“In vain thou shall use many medicines, but thou shalt not be kured. And even though you search for a virgin to lay upon her balm, there is no healing for you. You multiply your remedies in vain as your cries fill the earth, and you will stumble, one over the other, and both will fall down together.” The Book of Eternal Regret
John Tyler tried to focus, clear his head. “Are you sure?” he stammered. “There’s nothing else you can do? Maybe an ointment or salve, or some pills?”
“No.” The doctor’s voice was flat, absolute. “We have to remove the poison from your body. And we need to start immediately.”
John had remained calm throughout the examination, asking an occasional question with rhetorical confidence, expecting the doctor to confirm his affliction as something minor and easily treated. Now he fought to control the choking fear surging in his chest.
He glanced down at the treatment table, absently brushing his fingers over the sweat-stained leather. He wondered if he would be offered whiskey to dull the pain, or if the doctor would insist on bringing in other men to hold him down. He quickly swiped his forehead, trying to hide the beads of sweat streaking down his face and hoping to disguise the sudden chill that visibly shook him.
He swallowed hard and looked back to the doctor. “Maybe some saltwater, or some of those medicines up on the shelf. I know it might take longer to—” His throat clenched, squeezing off his appeal.
The doctor’s eyes narrowed, his expression even more rigid and uncompromising in the stark morning light. “I know this is difficult, John, but we need to begin at once.”
John had spent most of the night on his feet, unable to sleep and afraid to lie down. He had filled the time by moving from one end of the house to the other, feeling his way through the dim candlelight, listening to the constant ticking of the clock grow louder, then soften with each pass. Often forced to lean against the nearest wall for support, he fought the dizziness, praying that he wouldn’t lose consciousness.
Waiting for morning.
An hour before sunrise, he made his way to the barn. He was determined to arrive at the doctor’s office before morning’s light could expose him to well-meaning questions about his short, choppy walk or why he looked so pale and drawn. Too impatient to strike the oil lamps, he had saddled his checkered mare in the darkness, deftly threading the cinch and fastening the buckle by feel, reassuring the horse as he secured the leather girth. But before reaching the main road, he’d been forced to rein the horse in, unable to stand the bone-rattling shocks of pain.
He’d started out again in the supply wagon, and although the relative comfort of the flat seat provided some relief, the trip had been a solid hour of pounding vibration from the rain-gutted road. By the time John finally passed the outer village marker, the burnished glow of the oil-burning street lamps had been nearly absorbed in the smoky, pre-dawn twilight.
The doctor’s office was on the main street. The familiar shape of the arch-topped shingle hanging over the entrance was little more than a vague outline against a somber gray sky, but John picked it out from a block away. As he drew closer, he stared at the words engraved into the weathered wood, as if seeing them for the first time:
Lucius D. Harwell
Doctor – Caretaker
Edging the wagon against the side of the building, he quietly set the brake and pushed hard against the hand rest, lifting himself halfway off the seat. He groaned as he fell back, unable to support his own weight. Sitting with his head in his hands, he forced the air in and out of his lungs, trying to control the pain.
I need another minute. That’s all. Just another minute.
John knew the merchants would soon open their doors for business and customers would begin arriving with empty wagons to fill. Without the cover of darkness, his chances of being recognized increased with each passing second. Regardless of his suffering, he had to get off the street.