As I sit in the darkness of the clinic, I pray, praying to a God I don't trust. On the bed, Buck's breathing is labored, his hair plastered to his head with sweat. I wring out the cloth in cool water and wipe his face and neck again. My fingertips are pruned from all the time I've been doing this. Late at night is the only time I can spend with him, the boys need me during the day. JD still cries himself to sleep, Vin is wearing his little body out trying to provide comfort to the younger boy.
It was such a 'Buck' thing that he did, running into the middle of a gun battle to protect those kids. Every time I close my eyes I hear JD and Vin screaming for him. I don't know how much more of this I can take. Dear God, let him recover from this.
The restless tossing and turning is a precursor for the nightmare that I know is coming. I feel so helpless watching the little brunet fight these demons. At his side, Vin is also beginning to stir, JD's terror fueling his dreams. I move to sit on the edge of the bed. Any moment now, JD will bolt upright and begin screaming; he has done so every night for the last week.
"I want my Da!" JD cries as he tries to get out of the bed. I catch him, wrapping his little body in my arms, holding him until he begins to relax. Vin has awakened, staring at me with his knowing eyes, searing my soul with the eloquent pain he feels. Chris has tried to be here for them, as much as he can while still spending time with Buck and providing a presence for the townspeople. I extend my hand to Vin, coaxing him closer so I can comfort him too.
When the boys finally slip into a deeper slumber, I carefully settle JD on his pillow, covering him with the blankets. I wish there was more that I could do. I have already expended funds to cover the acquisition and delivery of a new medicine to help fight the infection from the bullets that Buck caught saving those little ones from a hail of gunfire. I cannot close my eyes without seeing his face, riddled with pain, as he tried to assure JD that he would be 'fine' in a little while.
My body aches from the hours I have spent here, on my knees, begging for the life of Buck Wilmington. The ache is nothing compared to the pain he must have felt, is still feeling, from getting shot. I would willingly trade places with him, were it in my power to do so. I spent a part of the afternoon with him, bathing the sweat from his body and praying. Despair is close; I can feel its heated breath on my back. I push it away and clench my hands together more tightly; beginning again with the petitions for the health of a young man I am proud to call a friend.
It has been so hard on all of us, but especially on the boys. JD is pining for his 'Da' and hardly eats anything unless someone puts it into his mouth and reminds him to chew. He doesn't rest when he sleeps, frequently waking screaming for Buck. I sat with them the other night, defenseless against the images in his dreams.
One of the candles sputters and goes out. Rising slowly, I drop another into the cup, lighting it from one of the dozens burning on the table. I think just about everyone in town has been in here, praying, lighting candles, and offering their support. Some have even brought their own candles, I know I didn't have this many before. From where I stand, I can see a shadow moving in the room Vin and JD are sharing at the boarding house. Ezra has been doing his best to pick up the slack, taking extra patrols so Chris and Nathan can spend more time with Buck. He volunteered to stay with the boys at night, saying that he is able to get sufficient rest even though his sleep is disturbed.
I am not a doctor! Those five words have been spinning around inside of my head for the past week. I am so useless! Usually follows the first five words. Even after I have done everything I know to do for him, Buck is still dying. Oh, I dug the bullets out all right, but I don't know how to repair the damage they caused. I tried to get them to send for a real doctor, someone who might actually be able to help him, but they refused. You always took care of us before, they said. Like that will excuse me when he dies. Oh God, please don't let him die.
I don't know how many more times I can look into the boys' faces and lie to them. JD is fading away right along with his father and I am helpless to prevent it. Every day, he asks me the same thing. 'Is my Da going to be all right?' How do I answer a question like that? How do I tell the child that I just don't know? Vin isn't doing too much better. He is so empathic that I have no doubt that he will wither away if JD doesn't improve and JD might not make it if he loses Buck. I would not have thought that a child so full of life as JD could go down so quickly.
Three bullets! Three pieces of lead, propelled by gunpowder! The human body wasn't meant to deal with that kind of injury. I can still feel Buck's blood on my hands, still hear him groaning in pain as I cut into his back to dig them out. Thankfully, the fourth one went through so I didn't have to dig for it. I still can't believe I actually did what Doc Mason told me, sewing him on the inside the way I did. He said it was the only way to keep Buck alive, to sew the hole in his gut closed after trimming away the damaged bits. I know the stitches in the muscle will be alright, saw enough of that in the war. He's coming in tomorrow, Doc Mason, to see if there's anything he can do. I hope he can help.
JD's Da is dyin' and they're tryin' to keep it from us. Chris said that he would keep JD, not let him go to anyone else, but I wonder. Ezra's been reassurin' us that he won't let anything bad happen to us, Josiah too. Nathan don't hardly look us in the eye anymore, that's how I know it's bad. I seen that look before my ma died. JD's frettin' in his sleep again, tossin' around and mumblin' under his breath. In a minute, he's gonna start screamin' again, he does every night.
I knowed it was bad. As soon as the last of them bank robbers fell offa the roof, I knowed. Buck let them other kids go and just kinda melted to the ground. They run to their ma, squallin' like kittens while JD's Da lay bleedin' behind 'em. Josiah says he understands that I feel it ain't right but that I shouldn't wish harm on 'em. If'n they'd stayed out'a the street, maybe Buck'd be alright. I want him to be alright, cause JD needs him so much. It's not that I don't wanna share Chris with him but he's my dad, and Buck is JD's Da, he shouldn't have to lose his Da this way. It isn't fair!
