by Sue Bartholomew
Disclaimer: The original characters from The Magnificent Seven are owned by MGM, Trilogy, and CBS. I am making no money from their use. Honest to Ezra!
Rating: PG for language, violence.
Author's Notes: This story started out as one scene I wrote last year. I tried to make it into a full blown story, then set it aside when it wasn't working, and finally came back to it in December when, voila! It actually started to make sense. BIG thanks to Carla, Carolyn and Kathy for being my betas - you guys are aces! :)
The name of Ezra's horse Chaucer originated with Kristin. Thanks, Kristin!
The main street of Four Corners bustled beneath the warm morning sun as the residents of the small frontier town prepared for another hot summer day. The stores and businesses swung open their doors as wagons and carriages rattled up and down the dusty thoroughfare. Passengers were gathering at the stagecoach stop, saying farewell to loved ones or impatiently checking their watches.
Not far down the street, the door to the Hotel opened smoothly and two finely-dressed figures stepped through to the porch, a handsomely clad young man escorting a beautiful older woman on his arm.
"Well, Mother, I must congratulate you on another brief but highly lucrative visit," the young man drawled in a slightly sarcastic Southern tone. "Once more you have given the good residents reason to remember your stop here in our forgotten little backwater."
The woman smiled as she adjusted her expensive feather-trimmed bonnet. "I must admit, Ezra darlin', that you have the most interestin' marks passin' through this town of yours. You must take better advantage of it before the opportunity escapes you."
Her son chuckled. "I am afraid the good Judge Travis would not look kindly on me fleecing the town I'm supposed to be protecting."
Maude's eyes flashed as she leaned in closer and spoke in a low voice. "Do the job properly, and no one will ever know. Besides--"
"Leavin' so soon?"
The pair stopped as a handsome, roughly dressed older man stepped before them, an amiable smile showing beneath his salt-and-pepper mustache. Maude shot him a flirtatious smile and raised her hand, which he took without hesitation.
"Yes, Josiah, sadly I must be off to Phoenix to comfort a dear, recently widowed relative. But I know I leave my son in the best of all possible hands."
"Not as good as the hands that raised 'im," Josiah replied warmly, planting a gentle kiss on the back of her gloved hand. "Sure hope y'come back soon."
"That will depend on how short some of the memories are around here," Ezra said casually, trying not to watch the flirtation between his fellow lawkeeper and his mother. He noticed a parcel in the preacher's hand. "Have you brought a token of esteem as well?"
Josiah lifted the parcel, glanced at it as if he'd forgotten it was there, and handed it to Ezra. "Oh -- Chris wants you to take these to David's Ford when you're done here. It's the money from their bank that we found on that bank robber we got last week."
A distant rattling from up the street announced the approach of the stage.
Maude let out a genteel gasp. "Oh my, there's the stage already. Goodbye, Josiah, I hope to see you again soon," she said smoothly, as she and Ezra hurried away. Josiah smiled, touched the brim of his wide hat, and watched as they trotted to the station before turning his steps towards his church up the street.
"I see they have you delivering mail now," Maude observed as they neared the small building.
Ezra sighed, knowing what was coming; they'd had this talk before. "Merely one of the more boring aspects of my duties here, I assure you."
"A man of your abilities acting as a delivery boy," Maude huffed as they arrived at the stop. "You're wasting your talents here. You could be making your fortune instead of playing poker with drunken cowboys for nickels."
The stage lumbered up to the stop, the gear squealing as the driver slowed the conveyance to a halt. Activity burst out all at once as passengers jumped off, luggage was unloaded, and the preparations made for the next leg of the journey.
"I assure you, Mother, I am making full use of the skills life and you have taught me," Ezra insisted in a tired voice.
Maude fixed him with a sharp glance. "Yes, but for whose benefit? Theirs?" She shot a quick look around at the swirling crowd. "I taught you those skills to better your own position, not everyone else's. Who knows how much longer you're going to have to stay here doing charity work for a dollar a day?" She bent towards him and said in a sharp whisper, "You should get rich now while the pickings are ripe."
The noise of the crowd increased as new bags were loaded on and the passengers began boarding the stage, shouting farewells and grunting as they tried to arrange themselves comfortably.
"Trust me, Mother, the situation is under control," Ezra assured her as he gave her a hasty kiss. "Now you run along to Phoenix and give my best to your dear bereaved Aunt Louisa."
"All right," Maude sighed as she returned the kiss and gathered up her silk skirt to board the stage. "I certainly hope she's as rich as her letter made her out to be, or else my attending her husband's funeral will be a horrible waste of time."
"Are we set to go down there?" the driver hollered, after Maude had climbed in. Ezra glanced up and him and gave a small shrug.
"Wait! Please wait!"
Both men turned in the direction of the youthful feminine cry. Two young women were hurrying towards the coach, one a tall, red-haired girl in a well-tailored traveling dress clutching a small satchel. The other girl was shorter and wore a rough shirt and dirty jeans, her long brown hair tied loosely into an untidy ponytail.
"Lord'a mercy, I almost missed it!" the red-haired girl gasped as she handed the satchel to up. Then she turned and gave a quick hug to her friend. "Goodbye, Casey, I'm so glad I got to visit you! It was fun!"
"Bye Tilda!" Casey said as they parted. "make sure you ask your parents if you can come for the Fourth!"
"I will!" was the reply as Tilda scurried aboard. "An' if any of the things I told you work on JD, I want you t'write an' let me know!"
"I promise!" Casey said as she waved. "Have a good trip back to Red Rock!"
"Okay, folks, step away, we're ready to go!" the driver yelled.
Ezra, Casey and the rest of the well-wishers stepped back and watched as she climbed aboard the swaying vehicle and situated herself with as much delicacy as possible among its passengers. The driver and coachman climbed back into the driver's seat, and when the time came a loud whip crack and a coarse shout set the horses in motion. Ezra stood and waved with the rest of them as the coach bumped and rattled back down the street.
After a moment he glanced at Casey, who was still bouncing a bit as she waved goodbye with great energy. Finally she stopped, and seemed to notice Ezra for the first time.
"Mornin', Ezra," she gasped with a smile.
"Good day, Miss Wells," Ezra replied, touching the brim of his hat. "It's a pleasure to see you had a nice visit with your friend."
"Oh, yeah," the girl said breathlessly, "we talked about, uh, all kinds of things. Well -- uh -- gotta go do my chores. Bye!" With that she put on the wide-brimmed hat she was carrying and ran back up the street, fairly exploding with excitement.
Ezra smiled as he watched her run, wishing it were possible to be so young and carefree again. Then his mind turned back to his mother's words, and as the crowd dispersed Ezra glanced at the package in his hand and headed towards the livery, his mind deep in thought.
The huge dark-haired man grunted as he surveyed what lay before him for a few moments, then spit in the hot desert sand with disgust.
What a damn waste of time!
He hefted his long rifle onto the shoulder of his dirty, frayed blue Army jacket as he slowly walked around the delivery wagon, watching as his skinny, scruffy-haired partner rifled the boxes stored on the top of the conveyance. On the ground nearby stood the driver, who despite the defiant glint in his eye could not conceal his trembling, any more than he could hide the bleeding bullet wound in his arm. The man eyed him with amusement; how he loved it when they looked afraid, and he knew his large size and the impressive scar running down the right side of his face only added to their fear.
"You gonna tell us where the gold is, mister?" the man snarled, pushing the barrel of his rifle into the man's ribs. "Or do you wanna join your friend back there, bleedin' his guts out?"
The driver sighed. "Ain't no gold, I told ya! I only got mail today."
The robber paused, then drove his fist into the driver's gut in frustration. As his victim collapsed onto the ground unheeded, his assailant looked up at his partner.
"Anythin' yet, Coyote?"
His partner grunted as he paused in his ransacking. "Nope, just a heap o' letters an' this box." He held up a large parcel.
"Dammit! Well, toss it down."
"Here ya go, Pete."
Coyote casually tossed down the dark parcel as the driver looked on in choked fear.
"Be careful with that!" he gasped, still on the ground clutching his stomach. Pete noticed his concern and palmed the box with a smile.
"Yeah?" he chuckled, slowly advancing on his supine prey. "An' why should I do that, you lyin' little shit? What's in here, money?"
The driver shook his head violently.
"Bet that's what it is, Pete!" Coyote yelled, still sitting on his haunches atop the wagon, his short brown hair blowing in the hot wind.
Pete propped his rifle up against one arm as his meaty hands tore carelessly into the paper wrapping of the package. "That's what I'm thinkin' too, Coyote," he growled. "An' if we're right, mister, then you're gonna find out what it's like to get yer head blown off."
He succeeded in unwrapping the parcel; inside the paper was a wooden box with a hinged lid. It had no lock, which caused Pete to scowl in anticipated disappointment; he yanked open the lid and frowned. Inside were several dozen tightly sealed bottles of a yellowish liquid.
"What the hell is this?" he snarled, shaking the box at the driver; its contents responded with a faint clinking.
"It's medicine!" the driver replied, almost angrily. "There's a fever in Red Rock, it's a special delivery."
"God--" Pete began to swear, and Coyote ducked; Pete sure could cuss up a mean streak when he was riled, and he was riled now. But to his partner's amazement, the huge man quickly calmed down, looking at the contents again with a smile.
"They need this purty bad, huh?" he mused, his filthy fingers dancing lightly over the clinking containers.
The driver nodded. "Yeah, telegram said folks were dyin'."
"Huh." Pete lifted one bottle out of the box, examining it as the sunshine set its contents sparkling. "Well, Coyote, I reckon we found gold after all."
Coyote sat back on his haunches and scratched his mustache. "What you thinkin' on, Pete?"
Before replying, Pete casually drew his gun and without the slightest hesitation shot the driver dead. The man fell back into the dirt as the loud report echoed off of the desert walls, but neither of the living men gave him any attention.
"Well," Pete replied, holstering his weapon, "way I figure it, if they're that desperate for this stuff, then I bet they'd pay just about anything for it." He smiled as he slid the bottle back into the box and closed the lid. "Wouldn't they?"
Vin sat idly on the corner of the jailhouse desk, munching on an apple and leafing through the new pile of wanted posters which was quickly growing smaller as the other occupant of the jail, a young dark-haired man with bright hazel eyes and fast hands, snatched them up and tacked them to the cork board on the wall.
"Recognize any of these guys, Vin?" the young man asked as he fastened yet another desperado's picture to the wall.
The tracker grunted, pushing his long golden-blond hair out of his eyes as he studied the drawings. "Yeah, JD," he said casually, licking his lips to clear them of the sticky-sweet apple juice. "Too many for my likin'. Shame they're still out there hurtin' folks."
"Least it means we'll never be out of a job," JD replied as he plucked another paper from the stack and looked it over. "Peter Lawson, wanted for robbery of Wells Fargo wagon on June 3rd, 7th,14th."
"Hmm," Vin muttered, swallowing. "I went after a Pete Lawson once, nasty cuss, big long scar runin' down his face." he stood and walked over to the board, looking on as JD tacked up the poster. "Yup, that's him. When I knew 'im he was robbin' banks, guess he got bored."
A tall, darkly clad figure strode in through the open door, a thin blond man with piercing green eyes. He took off his black wide-brimmed hat and wiped his forehead.
"Whew, I thought it'd be cooler in here," he breathed.
"Why should the crooks have it easier'n us?" Vin smiled, tossing his apple core away.
"Hey, Chris," JD smiled as he picked up the last poster. "I'm almost done, then the jail's all yours."
"Suits me," Chris sighed, sitting down at the desk and tossing his hat aside. "Gonna be another scorcher today, might as well be where nothin's happenin'."
"That why you sent Ezra to David's Ford with that money 'stead of goin' yourself?" Vin asked with a smile, standing up.
Chris shook his head as he gazed out of the window. "Nah, just figured he'd want to get out of town after havin' t'look after his ma. Seems she always has him whirlin' like a top when ever she's around."
"That's mighty thoughtful of ya, Chris," JD remarked as he cleared away the tacks.
Chris shrugged as he leaned back in the chair. "Just don't want him bein' all wound up when we might need him to watch our backs. Men get easily worked up in this kind of weather, an' we gotta be ready for anything."
There were more footsteps thumping on the wooden boardwalk, and a handsome young black man entered the jail shaking his head, a disgusted look on his gentle face.
"Tell you what, I better sit down or I'm gonna take a swing at somebody," he said angrily, swiping his hat of of his head in frustration.
Vin looked at him in surprise. "Don't usually see you riled, Nathan. Everything all right?"
"All right?" Nathan fumed, pacing with tense energy. "Everything won't be all right 'til we find some way t'get these damn snake-oil salesmen outta town."
Chris scowled. "Anybody in particular?"
Nathan huffed and looked out of the door, gesturing with his hat towards an unseen figure in the street. "Y'can start with him."
The men turned towards the window, Chris and Vin rising and going to the door to peer outside. Across the street in front of Mrs. Potter's store stood a small, stocky man in a slightly ill-fitting tweed suit, addressing a very small crowd of interested passers-by. His face was fleshy and smooth except for a thin goatee, and his dark eyes moved with ferret-like swiftness as he addressed his audience.
Next to him was an open case on a stand, its wares displayed in all their tawdry glory. Cheap necklaces, trinkets and watches sparkled in the bright sun, but most of the room seemed to be taken up by dark bottles of some unidentifiable substance. Across the back of the case, written in beautifully ornate letters, were the words SYLVESTER GREENE'S MIRACLE ELIXIR. In smaller but no less fancy letters beneath it was the legend CURES COUGHS, DYSPEPSIA, HEADACHE, FEMALE COMPLAINTS. ONLY $2 a BOTTLE. ACCEPT NO SUBSTITUTES! It was obvious from the steady stream of banter and his enthusiastic gestures towards his merchandise that the man was quite experienced at his business.
Vin snorted. "Seen enough hucksters like that out here."
"Afraid of a little competition?" Chris smiled as he walked slowly back into the jail.
"Competition hell!" Nathan almost yelled, his dark eyes snapping. "Them men are dangerous, sellin' folks fake medicine instead of lettin' 'em go to a real doctor."
JD shook his head as he watched the salesman sell a woman a necklace and a bottle of the elixir. "Well, he sure seems to know what he's doin'."
"Fraid he does, JD," Chris pointed out, settling back into the chair. "But there ain't nothin' we can do unless he breaks the law."
Nathan sighed, eying the huckster in a furiously suspicious manner. "Or kills somebody."
"If he does we'll let ya have first crack at 'im," Vin said, patting Nathan on the shoulder as he walked towards the door. "Now let's go help Josiah with that wall at the church before he comes lookin' for us."
Nathan nodded, putting his hat back on and following Vin out the door, his eyes still glaring at the salesman. Chris watched them go silently, his eyes serious as they strayed to the window, staring at the growing crowd in the streets.
"You think that guy might cause trouble, Chris?" JD asked, noticing Chris's pensive expression.
Chris barely moved as he shook his head. "Got no way of knowin', JD. Trouble's kinda like a summer storm -- sometimes you don't know it's comin' til it breaks right over your head."
The cool late afternoon wind wafted across the dusty mountain road, stirring the leaves of the trees which sparsely lined the way. The air was filled with the music of their soft rustling, mixed with the gentle clopping of hooves as a lone rider slowly made his way along the trail.
