Crossover "The Sentinel"
The stage rolled to a stop in front of the hotel and the driver leapt down to assist the passengers. A man and a woman got out, turning back to catch their bags as they were handed down from the top. Buck smiled politely at the woman before his eyes went back to the next person to depart. When the young blonde woman stepped out of the carriage, Buck’s smile widened beneath his neatly groomed mustache and he surged forward to help her with her bag.
“Well, hello there. Allow me to assist you with your things,” Buck gushed as he took the small valise from the driver. “Are you meeting someone here?”
“No, I’m not. I just wanted to rest a few days before resuming my journey,” she replied, turning back to watch as her small trunk was placed on the boardwalk.
“Well, allow me to introduce myself, Buck Wilmington, at your service.”
“Alexandra … Brown,” the blonde woman said, “but please, call me Alex.”
“Alex. Do you mind telling me where you’re headed?” Buck asked.
“I have business in Mexico,” she replied.
Just then, Ezra stepped out of the saloon and surveyed the street, his eyes alighting on the blonde woman on Buck’s arm. She was tall and stately and her manner of dress spoke of money and piqued his interest. He checked that the ruffles on his shirt sleeves were correctly positioned and that his emerald jacket laid properly across his chest as he started down the street.
Vin nodded to the stagecoach driver as he passed, on his way to the livery. Seconds later, an odd tingling shot up his spine and he scoured the rooftops and shadows. It was the feeling he got when he was being followed or when danger was near. The screech of an eagle drew his eye toward the hotel, where Buck was escorting a blonde woman through the double doors. He stared, even after the doors closed behind them, until he realized that he had stopped in the middle of the street. Shuddering under the cold chill that washed over him, he kneed Peso into motion.
While the manager of the hotel was choosing a room for the blonde woman, Buck was smiling at her from where he leaned against the counter. The manager’s son had already gone out and brought in the trunk, groaning softly as his father indicated the second floor room. Alex glanced at him, her lips pursed with some indefinable emotion. She had just accepted her key when the door opened again and Ezra strode through, immediately turning a brilliant, gold-toothed smile her way.
“What vision of loveliness has chosen to grace our fair hamlet with such beauty?” Ezra exclaimed as he swept forward to introduce himself. “Ezra P. Standish, at your service, ma’am.”
A smile quirked one side of her mouth before she asked, “What does the ‘P’ stand for?”
“Positively charmed to make your acquaintance,” Ezra replied, taking her hand and gallantly placing a kiss on her knuckles. “Allow me to escort you to your room and may I invite you to share a cup of tea with me in the restaurant after you’ve had time to unpack and freshen up from your trip?”
A gasp of irritation and shock burst from Buck’s lips as he shot an angry look at Ezra. He had been just about to invite the woman for a stroll on the boardwalk. While he stood there, with his mouth hanging open, Ezra picked up Alex’s valise and folded her hand over his arm.
Seated near the windows in the restaurant, Ezra listened with unfeigned interest as Miss Brown related details of her journey from Denver. She had been traveling for several months, from up near the Canadian border. However, whenever Ezra tried to get her to reveal the reason for her trip south, she would conveniently change the subject. She was telling him about a rather harrowing river crossing they had made some days ago when JD entered the restaurant and paused in the doorway, looking for a table.
Alex felt her throat suddenly go dry as she studied the young man in the bowler hat. Her nostrils flared ever so slightly and her ears sought out the rhythm of his heart. She realized suddenly that she was staring when Mr. Standish covered her trembling hand with his and called her name.
“Miss Brown? Is something wrong?” Ezra asked. Her skin was cool to the touch but she seemed to almost vibrate with barely restrained energy. He thought she was having some kind of fit. He had a cousin in New Orleans who had them and he took on the same vacant stare when they hit. “Miss Brown?” he repeated.
“What? Oh, I’m sorry, I was lost in thought for a moment. What were you saying?” Alex asked, trying to cover up for the lapse in her speech.
“You were relating the tale of your ferry crossing,” Ezra reminded her, even as JD strode toward their table.
“Ezra, Ma’am, sorry to interrupt, but Chris sent me to get you,” JD explained.
“Is something wrong?” Ezra asked.
“He got a telegram from Eagle Bend, some gang of outlaws is supposed to be headed this way and he wants all of us over at the jail to plan how to stop ‘em,” JD replied.
“Alas, duty calls. If you’ll excuse me. I would be delighted if you would allow me to escort you back to your hotel, Miss Brown,” Ezra said.
“You don’t have to do that. I would like to explore the town. Thank you for the tea,” Alex replied. A smile curled her lips as she glanced out the window. With one or more of the peacekeepers falling under her charms, she was certain to acquire the information she needed.
The seven peacekeepers gathered in the jail and Chris explained the telegram that he had gotten in greater detail.
“It’s Nick Strand’s gang. They’ve hit banks and stage coaches all over the territory. Travis thinks they’re headed this way. The army is supposed to be bringing a gold shipment through in three days. They have a whole regiment guarding it.”
Josiah’s low whistle interrupted Chris, “That’s a lot of men. It’s going to draw a lot of attention.”
“The gold isn’t traveling with the regiment, is it?” Ezra announced from where he was leaning against the outer row of bars.
Chris’ eyes flashed something like anger as they came to rest on Standish. He then glanced at each of the others in turn.
“No, it isn’t. In fact, it’s already here, in our bank,” Chris explained.
After the fiasco with Lucias Stutz’s money, Chris had been amazed that the banker would agree to have such a large amount of gold in his vault. But he knew that there was a handsome fee that went along with securing the payroll, even for a short amount of time and that was probably what motivated him to cooperate with the Army.
“It was on the stage?” Nathan asked. He had noticed the large, heavy crate that had been unloaded from the back of the coach.
On the boardwalk, Alex pretended to be interested in the notice tacked to the wall that announced the upcoming events in town. In truth, she was listening in on the meeting at the jail. Her smile grew larger as she heard the confirmation that the gold shipment was already in the bank. She turned around and leaned against the wall, surveying the layout of the street and making note of the most likely places for an ambush.
Chris kept all of them busy, organizing watches for the bank and setting extra patrols for the town. He wanted to make sure that they didn’t give away the fact that the gold was in the bank. It was vitally important that they not alert anyone outside of the bank staff about the shipment. The Strand gang was just another wrinkle in the plan that they didn’t need.
The next morning, Buck hit the boardwalk early, hoping to hook up with Miss Brown before Ezra got to her. He camped out on the bench outside of the restaurant, waiting for her to come down to eat. After most of an hour, he gave up and went inside to get something for himself. He had the mid-morning shift watching the bank, sitting in front of the saloon so as not to give away the secret. He was coming out of the restaurant just as Alex came out of the hotel … with Ezra. Josiah and JD passed him, on their way in to get their breakfast. JD muffled a laugh at the irritated growl Buck made on seeing Standish with the blonde woman.
Ezra smiled as he escorted Miss Brown to the restaurant for breakfast. He had been up the better part of the night, playing cards in the saloon before taking the early morning patrol around the town. He had been pleased to receive the invitation from the blonde woman when he bumped into her as he made his final checks of the businesses. Ordinarily, he would have made a bee line for his bed but he was secretly delighted to have the chance to share the morning meal with her. They stood in the doorway of the restaurant, trying to decide on a table when Miss Brown noticed JD and Josiah sitting at a large table in the back.
“Oh! Do you mind if we join your friends?” Alex asked.
“Not at all,” Ezra replied as he steered her toward their table. “Do you mind if we join you?” he asked of Josiah.
“Always room for one or two more,” Josiah said, “Right, JD?”
“Right,” JD answered, glancing shyly at the tall, blonde woman.
“JD, does that stand for something?” Alex asked as she shook out her napkin and spread it in her lap.
“John Daniel, Ma’am,” he replied softly.
After placing their orders, conversation around the table turned to Miss Brown’s travels. Josiah was familiar with the northwestern territories and asked questions about the areas she had passed through. JD was fascinated with her descriptions of crossing the mountains and of an encounter with a tribe of Indians after the stage lost one of its horses.
Alex steered the conversation around until she could ask questions of JD. She learned that he was an orphan who traveled west after the death of his beloved mother.
Their food arrived and there was a lull in the conversation. JD and Alex both reached for the pepper mill at the same time and their hands touched. JD immediately drew back, apologizing and allowing her to use it first. He was blushing when she handed it to him a moment later.
Her senses flared and Alex almost lost herself in the myriad of smells and sounds that ran roughshod over her. She fought her way back in time to hear Ezra chiding the younger man about the amount of preserves he had put on his biscuit. As she concentrated on eating, Alex became aware of another sound that was settling in the back of her mind; the soothing sound of a beating heart. It took her another moment or two to isolate it and figure out that it was coming from the young man seated beside her.
When Josiah and JD finished their meals, they excused themselves and left, figuring that Ezra wanted to be alone with the lovely blonde woman. JD hurried to take up his post at the grain exchange, where he would watch the bank from the second floor windows. Josiah had a few hours before he was to relieve Buck, so he went over to the church and climbed up on the roof. He could replace a few of the rotting shingles and keep watch at the same time.
Nathan was reading in one of the medical books that he had bought from a traveling salesman when a gentle knock at the door disturbed him. He slipped a scrap of paper into the pages and hurried to open the door. A blonde woman stood on the landing, looking uneasily at him.
“Are you the doctor?” she asked.
“I ain’t a doctor, I just help people as best I can, Ma’am. Is there something I can do for you?” Nathan asked, letting the door swing widely open and stepping back to allow her to see past him.
“I was wondering if you had anything for a headache,” she said. “I’ve had it since I got up this morning. I tried some of this,” she held out a paper advertising headache powders, “But it isn’t helping.”
“Come in. Sit down for a minute,” Nathan urged, gesturing to the rocking chair beside the stove. “Have you been ill? Did you knock your head on anything?”
“No, I felt fine until this morning. It may be all the traveling. I just got off of the stage yesterday. I’ve been traveling for several weeks,” she explained.
“Bouncing around in one of them coaches can’t be too easy on a body,” Nathan said. “I can make you up something herbal. It should do the trick.” He turned to his cabinets and began measuring out the ingredients into the small pestle he kept there. Although she was tall, he estimated her weight conservatively so as not to make the tea too strong. “You just brew this up and drink it as hot as you can stand. It may make you sleepy but you should feel better when you wake up. If this don’t do it, come back and I’ll make you another batch,” he explained as he tipped the mixture into a square of paper. He folded it several times and turned to hand it to her.
Alex looked away when the man turned around. She had seen the bottle of laudanum on the shelf and would come back for it later when the man wasn’t around. She wouldn’t use it unless she had to.
Coming in from his patrol, Vin glanced up when he saw the door to the clinic open. He saw the woman from the stage come out and his hackles rose. He didn’t know what it was about her but he couldn’t shake the feeling that she was dangerous. She reached the bottom of the steps just as he stopped by the livery doors and swung down from the saddle. Her eyes focused on him and he felt like a mouse that just spotted the hawk that was going to make him his supper. When her chin dipped as if in greeting, Vin also nodded but did not relax his stance. He loosened the girth on his saddle and observed the woman until she disappeared into the hotel. Once she was out of sight, he led Peso into the livery and quickly got him situated in his stall before heading out to find Chris.
It was obvious the moment the former buffalo hunter crossed the threshold that something was on his mind. Chris motioned for the waitress to bring another pot of coffee as he pushed a chair out from under the table.
“Any sign of the Strand gang?” Chris asked when Vin folded into the chair.
“Nope, it was as quiet as a church out there but I think we got problems closer to home,” Vin replied.
Chris shifted from his slouched position and leaned forward on the edge of the table, “Why do you say that?”
“Have you seen the woman who got off the stage yesterday?”
“The tall blonde?”
Vin nodded as the waitress set a cup in front of him and filled it with steaming coffee, setting the pot on a trivet near the middle of the table.
“What about her?” Chris asked.
“It’s just a feeling but there’s something not right about her,” Vin answered. He shifted uncomfortably in the chair, his hand drifting to the stock of his mare’s leg as his gaze drifted to the door.
“She’s been hanging off of Ezra’s arm all morning,” Chris said. “You think she’s scouting the town?”
“I don’t know. But something about her ain’t entirely right,” Vin repeated.
“We’ll just have to keep an eye on her then,” Chris replied. He trusted Vin Tanner’s ‘hunches’ a lot more than another man’s evidence. He would catch up with Ezra and remind him to keep his mouth shut about the gold in the bank.
Nick and Rupert Strand took turns peering through the collapsible spy glass at the little cluster of buildings. The coach driver they had tortured told them that the gold shipment had been delivered the day before and would be picked up in a little over a week. They paid him for the information with a swift end to his suffering via a bullet to the head. They had heard about the seven men who protected the small town. Everyone had heard about them; the lethal gunslinger and his little band of misfits.
“What do you think?” Nick asked.
“I think that we should ride in and take what we want. But we should do some reconnaissance first, just to see what we’re up against,” Rupert replied. “Send Sam and Jack down there to scout around this evening.”
The two crooks took one final look at the town before nudging their horses to turn around and head back into the woods where they were camped out. Sam and Jack Tildon were brothers and had a reputation as traders. They would ride into a town, leading a pack mule piled up with animal hides, and stay a night or two while gathering information. People were more likely to open up to someone they were doing business with than a complete stranger sitting beside them at the bar. They would sell a few hides, buy a few supplies at the local store and drift out of town without anyone being any the wiser.
The two men slowed as they watched the long column of soldiers riding in front of the heavily guarded coach. The taller man sat tensely in the saddle, every line of his body practically straining to get closer. The smaller man edged his mount closer and reached out to touch the other man on the forearm.
“You’re too far away,” he said gently. But his words were brushed off by a terse gesture.
“ … do you think it’ll take them to figure out the gold isn’t in that wagon?” an anonymous voice asked.
“Hopefully long enough to get it from that little bank and move it to the fort,” another voice replied. “I just hope they don’t figure out that it’s going by regular stage.”
“Damn! The gold isn’t here,” the taller man said.
“Where is it?” the smaller man asked.
“They sent it by regular stage. If she gets that gold, we’ll never catch up with her,” the taller man replied.
