The Best Laid Plans
The sound of the door to the clinic opening startled the exhausted ladies' man from his sleep. Jerking to attention, his hand automatically reaching for his gun, Buck tensed as he turned toward the intruder. It took only a brief glance for him to register that the intruder was Mary Travis. "Miz Travis," he greeted with a nod as he moved over to help her with the tray she was carrying. "Let me get that for you."
"Thank you," she replied, with a smile. Her eyes were drawn to the two sleeping men. "How are they doing?" she asked quietly, stepping a little closer to the men in question.
"I think JD's feeling a little warm. Ezra's got a headache the size of Texas and some bruises that make it a might difficult to move," Buck informed as he settled the tray on the small table and turned back.
"Is there anything I can help with?" the newspaper publisher asked as she leaned over to brush a stray hair off of JD's forehead. She frowned as her fingers brushed the young man's skin. Reaching out, she rested her hand first against his brow and then against his cheek. "He's more than warm," she noted, her voice tight with concern. Turning, her eyes met concerned blue ones. "He's burning up!"
Feeling his stomach seize in worry, Buck took two strides to cross the room. Reaching out, he could feel the warmth from earlier that morning had become an intense heat. Panic seized him as fear for JD's life assailed him. Turning lost and worried eyes toward the blond woman, he asked, "What... what should we do?"
Mary swallowed as the Buck's gaze held hers. Pushing aside the emotions she felt and those that filled the air in the room, she took a deep breath and released it. "I think you should start by wiping him down with cold cloths. I'll check with Mrs. Whittley to see if her husband has any suggestions."
Buck nodded and headed over to the pail of water. Pouring some into a basin, he grabbed it and a few of the cloths Nathan used as bandages; as he turned, he was just in time to see Mary leaving the clinic.
Nathan's head dropped forward in worry and despair. He finally had his patients clean of the grime and dried blood that had coated them. Unfortunately, that meant that he could now see the extent of their injuries. Had he been able to get to them shortly after the injuries occurred, he would have almost no worries, but after a day of riding and hiding, things had gotten more complicated. Both men had lost a lot of blood before Josiah's bandages managed to stop or, at least, slow the bleeding. Unfortunately, the ex-preacher hadn't had time to thoroughly clean the wounds and several of the grazes Jackson had seen were infected. That infection could easily spread through their weakened system.
The only good news about the bullets he had removed was that those wounds hadn't become infected. Neither had the wound on Vin's side where the bullet had passed through. He was thankful that neither man had regained consciousness while he'd treated those injuries. Now he only had the grazes to deal with and stitch.
That wasn't to say that they were in good shape or that they might not just slip away without any notice, but at least he'd given them a fighting chance. Still, with only the limited supplies he was carrying, there was little he could do and there was no way they could stay at the cave.
"Nathan?" Chris asked, his own trepidation and worry making the name an entire series of questions and concerns.
"The bullets are out. Those wounds are clean and the bleeding has stopped. The hole in Vin's side is clean too and those all those are stitched. Some of the grazes are infected and I need to clean those and put in a few stitches to make sure they close up right," Nathan informed in his efficient manner. He took a deep breath, wishing there were some alternative to what he was about to say. "We can't stay here."
"But they can't be moved," Larabee stated, his insides clenching in concern.
"I know," Jackson replied, reaching up to rub his face. He had been the one to tell Chris that neither man could be moved until they began to regain some of their strength. "But we can't stay here," he added, turning his troubled eyes to the blond. "I don't have enough to keep them going or to help them get better."
The man in black paled slightly at the expression in the healer's eyes. Shifting his hazel eyes toward the still forms lying in the cave, he clenched his jaw. They hadn't come this far to lose Josiah and Vin. "What if I got a wagon?" he asked, struggling to find a compromise between the need stay and the need to leave, praying all the while that whichever course of action they chose wouldn’t prove fatal to their friends.
With a sigh, Nathan looked back at the pale, wounded men. "I don't know. Maybe in a day or two, but we have no way to get them to the road other than ride them out and neither of them is ready for that. But they need to be in town…”
"We don't have a choice," Chris replied, his voice rough with worry and fear.
"No we don't," Nathan agreed softly.
"After we're finished here, I'll head out to get a wagon and bring those four in with me," the gunslinger informed.
"Best not go to Roweville," Nathan advised.
The blond nodded in agreement. "Rock Ridge," he suggested.
"Con... nor's... Bluff," came the whispered words from the injured Texan.
"Vin!" Chris called at the soft words. Shifting slightly, he settled next to his friend and took the ailing man's hand in his own. "How 're you doing?" he asked, his voice relieved and worried at the same time.
"F... fi..ne," he breathed.
A low chuckle escaped the healer at the statement. "Vin Tanner," he scolded with a smile. "You’re anything but fine. If I didn't know better, I'd say that you went out of you way to meet those bullets."
"So that's... what hit me," Josiah murmured, his eyes opening slightly.
A smile lit Nathan's face as he saw his older friend awake and aware. He still had a lot of work to do on the grazes, but the fact that both men were awake and coherent was a good sign. "No," Nathan teased, "I reckon that was just one of your crows getting back at you for not paying attention." He was rewarded with a tight grin.
Chris reached over and squeezed Josiah's shoulder in greeting, letting the ex-preacher how happy he was to see him. Turning his attention to the hurting sharpshooter, he asked, "Why Connor's Bluff? There's nothing out there."
"Mrs... Pot...ter's... sister," the Texan ground out, before closing his eyes against the wave of pain that swept through him.
"Of course," Nathan said, remembering. "Mrs. Potter was telling me the other day about her sister who just got remarried. She and her husband have a spread out by Connor's Bluff." His eyes meeting Chris', he said, "We could borrow a wagon from her."
Chris nodded. "Connor's bluff is only about a half day's ride from here, but it will take me longer to get back. And once we get these to in the wagon, we’ll pick up those four troublemakers from where we left them and bring them in."
Nathan nodded, a small smile tugging at his lips as he thought of how he and Chris had left the would-be ambushers. Turning his thoughts toward his friends and getting back to town, he observed, "Probably two days back to town if we push it a little, but we can get there."
Squeezing Vin's hand one more time, Larabee rose from the ground. "I'll head out now," he informed.
"Hold on, there, Chris," Jackson cautioned. "I don't think either of these two will be able to be moved until tomorrow at the earliest and probably shouldn't be moved even then. Besides, I could use your help right now. Cleaning those grazes and fixing them up ain't going to be pleasant for either of them."
His lips thinning, the gunslinger looked off in the direction of Connor's Bluff and then back at his two friends.
Nathan could see Larabee was torn as to what to do. They did need to get the two men to town soon, but Jackson wasn't willing to risk their lives unnecessarily to do so. Still, he didn't feel he had the right to tell Chris not to go. After all the time they spent waiting and wondering about their two friends, it was hard to sit and wait.
Larabee's course of action was decided a moment later, when, tensing as another wave of pain assaulted him, Vin hissed, "Chris..."
