"Chris! Sarah! Git up!" Vin shouted, kicking the front door of the ranchhouse open and sweeping through with Buck lying limply in his arms. In the master bedroom off the dining room, a kerosene lamp bloomed into life, and a moment later Chris appeared, holding it in one hand, with Sarah peering over his shoulder, drawing her wrapper around her. Ranch folks rose early, so they turned in early, usually no later than ten, and it was half-past that now. "Got a sick kid here," the Texan explained, nodding toward his burden. "Need Nathan."
Chris wouldnt have survived as a gunfighter if he hadnt developed the ability to adjust quickly to changing situations. He glanced toward the stairs, where the muffled thump of bare feet heralded Adams arrival from his bedroom above. "Son, go saddle Blackhawk for me," he ordered, "while I get dressed."
"Yessir," said Adam, and was gone like a shot, bolting out through the kitchen, uncaring of the fact that he was barefoot and dressed only in his nightshirt.
"Take him up to the middle bedroom," said Sarah, and Vin bobbed his head in understanding and took the stairs two at a time. He and Chris had designed the house with a family in mind: two bedrooms down (one a small nursery opening off Chris and Sarahs), three up (Vin and Adam shared one).
No one noticed Ezra Standish quietly following Tanner in, having left off the horses by the barn as the Texan had ordered. He, however, heard the scuff and slap of moccasins and bedroom slippers on the stairs, caught a glimpse of the flirting hem of Sarahs wrapper vanishing around the turn of the landing, and correctly guessed that Buck was being taken up to the second floor. He followed, Climber squirming on his shoulder.
At the head of the stairs, a short passageway ended directly opposite at an open door, with two others ranged along its length. Voices from inside the second and the blossom of light from a lamp told him where to go. The room was furnished with a mirrored three-drawer dresser, a washstand finished in white enamel, and an iron double bed with brass knobs and white enamel trim. Vin Tanner was bending over the latter, gently depositing Buck on the mattress as a woman turned the covers back. "Lord," Ezra heard her say, "the poor things burning up! Vin, take the pitcher and fill it up with water."
The Texan dashed for the door without a word. Ezra watched the woman lifting Bucks slack form to work his vest off, unbuttoning his shirt and undershirt, brushing the hair back off his forehead. Suddenly he remembered the money in Bucks shoe, his shell-game winnings, Bucks stake to get back to Kansas City. "Let me assist you, maam," he offered, going to her side and reaching for the younger boys laces.
She turned quickly. "Well, hello! I didnt see you. Is this your brother?"
"Yes, maam," Ezra agreed automatically, fumbling with the shoe. He spared a quick assessing glance at her. She was, he thought, younger than his own mother, though not by much. She had fair skin, freckles, an upturned nose, a generous mouth and eyes as blue as Vins--perhaps she was his sister? Her abundant auburn hair was tied at her nape with a yellow ribbon, and she wore a blue calico wrapper over a sheer white batiste nightgown.
"Well, dont you worry about him," the woman said. "My husband will get Nathan--hes our healer and friend--and meanwhile well see if we can get this fever down. My name is Sarah Larabee; whats yours?"
Ezra searched briefly through his past aliases and the surnames he knew that began with W. "Everett Wallace, maam, and this is Buck." He didnt want to use either of their correct last names--who knew whether Addison had put out some kind of alert for them?
"Pleased to meet you, Everett, though I wish it could be under better circumstances. Why, what do you have here? A ringtail? My brothers and I had two of them when I was a little girl outside Albuquerque."
That makes things easier, Ezra thought, as the animal balanced with forepaws on his left shoulder and hind ones on his right, its furry body tickling the back of his neck. "Yes, maam. His name is Climber; Buck found him."
"Put him on the bed, then. Theyre very clean, and it might comfort your brother to have him nearby."
