Main character: Nathan
Originally published in Magnificent Holidays 3 (2005, Neon Rainbow Press).
It wasn't easy to talk when you were riding, between the dust and the clopping of horse hooves and the distance between your fellow riders. You certainly couldn't manage a real conversation at anything faster than a brisk clip. When you'd been riding for hours, though, and still had a few to go before a stiff drink and a long soak and a soft mattress with clean sheets, you tended to make the effort, especially if you were with friends.
" So I turned around, and there she was, sittin' there on the chair as pretty as you please, dressed only in the clothes God made for her."
JD, as usual, was proving to be both Buck's most appreciative and skeptical audience. "You're kidding! What did her fiancÈ say?"
Buck winked at him. "What he didn't know didn't hurt him."
Tired chuckles and snorts of amusement rolled through the group. Buck grinned at all of them, showing some teeth when Chris rolled his eyes. It took less now than once upon a time to pull a smile from their fearless leader, and there wasn't one of them who wasn't glad to see it.
"Hey, that reminds me of a joke Zeke told me-"
Boos and groans this time cut off the youngest member of the group, and even though JD scowled at them, taking a swipe at Buck with his hat, his mouth twitched.
Vin slowed, pulling his horse up and swinging down a moment while the rest reined in to wait for him. He studied something on the ground, peered into the distance, then swung back up onto his mount in one graceful motion.
A single raised eyebrow from Chris Larabee was enough to convey what they all wondered.
Vin shrugged one shoulder. "Couple 'a riders headin' off toward the west. Don't look like trouble."
Chris nodded and they started moving again.
A minute of comfortable silence, then a southern drawl stretched even wider by fatigue. "How unfortunate that Mr. Jackson had to miss this scintillating journey. We must be sure to relay it in detail to him upon our return."
"What kinda sin?" JD asked, puzzled.
"He means 'exciting,'" Josiah spoke up. "I'm sure Nathan would've been happy to switch places with you and let you go play midwife for Mrs. Sherman's baby, instead, Ezra."
"Very amusing." Ezra Standish's voice was drier than the dust. "I merely mean to say the next time there is some unconfirmed report of trouble so far from town, perhaps a smaller number of our group would suffice to investigate it."
"And I bet you're volunteerin' to stay home."
"Now that you mention it, Mr. Wilmington "
"Two ranchers come to us about rustlers, that's not an unconfirmed report. Long as we're on the Judge's pay, we keep checking on trouble."
Chris' word was law and silence fell, Ezra fidgeting slightly in the saddle. At the sidelong grin Vin threw him, however, he quirked one in return. Confirmed or not, it had been a long, fruitless trip and they all knew it.
To Chris, Tanner said more quietly, "Y' figure Nathan's back yet?"
"He said tonight or tomorrow, latest. Mrs. Sherman wasn't going to wait much longer."
Vin nodded once.
JD was grimacing. "My ma wanted me to be a doctor, but after seeing what Nathan does, I don't think I'm interested."
"What, you wouldn't wanna be birthin' babies and lancin' boils?" Buck asked good-humoredly.
"Brewin' them smelly teas of Nate's," Vin put in.
"Seein' folk on their final journey."
"Amputatin' limbs." Buck sounded gleeful in comparison to Josiah's quiet words.
"It is a lucrative business," Ezra mused.
"If he got paid."
Once more, Chris sent them into frowning silence.
Buck glanced at them, drew up his brows. "Does Nate ever get paid?"
"I just figured "
"Well, he never asked "
"Some of the townsfolk give him money after he's taken care of 'em."
But Josiah was shaking his head before Vin even finished. "Rarely. Brother Nathan usually works for a heavenly reward, not an earthly one."
"It's not like we ever " JD trailed off at the several stares aimed his way. "What?"
"Yeah, I guess we don't. We always just kinda take for granted he'll patch us up." Buck's cheer was gone.
Ezra cleared his throat. "Surely the Judge-" Chris was shaking his head. "I had always assumed-"
"Therere things more important than money." This time it was Vin's stone dropping into the well of conversation that shut them all up.
"None of 'em pay for medical supplies."
There were more than a couple of uneasy looks passed around, no one quite meeting each others' eyes.
"Nathan doesn't want our money," Chris said finally.
"There are other ways to repay a service." That was Ezra, gaze contemplative under the brim of his hat.
"You got an idea?"
