Rising on the horizon under the wide prairie sky, the welcome silhouette of Bitterwood Creek shimmered like a mirage above the ocean of long, brown grass that rippled and undulated gently in the hot, dry, late-summer wind. Smiles wreathed their faces and they sat easy in their saddles, their journey’s end at hand. Deeply glad to be nearly home after almost three months of travel, first to the reservation and then to the red rock canyons of Oak Creek, Jim and Blair kicked their mounts into a rolling gallop, drawing the big roan and the sorrel along behind on leather leads.
But, as they thundered across the prairie, their horses’ hooves kicking up a cloud of dry earth behind them, Blair caught a flicker of movement off to the side. Curious, he squinted into the distance and then, uncertain, he reined in and called to his partner, “Jim, hold up!”
Jim slowed Lobo, and turned to look back over his shoulder. Then his gaze shifted to find whatever Blair was looking at, but all he could see was open land. “What is it?”
“The panther and the wolf,” Blair replied as he watched their spirit animals race closer and cut between them and the town before they stopped dead not far ahead. The lines of their sleek bodies were taut; the panther growled low in its throat, and the wolf threw back its head in a long, mournful howl.
Jim frowned and again searched the prairie. “I don’t see them,” he said as he glanced back at Blair.
“They’ve stopped in front of us, blocking our path,” Blair told him. “And they don’t look or sound happy.” He lifted his gaze to the buildings on the horizon. “I think there might be trouble in town.”
Reaching out with his hearing, opening his sight, Jim strove to determine whether there was danger ahead. Biting his lip, he concentrated hard, but shook his head. “I’m not picking up on anything. Everything looks and sounds fine.”
Blair urged Butternut ahead at a slow walk, stopping when he was directly in front of the spirits. “What are you trying to tell us?” he asked, his tones respectful and gentle. “I don’t understand.”
The wolf whined and pawed at the earth, while the panther stretched out flat on the grass, its body blocking their way.
“I think they’re telling us not to go on,” Blair murmured, shifting in his saddle to look back over his shoulder at Jim. “But that doesn’t make any sense. Why shouldn’t we go home?”
“I don’t know, Chief,” Jim replied, now wary as Lobo paced up beside Butternut. “Maybe they’re just warning us that there’s trouble ahead … warning us to be careful.”
The panther yowled and the wolf yipped, and then they both faded from Blair’s sight.
Perturbed by the obscure warning, Blair scowled impatiently. “I guess you got it right, because they both reacted affirmatively, and then faded away.” Slumping his saddle, he sighed heavily as he gazed at their destination. “Damn it, I wish they could be a little clearer. What trouble? When? And, man? I’m gettin’ really tired of facing one problem after another. I was really looking forward to just settling back into a routine, you know?”
Jim’s lips tightened as he studied his partner. The weary, whining tone was one he’d never heard before. Though they’d taken their time on the long ride home from Wichita, he could see the lines of strain and exhaustion around Blair’s eyes and mouth; despite the bronzing of the remorseless sun, the kid was still too pale. And he was unnaturally thin, almost gaunt, with hollow cheeks and deep shadows, like bruises, under his eyes. For his partner’s sake, Jim, too, had been looking forward to peace and quiet – as much as they ever enjoyed as sheriff and the only doctor within a hundred miles in a bustling town on the stage line, a stopover point for anyone crossing the open prairie from east to west or back again. Blair didn’t have his strength back yet; had suffered too much in recent months, had given too much of his life force away. He badly needed rest.
Once again, Jim scanned the town, but he could still perceive nothing that spoke of any threat. Just the opposite, for he could hear hammers pounding nails, as if new buildings were being erected, the easy calls of the citizens to one another as they passed on the main street, and the sound of children laughing in play. Reaching out, he reassuringly clapped his lover on the shoulder. “It all sounds fine, Blair, at least for now.”
Nodding, Blair clicked his tongue as he lifted the reins to get Butternut moving again, but he held her to a walk, no longer blithely eager to enter the town. “Guess whatever it is, it’s not here yet,” he muttered.
“Forewarned is forearmed, Chief,” Jim offered, regretting the discouragement and disappointment he could read on his partner’s face and in the way Blair held his body. “With luck, maybe the trouble will be a long time coming.”
“Yeah,” Blair sighed, but his agreement sounded grudging. Still, he straightened his back and lifted his chin. A bleak smile creased his face as he added with a shrug, “At least we’ll be home. And that’s something to be glad about, right?”
Jim gave him a crooked smile and brief nod in return.
But as he lifted his eyes to the horizon, he hoped that whatever the trouble was, it would be a very long time coming – and, when it did, he profoundly hoped he’d be the one who had to take care of it. But trouble didn’t have to mean men too handy with their sixguns or determined to try their luck in making unauthorized withdrawals from the bank. Too often, it meant illness, and he couldn’t keep the town’s doctor from his work as a healer, however much he might wish he could. Pulling down his hat to shade his eyes, his jaw tightened as he vowed to be extra vigilant when it came to Blair’s activities in the next little while. He’d learned well the lesson that Swift Eagle had shared, that shamans couldn’t help themselves – that they gave of themselves without regard for their own needs – and it was up to him to make damned sure that Blair didn’t give too much.
As they approached the edge of town, Blair could also hear the industrious hammering, and they could both smell the fresh scent of clean sawdust on the air. Jim grimaced against the thick dust and his nose twitched, but he turned the blue lantern down before his partner could caution him to do so. Sniffing, he jerked his head toward the stable and saddlery owned and operated by their friend and part-time deputy, Henri Brown. Like Simon and Joel, Henri, his wife, Hannah, and their two daughters had become family to them, and Blair was eager to see them again. Following Jim’s gaze, he spotted Brown’s youngest girl, Cherie, sitting in the dust outside the wide open doors to the blacksmith’s forge and stable, her expression woebegone, and he wondered what was wrong. But when she looked up and saw who had just ridden into town, his concerns were alleviated when her wide dark eyes lit up and she gave them a huge smile before darting inside.
“Poppa! Poppa! Doc and Sheriff Jim are back!!!” she caroled.
Her exuberant welcome chased away the dread they were both feeling, and neither could resist grinning as they dismounted. They were looping their reins over the hitching post as Henri emerged and boomed, “Hey, hey! Welcome home, strangers!” His kindly face was wreathed in a broad smile of welcome as he held out his arms and enthusiastically embraced them. “We’ve missed you,” he went on after slapping them both on the back. “Come in, come in,” he urged, waving them toward his small, wood-frame house. “Hannah has just brewed some fresh tea that’ll wash the dust of the trail from your throats.”
Hannah appeared at the door, her smile of greeting shy but no less sincere. “Mais oui, yes,” she called to them, her Creole tones soft and musical, “please come in and set a spell. Tell us all about your journey. Ah’m makin’ supper. There’s plenty – and, o’ course, ya’ll join us.”
“Well, that sounds too good an offer to refuse,” Jim agreed as he swung Cherie up into his arms to carry her inside.
“It’s good to see you all,” Blair chimed in. “Good to be home.” Turning to Henri, he waved at the roan and the sorrel as he untied his saddlebags and looped them over his shoulder. “Think we could board these fellas with you?”
“Be my pleasure,” Brown assured him, his gaze sweeping over the two fine-looking horses and recognizing the roan William Ellison had been riding. His gaze clouded and he asked uncertainly, “All went well, didn’t it? Jim’s father an’ his brother? They okay?”
“Yes, everyone’s fine, H,” Blair assured him. “And we’ve quite a story to tell.”
Once again Brown smiled as he looped an arm around Blair’s shoulders. “Be good to hear it,” he replied.
There was something in his tone, something tired or careworn, that caused Blair to look up at him, a question in his eyes. Brown’s smile faded briefly, but then he shook his head. “Time enough to fill you in after supper,” he said cryptically. “Right now, I just want to enjoy having you and Jim back home.”
Thinking of the panther and the wolf, Blair’s eyes narrowed and he looked away. Seemed trouble might not be so far off after all. Wanting to simply enjoy their homecoming and in no hurry to hear whatever it was that was worrying Brown, his weariness from the journey bone-deep, Blair simply nodded as he followed Jim and Hannah inside the clapboard house.
Hannah filled simple clay mugs from a pitcher of tea she had chilled in a bucket of icy well water. Long familiar with her southern custom for quenching thirst, they both gratefully drank deep and sighed with pleasure.
“That really hits the spot, thanks,” Blair told her, winning another shy smile. He looked around at their daughters and, seeing the older girl, Rose, helping to shuck peas for their dinner, asked, “Hey, why aren’t you moppets in school? Is today a holiday or something?”
Shrugging, eight-year-old Rose glanced at her mother, who shook her head and turned away. But Cherie wasn’t so easily silenced. “We don’t go to school no more,” she said with a pout.
“What?” Jim exclaimed. “Why not?”
“Well, it’s a long story,” Brown hedged, looking at his wife who, her spine rigid, was busy at her worktable, shaping unbaked bread into rolls.
“Henri said he’d bring us up to date after we eat,” Blair interjected, sensing the tension and really not wanting to deal with it. In an effort to redirect everyone’s attention, he reached for his saddlebags and rummaged inside. “In the meantime, want to see what Uncle Jim and I brought back for you from Santa Fe?” he asked the girls, pitching his voice to evoke anticipation.
Their eyes brightened and they nodded eagerly.
“Oh, no, you shouldn’a brought presents,” Brown demurred, but his gratitude was clear on his open face.
“Hey, our pleasure,” Jim assured him with a smile that didn’t quite reach his eyes as he studied his friends when Hannah again turned to face them.
“Yo both so kind,” she murmured as she wiped her floury hands on a clean rag.
The girls were crowding around Blair, nearly dancing with excitement as he drew forth the small cornhusk dolls he and Jim had chosen for them. They squealed in delight at the brightly colored silk garments that garbed the dolls, tiny dresses that were finely stitched into flamboyant Mexican designs. There was a crimson one for Rose, and Cherie’s doll wore shades of blue. They hugged and kissed him in delight, and then hugged and kissed Jim, too, before hurrying to a corner by a window to examine their treasures more closely.
“They’s beautiful,” Hannah sighed and beamed at them. “Merci. T’ank you so much.”
“Ah, well, we’re not done here, yet,” Blair told her, his eyes twinkling at the ‘oh’ of surprise on her lips. He drew out a flat, cotton-wrapped square and handed it to Henri. “We thought you’d like this,” he said.
Brown seemed honestly amazed as he took the gift, looking from Blair to Jim before he began to unwrap it. When he saw the silver buckle, he shook his head and, pressing his lips together, he swallowed hard. “Look here,” he said to Hannah, sounding hoarse, holding it out for her to see. “Have you ever seen the like?”
“No, darlin’, Ah never has,” she replied as she touched his arm, her warm eyes filled with happiness for him. When Brown didn’t seem to be able to say anything more, she hesitated and then explained, “Ain’t nobody never give Henri nothing befo’. Not ‘cept us, his kin.”
“Oh, well,” Blair stammered, glancing at Jim and then back at their friends, “then we’re especially glad we brought it along, ‘cause it’s sure overdue.” And then he handed her a small suede sack, held closed by a gold-colored drawstring. “And this is for you, Hannah.”
“Fo’ me?” she exclaimed on a breath of air, gaping at him.
“Yes, for you,” Jim assured her.
Her hand was trembling as she reached for the gift and a smile blossomed on her face as she cut a look up at Henri, who looped an arm around her shoulders. When she drew out the delicately-crafted silver bangle, she gasped, and pressed the back of the hand clenching the sack to her mouth. Tears glazed her eyes and she blinked hard. “Oh, my,” she whispered, overcome. “Oh, my.”
“It’s beautiful, darlin’, jes like you,” Henri murmured. “Go on. Put it on.”
She looked up him and then at each of them, and they all nodded encouragingly. She slipped the bracelet over her slender hand, and it glittered against the dark chocolate of her skin. “T’is is too much,” she protested, starting to pull it off.
Blair’s throat thickened and he could only shake his head.
Jim reached to close his hand over hers, staying her hurried action. “No, no, please. We thought of you as soon as we saw it. Delicate and yet strong. And, like H said, beautiful, like you.”
“Yo the bes’ friens we eva had,” she told them, tears still spangling her eyes. “Ain’t nobody never been so kind as you are to us.”
“You’re very special to both of us,” Blair said, his own voice husky. “You and your family, and Simon and Joel – well, you’re our family, and we missed you while we were gone.”
“We sure missed you, too,” Henri assured them. “Can’t say how glad we are that you’re back.”
“Oh, look at that, you done drank all that tea. Here,” she interjected, bustling forward to gather up their mugs, “Ah’ll jes get you some mo’.” But she paused and then, blushing, she dipped quickly to kiss them both on their cheeks. “T’ank you,” she whispered in confusion. “T’ank you.”
Pleased to have made them all so happy with their small tributes, Jim and Blair both blushed and grinned like little boys.
The moment was broken when the hooves of what sounded like twenty or more horses at full gallop thundered by along the road outside, shaking the little house.
“What the …!” Jim exclaimed, coming to his feet to look out the window at the strangers clattering by.
“That’s the construction gang heading home,” Brown told him with a grimace of annoyance. “They ride roughshod through town every morning and every night.”
Jim turned to frown at him. “But that’s dangerous. They could run down someone old and too slow to get out of their way, or a little kid who’d freeze in fright.”
“We knows that, Jim,” Hannah replied quietly. “Tha’s why we don’ let the girls play out front no mo’.”
“But –” Jim began, sitting back down and wondering why Brown, as the deputy, hadn’t put a stop to it.
“I’ll explain everything that’s been goin’ on after we eat,” Henri assured him, glancing at his daughters. Drawing out a cane-backed chair to join them at the table, he urged, “Now, you said you had a story to tell. So, come on, then! Let’s hear it!”
Blair looked at Jim, both of them sensing there was something wrong, but respecting Brown’s desire to postpone the discussion. So, while Hannah finished preparing their supper, and later, as they ate, they told them of their adventures in the far west. The girls listened in awe, murmuring to each other about ‘wild Injuns’, until Hannah hushed them, eager herself to hear all they had to say. Brown watched them closely as the story unfolded, and the awareness in his eyes told them he knew when they were sliding over some of the facts. With an arched brow, he let them know he’d want all the details later.
As Hannah was clearing off the table after they’d finished eating the apple pie she’d made for dessert, she waved toward the door. “Go on, now. Go sit for a spell in the evenin’ air. Ah’ll bring y’all some coffee inna minute or two.”
“We can help clean up!” Blair protested as he stood to carry dishes to the wash basin on her work counter, in part because he really did want to help – and in part because he was in no hurry to hear whatever it was he knew Brown would soon tell them.
But she pulled the crockery out of his hands. “Non, non!” she laughed. “Did the prodigal son clean up after his feast? Non, yo all jes’ go and leave this t’ me.”
With soft chuckles of defeat, the men took their hats from the pegs near the door and wandered out to sit on the narrow, sheltered porch that overlooked the street. The sun was setting in the west, the evening still bright and warm, the air clearer now that the wind had died and the dust had settled. Blair sank onto the rough-hewn bench against the wall, while Jim and Henri leaned against the posts at either end of the porch. Brown looked away, off down the street, and seemed reluctant to break the comfortable silence between them.
“Might as well spit it out, H,” Jim advised, his tone low and encouraging. “What’s been going on here? Why aren’t the girls in school?”
Henri inhaled deeply and blew the breath out slowly. Shifting to perch one hip on the wooden railing, he licked his lips. Looking from Jim to Blair and back again, he began, “Not long after you rode out with your father, a wagon train of new settlers arrived. They, uh, come from the south, an’ … there’s a lot of ‘em; near as many as lived in the whole town before they showed up.” Once again, his gaze drifted to the street, quiet but for the cheerful sound of the saloon’s harpsichord. “They’s got their own ideas about what’s proper. An’ there’s some in town who agrees with ‘em.”
“What ideas would those be?” Blair asked, afraid he already knew the answer.
“They don’t countenance the idea of equality,” Brown replied, bitterness tingeing his voice. “They don’ think their children should have t’ associate with mine, an’ they kicked up such a fuss that poor Marnie MacDonald was at her wit’s end. I … I took my girls outta the school t’ make things easier on her.”
He looked at Jim and his jaw was tight as he admitted, “An’ … their leader, well, he also made a fuss about a ‘darkie’ actin’ all high and mighty, strutting around town with a badge. It was getting pretty … tense, an’ there was too many of ‘em to fight, though Sam and Silas, and Simon and Joel and their riders, and, well, Pastor Stevens would’a backed me. I’m sorry, Jim. I guess I let you down, but it didn’t seem worth men gettin’ killed over.”
Blair felt as if a dark cloud had settled over the sun, leaving him feeling chilled. He looked up at Jim, who had straightened, his expression one of barely contained rage. Jutting his jaw toward the Sheriff’s Office down the street, he grated, “First off, don’t be apologizing. Doesn’t sound like you could’ve done anything different, H – though I’m sorry you’ve had to deal with such…”
He cut himself off and, his jaw clenching, swallowed hard. “Who’s over there now?”
“Fellow name of McBride – he’s the bossman’s righthand man.”
“And this ‘bossman’,” Jim asked with a low growl. “What would his name be?”
“Kincaid. Garrett Kincaid.”
Brown sighed and waved toward the center of town. “You probably heard all the building goin’ on when you rode in. Kincaid has his personal army erecting a whole lot of places. A mansion for him. A new hotel, ‘cause he don’t hold with a woman running her own place.” He grinned bleakly. “You can jes’ imagine how Miz Megan reacted to that.” His soft, hollow chuckle died. “He’s also buildin’ a new church, ‘cause Pastor Stevens made it clear we were welcome to worship there, whatever the hell Kincaid likes or doesn’t like. An’, he’s threatened t’ build his own bank, saloon and general store, too, if Sam, Silas and Angus don’ refuse to do business with the ‘nigras’. So far…” Henri shook his head. “They’re good men, fine men, but I don’t know if they can hold out forever, not if many in town take their business to Kincaid.”
“Sonuva –” Jim cursed.
“There’s one thing more,” Brown interjected. Frowning, he looked at Blair. “I’m real sorry to tell you this, Doc, but … well, Milt Ambrose has set himself up as a doctor. All Kincaid’s people are goin’ to him, and they say they won’t have no truck with no…” His voice caught as if he might choke, but he continued grimly, “Christ killer.”
Jim slammed his fist into his palm, but Blair just held Henri’s gaze for a long moment, and then nodded. “Well, given everything else, I guess that’s no surprise.” He shook his head. “I would’ve hoped that Milt … but I guess, I guess it’d be hard to turn away such good business. And, besides, while I was away, he’s the only one who could help the sick.”
“If the fools around here go to Ambrose, when they know he’s no doctor,” Jim snapped, “then they deserve what they get! That’s maybe the one good thing I’ve heard – you might actually get a chance to rest up a bit, not be chasing all over creation looking after everyone.”
“Jim!” Blair protested, but stopped himself when Hannah appeared in the doorway, a tray with three steaming mugs of coffee in her hands.
“Yo tol’ ‘em?” she asked, though there was no question in her voice. “We’s sorry,” she said to them. “Sorry t’ be greetin’ ya’ll with such news.”
Taking a mug, Jim shook his head forcefully. “You and H got nothing to be sorry for, Hannah,” he replied, his tone stern but kind. “Sounds to me like a whole lotta people owe the two of you an apology. I’m sorry we weren’t here. That you’ve had to deal with this.”
“Non, non, yore brother, he needed you, Jim, and t’was good you went t’ him,” she demurred. “They’s jes mean-spirited people, an’ tha’s not yore fault.”
Blair sipped at his coffee, and was glad of its bitter strength. “You say there were as many in the wagon train as live in town,” he pondered. “Where are they all living now?”
“Kincaid says they got rights to the land east of here that borders on Simon and Joel’s place,” Brown told them. “They’re setting up as farmers, mostly. Though I heard talk that they might be bringin’ in sheep.”
“Oh, great,” Jim sighed as he rolled his eyes. “The man really does want a war, doesn’t he?”
“Looks like,” Brown agreed with a grimace of disgust.
“How are Simon and Joel taking all this?” Blair asked.
“Not well,” Henri replied. “But they’re being sensible. When they come into town now – which isn’t often – they have most of their riders with them. They don’t want to provoke a fight … but they’re showin’ they won’t back down from one, either.”
“They’s too many t’ fight,” Hannah said as she leaned the tray against the wall and crossed her arms. “Yo know it’s true, Henri,” she went on sharply. Looking at Jim and Blair, she went on, “Sho, they has their women and chill’uns with them, but they’s at least forty men in that mob that must’ve been rebel soldiers and they knows how to handle their guns. Yo cain’t fight dem all, Jim. Not even you can fight dem all.”
Jim handed his empty mug to her. “We’ll see, Hannah,” he returned, his voice tight. “But don’t you worry about that tonight.” He tipped his hat to her and held out his hand to Brown. “Thank you both for a fine homecoming. Was a wonderful dinner and we’re both real glad to see you all again. But it’s getting late, and I need to go relieve the new ‘deputy’ of his duties. We won’t be needing his services anymore.”
“Jim,” Brown began, a warning in his voice.
“I’m the Sheriff,” Jim cut in, his expression determined. “And until this town tells me different, I decide who wears a deputy’s badge in Bitterwood Creek.”
A smile quirked the corner of Henri’s mouth. “Like I said earlier, we’re real glad to have the two of you back.”
Blair saluted Hannah and slapped Brown on the arm as he followed Jim down off the porch. “See you tomorrow,” he called over his shoulder, as they untied their horses. Wordlessly, they led Lobo and Butternut across the street and down along the narrow alley beside their house, to the stable in back. As they unsaddled, Blair murmured, “I’m going with you.”
“I know,” Jim said with a slow smile. “Just keep your badge in your pocket, like always.”
Blair thought about that as he draped the saddle and blanket over the half-wall of the stall. He forked hay into the mangers, while Jim drew water from the well and filled the troughs. As they carried their saddlebags and bedrolls inside, he said, “You know, I think it might be time I started wearing the badge.”
“Chief,” Jim retorted, “you’re not a gunman. I don’t want you caught in the middle of this.”
“Maybe it’s time I learned,” he returned, and held up his hand to stave off Jim’s objections. “Hear me out, Jim,” he argued. “From what H said, this is a bad situation that’s fixing to get worse. Hannah’s right. You can’t go up against them all alone.”
“You’re the doctor, Sandburg,” Jim sighed as he pulled off his hat and wiped his brow with the back of his hand. “And I won’t be alone. There are good men in this town – and Simon and Joel’s bunch’ll back me, just like they were willing to back H.”
“I wonder if I am still the doctor,” Blair muttered morosely, turning away to walk through his small infirmary to the hall that led to the front of the house. “Guess we’ll have to see.”
“C’mon, you don’t think everyone in this town, or all the folks hereabouts are going to stop coming to you? They aren’t all damned fools,” Jim contested. “Though, I have to say, I really wouldn’t mind if you had a lighter load. You’re still recovering, Blair. You need to take it easy.”
“I won’t turn anyone away,” he replied with a challenging look.
“Yeah, I know,” Jim said as they dropped their bags at the foot of the stairs. Looping his arm around Blair’s shoulders as they went out the front door, he went on, “But you can’t fault me for hoping that there are a few idiots who’ll keep taking their problems to Ambrose.”
“He’s no doctor, Jim.”
“I know that, too – anyone with half a brain in this town knows that, Chief.”
“I hoped … I hoped I’d be past this,” Blair admitted then, with a troubled glance down the street at the apothecary shop. “After so many years here…”
“Don’t buy trouble, Chief,” Jim counseled, pausing for a moment before he entered his office to look down at Blair. “You had more than enough patients before this new crowd showed up. I suspect most of ‘em will be glad you’re back.”
“Guess we’ll see,” Blair sighed. “If they’re not too afraid to be seen coming to me.”
Jim’s lips tightened, and then he turned to shoulder open the door. As they walked inside, he eyed the man behind his desk who was rising to his feet. “McBride, I’m Sheriff Ellison.”
Surprised flashed over his face, but though McBride smiled easily, he studiously ignored Blair and his tone had an edge as he responded, “It’s good to meet you, sir. Glad to know you’re finally back in town.”
“Uh huh,” Jim grunted. “Now that I’m back, you can go on home.” Holding out his hand, he added bluntly, “And you won’t be needin’ that badge anymore, so I’ll take it before you go.”
McBride’s eyes narrowed. “Now, you don’t want to be too hasty, Sheriff. I’m proud to help keep the peace in town. And, uh, Colonel Kincaid, well, he’s counting on me to lend a hand. Why, when we arrived … well, there’s no need to rely on a boy when there’s men to keep the law.”
Still waiting for the badge, silence stretched while Jim glared at the man until a flush began to creep up McBride’s neck. Finally, Jim replied, his voice icily calm but holding the cutting tones of command, “Bitterwood Creek has more than enough fine deputies, all of them good and brave men who have served this town for years. So long as I’m Sheriff, they will continue to serve. You can tell Mister Kincaid I’ve relieved you of duty.”
“The Colonel might have something to say about that, sir,” McBride challenged.
A cold smile curved the edge of Jim’s mouth. “Well, I’ll look forward to hearing what Kincaid has to say. Give him my regards when you see him.” But the smile disappeared as he added, “The badge. I’ll take it now.”
With clear reluctance, McBride unpinned the star as he came out from behind the desk. For a moment, he paused, his lip curling with contempt as his glance cut to Blair. “You’re makin’ a mistake, Sheriff,” he advised, belligerence in his eyes as he returned his gaze to Jim. “Never a good idea to turn away good help.”
“No, it’s not,” Jim agreed, plucking the badge from McBride’s fingers. “Good help – men I’d trust to watch my back – isn’t at all that easy to find.” Leaning past Blair, he opened the door, and held it wide. “Get out.”
Anger at the insult flashed in the man’s eyes, but he gave a single, stiff nod. Pulling down the brim of his hat, shouldering roughly past Blair, he strode out the door. Jim slammed it behind him.
“Well, I’d say that went well,” Jim observed mildly, moving around the desk to toss the tin star into the desk drawer.
“Yeah?” Blair breathed, not sure whether he felt proud of his partner or just plain scared. “Funny,” he went on, his voice tight with trepidation, “I thought I heard a declaration of war.”
Pursing his lips and cocking one brow, Jim said slowly, “Maybe.”
When Blair grimaced and shook his head, Jim shrugged. “I heard what H and Hannah said, Chief. And I understand this could get messy. But no one is going to come in here and ride roughshod over our people, not so long as I’m wearing this badge.”
Blair couldn’t help the small smile as he looked up at his partner. “Welcome home,” he murmured, his tone now warm with approval, though fear still knotted in his gut. He tilted his head toward the street. “Ready to do our rounds?”
“Yeah, yeah, I am,” Jim agreed, skirting around the desk. “Time to let this town know we’re back.” But then he hesitated and turned back; pulling open the drawer, he picked up the little star and held it thoughtfully.