Vin returned with a speckled crock pitcher, and when Sarah turned away to pour it out into the matching basin and soak a washcloth in it, Ezra performed a swift sleight-of-hand maneuver and transferred Bucks money to his own inside vest pocket. He heard a door slam downstairs, and a moment later the sound of hooves racing off toward the road. This was followed by the shuffle of other hooves as someone began leading Vins black and the packhorse up and down the yard to cool them out before watering. Ezra had been sure the game was up when he saw that Tanner had somehow recaptured the wandering mare. But when they approached the ranch buildings, the Texan had swung around behind the barn and dropped her off there, tying her to a ring set into the building wall and helping Ezra scramble down from her back while he cradled Buck in the crook of his arm, then leading the other two animals around to the main yard and leaving them by the corral while he ran for the house. This confused the young Southerner. Did Vin somehow know or guess that the bay was stolen? If he did, why was he apparently willing to conceal her from his partner and his partners family? Yet clearly he was, which suggested that whatever story Ezra decided to make up he would support, at least tacitly. This was a relief; it gave Ezra a chance to catch his breath and come up with a suitable con.
"You like to need me a spell, Sarah?" he heard Tanner asking.
"No, I think Everett and I can take care of things here, thank you, Vin."
The Texan nodded. "Ill head on down and help Adam with the horses, then," he declared, and paused a moment, as he turned, to direct a reassuring wink at Ezra, who wasnt entirely sure how to interpret it--a promise that the mares secret was safe? an affirmation that Sarah knew her business and could be trusted? The boy shook his head briefly in confusion as the young mans buckskin-clad form disappeared out the door.
By the time the womans husband returned, about an hour and a half later, Buck had been stripped of his clothes, sponged clean, and dressed in an extra nightshirt of Adams. Ezra had been briefly introduced to Adam Larabee, a slender blond nine-year-old who stood about an inch shorter than Buck, and Vin had cooled the horses out, rubbed them down, watered and fed them, and turned them into the near pasture to roll and rest, then hung up the antelope carcasses in the cool cellar and come upstairs to ask if there was anything else he could do. Sarah had sent him to make up the bed in the one remaining room for Ezra: the one being used for Buck was always kept ready for unexpected guests, but the other one wasnt.
Ezra was surprised to see that the healer was a tall Negro, somberly dressed in a white shirt, plain black vest and trousers, with an 1875 Remington .44 revolver worn for a cross-draw low on his left side and a trio of throwing knives in a harness strapped across his shoulder, and an orthodox doctors kitbag in his hand. He surmised, however, that Mr. Larabee, who was clearly a successful rancher and therefore a person of some note in these parts, knew the mans capabilities and would not have summoned him if he hadnt long since proved his skill. The healer, whose name was given as Nathan Jackson, asked Ezra to describe Bucks symptoms, then chased everyone out of the room while he conducted his examination, and they all adjourned to the kitchen, even Adam and Ezra and Climber, who Nathan said would get in his way and should be temporarily removed. They sat down around a long trestle table while Sarah put coffee on to brew, poured milk for the two boys, assembled a plate of meat scraps and dried fruit for the ringtail, and set out cold-meat and apple-butter sandwiches, a quart of home-canned tomatoes, and most of an apple pie with big slices of cheese.
Mr. Larabee was a tall, lean man of perhaps forty, with a flag of light brown forelock across his broad brow, and keen hazel-green eyes. His face was angular, but the lines of it were those of a man who smiled often, and Ezra got no sense of harshness from him. "So, Vin," he began, "whered you find these two?"
"Holed up in a manzanita thicket down south," the Texan explained. "Littleun was sick already. Brother pointed a derringer at me." Larabee shot a quick piercing look at Ezra, who met it as firmly and blandly as he could. "Took me some doin, but I suaded him to let me fetch em both here."
Larabee focused his attention on the boy. "Going to tell us what happened?"
Ezra had had the time he needed to get his story in order, and he answered with all the glibness and conviction Maude had taught him. "It...it was Indians, sir. They attacked our homestead...killed our parents. Our father saw them approachin and ordered us to the hidey-hole. We waited until they had gone, then found a few supplies they had missed in their plunderin, caught a horse that had been out in the feedlot where they hadnt seen her, and headed north."
