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By Steven D Fisher
Monday, April 15, 2002
Sometimes the answer lies in there not being one….....
Tom drove down to the river with the mutt by his side and a second dead baby buried in his heart.
August heat pressed the damp, heavy smell of the Missouri through the open window as he slammed his pickup over the muddy ruts. Drinking a Bud, he thought about Karen's opposition to his getting away. You're crying for this dead child now, she'd asked, when you couldn't cry for your Catherine, your own? Tell me why you need this trip. He'd had no answer, only knew that it was necessary.
A jolt knocked Dewbie off the seat and into the firewall. Tom ignored the dog's whining as he tried to answer the insistent questions that refused to quit running through his head. What did I miss in my examination? Or did I miss anything? I know what Marie Goodbird thought.
The Lakota woman brought the baby in on Tuesday for a check-up, and Ruth was as healthy as she could be, given her mother's drinking and dietary habits.
For the hundredth time, he ran through the examination he'd given the three-month-old infant while Hardell, his superior, watched..... Temperature normal... Tympanic membranes normal... Pharynx benign...then cut it off quickly. The base line was that the baby had been awake, alert and interested. She'd been feeding well with no recent change in behavior.
Two nights later, Ruth was dead, and there hadn't been a sign on the child's body. Her mother, a perfect candidate for infanticide, was a sullen, fat young woman with black hair so long gone without a wash he could have lubed the Ford with it. But you never know, he thought. When you're tired from long hours on call, you make mistakes.
He'd done a whole body check of Ruth for obvious trauma, stroking the black hair on the tiny head as if that would pump air into the empty lungs. When he was finished, he stared down at the baby for a long moment, his heart turning over, then said, "I don't understand."
"I do," Marie had said. It was an accusation.
Tom bit off an angry reply. The woman stank of beer and long-dried sweat.
"There aren't any marks?" Hardell had asked as he flipped through an old Time.
"No," Tom had answered, wanting to plant a fist into the wet mouth beneath the blonde moustache. It had been obvious there were no marks and equally obvious that he'd have just as many clues as to how Ruth died as he did to how Orrin Hardell had become head of an Indian Health Service medical unit.
Standing up, Marie had steadied herself with a hand on the examining table, tears flowing down swollen cheeks as she glared at Tom and said, "She was my baby, and she was healthy before she saw you."
"Pillows don't leave any marks, do they, Marie?" he'd said.
Delivering the fist into his face that he'd wished upon Hardell, she'd been out the door before he could react. Bright spots of his blood spattered across the dead baby and the tiled floor. He'd jammed a paper towel against his nose, knowing it was broken because of the pain and because he could no longer smell the sharp lime odor of Hardell's aftershave.
"She did it, didn't she?" he'd asked the physician, knowing it was as much a plea as it was a question.
Hardell had looked at him over the magazine and shrugged. "It doesn't matter. It's happened before. It'll happen again. I'll sign the death certificate and save everyone the effort."
"She killed Ruth."
"Or you might have fucked up," Hardell responded. "We'll never know."
"Ruth deserves the effort, at least, doesn't she?"
Hardell had tossed the Time onto a chair and said, "A post-mortem won't show a thing. We both know that. You said it yourself—'pillows don't leave any marks'. The baby is dead. And there'll be another Ruth six months down the road. It's a waste of time and money. "
"What if I insist?"
A tight smile had greeted that remark.
"You're an excellent Nurse Practitioner, Tom. Up to this point, anyway."
The pickup dropped a wheel into and out of a deep pothole, jolting Tom's chin into the steering wheel. He braked to a stop and swore at the Bud he'd splashed all over his jeans. The sour smell of warm beer filled the cab. He swore again, and the dog pricked his uneven ears up at the sound.
"Dewb," Tom told him. "I'm doing all the work here, and you're just along for the ride, doing zip. Go find one of those coyotes you can never catch while I check the canoe."