I want my Da to be better. I really want to see him but Nathan and Chris says I can't until he wakes up. I'm scared that he's not gonna wake up again. He told me he would be fine! He said it! He just has to get better. Ezra and Josiah have been fussing over me, making me eat and stuff. I keep telling them that I don't feel like it but they make me anyway.
We stayed inside of Mrs. Potter's store like my Da said. Those men were gonna rob the bank and take away all of the money. That's why Ezra doesn't keep his money there, he says. My Da and Chris and Ezra were trying to stop the robbers. It woulda been fine if those dumb old kids had stayed with their ma like they was supposed to. He wouldn't have gone into the street to save them and he wouldn't have got shot too many times.
I'm so sleepy all the time. I heard Josiah telling Ezra I got depressed. I don't know what that is but if it means I don't feel like being happy no more, then that's what I got. I don't want to be happy 'til my Da is better. I sure wish they'd let me in there to see him. I'm so sleepy, think I'll take a nap.
It was an ordinary spring day. Mrs. Potter had a big shipment of goods coming in from the rail spur, so Buck and Chris both came into town to help her unload. The boys were excited, because their new boots were supposed to be in the delivery. Two wagons rolled in, piled high with crates of varying sizes. Nathan and Ezra were there to help, Josiah was off visiting some of the neighboring farms. The wagon drivers got down and removed the ropes before heading for the restaurant to get lunch, their pay didn't include unloading the crates.
Inside of the store, JD and Vin were wiping off the shelves and dusting the older goods. Mrs. Potter promised them they could have their pick of candy from the new shipment, before any of the other children in town got to see it. With an incentive like that, the boys were enthusiastically throwing themselves into the work, willingly doing whatever the widow asked of them.
Jason Richter tied his horse to the hitching rail, surveying the street with a practiced eye. He'd heard that there was a tidy sum of money in the small bank, money he intended to have in his bags by the end of the day. His brothers, Elroy and Foster, were coming in from the opposite direction, looking for the peacekeepers that protected the sleepy little town. They heard that there were five of them, including the old preacher and the darkie ex-slave. Seeing the heavily loaded wagons in front of the mercantile, he figured it would be easy pickings.
Crates lined the boardwalk, waiting to be opened and checked, put on the shelves or stored depending on what they held. Ezra was opening each one, reviewing the list Mrs. Potter provided. He was surprised to find out that the woman never actually checked the delivery against the bill of lading, trusting that the drivers and supplier wouldn't cheat her. As he ticked off the items in the crate, he marked the ones that contained the things Gloria indicated went on the shelves. Nathan was loading the ones that were to be stored on a wheeled cart, moving them to the storage area at the back of the store. Chris set his foot on the spoke of the wheel, climbing up to stand on the wagon bed. Buck was busily filling in the spaces as Nathan moved the other crates to storage.
Inez smiled at the three young men who stepped up to the bar. Tossing her towel on the lower shelf, she moved to take their orders. "What can I get for you gentlemen?"
"Three whiskeys, not the watered down stuff you sell the regulars," Foster demanded.
"Si, Senor, the good stuff," Inez said as she reached under the counter to get the bottle. She set three shot glasses on the bar, filling each with two fingers of liquor. The man grabbed the bottle from her hand, earning a glare for his trouble.
Wiping the sweat from his face on the sleeve of his shirt, Chris looked over his shoulder to see where the boys had gone off to. "They're streaking up the glass in the display case," Buck supplied, able to see both from his vantage point on the bed of the wagon.
"Streaking the glass?" Chris asked.
"Like the way they cleaned the window at the cabin," Buck explained. Seeing understanding dawn in Chris's eyes, he smiled, "You're going to have to tell them they can't eat all of the candy she gives them today."
"Me? Why me?" Chris exclaimed.
"Because they're used to getting bad news from you."
"Because you're too soft to tell them no."
"I am not!"
"You are too!"
Ezra ended the argument with a softly drawled comment, "Think of the example you are setting for the impressionable children in your lives."
In the past three years, the boys had both grown so much. It was difficult to see the orphan waifs they had been in the healthy, glowing faces. Both boys had grown several inches and Vin was finally starting to fill out. At nine and eleven, they were children any parent could be proud of, and Buck and Chris were very proud of them. JD was at the top of his class in school, seeming to absorb information the way the dry ground soaked up the rain. Vin was still struggling but he had made tremendous progress. With Josiah and Ezra's help, he hardly ever mixed up his letters. He excelled in math. Numbers didn't swim around as he looked at them and they didn't come with complicated rules about how they were used. Both of the adults made sure that the boys did their schoolwork before going on to any of the dozens of more interesting things that they preferred. Vin was also an accomplished horseman, having a sense of the large equines that couldn't be learned, he had been born with it. JD loved the horses too, he just had an excess of enthusiasm that sometimes caused the animals to shy away from him.