The two men exchanged thoughtful glances. "Where was this?" Larabee inquired.
Probably he wishes to know whether he ought to expect a similar raid, Ezra guessed, and answered slowly, "Im not certain how far we have come, sir. We lived southeast of China Springs; thats really all I know."
The rancher nodded. "Thats about as far north as the wild Apaches usually come, since the local Mescaleros went onto the reservation," he mused. "Still, Ill tell Nathan to pass the word on to JD and Josiah when he gets back to town. It might not be a bad idea to send word to the Army up at Fort Union. The raiding party will be long gone by the time it can get on their track, but at least the Major might want to beef up the patrols for a week or so."
Vin nodded. "Sounds like good thinkin."
Larabee returned to his previous line of inquiry. "If you were running from the Indians, what were you doing holed up in a manzanita thicket when Vin found you?"
"We had been travellin by night, for the sake of the coolness, and to lower the odds that we would meet any other Indian parties," Ezra explained. "Our father said that Apaches dont care to travel or fight at night." This was actually another tidbit the stage driver had had to offer, but he figured Larabee would know it too and accept the excuse. "I thought that if we hid in the bushes durin the day, it would be difficult for anyone to reach us. Then a rattlesnake frightened our horse away, and we were left stranded until Mr. Tanner discovered us."
Again the rancher nodded somberly. "You did well," he said. "How old are you, Everett?"
"Twelve, sir. Buck is seven, but hes big for his age."
"You dont look much like brothers," Adam observed.
"I favor our mothers side," Ezra told him, having anticipated some such query, "and Buck resembles our father, although he was named after Mothers family--Bucklin." He knew that this was Bucks full name, and Mother had always taught him that weaving some truth into ones lies was a good way to insure that they would be taken at face value.
"Well have to try to find out if you have any kin who can take you in," said Larabee. "But till your brothers better you might as well both stay here."
"Thank you, Mr. Larabee. Youre very generous," Ezra answered politely. "I know of a couple of aunts we have who may be willing to assume our care." He would give them his mothers name, and Miz Abigails, once again weaving in truth. He wondered if Mother had arrived in Four Corners yet, but knew better than to inquire: if he asked after a conveniently passing-through stranger, it might throw the rest of his story into doubt.
"Good, thatll spare us a lot of inquiries." Larabee lifted his head at the sound of boots on the stair treads. "Nathan? Were in the kitchen."
Sarah got up to pour a cup of coffee for the healer, who accepted it with murmured thanks. "Well," he began, "I aint plumb sure what were dealin with here, likely wont be for a few days. It aint typhoid, cause he aint had a nosebleed. His brother says he aint complained of bellyache or cramps, so it aint cholera or the pox. It could be nothin but a real bad cold, though I dont like the way his glands is swollen or how hard it is to get him to rouse. Could be measles, or could be scarlet fever--the symptoms of them two is plumb alike, even a regular doctor cant always tell em apart. The fevers a whole lot more dreadful, though. It can leave folks deaf, speechless, or both, even blind em, or damage the heart or kidneys, and it spreads like wildfire, so till we know for sure I think itll be best if yall stay quarantined out here."
"I had scarlet fever when I was a little girl," Sarah told him.
"Thats good. Means you cant catch it again," the healer said. "And I recollect Doc Brown tellin me that Adam had it when he was four, so hes in the clear. But you or Vin could maybe get it, Chris, and Everett here is likeliest of all to come down, beins hes the one thats been closest to Buck these last days."
Larabee sighed. "I hate to leave the rest of you in the lurch over Saturday," he said, "but I can see how it would be best not to risk spreading sickness to half the town. All right, Nathan, well keep low. When will you be sure?"