“Jim, do you think that’s a good idea?” Blair questioned uncertainly. “You don’t want to make him a target.”
Looking up, Jim’s expression tightened. “No, I don’t,” he agreed. “But I think that has to be his choice, not ours.”
Blair’s lips thinned, but he nodded and followed Jim back out onto the street, and across to Brown’s house.
When Henri answered, he seemed surprised to see them again so soon. Behind him, Hannah looked up from scrubbing the table.
Holding out the badge in the palm of his hand, Jim said, “This is yours; up to you whether you wear it or not.”
Henri’s lips parted and he didn’t seem to know what to say as he studied the star. Hannah stiffened, and then came to stand behind him, her arms crossed and her lips tightly compressed, as if she was biting off words. Blair could too easily understand their mute communication. Brown had a family to take care of … a lot more to risk than he and Jim did. “We’d understand if … well, if you think …. H, you have to think about the girls. We know that.”
Henri looked up at him, and then back over his shoulder at his wife. For a moment, she held his gaze, but then her eyes dropped and her shoulders sagged as she nodded with a small sigh. Brown took a deep breath and turned back to face them. Taking the badge from Jim, he finally offered, “I’ll keep this an’ put it on when it’s necessary but … maybe, maybe I could just, uh, do the rounds with you, like the Doc does – you know, without wearin’ it.”
Jim clasped his shoulder. “That’s more’n good enough for me.” He tipped his hat to Hannah and stepped back. Brown reached just inside the door for his Stetson and, strapping on the gunbelt he’d also pulled from a peg, moved out into the night to walk with them as they patrolled the town.
Light spilled out of the saloon along with the lively honky-tonk plunking of the harpsichord but, otherwise, the main street was quiet in the lengthening shadows cast by the nearly-set sun. The bank and the bakeshop, the apothecary and the telegraph office were all long closed for the night. Further along, Jim and Blair eyed the skeletons of the new buildings that Kincaid was having erected. Once they were finished, the core of the town would feel crowded and closed in, with few open spaces to give a glimpse of the prairie, the nearby river shrouded by its bordering sycamores, or the little creek that ran under the willows, oak and aspen. Jim scowled, but he didn’t say anything as they strode past the schoolyard toward the residential end of town. Lights glowed behind curtained windows and they could hear voices, if not make out any words.
They swung past the church and the little graveyard, and headed back on the opposite side of the street. When they reached the hotel, they turned in, and Blair smiled to see Megan Connor sitting behind the reception desk, her head bent over her accounts. When she glanced up, perhaps expecting to see one of her guests returning from the saloon next door, she did a double take and then, a wide smile wreathing her face, she leapt to her feet and hurried around the end of the desk.
“Jim! Blair!” she cheered, “you’re back!”
The warmth of her welcome eased some of the tension Blair had felt building as they’d done their rounds, and he gladly returned her hug with the enthusiasm of an old friend.
“Ah, the two of you are a sight for sore eyes,” she told them, then hesitated as she searched Jim’s face. “Your journey? Did you find your brother? Is everything alright?”
“Yes, everything’s fine,” Jim assured her.
But Henri snorted and chuckled as he added, “Wait till you hear the story. ‘Fine’, now, maybe, but it had its hair-raisin’ moments. Apaches, crooked railroaders –”
“What!” she exclaimed and swept her gaze over them again. “Well, you seem to be in one piece and still have all your hair. But I want to hear all the details. Supper, here, tomorrow.”
Blair smiled and nodded. “Sounds like too good an invitation to refuse.” Glancing at Jim, he added cheekily, “Especially since we haven’t had time to restock our larder yet.”
She batted his arm but laughed. “I am glad you’re back. And,” she went on as she gazed at Brown, “I’m glad to see you’re making the rounds again, too. The last few weeks have been … unsettling, to say the least.”
“Kincaid giving you any grief?” Jim demanded, all amusement gone from his voice and eyes.
Crossing her arms as if chilled, she shook her head. “Not directly, not yet,” she said, her lips thinning. “But I’ve heard he’s made unflattering comments about women not knowing their place.” Her eyes flashed. “I almost wish he would say something to my face. I’d like to give that boyo a piece of my mind and maybe even the flat of my hand.”
Blair’s brows arched under his hat and he had difficulty hiding his grin at her robust confidence. Kincaid had better watch his step around Connor – she wasn’t one to suffer fools at all gladly.
“Well, we’d best be on our way. Just wanted to let you know we’re back – and if Kincaid or any of his bunch give you any trouble, you let me know,” Jim told her as he tipped his hat.
“Don’t forget, supper, tomorrow night,” she reminded them and hugged them again for good measure before walking them to the door.
Back on the boardwalk, they continued the few steps to the saloon and pushed their way through the batwing doors. The place was as busy as ever, with a card game going on at a corner table, and the ladies of the night flirting with the cowhands and drifters. Blair glanced around and saw a good number of unfamiliar faces, but that wasn’t unusual. Some, though, looked up and scowled when they saw Brown, and he wondered if they were some of Kincaid’s men or if one of those present was Kincaid himself.
“Sheriff! Doc! Welcome back!” Moe Gurney, the bartender called loudly, his greeting unusually effusive and, with a nod, he acknowledged Brown, “Deputy. Good to see y’all. The usual?”
Jim nodded as he approached the bar and several men shifted aside to make room for them. “Moe,” he greeted as Gurney drew three mugs of his homebrewed ale. “I see business is booming as usual.”
Gurney shrugged. “Summer’s hot and dusty. Man’s gotta wet his whistle,” he replied and set the foaming mugs in front of them.
“Yeah, and in the winter, it’s cold, so a man needs to warm his insides,” Jim returned with a tight half-smile.
“As you say, Sheriff,” Moe allowed and unbent enough to add a wink. Wiping the polished wooden bar with a rag, he lowered his voice and flicked a look at strangers clustered around two tables at the far end of the room. “New folks done moved in while you were gone.”
“So I heard,” Jim replied as he took a sip. “Also heard there’s talk of there maybe bein’ a new saloon built. Silas concerned at all?”
Again Gurney shrugged. “Lots’a business for everyone,” he said guardedly. “You’d best talk to Silas himself to get his views.” His gaze again drifted to the men glaring at them from the end of the room and then, grimacing as if he had a bad taste in his mouth, he hawked into the spittoon behind the bar. Turning back to them, he leaned his elbow on the bar. “They’s trouble, no doubt about it. Just don’t know how much, yet.”
“Guess we’ll find out,” Jim replied, his voice low and dry.
“McBride was in a little while ago. Looked a mite riled. Saw he ain’t wearing the star no more,” Moe observed.
“No, no he’s not,” Jim agreed. “No need, now that I’m back.”
“You met Kincaid yet?”
A humorless smile cracked Gurney’s stubbled visage. “You watch yer back, Jim,” he counseled. “Man likes to pretend he’s quality, but he’s a sidewinder, pure and simple.”
A slow smile creasing Jim’s face, he nodded and cocked his brow at he glanced at Blair. Moe had rarely, if ever, been so forthcoming; he was more often surly and downright sour on occasion. The fact that he was being so clear about his loyalties was both gratifying and worrying. Kincaid evidently had him spooked – and Moe Gurney wasn’t a man who spooked easily.
“Thanks, Moe,” Jim replied as he tossed coins on the bar to cover their beers. “Appreciate the advice.”
“Hey!” a man called aggressively from the end of the bar. “We gotta wait all night to be served? Or mebbe we just oughtta find somewhere’s else to drink, if’n yer gonna serve nigras and Jews in here.”
Moe shook his head and grimaced. Moving at his own studied pace, he turned to face the irate customer. “We serve all free men, here,” he called back. “You don’t like it – you c’n go.”
“Why you –” the lout shouted and his hand started to move toward his gun.
Moe brought a shotgun into view and cocked it. The music and high-pitched laughter died as everyone in the saloon stiffened. “You wanna a drink, a bellyful of lead, or you had enough for the night?” he asked into the silence as if he didn’t much care what the ruffian chose.
Slowly, Jim shifted to put himself between the potential trouble and Blair, his hand hovering over his own weapon.
The stranger’s gaze flickered between Moe and the three of them, and his lip curled. “Scum,” he spit, but his own hand eased away from his sidearm. “The Colonel’s not gonna be happy when he hears about this,” he warned, his steely gaze going back to meet Moe’s stony eyes.
When Gurney just shrugged, the troublemaker snorted and yanked his hat down over his brow. “You better watch yer step, barkeep,” he growled, but he waved his companions toward the door. “We won’t fergit this.”
“Guess that means you don’t wanna ‘nother drink,” Moe replied, seemingly unfazed by the threats. Once they’d marched out, stiff with hostility and disgust written on their faces, he put the shotgun back under the bar. He nodded to the piano player, who struck up a tune. The card players tossed chips onto their table as they went back to their game and, gradually, the rumble of talk and high-pitched laughter resumed.
“That happen often?” Jim asked.
“No more’n once a night,” Moe returned phlegmatically. “Till they git their own saloon built, they ain’t got much choice but to come on back here with their business.” He began filling more mugs with ale in response to orders called from down the bar. “Have t’ say, though, I’m glad yer back, Sheriff. You, too, Doc. Town ain’t been the same without you.” He moved away to serve the drinks, and to pour shots of whisky for other customers.
“Well,” Blair muttered, “that was interesting.”
Jim just nodded, his expression guarded, as he sipped on his beer.
Brown upended his mug, swallowing until it was empty, and then he carefully placed it back on the bar. He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and shook his head. “Damn,” he rumbled.
“Yeah,” Blair sighed in agreement. Though Moe’s evident partisanship had been encouraging, and Megan’s greetings warm, he found himself looking around the saloon at all the men he knew who wouldn’t meet his eyes, and those he didn’t, who cast him and Brown cool looks of speculation. His shoulders sagged in weariness and discouragement as he turned back to the bar. All he’d wanted, all he’d thought about for the past days on the trail was being home, and finally being able to relax and breathe easily with nothing more to worry about than some kid with the croup or a complicated delivery. Now all he felt was unsettled and anxious, and afraid that the home he’d longed for didn’t really exist. Might never exist.
“C’mon, Doc,” Jim said, briefly touching his shoulder to get his attention. “It’s late, and we’ve made our point. Looks like all the action is over for the time being, and Hannah’s waitin’ up for H. Let’s call it a night.”
Wordlessly, he nodded. They waved at Moe and turned to head back out into the darkness.
Jim scanned the street with his senses, seeking any sign of impending ambush from the disgruntled men who’d stormed out of the saloon, but all was quiet. After watching Brown cross the wide dusty road and enter his home, he guided Blair down the dark alleyway to the back. While Blair bedded down their horses for the night, he hauled buckets of water for the trough, and then a last one, to carry inside for their nightly ablutions. All the while, he monitored his partner, and worried about him.
Blair’s evident despair was all too plain, and was unlike the man, who was inclined to hide his hurts automatically, unconsciously. Jim had had to work hard to get him to open up, at least in the privacy of their home, or in quiet moments when they were alone. Futile anger flared at a world that he couldn’t control, couldn’t make safe … couldn’t make see that men like Blair and Henri, Simon and Joel were so good as to be rare and should be respected, even cherished, not reviled. The foul ignorance and arrogance that was poisoning Bitterwood Creek was something Jim didn’t fully understand and left him feeling helpless, except to confront it head-on – an approach that all too clearly left both Sandburg and Brown feeling vulnerable and, God help them, maybe even ashamed. As if the trouble was their fault.
Jim knew that Blair’s despondency was, in no small part, fueled by his lack of energy and innate vitality. The kid hadn’t fully recovered from all he’d given and endured in the last few months. But that realization only served to heighten Jim’s anxiety. Blair needed rest but, from what he’d seen and heard since their homecoming, Jim was sorely afraid that tranquility was going to be a hard commodity to find in the next weeks and months.
Why the hell had Kincaid and his bunch decided to settle here? Why couldn’t they have kept on going to spread their hate somewhere else?
Sighing, he shook his head. Questions like that were a waste of time. They had to deal with the here and now. When Blair came out of the privy, he looped his arm around his lover’s shoulders as they walked across the earthen yard. Inside, they trooped into the kitchen. Jim pushed Blair down onto a chair by the table, and his partner didn’t argue the gesture, just dropped his hat on the table and, closing his eyes, leaned his head back against the wall. Jim lit the stove to heat the water, and then a lantern.
“You want some tea?” he asked into the silence that stretched between them.
“No, thanks. Just want to clean some of this dust off my body and go to bed.”
“The water’ll take a few minutes to heat.”
Blair just nodded and lapsed back into silence.
Jim took their hats to hang on pegs by the front door, where he usually also hung his gunbelt. But he hesitated and decided to keep his weapons close, at least until he got a better handle on Kincaid. Could be, the man was just a bully who would back down when confronted. If so, the current tensions in town might resolve themselves without violence. But … it was too soon to tell.
Returning to the kitchen, he loosened the buttons on his shirt. Blair hadn’t moved. Hunkering down beside him, Jim gripped his shoulder. “I’m sorry, Chief,” he murmured.
A wisp of a smile played over Blair’s lips. Then he sat up and leaned forward to lightly kiss Jim’s brow. “‘S not your fault,” he replied, and caressed Jim’s stubbled cheek. But his shadowed gaze grew distant and he looked away, his expression sad.
The water in the pot began a low roiling that only Jim could hear, but it signaled that it had grown warm enough to wash themselves. He squeezed Blair’s shoulder and then rose to dump half of the slightly steaming water into their basin. “C’mon,” he encouraged, “you go first, and then head up to bed.”
Blair stood and pulled off his shirt. Taking a clean rag and a bar of homemade soap from the shelf over the work table, he washed his face and neck, his arms and chest, and then Jim took the cloth to wash the sweat and dust from his back. Though he knew the scars no longer hurt, he was gentle and felt the same pangs of rage and pathos he always did when he saw the ugly marks of the lash that had nearly killed Blair years ago. When he was finished, he bent to kiss the nape of Blair’s neck. “Get out of your jeans and boots, and I’ll wash your feet.”
For a moment, he thought Blair might protest that he could wash himself, but then, with a weary nod, Blair stripped and sat down. Jim lifted the basin to the floor and, kneeling, he quickly finished off the cursory sponge bath. Once he’d dried Blair’s feet, he urged, “Go on, I’ll be up in a few minutes. Leave the saddlebags. I’ll take care of them.”
“Thanks,” Blair replied as he stood to head upstairs, pausing only to give him a brief smile.
Jim tossed out the water made filthy by the grime of their miles of travel since leaving Wichita, and then refilled the metal bowl to wash himself. When he’d finished, after dumping the water out the back door and cleaning the basin, he grabbed their clothing and his gunbelt. In the hall, he gathered up their saddlebags and trudged up the dark stairs.
Covered with a light sheet, Blair was curled on their bed, his face toward the open window. From the sound of his breathing, Jim could tell he was still awake. Climbing onto the bed, he slid close and wrapped his arms around his lover – and was glad when, despite the persistent, sticky heat, Blair relaxed back against him. “It’ll be okay,” he offered, hoping he wasn’t making empty promises.
“Will it?” Blair breathed. He stirred and then shifted onto his back to stare up into the darkness. His voice was low, barely audible, and hesitating as he continued, “I’ve seen this before, Jim; been through it before. Once people have another choice, another doctor, they … they stop coming to me for help. That’s when …” his voice cracked, “that’s when I know it’s time to move on. But, but I’d hoped, you know, that I was past that here. That this was a place I might be able to stay.” Turning his gaze toward Jim, he asked, “Would you … would you be willing to leave Bitterwood Creek?”
Jim’s heart ached at the lost, sorrowful tones and words and, for a moment, his throat was too tight to speak. Sandburg deserved so much better than this – had earned so much better. He gathered Blair up into his arms, and held him close, his lips on his partner’s brow. “Don’t be so quick to write everyone off,” he encouraged. “You’ve got a lot of friends in this town, Chief. And they’re all ungrateful fools if they turn their backs on you now. But, if it comes to that, all that really keeps me here is you. If the time comes and you decide it’s time to move on, you just say when and where, and I’ll be leaving with you.”
Blair’s arms came up around him to hug him back. “Thanks,” he whispered. He drew in a long, deep breath and let it out slowly. “This Kincaid. It could be bad, Jim. Real bad. Deadly, if he pushes it.”
Jim nodded. “I know,” he murmured. “But we haven’t met the man yet. Maybe he’ll back off. We’ll just have to see how it plays out.”
“I don’t want anyone killed, and I know Henri probably feels the same way – that’s why he backed off and took his girls out of the school. For their safety, sure, but for the safety of anyone else who might have stood up for him and them.” After a moment, he added, “I wonder what Simon and Joel think about everything that’s happening.”
“That’s something else we need to find out, Chief. But that’s for tomorrow. Tonight, you’re tired right out and you need to sleep.”
Against his shoulder, he felt Blair’s face crease in a smile. “Determined to take care of me, huh?”
“Somebody has to,” Jim agreed with a low chuckle. “Let it go for tonight, Blair, okay? Let it go.”
Blair nodded and extricated himself to lie back down.
Jim settled beside him and listened until he heard Blair’s breathing deepen into sleep. But sleep eluded him as he stared into the darkness and thought about what Blair had said. It galled him to think people would give up their homes and move on in the face of such virulent hostility; it wasn’t fair. Sighing, he could also understand why people would choose to run rather than fight; sometimes the price of battle just wasn’t worth it. But it wasn’t in his nature to run, to let bastards like Kincaid win. Wasn’t in his nature to give up. And this was his fight, too. Not just Blair’s or Brown’s or Simon’s and Joel’s. This was about friendship and, on a broader level, about equality and decency. Grimacing, he shook his head as he wondered what the future would hold. He really wanted to believe the town would rally behind them – but he knew all too well how corrosive fear could be.
Rolling on his side, he closed his eyes and gave himself the advice he’d given Blair. Let it go for tonight. See what tomorrow brings.
Jim woke to a touch on his hand, and the feeling of something warm and heavy being slipped onto his finger. Blinking in the bright sunlight streaming in through the window, he lifted his head and saw Blair smiling at him.
“Morning to you, too, Chief. Ah, what’s this?” he asked as he lifted his hand and studied the gold signet ring with a dark blue polished stone. The light flashed on the stone and he squinted, then looked closer at the star he could see in its depths.
“It’s a star sapphire,” Blair explained as he hitched a hip onto the side of the bed. “When I saw it, I thought of your name, ‘Brave Star’, and it just seemed appropriate, you know?”
“But, how, where …?” Jim gabbled, well aware that his partner couldn’t afford such a luxury. And then he frowned. “And why?”
“Well, the how and where is easy,” Blair replied with a cheeky grin. “I got it from Ezra Standish. You know how he was always asking questions, curious about who we were, where we came from?” When Jim nodded, he went on, “Well, one time when he came to keep me company and play some cards, I noticed this ring, said it made me think of you. He wanted to know why.” Blair shrugged. “When I hesitated, he said he’d trade the ring for the story … so I gave him an abridged version of our visit with Swift Eagle and Whispering Waters. And, since that didn’t seem like enough for such a great ring, I also told him pretty much what happened in Geronimo’s camp. He loved the stories, especially since you and Toby hadn’t been telling them much; I think he relished the idea of knowing stuff the others didn’t. Anyway, he seemed to think it was a fair trade.”
Amused, Jim relaxed. “And the why?” he prompted.
“That’s a little more complicated,” Blair replied, a slight flush blooming on his stubbled cheeks. “Well, first, today is the anniversary of when you saved my life last summer.”
When Jim winced and looked away, he hurried on, “I know you don’t like to think about that time, but it means the world to me. I like to remember it. And, second …” Hesitating, his teeth worried at his lower lip. “There’s no way anyone else can ever understand what we mean to one another. We can’t exactly stand up and announce our relationship to the world. But, what you said last night? That you’re only here because of me? Well, I feel the same way, Jim. Home isn’t a place. It’s you. It’s us together. I guess … I guess this ring is my way of saying I pledge myself to you. For always. Just, I don’t know, seemed right to do that on the anniversary of the first time you gave my life back to me.” Once again he paused, then rushed on, the flush on his face deepening. “And I know we don’t get all sentimental and stupid about stuff. But … but you’re my bright, brave star, the only star that matters in my sky.”
Blair looked so earnest and intense as he spouted the romantic drivel that deserved to make him blush, that Jim didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. Swallowing the lump in his throat, with a thin-lipped smile he pushed himself up to embrace Blair tightly. “Thanks, Chief,” he finally managed to say without chuckling. The sentiment might’ve been a bit much, but the love underneath was something he cherished as the most valued gift in his life. “I’ll wear it with pride.”
Drawing away, he studied the ring appreciatively. “And you know, I think this is the best birthday present I’ve ever gotten – by far.”
“It’s your birthday!” Blair exclaimed, his smile illuminating his face – a face that was still too thin and wan, so far as Jim was concerned. “Why didn’t you tell me?”
Jim shrugged. “Never seemed important, I guess.”
Shaking his head, laughing, Blair leaned in to give him a kiss. “Happy Birthday,” he crooned. “I’ll have to make sure Megan has a cake baked for our dinner tonight. How many candles?”
Jim snorted and gave him a soft whap on the side of his head. “Never mind how many candles, short stuff. And nobody else needs to know it’s my birthday, either. Let’s just keep that our little secret. You know I hate a lot of fussin’.”
“Yeah, I know, tough guy,” Blair replied, his tone indulgent.
He stood and stepped away from the bed, but Jim caught his arm. “I love the ring, Chief. I love what it means even more. Thank you.”
Pleased, Blair ducked his head. “Good,” he murmured. “I’m glad.” Tugging loose, he went on with a grin, “Guess I’d better get busy making the birthday boy’s breakfast. I think we’ve got enough flour left, and I’ll run across and get some milk and eggs from Hannah. Maybe she’ll even have some blueberries. Since you don’t want a cake tonight, how about hotcakes this morning?”
“Sounds just about perfect.”
When Blair left and bounced cheerfully down the stairs, Jim wondered if his partner was feeling better than he had the night before, or if he was just seeing Blair’s usual trick of burying what bothered him. Looking at the ring, though, he couldn’t help but smile. Regardless, at least they both knew what really mattered and where they stood with each other. Bitterwood Creek was where they hung their hats. But home? That was something else entirely.
His bright, brave star, huh? Chuckling, he shook his head. But he couldn’t deny the warmth that filled his chest or the pride he felt to be the star in Blair’s firmament.
His musings were shattered by the loud clatter of horses racing past the house and he frowned. There was always some idiot who rode pell-mell through town, too dumb to realize the risks or how easily he might trample someone. But this deliberate daily rampage felt like a form of not-so-subtle intimidation to him. This Kincaid was sure pulling every stunt he could to make his presence felt and to keep the townspeople on edge. Grimacing, Jim shook his head as he finished dressing and wondered just how much trouble the man would pose in the days, weeks and months ahead.
Later that morning, Jim was sorting through the circulars that had come in during his long absence. When he saw the wanted poster on Vin Tanner, he crumpled it in his fist and tossed it in the trash basket under the desk. The office door opened, and he looked up to see a man his age, maybe a few years older, with light sandy hair, cool blue eyes and a determined mouth. Well built if not as tall, he looked strong, in good shape, and he was dressed in a gray shirt and pants, with a darker gray short jacket. A matched set of pearl-handled pistols hung low on his hips. His boots didn’t look like he spent much time mucking out in them, and there was no dust marring the pristine gray suede of his Stetson. When he spoke, his southern drawl came as no surprise.
“Sheriff Ellison? I’m Garrett Kincaid,” he said, his tone amiable enough, but the friendly tone didn’t warm the ice in his eyes.
“Kincaid. What can I do for you?” Jim asked, his own voice cool as he sat back and looked up from under the brim of his hat.
“Well, more like what I can do for you,” Kincaid went on as he drew up a chair to sit down. “Welcome back, Sheriff. From all I hear, you’ve had a long journey. I trust your father and your brother are well?”
“Just fine,” Jim replied, but he offered nothing more.
“Well, that’s good news. I imagine your father will be glad to get back to Philadelphia. Not easy for a man of his means to leave his business interests idle for so long. One of the most powerful industrialists in the country, isn’t he? A man of influence. And your brother, Steven, has already made his mark on the Western Pacific Railroad. A remarkable family. Why, you yourself have a reputation for being a fine career officer, serving your country with distinction and now, here you are, upholding the law in this vast, new land.”
Crossing his arms, Jim quirked a brow. “I’m sure there’s a point to all this,” he remarked, boredom warring with challenge in his gaze.
Unfazed by his tone or unveiled antipathy, Kincaid smiled coldly. “Why, only acknowledging your sterling heritage and your undoubted courage. You’re a man who can command respect; and one I’d like to get to know a whole lot better. I think, despite our different views on the recent unpleasantness between the states, we have a good deal in common.”
“Indeed it is, Sheriff. My people are setting down roots here and we hope to make this a great city some day. But, for now, we’re content to do our part to improve this town in any way we can; make our contribution. Now, I know you’ve had to handle the peacekeeping here pretty much on your own. You’ve not had good, solid men to back you up – just shopkeepers, mostly.” Kincaid shook his head as if he regretted being so long in coming to the rescue. “Now, all that’s changed. I’ve got more than four dozen strong men, who have seen action and know how to handle trouble. Any one of them is at your disposal at any time.”
“I’ve got all the deputies I need,” Jim replied. “If that’s all?”
“Ah, come now, Sheriff. I appreciate that you may be reluctant to ask newcomers to carry more than you think is their share,” Kincaid returned, his tone hardening. “But a man of quality like yourself shouldn’t be relying on boys, not when there are good men ready and willing to back you up. One thing to cope out of necessity; another to wallow in the swill with the hogs for no good reason. You want to be careful that you don’t tarnish your reputation, or lose the respect that you’ve earned.”
Jim’s gaze dropped as he struggled to master the rage that erupted at the man’s callous arrogance. Grimacing as if at a bad smell, he brushed at his nose and shook his head. Looking up, meeting Kincaid’s challenging stare, he replied with icy deliberation, “I have good men backing me up – the best. Men who have saved my life and who I trust.”
Kincaid snorted. “You can’t be serious,” he chuckled, as if they were sharing a joke. “Why, you rode into this town past a quarantine flag to stop the bank from being robbed. You’re a hero, descended from the best stock that settled this great country and wrested it away from the savages they found here. There’s no honor in pretending to respect darkies; they’re no more’n animals – less than animals, ‘cause they have no capacity for loyalty. Or, worse, to align yourself with one of the race that killed our Lord. No sir. You best rethink my offer, here, Sheriff. You’ll be sorry if you don’t.”
