The young man sitting next to me on the bench only stopped muttering to himself after a mewling came from the next car. A whimper, low at first, soon blazed into the telltale agony only a country doctor could rattle out of a man. The scrabble of people in the train car with me tensed at the sound.
“He’s awake then,” my neighbor said, each word a valve opening. I had taken him for a cowhand when I first eyed him, but I saw now a reddened circle around his right eye and a ledger in his hand, so I did not know what to surmise. He wore a white hat, the likes of which I’d never seen, with a low crown that rounded off at the top and a considerable amount of material—was it netting?— tied underneath the wide brim.
Muffled groans seeped out from the other car for some time, and then I noticed water sliding down my neighbor’s cheek, sluicing through the stubble of his jaw, and plopping onto the pages of his ledger. Lacy sentences, not numbers, littered the page.
“Come now, son,” I said, putting down my newspaper. “Your friend will be all right.” I did not know if what I said was true.
The young man glanced at me and immediately recoiled, a reaction to which I have had decades to grow accustomed, but one that still bit just the same.
“A fire,” I began, referring to the scales and discoloration on one side of my face. “I like to think the devil licked me and decided I was too pure for his tastes.” His gaze returned to the book. The moaning continued.
“I can’t sit here any longer,” my neighbor said, and he was off. I returned to the article about Teddy Roosevelt’s return to the city. In minutes the young man returned more agitated than before.
“The doctor won’t let me see him. He’s put up a curtain, and he’s blocking the way.”
“Quite right. Your friend is too preoccupied at present to receive guests.”
At this the young man looked me straight in the eye. “But he is my brother, sir.”
“Oh. Well then, that is something else entirely. Come. We’ll try together.” I slid the paper under my leg and began to rise, but the young man stopped me.
“Thank you, Mister…how may I call you, sir?”
“Mister Bentley, will do.”
“Thank you, Mister Bentley, but that doctor is a mule.” He scratched his ear. “I did notice an empty spot on a bench nearest the curtain. Could I persuade you to…”
“Find a way to divert the good doctor’s attention?” I kept my voice low. The young man smiled so I continued. “You were fortunate to sit next to a man who had to employ devious methods to obtain even a biscuit for dinner when he was young. Go. Take the bench near the curtain. I will come along in time to give you the opportunity to see your brother. Does my plan sound feasible?”
“Yes, sir,” the young man said, and he was off again.
I waited some time before I began to cough. A little at first, and then with gusto. I hailed a whiskered man across the aisle who aided my tramp into the next car. I saw my young man’s odd hat straightaway, peeking above the heads of the riders. I made a great show of our procession; by the time I stood before the little doctor, I held the sympathy of the entire car.
“Thank God I found you, doctor,” I said through wheezes. “I’m afraid the catarrh has returned.”
“Please sit down. I am Doctor Fairchild. And you are?”
“Trent,” I squeaked before exploding in a series of powerful outbursts. “Pleased to make your acquaintance.”
The doctor listened to my breathing and felt my neck. Then he stooped to fetch something from his bag, I quickly peeked through the slim gap between the curtains. In the second I had I saw my neighbor whispering to the injured man lying on a bench. My neighbor’s hand was placed delicately on the other man’s cheek, but I could not tell if the injured man was awake. It was plain to me that the man was not aware of any world beyond his friend; his face was bright. His earnestness sent a wave of heat to my face and forced my attention return to the doctor who was still searching in his bag.