Alternate Old West Universe
The monotonous motion of the wagon caused the exhausted teen to drift into an uneasy sleep. For the past year he had been on the move, never settling in one place. He took whatever work he could get which was usually shoveling out the stables in whatever town he found himself. Because he demonstrated a working knowledge of animal care, he was invited to go along with a wagon train headed across the desert. Each evening, he moved down the line of wagons, unhitching the draft animals and checking them for injury. Most days, he walked alongside of the wagons, occasionally, like today, he was allowed to ride.
Nathan Jackson watched the ground through weary eyes. At 14, he was barely old enough to be on his own, yet he had been for just over a year. In his dreams, he could still remember the smell and the sound that had accompanied the end of his childhood.They were free. President Lincoln and the war had told them that they were free. He just wished that someone had told the others. He and his momma had helped on the battlefield, tending to the wounded and dying. They were only barely tolerated by the officers whose men they cared for. He had followed his momma as she gathered herbs and boiled rags for bandages, eager to learn from her, adoring her. After the war, they found a small place, little more than a hut on the edges of a negro village. His momma earned her way healing and midwiving. It was all right, for a while.
It started in the middle of the night. The fire that destroyed his life. He had run from the hut and straight into the fires of Hell. Men on horses kept the terrified victims from escaping the tightening ring of fire that surrounded the small group of huts and shacks. Nathan had run toward the stream, hoping that he could cross it and get away. His escape was cut off. As he ran, the man flicked his whip, cutting through the threadbare cotton shirt and opening bloody gashes in the boy's back. When he fell and didn't get up again, the man lost interest. Nathan crawled until he could go no farther.
"Hey, boy, get down and tend to Mr. Percy's mount!" An angry sounding voice startled the young man from his memories. He jumped down from the tailgate of the wagon and grabbed his bag of supplies. The horse in question had a nickel sized sore on his leg that was slow to heal. He had been putting poultices on it every evening.
After tending to the horses, he used the fading daylight to search for the herbs, roots and plants he used for healing. When it was too dark to see clearly, he returned to the wagons. The cook would save him a plate because he also brought things that were used in cooking, to flavor things up. He dug into the food, sopping up the juice with a dry biscuit. When he finished, he cleaned the plate and fork and returned them to the stack. Making one last pass over the tethered horses, he pulled out his blanket and crawled under the chuck wagon to sleep.
In the morning, he was up before the sun, checking on Mr. Percy's horse again. The wound looked better, it wasn't swollen and the bad smell was almost gone. He slipped the horse a root that he'd dug up the night before and patted his neck as he chomped on it. He hurried to check the rest of the animals before hurrying back to get his breakfast. The oatmeal was only barely warm but he didn't complain, it was better than nothing. Too soon, they were on their way again. Today he was walking.
Davis Percy rode scout that day, nearly a half mile out from the wagons. He wanted to make sure they didn't miss the town where they would get the supplies for the next leg of their journey. He had been making this trek, back and forth with the new settlers and the ones giving up to go back to the cities, for several years. He had a handful of men who worked with him, he had a cook and the chuck wagon belonged to him. One of the men he'd hired had begun to give him a hard time. Jess Alsup, whose family lost most everything at the end of the war, began to challenge his boss on everything. Davis had decided that he would let the man go when they finished with this trip.
That evening, Nathan was waiting at the chuck wagon when Mr. Percy brought his horse in for the night. His cook had vouched for the gangly negro boy and he seemed to be pulling his weight. The boy took the horse and led him to the stream. He carefully examined the healing wound before smearing something on it. The horse shifted to a comfortable stance, telling Davis that the animal was accepting of whatever had been put on him.
"Moses," he called for the cook. The graying negro stepped away from the fire and looked his way.
Walking closer so that he would not be overheard, Davis spoke, "That boy, Nathan, does he ride?"
"Yessah, he rides. He's right good in the saddle."
"Do you think he'd be interested in staying on with us, for pay?"
"Oh, yessah, I'm sure he'd be right tickled to get paid. Boy ain't got a soul on earth that cares 'bout him since his momma got killed," the older man said in a conspiratory whisper.
"I'll be keeping an eye on him, then. Start showing him how to drive your wagon, too."
For the next few days, Nathan was as close to happy as he could remember being in a long time. Old Moses had said that the boss-man wanted him to learn to drive the chuck wagon. Driving meant not walking. Even when he wasn't driving the wagon, Moses let him ride, giving his legs a much needed rest.
Somehow, Alsup got wind that Mr. Percy was going to let him go. It infuriated him. As he sat alone at his fire, he drank deeply from the bottle of Red Eye he had stashed in his bag. Percy didn't allow his men to drink on the trail. He never knew when they might be needed and didn't need the trouble that drinking brought. As he got pleasantly buzzed, he noticed that negro boy moving among the horses. He saw him digging something out of his pocket and palm it for one of the horses to take. Suspicion crawled up his spine and he levered up from the ground to go see what was going on. By the time he reached the tethered horses, the boy was lifting the front foot of one of the horses. In the dark, it was impossible to see what he was doing.
"Hey! Boy! Get away from my horse!" Alsup yelled drunkenly as he ran, his thick Georgia accent drawling the words. He caught hold of the boy just as he was straightening up and Jess plowed his fist into Nathan's gut. The kid doubled over, gagging and gasping.
The beating seemed to take an eternity. Nathan curled into a ball and tried to protect his stomach and head. Alsup continued to hit and kick him until he swayed dizzily. Staggering against the horses, he made his way back to his fire and passed out. Nathan did what came naturally, he crawled away, seeking safety. He reached the water and crawled in, letting the gentle current carry him away. At some point in time, he was washed up on the bank and he lay there, unconscious.
The large bird circled again and Vin knew he'd found something. Nudging Peso toward the river, he pulled his gun. It was never wise to disturb some animals when they were in the middle of a meal. His keen eyes scanned the riverbanks until he spotted the body. Leaping from the saddle, he ran down and turned the body onto its back. Someone had worked the gangly teen over recently. As Vin was running his hands over the boy's body to check for broken bones, the dark eyes opened.