Ezra sighed and squinted at the unforgiving sun. The trip to David's Ford had been uneventful, and he was hoping to get back to Four Corners by nightfall, but a rockslide had forced him to detour from his expected route, and this one was taking him longer to travel. Perhaps he could stop somewhere up ahead for the night.
With a smooth motion he fished his silver hip flask from his belt and downed a swallow, trying to ease the dryness of his throat and fight off his disagreeable mood. He attempted to pretend that it was the heat, and the dust, that soured his disposition, because it was easier than admitting the truth -- or, more accurately, trying to figure out what the truth was in the first place.
As Ezra rode along and mused on the situation, he wondered if he had told his mother the truth earlier, about his talents being needed in his present line of work. His skills at deceit were not called for nearly as often as Nathan's healing prowess or Josiah's calming faith. Vin's tracking abilities were used almost constantly, and Chris's leadership capabilities had saved them all more than once. JD's youthful courage had led him to actions of fortuitous valor, while Buck's gunfighting skills had covered everyone's back on numerous occasions.
And Ezra? The gambler rubbed his neck and squinted at the sun. Well, he'd been asked a few times to use his subtle tactics when cruder ones had failed. But now that he thought about it, those times were far less frequent than he'd first recalled. In fact, he seemed to spend most of his times at Four Corners playing poker in the saloon and getting shot at. He could play poker anywhere, and did not much care for being a target.
Ezra sighed as he checked his pocket watch and mused on the sunlight filtering through the early summer leaves. He shouldn't complain, it wasn't a bad life, the other men were more than agreeable company and he had even found himself thinking of the place as home, or what he assumed a home was like, as he had never really had one. He realized that this made him nervous, this strange feeling of settling in somewhere. Maybe that was it, if he believed he was of no real use to the group, it would give him a reason to move on, as he was used to doing.
Or an excuse.
Not, he thought with a smile as he ducked a low-hanging tree branch, that he really had a choice. Judge Travis, and particularly Chris Larabee, had made it clear that Ezra had been hired to do a job, and he was expected to stay and do it. Ezra had never been in this position before, and found himself aching to leave yet hesitant to do so. It was most perplexing.
But Maude was right -- if that job was to shoot a gun at the bad guys, anyone could do it. His spot could easily be filled with another hired gun -- a convincing sob story to Travis and Larabee was all that was needed to release him from his duties -- and he would be free to resume his pursuit of wealth. Of course, that would make everything right and comfortable again.
He shifted in the saddle and gazed ahead; at least another six hours to Four Corners. Hopefully he was coming up to a town where he could stop for the night, his bad mood was really cramping his desire to travel.
The road widened, and Ezra could see small cabins ahead of him, with more dense settlement further on. He perked up and urged Chaucer along, images of a nice quiet saloon and some poker flitting through his weary brain. A small town, like Four Corners, by the looks of it, but it was a rare thing for a town of any size in these parts to not have at least one saloon or cantina.
As Ezra rode on he looked for anyone who might tell him what town he was in; but oddly enough, there seemed to be noone around. He passed several small houses, a farm or two, and noticed odd signs of recent evacuation; here a plow lay overturned in the dusty field, its horse long gone; there a line of laundry flapped in the warm breeze, a basket of clean clothes scattered on the ground nearby. Ezra fidgeted and fingered his Remington; something was wrong.
As he neared the town he saw someone up ahead of him on the road, a female figure leading a limping, pale horse. A young child no older than five sat unsteadily perched on the animal, while another, slightly older boy walked beside the woman. Eager for answers, and concerned, Ezra spurred his mount on, determined to find out what was going on.
At the sound of the approaching hoofbeats, the woman turned her head, and Ezra could see she was almost frantic with worry. As he reined in she stopped as well, and took the hand of the boy on the horse.
"Madam," Ezra nodded, touching his hat brim and surveying the situation. "Are you in--"
"Please, sir," the woman said, cutting him off as she caught at Chaucer's bridle, "my son must get to the convent at once, and our horse has gone lame. All I have is yours if you will take him, it's just up the road."
"Now, now," he soothed, seeing that the woman was distraught; he looked around for signs of a trap or ambush but saw nothing. "I'll be happy to help, Mrs.--"
"Julia Ward," was the anxious reply.
Ezra nodded. "Now, Mrs. Ward, what's the matter with your boy?"
She choked back a sob as she reached up and gently removed the boy from the back of the pale horse. Ezra studied him closely; he was pale and sweaty, and barely conscious, his arms and legs limp as a doll's.
"I don't know, sir," was the anguished reply as she gently handed him to Ezra. As soon as he touched the boy's skin, Ezra felt how fiercely hot the boy was. He looked at the mother in surprise.
"He's burning up," he murmured, cradling the child in his arms. "He needs a doctor."
"The doctor is at the convent," was the half-sobbed reply. Ezra thought for a moment, then gathered up the reins.
"Then , madame, your son shall soon be there as well. What is his name?"
"James. Please hurry, we'll be right behind you."
Ezra nodded, and spurred his horse forward, holding the boy in front of him as he rode. As they sped along he could feel the boy's fever burning through his clothes. Ezra swallowed a lump in his throat; surely this child didn't deserve to die so young.
A low, wide white building surrounded by a gated wall loomed up on his right; the convent, he assumed, and he veered Chaucer through the opem gate and over to the hitching post in a swirl of dust. Swiftly dismounting, he lifted the boy in his arms, ran inside -- and stopped.
He was in a large, dark room, lit by several windows and the fitful glare of numerous oil lamps. As his eyes adjusted to the gloom, he could see people rushing to and fro, women mostly in white habits -- the nuns of the place, though he couldn't discern the order. Then he noticed the cots-what looked like three dozen, filling almost every inch of space in the room. Most of them were occupied with people in varying stages of consciousness, some perfectly motionless, others tossing in restless sleep. A few nuns were engaged in sponging sufferers with cold water. Ezra stared, realizing how much it reminded him of the hospitals during the War, a scene he had never wanted to revisit.
Ezra turned to see a nun looking at him, her face shiny with sweat, her habit stained with water. She wore no head covering; her dark hair was pulled back loosely, with many strands escaping to hang in damp strands around her narrow face. She looked slightly older than Ezra, her serious face lined with the marks of a difficult life.
Still slightly stunned, Ezra handed her the small boy. She accepted the child with a look of sorrow and quickly moved to place him gently on the nearest cot.
"What's happening here?" he finally gasped, following her.
"We aren't quite sure," was the sad reply as she took off the boy's shirt. "It started a few days ago, and now it seems the entire town is ill." She sighed and drew a weary hand across her forehead, looking up at Ezra with pained eyes. "Is this your son, sir?"
Ezra started. "Oh -- no, I'm just, er, helping out. His mother will be here shortly. But he must see the doctor immediately."
She pursed her lips and rose slowly, as if every bone ached. "I'm afraid we've lost our doctor. He fainted two hours ago."
"My God," Ezra gasped; he'd seen fevers strike in the South with alarming swiftness, and knew what they could do. He thought for a moment. "Is your telegraph office nearby? I have an associate who will be of great assistance to you."
She eyed his brightly colored clothing and raised an eyebrow in surprise. Ezra recognized the look and smiled tightly.
"He's a healer, not a gambler, I assure you."
She sighed deeply as she reached into a basin of cold water and wrung out a rag. "Healer or gambler, any service he might render would be more than welcome. But our telegraph operator died yesterday."
"While I am sorry to hear that," Ezra said quickly," it poses no obstacle to me, I am familiar with the equipment."
She smiled in relief. "Oh, thank the Lord. Your friend would be a blessing, we need all the help we can get until the medicine gets here. We're expecting a delivery--"
A loud crash interrupted her, and they both looked over to see a large patient thrashing in his bed, delirious. He easily overpowered the nuns who tried to hold him.
Without a pause, Ezra stripped off his jacket and leapt to the bed, struggling to grab the man and prevent him from hurting himself or those around him. To his surprise, the nun was soon on the man's other side, grasping one of the sufferer's wrists in an iron grip. Ezra found himself impressed at her obvious strength; the sleeve of her habit had slipped down, and he could see how muscular her arm was. The skin was tan and tough-looking, with a few nasty-looking scars. She had obviously not been a nun all of her life.
"My thanks for your assistance," Ezra grunted as he tried to push the man back down on the cot.
The sister snorted and forced the man's arm down to his side. "While most of my strength comes form the Lord, I find having some of my own comes in handy as well. It's about the only good thing my former life left to me."
The patient renewed his thrashing, almost dashing the nun and Ezra to the floor in his exertions.
"I'm afraid the telegram must wait for now," Ezra panted as he firmly grasped the man's other wrist, "but once we have things in hand here, you must show me where the office is. My friend can be here by midnight, and I am confident he can keep your people alive until the medicine arrives."
As they wrestled the delirious man into submission, Ezra looked up to see a few more people stagger through the doors, followed by the distraught mother and her son, who went straight for her ill child, kneeling by his bedside. Ezra watched her keenly, his heart aching at the mother's grief.
"I only pray," he whispered, "that we are in time."
"Can't we stop now, Pete? I'm powerful bushed."
Coyote's plaintive wail hung in the hot afternoon air as he and Pete Lawson trudged their weary horses through the dry brush of the foothills. The sun was going down now, but the heat was still fierce.
"Oh, shut up," Pete mumbled as he mopped his brow with a dirt-smudged bandanna. "We're almost there."
Silence fell again, marked only by the gentle clinking of the glass bottles in the box strapped to Pete's saddle.
"What you gonna do with that box, Pete?" Coyote asked after he got tired of the quiet.
"You'll know soon enough," was the angry reply, and the rest of the ride took place without another word being spoken.
Finally Pete stopped and said, "Okay, this is it."
Coyote looked around; they were in a wide, grassy area in the foothills, desolate of any signs of habitation except for a run-down cabin half-hidden in the tall grass and tangled trees.
"We're gonna hole up here for a while," Pete growled as he urged his foaming mount on. The dry grass crackled beneath the horses' hooves as the picked their way to the cabin. "Red Rock's about two miles that way. This'll be perfect."
"Perfect for what?" Coyote asked in a puzzled voice as he eyed the scraggly surroundings with doubt.
Pete smiled. "Deliverance, my friend. Sweet deliverance."
The telegraph office was growing dark by the time Ezra found it, and it took him more than a few minutes to find and light the lamp. As its feeble light flared to life, he took a deep breath and straightened, stretching his sore muscles. It had been a long day, and showed no signs of ending soon.
It had been a grueling several hours since he'd arrived at Red Rock; he'd spent the time calming delirious patients, carrying water, and helping the few ambulatory men clear heavy furniture out of the building so more room could be made for the stricken. Now he was weary, disheartened by the size of the situation -- it seemed as if most of the town was ill -- and impatient to summon help as quickly as possible.
Worry ate at his mind as he mopped his wet brow. The boy James was very ill, and if he didn't get this equipment working soon he likely would not survive. But if anyone could help them, Nathan could, at least until the medicine arrived.
As his eyes searched keenly for the switch to power the generator, his mind played back the events he had recently witnessed. He had rarely felt so helpless as he did in the face of all that suffering, especially the children; he had done what he could, of course, but it felt like barely enough. In his melancholy state he could not help but wish that Chris, or Josiah, or Buck had come with him. They had skills which would have come in handy much better than his; knowing how to con and swindle did little good in such a crisis.
Ezra shook his head quickly, as if trying to shake such thoughts away. He was having an unusually hard time concentrating, and going off on self-critical tangents wasn't going to solve anything. A sharp headache throbbed dully behind his eyes, but he ignored it, blaming it on his bad mood. Those sick people, including young James, were depending on him.
At least I can get this running for them, he thought as he sat down and continued to search for the switch. It was getting hard to see, but after some time his persistence was rewarded as he found the switch and turned it on. The equipment hummed to life, and he smiled, relieved and thankful that he had learned his way around a telegraph office. The knowledge had been quite useful in more than a few cons.
He looked around for the headset, finally locating it on a peg above the table. Taking a deep breath, he stood and reached for it.
A violent wave of dizziness crashed over him; he was dimly aware of his fingers brushing the rough surface of the table as he tried to grab it for support. Then the scene before him tilted and he felt himself falling, slamming onto the wooden floor with painful force. He lay there gasping and bewildered for a moment, waiting for the lightheadedness to subside. It didn't, and Ezra closed his eyes against the unnerving sensation with a moan.
Good Lord, he thought as he broke out into a sweat; it felt as if the room was spinning furiously around him. With extreme effort he lifted one trembling arm and closed the fingers around the edge of the table; maybe he could hoist himself up. He tried several times to lever himself into the chair, but all the strength seemed to have left his body. Every attempt only brought on new waves of dizziness, accompanied now by racking chills.
His stomach churned angrily, then stabbed him with excruciating pain. With a cry he toppled back to the floor, doubling up in anguish. He tried to think, but failed miserably; his mind was clouded and confused, and it seemed impossible to form any coherent thoughts. He felt as if he were being pulled out of himself, everything becoming distant except for the pain, and he lay motionless on the floor.
After what seemed like several hours, he heard running footsteps striking the wooden boardwalk, and a feminine voice shouting out orders. What those orders were, he could not begin to decipher; everything was spinning much too fast, and he was too frightened and disoriented to make out the words.
A cool hand was pressed against his sweat-soaked face; then there were more hands, roughly lifting him up and carrying him quickly, his entire body aching at every jarring step. The world continued to spin, its gyration sweeping away all reason, until with a painful rush it pulled him down into a black, bottomless void.
THE NEXT DAY
Chris Larabee strode out of the jail, squinting into the late morning sun and trying to squelch the feeling that something was wrong.
"You're lookin' a might cross there, pard," drawled a smiling, lazy voice nearby. "Best set a spell an' cool off."
The black-garbed gunslinger looked over to see Buck Wilmington lounging on a chair by the door, his legs stretched before him in an attitude of relaxation. The expression on Buck's face was one of cautious appraisal, the lips beneath his black mustache curled in a half-smile which threatened to grow wider if given the proper nudge.
"Just wonderin' what the hell happened to Ezra," Chris muttered. "David's Ford ain't that far, he should've been back last night." Chris walked to where Buck sat and leaned against the wall, supporting himself on one hand while placing the other on his hip. He surveyed the street and continued to frown.
Buck sighed and swept the area with his blue eyes. "Yeah, keepin' them tumbleweeds in line's just plumb wore me out," he observed dryly as the wind puffed some dust down the street. "Now look, I reckon ol' Ezra's just run into a card game or somethin', or maybe a spot of bad road. If there was trouble he'd have sent a wire. He's just gettin' his breath back after spendin' time with that ma of his. He'll be along."
Chris nodded and stared out into the street, thinking. After several silent minutes, Buck sat up with a loud THUNK as the chair he'd been leaning in made hard contact with the wooden porch floor.
"No offense, Chris, but I can see that hangin' around you this morning's gonna be about as excitin' as a snail race." Buck stood and straightened his tan coat. "I'm gonna head on over to the saloon an' see if Molly..."
His voice trailed off, and he looked at Chris with a puzzled expression as the noise of an approaching vehicle reached their ears. Chris's face bore the same confused look; there was a dark gleam of alarm in his green eyes. He heard it, too.
