The Cure

by J. Brooks

"Now, folks'll tell you, lad, that you cannot cheat an honest man," Honest John began, gesturing grandly at his apprentice with a wooden measuring spoon. "But those folks are imbeciles...Draw me a few pints from that cask at your elbow there."

The boy scooted into the shadow of the wagon and worked the tap on one of the whiskey barrels lashed below. As the amber liquid splashed into the kettle, the medicine show man continued his instruction.

"It may require a bit more effort on your part, young Ezra, but it is entirely possible to make a profit off an honest man. Particularly if that man is frightened, desperate or a very great fool." Honest John winked as he scooped a few dollops of opium paste into the pot and set it to simmer over the fire. "Once you've cheated all the cheats, liars, fools and cowards, that leaves only the saints. And a saintly man is a poor man, and a poor man is of no use to the likes of you and me."

Nine-year-old Ezra Standish passed Honest John the rest of the ingredients for the laudanum tincture -- cloves, cinnamon, a few dollops of honey to sweeten the brew. He sniffed the pungent aroma wafting out of the kettle, trying to detect the lie; the trick Honest John was playing on his customers.

"Out with it, boyo." Ezra's head snapped up to find Honest John studying him with an amused expression from the other side of the campfire.

"I thought--" Ezra began. "I thought laudanum was real medicine?" He kept his eyes on the kettle. The miracle cure mustn't be allowed to boil over. "I thought this one might really cure people."

He held his breath, wondering how his new business associate would react to the implied criticism. So far, Honest John hadn't raised so much as his voice to Ezra, but the boy had taken pains to keep his mouth shut in the week since his mother foisted him off on an "uncle" who foisted him off on John. The boy set his jaw and waited for curiosity's usual punishment.

Honest John raised a hand -- and slapped his own knee with a hoot of laughter that echoed around the small roadside clearing where the pair had pulled in for the night. In the morning, they'd bottle the new batch of laudanum and set off to hawk their wares in the next town down the road.

Still laughing, the big Irishman heaved himself to his feet and lumbered around the fire to plop down on the ground beside his charge with a grunt.

"An excellent point, lad," he said, throwing one arm companionably around the youngster's shoulders and giving him a rib-creaking squeeze. Ezra goggled up at him in absolute astonishment.

"Wondrous stuff, poppy juice," John continued, nodding toward the brew. "Best thing in the world for dulling the pain or drying a man up when he's got the flux."


"But nothing, young Ezra! What's it say on the sign?"

It was too dark to see the colorful slogans that covered all four sides of the enclosed wagon. Ezra rattled it off from memory: "
Honest John's Miracle Cures. Good for What Ails Ye."

Honest John patted the boy's shoulder approvingly. "Exactly. Why, with this single batch of laudanum, we can concoct Honest John's Bowel Tonic, or Honest John's Blood Purifier, or Honest John's Rheumatism Treatment, or Honest John's Catarrh Cure, or, my specialty, Honest John's Liver Invigorator."

A small smile tugged at the boy's mouth as Honest John nudged him in the ribs while he rattled off miracle cures.

"In this humble cart, boy, we have everything we need to give the people what they want. Crying babies, female megrims, gray hair, no hair, fever, chills and dropsy. Where doctors fail, we step in with a bottle of hope. A dollar's a small enough price to pay for a sip of hope, wouldn't you say?"

Before Ezra could reply, Honest John shooed him back toward the wagon. "Now, fetch me some tallow, a beeswax candle and that bottle of rosewater and I'll teach you how to concoct a sovereign cure for freckles."

The slow squeak of wagon wheels jolted Ezra Standish awake. For a disorienting moment, past and present jumbled together as he held his breath, waiting for his instructions.

Slowly, the darkness resolved itself into the familiar outlines of his room and furniture. On the shadowy bedside table, his pocket watch glinted silvery pale, guiding him as he groped through the dark. He tilted the watch face to catch the moonlight.

Nine o'clock on a Sunday night.

Ezra dropped the watch with a soft sigh and sat up, feeling the uncomfortable stretch and pull of the clothes he'd fallen asleep in. The book he'd been reading slid off his chest and hit the floor with a sound like an open-handed slap. Ezra flinched before he could catch himself.

Enough, he scolded himself, rolling off the bed and groping through the dark for the bedside lamp. His fingertips brushed the match tin and sent it clattering away into the dark.

Ezra muttered a curse. Lord, but he hated Sunday nights.

Below him, the saloon stood silent and empty, closed in observance of a Sabbath that few of its customers bothered to keep holy. Any other night of the week, the floorboards beneath his sock-clad feet would be vibrating from the noise below -- loud conversations, louder laughter, chairs scraping across the floors, the piano player pounding out his limited repertoire. By this time of night, smoke should have been curling up through the bullet hole someone shot through the saloon ceiling and into the floor behind his chifferobe.

Ezra waited in the dark, undecided. The book had already put him to sleep once this evening, and the dream was still too fresh in his mind to make turning in for the night an attractive option. Perhaps one of his associates--

A noise from outside intruded on his thoughts. The low creak of wagon wheels, inching forward through the pitch dark. Ezra stepped to the window. A dream. It was just a dream. A twenty-year-old wisp of melancholy memory. He nudged the heavy draperies aside and frowned down at the street that should have been deserted on a quiet Sunday night.

+ + + + + + +
Four Corners woke Monday morning to a spectacle on Main Street.

All along the street, gaudy posters fluttered from the sides of buildings, the trunks of trees, even the doors of the outhouses, all directing the townsfolk toward the bright green wagon that had rolled to a rest in front of the livery.

Up with the sun as usual, Vin Tanner ambled from one poster to another, gnawing idly on a strip of jerky while he waited for the restaurant to open for breakfast.

Stymied by the elaborate curlicue lettering, he studied the hand-painted illustrations, trying to guess what would be waiting for him at the end of the road. Indians, if the pictures were right. Cherry-red dancing Indians, wearing green and yellow feathered headdresses and not much else.

Six posters later, he reached the wagon -- unsurprised to find nothing more wonderful waiting for him than a stack of crates, yards of painted canvas, and a tall stranger and a small boy without a feather between them. In fact, they were dressed like a pair of undertakers who'd fallen on hard times.

The newcomers turned to find Vin leaning against their wagon, chewing and watching them with an expression of mild interest. The man bounded over to greet him, brushing spiky, straw-yellow hair out of his eyes.

"Good morning, good morning, good sir!" he called out, picking his way between the crates on stork-like legs, apparently unaware that he hadn't let go of the long length of canvas he'd been unfolding. He grabbed the tracker's hand and pumped vigorously.

Vin looked down and realized he'd been left holding one corner of the canvas. The stranger was backing away with the other end, stretching a long banner between them, chattering away. Vin gave a small shrug and followed along.

"I do declare, it was a stroke of luck, you happening by like this. Don't see how me and the boy--" The man paused to beam as the youngster came huffing and puffing behind them, dragging a rickety stepladder.

The lad propped the ladder against the side of the mercantile and stepped back, grinning. Bemused, Vin nodded hello to the boy; a miniature version of the adult. Same hair, same eyes, same sunny, patently untrustworthy smile.

Still talking, the man scrambled up the ladder, knees and elbows splayed like a happy-go-lucky spider.
"Don't see how me and the boy could have gotten everything ready in time without your help," he continued, producing a hammer and nails from somewhere in his long, flapping frock coat and quickly securing the canvas to the side of the building.
He clambered down the ladder and sprinted toward the opposite side of the street, with the boy, ladder and banner-toting tracker in tow, still talking. "I do declare, if we could bottle you and sell you in bulk, I'd die a wealthy man..."

In short order, the other side of the banner was nailed down. Together, the three of them stepped back to admire the result.

"Doctor Pfeffer's Golden Remedies: Snake Oil, Swamp Oil and Red Indian Herbs of Longevity!" the showman read aloud. Vin wasn't sure if the man could tell he couldn't read all the words, or if he just liked the sound of his own voice.

Vin eyed the oddball pair beside him. "Doctor?"

His new friend winked.

+ + + + + + +

"Doctor, my ass," Nathan Jackson muttered, punctuating each word with a vengeful thwack of the hammer.

Perched beside him on church roof, Josiah winced as the blows missed the nail and crunched into the shingle Nathan was supposed to be repairing.

The healer dragged his glare away from the street below -- where half the town seemed to be crowding around the medicine show -- and scowled to see the nail poking up, unpounded. He took aim and flattened it. Take that, Doctor Pfeffer-with-three-Fs.

Josiah rolled his eyes heavenward and passed his fuming friend another shingle.

"Man's selling snake oil, Josiah," Nathan scoffed again, waggling the hammer in the preacher's face. "Snake oil!"
Josiah nodded encouragingly, as though listening to Nathan state and re-state the obvious was the highlight of his day.

The healer's attention strayed to the street again, just in time to see the widow Wallace hand over a dollar for a bottle of greenish syrup. The same widow Wallace who'd paid Nathan in chickens the last time he treated her gout.

He slammed the hammer down again, narrowly missing his thumb.

Josiah confiscated the tool. "What say you and I get out of town for a bit?" He surveyed the golf ball-sized holes Nathan had knocked in his roof. "We could pay a visit to our neighbors at Seminole village." These medicine shows never stayed in one place for long. He just needed to distract Nathan long enough to spare the rest of his shingles.

Nathan snatched the hammer back. "Oh no. Ain't gonna leave the town at the mercy of that flimflam man. Who's gonna treat folks when his hoodoo syrups start curdling their stomachs?"

He attacked the roof again.

Josiah sighed.

+ + + + + + +

"Ladies and gentlemen and children of all ages! It is my pleasure to bring to you the medical wonder not only of our age, but of ages past, Doctor Pfeffer's Swamp Oil!"

The showman brandished the bottle of greenish oil amid 'oohs' and 'ahhs' from the crowd.

Pfeffer, who'd donned a top hat and tails for the day's work, sketched a gracious bow, elevated over all their heads by the tiny stage that unfolded from his wagon. His boy sat on the edge of the stage, kicking his heels and balancing a display rack of snake oil on his knees. The spiel continued:

"Yes, Doctor Pfeffer's Swamp Oil! Containing a natural preparation used since time immemorial for the treatment of pains, sprains and strains; itches and twitches; congestion and indigestion; irritation and inflammation; sneezes and wheezes; colic and catarrh; female complaints and men's secret diseases!"

The lawmen lounging in the shade of the saloon couldn't help but be impressed -- by the man's lungpower, if nothing else.

Buck Wilmington rubbed at his mustache thoughtfully. "Maybe I ought to get me a bottle, just in case." Catching the expressions on the others' faces, he scowled. "What? Man can't be too safe from, uh, colic and catarrh."

"Men's secret diseases, you mean," JD snorted, exchanging a grin with Vin. Buck aimed a swat at the kid, which JD dodged easily.

"You'd think he'd be more worried about the female complaints," Vin drawled. "Sure seem to be a lot of 'em whenever he's around."

"Why, you little--" The scowl dropped off Buck's face as he spotted two figures on horseback approaching the livery. "Hey! Chris!" Sensible company, at last.

Larabee reined to a halt as he caught sight of the gaudy wagon and small mob blocking the stable entrance. "What in hell?" Behind him, a manacled prisoner slumped morosely on a pack mule.

"Medicine show," JD said, holding a hand out for the reins. "I'll see to Mr. Gallagher for you, if you want."

Larabee nodded his thanks, glad to be rid of the whiny burglar he'd just lugged back from the town of Portage. He followed Buck and Vin back to the shade of the saloon.

"Medicine show?" he asked, watching the action back on the street.

"You tell 'im Vin," Buck said, throwing himself into a chair next to the tracker, who was watching the medicine show with proprietary interest. "Tell 'em about the Indian herbs."

Vin reached into his pocket and, with a flourish, produced his complimentary bottle of Swamp Oil.

Buck turned back to Larabee with the air of a teacher explaining the mysteries of algebra. "The Indians, they understand herbs. Because they're closer to nature that you an' me. Ask Vin. Ask him if he's ever seen a dyspeptic Indian."

Vin looked up to find several sets of eyes watching him expectantly.

"Hell, Buck," he said, tossing him the bottle. "Try it and see for yourself."

Beaming, Buck uncorked the miracle cure and took a deep gulp. Ugh. He grimaced, then took another swallow. Anything that tasted that bad had to be strong medicine.

He tossed the bottle back to Vin, who took a whiff, winced, and passed it to Larabee.

Larabee eyed the green stuff doubtfully. But if it was anything like the other miracle cures he'd sampled... He took a sip. Yep, 180 proof. He smiled and tossed back a healthy shot of swamp oil. If nothing else, it would wash out the taste of the rotgut ale and watery stews they'd served in the Portage saloon.

Buck snatched the bottle back. No sense letting Larabee hog all the health and vigor.

Larabee turned his attention back to the street, getting a feel for the town again. He spotted Josiah on the roof of the church next to Nathan, who was hammering like a dervish. Oh no. The last time some fool came into town and challenged one of his men on their own turf, Ezra ended up walking down the street in nothing but a tablecloth.

Guiltily, Larabee wiped sticky traces of miracle cure off his bottom lip.

Speaking of tablecloths... He leaned back, trying to peer into the dim saloon. It wasn't like Ezra to miss a show like this -- not when so many yokels were gathered around in a mood to toss their money down the drain.

Vin caught his eye and nodded toward the jail.

Larabee's eyebrows shot up.

Vin shrugged. He couldn't explain it either.

Larabee frowned at the jail. Maybe he should--

Uh-uh. Vin shook his head. Been there, tried that, almost got his head bitten off by one snappish southerner in no mood to chat.

Larabee settled back in his chair. If there was one thing he respected, it was a man's right to brood.

Down the street, JD was making his way from the stable to the jail with the unhappy burglar in tow. Larabee settled his hat over his eyes and relaxed into a comfortable slouch. Ezra probably wouldn't tear too many strips off the kid.

And if he did, at least they had plenty of miracle cure handy.

+ + + + + + +

Buck stared expectantly at his pocket watch. Fifty-five seconds. Fifty-six. Fifty--

The jailhouse door flew open and a shaken JD made a break for safety.

Damnation. Buck made a face and slapped a dollar into Vin's waiting palm. He'd expected the kid to last at least a full minute in the surly gambler's company.

JD, realizing he was being watched, slowed his mad dash to a more dignified mosey and rejoined the lawmen on the porch.

"Ezra's...gonna take the next shift at the jail," he said, sidling up beside Buck on the bench. "And the shift after that."

Buck and Vin nodded wisely. Larabee let out a gentle snore from under the shade of his hat.

"No clue what's eating him?" Vin asked. Painful experience had taught him not to crowd Ezra when the gambler fell into one of his rare black moods.

JD ran a hand through his bangs, giving Vin and Buck a brief, unobstructed view of his eyes. "He was watching the medicine show through the window when I came in," he said.

"That penny-ante hustler?" Buck snorted, checking on the medicine show man, who was dancing a jig to a tune the boy was playing on a harmonica. The crowd laughed and clapped along. "He's no competition for the likes of Ez."

Speculation broke off as Mary Travis burst out of her office across the street and flew toward them, brandishing a telegram.

"Mister Larabee!" she took the porch stairs in one leap and pulled to a halt in front of the lawmen. JD jumped to his feet, ready for action.

"Mister Larabee," Mary addressed the top of the dozing man's hat. She gave it a brisk rap with her knuckles. "Chris!"


"Did you notice anything peculiar in Portage?" the newspaperwoman asked, producing a notebook from her skirts and a pencil from behind her ear.

Larabee resettled the hat that Mary had knocked askew. "Peculiar?" he repeated carefully.

Mary brandished the telegram. "The telegraph operators have lost contact with towns all up and down the border," she said. "No one's heard from Portage since yesterday."

Larabee plucked the yellow scrap of paper out of Mary's fingers and scanned it. Del Rio, Boca Grande, Nelsonville and Portage. He shrugged. "Tree probably fell across the line."

Mary planted her fists on her hips. "Last week, Del Rio and Nelsonville were placed under quarantine," she reminded him. The Clarion had been filled with lurid, third-hand, hearsay accounts of the epidemic. Newspaper sales had gone through the roof.

"Boca Grande and Portage are the next two towns to the west. So..." She brandished the pencil. "I ask you again, Mr. Larabee. Did you notice anything peculiar in Portage?"

Larabee sat up straighter, giving her his full attention now. After Portage and Boca Grande, the next town up the telegraph line was Four Corners.

"I left at first light. Deputy wasn't at the jail, so I just left the transport papers on the sheriff's desk and took the prisoner." He frowned, recalling how empty the streets had been the evening before. There'd only been one or two other customers in the restaurant, and the cook had done double-duty as waiter. "Deputy I talked to when I hit town didn't say anything about sickness." But hadn't the young deputy looked a bit run down? Flushed and sweating? Larabee shook his head impatiently. It was July in the desert. Everyone was red-faced and sweaty.

Mary tapped her pencil on the notepad, her expression torn between relief and disappointment. "You're probably right, Mr. Larabee. Just a tree limb across the line."

"Is that what it's gonna say in tomorrow's paper?" Larabee asked.

Mary shook her head pityingly. Some people had absolutely no sense of narrative flair. She wandered back toward her office, wondering how many synonyms for plague and pestilence she could work into one article.

+ + + + + + +
The Tuesday morning Clarion landed under Larabee's nose with a thump.

"Plague! Pestilence on our doorstep!" old man Conklin bellowed, jabbing a finger at the blaring headline: DEADLY EPIDEMIC SWEEPS TOWARD FOUR CORNERS. "What do you intend to do about this?"

