"It's lookin' pretty good," the black man said, as he lightly touched Sam's forehead. "I'd say you won't even have much of a scar, if you don't go foolin' with it none. Don't!"
Sam jerked startled fingers from an aborted exploration of the prickly row of stitches. "It itches."
"And I reckon it will," the healer's deep tones agreed. "Means it's healin'. Give it a few more days, and I'll be able to pull them stitches out. But you gotta leave it alone, hear?"
Sam gulped inwardly, still uneasy with such boldness from a Negro. So far, Yes or No answers remained the most comfortable form of conversation with the healer. There was something about this tall, enigmatic black man that unsettled the youngster, a sense that beneath his velvet calm lurked the clenched fist of defiance, a combination which raised the hackles on Sam's neck. In the back rooms of childhood memory still flickered half-remembered tales of Nate Turner's murderous revolt, and fearful, whispered predictions of thousands of freed slaves, suddenly at liberty to exact revenge on their former masters. That the holocaust never came did not lessen old trepidations.
Yet Nathan's smooth face revealed nothing, his touch had been gentle and sure, and so Sam made yet another mental reminder to relax. And another to leave those sutures alone.
"Make sure you don't get it wet, washin' your face or the like. You get anything in it, come see me. When the stitches come out, I'll give you somethin' to put on it, so's it don't leave much of a scar."
With that, Nathan turned away, and stopped at the sight of the dark-clad man leaning in the open doorway.
"Why, hello, Chris. Didn't hear you come up."
"Didn't want to interrupt." Larabee gave the healer a brief smile, then turned his attention to the patient. "Well, boy, if Nathan's done with you, I got a place for you to stay."
Just like that, no please or howdy-do. Sam felt three inches smaller, on the spot.
"Church," was Larabee's monosyllabic reply.
"I don't need charity."
"It's not charity, son."
"Then what the hell ye call it?"
"Watch your language." Larabee's flat voice remained unimpassioned even when scolding. "It's called keepin' this town from any more trouble."
Sam choked on the scalding rise of anger, and snatched up carpet bag and blanket roll without another word. Must be a helluva town, when seven peacekeepers had nothing better to do than fret themselves over one stray kid.
The youngster steamed silently all the way down the dusty main street. It felt as though every eye in town must be watching, as Chris Larabee marched his ward like an errant child, even though in actuality, few paid heed at all. The thought alone was burn enough. As the white facade of the church appeared at the far end of the street, Sam's scowl only deepened. The staccato rap of a hammer echoed from within, as they approached. Up the steep steps they clattered, where Sam stopped, and Larabee rapped on the open door.
"Josiah! I brought someone."
The hammering stopped, and then footsteps echoed hollowly. The man who emerged from the coolly-shadowed church looked like no preacher Sam had ever seen. Here was no gaunt, shrill zealot in a moth-eaten black broadcloth suit, who lived to frighten the old folks in the Amen pew. Instead, Sam stared up a grizzled bear of a man, with the brow of a granite ledge and a jaw like . . . well, that would be the last place any sane person would think to hit him. Deep-set blue eyes promised thunder and judgement, and Sam reckoned one flick of the wrist could send his hammer - or a man - right through the nearest wall.
"Chris," rumbled the big man. "Good to see you."
"Josiah, this here is Sam McLachlan, who I was telling you about. Sam, this is Josiah Sanchez, our preacher. You'll be staying with him a spell."
Sam's panicked imagination conjured dire images of prayer by the hour, gruel for supper, and resounding denunciations of all sins, real or supposed. Yet when the preacher reached out a welcoming hand, the high-nosed glare of self-righteousness never came.
"Welcome, Brother Sam." Josiah spoke in deep, slightly gravelly tones, and smiled. "In my Father's house are many mansions. But, meanwhile . . . " And suddenly those deep eyes were twinkling wells of compassion, as he looked down on the battered boy. "I sure hope you'll be happy with a little room in the back. Say, you ever eaten chili con carne? I got a pot going, if you're hungry."
Glad to leave Larabee behind, Sam followed the preacher down the silent isle. The church made the youngster think of a worn out coat, with more patches than original material. Why the town had not just torn it down and built a new one was beyond Sam's ken. But the patches were neat, new wood fitted expertly against old, and Josiah seemed to belong here, every bit as much as the worn pews and shadowed rafters.