He reached across for the handle. As soon as he'd pulled it, the dog blasted the door open and bounded out. He'd rescued the mutt from the pound . No one there had known how the dog had gotten his name, but the prevailing theory was that it referred to his parentage—dubious, at best.
'Bull' would have been a better choice, Tom thought. Like a bull, the mutt didn't care what was in his way. He'd rather go through an obstacle than around it. The dog was all heart, which left very little room for brains.
Tom smiled as he watched Dewbie's antics. A mongrel the size of a St. Bernard springing through the prairie grass like a spaniel was about the most screwed-up sight he could imagine.
Angling the rear-view mirror down, he checked the wound on his chin. Blood dribbled through the cleft and down onto the plaid shirt Karen had given him.
For some reason, the cut made him feel better. It seemed to go along with the bags under the bloodshot eyes and the swollen nose. Tom wiped at the cut with his sleeve and climbed out of the pickup, pulling the beer-soaked jeans away from his skin.
He found a rag behind the seat and wiped the mess off the fabric, then he studied the two coolers he'd put in the truckbed. One was a cheap white styrofoam container. Karen had packed it with food for him, apparently as a peace offering. He'd accepted it at face value and kissed the cheek that was offered instead of the lips. It was a sign of progress, he hoped. The other cooler was his sturdy red and white Coleman, a veteran of many trips. He flipped open its top. He'd packed this one himself with Bud and scotch, so he could tie a good one on.
Pulling out another beer, Tom studied the canoe atop the Ford for damage and was surprised to find none. Hardell had given it to him to replace the Grumman stolen two weeks after he and Karen had come from Pine Ridge to Standing Rock. This was his first real opportunity to use it.
A real birchbark, for Christ's sake, Tom thought.
In his previous post, Hardell had learned how to build the canoe from a member of the Grand Portage band of Chippewa in Wisconsin. It was obvious the surgeon could do anything with his hands. He's a man so skilled, Tom decided, he's managed to excise his commitment to duty in a flawless personal surgery. He shook his head, wondering how he'd failed to see it. He'd met Hardells before. As soon as you hit the hospital, they gave you gifts against the day you found them out.
"Come on, Dewbie, you clumsy bastard!" he shouted. "Get in the truck, and let's go find some fish."
At the river, he pulled the canoe off and inspected it carefully. Not a piece of metal in the entire thing, Hardell had told him, and light as a feather. The physician had seemed more pleased at his handiwork than any surgery he'd performed in the hospital.
Tom tied the white-ash paddles to the forward and middle thwarts to form a rest, heaved the canoe to his shoulders, then picked his way to the water through the dried bones of cottonwoods long drowned by the damming of the Missouri. At the river's edge, he pulled his boots off and rolled up his jeans. He waded into the water with the birchbark and rocked it to test its stability.
"Floats like a leaf, hey, Dewb?" he said. The dog responded by charging off the shore and leaping into the canoe. Tom laughed as the mutt tumbled into the water. The sulfurous smell of rotten vegetation surfaced along with the astonished dog.
"Now I know why I bring you along," he said. "It keeps me from making a fool of myself."
He retrieved a cushion, his fishing gear, and the two coolers from the Ford. When he had them in the canoe, he called Dewbie and held the gunnels so the dog didn't repeat his earlier performance. Stowing the extra paddle, he jumped in and pushed off.
The mutt had shown him that the craft had a delicate balance, but Tom soon found a good rhythm that sent them gliding to the middle of the river. It was a Monday, and the river was empty of boaters. Blessing that fact, he shipped the paddle, closed his eyes, and enjoyed the quiet slip of water around the craft. A wet dog smell rose with the heat pooling in the canoe.
"Dewb," he said, "you must really stink if I can smell you with this nose."
The dog barked sharply. As soon as Tom opened his eyes, Dewbie dropped his nose to the food cooler and nudged it hard, making the canoe rock.