Larabee set his coffee cup down with exaggerated care. "First," he said, tweezing the paper up between two fingers to reveal the plate of eggs Conklin had just scrambled for him. "I'm going to order myself another breakfast."

Conklin's eyes widened as he realized what he'd just done. When Inez hurried over with a fresh plate of eggs -- sunny-side down, just the way Larabee liked them -- he accepted the bill without complaint. Nevertheless, the shopkeeper slid into a chair across from Larabee and pressed his case.

"We should take precautions. Quarantine the town. Keep out anyone who's been near the border." He tapped the greasy newspaper for emphasis.

Larabee sneered around a mouthful of egg. Ezra was right. A dollar a day wasn't nearly enough to make up for the aggravations of this job.

"Bit late for that, ain't it?" He gave the newspaper a poke with his fork, aiming for the paragraph that described his -- how did Mary put it? -- sojourn through the sepulchral stillness of the stricken settlement.

"Well, anyone else," Conklin amended.

It was too damn early to work up a proper glare. Larabee settled for a grunt. Conklin was a contrary cuss. If anyone else had suggested a quarantine, he would have been the first to come howling that they were interfering with his customers and harming his business.

Conklin waited a beat. "I will be bringing this matter before the town council," he warned.

Larabee grunted again and turned his attention back to his eggs. Good. Bringing a matter before the town council was a surefire guarantee that nothing would happen for at least six months. That gave him plenty of time to finish breakfast. And it gave Portage plenty of time to get its damn telegraph line repaired.

Conklin made a few more abortive attempts to persuade Larabee to man the barricades, then pushed away from the table in a huff. Larabee took another stab at his eggs.

Another newspaper landed on the table in front of him.

Fork frozen halfway to his mouth, Larabee looked up.

Mr. Watson from the hardware store stood glowering over him.

"What are you going to do about this?"

+ + + + + + +

For the better part of the morning, the presumptive plague in the border towns was Four Corners' favorite spectator sport. The Clarion sold out. The price of swamp oil went up to two dollars a bottle.

Nathan abandoned the church roof to keep a closer eye on the competition.

Ezra abandoned the jail to get away from Nathan.

"I'm telling you, that man is up to something!"

Ezra flipped a red ten onto the jack of clubs, then cocked an eye at the fuming healer as he threw himself into a seat at the poker table. A table was empty except for the two men and a half-finished game of solitaire. Empty, like the saloon itself.

"How astute of you to notice, Mr. Jackson," Ezra drawled, dropping his gaze back to the spread of cards. "He's up to approximately thirty bottles sold, by my count."

Nathan glanced toward the bar, where a bored Inez was polishing and re-polishing the glasses. Apparently her customers, like Ezra's marks and Nathan's patients, preferred the novelty and high alcoholic content of the medicine man's miracle cures.

"You gonna tell me it don't bother you that that man is trickin' folk into drinking God-knows-what?"

"It could be argued that anyone who voluntarily ingests a substance labeled as Swamp Oil deserves what he gets."

"That ain't funny," Nathan grumbled, kicking back from the table and stumping over to the door to peer out at the spectacle in the street.

He hated to admit it, but the flimflam man put on a good show. Most medicine shows he'd seen were more elaborate affairs, with half a dozen performers and musicians; more like traveling sideshows than anything else. Pfeffer and his boy made up for in energy what they lacked in numbers. They staged three shows a day, inter-cutting their sales pitch with musical skits and comedy routines.

At the moment, the blond-haired boy was tap dancing center stage, charming the crowd with his dimpled smile.

The townsfolk laughed and clapped and crowded closer as Doctor Pfeffer strolled back on stage, playing the banjo and singing the praises of his Stomach Bitters -- help for the stomach, liver, kidneys and bowels. Try it for indigestion, headache and malarial fever. Avoid substitutes.

Nathan eyed the bottles of bitters. His scowl deepened as a few customers stepped up. If they had a headache, why not come to the clinic? He had willow bark aplenty. If they were coming down with malaria, he had quinine. Why did the people have so much faith in miracle cures? Or so little faith in him?

Back on the plantation, the old hoodoo women would sprinkle graveyard dust in your cabin to drive away evil spirits, or tie roots and herbs and chicken bones into amulets for love or luck.

Maybe that's all he was to these people. Not a doctor, not even a healer, just two-bit magic peddler with a bag full of herbal teas -- someone to tide them over until the next snake-oil salesman came tap-dancing into town.

He turned and found Ezra watching him unhappily from the corner table. Standish opened his mouth to say something, caught himself, and settled for gesturing gracefully to the seat beside him.

"Care to indulge in a game of chance?"

Nathan hesitated. An afternoon in the company of the onetime con man probably wouldn't do much for his temper.

Then again, misery did love company. Even if he still wasn't sure what the southerner had to be miserable about. He'd half-expected to see Ezra out on the street this morning, stealing away Pfeffer's customers with a booth of his own -- a lemonade stand, maybe. One sip and you're safe from scurvy for a month. Professor Standish's Astonishing Citrus Cure. Accept no substitutes.

The sound of a deck of cards tapping on a tabletop snapped him out of the bizarre vision.

Ezra cocked an eyebrow at him, awaiting an answer. "We could play...pinochle," he said in wheedling tones.

Nathan let out a startled bark of laughter and moved to take the offered seat. The gambler, he knew, hated pinochle. Thought it was a game for twittery old ladies and boys not yet out of short pants.

"I like pinochle," he said unnecessarily, watching the lines of tension on the gambler's face smooth out as he relaxed into the mindless business of shuffling. Ezra gave him a small, wry smile and dealt the first hand.

"These medicine shows never linger long," the gambler remarked casually. "By tomorrow, they'll be gone. By week's end, this town will have drained the last drop of swamp oil and forgotten the Pfeffer name."

Nathan grunted, studying the cards he'd been dealt. "Sounds like you've sold a bottle or two of snake oil in your day." He tried to keep a note of reproach out of his voice, without success.

Taking the gambler's silence for confirmation, he shot him a sour look over the cards. "Figures. World's full of fools. Bet you made a real fine living off 'em."

One corner of Ezra's mouth quirked up in a humorless smile. "Not so fine as you might think."

+ + + + + + +

"Please, mister. My wife, she's bad sick. You got something that can help her?"

Ezra and Honest John paused in the act of loading the wagon, pleased to find one customer still hanging around after the rest of the locals had wandered off to their suppers. They needed at least another sale or two if they wanted to buy ingredients for the next batch of cure-all and supper for themselves.

The showman waved to the boy back to work and turned his smile on the waiting man. A dirt farmer, by the look of him, with one hand thrust in his pocket, fidgeting nervously. Honest John heard the clink of coins and smiled wider.

"You've come to the right place, my good man." He rubbed his hands together, sizing up the mark. The man shifted and the coins in his pockets clinked again. Honest John pressed closer. "What ails the lady of the house? A delicate complaint? Female weakness? Perhaps a chill has settled in her kidneys?"

"Well, she's burnin' up with fever one minute, then shakin' with chills the next. Cain't hardly keep nothin' down..."

John nodded wisely. "Say no more, say no more. I have just the cure for what ails her. I recommend to you my patented Anodyne Cordial. Guaranteed to restore--"

The farmer shoved a handful of coins at him before he could finish the sentence. He unstoppered the bottle took a sniff and winced, studying it with anxious, red-rimmed eyes.

"This'll fix her up?"

Ezra crept closer. They'd been trying to offload the last few bottles of Anodyne Cordial all week. John reckoned he'd chopped a bit too much sarsaparilla root into the last batch.

Honest John cocked his head thoughtfully. "You're absolutely right, sir. Best you purchase two, just to be on the safe side. A bargain at a dollar a bottle."

In the end, the dirt farmer hurried home with the last three bottles of Anodyne Cordial. The showman and his apprentice exchanged a delighted grin. "It's steaks for us tonight, young Ezra!" Honest John crowed, twirling the startled boy into the air and off toward the restaurant.

Over plates piled high with beef and potatoes, Honest John entertained his apprentice with outrageous fables from his own dimly remembered childhood in Ireland: Talking fish that would grant your wish, wee leprechauns that would mend your shoes and lead you to the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, if you could only catch them.

Ezra kicked his heels against the chair rung and tried to calculate how many bottles of Anodyne Cordial he'd have to sell to fill a pot of gold. Wouldn't Maude be amazed if he could pull it off?

A crash of breaking china and glass interrupted their meal. A waiter had collapsed, coughing and moaning, on top of the heavy tray he'd been trying to carry. They watched as the man was led away, trembling and feverish, to his room.

They took their first real look around the restaurant. It dawned on them that the entire place was full of coughing, miserable people. Whatever ailed the dirt farmer's wife seemed to be spreading.

Honest John shot his apprentice a meaningful look.

"Looks like we'll be brewing up a double batch of cordial tonight, boyo."


+ + + + + + +
To the gambler's disgust, the pinochle match dragged on into the afternoon, expanding to include the equally bored duo of Buck and JD. Ezra's attempts to switch to a more sophisticated -- and lucrative -- game were voted down.

The time passed pleasantly enough, with harmless conversation and watered-down beer. Before they knew it, the afternoon stage was rattling to a stop outside and a few customers were straggling into the saloon, bored already by the medicine show antics.

Ezra was raking in the cards for yet another shuffle when he caught Buck trying to sneak a sip from a small green bottle he'd been hiding in his jacket pocket.

The gambler's stare caught the attention of the entire table and the others turned to watch as their lanky friend uncorked the bottle of swamp oil and took a long pull.

"Buck!" JD hissed, elbowing him. Buck choked. "I can't believe you're drinking that stuff in front of Nathan!"

Buck gave a guilty start and pocketed the bottle, facing them with the innocent smile of a choirboy -- a choirboy with green syrup soaking into his mustache. His friends watched him sourly.

"What? I like the way it tastes, okay? Kinda minty. The ladies do love the minty fresh breath."

Apparently, Buck never got past the "female complaints" section of the swamp oil sales pitch. Nathan studied the pocket that held the miracle cure, wondering what on earth the concoction could be. Minty? Maybe Pfeffer knew something he didn't. Buck certainly looked perky enough.

Professional curiosity, he told himself. It was just professional curiosity. Definitely not a desire to taste the stuff for himself.

The sight of Larabee and Mary shouldering their way through the saloon doors broke the awkward moment. The lawmen turned toward them, grateful for the interruption.

Mary reached the table in a breathless flurry and deposited a stack of out-of-town newspapers, fresh off the afternoon stage. She stepped back, hands on her hips, waiting for the lawmen to set everything to rights.

Slowly, each man took a paper and read the bad news. A cholera outbreak confirmed in Del Rio. Thirteen people dead or dying. Nelsonville had retreated behind quarantine barricades. Vigilantes from the town shot up two stagecoaches that tried to enter.

And the telegraph lines through Boca Grande and Portage remained silent as the grave.

Larabee dropped heavily into the seat, sending loose cards fluttering across the table.

"I need two volunteers to ride to Portage," he said. "There's something--" He paused and shot a sidelong look at Mary. "Peculiar going on."

Buck wiped his upper lip and clouted JD on the shoulder. "You got your volunteers right here, ol' pard." With an easy nod to the others, he headed for the door with JD on his heels.

"Buck." Larabee's call stopped him in his tracks.


"First sign of disease or quarantine in the area, you turn around and head back. We just need to know if we need to take steps."

The smile slid off Buck's face at the thought of Four Corners under quarantine, or worse. He nodded again. "Don't you worry about me and the kid. We'll take a quick look-see and be back here before you know it."

He slipped out the door, blinking against the sudden assault of sunlight. Cholera. Nasty business, cholera. Could turn a man's insides to liquid, turn him inside out, kill him in the space between sunup and sundown.

Buck turned and found JD watching him, wide-eyed and worried.

He grabbed the kid's arm and steered him toward the livery, by way of the medicine show. Best they stock up on miracle cure before they rode into danger.

Couldn't hurt.

+ + + + + + +

The medicine show wrapped for the night. The crowds drifted away, while Doctor Pfeffer was cornered by a crowd of admirers and swept off to the saloon for a drink.

Left to his own devices, the medicine man's apprentice wandered off toward the stable yard, trailing a twig along the fence. At the far end of the paddock, he came across a man in a bright red jacket, leaning against the fence and carrying on a one-sided conversation with a brown horse.

"Good evening young man," the man said, with a polite tip of his hat as he noticed the boy. "Ezra P. Standish at your service."

"Timmy," the boy lied. First rule of the road: never be too free with information. Last week he'd been Toby to anyone who bothered to ask. "Pleased to meet you."

He clambered up the fence rails to watch as the fancy man produced and apple and a small paring knife from his pocket and set about peeling the red skin off the fruit in a long, unbroken strip.

"Delighted to make your acquaintance, young Timothy," Ezra P. Standish said. The newly christened Timmy watched, fascinated, as the peel came corkscrewing off the apple like thread whirling off a spool.

The only other people he'd seen with hands that quick were the pickpockets who sometimes worked the medicine show crowds.

Mr. Standish caught up the long ribbon of apple peel at both ends and coiled it together until it took on the rough outline of an apple again. To Timmy's delight, the man deposited the fragile thing on the boy's outstretched palm.

A hollow apple. A trick. Timmy beamed at the stranger, sensing a kindred spirit. He offered it to the horse, giggling at the animal's outraged expression when its teeth snapped on air.

"I don't believe I've seen you around the medicine show, sir," Timmy said. His tone was all sympathy for the benighted soul who eked out his existence without the aid of Doctor Pfeffer's Herbs of Longevity.

"There was no need." The man slice off a wedge of apple and offered it to the fuming horse. A second slice he passed to Timmy with a crooked smile. "You know what they say about an apple a day, don't you?"

Timmy grinned and accepted the treat. "Keeps the doctor away?"

"Exactly right," Standish said, turning to give the boy his full attention. "And now that we have shared a meal and you have made the acquaintance of my horse, it is your turn to share. Tell long have you been in the miracle trade?"

"'Most all my life."

"Ah. And how long would that be?"

"I'm six."

Standish arched an eyebrow. The boy brazened it out. A precocious six-year-old was a bigger hit with the crowds than a short-for-his-age boy of ten.

Wanting to avoid the man's too-knowing gaze, Timmy leaned over the fence and feigned deep interest in a dead badger lying belly-up and bloated in the tall grass below.

He prodded the carcass with his twig. Another poor unfortunate, denied the restorative power of swamp oil.

"Doctor Pfeffer's Vegetable Compound," he recited in a sing-song showman's pitch. "Try it for inflammation, ulceration, costiveness. Scrofula, white swelling, syphilis. Rheumatism, gout, dropsy and goiter..."

A hand closed over the stick and drew it away. "Some things," Standish said. "Not even a miracle cure can fix."

"You haven't tried our miracle cure." With a wink, the boy skipped away in search of Doctor Pfeffer and his supper. He'd been promised a slice of chocolate cake if they sold an entire case of swamp oil. They'd sold two.

+ + + + + + +

The next morning, Vin was puzzling his way through a news story about a statehood debate in the legislature when Mary returned from her latest trip to the telegraph office.

"No word from Portage?" he guessed, reading her grumpy expression.

"Nothing," she sighed. "Honestly, I wish I'd taken a horse and ridden out that way myself. I hate unanswered questions."

She peered over Vin's shoulder and tapped the word he'd been hung up on for the past five minutes. "Gubernatorial."

Vin sighed, tempted for once to cut the reading lesson short. He wasn't in the mood. The tiny print was making his head ache and the letters were blurring and doubling on the page.

"Gubernatorial c-a-n-d-i-d-a-t-e...? Aw hell, Mary," Vin folded the paper and thrust it toward the newswoman. She reached for it, then paused, frowning.

Vin followed her gaze. The paper was shaking like a leaf. His hand was shaking. He swallowed hard, and felt his stomach lurch in protest.

"Vin?" Mary whispered, her eyes wide as saucers.

The newspaper fluttered to the floor. "What's happening?" Vin whispered, staring at his hands. He felt Mary's hand against his forehead. Her fingers were like icicles. He shuddered...and found he couldn't stop shaking.

The blurry shape that was Mary streaked toward the bright blob that was the open doorway, screaming for Nathan. Vin pushed himself up on his aching legs and tottered after. It sounded like somebody was in trouble.

Strong arms caught him as he staggered into the bright, noisy outdoors. Another familiar voice, also shouting for Nathan. Maybe Nathan was the one in trouble? Vin felt himself sinking, confused and aching, still wondering how everything had gone to hell so fast.

+ + + + + + +

Larabee felt Vin sagging and tightened his grip as he eased him down to sit on the boardwalk steps.

"Easy, Vin. Take it easy," he murmured, feeling Tanner's back shaking beneath his hand as he tried to curl in on himself, past caring that he was sitting there helpless in the middle of the sidewalk. Badly frightened now, Larabee glared a warning at the gawking townsfolk. How bad off would Vin have to be, not to care that people were staring at him, whispering?

"Chris..." Vin's strangled whisper reached him just as he felt the tracker's back spasm. Acting on a half-forgotten instinct of parenthood, he tilted the ailing man and held him as he retched miserably into the dirt.

"It's okay. Don't worry, Nathan's gonna fix this." He looked around wildly and caught the hem of Mary's skirt. "What  is  this?"

"I don't know! I don't know! He was fine one minute and then..." the newswoman threw up her hands and ran toward the clinic, taking the stairs two at a time.

+ + + + + + +

Mary burst through the door and skidded to a halt.

"Oh no..."

The clinic was full. Patients lay groaning on the beds or slumped in the clinic chairs. Yosemite the blacksmith was huddled miserably on the floor, retching into a bucket Nathan was trying to hold steady for him.

