Short Story by Joseph Scott Kierland

The young doctor unpacked his bags, took his new wife for a walk, and checked out the little hospital where he’d begin his work. They had arrived in the quiet Arizona town just a few days after he’d completed his internship at Massachusetts General in Boston. Their new home held a comforting array of churches; Methodist, Mormon, Baptist, Catholic, Episcopal, and a small converted room under the old theatre where the Seventh-Day Adventists met. Its stained-glass windows, bells and white steeples, looked like a postcard from an old friend that they’d somehow forgotten in the rush of time and medical studies.

The doctor proudly hung his newly framed certificates and degrees in his office while an enthusiastic committee set up tables in the converted hospital vestibule for the welcoming party. The staff, the mayor’s wife, and the grateful citizens made their specialties for the occasion. Casseroles, soups, chicken wings, chilis, and a variety of cookies were set across the makeshift tables where the townspeople gathered to greet their new physician and his wife. The doctor’s gray eyes, a little too far apart, made him look constantly surprised as he tried to remember the names and smiling faces that came up to shake his hand.

The festivities had hardly gotten underway when a man was wheeled into the middle of the crowded room on a stretcher. The young doctor quickly diagnosed the definitive signs of cardiac arrest while his own heart pounded so hard he could hardly hear his wife calling out the patient’s weakening condition. Some of the townspeople began to kneel on the hardwood floor, around the stretcher, and the minister began to lead them in an Our Father.

The doctor pushed down on the man’s chest and when he looked up for some reaction from his patient he was surprised to see that the man on the table was an American Indian. He’d never actually seen one before. High cheekbones, dark rolling eyes, and long gray-black hair that spread across the pale green hospital pillow like a web of fine silk. There was also a perfectly shaped white feather, a small beaded pouch, and a silver star medal carefully woven into it to form a simple headpiece.

The young doctor kept jolting the Indian’s chest, listening to his wife announce the patient’s readings. Before anyone in the room realized what had happened he applied anaesthesia to the patient, took a scalpel from his bag, and cut open the Indian’s heaving chest. The praying in the room turned into a short gasp as the doctor pulled out the man’s heart and held it in his hand.

The dripping organ spread through his fingers like a wet sponge and he muttered a prayer of his own as the seconds rushed by. No one in the room had ever seen such a struggle. They watched in silence as the doctor battled to save the dark skinned old man on the stretcher. The wriggling lump of muscle in his hand suddenly began to jerk and the life sustaining machines began to relieve the strain on the old man’s breathing.

His victory spread through the valley like a gentle wind in the late November grass and he walked out into the clear air to the church on the corner, fell on his knees, and gave thanks to God. He had faced Death and won. His patient had lived and slept peacefully through the night. And when the Indian’s bottomless eyes finally opened, the doctor was at his side.

"You’re in the hospital. Intensive care," he said. The Indian just stared at the upside-down bottle dripping through the long plastic tube in his arm. "We’ll put you in a regular room as soon as possible," the doctor told him, but the expression in the Indian’s eyes never changed.

The doctor reached for the chart and was surprised to see that the white feather, beaded pouch, and the silver medal had been tied across the top of it. He pushed them aside and began to read the chart, amazed to find that his patient was nearly ninety years old.

"You’re in good shape for your age," the doctor said. The Indian turned and his vacant stare seemed to go right through the young doctor. "Your name is Lone Tree. Willy Lone Tree. Is that right?"

"You," the Indian said in a strong, clear voice. "You saved me."

The doctor looked down into the dark eyes. "You had a heart attack and I was the attending physician. You were lucky."

The Indian reached up to touch his head and the doctor realized what he was looking for. He untied the white feather, beaded pouch, and silver star from the medical chart, and gently laid them across the old man’s wrinkled hands.

"What do they mean," the doctor asked.

The old man took in a deep breath and said, "The silver star is mine. The feather belonged to my father. The pouch¼ to his father. They wore them on their death day. I wore them on mine."

"But you didn’t die."

"You saved me."

"Yes, I saved you," the young doctor said.

He waited in the dimly room until his patient had fallen back to sleep, then he walked out into the bright sunlight to wander aimlessly alone through the town’s winding streets. He sensed something he didn’t understand. Something not written. Not studied. The Indian seemed so assured about it. No fear, not even a gratefulness for coming through his ordeal alive. It left the young doctor feeling uncertain and uneasy.

Each day he came back to watch over his patient, prescribing medicines and diet, making sure the rehabilitation wasn’t too much of a strain on the old man. When he finally released him from the hospital he made sure that his rehab appointments were made, and that he had all the medicines he’d need for the next few critical weeks. The Indian just nodded, took the bottles of pills, signed the hospital forms, and drove away in his pickup. The next day they found him hanging from the huge ponderosa that grew on the flat hill where the sun set.

When they told the doctor what had happened he looked confused and hurt, but never said a word. He walked across the street to the little Methodist church on the corner and tried not to think about the furious battle that he’d fought with Death just a few days before. "You saved me," kept repeating in his head like the running roar of a mountain water fall. He began to pray like he’d never done before and the church deacon had to finally call the doctor’s wife to come and get him so they could close up the church for the night.

It wasn’t until the first frost hit the valley that the Indian woman came into the hospital to see him. She stood stiffly at the desk, snow melting in her black hair, waiting for the nurse to leave them alone in the cramped office filled with charts and the ghostlike sheets of x-rays.

"He wanted you to have these," she said, reaching into her bag to pull out the white feather, beaded pouch, and the old man’s silver medal. They’d been carefully woven around a long piece of his braided gray hair. The woman laid them carefully across the doctor’s desk and left.

Nothing moved except the early snow dancing across the window outside. After awhile he picked up the braid, with the three pieces attached, and hung it on his medical degree above the desk. They seemed to give him a quiet comfort. He pulled down the shades, stared up at the hanging pieces, and tried to sense the time when he’d have to pass them on to someone else.