"Not till I see what kind of a rash he breaks out in," Jackson explained. "If its scarlet, itll be a bright red spotty one, likely beginning on the neck or chest. If its measles, hell develop a blotchy one on his face and behind his ears, then itll spread downward over the rest of his body. Thats likeliest to show inside three to five days after he first complained of symptoms, which would make it somewheres between Monday and Wednesday. Till then, about all you can do is treat him symptomatically, try to keep that fever from goin any higher, give him plenty of fluids so he dont dehydrate, maybe some of that syrup Sarah makes for his cough. Make sure he stays in bed, and watch Everett for any of the same markers. There aint much good I can do myself till Im sure what Im lookin at, so I just as well get on back to town for now. Ill come by in a couple of days and check him out again. You runnin out of anything vital? I can send Josiah or JD out with a packhorse if you are. They can just tie it to the rails of the far corral and leave again, without ever gettin near enough to any of you to pick up any sickness."
Larabee shot a questioning look at his wife. "Sarah?"
The woman opened a drawer in the kitchen dresser and took out a ruled tablet, scanning its top sheet. "Wed better have a small sack of flour, and about three pounds of coffee," she said. "And a package of yeast, and four lemons for my cough syrup. Everything else I think we can make out on all right, until were sure whether we have to stay under quarantine any longer."
"Ill see to it," Nathan promised. "Im gonna leave you some willow bark for tea, thatll help his fever and pain. You know how to fix it, you poured enough down Vin last year." The Texan made a face at the memory. "And Ill send your mail too, as long as somebodys ridin out anyhow."
"Thanks, Nathan," Larabee told him. "If he takes a turn for the worse, Ill send Vin or Adam in for you. Is there anything going on that we need to know about?"
The healer thought for a moment. "No, dont seem to be anythin JD aint been handlin pretty well on his own," he decided, and Ezra wondered what this meant and who JD was. "One good thing, James and Royale both sent herds off to the railhead last week, that means a good part of their crews is on the trail and wont be cuttin up tomorrow night--tonight, I reckon: its midnight already." He finished his coffee and stretched, rotating his neck and shoulders.
Ezra slipped off the cane-bottomed chair and fumbled in his vest. "Mr. Jackson, I am most grateful to you for essayin this long late ride to see to my brothers health. How much do I owe you?"
Nathans startled look was mirrored in the faces of the other adults as well. "Five dollars mileage, six dollars seventy-five for the willow bark, and three dollars night visit charge, but I wasnt expectin--"
"A gentleman would never allow such a debt to go unpaid," Ezra interrupted. "Here is fifteen dollars. I apologize for havin only small bills and change."
"Whered you get the money, Everett?" Larabee asked, his eyes narrowing.
"Father had it hidden under a stone in the hearth," Ezra lied blandly. "He showed me where, in case he and Mother should ever be incapacitated. Before we departed I recovered it."
Larabee considered this a moment, then his alert expression relaxed. "Guess its yours now that theyre dead," he said, "and since youre the oldest, takin care of your brother and payin his bills is your job. Might as well take it, Nate, God knows you end up carryin half the district often enough."
"And then," added Sarah, "its long past time he was in bed--and Adam too. Come along, Everett, Ill find you another of Adams nightshirts for tonight, and tomorrow we can dig out some of his clothes--what you have on doesnt look as if its got much life left in it."
Mason Danner had driven stagecoaches for a living since he was nineteen years old, almost thirty years now. He had begun in California after he failed of finding any great wealth during the days of 49, discovered that he liked the work, and stuck with it, pushing teams in the Mother Lode country, in Oregon, Montana, and even briefly on the transcontinental route until the railroad put it out of business. From there he had moved on to Colorado and the Southwest, where he found the warm weather less wearing on aging joints. It paid well, from seventy-five dollars a month on the Overland to as much as twice that on some lines, and he had had money enough to marry and raise a family, although he hadnt had as much time with them as most men did, and put some aside for his future as well. He had made up his mind that on his fiftieth birthday he would lay down the whip and lines and retire to the homestead he had taken up near Bernalillo, train horses for coaches and maybe keep a good Morgan stud or two to breed quality harness stock from. He had driven for the same outfit for six years now, but as most drivers did in such cases, he kept constantly shifting around because he got sick and tired of one fifty-mile stretch of road. Many of the best jehus were drifters, so he had come to be the senior man on the line and could "bump off" another, less tenured man and take over his route. Thus it was that he was in El Paso when JD Dunnes telegram came in late Thursday, inquiring about young Ezra Standish.