"Is that the mail?" Buck asked, although they both knew the answer; they could hear the thunder of the horses' hooves and the rattling of the stagecoach gear as it drew close to rounding the corner.
Chris didn't answer, turning instead to watch the conveyance's approach. He said nothing, because he knew that Buck was thinking the same thing: the mail had already come that morning, and there were no more delivery wagons due until tomorrow. This was an unexpected arrival, and that usually meant trouble.
Both men heard the hoofbeats of a single horse mixed in with the more cacophonic thudding of the wagon team; after a moment Vin whipped around the corner ahead of the vehicle. He pulled up in front of Buck and Chris, his handsome boyish face wrenched in worry.
"Hey, Vin," Buck said, coming forward as a shot-up wagon lurched into view and bounced to a stop behind the rider. "What's goin' on?"
"We got trouble, boys," Vin replied, trying to steady his horse as it danced nervously. He nodded behind him. "Found this empty mail wagon out on patrol."
Buck peered inside; there were two large, loosely wrapped shapes lying on the seats. He looked up at Vin, who knew the question forming on Buck's lips.
"That's the driver an' his partner. Reckon the robbers shot ‘em an' took the horses; once I informed the line, they wanted to rig ‘er up and ride ‘er to the closest town. Mr. Hethrow here's with the company." Vin jerked his head back to indicate the somber-faced older man who sat in the driver's seat; he acknowledged Vin's attention with a scant nod but said nothing.
Chris frowned as he looked up at Vin. "Was it a robbery?"
The younger man nodded grimly, his blue eyes cloudy with anger. "Reckon so, but they stole more'n money."
The driver pulled out a piece of paper and handed it to Chris. "That's the cargo list," he explained. "We went through the mail, an' the only thing that's missin' is a shipment of fever medicine for the town of Red Rock."
"Why would them robbers want medicine? They can't use it," Buck wondered, peering at the list.
Vin shrugged. "Maybe they were gonna sell it, or try an' get the folks it was goin' to t'buy it back. Either way, it looks like those people at Red Rock could use some help."
Chris stood thinking for a moment, then straightened and looked at the other men. "I'll go telegraph Red Rock, see if the law there knows about this, an' if they need our help."
Vin nodded. "Mr. Hethrow an' I'll see to this wagon. I'll meet you all in the saloon."
"Sounds good," Buck agreed, and they parted, Chris striding towards the telegraph office as Vin and the wagon trotted down the street towards the livery.
Buck frowned as he stood at the bar and peered through the smoky interior of the saloon. In this crowd, he couldn't tell if Molly, the black-haired working girl, was here or not, and he felt sure it would be a while before Chris would be back. He sure didn't want to be bored while waiting...
Someone slapped him heaviily on the back, and he turned. To his surprise, Chris stood behind him, along with a worried-looking Vin.
Buck studied them and sighed. "Things aren't good at Red Rock, huh?"
His old friend eyed him keenly, his nerves clearly on edge. "Don't know if it's good or not -- the telegraph office couldn't raise them at all."
Buck leaned back against the bar and wiped his forehead with the back of his sleeve. "Maybe they're just havin' trouble with their equipment."
"Maybe," Chris muttered, "but I'd feel better if I knew for sure. Whoever took that medicine might still have it, an' their law might need some help bringin' 'em in." He looked at Buck. "Buck, you an' JD better stay here, keep an eye on things. JD's so young, he might be likely to catch whatever these folks've got, an' if things get rough he might need your help."
"I'll go get Josiah an' Nathan," Vin volunteered. "Sounds like these folks'll need some doctorin' an' prayin'." He nodded to the two men and walked out into the dusty sunlight.
"Hell of a time for Ezra to go missin'," Chris muttered as he and Buck walked through the saloon and out into the street. "If he shows up, send him on over, it sounds like we might need all the guns we can get."
Buck nodded, his expression still dark. "Sure will, Chris. Wonder who this sonuvabitch is -- stealin' medicine an' lettin' folks die that never done him no harm."
"It's a new one on me too, Buck," Chris admitted after a pause, his voice oddly choked. "The damned thing about it is, it doesn't surprise me."
With that, Chris stepped off the sidewalk and strode with determination towards the livery.
Pete grinned smugly as he sat outside of the small, dilapidated shack he used for his hideout. If all went as he planned, he would be bidding this Godforsaken dump goodbye forever in a matter of hours.
Not that it was a bad hideout, he mused as he studied his surroundings; its location in the scrubby, overgrown foothills, surrounded by patches of thorns and brush, made it difficult to find and get to. It even had a small mountain spring close by for water. But a man like him, who had served in the army and fought for his country, deserved so much better. Why let the measly fact that he'd murdered a few of his fellow soldiers and no-good Indians stand in the way of his just reward?
A crashing in the brush alerted him, and he sat up, his gun in hand as his beady eyes searched the brush. Coyote appeared, bobbing across the field of thorns and weeds towards the cabin.
"Someone's comin'!" Coyote cried.
Pete's grip on his gun tightened. "Is it the law?"
"No," was the shouted reply, "it's a woman!"
Pete smirked and lowered his gun. Now things would really get fun.
"She's ridin' a mule," Coyote panted as he arrived at the cabin, sweat glistening on his brow. "She's all in white, looks like a nun or somethin'."
"Huh -- must be from Red Rock," Pete surmised. "That means they got my message -- good."
"Well, I nailed it to their church door just like you said," Coyote said testily, wiping his brow on his sleeve.
A white figure appeared in the clearing, picking its way carefully. Pete stared at it.
"Get the box," he said quickly, nudging his partner sharply. "You know what I said -- if there's even a hint of Army or law, the whole thing gets smashed on the ground."
"You got it, Pete," Coyote said, ducking inside.
He waited for her to get close. Pretty, he mused, even though she was dirty and her nun's habit was stained with sweat and dirt. He stood, the gun in plain sight in his hand, until she was within twenty feet of the cabin.
"Close enough!" he barked, pointing his gun at her.
She reined in, straightening in the saddle as she pulled a piece of paper from her skirt and held it out to him. "Are you the one who left this note on the church door in Red Rock?" she asked in a clear, firm voice.
She's trying not to look scared, he noted with amusement. "Yeah. You from Red Rock?"
"Yes," she nodded. "I'm Sister Margaret."
"Huh," Pete grunted, unimpressed. "How the hell did you find me?"
"I thought you might be using this cabin. I'm -- familiar with this area," she said with slight hesitation as she began to dismount.
"Hold it!" Pete shouted, bringing the gun up. "Anything you got to say, you can say on the mule. I don't want no tricks, or my partner there will drop the whole box."
Coyote lifted the box a bit, to make sure she saw it in his hands. "That's right, Pete!"
She hesitated, then sat back up, her black eyes angry. "I assure you, I am not one for 'tricks'. I have only come to beg for the medicine to help our suffering people."
Pete studied her. "You know what the terms are -- $3000 in gold an' a signed pardon from the Army."
Margaret produced a small bag and held it out to him. "I've brought you all of the money we have. It's not as much as you wanted, but--"
Pete walked up to her, watching her carefully as he snatched the bag from her hand. After peering at its contents, he looked up at her, his eyes burning with anger.
"Then it ain't gonna be enough, is it?" he snarled, shoving the bag into his pocket anyway. "Now you ride back to town an' get what I asked for, or you'll have to answer to that God of yours for every one of your folks that dies."
Her expression hardened as she glared at him. "The sin will be on your head, not mine. And I fear God will judge you heavily for it."
Pete laughed. "Hey, it ain't my fault! You know what to do to get what they need. If you don't do it an' they die, that's your doin', not mine. An' don't you go gettin' no law involved, or you don't get one drop." He looked up at the sun. "An' you best hurry, missy, before there ain't noone left to save."
She gazed at him in righteous anger, began to say something, then thought better of it. There was an expression on her face briefly, one of absolute and barely controlled rage; it was swiftly hidden, but her eyes still burned. Turning the mule quickly, she trotted through the field and back towards the town.
"Ha!" Pete snorted, pulling out the bag and gazing at its contents again. "Damn bunch of cheats, can't be more'n fifty dollars in here."
Coyote poked his head out of the cabin. "She was the meanest-lookin' nun I ever seen. What if she gets the law, Pete?"
"Then she'll get to watch her whole town die," Pete said with a smile as he sat back down to watch the afternoon.
JD sat outside the jail, wiping his forehead on his sleeve and wondering if he'd ever get used to the heat around here. He loved being out West, but the weather certainly wasn't anything like Boston...
He pursed his lips with boredom as his gaze idly wandered over the scene in the street. Chris and the others had left hours ago, and now it was up to him and Buck to keep things orderly. Caution tempered his mood; on days like these, anything could start a brawl, and he knew his boredom could instantly be relieved in the most unpleasant way.
Across the street, JD could see Sylvester Green was likewise suffering from the lull. The fast-talking huckster had no one to talk to, and JD felt slightly amused at the man's obvious restlessness. Guess he don't feel right unless he's yakkin' a mile a minute, the young man thought with a smile.
He glanced over at the hotel, frowning. It sure seemed busy; a lot of people were standing on its porch and going in and out of its doors. While he was watching, one of the owners came out and hung a sign on the front door. JD couldn't read it from so far away, but judging from the disappointed moans it brought forth, and the large number of people now drifting away from the building, he assumed it said something on the order of 'no vacancy'. This astonished him; he had never seen the hotel full before.
"Hey, kid, what's the big attraction?"
JD looked behind him to see Buck strolling down the boardwalk towards him. He pointed at the hotel in answer. "Look, the hotel's turnin' folks away. Is there a meetin' or somethin' in town?"
Buck eyed the crowd, his blue eyes slightly confused. "None that I know of. That is a passel of folks, ain't it? Never saw the likes of that in this li'l ol' town."
Some of the crowd was flowing down past the jail, muttering among themselves. A middle-aged couple in clean but well-worn clothing passed by; the woman glanced at Buck, then stopped.
"Excuse me, sir," she said in a friendly voice, her full, amiable face wearing an expression of anxiousness, "but is there another hotel in this town?"
Buck straightened and pointed up the street. "There's a few little ones up yonder, an' a coupla boardin' houses, ma'am."
The man, an older, bearded type, sighed. "They're probably full too, Emmie. Let's just go on to Eagle Bend."
Emmie seemed hesitant. "But I heard it was there, too."
Buck frowned. "What was there, ma'am?"
She gave him a sharp look, a tiny flicker of fear in her green eyes. "The fever. It's spreading all over the territory, from what I understand."
"We just came from Red Rock," the man explained, his tone serious. "Lucky to get out alive, from what I hear tell. Folks was droppin' like flies when we left."
JD and Buck looked at each other, then back at the couple. Buck gestured towards the crowd now swelling through the streets.
"Are all these folks from Red Rock?"
The couple glanced at the people streaming by. Emmie nodded. "Yes, most of 'em. We all left town quick as we could, before we caught it."
"An' came here," JD deduced, eying the multitude with apprehension.
"Yup," the man replied, scratching his thin red beard. "Now we're tryin' t'find some nearby town t'stay in til its safe t'go home again."
Buck drew a deep breath. "Well, just try your luck down the street, mister. You folks need any help, just give ol' Buck a holler an' I'll do what i can for ya."
She nodded and muttered "Thank you" before they hurried away. The crowd was thinning now, but JD could see more people stopping at the hotel. The owner now seemed to be engaged in a heated discussion with a burly-looking gentleman on a horse who was carrying a heavy-looking carpetbag.
"Just what we need, with the others gone," Buck said in a low, worried voice as he rubbed his chin. "JD, you keep an eye on things, I'm gonna go telegraph around an' find out if this fever is spreadin' like they said. If the other towns are safe after all we can send some of these poor folks over there."
"Right," JD said, still watching the hotel owner's fight with concern.
Buck whapped his shoulder, then hurried off towards the telegraph office. With slow deliberation JD sat back down, his hands straying unconsciously to his gunbelt. The combination of the heat and the crowds made trouble more likely than ever, especially if their visitors were in a bad temper -- and since most of them would be scared and homesick, they would probably not be happy.
A jubilant voice caught JD's ear. Startled, he glanced across the street to where the salesman was now speaking quickly with a group of newcomers, exchanging rapid banter with them and gesticulating at his wares with great skill. He seemed successful, as all of the travelers bought bottles of his elixir. Mr. Green looked very pleased; more people soon showed up, and he was shortly surrounded by a large and attentive crowd. From what JD could hear, he was now ignoring his other merchandise and talking solely about the elixir.
Well, I guess he's happy, JD thought glumly, and sat back to continue his watch.
The streets of Red Rock were deserted as Chris and his men rode into town. Chris's green eyes studied the empty shops and ghostly sidewalks, finding only vacant windows and doors staring blindly back at him. Somewhere a dog barked, and they could hear the shutters of a home banging rhythmically in the wind. But other than a rattlesnake winding its slow way across the road, there were no visible signs of life.
Behind him rode Josiah, Nathan and Vin, each man's face expressing the same sadness as they contemplated the desolate scene before them.
"Maybe we're too late," Vin muttered.
"This town's got a convent at the other end," Josiah offered. "Maybe that's where they are."
"Good a place as any to look," Chris muttered, and they moved up the street.
They passed through the main part of town. A few people hurried along the sidewalks, regarding Chris and his men with suspicion. Most of the stores here were closed, the livery almost empty. The party clopped past a small gray clapboard church, its door shut tight.
Josiah shook his head sadly. "Looks like even God's deserted this afflicted town," he mumbled.
A low, flat-roofed white building encircled by a white stone wall came into view at the end of the street, and before they got too close the men could see many people -- obviously most of the town's inhabitant's -- lying or sitting outside the building's doors, being tended to by several sisters of the order whose once-white habits were now gray with water and dirt. As they rode through the open gate, a few of the sisters looked up, their weary faces frozen in expressions of alarm. One of them leapt to her feet and dashed inside.
"I think the welcomin' committee's on its way," Vin said softly as they reined in outside of the convent's yard. Chris pursed his lips and said nothing.
After a few moments the sister returned, accompanied by another nun. This one appeared older and even more weary; her wimple was off, revealing thick gray-streaked brown hair tied back at the base of her neck, much of which was now coming loose. Her wide face was set in a hard, angry expression as she studied the small group of horsemen.
"What do you want?" she snapped.
There was a pause. Then Josiah leaned forward. "It's all right, Sister. We're here to help."
She hesitated, unsure, her hands clasping and unclasping nervously into fists. "He didn't send you?"
"I don't know who 'he' is," Chris said in a calm, deadly voice, "but if he's the ones causin' the trouble here, I'll be happy t'make his acquaintance."
"I'm not sure who it is exactly myself," the Sister said grimly as she fished a piece of paper out of her pocket and handed it to Chris. "But this was found nailed to our church door this morning."
Chris frowned and read the note aloud, his voice growing tighter with anger at each passing word.
"'To the citizens of Red Rock. I will return your medicine in exchange for $3000 in gold and a blank signed pardon from the US Army. Don't try nothing funny or the entire batch gets dumped. Deposit the money and the pardon by Indian Head Rock. The sooner you act the fewer of you will die.'" He crumpled the note in his fist and sighed, looking away. "Just when you think the scum out here can't get any worse..."
