It shouldnt happen to a.., p.22
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       It Shouldn't Happen to a Vet, p.22

           James Herriot
 
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chin began to jerk and her whole face twitched uncontrollably. She

  didn't actually break down but her eyes brimmed and a couple of tears

  wandered among the network of wrinkles on her cheeks. I looked at her

  helplessly as she stood there, wisps of grey hair straggling untidily

  from under the incongruous black beret which she wore pulled tightly

  over her ears.

  "It's Topsy's kittens I'm worried about," she gasped out at length.

  "There's five of 'em and they're the best we've got."

  I rubbed my chin. I had heard a lot about Topsy, one of a strain of

  incomparable ratters and mousers. Her last family were only about ten

  weeks old and it would be a crushing blow to the Bramleys if anything

  happened to them. But what the devil could I do? There was, as yet, no

  protective vaccine against the disease - or wait a minute, was there? I

  remembered that I'd heard a rumour that Burroughs Wellcome were working

  on one.

  I pulled out a chair. "Just sit down a few minutes, Miss Bramley. I'm

  going to make a phone call." I was soon through to the Wellcome

  Laboratory and half expected a sarcastic reply. But they were kind and

  co-operative. They had had encouraging results with the new vaccine and

  would be glad to let me have five doses if I would inform them of the

  result.

  I hurried back to Miss Bramley. "I've ordered something for your

  kittens. I can't guarantee anything but there's nothing else to do. Have

  them down here on Tuesday morning.

  The vaccine arrived promptly and as I injected the tiny creatures Miss

  Bramley extolled the virtues of the Topsy line. "Look at the size of

  them ears! Did you ever see bigger 'uns on kittens."

  I had to admit that I hadn't. The ears were enormous, sail-like and they

  made the ravishingly pretty little faces look even smaller.

  Miss Bramley nodded and smiled with satisfaction. "Aye, you can allus

  tell. It's the sure sign of a good mouser."

  The injection was repeated a week later. The kittens were still looking

  well.

  "Well that's it," I said. "We'll just have to wait now. But remember I

  want to know the outcome of this, so please don't forget to let me

  know."

  I didn't hear from the Bramleys for several months and had almost

  forgotten about the little experiment when I came upon a grubby envelope

  which had apparently been pushed under the surgery door. It was the

  promised report and was, in its way, a model of conciseness. It

  communicated all the information I required without frills or verbiage.

  It was in a careful, spidery scrawl and said simply: "Dere Sir, Them

  kittens is now big cats. Yrs trly, R. Bramley."

  Chapter Twenty-eight.

  As I stopped my car by the group of gipsies I felt I was looking at

  something which should have been captured by a camera. The grass verge

  was wide on this loop of the road and there were five of them squatting

  round the fire, it seemed like the mother and father and three little

  girls. They sat very still, regarding me blankly through the drifting

  smoke while a few big snowflakes floated across the scene and settled

  lazily on the tangled hair of the children. Some unreal quality in the

  wild tableau kept me motionless in my seat, staring through the glass,

  forgetful of the reason for my being here. Then I wound down the window

  and spoke to the man.

  "Are you Mr. Myatt? I believe you have a sick pony." The man nodded.

  "Aye, that's right. He's over here." It was a strange accent with no

  trace of Yorkshire in it. He got up from the fire, a thin, dark-skinned

  unshaven little figure, and came over to the car holding out something

  in his hand. It was a ten shilling note and I recognised it as a gesture

  of good faith.

  The gipsies who occasionally wandered into Darrowby were always regarded

  with a certain amount of suspicion. They came, unlike the Myatts, mainly

  in the summer to camp down by the river and sell their horses and we had

  been caught out once or twice before. A lot of them seemed to be called

  Smith and it wasn't uncommon to go back on the second day and find that

  patient and owner had gone. In fact Siegfried had shouted to me as I

  left the house this morning: "Get the brass if you can." But he needn't

  have worried - Mr. Myatt was on the up and up.