In a heartbeat, Larabee was once more beside his younger friend, speaking soothing words and offering his hand to the other as a means of release.
With a sigh, the healer looked at his friends and then turned to prepare what he would need to tend the grazes.
Wringing out another cloth, Buck took the now warm compress from JD's forehead and placed the cool one in its place. Dropping the used cloth in the basin to cool once more, he glanced over at Ezra and saw his friend was still in pain as evidenced by his drawn mouth, pale color and the arm draped over his eyes. Wishing there were something else he could do for Standish, the ladies' man contemplated offering him laudanum laced water as he had with JD, but wasn’t sure if he could do that given Ezra’s head wound and he didn’t want to take a chance.
Moving his chair slightly, he reached out and rested a hand on the gambler's arm. Keeping his voice soft, Wilmington called, "Hey Ez." He was rewarded with a soft noise that sounded suspiciously like a whimper. Wincing in sympathy, he let out a sigh. "Would a cool cloth help any?" he asked, not knowing what else to offer. He had had a few concussions himself, but suspected that Ezra's pain was coming more from his bruised body than his head.
"Perhaps," Standish whispered through gritted teeth.
"Alright," Buck assured, reaching over to extract and wring out the cloth he'd just returned to the basin. Turning back to his friend, he observed, "You're going to have to move your arm so I can put this over your eyes."
Releasing a sigh, Ezra did as instructed, but couldn't stop the groan caused by the pain of moving his arm. A sigh of relief escaped as the cool cloth was put over his eyes.
A slight smile appeared on the mustached man's face at the sigh. At least something had gone right for him. Leaning back in his chair, he felt the weight of worry and fatigue rest heavily upon him. Closing his own eyes, he allowed his head to drop back for a moment in the hope of regaining some of his failing energy.
Chris watched as Nathan wiped off his hands. It hadn't been an easy morning on any of them. After the initial elation at finding their friends, there had been the fear that came at the state of the two men. Larabee felt a shiver run down his spine as he remembered walking into the cave and seeing a perfectly still Vin Tanner, covered in blood and grime.
After that, there had been work to do. First, bringing Josiah back to the cave, then the surgery to remove the bullets and make sure the wound to Vin's side was clean. Once those were cleaned, doused with whiskey and sewn shut, there had been the grazes to fix.
Now that the injured men were resting and there was little more to do, his mind began to think through what had happened. The thought that they had been so close to their friends the night before combined with the knowledge of the agony the men had suffered through quickly turned to anger and bitterness. Since there didn't seem to be anyone else to blame, Larabee turned the anger inward at himself. He should have known. He should have kept pushing on as long as they could and not stopped for the night.
"Don't go there," Nathan admonished, his brown eyes capturing the hazel ones filled with self-loathing. "It's not our fault."
"We were less than a quarter mile from them all night," Chris spat, his voice low and angry. "There was still light. Enough light for me to hunt. Enough light for you to walk to the stream to pluck and clean the bird. We could have pushed on. We should have..."
"We should have what?" Nathan snapped, feeling the same guilt as the blond, but knowing they had done the right thing. "Should have stumbled through the twilight and missed the clues that would have brought us here? Pushed ourselves to exhaustion so we'd be of no use to them? What should we have done?"
Rage flared within the gunslinger at Nathan's assault, but he couldn't argue the logic behind it. He knew the healer was right, but that didn't make it any easier to think of his friends in this cave. Standing, he turned his back on the group and took several steps away, looking outward. "I had a bad feeling about sending them to Roweville the morning they left," Chris admitted softly, his gaze lost somewhere in the past. "I know better than to ignore those feelings. All I had to do was wire the judge... But I let them go. And then I took everyone out of town leaving JD there alone."
Spinning on his heel, Larabee locked eyes with the healer as a new fear grew in him. "What if I was wrong and Ezra was right? What if I left the kid to face six men alone? What if Buck and Ezra didn't make it back in time?" Turning away again, Chris rested his hands on his hips as he once more looked to the horizon.
"Nothing about this whole situation seems right," Nathan agreed. "But second guessing it now isn't going to help. We need to take care of what's in front of us and then move ahead."
Chris nodded, knowing Jackson was right, but unable to shake the cloak of guilt and responsibility that rested upon him. Turning back, he ordered, "Let's get this cleaned up and I'll see what I can hunt up for a broth."
Sawyer Miller stood waiting patiently, knowing that to interrupt this man's conversation would only earn him a tongue lashing. Still, he had to get back in case his father got another telegraph for him to deliver. He could only wish that everyone was as nice as Mr. Larabee. Finally the conversation came to an end. "Mr. Conklin?"
The man turned and frowned at the boy. Seeing the paper in the child's hand, he snatched it away and opened it. The response he read gave him no pleasure, but it did ease his guilt slightly. Looking up, he saw the boy still standing there. "What are you waiting for?" he demanded.
Suppressing a sigh, Sawyer turned and headed back to the telegraph office, wondering who would want to send a telegraph to that cranky old man.
"And I haven't heard back on the papers," the man in the middle of the room reported to his boss.
"I need those papers," the authoritative voice stated. "Without them, I can not go forward with my plans and we'll all suffer for it."
"Yes, sir. I know that. Would you like me to send someone to see about the gang?"
"No," the boss replied. "I want you to go personally and find out what happened to delay their return."
"Yes sir," the man said, his face turning sour at the thought of leaving the comfortable home.
"What of the ambush we set?"
The man shifted nervously. "No word from them either," he informed his boss.
"That's not acceptable. We've only gotten two of them and they both escaped which shouldn't have mattered. After all, we were able to draw the others out of town as well." Soulless eyes drilled into the hapless man in the middle of the room. "My plans must be completed. There is no room for mistakes or compromise. I need those papers and I need them now."
"Yes sir," the man said, fine beads of sweat appearing on his forehead.
"Good," the boss stated, leaning back in his seat. "I won't be defeated by a rag-tag bunch of hired guns. See that they're taken care of. And get me those papers!"
"Do you think that scary guy dressed in black is going to come back and let us go?"
Clem sighed deeply, wishing Rusty would just be quiet. Why couldn't he have gotten tied up with Rick or Willie instead? "I don't know, Rusty."
"I sure hope he does."
Chris sat between his two friends, wiping them down with one cloth as he left another on their foreheads. Both men had fevers. Both injured men were resting uneasily. Taking the cloth he'd been using to wipe down Josiah, he dropped it in the pan he was using to hold the cool stream water. Reaching up, he removed the compress Nathan had placing it on the ex-preacher's forehead prior to going in search of herbs for the broth they would be making with whatever Larabee's snares trapped.
Dipping the rags in the cool water, he took the time to wring it out before replacing it on the larger man's forehead once more. Pulling the blanket higher, he patted Josiah's shoulder and turned his attention to his younger friend.
