Published on Tuesday, February 21, 2012
Dr. Glick Mends an Arm
By Carol Buchanan
Sweat sprang from Dr. Jerome Glick's forehead and stung his eyes, ran down his cheeks, and dripped into the long incision in the patient's arm, mingling with blood seeping into the stained mattress. Had no one ever changed the straw or washed the ticking, the doctor asked himself. A fly walked into the incision. Dr. Glick shooed it away. It flew in a beam of sunshine that lighted fine dust floating down from the dry sod roof.
Behind him three men passed a whiskey bottle among themselves, an occasional glug telling him that one had taken another swallow.
"Don't drink it all." To his surprise, his voice did not quiver. "He'll need it, or I will."
"You ain't drinkin' till you're done." The voice had an accent from the deep South, perhaps Georgia or Mississippi, an accent Glick had always associated with silver spoons ringing on crystal, mellow lamplight glowing through burgundy wine, and women's tinkling laughter.
"Not to drink," retorted Glick. He bit off the next words: You fool. "To clean the wound."
Sunlight shifted to light another part of the wound. One last bone splinter lay embedded between the posterior and anterior portions of the ulnar collateral ligament. Elbows were such complicated mechanisms. He worked the tips of the forceps into the soft tissue, an angry red where the splinter had torn it. Slow and steady, he told himself, seeking the delicate balance between prolonging the patient's agony and causing the least damage possible. He pulled on the bone, but the tissue tore. The patient cried out, his scream muffled through the rawhide strip he clenched between his teeth. Damn. It was the right arm, the gun arm, and Sheriff Plummer would not thank him for losing its usefulness.
Glick dropped the fragment on the dirt floor and wiped his face. Now to find the ball.
Down the arm, following the trail of suppurating flesh, snipping off the ends and stitching them together as he went, he searched, pausing from time to time to straighten his back or wipe away sweat, until he came to the wrist. He could not find the ball.
Bending lower, he peered along the arm. There the ball had gone deeper, tearing the dorsal radioulnar ligament, but leaving the skin intact. He stretched, thinking. As if weighing out gold dust, he considered the alternatives. Opening up the wrist might cause more infection. If he left it alone, the lead ball could infect it anyway. Either way, Plummer's chances were not good. If he died...
He would not risk further damage to the wrist. Now to set the broken radius and close up. As he fitted the ends of the radius together, the patient screamed: "Aaaah!" And fainted.
The ratchet click of a pistol being cocked sounded behind him.
"He dead?" The accent was pure Yankee.
"No, he's alive." To himself he added, Thank God.
"Thank your stars for that," said the Georgian.
The third man asked, "How's the arm?" The quiet voice signified the fellow's origins in the middle of the country, perhaps Kentucky or southern Ohio.
Without looking around, Glick reached back a bloody hand. "I need that whiskey now." He poured the mixture of alcohol, water, and tobacco (for coloring) into the wound, taking care to drench the area where the ball had entered the wrist.
"Well?" demanded Kentucky.
"I've saved the arm, though amputation would have been better —"
"None of that," said Kentucky. "You know what we said about that."
"I know." He threaded his needle to stitch the tendons and muscles back together, his sewing as fine as any seamstress, the stitches small and even, and close. When he had finished, he bandaged the arm. "There would have been less danger of infection. That's what we have to watch for now. Putrefaction could still carry him off."
Metal slid against leather and fabric as the other two pistols emerged from their resting places. He felt their muzzles hunting him like blind puppies, heard the resounding clicks as the men pulled back the hammers. His hands, as composed as if they belonged to someone else, stitched the wound together.
Kentucky said, "It's very simple. If Henry Plummer dies, you die. You and him go out together. Make up your mind to it, Doc."
Dr. Glick watched his future contract into the span of Henry Plummer's life. He thought of all he wanted: to marry a wife, father children, establish a practice, be respected. Die in bed, his family around him. Between clean sheets.
Henry Plummer survived to be hanged by Vigilantes on January 10, 1864. Dr. Glick died in 1883.
More on Dr. Glick: A three-part series, Dr. Jerome Glick, Surgeon to Murderers
Carol Buchanan is the author of THE DEVIL IN THE BOTTLE and GOLD UNDER ICE (Finalist, 2011 Spur Award for Long Novel & Sequel to GOD'S THUNDERBOLT: THE VIGILANTES OF MONTANA Winner, 2009 Spur Award for Best First Novel) For more information, visit her blog or contact her on Twitter or on Facebook.