The Richter's came out of the saloon, having fortified their courage with alcohol. Foster separated from his brothers, going around to the rear of the buildings and climbing up to the roof. He would be the one to protect the other two when they came out with the money. Elroy went to the horses, checking the saddles, preparing for a hasty departure. Justin waited until his brothers were in position before entering the bank. The bank manager rose from where he had been sitting going over the ledger, smiling politely at the stranger approaching the counter.
"May I help you?" he asked.
Leaning on the counter, Justin smiled right back but his expression was cold, calculating. "Yeah, you can start by opening the safe and putting the money in that sack," he said, nodding toward a burlap sack in the corner. The bank manager went wide-eyed for a moment before he swallowed hard and nodded. With shaking hands, he dialed the combination and opened the safe. Instead of the neatly stacked money, however, he picked up the gun he kept next to the cash. Turning quickly, he pulled the trigger.
His aim was bad and the bullet buried itself in the sturdy wood of the counter. Even as he was trying to fire again, the robber pulled his pistol and fired, hitting the hapless bank manager in the throat. The gun fell as he put both hands to his neck, trying to staunch the flow of blood. He staggered back against the safe, reaching out at the last moment to slam the door closed. His bloody hand left a gory decoration on the door as he spun the dial before slumping to the floor and losing consciousness.
Chris, Buck and Ezra's heads snapped up and whipped around at the sound of a gunshot. Immediately, they scanned the street, locating the boys, as well as any other innocent bystanders in the area. Reasonable and intelligent, most of the townspeople headed indoors for shelter, peering out from behind thin cotton curtains, through thin panes of glass to see what was happening.
"Stay in here with Mrs. Potter!" Chris shouted into the open doorway as he pulled his pistol and bent down behind the wagon. Buck was already squatted down behind the crates, gun in hand, waiting for Chris to announce the plan. Ezra had moved down the boardwalk, using the row of crates for cover. Before any of them identified the threat, a man ran out of the bank, toward another man who was checking his horses at the rail.
Justin cursed his luck. He hadn't even suspected that the banker would keep a gun in the safe. The man wasn't wearing a gun when he cased the place the day before. That was why he thought it would be an easy hit. "We gotta get out of here!" he yelled as he tried to set his foot into the stirrup. The horse, sensing his nervousness, began sidestepping, swishing his tail in agitation. Looking over the saddle, Justin saw a man moving behind the row of crates on the opposite side of the street. He could just make out the pistol in the man's hand. "Shit!" he yelled as his foot missed the stirrup again. Pulling his gun from his holster, he squeezed off a shot at the man.
When the glass behind him shattered, Ezra popped up from his hiding spot and fired back. Out of the corner of his eye, he could see Chris and Buck edging around the wagon to get into position. Nathan was nowhere to be seen and that worried Ezra, he hoped that the healer wouldn't step out unaware and be injured. He heard two more shots striking the crate in front of him and sprang to another spot before returning fire.
Pressed against the wall of the building, Nathan held his gun pointed skyward as he inched forward. He heard the shots from across the street and the single shot from Ezra. Leaning out cautiously, he saw the sleeve of a coat on the roof of the bank. Figuring that the others didn't know about the one up high, he reversed course, planning to get on the roof of the store.
Elroy darted away from the horses, pulling his rifle from the sleeve attached to the saddle. Ducking behind the rain barrel, he knelt and prepared to shoot his way out. Spotting the legs of the two men behind the wagon, he fired, kicking up dirt between their feet.
Both men jumped at the shot that burrowed into the ground between them, Buck springing back onto the boardwalk while Chris dove behind the watering trough. Crawling along the dry, dusty ground, Chris managed to make it to the other end of the trough, peering across the street. He could see a man's boot and the barrel of a rifle behind the rain barrel. Looking back, he signaled to Buck the man's location.
Up on the roof, Foster cursed his luck. He couldn't see his brothers or the peacekeepers. Inching forward, he saw a man in tan pants walking along the boardwalk. Just as he was preparing to shoot, he spotted the black man on the roof across the street. A shot rang out, piercing the roof barely four inches from his ribs. Rolling to his left, he got behind the sign on the roof, blocking his view of the street and the other man's view of him.
Inside of the store, Mrs. Potter and the boys were huddled down in the back room. The boys flinched every time they heard a gunshot. Twice, the storeowner had to take hold of Vin to prevent him from going out front to see what was happening. All three of them stared at the ceiling when they heard what sounded like someone running across the roof.
Hearing the shot from overhead, Ezra ducked lower behind the crates. He sincerely hoped that it was Nathan on the roof and not one of their opponents. Glancing at the window behind his hiding place, he caught the reflection of the man across the street, still standing beside his anxious mount. Thinking to scare his cover away, Ezra popped up and fired, hitting the dirt beneath the prancing hooves. The man immediately returned fire, even as the horse reared up, snapping the reins to run away.
It could have ended with only the robbers' deaths but for the woman and three children who stepped out of the seamstress' shop, blithely unaware of the danger, not having heard the gunfire. Chris tried to wave them back but the woman was busy tending to the screaming toddler in her arms. The other children darted away, running toward the steps at the end of the boardwalk. They didn't stop there, but ran merrily into the street, heading for the store. Clutched in each of their little hands was a penny that they were going to spend on candy.