A sigh escaped the gunslinger as he took in the sight of the resting tracker. Vin was very pale under his tan and had two bright fever spots on his cheeks. A fine sheen of sweat coated him, causing his hair to curl slightly around his face and adding an air of youth to the Texan that wasn't there normally. His heart aching for his friends, Chris reached once more for the cloth he was using to try and cool the feverish men. While he knew he needed to be here for them, he couldn't completely ignore the small voice that was encouraging him to get everyone together in town.
It was hard enough watching two of his friends suffering here in this cave and knowing they couldn't be moved to someplace they could truly heal, but not knowing what was happening in town was even more difficult. Was Ezra wrong? Did the gang avoid their little town? Somehow, Chris doubted it. And that meant that Buck, JD and Ezra were in trouble.
Larabee also thought about what he'd been able to find out from the men he and Nathan had captured during the would-be ambush. The quartet hadn't said much and neither he nor Jackson had wanted to spend the time grilling them, but if what they had said was true? The problem was a whole lot more than six men. In fact, they were up against a small army; a well organized small army.
"Ch... ris," the sharpshooter called softly.
"Right here, Vin. I'm right here," the gunslinger assured, reaching out to take the injured man's hand in his own.
Vin's eyes opened just a slit and blinked up at the man in black. "Hot," he informed before struggling to swallow.
"I'll get you some water," Chris assured, having seen his friend struggle to swallow. Turning, he poured some water from his canteen into a mug. Moving around to Tanner's head, he settled behind Vin and slowly lifted the sharpshooter to rest against him, ignoring the young man's grunts of pain. Giving the Texan a few minutes to recover, he waited for the other man's breathing to even out before lifting the cup of water. "Ready?" he asked. Receiving a small nod in response, he lifted the cup to his younger friend's lips and explained, "I'm only going to let you have a little at a time so we can be sure it stays down." He received another nod and slowly began to feed the water to the injured man.
As the first drops of cool water touched his tongue, Vin thought he'd been given a taste of heaven. He was so hot, and had been for a long time, but couldn't remember why. Trying to focus his thoughts as he accepted the sweet nectar, the long-haired man tried to remember why he hurt so much. Had he run across bounty hunters? Was there trouble in town? Prying his eyes open, he looked around and tried to focus on his surroundings. His brows drew down in confusion at what he saw, causing the wound on the side of his head to pull.
Larabee heard the sharp intake of breath and set down the mug. "Hey," he soothed softly. "What's wrong?"
Not having the energy to form words, Vin forced his head to move in a small circle.
Frowning in puzzlement for a moment, Chris finally figured out what Tanner wanted to know. "After you and Josiah were ambushed in Roweville, you escaped and found this cave. Nathan and I found you this morning," he explained.
"Oh," the younger man breathed. It didn't make sense and he didn't remember any of it, but he knew Chris wouldn't lie to him. Maybe when his head didn't hurt so much and they could get out of this heat things would make more sense. At least he could hope they would. Right now he just wished the water would come back.
As if sensing the need within his friend, Chris lifted the water and fed a few more sips to the ailing man. Though a slow process, Chris took satisfaction from the fact that Vin drank the full cup of water. Setting the cup down, he was about to ask if the Texan would like another cup when he heard the soft, even breathing, indicating that the injured man had fallen asleep.
Settling Tanner on the pallet, Chris once more reached for the rag he was using to wipe down the fevered men. So far, it seemed to help somewhat, but he would be happier if the fevers would break. A sound in the brush caught his attention and the gunslinger drew his gun, setting aside the rag. Rising to a crouch, he waited for what would come; a part of him believing it would only be Nathan. A sigh of relief escaped him when he was proven right. "Nathan," he greeted, holstering his gun. "Any luck?"
Moving toward the fire they had going just outside the cave, Nathan began setting down his goods. "More than I had hoped," he replied, a note of relief in his voice. "I found a few things to add to the stew, but more importantly, I found a red willow."
"And that's good because?" Chris asked, confused.
Nathan turned toward the blond and blinked, thrown by the question. Finally processing the query, he replied, "Because that's what I use for my willow bark tea. It should help get them through this fever," he replied, turning to put some water on to boil. " Can't believe I didn't bring any with me. Once we get their fever taken care of, there should be less danger in moving them." Seeing the light of hope in the hazel eyes, the healer cautioned, "Having them over their fevers should reduce the risk, not eliminate it."
Larabee nodded and turned once more to his task of trying to cool his fevered friends.
The sound of the door opening startled both Ezra and Buck.
Mary Travis stopped in the doorway, eyes wide as she found herself facing the wrong end of two guns. “Gentlemen,” she greeted, a slight quaver in her voice.
“Sorry, Miz Travis,” Buck apologized, putting his gun away and rising from his chair to help her with the tray she was carrying. “Something smells good,” he commented, breathing in the aroma.
“Indeed it does,” Ezra agreed, allowing his gun to fall to his side as his eyes narrowed against the brilliant sunlight, coming through the door.
Seeing the Southerner struggling, Mary closed the door and walked over and adjusted the covers on his bed, before asking, “How are you doing today?”
“Better,” Ezra said, trying hard to suppress a wince as he shifted slightly.
“Yes, I can see that,” the blond responded, suppressing a smile at the obvious lie. Then standing and moving toward the tray she had carried in, she removed the cover to reveal the delicious fare. "I brought over some lunch from the restaurant for the two of you and some rich broth for JD when he wakes."
"Thank you very much, Miz Travis. I appreciate it," Buck charmed, his stomach rumbling softly at the smell of the food. "Any word from the judge?"
"None yet," Mary replied, lifting a tray of food and carrying it toward Ezra. "But the wire did go out late yesterday, after we found out about JD," she informed. "There should be a response shortly."
"Thank you, my dear," Ezra smiled as Mary settled a tray of food on his lap. When the newspaper editor seemed to hesitate before leaving, he prodded, "Was there something else?"
Her eyes flicking nervously between Ezra and Buck, she admitted, "The town is very unsettled. They want to feel safe." Then, folding her hands before her, Mary hedged, "I believe an appearance by one of you gentlemen would go a long way to calming the worry."
Blue eyes met green. Buck was the only one who was healthy enough to patrol the town and reassure the citizens, but Ezra was too sore to help JD and there was no way he would leave his little brother alone right now.
Seeing the dilemma, Mary offered, "I could stay a while and watch them. Right now we need your presence out there. Besides, things seem to be under control in here. I'm sure they won't be any trouble."
Still reluctant to leave his injured friends, Buck finally nodded his agreement and settled at the small table to begin his lunch.
"I'll just go get the article I was working on," Mrs. Travis said, turning and walking out the door.
Ezra could see Buck picking at his food and not looking happy. Honestly , he couldn't fault his friend. This was not an easy time for the rogue, already having lost two men he considered younger brothers and now having a third in an unhealthy state. But they really didn't have much choice. The last thing they needed was chaos in town. "We shall be fine," Ezra assured. "And we are well aware that this is where you would prefer to be." Seeing his words had little effect, he continued, "Perhaps if you remain just until the afternoon stage arrives, that will be sufficient. It should only be a few hours."
