by James D. Lucey.
Originally Published in The American Magazine, 1955.
Doc Stanton is called upon to save the life of a gunfighter intent on killing his best friend!
WALTERS, the barman at The Pride, stood before the doctor, his hand on his gun. "Come along, Doc!" he said. " Some yellow-livered citizen sneaked into The Pride last night an' switched the whiskey in Luke Guyer's special bar bottle with the stuff in my knockout bottle. Three drinks out of that bottle would kill anybody. Luke got about five in him before he hit the floor."
Dr. Stanton nodded and limped over to a cupboard. Robert Stanton was a tall, lean man of thirty-four with laughter crinkles around his eyes; and with a silver kneecap to replace the one Luke Guyer had shot off three years before. It had been Stanton's misfortune to be a bystander during one of Guyer's many killings.
Taking a small vial from the shelf, Stanton flipped it once in his hand. Picrotoxin. The antidote. If he dropped it . . .
There was a time, he thought, when Luke Guyer had been a hero in Texas. After Lincoln died, after his Reconstruction plans were scrapped, the carpetbag grafters went hog-wild. Anyone who resisted them was broken; burned out; shot. A few shot back-Jesse James in Missouri, John Wesley Hardin and Luke Guyer in Texas. Heroes for a time. That was long ago. But, with the heroes, killing was a habit now; they were gunslingers, killing for the sport of it, never giving an even chance. Guyer, thirty years old, had sixteen known killings to his discredit. Frontier law still held that in all personal matters a man bad a right to defend himself. A man could run if he were a coward or incompetent. Most men wouldn't.
Yet always around Luke Guyer were those who admired him, admired his extraordinarily fast gun-draw. Stanton glanced at Walters. He put the vial in the satchel.
They hurried up-street. Loungers on benches drew in their legs to let them by. All eyes were suspicious and slightly amused at the certainty of how this thing would go.
Luke Guyer had killed George Lodge's kid brother a week ago, and had ordered Lodge himself out of town. Lodge wasn't going to run, and Guyer knew it when he gave the order. So George Lodge, who was no gunman, would have to draw his gun against a man who had lightning in his wrist.
If the doctor saved Guyer's life, Guyer would live to kill Lodge. And George Lodge was Dr. Stanton's best friend.
Stanton's knowledge of the townspeople was so keen he could almost hear their talk: "He wants his friend to live, don't he? I'll lay yuh fifteen to five he lets Guyer die."
There would be plenty of bets. And Stanton knew that if he could not possibly save Guyer, the people would have no way of knowing that, and would not believe it. . . .
THE bartender's house was three adobe rooms. Saloon roughs ranged themselves against the walls, out of Stanton's way; ready to pull their guns at his first wrong move.
Stanton placed two hypodermic syringes into the boiling water in the kitchen, then went into the bedroom.
His patient was a large, black-mustached man, his skin bloated from too much high living. He was in a coma. Pulse thin and fluttery; respiration shallow, irregular; skin pallid and sweaty; temperature low. He hadn't much chance, the doctor decided, but he went to work. He ordered blankets and hot coffee.
Forcing a stomach pump down Guyer's throat, he attached a small funnel to its top. He held this while Walters poured coffee into the funnel.
Walters demanded, "He got a chance?"
"I don't know yet."
"Doc, he'd better have!"
Stanton removed the funnel and attached the pump. He showed Walters how to use this and left him at work while he went to prepare his hypos: picrotoxin in one, strychnine in the other. Again the thought came to him: "I should have dropped the vial. Why must I save a man who lives only to kill""
He injected the picrotoxin into Guyer's arm. Afterwards he stared a moment at the syringe, then tossed it into the satchel.
Soon the pulse was more regular, though still feeble.
In half an hour the pace of Guyer's dying had slowed, but he was still dying. Stanton injected the strychnine.
Walters had watched the first hypodermic with his hand twitching over his gun. Now he drew the gun and waited.
"There's no more we can do," Stanton said. "Just wait."
The stove had so heated the little house that most of the loungers had gone outside. Only Walters remained, crouched on his heels, immobile and sweating, his eyes never leaving Stanton. In two hours, Luke Guyer's breathing was normal.
There was for Stanton none of the exultation he usually felt on saving a life. Guyer would live, and George Lodge would die. It was a fact, simple and inescapable. For the first time in his life, Robert Stanton cursed his medical ethics.
He gave Walters a series of instructions, then limped stiffly back to his office. . . .
The next day, in Luke Guyer's record, Stanton wrote: "Reflexes slow, respiration and pulse slightly shallow; mentality dull. Prescribed nux vomica as general stimulant."
On the third day he wrote: " Heartbeat, respiration normal. Reflexes extremely fast and clear. Patient sallow; mentality disturbed (overly excitable). Prescribed rest, sunlight, and 1/4 dose Dover's syrup 3 times a day."
Two days later Guyer was nearly well: "Pulse, respiration, reflexes, mentality normal. Continue previous treatment. Recommended mild exercise."
GEORGE LODGE'S jaw set stubbornly. He said, " Doc, I'm not running. I've got to fight Guyer, and I might as well get it over with."
"George, there are normal men and there are abnormals. You're normal, and you're letting an abnormal force you to do exactly what he wants."
Lodge said quietly, "If he wants to kill so badly, let him try it on me. Maybe I don't have a chance, I'm not fast. But it's a chance I've got to take." He loosened the gun in his holster and stepped out the door.
Stanton watched his friend stride up the street. Luke Guyer came swaggering down to meet him, proud owner of a gunspeed no man could beat. The doctor's eyes went to Lodge. He thought of how he had missed his chance to stop this. He felt that it was himself, not Guyer, who was about to murder Lodge.
The men stopped in mid-street, dust settling around their boots. There was a bluffed movement of Guyer's hand. Then Lodge's gun came up from the holster. Late. Too late. Guyer's was already coming to bear on Lodge.
"George! Shoot! You've no time to aim!" Stanton cried.
Two shots blended together, resounding against the buildings. Lodge stood still. Luke Guyer toppled through the cloud of smoke and hit the dust as though thrown.
Boots thudded in the silence, crowding up around Guyer, and Stanton had to thrust his way through the men. One glance at the still figure was enough. He felt the pulse to make sure, then stood up.
"Did yuh see it, Doc? Luke barely beat Lodge to the draw! It was a even match! Did yuh see it, Doc?"
The doctor nodded, knowing now that he hadn't failed....
Stanton was coroner, and when he filled out the death certificate he wrote: "Cause of Death, half ounce of lead in right ventricle of heart."
But only Stanton knew the actual cause. The patient died from taking 1/4 dose opium syrup three times a day, which almost managed to slow his extraordinarily fast reflexes down to those of a normal man.