Justin, still cursing his horse for running away, saw the kids and turned instinctively to shoot, thinking to give the lawmen something else to consider. As he raised his pistol, a man in tan pants dove from behind the crates on the wagon, moving to intercept the children. Behind the rain barrel, Elroy also saw the children and prepared to fire, changing his aim at the last second to the mustached man who suddenly appeared in his field of fire. Foster, peering out from behind the sign, had been trying to get a shot off at the man on the wagon. When the man leapt over the wagon bench and hit the ground running, he shifted his focus to the rifle sights and pulled the trigger.
Going to his knees, Buck wrapped an arm around each of the children, pulling them to his chest. He felt the first bullet hit, low on his back and knew that he couldn't move. When the second shot hit, he nearly lost his balance, managing at the last second to sink back on his heels. The third shot burned, tearing through him from back to front and stirring dust as it hit the ground. Buck began to feel light headed, struggling to focus on Chris. The fourth bullet hit, striking bone and wrenching a cry of pain from him.
Ezra heard the shooting and risked a look over the crates. Seeing that the shooter was looking down the street, he took aim and fired, striking the man in the chest. His eyes narrowed as he took in the surprised look when the man saw the blood pouring from the hole in his chest. The gun slipped from the man's hand as he fell, no longer a threat.
From the rooftop, Nathan spotted the man again. Something on the street had drawn his attention, causing him to lean out from behind the protection of the sign. He couldn't see what it was but he took aim and fired, hitting the man in the head just as he got off a shot. Nathan hesitated only a moment, long enough to see the bright runnels of blood that stained the roof across the street, then he turned and ran for the ladder.
Chris's voice was frozen in his throat as he saw Buck breaking cover. He saw the man behind the rain barrel take aim and Chris fired. To his everlasting horror, he missed, and the man got off a shot, hitting Buck. The man managed to get off another shot, hitting Buck again before Chris fired, sending a bullet into his brain.
The sudden spate of gunfire had the boys and Mrs. Potter covering their ears. In the immediate stillness that followed, they heard the anguished scream.
"BUCK!" Chris yelled as he ran to his friend, preventing him from toppling over on top of the children he had sheltered. "Aw, Buck," he murmured as he sank to his knees, forcing his injured friend to release the two small, frightened children.
Mrs. Potter tried to catch hold of the boys but they were too fast, charged by the tone of Chris's scream. She could only struggle to her feet, fussing with her skirt tail, and run after them. By virtue of his longer legs, Vin got to them first, throwing his body against his father's back, sobbing. JD arrived a second later, sliding to a stop, staring at the blood seeping from the multiple wounds in his father's back. Ezra vaulted off of the boardwalk, grabbing JD and turning him from the sight, swallowing hard to quell the urge to lose his lunch. Nathan ran to them, sliding on his knees as his hand went, automatically, to check Buck for a pulse.
JD struggled against Ezra's gentle restraint, his voice carrying down the street where Mary Travis was just coming out of her newspaper office to get the details on what had happened. Her heart was wrenched by the plaintive cries.
"I want my Da! Let me go! I want my Da!" JD yelled as he pummeled Ezra's stomach. Finally, he won his freedom, falling to his knees beside Buck, tears streaming down his face. "Da? Are you gonna be alright? You want me to help you up?"
"JD ... son ... you go ... with Ezra," Buck managed between pain-filled breaths.
"I wanna stay with you!" JD protested, "You need me to take care of you!"
Nathan eased Buck back, nearly staggered by the greater weight as the injured man settled against his chest. He needed to get him up to the clinic so he could stop the bleeding but he didn't know what to do about the boys. He would need both Chris and Ezra's help to get Buck up off of the ground and he needed to do it quickly.
"JD ... I'll be ... fine. You ... go with ... Mrs. Potter," Buck managed before his eyes drifted closed and he went limp. Nathan looked to Chris, needing him to pull JD away from where he was knelt at Buck's side, clutching Buck's hand in both of his little hands.
"Go with Mrs. Potter, boys," Chris said, his voice firm as he peeled Vin's arms from his leg and steering him toward the widow. He bent down, taking hold of JD, forcing him to release Buck's hand. JD's lower lip quivered as two incredibly large tears rolled down his cheeks. "I'll take care of him, son, I promise," Chris assured the boy.
Gloria Potter took hold of the trembling child, spreading her hand across his chest, feeling his little heart pounding like it would soon burst from his body. Her other arm wrapped around Vin's shoulders as the three men hefted Buck up from the ground and carried him toward the clinic. Tears rolled unchecked down her face as she glanced at the bloodstains in the dirt at their feet. Only when the door to the clinic closed did she try to steer the boys into the store. Yosemite and his young assistant were already gathering the bodies from the other side of the street.
Her steps slowing as she approached the scene of the shooting, Mary's eyes following the three men as they lugged the fourth up the stairs. She let her gaze fall on the boys as Mrs. Potter pulled them around toward the steps. Then her eyes drifted to the dead bodies being roughly handled into pine boxes. Sensing that she would not get any information at the moment, she slipped her note pad into her pocket, catching sight of Inez peering out over the saloon doors. Swallowing her reluctance, she crossed the street and found herself face to face with the barmaid.