The two men stayed where they were until the entire battalion was too far away to take note of them before they headed for the nearest town, Eagle Bend.
Ezra barely glanced up when Chris spun a chair around and sat astride of it. He had just gotten up and was focused on the plate of red beans and rice and tortillas that Inez had just set in front of him.
“Was there something you wanted to discuss or are you just going to sit there and watch me consume my afternoon repast?” Ezra asked.
“I just wanted to remind you not to discuss what we talked about in the jail yesterday,” Chris said, his voice barely above a whisper but still menacing.
“I just got out of bed not long ago, whom did you think I was going to tell? I assure you, Mr. Larabee, I am not one for pillow talk, at least not of that nature,” Ezra replied acidly.
“But you’ve been spending time with that blonde woman,” Chris prompted.
“We had breakfast at the restaurant with Josiah and JD. Has one of them intimated that I have somehow broken your confidence?”
“No, they haven’t said anything. I just wanted to make sure you remember. The only way this crazy plan is going to work is if we all keep it under our hat,” Chris said.
“Allow me to assure you that I have no intention of betraying your little plan.”
“See that you don’t,” Chris replied as he got up and righted the chair under the table. He strode out onto the boardwalk and scoured the street, making sure that the others were in position. He noticed the traders who stopped at the hitching post in front of the saddle shop. Their pack mule nudged the horses aside to stick his nose in the watering trough. The two men swung down and the taller one stayed with the animals while the other one went inside to talk with the proprietor.
A few hours later, Alex slipped, unnoticed, into the clinic and hurriedly made her way to the cabinet where the dark-skinned healer kept the bottle of laudanum. She only poured a few tablespoons of the strong narcotic medication into the tiny glass bottle she carried in her brassiere. She didn’t want the healer to notice. Replacing the bottle on the shelf, she closed the cabinet and made her way to the door.
Buck stopped on the boardwalk when he saw Alex come out of the clinic. He knew that Nathan was in the restaurant eating supper and wondered what she was doing up there all alone. He crossed the street in time to meet her at the bottom of the steps.
“You’re just the person I was looking for,” Alex said, reaching out to curl her hand around Buck’s bicep and leaning close. “I was hoping you hadn’t already had supper.”
“You were looking for me in the clinic?” Buck asked, trying not to be distracted by her obvious physical attributes.
“No, I wanted to thank Nathan for the headache remedy he gave me earlier. I feel much better,” she explained. “But he wasn’t up there.”
“Well, that’s because he’s over at the restaurant having supper. Maybe you could pass along your thanks while we share an intimate meal?” Buck suggested, even as he was steering her toward the restaurant.
“That would be perfect,” she replied, giving his arm a squeeze. “You don’t suppose that charming young man would be there too,” she asked.
“Which charming young man?” Buck countered, praying that she wasn’t talking about Ezra.
“JD,” she replied, “We had such a lovely talk this morning over breakfast.”
“J-” Buck choked, “JD?”
“Yes, he has such an interesting perspective on things. Don’t you agree?” Alex said as she urged Buck from where he had frozen in the middle of the street.
It was quiet for the next couple of days. Chris was sorely tempted to scale back the protection detail on the bank for fear of drawing attention to it but he didn’t dare. Besides the headache of dealing with all of the extra security for the gold shipment, he was also sorely pressed to deal with the problems affecting his friends. Buck and Ezra had nearly come to blows over the blonde woman. It was the first time since Louisa Perkins that he could remember Wilmington being so single-minded in his pursuit of a woman and he had never seen Standish so taken. As if that wasn’t enough, Vin was as nervous as a long-tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs. If he didn’t know the man better, Chris might have thought Tanner was over-reacting. For his own part, Chris would be relieved when both the gold and the blonde woman were out of his town.
Alex stood in the window of her hotel room and scowled down at the two men in the street. She had heard them whispering and plotting how they were going to steal the gold shipment. She knew that their gang was camped out not far from town and that they were headed back there to report what they had learned. It seemed that the bank teller was not as tight-lipped as his boss thought. She decided that she would have to move up her plan. She also knew that JD wouldn’t be on guard until the next morning so he wouldn’t be missed.
Jim scowled at the telegram before handing it off to Blair. They had waited almost 48 hours to find out where the gold shipment was. The only up side was that they hadn’t heard anything about any bank robberies in the territory.
“Are you certain she would try to hit this shipment?” Blair asked. “I mean, she might not have known about it and went on south.”
“She’s out there,” Jim said, “And I’m going to chase her to the tip of South America if I have to.”
It started with a bowl of chili. Jim Ellison was the sheriff of a small gold-rush town in the northwest. After being trapped in a mine collapse for nearly thirteen days, Ellison began to think he was losing his mind. He could smell things that no one else could smell and see things that no one else could see. His sleep was constantly disturbed by sounds he knew he shouldn’t be able to hear. It all came to a head one day when he stopped into one of the newer restaurants that sprang up in the town. He ordered a bowl of deer chili because it smelled so enticingly delicious. But when he put the first spoonful into his mouth, he became so focused on deciphering the individual seasonings that he had what the local doctor determined to be a ‘fit’ of some kind. He woke up two hours later with a raging headache. In a fit of rage, Jim returned to the restaurant to find out why they had tried to poison him. He confronted the young, curly-haired waiter.
“What did you put in that chili?” Jim demanded angrily.
“What? What are you talking about?” Blair asked, even as he tried to pry the other man’s hands from his clothing. “Wait! You’re the man they carried out of here earlier. One of the other customers was telling me about you. You’ve been complaining about foul smells and loud noises.”
Jim shook the younger man and growled at him, “That doesn’t give you the right to try to poison me!”
“Whoa man! Settle down. Listen to me for a minute. I think I can explain what’s been happening to you,” Blair said as earnestly as he could manage while shaking in his shoes.
Reluctantly, Jim released the young man and followed him to a secluded table in the corner. The waiter, after introducing himself as Blair, darted into the kitchen and returned with a well-worn haversack that was covered with Indian designs.
“I spent some time with the tribes, man, and I heard stories about people like you,” Blair explained as he brought out a leather-bound journal. “The Indians have all kinds of lore about people with senses like yours,” he said, opening the book to show a charcoal sketch. “They have lots of different names for it but most of them translate to ‘Sentinel’ or ‘Watchman’. They were born with special gifts such as the ability to smell water underground or to hear the movement of the herds of buffalo. These abilities were amplified by purification rituals involving fasting or periods of isolation.”
Jim remembered all too well the hollow, aching feeling in his gut when his meager provisions had run out and he had been forced to live on the water seeping into the mine where he was trapped. And isolation, yeah, he had been isolated, alone in the absolute, inky darkness. After a while, he had begun to imagine that he could see the rocks and roots that made up the walls where he had been trapped.
“But that still doesn’t explain why your chili sent me into a fit, Chief,” Jim replied.
“It goes right back to the heart of the first question you asked me, ‘What did I put in the chili?’ Don’t you see? You were trying to figure out what was in the chili when you ‘became lost on the spirit plane’,” Blair said.
“Lost on the spirit plane?” Jim repeated.
As crazy as it sounded, what Blair was saying made sense. Over the course of the next several days, Jim spent a lot of time with the curly-haired young man, learning how to use his new abilities. He became ‘lost’ several times but each incident left him with a better understanding. Jim swore Blair to secrecy, not wanting everyone to know that he was some kind of ‘freak.’
Over the days and weeks that they spent working on training Jim to use his enhanced senses, Blair stumbled across a very old monograph that also related tales of sentinels. The young waiter was thrilled almost to the point of being speechless as he slowly, painstakingly translated the weathered markings into English. In those pages, Blair learned that that earlier sentinels had a partner called a ‘guide’ who watched over the sentinel when he used his senses to keep him from becoming ‘lost.’ Jim tentatively accepted Blair in that position and the two developed a budding friendship.
A couple of years into the relationship between the two men, a man and woman arrived in town. They took rooms in the hotel and mingled with the residents in town. Carl Hettinger claimed to be seeking information on his long-lost brother who had come to make his fortune in the gold rush. His companion, Alicia Bannister, was there representing the estate of Carl’s late father, to act as witness for the executor of the estate.
Several weeks after the duo arrived in town, there was a massive explosion in the town’s largest mine. Thirty-nine people were killed and dozens more injured. While everyone else in town was working to free the injured and dead, Alicia and Carl made off with the contents of both of the town’s bank vaults. One of the survivors described a blonde woman and a man running from the mouth of the mine in the moments before the explosion. Jim’s brother Steven was one of the injured and Ellison vowed to get the people responsible. His brother might never walk again and the families of the dead deserved justice.
He and Blair had left with only their mounts and a pack horse loaded down with supplies. They followed the couple from town to town until Hettinger turned up dead, killed during one of their robbery attempts. It was then that they learned that Ms. Bannister was actually Miss Alexandra Barnes, a con woman wanted for thefts all over the northwest. They had cultivated relationships in nearly every town they followed Barnes through and it was that network of relationships that had provided them with information about the woman’s movements. One of their contacts in Denver tipped them off about the gold shipment but didn’t know about the last-minute switch from the military caravan to the stage coach.
“Let’s go. If she’s following the gold, she may already be planning the heist,” Jim announced. Blair only nodded and silently followed his friend back to where they boarded their horses.
Sam and Jack reached the camp and hurried to meet with Nick and Rupert. They sketched the town, complete with streets and showing the general layout of the buildings. They relayed all they had learned from the bank teller, including that the shipment was to be moved in three day’s time.
“Alright, we go tomorrow night,” Nick announced. “We’ll set fires here and here, to draw people away from the bank.”
“What about those seven men?” Rupert asked.
“They’re spreading themselves thin trying to watch the bank,” Sam replied. “I don’t think we’ll have to deal with all of them.”
Alex studied the horses that the livery manager had for sale. She needed an animal that was fast and strong to carry the gold in her trunk and the gold she expected to take from the bank. She had already converted a large portion of her stolen booty into paper money, which was lighter and easier to carry.
“I’ll take those two,” she told the brawny man. “I will have someone bring a saddle over later for the black one.”
“Yes, Ma’am,” Tiny replied.
“Please give them a thorough going over,” she said, extending her hand with the appropriate payment and a hefty tip. “I will be leaving this afternoon,” she explained.
“Are you sure you don’t want to wait for the stage, Ma’am?” Tiny asked.
“Quite sure. I received a telegram from my business associate and I must be on my way,” she said.
Buck was speechless when Alex announced that she was leaving that afternoon. Other than a few passionate kisses, he hadn’t been able to spend the time with her that he wanted.
“Will you be coming back this way?” Buck asked.
“I don’t know. I’ll be sure to stop here for a rest if I do,” she answered. “Perhaps you could join me for a meal before I go?”
Buck looked around and caught sight of Chris watching him from in front of the jail. He was already supposed to be over at the grain exchange to relieve Nathan and he was late. Chris had chewed his ass earlier in the week over all the time he was spending pursuing the blonde woman.
“I wish I could, darlin’, but I’ve got work to do,” Buck explained.
“Then this is goodbye,” Alex said, sticking her lower lip out in a sexy little pout.
“I wish it wasn’t,” he said as he leaned in to kiss her. When he pulled back, Buck saw that Chris was on his feet, glaring at them and he sighed. “You be careful.”
“I will,” she replied. Alex held back the smile that wanted to crawl across her face as Wilmington scowled across at Larabee before hurrying down to the grain exchange. She looked up and down the street one more time before stepping down to where her new mount was hitched to the rail. The pack horse was tied to the saddle horn and loaded with her saddle bags and supplies, her small valise tied across his withers. She set her foot in the stirrup and stepped up, swinging her leg over the new saddle. Her new riding habit was itchy and irritating her skin, she couldn’t wait to get away from the town so she could change into something more comfortable.
Chris watched the woman as she rode past him. Ezra had informed him that she was leaving to meet up with a business associate, who would travel with her to her final destination. She had broken the news to him over breakfast and Ezra had passed it along to Chris before retiring to his room to rest.
Josiah and Vin rode in from their patrol. Vin’s eyes narrowed as he stared at the back of the woman who was riding away from the town. Even though she was leaving, he knew that the danger had not yet passed. Chris nodded to them from where he stood on the boardwalk, his face partially hidden in the shade of his black Stetson.
It was a peaceful evening in town. Buck was moping around, knowing that he couldn’t even seek solace with one of the saloon girls because he had the watch later that night. Ezra, while pretending to be unfazed by Alex’s sudden departure, was also in the doldrums, sitting alone in the saloon playing game after game of solitaire in spite of the small group playing poker at his usual table on the dais. Nathan finished his watch and was heading out to check on a couple of the older shut-ins who lived just outside of town. Chris nodded to Vin, who was getting ready to ride out on patrol. JD and Josiah were watching the bank from their seats on the boardwalk while playing checkers.
The darkness was no hindrance to the blonde woman who snuck up behind the boarding house. She knew that the diversion she had set in motion would be starting up any moment. She had given two ranch hands a dollar apiece to start a brawl in the saloon, nothing huge, just some shouting and shoving; enough to distract the peacekeepers that were still up. She concentrated, struggling to hear when the actual disruption started, then slipped in the back door and hurried lightly up the stairs.
Soft snoring from the room told Alex that her prey was soundly sleeping as she turned the knob and opened the door. The faint moonlight coming through the thin curtains was enough to illuminate the room for someone with enhanced night vision. She silently crept toward the single bed and lifted the gunbelt from where it hung on the headboard. Slipping one Colt from its holster, she moved it closer to the young man’s head and thumbed back the hammer.
The click of a gun being primed woke JD instantly. His hand shot out toward the headboard, only to find that his belt and weapons were gone.
“Don’t try anything stupid,” Alex warned in a whispered hiss.
“What do you want?” he asked. Instead of an answer, his clothes were tossed onto his stomach.
“Get dressed. Hurry!”
Fumbling in the dark, JD quickly pulled on his pants and shirt. He desperately wanted someone to walk past his door so he could call out to them in the hope of getting away from whatever the blonde woman had in mind for him.
“Turn around and put your hands behind your back,” Alex demanded. She shoved him up against the dresser and tied his hands tightly.
It was too dark for JD to see, so he had little choice but to allow her to tie him up. He hissed as the rough ropes scratched at the skin on his wrists. He would have to bide his time and wait for his chance to make a break for it.