"Yeah, I think he does." Buck was smiling again. "You think about it long enough, kid, you will, too."
Another minute of confusion and JD's expression cleared. "Oh!"
Josiah glanced around the group, a silent count. "Gentlemen, I believe tomorrow is payday then."
A chorus of thoughtful nods, and a scheming smile or two was his reply.
It was a good fifteen minutes before the conversation, the topic this time the latest fight between the two ancient McGovern brothers, started up again.
+ + + + + + +
Nathan Jackson, ex-slave, healer, peacekeeper, and very tired man, rolled over in his bed and cracked his eyes open. The light sifting through the window looked like mid-afternoon sunshine and he groaned, dropping an arm over his eyes. It had been around dawn when he'd ridden back to town and flopped into bed, not even bothering to change his soiled clothing, and it was too soon to be waking up yet after nearly forty-eight hours without sleep. But duty called. Two of the town children had the croup, and Mr. Fenster's broken leg needed checking besides whatever task Chris Larabee had for him now that the others were back in town. Nathan had counted the horses in the stable, there hadn't been anyone waiting for him in the clinic with a bullet in him, and that was about all he needed to know about their latest mission.
With another groan, he pushed himself up out of bed and poured some water from the pitcher into the washstand bowl. A bath would have to wait, maybe until that evening, but at least he could get out of those clothes.
Ten minutes later, feeling slightly more alive, Nathan stretched again, then grabbed his bag and opened the door to face the new day, or at least what was left of it.
And nearly stepped on the neat pile that lay on the porch in front of his door.
Puzzled, Nathan crouched down for a closer look. It was actually a stack of folded papers, druggist folds, the top one labeled Cinnamon Bark in a loose, childlike scrawl and what looked like berry ink. Nathan lifted that one and the one underneath was also labeled, Slippery Elm. The one below that, Snakeroot.
Nathan shook his head in disbelief: there had to be twenty different packets there, different herbs meticulously gathered, identified, and sorted for his practice. It was a wonderful gift, but who on earth would have taken the time?
Actually, that was a pretty easy one. There was only one other person he knew in town who had that kind of grasp of herbal remedies the Indians used. The same person who was just learning to read and write, too, and still had writing worse than Billy Travis's. Vin Tanner.
Nathan glanced up, down the stairs to his right, toward the alley to his left, seeing no one. Not that Vin seemed to have any interest in getting credit for his gift, but still. Nathan shook his head again. Well, he was still bewildered by the unexpected donation, but it was one he could surely use, and he would thank Vin later. For now, Nathan gathered up his new treasures and piled them on the small table inside the clinic before stepping outside again. He would enjoy sorting through them later and seeing what all his new supplies were, but for now he was still expected.
The first stop, however, was to be Mrs. Potter's to replace the last of the petroleum jelly he had used up the night before. Nathan rubbed the back of his neck wearily as he climbed the stairs to the boardwalk, smiling at little Gracie Edwards just passing by with her mama, before entering the general store.
Mrs. Potter was finishing up with a customer, and Nathan found what he wanted while he waited. It was his turn next, and he put the small bottle on the counter and dug into his pocket for change. "'Mornin', Mrs. Potter. Still two bits for a bottle?"
She gave him a friendly smile. "It certainly is, Mr. Jackson, but it's already been taken care of."
He blinked at her, wondering how hed misunderstood her. "'Scuse me?"
"An account was set up in your name just this morning for twenty-five dollars, so I'll just put it on that." She already had her big ledger book out and wrote briefly on one page.
"But I don't-" Nathan scratched his head. "Who set up the account?"
"Oh," she said and dimpled, "he didn't want you to worry about that, just said to tell you it was a friend."
A friend like Vin Tanner, feeling suddenly unusually generous? But no, Vin never had more than a few coins to his name since Nathan had known him. In fact, there weren't many in town who could have afforded a twenty-five dollar gift like that, and only one of his fellow peacekeepers: Ezra Standish. And it was true, the last two years had made them, if not close friends, comfortable companions.
But why on earth would Ezra be spending his spoils on an account for medical supplies? The only thing that made less sense was one of the few relatively wealthy ranchers and business owners in the area to have made the sacrifice.