A doorway opened past the altar, leading to rooms in the rear of the building. Beside the doorway, a ladder leaned on the wall, a hammer and a can of nails resting on the floor. Above the threshold hung a small, colorfully-lettered wooden sign. "God Is Our Shelter" had been written in blue, green and red across two feet of whitewashed pine, garnished with crudely-painted flowers.
Seeing Sam's look, Josiah cocked his head to admire the little sign. "A couple local kids made that. Thought it would look nice up there."
Just three feet down the narrow hallway, Josiah indicated an open door. "Here you are, son. Ain't much, but the roof is sound and the bed is clean."
Sam stepped past him to peer inside. A small room, but with a bright window set in the whitewashed walls, open now to catch the breeze, and a clean mattress waited on a narrow bunk. On a small bedside table rested a basin and pitcher, and a colorful braided rug lay on the spotless plank floor. Simple as it was, these were the finest lodgings Sam had known in a long, long while.
Turning to study the church's caretaker, Sam asked, "So what did they tell ye 'bout me?"
"Well, Nathan said you got a bump on the head. Said he prescribed rest, no strenuous labor, and report immediately if you get headaches or sick stomach, or start seein' two of me." The deep eyes twinkled as he added, "Anything else I need to know? You snore or walk in your sleep?"
Chuckling suddenly, Sam said, "Naw, I don't reckon." Pausing, the youngster said, "Say, Preacher?"
"You think God is really gonna notice that thing? That sign, I mean?"
With a low laugh, Josiah replied, "Well, that's not really the point, is it?"
"Then what is?"
"That people are noticin' God."
"Yeah, kids, maybe." Sam sighed, and walked to drop carpet bag and blanket roll on the bed. "Grown folks just don't think so fine."
"You know they don't. The good folks is just out for themselves, watchin' so the wolves don't get 'em. The bad ones, well, they be the wolves."
Josiah leaned an elbow on the doorframe, a grin on his rugged face. "Just two flavors, huh?"
"All right, and then there's preachers." Sam scowled at the sudden urge to squirm over the turn of conversation. "Listen, Preacher, ain't a man or woman alive that ain't out for somethin'. The trick is to figure out what it is, so's to keep your own ass out of it."
"How about you, son? What are you out for? Should I worry about my ass?"
Sam gaped, almost choked. Surely whole wagon loads of calamity would greet such language from a preacher, in a church. Yet lightning did not strike, nor did an angry voice boom from the ceiling.
Chuckling gently, Josiah said, "Son, all men are seekers. We are born in need, and live our lives to fulfill our needs. Love. Riches. Power. A pair of shoes. What makes a man - or woman - is how we pursue those needs."
"Well, it seems a sure thing that I always run up against the ones goin' at it wrong, then."
"Sam, what happened to you the other night . . . it ain't God, son. Man has free will, and sometimes that is a gateway to sin. And you bein' caught in that is accident, not punishment."
"Oh, I don't reckon God is mad at me. And I ain't even thinkin' about the other night. I just figger He's got other things to do." Sam met Josiah's deep-set eyes squarely. There were so many ways in which preachers simply did not know the world.
"Trust me, Preacher, I been around enough to know I just ain't the biggest fish in His pan. This weren't the first time I wished a miracle, and just ended up bleedin' for it."
Then Sam quietly turned around and devoted full attention to settling into new quarters. Deep in the carpet bag, hidden amongst clothes and other plunder, a smooth, steel weight came beneath Sam's searching hand. It was high time that a certain sample of Mr. Remington's craftsmanship again became a steady traveling companion.
+ + + + + + +
"Senorita, may I have some more salsa, por favor?"
Inez flashed a hundred-candle smile at Sam, as she swept past their table. "Un momento, chico!"
An indelicate, gurgling snort turned Sam, scowling, towards its source. "What's so funny?"
"Nothin', nothin'!" Buck chortled again, and Sam wished a bean would jam up his nose. Waving his fork, Buck said, "I just never - heh-heh - I never heard Spanish spoke with an accent quite like yours, is all."
"What's wrong with my accent?"
"Nothin' at all! We'll just pretend you're from uh, southern Mexico, yeah, that's it."
"JD, I'd be obliged you kick that dog back under his porch."
The youngest peacekeeper, however, tactfully crammed his mouth full of frijoles y carne asada, and so could only grin with his eyes and hold up helpless hands.