The agent found him out in the shed checking the harness that was to go on his first team of the day: his run was due to start in two hours and he wanted to be sure the leather was in good shape and all the tugs and buckles equal to the strain they would have to bear. "Say, Mason," Gilleran began, "werent you growlin about a boy that Addison up in Broken Bow took off your stage just before you transferred down here?"
"Yeah, I was," Danner agreed. "Shouldve called the bastard out, questioning my fitness to see to my own passengers comfort and safety. Would have if he didnt have such a name with a gun. Why?"
"Got a message here from the deputy in Four Corners," Gilleran explained. "Seems somebodys lookin for a boy that sounds a lot like the one you mislaid."
Mason accepted the flimsy and read it through. "Son of a bitch!" he exploded. "I knew there was somethin fishy about that whole thing. Gilleran, you better find somebody to take my run, I gotta go across town and buy a ticket to Santa Fe."
The agent looked confused. "Whynt you just send a reply?"
" Cause if this is the boy I think it is, I want a chance to be there when hes recovered," said Danner. "Ill swing up the Rio Grande Valley and avoid Rincon County altogether. Itll take me two days if I make a good connection in Santa Fe, three or four if I dont, but thats still faster than horseback."
"Well, hold up a minute," said Gilleran, "and Ill write you out a pass you can trade to the Santa Fe agent for your fare. Like you said, questioning your fitness is an insult--not just to you but to the whole line; were owed a piece of Addison too."
Jarrod Addison had left China Springs around sundown Thursday, and, keeping his roan to a steady jog-trot, entered Four Corners about two the following morning. A half-awake stablehand at the livery accepted the horse, and a drowsing desk clerk at the Gem Hotel signed him in and gave him a key. He went directly to bed, slept till a little after nine, and, the dining room having closed for a few hours by the time hed gotten washed and dressed, found a restaurant where he could get some breakfast. He then went exploring and soon discovered the newspaper office, where the latest edition was just being put out for sale. He bought a copy and returned to his room to read it, reasoning that if someone here had been expecting the Standish boy, his failure to arrive on time would have been considered news, and the progress of any efforts to discover his fate would be reported in the sheet.
No such stories caught his eye, but he did find a "Hotel Arrivals" column, with a subheaded paragraph for each lodging place in town, and names and city addresses copied from registers or culled from talkative landladies. Here was listed a Mrs. Maude Standish of St. Louis, lodging at Mrs. Calhouns Select Boardinghouse. She had arrived, it seemed, on Wednesday, which, he decided, explained why no one had yet tried to contact him in the course of tracing the boys itinerary; if she had enlisted the aid of the local law, which she might or might not, any messages theyd sent down his way--supposing they even knew for sure which way the boy had been coming--would have arrived after hed left.
If she had come directly out from St. Louis, he reflected, she probably would have taken the train to Denver, and stagecoach from there. The coach would take about forty-five hours--almost four days if shed laid over at night, as most ladies would do if they had any choice in the matter, stagecoaching being notoriously uncomfortable--and the train somewhat less than a day and a half non-stop, so even if shed made perfect connections, it had been at least six days since shed departed. That left ten days between that date and the day the boy had pulled into Broken Bow. But, of course, there could have been delays: a breakdown on the stage, a missed connection or two. He could claim, with some hope of being believed, that the coach young Standish had been on hadnt made his town till, say, twelve days ago, and that he hadnt been on it at the time--that hed been kidnapped off it the day before. As a conscientious peace officer, he would, of course, have led a posse in quest of the abductors, and stayed out at least four days trying to unravel their sign. By the time he got home and received a communication from them, shed have been en route, and hed had no way to contact her short of making his way in person to the town where she planned to meet the boy. As for how hed known where that was, the driver had told him, having heard it from the boy himself. Now his chief concern was to find out who Mrs. Standish was and make an opportunity to talk with her alone.
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