The healer looked up sharply when Mary entered, relaxing a fraction when he realized she wasn't ill.
Dazed, Mary crouched beside him on the floor, with Yosemite between them.

"Vin's in trouble," she whispered.

Nathan closed his eyes in pain, then looked around at the five other patients in the crowded sickroom.

"I think we all are," he whispered back.

+ + + + + + +

This was the point where Conklin was supposed to turn up, blustering, making demands and blaming Larabee for everything.

Except that Conklin had collapsed over his cash register just before noon and been carried, under protest, into the grain exchange -- the only space in town large enough to hold all the sick.

Larabee gave an experimental tug on the signpost and stepped back. The red paint Josiah had scavenged from somewhere was still wet. It dripped down the board like a raw wound, but the letters were clear enough, and large enough to warn off incoming stages and travelers.

He turned and spotted Ezra walking slowly toward him, carrying the hammer he'd used to post the quarantine warning on the west side of town. Between them, townsfolk watched from doors or huddled in nervous groups, whispering.

There were fifteen people in the makeshift infirmary. Fifteen who had been perfectly healthy the day before; cut down by a sickness Nathan couldn't even put a name to yet.

He let his own hammer drop to the dust and started toward the grain exchange. Nathan would have sent someone come for him if there was any change with Vin, he knew. But still, he couldn't shake the superstitious dread of leaving the tracker alone. Terrible things happened to the people he cared about when he left them alone.

A few of the townsfolk started toward him, their eyes full of fear and questions he couldn't answer. They caught sight of his expression and backed away quickly, shifting course to intercept Ezra instead. With only the slightest twinge of guilt, Larabee let the gambler field their questions and offer what reassurances he could.

He could feel their eyes following him, weighing on him, making him want to put his fist through a wall -- or somebody's face.


The call caught him at the foot of the stairs to the boardwalk. He turned to find a small boy tugging at the hem of his jacket. It was the kid from the medicine show. The boy met Larabee's blank stare with a winsome smile.

"I hope your friend feels better real soon," he said.

"Yeah, kid. Me too." Larabee tried to ease his jacket out of the kid's sticky grip.

The boy tightened his hold. "Would you give him this for me?" He pulled something out of one of the pockets of his oversized black coat. A bottle of green syrup.

Larabee snorted and started up the stairs with the boy dangling from his coattails like a burr. "Vin needs real medicine, kid. Not snake oil."

"But it'll help him!" The boy's cry of protest turned heads up and down the street. "You drank it and you didn't get sick, did you?"

Larabee stopped so suddenly the boy collided with his legs. Reaching down, he caught the youngster by the collar and yanked him back down the stairs, scanning the street until he located the medicine show wagon, parked and shuttered next to the livery.

"You!" he roared, catching sight of the showman, Pfeffer, leaning against the shady side of the wagon. The showman straightened at the call, moving to meet Larabee in the middle of the street.

Larabee thrust the kid at the medicine show man. "I swear to God, if I catch either one of you trying to turn a profit off this town's pain, I'll shove your miracle cure so far up your--"

"Now, now, sir!" Pfeffer cut him off, smiling like they were two old friends arguing over who should pick up the check at dinner. The boy scooted behind the medicine show man, out of grabbing range. "No need for harsh words. Your friend did us a good turn when we first came to town and the boy was just trying to repay a kindness."

A crowd began to gather. The showman pitched his voice to carry. "For here you stand, hale and hearty, with the miraculous elixir of health coursing through your veins! You have tasted Dr. Pfeffer's swamp oil, sir, and now you are reaping the rewards.

"As are you, sir!" He spun around with a dramatic flourish to point to Watson from the hardware store. "And you, madam!" He singled out widow Wallace. The watchers stirred and murmured to each other, nodding. The widow fished the half-empty bottle of swamp oil out of her beaded handbag and took a hasty swig.

One of the local ranchers stepped forward, bobbing his head nervously at Larabee. "If'n you don't want that there bottle of medicine juice, I'd be happy to take it off your hands."

"I'll give you two dollars for it!" another voice called out from the crowd.



Larabee ground his teeth. "Get out."

"And violate the very quarantine you just imposed? My conscience couldn't bear it," said Pfeffer, all wounded innocence.

Larabee started toward him, hands twitching toward his holster. The showman's grin fell as he took a hasty step back, with the boy still behind him. The crowd jostled Larabee, trying to get closer to the medicine.

Pfeffer held up a placating hand. "I'm sure you'll be relieved to know that I only have ingredients enough for one more batch of cure-all." He paused as the crowd let out a collective gasp. "Maybe two." He amended.

Larabee lunged toward the huckster. A hand caught his arm and pulled him up short.

"Don't," Ezra said softly, tightening his bruising grip on Larabee's bicep. Townsfolk surged around them, following Pfeffer back to his wagon.


"I know."


"I  know, " the gambler hissed, dragging Larabee away from the medicine show wagon, now open for business. A bidding war had broken out over the bottle of swamp oil Larabee had refused. Three dollars. Three-fifty. Four dollars -- sold.

"What were you planning to do? Incarcerate the man for giving the people what they want?" Ezra asked, green eyes blazing with a fury that snapped Larabee out of his own blind rage. In all the time he'd known the man, he could count on one hand the number of times he'd seen Ezra truly furious.

"If you locked him up," Ezra took a step closer, "they'd break into that miserable wagon and steal every bottle. If you smashed his stock, they'd turn on you like a pack of rabid dogs." The hand on his arm was shaking now.

Larabee shot a glare at the showman, who stood smiling in a circle of waving dollar bills, but allowed Ezra to lead him a step or two away from the man. He switched the glare to Ezra, who gave him a small, shaky nod of gratitude.

And then Ezra collapsed.

Caught off balance, Larabee fell with him, dragged to his knees by the grip Ezra still had on his arm. Too stunned to even try to break his own fall, he managed to catch Ezra by the lapels as the younger man folded. He lowered him the rest of the way to the ground, finally recognizing the hectic flush of the gambler's cheeks for what it was -- fever, not anger.

"NATHAN!" he yelled, looking around furiously. "Somebody get Nathan! Somebody get over here and help me!"

Someone broke from the crowd and scampered toward the infirmary. Everyone else backed away, unwilling to risk close contact with the sick man. With a snarl, Larabee turned back to Ezra.

"What the hell is wrong with you? Why didn't you tell me you were sick?" he muttered, yanking off his jacket and slipping it under the gambler's head. Ezra would never forgive him if he just let him lie there in the dirt.

He caught Ezra's face between his hands, willing him to open his eyes and start arguing again. Ezra just lay there, looking wrung out, used up.

There was a commotion, the sound of running feet, and then Nathan and Josiah threw themselves down on either side of him, kicking up twin puffs of dust.

Nathan swore under his breath as he elbowed Larabee aside. He rested one hand against Ezra's forehead and the other against the pulse point on his neck, grimacing at what he found.

Josiah, looking as if he'd aged ten years on the run over, didn't even wait for the healer to finish his examination, just scooped up Ezra's rag doll-limp form and headed back to the sick ward. Larabee gathered himself up to follow and turned to offer a hand up to Nathan. The healer still knelt in the dust, looking up at Larabee with haunted eyes.

Around Doctor Pfeffer's wagon, the price of swamp oil went up to five dollars a bottle.

+ + + + + + +

"Step lively, lad. It's time we sought a more hospitable locality."

Honest John caught the stumbling boy by the collar and tugged him along as they made their furtive escape across a half-harvested field of corn.

By craning his neck, Ezra could just make out the distant glow in the village square that was their wagon, in flames. The jeers and catcalls of the townsfolk carried clearly through the crisp night air.

"I don't know what they're complaining about. I never *
said  the Anodyne Cordial could cure yellow fever," John grumbled, shooting a nervous glance over his shoulder to make sure no one was following.

"Yes you did!"

"Did I? Well, more fool them for believing it. Haven't you ever heard the expression, 'You get what you pay for?' What kind of miracle did they expect for two bits?"

"Two dollars," Ezra croaked out the correction. John's grip on his collar was half-throttling him. The con man looked down, recognized the problem, and caught up the boy's hand instead, yanking him through the sharp, dry stalks of corn.

"And that's gratitude for you. I provide them with the finest cure for yellow fever money can buy, and they burn me out of house and home."

The litany of complaints broke off as the showman froze, listening intently through the dark for signs of pursuit. Unprepared for the sudden stop, the boy crashed into him and tumbled to the ground.

John held the pose a moment longer until he was satisfied that they were alone in the field. He beamed down at his sullen apprentice.

Ezra could make out the white flash of Honest John's teeth in the moonlight. Then a hand came out of the darkness, caught his wrist, and they were running again.

"Not to worry, young Ezra -- mind the gopher hole, there--" John hoisted the boy over the hidden obstacle and tugged him deeper into the cornfield. "Not to worry. It'll take more than peasants with pitchforks to stop Honest John. We'll make our way to the next town and get ourselves a new wagon. A better wagon..."

Ezra closed his eyes, half-listening as they blundered between the rattling corn stalks. Trusting Honest John to lead the way in the dark, he concentrated on holding on to the small bundle that held everything he owned in the world. Flames had been licking up the sides of the wagon and the townsfolk had been pelting them with rotting garbage when John ran back into the burning wagon to retrieve the bundle for Ezra.

Ezra hugged the bag tighter. He still didn't know why Honest John had taken such a risk. Or why he'd handed the satchel over to Ezra without a word -- not even a request for a percentage.

It was part, Ezra supposed, of what made Honest John such an atrocious businessman. And it was why Ezra kept following the big Irishman without complaint or question now.

Suddenly, the big hand holding his tightened, hauling him to the ground as Honest John dived for cover. The showman clamped a warning hand over the boy's mouth, stifling any protest


Ezra froze, eyes widening as he too heard the tramp of boots and the unmistakable sounds of an angry mob trying not to make noise. Not content with burning them out and chasing them into the fields, the villagers were out for blood. Ezra wondered if the dirt farmer was one of them, or if he was off somewhere burying his wife along with whatever remained of his three bottles of Anodyne Cordial.


+ + + + + + +

"Easy, Ezra…easy," Josiah crooned, dodging another wild swing from the patient. Ignoring his rapidly swelling left eye, the big preacher closed the distance and caught Ezra by the arms, pinning the delirious gambler against his chest.

Standish bucked and twisted, muttering bits of garbled nonsense. The preacher held tight. Resting his chin on top of the younger man's matted hair, he looked wearily around the clinic.

There were twenty-two people down with the sickness now. Gloria Potter was the latest to arrive, weeping, with her little girl wrapped in a blanket in her arms.

The patients tossed restlessly in the grip of high fevers or, like Vin, retched until ruptured blood vessels turned the whites of their eyes bright red. Nathan and his corps of volunteer nurses ghosted between the beds, helping where they could.

Josiah turned, settling Ezra more comfortably against his shoulder, to check on Vin. The tracker sprawled on the edge of the neighboring bed, reddened eyes staring dully at nothing, his breath coming in slow, heaving gasps.

"Chris just stepped out to the telegraph office," Josiah told him quietly, watching as Vin's ghoulish red-and-blue gaze dragged itself up to meet his. "He wanted to see if there was any word from Buck and JD in Portage yet."

The tracker's cracked lips twitched up at one corner to show he'd heard as his eyes fluttered shut, exhausted by their non-conversation.

"Think you could drink a little something, Vin?" Josiah asked, glancing down at Ezra, who curled tensely against him, shaking with chills, then at the cup of cooling tea Nathan had left by Vin's bedside in case he woke. Frustrated, Josiah looked around for someone who could lend an extra hand.

"He looks thirsty to me." Larabee sounded as tired as he looked, but he'd plastered on a smile for the benefit of the patient, who glared up at him and tried to scoot under his pillow to avoid the vile-smelling brew. Larabee's grin sharpened as he settled himself on the edge of Vin's bed.

"C'mon cowboy," he said matter-of-factly, as he lifted Vin's head up and held the cup to his cracked lips. "It can't taste any worse than that bilge water you kept ordering up the last time we hit Purgatorio. Remember? We split a bottle of that crap and we were killing insects with our breath for the next two days."

Vin made a noise that might have been a laugh if it had had even an ounce of energy behind it and finally took a sip, wincing as the liquid scoured his raw throat. Josiah held his breath, willing the beverage to stay down long enough to do the suffering man some good.

"Any word from Buck?" Josiah asked, as Larabee eased Vin back down to the mattress. Tanner was asleep before his head hit the pillow, but at least he hadn't immediately retched up the herbal tea.

Larabee ran his hand through his hair in a frustrated gesture and shook his head.

He caught sight of the preacher's purpling left eye for the first time. "He give you that?" he asked, cocking an eyebrow at the unaware gambler.

"Boy throws a wicked haymaker," Josiah said sedately, rubbing soothing circles on Ezra's bowed back. He studied Larabee for a moment, noting the tense shoulders and clenched fists. The man in black was coiled like a spring, desperate for action. This wasn't his sort of fight. In fact, Josiah had never met a man less suited to sitting quietly by a sickbed and waiting for nature to take its course.

Best to keep him moving. "You know, if it's information about Portage you're after, there is a source a bit closer to home."

Larabee's head snapped up like a foxhound called to hunt.

Josiah inclined his head in the direction of the town jail.

The miserable burglar Larabee had hauled back from Portage was still sitting in his cell, waiting for prisoner transport. With a feral smile, Larabee rose from the chair, made a final check on Vin and Ezra, and left without a word.

Left alone with his charges, Josiah tried unsuccessfully to pry Ezra off his shoulder and settle him more comfortably under the covers. Standish was having none of it, refusing to relax his grip on Josiah's shirt.

A second pair of hands reached in to help disentangle them. Josiah gave Nathan a nod of gratitude as they combined forces to get the gambler under the covers and convince him to stay there.

Nathan planted a gentle hand in the middle of Ezra's chest to hold him in place and turned sorrowful eyes on Josiah. "Looks like we're gonna be needing your services, Josiah."

The preacher followed his gaze to a blanket-shrouded form on a pallet on the far side of the room. The plague on Four Corners has claimed its first victim.

+ + + + + + +

Buck Wilmington paced the tiny confines of the Portage telegraph office.

The wan-looking operator faced him with an apologetic smile on his face.

"Any moment, sir," the man said, pausing to mop his forehead before retreating back to his rocking chair and a mound of blankets. "The Western Union crew set out at dawn to repair the line. They should send us the repair signal any time now," he continued, his voice muffled by quilts.

Buck gave the bundle of blankets a curt nod and turned to the Portage sheriff and his deputy, who were sagging in the doorway like a pair of sailors on the fourth day of a three-day shore leave. Through the open door of the telegraph office, Buck could still smell the smoke from the smoldering ruin of the town bank.

A scourge had hit Portage all right -- but not the one Mary had embroidered on the pages of the Clarion.

And it looked like it was headed straight toward Four Corners next.

Rays of sunlight filtered through a series of bullet holes in the telegraph office wall, hitting Buck in the chest as he paced by. He trailed a finger along the siding, tracing the damage, trying not to picture Four Corners shot full of the same holes. Or with as many fresh graves in its cemetery.

Snapping a smart left turn that would have made his old drill sergeant proud, he completed the circuit of the room and started another. This was stupid. He needed to be in three places at once, and the telegraph office was at the bottom of that list.

Elbowing up to the counter, he grabbed a fresh message pad and shoved it at the sheriff, who winced as the movement jarred his still-aching belly.

"The minute the line's repaired, I need you to send a warning to Chris Larabee in Four Corners, you got that?" He waited for the sheriff to straighten up and meet his gaze. "You let him know what happened here, and let him know what to be on the lookout for."

At the sheriff's nod, he all but sprinted out the door, bounding across the deserted main street and back to the boarding house, only slowing as he reached the ground-floor room he'd rented. The landlady had left a covered tray outside the door for him. Balancing the tray with one hand, he fumbled for the door and eased inside.

A pair of brown eyes, brimming with misery, studied him over the corner of a worn quilt.

"Hey pal," Buck greeted softly, setting the tray of weak tea and beef broth on the table next to the sickbed.

The quilts twitched as steam from the tray wafted toward the bed. With a stifled curse, Buck scooped up the pail he'd set beside the bed and held it steady.

"It'll pass, kid," he said, resting a steadying hand on JD's straining shoulders. "You're gonna be okay. Soon as the lines are up and running, we'll get word to ol' Chris and the others and then we can relax. You'll be back on your feet in no time."

He kept up a soothing line of chatter as he watched out the window, hoping for some signal from the telegraph office that the line was repaired and the warning was on its way to Four Corners.

JD dangled off the edge of the bed, gasping, trying to decide if it was safe to roll back onto the pillow. He looked like a kitten somebody'd tried to drown in the pond -- which was an improvement over the way he'd looked when Buck first dragged him into town.

God, if JD was this sick, what the hell was happening back in Four Corners?

Buck seethed. It would have been bad enough to see the kid suffering if this had been an ordinary sickness -- cholera, swamp fever, malaria.

But there was nothing natural about this disaster.

+ + + + + + +
Ollie Gallagher, imprisoned thief, swallowed hard, infinitely grateful for the steel bars between himself and the fuming man in black. A sinewy whipcord of a man, Ollie had the sly, pointy face of a ferret and a body to match -- built to squirm through transom windows or slink down narrow alleyways.

"Sure am thirsty," he ventured.

"Sure don't give a good goddamn."

Without breaking eye contact with burglar, Larabee dragged a desk chair over to the cell and settled himself square in front of the fidgeting man.

"Let's try this again," he said with a smile that would have made a less dehydrated man soil his britches. "What were you doing in Portage before that deputy recognized you from your wanted poster?"

"I told you! I was just meeting up with some, uh...pals of mine."

