do things?”
“Well, now you mention it…”
“Oh, great, spill it all out, Bill! Let’s hear what you…” Collins turned away and rested a steadying hand on the barn wall.
“Jeff? You all right?”
“I’m fine.” The tension in Collins’ voice was obvious. Bill moved to face his friend. A fine sheen of sweat covered his face as Jeff, eyes closed, held his stomach.
“Nothing. Just get back to work.”
Through narrowed eyes Jeff glared at his friend but he knew Bill wasn’t about to give up. “It’s nothin’ all right? Just an upset stomach. Must be making me cranky.” He managed a wry smile. “I’m sorry. Just go get the job done for me.”
Bill studied his friend, not convinced. Jeff’s hand moved to his right side, resting near his hip. He grimaced.
“Maybe you should see the doctor.”
“Jeff, if you…”
“I said, no need.” It was a stand-off.
“All right,” Bill agreed. He took one last look at his friend, leaning against the barn, holding his side, and then headed quickly back to the corral. “Bobby!” The Boss’s brother wandered over to the fence. “Go have a word with him.”
“Why? You’ve seen how moody he is.” He pulled his gloves back on, resettling his hat on his head.
Concern replaced the indifferent expression on Bobby’s face. “How sick?”
“I don’t know but it’s not like Jeff to let an upset stomach bother him.”
Bobby vaulted the fence and was running for the barn before Bill could say any more.
“Hold up, big brother!” he called as he spotted Jeff heading for the bunkhouse.
“Don’t tell me, Bill sent you,” Jeff said without turning round.
“He said you were sick.”
“So he was lying?”
Jeff stopped walking and turned to face his younger brother. “No. I’m fine. Go earn your keep.” He turned away but a hand on his arm stopped him. “Bobby, so help me…”
“You don’t look well.”
“I said, I’m fine.”
“Yeah, I heard ya.”
“Then stop fussin’ like a mother hen and go back to work.”
“Bobby.” The brothers glared at each other. “Let me get on with…” Jeff doubled up as pain ripped through his gut.
“Just give me a minute.”
“Let’s get you inside.” Bobby put a hand on Jeff’s shoulder but his brother shrugged it off.
“Leave me alone!”
“No.” The brother’s faced each other. “Swallow your damn pride and let me help you.”
“Bobby…” But another wave of nausea and crippling pain were about to make a liar out of Jeff.
The young bull rider shook his head and scooped Jeff up, carrying him up the steps. Despite his brother’s protests he kicked open the door and carried him inside.
“Henry! I need your help!”
“Heyes!” Bill called and the dark-haired young man stuck his head out of the stall.
“I need you to go to town. Fetch the doctor.”
“Jeff.” He walked away and Heyes ran after him.
Bill stopped and turned around. He looked worried. “I don’t know. He’s in a lot of pain. Just get the doc as fast as you can.”
“But, what should I tell him?” Heyes asked as he picked up a saddle and blanket.
“Jeff’s clutching his stomach and right side. He’s been vomiting. Heck, Heyes, I don’t know, just get him back here!” Bill walked away and Heyes threw the blanket over the back of his horse.
Someone pounded on the door.
“Clementine, see who that is, will you?” Ellis Hale carefully filled a bottle of medicine from a much larger one. The young lady headed to the front door.
“Hannibal!” she exclaimed, then beamed with pleasure. “How lovely to see you, please come in.”
“Hi, Clem, is the doc here?” Heyes removed his hat and wiped his boots on the mat as he entered the hallway.
“He’s back here.” She led the way to the back room her uncle used as his office and examining room.
“Uncle, Hannibal Heyes is here.”
“Heyes! Good to see you.” The doctor held out his hand in greeting and Heyes shook it, eyeing with interest the bottles and potions laid out on the table. “You here to take Clementine for a walk?” Ellis Hale asked, with a twinkle in his eye. He smiled at his niece and she did her best to look coy.
“Oh, no, sir.” Clementine shot Heyes a glare. “Not that I wouldn’t like to. Take you for a walk, I mean. Not… you know, well not that I wouldn’t like to…I mean…” Heyes swallowed and turned back to the doctor. “I need you to come out to the ranch. Jeff’s ill.”
