The Doctor and a Horse Called Frank – a John Dunn story

John-DunnIn those days, the doctor kept both an automobile and a horse. My father’s car was called a Huppmobile, and the horse simply Frank. The Hupp went out on summer roads, but Frank took to the roads with the buggy through spring thaw and November drizzle, and then changed over to the cutter for the time of the great snows from Turkey Fair in early December to the feast of St. Patrick on the 17th of March.

And so it came to pass, on Christmas Eve in the fifth full year of the Great Depression of the nineteen thirties, that the telephone range out its summons in the doctor’s house at eight o’clock in the evening.

‘Now, what on earth could that be?” Mother asked with a touch of apprehension in her voice. Winter had come with early snow in October, and much of it remained into November when new snows had fallen. My father’s conversation on the telephone was brief. “Yes?” and then another “Yes,” followed by, “All right.”

“Do you have to go out?” Mother asked, revealing her dread of his travels on winter nights, alone on the road with a horse, facing goodness knows what danger at every step of the way. He nodded and added a barely audible, “Yes.”

“Is it far?” I asked.“

‘By taking the Wolves’ Grove road it would be twelve or thirteen miles.” Mother shuddered at his mention of wolves. “That kind of talk just gives me the shivers. I’d better go and get something hot for you before you leave. Goodness knows you may be up all night.”

I went out to the stable to get Frank ready for the road. I gave him a jag of oats to warm his blood, a brush-out and then I put the harness on him. When he had finished the oats I put the bridle with the bit in his mouth. I hitched Frank to the cutter and then brought him to the office door. Two bricks, warmed in the oven of the stove and now wrapped in heavy newspaper, went on the floorboard of the cutter. I went back inside for the final departure ritual. The telephone rang again, and I volunteered to answer.“

“Has the doctor left yet?” a man’s voice, tinged with anxiety, asked.“

“Not yet,” I replied. “He’ll be on the road in a couple of minutes.”

‘Well, that’s good, so don’t disturb him. Just tell him that the snow is heavy in the bush and drifts have covered the fences. Ask him to take the short cut through the bush and we’ll send someone to meet him with the lantern.”

Departure was furry. The buffalo coat and hat, buffalo mitts, then the black bag with needles, thread, syringes, scissors, gauze, chloroform, digitalis, and the usual doctor’s pills. He took the seat in the cutter, picked up the reins and pulled the buffalo robe forward over his knees. Frank moved off into the frost-filled night with harness bells tinkling.

Christmas Day passed.

Near sundown on Boxing Day, Frank and my father returned. Mother’s concern passed from the wolves to the cold. “I’m so glad to have you home safe and sound,” she said. “Did everything turn out all right?”

‘Yes,” he said, “delivery was slow, but everything’s fine now.”

‘Did you eat before leaving the Upper Country?”

‘Oh, yes. It was remarkable. Everything on the table for Christmas was home-grown except the tea, sugar and salt.” My admiration was deep and lasting.“

‘I don’t suppose those people would have much to celebrate this Christmas with coil-oil lamps, no electricity, and this terrible Depression.”

‘Many would want to pity them,” the doctor said, sitting down in the rocking chair before the kitchen stove. “But that pity would be misplaced. In fact, with a new and healthy baby, the love of their lives, they’re sure they have everything. That’s the paradox of a baby in the house.”

His head began to droop in the heat from the kitchen stove. The lidded eyes glazed over and his head slumped forward until it fell on his chest. He slept.

The telephone rang.