He had forgotten the flashlight again, and he cursed as he stumbled over an unseen obstruction.
"Bila!" he called.
"Yes, starman?" The alien appeared as if from nowhere.
"I'm afraid that I'm not as gifted as you when it comes to traveling at night without light. You had better let me hold onto your shoulder."
"Of course, starman. I am most sorry for causing you trouble."
"It's my own fault. I should have remembered the light. Let's get going again." He placed his hand on the alien's shoulder, and they started off again.
Despite his guide, he twice stumbled over obstructions, and would have fallen but for his grip on the other's shoulder. Bila waited while he steadied himself, and then started off again, keeping up a fast pace.
The village lay three miles from the post, and during the day, Dillon considered it nothing more than a brisk walk. But the blindness that came with the dark wiped out all realization of time and space, and he soon began to think that they must have passed it by, when the alien spoke.
"We are here, starman."
They rounded a bend, and a cluster of huts came into view, lit by the dim light of a few scattered lamps. The alien threaded his way through the narrow lanes between the huts, and stopped outside one of the largest in the group. He held the hangings aside, and Dillon stooped to enter.
The hut was already crowded with natives. The smoke from half a dozen of the sputtering lamps hung like a shroud over the interior, and the Earthman's eyes were soon smarting. He wondered how the natives, with their much larger eyes, could stand it.
The injured boy lay on a pallet in the center of the hut. An animal skin had been thrown over him, with the broken arm exposed. Dillon knelt by him, and felt it over carefully.
"A clean break, thank God," he said, more to himself than his audience.
The boy whimpered, and he reached for the bag, and rummaged around. Finally he pulled out an already prepared hypo, loaded with a sedative. He swabbed the boy's good arm, and pressed the needle home.
The natives moved forward when they saw the needle, and some of them began to mutter. But the boy quickly dropped off into an untroubled sleep, and they settled down.
The Earthman took hold of the broken arm, and marvelled at the frailty of it. The bones had to hold a lighter weight than those of Earthmen, and thus were correspondingly weaker. He felt that he could snap one of them with his hands.
He straightened the arm out, as gently as he could, and then pulled. The broken ends slid together with a satisfying pop, and he quickly bound them with a splint from his bag. He wrapped the bandage tight, and tied it. Then he arose, picking up his bag.
"He should be alright now," he said. "I'll stop by in the morning, when he's awake, and give him a going-over."
"His arm," said Bila. "It is ... fixed?"
"Yes. He's young, and he should heal fast. Three weeks from now he'll be out with the other children, playing games and just as active as ever."
"We thank you, starman," said Bila. "We have not the words to say just how happy we are that you have helped us."
"It's nothing," said Dillon, embarrassed by the show of gratitude. "All Earthmen would do the same."
"Ah, your magic must be even greater than that of the priests. It is most unfortunate that the village priest was away. But the Gods have smiled on us, by sending you instead."
"He'll be back soon, I hope?" said Dillon. "The priest, I mean."
"Alas, not for at least thirty days, and perhaps more. He knew not where his pilgrimage would lead him."
"But if you have more troubles like this?"
"Our misfortunes," said Bila, his face downcast. "If the Gods see fit to abandon us to the miseries of the world, what can mere men say? If some must die, than they shall surely die."
"No!" He regretted the word the moment it was out, but it was too late to recall it. The milk was spilt, and crying would be foolish at this point. "No. If you have troubles, come to me. I will do what I can, although I am not sure that it will be much."
"Ten million thanks, starman!" His eyes glistened with joy. "Our people shall be eternally grateful."
"You'd better save your thanks, until you're sure that I can help you. But right now, I'd appreciate a guide back to the post, and a lamp, so I don't fall anymore."
"Of course. It shall be done immediately." He motioned for one of the men in the hut, who came with a lamp. Bila held the hangings aside, and the two passed outside into the blackness again.