“What’s wrong with him?”
“I don’t know for sure but Bill said he’s been vomit…Oh pardon me, Clementine.”
“That’s all right. Working with my uncle I’ve heard worse than that.” She feigned indifference at his description and he turned his attention back to Doctor Hale.
“Well, he’s been sick and is holding his stomach and side.”
“Which side?” the doctor asked, as he added a few items to his medical bag.
“Erm…” Heyes tried to remember. “The right. Yep, Bill said the right side.”
“Any idea how long he’s been ill?”
“No sir. I only just heard about it.”
“Clementine, I think I may need your help.”
“What can I do?” she asked, enjoying her sudden rise in importance.
“I have a hunch and if I’m right, you’re going to help me perform an operation.”
Two young faces blanched at the very idea.
Heyes sat beside Clementine in the back of the buggy as Doctor Hale flicked the reins and the horses picked up speed. Heyes’ horse, tied to the back of the buggy, trotted along behind. The buggy hit a rock and swayed sideways.
“Oh!” Clementine exclaimed and grabbed Heyes’ arm. She smiled sweetly when he looked at her. “You don’t mind if I hang on to you, do you?” She kept her voice low so that her uncle would not hear. “I feel safer with you here.”
Heyes smiled. Correction, he positively beamed and placed his hand over hers. “You hang on as tight as you like, Clem. I won’t let any harm come to you.”
“You were so courageous to ride into town alone.”
“I’ve done it before when…”
“Racing to the aid of a seriously ill friend.”
“We don’t know how bad…”
“You could have been thrown from your horse or attacked by bandits but that didn’t stop you. A friend was in danger and you rode hard.” She smiled up at him. “You’re quite the hero, Hannibal Heyes.”
Heyes smiled back. When she put it like that…
Ellis Hale flicked the reins and rolled his eyes.
“Are they here yet?” Bobby asked as he came out of the bunk house onto the porch.
“Not yet,” Jed Curry informed him from his perch on the railing.
Bobby paced back and forth tapping the rail anxiously as he did so. Tap, tap, tap. He stopped and looked up the hill toward the ranch house and the track beyond. Nothing. He turned away and paced again. Thump! Thump! Thump! His hand pounded on the rail. He stopped. Looked up the hill. Nothing. Pace, pace, pace. Thud, thud, thud! Stop. Look. Nothing. Tap, tap, tap. Tap, tap, tap. Tap…Sheesh he had to get a grip. “Let me know the minute…”
“I see them!” Jed pointed as a familiar buggy came over the rise and began its descent down the hill towards the bunkhouse.
“About damn time,” Bobby muttered. He threw open the bunkhouse door and called inside. “They’re here!” Then he turned his attention to the approaching buggy.
Doctor Hale nodded a greeting as he pulled the buggy to a halt in front of the bunkhouse. “How’s the patient?” he asked as he applied the brake and secured the reins.
“About the same.”
“I’d better take a look.” Ellis Hale climbed down then turned to his niece, still nestled in the back with Heyes. “You’d best wait outside, Clementine, until I need you.”
“All right, uncle. I’ll be fine here.”
“Hmm. You mind your manners, Mister Heyes.”
“I will, sir.”
They watched the doctor disappear into the bunkhouse; then Clementine snuggled in closer. “This is nice, Hannibal.”
“It sure is.”
Heyes gave an audible sigh.
“Hello, Jed.” The young woman smiled at the young man standing beside the buggy.
“Hello, Jed.” Heyes sent him a glare which his friend chose to ignore.
“How’ve you been, Clem?” Jed came closer, noticed the couple’s hands entwined and shot a questioning look at Heyes.
Heyes beamed smugly.
“I’m fine, Jed. How are you?”
“Fine. You here ‘cos of Jeff?” Dumb question! Sheesh, why else would she be here?
“Yes. How is he?”
“I don’t know.” Wow, way to sweet talk a girl, cowboy. And what’s with Heyes holding her hand?