Leaning forward to place his elbows on the desk, and clasping his hands together to keep himself from leaping up to drive his fist into that supercilious smile, Jim took a breath. “Kincaid, I have no idea why you felt you had to stop here when there are so many other places you could have gone to spread your corrupt poison. If I had my way, I’d run you out of town right now, just on general principle. You’re arrogant, and you’re a fool – not a good combination. If you’ve done your homework, you’ll know damned well I’m not the only hero who came into town past that quarantine flag. Doctor Sandburg saved any number of lives in this town – there’s not a family here that he hasn’t helped. And Simon Banks is a pillar of this community, has been for over twenty years, along with Joel Taggart. As for Henri Brown, he’s lived here for years, become a successful businessman, and has put his life on the line for the people here.”
“Runaway slaves and a Jew who was looking to take advantage of people in distress,” Kincaid scoffed. “Hardly the sort anyone would want associated with their families. Why, I wouldn’t allow that so-called doctor, more like a charlatan, to touch me or mine with his filthy hands.”
“If you’re relying on Milt Ambrose, then I hope you never suffer serious illness or injury, because you’ll die,” Jim retorted with heavy contempt. Standing, unable to stomach the man’s presence, he gestured toward the door. “I think we’re done here. You and your people abide by the law, treat every citizen in this town and around here with respect, and stay out of my way. If you can’t do that, then you’d best tell your people to stay away from Bitterwood Creek.” He swallowed and then grated, “Better still, given all the building I see you’re doing in town, maybe it would be a good idea to either move on or built your own town somewhere else, since nothing much here seems to be low enough to meet your standards.”
Coming to his feet, Kincaid shook his head. “Your attitude is unfortunate, Sheriff. I had hoped we might be friends.” Straightening, his expression flattening, he threatened, “I intend to ensure we soon have elections in Bitterwood Creek, to appoint a proper town council. And I expect to be successful in my campaign to be mayor of this fair community. Be advised, your term as Sheriff will depend very much upon my judgment as to your … fitness for this important post. Could be, Ellison, that you’ll be the one moving on. If you’re still alive to go.”
“Is that a threat?”
“Merely a warning. This town is growing, getting busier all the time, what with all the transients passing through. You’ve got a dangerous job, and without the right backup, your life could very well be at risk.” Turning toward the door, Kincaid added, “Think about it, Sheriff. I’m not a particularly patient man, but I’ll give you a day or two to come to your senses.”
“It’ll be a cold day in hell before I take your advice, Kincaid. You’re just damned lucky this is a free country – something you didn’t fight to achieve – so I can’t lock you up for being a bigot, and your freedom of speech lets you get away with spouting garbage. But you hear this. You threaten or harass anyone under my jurisdiction and I’ll throw your sorry ass in jail. We clear?”
“Abundantly, but I’m a man of my word, so you have two days to reconsider. After that, you’re on your own,” Kincaid retorted, his tone hard as he turned to the door.
“One more thing, Kincaid,” Jim called. “Tell your men to quit riding roughshod through this town. It’s damned dangerous, and one of these days someone is going to get hurt.”
For a long moment, Kincaid glared at him. “This is my town now, Ellison, and my men will do whatever they want,” he growled, his fists clenched and fury in his eyes. “You best get used to that idea, real quick.” He made a visible attempt to regain his temper. “Good day, Sheriff,” he drawled with contempt as he strode out, slamming the door behind him.
“Yeah, right,” Jim huffed and rolled his eyes. He yanked down the brim of his hat and stood with his head bowed, hands on his hips, as he thought about Kincaid and his threats. The man was too arrogant, too full of confidence to be a simple bully, though he was clearly used to getting his way through intimidation alone. Hell, he was drunk on his own power, reacting with cold fury when confronted. Jim would have liked it better if he’d blown up, lost it – the control Kincaid had shown was worrisome. He wore those guns like he knew how to use them, he understood power – and he was sure enough of his superiority to not only give warning but to allow time for Jim to marshal his own resources.
This man was going to make a very dangerous enemy. And it didn’t help that he had a small army to back him up.
His mouth twisting, Jim shook his head. There was no way of predicting how Kincaid would play it. All that talk about wanting to run for mayor sounded as if he might try to maintain a pretense of being an upstanding citizen. That could make things a lot tougher to deal with, because the attacks, when they came, would be from the shadows.
He thought about Blair and Henri, and how vulnerable they’d both be if they continued as his deputies. Kincaid and his men would target them first, out of plain malice. Biting his lip, he wished he’d listened the night before when Blair had tried to discourage him from dragging Brown back into the fight. At the time, he’d wanted to make a few points about it being Henri’s choice and about the fact that he respected the man. But now, he regretted not waiting until he’d had a better handle on the risks.
As for his partner? Jim closed his eyes and fought the quiver of fear in his chest. He’d rather face Kincaid and his men alone than risk Blair, but he knew there was no way Blair would allow that. He took a shuddering breath and let it out slowly. He was just going to have to be extra careful to watch both their backs.
When he thought about Blair going out on his own to tend patients beyond the town, he had the disloyal hope that maybe people would be fools enough to rely on Ambrose. It would hurt Blair to be shunned, but … but the dangers of him being out there alone on the prairie made Jim shiver with foreboding. No. No way could Sandburg carry on as if everything was normal. No, he’d have to have an armed escort whenever he left town. Rubbing his mouth, Jim sorely wished that Toby had come back to Bitterwood Creek with them.
He was going to have to ask Simon and Joel to spare one of their men; there was no other choice. Jim had spotted a couple of the Gold Ribbon riders in the saloon the night before, so he knew their friends would know by now that they were back. Since there was no way of getting a message out to them without being spotted by Kincaid’s men, he had to hope that they would soon come into town to welcome him and Blair home.
In the meantime, he had to get a whole lot better grip on where folks stood in town. Last night, Moe Gurney had been pretty clear, and Jim assumed that his boss, Silas McCready, would also resist Kincaid’s desire to dominate, if only out of pure cussedness. The pugnacious saloon owner had once faced down the US Cavalry; he wasn’t likely to be intimidated by Kincaid. But … the threat of losing his business to another saloon might give him pause. Hard to say, but if he had to wager, he’d bet on McCready being as irascibly independent as ever. And it would be interesting to see where Sam Sloan stood. Simon and Joel were his richest depositors, and that by a very wide margin.
Deciding that speculation was a waste of time, Jim headed out to do the rounds of the town and its informal leaders.
Once Blair had cleaned up the kitchen, he dusted his office and treatment room, making sure he was ready for any walk-in patients. One hour passed, and then another, and he wondered if Bitterwood Creek was enjoying a spell of unprecedented good health. Snorting to himself, working hard to stifle the bitterness that threatened, and the sorrow, he pulled on his hat and stepped out onto the boardwalk.
The late June morning was scorching, and there was no wind to lighten the stifling humidity. He looked up at the empty sky, wishing for clouds that would signal a storm and a break in the weather. Bemused by his idle hopes, reflecting that it seemed he was never satisfied, for when it was cold and damp he wished for heat, he stepped down onto the broad street and crossed to the apothecary.
“Milt,” he greeted, as he walked inside. “Wanted to let you know I’m back. How’ve things been?”
Ambrose looked up from a powder he was crushing with a pestle, and appeared surprised to see him. “Doc,” he replied, and then seemed … awkward. “Didn’t know you were back.”
“Yeah, got in late yesterday afternoon. We stopped at the Browns’ for dinner,” Blair replied, striving to maintain an easy manner. He’d liked this man, had trusted him. Maybe Henri had it wrong. Maybe Milt wasn’t looking to set himself up as another doctor in town. The idea of that happening worried Blair, not from the competition so much as from his certain knowledge that while Milt could handle some simple ailments and uncomplicated fractures, he was far from well enough qualified to deal with more serious problems. “Sorry we ended up being away a lot longer than originally planned.”
“Uh, that’s fine,” Milt rejoined with a shrug. “I handled everything.”
“Good,” Blair replied. “I’m glad to hear that.” And he was. He’d been worried that someone he’d learned to care about might’ve suffered from his absence. Had worried that anyone, whether he knew them or not, might have needed more knowledgeable care than Milt could have given. The silence that fell was uncomfortable, and he ventured, “I hear there’s been a sizeable new group of settlers come into the area. And I see there’s a lot of new building going on down the street.”
“Yes, that’s right. Fine man, name of Garrett Kincaid, led in a wagon train of folks that have doubled our population. He’s got a lot of plans for Bitterwood Creek. Going to put us on the map.”
Blair gave him a wry smile. “Funny, I thought we already were on the map.”
Milt looked away, and then set his pestle down. “Look, there’s no point beating around the bush here. I’ve offered my services to the newcomers as their new doctor, and Mr. Kincaid was right pleased about that.”
“Milt, I can understand your … interest and willingness to help these people, but –”
“But nothing, Blair. I’ve got as much training and more’n most sawbones, an’ I understand drugs better’n nearly any of ‘em.”
“No question, but you don’t have a great deal of experience, no surgical experience at all … and you’ve not had any formal training,” Blair returned. Lifting his hands, striving for peace between them, he went on, “Look, you have to do what your conscience dictates. But, if you need help, if you run into something you can’t handle or haven’t ever seen before, I hope you’ll call me in to consult, that’s all. So I can help you. It’s about ensuring the people here get the best care possible, right? About helping them.”
Milt crossed his arms. “That’s a generous offer, no mistake,” he allowed. “But … I don’t think it’ll come to that.” He scratched his nose and then sighed. “The fact of the matter is that these people don’t want to have nothin’ to do with you. Nothin’ personal. They just don’t feel a Jew is anyone they want to associate with. You understand.”
Nothing personal? Blair rubbed his mouth to give himself time to bite back on the several retorts that threatened. When he’d regained his composure, he simply nodded. “Yes, I understand. But the offer still holds. They don’t necessarily need to know you’re consulting me – and I’d rather help from a distance than think someone died because you didn’t recognize the disease or know exactly how to treat a severe injury. And too many women and infants have died in childbirth in the history of this town to lose any more. So, it’s up to you, Milt. Your call.” He hesitated and then added, “I’m assuming that we’ll still do business. That I can come here to acquire compounds or place orders for medicines.”
His lips thinning, Milt shook his head. “I’m sorry, but no. My patients wouldn’t approve of me doing business with you.”
His gaze narrowing, Blair looked at him until Milt flushed and dropped his gaze. “Uh huh,” Blair grunted, sorely disappointed in the man. “Nothing personal, right?” Without waiting for a response, he turned to leave the shop. “You know where to find me if you need my help.”
Back outside, Blair could hear the industrious sawing and hammering from the construction sites in the center of town and he thought, bitterly, that they could be metaphorically, if not literally, pounding nails into his coffin. He felt as if the heavy, stifling air was suffocating him as he wrestled with his emotions to lock them down. Wasn’t like he hadn’t gone through this before in other places, other towns.
But he’d never felt quite so personally betrayed before. Hell, he’d taught Milt everything the man knew about doctoring. God, he was furious with the arrogance of the man, and his willingness to risk the lives of the people who would be trusting him. He was also swamped with the frustration and helplessness of being utterly impotent to intervene. The best he could hope for was that Ambrose would have the sense to come to him when he got in over his head. Unfortunately, he knew that wasn’t likely to happen and men, women – and dammit, helpless little kids who didn’t have any choice in the matter – would die, when their deaths might have been prevented. Blair felt sick to his soul that his heritage, his very being, was the stumbling block, the reason those people despised him. And he felt the gnawing of the old despair, the familiar sorrow and loneliness of knowing that once he was no longer needed, he was also no longer wanted.
He was about to retreat to the cocoon of his office when his gaze fell on the Sheriff’s Office. No, he reminded himself, it’s different this time. I’m not alone. I do have a place here. And … and if I don’t, I won’t be moving on alone.
Glancing at the hotel, he remembered Megan’s welcome the night before, and that of Henri and his family. And he remembered Jim’s counseling; that he had to give the town a chance, not just assume that they’d turn away from him now that Milt was setting up his own practice. Sure, some would be glad to never see his face again, and he could pretty much name them. But dammit, he did have friends in this town, and he needed to remember that, not be ready to give up so easily. So, okay, he’d give it time. With a population of nearly four hundred, there was certainly a need, still, for his services. Lifting his chin, all trace of the hurt and the old pain, of the anger and discouragement gone from his face, he set off along the boardwalk, determined to face the town. Determined to keep doing his best.
In a few steps, he was at the bakery, and he went in to greet Maisie Dunning. The stout, middle-aged widow’s face was beet-red in the heat, and she looked tired, but her eyes lit and a smile bloomed when she looked up from setting out loaves of fresh bread. “Doc!” she cried, dusting off her hands. “You’re back! Bless your heart, it’s good to see you!”
“Hey, Maisie,” he called, warmed by her welcome. “It’s good to see you, too. How’ve you been keeping?”
“Oh, well enough,” she told him as she fanned herself with a hand. “But this heat lays me out a bit,” she went on. “Can I offer you a cup of coffee and a nice fresh scone with a bit of jam?”
“You sure can; I’ve missed your baking,” he replied as he took a seat at the counter, glad to give her an excuse to slow down. He well knew that the hot, humid weather was hard on her, especially as she worked from before dawn every day in front of the hot ovens. “Why don’t you sit a spell and bring me up to date on all the gossip?”
She set his coffee and small snack down, and bustled around the counter to sit beside him. “Don’t mind if I do,” she puffed.
He noted the swollen ankles peeking out from under her long, gingham skirt. When she patted him on the shoulder as she sat with a weary sigh, he captured her hand and pressed his fingertips to her wrist. Her pulse was pounding too fast and her hands, too, were puffy. “Maisie, I think you might need to take it a bit easier, especially in this heat,” he murmured, concern in his eyes. “Have you been having any pain in your chest or arms? Or feel a kind of heaviness, making it hard to catch your breath?”
“No pain, Doc, just a bit tired,” she told him. “Guess I’m not as young as I used t’ be.”
He nodded in understanding. “I want you to sit with your feet up as much as you can, you hear? And come over to the office later; I’ll give you something to make into a tea, to help the swelling in your ankles and hands. I want you to eat as many fresh vegetables as you can and,” he waved at the baked goods arrayed on her shelves, “don’t be sampling your own wares. Save them for me and everyone else in this town to enjoy. Okay? Oh, and no more coffee for you – water. Lots of water.”
She gave him a look of fond bemusement. “Hardly back an’ you’re already takin’ care o’ me.” Heaving a big sigh, she admitted, “You’re right. I’ve not been feeling myself this summer. Mentioned it to Milt Ambrose, but he told me it was just the heat and age catchin’ up to me.” Looking away, she murmured, “Worried me, that did. I can’t afford to not be able to take care of myself.”
“You’ll be fine,” Blair soothed. “But you do need to take better care of yourself. I’d like you to walk a bit more, too – fifteen, twenty minutes a day. It’s good for your heart.”
“Alright, Doc, you know best. I’ll be over yonder to get that stuff for the tea in a little while. You want me to bring along some fresh bread and some of those biscuits the Sheriff likes so much?”
Grinning, he nodded. “Absolutely. Now that we’re back, we’ll need our usual standing order with you. Have to say, I’ve missed your bread. Best in the country.”
Her smile once again lit her face. “Did the Sheriff find his brother? And is he okay?”
“Everything’s fine,” Blair replied, and gave her an abridged version of their journey. “Now, what’s been happening here while we’ve been gone?” he asked as he sipped his coffee.
“Ah, well, big doin’s, what with that Mr. Kincaid and his people moving in,” she said with a tightening of her lips. “Like to run the town, he would. Thinks almighty well of himself, he does.”
“Sounds like you don’t like him?”
“Like him? No, he’s not a likeable man. For all his easy smiles, there’s a meanness in him.” Her gaze dropped and she shook her head. “Him and his folks don’t much care for anyone different from them … like Deputy Brown and … you.”
“I know. I’ve heard a little bit about that already.”
He saw anger in her eyes when she looked up at him. “I don’t hold with folks like that. Too ignorant by half.” She jerked her head toward the wall, and the apothecary beyond. “But some’ll make friends with the Devil himself if they think they can make a dollar out of it.” She reached out to pat his hand. “But, mark my words, they deserve one another. Damned fools.”
Quirking a brow, a smile playing around his mouth, Blair was glad to see more of her usual feistiness emerging. “Some folks just don’t know any better,” he offered.
“An’ some are just plain bad news,” she retorted. A worried frown puckered her brow as she gazed at him. “You be careful, Doc. I mean that. People like Kincaid an’ his bunch – they can’t be trusted.”
“Thanks for the warning, Maisie – and for your concern. I appreciate it and I’ll take care,” he assured her. “Good to know that there are some folks in this town who don’t see the world the way these newcomers do.”
She nodded, but her frown deepened. “There’s lots who are scared, though. Scared to speak their mind, to stand up for what they know is right. I’m worried about this town, Doc. I’m worried that it’s changin’, an’ not in a good way.”
He didn’t know what to say to that, or how to reassure her that things would work out fine. He wasn’t at all sure they would. “Guess we just have to do what we’ve always done,” he finally said quietly. “Look out for one another and do our best.”
“I suppose,” she agreed. “But I have to tell you, Doc, I don’t want to live in a town that only knows how to hate.”
Startled, he asked, “You’re not thinking of leaving? Where would you go?”
“Oh, I’m not ready to pack my bags yet, so don’t you worry about where you’re gonna get your fresh bread,” she replied with a reassuring pat on his shoulder. “But … well, I’ve got a sister back east, an’ she’s got a son whose gone out to some place called the Black Hills, in the Dakota Territory. He writes me now an’ again, good lad. An’ he says they could sure use a bake shop in a place called Deadwood, an’ some good old-fashioned home cooking.” She shrugged. “Never thought I’d be moving anywhere at my age, but,” she gave him a wink, “might find me a husband if I went out there.”
He laughed. “Maisie, you’re a fine woman and I’d think any town would be the better for having you. And not just because you’re such a wonderful cook. You’ve got a good heart. But I’d be sorry to see you go.”
She blushed in confusion at his praise, but then she added, “I hear they could use some good doctors out that way, too. If the time comes to pack up, which I dearly hope it won’t, but if it does … could be I won’t be the only one ready to move on.”
His laughter died and he sighed as he contemplated the astute and brave woman. “Could be you’re right,” he allowed. “But let’s both hope it won’t come to that.”
He finished his coffee and scone, and paid her for their weekly order of bread and baked goods. “I’ll see you later,” he said over his shoulder as he headed back onto the boardwalk. As he closed the door, he saw a stranger come out of the Sheriff’s Office and walk briskly away, toward the center of town. Behind him, from the open window, he heard her say, “That’s Kincaid. Best you avoid him an’ his lot, if you can.”
He glanced at her and, with a small smile of gratitude for her support, tipped his hat in a salute to her. As he ambled along, he thought about who he’d visit next. The bank was just up ahead, but he had no excuse to drop in on Sam Sloan in the middle of the day. And he didn’t feel like facing the sly contempt of the bank clerk, Clive Tucker. That man, and his wife, Urseline, had been a thorn in his side since the day he’d arrived in town, and he had little doubt that the Tuckers would have fallen quickly into Kincaid’s camp. Moving on past, Blair decided, though, that he would like to check in with Sarah Sloan and Delores McCready, Silas’ wife, the two women he’d trained to be midwives before he and Jim had ridden to meet with Swift Eagle and Whispering Waters. Man, that was only three or so months ago … and yet it felt like a lifetime.
Now that he had a destination in mind, he picked up his pace and soon felt sweat trickling on his brow and along his back. He cast a hopeful look at the sky, but it was still clear with nary a wisp of cloud. Giving the construction sites a wide berth, he eyed the skeletons of several buildings which would reach to two and three stories, and the burly men – all of them strangers – perspiring under the hot sun as they hammered lengths of wood together. He hoped they were drinking plenty of water, or they’d be sick with heat stroke before the day was over. Briefly, he considered stopping to offer the advice but, ashamed to know their numbers intimidated him and they’d not thank him for his concerns, he held his peace.
Once again embroiled in a maelstrom of emotion, his boots kicking up puffs of dust as he strode past the schoolyard, he continued on to the residences close by.
Hot as it was outside, inside the bank it was even worse, the air stifling and oppressive. Jim barely glanced at Clive Tucker who had his nose buried in a ledger, as he strode across the polished plank flooring to Sam’s office. At least, the floor was supposed to glow with a fine, rich sheen, just as the broad front window was intended to be crystal clear – a tough feat to maintain in a dusty town where the main street became a swamp of mud when it rained. Dusty boot prints marred the floor’s shine and the glass was opaque with grit. The vertical row of ornate metal bars behind the glass window were new, though, their brass trim still bright.
Chewing on his lip as he knocked on the open door, Jim wondered why Sam had decided the extra security was necessary – not that Jim didn’t think the bars were a good idea. He’d never been fond of that damned window and had often wondered at the stupidity of thieves who never seemed to tumble to the idea that they only needed a sizeable rock to smash their way inside.
“Jim!” Sam exclaimed, standing with a broad smile and coming around the desk with his hand out in greeting. “You’re back! I’m glad, very glad to see you.”
Amused and a bit mystified by the unusually effusive greeting, Jim pulled off his hat and shook the banker’s hand. He and Sam had always gotten along, but they’d never been friends.
“Sam,” he acknowledged. “It’s good to see you, too.” Jerking a thumb back at the newly barred window, he asked with a small smile, “You expecting some trouble, or just come to your senses about security?”
Waving him to one of the comfortable chairs in front of the desk, Sam answered as he returned to his own, “A little of both, you might say.” His mouth twisted and he shook his head. “I guess you’ve heard about the new settlers?”
“Yeah. Kincaid just left my office,” Jim replied, giving nothing away as he closed the door and sat down. “What’s your take on him and the people with him?”
Sam’s gaze dropped and he rubbed his mouth. Jim wondered if he was going to hear something bland and unobjectionable – the bluff, heavy-set banker was well-schooled in tact and in keeping his views to himself. But Sam sighed and shrugged. “No point in hiding what I think, I guess. I’m all for Bitterwood Creek growing, you know that. But I’d just as soon these folks would’a kept on going. Kincaid strikes me as a man who has aspirations toward being a dictator – and he’s got his own small army to enforce his word. And they’re all a pack of high and mighty, self-righteous bigots that give Christianity a bad name. I’ve no use for any of them.”
“Guess none of them has deposited any of their coin in your bank,” Jim observed wryly, arching one brow at the caustic assessment.
“No, none of ‘em has,” Sam agreed with a rueful smile, but he sobered as he went on, “And none of them will, so long as some other folks leave their deposits here.”
“Folks like Simon, Joel and Henri?” Jim surmised with grim certitude.
“That’s right – and folks like Doc, too,” Sam sighed. Leaning forward, his elbows on the desk and his hands clasped, he said heavily, “I’m worried, Jim. That’s why I put those bars up, to tell you the truth. I don’t think Kincaid and his gang would hesitate to steal what’s in the vaults. In their view, Simon, Doc, and the rest don’t have the right to have any money. He doesn’t think of them as being human.”
His gaze hooded to hide his furious disgust, Jim nodded slowly. “Yeah, that’s the impression I got from the man, too. At least in terms of what he thinks, if not about any designs he might have on the bank.” Turning his head toward the wall between them and the bank’s main lobby, he asked, “What’re the odds that Kincaid knows exactly what’s in your vault?”
Sam bit his lip and drummed fingertips on his desk. “I’m sorry to say, I think there’s a good chance of that. But, well, Clive’s a fool but he’s not completely stupid. Until Kincaid gets his own bank built, Clive needs his job here. I think – I hope – he’ll be discreet at least until Kincaid offers him a new position.” Sighing, he leaned back in his chair. “I can barely abide the man, but he’s good with figures. Keeps a good accounting. Wouldn’t be sorry to see the last of him, though, ‘cept I’m not sure who I’d get to replace him.” After a pause, he asked, “What did Kincaid want with you?”
Jim hesitated but decided there was no point in making a secret of the situation, at least not with those he was pretty sure he could trust. “Kincaid said I have two days to get rid of my current deputies and hire on his men.”
“The man doesn’t mince words, does he?” Sam rejoined, a scowl darkening his heat-flushed face. “Guess this means there’s going to be trouble sooner rather than later.”
“Well, maybe,” Jim agreed. “But he also told me he plans on being the new mayor, so I don’t think he wants to be too blatant about breaking the law.”
Sam studied him, searched his eyes. “I wouldn’t blame you a bit if you took off that badge right now and walked away. The town hired you to keep the peace, not stand against an army. Jim, Kincaid won’t tolerate any opposition. In my case, he’s building his own bank and no doubt hopes to ruin me. You?” He shook his head. “He’ll resent your authority. Man, he’ll have you killed.”
“He’ll probably try,” Jim allowed, his gut tightening at Sam’s evident certainty. Sloan was good at reading people and was rarely wrong about them. He had to be astute in his business, able to judge character and the measure of a man. Jim’s last hope that Kincaid might’ve been bluffing crashed and burned. Licking his lips, he asked, “You think the town’ll just stand back and let Kincaid run right over them?”
“Maybe not all,” Sam reflected. “The new bunch holds their prayer meetings in their camp, in protest that Pastor Stevens won’t shun the Browns. Miz Connor and Maisie won’t give them the time of day. Dan Raymond has been writing editorials about the importance of toleration and respecting the equal rights of all. Silas told Kincaid straight out that he’d serve any man with the coin to pay and he didn’t give no nevermind about what color that man might be. And Angus, well, he said pretty much the same thing – so Kincaid is also building a saloon and a general store.” He paused and sighed. “The man doesn’t care about raising the ire of shopkeepers, a few proud women, or even a man like Silas. He knows they aren’t going to seriously fight back, any more than I can.” He spread his hands. “I’m sorry, Jim, but you know the people in this town. None of us are gunmen. Kincaid’s bunch would cut us to ribbons.”
When Jim didn’t say anything, just rubbed his chin and looked away, Sam went on, “Simon and Joel, and their riders – they’ll back you, you know that. But, sure as the sun rises, that’ll mean bloodshed.” He thumped a fist on the desk in sudden anger, and stood to pace. “I hate this. I really despise what’s happening here. We had a nice little town, with good folks. And now?” Taking a deep breath, he stopped and faced Jim. “I don’t want to live in the kind of town Kincaid wants to build. I sure’n hell don’t ever want to see that man become mayor. But … but I don’t know how to stop them. And … I’m ashamed to say, men like him scare me.”
“Be a fool not to be scared of a man like that,” Jim said, low and even. “I don’t have any answers, Sam. But I don’t want to live in that kind of town, either. If we have any hope of stopping him, it’s now, before he’s fully entrenched. Maybe if we make it uncomfortable enough, he’ll decide it’s not worth settling here and move on.”
“Well, you’re right that I can’t stop him alone,” Jim asserted aggressively, feeling as if his back was against the wall and not liking it. “Doc and Brown will back me up, sure, but they’re not gunmen and I hate to put them at risk if … well, if the town’s not going to back us. And, yeah, I know Simon and Joel will help – if they know the help is needed and when. But I’m betting Kincaid has the road between here and the Gold Ribbon watched. I’m not sure it’d be safe for anyone to ride out there to give them a heads-up. Hell, I don’t even think it’s safe for Doc to ride out to see any patients beyond the edge of town.”