After settling Buck face down on the bed, Nathan left Chris and Ezra to attend to removing his clothes while he gathered the instruments he expected to need. It took only moments to stir the coals in his stove and toss in some dry kindling. A moment later, Willy Potter arrived, lugging a bucket of water in each hand. Behind him, Billy Travis carried a basket of clean bandages. Both boys set down their burdens and silently left the room, casting curious glances at the bloody body on the bed as they went.
"Four entry wounds, only one exit wound," Ezra announced as he pressed a pad to the higher of the wounds on Buck's back. Chris was pressing on another, while reaching for the basket to get more cloth. Both men were worried about the amount of blood pumping out of the holes with every beat of Buck's heart.
With water heating on the stove, Nathan surveyed the damage. He knew that he had to try, even though he suspected that it was too late. The injuries were just too much for him to repair. Wishing for Josiah's speedy return, he went to the table and took up his bar of soap.
"You gotta get through this Buck," Chris said softly, "You can't run out on me now."
Ezra's eyes stung with unexpected emotion as he tried to pretend he hadn't heard the heartfelt plea. In his heart of hearts, he was also pleading for the injured man to survive. He didn't have so many friends that he could bear to lose even one. The pad under his hand became soaked through and he reached for another one from the basket Chris had put on the foot of the bed.
Finished scrubbing his hands and forearms, Nathan dipped his instruments in the smaller pan of boiling water. He laid all of them out on a clean cloth-covered tray, carrying them to the table nearest the bed. Ezra moved out of his way, stretching to keep pressure on the pads. Having decided to start on the highest wound, Nathan lifted the pad to study the damage.
Keeping pressure on the holes in Buck's back, Chris watched Nathan insert the probe to find the bullet. Willing his stomach to stay put, he began to barter for his friend's life. He begged God not to take Buck like this, just when he'd finally found happiness. Things had been so good for them since the boys came into their lives.
Nathan worked on the four entry wounds, pulling the three slugs and closing the muscle and skin. He had cleaned each hole as thoroughly as he could with what he had. He then had Chris and Ezra help him to turn Buck over so he could close the exit wound.
"Damn!" he exclaimed as he looked at the jagged, nasty exit wound.
"What?" Chris asked, startled by the venom in Nathan's voice.
"Aw, hell, I didn't need this," Nathan said, not even hearing Chris's question. "I'll be right back. Keep pressure on that." Without a thought to the blood on his hands and clothes, Nathan walked purposefully down the boardwalk. People scurried to get out of his path. When he entered the telegraph office, they paused to watch for him to come out again. "I need you to send an urgent wire to Stony Creek. As soon as you get the reply, you bring it to me at my clinic!"
Across the street, the cheerful atmosphere of putting away the stock was replaced by the somber action of doing something to fill time. JD and Vin slowly stacked the cans as Mrs. Potter set the boxes on the floor beside them. No words were spoken between the boys and JD frequently sank back on his heels to cry. Vin would comfort him, putting an arm around JD's shoulder as he spoke to him gently. Then they would go back to putting things on the shelves for a few more minutes.
Nathan returned to the clinic, going directly to the basin to scrub his hands again. He let all of his frustration out while working the small, stiff bristled brush along his fingers. He didn't want to face the questions he knew Chris and Ezra would have for him, questions he couldn't begin to answer.
"That's a piece of his intestine right there," Nathan explained. "If that bit dies, there isn't anything in the world I can do to help him. Hell, he might die even if it doesn't. He's lost an awful lot of blood. He's too weak!"
"Mind ... not ... throw ... in' ... the ... dirt ... on ... jus' yet?" Buck's labored voice asked.
"Buck!" Chris exclaimed, "You old dog! You hang on! You hear me?"
A wan smile crossed Buck's face before his eyes drifted closed. Chris looked up at Nathan, hope shining brightly in his eyes. The healer allowed him that moment; it might be the only chance he got to hope. He reached out to exchange the dry pad for one he had wet with boiled water. He had to keep the intestine moist and alive until he got an answer from Stony Creek.
"Perhaps I should go see the boys. They're bound to be worried," Ezra said. "I won't be long."
JD leapt up and ran to Ezra, jumping at the last moment so that Ezra had to catch him. With his arms and legs wrapped around Standish, JD begged to see his Da. Vin was a little slower, reaching Ezra to press against his side. Mrs. Potter came closer too, eager to hear about Buck.
Sitting down with the boys, Ezra hugged JD a little tighter as he drew Vin to his lap. While appearing to be a purely comforting movement, it actually allowed him several moments to collect his wits.
"I wanna go see my Da!" JD exclaimed.
"Not just yet I'm afraid. Your Da is ... hurt badly. Nathan is doing everything he can to help. I need ... Chris and I ... need for you to ... stay ... with Mrs. Potter for a while. As soon as he's feeling better ... you can see him," Ezra explained.
"No! He said he was fine! He said it himself!" JD yelled as he shook Ezra.
Mrs. Potter stepped forward, wrapping her hands around JD's wrists, pulling the hysterical child off of Ezra and embraced him. He fought her, screaming as he struggled to be free. Gloria overpowered JD, dragging him down on the couch and holding him until he clung to her, still sobbing. She rocked him, murmuring softly into his neck as she tried to soothe him. Ezra took advantage of her actions to gather Vin to his chest. He could feel the boy shaking as he smoothed his hands up and down Vin's back.
"My Dad, is he okay?" Vin asked softly.