The trip back to the trader's shack passed without mishap and Dillon went to sleep quite pleased.
Ten days passed. They were days of intensified effort for Dillon, as he went about the task of setting up the rest of the post. The warehouse came first, and the living quarters. The office that had been serving double-duty reverted to its primary function.
Occasionally a few natives would drop around to gaze at the work-in-progress, but they would soon grow bored, and drift away to other amusements. He had twice been back to the village to look at the boy, but so far nothing else had come up to require his meagre medical knowledge. He was beginning to think that he might last out until the priest returned. He had been rereading the regulations covering contact, and the penalties were much too harsh for his liking. He began to worry about hiding traces of his one experiment.
The noonday sun was on the wane when he finished wrestling the last of a group of bins into the warehouse. He pulled out his kerchief, and wiped the accumulated sweat from his eyes. The summer season was full on the land, and the heat was as bad as any he had seen on Earth.
He brought his lunch out to the office porch, and sank down in the rocker that he had brought from his last post. There was a slight breeze blowing diagonally across the clearing in front of the building, and he shifted around to receive its full benefit.
The first bite was scarcely in his mouth when Bila came into sight around the bend of the path. He cursed silently, and put down his sandwich. He stood up to welcome the alien.
"Tarsa, Bila," he said. "What brings you here today?"
"Sadness again wearies our people, and we know not what to do. The Gods are indeed angered with us, and our priest is still away."
"Just what is it this time?"
"It is Kylano. He is at death's door, and the messengers of the Gods can be heard waiting to take him beyond." Two tears broke loose and rolled down his leathery gray cheeks.
"The boy's father?" said Dillon. The alien nodded.
"But what is wrong with him?"
"Alas, we do not know. He was swimming in the lake, when a demon possessed one of the fishes, and bit him on the leg. When he came out of the water, a fever lay heavily over him, and he has become unconscious."
"And you want me to save him." It was a statement, rather than a question, and the native recognized it as such.
"If it be within your power, starman. If you do not come, he must surely die."
"All right, Bila. I'll do whatever I can." He ducked inside the office, and came out again with his bag. They set off down the path.
"Your second major mistake," said Cassidy. "You were lucky with the boy, but you should have come to your senses enough to leave the bag behind on the second call. You were just stepping out into deeper water."
"But the man was sick, and I didn't know what else to do but use the medicines. I couldn't let him die!"
"Why not? I've got feelings and a conscience. That's why! I couldn't just stand by and do nothing. Especially when the sedative worked on the boy!"
"It would have been far better to let one man die than to have the aliens come to regard you as higher than their own priests."
"It's easy enough for you to say what I should have done here, but I think your own actions would have been far different if you had been in my place."
"I doubt it. I'd never have been made trouble-shooter, if I didn't have the brains to avoid a mess like that. I still think you're just plain stupid."
"My thoughts of you are better left unsaid. At any rate, when we got to the village...."
It was the same hut, and a crowd that may or may not have been present the earlier night. The numbers were the same. The only change was the lack of the overhanging pall of smoke from the lamps.
The man occupied the same pallet as the boy, and the crowd made way for Dillon as he moved to his side. It was readily apparent that he was very ill, and Dillon uttered a silent prayer that he had something in the kit to help him.
The leg wound was nasty and crusted over. He swabbed it clean, blanching when he saw its depth. Steadying himself, he bound it tightly, and sat back on his heels to ponder his next move.
The bandage would prevent any further infection, but the Earthman was afraid the damage had already been done. The fever lay heavily on the native, and he tossed and turned in his coma. The drugs in the bag were all intended for use by Terrans only, and an attempt to aid the slight alien might only result in death. Whereas if he were left alone to ride out the fever, he just might come through all right.
Kylano let out a muted sob, and struck out wildly, nearly hitting Dillon in the face. He cursed, and turned to his bag, selecting the most catholic antibiotic it contained. He looked up at the watching crowd, but they just stared back impassively. He cursed again, and swabbed a spot on the native's arm, and thrust home the needle.