His gaze falling away, Sam returned to his chair. “You’re asking that if push came to shove, would this town support you? You and Doc Sandburg and Brown?”
“Yeah, that’s what I’m asking.”
Sam wiped the sweat from his flushed face and Jim could see the small tremors in his hand as he fought with his fear. Swallowing heavily, Sam finally replied, “I guess I don’t know. What happens if we don’t?”
Jim gave him a bleak smile. “Then I guess you’ll all be stuck with Garrett Kincaid.”
“That mean you won’t stick around to see how it all turns out?”
Jim wasn’t sure what to say to that. It galled him to imagine pulling up stakes and leaving the town defenseless, but he didn’t like the odds. Standing, he pulled on his hat. “I don’t know, Sam. I’ll have to think about it. I’m willing to take my chances against Kincaid, but I don’t feel right putting Doc or Henri’s lives on the line with me, not if we’re on our own. Three against what? Forty, fifty men? Those are bad odds, Sam, and you know it. We wouldn’t last a day, so what would be the point?”
“I’m sorry, of course, you’re right,” Sam admitted, seeming embarrassed to have needed to have it spelled out. His gaze skittered around the office, as if searching for something. “You said Kincaid gave you two days?” he asked, grasping for straws.
“That’s what he said.”
Sam inhaled deeply and was clearly struggling to find his own courage. “Okay, look, I’ll ride out to the Gold Ribbon. Nobody’d think twice about that; hell, Kincaid would be hoping I was on my way to tell them to get their money out of my bank. As if that would ever happen – those two men have pretty much financed this town; backed all the loans whether folks know it or not for nigh on twenty-five years. So far as I’m concerned, so long as they’re willing, I’ll be their banker. Anyway, I’ll let them know you need backup by the day after tomorrow. And … and I’ll talk to Silas and Angus, and some of the others. Give me a chance to see what I can do to make the odds a little better.”
Reaching for the doorknob, Jim nodded. “I’m happy to give you that chance. I like this town, like living in it. I just don’t like the idea of dying – or worse, my friends dying – for a town that would rather bow to the likes of Kincaid than fight back. I appreciate your help, Sam … and your honesty. Good luck with the others.” He hesitated, his gaze once again staring through the office wall. “Maybe wait until tomorrow to ride out. Wouldn’t want anyone to make a connection between me being here and your visit out there.”
Sam’s jaw tightened at the reminder of the possible informer on his payroll, but he nodded with grim understanding.
Blair found Sarah Sloan watering her garden, trying to save her vegetables and flowers from the brutal heat. She greeted him with a broad smile, but he couldn’t help but notice that she looked hot and tired. Pitching in, he hauled buckets of water from their well to fill her watering cans. Talking as they worked, he told her a little about their journey and was pleased to see her smile proudly when she told him she’d successfully helped deliver three babies while he’d been away.
Jim glanced at his pocket watch when he came out of the bank. Slipping it back into his jeans, he strode along the boardwalk into the heart of the town. As he passed the busy construction sites, he opened up his hearing and wasn’t surprised to hear some of the men pointing him out, but he frowned when one rasped, “That’s the Sheriff. Guess that means the Jew is back, too,” and his companion muttered, “Bastard.”
His gaze raked the site, but he couldn’t tell which of the several strangers had been talking. Frowning, he carried on to the school, arriving just as the door opened and yelling kids make a break for the yard, evidently very glad to be released from class for a short break.
Mounting the steps, he went inside and found Marnie MacDonald cleaning off a blackboard.
“Miz MacDonald? Got a minute?” he called softly.
She jumped and whirled at the sound of his voice, her hand at her throat, and then she laughed nervously. “Oh, Sheriff Ellison, sorry, you scared me.”
Frowning, realizing she’d been really frightened, he asked, “Why were you so scared?”
Flustered, she hesitated. “Oh, oh, it’s nothing. Just silliness. There’re just so many strangers in town and … well…”
“Has anyone been giving you a difficult time? Bothering you?” he demanded.
“N-no, not exactly,” she demurred, waving off his concern. Pulling herself together, she asked, “What did you want to see me about?”
Not happy with her avoidance tactics, he drew off his hat as he studied her. “I think you might have an idea,” he replied. “I’m worried about the Brown children. They miss coming to school.”
“Oh,” she gasped flushing, and her gaze dropped. She bit her lip and seemed close to tears as her hands fluttered nervously. “I feel awful about all that. It’s just that … that Mr. Kincaid … and some of the new parents made such a fuss.”
Jim nodded. “That why you jumped when I came in? You thought I was one of them?”
Sighing, looking miserable, she nodded. “They scare me,” she whispered. “They said … I’m afraid they might hurt those children.”
Looking away, Jim found himself wishing that Nellie Bascombe was still the schoolmarm, but the poor woman had been murdered the year before; she was sorely missed by the community. Nellie wouldn’t have been so easy to scare. “Look, how about I bring the girls to school and then walk them home after?” he suggested. “Maybe if they see I’m interested, they’ll back off.” Then, knowing that children usually aped their parents’ beliefs and attitudes, he asked uncertainly, “Would you be able to keep them safe from the other kids? Be willing to expel any that give the girls a hard time?”
She twisted her hands anxiously, but then took a deep breath. “I can handle the children,” she replied, lifting her chin. “It’s the parents who frightened me. So, yes, I’d be willing to try, if you’re willing to escort the girls, to ensure their safety.”
Pleased to see she had some gumption, Jim smiled at her approvingly. “Good girl,” he praised. “I’ll bring them tomorrow.”
“Whew,” Sarah sighed, fanning herself and discreetly stretching her back when they finished the watering not quite an hour later. “I’m grateful for the help, Doctor Sandburg.” Shading her eyes, she scanned the sky. “Feels like rain should be coming, but I don’t see any clouds.”
“Not yet,” he agreed but she was right. The heaviness of the humidity, the lack of wind, all presaged a storm sometime in the near future.
Peeling off her gardening gloves, she asked, “Have you seen Delores yet?”
“No. I planned to head over to her place next.”
“Well, let’s go call on her and see if she’ll offer us a cup of tea,” Sarah suggested with a conspiratorial grin. “I’m too hot to want to stoke up the fire in my own kitchen.”
He laughed and agreed, and they ambled along behind the houses to the nearby McCready place where they found Delores hanging out washing on the line.
“Doc! You’re back!” Delores called, sounding glad to see him. “Hey, Sarah – Lordy, it’s hot. How ‘bout a glass of lemonade, fresh made and still cold?”
Both Blair and Sarah eagerly agreed and they were soon all settled on the wide verandah that ran along the front of the house, the overhanging roof shading them from the merciless sun.
“Ah, that’s good,” Blair sighed after taking a long sip of the tart, refreshing drink. “So, how’ve you been keeping?”
“Well enough,” Delores replied and then smiled shyly. “I helped birth two little girls while you were gone. Made me feel proud to help.”
“Good for you!” he praised her, including Sarah in his glance. “Both of you. This town and the people who live ‘round these parts are very lucky you ladies agreed to help out. I have to admit, I felt better leaving for a while, knowing the two of you would be looking after things. Between you and Milt Ambrose, sounds like I was hardly missed.”
Their smiles tightened as they glanced at one another, then faded completely as they each set their glasses down. “Don’t you believe it, Doc,” Delores told him. “We managed, but it weren’t the same. Folks are lucky that no one got bad sick while you were away, or had a terrible accident.”
Sarah fussed with her skirt, avoiding his eyes as she asked, “Have you spoken to Mr. Ambrose since you’ve been back?”
“Yes, yes, I have,” he admitted, guarding his tone as he looked from one to the other. “I know he’s set himself up as a doctor, especially for the new settlers. And, I suppose, there’ll be some in town who will continue to see him with their problems, even though I’m back.”
“I think it’s scandalous,” Delores snapped. “You taught him everythin’ he knows. An’ that’s well an’ good, but the man doesn’t know enough to be putting out his own shingle. Just plain ungrateful, greedy and arrogant, if you ask me. Folks who go to him when there’s a real doctor right across the street are just plain stupid.”
“Well, from what I understand, the newcomers wouldn’t be comfortable being treated by me,” he replied, not meeting their eyes. “And make no mistake, he has a good deal more skill than some who call themselves physicians.”
Sarah’s open face clouded and she shook her head. “We’re both real sorry about all this, Doc. These new people … they hold with strange ideas. I know Sam is bothered by their attitudes. Do you know that Kincaid is building his own bank, so he doesn’t have to mix his money up with Simon’s and Joel’s? I know some folks from the South have problems understanding that black people aren’t slaves anymore, but … Sam’s afraid Kincaid is dangerous.”
“Silas has no use for him,” Delores sniffed. “Nor any of his lot. I won’t have nothin’ to do with those people.”
“Ah, I’m sorry to hear that,” Blair replied, leaning toward them, his elbows on his thighs. “The whole point of knowing how to help other people is to help them. Some of those women might need the skills and knowledge you can offer them. Milt Ambrose, well, he hasn’t learned any of what you two know. And they won’t come to me.”
“Are you saying you’d want us to help them, even with the … the awful things they say about you, without even knowing you?” Sarah asked, sounding surprised.
He nodded. “Yeah, if you’re agreeable to helping them. And if you think there might be complications, you can always come to me for advice. They wouldn’t have to know about that.”
Delores’ eyes filled and she quickly swiped the tears away. “You’re a good man, Doc Sandburg. A better man than the likes of them deserve to have carin’ about them.” She bit her lip and looked at Sarah, and then heaved a sigh. “Alright, I’ll help them if they ask. But … it don’ seem right.”
“I’ll help, too, but the chances of their men allowing the women to come to us aren’t all that high,” Sarah surmised with a frown. “That Kincaid doesn’t seem to have much respect for womenfolk, and he’s in contention with our husbands. I expect he’ll tell them all to have nothing to do with us.”
“Well,” Blair sighed regretfully, “all we can do is let folks know we’ll help. We can’t force them to accept good care.” He gave them a wan smile. “I’m glad not everyone in this town thinks like Kincaid does.”
“I wish they’d never stopped here,” Delores growled. “Silas agrees with Sam that they’re likely to make trouble.” She hesitated, then added in a rush, “You take care around them, Doc. Don’t want nothin’ to happen to you.”
“Oh, don’t worry about me,” he assured them, though he was touched by the concern. “I’ve probably heard whatever they’d have to say to me before. Some folks just don’t take to anyone who is different from them.”
Sarah’s lips tightened. “Maybe so, but that doesn’t make them right. But Delores is right, Doc. There’s a viciousness about Kincaid. You shouldn’t be riding out on your own. I don’t think it’s safe.”
Despite the heat of the day, he felt a chill at her words and their obvious worry. Sitting back, he looked out over the road at the homes of all the people he’d come to know over the years, and listened to the heavy hammering from the other side of the schoolyard. “I … I won’t refuse a call for help,” he said, but then returned his gaze to their anxious eyes. “But I’ll be careful, as careful as I can be.”
“You make sure the Sheriff knows where you’re goin’,” Delores advised. “And, well, when you’re makin’ calls during the day out to farms or ranches, maybe me or Sarah could ride out with you. Maybe they’d think twice about hasslin’ you with a witness sittin’ right there.”
Startled by the offer, he held up his hands. “Oh, no,” he protested. “No. If you really think it could be dangerous, I’m not going to drag either of you into what could be trouble. But … I thank you for the offer, Missus McCready. It’s brave and generous … and very kind.”
“Nothin’ kind about it; just lookin’ out for our own interest, is what it is,” she replied, blushing at his words. “Like I said before, we don’t want nothin’ bad happenin’ to you, Doc. Don’t know what this town would do without you, and that’s the God’s own truth.”
Looking at her plain, earnest face, he felt ashamed of his thoughts of the night before and that morning. Jim had been absolutely right. He had a lot of friends in this town, people who cared about him, regardless of his heritage. “You’re a good woman, Delores,” he murmured, his voice husky and thick with emotion, “both of you are. And I’m very grateful for your concern and your support.” He cleared his throat and, wanting to ease the worry in their eyes, he assured them, “I’ll take your warnings seriously, and I really will be careful. But … but, in my experience, there’s rarely any real danger. Just, just nasty words and a … a kind of shunning. Please, I don’t want you to be worried about me.”
“It’s too bad,” Sarah sighed, “that some people are just so ignorant and hateful. You don’t deserve that Doc, and we’re sorry you have to put up with it. It’s not right.”
“No, but it’s life,” Blair replied with a wry smile. “Maybe, in time, they’ll learn to see things differently. I hope so, anyway.”
He took his leave a few minutes later, and walked back through the town, stopping now and then to chat with several men and women who welcomed him back warmly. But he couldn’t help but notice that there were others that he knew who turned away when they saw him. Trying not to let the shunning bother him, he kept his chin up and his stance loose as he walked past the new construction.
For a moment, he was so preoccupied that he didn’t notice who was passing, until Pastor Stevens caught his arm and boomed, “Why, Doc Sandburg! My word, son, it’s wonderful see you back in town, doing your rounds!”
“Pastor Stevens,” he replied with a broad smile. “I’m sorry, my mind was a million miles away. How are you, sir?”
“I’m fine, Doc, just fine,” Stevens replied, his voice still pitched to carry.
Belatedly, Blair realized they were right smack in front of the busiest building project, and they were starting to attract attention – and then he understood what the preacher was doing. He flushed and his smile wavered as he said quietly, “Pastor, you don’t have to do this.”
“Ah, but yes, Doc, I most certainly do,” the Reverend said with warm emphasis, no longer shouting his lungs out. “You’re one of the best men I’ve ever known, and I’ll not have ignoramuses like these brutes dictate whom I will respect and whom I will ignore. But I am sorry, Doc, if I’ve made you uncomfortable.”
Blair’s throat was thick as he shook his head. “No, sir, not at all. You’ve only ever made me feel … welcome and valued. Thank you for that. But, uh, I worry about you, about reprisals.”
“You let me and God worry about that; you just take good care of yourself, and don’t let these dunderheads get you down.”
Blair took a deep breath and nodded. “I’ll do my best not to let them get to me.”
“Good!” the Pastor bellowed heartily and embraced him. “God bless you, son, and keep you safe!”
Blair couldn’t help the chuckle that built in his chest at the show the good man was putting on, but he swallowed his laughter, lest the preacher misunderstand. Patting the older man’s back, he murmured, his voice hoarse, “You’re a real class act, Pastor. One of a kind. God be with you, too, and may He bless all your days with peace.”
“Don’t know as I’ve ever had a finer blessing,” Stevens said, pulling away to grin down at him. “Give my warm regards to the Sheriff, would you? I’m glad you’re both home, safe and sound.”
“I will, for sure,” Blair assured him.
When they parted to go about their business, Blair was aware of the silence from across the street, all hammering and sawing having come to a halt. He swallowed his trepidation and forced himself to turn slightly toward all the strangers staring darkly at him, and tipped his hat to them in a casual salute, as he walked along the boardwalk, back toward home. Well, if they didn’t know who I was before, they sure know now, he thought with an inner sigh, and remembered Delores’ and Sarah’s words of caution to him.
Life sure had gotten complicated, all of a sudden.
He stopped at the general store to purchase supplies for the house. Angus MacDonald was as taciturn as ever, but Blair didn’t take it personally; that was just Angus’ way. While the storekeeper pulled cans of beans, chili, salt pork and corned beef from the shelf to fill his order, Blair chose a small variety of fresh vegetables from the bins – ears of corn, potatoes, carrots, cabbage and a small turnip, pea pods – and he gathered up a couple tomatoes and a few of the lemons that must’ve come in on a recent stage. Taking his armload to the counter, he asked, “How’s your back, Angus? Any more problems?”
“Nah, those exercises you gave me work real good, Doc,” MacDonald replied, and unbent enough to give him a crooked smile. “Guess you’ve seen all the new buildin’ goin on,” he added, his tone once again sour.
“Yeah, I did. Lot of new people moving into the area,” Blair replied.
Angus snorted and wiped the sweat from his brow with a broad, checkered handkerchief. “Guess I’m gonna have some competition soon.”
Blair smiled. “Well, if we’re doubling the size of the population, or just about, I guess it’s natural that more stores and services will be offered.” He paused and then added, “Gonna be another doctor in town, too. Milt Ambrose is takin’ on the care of the new folks.”
Rolling his eyes as he loaded Blair’s supplies into a box, Angus muttered, “Milt Ambrose is a fool. An’ the folks who trust him for their doctorin’ are bigger fools.”
“I’m sure he’ll do his best,” Blair offered with as much conviction as he could muster, as he pulled out his money pouch.
But, to his surprise, Angus waved off his money. “Forget it,” the man said gruffly. “Put it against what I’ll owe you, the next time I need some doctorin’.”
Gaping at him, never having known the careful, if not exactly parsimonious, Scot to give away supplies before, Blair exclaimed, “But, Angus, you’re one of the healthiest people in Bitterwood Creek! You don’t have to –”
“I know I don’t,” MacDonald cut in. Pushing the box toward Blair, he insisted impatiently, “If’n it makes you feel better, consider it a way of sayin’ I’m glad you an’ the Sheriff’re back. Besides, you never did take anything for those exercises you gave me, an’ they really do work real well, an’ I’m grateful.”
“Okay, Angus,” Blair agreed with a broad smile as he hefted the box. “I really appreciate it, thanks. And I know Jim will, too.”
On his way back through town, Jim stopped at the newspaper office. Dan Raymond looked up from his desk, where he was writing on a pad of paper, and smiled at the sight of him. “Thank goodness, you’re back,” he said, standing to shake Jim’s hand.
Quirking a brow, Jim grinned wryly, “Sounds like you missed me.”
Waving him to a chair, Dan turned to the pot of coffee he kept going on a small stove in the corner behind his desk. He filled two cups and, after handing one to Jim, sat down. “You met Kincaid yet?”
“This morning,” Jim replied as he blew over the hot liquid.
“I did some digging, to see if I could find out more about him,” Dan said with a frown. “There wasn’t much. He was a colonel in the rebel army. Guess he was the younger son of a cotton plantation owner, and after the war ended, there wasn’t much left of the family’s wealth.” He sighed and shook his head. “Guess a lot of people were displaced. Anyway, seems he tried to make a go of it for a year or two and finally gave up. Those people he brought with him? Most of ‘em were men under his command, and their families. They’re an angry, bitter bunch. Seem to feel the world owes them a favor.”
“Sam said you’ve been runnin’ some pointed editorials,” Jim observed.
Nodding, Dan set his mug down. “Got some reaction,” he reported. “Someone threw a rock through the front window after the first one. Got a few scrawled threats after another one – you know, the usual, ‘Gon ta burn yer place down,’ and ‘Don need no nigger-lovers round here.’” He snorted. “Ignorant jackasses.”
“Guess there’s no way of knowing exactly who’s sending the messages?”
“No, ‘fraid not. Wouldn’t be Kincaid, himself, though; he’s an educated man and too proud to mangle his spelling.”
“Happens again, you let me know,” Jim directed, and swallowed the last of the strong coffee. “Meanwhile, next time I see Kincaid, I’ll tell him to keep his people in line.”
“He won’t take that well,” Dan warned.
“Don’t care,” Jim grated as he stood. “Seems Mr. Kincaid and I are bound to clash. I’ve already warned him to watch his step.”
Dan laughed. “See. Now you know why I’m glad you’re back. Not that I blame Brown for folding, all things considered – but it was downright unnerving to see how fast Kincaid had one of his men wearin’ a star.”
“He’s not wearing it now,” Jim advised him.
Sobering Dan warned, “Watch your back, Jim. When I did my research, I heard some nasty stories about people getting ambushed in places where Kincaid and his party were passing through. Nothing was ever proved … but I don’t really believe in that many coincidences.”
Sighing, Jim shook his head. “Neither do I, Dan. Thanks for the coffee – and the background information.” About to leave, he hesitated and looked back. “If things go off the rails, there’s too many of them to stop on my own.”
“I know,” Dan agreed solemnly. “I’ve been worrying about that. Jim … nobody expects you to even try to face them down alone; nobody sensible, anyway. Guess most of us are afraid you’ll pack it in as a bad deal. We just don’t know what we’ll do if that happens.”
“Well, I’m not gone yet,” Jim told him. “Guess we’ll see how it plays out over the next little while.” With a half-grin, he added, “According to Kincaid, he’s gonna be mayor by Fall an’ he made it plain I’d be looking for another job as soon as he is.” Turning toward the door, he drawled over his shoulder, “I’m hopin’ he’ll wait to fire me, rather than have somebody shoot me in the back.”
Before returning to his office, he stopped in at the Telegraph and Land Registry Office.
“Hey, Johnny,” he greeted young Winston as he came through the door. “Any good news today?”
“Sheriff, hey, heard you and the Doc were back,” Johnny replied. “That’s today’s good news.” Glancing at the telegraph key, he shrugged and grinned. “Just about the only news.”
Leaning his elbow on the high counter between him and the clerk, Jim tipped back his hat and asked, “I was wondering about the new settlers in town. They file the proper land claims yet?”
“Not yet,” Johnny replied, shaking his head. “I asked that Mr. Kincaid about it, an’ he tol’ me they’re homesteading. Providing they put up their buildings and improve the land before winter, they got a right.”
“Uh huh,” Jim grunted. “Well, there’s lots of open land, that’s for sure,” he sighed. “Just hope they know enough not to crowd in too close to folks who already have a claim.”
“They’re camped almighty close to the Gold Ribbon land,” Johnny told him, quirking a brow to indicate he knew that could be trouble.
“Wonderful,” Jim muttered. Silently cursing Kincaid, he rapped his knuckles on the counter, then gave the boy a tight nod and turned back to the door. “Thanks, Johnny. That’s good to know.”
When Blair got home, he ruthlessly shut down his thoughts as he put the supplies away and, despite the heat, stoked up the stove and put water on to simmer. He needed to do something active and mindless, so he chopped up the vegetables, added a can of corned beef, and covered the pot. After putting the kettle on to boil, to make a big pot of tea that he’d let cool and chill in cold water from the well, he sat down at the table and leaned his head back against the wall – and could no longer keep his thoughts and emotions at bay.
He couldn’t decide how he felt because he felt so much, all of it mixed up and churning in his gut. His mind told him that, if he was smart, he’d pack up his stuff and take the next stage out of town. He’d seen the hate play out before and, though he’d said that morning that he’d only ever had words tossed at him, over the course of his life, he’d suffered the blows of far more than just nasty vocabulary. In a schoolyard, years and years ago, some kids had even thrown rocks, while others had jeered curses. Still, when all was said and done, the words had left the most lasting scars. For a very long time afterward, for years after the bruises had healed, he’d felt a sick sinking in his chest whenever he thought about those curses. Wondered if he was somehow marked, afraid that his life would be … too terrible to imagine.
And, man, for a lot of years, he’d thought those curses were all coming true, haunting him all the days of his life. Even when he’d thought he’d finally beaten them, when he’d graduated with his medical degree, and was engaged to a beautiful woman, he hadn’t been able to shake the feeling that it was all too good to be true.
And it had been too good. Hadn’t been true. He’d thought he’d lost everything, and had very nearly lost even his life in the war. Feeling sick inside, he’d been sure those curses were following him down through time.
He’d been born a Jew. He couldn’t change that fact. In ways that he didn’t fully understand, he wouldn’t even if he could. It was who he was, what had shaped him, inherent to his character. Not so much because Naomi had raised him in any traditional sense as a practicing Jew, but because others defined him by his heritage, made judgments about him, scorned and reviled him – and he’d had to learn to go on, to not let the futility and rage at the injustice consume him. But no matter how well he managed to struggle on, to do the best he could do, he’d come to doubt that anything in the world around him would ever change, that it would ever get better – that he’d ever find a place he could really settle and put down roots, secure in his life and world, accepted by the people around him. Oh, he supposed he might have settled in one of the Jewish quarters in one of the larger cities, not that he was accepted a whole lot better by the Jews themselves, when he was so untutored in their beliefs and customs. But he hated the cities, felt trapped in them and couldn’t countenance living all his life hemmed in by the walls, the stench, and the noise.
So he’d wandered … until he’d come to Bitterwood Creek.
Closing his eyes, he massaged his temples, trying to ease the deep, pulsing ache inside. He’d thought he might have found a place, his place, finally. He’d begun to think he’d beaten the curses after all. That he’d outlasted them. And … and, God, Jim was everything. For all the hardships and dangers they’d suffered in the past two years and a bit, he wouldn’t trade a moment of it, not a moment.
But … what now? Oh, not that he didn’t believe Jim, and what he’d said. He held onto that as an anchor in the tempest. Only … only the curses had found him again. And he didn’t know what to do. Deep down, he was scared, but not only for himself this time. This time, if he stayed, if he didn’t run in the face of clear threat, the risks weren’t only his to bear. Nor was the threat only to him. Good friends stood on the edge of the same abyss: Simon and Joel, Henri and Hannah and their sweet kids … even maybe Megan and Maisie, given Kincaid’s apparent attitudes toward women. They could all lose everything.
And not just them – which was the realization that both chilled him to his soul and warmed him at the same time. Jim would be on that line with him. And he’d found out this morning that there were others in this town willing to stand on that line, too. God, he couldn’t bear it if something bad happened to any of them because of him, because they cared about him, and because they were brave, and noble.
How could he let any of them risk sacrificing themselves?
How could he not?
How could he run now when so many were showing him they believed in him and wanted him to … to stay? When they told him they needed him, what he had to offer – and he knew that was the truth? He was a good doctor. He was … good at healing, at relieving suffering.
In the past, he’d only had himself to consider. He could pick up and go before the dangers got too great.
Now he had a lover he’d die for, friends who counted on him … a whole town full of people who needed him, and a goodly number truly wanted him to stay.
He didn’t know what to do.
The kettle whistled, startling him out of his thoughts and, as he poured the steaming water onto the tea leaves, he heard the front door open and close. Maisie shouted his name and he called to her to come on into the kitchen. A moment later, she bustled in with two fresh loaves of bread and what looked like a dozen cloud-light biscuits bundled in cheesecloth. Her face was still flushed beet-red from the heat and hurrying, and perspiration dampened her brow.
Settling her in a chair, not taking ‘no’ for an answer, Blair insisted she stay long enough for a cup of tea. Once he’d poured her a cup and she was blowing on it, he hurried to his office to get a stool for her to rest her swollen feet on. When he took her pulse, she blustered and tried to wave him off, but he could tell she was pleased by his concern for her health and small comforts. While she sipped on her tea, he went to his little dispensary to gather small pouches of medicines for her.
Returning to the kitchen, he dropped to one knee beside her and explained what to do with the medicines as he handed her each individual pouch. “You understand?” he asked, believing her when she nodded solemnly. Maisie was an astute woman and she knew to be careful with what he gave her. “Good. Now, I don’t want you drinking any coffee until I tell you it’s okay. And I’m serious about you getting out of that shop to walk for fifteen minutes or so at least once a day – a good brisk walk. In this heat, best if you do that first thing in the morning, while it’s still cool. More vegetables and fruit, no bread for a while, and light meat, like chicken or fish that’s easy to digest. And keep your feet up as much as you can! I know it’s hard, when you’re working all the livelong day – but you have to take some breaks, Maisie. You have to take care of yourself.”