"Yes, yes, he's unharmed. Please, try to help Mrs. Potter with JD. I will send Chris to see you as soon as he can. Just try to help JD."
Pulling away, Vin nodded soberly before moving to wrap his arms around JD. Ezra rose, looking around Mrs. Potter's sitting room again. It all seemed so unreal to him. Just over an hour ago, he was helping to unload a wagon; the sun was shining on a beautiful day. Now, he dragged his hands through his hair, it was all going to pieces. Turning slowly, he walked out.
Nathan stared at the scrap of paper in growing horror. He couldn't believe what he was reading. Doc Mason said to cut away the damaged bit of the intestine and sew the hole closed! He wasn't even sure it was a piece of intestine he was looking at. He would have to enlarge the hole to return the repaired tissue to its proper place.
"I am not a doctor!" Nathan said as he stared at the paper.
"What?" Chris asked, looking up from where he was still sitting beside Buck.
"He wants me to perform surgery, for Heaven's sake, on Buck!" Nathan exclaimed, waving the paper in the air.
"Then do it! Whatever it takes!" Chris insisted. The door opened and Ezra stepped in, a bucket of steaming water in each hand.
"I ... I thought you might need ... more water," Ezra said quietly.
Hesitantly, Nathan proceeded with the operation. He had Chris holding the cone for the ether, preferring Ezra's steadier hands to hand him the instruments. Using his sharpest scalpel, he trimmed the damaged tissue away. With silk that had been soaking in alcohol, he stitched the hole closed, checking to be certain he hadn't closed off the passageway inside the intestine. Guiding the blade with his fingertip, he carefully made a small cut through the muscle before pushing the repaired tissue into it. Since he was already cutting damaged tissue away, he trimmed the ragged edge of the muscle before sewing it back together.
That night, Buck's fever rose steadily. The wounds in his back grew warm and swollen with infection. As badly as he hated to do it, Nathan opened the holes to drain them, flushing them with carbolic. They spent the rest of the night bathing Buck with cool water and wiping him down with alcohol, trying to break the fever.
Josiah returned home, cutting his circuit of the outer farms, because he awoke feeling anxious. He stalled his horse, heading directly for the clinic. Standing outside of the door, he felt slightly foolish. It was barely six in the morning, too early to waken Nathan because of a gut feeling. Just as he raised his hand to knock, the door opened and he found himself face to face with a weary-looking Chris.
"What happened?" Josiah asked.
"It's Buck ... he was shot yesterday," Chris answered.
Josiah grabbed the gunslinger by the arms, pulling him out to the landing so he could pass through the door. He crossed the room, kneeling beside the bed. Reaching out, he took up Buck's hand and began to pray.
Two days passed as Buck lay burning with fever in the clinic. The world narrowed for Chris down to days spent with the boys and nights in the clinic. He was so exhausted that he could hardly think. Whenever he was with the boys, JD cried and clung to him, begging to see his Da. In the clinic, he was afraid to sleep for fear of Buck slipping away. Josiah and Ezra were helping with the boys; it was unfair to ask Mrs. Potter to keep them. Chris knew that JD wasn't sleeping that both boys were having nightmares. Taking another drink of the bitter, strong coffee, Chris fought to focus his eyes.
Giving Vin the hammer and a handful of nails, Josiah pointed to the two pieces of scrap boards. He could see that the boy was upset and hoped to get him to open up about what was bothering him. At first, Vin tapped carefully on the first nail, driving it into the boards. Josiah watched him set the second nail before moving to where he was replacing a warped board in the floor. When Vin started the third nail, Josiah struck up a conversation.
"So, Vin, is there anything you want to talk about? I know it's been really hard on you these last few days, dealing with JD, not seeing Chris like you're used to. Are you doing all right?"
"I'm fine," Vin said.
Quirking one eyebrow, Josiah sighed, "Nothing you need to talk about? Are you getting enough sleep? Ezra said JD woke up several times during the night." The pounding on the nail took on a quicker rhythm as Vin evaded the subject. "Vin? I know this is hard for you. You have to be worried about Buck too." The hammering grew harder and faster. Josiah saw the nail bend, something that Vin normally never did. Finally, Josiah realized that Vin wasn't hitting the nail, he was just pounding on the board, harder and harder. The inevitable happened when Vin managed to catch the tip of his thumb with the hammer. He yelped, dropping the tool as he put his thumb into his mouth. "Vin? Let me see it, son," Josiah said as he crossed the room to kneel next to the boy.
"I wish it was them! I wish it was them that got shot, not Buck! I hate them, Josiah! I hate them and I wish they were dead!" Vin yelled before throwing his arms around Josiah's neck. He clenched his hands in Josiah's shirt and sobbed.
"Oh, Vin, you don't mean that," Josiah murmured.
"I do! I hate them! I hate them!" Vin exclaimed, pounding on Josiah's shoulder as he shouted.
"Oh Vin, I'm so sorry. I know that you're worried about Buck. I shouldn't have pushed you to talk but you need to talk about it. It's normal to be upset, angry even, about what happened, but you don't really mean to wish harm on those kids. I know," Josiah said as he rocked the distraught child.