Nathan shrugged. "Well, thank my friend for me next time you see him. I 'preciate this." He held up the bottle, then slipped it into his bag. Nodding his good-bye to Mrs. Potter, he was nearly at the door when another idea occurred. "Oh, uh, maybe you could order that book for me now? The one I was lookin' at last week?" The medical reference he had pined for had cost a staggering eight dollars and might as well have been eighty for all he could afford. Now it wasn't even a third of the funds he had at his disposal. He would have to thank Ezra profusely when he saw the man and, for once, wouldn't be choking on his words one bit to do so.
But a stop at the saloon to pick up some food from Inez didn't turn up either Ezra or Vin, just Buck, talking up a girl by the bar, and Chris reading a book in the back. Both paused to give him a smile and a nod, and he returned both with only slight uncertainty. At least Chris didn't seem to have a job for him to do. Nathan was looking forward to finishing his rounds and getting back to those herbs waiting for him at the clinic.
The rounds, however, took longer than expected. Mr. Fenster had been moving around too much on the leg despite Nathan's orders and the whole limb had to be broken and reset. Nathan didn't leave until he extracted a promise that Miss Fenster, the farmer's sister, would be sent for to take care of him so he could stay off his feet and heal.
The croup crisis had passed, but had worn the mother out to the point of illness herself, and Nathan found himself having a serious talk with the young father about what his wife would need help with around the house before she got back on her feet. It would probably be best to send Mrs. Potter out there to look in on them and maybe do some cooking for them, if the pale young man was any indication.
And then another nearby family had a case of the mumps, necessitating quarantine and a whole new regimen of treatment.
It was growing dark by the time Nathan clumped tiredly back into town.
The saloon shone warmly into the street, alive and inviting, and Nathan hovered uncertainly in front of its doors for a moment. He still had to find Ezra and Vin to thank them for their unexpected kindnesses, and the cold meat and bread Inez had fixed him earlier was long gone from his growling stomach, but he needed another change of clothes and those herbs really did have him curious. Dinner could wait. With strengthening step, Nathan kept walking, up the stairs to the clinic.
The shadows were already long enough in the room that he had to light his lamp before he could see much, and Nathan was pleasantly surprised to find the lamp he had thought was almost empty, was filled and neatly trimmed. By its light, though, the healer could see the surprise didn't end there.
There was another bed in the room, freshly made with a straw mattress and sheets and a blanket, sitting a few feet from the other bed as if it had always been there.
Speechless, Nathan stared at it, then back at the door. This was his clinic, right? The same shelves lined the wall, his chair and table where he had left them, although its contents were straightened, the bottles on the shelf gleaming with a polish he never seemed to have time to give them, the floor dusted and still damp from washing. It was his room but not, as if someone - or a bunch of someones - had come in and fixed it up just like he would have liked to, if he'd had the time.
The bed drew him most persuasively, and Nathan stumbled closer to it, running his hand down one sanded leg. There weren't too many he knew who did work like that, and it would have been just like Josiah to think of making him another bed so he had a place to sleep when a patient had taken Nathan's own. The why still eluded him as it had for the previous gifts of that day, but Nathan wasn't about to question his old friend's generosity. Josiah always had his own reasons.
The clean-up, though, baffled Nathan, and he stepped back again to admire the fresh room. Well, following the pattern of that day, if one of the six others had done this for him, too, he was guessing either JD or Buck. JD would have enlisted Casey to help him and show him what to do, while Buck would have probably sweet-talked one of the town's women into doing the job for him. At any rate, that they had even thought of it still amazed and humbled Nathan. He hadn't told anybody how embarrassed he'd been the week before by the shabby mustiness of the little clinic when he'd had Mrs. Travis up there to remove a splinter from Billy's palm.
Still shaking his head in disbelief, Nathan sank down on the edge of the new bed, admiring the soft give of the new mattress, and started unbuttoning his shirt.
A soft rap at the door had him immediately buttoning it up again, and Nathan stood and crossed to the door, mentally preparing himself for whatever new emergency demanded his attention. But it was only Miss Sophie outside, the new town seamstress, with an arm full of clothing.
"Mr. Jackson, I hope I'm not bothering you, but I have your laundry."
"My what?" he asked blankly, gaze automatically swinging down to the bundle in her hands. The shirt on top looked just like the one he had taken off earlier that day, and he automatically glanced behind him to where he had dropped it. The floor, of course, was clean.