"You were planning a job."

"No sir!" Ollie's parchment-dry tongue rasped across his cracked lips. Nobody had been by to check on the prisoner all day. He was hungry, he was thirsty, and the slop bucket in his cell was approaching critical mass.

Larabee glared another hole through the man. "I've checked your record. You're a sneak thief and you never work alone. Your old gang in Saint Louis could pick an entire hotel clean in a single night. So I'm going to ask last time...What? Were you doing? In Portage?"

The weasel fell to weaseling. "How do you expect me to concentrate when I haven't had a drop to wet my throat all day ? It ain't right, holding a man without food nor drink..."

A wave of water crashed through the bars, hitting Ollie square in the face. He staggered back, spluttering.

Larabee turned to grin at Josiah who stepped up to the bars with a dripping bucket in his hand.

"Drink up," the preacher said sweetly. He hoisted a second bucket, this one full to the brim.

To the surprised of both lawmen, Gallagher let out a schoolgirl shriek and fled to the far corner of his cell.

"No water!" the burglar screamed at them. He caught himself, drew a deep breath and continued in a more reasonable tone. "I mean, I want a drink, not a bath. Don't suppose either of you fellas could dig into my saddlebags and give me a nip of the tonic I got stashed in there?"

Eyes narrowed, Josiah set the sloshing bucket down and moved to the locked cabinet beside JD's desk.

Larabee caught up the prisoner's tin mug and scooped out a brimming cupful of cool, clear well water. He extended it through the bars.

"You were dying for a drink," he said slowly, a terrible suspicion beginning to form.

The weasel shook his head vigorously. "Not just any drink!" he said, his voice high and falsely cheery. "I'm on a special regimen. Got a health tonic and everything. Gonna live to be 100!"

Larabee gave Ollie a look that cast doubt on his odds of living to see sunset. "Josiah?" he called over his shoulder.

No response.

Finally breaking eye contact with Gallagher -- who sagged in relief -- Larabee turned and found the preacher staring into the burglar's saddle bags as if he'd discovered vipers nesting inside.

Slowly, he reached in and pulled out a familiar green bottle.

"I suffer from chills in my kidneys!" Gallagher called desperately after them as both lawmen bolted for the door.

There was a vacant patch of dirt in front of the livery. Doctor Pfeffer, his boy, and their entire stock of wondrous swamp oil had vanished.

+ + + + + + +

"They poisoned the well, didn't they?" Josiah sagged against the jailhouse door, spinning the green bottle around and around in his fingers.

Nathan stood cross-armed beside him, vibrating with outrage. "Seen this sort of thing before, during the war. Soldiers used to toss dead horses, or worse, into town wells or upstream of enemy camps. When folk got desperate enough, they'd drink and come down with all sorts of awful sicknesses." He looked away from the other lawmen, ashamed. "Don't know why I didn't think of it before."

"Not your fault, Nathan," Larabee said, knowing the healer wouldn't believe it.

The only peacekeepers left standing had gathered in the jail to talk. They'd sounded the alert to the townsfolk, but to their disgust, Pfeffer's frightened customers clung to their bottles of snake oil even more desperately -- convinced the syrup must be the antidote to whatever poison the medicine show man slipped into the well.

The showman had packed up the wagon and headed out of town the moment he spotted Larabee heading toward the jail, the customers said.
He hadn't made it far. A quick search turned up the wagon, broken down and abandoned a few miles down the road. Pfeffer, the boy and the cart horse were nowhere to be found.

The well behind the livery had been boarded up. Nathan ordered everyone to boil water from the other town wells before they drank, just in case.

Now, it was just a matter of waiting to see whether anyone else would fall ill, and whether those already sick would recover. Nathan winced at the thought of all the water he'd been pouring down his patients' throats.

"The question is," Josiah paced slowly back to the cell to study the sodden burglar. "How did Brother Gallagher here know they'd poisoned the well?"

Larabee joined him beside the bars, resting a hand casually on his six-shooter. "Oh, our friend Ollie here has a nervous disposition. He doesn't like risk. He'd much rather rob a house if the owners are out of town, or asleep -- or sick to death."

Ollie flattened himself against the wall, but didn't dispute the statement.

"Seems to me," Nathan said, joining the line of tall, murderously angry lawmen squaring off against the thief, "a man like that might want to hook up with a traveling medicine show. Folks start getting sick, the medicine man makes lots of money, and Ollie and his gang can pick the town clean while everyone's too sick to leave their beds."

The burglar let out a small, strangled squeak. The lawmen gave him a final, disdainful look and walked out of the jail -- Nathan back to the clinic, Larabee and Josiah to patrol the defenseless town, waiting for the attack that was sure to come.

Ollie Gallagher sat in his corner, licking his dry lips and staring at the dozens of buckets of well water that filled every inch of floor space around him.

+ + + + + + +

Buck Wilmington dreamt of hurricanes. The monster storms that came roaring up out of the Gulf and into Texas every few years, annihilating everything in their path.

During his ranger days, he'd befriended an old fisherman who talked him into a boat ride the morning after one blew through. The sea, churned into gigantic gunmetal gray waves by the passing storm, had tossed the old man's leaky tub around like a cork, sloshing up...down...up...down...

He jerked awake with a strangled gasp to find the room see-sawing violently around him. Up. Down. Up. His stomach gave one warning clench, enough time -- barely -- to send him scrambling for JD's bucket.

His miserable retching woke the kid, who rolled feebly to the side of the bed and croaked out, "Aw, Buck. Not you too?"

Shivering, Buck rested his forehead against the bucket's wooden rim and tried to think past the nauseating pounding in his temples.

"Yeah, kid," he said at last. "Me too."

He wanted, more than anything, to lift his head and give JD a reassuring grin. But just the thought of the effort it would take made his arms buckle. He slid to the floor, barely aware of JD's hand reaching for him, plucking at the back of his shirt.

"Buck?" JD's voice sounded so far away, as if he were calling from the bottom of the ocean, or the other side of a storm-tossed sea.


+ + + + + + +

Nathan picked his way between the cots, feeling foreheads, straightening covers and exchanging a word here and there with a worried relative. The patients tossed restlessly in their fever dreams. None of the remedies he'd tried seemed to be working. There were people under this roof who probably wouldn't live to see the sunrise.

Not since the war had he been this tired, this heartsick. Then, the horror had been in the sheer numbers -- bodies heaped on bodies, surgery tents overflowing with men and boys, wounded and dying. Amputated limbs tossed in piles like so much rubbish. He'd seen more men die of camp fevers than he could ever begin to count.

But this... He stooped to brush his fingers across the little Potter girl's furnace-hot cheek. She whimpered in her sleep, sweat-soaked hair spread out on the pillow, eyes screwed shut against the pain. Blue eyes. She had blue eyes, Nathan knew. Just like he knew that peppermint balls were her favorite candy and that she and her brother liked to play in their secret hide-out in the crawl space beneath the boardwalk near their mother's store. They would collect the coins that slipped between the boards until they had enough to buy more peppermint balls.

It was easier to bury a thousand men when you didn't know their names or remember their faces. When you didn't have to look their mothers in the eye. When you knew nothing about their hopes and dreams. When they didn't know you, or trust you, or care whether you knew what the hell you were doing or not.

A soft creak on the boardwalk outside snapped Nathan out of his memories. The door to the grain exchange eased open and Gloria Potter slipped soundlessly inside. She gave a guilty start when she caught sight of Nathan, whipping her hands out of sight beneath her apron.

But the healer had already recognized the distinctive green flash of a bottle of swamp oil. Lord knew where she'd found it, or what someone might have made her pay to get it.

Nathan straightened stiffly from his crouch beside the child's sickbed. Mrs. Potter opened her mouth to explain, or maybe apologize, but Nathan waved her off with a gentle smile. Who was he to deny her the hope of a miracle cure? Why shouldn't she put her faith in a patent medicine when all of Nathan's remedies had failed so miserably?

He turned and made his way toward the far corner of the room where they'd settled Ezra and Vin.

Larabee had dragged a chair between the cots to keep watch over his downed men. Josiah was off patrolling the town with a look in his eye that boded no good for any thieves coming to prey on the crippled town.

Nathan watched Larabee wet a rag and drape it across Vin's forehead, whispering something too softly for anyone but the sick man to hear.

"Thought I told you to go and get some sleep," Nathan grumbled out of sheer reflex, slumping onto a corner of Vin's bed, reassured to see that the tracker seemed to be resting quietly.

Ezra, on the other hand, was pushing himself to sit upright, his head lolling like a puppet about to come unstrung. Nathan let him make the attempt, figuring it would be easier to scoop the gambler off the floor than to force him to lie down and rest of his own free will.

"Thought I told you the same thing," Larabee returned, looking over the healer with a critical eye. "Why don't you step outside for a bit? Get some fresh air and a bowl of that stew Inez has going in her kitchen."

"My patients--"

Larabee cut him off, his expression uncompromising. "Will be right here when you get back. You need to take care of yourself if you're going to take care of them."

Shoulders slumped in resignation, Nathan shuffled to his feet. "It's your turn when I get back. You promise me you'll get some sleep?"

"I'll get some sleep." The unspoken 'right here in this chair' hung in the air between them. Nathan shook his head and headed for the door.

+ + + + + + +

Outside, the cold night air hit him like a slap in the face. He sank down onto the stairs, resting his elbows on his knees and his head in his hands while he tried to get his breathing under control.

"Useless," he whispered into the dark. "Might as well be brewing snake oil, for all the good you're doing these folk."

"N-nonsense…" a harsh croak, barely recognizable as Ezra's voice, startled the healer out of his dark thoughts. The gambler tottered out the door. Nathan caught him as his legs gave out. For a moment, they just sat there, slumped against each other on the steps, too tired to move.

At the sound of footsteps, Nathan turned to nod as Larabee's silhouette filled the doorway. Larabee eased down on the steps on the other side of Ezra, passing a steaming cup of coffee to the healer and dropping a blanket around the sickroom escapee.

Nathan grunted -- was he going to have to club them over the head to get any of them to rest? -- but accepted the mug. They sat in silence, listening to the distant howl of the coyotes and the muffled groans of the patients inside.

Finally, Ezra stirred against his shoulder: "Wintergreen."


"Oil of wintergreen," the gambler's voice was thick and slow, but he sounded lucid for the first time in hours. "That's what gives snake oil...its kick. And its...coloration."

Nathan shot him a sidelong glance. "That's it?" That's all that was in those little bottles he sold for half a week's pay?

Ezra cocked his head woozily and tried to think. "Whiskey," he added, after a long moment of consideration.

"That ain't medicine!" Nathan spluttered. Ezra flinched back from the angry tone and Larabee reached out quickly to steady him.

"I think that's the point Ezra here was trying to make," Larabee said, tucking the blankets more tightly around the gambler, trying to decide if Ezra had passed the point of fighting if they tried to herd him back to bed.

Nathan let out a slow breath, feeling something unknot deep in his chest. He shot a sidelong look at Ezra. Fever or no fever, this was too good a chance to pass up. "How about Dr. Pfeffer's rheumatism cure?"

Ezra's chin lifted fractionally off his chest and he recited, like a schoolboy: "Any oil rubbed briskly around the afflicted joint..." He blinked, confused, as he realized he was being hauled upright between the two taller lawmen. He allowed himself to be steered back into the clinic. "...will create the illusion of warmth and relieve the customer's pain long enough to transact the sale."

"Huh," Nathan mumbled. "I knew it. I knew he was cheating..."

It wasn't real medicine. Doctor Pfeffer couldn't cure the people of this town.

That was Nathan Jackson's job.

+ + + + + + +
The town of Four Corners sharpened into focus, a few buildings at a time, through the spyglass lens. Grocery, bathhouse, laundry, jail... The brass cylinder dipped down to reveal a faded blue eye, squinting in irritation.

"Any sign of 'im boss?"

The squint scrunched into a full-face grimace. "Nah."

Luke Gallagher pushed back from the ridgeline and shut the brass telescope with a snap. He rested his elbows on his knees and studied the men around him -- the gang that had picked clean three of the four towns to the east. They were a motley collection of sneak thieves, pickpockets, and hired guns who had been scraping out a meager living along the border before they hooked up with a clever con man with the perfect plan to plunder the countryside with almost no risk to themselves.

Gallagher pulled out the spyglass again and trained it on the quarantine sign on the edge of town -- and the big man pacing nearby, shotgun at the ready.

He didn't like the way the man was watching the horizon, as if he were more worried about a threat from outside the town than the sickness within. Hell, he didn't like the fact the man was still on his feet.

Was Doc having trouble with his side of the plan? Had word somehow gotten through from Portage, in spite of the damage they'd done to the telegraph lines? Had that weasel Ollie let something slip? Bad enough the little ferret got himself caught in Portage and left the rest of them to rob the town without his usual scouting report. Now they were going to have to organize a jailbreak.

"I swear, if he weren't my brother..." he began, only to flinch in shock as a rifle shot cracked through the air directly overhead.

"What the  hell ?"

Gallagher flattened himself against the ground, searching for the source of the attack. How could anyone have spotted them at this distance? How could anyone even know they were out here?

Muttering curses, he focused the spyglass on the quarantine sign, just in time to catch the town's watchman as he raised his rifle again and fired straight toward them.

Angry gang members came boiling up the hillside to join him, weapons drawn. "No! Wait--!" Gallagher hissed. He grabbed the nearest rifle barrel and pointed it harmlessly in the air, meeting the furious gaze of Clem, their safecracker.

Gallagher waved him back, waved them all back. "He don't know we're here. Ain't no way he can see us through all this scrub," he hissed, glaring at the edgy outlaws who were waiting for the signal to fall on the town.

"Then what's he shootin' at if'n it ain't us?" Clem demanded.

Luke was still trying to work out the answer when a dead crow dropped from the sky and landed at his elbow in a puff of feathers.

+ + + + + + +

Josiah Sanchez lowered his rifle slowly, tracking the crow's fall. The rest of the circling flock scattered, cawing in fury.

He could hear doors banging open and voices shouting questions up and down the street, but he held his pose, just in case the birds of darkness tried to double back toward town. Not until the skies were clear did he turn around to meet the dual glares of Larabee, who stood with pistols drawn at the jailhouse door, and Nathan, who'd burst out of the infirmary with a gun in one hand and a bedpan in the other.

The healer shook his head and retreated indoors, along with most of the other able bodies in town. Larabee waited.

"Brother," Josiah said evenly, tipping his hat as he passed the jail.

"Crows?" Larabee ground out the question.

Josiah squinted up at the blameless blue sky. "No crows here. Not today."

He trudged past the jail with heavy steps, continuing his patrol. Larabee watched him go, his own palms itching toward his guns. He envied the preacher his easy target. It would be nice to have an enemy he could drive off with his guns, instead of one that crept up on a man in his drinking water.

Once the preacher passed beyond his line of sight, he stepped back inside the jail.

He was greeted by the sight of an agitated Ollie Gallagher, on his feet and peering through the cell bars. The thief's face fell as he recognized the silhouette in the doorway.

"Not who you were expecting?" Larabee asked.

The prisoner swallowed, or tried to. Larabee could hear the dry click. He leaned a hip against the desk and studied the thirsty convict. "Hope you're not waiting on your doctor friend. He skipped town yesterday."

Ollie paled at the news, but kept his mouth shut.

"How long have the two of you been pulling this scam?" Larabee moved to the stove and poured himself a cup of lukewarm coffee, fully aware that Gallagher was watching his every move, his eyes locked on the beverage.

The buckets of water still cluttered the cell floor, slowly evaporating. He could  smell  the water on the air, and he could only imagine what the scent was doing to the outlaw who hadn't had a drop to drink in a day and a half.

"I don't know what you're talkin' about," Ollie croaked.

Larabee blew into his mug and took a sip, grimacing at the bitter, over-boiled taste but grateful for its kick after an ugly, sleepless night.

"Sure you don't," he drawled. "But you'd sooner sit there and shrivel like a dried leaf than take a drink of our water. Why is that, Ollie?"

Ollie cast a longing glance at the nearest bucket, but turned away. The lawman gave him a smile that came nowhere near his cold hazel eyes.

"Three people are dead from whatever it is your partner put in our water. We got a score more so sick they're puking blood or off their heads with fever. Somebody's gonna hang for this, and if we can't find Pfeffer, you'll do."

The prisoner's queasy expression spoke volumes, but he kept his silence.

Larabee waited a beat, then lifted a tray off the desk and dropped it on the floor next to the cell. "Maybe you'll feel like talking after you eat." With that, he ghosted out of the room, locking the jailhouse door behind him with an ominous snap.

Ollie studied the meal. Salt pork and hard-tack biscuits.

Snarling, he loosened the yellow bandana around his neck and crossed to the high barred window of the cell. Upending one of the water buckets, he tied the colorful scrap of fabric to the bars and poked it through to flutter in the breeze.

+ + + + + + +

Luke Gallagher was prodding the dead crow with the barrel of his gun when a soft hiss from one of his men made him look up. The lookout passed him the spyglass and gestured excitedly toward Four Corners.

It took a moment of searching before the bright flash of yellow caught his attention. Gallagher smiled. It was the yellow jack. The signal Doc and Ollie were supposed to flash to give the rest of the gang the all-clear to attack the town.

Luke squinted at the yellow flag, noting its position -- the jailhouse. Ollie. It didn't inspire confidence, but it was better than nothing.

"Gather up the gear," he said, rolling up on his elbow to grin at his men. "It's time."

+ + + + + + +

" walks into a hardware store and asks the clerk, 'You got any oranges?'"