"Damn it, Dewb!" Sit down! Be quiet."
The mutt sat and put a paw up.
Dewbie nudged the cooler again.
"All right," Tom said. "Anything that'll keep you out of my hair."
Karen had told him she'd put Alpo and a steak bone in the cooler. He lifted the lid and had no trouble finding the Alpo or the bone.
It was the only food in the container.
Tom tossed the small bone into the mutt's mouth. Opening another beer, he listened to Dewbie's satisfied growls and wondered in how many more ways Karen's sorrow at the stillbirth of their daughter - at the lack of any children - would show up in his life. Why couldn't you cry for Catherine?, wasn't that her accusation?
Another sharp bark from Dewbie jolted him out of forming an answer. The dog pushed at the cooler again.
"Already? Jesus, dog, eat, don't inhale," Tom said. "No more bones. There was only one."
Dewbie whined at the sharp tone in his voice and laid his muzzle on his paws.
Tom petted the dog's head. "It won't work," he said. "We'll share the Alpo later."
There was a breeze over the water now, bringing the smell of dust from plowed fields. He turned his face into it to wash away thoughts of his wife, their dead daughter, and of Ruth. Tired and sleepy from the beer, he let the canoe drift as he studied the terrain. The Missouri was now more of a lake than a river because of the dams, but dry knuckles of land still stuck out into the river as if the prairie couldn't get rid of its habit of trying to hold on to what little water it had.
When Tom woke, the sun was going down, a hazy, red disk in the evening air, and Dewbie was lifting his leg toward the gunnel.
"Out!" he yelled at the mutt.
Dewbie leaped over the side. Tom held on to the violently rocking birchbark and watched as the dog paddled around the bow and toward shore.
"I gotta piss too," he told the dog, "I'll race you, and we'll see who can lift his leg highest."
Turning the canoe, he drove it across the water and up onto the sand. As he stepped out, the dog left the river and shook water all over him.
"Sore loser, hey?" Tom said. Dewbie ignored him and raced off to chase the yip of a distant coyote. Tom emptied the beer out of his bladder and shivered at the gathering coolness. He zipped up quickly and collected cottonwood branches for a fire. He found dry leaves and grass and arranged the wood over them. His Bic set the fire to crackling and popping.
He unloaded the canoe, then found the Glenlivet he'd packed. It'd been a Christmas gift from Hardell, of course, Scotch that only a doctor could afford.
Tom took a long pull on the bottle and thought about the physician as he settled beside the fire. The Hardells in this world always worked the same way - through your wife, through your kids, whatever it took to get you over to their side. He inhaled the smoky peat smell of the scotch, then took another drink and stared off at the west. A brilliant red leached out of the scattered clouds and onto the bluffs.
What do you do about doctors who dismiss possible murder? he asked himself. The answer came back immediately—nothing.
Ruth. What could he do about her?
Nothing, was the answer again.
Nurse practitioners can't perform autopsies.
Tom thought about Ruth on the examining table. He thought about himself drawing a red line across her infant's skin with a scalpel and drawing the truth out of her body like an organ. Then, he shook the image out of his head and thought about something he could actually do - filing a complaint, anything. He considered it for a moment, then shook his head again.
If he did manage to get the complaint filed, it would get lost in the system—Hardell would see to that. Ruth would never have her autopsy, and rumors would start to spread about Tom Eckman's sloppy handling of the Goodbird infant.
"A patented Hardell campaign of disinformation," he said. "Which gets me posted to an IHS satellite clinic halfway to the planet Pluto. Neutered as old Dewb."
Tom said this to the dog as it trotted up and sat beside him. He scratched the mutt's ears.
"What about Ruth? he asked the dog. "You got an answer for me?"
Dewbie licked his hand.
"The best you can do, Dewb, is better than anything I can manage."
Tom sat with the dog, stroking its soft fur as he drank and watched the memory of a tiny white coffin drift and twist on the river.