His eyes moving toward and resting on JD's sleeping form, Buck thought through the situation and waited for the weight of responsibility to win as it always did. After several minutes, he felt the familiar yoke of duty settle upon his shoulders and knew that he had to at least show himself to the town despite his fear that his young friend might leave him. "Alright," he agreed. "But just until the stage arrives."
Rising and stretching, Judge Travis suppressed a groan. Growing old was no picnic. He missed the days when he had been able to rise easily from a seated position without feeling stiffness and pain. Still, the times were changing and the future belonged to the young. When a knock sounded on his door, he called, "Come in!"
When the portal opened, the young clerk who was helping him, stepped into the room. "This arrived for you a few hours ago, sir," the young man offered. "But since there were instructions not to disturb you before now, I waited."
With a smile to the nervous young man, Orin stepped closer and took the paper from the clerk's hand. Pulling out his glasses, he settled them on his nose and opened the paper. As he read, a string of curses escaped him as angry color began to invade his face. When he finally looked up, he caught sight of the stunned clerk in the doorway.
His lips pressed together in thought, Travis came to a decision. "Cancel all my cases and appointments. Telegraph my wife and let her know my plans have changed."
"Yes sir," the clerk said, wondering what had happened to cause the sudden change. He watched for a moment as the older man began going through his desk and gathering what he would need.
Glancing up and seeing the young clerk still standing there, the judge snapped, "Go!"
Donovan Carter, walked his horse into town and headed toward the livery. Though he seemed half asleep on his mount, in truth he was scanning the streets and trying to judge the atmosphere of the population. He made a mental note of the undertaker in the process of laying out six coffins and gritted his teeth slightly. It wasn't that he had been all that attached to those six men, but they had managed to ruin the boss' perfectly executed plan. Everything had gone right with it up until the day of the robbery. Now, there were four men missing, the four who were to ambush the peacekeepers headed toward Roweville, and these six dead. It was sloppy work.
Still, he had every confidence that the boss would develop a new plan and that they would be able to execute it without the mistakes. For right now, though, he needed accurate information and he needed it fast. That was why he was headed toward the livery. After that, he would head over to the store. Both places were always good sources of information and it was usually reliable.
Pulling up in front of his destination, Carter dismounted and waited for the man to notice him.
"Help you?" Yosemite asked, turning to take in the stranger. Having dealt with the public for many years, the liveryman felt himself a pretty good judge of his fellow man. The first thing he noticed about the man before him was the way he gently handled the horse. The second was how well the horse was groomed. Taking in the appearance of the man, he could see he was neat without any of the fancy things that some people seemed to enjoy. This was a sturdy man, a smart one, and one you could trust to get a job done.
"I need a place to keep my horse," the other offered by way of explanation. "I might just leave him here this afternoon, but might be overnight."
With a nod of his head, the liveryman smiled and replied, "I can surely help you with that. The name's Yosemite."
"John Nance," Donovan replied with a smile, not even flinching at the lie that rolled so easily from his lips.
Walking down the steps, Buck scanned the town to try and decide where he should make his first appearance.
That decision was put aside when Sawyer Miller came running down the street toward him calling, "Mr. Wilmington! Mr. Wilmington!"
Turning to face the young boy, a small smile tugged at the corner of his mouth at the sight of the exuberance. Reaching in his pocket, he felt a nickel and pulled it out. "Whoa, there son," he teased as the boy nearly ran into him. "Where's the fire?"
Breathing heavily, Sawyer blushed slightly at the admonishment. "Sorry," he apologized. "But Dad said to get this to you as fast as I could," he explained, holding out the paper in his hand.
Taking the paper, Wilmington gifted the boy with the piece of silver and watched him walk away before turning his attention to the paper in his hand. Opening it, he read the missive and cursed softly. Things just couldn't get better for them, they had to get worse. Resisting the urge to crumple the paper and throw it on the ground, he folded it and slipped it into his pocket. He'd discuss it with Ezra later. Right now he needed to make a circuit of town before the stage arrived.
"Come on, Josiah, wake up," Nathan urged gently, keeping the cup of willow bark tea in one hand as he shook the fevered man's shoulder with the other. Seeing the man begin to rouse, Nathan settled the cup somewhere he felt it safe and then tapped Josiah's face. "Come on, I have something here that will help you feel better," he encouraged.
Slowly blue eyes blinked up at the form that had disturbed his sleep. With a methodical deliberation, Josiah sorted out what he was seeing and came to the conclusion that Nathan was standing over him. Given that he felt hot and cold all at the same time, chances were he was running a fever. That meant that the healer would want to give him something for the fever. Unfortunately, Sanchez had suffered the tea once before and found it an unpleasant experience. Before he could stop them, the words of Mark 16 verse 18 popped into his head and some of it escaped out of his mouth before he could stop it. "... and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them..."
A snicker from somewhere behind the healer only caused Nathan to frown and glare of his shoulder. "It's not funny, Chris," he admonished. Turning his attention back to the ex-preacher, he scolded, "It's not poison and you got no call thinking that. It will help break your fever so we can get back to town."
Grinning a small grin at his friend, Josiah simply replied, "Sorry."
Nathan saw the smile, but more than that, he saw the pain. With a nod, he accepted the apology. "Fine. Now let's get you up and get it into you. The good Lord knows what sort of trouble JD, Buck and Ezra have found in town."
"They went home?" Josiah asked, puzzled by the information.
"Ezra felt that the reports we had were nothing more than a way to lure us away from town," Chris explained, moving closer to the ailing man. "He and Buck went back to make sure JD had a handle on things and Nathan and I were following the trail of the gang."
"And it was leading straight to Roweville," Jackson observed, his voice flat with displeasure as he lifted Josiah in order to allow him to drink more easily.
"Not real friendly up that way," Josiah observed, thinking of the reception they received and of their send-off.
"Don't reckon they are by the looks of you," Chris agreed softly.
"Vin?" Josiah asked, trying to avoid the cup of tea Nathan had for him as he looked for his younger friend.
"Is sleeping," Nathan informed before releasing a sigh of exasperation. "Would you settle down and drink this?" he commanded. "Even Vin didn't give me this much trouble," he grumbled.
Josiah's amused blue eyes met Chris' equally amused hazel ones, before he turned his attention to drinking the vile concoction that he knew would help reduce his fever.
Conklin waited impatiently on the boardwalk. He had better things to do and better ways to spend his money, but there were certain things a man had to do and paying a debt of honor was one of them.
Finally, the dust of the approaching stagecoach came into view. Movement nearby drew his attention and he saw the tall, mustached peacekeeper lean against a support post. Wilmington. A huff of disgust escaped Conklin. None of the peacekeepers were respectable, certainly not the kind of men they needed to protect their town if they were ever going to grow into the sort of place the railroad would want to go through.