When JD was restrained, Alex listened to see if the disturbance in the saloon was still going on. Hearing heavy footfalls on the front boardwalk, she grabbed JD by the arm and shoved him toward the door. At the last second, she grabbed his jacket and draped it over his shoulders.
“If we see anyone, I’ll kill them if you do anything to try to tip them off. Understand?” she asked, giving him a hard shake.
“Yes, Ma’am,” JD replied. He had no desire to see anyone get killed because of him.
Alex steered her captive down the stairs and back out into the alley. She pushed him toward the Chinese laundry shed, which was abandoned at night. Everything was going according to schedule.
JD stumbled, tipping over a bucket of brushes that the Chinese family used to scrub the clothing they washed. Alex hissed angrily at him as she shoved him toward a dark corner. Just as he thought that they were far enough away for him to try to mount a defense, she tripped him, landing astraddle of his hips. He struggled, until he felt the cold steel of a gun barrel pressed under his chin.
“Open your mouth,” Alex demanded as she fumbled with the little bottle of laudanum.
Thinking she was going to shove a handkerchief or something into his mouth as a gag, JD obeyed. When the warm, bitter liquid was poured in, he tried to struggle. She pressed her palm across his lips and stroked his throat with the barrel of the gun.
“Swallow it,” she ordered in a whisper.
JD had no choice but to swallow the laudanum. Even as the drug entered his system and a soothing lethargy swept over him, he wondered what she had in mind for him, and if he would ever see Buck and the others again.
Using her superior hearing, Alex made sure JD was soundly asleep before she shifted her weight off of him and got up. She carefully rolled her captive on his side and pillowed his head with a bag of laundry before slipping back into the alley. It was time for the second part of her plan.
The pillowslip shifted and rolled slightly as the large rattlesnakes protested being moved again. She slipped into the back of Digger Dave’s Saloon and carefully shook the irritated rattlers out on the floor. As expected, they moved away from her, seeking a warm, quiet place to hole up again. Using the broom handle, she drove them toward the large, open room where several people were still drinking. The dust up at the other saloon had revived some of them, who had been about to turn in for the night. It was risky, using the snakes, but she needed something different from starting another bar fight for the second part of her plan. Seconds later, she heard the scrape chairs being shoved back and cries of alarm before someone started shooting.
Buck’s head snapped up from where he had been sitting in the bank. Chris had sent him down there when the fight started in the saloon, figuring that it was a set up. An instant later, something slammed against the side of his head and he slumped to the floor.
Alex knelt and quickly divested Buck of his weapons before tying his hands behind his back and gagging him with his bandana. She knew that she had only minutes before someone would be coming to check on the bank and its contents.
Vin and Chris ran from the jail toward Digger Dave’s at the sound of the first gun shot. They were nearly knocked from the boardwalk by the crush of patrons fleeing the building. Several more shots rang out before someone wailed loudly. A final blast from a large caliber pistol sounded before the peacekeepers could get in to see what was happening. Chris had his gun in his hand and Vin pulled his mare’s leg upon seeing one man standing over another.
“I – I – I think I got it,” the man said, gesturing to the large snake lying dead on the floor.
“It got me! It got me!” the other man announced, clenching both hands around his leg below the knee. “Oh God, it hurts!”
Stepping past Larabee, Vin knelt beside the bitten man and fumbled the bandana from around his neck. He tied it around the man’s leg, just below his hands and grabbed a fork that had fallen from one of the nearby tables to slip under it. He twisted the fork around several times, tightening the makeshift tourniquet.
“Help me get him to Nathan!” Vin said to no one in particular. Just then, he saw another snake crawling along the wall and snatched up his gun, firing off a shot that bisected the creature. “Now!” he shouted. The few remaining patrons surged forward, scooping the man up and moving toward the batwing doors. Josiah was standing on the boardwalk when the peacekeepers came out, the older man holding his gun in one hand and the front of his trousers in the other.
“What happened?” Sanchez asked.
“Seems that a nest of rattlers decided to take a trip through the saloon,” Vin explained.
“I’d better check on Buck,” Chris said. Before he walked away, he laid a hand on Tanner’s shoulder, “That was quick thinking and good shooting.”
“You better get going. I’m gonna make sure there ain’t any more of them poison ropes slithering around in there,” Vin announced.
The tumblers settled loudly into place and Alex swung the heavily-reinforced door open. As she expected, most of the gold was in bags, having already been shaped into coins. She put them into her saddle bags, then reached for the bars stacked neatly along the back of the shelf. She heard the shooting stop down the street and knew that her time was running short. Grabbing a couple of the stacks of bills on the upper shelf, she stuffed them into the saddle bags and crept silently toward the back door.
Vin spotted another snake and quickly dispatched it. That made a total of five that had been killed counting the one that the other man had shot after it bit his friend. He didn’t like killing them but he had no choice. It wasn’t their fault that they were there, though, someone had to have captured and relocated them.
Alex had spent her afternoon catching rattlesnakes. Using hearing and sight, she was able to spot them in their hideouts and she used a pair of forked sticks to pin them down so she could get hold of them to put them in the pillowslip. Her new mount had been understandably uneasy about carrying them but they made very little noise unless she shook them.
Stalking silently down the dark alley, Alex returned to where she had left JD. Her horse was tied behind the Chinese laundry and she wanted to make her getaway before they discovered the missing gold. After draping the saddlebags behind the saddle and tying them in place, she hurried to get JD. She had to untie his hands from behind his back and retie them in front of him before dragging him out into the alley.
It was difficult, levering the unconscious young man up on the horse but she did it, swinging up behind him and pulling him up to lean against her. She heard the muffled curses, then Larabee’s voice as he stuck his head out of the bank and called for help. Smiling at her perfect timing and good fortune, she gently nudged her horse away from the town.
“Buck? Can you hear me, Big Dog? Come on, open your eyes,” Chris urged. He had lit the lantern after yelling down the street for Josiah and Vin. He didn’t have to look to know that someone had broken into the safe and he knew he should be heading out to look for them but he couldn’t leave until he knew if his oldest friend was going to be alright. There was a puddle of blood beneath Buck’s head and the hair on one side of his head was wet with it. Chris knew that scalp wounds bled a lot but he couldn’t see the injury too well in the wan, yellow light given off by the lantern. Heavy footfalls announced that help had arrived and he looked up to see Josiah and Vin crowding into the room.
“What happened?” Josiah asked.
“Someone clocked him upside the head. He’s bleeding,” Chris replied. “Help me get him up and over to the clinic. Vin, check the vault.”
Tanner wasted no time moving past the counter, “Yep, they got the gold,” he called over his shoulder.
“Damn,” Chris exclaimed. Movement from the man on the floor cut off anything else he might have added. Instead, he helped Buck to sit up, turning him to lean against the chair he had been sitting in earlier. “Did you see who it was?” he asked.
“No, I didn’t have a chance. They got me from behind,” Buck murmured. “Damn, what did they hit me with?” he complained as he registered the throbbing pain in his skull.
Once they were out of earshot of anyone in town, Alex urged her horse to a faster walk. The gelding was hesitant because of the darkness but she kept him under control as she headed for the place where she had left the pack horse.
It was too dark to do anything that night, to the peacekeepers’ fury. Nathan had done all he could for the man bitten by the rattler, now they were just waiting to see if he would recover. Buck had to have six stitches to close the gash over his right ear and was struggling to stay awake in case he was concussed. Vin had closed and locked the vault before heading out on foot to see if he could find any clues about who had robbed the bank and what direction they had taken when they fled. But with only a torch for light, he couldn’t tell much. He returned to the clinic to tell Chris that he would start looking at first light.
Alex manhandled JD’s unconscious body down from the saddle. She had noticed the little cabin on one of her treks with Buck right after she arrived and decided that it would make a good hideout. From the layers of dust on the flat surfaces, it had been a while since anyone had been there. She dragged JD into the cabin and hefted him up onto the creaking bed. After checking that he was still deeply asleep, she went out to put the horses in the barn for a few hours.
Once the horses were settled, Alex snuggled down on the bed next to JD. Almost immediately, she dropped into a deep sleep. Her senses remained on alert and would warn her of anyone coming near the cabin.
At first light, Vin was out in the alley behind the bank, scouring the ground for clues. Unfortunately, the hard-packed ground revealed nothing out of the ordinary. Since there wasn’t any more gold to guard, Chris announced that all of them, except Buck and Nathan, would head out and search for whoever had robbed the bank. He sent Ezra to wake up JD, half wondering why the young sheriff hadn’t roused when all the shooting started in the night. Ezra came running back a short time later with the answer.
“JD isn’t in his room,” the southerner said breathlessly. “But I found this on the floor.” In his hand, Ezra held JD’s gunbelt with only one of the bone-handled Colts in it.
Buck struggled to sit up in bed in spite of the waves of pain and dizziness that threatened to topple him into the floor. “We have to look for him!” he cried. “Whoever robbed the bank must have taken him!”
“What makes you say that?” Vin asked. “Why would they take JD? It don’t make sense.”
“Maybe he heard the ruckus last night and went to the bank to check on it and got waylaid by the robbers,” Josiah suggested.
“Then how’d his gunbelt get back to his room?” Ezra countered. “The only way this makes sense is if he was …” his voice trailed off as he realized what he had been about to say.
“He’s not dead!” Buck shouted. He grabbed the light blanket Nathan had laid over him and hurled it away, swinging his legs over the side of the cot and swaying dizzily. “Give me my boots and I’ll prove it to you!”
“You’re not going anywhere except back to bed,” Nathan announced, folding his arms across his chest and standing directly in front of Wilmington. “You’ll fall offa your horse and break your damned neck,” the healer growled.
While Nathan and Buck argued, Vin rushed down the stairs to see if JD’s horse was still in the livery. Standing on the landing at the top of the steps on his way back, he saw a trio of horses coming into town. The man on the leading horse was large and wore his hair close-cropped while the man on the other horse was smaller and wore his hair long and it hung in loose ringlet curls to his shoulders. A pack horse was led by the smaller man. Vin was swayed by the image of a long, powerful cat prowling through the woods and his hackles rose unexpectedly. He quickly moved to the clinic door and flung it open, calling over his shoulder without taking his eyes off of the two men.
“We got riders coming in,” Vin announced.
Chris drew his gun and moved to peer around the door-facing while Ezra carefully peeked out from behind the curtain on the window. Buck, who had just been persuaded to return to bed, was trying to get up and Nathan was holding him down by means of one hand firmly on his shoulder. Josiah moved to join Ezra at the window and only caught sight of the back of the second man before they passed beyond his field of vision.
Jim didn’t look up at the young man in the buckskin coat but he could feel the other man’s presence as keenly as if they had been standing nose to nose. He steered his horse over to the hitching post in front of the first saloon they came to and swung down.
“You want me to check out the sheriff’s office?” Blair asked.
“No, they’ll be here in a minute,” Ellison replied, loosening the girth on his saddle.
Blair nudged his horse over to the hitching post and leapt down, also loosening the girth on his saddle. He surreptitiously peered around the small town, catching more than a few pairs of eyes staring at them.
Feeling the other men spreading out to surround him, Jim turned slowly and pushed back the front of his tan plainsman coat to reveal the weapon at his side. He wore his gun low on his hip so he didn’t have to lift it very far to fire; it was a position that had served him very well. He found himself facing two men, though he knew there were at least three others watching them from positions to his right and left. The first man was dressed in dark colors, even to the black leather gunbelt with silver conchos he wore around his hips. The other man was the one in the hide coat and he was resting a mare’s leg against his shoulder as his eyes scoured the newcomers.
“My name is Jim Ellison. I’m a sheriff from up near the Canadian border. I’ve been following the trail of a woman who has committed several robberies and murders,” Jim announced.
“You’re a little ways outside of your jurisdiction, ain’t ya?” Vin asked.
“I’m willing to work with whoever I have to in order to catch this woman. She planted explosives in the mouth of a mine; killed a lot of good people and wounded a bunch more,” Jim answered calmly.
Blair slipped out from between the horses, after untying the pack horse from his saddle ring and hitching him to the post, and moved to take a position behind and to the left of Jim. Like Ellison, he could ‘feel’ the others spreading out to cover them. He studied the two men facing them and knew that they were not to be taken lightly.
“How do you know she came this way?” Chris asked.
“She’s after the gold shipment that the army routed through here earlier in the week,” Jim replied.
Seeing that the man knew about the gold shipment, Chris glanced over at Josiah, who slid out from between the buildings and moved toward the jail.
“Let’s take this some place a little less open,” Larabee said as he relaxed his posture ever so slightly. Beside him, Vin remained tense, turning with Chris but keeping his eyes on the two strangers. Ezra melted out of the woodwork and fell into position behind the duo, covering their backs and taking a good, long look at the strangers.
Alex felt JD stir against her and she yawned, stretching against him like a cat. She had wrapped a length of rope around him so his hands were secured in front of his body and he couldn’t use them against her. She knew she had only been sleeping for a few hours but she felt so much better.
Her bizarre senses had come to life after she was thrown in solitary confinement while serving time for one of her first bank jobs. Because she had sworn that she was forced to participate, the judge had gone easy on her. But she didn’t respond well to the guards who tried to force her to copulate and fought back. The warden sentenced her to a week in solitary for assaulting a guard.
At first, she thought she was going mad. It was dark in the cell but it gradually seemed that she could see. There were spiders in the corners and she was deathly afraid of them. She started screaming, begging to be let out. But when the guards came to check on her, the brilliance of the afternoon sun stabbed into her eyes and she fled from it, screaming and clawing at the concrete walls until her fingers bled. At night, she swore that she could hear the spiders moving on their webs and the sound of mice scurrying around her nearly drove her mad. She spent the better part of a month in the infirmary when she was released from solitary and her senses retreated somewhat but she could still hear and smell things that no one else could.
The first person she found who helped her was a young girl she met while casing a bank. When the little brunette took her hand, Alex (or Alicia, as she was going by at the time) realized that she could see farther and hear better. It took a while for her to figure out that she needed to be in physical contact with the child for her senses to be sharp and clear. But the girl’s parents, perhaps sensing the danger to their daughter, kept her under very close watch so that the strange blonde woman couldn’t get close to her and Alex moved on, after liberating a substantial amount of money from the bank.