  I got out of the car and followed him over the grass, past the shabby,

  ornate caravan and the lurcher dog tied to the wheel to where a few

  horses and ponies were tethered. My patient was easy to find; a handsome

  piebald of about thirteen hands with good, clean legs and a look of

  class about him. But he was in a sorry state. While the other animals

  moved around on their tethers, watching us with interest, the piebald

  stood as though carved from stone.

  Even from a distance I could tell what was wrong with him. Only acute

  laminitis could produce that crouching posture and as I moved nearer I

  could see that all four feet were probably affected because the pony had

  his hind feet right under his body in a desperate attempt to take his

  full weight on his heels.

  I pushed my thermometer into the rectum. "Has he been getting any extra

  food, Mr. Myatt."

  "Aye, he getten into a bag of oats last night." The little man showed me

  the big, half empty sack in the back of the caravan. It was difficult to

  understand him but he managed to convey that the pony had broken loose

  and gorged himself on the oats. And he had given him a dose of castor

  oil - he called it 'caste ire'.

  The thermometer read 104 and the pulse was rapid and bounding. I passed

  my hand over the smooth, trembling hooves, feeling the abnormal heat,

  then I looked at the taut face, the dilated nostrils and terrified eyes.

  Anybody who has had an infection under a finger-nail can have an inkling

  of the agony a horse goes through when the sensitive laminae of the foot

  are inflamed and throbbing against the unyielding wall of the hoof.

  "Can you get him to move?" I asked.

  The man caught hold of the head collar and pulled, but the pony refused

  to budge.

  I took the other side of the collar. "Come on, it's always better if

  they can get moving."

  We pulled together and Mrs. Myatt slapped the pony's rump. He took a

  couple of stumbling steps but it was as though the ground was red hot

  and he groaned as his feet came down. Within seconds he was crouching

  again with his weight on his heels.

  "It seems he just won't have it." I turned and went back to the car. I'd

  have to do what I could to give him relief and the first thing was to

  get rid of as much as possible of that bellyful of oats. I fished out

  the bottle of arecoline and gave an injection into the muscle of the

  neck, then I showed the little man how to tie cloths round the hooves so

  that he could keep soaking them with cold water.

  Afterwards I stood back and looked again at the pony. He was salivating

  freely from the arecoline and he had cocked his tail and evacuated his

  bowel; but his pain was undiminished and it would stay like that until

  the tremendous inflammation subsided - if it ever di
d. I had seen cases

  like this where serum had started to ooze from the coronet; that usually

  meant shedding of the hooves - even death.

  As I turned over the gloomy thoughts the three little girls went up to

  the pony. The biggest put her arms round his neck and laid her cheek

  against his shoulder while the others stroked the shivering flanks.

  There were no tears, no change in the blank expressions, but it was easy

  to see that that pony really meant something to them.

  Before leaving I handed over a bottle of tincture of aconite mixture.

  "Get a dose of this down him every four hours, Mr. Myatt, and be sure to

  keep putting cold water on the feet. I'll come and see him in the

  morning."

  I closed the car door and looked through the window again at the

  slow-rising smoke, the drifting snowflakes and the three children with

  their ragged dresses and uncombed hair still stroking the pony.

  "Well you got the brass, James," Siegfried said at lunch, carelessly

  stuffing the ten shilling note into a bulging pocket. "What was the

  trouble."

  "Worst case of laminitis I've ever seen. Couldn't move the pony at all

  and he's going through hell. I've done the usual things but I'm pretty

  sure they aren't going to be enough."

  "Not a very bright prognosis, then."

  "Really black. Even if he gets over the acute stage he'll have deformed

  feet, I'd like to bet. Grooved hooves, dropped soles, the lot. And he's

  a grand little animal, lovely piebald. I wish to God there was something

  else I could do."

  Siegfried sawed two thick slices off the cold mutton and dropped them on

  my plate. He looked thoughtfully at me for a moment. "You've been a

  little distrait since you came back. These are rotten jobs, I know, but

  it's no good worrying."