"The precise cause of stillbirth is unknown in at least one third of stillbirths," he said, quoting the literature and knowing he was getting drunk. When he'd had too much booze, he preached to people and dogs. "A useful statistic, Dewbie. It tells you everything you need to know about the experience."
"And the precise cause of Ruth's death is also unknown, although I've got a pretty goddamn good idea. Jesus, dog, she didn't even come back for the kid. Isn't that proof enough? She had a baby, and she threw it away."
He gripped Dewbie's fur so tightly the dog yelped.
"Sorry," Tom said. He drank more scotch and said, "Threw it fucking away."
"A funeral for a dead baby we all wanted," he said. "Nothing for Ruth, a live baby nobody wanted. Not even an autopsy. Not a thing."
Tom put his arm around the dog and buried his face into the warm and tangled fur. It smelled of weeds and dust and the river. He listened to Dewbie's panting for a while, then said, "If I had a heart as big as yours, Dewb, I wouldn't have to do so much thinking, you know that, boy?"
Dewbie licked his cheek, and they sat together until the sun dipped below the bluffs and the air chilled rapidly above the river. Tom glanced back at the fading fire.
"Damned cottonwood burns like paper," he told the dog. "We need something big enough to last the night."
Gulping more scotch, Tom got up unsteadily to search the shoreline. The deepening twilight made it difficult to ferret out what he needed. Finally, at the end of a narrow gully, he found a manageable log, wrapped both arms around it, and dragged it back to the fire. He gathered smaller branches and threw them on to bring the blaze up to the point where it could handle the log. The fire was soon ready, but he was still puffing from his effort and didn't feel like lifting the log again.
"There is the principle of leverage, Dewb, " he said.
Tom found a branch the right size and levered the log toward the fire. After two tries, he had it in the right position.
"This needs to be done carefully," he lectured Dewbie. "Too hard and we put out the fire. "
The mutt barked at his melodramatics as if impatient for the warmth the log would bring. Tom positioned the lever under the log and pushed.
The branch snapped, and Tom fell palms down into the coals. The smell of his burning flesh rose with the heat. He bolted for the river where he plunged his hands into the water and held them there, gritting his teeth. Dewbie ran anxiously about him, trying to lick his face.
Tom yelled and put an elbow into the dog. The mutt backed away, whining.
"Sorry, Dewb, " he said and let the dog burrow under his arm and wash his face. "It's nice to have someone around who's not judging this whole mess. "
Tom gave the mutt a squeeze with his arm. "What do you suggest I do, Dewb? I can't sit here with my hands in the river forever. The water's too warm to be of much help, anyway."
A thought struck him, and he hurried back to the Coleman and opened it. There was plenty of ice left. He sat and pulled the cooler between his legs and burrowed his hands into the cubes.
"There is sex," Tom sighed. "There is liquor. There is money. But there is absolutely no equal to relief from pain. "
As the ice numbed his hands, his mind cleared enough for him to think about his situation. He wasn't going anywhere until morning, he was sure of that. He needed to protect his hands before doing any paddling, and he needed to be able to see what he was doing once he was on the river.
Sighing, he drew his hands out of the ice and began unbuttoning his shirt. He got one button free before the fire in his palms ate its way through the ice-deadened nerves. Then he plunged his hands back into the cooler. When the pain subsided, he set to work on another button.
By the time Tom got the shirt off, a moonless night had settled over the river. He flipped open his tackle box and pulled the Rappala from its sheath. With quick motions of the knife, he sliced the shirt in half, wrapped ice cubes into the cloth and tied the rags about his palms. He held them up to the dog. Flames flickered over Dewbie's face.
"Necessity is a mother, Dewb, that's what it is."
Lying back in the sand, Tom felt the dog's muzzle settle on his stomach. He made a clumsy attempt at petting, then said, "Somehow, boy, I think you're going to get a whole lot more sleep tonight than I am."