Over the days and weeks, Alex learned that certain material felt better against her skin and she took to wearing silk undergarments to protect her delicate skin. The small valise she carried with her contained a wealth of expensive silk articles, bought with the money she stole.
“Come on, get up. We have to get moving,” Alex announced.
“Where are we going?” JD asked.
“I have business in Mexico. Get moving,” she repeated.
If JD thought he could dally and slow her down, he was mistaken. Alex didn’t hesitate to push him around. She barely let him set foot inside of the outhouse before she was demanding that he come out. She didn’t give him a chance to try anything, securing his hands to his body with a rope and shoving him toward the horses. She let him have a drink from the canteen and a piece of jerky but that was it for breakfast. She tied his hands to the pommel on the saddle, causing him to wince. After tying the pack horse to a ring on her saddle, she swung up behind JD and set out at a brisk trot.
“We’ve been following Alexandra Barnes for the better part of three months,” Jim explained once the door to the jail closed behind them.
“That’s a long time, are you certain it’s the same woman?” Chris asked. “She told us her name was Brown.”
“She was going by Alicia Bannister when she hit Cascade,” Jim said tersely.
“If I could?” Blair asked. Seeing Jim nod, he pulled a sketch out of the pack he had carried in with him. “This is her,” he explained. “She’s blonde, tall – five ten or more – and she’s,” he paused, gesturing with his hands in front of him.
“Well endowed,” Jim suggested.
“But she left town before the bank was robbed,” Ezra said.
“It’s a ploy. She leaves the town for a day or two, then sneaks back in, under the cover of darkness, and robs the bank,” Jim explained.
“Would she take a hostage?” Chris asked.
“A hostage?” Blair repeated questioningly.
“One of my men is missing.”
“She’s never taken a hostage before but that’s not to say she wouldn’t,” Jim replied. “If she thought he might be of some help to her.”
“I doubt JD would help her,” Josiah said. “He’s very mindful of the law. In fact, he’s the sheriff.”
“We have to get out there and look for him!” Vin exclaimed. The longer he was confined in the jail with those two, the more he felt like he wanted to climb out of his skin. He couldn’t figure out why he felt so anxious but he knew it was connected to the strangers.
It didn’t take long to gather the supplies necessary to head out on a search. Vin came from the Potter’s store with his arms laden with ammunition for all of their guns. He was still rearranging his saddlebags when the disturbance started on the landing outside of the clinic.
“I’m going!” Buck shouted, “If I have to go in my underwear!”
“I’m telling you, you’re gonna fall offa that horse and break your damned neck!” Nathan shouted back. When he realized that Wilmington wasn’t going to back down, he shrugged his shoulders and threw up his hands. “Fine! If you break your neck, don’t come crawling back to me to take care of you!”
Tiny showed Vin the mark he made on the shoes of the horses ‘Miss Brown’ bought from him. It was something he did so that he could identify his animals. It wasn’t much, but it was a start.
“Where do you think she’s going with him?” Chris asked of Jim.
“She’s headed south,” Ellison replied. He knew because of the strange pull he had been feeling ever since he left his home all those long weeks ago.
Several hours later, the entire group dismounted to let the horses rest while Vin knelt, studying the track in the soft soil, “They went through here. It’s just like he said, she’s headed south.”
“But why would she take JD?” Buck asked, turning to the two men, who were as much strangers as the woman who had kidnapped his friend.
The men looked at each other, sharing some kind of silent communication before the older man nodded.
“She thinks he can help her,” Blair explained.
“Help her with what? He’s just a kid! He didn’t grow up around here. How is he going to help her?” Buck demanded, taking a step closer to the smaller, curly-haired man.
“She won’t hurt him,” Blair said, which earned him a stern glare from Jim.
“How do you know that?” Chris asked. “What do you know about her that you haven’t told us?”
Again, Blair looked to Jim for permission. If he explained about Alex, he would also have to explain about his friend. He saw the indecision and outright fear shining brightly in the sentinel’s eyes but he didn’t back down. Finally, Jim huffed in exasperation and nodded before walking back to where the horses were tethered.
“What are you doing?” Buck demanded when he saw Ellison start removing the saddle from his mount.
“Making camp,” Jim replied, “What does it look like?”
“Making … I’m not stopping, not now! We have to find JD!” Buck shouted, taking a step toward the other man.
Ellison turned, grabbing Wilmington by the lapels of his coat. All around him, the other five peacekeepers drew their weapons and trained them on the pair.
Blair’s breath caught in his throat at the sudden escalation of tension in the group. He carefully raised his hands and turned to face the blond man.
“Easy now. Everyone needs to just calm down. Jim’s right. If you want me to explain to you about Alex, we need to make camp. It isn’t something I can tell you about in five minutes.” To Jim, he urged, “Let him go now and let’s try not to have this end in bloodshed.”
Jim had to concentrate to unclench his fingers from Buck’s coat. Between the proximity of Alex and the situation with Vin, his senses were screaming at him. If he had his way, he and Blair would mount up and ride away, pursuing the rogue female sentinel on their own.
JD unwillingly allowed the woman to help him down from the horse’s back. He glared at her angrily as she shoved him toward the tree and forced him to sit down. She passed a chain over his right arm and chest and under his left arm before securing it behind the tree.
“I don’t know what you want from me but I’m not helping you, lady!” JD declared with as much hostility as he could manage. His mother had raised him not to hit a woman but he was beginning to think this might be an exception.
Alex made camp for the two of them after tending to the horses. Her senses were much more acute now that she had the nascent guide under her control. She could feel Ellison and knew he was following her! She also sensed the other one, Tanner. While not a full sentinel like herself and Jim, the young man possessed heightened senses, enough that she could feel him. Her skin tingled with desire that left her frustrated because she had no way to quench it.
“Hey! You think you could unchain me long enough to let me take a piss?” JD asked. He hoped that he could overpower her long enough to make it to one of the horses. He didn’t think she would expect that after she had removed the saddle, since not too many people could ride very well bare-back.
Crossing the camp, Alex looked down at the young man. She could hear his heart speeding up and smell the slight touch of fear. That was good. If he was afraid of her, he wouldn’t try to escape. In time, he would come to trust her and he would then be able to help her; the same way Blair helped Jim. She reached down to brush the long hair from the guide’s face and he shrank from her hand.
JD felt almost faint with relief when she moved around the tree and released the chain and removed the rope securing his hands to his waist. She took him by the arm and helped him to his feet, shoving him toward some scrub bushes. He stumbled before getting his balance. She followed him, stopping only a couple of feet behind him, allowing him a small measure of privacy to do his business. He struggled with the buttons on his pants, his hands feeling swollen and stiff from the ropes she had bound him with. He had a little trouble going, being unable to relax, but he finally managed to empty his bladder and do up the buttons again. He stood there for a moment, looking for anything he could use as a distraction.
“Come on, you’re finished,” Alex commanded. She reached out and grabbed him by the arm, pulling him away from the bushes. He stumbled again, falling to the ground at her feet. When she leaned over to help him up, he tossed a handful of sand in her face.
When Alex cried out and drew back, JD quickly scrabbled to his feet and took off running. He had taken only a few steps before she tackled him, bearing both of them to the ground. She was on top, pinning him down on his stomach. Her hand tangled in his hair and she pulled his head back until he was struggling for breath.
“You try that again and I’ll break your arm,” she hissed angrily.
“A what?” Chris asked.
“A sentinel. A person with enhanced senses. You see, in ancient times, tribal cultures had someone who patrolled the borders and protected them. These watchmen or sentinels had the ability to smell rain, to hear the movement of herds, to see and hear if another enemy group was coming close to their grounds. They were revered as guardians of the tribe,” Blair explained.
“And you want us to believe that Alexandra Barnes is one of these … watchmen?” Buck asked.
“I can’t make you believe it but that’s what I’m saying. She uses her senses to rob banks. We’ve been trailing her for months,” Blair replied. “Whenever she needs money, she stops for a few days in a town and robs the bank.”
“JD won’t help her rob banks, no matter what she does to him,” Buck protested.
“She doesn’t need his help to rob the bank, she needs him there for her senses to work better,” Blair explained.
“What do you mean?” Josiah asked. “You just said that she already has those enhanced senses, what does she need JD for?”
Blair looked across the camp to where his sentinel stood keeping watch. He knew that Jim was listening to every word, in spite of the distance. While he understood the need to protect the secret, Blair knew that these men posed no threat to either of them.
“She thinks that JD is a guide. Every sentinel has a guide, someone to watch their back while they use their senses. At first, it was thought that anyone could serve as a guide but we have learned that some people seem ‘born’ to be a guide. Alex has identified JD as a guide, that’s why she took him.”
“But we’ve never even heard about watchmen or sentinels!” Buck protested. “Why would she think JD’s one of these guides?”
“I don’t understand all of it myself but it’s something that a sentinel senses,” Blair said.
“And you’re certain she won’t hurt him?” Ezra asked.
“Reasonably certain,” Blair answered. “There seems to be some kind of in-grained need to protect and nurture the guide.”
JD clenched his teeth as he struggled against the ropes that bound his hands. Alex had gone hunting and brought down a large rabbit. She cleaned and cooked it over the small, nearly smokeless fire she had made in the hole she dug to keep the light from giving away their location. When it was done, she brought it over and sat beside him.
“Here, it’s hot,” she said, offering him a juicy-looking piece of meat.
In spite of the hunger growling in his stomach, JD turned his head away. She shrugged, getting up and moving back to where she had been sitting while she finished off the food. When it was completely dark, she covered him with a blanket and extinguished the fire. He had been working on the ropes ever since.
Alex twitched in her sleep. Something had set her internal alarm off. She opened her eyes and extended her senses, searching for the source of her unease. When she identified the odor as blood, she gripped the gun tucked beneath the saddle she was using as a pillow. Once she determined that she and JD were the only ones in the immediate area, she rolled over and studied the guide. Even though he appeared to be sleeping, her ears told her that he was awake and that he was up to something. She got up and padded over to his side, snatching the blanket away and aiming the gun at him.
Startled by the sudden removal of the blanket, JD gasped. Grains of sand, stirred by the blanket, had fallen on his raw wrists and made them sting even more.
Gripping the guide’s arm, Alex used what little light there was to see the rope burns on the pale flesh. Huffing in irritation, she shook her head.
“You must stop struggling against the ropes,” she told him.
For spite, JD deliberately wrenched his arm free and twisted his hands in the ropes, grinding the sand into the wounds and hissing softly in pain. He saw her move and, before he could duck, she struck him on the side of the head with the gun.
When he wakened next, JD saw that Alex had cleaned, bandaged and retied his wrists. He groaned softly at the dull throb in his skull. Immediately, his head was gently lifted and a cup held to his lips. He tried to turn away but her hand clenched in his hair and he allowed a sip of whatever she was trying to give him into his mouth. He recognized the taste of willow bark and blanched but swallowed it.
“That should help with the pain,” she said when he had drained the cup. “Now, we must get moving.”
Buck had slept soundly, in spite of swearing to Nathan that he wasn’t tired. The healer had convinced him to drink the herbal tea for his headache and Wilmington drifted off to sleep a short time later. Josiah and Vin had stayed up, cornering Blair to ask more questions about sentinels. Jim and Chris took the first watch.
Jim’s eyes scoured the terrain to the south of their camp during his watch. He couldn’t have explained it if Blair asked but he knew where Alex was going because the same place was calling to him. It was unlike anything he had ever felt before.
“It’s personal, isn’t it?” Chris asked softly.
Needing no explanation, Jim nodded, “My brother was in the mine she collapsed. The doctors don’t know if he’ll ever walk again.”
Chris could understand and even sympathize with Ellison; he also knew the strength of a personal vendetta. If he knew who was responsible for the death of his wife and son, he would follow them to the ends of the earth.
Breakfast was coffee and hard tack as the sun was beginning to lighten the sky to the east. Vin and Blair worked on getting the horses ready to go while Nathan and Josiah distributed the coffee. The world was still shrouded in shades of deep gray when they set out, still heading south.
A hard nudge drove JD out of sleep. He tried to raise his hands to scrub at his face only to find them secured to his waist again. He blinked several times, trying to bring the world into focus but realized that it was so early that everything was still dark and gray. Alex removed the chain and dragged him to his feet, shoving him toward the bushes to do his business while she tended to the horses. He had barely managed to get his pants up before she was there, urging him toward her mount. She swung up behind him and set off at a brisk trot.
“Here,” Alex said as she offered JD a piece of dried fruit from her saddle bag. After he swallowed it, she tipped the canteen to his lips and allowed him to drink as much as he wanted. She gave him several more pieces of fruit, until he told her that he was full.
“Where are we going?” JD asked.
“I already told you, I have business in Mexico,” she replied.
The sun was still burning away the last of the overnight dew when they came up on where Alex and JD had spent the night. Jim dismounted and walked around the camp, using his senses to tell him as much as they could. Blair slipped up behind him, talking softly and walking him through categorizing the information his senses revealed.
Vin’s eyes narrowed as he watched the young, curly-haired man. Blair’s voice was too soft for him to understand the words but Vin felt the urging in his tone. Buck moved his gelding up alongside of Tanner’s and also watched the strange pair. He had just drawn a breath to speak when he heard Jim say the word that made his heart clench.
“Blood,” Jim announced. “I smell blood.” He knelt down and brushed through the layer of sand until he found the scraps of cloth. They were stiff and dry but he could still smell them.
Nathan quickly dismounted and moved to see what Ellison had uncovered. He didn’t hesitate to reach out and pluck the material from the other man’s hand, turning it over to see how much blood stained the scrap of cloth. When several tall shadows fell across him, he looked up.
“It doesn’t look too bad. More than likely, it’s just a scrape of some kind,” Nathan said, looking at Buck.
“How long ago were they here?” Buck asked, not of Jim but of Vin.
Tanner poked at the remains of the fire and shook his head, “Can’t tell. It don’t look like they made a fire this morning.” He raked through the burnt bones and added, “She took a rabbit yesterday.”
“Horse tracks going off this way,” Ezra called from where he was standing. “Looks like they were staked down here and rode out in that direction.”
