Thicker Than Water

This story took the laurel in Life Magazine’s Shortest Story Contest, and was published along with 80 other stories in 1916.

Doctor Burroughs, summoned from the operating room, greeted his friend from the doorway: “Sorry, Harry, but you’ll have to go on without me. I’ve got a case on the table that I can’t leave. Make my excuses, will you?”

“There’s still an hour,” replied the visitor. “I’m early and can wait.”

“Then come in with me.” Markham followed to the operating room, white-walled, immaculate, odorous of stale ether and antiseptics. On the table lay the sheeted form of a young girl. Only the upper portion of the body was visible, and about the neck wet, red-stained bandages were bound. “A queer case,” said the surgeon. “Brought here from a sweat-shop two hours ago. A stove-pipe fell and gashed an artery in her neck. She’s bleeding to death. Blood’s supposed to be thicker than water, but hers isn’t, poor girl. If it would clot she might pull through. Or I could save her by transfusion, but we can’t find any relatives, and there’s mighty little time.”

The attending nurse entered. “The patient’s brother is here,” she announced, and is asking to see her.”

“Her brother!” The surgeon’s face lighted. “What’s he like?”

“About twenty, Doctor; looks strong and healthy.”

“See him, Nurse. Tell him the facts. Say his sister will die unless he’ll give some blood to her. Or wait!” He turned to Markham. “Harry, you do it! Persuasion’s your line. Make believe he’s a jury. But put it strong, old man! And hurry! Every minute counts!”

The boy was standing stolidly in the waiting-room, only the pallor of his healthy skin and the anxiety of his clear eyes hinting at the strain. Markham explained swiftly, concisely.

“Doctor Burroughs says it’s her one chance,” he ended.

The boy drew in his breath and paled visibly.

“You mean Nell’ll die if someone don’t swap his blood for hers?”

“Unless the blood she has lost is replaced — ”

“Well, quit beefin’,” interrupted the other roughly. “I’m here, ain’t I?”

When he entered the operating room the boy gave a low cry of pain, bent over the form on the table, and pressed his lips to the white forehead. When he looked up his eyes were filled with tears. He nodded to the surgeon.

Doggedly, almost defiantly, he submitted himself, but when the artery had been severed and the blood was pulsing from his veins to the inanimate form beside him his expression changed to that of abject resignation. Several times he sighed audibly, but as if from mental rather than bodily anguish. The silence became oppressive. To Markham it seemed hours before the surgeon looked up from his vigil and nodded to the nurse. Then:

“You’re a brave lad,” he said cheerfully to the boy. “Your sacrifice has won!”

The boy, pale and weak, tried to smile. “Thank God!” he muttered. Then, with twitching mouth: “Say, Doc, how soon do I croak?”

“Why, not for a good many years, I hope.” The surgeon turned frowningly to Markham. “Didn’t you explain that there was no danger to him?”

“God! I’m afraid I didn’t!” stammered Markham. “I was so keen to get his consent. Do you mean that he thought — ”

The surgeon nodded pityingly and turned to the lad. “You’re not going to die,” he said gently. “You’ll be all right tomorrow. But I’m deeply sorry you’ve suffered as you must have suffered the past hour. You were braver than any of us suspected!”

“Aw, that’s all right,” muttered the boy. “She’s my sister, ain’t she?”