"Hey there. Just take it easy, I got ya," Vin said as he smiled warmly. The kid looked around, disoriented. "What's your name, kid?"
"Nathan Jackson, sir," came the timid reply.
"Name's Vin. Ya don't have ta call me sir."
Vin helped the kid to his feet, realizing that he was much taller than he'd first thought. He was clutching his belly and hunched over, so the tracker led him to a fallen tree and eased him down. Seeing him shudder, Vin whistled for Peso. Taking his bedroll from behind the saddle, he shook out the blanket and draped it around the thin, shaking shoulders.
"Where you from, Nathan?"
"Was headed west with a wagon train."
"How'd ya end up in the river?" Vin watched as Nathan's face contorted for a moment.
If he told the truth, the man might return him to the wagon train. Maybe Mr. Percy would believe him and maybe not. If not, Jess Alsup might kill him the next time he got hold of him. Opening his mouth, Nathan silently begged his momma for forgiveness as he lied.
"I just got tired of it and I left. Been walking for a couple of weeks. Musta fell in the river."
"That how ya got all them bruises?" Vin asked, his eyes easily discerning the lie.
"Yeah, rocks in the water."
"Ya feel strong enough to ride?"
"Yes sir," Nathan answered.
Vin swung up into the saddle and held out a hand to draw the boy up behind him. The shaking teen wrapped his arms around the tracker, still clutching the corners of the blanket in his fists. Vin rode at a leisurely pace. From the pouch slung over his shoulder, he pulled a bag of dried pemmican and offered it to his riding companion. He heard the softly mumbled 'thank you' as Nathan began to eat. After a while, they shared the canteen.
"Where'd you start out from?"
"Back east," Nathan answered evasively. "Where you takin' me?"
"Little town just ahead. Nice place. Lots of wagon trains pass through to get supplies."
Vin felt the sudden tension in the boy, he could almost smell the fear. Nathan didn't say anything more, so Tanner rode on in silence. When they reached the edges of town, he felt the teen looking around. Chris stepped out of the saloon as they rode past and caught Vin's eye. 'Later,' he communicated silently. Seeing the gunslinger nod, he went on to the livery.
Once inside the livery, Nathan climbed down and began to roll up the blanket. He watched as the man with the long hair untacked his mount. Looking around, he was drawn to one of the other horses. The big black gelding was holding his hind leg stiffly and his ears were tensely listening to the sounds around him. Nathan itched to examine the animal but he didn't know if he would get in trouble for it.
"He picked up a rock a couple of days ago. Split the underside of his hoof," Vin said, seeing the kid watching Chris's horse.
"If I could make something for it, do you think he would care?"
"The horse?" Vin teased.
"No!" Nathan said sharply, then he turned, fear etched in his face. He'd raised his voice to a white man and expected to be struck for it.
"Easy kid, I'm just pullin' your leg. Chris won't care, as long as you don't do no harm. What do ya need?"
Nathan looked around in the livery and found a small pail. After explaining what he needed, Vin took him down the boardwalk. At the restaurant, he acquired the lard he needed for the base. Stopping at the dry goods store, he got permission to gather a few herbs from the small garden growing in the back. Vin watched with interest as the teen mixed everything together. Nathan entered the stall and stood still, letting the horse get his scent so he wouldn't be afraid. With sure hands, he stroked the animal all down his side before reaching for the sore leg. The horse blew as he shifted his balance.
"You got a rag I can tie around it to hold the poultice in place?"
Vin untied his bandana and handed it over the side of the stall. He watched as Nathan gently smoothed the sticky substance all over the outside of the hoof and into the crack on the underside. He was pleased to see that they had removed the shoe, it would speed things along.
"There, that ought to do the trick. Coupla days, he'll be ready for a new shoe," Nathan said as he stroked the horse again. "He's a real beauty."
"I'm sure Chris'll be right glad you helped. Come on, let's grab some lunch."
Nathan hung back, staring at the straw he was scuffing with his battered boot.
"What's a matter?" Vin asked.
"I ain't got any money," Nathan softly answered.
"I'm buyin' so come on."
As soon as they started back for the restaurant, they were joined by Chris and Ezra. Vin introduced Nathan and he and the blond began to discuss the patrol round. The southerner only nodded and studied the teenager, noting how very thin he was. Being good at reading people, he could tell that the kid was pouring everything he had into simply following the man in front of him.
Inside of the restaurant, the four of them took a table in the corner. Nathan stood awkwardly, unsure of where to sit or what to do. Vin nudged the chair and told him to sit down.
"Found young Nathan here on the bank of the river. Seems he fell in and got banged up on the rocks," Vin said, looking into the deep brown eyes, not betraying the lie. "He also put something on your horse's hoof. Says he'll be good as new in a few days."
"Good as new, huh? You know something about horses, son?" Chris asked.
"Yes sir. Was tendin' the horses on the wagon train."
"What was the point of origin of your journey?" Ezra asked.
Nathan nearly sprang from his chair. His breathing sped up and he looked toward the door. A hand settled on his forearm, squeezing firmly.
"Take it easy, kid. Ez won't hurt ya," Vin assured him.
"Gentlemen, I have just remembered a pressing engagement. If you will excuse me?" Ezra stood and tipped his hat to them as he left the restaurant.
With his heart hammering in his chest, Nathan watched the fancy dressed man leaving. The hand on his arm squeezed again, drawing his attention back. When he turned his head, he found two pairs of concerned eyes watching him. He drew his arm away from Vin's hand as he struggled to find his voice.
"I - I didn't ... I didn't mean for him to ... leave ... that way. He ... his voice ..." Nathan looked back over his shoulder as if he expected to see someone coming for him.
"Take it easy, kid. Ezra talks a lot, you'll get used to it. He won't hurt ya none."
"Who was in charge of your group?" Chris asked.
"I - I don't know his name. I just walked with the wagons and helped with the horses for my meals," Nathan lied.
Just then, Josiah walked up to the table. "Brothers, may I join you for your midday meal?"