Still, he would probably have to deal with Wilmington if he were going to complete his plan. That was alright though. He would be able to bear that indignity in order to discharge his debt.
As the stage pulled to a stop, Conklin stepped forward, waiting eagerly. The first person off was a young man he'd never seen who turned and escorted his wife and child down from the coach. After a moment, the person he'd been waiting on stepped off. Moving forward, he offered his hand. "Dr. Bigsby," he greeted. "Thank you for coming on such short notice."
"You made the situation seem very urgent, Mr. Conklin," the doctor said, shifting his black bag to his other hand and watching as his suitcase was unloaded.
"It is," Conklin agreed, standing straighter as his voice took on a more serious and important tone. "Our young sheriff was shot in the line of duty, rescuing me from a bandit's bullet, as a matter of fact. The local liveryman took care of the wound but isn't sure what damage it might have caused. Our healer is out of town and I thought I would be able to catch you."
Dr. Bigsby eyed the man before him. Conklin had never impressed him, but he had to admit the man rarely led him astray in anything. "Alright," he agreed. "Let's go take a look."
Nodding his agreement, Conklin turned and headed toward the clinic, the doctor following along behind.
They had just reached the bottom of the stairs when a low, deadly voice stopped them in their tracks. "And where exactly do you think you're going?" Buck asked, his voice shaking slightly with barely controlled rage.
Spinning on his heel, the nervous townsman looked into the angry blue eyes and winced. Then, feeling the doctor at his back, straightened himself and lifted his chin. "This is Doctor Bigsby from Clear Creek. He's my wife's cousin's husband and was passing through the area. He's been kind enough to agree to look at the boy."
Buck had been surprised initially when Conklin began his explanation. That surprise had turned to gratitude when he found out that the man had brought a doctor to look at JD. That gratitude turned to disgust and anger when he heard the man who had nearly cost Dunne his life refer to the young man as a 'boy'. Taking a step closer to the townsman, Buck glared at him and hissed, "That boy is more a man than you could ever dream of being." Seeing Conklin swallow nervously, Wilmington turned away from him and faced the doctor who was looking amused. That look immediately increased the doctor's worth in the rogues eyes. "You can follow me. I'll lead you to your patients," he smiled.
As the peacekeeper and the doctor climbed the clinic stairs, and a newly enraged Conklin stormed down the street, the relaxed looking man who had been lounging against a nearby wall stood and moved off, satisfied that he would have something to report to his boss. Thinking it over, Donovan decided he would have time to wire the boss before seeing what else he could find out about the town. He smiled slightly as he watched his next source of information continue on his angry path and storm into the saloon. "Conklin," he whispered the name. Yes, Mr. Conklin should be able to give him the information he needed without ever knowing what he was divulging.
Chris picked at the roasted rabbit on his plate and looked first at his two ill friends before scanning the area around them.
"I know," Nathan said, setting aside his plate. "I want to get moving too, but we just can't chance it. Maybe tonight the fevers will break..."
Nodding, Chris set down his own plate and stood. "I don't like it, Nathan," Larabee stated, turning to look at his friend. When he had the healer's attention he continued, "We're missing something here. Something big." Then, turning his head away, his voice lowered almost to a whisper as he added, "And I'm afraid if we can't figure out what it is, we're going to have more trouble than we can handle."
Wiping his hands, Dr. Bigsby stood and sighed.
"Well?" Buck asked, nervous and scared at what the man might say.
"Whoever took care of the wound initially did an excellent job," the doctor informed, setting aside the cloth and looking at Buck. "The ribs don't appear to be broken, but if the bullet traced the path I believe it did, the bone would have been cracked or at least scraped, both of which are very painful. I think I have taken care of the source of the infection, there was a bit of cloth deep within the wound. With that gone, the fever should subside and true healing begin."
Buck collapsed into a nearby chair, relieved beyond words at what the doctor had just told him. JD would be fine.
"Will there be any lasting damage?" a Southern voice queried.
Turning his attention to the other man, Dr. Bigsby thought over the question. "Obviously there was some muscle damage that will take a while to heal as well, and again, may cause pain, but it should heal. The real problem may be any scarring that occurs within the body near the muscles. Such scars can cause pain for years if the person moves suddenly or incorrectly.. For the most part, though, I don't see him having any complications." Seeing the man to whom he was speaking squinting, he took a step closer to the bed. "Now, let's take a look at you."
In his plush study, the master planner sat reading the latest report from his man. A small smile crept across his face as he leaned back and sipped his expensive brandy. There might still be a chance...
Travis cursed as the stagecoach bounced over yet another rut. He hated traveling in this manner but knew he had no choice. It just wasn't possible for him to ride horseback over the distance he needed to cover. He only hoped that his messages had gotten through.
"Bu...ck?" came the soft query from the bed.
The ladies' man was immediately awake and alert. "Right here, kid," he said, leaning forward and lifting the cup of water and leaning over toward his young friend. "Why don't we see if you can drink some of this water? Doc Bigsby thinks it'll do you some good," he encouraged, lifting his friend's head slightly. After taking a few sips, JD turned his head away, having had his fill. Replacing the cup on the small table, Buck studied his young friend's face. The flushed color that had been so prevalent during his fever was gone and, though tired, the young man's eyes were clear. With a small smile, Buck asked, "What can I do for you?"
The youthful eyes studied the older man for several seconds. "How are you?" Dunne asked, concerned for his friend.
Buck's smile softened at the concern JD expressed. Allowing his guard to drop, the pain he felt showed though the dark blue eyes. "I'm hurtin'," Buck admitted. "But I'm a whole lot better knowing you're going to be alright."
JD offered a small smile of his own in response. Moving his injured arm, he hissed in pain as his eyes slammed shut. As sudden as an unexpected rock fall, the pain battered him, tossing aside his vain attempt to control it and stealing over his whole being, attempting to chase away the precious consciousness he had fought so hard to gain.
"Whoa there, kid," Buck soothed. Taking JD's hand in his own, he encouraged, "Squeeze my hand and ride it out. You'll be alright." He almost regretted the offer when the fever weakened man's grip nearly crushed his fingers. Gritting his own teeth against the sudden assault, he continued, "It'll pass, just breathe, son. Just breathe through it." Doing his best to ignore the pain JD's grip was causing, Buck leaned over and whispered soothing words to his friend as he stroked the dark bangs away from the youthful face.
Eventually, the surge of pain subsided, leaving the young peacekeeper exhausted and struggling to find the energy to say what he wanted to say.
"That's it," Buck calmed. "Just relax for a few minutes. Breathe and then we'll try a bit more water." Watching the pained face closely, the ladies' man waited until he saw JD's breathing even out and the lines of pain relax from his face. Reaching once more for the cup of water, he brought it back to his young friend and asked, "You want to try a few more sips of water for me?" When he received a nod of agreement, he disengaged his hand from JD's, and prepared to feed the ill man some water.
When he had his fill, JD once more turned his face away and gasped out, "Enough."