"I went to see him today and gave him all the money we had, but it isn't enough," the Sister said sadly. "And the pardon--"
Chris shook his head. "We'll figure some other way t'get your medicine, Sister. We ain't gonna let this person go free t'keep hurtin' innocent people."
"Got any idea at all who this guy is?" Vin asked.
"I heard his partner call him Pete," she replied. "I'm afraid that's all I know about him. He was a large man, with a scar here," She indicated her right cheek.
Vin shifted in his saddle and glanced at Chris. "Sounds like Pete Lawson t'me."
Her black eyes scanned the rough-looking men. "You've really come to help?"
"If we can," Chris said with an assuring nod. "I'm Chris Larabee, me an' the boys here look after things in Four Corners for Orin Travis, the circuit court judge for this territory. Vin here found your mail wagon this morning missin' the medicine."
"I'd like t'look over your folks," Nathan piped up. "I know a few things about healin', might be able t'lend you a hand."
"You're certainly welcome to try," the nun said in a tired, grateful tone. "There's no one here who can operate our telegraph and we have had no way to reach anyone. A few riders have gone out for help, but we've received none so far."
"Where's your law?" Vin inquired, looking around.
The nun sighed. "Sheriff Walters was killed last week in a bank robbery, and his replacement isn't due until next week. We had some volunteers keeping the peace, but they've all fled or gotten ill. Now we have no one." She studied them for a moment with a small smile. "So -- I suppose I must regard your appearance as a miracle."
"Never been called one of those before," Vin grinned a she slid off of Sire and tipped his hat to the Sister. "We'll do what we can t' help, Sister."
"I'm Sister Margaret," was the reply. "You must forgive my rudeness earlier. Things have been -- well--"
Josiah nodded, his blue eyes dark. "We understand, Sister. Evil has a way of makin' even the holiest person somewhat testy."
She sighed in agreement and motioned them inside.
The interior of the convent was dim and hot, and as their eyes of the men adjusted to the light in the large room they could see rows of cots, all full, and people sitting on the floor against the walls in various attitudes of suffering. Here and there sheets had been hung across the ceiling to afford a little privacy. The air hung heavy with the sounds of delirium and anguish as several sisters went to and fro among their charges, doing whatever lay in their power to offer comfort. At one door in the back of the room, two men were busy carrying out the shrouded bodies of those who had lost their struggle to survive.
Nathan gazed around the room, his lips pursed in frustration. "I got some herbs that'll help, but -- not nearly enough for this many. But I'll do what I can."
Josiah was taking off his coat. "I'll be glad to help too, Sister. Got a few prayers that might help those needin' God's word."
"An' I think we can take care of whoever's troublin' you," Chris said, his voice icy with anger as he glanced at Vin.
The nun gave them a weary smile. "Thank you all for your help. We put the doctor's things over in those boxes -- you are welcome to use anything that might help." She pointed to some crates in a darkened corner, and Josiah and Nathan nodded their thanks and moved off to see what they could find.
"You say you went to see this Pete feller?" Vin asked softly, fixing her with a sharp gaze. He was studying her very closely, although she didn't see it. But Chris did.
She nodded. "He's holed up out by Indian Head Rock, at an abandoned cabin. And he's not in a very cooperative mood."
"You did a good job in findin' 'im," Chris said with an impressed bow of his head.
She shrugged, an uneasy light in her eyes. "It's -- I've heard outlaws like to use that place to hide. It's very secluded and you can see anyone coming from a mile away. Which is why we have to be careful -- if he thinks we've got the law coming down on him, he'll destroy the medicine and by the time we get more most of the town will be dead."
"He's got t'know he'll be taken down if he tries anything," Vin noted, leaning back against the wall as he thought out the situation.
"He doesn't care," was Sister Margaret's bitter reply. "He just wants that pardon, and he's willing to bet we'll trade the lives of our town for it. And I have no idea what he even needs the pardon for."
Vin's eyes took on a hard edge. "If it's Pete Lawson," he said with grim softness, "it's somethin' these walls shouldn't hear, Sister."
Josiah squinted up at the dim light as he and Nathan searched the boxes for useful implements. "Maybe we oughta take these outside, Nate. I can't see a blamed thing."
Nathan nodded. "Yeah, let's get 'em out to the doorway. The doctor's stuff ain't on top, it must be at the bottom. Figures."
They rose and scooted the heavy crates outside, into the convent's courtyard. Aside from a few sufferers who lay in the shade of the building, the area was deserted.
Josiah pulled out some clothing and set it aside. "Looks like it's mostly clothes in here."
"Must be from the sick folks," Nathan muttered as he rummaged through his box. "Don't go catchin' nothin'. I ain't strong enough to lift you onto a cot."
"I'll be all right," Josiah assured him as he dug deeper, "my father used to take us into sick wards all the time to pray over the sick, an' I never got so much as... a... Nate? Look at this."
His voice trailed off, then he began to pull something out of the box as Nathan looked over at him, puzzled. After a few tugs Josiah withdrew a finely tailored red jacket with black edging on the cuffs and lapels.
"Huh," Nathan grunted in curious surprise, "that looks just like Ezra's."
Josiah said nothing, as he was digging deeper into the box. After a moment he pulled out a few more objects, a black flat-crowned Stetson Renegade hat and a beautiful silver hip flask.
Nathan sat up straighter now, the other box forgotten. "That looks like Ezra's stuff too," he said, his voice now edged with concern. "is there anything--"
His words were cut off as Josiah took one more object out of the box: the tangled gear for a sleeve-gun apparatus, complete with the small Derringer still loaded into the spring. The two men exchanged worried glances, then leapt to their feet and hurried back inside, Josiah still carrying the red jacket.
Sister Margaret was still talking to Chris and Vin when Josiah approached her, Nathan on his heels.
"Excuse me, Sister," Josiah breathed, holding up the coat, "but -- can you tell me where you got this jacket? It was in one of the boxes you gave us."
Chris scowled. "Looks like Ezra's."
The nun was thinking. "It came from a gentleman who stopped by here yesterday -- he was bringing in a sick boy, then stayed to help us with the sick. He was trying to use the telegraph equipment last night when he was stricken as well, that must be why his coat was in the box with the belongings of the other invalids."
All four men instantly came to attention. Josiah stepped forward, his eyes scanning the dim room. "He's here?"
"Yes," she said in a bewildered tone. "You know him? He never had the chance to give me his name."
Vin, Nathan and Josiah stepped quickly into the room, moving from cot to cot, searching the faces of those who lay motionless upon them. Chris paused before joining them, finally fixing the nun with an expression which bode very ill for Pete Lawson.
"He's one of my men," he said in a quiet voice, then went past her into the convent.
Their search went quietly, as they tried to disturb the other sufferers as little as possible. There seemed to be so many beds to walk past, so many supine forms to study. The magnitude of the epidemic struck them as they tried to find Ezra; the ill lay not only on the cots, but on the floor and along the walls as well, wherever there was open space. They were stretched out on chairs and pews, on blankets on the ground, and on borrowed lounges and beds in the yard. Here and there was an empty place, the rumpled bedclothes left behind hinting at the failed battle which took place there.
Josiah reached the far corner, which was separated from the rest of the room by a sheet nailed to the rafters. He was beginning to feel undeniably anxious as he pulled back the makeshift curtain; the longer they were unsuccessful, the less likely it was that they would find Ezra alive.
Behind the curtain lay one empty cot, bearing signs of having been recently vacated, and another placed up against the wall. On this one lay an unmoving figure whose sweat-soaked skin almost matched the white sheet in paleness, except for the feverish crimson on his cheeks and the dark circles beneath his closed eyes. His damp shirt was unbuttoned to his chest and his sleeves rolled up to the elbow: his hands appeared to be loosely grasping at the thin sheet which covered the rest of his body. Even from where he stood, Josiah could hear the man's slow, labored breathing as the sheet slowly rose and fell in rhythm. By all appearances, this cot would soon be vacant as well.
Josiah sighed as a heavy sadness settled over him.
It was Ezra.
The sun was going down over Four Corners, its red-orange rays slicing across the saloon floor in dusty columns of light. JD drank his lukewarm beer and sighed with relief; maybe now things would cool down and there wouldn't be so much reason to worry.
The saloon was only half-full, but that likely wouldn't last, he mused. Once the streets cooled, men would be finding their way here to get a drink and work off some of their boredom. Maybe it was time to start worrying again...
The bat-wing doors boomed open, and JD saw Buck stride in, mopping his brow with his bandanna.
"Whew! Still hotter'n' a furnace out there," he breathed, plopping himself down at JD's table. "Looks like the coast is clear, none of the other towns got a lick of this fever."
"Hmm," JD nodded, noticing Sylvester Green had just wandered in with his case, followed by a few interested-looking clients. "Heard anything from Red Rock?"
Buck shook his head with a scowl. "Nope, couldn't get through to them. Maybe their telegraph's busted."
"Hm -- sure hope everything's all right," JD muttered, his hazel eyes worried.
His friend sat back. "Well, if Chris needs our help he'll find a way t'let us know. Meanwhile, we got our job t'do here."
JD nodded, still watching Green. Buck turned to look as well; the man had set up his display -- now consisting entirely of the elixir -- and had launched into a fast and furious pitch.
"Gentlemen," he was saying, "I know many are you are from that unfortunate town of Red Rock. I need not relate to you the blight currently being suffered there. I share your pain at seeing your kin and neighbors struck low, and at having to flee the homes you love so well. So you must regard my advice as that which is given from the heart, fellow man to fellow man. Will you heed my warning before you fall victim the same tragedy as that of your fellow residents?"
The words were spoken with forceful sincerity and grand gestures indicating the fullness of Green's sympathy. he continued, his eyes darkening, the tone changing to one of dire urgency. "I tell you, my friends, modern medicine is working its miracles as we speak. Soon such horrors as this fever will be as much a thing of the past as the dodo. And I am pleased and humbled to be able to offer you one of the first medicines able to eradicate this pestilence--" he gracefully palmed a bottle of his elixir, holding it up "--Green's Elixir, guaranteed to ward off all forms of fever. Won't you protect your loved ones and yourself from this scourge? Is $5 too much to pay for the peace of mind this miracle of progress can bring you?"
"Five dollars?" JD exclaimed with a surprised chuckle. "Last time he was sellin' it for two. An' his sign didn't say nothin' about fevers before."
"Don't seem to bother his customers none," Buck observed, as Green was inundated with customers thrusting money into his hands. He sighed and sat up. "I'm gonna go rustle up some grub over at the hotel before that fella makes me lose my appetite."
"Sounds good to me," JD agreed, and together they stood and headed out into the dying sunlight.
Buck scratched his chin as they walked out of the door. "Maybe after dinner we can see about gettin' a card game goin' at -- oh, hello there, Miss Wells, sorry for almost runnin' into ya."
They had made their way out onto the sidewalk, and Buck was tipping his hat to a young girl who had been standing just outside the doors. Her long brown hair was pulled back into a braid, making her appear even smaller and more vulnerable.
"Hi, Buck," she breathed, apparently slightly thrown as she stepped back form the doors. "Hey, JD."
"Evenin', Casey," the young man smiled. "You all right? You look sorta peaked."
Buck slapped JD on the shoulder. "Y'can join me at the hotel, JD," he said casting a concerned glance at Casey's worried countenance. JD nodded at him, and Buck gave Casey a parting smile and ambled towards the hotel.
JD and Casey moved away from the saloon doors, JD studying Casey with mild alarm. "What's wrong? Mrs. Wells don't have this fever, does she?"
Casey shook her head, wiping the palm of her free hand on the rough jeans she was wearing. "No, but -- have you seen Tilda?"
"Tilda?" JD knew Casey had a friend by that name, a tall thin red-haired girl whom JD had met a few times. "That friend of yours? Nope. Is she missin'?"
Casey let out a gasp, glancing down the street. "Well -- I heard we got a lot of folks in from Red Rock today. I thought maybe she was with 'em. She lives there, JD, an' I'm so worried about her."
"Oh," JD nodded, understanding. A hopeful smile tightened his lips as he tried to calm her. "Don't worry, we'll look around. Did you check the hotels an' the boardin' houses?"
Casey nodded, trying not to appear too nervous. "Nobody's seen her or her family. I keep thinkin' they might be in Red Rock still, an' sick."
JD smiled. "Aw, she probably just went somewhere else. There's lots of towns around here."
Casey sighed and nodded. "I know, but -- I keep thinkin' I should go to Red Rock an' try to help her. She's been sick a lot since she was little, an' this fever's real bad from what I hear."
"Now don't you go ridin' off there," JD said anxiously, gripping her hands. "If you caught this fever I'd -- uh," he stammered, "I mean, if you got sick, who'd I have to beat me at racin'?"
She smiled a little, pleased at his obvious concern for her. Then her expression fell. "Thanks, JD, but -- Tilda an' I been best friends since I came out here. I don't want to lose her too."
"You won't," JD promised, although he felt wrong for doing so since he had no way of knowing if that promise could be kept. "Now you get back to your aunt's house an' don't worry. Tell her I'll be over tomorrow if I get any news."
Casey sighed. "Oh, all right." She moved away, her gaze traveling back into the saloon. "Who's that feller with the fancy suitcase?"
"Oh," JD waved him off, "just some travelin' salesman. Full of hot air if you ask me. say," he looked back at her, "Um, Buck an' I are gettin' a bite down at the hotel. You're welcome t'join us if you ain't eaten yet."
She paused, then shook her head, her pretty features twisted into a frown. "Sorry, JD, I don't think I could sit still that long. You go on, I'm just gonna ride back to th' house."
"Oh. Uh, okay," JD muttered, a little disappointed. "be careful ridin' back. Guess I'll see you around."
"Sure," she breathed, her expression still very uncertain.
He hesitated. "Sure you're all right?"
"Oh -- yeah, I'm fine."
"Okay." He gave her a small wave, then headed off to the hotel, keeping his eyes on her for a few steps before turning around. He didn't see her take a few steps towards the saloon, her eyes peering inside to where Green was still delivering his sales pitch, while one small hand pulled a crumpled five-dollar bill from her jeans pocket.
Vin leaned against the wall of the convent courtyard, his blue eyes deep in meditation. Night had fallen, the blue-purple desert sky now blinking to life with brilliant stars. The air was cooler now, Vin noted, and he hoped it would bring some comfort to the suffering people who surrounded him, both lying in the yard before him and inside the convent.
Grim scenes replayed themselves in his mind as his gaze wandered over the restless figures being tended to in the yard before him. His mother had died of a fever, not this type but close enough. He'd seen her anguish, knew what it was like to stand helplessly by and witness the torments a fever could bring. He had witnessed the endless thirst, the burning skin almost too hot to touch, the anguished convulsions as the body turned against the soul within it. And overlaying the sorrow was the wrenching guilt over his inability to help. He could do nothing.
This time, that was not the case.
A shadow stepped into the light streaming from the convent doorway. Vin turned slightly to see Chris's black-clad form silhouetted in the orange glow.
"How's Ezra?" the tracker asked softly, bracing himself for the possible answer.
"Still unconscious," Chris replied in a grim voice, stepping into the courtyard. "Nathan says he doesn't have much time."
