It is 1905, and a young doctor just out of internship in Chicago has decided to head for the southwest to seek his fortune. He finds himself on a slow train in southern New Mexico, sitting across from a Sister of Mercy "in her black robes, skirts and sleeves, and heavy starch." When the train stops, the doctor inquires about a group of men huddled on the platform. They surround a severely ill Mexican worker, who turns out to have appendicitis. The doctor insists that only an immediate operation will save his life, but the Mexicans are violently opposed to surgery. Eventually, the doctor enlists the nun’s help to persuade them.

In the blistering heat, they carry the man to a shed where the doctor performs an appendectomy with instruments in his black bag, including morphine and chloroform. For the next 24 hours, he and the nun watch over the man, and then carry him to the nearest town on the next train. He survives, which is good because otherwise the Mexicans have threatened to kill the doctor. The nun, who throughout has been cool toward the doctor because of his use of "rough" language, proceeds on her way to Texas.


This story is presented as a tale told by the middle-aged doctor about an event that occurred much earlier. He says he hasn’t thought about the event for 30 years, but something--perhaps he and his companion are riding on a train in New Mexico--reminds him. So the tale is partly about memory. It is also about place, the unrelenting heat of the Southwestern desert: "There wasn’t a tree for fifty miles in any direction." Paul Horgan, of course, was one of the greatest writers of the American Southwest.

This is also a tale of professional courage, an almost mythic example of the physician overcoming every obstacle in order to save a life. In fact, he puts his own life on the line, since the Mexicans are determined to kill him if the patient dies. It is interesting to compare this story with Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Steel Windpipe and William Carlos Williams’s The Use of Force (annotated by Felice Aull and also by Pamela Moore and Jack Coulehan), in each of which a physician runs roughshod over family opposition in order to save the life of a child with diphtheria. (See annotations in this database.) The notion of informed consent is nowhere to be found.

The nun presents an alternate philosophy of healing. Although she agrees to help the doctor, it is clear that in her mind the key ingredient is prayer. After the surgery, she prays for the patient’s recovery, "which brought some extraordinary power into the room." In fact, the prayer does considerably more to quiet the restive Mexicans than the doctor’s heroically competent surgical technique, which is entirely lost on them.

Primary Source

Figures in a Landscape


Harper & Brothers

Place Published

New York



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