From the look in the older man's eyes, Vin knew Ezra had sent him. Josiah took up the gambler's empty chair and struck up a conversation. He introduced himself to the teenager as if it were the most normal thing in the world for him to have come to them the way he did. By the end of the meal, he had invited Nathan to stay the night in the church if he had no place else to stay. The wary young man agreed.
That night, Josiah dropped a stack of quilts on the end of one of the pews along with a change of clothes.
"What's this?" Nathan asked, fingering the clothing.
"We get stuff sometimes. Figured you could use a change of clothes."
That night, Josiah was wakened by several thumps. Padding silently into the sanctuary, he watched as Nathan tossed and turned in his sleep, his face contorted with fear. Kneeling beside the pallet, he reached out and grasped the teen by the shoulder. His dark eyes popped open and he burst upright.
"Easy son, you're among friends. Easy now," Josiah soothed. Nathan leaned closer, allowing the older man to slip an arm around his shoulder. Warm tears soaked into his nightshirt as he held the young man.
The next day, Nathan was up at dawn, heading for the livery to check on Chris's horse. He slipped into the stall and untied the bandana. The inner edge of the hoof had softened and the deep gap was soaking up the moisture and expanding to fill the space. He cleared the excess material from the rest of the hoof and rewrapped it before giving the animal a thorough brushing. When he finished with Chris's horse, he moved to the next stall and brushed the placid gray. He warily watched the chestnut in the next stall. He could see that the animal was spirited. When he turned his back, the horse stuck his head over the rail and blew a warm breath on the back of his neck. A moment later, Nathan felt his collar being gently lipped. He turned around and fondled the chestnut ear.
"You're just jealous," he scolded.
"And he is also an excellent judge of character. He won't let the regular stable boy anywhere in his proximity without trying to nip him," a heavily southern accented voice called from the doorway.
Nathan snatched his hand away from the horse like he'd been burned. The chestnut gelding stretched his neck, sniffing and lipping at his shirt pockets. The gambler slowly approached and held out a closed hand. Nathan warily held out his hand and felt something drop into his palm.
"He has a fondness for peppermint. I indulge him as finances and availability allow."
While the horse reached for the candy, Nathan watched the southerner. He repressed the urge to shudder under the man's curious gaze. While the horse chomped contentedly on the candy, he let his hand drop slowly to his side.
"We didn't really get a chance for a proper introduction yesterday, Ezra Standish," the gambler said as he held out his hand again.
"A pleasure to meet you, Nathan. What brings you to the livery before most people have left their peaceful repose?"
"I ... ah ... wanted to check the poultice I put on Chris's horse."
"And is Mr. Larabee's mount improving under your care?"
"He's better. The cut in his hoof is closing up some. Tomorrow, I'll take the cloth off and clean it real good. In a day or two they can put a new shoe on him and he should be just fine."
"I'm sure Mr. Larabee will be most pleased. Now, if you'll excuse me, I have to get ready for my early patrol. I should return in about three hours. If you are interested, I would be willing to compensate you for attending to my mount."
Happiness swelled in the teens heart as he nodded. "Yes sir, I'll be here."
Yosemite watched from his forge as the gangly teen quietly worked among the horses. They seemed to accept him and he was good with them. He was surprised when the kid approached him to ask which saddle went on the strawberry roan.
"Why do you ask?"
"He's got a sore spot on his hip and I'm just wondering if it's the saddle. If the leather dried and cracked, it could be rubbing him sore, sir."
A quick check of the saddle revealed just what Nathan suggested, the leather on the underside of the saddle had cracked and was rubbing through the blanket. Yosemite tossed the saddle in the corner to be fixed and put a thicker blanket on the rack for the horse. He gave a long, appraising stare at the teen as he carefully applied a balm to the sore spot.
"Hey, kid, do you have a place to stay here in town?" The livery operator had heard about the young man Vin Tanner had found in the river.
"I stayed last night at the church."
"Well, if your interested, I got a little room upstairs. It ain't much, and it ain't pretty, but you're welcome to it. I can't pay much but you can keep your tips. I'll pay for anything you need to work your healing on the horses."
"Yes sir, I'd like that, a lot," Nathan said eagerly.
A short time later, the teen was standing in the small room looking around. It had a single bed, a small table and a couple of straight backed chairs and a couple of shelves on one wall, it was perfect. He rushed back down the steps and attacked the empty stalls with a renewed zeal. When Ezra returned from his patrol, Nathan immediately set the hay rake aside and tended to the horse. He noticed that the gambler had opened the wooden box in the stall and set out a container of saddle oil and some rags.
"If you'd like, I can take care of that for ya."
Smiling, Ezra turned to face the teen. Something had changed since he rode out for his patrol, he could see it in the set of the young man's shoulders. Digging into his vest pocket, he pulled out a fifty cent piece and handed it to Nathan.
"I would be most appreciative of the service," he said with a smile.
That evening, Vin sat with his feet propped up on one of the hitching posts. He grinned as Buck knocked JD's bowler to the ground and kicked dust on it. The young sheriff scowled at his friend and scurried to get the hat before Buck kicked at it again. Turning his attention toward the setting sun, he noticed Nathan walking in with a bundle of plants in the tail of his shirt.
"Hey Nate, what'cha got there?"
"Just some plants and herbs and things. I'm gonna dry some of them for poultices and such."
"Josiah was lookin' for you earlier," Vin said.
"I'll leave this stuff off and go talk to him," Nathan said as he started up the street.
"Where ya goin'?"
"Yosemite gave me a room above the livery. He said I could stay there and help out with the horses and muck the stalls. It ain't much but it beats nothing."
Josiah was pleased to hear that Yosemite had offered the boy a job and a place to stay. He gathered up some of the quilts and carried them over for him to use. He also went through the clothing he had stored in the crawl space under the church to see if he had any other clothes that might fit. He knew that it was unusual for a boy so young to be out on his own but they would give him time to settle in and learn to trust them before they pushed him for any more information.