A burning sensation twinged in Vin's gut. He and Ezra had often had their differences, but he knew that if the gambler didn't survive this, he'd miss him, and he could tell by the tense expression on Chris's face that he felt the same way. It was hard enough to know some worthless piece of scum was letting innocent people die, but to think that among the victims might be one of their own made the idea impossible to bear.
Vin shook his head, his blue eyes as hard as ice. "I'm about ready t'go get Lawson myself."
The other man ducked his head, his expression lost in the shadows. "We gotta be careful with this guy or he'll dump the medicine. What do y'know about him?"
Vin sighed and pulled himself up a bit, his eyes locking on the starry sky. "I was workin' near an Army outpost in Texas when I first heard of 'im. Way it was told to me, he got riled at his commander for not lettin' 'im torture some Apache prisoners they had, so when they was transportin' them to another base he up an' killed the commander. An' the Apaches, too, when he was done with 'em."
Chris's mouth twitched in anger.
Vin drew another breath. "I never met Lawson, but they hired me to find the transport wagon when it didn't show up at the fort. Finally did, an..." His quiet voice trailed off, and he dropped his gaze to the ground before lifting his haunted eyes to meet Chris's. "I seen a lot of cruelties in my life, Chris, but the way them bodies looked turned my stomach. Army issued a warrant for 'im, but they never caught 'im."
Chris's eyes were fierce in the dim light of the doorway. "Now we know where he is, but if he knows we're comin' for 'im it could mean the lives of these people, an' Ezra's too." He shook his head as he turned his gaze out to the courtyard. "Damn, Vin. There are times I really hate this job."
His companion's head bobbed gently as he softly whispered, "Yeah, I know."
Chris looked back inside the convent. "Think Sister Margaret would tell us where Lawson's holed up at?"
The tracker shook his head. "Don't need to. I know where it is."
A flash of surprise lit Chris's eyes as he glanced at Vin. "You do?"
Vin shrugged, keeping his gaze on the courtyard. "Used the place myself a few times t'hole up in. It's a purty popular place among them who are on the run." He threw a puzzled look over his shoulder into the building. "Danged if I know how she found it."
Chris sighed. "Divine guidance maybe?"
"Or the unholy kind," was Vin's reply. "I swear I seen her somewhere, an' it wasn't at a convent. I almost think -- it was on a wanted poster."
His friend's face was grim as he stood and stared into the dusk. "Might have some dark spots in her past. Reckon that's between her an' God."
Vin's head barely moved as he nodded his agreement. Finally he turned to Chris with a small, anticipatory smile. "So, we gonna pay Lawson a visit?"
A grim smile played across Chris's features, his eyes glinting in the golden lamplight. "Even a man who's out of his mind can change it. We just have to make 'im want to."
Ezra came to slowly, swimming sluggishly up through the deep blackness to a state of near-consciousness. As sensation returned, barely discernible from the dream world he had recently left, he felt himself lying on a none-too-comfortable mattress, covered with thin sheets; dim noises reached his ears, but they were garbled and muffled, as if heard through a thick pillow. Where the hell was he, anyway?
Memories came back haltingly; he recalled arriving in town -- what was its name again? He was helping someone with something -- people who were sick, that was it. There was a child, too. What did they have again? Whatever it was, he must have caught it; he saw himself falling, blacking out, the memories all jumbled up like one of his dreams -- maybe this was a dream, too -- maybe he was dead? Well, that's what one gets for charity work, he thought, though with not too much bitterness...
Then the pain came back, and he knew he wasn't dead, at least not yet. Every muscle and joint seemed to ache, and he could feel the fever burning him up; the sweating only seemed to make it worse. His body shivered with chills despite the incessant heat. He tried to open his eyes, found he didn't have the strength; his entire body felt weighed down by an oppressive, overwhelming weariness.
Another thought crossed his mind; how long had he been like this? What if he'd been here for weeks? He had to get back, Chris would think he ran off, and for some reason this thought bothered Ezra a great deal. He tried to move, but again, no luck. He took a deep breath and groaned, although the sound was barely a whisper. Did anybody even know where he was?
Someone was beside his bed; that sounded almost like -- it couldn't be -- what would Josiah be doing there?
As if from a hundred miles away, he heard the sound of splashing water, and a voice that did sound very much like Josiah's saying, "Rest easy, Ezra, that's it. Everything's gonna be fine."
Thoughts raced through Ezra's fevered brain; was Josiah sick too? He certainly sounded fine -- but if he was here, the others might be, too, and if they were here something must be wrong, they wouldn't come all the way out here on a joyride--
Something was pressed against his forehead, wet and icy cold, oh God did that ever feel good. He managed to turn his head slightly as Josiah gently dabbed the cloth around his face and throat; the pain behind his eyes diminished, a little anyway. But he still felt so tired...
"There's a little trouble, but nothing we can't handle," Josiah was saying gently, from a hundred miles away. "When things are set right, we'll get you fixed up right quick. The saloon just wouldn't be the same without you in the corner wagerin' people out of their last nickel."
The cloth disappeared for an instant, more sounds of water, then it was back, colder now. The effect was soothing; Ezra could feel himself slipping back into the darkness, beginning to dream again. Maybe this was all a dream too, he really couldn't tell, but it was a welcome feeling to know that the others knew where he was. Hopefully they'd think to write his mother if he died. He wanted to let Josiah know that he'd heard him, if he really was there, but knew that he didn't have the strength, and before he could decide what to do he slid back into the soft, black void.
Buck drew both hands quickly through his hair as he left the bathhouse, trying to get the damp ebony locks to behave before any of the town's lovely ladies saw him. Gonna be another hot day, he sighed to himself as he glanced up and down the mostly empty main street of Four Corners. Sure glad I got my bath in early, it's gonna be crowded later.
As he put his hat on, he noticed JD trotting down the street, an intent look on his face.
"You look bright-eyed an' bushy-tailed there, JD," he observed lightly as the young man reined to a stop in front of him.
JD smiled, his hazel eyes dancing with excitement. "You bet I am, Buck, just picked up a telegram from Casey's friend Tilda, the one she was so worried about. Guess Tilda knew Casey'd be thinkin' about her, so she sent a message tellin' her she's okay and stayin' with her folks at her cousin's in Eagle Bend. I'm headin' out to deliver it now."
"Well, that is right fine news," Buck exclaimed with a wide smile. "I recall how famously them two get on, an' now that I think on it Tilda's mighty pretty herself."
JD gave him a look of amused disgust. "Aw c'mon, Buck, it's too early for that kind of thinkin'."
"Junior, it's NEVER too early for that kind of thinkin'," his friend shot back firmly. "Now you go on an' give Casey the good news, I'll keep things settled here."
JD grinned and spurred Hero, sending a cloud of dust to dancing as he tore down the street in the direction of Nettie Wells' house. Buck smiled as he watched him go; some good news, at least. The day was off to a good start, and he felt optimistic as he put his hands in his pockets and sauntered towards the saloon.
As he strolled past the general store, a flurry and clatter caught his attention, and he saw Sylvester Green setting up for his day's business on the boardwalk next to Mrs. Potter's. Curious, Buck approached him, and so intent was Green on his activity that Buck went completely unnoticed until Green was almost finished.
"Oh! Good day, young man," Green said pleasantly as he pulled open the case containing his wares. "Getting an early start to the day, I see. Good, very healthy for you."
"Yep," Buck nodded, studying the man closely. Green's face was round and slightly paunchy at the jowls, a trait the thin goatee which circled from under his nose to his chin only magnified. His eyes were small and very sharp, darting constantly as he swiftly set up the enticing display. Buck took note of how nimble his fingers were, and the cheap but flashy jewelry which bedecked them. His checkered brown-green suit also suffered under scrutiny, appearing a bit on the worn side, and rather shoddy.
As Green worked, Buck noticed a sheet of white paper which had been pinned to the top portion of the case, covering the old sign completely. He bent closer.
"'Green's Fever Elixir, Protects Against and Cures All Types of Fevers. $7 a bottle.'" He straightened up and said rather loudly, "Whew! Right lucky you came along, considerin' we got a fever runnin' around right now."
"Indeed," Green said with a smile as he finished his preparations. "I guess you could say it was the hand of Providence which guided me to your stricken territory."
"Or somethin'," Buck agreed heartedly. "Wasn't that stuff $5 last night?"
Green didn't falter, the oily smile still on his face. "Oh, yes, but I've had to work extra hours to prepare enough for the emergency, and buy more ingredients than I planned on... If I don't meet my expenses, I won't be able to provide this precious tonic to your community."
"Hmmm, that would be a right shame," Buck nodded. "I got a friend says that yesterday your precious tonic didn't do nothin' for fevers."
"Now how would he know?" Green chuckled as he straightened his suit. people were beginning to stir out of the hotels and houses.
Buck pointed to the top of the briefcase. "Read it on that sign you're coverin' up."
Green's eyes flashed as he looked at Buck, their expression losing some of its affability. "That sign is for a different tonic," he said in a peeved tone. "I do sell more than one, you know."
"Is that a fact?" Buck smiled, thoroughly enjoying himself. He looked closely at the array of blue-labeled bottles. "Got any of the other one?"
"No," Green snapped as he saw potential customers winding their way up the street. "Demand prevents me from stocking it right now."
"An' just what's in that real special fever tonic, anyhow?" Buck inquired, picking a bottle up and putting his fingers on the stopper. In a flash Green swiped it out of his hand, all civility gone from his features.
"Please do not manhandle the merchandise unless you intend to buy," he snapped. "And I don't give out my formulas as a professional rule. Now if you'll excuse me, sir, if you're not going to purchase anything, I must bid you good day."
With that, Green slipped the bottle quickly back into his case and turned a smiling countenance to two well-dressed women who had just walked up to him.
"Are you the man selling the fever medicine?" one of them asked anxiously.
"Certainly, ma'am. I assure you you won't find a better elixir anywhere in these parts..."
Buck stood watching for a few moments, then walked away towards the saloon. At least he had the little feller going for a few minutes. Maybe later he'd come back and needle him again. If nothing serious happened in the meantime, that is.
The morning sun had just spilled into the convent at Red Rock, but the tense activity of those within its walls indicated that the night had brought no relief to those suffering there, or the hands that were caring for them. Here and there were the soft scuffling noises as the nuns and helpers checked those in their care mingled with the weak cries and moans of the ill. Hushed voices whispered in the warm air as the caretakers tried to soothe the afflicted and their families.
The sight saddened Nathan as he looked up from his work; he had done all he could, tended to as many of the sick as possible, and still it did not seem to be making much of a dent. He had exhausted his supply of herbs; to get more he'd' have to go to Eagle Bend or back to Four Corners, and deprive these people of the closest thing to a doctor they had right now. He sighed and drew one weary hand across his brow; maybe today would bring good news.
The fevered mutterings of his patient recalled Nathan back to his task, and he felt the tragedy of the situation settle over him as he went back to work. Ezra's condition had worsened during the night, his sleep broken by fitful spasms and wordless groans. As the healer carefully drew the water-soaked cloth over Ezra's face and arms, he winced at how hot the gambler's skin was. The circles beneath Ezra's closed eyes had deepened, the flushed appearance of his face had become more pronounced. The Southerner didn't seem to know Nathan was there as he weakly tossed on the sweat-stained cot, murmuring feeble words in his delirium, his voice as frightened and plaintive as a child's.
"Easy now," Nathan muttered as he sponged Ezra's forehead, even though he knew his friend couldn't hear him. It felt better than saying nothing, and maybe his words would reach whatever dark, fearful place the gambler was lost in.
"How's he doin'?"
Nathan didn't turn to look at Josiah as he wrung out the worn cloth. "Not good," he said with a sad, deep sigh. "Every time he tries t'help folks he seems t'get into trouble."
Josiah walked to stand next to the head of Ezra's cot, and Nathan saw a smile on his tired face as he studied their ailing colleague. "Doesn't seem t'stop 'im, though, does it?"
Nathan chuckled a little, admiration in his eyes. "Nope, sure don't. Maybe he's learnin'." His expression fell a little. "I just -- hope he lives t'put them lessons to use."
"So do I, brother," the other man said quietly, placing his hand on Ezra's head for just a moment. Then he removed it and looked up. "Chris an' Vin leave yet?"
"Just did," was the answer. "Hope they can get somewhere with those men." He lifted Ezra's arm and wiped it carefully with the cold cloth.
"Chris can be pretty persuasive," Josiah observed with a touch of hope. "We'll just have to wait an' see. Is Sister Margaret around?"
"Think she's in the chapel," Nathan said as he finished, easing Ezra's arm back onto the cot and dropping the rag back into the basin with a hollow splish. Ezra's tossing had eased, and he seemed to be slipping into a deeper unconsciousness.
"That's where I'll be then," Josiah said as he took one more look at Ezra. "Got a few questions for her."
Nathan nodded as he stood, his anxious eyes still on Ezra's pale form. "While you're in there, you might want t'say a prayer or two for Ezra an' these other folks."
Josiah glanced back at him, a bitter smile playing across his features. "Already said about twenty. But I reckon another two couldn't hurt."
Josiah entered the small, dimly lit convent chapel, doffing his hat and remaining silent as he noiselessly closed the door. The room was empty save for a simple altar covered with a few lit candles and four sets of wooden pews. He could see a dark, feminine shape kneeling at the altar, and knew it was Sister Margaret. he could hear her whispered prayers and the gentle clacking of the rosary beads which hung in glittering ropes from her folded hands. He approached her very softly, not wanting to disturb her, and felt a stab of guilt when he saw her start and turn around.
"Hello, Mr. Sanchez," she said softly, a weak smile flickering across her careworn face.
"Sorry to disturb you, Sister," Josiah smiled as he settled into one of the front pews.
She shook her head and turned back to the altar. "It's no disturbance. God does not seem to be listening today anyway."
Josiah noted the sadness in her tone. "I think God always listens, Sister, he's just pretty stubborn lettin' us know sometimes."
Sister Margaret chuckled. "That's quite philosophical, sir. He's been quite stubborn with me lately, I'm afraid."
He tilted his head. "Any idea why?"
She turned to fix him with a keen glance. "Are you asking to hear my confession?"
Josiah shrugged. "Well, I used t'be a preacher, so my ear's been plenty bent. If you want you can bend it a little more."
"Sister," Josiah said in a gentler voice, "I think you're troubled by somethin', an' I just wanted t'come here an' offer my help to you. It might make the other burdens you got to bear a little lighter."
She paused, then let out a slow, sad breath, leaning her forehead on her folded hands in a gesture of great weariness. "Have you ever known what it is," she asked in a low voice heavy with remorse, "to find yourself facing demons you thought were long dead?"
A jaded smile flickered across Josiah's visage. "I surely have, Sister," he said softly. "Sometimes they make my soul downright crowded."
She turned her head a bit, not enough to face him but enough to indicate that she heard the remark. Then she slowly faced the altar again.
"Would it surprise you to know, Mr. Sanchez, that I have blood on my hands?" she said in a measured voice.
He leaned forward, putting the fingertips of his hands together as he propped his elbows on his knees. "I figured you weren't an ordinary nun, if that's what you mean."
She chuckled without humor. "That's one way to put it. I can tell you, sir, that if I had met you and your lawkeeping friends ten years ago, it would probably have been through the bars of a jail cell. My parents were thieves and forgers, and they trained me to follow in their outlaw ways."