She gazed at him, a tiny smile curving her lips despite the gravity in her eyes as she listened to his instructions, nodding to show she understood and would do her best. When he stopped, she reached out to pat his hand. “You’re a comfort, Doc,” she told him. “And a blessing in my life. Right from the first, when you ran out on that street to save me from that bank robber, you been lookin’ out for me. Nobody’s done that, you know? Looked out for me? Not since my George died, nearly twenty years ago.”
He felt love well in his heart for her and he smiled as he took her pudgy hand in both of his. “Well, I have to look out for the best cook in town – where would I get my bread if anything happened to you?”
“Ah, pshaw,” she laughed merrily and winked at him. “Too bad you’re too young for me, Doc, or I’d set my cap for you. Seein’ as I’ve already conquered your stomach an’ all.”
He chuckled then, too, thinking she was a good tonic for his tormented soul. Standing, he assessed her color and was pleased the flush had abated. Her breathing was even, no longer forced. He wished the swelling in her ankles could be so easily and swiftly alleviated. She set her empty cup down and thanked him for the tea and the medicine. She hesitated and seemed suddenly flustered. “I’m sorry,” she said, her glance falling away, “I ain’t got the money to pay, not right now, anyway. But you tell me what I owe you,” she went on, now determinedly meeting his eyes, “an’ I will pay you.”
“Ah, Maisie,” he sighed fondly as he shook his head and helped her to her feet, bending quickly to kiss her cheek, again making her complexion redden endearingly. “You don’t owe me a thing. In all the time I’ve known you, you’ve never once allowed me to pay for a single loaf of bread without giving me twice what I’ve paid for. I owe you, my girl, more than I’ll ever be able to pay, and not only for the bread. But if you insist on compensating me, because you’re a stubborn, willful and exceedingly independent woman, then – you take care of yourself. That would be the best payment in the world.”
Her eyes glistened and her head bobbed. “Okay, Doc. You got it. I’ll be good,” she promised.
“I’ll hold you to that,” he warned with a waggle of his finger at her, then grinned as he walked with her down the hall. “Thanks for the bread and biscuits. Jim’s gonna be very pleased to find them when he comes home for lunch.”
“Give him my best,” she said, as she stepped out into the heat of the day.
“I will,” he assured her, and stood in the doorway to watch until she’d crossed the street and was safely inside her bakery.
Closing the door, smiling ruefully, he leaned his back against it. Where would he ever find another Maisie? He couldn’t do it – couldn’t go. He couldn’t run. Not yet, anyway. Not until there was no other choice – and maybe … maybe, it wouldn’t come to that this time.
When Jim came in for lunch, he looked drawn and seemed disinclined to say much as he took off his hat and settled at the table. “Smells good,” he offered, evidently trying to be sociable despite his obvious distraction.
Blair ladled up bowls of the stew and set them with a basket of Maisie’s fresh rolls and a small slab of butter on the worn pine surface, then poured two big mugs of tea from the pitcher he’d chilled in a bucket of well water. Sitting down across from Jim, who was already digging into his meal, he studied his lover, and his brows furrowed in concern.
“Looks like it’s not a great birthday so far,” he observed.
“Huh? Oh, well, it started off great,” Jim replied, doing his best to conjure a smile.
Blair grimaced and arched a brow. “I saw Kincaid leaving your office this morning.”
“Oh, you did, huh?” Jim muttered, flicking him a look and shrugging a shoulder.
“C’mon, out with it.”
Jim’s gaze dropped and he sighed as he stirred the spoon in his bowl. “The man’s everything H said, and more. Ruthless, arrogant, hostile … but not stupid. Dangerous.”
“Uh huh, and …? I’ll bet he wasn’t happy about you turfing whathisname, McBride.”
“No, no, he wasn’t,” Jim agreed somberly. Pushing his nearly empty bowl away, he sat back and met Blair’s eyes. “He’s given me two days to fall into line or else. The bigoted ass makes no bones about his prejudices, and he plans on being mayor by the fall – said he’ll fire me, if I’m still around by then.”
“Shit,” Blair gusted, pushing away his own untouched bowl.
“Yeah,” Jim agreed. “I talked to Sam, and he’s going to ride out tomorrow to let Simon and Joel know I need some help. And he’s going to talk to some others in town; about them taking a stand, too, if … well, if that becomes necessary. He’s scared, though. They all are. But Dan, Angus, Silas and even Pastor Stevens are trying to hold the line, as best they can.”
“I heard pretty much the same sort of thing this morning from Maisie, Delores and Sarah,” Blair sighed. He hesitated and then added, “They, uh, went out of their way to tell me to be careful.”
“They’re absolutely right, Chief. I don’t want you riding out of town on your own – I’ll get Simon to loan us one of his hands to ride escort if you have to make any calls to the farms or small ranchers in the area.”
Blair wanted to object, but he knew Jim was right. So he nodded, grudgingly, disgusted to think he needed a baby-sitter. Besides, it didn’t sit right to think he might be putting anyone else’s life in danger. Giving Jim a wry smile, he recounted his meeting with Pastor Stevens that morning. “Like you said, he’s sure making it clear where he’s drawn the line in the sand. He’ll be lucky if they don’t burn his church to the ground.”
“Dan Raymond has received threats because of the editorials he’s been writing.”
“Man, this stinks!” Blair exclaimed, his anger slipping its leash. “We had a nice little town here. And now?” He threw up his hands and got up to pace. “Now, because of what I am, and what the Browns and Simon and Joel are, hell, we could have a war here. People could die – you could die.”
“Whoa, hold on a minute there, Chief!” Jim exclaimed, coming to his feet and gripping Blair by the arms to hold him in place. “This isn’t about what you are, or the others. It’s about blind, vicious prejudice, about people too arrogant and self-righteous and angry with the world to give room to anyone who isn’t like them, who doesn’t measure up to their sick demands.”
“Yeah?” Blair challenged, pulling away. “You sure about that? Because if we weren’t here, there wouldn’t be any problem. Wouldn’t be threats and … God. I hate this.”
“Sure there’d be problems, because a man like Kincaid doesn’t stop until he’s in charge, until he controls people by intimidating them, forcing them to his will. If it wasn’t you, it’d be Megan, or Maisie, women doing unwomanly things by having the courage to take care of themselves,” Jim argued. “Or it’d be Pastor Stevens, for not preaching exactly what he wanted to hear. Or Sam, for granting loans to people he didn’t like, or not granting them to people he did.”
Blair stared at him, and he felt his anger die. “What am I doing?” he muttered, and raked his hair off his face. “Man, I don’t want to fight with you. You’re sure’n hell not the enemy here.” Despair threatened, and he bit his lip to hold the emotion back. “I don’t know how to fight something like this. I … I’ve never tried. Just moved on, started over.”
“That’s not exactly true,” Jim corrected, his tone firm. “I’ve seen you face down the prejudice that existed in this town long before Kincaid and his bunch showed up. You’ve fought this all your life, with dignity and the determination to keep going, to never give up.”
“I’m not sure that’s true, Jim,” Blair replied, uncertainly. “It’s like, like there’re tolerable limits – a kind of balance between the bullshit and the rest of what’s happening, that makes it, I don’t know, not acceptable – not at all – but I can ignore it. But, but when it gets this bad – when it’s pretty damned clear that there’s no percentage in staying – I’ve moved on. Every time, I’ve moved on.”
“So, what are you saying? You want to pack up and go? Okay. Then we’ll go.”
Giving him a rueful look, Blair shook his head. “No, that’s not what I’m saying – though I can’t deny I’ve thought about it. But when I walked around town this morning, talked to people, listened to what they had to say – I know, I know I still have a place here, with some of them, anyway. And Milt Ambrose sure won’t be of much help to any of them if another bad illness hits. And, well…” he went on, moving to stand close to Jim, looking up at him with a bemused smile, “and this time, I’m not facing it all alone. This time, I’ve got you.”
“You got that right,” Jim replied staunchly, drawing him into a close embrace. “Whether we go or stay, you’re stuck with me, pal.”
Lifting his arms to return the hug, Blair murmured, “I just … I just don’t want you dyin’ for me, man. I don’t want you dying for this town.”
Jim sighed. “I know.” Drawing away, he admitted, “I told Sam that I couldn’t do this alone … and that I wouldn’t stand up for a town that wasn’t prepared to stand up for itself. But … but I don’t think I can just abandon them. I just …”
“I know; this is your tribe and you’re their sentinel,” Blair said with a steady gaze. “I think it would kill something inside of you to leave them to Kincaid’s doubtful mercies.”
Jim looked away, and nodded slowly. Silence fell between them, and then he said very quietly, “After Kincaid’s deadline passes, I don’t think you should –”
“Don’t say it,” Blair warned.
“Chief, you’re not a gunman. I don’t want you caught in a firefight!”
“I’m your partner,” he said, steel in his voice. There wasn’t much he was sure of, but he was damned sure that he wasn’t going to watch Jim walk out to face unknown and untold danger without being with him, to watch his back and to help him with his senses. “This isn’t up for discussion, Jim.” When Jim began to look belligerent, he lightened his tone. “Hey, come on, we faced Geronimo and his whole tribe, right? Compared to that, Kincaid’s nothing. Huh? He hasn’t got a chance.”
Jim snorted, and then chuckled. “Okay,” he capitulated. “I kinda thought this wasn’t going to be a fight I could win.”
“No, not ever; waste of time and aggravation – very wise move to just give up. Better you should save your energy for the bad guys,” Blair teased.
“But you do what I tell you, you hear? When I say, ‘Duck’, you duck.”
“I hear you and, hey, that works for me.”
“Well, I guess we’ve got two days’ grace,” Jim sighed, turning away to pick up his hat and put it on. “Might as well make the most of it. I’ll be back early so we can clean up for dinner with Connor.”
“Two days grace or not, you be damned careful,” Blair cautioned.
“Don’t worry, Chief,” Jim grinned. “They don’t know I can hear and see them coming long before they can see me. Gives me an edge.”
“Yeah, well, just don’t get cocky,” Blair retorted, his tone wryly indulgent.
“Me? Cocky? Never.” Jim laughed and gave him a wink.
“How early?” Blair prompted, waggling his brows suggestively.
“Very early,” Jim assured him with a laugh and quick kiss, before he left.
Pensively, Blair rubbed his mouth as he watched Jim stride past the window on his way back to his office. Despite Jim’s easy assurances, he wondered if he should be providing backup during the day as well as at night. They’d started their routine when trouble most often occurred after dark, usually because of unruly drifters or poor losers who lost their judgment after a few too many drinks. But this … this was different. For the first time, trouble wasn’t just passing through. Now, the threat was coming from people who lived around them – people Jim was ostensibly hired to protect. It was unsettling to know that one’s neighbors, the people they might pass on the street every day, might turn around and shoot you in the back. Despite the heat of the day, Blair shivered.
Jim hadn’t said anything to Blair about his conversation with Marnie at the school. Depending on how Henri responded, there might not be anything to say.
Stepping down from the boardwalk, he strode across the wide dusty street to the livery stable and smithy. Inside, the fire in the forge casting flickering shadows in the dim interior, he found Brown industriously hammering on a rough square of thin, hot iron. Sweat was pouring off the big man and, from the expression on his face, Jim surmised that Henri was imagining pounding something or someone other than that shovel he was making.
“Hey, H,” he called, “you got a minute?”
Brown looked up and, submerging the hot metal in a bucket of water, creating a loud hissing and a cloud of steam, he nodded. Swiping a cloth over his face, he stepped away from the fire. “Sure, Jim,” he replied. “What can I do for you?”
“Maybe it’s what I can do for you,” Jim began. “Look, I don’t want to interfere, so if I’ve overstepped the line, just say so. But I spoke to Marnie this morning and she assures me that she can guarantee the safety of your girls at the school. I told her I’d walk them there every morning and bring them home in the afternoon, to make sure they don’t get hassled on the way.”
Brown blinked and gaped at him, and then he turned his face away. “I … I don’t know what to say,” he muttered. “You must think I’m pretty useless when I can’t ensure the safety of my own kids on their way to and from school. But…”
“Whoa, hold on, that’s not what I meant at all,” Jim quickly intervened. “I understand the issues here, and that you don’t want to inflame the situation by walking past that construction gang twice a day. And I can imagine you wouldn’t want your girls to hear the stuff those bastards would be shouting.” Jim sighed. “I just thought that if I walked them there and back, well, they won’t shout that crap at me. And it makes a kind of statement, I guess. That their education is worth the Sheriff’s time, because they matter, Henri. Your little girls shouldn’t have to suffer because these strangers are damned fools.”
“They miss school; miss playin’ with their friends,” Henri replied, his gaze still averted. “They don’t really understand why they can’t go; at that age, kids don’t think about color unless someone makes a point of rubbing their faces in it.” He looked at Jim. “I never wanted my kids to grow up feelin’ second best. Like they got no rights. I want them to be able to read, write and figure sums. I want them to grow up feeling just as good as the white kids around them.”
“I know, H,” Jim murmured, and reached out to grip his friend’s shoulder. “They are just as good. Hell, from what I’ve seen of some of the little monsters in this town, your girls are better than ‘just as good’. I’d like to help you. It’s important to me, too, that they be allowed to go to school.”
A weary smile creased Brown’s face as he lifted his gaze to meet Jim’s eyes. “I’d be grateful if you did this; if you made it alright – and safe – for them to go back. An’ Hannah’d be grateful, too.” His grin widened. “As for the girls, well, they’ll feel mighty special being escorted to school and back by the Sheriff. They love you, Jim – and they’d enjoy spending that time with you every day.” He hesitated, and a frown puckered his brow. “But do you have the time? What if somethin’ else is going down right then?”
Jim thought about Kincaid’s threat that morning. “I think there’s a good possibility that all this is going to blow up later on this week,” he admitted. “Kincaid came to see me this morning. Said if I didn’t reinstate his choice for deputy and fire those I have before the day after tomorrow…” Jim shrugged. “Well, he didn’t exactly make a direct threat, but I expect he’ll come after me – us. But trouble usually happens after dark, when there’re fewer chances of a witness seeing anything. Things are normally pretty quiet during the day. I don’t expect any problems with being available to walk them there and back.”
When Brown appeared to be thinking it over, Jim added, “You need to think about whether you want to keep backing me up, H. Believe me, I understand if the risks are too great. You’ve got a family to worry about. Sam’s going to get word to Simon tomorrow that I’ll probably be needing some help – you, me and Blair aren’t enough to face down Kincaid’s whole mob if things start to bust loose.”
“Why’re you and Blair stickin’ around?” Henri asked. “Why don’t you just wash your hands of the whole sorry mess and move on?”
“We got friends in this town, good friends, an’ we both got a job to do. But I am worried about Sandburg heading out of town alone, if he gets word that he’s needed.” Looking away, Jim shook his head. “I don’t know; maybe we’ll change our minds about staying. For now, we’re just taking it a day at a time.”
“Guess that’s all any of us can do,” Brown replied soberly. “Okay, a day at a time – let’s see how it goes. So, yeah, I’d be grateful if you would make sure my girls can go back to school. Thanks, Jim.”
Jim smiled and slapped his shoulder. “Good. I’ll be over tomorrow morning at eight-fifteen to collect them.”
Brown looked around the smithy. “Tell you what,” he offered, “if Doc gets a call and he has to go, I’ll ride shotgun. There’s nothin’ here can’t wait; nothin’ as important as maybe someone’s life, whether his or the people he’s goin’ to help.”
Jim hadn’t thought of that option; would never have asked Brown to put himself in such potential danger. But he remembered Henri riding out with him the year before, when old enemies had ambushed Blair, and had helped save his life – both of their lives. There was no one he’d trust more to watch over Blair’s welfare if he had to leave town to tend to a patient. His throat tightened and, for a moment, he could only nod. Taking a breath, he rasped, “Thanks, H. I appreciate that, and so will he.” Smiling then, he tugged at the brim of his hat. “And you just proved my point about the kind of friends we’ve got here. Friends that make it worth stayin’.”
Blair cleaned up after their lunch and then spent two hours in his office, updating the journal he kept on Jim and his senses. There was a lot to write; he hadn’t had time to make any entries since they’d left months before to visit the reservation. For a while, he was able to forget the tensions, the threats, and the worries he harbored and simply lose himself in the magic of what they’d learned from Swift Eagle and Whispering Waters. Absorbed in his memories, he was even able to ignore the stifling heat of the day.
But when droplets of the perspiration from his face began to hit the paper and smear the ink, he stopped and stretched. Locking the journal away in his cabinet, he decided it was time to begin heating the water for their baths and he smiled at the idea of washing all the trail dust from his body and hair.
He hadn’t discovered the house’s hidden luxury on his first ramble through the place, thinking the door off the kitchen only led to another pantry or cupboard. When he did find it, nearly two weeks after he’d arrived and the epidemic was loosening its hold on the town, he’d grinned in delight. The little room was barely big enough to accommodate the enormous, porcelain tub; wooden rails and metal hooks were attached to the wall to hold towels and clothing, and there was a small shelf holding a lantern. The tub, sitting solidly on clawed feet, was long, high and wide – and, best of all, the drain ran through a pipe that carried the water away under the house, so it didn’t have to be emptied. But it took a lot of water to fill that massive bathtub.
For the next hour, he trudged between the well and the kitchen, hauling buckets of icy water to heat on the stove, and pouring the steaming water into the tub, gradually filling it. The heat of the day helped keep the water warm, unlike winter when he made do with less water because by the time he’d gotten the thing half-full, the water was cooling too fast and chilled him to the bone. But on a day like today, slightly tepid water would only help to cool them off. Struck by that thought, Blair wandered into his small dispensary and took down a big bottle of alcohol. A few cupfuls of this would insure their skin cooled even further in the air.
Standing there, looking at his supplies and instruments, he tried not worry about the fact that, other than Maisie stopping by, no patients had come in or sent for him all day. He told himself it didn’t necessarily mean anything. His work was like that; either he was rushed off his feet, unable to even find time to rest properly, or there were times of a kind of stillness when people stayed healthy and accidents didn’t happen. Having two midwives now also helped reduce his workload and, well, Milt would be the one called upon if there were any accidents on the building sites.
The air in the tiny workspace was heavy, and so hot that he felt claustrophobic. Beads of perspiration ran down his face; his cotton shirt was sopping from sweat from hauling water and working close to the blistering heat of the stove. Deciding the probability was that no patients would be showing up that day, he peeled off his shirt and carried it and the bottle of alcohol into the kitchen. He had filled every pot they had with water, to heat as much as possible at one time. Seeing that they were again close to boiling, steam roiling up to fill the room and cling to the windowpanes, he began emptying them into the tub. The water level was rising to nearly the midway point. One more batch of full pots should do it. While those last pots of water heated, he tossed thyme and rosemary into the water in the tub, and smiled as the rich scents filled the air, knowing Jim would be pleased with the heady, pungent herbal bouquet.
When Jim returned home that afternoon, he could feel the humid hot air rolling out in waves from the kitchen. He slid his Stetson onto a hook by the door and, wiping the back of his wrist across his brow, he headed across the hall into the kitchen, where the heat from the stove was so intense it felt like walking into an inferno. Blair didn’t seem to have heard him, and was facing the stove, lifting a heavy pot of roiling water off the red-hot cast-iron surface. Naked from the waist up, his hair curling damply in the steam, his skin was glistening with sweat.
Jim’s throat went bone-dry, and he felt a different kind of heat burn from his groin into his chest. Swallowing hard, he loosened his gunbelt and drew it off to hang on a hook on the wall beside him. Watching the muscles of Blair’s back stretch and tighten under the skin as he steadied the heavy pot and carefully carried it into the tub room, Jim undid the buttons of his shirt and pulled it free of his jeans. Then he grabbed some rags from the shelf over the work counter next to the stove and lifted one of the boiling pots away from the heat.
“Jim!” Blair exclaimed when he turned around. “I didn’t hear you come in.”
“I figured,” he replied as he moved closer and Blair slipped to the side to give him entrance to the little cubbyhole. Blair’s face was flushed from the heat, and curling tendrils of hair stuck to his skin. “You’re gonna need to drink a gallon of water to replace all that sweat,” Jim observed. “Sit down for a minute while I finish filling the tub. Have some of that lemonade I smell cooling in one of the buckets.”
“Gladly,” Blair puffed. He filled a large glass with the icy cold lemonade and sank onto a kitchen chair. “The water’ll be too hot for a few minutes, anyway,” he gasped after a long swallow. “It’s been so damned hot in here all day that it’s hardly cooled off at all.”
Jim just nodded in acknowledgement, but he smiled when he thought about how they’d fill that time. After he dumped the last of the pots of water into the tub, he returned to the kitchen. Hungry with desire, breath tight in his chest, he stood for a moment simply looking down at his lover, holding Blair’s smoldering gaze. And then he drew Blair up into a hard embrace as he bent to devour his mouth. Blair’s skin was slippery with sweat, and his response to Jim’s kiss – his eagerness in pushing Jim’s shirt from his shoulders – revealed his own desperate desire. Jim cupped his ass, pressing their groins together, and Blair groaned deep in his throat.
“C’mon,” Jim breathed into his lover’s mouth. “Let’s take this upstairs.”
Laughing, Blair drew away. “Yeah, wouldn’t want anyone to walk in on us.”
Upstairs, the back bedroom was an oven of hot air and over-heated need and want. In scant moments, they’d shucked off the rest of their clothing and were writhing on the bed; sweat-slick skin lubricating the thrusting of their engorged cocks. They kissed and sucked, stroked and caressed, and arched together. Jim felt drunk with the intoxicating scents that wafted from Blair’s skin, and the taste of his partner’s sweat and the sharp lemon tang in his mouth. The tension he’d felt since they’d gotten back home, the threats that loomed over them, filled him with a sense of urgency, a desperation to touch and feel all of Blair and to feel his lover’s hands and body against his own flesh.
God, he loved this man with a passion so fierce that he ached and moaned with need and the desire to give pleasure, to take Blair to the pinnacles and watch his face as he climaxed with an ecstasy too great to contain. In the weeks since they’d become lovers, this was only the second time they’d come together in his bed. Sometimes, often, he’d felt as if they had to grasp rare and raw moments, that they had no time to enjoy one another at leisure. But despite – or maybe because of – the lack of privacy and comfort they’d had to contend with, he’d fast learned what pleasured Blair best. He’d used his senses to track Blair’s heartbeat and his respirations, knowing which touch and where drove his partner wild.
He didn’t know how Blair had figured out equally quickly what did the same to him. He only knew that it felt as if they’d always been together like this, had always known one other so well – so intimately – that there was nothing between them but this perfection and timelessness.
Rising above Blair, he slid down on his lover’s erection, taking him fully inside, welcoming the first burn that melted into gut-tightening excitement and a feeling of completion that he couldn’t ever find words to describe, but that told him he was whole. Holding his weight on his legs, he lifted his body enough to give Blair room to thrust up into him, his lover’s hips arching in an ever more urgent rhythm. Jim moved to match his pace and watched him, watched his face, lost himself in those eyes, filled himself with the sounds of Blair’s breathing and body and the scents of his lover’s desire for him. Grasping his own cock, he stroked and pumped in a matching cadence, grinning to see Blair watching him, fascinated and impassioned, while Blair gripped his legs to anchor himself. Bracing his feet on the bed behind him, Blair thrust ever deeper and faster.
And then they were both lost to sensation, the rising swirl of passion, panting, grunting with atavistic need, thrusting for completion, heads thrown back and mouths wide with soundless howls of joy. Panting, Jim curled forward as Blair pushed up on his elbows, their mouths coming together to seal the circle, Jim filling Blair’s mouth, being sucked in, thrusting his tongue deep even as Blair still filled him. Their kiss of promise, of utter commitment, of an affiliation so intense and vibrant, so necessary that no one else could ever really grasp how united they were in all things, continued, deep and necessary, holding them together even as Blair softened and slipped from his body. Jim stretched out, entwining their legs as their torsos pressed together, and they breathed one another’s air. Blair hugged him tightly, as if trying to merge them together, and Jim’s hands caressed his beloved face and hair.
Finally, gasping, sated, they eased apart, the long, lingering kiss giving way to shorter, butterfly touches of lips pressing on slick skin.
Blair groaned and sighed deeply. Looking dazed yet utterly contented, his eyes soft with love, he smiled up at Jim. “Guess the water will have cooled down some by now,” he murmured as he caressed Jim’s cheek.
“Mmm,” Jim agreed and turned his face to kiss Blair’s palm. Reluctantly, he lifted himself away from his lover and stood. After grabbing their robes from the hooks by the door, in case they suddenly had to get decent in a hurry, he held out his hand and tilted his head toward the stairway beyond. “Come bathe with me.”
Blair took his hand and, holding onto it, followed him from the room. As they passed through the kitchen, Blair picked up the bottle of alcohol from the table and, before they climbed in, he poured a goodly amount into the tub.
The water was still warm, but felt cool and refreshing after the heat of the air and their lovemaking. They sank gratefully under its surface until they were covered to their shoulders, and simply savored the coolness for a long moment. Taking turns, they then soaped and rinsed one another’s hair, Jim lingering over Blair’s curls, liking their silken feel in his hands. The herbal scents relaxed him further, and the oatmeal soap was gentle on his skin. Leaning his head back on the rim of the tub, he relished the feel of Blair’s strong hands washing his body, and then he roused himself to wash Blair in his turn. This touching, the easy intimacy of it, the comfort of touching and being touched, was as vital to him as the passion of their physical union. Blair grounded him, helped him to stay balanced, easing the hard edge of his anxiety about the coming days and giving him the strength to face and do what he knew would be needed. As he washed Blair’s back, he hoped that his touch in some way helped Blair find some of the same peace.
When they stood to dry one another, they just patted off the excess water, leaving a sheen of moisture to evaporate in the air, the alcohol cooling them further. Refreshed, sharing a basin on the kitchen counter and the small mirror on the wall, they shaved, and Blair handed Jim a jar of aloe lotion to smooth over his face to ease the razor’s burn.
As they mounted the steps to dress, Jim asked, “You okay? I know all this isn’t what we hoped for when we were on our way back home. And … and I know none of this is easy for you.”
Blair paused on the step and looked back at him. “Okay? Yeah, yeah, I am,” he murmured, as if surprised to realize that he was. He smiled then and, reaching out to cup Jim’s cheek, his expression was clear and relaxed, his gaze steady and confident. “So long as I’m with you, I’m a whole lot better than ‘okay’. I can face whatever this world throws at me, so long as I’ve got you. You give me strength, and courage. And … and I can’t explain it, but being with you, being loved by you … puts everything else in perspective, I guess. Nothing seems as bad or as difficult when I’m with you.”