Putting the cup down, Buck once more took JD's hand in his own and gave it a gentle squeeze. "You're going to be okay, kid," he said softly, finally feeling the truth of those words seep through the tattered shreds of his soul and bind together the remnants of his heart. He wouldn't lose another little brother.
Dunne looked into the blue eyes and read everything in them he would have wanted to see - compassion, truth, trust and healing. Still, he had to tell Buck his suspicions. "Buck," he said softly, trying hard not to breathe too deeply, so he wouldn't aggravate his wound. "The gang..."
"Shh," Buck soothed, enjoying the fact that his brother was alive. "We took care of them."
"No," JD denied and a twinge of pain stole his breath for a moment. "There's more than six."
Wilmington's eyebrows furrowed. "More than six?"
JD nodded. "Two gangs," he informed, trying to find the energy to say what he needed to pass along. "There are... two gangs. One working... each side of... town," he finished, his eyes drooping closed in exhaustion.
"Two gangs," Buck repeated, thinking back to what Ezra had said. He'd been so lost in his own pain and hurt, he hadn't even thought about it, but what JD said made sense. The jobs would alternate towns on either side of theirs and they were done in different styles. That meant there were two gangs. His eyes focusing back on the man he thought of as his little brother, Buck was about to ask something else when he noticed that JD had slipped into a healing sleep.
Tucking JD's hand under the covers, Buck adjusted the blanket and studied his friend. They had all missed it. With all their years of experience and knowledge, all of them had missed it except for JD. The kid really was one hell of a man.
Josiah's eyes flew open as he gasped. He struggled to sit up, but the pain of his sudden movements caused him to groan softly in pain.
"Whoa there, pard," Chris said, moving to Josiah's side and helping him to sit up a little, shifting one of the saddles behind the larger man. "Nightmare?"
A wry smile appeared on the ex-preacher's face as he closed his eyes and lifted one hand to his forehead. "Could say that," he admitted. "More of a what might have been."
Larabee just nodded his understanding and reached for the cup of willow bark tea.
"No tea," Josiah pleaded. "My fever broke."
Scrutinizing the older man, Chris saw the truth of that statement. Josiah's fever had broken. That meant they only needed Vin's to break and they could head for town. Maybe he'd be able to head over to Connor's Bluff and see about borrowing a wagon from Mrs. Potter's sister in the morning. The sooner they were all back together, the happier he would be. With a nod, the man in black set down the cup of tea and lifted one of water. "Best drink this then," he advised. "You keep that down, we'll see about some broth." A smile tugged the corner of his mouth at the face Josiah made. "Best take the broth, Nathan worked awfully hard on it."
A sigh of resignation escaped the injured man as he stared at the water. "Don't reckon you could... accidentally spill it?" he tried, turning beseeching eyes to his friend.
A soft chuckle escaped the blond as he shook his head. "Not a chance. There's no way I'm facing Nathan with that story." That statement earned him another sigh. Grinning fully, he encouraged, "Drink up."
When Josiah was done with the water, Chris took the mug from him and moved toward the low fire where the broth was being kept warm.
"Josiah's fever break?" Nathan asked from his bedroll.
Chris looked over and saw the healer's eyes were barely open. "Yep. Gave him the water, getting him some broth now."
"Good," Jackson said around a yawn. "Help build up his blood."
Larabee nodded as his friend's breathing evened out indicating he had fallen asleep once more. Taking the cup of broth, he headed back to Josiah's side, pausing only to check on Vin, whose fever didn't seem to be as cooperative as the ex-preacher's.
"Vin still burning up?" Josiah asked, his voice betraying his worry and his guilt.
Looking at the older man, Chris could easily read the guilt in the blue eyes, even in the dim light offered by the fire. "You did what you could," he insisted. "If you hadn't gotten him away, he would be dead right now. You both would be." Seeing the surprise in the blue eyes as well as the reluctance to relinquish the guilt, Larabee continued, "You had nothing but trouble and men coming down on you. No one, not even Nathan, could have done better than what you did under the circumstances. And I know Vin will say the same when his fever breaks."
"If his fever breaks," Josiah whispered as his eyes traced the features of the tracker.
"When his fever breaks," Chris reiterated, not daring to think anything else. He could not lose Vin. It just wasn't an option. His hazel eyes held Josiah's blue ones for several moments before he saw the acceptance in the ailing man's. "Now with that settled," he said, moving closer and holding out the mug, "You need to drink this nice healing broth."
A soft groan escaped Josiah. "Have mercy on an injured brother," the older man pleaded.
Chris smiled. "I am," he informed softly. "I'm letting you drink it rather than pouring it down your throat for you."
Josiah chuckled softly. "You are truly a kind man," Sanchez teased.
"So I've been told," the blond replied, raising an eyebrow when the cup remained in his hand.
With a resigned sigh, Josiah took the cup and sipped the broth.
A sigh of frustration and aggravation escaped the hungry, tired, exhausted man. "What Rusty?"
"You think that man in black forgot about us?"
"Don't know," Clem replied. "Reckon either he'll come back for us or some animal will get us."
"Animal?" Rusty squeaked in fear.
With another heavy sigh, Clem shook his head. "Never mind."
Travis stretched to the best of his ability. He had been in the wagon for a long time and had a long way to go. Right now what his body wanted more than anything was a soft featherbed in which to nestle. What his mind and soul demanded was a swift trip to the town where his grandson lived and seven men could easily lose their lives because he had failed to tell them what the papers were that he was keeping in the bank.
JD was already down, as was Standish. There was no sign of Chris or Nathan and Vin and Josiah were still away on the prisoner pickup in Roweville. He needed to get to town and get those damnable papers out before it got someone other than a gang of bank robbers, killed.
"We're boarding now, Mr. Travis," the driver said.
"Thank you," Orin replied, moving toward the coach and suppressing a groan as his body protested the enforced confinement. Within moments, they were once more on their way.
Just before dawn, Ezra blinked open his green eyes. He couldn't stop the low groan that escaped his abused body. Had it only been a day and a half ago he had fallen off his horse?
"Got some water for you," Buck said, moving the chair he was in so it was closer to Ezra.
The gambler eyed his friend and noticed the shadows that had been haunting the rogue for the past week seemed more distant. Whether that was the result of time passing or of the sharing of his burden, it didn't really matter to Ezra. It was just good to see Buck returning to himself. "I don't suppose I could convince you to substitute something stronger?" he asked, a note of hope in his voice.
Buck smiled broadly at the request. He knew exactly how Ezra felt and had been there a few times himself. "Nope," he replied. "Doctor's orders. Water for you when you wake up." Hearing the resigned sigh, he added, "Doctor also said once he comes back here, I could take you to soak in a nice hot bath."
"Mmm," Ezra replied, smiling like a Cheshire cat. "That might almost be worth drinking nothing more than water."
"Reckon right about now it would be," Buck agreed, noticing the lines of pain around his friend's eyes and mouth.