Josiah inclined his head. "Sounds you had a bumpy road to travel, Sister."
"Oh, I didn't mind," she admitted, half turning towards him as she remembered. "I quite enjoyed it. I was able to act without restraint or conscience, and reveled in the perfect freedom. I even used the cabin Lawson's hiding in now a few times."
Josiah cocked his head. "So that's how you knew where to find 'im."
She nodded, not looking at him. "I spent most of my younger years on the run. When I was 17 I fell in love with a bank robber my father worked with, a handsome young devil named Jack Pierson. We had a grand time, until Carson City."
Josiah eyed her carefully. "What happened there?"
She sighed and sat back, moving away from the altar a little. "There was a shootout while Jack and I were robbing a stagecoach. Jack got killed, and I was badly injured." She frowned and rubber her eyes. "I -- I don't remember much of what happened, only that I was stricken with so much grief and pain that I begged them to let me die. They took me to the sick ward of a woman's prison, and that's where I met some nuns who were nursing the inmates and praying for their souls."
She was quiet for a few moments, then dropped her gaze into her lap, her calloused fingers gently rubbing the rosary beads she was holding. "I had never had anyone be as kind to me as they were. They told me God didn't want me to die, that it was possible to find peace in my life. I didn't believe them at first -- I had never gone to church in my life -- but I decided that it was worth a try, if it meant that I could find the serenity they seemed to be enjoying. The nuns asked the judge if I would be allowed to stay with them for a while, and he agreed if I didn't cause any trouble. I have been in the Lord's service ever since."
There was a long silence, broken finally by Josiah's quiet question. "Did you find the peace you were looking for?"
Sister Margaret drew another long breath, glancing back at the altar. "God has seen fit to ease my sorrows and forgive my many sins. But... it's been hard to forget the old ways sometimes and keep down the devil within my heart."
The former preacher nodded slowly, his eyes reflective. "I know how that is."
She faltered, and dropped her gaze to the rosary beads she held in her lap. "Yesterday, when I was able to talk to Pete Lawson, and witness the evil in his heart -- I felt such an urge to kill him that if I had a gun, I know I would have done it."
"There are some folks who wouldn't have minded that too much," Josiah pointed out as he leaned closer.
"Yes, but -- I had hoped such passions were gone from me," she confessed in a halting voice as she turned back to Josiah, her wide black eyes gazing sharply at him. "It was so disturbing to feel that hateful urge flow through me again. Do you think God can forgive me for thinking this way?"
Josiah thought for a moment, then lifted his head to look at her. "Can't say, Sister. But at least you're makin' the effort to find out. I'd think that counts for somethin'."
She sighed and drew one hand over her untidy brown hair, glancing through one of the small chapel windows as she did so. "I hope you're right, Mr. Sanchez. If many more of our townfolk die because of this man's actions -- I may be tempted to violence again, and will need God's help to overcome it."
Josiah nodded, the pale figure of Ezra rising before his mind's eye. "Have to say I feel the same way, Sister. Let's just hope that the Lord won't let it come to that."
JD grinned to himself as he trotted up to the fence surrounding the neat ranch house of Nettie Wells. Casey will be so happy to hear her friend is all right, he thought as he reined in and looked around the wide yard. Funny, she was usually out here doing chores this time of day...
As he tethered his horse to the hitching post, he heard the front door open. Turning with a smile, he was surprised to see Nettie Wells watching him, her elderly face drawn up in concern.
"Mornin', Mrs. Wells," JD said in a puzzled tone as he tipped his bowler hat.
"Howdy, JD," the old woman said, her voice friendly but anxious. "Fraid if you wanna see Casey, she ain't feelin' well."
"Oh?" JD felt his gut tighten as he climbed the short flight of stairs to the porch. "She was fine last night." Suddenly he gasped. "She don't have that fever, does she?"
"No," Nettie reassured him, "but she does have a case of the sillies, if you ask me. You can see 'er, she's restin' now. And whatever you do, don't mention food."
She led him into the back room of the house, where Casey was laying on her bed, fully clothed and looking utterly miserable. JD felt alarm at how pale she looked, then realized he'd seen that look before. She looked--
"is she hung over?" he whispered in surprise.
"Foolish is more like it," observed Nettie sternly, folding her arms. "she'll be fine once she can hold somethin' down again."
Casey groaned and slowly opened her eyes. "Oh, hi, JD," she croaked in a weak voice.
"Hi, Casey," JD said, still puzzled. "Uh, we got word from Tilda this mornin', she an' her family are all right. They're in Eagle Bend, at her cousin'."
A woozy look of joy staggered across Casey's face. "Oh," she breathed with a smile, "That's wonderful news, JD. Ulp--" She hiccuped and covered her mouth.
"Need the bucket again, child?" Nettie inquired.
Casey shook her head, panting. "No, I -- I'll be all right."
Finally JD grew impatient. "Casey, what happened to you? You look like I did after Buck's party last New Year's Eve."
"Here's your answer, son," Nettie said, fishing something out of her pocket and handing it to him. He looked at it, shocked; it was a bottle of Green's Elixir, almost empty.
He looked at her, horrified. "Casey, you bought this stuff?"
Casey gave him a guilty look and hiccupped again.
"Drank pert near the whole thing," Nettie sighed. "You wouldn't have knowed her last night, JD. She was dizzier'n a cow in a twister."
Casey looked close to tears. "I just wanted to go see if Tilda was all right," she whispered. "The man said if I took that I'd be safe from the fever, an' I could go to Red Rock."
JD sighed. "Well -- can't blame you for wantin' to see your friend, Casey," he said softly. "Sorry you had to go through this before you found out she was all right."
"Well, I'm about ready t'go give that salesman feller a big piece of my mind," Nettie threatened sternly. "From the way the girl was actin', that medicine is nothin' but hard spirits."
"We'll take care of it, ma'am," JD promised. "Okay if I keep the bottle?"
She shrugged. "Suit yourself, son. Happy t'have that snake oil outta the house."
"Thanks." he slipped the bottle into his pocket and looked at his friend. "You rest up, Casey. Maybe when you're feelin' better we can have that din -- uh, we can go racing again."
Casey nodded weakly, a smile brightening her pale complexion. "Sounds nice, JD. Sorry about all this."
He gave her an encouraging grin. "I have a feelin' that by the end of the day, Sylvester Green's gonna be a whole lot sorrier."
Pete scowled at the hot sun as he lounged by the cabin door; not only was it getting unbearably hot, but he was getting very impatient. He'd sent Coyote out to check Indian head Rock for the money and the pardon that morning, but there had been no sign of either.
Did they want all those people to die? he wondered, scratching at his stubbly beard and gazing across the scraggly field of desert grass. Maybe he should send Coyote to town, see what was going on...
Coyote appeared at the door. "We're 'bout outta water," he drawled. "Want me 't'go get some more?"
"Naw, I'll do it," Pete growled, standing up and stretching. "When I get back, I want you to go to town an' see if they're up to something over there. They shoulda given in hours ago."
"Maybe they's all dead," the other man offered as he handed his boss the empty canteens.
Pete grunted in disgust. "Well, if they are, we'll just see if they left any valuables behind to make up for the time I've wasted on this. Damn frontier hicks."
With that, he stalked down to the creek, his mind turning over the possibilities as he knelt in the dry grass and dipped one canteen in the shallow running water. Maybe they were all dead -- they would do that, just to piss him off. They could try to see what was in the bank, assuming it wasn't emptied. Maybe some of the houses could be gone through. And Coyote could always be bullied into seeing if the dead bodies had any watches or jewelry--
"Hot day, ain't it?"
"Jesus Christ!" Pete exclaimed, staggering back and dropping the canteen. Sitting across the creek were two men, one in a black duster, the other in buckskin and both watching him very closely.
Pete quickly gathered himself and stood up, furious. "Who the hell are you guys?"
"That ain't your concern," the man in black, who'd spoken first, said evenly as the two men also stood. Pete noticed the buckskin was aiming a sawed-off Winchester at him.
"Hell it ain't," Pete snapped back. "What's he pointin' that thing at me for?"
"I'd think that was kinda obvious," the buckskin-clad man noted in a soft voice. "I seen your wanted poster. You're Pete Lawson, ain't you?"
Pete's eyed narrowed. "You the law?"
"Not exactly," the man in black said. "But we're here for that medicine you got."
Pete laughed. "Unless you got the cash an' the pardon, you can forget it."
"You'll rot in Hell before you get pardoned for what you done," the buckskin whispered, his blue eyes sharp as they stared down the gun sight.
"Then the good folks of Red Rock'll rot with me," was the smug reply, and he took a deep breath and bellowed, "Coyote!"
There was a pause, then a figure appeared at the cabin door, carrying a large box. Pete glanced back at him, smiled, then turned back to his guests.
"That box you see in my partner's hands contains the medicine you're so damn anxious for. Make one move against either of us and it all gets dumped."
As the two men watched, the figure held the box out in his hands, over the hard rocks of the desert floor.
Pete smiled. "I don't think those glass bottles would last long against these rocks, do you?"
The two men looked at each other. Then the green-eyed man in black fixed him with a deadly look. "There are children dyin', Pete. Don't that mean anything to you?"
Pete chuckled. "Yeah. It means you better get me what I want pretty damn quick."
There was a pause. Then in one lightning move, the man in black leapt over the creek and slammed Pete to the ground, his hands at the criminal's throat.
"Hold it!" the buckskin cried; Pete figured Coyote was moving to dash the box to the ground. Then his entire attention was commanded by the seething face of the black-clad man, which was staring into his with a look of deadly fury.
"I dealt with a lot of scum," the man said in a low, lethal tone, "but I ain't never seen one like you. When this is over you better pray I don't get my hands on you."
"You wanna take me down? Go ahead," Pete gasped, a small light of panic in his eyes despite his bravado. "But you'll be taking the town with me. It's your choice."
"Easy, Chris," the buckskin whispered as he nervously eyed the figure with the box. "I wanna kill 'im too, but that won't help Ezra none."
Chris paused, his face a mirror of utter disgust as he tightened his grip around Pete's neck for just a moment. Then he released his grip and rose, never taking his eyes off of Pete.
"Ezra -- who's that, a friend of yours?" Pete choked as he sat up, rubbing his throat. "Bet he's got this thing too. Well, if you want him to live, you'll do what I want. And no tricks."
He jumped to his feet and backed away, drawing a gun from his belt as he did so. "Now you got five minutes to get out of here, or I break half the bottles right now. I'll be watching."
With that, he backed all the way up the short hillside and went back into the cabin, followed by his accomplice.
Chris watched them go, his heart still pounding with rage. He shook his head. "Sometimes I wish I was still a killin' man, Vin."
"I know what you mean," was his companion's quiet reply as he holstered his weapon. "We could try an' sneak up on 'im from the rear."
Chris considered this, then glanced up. "Long as there's two of 'em, there'll always be one to destroy the medicine. Let's go back to the convent an' see what we can come up with."
Vin nodded as they walked back to their horses, his blue eyes worried. "Wonder if Ezra's still alive."
"If he ain't," Chris replied emphatically as he mounted up, "Lawson's gonna wish I'd gone ahead and killed him."
Buck had never seen JD so grim-faced as he watched the young man stride down the sidewalk towards him.
"JD," he said as he sat up in his wooden chair, "you look madder'n a--"
"Buck," JD said quickly, cutting him off as he stopped in front of his friend and fished in his pocket, "I never been so furious in my life. I feel like punchin' somebody."
"Well, it's been a borin' day anyhow. Got anyone in mind?" Buck asked, intrigued. He started when he saw JD draw a bottle of Green's Elixir from his pocket. "You bought some of that stuff?"
JD shook his head. "No, Casey did, so's she could go to Red Rock, an' it made her really sick."
"Yeah?" Buck frowned, concerned as he took the bottle from JD's hand. With a deft motion he opened it, taking a cautious sniff. His blue eyes bugged slightly and he jerked the bottle away as if it had bitten him.
"WHEEEW!" he cried, squeezing his eyes shut. "Lord!"
JD's eyes widened. "What? What is it?"
After recovering, Buck took another, even more wary whiff. "JD, if that little gal drank this, all's I can say is I hope Nettie knows how t'fix a hangover. This 'elixir' is pure rotgut."
"Nettie thought it might be," JD said. "But -- it's black."
Buck held the bottle up to the sunlight and swirled it around a bit. "Probably added ink t'give it some color. Seems like real strong whiskey to me, mixed up with somethin' to mask the smell. The barkeep can tell us for sure." He jumped up and began to walk with forceful strides, JD following him.
"An' after we go to the saloon, kid," Buck said with determination, "we're gonna pay us a little visit to good ol' Sylvester Green."
The convent air was hot and still as Nathan picked his way across the floor, a fresh basin of water in his hands. If only we could get a breeze, he thought with frustration, but cool winds were hard to find in the summer. But he was rapidly running out of ways to help the suffering, and he could tell by the increasing number of vacated cots that time was running out. Something had to happen soon--
He completed his journey and sat down next to Ezra's cot, his eyes studying the gambler with alarm as he swished the cloth in the water. Ezra's convulsions had ceased hours ago, but they had been replaced with a stillness which unnerved Nathan even more. Ezra had turned onto his side and half-curled himself up, and had not moved or made a sound since save for the slow rhythm of his labored breathing. His eyes were closed, his body weighed down with the heavy sleep of weakness and exhaustion.
Nathan pursed his lips, fighting back the aggravation which swelled in his heart. One of the other patients, he'd learned, was a little boy whom Ezra had brought here as a help to the mother, and Sister Margaret had told him Ezra was stricken while trying to use their telegraph to call for help -- specifically, the nun had said, for Nathan. The healer felt touched by this -- he had no idea Ezra regarded his skills that highly, that he would be the first person the gambler would think of to summon in this kind of a crisis. he'd have to thank Ezra for having that sort of confidence in his skills -- provided, he thought sadly, that the con man survived.
He scowled in mute anger at the unfairness of the situation. Nathan had come to suspect the latent decency which lurked beneath the gambler's smooth selfishness, and it seemed a shame that Ezra might pay for that decency with his life before it could fully blossom. And the healer could do nothing to save him.
He glanced at Ezra while he was wringing out the ragged cloth, then looked closer, surprised. Ezra had not moved, but his eyes were half-open, their expression foggy.
Nathan bent closer, keeping his voice low. "Ezra?"
Ezra sighed a little, then very slowly turned his head a little to look in Nathan's direction. "Nath..." he breathed, his voice almost a whisper.
"Hey, don't try to talk now," Nathan said, his joy at seeing Ezra awake mingled with fear at how weak he seemed. "You just rest."
Ezra closed his eyes again, summoning the strength to give his head a feeble shake. His words were punctuated with slow, deep breaths as he fought for the strength to speak. "Josiah... said there was trouble," he rasped, opening his eyes again and turning his head a little to face his friend. "How... bad is it?"
Nathan leaned forward and gently wiped Ezra's sweat-beaded face, trying not to betray the apprehension he felt. "It ain't nothin' you got to concern yourself with."
Ezra lay still for a moment, not responding to the cool water bathing his burning skin. Then he took a deep breath and whispered, "I brought in... a child... is he still alive?"
