Another day went to cleaning for Inez Recillos. The next day Sam helped an old man paint his back porch, which earned, as a garnish to the wages, a fat slice of warm apple pie from the missus. The fourth day found the youth picking up wheelbarrows full of rubbish and stray nails, left over from re-roofing the hardware store. Today's delight was digging a damnably deep hole for a new privy, behind the blacksmith's shop. The coins weighing in Sam's pocket's seemed scarcely worth a wearily aching back, cramped shoulders, and hands almost too fatigued to make a fist. Somehow brute labor had never figured as the sole and ruling factor in a new start out West. Yet any other choices were . . . unthinkable. Deep shadows of sunset filled the manmade canyons of town, by the time Sam let the pick and shovel drop.
"Here ya go, son," the burly blacksmith said, as he jingled coins from his pocket. "And a little something extra, just for the effort. Best you get those hands cleaned up, as blisters can fester something fierce."
"Yes, sir." Sam whispered, closing rag-wrapped fingers stiffly around the day's wages. "Thank ye."
Legs of wood, and back and shoulders of hammered meat, that's what Sam's body felt like. The desert might be dirt and sand, but its foundation was pure bedrock. At least half of it must now lay in that pile where the blacksmith's outhouse would go.
Dust puffed from beneath Sam's steps, dry as talc and tasting almost of salt. Once there had been a verdant world of secret trails, shadowed pathways that dipped and wound through deep grottos of green, through pink clouds of rhododendrons, and the soft, white ghostliness of dogwood blooms. Once silvery streams had tumbled joyously amidst fractured grey stone and green ferns, and the spicy-sweet musk of fallen leaves rose like perfume underfoot. You are so far from home, Sam . . . Then the thought caught and tripped itself on a bitter snort. Home? When, last, had "home" been a word of any meaning at all?
Rest cried out above food or any other consideration, and Sam kept off the main street. Just get to the stable, and maybe wakefulness would last long enough for some bread and cheese and an apple. The scuff of a footstep from behind jolted the youth to awareness, who spun to see a man's lurching shape - but too late.
A black blur of motion exploded against Sam's skull, and white stars burst as the ground sledged up against the youngster. Weight like a falling sofa struck, smothering, crushing. Blows thudded with stunning impact to head and body. Even worse than anything Sam had known, slamming again and again. No breath to scream, and my God, the awful strength of the man - and then peace. The weight remained, a bony knee mashing Sam's struggling chest. Harsh breathing expelled a ghastly miasma of liquor, onion and bad teeth. Rough hands jerked at Sam's clothing and panic clawed with razored red talons. No-no-no-no -! Yet the scream was only in Sam's mind. All voice or sound were choked mute behind the blind will to simply endure - to live.
The man's breathing became a ragged whisper; "C'mon, it's somewhere - know you got it on ya - little bastard - Ah!"
The hands yanked at Sam's trousers, and the muffled jangle of coins mingled with the stranger's drunken laugh. A robbery? Relief rushed in, wilting relief, but understanding crashed in upon that. No! Not everything -. Abruptly the weight was gone, the stench was gone, Sam's money was gone, and scrabbling footsteps turned to flight.
Sam forced shuddering muscles to push a battered body up. God. No strength, every limb now heavy and weak as a soaked blanket. Hurt. Everywhere. And syrupy wetness dribbled down Sam's face. In horrified fascination, the youth watched the thick drops fall. Pat-pat-pat-pat. A puddle of black blood formed in the dirt between braced hands, the size of a two-bit piece, the size of a dollar, now the size of a small hoe cake. That feeble whimper could not be Sam's own voice.
Get up! Sam's body creaked to obey the silently roaring summons. Get up, you sissy child, get up! Leaning on wall, pulling up on rain barrel, legs rubbering around until somehow, the world returned to its upright position.