A couple of days into the new arrangement, a wagon train arrived in town. Buck and JD were drawn to it like bees to blooming flowers. They greeted everyone enthusiastically. Buck, flirting shamelessly with the women and JD, greeting the men and older children. Chris and Vin hung back, evaluating the group to see if they might possibly cause trouble while they were in town. Ezra eyed them from the saloon to see if any of them might be interested in a game of chance. Josiah wandered over from the church and invited them to stay a day or two for services if they were interested. None of the peacekeepers noticed the frightened teenager standing on the landing above the livery doors.
Nathan was terrified. He had recognized the horses and wagons immediately. Jess Alsup had been riding at the rear of the group, a clear indicator that he had fallen from favor with the boss-man. Old Moses climbed down from the chuck wagon and headed for the mercantile, no doubt to pick up supplies. Mr. Percy spoke to JD and the young sheriff nodded and gestured toward the livery. Nathan ducked back into his room.
In the livery, Yosemite assured the trail boss that he had someone who could indeed tend to the injury on his horse. The guide left the animal, saying that he would be in the saloon. After he stripped the horse of saddle and blanket, the livery owner yelled for the young man who had worked wonders on the other horses. Nathan darted into the livery from the back, instead of the shorter, more direct route. Yosemite figured he must have been out doing something. He explained what the man had said about the horse and left the kid to work his magic.
Nathan led the familiar mount to an empty stall and examined the small wound. It was still healing but it was warm to the touch, signifying an infection. As much as he hated to, he knew he would have to lance the spot to get the infection out. He had been trying to avoid it by using the drawing poultices but after nearly a week unattended, it was now unavoidable. Patting the animal in apology, he went to gather the things he needed.
Jess Alsup's eyes narrowed as he caught sight of the skinny black kid. Mr. Percy had made them search high and low for the boy when he went missing. He suspected Alsup of having something to do with Nathan's disappearance and had warned the man that if he could ever prove it that there would be hell to pay. He watched the kid go up the stairs and into one of the rooms above the livery and an evil smile curled his lips.
Slipping into the saloon, Nathan waited for Miss Inez to finish waiting on her customers before he asked her for some boiled water. She smiled as she handed him the still steaming tea pot. Returning to the livery, he laid everything out on the shelf. He led the horse into the smaller, much narrower stall that they used for horses who kicked while being tended. Dipping a clean rag in the hot water, he waited for it to cool just slightly before he pressed it to the swollen wound. The horse shifted nervously and nickered softly. Nathan waited for the animal to calm down before he took up the small knife he had sterilized in the boiled water. Removing the rag, he carefully took the point of the blade to the wound. The horse squealed in pain as the blood and puss ran from the fresh opening. Nathan reapplied the rag and applied pressure.
Seeing that the boy was engrossed in attending to the horse, Jess snuck up the stairs and into his room. Quickly depositing the stolen items, he slipped out and headed for the saloon. Unbeknownst to him, a pair of blue eyes narrowed and followed him.
Yosemite smiled as he watched Nathan soothing the horse after lancing the wound. It almost seemed that the procedure had hurt him as much as the animal. Mr. Percy stepped out of the saloon and made a bee line for the livery owner, anxious to see how his mount was doing.
"Come right this way, sir, and I'll introduce you to the person who tended your horse," the livery owner said as he led the man to his new helper.
"Mr. Percy, this is ..." Yosemite began.
"Nathan! What are you doing here? What happened? We looked all over for you, boy!" Davis Percy declared as he looked the young man up and down.
Terrified at having been found out, Nathan bolted out the door and around the building. Yosemite and Mr. Percy exchanged puzzled glances.
Buck was laughing at something JD said as he rounded the corner of the livery. In spite of his size, he was nearly bowled over by the running teenager. He caught Nathan by the arm and held him as he continued to try to get away.
"Calm down, calm down! What's wrong? Buck asked.
"Let me go! Please, let me go," Nathan begged as he looked over his shoulder at Yosemite and the man from the wagon train.
Dragging the resisting teen to the jail so they could talk in private, Buck wondered what could have the boy so frightened. JD went and brought the rest of the peacekeepers. It was crowded with the six lawmen, the livery owner, Mr. Percy and Nathan. As soon as everybody was settled, Chris began to ask questions.
"Nathan, why don't you tell us why you left the wagon train?"
The teen turned sullen and refused to answer.
"Mr. Percy, is there anything you want to say?"
"I just wanted to know that the boy was all right. I brought him out with us and he just up and disappeared one night."
Nathan still sat with his arms wrapped protectively around his ribs. Before Chris could prompt him to answer, the door opened and another man strolled into the jail, an angry expression on his face.
"Mr. Percy, I just thought you should know that I found these in the boy's room over the livery."
In Jess Alsup's hand were several items that had gone missing during the trip. All of the wagons had reported things had been taken. The tarnished silver spoons were among the first things that had been reported. Mr. Percy turned to regard the young man with new eyes.
Nathan stared at the spoons before backing away until his back touched the wall. His mouth opened but no sound came out as he shook his head in denial.
"What were you doing in his room, mister?" Chris demanded angrily.
"Looking for stolen property. Stuff stopped disappearing about the time the boy took off. Stands to reason that he took 'em," Jess defended.
"JD, go with Buck and check the rest of Nathan's room. Bring back anything that doesn't look right," the blond ordered.
"I'll go with them, I know what was missing," Alsup announced.
When the door closed behind the three men, Nathan found his voice. "Mr. Percy, sir, I never touched any of that stuff. I swear to ya! I never!"
"How did they end up in your room then, son?" Davis asked calmly.
"That fellow put 'em there while Nate was tendin' your horse," Vin said from the corner.
"You see him do it?" Chris asked.
"Saw him go in and come out again. Also, you're forgettin' that I brought Nathan in with me. Kid didn't have anything on him 'cept wet clothes. If'n he'd had anything, I'da felt it when we rode in."
For a couple of long minutes, all eyes rested on the tracker. Before they said anything else, rapid, heavy footfalls came toward the door. JD opened the door and Jess and Buck came in, their hands full of stolen goods. Everything was placed on the desk. Several others crowded into the cramped quarters, clamoring over the things that had been stolen.