Buck Wilmington curled a protective arm around his midsection and braced himself for the worst. The sun was beating down on his aching head, his horse's ambling gait was roiling his already miserable stomach -- and still, setting out for Four Corners at dawn was only the second-worst idea he'd had all day.

Ignoring Buck's pathetic groan, JD nudged his horse closer and continued his joke, apparently unaware that he'd all but lost his voice.

"Clerk looks at the duck and he can't believe it," he squeaked. "'This is a hardware store, duck. We ain't got no oranges. Get outta here.'"

Buck slouched lower in the saddle, his forehead almost touching his horse's mane. JD squeaked on relentlessly.

"Next day, duck comes back to the store. 'Got any oranges?' Now the clerk's starting to get mad. 'Get out of here, duck!' he says. 'I told you we don't stock oranges!'"

JD's voice faded out entirely. Buck cracked open an eye and watched the kid swallow hard. He waited, wondering if he was going to have to scrape JD off the ground again.

After a few shaky breaths, JD launched back into his stupid duck joke.

"Duck leaves the store, but the next day, sure enough, he's back again, asking for oranges. The clerk starts yelling, 'Look, I told you and I told you. This is a hardware store! We don't have any stupid oranges! If you ask me for oranges one more time, I'm gonna nail your little webbed feet to the floor!'"

Buck thumped his forehead against Clyde's neck, praying for sweet unconsciousness to take him before JD got to the punch line. He shot a bleary glance at the sun, figuring they were at least four hours away from Four Corners. Dang.

Stupid, useless Western Union repair crews. The workers had moseyed back into Portage at dusk to report that the line to Four Corners had been cut in four places and they'd have to send off for fresh supplies. The only way to pass the warning to Four Corners was to send a rider. Nobody else had volunteered.

JD straightened in his saddle, forgetting his own discomfort as he prepared for his big finish.

"So the next day the duck walks back into hardware store. He sizes the clerk up and he asks, 'Got any nails?'"

"'Uh, no,' the clerk says."

"'In that any oranges?'"

Buck bolted out of the saddle and threw himself behind a bush. JD ignored the familiar sound of retching, and cackled weakly at his own joke. After a stretch, Buck came trudging back, wiping his mouth and shaking his head. JD wordlessly handed down a canteen. The exhausted man took a mouthful, spit, then took a careful swallow.

"Kid...that was the worst one yet," he wheezed. JD grinned proudly.

Buck leaned against his horse and closed his eyes, trying to muster up the energy to remount.

"Buck? Buck? Your turn," JD's squeaky voice was the only thing that kept him from sliding to the ground for a nice nap. He didn't care if he landed on a barrel cactus. It couldn't possibly be as uncomfortable as he felt right now.

"C'mon Buck. This was your idea."

Buck lifted an impossibly heavy arm, caught the saddle horn and braced himself for the monstrous effort it would take to get back on the horse.

He took a deep breath and began: "Man walks into a saloon...he's carrying a tiny piano and this  teeny  piano player, only one foot tall, under his arm. He sets 'em both down on the bar and he orders himself a beer..."

+ + + + + + +

The crows were circling again. Josiah abandoned his halfhearted patrol of the town and wheeled around, trying to draw a bead on the birds. Sick at heart and exhausted beyond reason, all he could think was to drive them off before their shadow could fall across the sickroom. The crows had carried off three of his flock already. And Ezra and Vin were so sick...

His eye fell on the ladder still propped against the church wall from his last trip up to repair the roof. Had it only been two days since his biggest worries were missing shingles and newsprint rumors? He started climbing, one-handed, balancing the rifle.

The crows wheeled and dived, riding the warm air currents that rose off the sun-baked roofs of Four Corners. Josiah scrabbled across the shingles to the roof peak and took aim.

One of the crows broke away from the flock and swooped toward town, angling for the grain exchange roof.

Josiah tracked its descent, finger tightening on the trigger.

A rifle shot cracked and the crow exploded mid-air.

Josiah stared at the drifting feathers, then down at his unfired weapon.

A second shot gouged the steeple, less than a foot from his head. Without thinking, he rolled away -- forgetting that he had been balanced on the peak of a very steep roof.

He slid down the shingles, picking up speed and splinters. Bullets punched through the air he'd just vacated. But Josiah Sanchez hadn't spent two years pounding on a church roof for nothing. With practiced ease, he dug in his heels and ground to a halt, cursing as the rifle slipped out of his hands and spiraled off the edge of the roof.

Panting, he clung there, spread-eagle, listening as whoops, shouts and the sound of more gunfire echoed through Four Corners.

+ + + + + + +

A close-range shotgun blast blew the lock off the jailhouse door.

"Luke! I knew you'd come!" Ollie Gallagher's joyful croak greeted his brother as he burst into the jail.

Luke rolled his eyes and surveyed the room. "Keys?"

"Top left drawer." Ollie said with a nod to the sheriff's desk. "I'm real sorry about this Luke--"

His brother held up the keys and leveled a warning finger at him. "Shut up before I change my mind. You can make it up to me with a scouting report. Where's Doc?"

"Gone. Skipped town."

The younger, smarter Gallagher brother straightened, glaring. "And the loot he was supposed to be holding for us...?"

Ollie shrugged, then gestured impatiently toward the cell padlock. Luke shook himself and bent back to the lock. There would be plenty of time to track Doc down and string him up later.

But first, there was work to be done in Four Corners.

"Anything else we need to know?," Luke asked, returning to his original train of thought. "There was an old man with a big gun up on the roof of the church. Who is he? The sheriff?"

Ollie fidgeted, watching his brother try key after key in the lock. "Not exactly. This town's got seven lawmen guarding it, if you can believe that."

Luke almost dropped the keys. " Seven?  How many of 'em are still on their feet?"

"Three that I've seen," Ollie said, sagging in relief as the door finally swung open. He elbowed past his brother and grabbed the coffee pot off the stove, gulping down the bitter brew, grounds and all.

Luke eyed his brother's bucket-filled cage. "Tell me you didn't drink the water."

Ollie shrugged evasively. A sip or two to wet his whistle couldn't possibly do any harm, could it?

Luke cuffed him upside the head. "Idiot."

He grabbed his ferret-faced brother and towed him, coffee pot and all, out of the jail. The rest of the gang was milling on the street outside, smashing in random store windows, just to get the feel of the place. As expected, none of the townsfolk were well enough -- or brave enough -- to protest. And not a lawman in sight. The town was theirs.

Luke turned in a slow circle, picking his targets. Bank. Hotel. Saloon and mercantile cash registers. Four Corners might not look like much, but there must be something here of value, some reason this dusty little burg warranted seven peacekeepers.

"So," Ollie said, rubbing his hands together in anticipation. "What do we hit first? Bank?"

An unpleasant smile spread across the gang leader's face. "First things first," Luke said, reaching into his saddlebags and pulling out a bundle of dynamite.

+ + + + + + +

"Aw hell..." Crouched in the shadows of the narrow alley next to the jail, Larabee watched the bandit strike a match and light the fuse. The outlaws on the street scattered, whooping, as the dynamite arced through the air and into the open door of the jail.

He took advantage of the confusion to make a break for the grain exchange, crouching low as he counted off seconds.

Three...four...five... He broke into the open, darting between the outlaws' horses. Angry shouts rang out, followed by gunshots.

Seven...eight...nine... Larabee threw himself through the half-open door of the grain exchange, chased by bullets.

"Down! Down! Everybody get down!" he screamed, rolling to a halt as he came eye-to-eye with the barrel of Nathan's pistol.

The wild-eyed healer eased up on the trigger. "Chris? What--"

Whatever else he might have said was lost as Larabee tackled him around the midsection, knocking him away from the door and windows a half-second before a massive explosion rocked the town, blew out the windows in the grain exchange, and obliterated the jail.

+ + + + + + +

"People of Four Corners! Your attention, please!"

The call from the street barely registered on the people slowly picking themselves off the floor, shaking plaster dust out of their hair. Muffled sobs and groans sounded through the sickroom. Nathan and Larabee disentangled themselves in a flurry of elbows and curses. Nathan rushed to check on his patients. Larabee crept toward the shattered windows, weapons drawn.

Peering out, he watched Ollie Gallagher and his gang strut down Main Street like they owned the place. In the lead was a seedy weasel of a man, the family resemblance to Gallagher stamped clearly on his face.

The stranger called out again: "Now, we know most of you are feeling a bit under the weather. We'd sure hate to have to make this day any worse for you. So all you folks have to do is stay in your beds, stay out of our way, and we'll be out of here before you know it."

"How many?" Nathan hissed from the other side of the room, where he was helping Gloria Potter shift her little girl off a hospital cot littered with broken grass.

"Too many," Larabee said, squinting out at the bandits through the cracked window glass. The gang was spreading out through the town, ransacking stores with matter-of-fact efficiency. Up the street, a small group was backing cautiously away from the bank. He spotted the long fuse and detonator box and jumped back with a shout of warning.

He spun and nearly collided with Ezra, who had tottered across the room to join him, wrapped in a blanket and clutching one of Nathan's pistols. Sweat-drenched and shaking, the sick man stared blindly past Larabee, flinching at the sound of shop windows shattering up and down the street.

With only a slight twinge of guilt, Larabee gave the sick man a straight-armed shove that sent him sprawling to the floor. In the same motion, he grabbed the little Potter girl's abandoned cot and wedged it against one of the windows.

"Chris?" Nathan rushed over, pausing just long enough to wrestle his gun away from Ezra. He couldn't believe the gambler had found the strength to get out of bed, never mind pick his pockets.

"They're gonna blow the bank!" Larabee snapped, grabbing another cot and attacking the next window. Nathan jumped to his side to help, wincing as shards of glass showered down.

The concussion from the second dynamite blast whumped against the mattresses, knocking both men back as the walls rattled and the outlaws let out a collective howl of triumph.

Once the bank was picked clean, there wouldn't be much left worth stealing in town. Larabee tightened his grip on his pistol, weighing his options. It would be madness to start a firefight with so few guns -- where the hell was Josiah, anyway? -- and so many helpless people caught in between. But he didn't relish the idea of being trapped like a rat if the bandits decided to hurl a few spare sticks of dynamite in the direction of the clinic.

"Who are they?" Mary Travis was working her way across the room on her elbows. "Didn't they see the quarantine signs?"

Larabee and Nathan exchanged a look, then shifted one of the cots far enough to give them a view of the street again. Mary peered around them to see the intruders for herself.

"Looks like Ollie Gallagher and that two-bit hustler weren't working alone," Nathan said.

"Looks like," Larabee agreed grimly. Sluggish movement on the other side of the room caught his eye. "Damnit, Tanner! Stay down!"

Vin shot him a rebellious, bloodshot glare and continued to struggle against the blankets that cocooned him. Larabee started across the room to help when a sharp rap on the door halted him.

"I know you're in there, lawman!" Ollie Gallagher's voice carried clearly into the room. "You come out with your hands up, you and the rest of your hired guns, or we'll blow this place sky high like we done that jail you tried to pen me in."

Nathan moved slowly to the door, glancing back at Larabee to make sure they were on the same page.

"Ain't nobody in here but sick folk," he shouted through the door, gesturing frantically at Larabee to get out of sight.

Larabee scowled and countered with a gesture ordering Nathan to make a break for the back door.

Nathan raised his eyebrows incredulously and gestured around at his helpless patients. Larabee stubbornly shook his head. Nathan pantomimed  I'll stay here. You get your ass under cover and figure out a way to get the drop on the bad guys.  Larabee blinked, confused. Nathan threw up his hands. Charades had never been his strong suit.

"Aw fer crying out loud," Vin croaked suddenly. "Get out of here, cowboy. Y' won't do us any good if you get caught."

The doorknob rattled ominously as someone tested it.

Slowly, deliberately, Larabee crossed to the door and started dismantling the furniture barricade.

"Chris..." Nathan began.

Larabee shot him a humorless smile, then glanced down at Ezra, who was blinking up at him, dazed, from the floor.

"I ain't gonna run out on you," he said, and threw back the bolt lock.

The door swung open to admit the barrel of a shotgun.

"Hey there," Ollie leered, stepping into the room. Quick as a snake, he whipped the gun barrel up and around to connect with Larabee's temple with an ugly crack.

+ + + + + + +

Nathan lunged toward Ollie as Larabee collapsed. Mary shrieked, echoed by others in the room as Ollie brought his gun back around and leveled it at the healer -- only to freeze as a gun cocked in his ear.

"Your manners are deplorable, sir. A gentleman does not raise his voice in a sickroom." Ezra's voice was hoarse and slurred. He had pushed himself up the wall and had the pistol braced with both hands. Nathan's hand dropped to his empty holster. Damn slippery con man. He reached back and drew one of his knives instead.

Ezra gestured unsteadily with the pistol and Ollie threw his hands up, forgetting that he still clutched his shotgun. Courage under fire was not the sneak thief's strong suit. Nathan started forward to disarm the man, when a shadow fell across the doorway.

"Ollie, you idiot." Luke Gallagher took in the sight of his brother, outmaneuvered by invalids. With a disgusted sigh, he lashed out and caught Ezra's arm, twisting the gun out of the weakened grasp and catching the sick man in a chokehold.

"Drop your weapons," he ordered, pulling Ezra closer and cocking the pistol at his temple to emphasize the point. Nathan's knife clattered to the floor.

"He's sick," Nathan said, holding out a hand as if he expected the robber to just hand Ezra over. "He don't know what he's doing. He won't give you any more trouble, I swear."

Gallagher just tightened his hold. Ezra lolled like a rag doll, fever-glazed eyes locked on Larabee's crumpled form. The gunslinger lay face-down, blood pooling slowly under his head.

"Ollie here tells me you're some sort of healer," Luke said. Nathan blinked in surprise and nodded. "Then I need you to take a look at my brother."

Before Nathan could say anything, Ollie was shouting. "Hell no, Luke! I don't need no help from him! He's the one who locked me in with nothing to drink but bad water!" Nathan kept his expression carefully neutral, inwardly dancing at the thought that Ollie had gotten a taste of his own medicine.

"I'm not gonna get sick," Ollie continued, blustering past Nathan to sneer at the sick townsfolk. "Not so long as I got me some of this."
He held up the little green bottle of snake oil and took a gulp. His expression fell when he realized the bottle was empty.

Nathan bristled. "If you drank any of that water, you're gonna need real medicine, not swamp oil.

"Is that so? Ollie hooted and settled himself against the door frame, close to the fresh air. The sickroom reeked. "Real medicine. That's why all your 'patients,'" he fanned his guns in an expansive gesture that took in all the huddled, miserable plague victims, "were lining up for a bottle of Doc's miracle cure when things started getting hairy?"

Sweat beaded Ollie's forehead as he wheeled on his brother. "I need more of Doc's cure. You gotta find Doc for me. Please, Luke! He's the only one who knows the recipe!"

"Oil of wintergreen...whiskey...sulfate of morphine...cape root...."

Ezra's soft mumble caught both brothers' attention. They stared at the sick lawman, their eyes speculative as he continued to slur out ingredients.

"Shut up, Ezra!" Nathan snapped. He plastered on an unconvincing smile. "He's off his head. Talking nonsense. And anyhow, if it's swamp oil you want, I can brew you up a batch, no problem." He took a step closer, trying to catch Ezra's eye, willing the man to shut his mouth, for once in his life.

"...turpentine, honey to taste..." Ezra whispered on, rolling his head in a futile attempt to loosen the arm clamped around his neck.

The Gallagher brothers exchanged a look. "Looks like both of you'll be coming with us," Luke said, eyeing the nightshirt-clad patient critically. "You might want to get your friend here a pair of trousers. Don't want him scaring the horses."

Nathan swallowed hard, but turned toward the far corner of the room where Ezra's belongings were folded neatly beneath his cot. A pair of bloodshot blue eyes watched his approach.

"How you doin' Vin?" he whispered, crouching between the beds to collect Ezra's things. Vin stared back at him, mirroring Nathan's rage and confusion. Nathan threw a glance over his shoulder at the waiting outlaws and risked a quick check on Tanner. He loosened the blankets that had entangled the tracker and rested the back of his hand against Vin's forehead. He let out a relieved breath. The eyes were bloodshot but alert, and his forehead was cool.

"M'gun?" Vin's voice was weak, but the hand that gripped Nathan's forearm was steady.

"Under your bed." Nathan murmured as he rose to his feet and made a show of bundling Ezra's things under his arm. He exchanged a final glance with Vin, wondering if he should risk everything and go for the gun himself. He could feel Ollie's stare boring into his back.

"Leave it," Tanner wheezed. "Wait for your chance. We'll come after you."

Nathan spun around at an impatient shout from Gallagher. Another bandit shouldered his way into the sickroom, balancing what looked like the brass cash register from Mr. Conklin's store under one arm.

"Reckon we're about done here, boss," he said, shooting a disinterested look around at the sick folk cringing against the walls. Luke nodded and shoved Ezra at Nathan, who did his best to bundle the uncooperative man into his clothes.

Suddenly, Luke was looming over them again, fanning himself lazily with a wrapped bundle of dollar bills that must have come from the bank safe. "We're going to take a little ride across the border, lawman. And the two of you had better pray that your cure works on my brother."

He reached down and caught Ezra by the arm, hauling the gambler up to stumble after him. Nathan followed, with Ollie's shotgun nudging his spine. As he reached the spot where Larabee lay motionless, he stooped, ignoring the prods from the outlaw as he searched for a pulse.

It was there, thrumming slow and strong beneath his fingers. He let the outlaw shove him toward the door, shooting a last anxious look over his shoulder at Vin, struggling to roll out of bed, and Larabee, who still hadn't moved at all.