“Maybe you should go and find out how he is?” Heyes suggested, pointedly.
“I will.” But not yet, Heyes. “Can I help you down, Clem?”
“She’s fine up here!” Two brown eyes fixed on his friend.
“Maybe we should ask her that?” Two blue eyes glared back.
“Maybe you should go see how the boss is?”
“Maybe I don’t want to just yet.”
“And maybe you two should stop arguing!” Clementine snapped and our two young heroes-in-lust turned sheepishly to face her.
“Sorry, Clem,” Jed stated, sincerely.
“Clementine, please accept my apologies.” Heyes brought her hand to his mouth and kissed her knuckles.
Clementine positively cooed.
“Sheesh!” a voice muttered.
“Jeff? Jeff, can you hear me?” Ellis Hale leaned close to the man lying on the bed, clutching his side.
The ranch foreman opened his eyes, revealing the pain he was in. “Hey, Doc.”
“I’d say it was good to see you, Jeff, but…”
“Yeah, I know.”
“Where exactly does it hurt?”
Jeff uncurled and stretched out. “Here.” He pointed to an area just above his groin near his right hip.
“Here?” The doctor pressed gently on the area and Jeff shot upright, yelling in agony. “I’ll take that as a yes.”
Jeff lay back, sweating. He looked pale.
“How long have you had the pain?”
“Started in my gut. Had it for a couple of days, I guess. Thought it was indigestion.”
“Uh, huh.” The doctor removed a thermometer from his bag and popped it in Jeff’s mouth. “Then what?”
“Ith sorthof moowved dwown.”
“I see.” The doctor removed the instrument and studied it.
“How is it?”
“What’s wrong with me?”
“I believe you have appendicitis.”
“An inflammation in part of your intestines.”
“Is it serious?”
“It could be.”
“Hello, Clementine.” Annabelle Tyler approached the bunkhouse. She nodded a greeting to Jed and Heyes. “Boys.”
“Ma’am,” the young men chorused.
“Hello, Mrs Tyler,” Clementine smiled. She liked Nathan’s wife.
“I take it your uncle is inside?”
“Yes, ma’am. I’m here to help him.”
“Good for you. A doctor can always do with the help of a good nurse.”
Clementine beamed and Annabelle headed up the bunkhouse steps.
“You gonna be a nurse?” Jed asked.
“I don’t know, I might be.”
“You reckon you can deal with all the…blood and stuff?”
“Yes, I’m not squeamish.” A sudden thought came to mind and she smiled coyly. “And I wouldn’t mind seeing people without their clothes either.”
For a moment both young men were stunned into silence as their imaginations…
“You wouldn’t?” Jed asked.
“I’d just have to get used to it.”
“You ever seen one?”
“One what, Jed?”
The blond boy looked at Heyes. His friend’s expression said it all. You’re on your own with this one.
“A nay… Nothing.” Another glance at his friend. Sheesh, Heyes, say something.
“The doc said he might have to perform an operation.”
“He did?” Jed silently thanked his friend for changing the conversation. “On, Jeff?”
“I’ll be helping him,” Clem announced proudly. “Oh, that means I might see…”
Oh boy, poor Jeff
“Clementine!” Ellis Hale called. His niece tore herself away from her two young suitors, leaving them alone at the corral. The doctor met her halfway to the bunkhouse.
“Mrs Tyler has offered to help look after Mister Collins so there’s no need for you to stay.”
“Oh, but I want to help!”
“I know you do and I appreciate that, but it’s not appropriate for you to do what needs to be done here.”
“And what’s that?”
Her uncle shifted uncomfortably. “It’s a delicate situation.”
“It just is and Mrs Tyler is a married lady.”
“Why should that matter?”
“She has experience in…”
“In this particular area.” Yes, Ellis decided, that was it.
“So, you can stay here or I can ask someone to take you home.”
With two young men waiting for her, it didn’t take Clementine long to make her decision. “I’ll stay.”
“Are you sure? It could take a while.”
“I’ll be fine and I want to know how Mister Collins is.”