South. The instinctive drive pulled at Alex to the exclusion of everything else. She pushed the horses, heedless of their exhaustion, until her mount stumbled and nearly unseated them. That was when JD’s insistent voice cut through the mental fog.
“We have to stop and rest the horses. Alex? Can you hear me? We need to stop,” JD urged. For most of the past few miles, she had been unresponsive except when the horse tried to slow down, then she would kick him. JD struggled to free his hands from the saddle horn, heedless of the burning pain of the material rubbing against his raw, irritated skin. Finally, the rope slipped over his knuckles and he reached out to take hold of the reins. “Alex, we have to rest the horses. We can’t keep going like this,” he urged.
“Alright,” she said softly, “We’ll stop and rest the horses.” She allowed the horse to walk until they reached a stream. Both of the horses went to the water and lowered their noses to drink deeply.
Alex dismounted and reached to steady JD when he got down. She kept one hand on his arm while staring at their back trail. Reaching out with her sense of hearing, she sought the men she knew were following her. When JD pulled away, she was abruptly cut off from what she had been listening to and turned on him angrily.
“What are you doing?” she shouted, grabbing hold of his belt and jerking him back toward her.
“If you let them drink too much they’ll get sick,” JD explained, still struggling to pull the horses faces out of the water. Although it would certainly slow them down, he couldn’t bear the thought of the animals suffering. When the horses turned their attention to the grass growing along the stream, JD sank to his knees and plunged his hands into the water. When Alex rousted him from his room, she hadn’t taken his hat and the sun had been beating down on his head for several hours. He scooped up the water and brought it up to his face, sighing as it soothed his heated cheeks.
Buck finished the last of the tepid water in his canteen and squinted out across the harsh, arid land. The sun was directly overhead and the air shimmered with waves of heat. They had been forced to stop and rest the horses. Vin and Jim were certain that they were only a couple of hours behind JD and Alex and they hoped to catch up with them at the river. Nathan came over to check on him and Buck tried to ignore the sensation that he had a pick buried in the side of his head.
“Drink this,” Jackson demanded, holding out a tin cup of weak tea.
“Aw, Nate, I’m-” Buck began to protest.
“Just drink it. I know you’re hurting,” Nathan insisted.
Buck drew breath to protest again until he caught the glare Chris aimed in his direction. Swallowing the words he had been about to say, Buck took the cup and brought it to his lips.
“What do you want with me?” JD asked when they set out again.
“You’re going to help me,” Alex replied.
“Help you what?”
“You’re going to help me rob a bank.”
“No, I’m not going to help you rob a bank,” JD exclaimed. “No matter what you do to me, you can’t make me help you break the law.”
“Oh, you’ll help me,” she replied, “Or I’ll make you wish were dead before I kill you.”
Alex studied the dry grass they were riding through and she got an idea. Swinging down from the saddle, she grabbed the small bottle of whiskey she had in her saddle bag.
“What are you going to do?” JD asked.
“I’m going to slow our pursuers down,” she answered as she gathered handfuls of the dry stalks. After pouring the alcohol on them, she dug in her vest for the small box of matches. The horses shied at the smell of smoke, but Alex kept hold of the reins as she set fire to the grass in several places. When the flames got close to her hand, she threw down the bundle and quickly mounted the horse.
The smell of smoke drove the horses to run harder and faster than before, putting even more distance between JD and his friends. JD pulled at his hands, once again lashed firmly to the saddle horn, as he desperately prayed that the others wouldn’t be trapped in the prairie fire Alex started.
Jim pulled up, slowing his mount and motioning for the others to stop. Blair edged up close and reached out to put his hand on the sentinel’s arm.
“What is it, Jim?” Blair asked.
“Fire,” Ellison replied.
“How far ahead?” Chris asked, having come up on the other side of Jim’s mount.
“A mile, at most, but coming this way.”
“Damn!” Chris swore. All around them, for acres and acres, was tall, dry grass. The horses were browsing on it as they waited. “The wind is bringing it right to us, isn’t it?” he asked.
“Yeah, but if we ride hard to the east, maybe we can get around it,” Jim suggested, noting that the wind was blowing to the north and west.
The horses began to play up as the thick, acrid smoke shifted. Ezra’s mount began to fight the bit, struggling to turn back, but the southerner managed to keep him moving with the others. The wind shifted, pushing the fire to the east and sending smoke that enveloped them in a choking cloud of gray. Suddenly, there was an equine squeal followed instantly by a human cry of panic and pain.
Blair put out both arms to break his fall, realizing at the same time as the pain raced up from his left wrist that it wasn’t a good idea. He rolled, covering his head with his arms, until his body tumbled to a stop, then he lay still, panting and cradling his injured wrist. A gust of wind cleared the air around him for a moment and allowed him to see Jim riding toward him.
Vin saw the riderless horse and the pack animal circling around to run in the other direction and he clapped his heels to Peso’s sides, urging the gelding to go after the other horses. He caught up and tossed a rope over the roan’s head, bringing both horses to a halt. Dropping from the saddle, he slowly approached the other horse, talking softly to soothe him so he could check his legs for injury. When the roan squealed and pulled away from his hands, Vin knew the animal was too lame to ride. He mounted Peso and led the horses back to where the others were gathered around the downed young man.
“Are you alright, Chief?” Jim asked as soon as he got to his friend.
Hissing in pain, Blair tried to sit up, only to be pushed back by Nathan.
“Just lay there a minute and let me check you over,” the healer ordered.
“It’s just my wrist,” Blair explained, gasping when the dark hands gently ran over his forearm.
Buck stared toward the open stretch of land, then back to where most of his party had dismounted to check on the curly-haired young man. Deciding that he had to catch up to JD and Alex, he wheeled his gelding around and took off at a gallop, letting the animal’s own fright propel him along.
Chris looked up in time to see Buck’s horse light out and he glanced around to see who was still mounted. “Ezra, you and Josiah go with Buck. We’ll catch up,” Larabee shouted, waiting only until the southerner’s hat dipped in acknowledgement before returning his attention to the injured young man. “Nate? How bad?” he asked.
“I can bind it up for now but I’ll need to check it again when we stop,” Jackson answered.
“The problem is that his horse can’t carry him anymore,” Vin added.
Everyone looked toward the roan gelding, which was standing near Jim’s mount holding his right front leg up off the ground. Blair sank back against the ground, slamming his right fist against his thigh.
“What about the pack horse?” Blair asked.
“Your horse couldn’t carry your supplies. If you want to leave them behind …” Vin offered.
“He can ride with me,” Jim announced. “Do what you have to with his arm and let’s get moving.”
Nathan quickly bound Blair’s arm to a smooth board that he had in his saddlebag and suggested that he tuck it into his shirt to support it until they stopped again. He then helped Blair to swing up behind Jim and they all headed out after the others. Vin tied the roan’s reins up out of the way and tied the lead rope to his saddle ring. If it became necessary, he would remove the animal’s tack and set him loose.
Alex slowed as she approached the river. The white noise generated by the rushing water interfered with her ability to hear whether or not they were still being followed. But she hadn’t heard anything since she started the fire so she was fairly sure they were safe for the moment. She swung down from the saddle, released the pack horse from the saddle ring and reached up to untie JD’s hands.
JD decided that he wasn’t going any farther with the deranged blonde woman. As soon as she released the pack horse, he clapped his heels against her horse’s sides and yelled. The horse jumped forward, startled and still edgy from the smell of fire, and ran right into the water.
“Hyah, hyah, go on!” JD shouted, urging the horse across the river. They were about half way across when the water deepened and the gelding lost his footing. JD gasped as he felt the horse start to swim. Risking a look over his shoulder, he was horrified to see Alex pointing his Colt at him. He tumbled off on the other side of the horse, trying to stay out of the way of his hooves that pistoned in the water. His head went under and he coughed as he pulled himself up.
The black gelding decided that he’d had enough foundering around in the deep, swift water and he began to angle toward the shore. Several long strides later, he was standing on the sandy bank, trying to shake the water from his coat without success.
Alex tied the pack horse to a bush and ran down the river to where the big, black gelding was coming out of the water. She could see JD struggling to free his hands and put on a burst of speed, getting to him just as the rope stretched enough to allow him to pull free of the horse.
Seeing the blonde running toward him, JD turned and flung himself back in the water. He tried to propel himself with his legs while shaking the rope off of his wrists. He managed to get one hand free before he felt a hand clench in the back of his shirt.
“You want to be in the water?” Alex screamed. “How’s this?” She wrapped her other hand in his hair and pushed his face into the water, holding him under as he struggled and thrashed. She pulled him up just long enough to take a breath, then pushed him under again.
JD was in a full-out panic. He reached up and clawed at the hand that was tangled in his hair while struggling to hold his breath. She pulled him up and he took a breath but she pushed him under again right away. She pulled him up again but forced him back under before he could draw a deep breath. When she pulled him up the third time, he was coughing up the water he had inhaled.
“You still want to be in the water?” Alex asked, giving JD’s head a hard shake.
Gasping for breath between coughing up the water, JD managed to find his voice, “No,” he breathed, “No more.”
Alex dragged JD out of the water and over to where the horse had stopped. She retied JD’s hands with the wet rope, then took up the reins and began leading the gelding back to the pack horse, pushing JD in front of her every step of the way.
JD collapsed the moment Alex stopped pushing him. She led the black gelding over to the bush where she had tied the pack horse and loosened the girth before turning to him.
“That was stupid, you might have drowned,” she scolded. She reached out to touch him and he shrank from her hand. “Get up and move over here by the tree,” she ordered, taking hold of his arm and pulling him to his feet.
Buck pushed his mount for more speed, more distance, until he heard the loud whistle coming from behind him. He allowed the animal to slow and Josiah’s gentle gelding rode up alongside of him. Ezra cantered up on the other side of him and huffed in irritation.
“You could have waited for the rest of us,” Standish announced breathlessly.
“That blonde bitch has JD. I’m not stopping until I find them,” Buck replied defiantly.
Not far behind, Blair clenched his teeth as each jolt of the horse’s body sent a flash of pain up his injured arm. He had his thighs pressed tightly under the lip of the cantle and his free hand clenched in Jim’s jacket. He couldn’t see anything but it didn’t matter, as long as they caught up with Alex.
He had tried to help her as he had Jim. He overheard her talking to her companion about the unusual combination of spices in the deer stew and realized that she had at least one enhanced sense. When he struck up a conversation with her while clearing her table, he also discovered that she could hear better than average.
They had met several times and Blair explained to her about her unique abilities. It was Alex that discovered the physical connection that seemed to ‘sharpen’ her senses. When he tried it out on Jim, he found that his friend could see better and farther when they were in direct physical contact. It was also how he discovered that sentinels were possessive of their friends.
Jim and Blair were alone in the jailhouse when Ellison got up and walked the perimeter of the room as if following something invisible. When the trail led to Blair, the sentinel seemed almost angry.
“What is it? What’s wrong?” Blair asked.
Shaking his head, Jim went around the room again and, once again, returned to Blair. He rousted the younger man from his seat and checked the chair. The disturbing scent left him feeling anxious and, for some reason he couldn’t fathom, angry. He turned to Blair and took hold of his jacket, pushing it from his shoulders. Ignoring the murmured protests from his young friend, Jim sniffed at the garment and found the disturbing scent to be all over it.
“Where have you been this morning?” Jim asked.
“At the restaurant. Why?” Blair returned.
The sentinel tossed the jacket across the desk and circled his friend. The scent was still there. He reached out and began unbuttoning the flannel shirt Blair was wearing and that was when Sandburg decided he’d had enough.
“What are you doing?” Blair protested, shoving Jim’s hands away and hurriedly doing up the buttons.
Jim glared at his friend for a moment, then grabbed his jacket from the peg next to the door and stormed out of the jailhouse. Blair grabbed his jacket and followed, hurrying to catch up when he realized Ellison was headed for the restaurant. He stood in the doorway as the sentinel walked the length and breadth of the room before zeroing in on the table in the corner.
“What is it, Jim?” Blair asked, coming up behind the older man. He could tell by the tense posture that the sentinel was upset about something. That it was focused on the table where he and Alex had spent an hour working on her senses didn’t even occur to him … until later.
Ellison whirled on the younger man, his jaw clenched, as were his fists. “Stay away from me,” he snarled as he shoved Blair out of the way and swept from the building.
It was most of a week before Blair could bring himself to try to apologize, even though he had no idea what he had done wrong. He waited until he knew Jim was at home, in the small cabin on the edge of town. When he knocked on the door, he didn’t hear anything. After waiting several minutes, Blair walked around the cabin, intending to look in the bedroom window. As he came around the back side of the cabin, he was startled to see what looked like all of Jim’s furniture heaped up in a pile next to the creek. Forgoing common courtesy, Blair let himself into the cabin and found it empty except for the pillow-tick mattress on the floor of the bedroom. He was getting ready to run back to the jailhouse to tell one of the deputies that something had happened to Jim when he saw the sentinel staring down at him from a perch in a nearby tree. Concerned and just a little frightened, Blair left the cabin and didn’t go back.
During the cave-in at the mine, Blair bumped into Jim and the duo fell into the familiar routine of Blair helping the sentinel to use his senses to find trapped and injured miners. The search and rescue took the better part of several days and, by the time the last dead body was pulled from the mine, Jim apologized for his bizarre behavior and asked Blair to accompany him on the trek to find the couple responsible.
It was late one night during one of their rare rest periods that Blair came across the obscure reference to the sentinel having a guide and, if he translated the words correctly, of the fierce protective instincts that another sentinel in his territory might provoke. Blair realized that his helping Alex had stirred some deep, primitive response in the sentinel, who had apparently claimed him as guide.
“You okay back there, Chief?” Jim asked, reaching across his body to cover Blair’s hand with his own.
“I’ll be okay,” Blair assured his friend. But he would definitely be glad when they were able to stop for the night.
Alex managed to catch a good-sized fish for supper for the two of them. She was concerned because JD seemed the worse for wear after his dunking in the river. She changed the bandages on his wrists and tied him up again. When she brought him his share of the fish, he managed only a few bites before he pushed the plate away and turned over with the blanket she had given him.
Sitting next to the young, dark-haired man, Alex let her hand rest on his shoulder and extended her senses. Although JD didn’t understand her the way Blair had, she knew he could learn.
