At one point, long ago, Malachi Miggins had been a good doctor. An old adage states “scratch a cynic and beneath you will find a wounded idealist”, in the depths of a whisky binge, Miggins would probably happily agree. He had been something of an idealist in his youth, fresh out of medical school and ready to help ease the pain of the suffering, heal the sick, and fix the world. For a time, his dream lasted, but that was before . . . before the screams in the fields had brutally shattered every iota of optimism in his soul.
How does one effectively treat a nineteen year old boy whose lower jaw has been blown off, struggling to call for his mama? Or a 30 year old father of two, missing everything below his navel, yet still sadly and strangely alive, whimpering, begging to be put out of his misery? Or children with limbs twisted and burned by bushwhackers, barely able to conceive that the world can contain so much pain?
He tried. Oh, did he try.
At first, the whisky helped. Some. Soon, it helped a lot. But whisky, like all good things, takes a toll when abused. His hands began to shake, uncontrollably. When he lost the first patient by nicking an artery he was unable to close back up, the last vestige of his hope of helping people began to whither and die. He lost two the next day. Another the day after that. At that point, he decided the phrase “do no harm” could scarcely apply to his practice anymore, and quit.
For five years after, he steadily drank himself down the road to death. It was good to have a goal.
He travelled slowly from town to town, wearing out his welcome at saloon after saloon, then moving on. Some day, he figured, he would keel over off his mule at the side of a road and buzzards would pick his bones clean and nobody would ever know who that sad skeleton belonged to. The thought did not offend him.
He was imagining his own skeletal frame in great detail when he noticed the man pointing the gun at him. Miggins smiled, life always had a way of surprising one. He noticed the man pointing the gun was driving a wagon with a woman’s body in the back. Obviously a corpse.
“If you plan to kill me fearing that I’ll turn you over to authorities, save your bullets. They’re expensive. I am long past caring.” He took a long swig from his bottle.
The man lowered the gun. “Unoffendable, eh?”
Miggins didn’t believe that was a genuine word, but said nothing, only shrugged and nodded some.
“What if I toldja I was a cannibal, eh? Might that offend ya?”
Miggins thought about it. Humans were animals, animals often ate other animals… ergo there was nothing truly wrong with cannibalism. It was merely a useful taboo humanity had developed to retain the maximum population of their flock. Worse actions were performed every day all over the world.
Miggins took another swig. “Nope.” he said.
The man smiled slightly. “What if I toldja I came from a town, just over yonder, where a famine had been cast over the land and crops, killing food, and so the town turned ta cannibalism . . . to survive . . . what then?”
Miggins smirked. “Sounds mostly practical to me.” he admitted. Then a though occurred. “Must decimate the population eventually.”
The man smiled again. “Not if ya send away fer people. Teachers . . . lawyers . . . judges . . .”
Miggins mused. “Don’t folks notice that people travel here and then never come back?”
“Some do.” he giggled. “We know how to spot them and deal with them.”
Miggins nodded, then looked back to the body in the wagon. “When you said ‘yonder’ you pointed the opposite way you’re taking that lass. What’s wrong with her?”
The man frowned, looking down at her. “Think the meat is wrong. Died on her own. Plague mebbe.”
Miggins thought about this. “Doesn’t look like plague from here.” he said.
The man scrutinized him. “You a doctor?”
Wolfish eyes suddenly lit up. “Kin ya check her? Check her over? See what killed her?”
Miggins thought about that. No harm working on a corpse, he supposed. “Yeah, I can do that.”
He climbed off his mule, and began examining the girl. “Nothing obvious from the outside. It doesn’t look like smallpox to me, but without being able to open her up, I can’t right tell.”
The man smiled again, his eyes shining. “Oh. We can open her up. We can open her right up.”
“You have tools to . . .?” he stopped. Of course they did. He climbed back onto his mule and rode back with the man to town. He knew there was every possibility that he would never leave the town, but felt that being dined on was an even more singular way to go, and rather relished the idea in a strangely morbid way.
They didn’t dine on him, however. The man with the wagon, one Mr Fish, was so pleased to find out this girl died of a perfectly normal brain hemorrhage that he promised Miggins anything he could reasonably give him. Miggins thought about that, slowly realizing how much he had missed working on a body, and discovering there was an element of mystery to trying to track down the cause of death. He was a medical detective, in a sense. Perhaps he could continue to do medical work, without killing people. The irony of how that idea occurred to him was not missed by his dry sense of humor.
“I enjoy studying anatomy, but medical cadavers are expensive.” he said to Mr Fish. “Perhaps now and then you might spare me a body to examine for my studies?”
The man frowned. “The bodies are my livelihood, Dr Miggins.”
“Just ‘Doc’ will do. Surely an old withered spinster must drop off now and then? Someone inedible?”
Mr Fish considered this. “Yes . . . that’s true, I suppose. Alright. For studies though . . . iffin I discover you’ve been picking at them . . . deal is off.”
Funny, Miggins thought, even cannibals have their own moral system. He smiled to himself as he rode his mule out of town, past the sign which read YOU ARE NOW LEAVING BUMP, PLEASE DO COME AGAIN REAL SOON.
* * * * *
Miggins had noticed on the ride south from Bump that this box did not stink as most of the others did. He wondered idly, more than once, if they had begun using a new kind of laurel to dampen the stench. Laurels made him think of that song he heard two or three times a week at the Bucket of Blood, sung by those riotous drunks in the back corner. He began to hum to himself.
When he finally reached his small shack he climbed into the back of the wagon with a crowbar and pulled the top off the box. His first thought was “Looks almost exactly like Red”, which was swiftly followed by “Jesus Christ, it IS Red!”, stepped on by “Good lord, the woman is still alive”, followed swiftly by “Just barely”. These thoughts all ran through his mind in the time it took his bottle to leave his hand and the time the bottle bounced from the wagon and smashed on the cobblestones below.
“Hello Doc,” Red whispered through cracked lips. “Fancy meeting you here.” then she passed out cold.
“Oh lord,” he said. “Lord lord lord.”
I must fetch Miss Kimika . . .