  "Ach, I'm not worrying, exactly, but I can't get it off my mind. Maybe

  it's those people - the Myatts. They were something new to me. Right out

  of the world. And three raggedy little girls absolutely crazy about that

  pony. They aren't going to like it at all."

  As Siegfried chewed his mutton I could see the old glint coming into his

  eyes; it showed when the talk had anything to do with horses. I knew he

  wouldn't push in but he was waiting for me to make the first move. I

  made it.

  "I wish you'd come along and have a look with me. Maybe there's

  something you could suggest. Do you think there could be."

  Siegfried put down his knife and fork and stared in front of him for a

  few seconds, then he turned to me. "You know, James, there just might

  be. Quite obviously this is a right pig of a case and the ordinary

  remedies aren't going to do any good. We have to pull something out of

  the bag and I've got an idea. There's just one thing." He gave me a

  crooked smile. "You may not like it."

  "Don't bother about me," I said. "You're the horseman. If you can help

  this pony I don't care what you do."

  Right, eat up then and we'll go into action together." We finished our

  meal and he led me through to the instrument room. I was surprised when

  he opened the cupboard where old Mr. Grant's instruments were kept. It

  was a kind of museum.

  When Siegfried had bought the practice from the old vet who had worked

  on into his eighties these instruments had come with it and they lay

  there in rows unused but undisturbed. It would have been logical to

  throw them out, but maybe Siegfried felt the same way about them as I

  did. The polished wooden boxes of shining, odd-shaped scalpels, the

  enema pumps and douches with their perished rubber and brass fittings,

  the season needles, the ancient firing irons - they were a silent

  testament to sixty years of struggle. I often used to open that cupboard

  door and try to picture the old man wrestling with the same problems as

  I had, travelling the same narrow roads as I did. He had done it

  absolutely on his own and for sixty years. I was only starting but I

  knew a little about the triumphs and disasters, the wondering and

  worrying, the hopes and disappointments - and the hard labour. Anyway,

  Mr. Grant was dead and gone, taking with him all the skills and

  knowledge I was doggedly trying to accumulate.

  Siegfried reached to the back of the cupboard and pulled out a long flat

  box. He blew the dust from the leather covering and gingerly unfastened

  the clasp. Inside, a fleam, glittering on its bed of frayed velvet, lay

  by the side of a round, polished blood stick.

  I looked at my employer in astonishment. "You're going to bleed him,

  then."

  "Yes, my boy, I'm going to take you back to the Middle Ages." He looked

  at my startled face and put a hand on my arm. "But don't start beating

  me over the head with all the scientific arguments against

  blood-letting. I've no strong views either way."

  "But have you ever done it? I've never seen you use this outfit."

  "I've done it. And I've seen some funny things after it, too." Siegfried

  turned away as if he wanted no more discussion. He cleaned the fleam

  thoroughly and dropped it into the steriliser. His face was

  expressionless as he stood listening to the hiss of the boiling water.

  The gipsies were again hunched over the fire when we got there and Mr.

  Myatt, sensing that reinforcements had arrived, scrambled to his feet

  and shuffled forward holding out another ten shilling note.

  Siegfried waved it away. "Let's see how we get on, Mr. Myatt," he

  grunted. He strode across the grass to where the pony still trembled in

  his agonised crouch. There was no improvement; in fact the eyes stared

  more wildly and I could hear little groans as the piebald carefully

  eased himself from foot to foot.

  Siegfried spoke softly without looking at me, "Poor beggar. You weren't

  exaggerating, James. Bring that box from the car, will you."

  When I came back he was tying a choke rope round the base of the pony's

  neck. "Pull it up tight," he said. As the jugular rose up tense and

  turgid in its furrow he quickly clipped and disinfected a small area and

  inserted a plaque of local anaesthetic. Finally he opened the old

  leather-covered box and extracted the fleam, wrapped in sterile lint.