Jim felt his heart swell and he felt so … good, so affirmed, knowing that Blair felt as he did, that he did for Blair what Blair did for him. Covering Blair’s hand with his own, he hoped what he felt was in his smile, his eyes, and his voice, as he replied huskily, “Same here, Chief. Same here.”
When they walked into the hotel lobby, Megan was waiting for them. Her smile was wide as she crossed the floor to greet them, giving them each a quick hug.
“My, my, don’t the two of your clean up nice,” she teased, “and smell nice, too.” Walking between them toward the dining room, she looped an arm through theirs and crowed softly, “The two most attractive men in town – and I’ve got you all to myself tonight.”
They laughed and shook their heads at her enthusiastic nonsense and, giving one another a quick look, they each knew the other was glad for the distraction, the chance to simply relax with a good friend and have a pleasant meal. They needed to enjoy a few hours without worrying about the pressures, the threats and the dangers that loomed around them.
Entering into the spirit of the evening, they gave her the silver necklace and earrings they’d brought her, and were pleased by her surprise and pleasure in their gift. Then they told her stories about their journeys to the reservation and out to the far west, though they didn’t tell her everything. They weren’t yet ready – might never be ready – to tell about the miracles that had happened. Those experiences, those moments, were too intimate, too … too awesome, and they were still dealing with those memories themselves. Nor did they reveal anything about Blair’s powers, any more than they’d ever told her about Jim’s senses. They knew she guessed a good deal, but they still felt better holding that special knowledge close, sharing it only with family, like William and Steven, Simon and Joel, even Henri and Toby, men who had gone through the fire with them. Megan was a damned good friend, but she wasn’t ‘family’. Besides, there were others in the dining room who could easily overhear everything they talked about.
Though the dining room was warm, the building was well-insulated against the exhausting heat outside and felt downright cool in comparison. The food her chef had prepared was excellent, the wine cool and tart. When the coffee came, it was rich and mellow, easy on their tongues. As they sat back, relaxed and in good spirits, letting the meal settle as they sipped the coffee, she looked from one to another and, with a look a bemused indulgence, she murmured, “The two of you are bloody amazing, you know that?”
“What?” Blair exclaimed with a surprised smile, his eyebrows arching under the curls that spilled over his forehead.
Jim just cocked an amused curious brow, inviting her to explain.
“Well, look at you! Three months facing down amazing challenges – Geronimo and those railroad bozos, for pity’s sake – and you sit there as if it was all just an interesting interlude. And then you come home to the wretched mess we’ve got here, but are either of you worried? If you are, you certainly hide it well. You have no idea how your … your calm and confidence reassures the rest of us. No idea at all. But, honestly, you must be worried – you’re only human, after all.”
Blair’s mouth fell open and his gaze skittered away, as if he wasn’t quite sure what to say.
Jim inhaled deeply and wished she’d left the subject alone. But she hadn’t and it was sitting there now, on the table between them, like a bull pawing the ground – not yet charging, but the threat was there. “Yes, we’re worried,” he replied with slow deliberation as he looked into her eyes. “Kincaid and his people are tearing this town apart, destroying a lot of the good we had here with their rabid prejudice and their bullying tactics.”
She nodded glumly and twisted her linen napkin in her hands. Tossing it onto the table, she said angrily, “I despise that man. But I’m damned if I know how to stop him, or what he’s doing.”
“We might not be able to stop him,” Blair reflected. “Maybe all we can do is hold our own line, refuse to play his game by his rules.”
“You think he’ll settle for that?” she challenged, her eyes flashing. “I don’t think he’ll be satisfied until he either controls us all or … or drives those of us who won’t capitulate to him out of Bitterwood Creek.”
Cocking his head, Jim thought about that. How many people that day had told either him or Blair that they didn’t want to live in the kind of place Kincaid was trying to create? “Are you saying you might toss in the towel? Pack up and go?”
“It’s a big world, mate,” she sighed. “And life’s too short to spend it in misery or fear, if there’s a choice. So, yes, I’ve been thinking about it. About selling up and starting over somewhere else.”
“It might come to that,” Blair said soberly. “But it’s too soon to make that decision. This town – this town is worth fighting for, the people here are worth trying to find a way to keep what we had, the respect, the sense of peace and safety. If we all just give up, then how will anything ever change for the better?”
“See, that’s what I meant. The two of you have no ties here. But instead of pulling up stakes, you’re committed to try to make things better,” she said. “I don’t know how many people in your positions would choose to stay.”
“But we do have ties here,” Blair argued, if without heat. “We’ve got a lot of friends in this town – good friends. Like you. People who make it worth trying to work things out, worth staying to … well, to fight, if we have to.” He hesitated and shrugged. “Maybe, maybe we’ll find out that it’s too big, that we can’t stop what’s happening. Maybe we will have to move on. But we don’t know that yet. Not for sure. It’s … it’s too soon to know.”
She studied the two of them, her perceptive gaze sharp. “What aren’t you saying? You think it will come to a fight? When?”
Once again he and Blair exchanged glances. Jim sighed and gave a quick look around the room. There were too many strangers to speak openly; any one of them could be one of Kincaid’s people, or at least people who sympathized with him and might carry tales. Lowering his voice, he simply said, “Kincaid came to see me this morning. He was, uh, concerned that I didn’t feel I needed the help of any of his men to keep the law in this town. And he suggested I take a couple days to rethink my position on that.”
“Oh, my,” she exclaimed softly, her own gaze now roaming the room. Pressing her lips together, she nodded once and swallowed. Taking a breath, she lifted her glass in a salute. “To two of the men who keep the law in Bitterwood Creek and to you, Doc, for also keeping us healthy. We couldn’t have any better protectors.” After she took a sip, she set the glass down and said with a fixed smile and such quiet intensity that Blair had to lean forward to catch her words, “If it’s to be a fight, I’ll bloody well not be leaving you boyos to fight alone, I can promise you that.”
“To friends,” Jim replied, as he lifted his glass to her, knowing he’d have to return on the morrow when they could meet privately, to talk more candidly to her. He didn’t like the idea of a woman involving herself in the fight, but Megan was already in it. Kincaid was badmouthing her and attempting to intimidate her, threatening to drive her out of business. And ‘fight’ didn’t have to mean being on the line of fire – it could also mean offering provisions and a safe place of refuge, if it was needed. But if it did come to actual shooting, Megan was a frontier woman who knew how to handle a rifle and a handgun, a woman who had stood on her own in a man’s world and who knew how to fight for her place in it. They could have worse partners when the dance was called.
“To friends,” Blair echoed as he clinked Jim’s crystal goblet with his own, meeting his eyes before he turned his gaze to Megan. “The true wealth and comfort of life.”
When they left the hotel, the still air was heavy and sticky with humidity and the heat hadn’t abated. The town was quiet but for the tinkling music and low rumble of voices in the saloon. Before going home, they walked their nightly patrol of the town, Jim stretching out his hearing and sight, Blair pacing him quietly, a light hand on his back. Except for the buildings being erected, there was little evidence that things in Bitterwood Creek had markedly changed. Kincaid’s followers were still all camped out on the prairie, a half-mile from edge of town. Blair thought about them, the women and children, as he gazed at the bare wood rising into the darkness, and he wondered if equal effort was going into building their homes.
When they passed the school, Jim said, “Starting tomorrow, I’ll be walking H’s kids to school every morning and escorting them home at night.”
Startled by the unexpected revelation, Blair wasn’t sure what to say. It was a great idea, in some ways – in many ways. But… “What about the days when you can’t?” he asked, unwilling to more clearly voice his fears for Jim’s wellbeing as the coming days, maybe weeks, unfolded.
“We’ll just have to take it a day at a time,” Jim replied with a shrug, conscious that the sentiment was becoming a litany of sorts. Looking down at Blair, he offered, “Who knows? Kincaid may just ignore me until he gets to be mayor and has the satisfaction of sending me packing.”
Huffing a laugh at that, Blair murmured, “We can hope that’s his plan.”
“By the way, H is going to ride out with you if you get word that you’re needed outside town.” A small frown puckered Jim’s brow. “And don’t give me any shit about not needing a baby-sitter or some damned thing.”
Blair shook his head. “I won’t,” he said, though he wished the protection wasn’t necessary; wished that Henri wasn’t maybe putting himself in more danger on his account. “I appreciate…” His voice fell away as his anger surged again, and he had to take a steadying breath. He didn’t know who he was more angry with: Kincaid, for creating the threat, or himself, for being so useless when it came to protecting himself from physical threat. Maybe he should … should carry his own weapon. Though it went against everything he believed, maybe it was time. “I hate that it’s necessary,” he growled, squinting into the darkness. “But I understand the need.”
Jim looped an arm around his shoulders. After a moment, he said, “I can hear the wheels turning, Chief. I can read what you’re thinking on your face. If you feel it’s needed, carry a gun – in fact, it would make me feel better, because I know you’ll use it if you have to. But carry it concealed. You’re not a gunman, and I don’t want anyone forcing you into a corner because they know you’re armed. Some men – most, I hope – are still squeamish about shooting an unarmed man.”
Blair tightened his jaw and nodded. Hell of a world. He might end up shooting some guy one minute – and then treating the wound and saving the bastard’s life the next.
“Town’s quiet. C’mon, Sandburg. Let’s call it a night.”
When they got home, they didn’t bother lighting a candle or lantern. Jim didn’t need the light, and Blair didn’t want it. Upstairs, the heat was stifling despite the open windows. As they peeled off their clothing, Blair thought of the cots in his infirmary, but it was scarcely any cooler downstairs. Wordlessly, Jim drew down the coverlet and sheet, draping them over the foot of the bed. They lay down and Blair turned toward Jim, seeking the comfort of his embrace.
Anything, I can do or face anything, he thought with utter conviction, so long as I have you.
They kissed, slow and languid, and then Blair rested his head on Jim’s chest. Listening to the steady drum of his lover’s heart, Jim’s arm around his shoulders, he drifted into sleep.
When Jim woke early the next morning, he grimaced at the heavy heat of the air. If it was this bad just after dawn, the day was going to be a scorcher. Skin sticky with sweat, he tried not to disturb Blair as he eased out of the bed and headed downstairs. Though the thought of hot coffee didn’t appeal to him, and the idea of stoking up the stove was repellent, he felt muzzy and knew he needed the energy, so he spooned coffee into the metal strainer, filled the pot with water, stirred the embers, added kindling, and set the percolator on the stove. Outside, after leaving the privy, he hauled a bucket of water and poured it over his head, hissing at the icy shock. But it worked, leaving him practically shivering as he drew a second bucket and carried it inside. While the coffee perked, he returned upstairs to dress.
A few minutes later, he filled a clay mug with steaming coffee and let it cool while he shaved. His ears were bothering him, a low-level, not quite aching sensation that he’d come to accept as his own personal early warning system that a storm was coming, though it was still a long way off – a day, maybe two. Sipping his coffee, he looked out at the dust motes hovering in the beams of sunlight and thickening the air of the windless street. A storm would help clear the air, cool things off; so far as he was concerned, it couldn’t come fast enough.
He heard the rumbling thunder of hoofbeats some time before Kincaid’s men galloped through town on their way to work. Jim glared at them as they rode by and shook his head. Too damned many of them to crowd into the small jail for disturbing the peace – and he was wary of precipitating a war before he was ready to fight it. Chewing on his lip, he struggled with the anxiety knotting in his gut. Kincaid was a formidable adversary. Was he biting off more than he could chew? Was he wrong or right to stay to fight? Shaking his head, not having any answers, he washed his mug, drew the percolator off the heat, and then strapped on his guns.
The enticing scent of fresh bread baking in Maisie’s shop reminded him of the biscuits she’d brought the day before. Grabbing a couple and a hunk of cheese, he donned his Stetson and headed out to face the day.
Henri’s girls were ecstatic to see him; little Cherie practically climbed his body to wrap her arms around his neck and kiss his cheek. “Merci, t’ank you,” she exclaimed, her beaming smile showing the gap of a missing tooth. “Ah’s so happy to go see m’frien’s today.”
Grinning at her, he pulled one of her pigtails and set her down. “I’ll take care of them,” he promised Henri and Hannah who were doing their best to hide their nervousness from the children.
“Ah knows you will,” Hannah replied, and found a smile for him.
He tipped his hat and led the girls out. “Stay close now,” he cautioned when, in their excitement, they seemed ready to dash off ahead. “Don’t want you getting lost.”
“Lost!” they cried in unison. Rose, the eldest, insisted, “We won’t get lost. We knows the way,” sounding insulted that he’d think any different.
“Well, okay, I might get lost,” he replied. “So you best not leave me behind.”
Rose looked at him like he’d suddenly lost his mind but, Cherie, evidently worried that he just might get lost, took hold of his hand to lead him along. Hiding his smile, he thanked her for taking good care of him.
Men were already hard at work on the building projects when they passed by. Their shouts and ribald jests turned to sullen silence when they noticed him escorting the girls to the school. He heard sub-vocal curses and caustic remarks, but he could tell his two young charges were oblivious to the hostility surrounding them. Kincaid stepped out from around the end of the last structure and stood in the middle of the boardwalk, watching them approach. His face was devoid of expression, his gaze glacial as he stared at the girls and then at Jim.
Wondering if the man would give way or force a confrontation, Jim swept Cherie up to hold her in the crook of his left arm and said to Rose, “Stay behind me and right close.” And he kept on walking, his right arm swinging easily but near enough to his Colt to be a mute caution to Kincaid. Jim held the man’s glare as they drew closer.
“Mornin’, Kincaid,” he said, his tone dry but not aggressive.
Kincaid snorted but stepped aside. “You been doin’ any thinkin’ about our talk?” he challenged as Jim ambled past with Rose scurrying along behind.
“Oh, yes, I have,” Jim replied with a sideways glance that gave nothing away. “Lots of thinking. You been thinking about telling your men to slow down in town?”
Kincaid’s gaze narrowed but he didn’t answer. Jim wasn’t prepared to push it, not when he had the girls with him.
And then they were past and the schoolyard was only a few steps further on. Setting Cherie down, he waved them forward. “You girls be good in school – and you wait for me to come for you. Don’t be going home on your own, y’hear?”
“But why –” Cherie began, sounding puzzled, only to be hushed by Rose. “Nevermind,” she hissed, and then looked up at Jim, her dark eyes revealing more understanding of ‘why’ than he’d credited. “We’ll be here, Sheriff Jim.”
He cupped his hand over the top of her head. “Good girl,” he praised, and gave her a reassuring smile.
Waiting while they dashed across the yard, calling to their friends, laughing to be there, his gaze narrowed and he cast a look back over his shoulder at Kincaid who was now talking with one his men. There was something about the whole situation that reminded him of the massacre at Poplar Flats two years before – a sick madness that made war on women and little children. He didn’t understand such wanton cruelty, and it revolted him. Same kind of men, he decided with disgust. Same kind of thinking.
When he saw the girls climb onto the low, narrow porch and disappear into the schoolhouse, he took a breath to calm the fierce storm of memories. He couldn’t let his emotions get out of control. Couldn’t let Kincaid or any of his men bait him into doing something foolish.
Later that morning, on his way into the hotel, he saw Sam Sloan riding out in his fancy buggy. Though he did nothing more than give a casual wave, same as he’d done many times in the past, he knew his hopes were pinned on Sam, on the man’s meeting with Simon and Joel, though he had no doubts that the two ranchers would back him. He was much more worried about Sam’s efforts to raise support amongst the men of Bitterwood Creek. In case they’d be called upon; in case they’d be needed to save their town from sliding into hell.
The lobby was filled with guests waiting for the stage. They sat in desultory silence, numbed by the heat, and didn’t seem to notice his entrance. Megan looked up from the register on the reception desk and gave him a wary look of assessment.
“Morning,” he greeted.
“I can guess why you’re here,” she returned, her posture stiff and determined.
“I’m sure you can,” he agreed, his tone mild as he glanced around at the departing men and their baggage. “Maybe we could talk in your office?”
With a tight nod, she waved him around the desk to the office behind. Marching in behind him, she closed the door and growled, “Don’t think you can come in here and patronize me, just because I’m a woman. If there’s to be trouble, then I’m not going to stand back as if the outcome doesn’t matter to me. I’m perfectly capable of –”
“Whoa, slow down, Calamity,” he laughed and held his hands up in defense. “What? You think I’d make the same mistake Kincaid does? Patronize you? Not hardly. I know enough not to underestimate you.”
“Oh,” she exclaimed and blinked at him, put off-balance by not getting the expected fight. “Well, fine, then. We understand each other.”
“Uh huh,” Jim grunted and sat down in one of the sturdy leather chairs by the desk. “But I did want to make sure you’re clear on what might be going down and when.”
She frowned, serious and focused as she rounded the desk and sat down, folding her hands together in a curiously prim manner. “Good. I’m listening.”
He brought her up-to-date on his discussions with Kincaid and Sloan, and outlined his concerns that things could begin to heat up as early as the next day.
Fanning herself, she muttered, “As if things could get any hotter around here.”
“Megan, I respect your determination to help, and I admire you for it,” he began.
“Oh, no. Here it comes,” she snapped sarcastically.
“Would you let me finish?” he challenged. When she subsided and nodded, he went on, “You could be our ace in the hole. Kincaid won’t consider you any kind of threat – probably doesn’t pay any attention to you or what you think at all.”
“You’ve got that right,” she agreed.
“Fine, well, I think the hotel could be where we make a stand, if … if it comes to that. The roof is higher than any other building in town, which would give us an advantage in terms of holding off a concerted assault.” He paused. “If we end up in a shooting war, I don’t want you on the roof – I want you to get out of here as soon as it starts looking bad and go to the Telegraph Office, to send a message to the federal marshal in Wichita to get here with reinforcements.”
Her gaze narrowed into a glare. “You are trying to keep me out of it,” she charged.
“No, no, I’m not. But I need someone Kincaid won’t notice to get out our yell for help; I know I can count on you to do that.”
“And after I send the message?” she enquired with caustic sweetness.
“If Simon and his bunch haven’t arrived, you’ll need to ride out and get them here, as fast as humanly possible.”
“Kincaid will think I’m running,” she said flatly.
“I hope so; I’m counting on that,” Jim agreed. “Megan, I don’t know if the men in this town will back me against Kincaid. They’re scared, all of them. Kincaid has too many men. Doc isn’t a gunman, but he’ll shoot if he has to. Henri … Henri has a family to worry about, but I’m betting he’d be on that roof with me and Blair. The three of us can’t hold out forever alone. I’m sure you’re quite the markswoman but one more gun won’t help. I need my own small army. You’re the only one I can count on to get me what I need.”
Finally, she nodded. “Alright. You’ve convinced me. What else can I do?”
“We need to start stockpiling weapons and ammunition, so it’s handy if we need it.”
“I keep a fair assortment of rifles and shotguns, along with the ammunition, in case any of my guests are interested in doing some hunting while they’re here.” Standing, she unhooked her key-ring from her belt and opened a closet door, gesturing to him to take a look.
What he saw both surprised and pleased him. “Good,” he murmured with a grateful nod. “Just what we might need.” Turning to look at her, he said, “And last but not least, I need you to keep an eye out, watch what’s going on, who’s where. Kincaid might not try anything at all. He might let things ride for a while, figuring he can get rid of me without a fight in a few months’ time. But…” he hesitated, looked away, “if he decides not to wait, I don’t think he’ll come at me straight on, not as a first move, anyway. I think a bullet in the back might be more his style or an even quieter assault in the shadows of an alley.” Returning his gaze to hers, his tone taut, he directed, “If you hear or see anything that makes you think something is going down; if you don’t see either me or Blair, or even Brown, when we’d normally be around – check our house, my office, the stable. If you can’t find us – send the message to Wichita and get to Simon fast.”
Her expression sober, she clasped his arm and nodded. “I’ll make sure to get help,” she promised.
“Thanks,” he sighed and stepped away.
“You know,” she offered, her voice gentle with concern, “maybe you and Blair should just write this town off. It’s not worth dying for.”
Evading her eyes, he wasn’t sure she was wrong. “I’ve thought about it,” he admitted. “We’ve talked about it. God knows, things are better on the frontier. There can be violence, sure, but … this insidious hate…” He didn’t have the words to express the depth of his feelings, to explain how loathsome he found it, how dangerous. “Out there, where you’re trying to survive, nobody much cares who you are. They care about whether you can hold your own and be trusted.” His lips thinned and he shook his head. Looking at her, he said, “We’re gonna give it our best shot. Try to hold onto what we have here. Do what we can for the folks who’ve become our friends. But … I won’t risk him, not forever. Maybe not for long. We just have to see how it plays out over the next while.”
“I hope you don’t leave it too long,” she replied. Rubbing the back of her neck, she reflected, “Maybe it’s time for a lot of us to move on. The bigotry does seem to be part of civilization, doesn’t it?” Heaving a sigh, she murmured, “They’re booming up in the Dakota Territory. There’s gold. A classy hotel would probably make a fortune out there.”
“Probably would,” Jim agreed somberly. “Not many women in those parts.”
She gave him an impish, ironic grin. “Ah, sounds just about perfect. I could be Queen of the Hills.”
Barking a laugh, he nodded. “Figures you’d see it that way.”
Blair was surprised to wake so late in the day, Jim’s place beside him empty. Sitting up and raking back his hair, he reached for his glasses and looked out at the sky. Still crystal clear, dammit. God, the heat was like a lead weight, heavy and relentless. Still, as he got to his feet and pulled on his jeans before padding downstairs, he reflected that he felt better than he had in days.
“Must’ve needed the sleep,” he muttered to himself.
He washed up outside, the icy water making him shiver and he chuckled. There didn’t seem to be any happy mediums in his world.
Looking up at the sky, searching for even the faintest wisp of cloud, he thought about how he’d spend his day. Didn’t have any rounds to do. Seemed nobody was sick.
Shrugging, he went back inside to break his fast. And then he thought he’d take stock of his supplies. If Milt wasn’t going to keep him stocked with potions and powders anymore, then he’d best get busy making his own, and ordering what he couldn’t make with what he had on hand.
When Jim came in for lunch, he served up tomato and cheese sandwiches, washed down with chilled tea. It was just too damned hot to even think about heating up the stove.
He spent the early part of the afternoon working on his journal. When he found himself listening for the door, waiting for some patient to show up, he gave himself a little shake. It was just a lull; that was all. Soon enough, he’d be run off his feet again. And he told himself he was glad of the quiet; glad to have the time to record notes in the journal. Glad to have a period of respite, to catch his breath and rest after the duress of the last weeks. Grateful, even, to not be pushed to his limits when he knew damned well that he wasn’t in peak condition.
And, hell, if another patient never did show up … well, it wasn’t like he and Jim didn’t have options. Setting down his quill pen, he stared out the window and thought about Kincaid. About how things would probably get a whole lot worse before they got any better.
“You might be their sentinel,” he grated into the silence. “But I’ll be damned if I’ll let this town be the death of you.”
The heat and the silence were oppressive. Suddenly, he couldn’t stand it anymore. He had to move; had to get out of the house. Giving up on the expectation that anyone was going to need doctoring that day, he went outside to the shed next to the stable. Might as well make himself useful and catch their supper. Besides, if there was to be any relief to be found from the heat, it would be down by the water, in the dappled shadows under the trees. Gathering up his fishing pole, he ambled down to the creek.
When Jim got home, he sniffed at the scent of fresh fish grilling over open flames and smiled. Ambling through the house, he found Blair outside, hunkered down by a small fire in the pit near the well. His lover was frying potatoes and onions in one pan and, in another, fillets of fresh trout were just beginning to turn brown.
“Hey,” he called.
Blair looked up and smiled. Gesturing toward the food, he said, “Too hot to cook or eat in the house. Thought we’d pretend we’re camping out on the prairie.”
Jim’s response was cut off by the rumbling thunder of hooves that was becoming all too familiar. Irritated, he turned toward the sound … and then he heard a muffled squeal followed by a full-throated high-pitched scream that broke into an undulating wail of horror.
“God!” Blair exclaimed, quickly jerking the hot pans off the fire and setting them on the ground. He was one step ahead of Jim as they dashed through the house, stopping only to grab his medical bag and then racing after Jim out the front door.
“Oh, Jesus,” Jim breathed as Blair pushed past him, jumping down off the boardwalk to run across the dirt road.
Dust was still thick in the air from the passing of the riders, some of whom had pulled up at the horrified scream and were watching from fifty feet further along. On the other side of the street, Maisie had come out of her bakeshop and was standing frozen, her hands pressed to her mouth. Further along, Milt Ambrose came out of his shop to stare at them all.
“It’s jest one o’ em pickaninnies,” one of the riders called, rough and ugly.
And on the street just in front of the stable, Hannah was crouched on the ground, Cherie’s broken body pressed to her breast as she wailed her heart-broken grief. Henri, looking stunned in disbelieving shock, was down on one knee beside her, an arm around her shoulders. Rose was huddled in the broad entry to the stables, tears streaking her stricken face.
Blair skidded to a stop and dropped to his knees. “Let me see her,” he commanded gently.
Hannah was rocking the child, mindless in her hideous sorrow. “Ma p’tite, ma p’tite,” she sobbed. “Elle est morte, morte. Dead. Cherie. Oh, oh, Cherie.”
Blair’s head snapped around at the sound of raucous laughter from Kincaid’s riders, and Jim could see the raw fury on his partner’s face as he slowly crossed the street, feeling sick to his soul. The poor, innocent, beautiful child and those bastards had … had….
But Blair turned back to Hannah. Gently but firmly, murmuring reassuringly, he gradually drew the child from her mother’s arms, and Jim could see that Cherie’s neck had been broken. “Let me see,” Blair crooned. “Let me help her.”
Jim couldn’t believe there was anything that could be done for the girl. But he read the determined line of Blair’s shoulders, and he suddenly understood what Blair was planning to do. Breathless, he quickened his pace. Fear for his partner blossomed as he heard again Swift Eagle’s stern warning: ‘they can’t help themselves, they are driven to help. You must watch over him. You must….’
Jim hunkered down and gripped Blair’s shoulder as he peered down at Cherie’s face. She looked whole, like she was only sleeping, but for the drying froth of blood on her lips, and the fact that she wasn’t breathing. “Chief, you can’t…” he rasped fiercely.
One of Blair’s hands cradled her small head and neck, and his other hand skimmed over her chest. “Yes, I can,” he hissed. “And I damned well will.” Looking past Jim, his eyes widened and then he nodded with respect. “Help me,” he whispered so soft even Jim could barely hear him.
Following his glance, Jim saw Blair’s wolf shimmering close by, ephemeral and yet clearly there. But it was the image of the frightened little girl clinging to the animal and crying for her ‘mama’ that drove the breath from his throat and brought tears to his eyes. Jim looked at Henri and Hannah, at Rose, and could tell none of them could see the apparitions.
“Ground me, Jim,” Blair commanded in a hoarse murmur. “Lend me your strength.” And then he bowed his head and chanted softly under his breath, calling Cherie, calling her to come home.