+ + + + + + +

Main Street was a ruin of shattered glass and splintered doors. The bandits swarmed around like ants, piling stolen goods high on wagons and pack animals. In the smoking shell that used to be JD's jail, the fire-warped bars of the cellblock poked up like a picket fence.

Nathan tried to take it in as the Gallagher brothers hustled him toward a horse. Four Corners had fallen without a single shot fired in its defense. Rough hands wrenched his arms back and tied them behind his back, then boosted him into the saddle.

"Nathan! Ezra!" Josiah's alarmed cry came out of nowhere. Nathan twisted and found the preacher perched on the roof of the church, unarmed and in full view of the outlaws.

Luke smirked up at Josiah. "Crows are circling, old man! Nothing personal, mind. But we need to make sure the rest of your lawmen friends don't follow too close."

Only then did Nathan notice the brush and bits of broken furniture that the bandits were piling against the church wall, two stories below the spot where the preacher was sitting.

"Light it, boys. And saddle up."

Nathan let out a hoarse scream as the bandits splashed kerosene on the kindling and pulled out their tinder boxes. Beside him, Ezra slithered off his stolen horse, quick as an eel, and threw himself toward the church, chanting the same words Nathan had heard him shout out in feverish nightmares.

"No-no-no," Ezra gasped, as a pair of burly outlaws tackled him, hauled him back to the horse and lashed his hands to the saddle horn. "Don't hurt him. Let him go."

Luke Gallagher mounted up, caught the lead rope of Nathan's horse and led the way out of town at a gallop. Tears blurred Nathan's vision, but he clearly heard Ezra's despairing cry, and the sudden hiss and crackle as the outlaws set Josiah's church afire.

+ + + + + + +

Ezra shivered, huddling deeper into the satin-lined showman's cape that Honest John had draped around him. Tilting his head back against the dirt wall of the root cellar, he listened for signs of pursuit. Honest John, in shirtsleeves, prowled the confined space of the cellar, foraging for breakfast.

They'd spent a miserable, frightening night dodging the search parties that swarmed over the countryside like angry ants. Finally, figuring that the safest place to be around an angry mob was *
behind  it, John doubled back to an abandoned farmhouse on the outskirts of town, and the root cellar half-hidden in the backyard weeds.

The boy rested his chin on his knees with a sigh, watching as his associate poked through dusty canning jars filled with cloudy liquids and unidentifiable solids. His stomach rumbled uneasily.

"Lend a hand here, boy," called John, who had clambered up a set of set of rickety shelves, the better to root through the homeowner's forgotten canned goods. He grinned at the hangdog expression on Ezra's face as the boy moved to join him, still clutching his carpet bag.

Honest John squinted from jar to jar. "What'll it be for breakfast, then? Candied sweet potatoes? Or pickled okra?"

Ezra pointed wordlessly to the sweet potatoes. The showman handed it down, with the okra to boot. Together, they set out the unappetizing meal, using one of the handkerchiefs the boy always seemed to have on hand as a tablecloth. John studied the unwontedly silent child out of the corner of he eye as he wrestled with the rusty lids.

"Why so glum, young Ezra? We have food on the table, a roof over our heads--" Man and boy surveyed the rough earthen ceiling for a skeptical moment, then John pressed on. "...of sorts. We're leaving town with more money than we brought into it, and we've rid ourselves of that cumbersome wagon." He popped the lid off the sweet potatoes and set the gooey orange mess before the youngster with a flourish. The boy blinked at the jar uncertainly.

"Dig in," John ordered, suiting action to words and fishing out a sticky hunk of sweet potato with his fingers. "We have a long walk ahead of us to the next town, once these ungrateful wretches give up and leave us in peace."

Ezra shivered and burrowed back under the cloak, bag and all. "They blame us."

"Most unjustly. We didn't bring the fever to this benighted burg. Quite the contrary, we endeavored to alleviate their suffering through the miraculous curative properties of Anodyne Cordial."

The boy looked away. His voice dropped to a hushed whisper. "It wasn't a cure, was it? Not really."

Honest John straightened, poised to give another pep talk, then deflated with a sigh.
"No," he agreed, scooting close enough to pull his apprentice into a one-armed hug. "It wasn't a cure. It was simply our misfortune, young Ezra, to be peddling miracles in a town that honestly needed one."

"Oh," Ezra's gaze dropped to the carpetbag in his lap. "I thought, maybe, the cordial might do some good. Like your laudanum." He snapped open the latch and fished around for something inside the bag.

John chuckled, then froze when he spotted the object the boy had taken from his pack: a bottle of Anodyne Cordial.

It was half-empty.

"Ezra? What're you--" He pulled the boy around by the shoulders to face him. Ezra flinched and tried to squirm away. John ignored the feeble escape attempt and brushed tangled hair back from the boy's forehead. "You're burning up! Why didn't you say something?"

"I thought..." The child's voice trailed away as he slumped against Honest John, his eyes closing.

"Ezra? Ezra!"


+ + + + + + +

It was the smell of smoke, more than the voice shouting in his ear, that woke Larabee.

There was something distinctive about the smoke from a burning building, something in the way the flames worked on the paint and seasoned wood, that produced a sharp, unwholesome stench that jolted every nerve ending in his body. He sat up with a gasp, clutching at his throbbing head.

A blurry shape hovered before him. A shape with Gloria Potter's voice. "Oh, Mr. Larabee! Thank goodness...You must get up! Something dreadful is happening..."

Still concentrating on the smoke, Larabee groped blindly toward the blur until he felt a fabric-covered shoulder. Using the kindly shopkeeper for leverage, Larabee staggered to his feet, blinking the world into focus.

He wrapped an arm around Gloria's shoulders and let the smaller woman guide him while he tried to blink the world back into focus. All the while, Gloria was chattering at him. Larabee caught the names Josiah, Nathan and Ezra, but not much else.

The pair lurched through the door and onto the boardwalk, and suddenly Larabee understood the alarm.

Josiah's church was on fire.

And Josiah was trapped by the flames.

With a bellow of rage, Larabee released his human crutch and lurched toward the building. A bucket brigade was in full swing, manned by able bodies and nightshirt-clad patients alike. A bonfire had been kindled against the side wall of the church. Flames were licking up the side of the building, scorching the whitewash and flickering toward the roof, where Josiah stood. The preacher had retreated to the opposite side of the roof and was shouting suggestions to the people who were scurrying around, looking for a ladder tall enough to reach the roof. Josiah's had been smashed and used for kindling by the outlaws.

Larabee shook off his horror and looked around to see where he was needed most. Vin, he saw, had the bucket brigade in hand. Down the street, he spotted Yosemite and Inez trying to wrestle an enormous ladder out of the livery by themselves. He rushed over to help, ignoring the bolts of pain that shot through his skull with every move.

"What happened?" he gasped, taking one end of the ladder and hustling it toward the church.

"The bandits took everything," Inez said, lending a shoulder in the center of the ladder as they ran. "Then they took Ezra and Nathan...and set fire to the church on their way out of town."

Together, they propped the ladder against the far wall of the church and held it steady as Josiah began a rapid descent.

"Chris," the preacher gasped as his boots hit the ground. "Ezra...Nathan..."

"I know," Larabee cut him off and led the way around the church, where the bucket brigade had finally gotten the better of the blaze. The side of the building was a scorched mess, but intact. Vin tossed a final bucket of water at the smoldering timbers, then gave up his place in line to join them.

"How you holding up, cowboy?" he asked, eyeing the dried blood that sheeted the side of Larabee's head.

Larabee shot a pointed look at Vin, who had dropped wearily to the church stairs, cradling his stomach. He turned to Josiah, who looked sooty and thoroughly pissed off, but otherwise unharmed.

"Could ask the two of you the same question," he said. "But since I already know the answer, let's try a new one. Can you ride?"

Josiah straightened; a dangerous glint in his eyes. Vin rose to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with him. Staring at them, Larabee felt his own aches and uncertainties fade. Hadn't he been wishing for an enemy he could ride down and shoot full of holes? He had one now. An enemy that had ransacked his town, hurt the people he was supposed to protect, and snatched away two of his men. This was a fight he could win.

He spun on his heel, black duster swirling. "Let's ride."

+ + + + + + +

Instead of heading straight for Mexico, as Nathan expected, the outlaws followed the western trail out of town.

Luke Gallagher pulled his horse beside Nathan's. "Where is it?"

"Go to hell," Nathan snapped, staring straight ahead. The wind had shifted, carrying the smell of smoke.

"Doc's wagon. Where is it?" Gallagher gestured to one of his men, who galloped forward, towing the lead line of Ezra's horse. Unlike Nathan, the gambler had twisted away to watch the smoke rising from Josiah's burning church.

Gallagher drew his pistol and took aim at the back of Ezra's head. Satisfied that he had the healer's full attention now, he continued the interrogation.

"My brother tells me you boys found the wagon broke down outside town. There's a few things we're gonna need to pick up before we make a run for the border," he said, his small eyes twinkling, cold and hard as marbles. "Are we on the right road?"

Nathan shot a desperate look at Ezra, who remained turned away, unaware or indifferent to the death threat. Truth was, the healer had no idea where the wagon might be. Josiah had mentioned something about finding it mired in a ditch with a broken axel, but he hadn't been paying much attention at the time.

Gallagher cocked the hammer, waiting.

"Now, wait just a minute..." Nathan began.

A shout from the lead rider interrupted, followed by gunshots. Gallagher spurred his mount forward, hauling Nathan's horse after him. Nathan hunched down, trying to make his 6-foot-3 frame less of a target.

"Doc!" Luke's mocking greeting rang out as they careened around a bend in the road. "Fancy meeting up with you again!"

And Nathan realized that somebody else was about to have an even worse day than him.

+ + + + + + +


Someone was singing. Ezra was aware of little else going on around him, but he knew that much. Someone was singing, soft and low; snatches of folk songs and sea shanties and ribald tavern songs. Singing to him.

He reached out, whimpering. His hand was caught in a gentle grip and Ezra felt himself being lifted and held, no...rocked. Back and forth, in time to the melody.

"Easy, son. I've got you," a voice rumbled. A cup was pressed to his lips, and he managed a few sips before a coughing fit took him and he doubled over, choking miserably as someone rubbed his back, trying to ease him through the spasms.

He knew that voice. "Hon'st John?"

"None other," the showman whispered, resting his chin on Ezra's sweat-soaked hair. "I've no other pressing engagements at this time, young Ezra. So we're going to sit tight in this lovely, snug cellar until you're feeling more like yourself."

Ezra's eyes fluttered open. His head was pounding. His joints and fever-knotted muscles ached with every movement, and he'd spent the night vomiting up what little food and water the medicine show man had managed to spoon into him.
There was just enough light in the dim cellar to show that the whites of his eyes were taking on the jaundiced cast of a yellow fever victim.

"I don't feel very well," he whispered.

"Hush now. You feel fine," Honest John said, his voice loud and falsely jovial, like a particularly unconvincing sales pitch. "You'll be just fine." He felt fingers carding through his hair as the big man began humming again, then singing, picking up the verse he'd dropped when Ezra began to stir.

It was an old, sad song, about boys marching off to war, never to return. Ezra pressed his head against Honest John's big barrel chest and let the song wash over him. It was nice, he decided. He hadn't had many lullabies in his life.

Ezra let himself drift.

The next time he woke, it was to heat and confusion and pain the like of which he had never known.

He felt Honest John gripping him by the shoulders as he retched helplessly, coughing up blood.

The medicine show man caught up the sobbing child, rocking him, feeling the increasingly erratic heartbeat against his own chest. "That's that, then, young Ezra. Time for me to do what I should have done from the first."

Barely conscious, Ezra felt himself being carried as Honest John moved around their refuge collecting their meager belongings. He flinched as the big man shoved open the root cellar's trap door and clambered out into the bright sunlight.

"It's real medicine you need, son," Honest John whispered, wrapping the boy tight against the chill fall air and striking off across the harvest field, toward the church steeple rising above the town they'd just fled.

"N-n-no," Ezra moaned, remembering the cries of the angry mob that had haunted his fever dreams. "Go back! I'm fine, I'm not sick. I'm fine! I'll be good..."

Honest John shushed him, crooning softly as they approached the town and the tidy whitewashed building with the doctor's shingle hanging out front. Ezra heard the creak as the showman opened the white picket fence, and the angry shout of recognition from the doctor. He remembered the doctor, an earnest young man who had tried, with no luck, to talk the villagers out of spending their hard-earned coins on Anodyne Cordial.

He could hear John talking fast, his voice pitched low and earnest, with a note in it that Ezra had never heard before. Ezra tried to pay attention, but the words swept over him in a confusing swirl. He stiffened in alarm as hands reached out to take him away from Honest John, just as other angry shouts rang out in the distance.

"You're a good boy, Ezra," Honest John whispered, touching his forehead to the boy's in farewell. "Don't you forget that."

With a massive effort, Ezra opened his eyes to meet John's steady gaze. The showman gave him a gentle smile. "Time for a taste of my own medicine, I think."

With that, he turned, arms thrown wide to greet the mob. The doctor took a hasty step back into his office, shielding the boy from angry eyes.

"Ladies and gentlemen!" The showman shouted over the crowd noise. "Never let it be said that Honest John walked away from an unhappy customer! I'm sure that together we can come to a mutually beneficial arrangement, or at the very least, a refund if my patented cordial has failed, against all odds, to give one-hundred percent satisfact--"

Rough hands caught the showman and yanked him off the porch. Ezra whimpered, reaching for him.

The doctor kicked his door shut on the angry faces and leaned against it, still holding his patient. Ezra could feel the wood shake as fists pounded, demanding entry. He buried his face in the cheap, scratchy fabric of the doctor's suit and cried for Honest John until everything went black.


+ + + + + + +

Three peacekeepers stood at a bend in the road and stared at the plundered medicine show wagon -- and the bloodstain slowly soaking into the trampled ground.

Vin pinched the bridge of his nose between thumb and forefinger, willing his eyes to focus and his stomach to settle. The signs were hard enough to read on the hard-packed earth of the road without these small betrayals by his own body.

Larabee passed him a canteen without comment and moved in for a closer look at the wagon, giving the bloodstain a wide berth. He ran a finger across the smashed crates and overturned bins that littered the ground.

Josiah stooped to retrieve a bundle of dried herbs that had been tossed aside. Rosemary, he decided, after an experimental sniff. Lord knew what the medicine show man used it for. He moved to peer inside the wagon. "Must have been something mighty important in this old cart for them to risk coming here instead of riding straight to Mexico," he observed.
"Whatever it was, looks like they found it," Vin said suddenly. The other two men took a step closer, straining to hear his hoarse voice. He was studying a pile of rubble and weeds at the base of a nearby rock face. Drawing closer, they realized the rocks had been pushed back to reveal a low, dark crevasse. The ground in front of it was scored and scraped, as if something heavy inside had been dragged out into the light.
The drag marks led back to the road. "A crate, maybe?" Larabee hazarded a guess. He thought again of the showman's wagon and kicked himself for not inspecting it while it was still in town. If the bandits had wanted to hide four towns' worth of stolen profits in plain sight, the wagon was the perfect place to do it.
"Crates," Vin corrected, straightening with some effort and retracing his steps back to the wagon, scanning the ground. "More'n one. And the bandits weren't the only ones after 'em."
The others followed as he backtracked to a spot where the hard-packed trail gave way to weeds and sandy soil. Footprints led away into the brush-covered hillside. Child-sized footprints -- the space between them telling the story of a frantic sprint for safety.

"Pfeffer and his boy came back for the wagon," Larabee sighed, running a hand through his hair and wincing as he brushed against the throbbing lump near his temple. He cocked an eyebrow at Vin. "Think it's Pfeffer's blood back there?"

"Better be," Vin said shortly. It would save him the trouble of shooting the showman himself.

He let himself sink down on his haunches, facing back toward the wagon and the bloodied ground. Larabee and Josiah moved a few steps up the hill, searching for some sign of the boy.

"Kid!" Larabee winced at the anger and impatience he could hear in his own voice. He took a deep breath, reminding himself that it was a little boy out there, one who'd probably just gotten the scare of his life. "It's okay, kid. Come on out."

Josiah followed the trail of small footprints until they vanished in the rocky ground up the hill. "We're not angry at you, son. We're just trying to track down the men who are holding our friends and your pa. We're on your side."

They waited, listening to the wind rustling through the branches of stunted scrub trees. Larabee swore silently to himself. They were wasting time, but he hated the idea of leaving a boy to fend for himself in the wilderness. Even if the boy was a crook.

"KID!" he yelled. "KI--" He caught himself as a tousled thatch of blond hair popped up from behind a boulder. All three lawmen let out a sigh of relief as Pfeffer's undersized apprentice made his wary way down the hill toward them, stopping just out of grabbing distance.

Larabee held out his spare canteen to the boy, who studied it warily. Understanding, he uncorked the container, took a drink, then offered again. The boy hesitated another moment, then darted forward to snatch the canteen and retreat with it to the same cautious distance.

Larabee hunkered down to eye level. "Can you tell us what happened? Did you see which direction they went?"

The boy upended the canteen and drained it in a series of thirsty gulps. Slowly, he lowered the container and wiped his mouth, staring at the lawmen with a calculating light in his eyes. With a pang, Larabee was reminded of his first meeting with Ezra Standish, and the wary, yet oddly hopeful way the man had looked at him when he offered him a job.

"C'mon kid," Vin sighed, exhaustion weighing down every word. "Can you tell us which way they went, or not?"

The boy seemed to come to a decision. He raised his chin and took a step closer to the lawmen, trying to recapture some of his old showbiz confidence.

"I can do better than that," he said. " I can take you to them."

+ + + + + + +

This was completely unfair. Arriving in Four Corners was supposed to mean that the worst was over.