Left, right, left, right. Hayfoot, strawfoot. Sam fumbled with remembrance of one of Papa's soldier stories. Green troops too stupid to know left from right, but those country boys knew hay from straw. Oh, Papa. Oh, Papa. Open space demanded a halt, and Sam looked up to see the main street. All shrouded now in deep indigo shadows, but for yellow pools of lamplight. Somewhere voices laughed jarringly and men talked cheerfully, safe beyond those warmly glowing rectangles of light. Safe where Sam wished to be, wished for someone, anyone to come. Just one voice to ask, "Are you all right?" and someone to grab onto and bawl like - No, damn you!
Left, right. The light was like a sledgehammer in the eyes, but Sam felt a sense of letting go.
"Good lord, look at that!"
What an explosion of bedlam arose, men shouting and chairs scraping, and Sam's knees strangely collided with the floor. A forest of legs sprouted all around, but now there was a face, a blond man in flat black hat, dark clothes, eyes like two pale flames.
"My God, what happened? Nathan! Nathan, get over here! Somebody get some towels!"
Hands seized Sam's arms, but no hurt, just a giddy sense of rising. Faces and people became a whirling blur, and Sam's stomach heaved. Please, please . . . Were those words spoken aloud?
"Steady, boy, we got ya."
Hard wood bumped into the back of Sam's legs, and standing ceased to be an option. But sitting was good. A white towel appeared in Sam's vision, then softly blanked out half of it. Warm, damp pressure that both ached and soothed. What vision remained registered a broad brown hat, moustache, dark eyes strangely solemn.
"Buck . . . Wilmington." God, even a near stranger was welcome, so welcome . . .
"Hey, you remembered. Yeah, it's me. Now set still, so Nathan can have a look at you."
"Nathan? Who's . . . ?"
"Kid, what happened?"
That hard, pale Larabee stare again. The black hat now knelt to eye level, and Sam swallowed. Tasted bitter copper.
"I was robbed. Took ever'thing I had." Don't start bawlin', damn you, be a man, for God's sake.
"Did you see who?"
"No. Bad breath. God, I was stupid . . . "
"No, kid." Wilmington's voice, almost a purr. The purr of a six-foot plus cat with eyes turned to obsidian. "It's the bad guys who are stupid, not the innocent folks they hurt. Now hold still for Nathan."
Black hat, black skin - a nigra? Sam twisted under the hand holding the wet towel, blinked the one eye upwards.
"Don't move," a deep, brown voice said sternly. "You bleedin' like a stuck pig. Got a nasty cut on yo' head, and I gotta keep pressure on this for a couple minutes."
Sam twisted harder, pulled back in the chair. "Don't -."
A darkey who barks orders like that? A nigra in a white man's tavern? What -?
"Easy, kid." The new hand on Sam's shoulder had a voice like dry leaves on sand, and the brown man leaned into Sam's line of sight. A tan slouch hat threw the young man's face into shadow. "You're in good hands. Just relax, all right? Let Nathan fix ya up."
Sam looked away, did not want that man peering so close. Instead watched a black hand pick up a fresh, white towel, so dark on that stark white.
"I was stupid. I quit payin' attention, and I was stupid." Sam fought a scalding, choking lump in the throat - No cryin'!
"No." Buck's voice again. "You just -."
"I feel sick." And then Sam was.
+ + + + + + +
A pillow and a real mattress. Sheets. What a shame to awaken from such rare luxury, especially to a body that felt like an old board hammered full of knot holes. Yet the rattle of a doorknob signaled company. A strange room greeted Sam's groggy eyes - both eyes, once again, although one eyebrow puffed like a mushroom under a neat row of stitches. Four stitches, the colored man had announced proudly. Fix you up good as new.
The young man who now peered around the door was a stranger to Sam, although the face looked vaguely familiar from around town. Dark brows first raised in question, then settled into a broad smile. A whole-face, boyish smile, followed by a sturdy form in a bowler hat and suit coat.
"Hey, how ya feelin'?" His bright Yankee accent practically clapped off the walls.
"Tolerable, I reckon."
Which was the best summary available. All night long, it seemed Sam would no sooner fall asleep, then someone would appear to force wakefulness, shoving a cup of water or else some bitter, herbal concoction under Sam's nose. Sometimes it was the darkey doctor, sometimes the tall man, Buck. Can't let you sleep too deep, the nigra had said, until we know your head ain't broke. Last Sam recalled a flat black hat and a face unreadable in dim lamplight.