"No, now you listen to me," Buck protested. "Spanish is the lovin' tongue, son. If you're gonna learn it, do it proper. Why, it's poetry and moonlight, and the ladies . . . " Now he waggled his eyebrows and dropped his voice to a sultry purr. "The ladies can't get enough of it. Usted es muy hermosa, mi amor, mi corazon . . ." Long fingers sculpted a sensuous shape in midair. "They just become putty in your hands."
"And that is," JD said with a grin. "All the Spanish he knows, too."
Sam played along, slanting a dour look at the tall peacekeeper. "Mister, when I want lovin', putty ain't what I'm lookin' for."
Both eyebrows shot up at that, and Buck laughed aloud. "Oh, we got us a regular Casanova, huh?"
"I don't know nobody named Cassy-dowhat, but I been down the crick a time or two. And it didn't take no furrin talk, neither."
"Now, ain't you just the child marvel! Why, son, I'll have you know -."
JD made a strangled sound and grabbed desperately for Buck's beer, hoping he could save himself before he choked to death on tortillas, laughter, or both at once. Yet it was almost worth asphyxiation, just to watch someone else put Buck Wilmington on the defensive.
"Sorry, mister, but talk is cheap," Sam cheerfully replied, when Buck's soliloquy on matters d' amour wound down. "Fact is, women can read men just like peekin' in a store winder. They know you sellin' a snide or a sound horse, just that quick."
"Well, since you're such an authority." Buck cocked his head and winked. "Maybe you can help out JD, here, with his love life."
"Hey, now!" JD aimed his fork warningly at his friend. "My love life is just fine, Buck."
"Of course it is. Just that little," Buck threw out both arms in a grand flourish. "Minor thing about forgettin' Casey's birthday."
"Oh, would you shut up? I did so remember her birthday!"
"Sure, ya did. About the time the sun went down. Why, the look on that poor little girl's face . . . " The tall man shook his head and cast a woeful glance at Sam.
"I just couldn't think what to get for her!"
"Well, I tried to help!"
"Your help is like to get me a black eye!"
"But stereoscopic pictures are the latest - OW!"
JD whipped off his bowler and swatted Buck across up-flung arms. "Not THOSE kind of pictures!"
Sam grinned broadly, recognizing a long habit of such jousting between the two. The youngster had been helping Josiah paint molding, when Buck and JD appeared not long before supper time. Orders from Inez, Buck announced. Their stray was to get his skinny butt down to the saloon, pronto, so's Inez could make sure the kid wasn't starvin' to death on Josiah's loaves and fishes. Although dumbfounded by this imperious summons, Sam's defense of Josiah's bachelor cooking quickly gave way, before the happy thought of seeing the lovely saloon manager again. Sam truly liked the Mexican woman, as much for her gumption as anything else. Where a lady like her could forge her own way, anything might be possible. Little had the youngster guessed that supper would end up in a verbal sparring match with Buck, but the release of honest laughter felt like a long gulp of clean air. For Sam's part, just sitting in the same room as gaiety was something to be cherished.
"Children, children." The drawling admonishment saved Buck from further, well-earned abuse. "Let's do avoid committing mayhem indoors, shall we?"
"Oh, hey, Ez!" Buck's welcoming grin lit up. "Pull up a chair."
"Only with great trepidation, as I fear for what you two hooligans may hurl at each other, next." The young Southern gambler raised both brows in feigned concern, and turned wide green eyes on Sam. "Sir, with your permission, I shall seat myself here, on what appears to be the side of prevailing sanity."
Sam nodded briefly, turned a surly glance elsewhere. Damned fancy-talkin' gentlemen. The split-second of puzzlement on Ezra's face instantly ironed itself smooth, as he sat.
"Thank you." Turning a languid smile on the others, Ezra said, "Well, gentlemen, what news of the day? I am told the ravening hordes are even now stabling their steeds, in preparation for their assault on our sensibilities."
With a wise snicker, Buck said, "Yeah, but I'm sure you're plannin' a counterattack on their wallets."
"Indeed." His suddenly-predatory smile bared a gold tooth, as the gambler daintily drew a fresh pack of cards from his coat pocket. "Sheep are to be shorn, fish to be hooked, and cowhands after roundup are to be . . . help me out here, Buck."
"Plucked nekkid as Sunday roastin' hens."
"Thank you. Anyone care to play a hand or two, before the locusts descend upon us?"
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