  Everything seemed to start happening then. Siegfried placed the little

  blade of the fleam against the bulging vein and without hesitation gave

  it a confident smack with the stick. Immediately an alarming cascade of

  blood spouted from the hole and began to form a dark lake on the grass.

  Mr. Myatt gasped and the little girls set up a sudden chatter. I could

  understand how they felt. In fact I was wondering how long the pony

  could stand this tremendous outflow without dropping down.

  It didn't seem to be coming out fast enough for Siegfried, however,

  because he produced another stick from his pocket, thrust it into the

  pony's mouth and began to work the jaws. And as the animal champed, the

  blood gushed more fiercely.

  When at least a gallon had come away Siegfried seemed satisfied.

  "Slacken the rope, James," he cried, then rapidly closed the wound on

  the neck with a pin suture. Next he trotted over the grass
and looked

  over a gate in the roadside wall. "Thought so," he shouted. "There's a

  little beck in that field. We've got to get him over to it. Come on,

  lend a hand everybody."

  He was clearly enjoying himself and his presence was having its usual

  effect. The Myatts were spurred suddenly into action and began to run

  around aimlessly, bumping into each other. I was gripped by a sudden

  tension and preparedness and even the pony seemed to be taking an

  interest in his surroundings for the first time.

  All five of the gipsies pulled at the halter, Siegfried and I looped our

  arms behind the pony's thighs, everybody gave encouraging shouts and at

  last he began to move forward. It was a painful process but he kept

  going - through the gate and across the field to where the shallow

  stream wandered among its rushes. There were no banks to speak of and it

  was easy to push him out into the middle. As he stood there with the icy

  water rippling round his inflamed hooves I fancied I could read in his

  eyes a faint dawning of an idea that things were looking up at last.

  "Now he must stand in there for an hour," Siegfried said. "And then

  you'll have to make him walk round the field. Then another hour in the

  beck. As he gets better you can give him more and more exercise but he

  must come back to the beck. There's a lot of work for somebody here, so

  who's going to do it."

  The three little girls came shyly round him and looked up, wide-eyed,

  into his face. Siegfried laughed. "You three want the job, do you?

  Right, I'll tell you just what to do."

  He pulled out the bag of peppermint drops which was an ever-present

  among his widely-varied pocket luggage and I settled myself for a long

  wait. I had seen him in action with the children on the farms and when

  that bag of sweets came out, everything stopped. It was the one time

  Siegfried was never in a hurry.

  The little girls each solemnly took a sweet, then Siegfried squatted on

  his heels and began to address them like a professor with his class.

  They soon began to thaw and put a word in for themselves. The smallest

  launched into a barely intelligible account of the remarkable things the

  pony had done when he was a foal and Siegfried listened intently,

  nodding his head gravely now and then. There was all the time in the

  world.

  His words obviously went home because, over the next few days, whenever

  I passed the gipsy camp I could see the three wild little figures either

  grouped around the pony in the beck or dragging him round the field on a

  long halter shank. I didn't need to butt in - I could see he was

  improving all the time.

  It was about a week later that I saw the Myatts on their way out of

  Darrowby, the red caravan rocking across the market place with Mr. Myatt

  up front wearing a black velvet cap, his wife by his side. Tethered to

  various parts of the caravan the family of horses cropped along and

  right at the rear was the piebald, a bit stiff perhaps, but going very

  well. He'd be all right.

  The little girls were looking out of the back door and as they spotted

  me I waved. They looked back at me unsmilingly until they had almost

  turned the corner into Hallgate then one of them shyly lifted her hand.

  The others followed suit and my last sight was of them waving eagerly

  back.

  I strolled into the Drovers and took a thoughtful half pint into a

  corner.Siegfried had done the trick there all right but I was wondering

  what to make of it because in veterinary practice it is difficult to

  draw definite conclusions even after spectacular results. Was it my

  imagination or did that pony seem to feel relief almost immediately

  after the blood-letting? Would we ever have got him moving without it?

  Was it really the right thing in these cases to bash a hole in the

 
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