Chris stuck two fingers in his mouth and whistled loudly. In the deafening silence that followed, he glared each newcomer into standing quietly. He noticed that Alsup rested his hand on his hip near the butt of his gun.
"Now, these are the things that disappeared from your belongings?" He asked them collectively. Seeing them nod, he went on, "And you say that Nathan took these things?"
The group looked around, not wanting to come right out and blame the boy. Jess saw the indecision and spoke for them.
"Hell yes he took them! We found them in his room!"
"Mr. Alsup, Nathan didn't take any of these things," Davis Percy said with quiet conviction, "you did."
While the man was trying to formulate a response, Vin leaned away from the wall. "I watched ya go inta his room while Nate was workin' in the livery. You put them things in his room."
"I did no such thing! Mr. Percy, who are you gonna believe? Me or this no account bastard darkie?"
"Nathan, tell him why you left the wagon train," Vin urged. The trail guide's eyes came to rest on the teenager and he seemed to shrink into the wall he was backed up against.
Ezra shifted closer to Nathan and gave him an encouraging smile and nod. Nathan gradually stepped away from the wall until the light from the window fell on him. He looked at Alsup and swallowed hard before he found his voice.
"I was tendin' the horses. He come over and started yellin' and hittin' me. I was scared, so I left."
"That true, Alsup?" Percy asked.
Jess Alsup saw in the eyes of the people standing around him that they believed what Nathan said and that meant they believed the scruffy long haired man too. Pulling his pistol, he fired into the crowd standing between him and the door. Simultaneous shots sounded from at least four other guns and the trail hand slumped lifelessly to the floor. In the stunned silence that followed, one voice was heard questioning.
The ladies man clutched at the bullet wound in his thigh, hissing through clenched teeth. There was a bottleneck at the door as the people from the wagon train tried to flee the gunfire. Vin and JD surged forward to catch Buck and help him to the desk. All of the stolen goods were quickly swept into the drawer before the injured man sat down. Before anyone could begin to respond, Nathan shoved his way through and wrapped his belt around Buck's leg above the wound. With a strength that they wouldn't have believed he possessed, he tightened the belt and put pressure on the bloody hole, there was no exit wound.
"We need to get him stretched out so I can work on this," Nathan announced. Out of his sight, the other peace keepers looked at each other hesitantly. Then, like throwing a switch, they began to move. Josiah and Chris grabbed Buck's arms and drew them across their shoulders. They hefted Buck up from the desk and began to head for the door.
"What else do you need?" Ezra asked.
"Clean cloth for bandages, a good, sturdy needle and cotton thread, a bottle of alcohol if you can get it, whiskey will do if not, a good, sharp knife and a pair of tweezers," the young man rattled off.
They manhandled Buck to his room and laid him out on his bed. JD and Vin moved to the wall to stay out of the way. Nathan hurried in and looked around the room.
"I need boiling water, clean cold water and lye soap or carbolic if you can get it."
Vin and JD immediately bolted for the door. Chris pulled his pocket knife and cut through the leg of Buck's pants, ripping them open to reveal the bullet hole. Josiah tossed the towel from the washstand over to wipe away the blood. Nathan firmly pressed down on the towel, drawing a cry of pain.
Ezra hurried into the room with a basket in his arms. He swept the length of the dresser with the edge of the basket, pushing everything aside. He began to lay out the items he had gathered, almost in the order Nathan had asked for them.
"Nathan, Mrs. Potter sent along a couple of things she thought you might need," the gambler said as he held out the two bottles. The young man turned and scanned the bottles, laudanum and chloroform.
After sterilizing the instruments in the alcohol and scrubbing his hands with the lye soap, Nathan turned to the others. He had never worked on a person alone. The trust he saw in their faces bolstered his courage.
"Hold him down. I don't know enough about the chloroform to use it," he told them honestly.
It went better than he hoped. The bullet had flattened against the sturdy thigh bone. He managed to take hold of it with the tweezers and wiggled it to work it loose. Buck hissed and his whole body jerked except for his thigh, which was held in Josiah's large, strong hands. Turning the tweezers carefully, Nathan extracted the flattened bullet and dropped it on the floor. He stared intently at the blood welling up in the hole, gauging it to see if any of the blood carrying vessels had been damaged.
"You want me to put pressure on it?" Vin asked.
"No, let it bleed for a minute to wash out the wound. Hand me a couple of towels and some hot water. Not hot enough to burn but as hot as you can bear to have your hand in," he asked of JD. While he was waiting for the water, he noticed the little shards of metal that seeped out of the wound. When the cup of water was held out, he took it and looked at the others again. "Hold him!"
The hot water caused Buck to struggle and curse. Chris felt his grip on the sweaty wrists slip a little. Out of the corner of his eye, he noticed that Nathan was blotting the wound as he poured the water. Finally, he took up his tweezers again and plucked something from the wound, a small piece of cloth from Buck's pants leg.
"Now I need the alcohol again," Nathan said. "Hold on to him, this is really gonna hurt!"
Buck groaned as he tightened his grip on the headboard of the bed. He clenched his teeth on the finger of the leather glove Chris had given him before they started. As the first drops of alcohol touched the wound, Buck went rigid beneath them, screaming soundlessly before crumpling and going completely limp. Since his patient was unconscious, Nathan took a little longer to scrub out the entry wound before dipping the needle and thread in the alcohol and stitching the muscle and then carefully closing the skin. So intent was he on his work that he didn't realize that the others had backed off and were just watching him work. When he had finished with the tiny, neat stitches, he looked up.
"Would you hold his leg up so I can wrap it?"
When he was finished, Nathan stepped back from the bed and swayed unsteadily. Vin tucked an arm around him and steered him into a chair. Grabbing one of the unused towels, the tracker mopped the sudden profusion of sweat from the kid's face. Ezra handed him a glass of sweet tea and Nathan smiled in gratitude before tipping the glass to his lips and draining it. In the few minutes it took for the sugar to hit his system, he had calmed down.
"You okay, Nate?" Vin asked.