He threw the empty hypo back in the bag, and shut it savagely. Then he stood up, and looked around for Bila.
"A drink of water, please," he said, catching the other's eye.
"Certainly, starman," he replied, handing over a gourd.
Dillon drank deeply, then wiped his mouth. He handed back the gourd and picked up his bag. As he pushed his way through the crowd, Bila followed.
"Kylano will be well now?" said the alien.
"I don't know. I just don't know. I hope so."
"Is there anything more you can do?"
"Perhaps. If I knew just what he was sick with, and I had the right drugs to treat it, I could do a lot. As it is...." He left the sentence hanging.
"If the Gods will it, he will live."
"Pray that they will it. In the meantime, you might bathe his forehead every now and then. It'll help to make him more comfortable."
"In any event, we thank you, starman. With our priest gone...."
"Why did your priest leave on such a long journey, Bila? I should think he would be more concerned with the care of his flock."
"The ways of the priesthood are beyond the comprehension of ordinary men. When the Gods speak to them, they obey, no matter how onerous the orders may be. If men must suffer during their absence, it is unfortunate. But it must be."
"Then I'd think that your priests would see to it that someone in the village would know what to do in case of emergency."
"Oh, no!" He seemed horrified at the thought. "Knowledge is for the Gods to give to the chosen ones. Common men would not be worthy of it, for it is certain that they do not have the intelligence to deal with it properly. Only the priests are wise enough to be so honored. Priests and men from the stars," he added, as an afterthought.
"Well, in any event, I hope you don't need me any more...."
"But they did need you," said Cassidy.
"Unfortunately, yes. Four more times in the twenty days before the return of the priest."
"What were the troubles?"
"Once, it was to aid in childbirth--my first adventure as a midwife," he said, remembering the event and his shame at his ignorance in the matter. He had had to take directions from the woman. "Once, a hunter had fallen in an animal trap, and broken both his legs," he continued. "And twice, it was for sickness."
"The same one as this Kylano?"
"I don't know. I couldn't hope to diagnose it, so I just shot them full of antibiotics, and prayed for a miracle."
"You should have prayed for brains instead. But all of your sick ones recovered?"
"Yes. I couldn't seem to do anything wrong, and it wasn't long before the natives were beginning to look on me as the personal representative of their Gods. It was embarrassing, the way they fawned over me."
"Tell me," said Cassidy. "You said you read the regs over. Why in the name of all that's holy didn't you have the sense to follow them?"
"I couldn't stand by and watch them die! I had to help them, Cassidy. Damn it, I had to!"
"Yeah, sure. But go on."
"Well, to shorten matters, the local priest finally got back from his pilgrimage, and took up his old duties. All went well for about a week, and then another alien became ill. The priest heard about it, naturally, and went to his aid. But it seems my percentage of recoveries was better than his at its very best. They wouldn't let him even near the sick one. Instead, they sent for me."
"Of course. I didn't know the priest was back, and what else could I do?"
"I shudder to think. What happened?"
"The native got well, and the tribe practically pitched the priest out on his ear. He went running to his superiors, and they called a council of war. They banned the natives from the post, and threatened to cut off any who were seen with me from all priestly privileges.
"The tribe made an almighty stink. They called their own council, and there was practically civil war. That's when I called you. Or, rather, the nearest trouble-shooter."
"Ah, me. Why is it that I, Cassius Cassidy, get saddled with all of the real stinkers in the galaxy? I don't mind shooting other people's troubles for them, but I do resent the fact that the messiest ones get dumped in my lap. Sometimes I feel like resigning."
"Cassidy, one of these days...."
"Oh, simmer down. I said there was a simple solution to your problem, and I knew what I was talking about. The natives have been so taken in by your ridiculously lucky flukes that they think you're the next thing to a God. Right?"