Meanwhile, Ezra was having his own problems with JD. He sat across the table from the child, who was still pushing his food around on his plate. So far, he had managed all of two bites. With his fork, Ezra picked up another small piece of the roast beef and offered it to JD. Making big, pouty eyes, he opened his mouth and took the bite. With a monumental sigh, JD chewed the food, forcing himself to swallow it.
"I did not realize that mastication was so much work," Ezra commented.
"I'm not hungry," JD defended, pushing the plate away.
"You've hardly consumed anything over the past three meals. Certainly, you must have some appetite by now," Ezra said. "JD, you need to eat to keep your strength up."
"When can I see my Da?"
"When he wakes up. I assure you that, as soon as he opens his eyes, I will come and get you. Now, please eat."
JD took another bite before he rested his head on his arm and closed his eyes. Ezra gathered the sleeping child into his arms, carrying him out of the restaurant and across the street. Down the street, beyond the saloon, a drunken cowboy fired his gun, hitting his own foot. Even as the man started screaming in pain, Ezra found that he had a wildcat in his arms. JD, reacting to the gunfire, began to struggle, screaming and flinging his little fists. Ezra was forced to lower the child to the boardwalk to wrap his arms around him. He had never seen the little boy so wild. Mary Travis came to his rescue when she rushed out to help him calm JD. Finally, they got him into the boarding house, where Ezra left him to go see about the drunken cowboy. He ran into Josiah, also running to see what had happened.
Nathan treated the man at the jail rather than have him up in the clinic. Josiah went to get Vin from where he had left him with Mrs. Potter, taking him to the boarding house with JD. As soon as he saw Vin, JD rushed to him, nearly mowing the boy down in his eagerness to make sure he was all right. Mary stayed with them while Josiah went to help Nathan.
That evening, as the three weary men paused for a meal, Ezra broached something to Nathan. "I read that there's this new medicine for infections. They've had a lot of success with it. Have you considered using it on Buck?" Ezra asked.
"I have but it's expensive and hard to get," Nathan answered.
"What is it?" Josiah asked.
"It's a sulfa something, I read about it in an article. He's right, they are using it on all kinds of infections. Why are you asking about it? You know where you can get some?" Nathan asked.
"It will be on the stage tomorrow," Ezra replied. "I sent a wire to Denver the day Buck was shot."
"When were you planning to tell me?" Nathan asked.
"I had hoped we would not need it."
The drug arrived on the stage, in a small, unassuming little package. Ezra ran down the boardwalk, making a most un-gentlemanlike display as he pushed people out of his way. Nathan read the instructions in the package before administering the first dose. They all waited around, as if Buck would be magically rendered whole by the drug. Finally, gradually, they accepted that they would still have to wait. Ezra offered to stay with the boys that night.
"I am most capable of functioning on a minimum of sleep. Josiah stayed with them last night. Chris, you should retire to my room and try to rest. You are beyond your ability to function properly," Ezra said. Nathan had been trying to get him out of the clinic since the beginning with little success and Chris was running on pure stubbornness. He was sleeping in snatches while trying to spend time with the boys during the day and Buck at night. He insisted on making one patrol round a day.
"I'll sleep here," Chris mumbled, his sleep-deprived brain struggling to form the words.
The next three days were still tension filled. While Buck's temperature stabilized, it didn't break. He was growing weaker with every hour. Nathan was beginning to wonder if the sulfa was helping at all. He could see where Buck was losing weight when he went to turn him to prevent him from developing bedsores. The four entry wounds were healing, only red, tender skin remained. On his abdomen, the incision had healed cleanly. Now, if only his fever would break.
Chris sank down on one knee to envelope Vin in a hug. JD looked up from where he sat on the floor, too tired to even get up on his own. Chris saw the dark circles under the boy's eyes, the listless way he moved.
"Can I see my Da today?" JD asked softly.
"Not yet, JD. He's still getting better. How about you guys having breakfast with me over at the restaurant. I haven't seen much of either of you lately," Chris said. He watched the hurt scroll across JD's face before the boy's chin dropped to his chest, his shoulders bobbing as he cried.
Just before noon, a stranger rode in. Those he questioned directed him to the steps that led to the rooms above the livery. Releasing the strap that held his bag behind the cantle, the man mounted the stairs.
Nathan opened the door, glaring at the stranger. "Can I help you?" he asked. "Would you be the Nathan Jackson who wired me last week about a friend who was gut shot?" the stranger inquired. Relief washed over the dark-skinned healer as he leaned against the doorframe. "Doc Mason?" Nathan asked, "I'm sorry to sound so-" The man cut him off by placing one hand on his shoulder, "No need to apologize, no need at all. I know you must be bone weary by now. Mind if I come in and take a look at your patient?"
After reviewing everything Nathan said about what he had seen and done, Doctor Mason assured him that he had done everything possible for his friend. He was impressed that Buck had been given several doses of sulfa, no doubt keeping the worst of the infection at bay. "You should go grab some shuteye, Nathan. You look rough as an old cob. I'll sit here and mind the store for you," the older man said. Too overcome with relief to argue, Nathan let the man push him out of the clinic. Sinking gratefully to his mattress, he was asleep before the sheets warmed under his body.