Back to Sophie. "I don't-"
"I'll be comin' every other day to pick up your things, but you had so much to wash, I thought you might want these back tonight." She held out the bundle. Nathan recognized at least two other shirts in the pile and a pair of pants as well as, he flushed, his long johns.
He took the pile by reflex. "Thank you, but I can't-"
"Oh, no, you don't understand, I've been paid. You don't have to do anything."
His jaw was hanging ajar and Nathan finally hoisted it up. "Lemme guess, a friend took care of it."
She dimpled brightly. "'Xactly! I'll be back day after 'morrow. Let me know if you have any darnin', too." And she turned and walked down the stairs without waiting for the thanks that was still stuck somewhere between his confusion and amazement.
Nathan shut the door, looked down at the clean clothes in his hands, then around at the washed, refurnished room. It wasn't his birthday, was it? Not that he knew which day that was, but hed always drunk himself a toast in March, and this was October. Had he done anyone a big favor lately?
Nothing in particular came to mind and, anyway, that wouldn't have merited five shows of gratitude. No, this one had him well and truly stumped.
But the fatigue that had been chasing him around for too long had lifted like a veil. All the changes he had hoped to make, the supplies he had wanted to get, had been given to him just like that, without any apparent expectation of return or even thanks. It made him feel a lot better about his ability to doctor, but more so, it was a reminder that he wasn't alone. He had friends, and maybe they couldn't help with the healing, but they all helped in the ways they could. Some even in ways he would never have thought of.
Warmed to overflowing with gratitude, Nathan dropped his bag by the door and went out again without a glance at the pile of wrapped herbs he had been waiting to sort through. Some thank-yous just shouldn't wait.
He reached the landing as the stage rolled by, hours late as usual, and Nathan paused a moment to let the trailing cloud of dust settle before he followed it. New arrivals were always of interest in a small town like Four Corners, and Nathan watched the people disembarking with half an eye as he continued on toward the saloon. Only two passengers this time: an elderly woman quickly met by a younger man, and a middle-aged man in a well-cut suit and a hat like JD's. He glanced up and down the street, gaze lighting on Nathan before, to the healer's surprise, the stranger smiled at him.
"Would you perhaps be Mr. Jackson?" Carpetbag in one hand, he took a step toward Nathan.
Curiosity overcame wariness in this most extraordinary of days. Nathan nodded cordially. "That's me."
"Wonderful, thank you for meeting me. I'm afraid I can only spare the one evening before I must go on, but perhaps we could start now."
Nathan stared at him in confusion, which he was beginning to think was a permanent state. "I'm sorry, mister, I don't know what you're talkin' about."
Startled eyes blinked beneath bushy eyebrows, then the man smiled again. "Of course, I was told it was a surprise. Forgive me. My name is Lucius Conover. Doctor Lucius Conover. I have a practice over in Salt Flats. I am acquainted with one of your friends, and he asked me if I could come have a doctor-to-doctor talk with you, perhaps answer some of your questions. I was going out to San Francisco this week anyway, so I was able to arrange a small side trip. I hear you're the only man of medicine this small town has?"
Nathan shook his head, sure he was mishearing. "I'm no doctor, I just-"
"Just heal the sick and tend to the injured." Conover had reached Nathan and took his arm now as if they were old friends. "Perhaps you don't have a medical degree, but I believe we share the same job description, my friend. I was told you have many questions."
Chris. This was Chris's work as surely as if he'd come out to introduce the doctor himself. And this had been Nathan's one spoken wish, the chance to ask all the questions he had stored up over time, although a wish spoken when Chris had had a great deal of distraction. Nathan couldn't imagine how he could have heard the barely voiced dream, let alone remembered and acted on it. A real doctor, come just to talk to him. It flushed him with excitement at just the thought.
He glanced once more at the saloon, then turned the doctor back toward the direction of the clinic. The thank-yous would keep; his friends would know anyway.
"Yeah, I've got 'bout a hundred things to ask ya. I hope you weren't plannin' to sleep much tonight."
Conover laughed warmly. "Do we ever?"
Nathan grinned back. "No, sir." And there wasn't a thing he would have rather been doing just then.