Buck dragged his attention away from the disaster area that was the downtown and tried to sort through the babble of voices that were trying to fill him in everything that had befallen his town.

JD had wandered away, dazed, into the wreckage of his jail. The walls were still standing. That was something, Buck supposed. The sheriff toed the charcoal briquette that used to be his desk, staring at the ashy ghosts of wanted posters that had been flash-burned into the walls.

Buck raised his hand, cutting off Mary's rapid-fire report. "How long ago did Chris 'n' them ride out?"

Mary let her hands fall helplessly. "At least two hours. We've been trying to set things to rights, but with so many people so ill--"

"And whose fault is that?" Conklin croaked, stepping out of the shattered entrance to his shop. The door dangled from a single hinge, his prized plate glass window was smashed, and his display shelves had been knocked over. A clear square in the dust of his countertop marked the spot where the cash register should have rested.

"Your friends didn't fire a single shot in defense of this town!" Conklin skittered toward Buck, nightshirt flapping around his knobby knees. The shopkeeper looked like a strong breeze would knock him over, but he'd recovered at least some of his usual bluster. "What kind of peacekeepers are you? What are we paying you for if you can't even stop one band of hooligans?"

Mary bristled. "You think Nathan and Mr. Larabee should have staged an armed showdown in the middle of the clinic?" Conklin huffed and looked away.

Buck caught Mary by the sleeve. "Any idea which way the gang was heading with Nate 'n' Ez?"

"And my money!" Conklin cut in.

"They mentioned Mexico," Mary said, ignoring the shopkeeper.

Mexico. Right. Well, what was a few more hours in the saddle, more or less? All he had to do was catch up to Larabee and the others, rescue Ezra and Nathan, and retrieve Conklin's cash register.  Then  the worst would be over. Then he could crawl into the closest bed and sleep for a month.

He squeezed Mary's arm in thanks and turned, staggering slightly. He needed a fresh horse, fresh supplies... His knees buckled, and the world whited out.

The next thing he knew, he was sitting on the boardwalk steps and Mary was patting his cheeks, trying to bring him around. He jerked his head away, sputtering. Someone passed him a cup of water -- clean water, a quick glance at Mary reassured him. Townsfolk had left off their repair efforts and were bustling about, gathering supplies and fresh ammunition for the lawmen.

Buck tilted his head back against a post and took a few deep breaths to steady himself. Lord, he felt sick. The boardwalk steps seemed to pitch and yaw beneath him like the deck of the old fisherman's trawler. He opened his eyes again, just to reassure himself that he was still on dry land.

There was a soft noise behind him and he turned to see the Potter boy, tear tracks drying on his grubby face, solemnly sweeping up the glass and debris from the front stoop of his family's store. The youngster's expression was intent as he ignored the general chaos around him and focused all his attention on fixing the one small part of his world that was still under his control.

The boy had the right idea. Buck closed his eyes for a moment, then held out a hand, blindly asking someone for a hand up. Slender fingers with a surprisingly strong grip caught his wrist and hauled him upright. He opened his eyes to find Mary peering up at him, steadying him with an iron grip on his arm.

Together, they started toward the livery, where Yosemite was leading out a pair of fresh horses, hitched to a wagon loaded with supplies. He ran through the information Mary had already given him. Vin and Ezra had been sick since the morning he and JD rode out of town...he winced, imagining how his friends were feeling right about now.

His gaze fell on Josiah's scorched church. "The bandits...they hurt anybody else?"

Mary's grip tightened on his arm. "Chris -- Mr. Larabee. They pistol-whipped him before they rode out."

Buck shook his head at the idiocy of outlaws. He wouldn't trade places with that gang for all the tea in China, once Larabee caught up to them.

"Hope ole Chris leaves a few for me 'n' JD," he murmured, waving to the young sheriff to get his butt out of the bombed-out jail and over to the stable.

"You can't leave!" Conklin popped up beside Buck like a demented jack-in-the-box. "We need you here to protect the town. What if those ruffians come back?"

"Why would they come back?" Mary snapped, waving an arm at the wreckage around them. "There's nothing left to steal!"

"Ain't gonna be much of a town worth protecting if we don't get your money and goods back," Buck reasoned, swinging up onto the wagon. And considering that Josiah was the only healthy, uninjured person in the rescue party, the others were going to need all the help they could get.

He shot a look at JD as the kid dragged himself up onto the seat beside him. "You don't feel up to this, kid, tell me now."

JD shot him a fierce glare. "They blew up my jail." Enough said.

The two ailing lawmen nodded their thanks to the townsfolk and headed out of town. Buck scanned the ground ahead, searching for the tell-tale tracks that would lead him to the others. JD guided the team in silence, brooding.

Buck read the sheriff's dark mood.
"Hey, JD," he croaked.


"Man walks into a bar with a duck under his arm..."

+ + + + + + +

Nathan glared in disgust at the kettle he was stirring, wrinkling his nose at the pungent scent of wintergreen and warm alcohol. At his shoulder, Ollie Gallagher hovered, following Nathan's every gesture, every ingredient he pinched into the pot, as if Nathan were a carnival magician pulling doves out of his sleeves.

Nathan set the spoon down and turned to rummage through one of the crates the outlaws had liberated from the medicine man's wagon.

The gang had slipped across the Mexican border with the same absurd ease with which they had looted Four Corners. Their laden wagons and pack mules had trundled brazenly along the stagecoach trails, through Purgatory and into a box canyon miles from anywhere, where the gang went to ground for the night.

A festive mood had settled over the camp. Nathan grimaced at the sight of the bandits squabbling good-naturedly over bits and pieces of his town. He recognized furniture from his neighbors' homes, goods from their stores, money from their bank, being tossed around the campfires like so much confetti. No posse from the north would trespass into Mexico, the outlaws were sure, and no Mexican  federales  would be looking for them yet.

Only the Gallagher brothers, now sitting side by side on a fallen log, still watched the hostages: Luke with a calculating air that raised the hairs on the nape of Nathan's neck, Ollie with twitchy anxiety.

"That's gonna need to cook for at least an hour," Nathan lied. A quarter of an hour would have done it. "Then it's got to cool some before I can add the rest of the ingredients. Meantime, I'm gonna tend to Ezra. You gonna try to stop me?"

Luke's eyes narrowed. Slowly, deliberately, he cocked the hammer of the shotgun he'd kept leveled at the healer since the moment he untied him and allowed him to move around the campsite. Nathan stood his ground, waiting. Finally, Gallagher made a little shooing gesture with the gun barrel.

Nathan stepped neatly around him and crunched across the rocky canyon floor toward the rest of the outlaw revelers, and Ezra, bound to the trunk of a scraggly tree just outside the campfire's circle of light and warmth.

He studied the prisoner's slumped form with concern. The poisons in the water seemed to have worked their way out of the gambler's system, but the fever had sunk its claws deep. Spending a night in the cold, tied upright against a tree, wouldn't do Ezra any favors. The outlaws had scoffed at his request for blankets.

"How you doing, Ezra?" he asked, uncorking the canteen he'd liberated from the outlaws' supplies.

If Ezra heard the question, he ignored it. Exasperated, Nathan followed the gambler's gaze to the last person in the world he wanted to waste time thinking about.

A crate had been positioned next to the tree. Atop the crate was a pair of expensive-looking boots, now scuffed and coated with dust. Nathan continued his survey, up the boots to a bloody bandage tied around a spindly leg, a familiar funeral-black morning coat, and finally a head full of spiky blond hair, grinning down at him as if the man balanced on the box didn't have a care in the world -- or a noose looped around his neck and slung over an overhanging tree branch.

"Beautiful evening, isn't it, gentlemen?" Doctor Pfeffer said.
+ + + + + + +
True to his word, the boy led them straight to the outlaws' hideout.
The three lawmen crouched on the canyon rim and followed the youngster's pointing finger to the campfires scattered below.
Josiah squinted at the dark silhouettes moving back and forth around the fires, hoping to spot Nathan or Ezra. But the canyon floor looked like the bottom of an inkwell from this height. The fires cast long, strange shadows that made the figures hunched around them looked more like cathedral gargoyles than men: hunched and bestial, twisted and cruel.
A soft rustle beside him told him Vin was on the move, ghosting silently along the overlook, scouting for the safest way down. The boy was hunkered down beside Larabee, with the gunman's black duster wrapped around his bony shoulders. Larabee himself was staring fixedly into the canyon, squinting against a lingering headache.
Counting the shadows below, calculating the odds, Josiah felt his own temples start to throb. With a sigh, he sat back to wait for Vin to return, frowning as something dug into his hip. He felt around until he located the object in his coat pocket.
His fingers closed around smooth glass.
With a silent, mirthless chuckle, he withdrew the bottle of Doctor Pfeffer's Swamp Oil he'd confiscated from Ollie Gallagher. He ran a contemplative finger down the green glass and uncorked the stopper, releasing a waft of mint and alcohol. Some miracle cure.
Josiah stoppered the bottle again, wishing he could hurl it down on the outlaws like a thunderbolt. Maybe he'd get lucky and hit Pfeffer.
A thought struck him, and he gave the bottle a closer look.
+ + + + + + +
Halfway down the canyon, Vin went to ground beneath a sandstone overhang. He was close enough now to make out details in the outlaw camp below -- crates and piles of stolen goods, firelight glinting off gun barrels, a few faces. Still no sign of Ez and Nate.
The rock ledge beneath him still radiated the heat it had soaked up during the day. Vin rested a moment, letting the warmth ease his aching muscles. Suddenly, the scene before him blurred and doubled. He closed his eyes, feeling sweat break out on his forehead as a wave of cold nausea swept over him.
Damn it,  damn it.  He rested his forehead against the warm sandstone, breathing in shallow gasps until the pain faded and his stomach settled. Gingerly, he rolled up onto his elbows and squinted back the way he'd come. There was just enough moonlight for him to make out the silhouettes of the other two, waiting. Waiting for him to come up with some way for three men to surround and overwhelm a hostile force of almost twenty.
Well, it wouldn't be happening from this outcropping, Vin decided. The angle was terrible and there wasn't enough cover--
He froze. There, on the far edge of the camp, was Nathan, peering into a big wrought iron kettle, looking mad enough to chew nails and spit out corkscrews. Vin held his breath and watched as the healer dropped the spoon he'd been stirring, snapped at someone sitting in the shadows and wheeled away. Gun barrels around the camp caught the light as they shifted to track the healer as he marched by.
Worry and discomfort forgotten, Vin un-holstered his mare's leg. When Nathan came to a halt, he started to move.
+ + + + + + +
Doctor Pfeffer beamed down at his fellow hostages, radiating an air of good cheer that made Nathan want to shoot the man's other leg out from under him.
“Yes indeed, a marvelous evening,” he said again, tilting his head in a futile effort to ease the pressure of the noose around his neck.
Nathan turned his shoulder on the medicine show man and tried again to get Ezra to drink. But Ezra ignored him, staring up at Pfeffer with a dazed smile.
“Marvelous,” he parroted. The gambler's unfocused gaze drifted past Nathan and fixed on the carousing outlaws.
“A profitable evening, as well,” Pfeffer continued, pitching his voice to carry. “For some.”
Nathan cocked an eyebrow, wondering if the miracle man had some sort of death wish. When a man was standing with his neck in a noose, the last thing he should want was the hangman's undivided attention.
Pfeffer had to be uncomfortable. Worried. In pain. But not a hint of it showed on his smiling scarecrow face. He threw a wink at the fuming healer and kept right on talking. “It surely is good to see men who can enjoy the good things that come their way in life, instead of fretting about the wealth that may have slipped through their fingers.”
A hush fell over the camp. Luke and Ollie Gallagher abandoned their vigil by the cauldron of miracle cure and stalked closer. The other bandits looked up from their plunder, picking up on their leaders' sudden alarm, even if they weren't quite sure of the cause.
Luke Gallagher's narrowed gaze fell on a pile of crates heaped carelessly around the gallows tree. He stared for a long moment at the crate under Doctor Pfeffer's toes, then caught up a pry bar and moved to the closest crate.
“You didn't...” he muttered to himself as he wedged the bar under the lid and threw his weight against it.
The lid came off with a horrific screech, as nails bent and wood splintered to reveal...row upon row of dollar bills, stacked neatly side by side, bound in wrappers from three different banks.
Gallagher let out a shaky chuckle and snatched up a bundle of bills, the relief on his face already shifting to irritation, chased closely by homicidal rage.
“You miserable mealy-mouthed bastard, you really had me going for a second--” The thief's voice trailed off as he riffled the bills with one thumb.
Below a single ten-dollar note was nothing but a stack of colored paper. Medicine show fliers, cut to size. Gallagher hurled the phony bills at the precariously balanced showman. The papers hit Pfeffer's chest and burst their wrapper, showering down on Nathan and Ezra like so much confetti.
“Where is it?” Gallagher howled, whirling and aiming a vicious kick at the box under Pfeffer's feet. One side of the crate collapsed inward. The medicine show man teetered at an unsteady angle as cut paper fluttered free between the splintered crate slats.
“The bank money! Our stash! What'd you do with it?” Gallagher punctuated each question with a kick that sent Pfeffer sliding farther down his broken crate, tightening the noose just a bit more around his neck.
Nathan ducked his head and threw his weight against Ezra, who was struggling like a madman, fighting the ropes and Nathan, trying to throw himself at Gallagher.  Stay out of it, he's not worth it,  he thought but didn't say, afraid of attracting the angry outlaw's attention.
Ezra's arms were pinned, but his legs were free and he lashed out with the left, landing a solid blow on Gallagher's ankle just as the thief was winding up for another kick at the crate.
“Son of a--!” Gallagher hopped away, cursing. He rounded on the lawmen, pawing for his sidearm. Before he could clear leather, a gunshot split the air, sending him and every other outlaw in the canyon diving for cover.
Things started happening rather quickly after that.
+ + + + + + +
Vin threw himself flat as the spooked outlaws began firing in all directions. He clutched the sawed-off rifle to his chest and swore as bullets pinged off the cliff walls all around him.
He scrabbled down the cliff face, hunting for cover. The shot that roused the camp had caught him on an exposed ledge, practically on top of the gunmen. Only the darkness and the bandits' lousy aim protected him.
Below, he saw Nathan tugging frantically at the ropes that bound Ezra to the tree. So far, the hostages seemed to have been forgotten as the camp swarmed like an angry anthill. But that wouldn't last, Vin knew.
And he couldn't even offer them cover fire. The muzzle flash would give away his position and bring every gun in camp down on him. What the hell had Larabee been thinking?
A stray shot ricocheted off the cliff directly in front of him, sending knife-sharp rock chips flying. Vin flinched as the shards sliced his forehead and cheek. Half-blinded by blood and rock dust, he crab-crawled backward...and felt his hand come down on empty air.
He barely had time for a gasp of dismay before he was in freefall, plunging down, down to the enemy camp.
+ + + + + + +
The first gunshot brought Larabee and Josiah spinning around in alarm, their strategy session forgotten. They stared down at the campsite, now alight with muzzle flashes as the outlaws fired wildly in all directions.
“What the hell do you think you're doing, Tanner?” Larabee muttered, searching for any sign of Vin or the hostages in the camp that was now swarming like an angry anthill. His fingers itched toward his holster, but he held off. In the dark, from this height, he couldn't even offer cover fire for fear of hitting his own men.
“We don't know Vin fired the first shot,” Josiah pointed out as Larabee scrambled along the canyon rim, searching for the path Vin had followed down. “And if he did, he had good reason.”
Both of them knew that. And neither of them wanted to think too hard about what it would have taken for Vin to open fire on the camp while his backup was still hopelessly out of position. Either he'd been spotted, or he'd spotted something going on in the camp that made him jump the gun.
Larabee shoved speculation aside and headed for the trail Vin had followed down the canyon. Josiah grabbed his shoulder, pulling him up short.
“The boy,” the preacher hissed, his eyes glittering panic-bright in the moonlight. “Where's the boy?”
The spot on the cliff where they'd left Pfeffer's apprentice was empty. Come to think of it, Larabee couldn't rightly remember seeing the boy since their arrival at the overlook. Josiah backtracked, calling for the boy in a whisper, until he found a familiar black duster abandoned in a heap on the cliff.
Larabee paced. Below, spooked by the echo of their own gunshots on the canyon walls, the outlaws kept firing. He turned as Josiah turn sprinted back to him, alone. Half a dozen worst-case scenarios ran through his mind to explain the boy's disappearance -- everything from stray bullets to the possibility that the little crook had led them straight into an ambush.
He dropped his hands to his holster, and felt a cold wave of shock roll over him as he realized that the boy wasn't the only thing missing.
+ + + + + + +
Luke Gallagher rolled on the ground, clutching at his head and howling. That first bullet had ripped a sizable hunk off his left ear.

Nathan, who knew an opportunity when he saw one, uncurled from his protective crouch over Ezra and threw himself on the downed outlaw. Three quick punches, one swift kick, and Gallagher was a motionless heap in the dirt and Nathan was rolling away with his guns and, more importantly, his knife.

"Hang in there, Ezra," he said, wincing as bullets continued to ricochet wildly in all directions. Now he was glad that the bandits had been too cold-hearted to set up a campfire near the hostages. The two of them could slip away in the darkness, no one the wiser. Just as soon as he cut Ezra loose.

"Freeze, mister!"

Nathan froze, the knife hovering over the ropes.

A shadow, barely visible against distant campfires, materialized at his elbow. A small shadow, to match the small, piping voice that had barked the warning. Moonlight glinted on the barrel of a Colt peacemaker.