Reading the worry in the blue eyes, Ezra put on his poker face, commanding, "My cup." He smiled as the cup was placed in his hand. Allowing his eyes to roam across the room, he noted, "It would appear Mr. Dunne has shed his fever."
"During the night," Buck agreed.
Ezra saw the rogue's face grow serious as he watched JD. "Is there something the matter?" he asked.
Turning his attention back to the Southerner, Buck replied, "Something JD said. He said there were two gangs robbing banks around us and I think he's right."
Thinking over the information he had, Ezra nodded slowly, stopping when a bolt of pain shot through his head. "That does seem the logical conclusion," he agreed. "I'm not sure how we missed it." Then, as his eyes met Buck's another thought struck him. "We are going to be in dire straits if the second gang chooses to attack," he observed.
Wilmington nodded. "Already thought of that," he admitted. "About all we can do right now, short of calling in the army, is hope that the others get back to town before anything else happens."
Standish took a sip of water and nodded his agreement. They needed the others in town as soon as possible. He only hoped nothing would delay them.
Low moans and thrashing movements drew Larabee from his few hours of slumber. He and Nathan had traded off and he was sleeping while the healer watched the camp and the injured men. Sitting up, he could see Vin thrashing and soon another low moan escaped him.
"I could use you here, Chris," Nathan said, trying to keep Vin from hurting himself. "His fever spiked. I'm not sure if it's burning itself out or getting worse."
In an instant, Larabee crossed the short distance and knelt by the tracker's side. "What do you need me to do?" he asked.
"Take his hand and talk to him," Jackson instructed. "I'm going to get some cool cloths and some more tea for him."
Nodding his understanding, Chris caught Josiah's blue eyes for a moment and nodded at the ex-preacher who returned the nod and began to pray quietly. Taking Vin's hand in his own, Chris began softly, "Hey, there, Vin. Need you to settle down some so we can take care of you. All this thrashing around is only going to undo all that hard work Nathan put in and you know how he hates to have to do the same work twice."
He wasn't sure if Vin could hear him or not, but Tanner did begin to settle down, somewhat. Encouraged, he continued, "You gotta kick this fever, Vin. We got four miscreants tied up in the woods that need to be brought in. I figure You'd like the way they're tied up all safe and snug. You were the one who told me about it, after all."
Nathan returned to the now quiet man's side with a mug of willow bark tea. "Prop him up some," the healer instructed.
"I'm going to lift you up some now," Chris informed the ill man. "Need you to drink the tea Nathan's going to give you. Don't reckon it smells much better than boiled skunk, but he says it'll kick this fever right out of you and you know he doesn't lie about things like that." Sliding an arm under his friend's shoulders, Larabee lifted the restless form and shifted to offer better support to the injured Texan.
"You think you can feed him the tea?" Nathan asked. When he received a nod, the healer passed the mug to the gunslinger and picked up the pan of water they'd been using to cool the fevered men. "I'll be right back," he informed. "Just going down to the creek to get some fresh water."
"Okay," Chris agreed before turning his attention to Tanner. "I need you to drink this, Vin," he coaxed, placing the edge of the mug on the sharpshooter's lips.
"Nnnoooo," the Texan denied. The low, moaning protest was accompanied by the turning of his head to the side.
Sighing, Chris adjusted his grip and tried again, this time skipping the gentle coaxing and finding something more to the point. "Drink it now," he ordered. "Or we'll leave your scrawny carcass here and sell Peso to the lowest bidder."
The Texan's brow furrowed as the words penetrated. "Nnnooo," he protested again, though this time his head didn't turn away. "My... horse."
Larabee shook his head and he heard Josiah chuckle softly. Every man had a weak spot, the key was knowing what it was. "Then drink," he insisted, tipping the mug slightly. He was relieved when his friend accepted the vile brew and had to suppress a laugh at the face the man made.
He got about half of the mug into the fevered man before Vin slipped back into his restless sleep.
"How much did you get in him?" Nathan asked, returning from his trip to the stream.
"Half a mug," Larabee informed, setting the cup down and once more lying his friend on the blankets.
"Had to threaten to sell Peso to do it," Josiah interjected, amused.
Chris glared at the ex-preacher. "It worked," he replied, embarrassed that he had resorted to such tricks, but knowing it was for his young friend's own good.
"That it did," Josiah agreed with a nod and a smile as he rested his head back and closed his eyes, fatigue winning the current battle. "That it did."
20. "I don't like it," the boss said, straightening a pile of papers before setting them into a folder.
"The town's all but empty and the only peacekeeper looks about as alert as death warmed over," Donovan argued. "Now's the time to strike. We won't get a better chance."
"And that's exactly what you said when there was only that boy sheriff in town. Look how that turned out."
"That was a fluke and it won't happen again. That old coot and his cronies are probably too afraid to touch a gun again."
"Have you heard from the others?"
"Roweville's been cleared out. Those Six got killed in town. And I still haven't heard from Clem and the other three."
Sitting in his desk chair, the boss folded his hands and leaned his head back to stare at the ceiling. "That leaves us with what, four? We'll need at least ten or twelve men for the plan. How soon can we get enough people together to hit town?"
"Two, two and a half days," Donovan informed.
Sitting up straight, he met his man's eyes, "Do it."
Chris stretched and stared up at the sky. He judged it to be late morning or early afternoon. Either way the day was slipping by far too swiftly and Vin only seemed to be getting worse. Both he and Nathan had been working to calm the younger man, but it was Josiah's gentle recital of psalms which seemed to reach through the fevered dreams and soothe the Texan.
"Chris!" Nathan called from within the cave.
Turning, Larabee reentered the dim shelter, pausing for a moment to allow his eyes to adjust to the shade and shadows. Looking toward the healer, he could feel the stirrings of relief as he noticed the smile Jackson wore and hear the low chuckle from Josiah. "It broke," Chris breathed, crossing the short distance to his long-haired friend. Moving carefully around the ex-preacher, he settled onto the ground and reached over to brush a few sweat-soaked strands from Vin's face.
At the gentle touch, Vin's head turned toward the man in black. The mouth opened slightly and then closed. The eyes squinted shut a little tighter before being forced open. Eventually, the smallest slits of blue were visible. "Ch... ris," he identified, meeting the green eyes.
"Praise the Lord," Josiah lauded.
"Amen," Nathan intoned.
The sweat-soaked head turned slightly and eventually, the narrow gaze met Josiah's. "Ma... made... it... prea...cher," he said.
"That we did, son," Sanchez confirmed, swallowing back the lump that was suddenly in his throat. The terror of their ride out of Roweville, coupled with being unable to tend his friend, had been a heavy burden for the older man. But now, with the first positive signs, Josiah could feel that weight lift and was suddenly very tired.
"I think we have two men here who need to rest," Nathan said softly looking from one patient to the other.
Vin's head turned toward the third man. "N... Nate," he identified. "Sa...ved... th... day."