Nathan glanced at the cot where the boy James lay, his mother keeping vigil. "Yeah, he is, thanks to you," the healer said with a smile.
Ezra seemed to breathe a sigh of relief, closing his eyes as Nathan drew the cloth over his right arm. Then his eyes suddenly snapped open and he looked at Nathan in groggy surprise.
"Isn't... the medicine... here yet?" he asked in a breathless, puzzled voice.
Nathan hesitated, the answer plain on his kind face. Ezra's eyes widened a little, comprehension in their sleepy green depths.
"Good Lord," he murmured, "that's the trouble... isn't it? Something's happened... to the medicine..."
"Now don't you go worryin'," Nathan advised him, frightened at what the stress could do to the gambler's already weakened state. "Chris an' them are workin' on it."
The words seemed to have little effect, as Ezra's eyes fixed themselves on James' mother sitting by her child's bedside. Nathan saw the concern there, the illness having stripped away the cool facade which normally shrouded Ezra's expression. After a few moments Ezra's small reserve of strength ran out, and he slumped back onto the pillow, his eyes closing as an expression of frustrated grief swept over his flushed face.
"Poor child," he whispered, more to himself than to Nathan. Silence fell, and the healer was beginning to worry that Ezra had passed out again when the gambler murmured, "Is there... any water?"
"Oh, sure," Nathan said, reaching for the cup beside the bed. He held the cup with one hand and lifted Ezra's head with the other, carefully placing the tin rim to his colleague's parched lips. Ezra drank eagerly, and closed his eyes again as Nathan settled him back onto the bed.
"I never thought... I'd die in a church," the Southerner sighed as Nathan took his pulse.
"It's a convent," Nathan said, glad that Ezra couldn't see the uneasiness in his eyes. Ezra's heart was beating rapidly. "An' you ain't gonna die."
"Although I suppose it's fitting," Ezra said, as if he hadn't heard Nathan at all. "I... acted as a preacher, once. Found that if you work... a few miracles, let a... few poisonous snakes bite you... without injury, people will believe you're... protected by the hand of God itself... and donate accordingly."
"Poisonous snakes, huh?" Nathan inquired with a slight grin as he ran the cloth down Ezra's other arm. He was far too worried to feel his usual anger over the con man's dishonest behavior.
Ezra's lips tugged into a drowsy smile. "Well... I'd rendered them harmless... before the show," his muttered, his voice beginning to slur as he drifted back off, "but they didn't know that..."
Nathan watched with troubled eyes as Ezra slipped back into unconsciousness. His vigil was interrupted by the approach of several footsteps, and he looked up to see Vin, Chris and Josiah coming towards the corner.
"Any change?" Chris asked, stopping at the foot of Ezra's bed.
Nathan frowned and drew his arm across his forehead to wipe away the sweat, suddenly feeling very worn out. "He's delirious. He woke up for a few minutes, was worried about that kid he brought in, then said somethin' about bein' a preacher once an' went back to sleep."
"Yeah, he told me about that a long time ago," Josiah said thoughtfully as he sadly regarded his friend. "He seemed to be makin' a better livin' at it then I ever did."
Nathan looked at Chris and Vin. "Guess Lawson didn't give you the medicine, huh?"
"Nope," Chris said tersely, his eyes still bright with anger.
"Chris did almost kill 'im, though," Vin offered.
"Good for you," Nathan said bitterly. "So he still wants that money an' the pardon?"
"Yeah," Chris sighed, walking behind Nathan and sitting down on the empty cot next to Ezra's, pulling his hat off and running a hand through his damp blond hair. "An' if he thinks we're up to somethin' he'll break every bottle of it."
Vin made a sound of angry impatience, his blue eyes blazing as they swept the room. There were a few families huddled around various cots, mothers watching children or anxious children standing vigil at the beds of their parents; these groups seemed to draw his particular attention. His gaze seemed distant, as if he were seeing another bedside scene long since played out.
He shook his head, enraged. "It ain't right," he whispered in a low, almost anguished tone, "him tearin' families apart like this just so's he can go free an' not pay for what he done."
Nathan sat back and nodded, his face sad. "Y'know, I wish there was a way he could know the misery he's causin'. What it was like t'have your life in someone else's hands, someone who didn't care long as they got what they wanted."
Vin sighed. "Sure be nice, but it ain't possible."
There was a very faint rustle from Ezra's bed, the noise attracting the attention of all the men. Ezra was stirring, his eyes open and staring at the small group.
"Ezra, will you just rest!" Nathan said in a gentle but firm manner as he put a hand on the gambler's shoulder.
Ezra's breath was coming in shallow gasps. "I heard... what you said... about the medicine," he whispered urgently as he gazed into Nathan's face.
"Don't fret, we're takin' care of that," Nathan replied, trying to calm his ailing comrade even though Nathan knew their predicament was serious. "Please, just lie still."
Ezra clutched weakly at Nathan's arm with an agitated expression, his green eyes wide and desperate. The gambler seemed to be summoning every ounce of his strength to communicate with them.
"Wait," he breathed, his voice barely audible but insistent. "I have... an idea."
Sylvester Green hummed happily to himself as he dropped another full bottle of his elixir into the waiting display case. The joyful noise bounced off of the hotel room's walls and the several cases of empty bottles waiting to be filled. Before him on a small table sat an array of containers, a few bottles of India ink, and a larger bottle of peppermint oil.
He pushed up his rolled-up sleeves, reached down and picked up another glass bottle, putting it carefully on the table before him with a gleeful grin. Money in the bank -- hopefully this epidemic would last a while.
What a great piece of luck, Green mused as he worked. Here he'd hoped to break even this month, and what had come along but a fever outbreak that made these rubes practically step on each other for his 'medicine'. They didn't care if the price went up -- they'd pay anything to get and stay healthy. And he was happy to oblige -- what sort of salesman would he be if he didn't take advantage of such a golden opportunity? All it took was a new sign and a new pitch, and voila -- money in the bank! As long as nobody asked too many questions -- like that damn mustached guy yesterday -- he could really make a killing here. So to speak.
He placed a tiny funnel in the bottle's narrow mouth and picked up another, larger bottle nearby, its half-depleted contents swirling murkily in the early afternoon light. He looked at the larger bottle for a moment, then took a short pull of the amber liquid, shivering as the burn hit him on its way to his stomach. God, that's bad, he thought as he prepared to fill the smaller bottle with the rest of the one in his hand; good thing this stuff is cheap.
He was about to start pouring when a loud knock shattered the blissful calm. With practiced skill Green plucked the funneled bottle, the ink and the peppermint oil off of the table, rose and silently pulled open his bureau drawer, depositing them inside without making a sound. As he shut the drawer, he stood and walked with a confident smile towards the door.
"Yes?" he called in a cheerful tone, but before he could reach the door it burst open, the frame filled with the figure of the dark-haired, mustached man who'd harassed him the day before. He peered at Green intently and said with a too-wide grin, "Howdy!"
Green kept his demeanor calm. "Oh -- hello," he said with just a hint of uncertainty. Someone was behind the mustached man, a younger fellow in a bowler hat who was regarding Green with a very serious expression. "Is this a social call, gentlemen?"
The larger man nodded, still grinning. "Yeah, you might say that, Green. We're here to run your sorry butt out of town."
Green drew himself up indignantly. "Out of town? Me? Nonsense. I've done nothing illegal, and you don't have the authority."
A laugh burst from the other man's lips. "Well, actually, we do. See, my friend here an' me, we been asked by Judge Orin Travis -- circuit court judge, maybe you heard of him -- t'look after the good people of this town. An' we decided it ain't in their best interests t'let you sell 'em inked-up rotgut whiskey an' call it medicine when they might get sick an' die cause they think it'll keep 'em from the fever."
The salesman's eyes flashed, and he put his hands on his hips. "Sir, I resent your defamation of my product!"
"You sold it to a friend of mine an' it made her sick," the kid in the bowler hat said angrily, coming forward to stand beside his companion. "Barkeep says your stuff is nothin' but cheap whiskey an' ink, mixed up with other stuff to hide the smell."
"That's absurd!" Green exploded. "My product is composed of the finest ingredients modern progress can devise. It's -- it's--"
He faltered as the mustached man walked towards him slowly, his blue eyes burning with anger until he had Green backed up against the wall.
"Listen," the man said in a very quiet voice dripping with deadly sincerity, "I'm gonna give you a choice here. Either you can leave town nice an' easy, or I can go to the hotels an' boardin' houses an' let all the folks who bought that swill of yours know just what they got. But if they get their hands on you, Mister, I don't think there's a tonic in the world that'll help you."
Green gazed at the man for a few moments and swallowed. "If -- uh -- if my services are not desired at this town, I will remove myself from its vicinity. But it's your loss, sir. My elixir is pure. Why, I take it every day."
The other man smiled. "Yeah, your breath's tellin' me that. C'mon, JD."
The mustached man walked out, followed by the younger man who was still eying Green rather angrily. As the door swung closed, Green adjusted his waistcoat, feeling very rattled. Then he quickly began gathering his belongings, fully believing that the man would keep his word. He pulled the bottle of rotgut from the bureau drawer, glanced at it, then shrugged and downed the rest of its contents. It was going to be a long trip to the next town where, hopefully, folks would be more trusting. Or stupid.
Pete frowned when he saw the cloud of dust rising from the north in the hot late afternoon sun. He sat up on the porch chair, his heavy hand closing around the gun at his side.
Coyote came to the door of the cabin, also watching as several riders appeared at the edge of the foothills, galloping towards them. "Think it's trouble, Pete?"
"If it is, you know what to do about it," Pete replied in a harsh voice. "Go get that damn box and be ready."
The riders drew closer; there were three men, and two of the men were the intruders from that morning. But they seemed to be alone. Pete's eyes narrowed as he noticed a wooden box strapped to the saddlebags of the black-clad man.
"Looks like they might be givin' in," he noted cautiously. "Hang on to the box til I say, Coyote. Let's see what these sons of bitches want."
Pete walked down to where the riders were trotting up, their horses' hooves stirring the dust up in golden clouds.
"That's close enough!" Pete cried when they were fifty feet away. The man in black reined in, followed by his companions.
Pete palmed his gun. "I see you decided to come back. There better not be any law with you."
"There ain't," the man replied, dismounting. The rest of the party stayed on their horses, their hands staying on their reins.
"You got what I want?" Pete yelled.
The man unfastened the wooden box from the side of his horse and walked forward, holding it up. It seemed heavy. "It's all in here," he announced, his green eyes keenly fixed on Lawson. "Hand over the medicine, an' it's yours."
Lawson's laugh rolled off of the parched foothills. "Oh no you don't! Put that box down an' back off. If I find what I need in there, you'll get the stuff back."
His adversary put the box down and straightened, an intense expression marking his face. "I'll back off when I see that box and know the medicine's all there."
Pete studied him for a moment, then said, "Okay, Coyote, let's show 'em. I want to get this over with."
Coyote picked his way carefully to where Pete was standing and put the box on the ground next to the first one, pulling open its rough wooden lid. Thirty large bottles of golden liquid sparkled in the sunlight. Coyote straightened and stepped back, leaving the box on the ground.
"It's all there?" the man asked.
"Every damn drop," Pete said with a smile. "Now back off, an' if I like what's in this box it's all yours."
The black-clad man backed a few feet away and stood, waiting patiently. The buckskin, and the third rider -- a large man with a gray mustache -- stayed motionless on their horses. Even from where he stood Pete could see that the buckskin had a particularly lethal look on his face. *Like he's going to try anything while I've still got the stuff*, Pete smiled to himself.
"Right," Pete breathed, striding to the box and kneeling before it. A sense of triumph surged through him as he worked the latch. With an anticipatory smile he lifted the lid--
Pete barely had time to see the rattlesnake coiled in the box before it struck, the fangs burying themselves deep into the fleshy part of his right hand. As the outlaw howled in surprise and fell back, the black-clad man took a step forward, pulling something form his pocket.
"Holy -- God -- aaaaarrrggg!!!" Pete yelled, finally shaking the snake loose and staring in horror at the bloody fang wounds. "You -- bastards!"
Coyote jumped forward and grabbed the box of medicine, preparing to dash it to the ground.
"Wait!" the man in black cried, holding up his hand. In it flashed a small bottle half-filled with a yellow liquid. He looked at Pete earnestly.
"Figured we'd trade a life for a life," he said, "make you appreciate your actions a little more. What's in this bottle can save your life. Give us that box an' it's yours."
Pete was gasping, still on the ground and clutching his hand as he stared at the man with open hatred. His heat was pounding with dread; he'd seen men die of rattlesnake bites. "You -- sons of--"
His opponent didn't move. "It ain't gonna take long for that poison to start workin', Lawson. You'd best make up your mind."
"An' while you're thinkin'," the buckskin said in a low and deadly tone, "you can see what it feels like t'have your life at the mercy of someone else."
Coyote was extremely agitated, the box of medicine rattling in his hands. "Pete? Want me to--"
"NO!" Pete bellowed, struggling to his knees. "Godammit, do what he says! I don't want to die!"
"Neither did them folks at Red Rock," the black-clothed man said quietly, "but you didn't much care about that, did you?"
Pete glared at him and cried in a strangled voice, "Coyote, damn you, give 'em the box!"
Still looking uncertain, Coyote came forward and put the box at the feet of the black-clad man. The man glanced at it, smiled, and casually handed the bottle to Coyote.
Pete stretched his hand out. "Give it here, you idiot!" he choked; it felt like he was going cold all over, and his heart was hammering wildly. As Coyote obeyed and he drank the entire bottle in one gulp, the large man dismounted, scooped up the medicine, and leapt back in the saddle.
"Get it back quick as you can, Josiah," the man in black said in an urgent tone. Josiah nodded, whirled and tore off in the direction of Red Rock.
Coyote knelt next to his boss. "You okay, Pete?"
Pete was gasping; he felt fine now, except for his sore hand. As he struggled to breathe, he looked up and saw the man and the box riding away.
"Guess you ain't gonna get your pardon, Pete," Coyote lamented. Pete glared at the two remaining men, who were watching their departing comrade.
"Yeah, guess not," Pete growled, drawing and lifting up his gun, "but I can still get them."
A split second before Pete fired, the buckskin whirled, his firearm up and aimed.
"Chris!" he cried.
Pete's gun roared, the bullet ripping across the man's left arm as he turned around. The man in black drew like lightning and fired, and Pete felt the bullet slam into his upper right leg. In agony, he fell to his side, still firing, but his shots were all going wild. As the two men advanced, their weapons up and ready, Coyote took one look at the situation and threw up his hands.
"Thought you didn't want to die today," the man called Chris said with a faint grin as he regarded Lawson's supine form, his gun aimed squarely at his head. "I know some folks, me included, who won't be too sorry if you've changed your mind."
There was a very loud ratcheting sound, and Pete saw the buckskin aiming his sawed-off Winchester at him, his blue eyes burning with a deep rage. It was plain to see that it would not take much to make him pull the trigger.
Pete stared at them both with lethal rage, and said nothing.
Ezra drifted quietly in a strange haze of half-consciousness. He knew he wasn't asleep, or at least he didn't think he was most of the time. There had been periods where everything had softened to a silent, dreamless black, but he wasn't sure how long those times had lasted, and if that could really be called sleep. He felt as if he hadn't truly rested in years.