She and Carl had been sitting in the restaurant, going over the plan to rob the banks, when she dipped into the deer stew the curly-haired waiter had put in front of her. The spicy brown gravy made her tongue tingle and she couldn’t help commenting on it to her companion.
“Yeah, yeah, it’s delicious,” Carl murmured. “I don’t want to go into another discussion about your food.” He had grown tired of listening to her go on and on about how much or how little flavor their meals had.
“But it tastes like they used fresh green onion and the potatoes weren’t grown around here,” Alex explained. “The local produce all has a metallic taste to it.” She took a bite of the bread that she had buttered and inhaled deeply. “This is sweet,” she added. “They must put something in it.”
The waiter stopped beside the table and smiled brightly when she looked up at him. “It’s honey in the butter,” he explained. “I found it in a tree in the forest and brought some of the combs back for the cook. I also pick free-growing herbs and mushrooms.”
“That’s it! That’s what I was tasting!” she exclaimed, dipping another spoonful of the gravy from the bowl of stew. “You used fresh mushrooms in this!”
At first, Alex went back because the food at the restaurant where Blair worked was better than any of the other places in town. But after a couple of days, it became evident to her that he was testing her to see if she could tell what was in the food he put before her.
“This is excellent! What’s in it?” she asked.
“What does it taste like?” Blair countered.
“Like salt but not,” she replied, “and it isn’t an herbal taste.”
“It’s sea salt,” Blair said. “One of the traders brought me a small pouch. May I ask you a question? I heard you talking the other day about strange noises.”
Alex had reluctantly explained to him about the problems she had been having with her senses. Blair seemed to understand and immediately offered her help. Over the course of several days, he explained to her how to control her senses, especially when they spiked and made her uncomfortable. He taught her to visualize them like beads on an abacus and to slide the beads up or down until her senses were under control again. He even presented her with a small string of beads that she could hold in her hands to help her when she struggled for control. When she told him that her senses were better when he laid his hand on her arm or shoulder, he seemed amazed. She invited him to go with her when she left the town, spinning him a tale about her wealthy benefactor and about how she would set him up with a restaurant of his own wherever they settled down but he politely declined, saying that his home and his life were there.
Carl threatened to kill Blair if she didn’t stop hanging around with him and she reluctantly left him behind. When she found out that he was with the sheriff who was tailing them, she was almost sorry she didn’t let Carl have his way.
Several hours later, Alex stirred in her sleep, roused by the over-warm body trembling beside her. She pulled JD onto his back and pressed her palm lightly to his cheek, surprised to feel the heat radiating from his skin. She laid her ear over his chest and heard the bubbling deep in his lungs. Cursing her fit of temper that caused her to hold him under the water, she coaxed him upright and leaned him against the tree. He stirred and began to cough, gagging on the phlegm that hit the back of his throat.
Alex knew that she had to find a place where she could hole up while JD got better. She hoped that, by taking care of him, he would come to trust her and see that she would look after him. After brewing a canteen of herbal tea to keep the fever at bay, she hefted him up in the saddle and started out, riding along the river, detouring from the directly southern route she had been following.
When they reached the river, Chris called a halt. The horses were tired and edgy from the smell of the fire and Nathan needed to tend to Blair’s arm. Vin and Josiah tended to the horses while Ezra gathered wood for a fire. Chris and Jim went to the river and returned nearly an hour later with several fish, enough for all of them to have a full belly. Ezra and Buck dug into their saddlebags and came up with enough beans and dried fruit to round out a decent meal. Nathan brewed a strong, pain killing tea and gave it to Blair after he had eaten.
“What’s in this?” Blair asked, eyeing the cup suspiciously. Before the dark-skinned healer could reply, Jim rattled off the ingredients, much to Nathan’s astonishment.
After Blair finished the tea, Nathan urged him to lie back on his bedroll. Apprehension scrolled across the expressive blue eyes and Jim moved to kneel behind his friend.
“Lean back against me, Chief,” Jim suggested. He wrapped his arms around Blair and leaned in close, talking to him softly as Nathan unwrapped the long strips of cloth from the injured arm.
“I’m going to have to reset this,” Nathan explained apologetically. Jim’s hand slid down Blair’s arm to just below his elbow and gripped tightly, meeting Nathan’s eyes in silent understanding.
Blair burrowed into Jim’s shoulder as Nathan pulled out on his broken arm and gently rotated the bones into alignment. He felt the first smooth board placed against his forearm before the herbs and laudanum in the tea took affect and his eyes drifted closed.
Jim raked his fingers through Blair’s curly tresses, noticing for the first time that neither of them had taken the time to shave in several days. The dark beard and mustache made his young friend look older but did nothing to cover the innocence in his face. When Nathan finished binding Blair’s arm, Jim laid him down and covered him with his blanket. They propped his arm up on a saddle to try to alleviate the swelling and left him to sleep.
“He’s your guide, isn’t he?” Vin asked when Jim paused near the rock where Tanner was keeping watch.
“What do you know about it?” Jim countered.
“I’s with the tribes for a few years growin’ up. One of the villages had a guardian and the guardian had a guide. He was the spiritual leader, walked the spirit plane and talked to the animal spirits,” Vin explained.
“I don’t know about the spirit plane or spirit animals but Blair makes my senses work better.”
“And he’s special to you, like a brother but more,” Vin supposed aloud.
“More,” Jim agreed. “He’s closer to me than my own brother.”
“Soul-bonded,” Vin said. “You’re lucky to have found him.”
Blair was still drowsy when he awoke the next morning but he was determined not to slow them down. Vin decreed that his mount was still too sore to ride and Jim announced that Blair would ride with him again.
“Might be easier on your horse if you let him ride with one of us today,” Vin suggested.
“He rides with me,” Jim replied.
“Jim, Jim, calm down. He’s right. I should ride with one of the others for a while,” Blair said.
“He can ride with me for a while,” Nathan suggested.
Vin stepped back toward his horse, feeling the waves of anxiety coming from the older man. He noticed that as soon as he moved away from Blair, Jim’s posture relaxed slightly. He knew, from his time among the tribes, that he could have been a guardian if he had stayed. The medicine man said that he had a strong spirit animal and just needed training. Vin suspected that was the reason Jim was so edgy around him and so protective of the injured guide.
With Blair riding behind Nathan, the group set out, going up river toward where they figured Alex would have crossed if she stayed on her due south heading. There was no way they could cross where they were because of the rapids that extended for nearly a mile to the west of their position. Chris told Jim that Alex would have to go west until she came to a place where it was safe to cross. They had only been riding for a couple of hours when Jim suddenly urged his horse forward.
Buck saw Ellison’s horse bolt away from the others and nudged his mount to catch up. He still had a slight headache and his stitches itched like mad but he wouldn’t tell Nathan. At least the double vision had gone away. He swung down from the saddle and moved to kneel next to Jim, who was examining the remains of a small fire.
“They were here last night,” Jim said. “She caught fish.”
Something about the frown on the other man’s face prompted Buck to ask, “Can you tell if JD’s alright?”
“Not really. I don’t know enough about his scent when he was well to be sure.”
The others were dismounting and scouring the camp while Buck and Jim examined the fire pit.
“You mean, you can tell if Blair is sick just by his scent?” Buck asked.
“Yeah, but only because I’ve spent so much time with him,” Jim replied.
“But you know she was here?” Buck pressed, anxious to be certain they were on the right path.
“She spent some time with Blair before she left our town, that’s how I know her scent,” Jim answered, standing up and brushing the sand and soot from his hands. He nodded to Chris and started over to where the blond man was standing. “She was here last night. They had fish. That’s about all I can tell for now,” Jim explained. “Excuse me,” he said, seeing Nathan doing something to Blair’s arm.
“How are you doing, Chief?” Jim asked.
“I’m fine,” Blair replied petulantly.
“That good, huh?” Jim teased.
“He’ll be alright. I was just checking that the splint isn’t too tight,” Nathan explained. “He’s gonna ride with Ezra for a while.”
While the pursuers were riding up-river, Alex and JD were coming down-river. The deranged female sentinel was so distracted by her chosen guide’s fever that she never even sensed them until they were right upon her.
“Chris! Buck!” Vin shouted, standing in the stirrups and squinting at the approaching horses. Instantly, five other horses shot past him.
Ezra hung back, having Blair, the lame roan and the pack horse in his care. He held his mount back, keeping him to a fast walk behind the rest.
Alex stiffened suddenly as she saw the men riding toward her. She recognized Ellison’s mount and growled low in the back of her throat. Without much thought, she urged her horse into the river, heedless of the rapids.
JD roused from his fevered slumber at the low growl near his ear. He felt the woman tense up behind him. Even as he struggled to open his eyes, he felt the cold water splashing over his legs. Remembering the last time he had been in the water, he moaned and clenched his nearly-numb fingers around the saddle horn.
“Aw hell,” Vin groused when he saw the woman’s horse veer into the rushing water. He urged Peso toward the river but he didn’t enter the current.
Panic and anger took hold and Alex glared at the young man galloping toward her on the blaze-faced gelding. She tightened her grip on her guide and tried to steer the horse across the rapids. The pack horse neighed in fear and was trying to keep from going into the deeper water, causing her horse to fight against the reins.
Buck’s long-legged mount passed Vin and splashed into the water at the river’s edge before he pulled up on the reins and drew his pistol. He wasn’t going to try for the woman and it wasn’t in his nature just to shoot at a horse but he would if it meant recovering his friend.
Jim urged his horse into the water down-river from Vin and Buck, determined to cut off Alex’s escape. He heard the low, angry growl she made when she saw him and he knew she wasn’t going to give up easily. Zeroing in on the young man in her arms, Jim saw that he was struggling feebly.
Like Buck, Vin had drawn his weapon but he knew he couldn’t risk taking a shot with JD held so tightly against the blonde woman. As he was trying to decide whether or not to fire off a warning shot, he saw the pack horse stumble. The little russet gelding fought for its head, lashing out against the larger horse in a desperate attempt to get loose.
Too late to stop it, Jim could only watch as Alex’s horse foundered in the swift-moving water. His own sturdy mount was struggling to maintain his position and they weren’t even in the worst of the rapids. He heard the sound of a weapon being primed to fire and called out a warning to the others, “Look out!”
Chris saw the bone-handled colt curling around JD’s torso and he looked to see who she was aiming at. To his horror, she was pointing it at Buck, who was aiming back at her.
“Buck, look out!” Larabee shouted.
The rapport of the gun firing startled the black gelding and he lost his footing, crashing over on his side and taking the pack horse under. Alex managed to push away before the heavy bodies crashed into her but she lost her grip on the gun when she went under the churning water. Before she could breach the surface, she was slammed against a large, smooth boulder and dazed.
Icy water swept over his fevered body and JD was shocked into action. He immediately began to tug frantically at the rope that bound him to the saddle horn. One of the pack horse’s hooves struck him on the back near his hip and he barely managed to hold back a scream of pain. Finally, after what felt like an eternity, the rope slipped over his hands and he kicked away from the horses. Struggling for the surface, JD’s body was pummeled by the rocks as he was propelled over them. His hands were still tied together, so he couldn’t manage any kind of swimming stroke but he tried to protect his head. He was doing pretty well for a few seconds, then a rock struck his right elbow. When he recoiled from the pain, his head struck another rock and his vision darkened just as a hand closed around the waistband of his pants. JD tried to struggle but his consciousness fled too quickly for him to do more than raise his hands and push away from his captor.
Nathan managed to retain his grip on the dead-weight body while Jim braced him against the current. Together, they struggled toward the shore. Chris ran to meet them, shaking out the heavy woolen blanket from his bedroll. He enveloped JD and helped all three of them out of the water.
As soon as the dark-skinned healer and the young man were safely out of the water, Jim turned around and headed back into the current, scouring the rapids for the other sentinel. He focused farther and farther out, desperate to find the woman before she got away. A spot of color on the other side of the river had him taking a step toward it …
Blair immediately realized that Jim was becoming ‘lost’ and he started into the water. A hand caught hold of his arm and pulled him back but he fought against it. He called out to his friend, hoping against hope that his voice would pull Jim back in spite of the distance between them, “Jim! Come back! Jim! You have to come back!”
Hearing the young, curly-haired man shouting, Buck looked away from where Nathan and Chris were just putting JD down on the dark, woolen blanket. He saw that Jim was staring down river at something. While he didn’t think the other man was in danger, it was obvious that Ezra was having trouble keeping hold of Blair. Buck angled toward the two younger men and tried to force Blair back to shore.
“You have to stop him! He’s lost in the spirit plane!” Blair shouted as the larger bulk of Wilmington’s body prevented him from moving deeper into the water. “You have to bring him back!”
Buck looked back to see that Ellison was taking a wobbly step toward the deeper, swifter part of the river. “You go with Ezra, I’ll get Jim,” Buck said. He waited only until the younger man stopped struggling, then he turned and hurried to get to Ellison.
A firm, insistent hand was turning him away from the bright spot of color and Jim lost sight of it for a moment. In that moment, he became aware of Blair’s voice, calling urgently to him. He stiffened against the body pushing him toward the shore until he recognized the tall, mustached man.
Josiah and Vin saw to gathering all of the horses and settling them on a rope strung between two fairly sturdy trees. Vin also managed to capture both of the other horses, who had come ashore and stood some ways down the river, shaking the water from their coats. The pack horse had lost most of his load but the sturdy frame still sat on his back with a length of rope hanging from it. At the end of that rope was a small, leather valise. After checking that their legs were sound, Vin set the bag on the horse’s back and led them toward the others.
Ezra and Jim gathered wood for a fire while the others stood in an anxious huddle around JD’s prone body. In the back of his mind, Jim was still trying to figure out where Alex could have gone, how she could have gotten away so quickly. Once they had a decent-sized fire going, Jim went to his pack horse and brought out the tent he and Blair used when they had to sleep out on the trail. He stiffened when Vin came over to help him but he allowed the nascent sentinel to help him fashion a lean-to shelter.
The soaking in the cold water had helped to bring JD’s fever down but it had done nothing for the congestion in the young sheriff’s lungs. While they were removing his wet outer clothes, Nathan spotted the large, dark bruise on JD’s lower back. Ezra took the wet garments and spread them out across the bushes to dry after filling the healer’s tea kettle with water and putting it in the fire to heat.