"Boy, you sure looked like hell last night! I almost yelled out loud, the way you had blood all over. I thought your head was busted clean open. Looked like you had red paint poured all down the front of you."
Words just tumbled from this young man, like apples from a cart. How old? Maybe twenty? Something in Sam warmed to that smile, and the injured youth easily found a smile in return.
"Ye shoulda seen it from this side."
"Say, I brought your things from the stable." The young man stepped back to pick up something just outside the door, and hefted Sam's carpet bag and blanket roll. "Where ya want this? Oh, and I'm JD Dunne."
"Sam McLachlan. Rat chere is fine." A sharp hiss escaped the injured youth's clenched teeth, as battered muscles were forced to take weight. Yet pride demanded Sam at least try to sit up like a man.
"Can I help?" JD's Dunne's dark brows rose in concern.
Ruefully, Sam realized the same, blood-caked shirt dryly scraped tender skin, and could guess what a sight that must be. "Uh . . . maybe a drink of water? My mouth tastes like an old sock."
"Oh, sure!" JD stepped to a table beside the bed, and Sam flushed to see a pitcher and glass right in arm's reach.
"Sorry, I didn't see that there."
"Aw, that's all right." Water gurgled cheerfully, then JD handed the glass over. "There ya go. So you feelin' dizzy or sick or anything? Doc said you bled so bad on account of that other fella probably wore a ring that cut ya, but head injuries are the hardest to judge, sometimes."
Sam took the time for a long, cool gulp of water, and took inventory. Hurt, hell, yes. Hurt that clung to the bones and hummed in deep waiting for the least wrong move. Yet how much was from the beating, and how much from privy-digging was hard to say.
"No, reckon I'm all right." Then Sam focused on JD's hands-on-hips stance. "Does ever'body in this town dress like highwaymen?"
"What? Oh!" JD grinned and lifted his fingers from twin, ivory-handled pistol butts, letting his coat fall forward again. "Naw, not everyone, mostly just us."
Us. Sam lowered the glass to the blankets.
The dark brows drew into a straight line, as JD schooled his young face in a stern look. "I don't know about more law, but yeah, we're the law in these parts."
"We? " Sudden irritation dug in blunt claws; bad enough to be whipped helpless, but now the law wanted to trot slam-bang right into a body's sickroom. "How many of ye are there, anyhow? And why you 'uns got such a need to nose around folks?"
"Why, there's seven of us, if you wanna know. And when a man staggers in with blood pourin' out of his head, I guess that's our business!"
Sam, for pity's sake . . . "Sorry."
JD scowled a second longer, and Sam reached for something, anything to break the moment. "Why so many of you in one town?"
JD then hooked both thumbs in his gun belt and his expression eased. Damn, Sam thought, how's a man keep his britches from droppin' right off, with all that hardware a-hangin' there?
The young Mister Dunne meanwhile warmed to remembering how Fate had brought him to this point. "Oh, you shoulda seen this town, when I first got here! Hell was poppin' with the lid off! Why, I'd no sooner got off the stage, than a lynch mob was fixin' to hang poor Nathan, and all on account of he couldn't miraculously cure some fella's gangrene. Chris and Vin sure put the quit to that, though. Anyhow, so finally the town and Judge Travis hired us all to keep the peace." Then his mobile face fell. "I'm sorry we didn't . . . ya know, see anything before you got hurt."
"Not much to see." Sam froze a shrug in mid-grimace. "I was right there and didn't see a thing."
"Well, you're lucky you don't have a concussion. Unless you start seein' double, that is. Nathan's gonna come and bother you with all those questions, pretty soon."
"The darky?" Memories arose of a serious black face bent over Sam's head, cool fingers touching bloody brow. A soothing touch, despite its strangeness. "He's a doctor?"