"Yeah, I just never did that by myself before. Always had my momma there, she did all the work and I just watched and helped."
"Ya done good, kid," the tracker praised.
The peacekeepers slipped away one by one, always leaving someone with Nathan and Buck. Yosemite and Mr. Percy removed the body of Jess Alsup from the jail and delivered it to the undertakers. The stolen belongings were returned to their rightful owners. Nathan remained steadfastly at Buck's side, checking his leg and wiping him down with cool wet cloths when his fever rose.
The next morning, Chris awoke when the door was quietly opened. Josiah looked around the room until his eyes came to rest on the young man sleeping on the pallet on the floor.
"Mr. Percy and the chuck wagon driver would like to see Nathan," he whispered. The brown eyes instantly opened and he moved to the side of the bed. Buck was still running a slight fever but it wasn't terribly high and his leg wasn't overly swollen. He had been coaxing water into the ladies man all night.
"Go on, I'll take care of him," Chris assured him.
Following Josiah, Nathan found both of the men waiting on the boardwalk outside of the boarding house. Timidly, he approached the men and stood silently waiting for one of them to speak.
"I'd still like to offer you a job working with me and the boys but I think you'd do a lot better staying here," Mr. Percy said with a smile. When he stepped away, Old Moses held out a battered old sack. Inside were all the worldly possessions he had salvaged from his home after it burned. Nathan's hands shook as he reached for the sack. As his tears spilled over, he fell into the older man's arms.
When Nathan had pulled himself together, Moses held him by the shoulders at arms length. "I expect we'll hear good things about you hereabouts. You take care of yourself, you hear?"
Unable to speak around the lump in his throat, Nathan nodded. He stepped back from the two men and felt Josiah rest both hands on his shoulders. Leaning against the graying peacekeeper, he watched the two men walk out to where the wagon train was ready to pull out.
For the next few days, Buck was content to stay in bed, his leg hurt too much to move. After that, he was bored and lonely, for some feminine companionship. Nathan had finally been persuaded to return to his room to rest and Chris and the others were leaving him by himself for longer periods. His fever had been gone for a while and his leg wasn't hurting as badly, so Buck decided to get up and dress.
With a roll of clean bandages in one hand and a bottle of carbolic, acquired by Mrs. Potter, Nathan was on his way to check on his patient. As soon as word began to spread that he had 'operated' on Buck, a few people had shyly approached him about some of their lingering ailments. He found himself receiving donations of bandages and canned goods for his services, much like his mother had when she tended to folks.
Opening the door, Nathan's jaw tightened. Slamming the door startled Buck, who was in the process of pulling on his pants. The dizziness that he had been battling since getting up to retrieve his clothing washed over him and he teetered off balance for a moment before falling on the bed. He looked up in surprise at the teenager who was scowling at him.
"You could at least warn a fellow before doing that, I could have hurt myself!"
"You aren't supposed to be up on that leg yet. I haven't even taken out the stitches yet! You break them stitches and I'll put 'em back while you're wide awake!" Nathan didn't let himself think about the fact that he was shouting at a white man, he stormed up to the bed and grabbed the pants, tugging them off of Buck's leg and throwing them into a chair. Buck sank back against the pillows, stunned into docility by the way the young man was moving around the room. Nathan didn't say anything as he put water on to heat and laid out the bandages and scissors. After scrubbing his hands to work off some of his fury, he turned to Buck.
A teasing smile curled under the dark mustache as the ladies man held the quilt all the way up under his chin. He peered at Nathan from wide eyes. The teen couldn't stop the grin that Buck inspired. When it blossomed into full blown laughter, he had to sit down. That was how Josiah found them a moment later when he looked in. Buck, on the bed with only his head and fingers visible above the quilt, looking chastised and Nathan, doubled over with helpless laughter.
"Something you want to share, Brother Buck?" Josiah asked as he closed the door.
Over the next several weeks, word of Nathan's ability spread. Vin had helped him to put up a rack to dry his herbs and leaves on the roof outside of his window. Mrs. Potter brought him some old instruments that someone had traded to her. They were rusty, but he soaked them in something Yosemite gave him and they were as good as new. Although some people were put off by his age and color, the teenager's own innately humble attitude usually won them over. He still worked a part of each day in the livery but if someone came by and needed his healing talent, he was quick to help. The peacekeepers were his most faithful customers, keeping him busy with the various injuries they acquired in performing their duties.
One day, while he was working in the livery, JD came in from his patrol. The young sheriff's face was blotchy and he was digging at his collar. Nathan set his rake aside and went to see what he could do for his friend.
"JD, you been itchin' like that for long?"
"A few days now. It's getting worse! Do you think you could make it better?"
"You'd hafta come up and let me get a good look at it."
In Nathan's room, JD unbuttoned his shirt and allowed him to run his hands over the spreading rash. There were tiny blisters in some places, where JD hadn't scratched them open. Some of the patches looked infected, no doubt caused by the dirty fingernails the young sheriff was using on them.
"Have you eaten anything different?" Nathan asked.
"No, same as everybody else."
"You have your clothes washed at the Chinese laundry?"
"Yeah, but what does that have to do with it?" JD was confused by all the questions.
"Have you been out walking in the woods, some place new?"
JD hesitated before answering. He doubted that Nathan would tell on him but he was still worried about admitting that he and Casey had been in the woods together. Her aunt was extremely protective of the young girl and a crack shot with her old Spencer Carbine.
After hearing that JD had been in the woods, sparing him of giving details since he was blushing furiously at having to admit to what he was doing there, Nathan went to his rack of herbs. Selecting just the right combination, he ground them between his finger and thumb over a swatch of cloth. Gathering the corners, he tied them with a string and handed the small bundle to JD.
"Go to the bathhouse and get in a fresh tub of water, as hot as you can bear. Put this in the water with you and sit there until the water cools. It will prob'ly sting something fierce. If that don't stop the itching, there's some other stuff I can try," Nathan explained.