Jim didn’t know what to do, other than to tighten his grip on Blair’s shoulder. He could feel a surge of heat radiate from Blair’s body and he saw a brief flash of blinding blue light flare from the child’s face. Blair shuddered under his hand, and the heat was gone as if it had never been. As quickly as it dissipated, Cherie started to wail for her mother and squirmed in Blair’s grip, her arms stretching toward Hannah.
“Mon Dieu!” Hannah gasped, her eyes widening and her mouth gaping open. Visibly shaking, she drew her child close, holding her, rocking her and laughing, tears streaming down her face. Tears leaked from Brown’s eyes, too, as he looked from his wife and very alive child to Blair. His mouth trembled and he seemed to be trying to finding something to say, but no words came.
“Cherie?” Rose called with awed hope, and then she was shrieking Cherie’s name in paroxysm of relieved delight as she raced to hug her mother and baby sister.
Beyond them, the riders had fallen silent. “It’s the Devil’s work,” one of them growled.
Blair rose to his feet but swayed dizzily, and Jim was quick to put a steadying hand on his back. Turning toward the riders, his expression livid with fury, Blair yelled with raw passion, “Damn you! Damn you all! You could have destroyed this child! Get the hell out of here! Go!”
Jim saw fear grow on their faces as Blair cursed them. Slowly at first – as if wary of turning their backs on him – and then in haste, they drew their mounts around and, kicking them hard, rode away hard and fast, as if the Devil himself was chasing them from town.
“Easy, Chief,” he cautioned, frightened himself by Blair’s pallor and shakiness. “Let’s get you home.”
His expression rigid, breathing hard, Blair nearly stumbled as he shifted his footing and started walking slowly and unsteadily across the road, as if he was in a daze – or barely able to stand. Jim hooked an arm around his shoulders to support him, and practically lifted him back up onto the boardwalk before climbing up himself.
When they got inside and he’d closed the door behind them, he saw that tears were staining Blair’s cheeks.
“They were laughing,” Blair choked out, a mangled sound of mingled fury and pain. “They’d trampled that child and they were laughing!”
“I know,” Jim replied carefully, watching his partner closely, not sure what to expect, what to do. He knew, of course he knew Blair had such power, but he’d never witnessed it before. His throat was dry with the fear of what the healing might have cost. “Come on, you need to sit down. Maybe have some brandy.”
Blair raised a hand, waving him off dismissively. “I’m fine,” he insisted, but his voice was trembling with weakness. He looked up at Jim and his lips parted to say something more, but his eyes rolled back and he crumpled.
“Sandburg!” Jim exclaimed, catching him before he hit the floor, easing him down. Jim could hear his partner’s heart pounding too slowly and Blair was barely breathing. Gathering him up, he couldn’t help but notice that Blair felt much, much lighter than he should, as if he wasn’t all there, was somehow fading away, and that scared Jim more than anything else had that day. Swiftly, Jim carried him along the hall and into the infirmary to lay him on a cot. Despite the heat, Blair’s skin felt cold, so he covered him with a light blanket. Remembering what Blair had told Simon that spring after Joel had been shot by Quinn, that people in shock needed to have their heads lower than their feet, he raced to the office and grabbed an armload of thick books. Back in the infirmary, he piled them under the legs of the cot beneath Blair’s feet. Then he loosened Sandburg’s belt and took off his boots.
Kneeling beside him, Jim laid a hand over Blair’s brow and cupped his cheek. Frightened, he didn’t know what else to do, how to help. Didn’t know if there was anything he could do.
“Chief? Blair? Can you hear me?” he called with hoarse terror.
The front door opened and boots thumped along the hall. “Jim? Blair?” Henri called.
“Back here,” Jim yelled back.
“My God,” Henri was saying as he drew close, “I’ve never seen the like of –” But his voice choked when he entered the large room and he stumbled to a halt. “What? What’s wrong with him?” he gasped in little more than a whisper.
Jim shook his head. “It wears him out,” he answered, not sure what else to say. Not really knowing what was wrong.
“Yeah,” Brown sighed reverently. “Guess workin’ a miracle could do that to a man.” Coming closer, worry straining his face, he asked, “He’ll be alright, though, right? He didn’t do nothin’ bad to himself?”
“I don’t know; I hope not,” Jim muttered helplessly. “I … I think he just needs to rest.”
“It was a miracle, wasn’t it?” Henri probed. “My little Cherie, she was … she was gone. I know she was gone. And Blair … Blair b-brought her b-back to us.” His voice broke and he sagged down on the next cot, his hands covering his face and his shoulders quaking. “He saved her. My God, he brought her back,” he mumbled in awe, nearly inarticulate with immense gratitude, a relief so vast it defied expression.
Jim felt the burn in his own eyes, and he pressed them closed to keep tears from falling. Bowing his head, numb with the wonder of what he’d seen and the fear that filled him for Blair’s wellbeing, he nodded. “Yeah,” he rasped. “He did. But keep what he did quiet. Folks in this town, well, I don’t think they’d understand.” He had to stop, and swallow past the lump in his throat, before he could ask, “Cherie – how is she?”
“Scared,” Henri replied, and drew in a long breath. “She doesn’t remember what happened. There was blood in her hair on the back of her head, and some on her clothes but not a mark on her body. She’s just … scared, but she’s okay. She keeps sayin’ somethin’ about a wolf. Keeps lookin’ around, tryin’ to find it, says it’s her friend.” He swiped his face with his hands and shook his head. “I don’t have any idea what’s she’s talkin’ about – I’m just glad to hear her talkin’, you know?”
“Yeah, yeah, I know,” Jim murmured, and looked up at his friend. Despite his worry for Blair, he couldn’t help a soft smile. “I’m real glad she’s okay, Henri. Real glad.”
“It all happened so fast,” Brown said then, his voice distant as he remembered. “The girls were playing in the stable, throwing a ball around, laughing, teasing. Just, just being kids. And the ball went flying out the door, rolling into the street. Cherie didn’t stop to look, just ran out to get it. I shouted at her but … the horses … and they … she…”
“Stop it,” Jim commanded quietly. “It’s over and she’s okay. She’s fine, H. She’s just fine.”
Drawing a shuddering breath, Brown nodded and again swiped at his eyes. Sniffing, he looked at Blair. “Is there anything I can do?”
“No, I think he just needs to sleep,” Jim said with a sigh. “You should go on back home. Your family needs you right now. Don’t worry. I’m sure he’ll be okay. I’ll let him know you were here.”
Henri hesitated, but then he rose to his feet. “There’s no way I’ll ever be able to thank him for this. No way I can ever…”
“It’s okay, H. It’s okay. Doc … Blair, well, he lives to heal people. It’s who he is. What he is. A healer. He loves your kids, Henri. I know he won’t want your thanks – he’ll just be real glad that Cherie is okay.” Jim tipped his head toward the doorway. “Go on. Go home to your family.”
Brown nodded. Stepping close to the cot, he laid his palm down on Blair’s shoulder. “My kids love him, too; both of you. We all do. You sure you don’t need help? That he’s just sleeping?”
“Yeah, pretty sure,” Jim affirmed.
Henri took a deep breath and turned away. “I’ll be back later tonight, just to check, you know?”
“I know. Thanks.”
“And I’ll do the rounds. Don’t you worry none about that,” he called, sounding determined, as he stepped into the hall. But his steps slowed, stopped. “What do I say when folks ask? Maisie saw it; so did Ambrose.”
“They were too far away,” Jim replied wearily. “Say … just say she got clipped by a horse and the wind knocked out of her.”
“Okay, Jim,” Brown agreed, his tone low, reluctant. “But we won’t ever forget. Not ever.”
When Henri was gone, Jim sighed and scrubbed his face. He hated the need to lie, wished the world could know what Blair had done. But … after folks got over being amazed, they’d be afraid, and he knew Blair never wanted anyone to fear him.
He rubbed his partner’s arm, lightly, wishing his touch could bring comfort but knowing Blair had no idea he was there. Tucking the blanket more closely around Blair’s shoulders, and gently combing the curls back from Blair’s brow, he whispered, “You did good, Chief. Jesus, I saw it with my own eyes and I still can hardly believe … but … but you’re scaring the hell out of me, here, Sandburg. I hope to God you’re okay.”
He searched Blair’s face for any sign he’d been heard, but there was no response. Tilting his head, he listened to Blair’s heart and relaxed a little to hear it strengthen and speed toward a more normal rhythm.
Blood, he thought, and remembered Blair’s hand cradling the back of Cherie’s head. Needing to do something, he fetched water and a clean rag. Easing Blair’s hand out from under the blanket, he felt awe when he looked at the stains and knew what they represented; a child had been dead and was now alive, because of this hand, this man. Tenderly, he washed off the blood and dried his partner’s skin. When he was done, he simply sat there, holding Blair’s hand in both of his own, wishing with all his heart that he could share his warmth, his strength, to restore Blair’s vibrancy, to bring him back from wherever he was.
As if the wish was made manifest, Blair’s breathing deepened and Jim could not only feel warmth steal back into his hand, but see healthy color begin to relieve the stark pallor of his partner’s cheeks. He heard Blair’s heart settle into its normal strong, steady beat, and he felt weak with relief.
“Chief?” he called, his voice shaky with hope as he lifted a hand to rest on Blair’s brow. “You waking up?”
Blair’s lips parted in a sigh, and a furrow appeared between his brows, as if he were confused or struggling to wake. His fingers twitched and curled around Jim’s, though his grip was fragile.
“Sandburg? Can you hear me?” Jim urged, his hand sliding from Blair’s brow to cup his still too cool cheek.
Blair moaned softly and his face turned into Jim’s palm, as if seeking warmth. He blinked and, at first, he seemed dazed, but his eyes cleared as he looked at Jim. “Hey,” he breathed. His gaze swept the room and he seemed puzzled. “What am I doing in here?”
“You passed out,” Jim told him, searching his face, listening to his breathing and his heartbeat. “Right after you brought Cherie back to life.”
Blair seemed startled, his eyes widening and then, the look in his eyes growing distant, he seemed to remember. “Oh, yeah,” he sighed. “She okay?”
“She’s just fine, Chief. The question is, are you okay?”
“Yeah, I think so. I just, uh, feel kinda wasted,” Blair murmured, as if he lacked the strength to speak more loudly. “Like I’m … I don’t know. Faded. Washed out. Insubstantial.”
Remembering how Blair had seemed almost weightless in his arms, Jim’s throat constricted with dread, wondering if this strangeness would pass, or if Blair had given too much of himself away. “What can I do to help?” he asked, his hand gripping Blair’s. “What do you need?”
Blair’s grip tightened around his hand. “I need … I need your strength,” he rasped. “I’m sorry, Jim. But I need you to…”
Jim didn’t need to hear more. He’d seen it, experienced it often enough, knew that somehow the two of them were linked, that he might not to heal anyone else, but he could heal Blair. He just had to want to, just had to desperately want to. God, why did he keep forgetting or – not believing? How much proof did he need that they had some mystical connection beyond their love for one another? Slipping an arm around Blair’s shoulders, Jim drew him up into a hug, embracing him tightly. “‘s okay, Chief,” he gusted. “I’ve got strength to spare. I’ve got you, Blair. I’ve got you.”
Blair sagged against him, leaned into his strength, and sighed as if he’d come home. Jim’s eyes burned, and his chest tightened with how much he needed this man, and how much Blair’s trust and need of him touched him. Bending his head, he pressed a kiss to Blair’s brow.
“Love me?” Blair asked, his voice reedy with weakness and uncertainty, as if reluctant to draw upon Jim’s strength and ashamed of his need, but also with trust and hope.
Jim shifted to gather his lover into his arms, but Blair laughed weakly and pushed away. “I can walk, man – maybe not too steadily, but I can walk. ‘m not some blushing girl you gotta carry to bed.”
Not at all sure his partner did have the strength to make it up the stairs, but reassured by the amusement and independence that was all Blair, Jim held out a hand to lever him onto his feet. “Okay, Sandburg,” he said, doing his best to sound indulgent as he looped a strong, supportive arm around Blair’s back, “let’s see how well you manage those stairs.”
Slowly, leaning heavily on Jim, Blair shuffled along the hall. Though he was wobbly and could only manage the upward climb one step at a time, he made it under his own steam. But, by the time they reached the room, he was panting heavily, clearly exhausted by the modest physical effort. He scarcely had the strength to sit on the edge of the bed while Jim helped him out of his clothes.
“I’m s-sorry,” Blair stammered between gasps for air. “I don’t know what’s wrong. I haven’t ever felt so … I can’t explain it. Like I’m not quite here. Like it’s almost too much effort to keep breathing.” When he looked up at Jim, his eyes were shadowed with fear. “Whispering Waters said I had to be careful – had to not reach too far. But I couldn’t…” His eyes glazed and he looked away. “I couldn’t … I had to…”
“I know, Chief, I know,” Jim soothed as he helped his lover lie down on the bed. “I saw her spirit, too. If I could have, I’d’ve done the same thing. What happened to her was wrong. So wrong.”
Blair’s breath shuddered and his head moved in a shallow nod. “I’m sorry,” he apologized again, his head bowed and guilt now in his voice. “I … I feel like I’m using you. Leeching away your energy, your strength…” he muttered, his voice close to breaking.
“No, no, never be sorry, never,” Jim protested, as he shucked his clothing and stretched out beside his beloved. “Let me give you what you so freely give me,” he murmured into Blair’s ear, taking him into his arms, and then kissing him with slow tenderness. “Let me love you,” he breathed against Blair’s lips. “Don’t worry about anything. Just let me love you.”
“Please,” Blair whispered, husky with unshed tears. “I need you so bad.”
“I need you, too, Sandburg,” Jim rasped, and then, his hands caressing Blair’s body, he bent his head to again capture Blair’s lips.
Jim made tender, careful love to his partner, using his body and the passion in his soul to express what he never seemed able to find the words to say. He had such respect for Blair, for the man who would go unarmed, hell, who could barely stand and yet faced down and cursed a gang of rough, violent men who despised him and would as soon shoot him as look at him, because they’d hurt a defenseless child. The man who dedicated his life, his skill, his knowledge, to helping others, to doing his best. The man who had taught him how to trust again, when he’d thought that part of him, that capacity was dead. The man who didn’t flinch in the face of danger, who asked no quarter, who was so brave it sometimes terrified Jim.
Blair watched him with a look of astonishment in his eyes, as if he couldn’t quite believe anyone could love him so completely, so … desperately. That look made Jim’s heart ache, for it told him more than he wanted to know about how Blair had been hurt by those who should have loved him. He gathered Blair to him, and filled him with all the love Jim had in his heart to give, and he took his own pleasure in seeing how Blair’s breathing deepened and grew stronger, how his passion ignited life and fire in his lover’s face and eyes, and in his body. When he saw the pure, honest joy shining up at him, the love he felt reflected back in full measure in Blair’s steady gaze, he felt whole.
As they came together, Jim suspected that the wonder he saw in Blair’s eyes was reflected in his own. He had never known love like this, either; never been loved with such trust and unswerving commitment, with such intimate knowledge and compassion. There was nowhere on earth that he was ever, or ever had been, as safe as he was in Sandburg’s arms.
Blair shuddered with completion and drew him down. Arms that had been weak now strongly held him as Blair curled around his body, pressing close. With a sigh of contentment, Blair closed his eyes and drifted into deep – and, Jim sorely hoped – healing sleep. As time slipped past, Jim continued to hold him as he stared out the window at the clear sky, watching the colors bleed from crimson into gold before darkening to the deepest indigo. He heard the stray cats, the mousers that kept down the vermin in the stable, fight over the supper that lay forgotten by the cold ashes near the well. He opened his sense of hearing further, to listen through the still night to the town settling in as the evening deepened, but the ache in his ears was sharpening, and he couldn’t make out the subtlety of sound as clearly as usual. The storm was close, would maybe hit by morning.
When he saw the moon begin to rise, he knew Brown would soon be heading out to do the night rounds. Easing away from Blair’s embrace, he settled his partner on the bed, dressed and went downstairs. He strapped on his guns and grabbed his hat as he headed outside. Just as he closed the door, Henri came out onto the street and saw him.
“I said I’d handle things tonight,” he complained, shaking his head. “You should stay with Doc.”
“He’s fine, H,” Jim assured him, a lot more confident than he had been earlier, as he crossed the wide street to join his deputy. “Just needs rest for maybe a month of Sundays. Cherie?”
“She’s … it’s like nothin’ ever happened,” Henri told him, his smile wide and his dark eyes brimming with emotion, too much for words to encompass.
Jim slapped his back. “Okay, then. Let’s put the town to bed.”
Puffs of wind through the open windows lifted the curtains and stirred the still hot air, drifting over Blair’s body like chill ghostly fingertips. He shivered and woke, blinking to clear his vision in the dim gray light seeping into the room. Rolling over, he looked outside and was relieved to see clouds and not the endless emptiness of a clear sky. Finally, rain was coming and would clear the dust from the air and cool the relentless heat.
Drawing the blanket up over his shoulders, he lay there thinking about what had happened the evening before. He’d been so sick with unspeakable sorrow when he’d seen Cherie’s broken little body, torn to his soul by Hannah’s terrible grief – and furious, more furious than he’d ever been, at the callous men who had done such irreparable damage, had blithely destroyed such a beautiful young life. Their laughter and crude insults had enraged him. He’d killed before, but only out of necessity. Now, for the first time in his life he had wanted to kill, to punish them, to stop them from ever committing such a hideous crime again.
His wolf spirit had come to guide the child’s soul away; he’d understood that and was grateful. But when he’d seen through the veil, had seen Cherie weeping so piteously for her mother, he … he couldn’t stand it. Not when he knew he had the power to undo what had been done. The fact that he knew he’d be pushing the boundaries of what he should ‘interfere’ with or not, that he would be ‘playing God’, which Whispering Waters had warned him was dangerous, hadn’t been enough to stop him. Nor was he sorry, not one bit – but he did understand that he’d put himself in peril, more so than he’d expected. And he’d had to draw energy from Jim to recover. Frowning as he stared up at the cloudbank, he wished he understood this transference of energy, how it worked, why it worked, both of his own to those he did his best to heal, and of Jim’s, that restored him; why he could heal others, but Jim could only heal him. Powerful magic. Very powerful and unnerving … even more than a little frightening.
Taking a breath and exhaling slowly, he told himself it didn’t matter if he understood it or not. Enough that it was real. And he couldn’t resist a small, humble and amazed smile to know that little Cherie was again whole. How could he be anything but grateful for that?
As well as be grateful for and to Jim, for healing him in his turn.
He wasn’t fully restored, and would need to rest to build back his energy; he wouldn’t be able to pull any more magic tricks out of his bag for a while. But, thanks to Jim, he sure felt a whole lot better than he had when he’d first awakened in the infirmary. Almost normal, in fact – and hungry. Very hungry.
Rising quietly, careful to not wake Jim, who would need extra rest even if he’d never admit it, Blair drew on a second shirt against the chilly wind and padded downstairs. Before long, he had coffee perking and eggs frying in a skillet, while slices of bread browned over the heat into toast.
“Hey,” Jim greeted as he came into the kitchen and, slipping arms around Blair’s waist, leaned into his back and bent to kiss his cheek. “You look like you’re a lot better.”
“Yeah,” Blair agreed, looking over his shoulder to smile at his partner. “Not one hundred percent, but pretty good. How about you?”
“Me? I’m fine,” Jim assured him. He scraped his stubbled face and went to the basin to wash up and shave. “H stopped in last night – they’re, well, they’re mighty grateful to you, Chief.”
Blair shook his head as he flipped the eggs. “I … well, I understand that, but I don’t want…”
“I know. I told him – and I suggested that if anyone asked, that we just say Cherie got clipped by one of the horses and knocked out for a bit.”
“That’s a good idea,” Blair agreed. “Nobody would understand. Man, I’m not even sure I understand.”
Jim wiped his face and dried his hands. Setting out plates and then filling two mugs with coffee, he ventured, “It’s not something you’re supposed to do, is it?”
“No, or at least, it’s not something to do lightly,” Blair agreed as he dished up their food. “Hard not to do it, though. Impossible last night. I couldn’t stop myself.”
Jim nodded, his expression thoughtful as he took his place by the table. “You gonna be able to learn how to stop yourself, or is that something I’m going to have to do? Stop you, I mean?”
“Would you have stopped me yesterday if you could?” Blair asked, sitting down at the table.
Jim flicked a look up at him and shook his head. “No … not unless I thought saving her would have killed you.” He broke apart a piece of toast and added, “But you pushed it, Chief, and I didn’t know how much it would take out of you. I … I was scared when you dropped on me. Next time, next time I might well drag you away before I’d let you risk that again, even for a child.”
When Blair didn’t say anything, Jim sighed. “I know you don’t want to hear that. But, Blair – you can help so many people; you’re a great doctor. Killing yourself to save one just leaves all the people you might still help at risk.”
“I know; I hear you,” Blair agreed.
“Sandburg, how often can you do something like this before it’s too much for your body to take?” Jim asked, sounding uneasy. “Once a year? Less? What?”
“I don’t know,” he replied with a helpless shrug. “I’m just figuring this stuff out.”
Jim’s eyes narrowed and his jaw tightened. “Then no more of this magic healing stuff for a while, agreed?”
Hesitating, Blair thought about that, and then sighed. Jim was right, he knew that, and knew, as well, that pushing beyond his abilities was dangerous. But, ‘a while’ was also vague enough to give him the latitude to make up his own mind when it was necessary. “Yeah, yeah,” he allowed, telling himself that he’d be careful, that he wouldn’t bite off more than he could chew.
Jim gave him a long, wary look, but finally relaxed and went back to polishing his plate. Hiding a smile at how well Jim knew him, and how right he was to be suspicious of such easy acquiescence, Blair finished his own breakfast. He’d be cautious and not do anything stupid. He wasn’t looking to kill himself here, just … just to do what he could. The brief flash of humor faded, though, when he thought about the fact that it wasn’t just his life he was playing with. Jim needed him, alive and strong, every bit as much as he needed Jim. Not to mention that he needed to draw on Jim’s energy when he went too far – his weakness last night, that weird insubstantial feeling, had alarmed him, too. The risks weren’t just about him; it was about both of them.
Changing the subject, voicing his own more urgent worries, he asked, “Do you think Kincaid will pull something today – this is when he said ‘you’d be on your own’, right?”
“Who knows what Kincaid will do?” Jim replied with a grimace. “Guess we just have to keep our eyes open and be prepared for anything.”
A hard gust of wind rattled the window beside them and, looking up at the clouds darkening the sky, Jim frowned. “Looks like a big storm brewing.”
“Long as it cools things off,” Blair returned as he gathered up their dishes and put them to soak in the basin. Returning to the subject at hand, he said, “Since patients don’t seem to be banging down the door, I’m going to go out with you today. And … and I think if I do get called out, we should ask H to give you backup, even during the day.”
Jim shook his head. “Uh, uh. If you get called out of town to a farm or ranch, H sticks with you. But it shouldn’t be a problem. Kincaid isn’t going to do anything in broad daylight that might land him in jail – and I expect Simon and his men will arrive before nightfall.”
The windows rattled again, and pellets of rain pinged against the glass.
Drawing slickers around their shoulders, they were getting ready to go out to take the Brown children to school, when Blair paused and looked thoughtfully at the street. “I didn’t hear the construction gang race into town this morning.”
Jim put on his Stetson and tightened the drawstring under his neck, to hold the hat against the depredations of the strengthening wind outside. “No. I’m not sure they even came to town today; I can’t hear any work going on. I think you scared them off.”
“Me?” Blair squeaked and tilted his head to give him a disbelieving smile from the under the brim of his hat.
“I’m serious, Chief,” Jim teased. “You put a hex on them, told them to get out of town. Some of ‘em looked downright worried.”
“Oh, come on,” Blair protested, rolling his eyes as he led the way out. “I can’t believe that. You were probably glaring daggers at them and they were afraid you’d jail them – or maybe just shoot them – for hurting a kid.”
“Well,” Jim allowed with a sardonic grin, “you could be right about that. I was ready to horsewhip the lot of them.”
Laughing, Blair elbowed him. “See, I knew you were pulling my leg,” he charged as they strode across the street through the splattering rain, the rising wind buffeting them. Lightning flickered in the clouds and thunder rumbled a low menacing growl.
Jim paused and, turning in a slow circle, he studied the sky. Though it was still clear just to the east, a high, wide bank of angry dark clouds driven by the west wind towered high into the heavens. More lightning pulsed and reflected in their depths, and another warning grumble trembled in the distance. Squinting, studying the horizon, his expression tightened.
“What?” Blair asked, following his gaze. “You think the storm might spawn a tornado?”
“Could be,” Jim murmured. “Sure the weather for it, it’s been so hot, and that wind is cold. No reason to expect any would hit town, though. It’s a big prairie and the wind is pushing fast. This storm’ll pass in a few hours, but the wind’ll probably do some minor damage.”
They hurried the rest of the way and, as they reached the door, it was pulled open from inside. Gratefully, they stepped in out of the wind. Hannah didn’t say a word, just grabbed Blair, wet slicker and all, in a hard, tight hug.
“Oh, hey,” he exclaimed, startled. “You’ll get your clothes wet!”
“Ah don’ care,” she replied and kissed both his cheeks before releasing him. “Ah t’ank you, Blair, from the bottom of ma heart. Ah will t’ank you all the days of ma life.”
“So will I,” Henri stated as he looped an arm around Blair’s shoulders and then, as if he couldn’t help himself, pulled him into a strong embrace. “We won’t never forget, Blair. Never.”
Flustered by their effusive gratitude, Blair blushed. “I’m just glad she’s okay,” he mumbled in confusion.
The two girls chased into the kitchen, shouting to one another that they were going to be late and shrieking excited greetings to Jim and Blair, distracting them all and ending Blair’s discomfort. Once Hannah was sure their hats were tied on tight and their jackets were buttoned, they were ready to go. When Henri opened the door, the wind howled inside, having grown in power in just those few minutes.
“Okay, guess you get to ride today,” Blair decided, scooping Cherie into his arms. Rose emphatically protested the idea of being carried, but took a good firm grip on Jim’s hand.
Heads down against the now driving rain, they hastened along the boardwalk as fast as Rose could go. When another gust lifted Rose right off her feet, Jim stooped and picked her up, holding her close. Lightning was flashing nearly continuously, the thunder a ceaseless, throbbing rumble in the heavens. Broken twigs and refuse blew wildly across the open square in front of the deserted construction sites and, as they dashed across the playground, just one group amongst many hurrying to get the children safely to school, the driving pellets of rain turned into a deluge.
“Hurry inside!” Blair directed to the girls over the eerie whine of the wind as they set them down on the low porch. Without a word, they scrambled to join the tide of children rushing through the door to the refuge of the classroom. Mothers scarcely waved at him and Jim before they were scurrying back to their homes, their long skirts whipping around their bodies.
They turned to slog their way back across the yard, already a muddy morass that sucked at their boots. A blinding flare of lightning stabbed, hitting the church’s bell tower and an almighty crack of thunder split the air, nearly driving Jim to his knees. Slapping his hands to his ears, he yelled to Blair, “Run! Run for cover!” Blair felt Jim give him a solid shove on the back, driving him forward.