"His name is Nathan." Now there was steel in JD's expression. "And he's a healer. This is his clinic. He's stitched me up I dunno how many times, saved my life at least once. Hell, he's patched us all back together, at once point or another."
Sam reached up gingerly, felt the stiff stubble of the stitches there. Paused at the sight of clean bandages wrapping blistered hands.
"I didn't mean nothin' by it. I just never seen no -." JD's jaw appeared to be getting tighter, and Sam hastily amended the next thought. "I didn't know a colored man would wanna help no white folks."
"Nathan helps anybody that needs it." Then the dark eyes gleamed mischievously, once more. "Shoot, he'll even patch up the folks he put holes in, himself!"
"Why would he . . . ?" Then Sam read that wise look. "You don't mean he's one of you, too?"
"Yup!" JD rocked back on his heels and grinned fit to split his skill. "And just wait 'til you meet our preacher."
+ + + + + + +
"Something about that kid . . . " Larabee idly turned a card end-for-end on the table.
Vin folded his hands around a whiskey drink, barely touched. "What about him?"
Shaking his head, Chris said, "Can't put my finger on it. Just can't figure how a kid so young gets this far with absolutely nothing. No family to contact, no money saved for a new start. He just arrives flat broke, with his bedroll and grip. Hard-workin' little fella, too, but . . . " Glancing up at his friend, Chris sighed. "Now he's lost whatever he had."
"Ain't right." Vin nodded.
"Tell you what." A tall figure loomed over the table, as Buck pulled out a chair. "I'd like to find the son of a bitch and give him a dose of his own medicine."
"Kid didn't see his attacker," Larabee pointed out. "We have no way to identify him."
"I know, I know." Buck jack-knifed his long frame down, and scowled into his beer. "But what kind of son of a bitch beats up on a kid? That boy can't be fifteen, sixteen years old, and skinny as a stray cat. I swear, if I see some yella dog with a ring and a sudden wad of cash, we'll just have us a little parlay."
"Alas, gentlemen," a rich drawl said. "By now both the ring and that boy's money are long since gone the way of all fools and their riches."
A slim figure brushed back the tails of an elegant green coat to sit down. Buck turned his scowl on him.
"Somethin' you're not tellin' us, Ezra?
A glacial smile creased the young man's smooth features. "Not at all, Mr. Wilmington. If that blackguard had sat down at my table, you may rest assured that I would not only relieve him of his cash, but quite possibly of his dubious manhood, as well."
"Might be orphaned."
Three sets of eyes fixed on Vin Tanner. With a small shrug, Vin said, "Just a feelin' I got. He don't have nobody. He don't expect nothing from anybody. What I see, he's downright suspicious of any kindness. Like a wild critter that don't dare trust."
"I will tell you," said Ezra slowly. "While I entertain sympathy for that boy, I am not entirely comfortable with his . . . ah, taking up a residence in our hay loft." Cocking a meaningful eyebrow, he added, "The nights are becoming colder, and all it would take is one ill-struck match . . . "
"Oh, you bet," said Buck. He folded both arms across his chest, a man who made injustice towards the weak his personal dragon to slay. "Can't have starvin', homeless kids sleepin' under a decent roof, when they could just as well camp out in the sagebrush. Tell ya what, you can be the one to run him off, then."
Eyebrows gently raised, Ezra replied, "My, aren't we in a delightful humor? I'm suggesting nothing of the sort. What the young man needs is a more suitable place of abode."
"And just how's he supposed to do that, with his every last dime stole from him?"
"Ezra's got a point." The others looked at Larabee, Buck's face gathering the demeanor of a thundercloud.
Chris flipped his card into the loose pile on the table, lips pursed in tight frustration. "We can't have people comin' into town and just livin' on the street. And a kid like that is a walking target for trouble."
"All right, fine." Buck glared at his oldest friend. "Then just what do you figure to do about it?"
"First of all, I want two of us out at all times, next few nights. Likely this attack was just some drifter, but for now, we'll take three-hour shifts."
He reached for his hat on the floor, placed it on his head. "Meanwhile, I'm gonna go talk to a shepherd about takin' in a stray cat."
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