Jackson chuckled, flushing slightly at the compliment. "You go on to sleep now, Vin Tanner. Chris and I need to get you into a wagon and on home so I can tend you properly."
"'Kay," the tracker agreed, his eyes already closed. His breathing evened out a moment later.
"You, too," the healer commanded, staring at his long-time friend.
"Yes, sir," Josiah agreed around a yawn. "Was just settlin' in." Within moments, Sanchez joined Tanner in slumber.
Chris and Nathan sat quietly for several minutes, feeling the stress and tension of the past days slowly fall away. Even as their bodies craved the rest Vin and Josiah were experiencing, their minds wouldn't allow it.
"Reckon you have time to get there and back before dark?" Nathan asked, looking up at Chris.
His eyes resting on his healing men a moment longer, Larabee looked up. "Reckon so," he acknowledged.
Jackson nodded. "We'll be ready and waiting."
With a final nod, Chris rose and left the cave. A few moments later, the sound of his horse leaving could be heard in the clearing followed only by the gentle crackle of the low fire and the soft breathing of the two sleeping men.
Looking out the entrance, Nathan offered, "God's speed."
Travis felt the carriage lurch and immediately knew what had happened. Releasing a curse, he waited for the transport to come to a halt before he opened the door and stepped out.
"Wagon threw a wheel," the coach driver announced unnecessarily.
"I know," Orin replied glaring at the offending conveyance. He spat out a few choice words as he thought of the time they were losing. Turning toward the distant town that consumed so much of his time, his hands rested on his hips and his mouth pressed into a thin line. He didn't need this trouble now. The boys didn't need this trouble now. And God help her, Mary was more likely to step right into the middle of the trouble than she was to avoid it.
Taking a deep breath and blowing it out, he looked at the stagecoach driver and guard that was riding with them. "Let's get to it," he ordered, taking off his jacket and rolling up his sleeves.
Ezra released a sigh of bliss as he sank into the hot, herbal water.
"Take it you like that?" Buck asked, his smile evident in his voice.
Prying open one eye to peer at the muslin curtain separating him from his friend, Standish replied, "Sir, this bath is better than the softest of featherbeds. It is, quiet simply, heaven."
Wilmington chuckled. "If you want heaven, you should let me introduce you to Miss Becky, now she..."
"Really, Mr. Wilmington," Ezra interrupted, a smile appearing on his face. "I must insist you cease and desist your narrative immediately. It is hardly appropriate for you to be discussing a lady's attributes in such a public place."
Buck laughed out loud, relieved by his friend's teasing. If Ezra was well enough to pull his prim and proper act, then it was only a matter of time before he would be up and about. True, the doctor had said the headaches would last for a couple of weeks, and the stiffness and bruising for at least a few more days, but after all the tension of the past days, it was a relief to have hope. "Tell you what, then, Ez," he offered. "I'll just leave you here to soak in that tub and do a patrol of town. Let the good folk know that they have nothing to fear because Buck Wilmington is on the job."
He couldn't help it; Ezra snorted at that statement. "Perhaps someone should warn them to lock up their daughters and wives," he teased.
That statement drew another laugh from Buck. "That just makes it more interesting," he observed as he headed for the door, leaving his chuckling friend to soak out his aches.
"What Rusty?" came the longsuffering reply.
"You reckon he's ever coming back for us?"
Closing his eyes and biting back his desire to snap at the other man, Clem replied, "I reckon he's a man of his word. He'll be here."
Stepping out of the bathhouse, Buck looked down the street and headed off toward the General Store to greet Mrs. Potter and make sure the widow was doing all right. It also didn't hurt that any and all gossip in town seemed to flow through her store.
Nodding to several people along the way and taking a moment to chat to a few lovely young ladies, Wilmington entered the store. "Miz. Potter," he greeted.
"Mr. Wilmington," she greeted with a small smile. She didn't approve of the rogue's ways, but he was charming and he had been one of the men to help bring her husband's killers to justice.
"Beautiful weather we're having," the ladies' man observed, looking out the window.
"Indeed it is," agreed the widow.
Turning his blue eyes to meet those of the storekeeper, he asked, "Don't reckon you've heard of any clouds on the horizon?"
A twinkle came into the older lady's eyes as she smiled slightly. She did so enjoy passing along news. "Nothing of the kind you might be interested in," she admitted. "Though, rumor has it that Mr. Conklin is preparing a proper apology for our young sheriff."
"Is that right?" Buck asked, one eyebrow raising in question. "Tell me more..."
Thirty minutes later, full of all the latest news, Buck continued along his rounds. He stopped in at the bank and was pleased to see that all was well there. Making appearances at the hardware store, saloon and dentist's, he paused at the newspaper office.
Finding that there was no further word from Orin, he continued on toward the livery and spent some time tending his horse before returning to the bathhouse.
As he entered the steamy room, he made his way over toward Ezra's tub. "You about done in there?" he asked.
A heavy sigh was his first response. "I suppose," Standish admitted, his reluctance to leave the water evident. "I had the water heated again, but it is beginning to cool somewhat."
"All right then. Let's get you out of there and back to bed," Buck suggested, about to move the curtain to help Ezra stand.
"Allow me to do this myself," Ezra suggested. "After the soak, I do feel better and will need to move under my own auspices if I am to recover."
A smile appeared on Wilmington's face. He knew the protest was partially because Ezra hated having to depend on anyone else for help, but it was also partially because of Standish's modesty. Shaking his head and wondering how a man who had walked down main street in a tablecloth could have a modest bone in his body, Buck replied, "Alright. Just let me know if you need any help."
"Thank you," was Ezra's response.
JD heard the footsteps on the stairs and allowed himself to drop back on his pillow. Lifting the edge of his blanket with his good arm, he quickly wiped the sweat off his face and lay back. With several deep breaths, he once again had control of his breathing, though not of the pain his actions had caused.
It had seemed like a good idea at the time, but now he had his doubts. After Buck had taken Ezra to the bathhouse and Dr. Bigsby had been called away by one of the local merchants, JD found himself alone in the clinic. He knew that whoever was behind the attempted bank robbery would try again and they would need every gun they could get. Though one of his arms was useless at the moment, he still had one good one and he could shoot with either hand.
Determined to do what he could and prove to Buck and Ezra he was well enough to help, he had struggled to sit up and stand. His real goal was to walk at least across the clinic, but, he was far weaker than he originally thought. It had taken him four tries and sapped almost all his strength just to rise up into a sitting position. JD hadn't realized the extent to which he was relying on Buck and Dr. Bigsby for aid.
His struggle to sit has pulled on his healing wound and now fresh pain was radiating through his side with every breath. Reaching over to his wound, he ran his finger lightly over the bandage. Not feeling any sign of fresh blood, JD closed his eyes and said a brief prayer of thanks.
As the door opened, the young sheriff forced a smile on his face and called, "Hey, Buck. Ez. You guys bring anything to eat?"
Continued in Parts 21 to 25
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