“Very well.” The doctor turned away. “And try not to torment those two!” He called as an afterthought.
Clementine smiled. “Hannibal! Will you take me up to the ranch house? I want to use the powder room.”
“They don’t store gunpowder up there!” Jed exclaimed.
Ellis heard a girly laugh.
“No, silly, it’s the ladies room.”
The doctor shook his head. The poor lads didn’t stand a chance.
Jed sat on the porch rail outside the bunkhouse waiting for Heyes and Clem to return. How long did it take a woman to…? What did they do in there anyway that…? Well, sheesh, how long’d it take? He lifted his feet off the floor swinging them as he tried to balance without using his hands. “What’s an appendix?”
“It’s a little dangly thing in your groin,” Bobby stated.
“That ain’t your appendix!”
“We ain’t talkin’ about the same little dangly thing, Kid, and it ain’t so little in my case.”
“You’ve got a big appendix?” Marty asked with a smile as he tilted back his chair.
“No,” the bull rider replied, patiently. “I reckon that’s just regular size.”
“What size?” Jed remained balanced, feet off the floor.
“How big is it?”
Bobby’s eyes narrowed. “We’re talkin’ about my appendix right?”
“Well, what else did…? Sheesh, Bobby! I wouldn’t ask that!”
“Well, how the heck do I know what you farm boys talk about?”
Marty laughed so hard the chair slipped out from under him which caused Jed to forget to balance and he fell off the rail.
“You all right old man?” Bobby asked as he hauled Marty to his feet.
“Yeah, tougher than I look.” They both turned to Jed, who stood below the porch beating his pants with his hat to knock the dust off.
“You okay, kid?”
“Yeah,” the boy informed them and then smiled. “So how big is it?”
A hush fell over the bunkhouse. The men sat around the table or on their bunks waiting to hear what Doctor Hale had to say.
“I need to remove his appendix before it ruptures. If it does he could get septicaemia.” He noted their perplexed expressions. “Blood poisoning.”
“How are you going to remove it?” Bobby asked. He leaned against the wall, arms folded across his chest, his eyes revealing how worried he was.
“I’ll cut it out.”
“You ever done that before, doc?” Bill asked.
“No, can’t say’s I have, but it has been done and successfully.”
“Where?” Henry rocked back and forth on his chair.
“In hospitals, back east.”
“If you’ve never done it how do you know…?” Heyes pondered.
“I have a book. The man who did the operation explained how to do it.”
“So you’re going to cut my brother open while reading a book?” Bobby pushed off the wall neither too convinced nor too happy about the idea.
“It’s all I have, Bobby.” The doctor looked at the wooden planks then back at the men. “I do know blood poisoning kills and if I don’t do something, Jeff could die.”
It was a sobering thought.
“Where will you do it?” Bill asked.
“In here. I’ll need this table. It’ll have to be scrubbed down first.”
“I’ll see to that,” Henry stated.
“We’ll help.” Heyes shoved Jed forward.
“Sure,” the kid added.
“Can I see my brother?”
The ranch foreman opened his eyes a fraction and focussed on the doctor. “Hey, Doc. How’m I doin’?”
“Not so good.”
Jeff’s eyes opened wider. “Must be bad if you’re telling me the truth.”
“It could be.”
“If I don’t remove your appendix now, it could burst.”
“Not a good thing?”
“So, removing it means…?”
“I have to cut it out.”
“Cut me open?”
“Just a small incision.”
“What’s small?” The medic held his fingers apart, the distance he intended to cut. “You done this before?”
“Sheesh, Doc you coulda said yes!”
“I’m being honest with you, Jeff.”
“I know. Appreciate it.” He took a deep breath. “So it’s cut it out or die?”
“It’s gonna hurt, right?”
“I’m going to put you out.”
“I mean, I’m going to use an anaesthetic, put you to sleep while I operate.”
“I won’t feel anything?”
“Not until you wake up.”
“Assuming I do wake up.”
“I’ll do my best to see that you do.”
Jeff considered this. “Best get to it then.”
“Jeff?” Bobby smiled when his brother’s eyes opened.