Blair flinched when a large, strong hand settled on his shoulder until he recognized that it was Jim. Both of them were wet to the knees.
“We’ll find her,” Blair announced softly.
“I know,” Jim replied. “But we need to help these men first.”
They moved JD to the lean-to and Vin and Chris went hunting for something for all of them to eat. Jim and Blair walked along the river, guide grounding sentinel as he used his senses to try to locate the woman. They were just about to give up and turn back when Jim spotted something on the other shore. Stretching out his senses, Jim strained to hear a heartbeat. Finally, he shook his head and signed grimly.
“She’s dead, Chief,” Jim announced.
By the time they returned to the camp, the hunters had returned and there was a delicious odor emanating from the hastily-dug fire pit. Buck was in the lean-to, sitting against one of the saddles with JD cradled against his chest. Nathan was holding a steaming bowl of something beneath JD’s nose, encouraging him to breathe in the vapors. Jim’s nose detected a hint of camphor and knew it would help to loosen the phlegm in JD’s lungs. The other men were sitting nearby, watching the horses and sharing drinks from a bottle of amber liquid. Jim moved to the horses and untied his mount.
“Where you off to?” Vin called casually.
“I spotted her on the other side of the river … she’s dead,” Jim replied.
The men exchanged glances before Chris got up and moved to saddle his mount.
“You don’t have to go with me,” Jim said as he fed the girth strap through the large D-ring and tightened it up. The blond gunslinger said nothing, but went ahead saddling his horse.
Blair struggled to lift his saddle with one hand, only to find another hand holding it on the ground. He looked over at his sentinel friend, to see what Jim’s reaction was to the long-haired man being so close to him. He had already picked up on the tension between the two men in the short time they had been together.
“You ain’t in any shape to be riding,” Vin said, also looking over at the older man to gauge his reaction.
“Stay here, Chief. I just want to make sure it’s her and give her a decent burial,” Jim added. He looked at Vin for a long moment before nodding solemnly. Tanner’s head dipped in acceptance of the unspoken command to look out for Blair.
They rode up river for half a mile before they found a place shallow enough to cross without danger. Chris was silent, waiting for the other man to speak.
“This isn’t how I pictured it ending,” Jim announced suddenly.
“You didn’t get the revenge you were after?” Chris asked.
“It wasn’t-” Jim began, only to realize that the gunslinger was right.
“It wouldn’t have brought back your dead and it wouldn’t have made your brother walk again.”
“What about what she did to your friend?” Jim countered. “Can you honestly say you wouldn’t have wanted your pound of flesh if he’d drowned?”
“Revenge is sweet but only until you bite into it, then it’s bitter as gall,” Chris intoned softly. “Took me a long time to come to the realization and it almost cost me a good friend.”
They arrived at the spot where the blonde woman’s body lay and ground-tied their mounts. Jim stepped into the water and gathered Alex’s body up in his arms. Chris took a small, folding shovel out of his saddlebag and moved away from the water to a shady spot beneath a hearty-looking tree.
It was obvious that Alex had hit the rocks hard enough to be knocked unconscious and that she drowned. Jim raked the tangled hair from her face and carefully righted her clothes before wrapping her in a blanket from his bedroll.
The two men took turns digging and carrying rocks up from the river. Chris spotted something shiny in the water and picked it up. JD would be relieved to get his gun back. The sun passed overhead and was sinking toward the western horizon when they piled the last rock on the grave. Jim stood, turning to stare southward for a long couple of minutes before he sighed heavily. The urge was still there but it wasn’t as strong as it had been.
JD groaned softly as another bout of coughing wracked his body. Nathan pulled back the heavy rain slicker and took away the bowl of herbs and camphor that he was using to loosen the phlegm from the younger man’s lungs. JD was able to bring it up easier and the healer was certain that he would be well enough to travel in a couple of days.
“Easy now, JD. You’re doing great,” Buck soothed as he dragged a damp cloth across the pale, sweaty forehead. When JD sagged back against him, Wilmington smiled. The kid trusted him enough to relax completely and just rest. Ezra sank to his knees inside of the lean-to and handed him a plate of wild turkey, beans and cooked apples. “That looks good! Where’d we get the apples?” Buck asked.
“Chris and Jim found a couple of trees on their way back,” Ezra replied. “They brought back nearly a half bushel. I have some that we added a little more water to and mashed up for JD when you think he’s ready to eat something.”
“Ready now,” JD murmured softly and without opening his eyes. “If I can just keep from coughing.”
Despite trembling hands, JD managed to spoon the soft-cooked apples from the tin coffee cup into his mouth. It was sweeter than he expected and he looked up to see Ezra smiling at him.
“I added a little sugar from my personal provisions,” Standish explained. He’d had to, the apples were quite tart and he didn’t think JD would be as willing to eat them unless they were doctored in some way.
Blair wandered over to where Jim sat on a large, sandy patch of ground. Ever since returning from burying Alexandra, the sentinel had been strangely subdued and melancholy. He sat down, folding his legs Indian-style and waited quietly, something that was very, very hard for him to do. His first instinct was to question his friend, to get him to open up about what he was thinking and feeling.
“It’s fading,” Jim announced softly.
“What is?” Blair asked.
The older man sighed as he stared southward, “Just a feeling I’ve been having.”
On the other side of the camp, Chris tossed the dregs of his coffee out. JD was coughing again and he could just hear Buck’s voice soothing his young friend. They would have to stay at least a couple of days to give JD a chance to recover before they could start back to town. He debated sending some of the others back but something told him that they needed to stay together. One of the horses whickered softly and another familiar voice soothed.
Vin passed his hand gently over the nose of Blair’s roan. The horse’s leg was still too tender to bear any additional weight but it was getting better. He had been out searching for the necessary plants and roots to make a warming poultice, just like he had learned from the Indians. Held on by a thick, fibrous leaf, it was taking the swelling down and easing the animal’s pain. Ezra’s gelding edged closer, nosing Vin’s arm to see if he had any treats. Jim’s horse stamped a foot and bared his teeth, warning the strange horse away from his pack-mate. After the horses were settled, Vin sauntered down to the river where Chris sat, drinking his coffee. He watched Larabee toss out the last of the cup and set it aside.
“We’re gonna have to stay here a while,” Chris said when Vin was close enough to hear.
“You thinkin’ it’s gonna be a problem?” Vin asked.
“Don’t rightly know. How much do you know about the area?”
“Far enough away that we’d be in a world of hurt if we get ambushed, not that I see that happening. Not too far from the reservation,” Vin answered. He noticed that Chris was staring toward where he could just make out the strangers sitting near the river. “Something about those two botherin’ you?”
“Just what he was saying about the reason the woman took JD,” Chris replied.
“You don’t believe the stories about the tribal guardians?” Vin asked.
Nathan startled from the light doze when he felt the plate slip from his fingers. When it was replaced by a fresh cup of coffee, he was surprised. Nodding his thanks to Ezra, he brought the cup to his lips and took a sip.
“I can sit with them if you would like to stretch your legs,” Ezra offered.
At first, Nathan’s first response was to shake his head ‘no’ and stay where he was but he realized that the next few days were going to be long ones for him and he nodded. Rising from where he had been sitting for the last few hours, he felt the pull along his back and shoulders.
“I appreciate it,” he said as he stepped out of the lean-to and straightened to his full height.
Ezra quickly gathered the remaining dishes and carried them over to where Josiah was washing them in the river, scouring them with sand to remove any stuck-on food. He then returned to the lean-to and checked that JD was covered so that he didn’t get a chill. The desert, for all that it was hot and miserable during the day, quickly became quite cool when the sun went down. The slight breeze coming off of the rapidly-moving water was chilly.
“And he thinks Nathan and I fuss over him,” Buck said softly.
“I am merely assuring that we aren’t forced to stay here a moment longer than necessary,” Ezra replied.
“If you say so,” Wilmington countered.
Nathan walked over to where Blair and Jim were sitting, carrying a cup of willow bark tea. He knew that the younger man had to be hurting. He slowed when he heard the soft conversation between the two men.
Chris shook his head. He didn’t want Vin to think that he didn’t respect the Indians’ ways but it was all just too much for him to take at one time. Finally, he sighed and dragged his fingers through his hair. He really just wanted to get back to town, take a long, hot bath and have half a bottle of Red Eye to help him relax.
“I’m just tired,” Chris said. “Can you and Josiah take first watch? I’m going to turn in.”
Vin was confused by the suddenness of his friend’s departure and he watched as the darkly-clothed man strode purposefully over to where he had dropped his bedroll.
They finished discussing the trek home and Blair turned to smile an invitation for Nathan to join them. He accepted the tin cup filled with warm, pungent tea, knowing it would help to dull the ache in his arm.
“Jim and I were just talking and we’re going to head back in the morning,” Blair announced.
“I’ll give you some willow bark to take along,” Nathan said, “You’ll need it for a few more days while that bone knits together.”
The long night passed uneventfully. JD awoke a couple of times, coughing and gagging on the crud he was expelling from his lungs, but Nathan and Buck tended to him quietly and he went right back to sleep after each episode. Vin handed off the watch to Ezra and Jim and rolled up in his blankets, dropping into a deep and dreamless slumber. Chris took the last watch, spending a few hours watching the stars and the crescent moon before the sky lightened enough to see the vague shapes around their camp. Nathan was awake early, brewing tea for JD and coffee for the rest of them.
After a light breakfast of coffee, biscuits and leftover fish, Jim and Blair began preparing to leave. Since Blair’s mount was still too lame to ride, Jim asked if he could take one of the horses Alex had purchased from Tiny. Chris shrugged, he didn’t suppose it mattered since the woman was dead. Blair was uneasy about the black gelding and preferred the gentle pack horse. While Jim saddled the horses and saw to tying the extra animals to a lead rope, Nathan pressed a small bundle into Blair’s hand and reminded him about how long to steep the tea before drinking it. He had already rewrapped the splint that before breakfast and had given them another length of cloth in case they needed to change it.
Vin, who was farthest from the river, looked up at hearing the high-pitched neigh of another horse. With his hand lying expectantly on his mare’s leg, he quickly made his way back to the others.
“Riders coming in,” Tanner called out. Immediately, Buck and Josiah moved out of the lean-to and took up protective positions over their vulnerable friend.
Jim scoured the campsite and quickly located Blair, who was being shielded by Nathan near a big tree. He silently cursed himself for letting his guard down and not hearing the riders’ approach. Even as he was moving to take shelter behind a good-sized boulder, he spotted Ezra taking cover.
The Indians rode up to the camp. Those on horseback swung down, except for three women who remained mounted at the rear of the group. More than one small face peered curiously out from behind buckskin-clad legs. The leader of the group slowly stepped away from the others and started toward the fire, calling out a greeting as he came.
Vin recognized the language as Pawnee and he knew the small band was a long way from where they should have been. He checked that his friends had him covered as he stepped out and returned the greeting. The Indian spoke again and Vin replied in the same language.
Chris stepped out from where he had taken cover and moved up to stand beside Tanner. He, too, made eye contact with the others and knew that his friends had their backs.
“What did he say?” Chris asked.
“He asked if we were going to the meeting of the guardians,” Vin replied.
“Meeting of the guardians?” Larabee repeated questioningly. The Indian watched the exchange, then spoke again, his words sounding harsh to the gunslinger.
Vin immediately translated, “He said we are blessed to have two guardians.”
Jim stepped forward, anger and anxiety warring for control as he approached the man speaking to Chris and Vin. He had the same uneasy feeling that he’d had when he first met Tanner. As he took up a position beside the other two men, the Indian took a step back and murmured something softly. The pull that Jim had felt to go south ignited again with a vengeance.
“He says that you are a powerful guardian,” Vin translated. “And that I am lucky to have you to train me,” he added.
Blair shrugged off the restraining hand that Nathan put on his shoulder and moved to stand at Jim’s shoulder. The Indian studied him for a long moment before he nodded, seemingly in approval.
“What can you tell us about the meeting of the guardians?” Blair asked in Pawnee.
Jim turned to look at his friend in stunned silence. He knew that Blair had spent time among the tribes but had never heard him speaking in their language.
The Indian motioned for the others of his group to come closer and he gestured toward the fire as if asking permission to sit down. Blair looked to Jim and Vin to Chris before both of them sank to their knees and settled in comfortably.
Slowly, the groups came together. Ezra and Josiah took up positions between the others and the lean-to, while Nathan and Buck went to check on JD. A couple of the Indians led the horses to the water and the women came forward to settle on a blanket behind the man at the fire.
“The meeting of the guardians happens after every twenty-five moons. All of the guardians and their companions travel to the temple. I would guess that they use the word ‘guardian’ the same way I use the word ‘sentinel’. Those without a companion may find one there,” Blair translated. None of them missed the way the Indian looked at Vin as he passed along the last bit of information. Blair asked a question and the Indian responded. “The way he explains it, the companion is what I refer to as a guide,” he added.
“I thought you said JD was one of those ‘guides’,” Chris said, looking pointedly at Blair.
“I said that Alicia -- Alex thought he was a guide,” Blair explained.
JD started coughing and Nathan quickly pulled him over onto his side while Buck supported him from behind. After he managed to spit out the phlegmy mess, Jackson coaxed a few sips of water down his throat and let him settle against the saddle he was using to keep JD partially upright to aide his breathing.
One of the Indian women looked anxiously toward the lean-to and spoke urgently to the man seated in front of her. He, in turn, spoke to Jim and Blair translated.
“She is their healer and she would like to see if there’s anything she can do to help.”
Jim turned to consult with Larabee, who looked to Vin before nodding. Tanner rose and escorted the woman over to translate for her.
The leader of the small band of Indians watched as Vin knelt and began to introduce the healer to the dark-skinned man who had been tending to the sick man in the small shelter. They could all hear the melodic rise and fall of the woman’s voice as she asked questions, followed by Vin’s halting translation of her words. Nathan asked a question and she replied. Several minutes later, she called out to the others.
“She wants to set up a small sweat lodge,” Blair explained.
“Nathan?” Chris called questioningly.
“It ain’t all that different than what I’ve been doing with the steam from the tea kettle,” Nathan replied.