Chris opened the door, bristling at the stranger who sat in his chair at the side of the bed. The man wrung a cloth in the bucket at his feet and wiped Buck's bare chest, avoiding the healed incision. "Who are you?" Chris asked. "Doctor Hiram Mason from Stoney Creek. I sent your man, Nathan, to get some sleep," the stranger replied calmly. "How is he?" Chris asked. "All things considered, I would say he's doing very well. His fever broke just a while ago, I was just washing him up a little since I can't change the bedding without assistance," the doctor answered. "I'll get the sheets," Chris said, moving to the linen closet in the corner.
By the time Nathan awoke and made his way back into the other room, Buck was asleep in fresh bedclothes. An agitated murmur from the other side of the room revealed Chris asleep on the other cot. "How ... what happened? How long was I asleep?" Nathan asked worriedly. It took only a few minutes to catch him up on the situation. "How did you persuade Chris to sleep?" Nathan asked.
"A few drops of laudanum in a shot of whiskey," the wily older man explained. "It didn't take much." Just then, Chris jerked violently in the cot. He reached up to scrub at his eyes, still feeling as if he had a handful of sand in them. Bolting upright, he glared angrily at the doctor.
"I ought to kill you for that," he growled, tugging on his boots. Doctor Mason held up his empty hands, showing that he would accept whatever punishment the gunslinger saw fit to distribute. "Where are the boys?" Chris asked of Nathan.
"Ezra had them over at the boarding house a little while ago. JD's not eating, we have to do something," Nathan said, concern for the boy making his voice thick with emotion. Chris pulled on his duster, teaching for the door to go to his boys.
The soft groan stopped his hand at the knob. "Whas-s wron' wi- Lil Bit?" Buck whispered. Both Nathan and Dr. Mason lurched to the side of the bed, Nathan grabbing the cup to tip to parched lips. After Buck had taken several swallows, he spoke again, "What's wrong with JD?"
"Buck ... he's been ... worried about you?" Chris said.
"Wanna ... see him," Buck said, fighting to keep his eyes open and focused on the wavering dark blur.
"You need to rest. You're still-" Nathan said quickly. He was interrupted by a surprisingly strong grip on his forearm.
"I need to see my son," Buck said.
"I'll be right back," Chris said, ripping the door practically off its hinges. Running about half way down the steps, he vaulted over the railing, dropping lightly to the dry, dusty ground before taking off for the boarding house. People and horses shied away from him as he hit the boardwalk at a run.
In the room the boys were using at the boarding house, Ezra's cheek came to rest against the raven-haired head resting on his shoulder. JD had cried himself to sleep some minutes before after refusing to eat more than a bite of his supper. He had taken the milk, only after Mrs. Potter put powdered cocoa and sugar in it. Even then, he had only taken a few ounces. Vin lay on the foot of the bed, staring despondently at the younger boy. Hearing the heavy footfalls in the hall, Vin sat up and looked toward the door.
Chris opened the door and made eye contact with Ezra. "He's awake. He wants to see JD." Vin pushed up to his knees and held his arms out to his dad and Chris picked him up, crushing the boy to his chest for a moment. "Come on, we gotta hurry!"
People flattened themselves against the walls as the two men jogged up the boardwalk. Chris used his longer legs to vault up the steps while Ezra hit every step on his way up. On the landing, both men paused to catch their breath. Chris opened the door and stepped inside, looking hopefully toward the bed. Buck's eyes were closed, his breathing deep and even. JD struggled to be put down, pummeling Ezra's shins with his little booted feet until he was lowered to the floor.
"Da! Da, wake up! Please wake up!" JD begged as he gently shook Buck's arm. Nathan reached down, intending to pull the child away when the dark blue eyes opened. "Da? Are you gonna get better now?"
Buck raised a trembling hand, trying to cup his son's cheek. JD caught the hand and guided it to its goal, nuzzling into the warm palm. Buck managed to move his thumb to brush away the tears that rolled down JD's cheek. "Come here, son," he whispered. Before anyone could stop him, JD was up in the bed, snuggled up next to Buck's side. A relieved sigh rose from both of them as they drifted off to sleep.
"Leave him there, he's not hurting anything," Dr. Mason said when Nathan moved to take the sleeping child from Buck's side. He took a blanket and draped it over both of them, tucking it close to JD and reaching under to tug the boots off of his little feet.
Over the course of the next two days, JD and Buck improved at the same pace. For his Da, JD would eat whatever Nathan put in front of him. For his Little Bit, Buck drank the vile concoctions Nathan brewed to help him. Both of them consumed rich broths and light meals and both of them slept, a lot; JD curled to Buck's side.
Dr. Mason shook Ezra's hand and ruffled Vin's hair before getting on the stage. Buck was out of danger and the doctor had to get back to his town and his patients. Chris, Josiah and Ezra were taking patrols on rotation with Nathan, now that Buck could be left on his own for short periods of time. It would be a long time before he would be up to sitting a horse for any length of time but at least they knew there would be a time when he would be able to take a patrol.
A group of children ran along the boardwalk, laughing and jostling each other as they kicked an old rag ball. JD was there, right in the thick of it. At his side was the oldest of the children Buck nearly died to protect. Ezra smiled fondly as Vin ran to join in the game. Buck sat in a rocker outside of the saloon, swaddled in blankets to fight off the chill he still hadn't managed to shake. But he was getting better, that was all that mattered.