He had never felt so weary; in the curious dark fog he was drifting through he could sense the pain in every part of his body, aching in a dull insistent agony. A fierce heat penetrated his whole being, one which he could not run from no matter how deeply he retreated into the darkness. So he simply hovered in the blank, mindless misery, wondering if it would ever end.
Images and dreams slipped across his mind, but he could not make sense of any of it; it was all an incoherent jumble, one he had long stopped trying to figure out. It was so much easier to simply float, to wait and watch and find comfort in the brief moments of sleep. He could hear voices, but did not recognize them; he could hear the words but could not summon enough awareness to connect and understand them. He could only listen to the events happening around him, too disoriented to even attempt their comprehension.
As he lay curled up on the cot, Ezra occasionally was awake enough to wonder what was going on. It seemed like days since he'd told the others his idea. Had it worked? Maybe it hadn't and they were all dead. Maybe they hadn't understood what he was trying to tell them -- he remembered barely being able to talk. But he had to tell them, it had seemed like a good idea, and it was the only way he was able to help...
He drew a deep breath; he was so hot and tired, he just wanted it all to be over. Mother, he thought hazily; she'd wanted me to do something, what was it? Disconnected thoughts drifted through his head as he tried to remember. She'd wanted him to find somewhere else to use his skills, that was it. She'd said they were wasted here. But was saving lives with them a waste, if he could do it? That would count for something, wouldn't it? The thought hovered for an instant, then was gone, leaving Ezra only with the vague impression that he had done all he could to help with what he had, and he was satisfied. Then he was floating again in the misty twilight, waiting.
There were more noises now; it sounded like quite a commotion, but he was too weary to do more than listen to it. There were running footsteps, and commands, but it all seemed as if it was happening very far away, and he was not a part of it.
There were voices now by Ezra's bed, low but urgent; dimly he realized that he knew them but couldn't put names to them. A hand was gently wrapped around his wrist, another placed on his forehead; the touch was cool and soothing, and Ezra was disappointed when it went away. Then he felt an arm being carefully slipped behind his shoulders, and he was eased up, his head and shoulders leaning heavily against someone's chest. A cold glass was pressed to his lips. Water? he wondered, and after a few tries rallied enough to drink whatever was being offered. It wasn't water; it was thick and bitter-tasting, and he coughed a little as it went down.
The medicine, he thought, hope stirring feebly in his half-awake soul. It worked. Good Lord. Mother, you'd be proud.
The glass disappeared; another container, the tin one it felt like, was brought to his mouth. This one did contain water, and he swallowed it quickly, eager to rid his mouth of the awful taste. A million questions poured through his mind -- was everyone all right? Was the boy still alive? What happened? -- but he was completely devoid of the power to utter even one of them.
He felt the hands gently settle him back onto the bed, and the voices saying something to him in soothing tones as the thin sheet was pulled over him, up to his chest. One hand was on his forehead again, just for a moment; then it was gone. The voices receded, and everything began to fade into a tender blackness different from the haze he'd been adrift in. This time the pain was dwindling too as a soft dark cloud fell over his mind, putting a gentle end to all thought or concern. With no more pain or worry to trouble him, Ezra curled up in the sweet oblivion with a grateful sigh, and slept.
The night air was cool as Chris and Vin trotted back towards the convent, their faces dusty but grimly satisfied in the twilight glow. Up ahead, the convent's windows spilled over with the orange light of the lamps within, and as they reined in and dismounted, a white-clad figure stepped out of the front door.
"Your friend is resting now, and Mr. Jackson thinks he'll be all right," Sister Margaret said, anticipating their first question.
Both men relaxed. "That's good news, Sister," Chris proclaimed, to which Vin added gratefully, "Amen."
"Mr. Sanchez said you were able to capture Lawson and his partner," Sister Margaret's voice sounded curious.
"Yep, we did," Chris affirmed as he sighed and leaned back against his horse, taking off his hat as he looked at her. "They ain't gonna be hurtin' nobody again."
"We just dropped 'em off at your jail," Vin continued as he patted Sire. "Tomorrow we'll ride 'em out to th' nearest army base. Reckon they'll be happy to put 'em up for a while..."
The nun looked at Chris's bleeding arm with alarm. "Did you have to shoot them?"
Chris glanced at it, unconcerned. "Just a scrap, nothin' to worry about. An' Lawson got lucky -- all he's got is a sore hand."
Vin chuckled. "He'd be a lot more sore if he knew Nathan fixed that rattler so it wasn't poisonous."
"Or that that 'cure' he took was just whiskey an' bitters," Chris said with a quiet smile, leaning against his horse. "Good thing Ezra came up with that plan. Once Lawson thought he was dyin' himself, he got a lot easier t'deal with." He looked into the convent. "How're the rest of your folks doin'?"
Margaret looked behind her and sighed. "Well. With the medicine's help, they should all get better now. And James, the boy your friend was worried about, he'll make it too. We still have many bereaved souls to comfort, but their number will be fewer now." She smiled, her lined face gentle in the gathering dusk. "I must thank you men for your help. You will have a special place in our prayers here from now on."
Chris smiled and looked at Vin. "That sure couldn't hurt," he said as he tipped his hat to her, and together they went into the convent.
Nathan was checking the patients when he looked up to see Chris, Vin and Sister Margaret enter the convent. The atmosphere was far different from the chaos of the previous days; now all the sick were treated and resting, and there was none of the frenzied, anxious activity of the earlier hours. A few lamps were burning, but for the most part the large room was dim, so Nathan had to watch his step as he carefully made his way to where his freinds were standing.
"I'll go let Mr. Sanchez know you're back," Sister Margaret said softly, and she slipped away towards the courtyard.
Chris looked around. "How's everybody doin'?"
The healer nodded as he wiped his hands on a cloth. "Just fine, now that they been given the medicine. We had just enough to go around, an' it's workin' already. C'mon."
He led them back to Ezra's cot, where the gambler lay sound asleep. Even in the dim light they could see that he was resting much more comfortably, the unhealthy clamminess gone from his skin.
"It'll be a while til he's strong enough t'go back to Four Corners," Nathan whispered, "but looks like the ol' rascal was able to even cheat death."
"Hm." Chris shook his head with a tiny smile. "Somehow I'm not surprised."
Vin looked at Ezra, then glanced around the room. "Sure is good t'see Ezra an' all these folks gettin' better," he said in a sincere, hushed voice. "Least the fever won't be bustin' up no more families."
"It would've busted up fewer families if it hadn't been for Lawson," Nathan observed sadly. "Sure hope he pays for every death his actions caused."
Chris's green eyes went hard in the dim light. "We'll see that he does," he said in a determined whisper. This sentiment was reflected in the expressions of his two comrades.
"Well, best get somethin' t'eat, or you're gonna get sick too," warned Nathan. "I'll finish up here an' join you, I'm pretty hungry myself."
"Right," Chris nodded, glancing back at Ezra before moving quietly off towards the kitchen. Vin paused, looking first at Ezra's softly slumbering form, then around the room at where the recuperating children, mothers and fathers of Red Rock were sleeping. A sad sort of gratitude filled his blue eyes, an expression of relief mingled with an ancient sorrow. Then he nodded to Nathan and silently followed Chris out of the room.
Josiah sat beneath a tree in the still darkness of the courtyard, sipping his coffee and watching the stars pass overhead on their silent march through eternity. It was almost midnight now, and he was weary, but he wasn;t quite ready to rest yet. First he had to know that everything was al right.
The sound of soft footsteps stirred the air, and Josiah looked over to see Sister Margaret emerging from the dim interior of the convent. She was smiling as she approached him, and he felt a surge of hope swell thorugh him.
"Your friends are back," she said quietly when she was close enough to speak to him. "They're inside with Mr. Jackson."
Josiah smiled and rose slowly, holding the tin cup of coffee carefully as he stood. "That's right blessed news, Sister," he said with relief.
She came to stand beside him, her hands folded in front of her. "They're with Mr. Standish now, but he's still asleep so they'll probably be going into the kitchen for something to eat soon. You may join them there if you like."
"Sounds like a fine idea, "Josiah nodded. He took another drink of coffee and looked up at her. "They get those two varmints locked up?"
She nodded, brushing the wandering strands on one side of her head back as she did so. "They're in our jail. It looks like they'll face justice after all."
Josiah eyed her with concern. "Think you can stand bein' so close to 'em? You were havin' some trouble before, I'd hate to see their presence addin' to your burdens."
The nun looked away, sighing as her expression clouded for a moment. "It will probably take a long time for me to stop thinking about what they did to our town. But," she looked back at him, a small smile tugging at her lips, "I will put the matter in God's hands, and pray for the strength to forgive."
Josiah eyed her calmly. "Seems t'me you got plenty of strength already," he said with admiration. "I've seen lots of folks who didn't have the courage t'do what you've done with your life. It takes grit to'admit you've been doin' wrong an' try to turn things around. I surely hope you find the peace you're lookin' for."
Sister Margaret's hazel eyes shone with appreciation. "Thank you, Mr. Sanchez," she said softly. "I am breathing a little easier already, knowing that there are men like yourself and your friends in this world."
Josiah ducked his head, an embarassed grin on his wide face. "Just doin' our bit t'keep the devils at bay, Sister. Guess it's time I went in an' checked on the rest of my fellow warriors."
They began to walk back to the convent. Sister Margaret said with a quiet smile, "I hope you will all remember that your efforts will be supported with our prayers, Mr. Sanchez."
Josiah grinned as they stepped into the light of the convent. "Then all I can say, Sister, is them devils better look out."
ONE WEEK LATER
A pleasantly cool summer morning was wafting its way down the main street of Four Corners, the welcome breeze winding around the small group of men lounging outside the saloon. The streets thronged with people going about their business, but the men seemed to pay them no mind as they sat, drank coffee, and watched the morning ride by.
The saloon doors opened, and JD walked into the morning sunlight, each hand carrying a steaming tin cup.
"Here's your tea, Ezra," he announced as he carefully handed one cup to the gambler who sat nearby the door. "Sure am glad you're feelin' better."
Ezra put the small book he'd been reading down on the quilt which covered his lap and accepted the cup. He was resting in a chair, without his jacket or hat. There were still slight circles beneath his eyes, and his smooth skin had not completely regained its normal healthy color, but he had recovered enough to finally leave his featherbed and get some fresh air.
"Thank you, JD," Ezra said as he sat back and sipped at the hot drink. "Although I confess I'd be even more thankful if it were something a little stronger."
"You're still gettin' better," warned Nathan as he lounged on the top step of the boardwalk. "Another few days, an' you can go back to coffee an' liquor."
"We coulda saved you some of that Green fella's tonic," Buck observed as he leaned against one of the wooden posts chewing a toothpick. "That stuff'd kick you into next week."
"Good thing you wasn't here for that, Nathan," Vin observed as he sat next to Ezra, his legs stretched out before him as he drank his coffee. "I hate t'think what you mighta done to that feller."
"He sounds like quite the rascal," Ezra noted dryly as he picked his book back up in one hand while holding the tea in the other.
"Yeah, but isn't that somethin'?" JD said as he settled himself against the saloon wall. "I mean, he's a con man like you Ezra, but he was hurtin' folks, an' you were helpin' 'em. That was some great idea you had, Ezra."
"Yeah, wish we'd been there to see it in action," Buck said. "Sounds like it was a real corker."
A flicker of gratitude sparkled in Ezra's green eyes, but he tried to look embarrassed. "Merely trying to contribute my skills in the line of duty, I assure you," he muttered, looking around.
"Wasn't no 'merely' about it," Chris said firmly as he stood next to Vin, leaning against the saloon wall with one hand. "The folks at Red Rock owe you their lives."
"It was an inspired use of your God-given talents, Ezra," Josiah noted as he relaxed next to Nathan, a stick of jerky in one hand. "and I for one am glad you've got 'em."
Nathan laughed a little and looked back at his bewildered colleague. "Face it, Ezra. You did good. Best to just accept it."
Ezra looked slightly surprised, pausing for a moment as he was lifting his cup to his lips. He hesitated, took a drink, swallowed, and said, "I suppose I must, Nathan -- it will make a most interesting letter to Mother, at any rate. As a reward, perhaps you will allow me a little brandy?"
"Virtue is its own reward, brother," Josiah said with a smile.
"I was afraid you'd say that," Ezra sighed with an expression of disappointment, but he was unable to conceal the warm appreciation shining in his eyes.
"Got a telegram from Sister Margaret yesterday," Josiah announced after he swallowed a bite of the beef jerky. "Says the town's on its way to recoverin'."
"Good t'hear that," Vin said as he looked down the street and sipped his coffee. "She was one strong woman, lookin' after all them sick folks. Must've been some hard job."
Josiah smiled a bit. "She faced a lot of challenges during those hard times, Vin. An' I think she met 'em all just fine."
The sound of trotting hooves caught their attention, and the men all looked up to see Casey and Tilda riding their horses past the saloon, Tilda in a sharp-looking riding habit and Casey in her rough everyday clothes. As they passed both girls looked at JD, burst into conspiratorial giggles, and raced away, casting glances back at the group as they disappeared into the bright sunshine.
"Looks like someone's feelin' better," Buck grinned as he watched JD stare after the girls for a minute. Then the young man turned to his friends.
"Uh, I'll see you guys later," he said as he backed off of the boardwalk. "I just wanna go see, um, how Casey's doin' an' all. Strictly, um, professional concern. You know."
The men made noises of agreement and farewell, all with knowing smiles, and JD turned and ran up the street where the girls had reined in their horses.
"Now there's a fever they'll never find a cure for," Josiah said in a firm voice as he watched their young friend dash away. The other men chuckled their agreement.
"Well, guess we best get to work on that wall," Nathan said, slapping Josiah on the shoulder as he stood. Josiah nodded, stuffing the jerky into his pocket as he stood.
"Yep," Vin echoed as he rose as well, tossing the remnants of his coffee into the dirt. "I gotta go get Sire a new shoe."
"I told Molly I'd see about fixin' that ol' stove of hers," Buck said, straightening up and looking at Ezra. "You gonna sit out here a while, Ezra, or you want some help back up to your room?"
Ezra had been sitting in thought, and now glanced at Buck with a shake of his head. "I appreciate the offer, Buck, but I have some correspondence to catch up on, and I believe I will be more comfortable here than shut up in that room. I have had quite enough of staring at four walls for a while."
"We'll be by later," Chris promised, giving him a slap on the shoulder as he walked by. Ezra watched him as he headed in the direction of the jail, then returned the general farewells as the men dispersed to carry out the day's business.
The gambler sipped his tea slowly, contemplating the evnts of the past week. It looked as if he'd found a useful place for his talents after all, and he could not deny the odd satisfaction he felt at the thought that his conning skills, formerly used solely for gain, had actually saved several lives, his own included. It was an astonishing thing to contemplate, and, he found, produced a surprisingly welcome feeling.
After a few moments of sitting and enjoying the refreshingly cool morning air, Ezra reached into a small box beside him, removing paper and pencil. After a minute's thought he began to write, his face gently creased with a small, satisfied smile. Mother would certainly be pleased that his abilities had been so useful, even if this time they hadn't made him any richer.
What Ezra couldn't explain, to her or himself, was why he felt richer anyway.
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