+ + + + + + +
Meals were sometimes shared, sometimes taken separately as time and duties permitted. This afternoon, five of them were gathered around one of the saloon tables for lunch, digging into steaks and gravy and cornbread. Ezra's gaze lingered on Buck, sopping up gravy with bread and enthusiasm, and he sighed at the uncivilized display before his mouth twitched and he returned to his food. Vin noticed and exchanged an amused glance with Buck, which JD picked up on and shared. The kid wasn't much of a kid any more, although Josiah's look was purely paternal affection as he watched the young man return to his meal with vigor.
One of the batwing doors swung open and Nathan walked in, eyes dark-ringed but smiling. Vin scooted closer to Buck without even a glance up, and the healer swung a chair around to fill in the gap, motioning to Inez for some food. More looks passed around the table but the eating didn't slow.
"How you doin', Nathan? Haven't seen you since yesterday." Buck wiped his mustache, gave Inez a hopeful grin, and turned back to Jackson undaunted when she didn't even acknowledge him.
"I've been busy - mumps and croup out of town, and Mr. Fenster in town. Didn't even get back until supper."
"Yeah?" Buck was continuing the conversation, but the rest were listening.
"Seems y'all were pretty busy, too," Nathan said casually before cutting a bite of steak. Considering he hadn't eaten since lunch the day before, shoe leather would probably have tasted good, but the meat was unusually tender and delicious.
"Don't know what you mean there, Nate," Buck said pleasantly, and cleaned up the rest of his plate with the heel of bread. "I was in here all day, washin' the trail dust out of my mouth."
"Yeah?" Nathan raised his eyebrows. "How 'bout you, Vin?"
There was a quiet cough. "Patrolin'."
"Oh, uh, I spent the day with Casey." His cheeks reddened.
So JD did have help, but then he probably made it up to his young lady after, too. Nathan looked over at Josiah, who shrugged.
"The Lord always awaits at the church."
And Ezra studiously ignored Nathan's inquiring look all together.
The healer's mouth tugged. If they weren't going to say it, he wasn't either. But there were other ways. "Well," he said around another bite, "I guess I got some of them fairy folk on my side then, 'cause someone sure was busy while I was out yesterday."
"Yeah?" Vin asked with small interest.
"Yeah. Wish I knew where they were so I could thank 'em."
Ezra wiped his mouth, set his napkin down. "I'm certain it's merely well-deserved compensation for your services, Mr. Jackson."
Ah. Nathan's expression cleared - payment for services. That explained part of it, except, he'd never charged anyone for his help, or told them what he could have used help with. Maybe that was the excuse, but he knew better than to think this was some business transaction. "Well, I'm still grateful. Got some things I've been hopin' for a long time."
No answer to that, not even a surface platitude. But as Nathan glanced over at Ezra again, the gambler gave him the barest hint of a smile and touched a finger to his brow in salute. Josiah and Vin gave him small nods before rising with their empty plates, and JD flashed him a grin. Buck seemed oblivious, until he also rose with his plate and patted Nathan's shoulder on the way.
Apparently they had as many ways to say "you're welcome" as to say "thank you," and he heard every one of them.
Chris he didn't see until later that day, when Nathan came upon the man on the boardwalk outside the jail. Larabee gave him a glance and a nod before returning to whatever animal he was painstakingly carving. Nathan nodded in return, took a seat beside him, and leaned back with his arms crossed. You couldn't rush something like this with Chris Larabee. It was a few minutes before Nathan even spoke.
"Met a doctor yesterday."
Another shaving fell to the plank boardwalk and disappeared into a crack in silence.
"Stayed up all night talkin'. Got my chance to ask all those questions I've been savin' up."
"That's good," Chris said measuredly.
"It'll help me help folks better." Nathan nodded. "Good timing, that doctor comin' now."
"Things happen for a reason."
They were ironic words coming from Chris, a man who fought Fate like no one Nathan had met, but it didn't make them less true. Maybe they were all learning.
"Yeah." Nathan stood, stretched. "I ain't never asked for pay for doctorin', Chris."
Larabee squinted up at him. "I know that."
He met the man's green eyes squarely. "I'm just sayin', a man's gotta do what he can t' help."
Something softened in those green eyes. "Yep."
He understood suddenly, in a whole different way, but it only added to the humbling. "Oh." Nathan fidgeted. "Well, long as we got that clear "
Chris went back to carving.
Nathan turned away, reassured somehow down deep where he hadn't known he'd been shaky. "Thanks," he said quietly to the wind.
And still heard the "You're welcome" from behind him.
With a smile, Nathan Jackson walked away and went back to work.