The wind was vicious, rising to a screaming shriek. Rain was pounding down so hard Blair could barely see two feet ahead and the force of the wind staggered him, making it hard to stay on his feet. A frisson of pure energy crackled with blinding light – deafening thunder crashed around him – and he was stunned to find himself blown through the air to pitch hard into the mud. Gasping for breath, disoriented, he numbly looked around and back toward Jim, unconsciously reaching out for a hand up.
Only Jim wasn’t beside him. He squinted through the rain and gaped, not understanding at first what he was seeing when he spotted Jim sprawled beside a blackened area of mud. Pushing himself to his feet, he yelled over the wind, “Come on, man!”
But Jim didn’t move.
With the beginnings of fear fluttering in his chest, Blair lunged toward him, falling onto his knees beside his unconscious partner. “JIM!” Blair shouted over the storm as he rolled Jim from his side onto his back, wondering if maybe the sudden, unbelievably loud thunder had maybe knocked him out. Blair felt as if his own ears were blocked, the sounds around him muffled.
Jim’s features remained lax, unresponsive even to the rain stinging his face. Increasingly worried, Blair felt the pulse point in his throat and felt raw terror claw in his gut. Jim’s heartbeat was weak, too, too fast, and wildly erratic. “What the …?” Blair muttered – and then he realized Jim wasn’t breathing.
Lightning blasted into a nearby tree, shattering a limb that flew into the air, and thunder raged like a living, rampaging beast.
“Shit!” he cursed, surging to his feet. They couldn’t stay on the open ground, and he had to get Jim someplace safe before he could help him. Gripping his unconscious partner by the arm, he levered Jim up and onto his shoulder, and then he stumbled as fast as he could to the closest shelter – the school they had just left. Staggering up onto the low porch, he kicked open the door and hurried inside.
Immediately, he eased Jim down onto his back and loosened the cord around his neck to pull away the hat. “Sheriff Ellison was nearly struck by lightning,” he explained hurriedly to Marnie and the children, who were gaping at him. Rain blew in through the open door, but he and Jim were already so drenched and muddy, it scarcely mattered.
“Come on, breathe!” he commanded as he again felt the pulse point, only to find it had grown worse, more erratic, weaker, faster. He pressed down on Jim’s chest and repeated the action, to stimulate respirations, but it was as if Jim was frozen. His ashen face was turning blue.
Frantic, Blair bent to blow air into Jim’s mouth, desperate to sustain life, to relieve the frantic heart. Again and again, he blew long gusts of his own breath into his partner’s body. Closing his eyes as he breathed for both of them, he called out to the spirits to hear him, to help him. In his mind, he could see the blue forest, the black cat lying stiff on the grass and the wolf whining helplessly.
“Damn it,” he rasped and then blew into Jim’s mouth again.
Don’t do this, don’t do this! he prayed in a frenzy of fear. Don’t you dare leave me! Dammit, Jim! Don’t go!
He wasn’t aware of the silence that reigned in the over-crowded classroom, was equally oblivious to the howl of the wind and driving rain. Seconds sped into minutes, but the minutes seemed to drag as he worked over Jim. It wasn’t working, just not working. Jim wasn’t responding. Another fast check of his heart rate showed he was in severe distress and failing … dying.
“NO!” Blair yelled with furious denial as he slapped the palm of one hand down on Jim’s chest and pressed the other over Jim’s forehead. Closing his eyes, he focused his will upon healing, his entire being pouring life and energy, power, into Jim’s body.
One second … two – Jim’s body jerked under his hands – another second, and Jim was heaving, gasping for breath.
Awash with relief, unshed tears scalding his eyes, Blair pulled his partner up to lean against his chest. “Easy, easy,” he crooned as he stroked Jim’s back. “You’re alright now. You’re okay.”
“I told you he’s a witch,” a youth piped. “My Dad says he’s evil. A monster.”
“That’s not true!” Cherie shouted. “Take it back!”
“Hush!” Marnie commanded. “Both of you!”
Blinking at the exchange, Blair looked at the youth who condemned him. The lanky kid was tow-headed and pimply with adolescence, and the expression on his face was defiant.
“You’re a demon,” he sneered, “an’ you belong in Hell.”
“Make him stop!” Rose hissed at the teacher. “He’s sayin’ awful lies. Doc’s … Doc’s a good man.”
“What would you know?” the youth snarled, turning on her. “You’re nothin’ but trash.”
“That’s enough,” Blair snapped, his command cold with authority as it whipped across the room. “You’re talking nonsense and you’re only showing what a foolish child you are.”
“You’re the Devil’s spawn!” the boy shouted. “Evil, that’s what you are! My Dad says you cursed him!”
“You really believe that?” Blair asked, his tone low and his gaze hard.
“Yeah. My Dad said so.”
“Then you should be careful, boy. Because you might make me angry – and it’s stupid to get a demon riled. I might turn you into a frog,” Blair advised, his tone cold. The youth paled and backed away, and Blair was immediately sorry for terrorizing the ignorant whelp. “Lucky for you, I’m not a demon. I’m just a man, a doctor who knows how to help people who’ve been hurt or are sick,” he went on mildly. His gaze swept the other children, many of whom he’d known for years and quite a few of whom he’d saved from the diphtheria when he’d first arrived. Smiling at them, he asked, “You all know I’m the Doctor, right? You know I’d never hurt anyone.”
“Yeah,” many of them answered, some with smiles, some with disparaging looks at the new kids. One said emphatically, “You make people better when they’re sick. You made me better when I could hardly breathe. Rose is right. You’re good, not bad.” Turning to the kid who said otherwise, the boy went on with stubborn determination, “An’ Rose is not trash. Doc’s right. You’re a foolish boy and stupid, too.”
“No more insults!” Marnie chided. “All of you sit down and be quiet.”
Blair nodded in agreement, and turned his attention back to Jim, who was moaning softly as he struggled back to consciousness. Marnie rushed over and pushed the door closed to shut out the wind and rain. But for the flames flickering in the lanterns, the drafty room was dark and shadowed in the unnatural grim dimness of the day.
“Sorry to burst in on you, Marnie,” he murmured as he studied Jim, noting that his color was improving.
“Don’t you worry none about that,” she assured him, and dropped down beside him. “Is the Sheriff going to be alright?”
“Yeah, I think so,” Blair replied, sounding as calm as he could manage. “I think the bolt of lightning must’ve come awful close to hitting him, and really knocked the wind out of him. He’s breathing okay, now, though. Should wake up soon and then we’ll get out of your way.”
“No rush,” she said with a light, reassuring touch on his shoulder. “Is there anything I can do to help?”
“Could I have a mug of water?”
“Sure thing,” she agreed with alacrity and rose to go to the water barrel in the corner. She filled a small clay cup and brought it back to him.
Taking it, he held it to Jim’s lips and tipped it just enough to get a slow trickle, and then stopped, to see if Jim could swallow and if the small drink would rouse him.
“Jim?” he called quietly. “Can you hear me?”
Jim coughed and blinked. Gazing around, he seemed dazed. “What happened?” he asked with a confused frown.
“You nearly got fried by lightning,” Blair told him with a small, relieved chuckle to see his partner awake and alert. “Think you can stand?”
Jim’s frown deepened and he rubbed at one ear. “Can hardly hear you,” he complained.
“Yeah, well, the thunder was so loud it nearly deafened me, too. Don’t worry; the effect will wear off in a while.”
“Huh,” Jim grunted as he struggled to his feet. Blair gripped one arm to steady him and watched closely to see if he’d remain upright. Jim swayed and grabbed his shoulder, but didn’t look like he was going to fall over. “Bit dizzy,” he muttered, peering at Blair uncertainly.
“I’m not surprised,” Blair replied reassuringly. “Okay, if you think you can handle the storm, we should be on our way.” Gesturing toward the door, he asked, “Think you can walk?”
“Uh, sure,” Jim said, though he didn’t sound entirely certain.
“We’ll take it slow,” Blair assured him as he took Jim’s hat from Marnie and secured it on Jim’s head.
“You sure it’s safe out there?” she asked, jumping when another crack of thunder shook the building, and the wind rose to a wild roar.
“We’ll give it a shot,” he said. “If it’s too bad, we’ll scoot back in here.”
Nodding, she opened the door, having to lean her weight against it to keep the wind from banging it out of her grip.
Blair put his arm around Jim’s waist and Jim looped an arm around his shoulders; they stepped out onto the porch, their heads bowed against the wild weather. Blair looked up at the clouds looming over them, and squinted through the rain. Though the storm was still bad, visibility had improved. As Marnie pushed the door closed behind them, he helped Jim navigate the two steps down to the ground.
With slow determination, they slogged through the mud until they reached the boardwalk across from the construction site. Once they were under the awning and sheltered by the buildings from the wind, the going was easier. They were just passing the Sheriff’s Office, when Jim clutched his shoulders and pushed him toward the door.
“We’ve got to get inside NOW!” he insisted with raw urgency.
Blair fumbled for the doorknob and shouldered the portal open. They’d just gotten inside when he heard a loud rushing roar, like a train racing toward them, getting closer and closer. Slamming the door shut, Jim shoved him toward the desk. “Get down underneath it!” he urged.
Even as they scrambled for shelter, the whole building began to shake. The blasting roar of the wind grew until they were both covering their ears against the overwhelming sound, curled in close to one another on the floor.
They heard crashes and bangs, the snapping and cracking of tortured wood.
And then the torturous volume of the angry wind began to ease, the roar subsiding into an eerie howl.
“My God,” Blair breathed as he crawled out from under the desk and stood. Giving Jim a hand up, he asked, “What the hell was that?”
“Tornado, damned close,” Jim said as he paced toward the door. His gait was firmer and he seemed steadier on his feet. “We better check for damage, and see if anyone was hurt.”
“You sure you’re okay?” Blair challenged, grabbing his arm to stay him and check his eyes.
“I’m fine,” Jim insisted, shaking him off.
Blair snorted, seriously doubting Jim was up to full speed, but didn’t bother to correct him. The Sheriff was clearly improved enough to be irritable, and there were more urgent matters at hand.
Outside, the wind still lashed rain like a whip. Across the street, Brown came out of his stable; bowed against the elements, he ran across to meet them. The other way, toward the center of town, they saw Maisie poke her head out and wave that she was alright.
“Man, that was close!” Henri called as he joined them.
Jim squinted at him and rubbed his ears, but didn’t say anything. Together, they made their way back along the boardwalk. The hotel looked intact but for a balcony hanging precariously in one corner. Ambrose came out of his shop, his expression disgusted as he looked up toward the roof.
“Lost some shingles,” he reported. “Ceiling’s leaking.”
Jim tilted his head as he listened, then nodded and they carried on. Sam and Clive Tucker left the bank. While Clive hurried off to check on his house and family, Sam locked up and reported, “Bank’s fine. Solid as a rock.” But his tone was anxious as he joined them to hurry toward the residential end of town, “Hope the family are okay.”
The general store seemed to have weathered the blast with no obvious damage and Angus waved them past. Up ahead, they could see the awnings over the boardwalk had both ripped away, leaving splintered wood scattered everywhere.
The men were most worried about the school as they rushed around the corner, but they slowed when they saw it was intact. The roof might need some repair, but the structure seemed sound. Only then did Brown glance toward the construction. “Lord, look at that!”
Blair followed Henri’s gaping gaze and blinked at the damage that had been wrought. The partially-erected buildings were gone, the wooden frames ripped away to be strewn across the prairie. Had the workers come in that morning, a good number of them might well have been badly hurt or killed.
Sam grunted and hurried on, the others behind him. The church’s belltower canted to one side, and a number of houses seemed to have lost a section of roofing, but that was the extent of the damage they found. No one appeared to have been injured, although a number of folks were exhibiting signs of shock. Blair quickly got them focused on making themselves hot tea with honey, his calm, reassuring tones catching their dazed attention and soothing their fears.
An hour later, they were heading back to their end of town when they saw Pastor Stevens fighting his way through the wind and rain toward them.
“Anyone hurt?” he asked in his booming voice, panting for breath. “Anyone need help or shelter.”
“No sir,” Brown told him. “We got lucky – just some structural damage and not much of that, except,” he continued with a wave across the street, “Kincaid got hit hard.”
“Lucky?” the Pastor snorted, and a small, wicked grin played around his lips. “Some call tornadoes the finger of God. Some might say yonder destruction is a judgment.”
Jim barked a laugh and clapped him on the shoulder. “I like the way you think, Padre, I really do,” he chuckled. “But I doubt Kincaid will see it that way.”
“Probably say it was the curse,” Blair laughed, relieved that everyone was fine, though he was aware the laughter was, in part, his own way of distancing the disturbing charges leveled at him by the boy that morning.
“Curse?” the reverend echoed in perplexity.
“Doc here yelled at the riders that nearly killed my girl yesterday afternoon,” Henri explained with a grin. “Chased them off out of town.”
“I heard about that,” Stevens replied. “Is young Cherie all right?”
“Right as rain,” Brown told him with a bemused glance at the streaming sky. “Thanks to Doc, she’s just fine.”
“One of the kids in the schoolhouse said something about it,” Blair interjected, to steer the conversation away from Cherie and his role in her recovery. “Guess his father was trying to scare him, you know? To get a rise out of him.”
Jim gave him a quizzical searching look. “I must’ve missed that part.”
Not wanting to get into it, and beginning to wish he hadn’t said anything, Blair shrugged. “Just fanciful nonsense,” he said, waving it off, though the boy’s words still chilled him.
“Well, if everyone’s fine, we’d best get out of this rain,” Pastor Stevens gusted, turning to the Church.
In firm agreement, anxious to get into warm, dry clothes, the three lawmen jogged back to the far end of town.
Inside, they pushed the door closed against the wind, and shrugged off their dripping slickers to hang on hooks in the hall with their wet hats.
“Jim,” Blair asked, his face turned away and his voice deliberately pitched low and soft, “how much can you hear?”
Jim didn’t answer. Instead, he carried on into the kitchen to stoke the stove and put on a fresh pot of coffee. Shaking his head, Blair followed him. Once Jim was finished, he touched his partner’s arm to get his attention.
“Jim, can you hear me?” he whispered.
Sighing, Blair raised his voice. “Can you hear me now?”
Grimacing, Jim rubbed the sides of his face, just in front of his ears. “Guess you caught me,” he replied, though that still didn’t answer the question.
Practically shouting, Blair asked, “How high is your hearing set?”
“Uh, got the lantern burning full blast, Chief,” he finally admitted, grudgingly. “Can’t hardly hear a damned thing.”
Gesturing at Jim to follow him, Blair led the way to his office where he examined Jim’s ears. Afterward, he sat down and scribbled out a note, ‘Your eardrums look okay, but I think your hearing got overloaded by the loud thunder – I know it nearly deafened me. And this may also be a residual effect of nearly being struck by lightning this morning. Turn the bronze lantern down to a normal level and let your sense of hearing rest. Don’t push it, okay? I think in a few hours, you’ll be fine.’
Jim glanced at the note, his brows furrowing as he read. “I was nearly hit by lightning?”
Though he wondered if it had been more than a near-miss, if Jim had actually been struck, Blair nodded and jotted, ‘Knocked you out for a few minutes, but you’re okay now.’
“You think my hearing will come back, right?” Jim probed, anxious shadows in his eyes.
Nodding reassuringly, Blair wrote, ‘Yeah. My hearing is still a bit off, too. Yours is more sensitive, so it makes sense it will take a little longer to improve. I think you should lie down for a few hours, give your body a chance to bounce back. Keep the lantern turned down; don’t strain to hear, at least not yet.’
“Okay, Chief,” Jim sighed. “You’re the doctor. I’ll just have a cup of coffee to warm up, and go upstairs. Have to admit, I feel, I don’t know, just tired, I guess.”
Thinking about how Jim had very nearly died that morning, Blair gave him a wan smile as he nodded in understanding. Waving Jim back to the kitchen, he pushed himself to his feet to follow. His partner wasn’t the only one who felt ‘tired’. Blair couldn’t be more ‘tired’ if he’d run to Wichita and back. Between what he’d done to revive Cherie the evening before and investing Jim with enough healing energy to breathe, let alone to get back on his feet and chase around town for the last two hours, Blair knew he was just about done in. Jim had helped him immeasurably the night before – it was the only reason, really, that he could even function – but he couldn’t ask Jim for more, not until he’d fully recovered from his own injuries.
While they sipped their coffee in companionable silence, Blair continued to ponder the mystery of energy – where it came from, how they shared it, replenished it – and he wondered if he was doing something wrong. Maybe more than one thing wrong. For starters, he didn’t think he should be so completely enervated by doing what, he assumed anyway, was what shamans did. Was he missing something? Maybe not drawing on the help of his spirit guide enough? Never before had he felt the pervasive weakness, that odd sense of being less, insubstantial, that he’d experienced after healing Cherie. But then, he’d never reached so far before, either. Jim had. Jim had brought him back from the dead, but nobody had said anything about Jim just about fading away afterward. But then, from what he understood, Jim had drawn upon the power of the spirit guides. Blair wasn’t conscious of ever having done that. So … was he trying to do too much alone? Maybe.
Or maybe he was just trying to do too much, period. Until the last little more than a month, he’d only had his skill and knowledge as a doctor to draw upon. Sure, he might unwittingly also have been using some greater force without realizing it, but that wasn’t the same, was it, as drawing upon that force on a regular basis? Was he relying too heavily and too quickly upon what felt like magic? Was that a good thing or a bad thing? Was he abusing his new abilities, using them almost arrogantly, simply because he knew he could? And was he abusing Jim’s ability and willingness to help him recoup afterward?
He didn’t know, and the questions weren’t helping him to feel any better. God, he was absolutely exhausted. That kid’s words haunted and troubled him a great deal. Not that he thought there was anything inherently evil in trying to help people, in doing his best and using all the resources available to him to heal. He was comfortable, more than comfortable, in accepting that there was a great deal so-called civilized society didn’t know about what was possible, that science wasn’t the only truth. But…
He was distracted from his thoughts when Jim finished his coffee and stood to put his mug in the wash basin. “I’ll see you later,” he said, squeezing Blair’s shoulder as he left to go upstairs and rest.
Outside, the storm still blew, but Blair thought the rain was tapering off and the wind didn’t sound so fierce. Shivering, he wandered down to the infirmary. Lying down on a cot, he huddled under the blanket and closed his eyes.
The heavy weight of a hand pressed over his mouth wakened Blair hours later, and his eyes widened in startled shock at the sight of a sixgun held close to his face. Holding himself completely still, his gaze flew around and he saw nearly a dozen men, all of them strangers, surrounding the cot and filling the infirmary. He didn’t know them, none of them, but some of them looked vaguely familiar.
They were some of the men he’d glared at the evening before; men who had been in the stampeding throng that had trampled Cherie.
Men he’d cursed.
“Get up and keep yer mouth shut, or I’ll blow yer head off, y’hear?” the gunman growled.
He nodded carefully, and the hand was removed. Men grabbed him to haul him to his feet. A gag was stuffed in his mouth, and his hands were tied behind him. And then they were hustling him out the back door into the yard where the youth he recognized from the school was holding the horses. The kid sneered at him contemptuously, standing back while two men lifted him onto one of the horses.
In seconds, they were riding into the wind, down along the creek away from town.
The rain had stopped but the wind still had a sharp bite, and pewter clouds hung low, threatening more bad weather. Blair was afraid. Wherever they were taking him, whatever was they had planned, he knew he was in trouble. Glancing back over his shoulder at his home, he wondered if Jim had heard anything, but there was no movement at the upper window. His heart sinking, he feared Jim’s hearing was still a problem, and that no one knew he’d been taken. Maybe no one would ever know what happened to him.
He was on his own and he was certain he was going to die.
They rode for nearly fifteen minutes, then drew up on a wide grassy bank sheltered from any passing eyes by a thick line of trees. Blair swallowed hard when he saw Kincaid was already there, waiting.
He was pulled from the saddle and shoved forward to stand before the southerner.
“Well, now, we finally meet,” Kincaid drawled, gesturing with his head at the man behind Blair to remove the gag. “You curse us again and we’ll shoot you where you stand.”
“What do you want?” Blair asked, though he wasn’t entirely sure he wanted to know.
Kincaid gave him a cynical smile that did nothing to warm the icy blue eyes. “You’re going on trial, Sandburg, for being a witch, or maybe a demon.”
Rolling his eyes, Blair expostulated, “You’ve got to be kidding. A witch? Give me a break. I’m a doctor, that’s all.”
“A doctor that brings dead things back to life? Few doctors have such skill,” Kincaid sneered.
“You’re talking about Cherie Brown, right?” Blair hastened to explain. He doubted these men cared what he had to say, but he had to try. “The little girl your men ran down yesterday? She wasn’t dead. She was clipped by a horse and knocked out for a bit, that’s all.”
Kincaid snorted but, before he could speak, the youth blurted, “I saw you bring the Sheriff back to life this morning. You can’t deny it! He wasn’t breathing!”
Taking a breath, determined to remain as calm as he could, Blair allowed, “No, he wasn’t. He’d nearly been killed by lightning and his body was in shock. But his heart was still beating. He wasn’t dead. I just had to get his lungs moving. That’s why I was blowing air into his mouth and pumping on his chest. It didn’t take long for him to start breathing and he was fine – you saw that for yourself.”
“You threatened to turn me into a frog!” the youth screamed.
Kincaid raised his hand to end the discussion. “This trial isn’t about bantering words and giving plausible explanations to obscure reality,” he revealed with a cold smile. “This is a test of God’s will and mercy, to determine whether you’re worthy of such blessing – or whether you should be consigned to the Devil.”
Blair’s throat went dry and he glanced at the river. He’d heard of such ancient tests. If he was bound hand and foot, thrown in, and sank rather than managed to float or swim, they’d let him drown. Some tests included being weighted down by a large stone just to make things more challenging. If he didn’t panic, if they didn’t tie him to a rock, he was sure, even bound, that he could float on his back. But he’d have to stay calm and not thrash around when they tossed him in.
Kincaid’s chuckle drew his attention back. “No, no, we’re not going to see if you know how to swim,” he clarified. Turning slightly, he waved at a stake behind him, around which was piled stacks of wood. “We’re going to see if you can survive fire.”
Horrified, Blair gasped. “Fire? You’re insane!” he exclaimed, furious and desperately not wanting to die, especially not like that. “All of you. Crazy murderers. All you want is to destroy anyone who isn’t like you, who doesn’t agree with you. You won’t get away with this!”
“Gag him before he curses us again,” Kincaid ordered, sounding amused. “And blindfold him, just in case he can turn people into frogs with a glance.”
Blair struggled and kicked in desperation, but he knew it was hopeless. There were too many of them. There would be no escape. Men held him while the gag was thrust back into his mouth and tied tightly behind his head. Just before he was blindfolded, he saw Kincaid mount up and turn his horse toward town. “God’s mercy upon you, Sandburg,” he called sarcastically. “And maybe I’ll see you again.”
They dragged Blair to the stake and, winding rope around his body, bound him to it. Panting raggedly, he heard them toss more wood around him, and then he heard and smelled them pouring kerosene on the rough hewn logs. He grunted in protest, unable to believe they could be so indifferently cruel, but they laughed at him, joked about watching him burn and blacken into a shriveled vestige of a man. Stones struck his body and grazed his face, gratuitous punishment and pain inflicted for the joy of doing so, for how much more could they hurt him than to immolate him?
Sick with fear, dazed by the heavy blows to his head and body, he heaved against the ropes in a helpless refusal to die without protest, but froze when he heard a match strike.
“Let me torch it!” he heard the youth beg, his voice salacious with ugly desire.
Revolted, Blair shook his head helplessly. How could they allow a child to kill? “Nuh dun,” he grunted in despairing protest, the gag garbling his words. He couldn’t see, could only hear, and he heard a whoosh of flame, felt a sudden searing heat. There would be no mercy shown. The youth was as eager to destroy as were the men he emulated.
Fury filled him at his impotent helplessness; rage consumed him, blind rage, at the callous indifference, the malicious cruelty. Nor would he be the only victim – probably wasn’t even the first they had killed. They took too much joy in it, too much satisfaction. How many more would die at their hands?
And they called him evil?
Smoke stung his nostrils, choking him, and the heat became oppressive, stifling, until he had to struggle to breathe at all. His futile anger built in his chest. Jim. They’d probably go after Jim next because he was all that really stood in their way. And then it would be Henri and his family. And Simon and Joel. And maybe Megan, and even Maisie, for daring to face the world alone, without dependence upon any man. How many would die like this, in horror and despair, tortured by fire? Or maybe just shot or bludgeoned in the dark?
“NUHHHH!” he screamed through the gag, enraged beyond reason, beyond hope, furious to be the sacrificial victim to ignorance, greed and a cynical need for power over others. He struggled with futile impotence against the ropes that bound him, utterly enraged that these murderers acted without conscience, laughing at his death – killers who would go on killing again and again, not only in this generation but in those to come, for they taught their children to kill.
Overcome with his inability to act, to save himself or anyone else, lost in his rage, he screamed again and tears leaked from his eyes to stain the bandana that blinded him. These men who surrounded him like jackals knew nothing of compassion or kindness, knew nothing but hate and envy. And he could not stop them. Could not … could not … he hated them, hated them for what they were doing to him and what they’d done to others, and what they would do in the future; despised them as he’d rarely detested any human being, any thing in creation. They were a sickness, a blight that twisted and perverted and destroyed without mercy or regret. In the midst of his defiant, passionate scream of rage, he heard a wolf howl – a call to the hunt – and a cat snarled in warning. The wind picked up, blowing strands of his hair across his face, fanning it out around his head. Overhead, thunder cracked like cannon, and growled loud and long like a furious, marauding beast. A mighty gust of wind whirled around him, sucking the air and smoke from his lungs. A sudden rushing filled his ears, a whooshing as heat built high and surrounded him and yet … and yet the flames did not touch him.
The laughter around him faltered, turned into screams, hideous screams of horror and unbearable pain. Rain burst upon him, drenching him, and the screaming died away into eerie, high-pitched whimpers until those piteous sounds were drowned in another rumble of thunder.
When the thunder faded, the rushing wind dropped and he was left in silence. The stench of burned flesh filled his nostrils, sickening him – and only then did he realize the inescapable truth of what he had done.
Shocked to his soul, his chest grew so tight with shock and inexpressible guilt, he couldn’t catch his breath.
He’d killed all those men. Murdered in furious, blind, limitless rage …
God, he’d destroyed a child!
No, please, I didn’t … I couldn’t … how …
What am I? What have I become?
Oh God, oh God, forgive me. Forgive me. I … I …
Oh, God, he was a monster….
Chaos spun in his mind, a frenzy of horror; nausea roiled and twisted in his gut, and a keening wail burst from his raw throat. Ravaged by emotion, unable to bear his guilt, panting fast and shallow, his strength and energy spent, awareness faded and darkness swept over him.