To his credit, Lipscomb didn’t appear to be the type to gloat in victory while taking defeat personal. As soon as he could draw a full breath he complimented me on my form and asked if I could teach him some moves when time allowed. I handed him his stupid-looking bowler and told him to cut the crap.
“Same old McCutchen.”
The two of us stepped out of the stable and into the starlight. The brittle crescent moon had finally topped the trees in the east. “Some things never change. They just get older and less patient.”
“Alright, I got a job for you.” He pulled a crushed pack of cigarettes out of his pocket. “You mind?”
“About the job or the smoke?”
“Both.” He salvaged an unbroken one and hung it from his lips while fetching his lighter.
“I’ve already got a job.” I scanned the tree line for dark spots indicating more flushed birds.
“I hear your father’s sick.”
I sucked a deep breath through clenched teeth. “How the hell would you know that?” In the dark it was impossible to search the man’s expressions for evidence of truth or deception, so I assumed anything he said would be some of both.
“So he is sick?” He flicked the flint to life and puffed. The lighter’s flame revealed nothing but the same poker face Lipscomb always wore.
“In God’s name, yes. This is your idea of cutting the crap?” I started for the house. “I need more coffee.”
“Pale, profuse sweating, fever, sensitivity to light, dementia?”
I stopped cold. “Yes. What do you know, Lipscomb?” For a split second, in the silvery starlight, I swear I saw something kin to fear flash behind his eyes.
“Damn. I’m truly sorry.”
He took a long drag, allowing the smoke to escape with his words. “There’s an outbreak, McCutchen. An illness, a nasty one. That’s the job.”
“Hell, I’m no doctor. I know how to kill people, not heal ‘em.” I held my tongue, too late, and shook my head. “Your business is done here. You can see yourself off.” I strode toward the house, faster now, haunted by thoughts of the curse.
“There’s no quarantine for this one, no treatment, no cure,” he continued.
I turned on him. “Like hell. I’m hitching up the wagon tomorrow and taking my old man to the Thurber Clinic to see Doc Quick.”
He scoffed, flicking ash. “Afraid not.”
I closed the gap so he could see my eyes. “We gonna go through this again?”
He didn’t blink. “Thurber’s off limits. Hospital’s a bloody morgue.”
I couldn’t take much more. “You said there wasn’t any quarantine.”
“Not quarantine. A prison, a bloodbath.”
I suppressed a shiver. “Doc Quick’s a friend, and I’m taking my father to see him, come hell or high water.”
“Let the dead bury the dead, McCutchen, or hell is what you’ll find.”
“And what exactly is it that you’re offering, a membership to paradise? You and your power-hungry employers?”
“No, you’re right.” He adjusted his bowler and shook the dust from his jacket. “It’s hell for the two of us either way. But I’m talking about the whole damn state, maybe the country.”
“You do what you gotta do. See it with your own eyes. By this time tomorrow you’ll know, the only doctor’s instruments the people of Texas need right now are those you’re wearing on your belt.” He puffed an aggressive drag, suddenly in a hurry to be done with it. “But watch yourself. The people coming after your father—it’s not about the oil. Not anymore. It’s about containing the plague. They’ll shoot first, as will the good folk at the hospital. And for God’s sake keep an eye on the old man.”
“And you’re telling me this?”
“People are scared, McCutchen. This thing has gone way past heroes on white horses. Don’t get yourself killed trying to be something you’re not.”
He turned and strode back toward the stables. “Job still stands. You’re the doctor, McCutchen, and the only cure’s a bullet.”
I’m not afraid to tell you, I stood there shivering for a full five minutes after he’d gone, and not because of the cold.