Doctor Pfeffer's apprentice pointed the gun square at Nathan's chest. "Cut him down," the boy said, jerking his chin toward the showman, who still teetered precariously on the broken crate. As Nathan watched, the crate let out a creak and sagged lower. There was enough light from the full moon and the campfires to show Pfeffer's face darkening to purple as the noose notched around his windpipe.

Gunshots still echoed crazily around them, although from the sound of the outlaw's puzzled yells, it wouldn't be long before they figured out that they were in a one-sided battle with the canyon walls. Nathan knew that if he and Ezra were going to escape, it would have to be soon.

He glanced down at the knife in his hand, then at the panicky boy. "Ezra first, then your pa."

The boy stamped his foot in frustration. "I have a gun!"

Nathan scowled and waggled the blade at the boy. "Yeah? Well I've got the knife. And I'm the only one of us tall enough to cut the noose, so you just point that gun someplace else for a minute while I help my friend."

Three quick cuts were all it took. Ezra crumpled forward and Nathan caught him, cursing softly as felt the heat of a fever spiking dangerously high. Ezra was shaking, but his hands were steady as they curled around the pistol Nathan slipped him. With regret, he pressed Ezra back against the tree trunk, back into the position he'd been bound to for so long. But he needed Ezra upright and aware, ready to move when the time came.

Nathan looked up as the pistol cocked again.

"Now my pa," the boy said.

+ + + + + + +

Vin's downhill tumble came to an abrupt and prickly halt in a thorn bush. Swearing under his breath, he rolled away from the bloodthirsty shrub. He checked to make sure the rifle had made it down in one piece. Satisfied, he turned to study the outlaw camp from his new vantage point.

He was, he realized, smack in the middle of the camp, perfectly concealed by the spreading branches of the damn prickerbush. Not one to let an opportunity pass, he rolled onto his belly and started firing.

Outlaws started dropping. One at a time, then more, as Josiah and Chris joined in from some unseen spot higher up the canyon. There was full-blown panic in the outlaw camp now. The sound of gunshots was began to mix with empty clicks as the bandits started to run out of bullets.

 You shot a lot of holes in the clouds back there,"  Larabee's long-ago words echoed in his mind.  "Anybody stop to reload?"  He grinned, swiping a shaky hand across his forehead again as he paused to do just that. It was damn hot in the canyon all of a sudden. He was more than ready to collect Ezra and Nathan and head on home.

A few of the bandits threw down their useless weapons and fled. Some made the grave error of trying to drag the stolen goods with them. Vin fired a few warning shots. Most dropped the loot and ran. The rest dropped screaming as Vin adjusted his aim.

A soft whistle from above was his only warning as someone came slithering down the bank to land almost on top of him. He and Larabee untangled themselves from each other and the thorn bush in a flurry of elbows and curses.

"Down," Larabee barked, shoving Vin face-first into the ground and opening fire on the outlaws who'd been drawn to the commotion. He hauled the sputtering tracker upright again, patting his back apologetically as Vin wheezed and spat sand.

Vin glared, but Larabee had already turned away to deal with a stubborn group of hold-outs who'd taken shelter behind a pile of boulders. Vin left him to it and sagged back against the rock wall, closing his eyes as the canyon began spinning counterclockwise around him. There were only sporadic shots now. He could hear Josiah's rifle blasting overhead at the remaining outlaws. Vin guessed there couldn't be more than six or seven still standing. Easy odds, usually. Not so easy now, all of a sudden.

Dimly, he heard Larabee swear, and felt arms reach out to catch him as he slid sideways into darkness.

+ + + + + + +

Shaking his head in disgust, Nathan hefted the knife and moved cautiously into the open. Pfeffer was still balancing on his shaky perch, trying to crease his swollen face into a reassuring smile for the boy.

"You best get used to the feel of a noose around your neck," Nathan muttered in passing, too softly for the boy to hear. Sooner or later, the poisoner would answer for the three deaths he'd caused back in Four Corners.

He circled the half-hanged man carefully, trying to figure out how best to cut him down. After a moment's thought, he grabbed one of the nearby crates and kicked it into position, then climbed on top, feeling incredibly exposed as bullets continued to fly in all directions around them.

He reached for the rope, apologizing reflexively when Pfeffer hissed in protest at the added tension on the noose.

Nathan tightened his grip and started sawing at the thick hemp, cursing Gallagher for keeping a dull blade. He caught a blur of motion out of the corner of his eye, then heard the boy's startled cry. He whipped around to find himself once again staring down the barrel of a gun.

"Well now, this is interesting," Luke Gallagher grinned up at him, with a dazed Ezra at his feet. The boy sprawled on the ground nearby, whimpering.

As Nathan watched, Gallagher shifted the pistol to point at Ezra's temple. It was Gallagher's own gun. Nathan's heart sank as he recognized the very gun he'd just given Ezra.

"What you gonna do, boy? You gonna save that piece of crap con man? Or you gonna drop that knife and hope I don't blow your friend here to kingdom come?" Gallagher cocked the pistol for emphasis. Nathan was getting godawful tired of that sound.

He straightened slowly, lifting the knife away from the noose, but not quite ready to drop it.

Beside him, Pfeffer was breathing in rapid, panicked gasps. Nathan couldn't bring himself to look at the man. The crate creaked again, wood and nails stressed to the breaking point. Under his fingers, the rope thrummed from the subtle increase in tension and he felt a few more strands snap and break around the deep cut he'd already made.

"Save him."

At first, Nathan thought the soft plea came from the boy. It came again and Nathan gave Ezra an incredulous stare, wishing to hell he knew what had been eating the man since the medicine show first rolled into town.

"Please," Ezra's whisper barely reached him. He ignored the gun barrel that was digging into his temple, but Nathan never took his eyes off it. "Please. Don't let him hang."

Nathan shook his head helplessly. "He ain't worth it, Ezra." He lowered the knife.

"Nooo!" It was the boy this time, screaming with rage as he threw himself toward the gun that had been knocked flying when Gallagher backhanded him. He rolled to his feet, tears streaming down his face as he leveled the gun at Nathan. "You cut him down! Don't you let him die!"

Gallagher eyed the hysterical child, then grinned at Nathan, waiting. It was almost worth the time they were wasting to see whose hide this darkie doctor would decide to save.

Nathan looked at Ezra, then the boy.

"I'm sorry," he whispered, to both of them and held out the knife in surrender, watching the smile that spread across Gallagher's face like an oil slick.

Then, with a motion almost too quick to follow, he flipped the knife into throwing position and sent it whipping across the clearing to bury itself in Luke Gallagher's throat.

Gallagher stiffened, dropping the gun as his hands went up to clutch his neck. Blood bubbled up through his lips as his mouth worked soundlessly. At his feet, Ezra raised one boot and gave the bandit's knee a helpful nudge. Gallagher teetered and crashed face-first into the dust.

There was an instant of silence. Even the gunfight seemed to pause. Then the crate under Pfeffer's feet gave way with a brittle crunch and the doctor dropped, his fall cut brutally short by the noose.

The boy screamed, his finger tightening reflexively on the trigger.

+ + + + + + +

Forgotten by everyone, Ollie Gallagher ducked behind the scant cover of the bubbling pot of miracle cure. The canyon floor was littered with the cowering or dead bodies of his brother's gang. The air crackled with warning shots from their unseen attackers. Somebody must have called in a whole army of  federales.  It was the only possible explanation.

Ollie knew when it was time to make an exit. Two saddle bags crammed with
takings from the Bank of Four Corners sat heaped beside him. He raised himself
onto his knees, dipped a ladle into the bubbling pot and spooned the syrupy brew
into the canteen he was holding in his other hand.

The stuff really did reek. He'd though the Southern fella was making it up when he mentioned turpentine, but sure enough, there was a big tin of the stuff in the doc's medicine wagon. The darkie healer had upended the whole jug into the mix, then added a whole lot of other stuff, like cactus spines and gunpowder and the head of a rattler they'd had to waste an hour hunting down for him. The stuff is called "snake oil" for a
reason, the healer had explained, without looking up from the pile of beetles he was grinding to a paste with a mortar and pestle from Pfeffer's wagon.

Canteen full at last, Ollie spared a look toward the tree where his brother was having another one of those armed standoffs he loved so much.

And then it all went to hell. He watched, slack-jawed as the Four Corners doc let fly with the knife and his brother crashed lifelessly to the ground.

This changed everything. Quick as a weasel, Ollie whirled and headed over to Luke's side of the campsite and the pile of goods his brother had cherry-picked for himself from each plundered town. The jewelry and money and finery were Ollie's now. He crammed Luke's take into his saddlebags until they could barely close, then scrounged up a few extra bags to fit the rest. Served Luke right for not staging a prison break for him back in Portage.

Ollie scooped up the canteen of miracle cure and the bags of loot and started toward the shadows where he knew the horses were picketed. An impossibly tall figure loomed out of the darkness, blocking his escape.

"Going somewhere?" a voice boomed. A match flared, illuminating the lantern-jawed face of the old peacekeeper from Four Corners. The one who was supposed to have burned up on the church roof. He was holding a small glass vial of miracle cure with a handkerchief threaded down its neck like a lantern wick.

The lawman gave Ollie a smile that froze his blood and touched the burning match to the fabric.

Ollie fumbled for his guns. The big man just watched, still smiling, as the wick burned closer and closer to the alcohol-and-turpentine brew inside the glass.

Triumphantly, Ollie wrestled a gun out of his holster and leveled it at the lawman. The bottle of Dr. Pfeffer's miracle cure spiraled over his head, tracing a burning arc through the night air, straight toward the cauldron Ollie had just been stirring.

He had time for one high-pitched shriek before the explosion.

+ + + + + + +

The bullet caught Nathan as he was lunging to catch Pfeffer. Ignoring the pain, he wrapped his arms around the showman's legs and hoisted him up. He heard an agonized gasp as the pressure of the noose relaxed just enough to let the man draw breath. For all his talk, Nathan knew exactly how the drop from a noose felt. When Pfeffer dropped, the healer's instinct overrode the lawman's sense of justice.

"Nathan!" Ezra was at his side, fumbling at the ragged, bleeding hole in his arm.

"It ain't bad," Nathan hissed, feeling Pfeffer's weight slipping through his weakened grip. "Cut the rope! Don't know how much longer I can hold him up."

Ezra didn't move. "You're hurt..." It was too dark for Nathan to get a good look at him, but he sounded clear-headed for the first time in hours.

"Yeah, but I'll feel a whole lot better once I don't have this flimflam man's bony knees digging into my belly. So would you mind gettin' my knife? Think I left it in that fella over there."

Ezra gave a small snort of laughter and stumbled over to the dead outlaw. He kicked the body onto its back, wrenched the knife free and returned to clamber unsteadily onto the crate Nathan had used.

The rope sliced in two so suddenly, all three of them tumbled to the ground. Pfeffer rolled to the side, coughing and gasping. He opened his arms and the boy flew at him with a happy little cry.

Nathan coughed and shoved Pffeffer's boots out of his face. Levering up on one elbow, he studied Ezra, who had landed half-across his midsection and was now blinking up at the night sky in confusion.

"Are you--" he started, only to be interrupted by the nearby eruption of a massive green fireball.

+ + + + + + +

"Well, that's something you don't see every day." Larabee's voice floated out of the dark. Nathan grinned as the lawman's familiar black-coated silhouette stepped into the glow of the burning miracle cure. He was lugging the sagging form of Vin Tanner by one arm he'd slung around his shoulders.

Larabee guided his charge closer to them and let Vin slither down to land in a heap next to Ezra.

"Oof," Vin muttered, mustering enough energy to turn his head and blink at the former hostages. "'Ey, Ez. 'Ey, Nate." His voice trailed off into a soft snore. Ezra, eyes closed, lifted a hand in a half-wave of greeting before dozing off himself.
Nathan cocked an eyebrow at the man snoring on his ribcage. Larabee reached down and shifted Ezra gently onto the ground next to Vin.

"You okay?" he asked, taking in Nathan's bloodstained arm. He pulled a bandanna out of his pocket and cinched it tightly around the wound.

"Just a graze, I think," Nathan said, peering around the clearing. He stopped, staring, as Josiah appeared, back-lit by the fading glow of the explosion, whistling softly to himself.

"Must've added a little too much turpentine to the mix," Nathan muttered.

Josiah let out a bark of laughter and crouched beside them to check on the downed men. Nathan eyed the preacher critically, wondering if his eyes were playing tricks of if there really was a bit of smoke curling out of Josiah's hair. Josiah winked at him and tossed aside several heavy saddlebags he'd been carrying. They hit the ground with a jingle that made Ezra blink awake, a dreamy smile on his face.

"Compliments of Ollie Gallagher," Josiah said, resting a hand on Ezra's forehead until the sick man settled again.

Larabee wrinkled his nose in the direction of the fireball. "Is  that  who's making that racket?" In the distance, they could make out the ungodly caterwauling of a man who'd just had a canteen full of miracle cure explode in his lap.

Nathan slumped back down, his arm throbbing under the tightly-bound handkerchief.

Mentally, he ticked off all the things that needed to be done before he could crawl into his bed and sleep for a week. There were Ezra and Vin to tend, and Larabee's head still hadn't been looked at. He ought to brew up some sort of salve for Josiah -- man's eyebrows looked like they'd been singed clean off. They'd have to collect and return all the stolen goods to Four Corners. They'd have to find the hidden stash of loot from th other towns the bandits had raided. And of course, there were prisoners to be rounded up and turned over to the Mexican authorities in Purgatorio. Something nagged at him.  Prisoners.

He sat up with a gasp, startling Larabee and Josiah, who had been quietly loading a wagon with supplies for the return trip.

Ignoring them, Nathan twisted back toward the hanging tree, squinting into the darkness.

A discarded noose lay in the dirt. Pfeffer and his boy were nowhere to be seen.

+ + + + + + +

"And that's how me and JD saved the day."

"You are so full of crap, Buck. All you did was pass out and fall out of the wagon."

"See, JD. That's your problem. You don't see the big picture. And the big picture is, if I hadn't picked that exact spot to fall out of the wagon, you wouldn'ta made camp. And if you hadn't made camp, you wouldn't have needed firewood, and if you weren't lookin' around for firewood, you never would have found the spot where that Pfeffer character hid the real stash of loot."

Buck leaned back against the pillows and beamed around the room with an air of satisfaction. Several skeptical sets of eyes studied him from the extra cots that had been crammed into Nathan's clinic.

"He's got a point, JD," Vin drawled, then let his face flop back onto the mattress. He felt better than he had in days, but that wasn't saying much. He eyed the bucket stationed on the floor nearby and wondered if he was going to need it.

"'Course," he continued, his voice muffled by the pillow, "didn't see either of you storming a canyon full of outlaws with just three guns."

Ezra's tired drawl sounded out from one cot over. "Didn't see you doing much storming yourself, my friend. As I heard the story told, your main contribution consisted of falling down a hill and landing in a thorn bush."

Vin raised his head again, displaying a face crisscrossed with scratches. "Oh, and I suppose spending the entire night tied to a tree was all part of your big escape plan? What were you gonna do next? Surround 'em and sneak away in the confusion?"

"I was dispensing the all-important recipe for swamp oil. And I'm fairly certain I kicked someone at some point," Ezra grumbled, looking around for backup. "Ask Nathan."

Nathan rolled his eyes. "Yeah, Ezra. You kicked 'em good. Now, one of you want
to tell me where Josiah hid my pants? I got patients to see." He plucked at the
blanket covering him.

JD shook his head. "Uh-uh. Josiah said you don't get pants until you've gotten
some sleep. And you were up all night trying to get Ezra's fever down."

"Good Lord, that was you? I thought I hallucinated those underdrawers."

"Shut up, Ezra. I got sick people to tend down at the grain exchange. Patients who ain't ingrates like some I could mention."

The clinic door burst open and a frazzled-looking Chris Larabee stomped inside, wearing a grubby apron. He winged a bedpan, mercifully empty, into a corner and collapsed onto one of the two vacant cots along the far wall.

"Conklin can change his own damn sheets from here on out," he gritted out, stretching his aching back. His hair stuck out in wild spikes around a bloodstained bandage.

Nathan pushed himself off the mattress one-armed and craned his head toward the window. "How are things in the infirmary? Do they need me to--?"

He started to stand, but stopped as several voices rang out at once. "No!"

"Pants, Nathan! Geez!" JD yelped, covering his eyes.

Larabee waved him back under the covers. "Almost everyone's headed back to their own homes to rest up. Mary organized nursing shifts for the few still laid up in the grain
exchange. There are work crews fixing up the bank and the jail. Yosemite's
digging a new well. And Josiah--" He paused, cocking an ear. The sound of
hammering rang clearly through the quiet afternoon. "He's got the church
repairs covered."

Silence fell over the sickroom. It was broken by a loud chortle from Buck.

"Which brings us back to what I was saying before, about how Ol' Buck saved the day."

"Hey! What happened to 'Buck and JD saved the day'?"

"Well maybe next time you want to tell folks I'm full of something, you'll tell 'em I'm full of charm, or full of handsome, or full of--"

Several voices rose in chorus to suggest other things Buck might be full of. The noisy argument carried out the window, mixing with the ring of hammers and the rasp of saws over the slowly healing town of Four Corners.

+ + + + + + +

Two hundred miles away, a boy carefully arranged bottles of thick brown syrup on the small folding table he'd set up on the street corner.

"Step right up, step right up, ladies and gentlemen. Prepare to be amazed!" A few steps away, a showman with straw-yellow hair and the slightest trace of a limp turned in a circle, drawing every eye on the street to the bottle he held in his hand.

"Behold the Red Indian Herbs of Longevity!" the showman crowed. "Health and vigor in a glass. Sure to cure what ails you, sure as my name's Professor Tanner."

The End