Tom dreamed fitfully of holding his hands high in the air, his fingers ablaze and burning the dark away as if oil covered the sky instead of lack of light.
A rough swipe from Dewbie's tongue across a blistered palm shocked him awake into sunlight creeping over the bluffs. He swore half-heartedly at the dog, but was glad to be awake and free of the dreams. He checked his hands. Blisters the size of quarters covered his palms. Checking the cooler, he was relieved to find it was as reliable as ever; little melting had occurred. He got fresh ice, re-did the shirt rags, then carried his equipment down to the birchbark and coaxed Dewbie into the canoe.
"Why didn't you ever learn to use one of these paddles?" Tom scolded the dog as he moved the canoe over the water. With the ice wrapped on his hands, he couldn't get a proper grip on the knob or shaft, and every time he stroked, the pain reminded him of his stupidity. When the current finally caught the birchbark, he blessed it thoroughly. All he had to do was keep the bow pointed south.
It was mid-morning when Dewbie broke into excited yapping and snapped Tom out of a doze. The dog had his paws up on the side of the canoe
"Get down, Dewbie, you idiot!" Tom shouted. When the mutt didn't obey, he whacked him with the flat of the paddle. Dewbie yelped and dropped down, putting his head on his paws.
"Give me a break, dog," he said. "I barely hit you."
They'd floated close to a sand bar. Tom searched the shore and saw nothing at first, then there was movement a hundred yards downstream. "It's just another coyote, Dewb," he said. "You haven't got a prayer."
The animal stood on a high bluff, beside the ruins of a barbed wire fence. There was no motion, except for the quick cocking of the ears and the constant motion of the tongue.
The dog popped his head up and whined his frustration at Tom.
"Dewb, we haven't got time for that, right now," he said. "Hell, by the time I got us to shore, he'd be gone. Look at him, he's laughing at you already."
The dog shifted his eyes rapidly between the shore and Tom.
"No way," Tom told him. "No way in hell."
One sharp yip from the coyote broke the dog's obedience. He exploded out of the canoe. Tom dumped into the river and came up shouting in knee-deep water. "Dewbie, you sonuvabitch! You get your ass back here so I can whip it so hard you won't bark for a week!"
The happy baying of the dog drifted back.
Tom looked down into the water. He'd left the Coleman's lid unsnapped so it was easier to get into the cooler. Now the liquor had disappeared into the silty bottom.
And so had the ice.
"Oh, man," Tom said. Taking a deep breath, he forced himself to think about his situation. The canoe had drifted up on the sandbar so there was still transportation. The paddle drifted out on the current, too far away to catch, but the extra paddle was still inside the birchbark and one was all he needed.
Tom pulled the cooler and tackle box out of the river. His hands hurt, but he didn't have time to sit around thinking about them. He shouted for Dewbie.
When there was no answering bark, he gave a shrill whistle. He waited, then whistled again. The silence made him think about letting the mutt find his own way home, but he shook his head at the idea. The dog had an unlimited appetite for getting into trouble. Dewbie couldn't have gone far, he was sure of that. The mutt was built for short bursts of speed, not long distances. Tom put his hands into the river to soak the rags, then walked to the nearest gully.
A half-hour later there was still no sign of the dog, and his hands were swollen and aching. Hollering Dewbie's name, Tom climbed to the top of the gully and worked back toward the river. He almost didn't hear an answering whine to one of his shouts.
"Dewb?" he called, unable to see the dog. Dewbie whimpered again. Tom worked his way down to a clump of cottonwoods that lined the edge of the gully.
"He did you good, didn't he, boy?" Tom said softly when he found the dog. The coyote had run Dewbie right into a tangled mess of barbed wire and the mutt had thrashed about until he looked like he was trussed and ready for the grill. A dark gash ran across the mutt's belly. The smell of blood-matted fur was heavy on the air.