Deciding that sooner was better than later, JD headed for the bathhouse. He stammered a little when he told the man that he needed a fresh tub of very hot water. The man replied that it would cost an extra nickel and JD dug in his pants pocket for another coin. The humidity in the room seemed to irritate the rash and he sat on the bench digging at the spots on his chest. When the tub was mostly filled, he was asked to see if it needed to be cooled. The water felt almost unbearably hot. Swallowing hard, JD told the man that it was fine. Left alone in the curtained off area, he dropped the little pouch into the water and began to peel off his clothes. Gingerly, he stuck his foot into the water. It felt cold at first, and then his nerves adjusted to the sensation and he gasped. The curtain parted and a concerned voice called to him.
"JD? Is something wrong?"
Grabbing the towel, JD spun around. Ezra was in the tub in the next area and was glancing curiously through the opening in the curtain.
"Oh, no, Ezra, I was just taking a bath."
"And it isn't even Saturday. What's the occasion? Are you planning an amorous rendezvous with a member of the fair sex?" Ezra teased.
"No! Can't a fellow just take a bath? What difference is it if I want to wash the trail dirt off?"
Ezra shrugged and let the curtain fall, returning to the game of solitaire he had spread on the sheet of wood laying across his tub. JD drew a couple of deep breaths before dropping the towel and stepping into the water again. He hissed through clenched teeth as the hot water struck sensitive skin and nearly cried out when it reached the rash. Sinking into the water up to his chin, JD ground his teeth together and rode out the pain.
Whatever Nathan had ground up in the bundle of cloth had an odor, JD realized. And not a pleasant odor, for sure. By the time he realized that it was his bath that was giving off the smell, Ezra had parted the curtain again to wrinkle his nose as he too recognized the source of the overpowering smell.
"JD, I hesitate to ask but are you aware of the noxious odor permeating your belongings? Did you perhaps run afoul of a skunk while out on patrol?"
"No, I did not run into any skunks! If you're done with your bath, why don't you head on back to the saloon. I'm sure there are two or three people with money you haven't snookered them out of!"
JD was ashamed when Ezra merely shrugged one shoulder and let the curtain fall again. A few minutes later, the southerner tipped his hat to the man at the table near the door and stepped out into the reasonably fresh air. A couple of minutes passed before JD found himself looking up at the man who had filled his tub.
"You the one causin' that stink?"
The young sheriff quickly got out and dried off. He pulled on his clothes and darted out before the man could decide to do something to him for stinking up the bathhouse. The hot bath left him feeling deeply relaxed and he headed for his room to grab a nap.
In the saloon, Ezra sat at his usual table, playing cards with a trio of cowhands. Vin and Chris sat in the corner, keeping watch over things while sharing a pot of coffee. Since Nathan had released Buck from his room, he was making up for lost time with the ladies. The budding healer was out of town with Josiah, meeting the Indians who lived nearby in the hope of exchanging healing information with them.
The fight started near the bar. One drunk jostled another. Mumbled apology was misunderstood for curse and fists were thrown. The fighting pair tumbled into a table of tired cowhands who were enjoying their pay by sharing a bottle of whiskey. When the bottle rolled off of the table and shattered, all four men came to their feet and leapt into the fray. The trio playing cards looked on without getting involved, until one of the drunks shattered a chair across the back of one of their friends. The hand had just finished and they swept their money into their pockets to join Chris and Vin at trying to separate the combatants. At one point, Chris was thrown against the wall and found himself looking at Ezra.
"Do you think you'll be helping us any time soon?" Chris snarled before ducking a mug someone threw in his direction. He nodded when Ezra vaulted over the table and landed a solid blow to one drunken man's jaw.
Vin ducked the hard flung fist and jabbed the enraged man in the gut, doubling him over for a moment. Chris turned around and kicked the man, sending him crashing into the wall where he crumpled and lay still. The cowhands had somehow turned on each other and were now beating furiously on their former friends. Ezra was trying to pry a larger man off of a smaller man when he was bodily picked up and tossed over the bar. The sound of a gun being fired caused everyone to freeze in their tracks. Vin swayed slightly before loosening his grip on the collar of one of the cowhands. Inez glared angrily at them as she pumped the shotgun and squared her jaw. The men who had been fighting were suddenly amazingly calm.
Hearing a gunshot, JD burst upright in bed. He quickly pulled on his boots and ran from the room. He reached the saloon just as Vin and Chris were herding the drunks and cowhands toward the doors. Seeing that they had that much under control, he hurried over to where Ezra was holding his shoulder with a look of extreme pain on his face.
"Are you all right, Ezra?"
"Yes, I am perfectly all right, my good man. I always wear this pained expression upon my countenance when I am having a splendiferous time!"
"Okay, as long as you're all right," JD said before patting the southerner on the shoulder and dashing off after Chris and Vin.
After all of the brigands were safely confined in the jail, Vin noticed that Ezra was not there. He caught Chris's eye and left the jail. Returning to the saloon, he waited for Inez to finish sweeping up the broken glass before asking her where the gambler had gone off to. Knocking on the door, Vin was surprised when Ezra opened it and didn't invite him inside.
"Is there something I can do for you, Vin?"
"I just wanted to make sure you were all right. I saw that guy toss you over the bar."
"I am as well as can be expected. I merely desire to change out of my battered apparel and into something clean before I put in an appearance later. I trust that the three of you have everything under control?"
"Yeah, I'll ... uh ... see you later then," Vin said as he backed away from the door. Ezra was much paler than usual and his forehead was tensed up, a sure sign that something was wrong.
A couple of hours later, Ezra was back at his table, dealing a game of solitaire. Vin nodded at the gambler before taking his seat at the table with Chris. His blue eyes watched the southerner for several minutes before he started to call attention to what he saw. Just then, Josiah and Nathan returned from the Indian village and joined them. Inez carried over a tray with beer for each of them except the young healer, who got tea.
"Anything interesting happen while we were out?" Josiah asked.
"Big bar fight," Chris answered after taking a long draw of his beer.
"Anybody hurt?" Nathan immediately asked.
"Nope, just a few hard heads collected a few knots. They're all cooling their heels in the jail," the blond answered. "JD's sitting with 'em."