In a startlingly short period of time, they had a small tent set up. The children were scurrying around, collecting wood for a fire while the other women unrolled sturdy hides inside the sweat lodge. Ezra and Josiah tried to help, breaking the larger pieces of wood into manageable sizes. One of the women pressed a bucket into Ezra’s hands and gestured him toward the river. When he returned with the container full of water, she screeched at him and dumped the water out. One of the children ran over and took the bucket and the southerner’s hand, leading him back to the river. When the boy began piling rocks into the bucket, Ezra nodded in understanding.
By the time the sun was directly overhead, the sweat lodge was complete and Indian healer began undressing JD. She had little more than unbuttoned his shirt when JD roused … and began protesting loudly.
“Hey! What? Who are you? Nathan, why is she-?” JD spluttered while fumbling with the buttons on his shirt. All the excitement caused him to start coughing again and he curled his arm around his ribs and turned on his side.
When the coughing spell ended, Nathan mopped the sweat from JD’s face and offered him a sip of water. He steadied the trembling hand when JD would have dropped the tin cup. The woman nodded at seeing that he willingly drank the water and she commented to Vin.
“She says that he needs a lot of water to sweat out the bad spirit that is making him sick,” Vin explained.
It took a lot of coaxing to get JD to consent to removing his shirt but he wouldn’t give up his pants, no matter how many ways Vin explained that the woman wouldn’t be able to see anything in the sweat lodge. The woman ended the argument by telling Vin that it didn’t matter. A few minutes later, Vin and Nathan helped JD to his feet and supported him as he crossed to the sweat lodge. Buck followed behind until he was stopped by the Indian healer. He cast a worried, anxious gaze on Vin, who explained that there simply wasn’t room for him in there. Nathan needed to be there and he had to be there to translate for the woman but there was no need for Buck. Finally, reluctantly, Wilmington’s shoulders slumped and he took a step back so the woman could close the tent flap.
At the fire, Blair was entranced by the way the Indian leader explained the gathering of the guardians. He couldn’t understand where the gathering took place because of the vague explanation that it was far away. The others soon lost interest in the discussion and stared toward the sweat lodge.
The air inside of the hide lodge was thick with humidity and JD struggled to draw a deep breath. The Indian healer sprinkled something on the fire and a pleasantly-scented smoke rose along with the steam. Nathan offered him another cup of water and he willingly took it. JD leaned against the backrest and tried to focus his eyes on the woman seated across the fire from him. He could hear her chanting softly and turned to Vin to ask what she was saying.
“She’s callin’ for the spirits to come and heal you,” Tanner explained.
Some thirty or forty minutes later, the tent flap opened and Vin stepped out, supporting JD’s weight as the younger man stumbled from the hide-padded floor of the tent to the hard-packed ground. JD’s hair was plastered to his skull, soaked with sweat and steam. He shivered when the cool breeze from the river touched his skin. Josiah hurried forward, shaking out a blanket to wrap around the two young men. Nathan came out behind them, swiping the sweat from his face with the back of his hand as he swayed on his feet.
“What’s wrong with them?” Buck asked, alarmed at seeing the three of them looking so depleted.
“They’ll be fine,” Blair immediately soothed. “It just takes a few minutes to make the transition.”
Buck moved to wrap an arm around JD, supporting him until he could help him down onto his bedroll. Nathan sank to his knees beside Dunne and offered him another cup of water. JD took it and upended it over his head.
“You were supposed to drink it,” Nathan gently scolded.
“Brain’s cooking,” JD replied before sinking down and closing his eyes. Seconds later, his soft snore announced that he was asleep.
“How is he?” Buck asked.
“See for yourself. His fever’s broke and he’s breathin’ easier,” Nathan answered.
Vin went out with a couple of the Indians to find something to eat. They returned with a variety of things, rabbits and a turkey, as well as a couple of geese. The women immediately took over the cleaning and cooking of the meat, leaving the men to sit around the fire and talk.
Chris set the watches for the night and headed for his bedroll. He was concerned about what would happen to Vin if he was one of the ‘guardians’ that the Indian and Blair seemed to think he was. Jim had mentioned how he thought he was losing his mind when the strange abilities began to manifest themselves and Blair related that Alex had been terrified when her senses suddenly turned on her. He wanted to understand what would happen and what they would have to do to help him if it happened. But Tanner seemed not at all disturbed by the information, secure in his belief that he wasn’t a ‘full’ guardian and that it wasn’t a problem. The knowing smile the Indian leader gave Vin seemed to indicate that he thought he knew better, though.
It was calm and silent around the camp as Jim and Blair took their turn on watch. They sat at right angles to each other, leaning against a rock. The waning crescent moon bathed the area in muted shades of gray.
“Do you intend to head out in the morning?” Blair asked softly.
“To go home?” Jim asked.
“Unless you want to go somewhere else.”
A long, uncomfortable silence stretched out between them and Blair shifted around so he could see Jim’s face. Reaching out with one hand, he placed his palm against the sentinel’s forearm.
The muted gray landscape suddenly came alive with sharply defined features and Jim sighed deeply. Now that he could understand his senses and, to an extent, control them, he wondered how long Blair would remain at his side. He was troubled by the way the Indian had said that every ‘guardian’ had a ‘companion’ that was somehow unique and meant only for a specific ‘guardian’. He wondered what would happen to his senses if Blair were to leave. The very thought of not seeing the curly-haired, blue-eyed young man made him physically sick to his stomach.
“Jim?” Blair said, leaning closer to his friend. He could see that the sentinel was focused on something, his eyes had taken on that faraway look and his jaw was slack. “It’s time to come back now,” he urged, sliding his hand up to Jim’s shoulder.
His mind’s eye saw a lush, green jungle and an irregularly-shaped stone temple. A large black cat lay on the steps, his long tail flicking absently as he surveyed his surroundings. A timber wolf barked and leapt at a dragonfly that flitted just out of reach. Suddenly, a man with coal-black hair and a red-painted face stepped into the clearing, clutching an ornate spear. He strode up and spoke to the wolf and the animal sat obediently at his side. The cat came down the steps and took a position on the other side of the man. Somehow, Jim knew this was good and right and he sighed again as he found himself sitting against a rock beside a bubbling river. Blair’s voice soothed him as tense muscles relaxed.
“Yeah, we’re going home tomorrow,” Jim said.
In the morning, the Indians were up at daylight, packing their belongings up and getting ready to depart. They would have to backtrack for the better part of a mile to get to a place where it was safe to cross but it had been important that they make the detour to meet the powerful guardian and his apprentice.
Jim and Blair loaded their pack horse and made ready for the long trek back home. Blair’s roan was better but Vin suggested that they give him another few days before they started riding him again. As they were getting ready to leave, the Indian leader approached Jim with gifts. He gave both of them a small pouch with a stone in it. Jim knew, as soon as he tipped it into his palm, that it was from the temple where the guardians were gathering. He thanked the man and shook his hand before putting the pouch around his neck and tucking it into his shirt. Blair was fascinated with the gift, thanking the Indian profusely for honoring him with such a valuable gift.
Chris thanked Jim and Blair for their help in recovering JD and the gold from the bank that had been in the valise tied to Alex’s pack horse. They were also packing up to head home but they would be taking it easy for JD’s sake. The young sheriff had slept deeply and soundly all night and was much more alert when he awakened.
The three groups parted way that morning, one going to the southwest, one to the northwest and one to the northeast. The only sign of their meeting was a pair of fire rings on one side of the river and a grave on the other.
JD protested being made to ride double, for about the first half hour in the saddle, then he fell asleep, slumped against Buck’s arm, his head bobbing with every step the horse took. They stopped after a few hours to switch horses. JD roused long enough to eat some of the leftover turkey from supper the night before and drink from his canteen. He managed to stay awake for a few minutes, then he was back to dosing. Nathan assured the worried, mother-hen Buck that JD’s body needed to rest to finish healing.
Vin and Chris rode away from the others and brought down a small deer. They made camp early so they could cook the meat, which would mean they wouldn’t need to hunt again for a couple of days. JD, in spite of his insisting that he wasn’t tired, fell asleep propped up against a tree with his empty plate teetering precariously on his lap. He mumbled at Ezra when the southerner collected the dishes and Standish simply patted him on the head and told him to go back to sleep.
The new moon shed no light on the landscape, so Chris and Vin kept the fire built up all night to discourage any predatory animals from getting ideas about the horses. Chris knew that Vin was doing some deep thinking about what the Indian had said and he had seen the longing stare Tanner gave the departing band.
“I wasn’t thinkin’ of leavin’,” Vin said when it was just the two of them keeping watch.
“I don’t have any hold on you,” Chris replied.
“But things is easier with the tribe.”
“And you were comfortable with them.”
“After my Ma died … I’se all alone … scared and hurtin’ … didn’t want all them folks passin’ me around like a jug of corn mash,” Vin said. “So I left. Took the clothes on m’back and … started walkin’. Don’t know how long I’se walkin’ ‘fore they found me.”
“You’re lucky they did,” Chris said, “And I’m mighty thankful to them.”
The next day was even longer. JD, tired from traveling all the day before, was cranky and irritable. He’d had enough of Buck hovering over him and decided to ride by himself. Chris heard the shouting as he was coming back from filling the canteens.
“You’re going to fall and break your danged neck!” Buck shouted as he watched JD struggle with the heavy saddle. “I’ll just go get some rope and tie you in place.”
“You try it and I’ll shoot you where the sun don’t shine!” JD yelled back.
“You ain’t even armed! How you planning on shooting me?” Buck challenged.
As quick as a blink, JD dropped the saddle and lunged at the taller man, snagging the gun from his holster and spinning it around in his hand. It would have worked if he had not swayed on his feet from the exertion. As it was, Buck found himself hesitating between reaching out to steady his young friend and holding back so as not to get shot with his own gun.
“That’s enough, JD,” Chris said as he approached from an angle. “Let me have the gun and sit down before you fall down.” He slowly reached out and took hold of the gun, pushing the barrel toward the ground until it slipped from JD’s lax fingers. “Maybe you could ride with Vin or Ezra today.”
But when they got ready to mount up, JD went back to stand near Buck’s gentle gray gelding.
“I’m sorry, Buck,” JD murmured. “I’m just not feeling too good.”
“I’m sorry too, kid. I shouldn’t have threatened to tie you up,” Buck replied. He had realized as soon as the words were out of his mouth that they were wrong but he couldn’t call them back.
JD managed to stay awake a little longer that morning and he told Buck what he remembered of his time with Alex. He laughed dryly when he recounted how she had told him that he would help her rob a bank. A hard shudder wracked his body as he remembered her attempt at drowning him.
Feeling JD shiver, Buck automatically released the reins and pressed his palm to JD’s forehead. “Are you cold?” he asked when he didn’t detect any fever.
“No, I’m fine. Just remembering,” he replied.
“Remembering what?” Buck asked.
Settling back a little more into his friend’s chest, JD began to talk about his near-drowning.
Hearing the fear in JD’s voice made Buck wish Alex was alive so he could take her for a dunk in the river. JD’s voice drifted and he settled more heavily against Buck and Wilmington realized he was asleep again.
After three long, slow days of riding, the familiar contours of the town appeared on the horizon. The horses perked up, realizing that there was sweet feed and warm stalls up ahead. JD was riding Buck’s horse while Buck rode the one Alex had bought. Except for the fact that he became winded easily, JD was doing well in his recovery. Nathan cautioned him not to push himself too hard, to let his body rest when he felt he needed it.
The townspeople greeted them warmly when they returned, with a surprise. Nick and Rupert Strand had attempted to rob the bank. Unfortunately, they arrived at the same time as Orin Travis and the military convoy that was coming to pick up the gold shipment. The Army figured that if they moved the gold out of the bank in the middle of the night, there was less of a chance of it being noticed. The would-be robbers walked out of the bank, as mad as wet cats that the gold was gone and they walked right into the soldiers’ arms. The Tildon brothers and the rest of the gang surrendered peacefully in the face of so much superior fire power.
Ezra made a production out of returning the money to the bank and Chris let him have his day in the sun. Nathan wanted JD to stay in the clinic for a few days but the young sheriff had other ideas. While his friends were tending to their horses and catching up on events in the town, JD quietly made his way to his room. Buck found him just a few minutes later, sitting on the side of his bed, staring forlornly at the gunbelt lying across his lap.
Buck tapped lightly on the door, not wanting to wake JD if he was sleeping. When he slowly opened the door, he knew something was wrong. “What’s the matter, kid?” he asked, stepping into the room and taking a seat next to his friend.
“She took one of them,” JD explained, running his fingertips over the empty holster.
It didn’t take a genius to figure out what the guns meant to JD, after all, he bought them with the money his momma left him. Buck eased the bandana-wrapped bundle out of his jacket pocket and carefully unwound the faded light-blue material to reveal the object inside.
JD’s eyes widened as the matching colt was unwrapped. He had been certain that he would never see it again. He reached for it and Buck laid a hand over it to keep him from taking it.
“It’s been wet and it needs a good cleaning and oiling. You let me take care of it for now and I’ll get it back to you in a day or so,” Buck said.
“How’d you get it?” JD asked.
“Chris brought it back with him after they buried-” Buck’s voice caught in his throat and he swallowed hard before he could continue, “Alexandra. He gave it to me to hold for you.”
It was a couple of weeks before JD was completely recovered from his brush with the female sentinel. Buck cleaned and oiled the colt and gave it to Vin to test fire before returning it to JD. The Strand gang was taken by the army to Yuma prison where they were hung for their various crimes throughout the territory.
A couple of months later, a package arrived addressed to JD and Vin. Mary brought it to them, thinking it might be something important. Chris privately surmised that it was just her being nosy since she came into the saloon to deliver it and stuck around until JD opened it. Inside of the sturdy brown paper was a letter … and a leather-bound book. JD passed the book to Vin while he read the letter.
“Hey! It’s from Blair. They made it home alright. Jim’s brother is walking! The doctors think he’ll make a complete recovery. He says that he thought we might be interested in the translation he made of the information about-” JD’s voice trailed off and he glanced up at Mary guiltily. He glanced over at the page that held Vin’s attention … a sketch of the Indians they had met. “Anyway … Blair said that Jim sends his thanks again for helping them.”