"We've got a problem, Dewb," he said. "We need something to get that wire off."
Tom sat, stroking the dog's head and keeping him still while he thought through the contents of his tackle box. The Rappala was a good knife but wouldn't last five minutes used on the wire. He had the needle nose too, but the pliers were as rusty as the metal in Dewbie's hide because it'd been so long since he'd been fishing. He wasn't sure he could pry them open.
"Think," he said. "Think hard." The mutt whined at the sound of his voice and thrashed about again.
"The pliers, then," Tom said. "It's all we've got. I'll be back, boy."
The tool was as rusty as he'd feared and hard to work, but Tom tried them as soon as he returned. The barbed wire was weather-worn, but the metal was still strong enough that he had to use both hands to cut it with the pliers.
Working carefully, he cleared wire away from where the barbs had hooked into Dewbie's flesh. When he couldn't stand the pain in his hands any longer, he collapsed back onto the ground and checked the dog's eyes. They were still clear.
Satisfied that the mutt still had strength, Tom rested for a few moments, then turned to the pulling of the barbs. At the first tug, the dog snapped a warning at him. On the second, Dewbie bit his hand. Tom screamed and rapped the dog's head in reflex. Dewbie answered him with a snarl.
"I know, I know," Tom said. "I should have known better."
He waited for the pain in his hand to subside, then straddled the dog. Pulling the belt from his jeans, he wrapped it around Dewbie's muzzle and set to work with the pliers.
When it was over, they were both panting. He sat down by Dewbie and removed the belt. Tom forced a smile as the dog licked his arm. "You're a helluva dog, you know that, Dewbie?" Tom said. "Dumb as the day is long, but a helluva dog for all that. Let's get you back." He ran his fingers along the mutt's belly.
His hand came away slick with blood.
Tom took his clothes off and tore up his t-shirt and underwear to bind the gash. Then he pulled his jeans back on, hoisted Dewbie to his shoulders in a fireman's carry, and hurried down the gully to the river where he lay Dewbie in the canoe and launched quickly on to the water.
Two hours later, Tom couldn't paddle anymore. At least, he thought it was two hours later. The pain was making him clumsy, and he'd knocked his Timex against the gunnel and right into the river. His only thought had been that the watch floated extremely well.
Wearily, Tom checked on Dewbie. He'd splashed water on the dog to keep him cool, but the mutt had refused to drink from his cupped hands. Now he lay panting weakly in a dark puddle of water and blood.
"Take it, Dewb," he pleaded once more. "You need it."
The dog ignored his offer again. Tom slumped back and closed his eyes to gather strength for the next push.
He woke with a start.
The sun was gone, and Dewbie's head lay still across his ankle. The river slipped past the canoe in the darkness with small curling sounds.
"Dewb," Tom said. "Dewbie, my friend."
Tears welled in his eyes, but he held them back.
"Time enough for that later," he said, stroking the dog's matted coat.
At dawn, Tom put the canoe into shore, lifted Dewbie out and carried him up onto the sand. Stiff, he sat down and waited for the sun to clear the bluffs.
When the light finally broke onto his face, he unsheathed the Rappala and rolled Dewbie onto his back, making an incision in the chest, then working his way inside the unfamiliar anatomy. After several minutes, he sat back on his knees with Dewbie's heart in his hands. Pressing it hard against his chest, he tried to squeeze the organ through his skin and into the empty space that was too small to receive it.
When the heart remained in his hands, he put it down next to the body and began scooping wet sand. He dug a large hole, put Dewbie and his heart in, then covered them, patting the surface smooth.
Shuddering from the abrasive action of the sand on his palms, he forced himself to his feet and went back to the canoe. He pushed off and turned its nose upstream toward the truck, keeping the birchbark close to the shore and out of the current. He paused in his steady paddling only to relieve the pain in his hands and to wipe at his face while a single thought washed away all the questions that had been running through his head.
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