“You’ve got everybody running around after you again.”
“That’s the way it should be.” Jeff smiled but it clearly took effort. “I’m the boss.”
“How you feelin’?”
“Not so good. Could you fetch Rosalind?”
“You want me to go get your woman? Ain’tcha worried I’ll run off with her?”
“Nope. She’s got better taste than that.”
“Just ‘cos you’re in your sick bed don’t mean I can’t get my own back.”
“I’d like to see you try.” Jeff’s bravado dissolved into a grimace.
“Hey, big brother.” Jeff opened his eyes. “You hang in there, all right? I’ll go get Rosalind. I’ll bring her back. You just make sure you’re well enough to see her.”
Jeff held out a hand and Bobby took it in his. “Thank you.” Their eyes met. There was nothing more to say.
“Scrub harder boys, I want to be able to eat off that table when you’re finished,” Henry instructed.
“He’s joking, right?” Jed queried, Heyes nodded and dipped a scrubbing brush into the bucket of soapy water once more. Jed had worked up a sweat scrubbing his end of the table clean. Henry was in the kitchen boiling water for the doctor’s instruments and cleaning out bowls on the medic’s instructions.
The bunkhouse door opened and Annabelle Tyler entered carrying a pile of clean towels and sheets. Clementine followed holding two pillows in crisp white pillowcases.
“Mrs Culver sent these down,” Annabelle explained. “She’d be here herself but has a cold and doesn’t want to risk passing it on. They are all as worried as we are about Jeff. I just wish Nathan was here.”
“I sent word to the fellas guarding the herd,” Bill informed her. “But there’s no way they’ll make it back here before the doc operates.”
“Rosalind! Rosa! Rosa!” Bobby called as he threw open the door to Rosalind’s home and marched in uninvited. “Rosalind, where are you?”
“Bobby, what is it? What’s wrong?” The woman appeared at the top of the stairs.
“I gotta get you back to the ranch. Now!” Suddenly remembering his manners Bobby took off his hat as she descended.
“What? Why? What’s happened?”
“Oh my God! What’s happened?” Rosalind’s hand went to her throat and she grabbed hold of the newel post.
“Grab your coat and I’ll tell you on the way.” Bobby turned to go, then turned back. “Can you ride a horse?”
“Of course I can, but what’s…?”
“I’ll go get one from the livery. It’ll be quicker that way.” He was out of the door and down the path.
“Bobby, wait! What’s happened to him?” Rosalind called from the doorway.
“The doc’s about to operate on him.”
“Rosa just get your things and I’ll tell you on the way.”
The bunkhouse was quiet. The room that usually rang with manly sounds had been transformed into an operating theatre. The table on which meals were taken, bets were placed and arm-wrestling matches won and lost was covered in a spotless white sheet. Jeff Collins lay on top, his head on a pillow, his body covered in another equally clean sheet. Doctor Hale laid out his instruments on the table and Jeff avoided looking at them. Instead he focused on a crack in the ceiling and tried not to think about what was going to happen next. He would have liked to have seen Rosalind before…
Annabelle came towards him and smiled reassuringly. She was wearing a white apron and her hair was tied up and out of the way. “How are you doing?” she asked, although the pallor of his face told her all she needed to know. How would anyone feel if they were about to be cut open?
“I could use a hand to hold about now,” Jeff admitted.
She took his hand in hers and gave it a gentle squeeze.
“It’ll be all right, Jeff.”
“I hope so.”
Ellis Hale stepped into view behind his head. “Ready?”
Jeff nodded and the doctor covered Jeff’s nose and mouth with a cloth mask. He slowly dripped chloroform onto the cloth. Jeff turned his head away as the fumes reached him but the doctor held the mask firm. Jeff’s eyes, wide open with the fear he fought to hide, met Annabelle’s. She tried to smile but found herself fighting back tears instead. Ellis Hale added more chloroform. Jeff’s grip tightened on Annabelle’s hand. His eyelids flickered then slowly closed. She held on until Jeff’s grip loosened and then he let go.
To be continued…
End of Part 30