"You might want to take a look at Ezra," Vin suggested.
"Ezra?" Josiah questioned, quickly looking toward the southerner with a worried expression.
"Yeah, he got tossed over the bar and he's been sitting awful funny over there," the tracker replied as he watched Ezra gather the cards with his right hand and perform an awkward shuffle. Nathan and Josiah immediately left the table and crossed the room.
"Something I can do for you gentlemen? Perhaps I might interest you in a game of chance?" Ezra asked as he gestured toward the other chairs, again without moving his left hand.
"Vin said you mighta got hurt today," Nathan said softly.
"It's nothing for you to worry about. A little soreness that will certainly pass in time," the southerner assured him evasively.
"Then how come you ain't doin' them fancy shuffles?" Vin asked as he joined the others standing around Ezra.
"Because those shuffles are meant to obfuscate my opponents, I have no need of that when I play against all of you."
"I'd be glad to take a look at ya, Ezra. Won't take but a minute," Nathan offered.
"And I appreciate your concern but it is most definitely unnecessary."
"Go on up to your room and let him look at you," Chris ordered menacingly.
"I believe I am able to decide whether or not I require assistance, Mr. Larabee," Ezra returned icily.
"If you're hurt, Nathan can help you, son," Josiah coaxed.
"If I demonstrate that I am not in need of your concern, will all of you leave me alone?" Ezra asked. Seeing nods all around, he picked up the deck of cards and moved them until they were centered in front of him before doing one of his 'special' shuffles. Vin caught Chris's eye and the blond gunslinger nodded, they both noticed that Ezra had dragged his left hand across the table. When he squared the cards neatly in front of him again, he looked up expectantly. "Is that sufficient to demonstrate to all of you that I am in good health?"
"Cut them," Chris demanded.
"I beg your pardon?"
"Cut the deck," the blond repeated. Ezra reached with his right hand and Chris reached out to prevent the motion. "With your left hand."
Seeing that Ezra couldn't raise his arm from the table, Nathan quickly realized what was wrong. "Have you dislocated it before?" He asked in the silence. Startled green eyes locked on his for a second.
"How did you know?"
"If you don't put it back right away, it'll be harder later," Nathan said.
"Come on Ezra, up to your room and let him look at you," Chris said as he moved around the table to help the southerner to his feet.
In his room, sitting on his bed, Ezra allowed Josiah to ease his coat off. Only by practicing tight control of his breathing did he keep from crying out at the pain. Nathan busied himself with scrubbing his hands while the others dealt with getting his patient to disrobe. Ezra complained bitterly as Josiah carefully removed the studs from his collar and removed his tie and vest. Finally, he sat bare from the waist up and glaring dourly at his friends. Nathan gently ran his hands over the shoulder, probing lightly. There was considerable swelling.
"One of you mind running over to my room and getting the laudanum? I want him to have some before I put this back."
"Never mind with the laudanum, just do in and be done with it," Ezra insisted. Vin saw Chris look his way and darted out of the room.
"I need some hot water and clean towels to put on it after I put it right," Nathan said as he studied Ezra's nail beds. He could tell that the circulation was impaired by the swelling, the hand was cool to his touch. Vin returned with the laudanum and Nathan measured it into a spoon. Ezra clenched his teeth, prepared to refuse, when he caught the determined look in Josiah's eyes. Reluctantly, he swallowed the bitter medicine and shuddered at the taste.
"Josiah, if you'd sit behind him and hold him real tight," he let his voice trail off. When the older man was in place, he wrapped his arms around the gambler, one around his chest and the other holding his head. Nathan took hold of Ezra's arm and raised it carefully. The southerner stiffened, pushing back against Josiah. Using his speed and strength, Nathan jerked on the arm and guided it into place. Ezra cried out, grabbing the young healer's wrist with his left hand and squeezing it.
"Looks like ya fixed it," Vin commented dryly.
The laudanum kicked in and Ezra began to relax into Josiah's arms. They manhandled him into bed, pulling his boots off as they worked and tossed a quilt over him. Nathan took the kettle and poured the hot water on the towel and wrung it out when he could touch it so that he knew it wasn't too hot. He laid the towel on Ezra's shoulder and pressed on it gently.
"He'll sleep for a while. I'll stay here and keep an eye on him," Nathan said.
"You've been in the saddle for a while, go on and let me sit with him," Vin suggested.
While all the excitement was going on in Ezra's room, Buck made his way to the jail looking for JD. He wore a huge grin on his face after spending several pleasurable hours with Miss Bonnie and Miss Blanche. As he was regaling his young friend with his exploits, he leaned close to JD to 'whisper' a vital detail.
"Whooey! What have you been rolling in, kid? You smell worse than Chris after a week-long bender!"
"It's something Nathan gave me to bathe in for my rash," JD answered defensively.
"Rash? What rash? You been messing around those women at Wickstown?" Buck asked with a scowl. He noticed the immediate blush that colored JD's pale cheeks.
"Naw, you know I wouldn't do that."
"What kind of rash do you have?" Buck asked as he tugged on JD's shirt collar.
"Cut it out! It's none of your business!"
"Come on, kid, you can tell me. I'll take it to my grave."
"I'm not telling you. Ezra says that gentlemen don't tell."
Buck shrugged and left the jail, leaving JD to his secret. On the boardwalk the next afternoon, he ran into Nettie Wells. She was looking for Nathan.
"Something wrong, Nettie?"
"It's Casey. She's all broke out with a rash. I caught her digging at it the other day. I've tried everything I know and it won't go away. She's about to running a fever with it," the older woman said. Something clicked, and she frowned at the knowing grin on the ladies man's face.
"I'm sure Nathan knows what it is. I think he's in the saloon."
"Do you know how Casey got this rash?" Nettie asked as she pinned Buck with a hard stare.
Swallowing hard, Buck avoided meeting her eyes as he shook his head. "No, ma'am, I wouldn't know anything about it. If you'll excuse me, I have patrol in a little while," he lied as he turned and all but ran toward the jail.
"Bone headed man. The livery's in the other direction," Nettie muttered as she walked away.