Below Par

By Yolande


Thanks to Mitzi and NotTasha for beta reading this story.

Notes:- I'd just like to point out that Distemper, putrid fever and throat disorder are all old medical terminology for diphtheria.

Story moved to Blackraptor October 2009


Part One

"Mr. Tanner,” the enigmatic Southerner drawled, “are you certain that you are faring well?”  

“Jest fine, Ezra.  Wish ya’d stop askin’ me that,” Vin groused irritably. 

With a heavy sigh the Southerner nodded his head obligingly and refrained from commenting further on the Texan’s uncharacteristic temper and the distinctive shade of green that flushed Tanner’s cheeks.  “As you wish.”   

The gambler held his mount in check while Vin directed Peso past to take the lead.  Once they where a full length ahead, Standish reined in behind.  Ezra didn’t know what more he could do.  The damn stubborn tracker persistently denied any ill health, but to the gambler the indications clearly pointed to that assumption.  Standish mused that at least the longhaired Texan wasn’t falling from his saddle – not yet.  But they were still two days out from Four Corners and only one town lay between here and their final destination.  

He pondered his resourcefulness at convincing the tracker to alter their journey to include Cortez.  He knew he was good, and could talk around the most stubborn of men, but Vin Tanner was the exception to the rule.  His mother would be aghast to hear ‘her baby boy’ admit a failure.  She believed his ‘God given talents’ were all-inclusive - nobody would deny him anything.  But Vin could see through him instantly.  

“Mr. Tanner,” Standish paused after the obviously strained and impatient groan uttered from Vin.  “Vin,” he persevered.  “If I am not mistaken, there is a small municipality that lays a short distance to the East of here.”  Ezra lifted his gaze to the climbing sun, squinting at the bright light to get his bearings and nodded in what he hoped was the correct direction.  He waited a beat, impatient for the tracker to confirm his calculations.  After all, the gambler was not at his best surrounded by wilderness.  That definitely was Vin’s arena.  With an exasperated sigh he pressed on.  “And taking in your present condition…” Ezra halted, wincing at the feral look the tracker whipped around and bestowed on him.  Damn, he hadn’t wanted to alienate the man.  

Tanner scowled at the conman for seemingly an eternity, ending the angry glower by spurring his black gelding into a frenzied pace down the rocky path.    

“Vin, you could do with the reprieve…” the Southerner called futilely at Tanner’s departing back. 

“I’m fine…” Vin shouted dismissively, not willing to discuss this with the Southerner.  How many times did he have to repeat it?  Doesn’t Standish ever give up?  Or shut up, for that matter?  

How was it that he always got lumbered with the gambler?  Reckon Larabee must hate my guts fer partnering me with the walkin’, talkin’ dictionary.  Get a touch of a sticky belly and he’s acting like Nathan.  Hell, he’s worse ‘an Nate!  Gonna have me a serious talkin’ with Chris when we return.  No way in Hades would he be pairing up with Standish any time soon.  Let Larabee deal with the gambler!  “’Sides, ain’t gonna be long ‘til we get back.”  Yep, just another day.  Should be home sometime tomorrow. 

Tanner glanced up at the Southerner’s worried expression and figured he’d been miserable company for Standish this trip.  Normally they had an enjoyable time in each other’s company.  And much to his surprise, Standish was quite adept at roughing it on the trail, even though when they travelled as a group he complained bitterly the entire time.  It seemed to be an act that he had to partake in, like a ritual.  But when it was just the two of them, the conman didn’t flit and flutter, but genuinely helped and pulled his own weight.  

In a much more subdued voice Vin admitted, “Ain’t nothin’ serious, Ezra.  Jest a tummy ache.  Probably that steak I ate last night…told ya it didn’t taste so good.”  All the while he hugged his abdomen loosely with his left arm.  Knew he shouldn’t have listened to Ezra and eaten at the fancy restaurant – even though the gambler had paid for both their meals.  Probably too many spices and condiments – that was never good for a man who was satisfied with a simple dish of meat and three vegies. 

Standish uncharacteristically snorted.  “Normally I would agree with your conclusion, except for the fact that I also consumed the same repast and have not been afflicted with any symptoms such as yours.”   

At dinner last night Vin had been genuinely taken with the feast set before him, eager to sample the elite fare.  He’d eaten like a starving urchin.  Ezra’s pleasure waned at the tracker’s about-face.  Standish had been delighted when Vin accompanied him to the restaurant and elated that Tanner trusted him to chose their meals.  Now that sense of accomplishment was fading. 

“Don’t see how it could be anything else,” Tanner griped in frustration.   Slapping the reins over Peso’s rump, Vin dug his heels into the black’s girth, urging the gelding to increase his pace and lengthening the distance between the two lawmen. 

Standish kneed Chaucer into a similar stride and drew level with his companion in a short time.  Reaching over, he grasped Peso’s bridle and brought them both to a slow lope.  Why did Tanner keep running away from him?  It was almost like Vin was scared Ezra would see something if they stayed together.  What exactly was Tanner hiding?  What was so important that he couldn’t rest up for a day and recover his ailment?  “I fail to understand why we don’t take a sojourn and consequently allow yourself time to recover.  Ezra had been surprised when the longhaired Texan finally admitted to what Standish had guessed at now for some time.  And he wasn’t about to let the matter rest, now that he had the former bounty hunter’s confession.  “A few hours and we could arrive in Cortez.”  

The Texan scowled balefully at Ezra, but allowed him to pull Peso to a stop.  The normally softly spoken tracker welcomed the rising ire.  “What…so you can skin out some fella who can’t afford ta lose his last dollar?” Tanner swivelled in the saddle and his lips curled up into a sneer.  He watched closely for any flicker, or change, in Standish’s expression that confirmed the assertion offended the gambler, but the conman’s face remained impassive.  

“I’ll ignore that remark, because I know you are not at your peak condition.” 

“Hell, don’t go doin’ me any favours,” Tanner retorted.  The lanky tracker stretched back in his leather saddle and planned to debate the issue further, but the dull ache that had been present since the day before yesterday, took him by surprise with a new ferocity.  He doubled over the saddle horn and bit his tongue to suppress the agonised moan that sought to escape his mouth.  But the tortured sound that met his ears was evidence enough that he’d failed in this task.  “Aw Hell!” he rasped weakly, swaying to the left. 

“Vin!”  The gambler swung down from Chaucer and with a growing frown and foreboding, sidled alongside the distraught tracker.  “If this is your way of convincing me that you are indeed fine, then let me assure you, it’s not working.”  

Vin Tanner screwed up his face as the pain slivered inside his guts.  The eruption of juices from his mouth came abruptly and without warning, spewing down his leg and coating a good portion of the gambler into the bargain.  Vin would have laughed at Standish’s squeamish expression had he felt better. 

The Southerner stayed his position, holding the ill man upright in the saddle while Vin vomited down the front of his jacket and shirtfront, though only by a mammoth battle with his will.  “A little warning wouldn’t have gone amiss, Vin,” he admonished wryly, flicking the chunky bits from his sleeve with a suppressed horror.  He wondered briefly if his jacket was going to be salvageable. 

“Sorry,” Tanner panted, gripped in the folds of the tortuous pain. 

Ezra shrugged, he’d been worse off at times. Damn, but it was gonna smell bad in a few hours! 

Part Two

The sun was tracking a downward path across the motley blue-hued sky, when the weary twosome approached the outskirts of Cortez.  A black circle of death hovered above them, trailing doggedly behind.  The birds of prey were a grim reminder of the reality that threatened their existence.  The Southerner glanced up and shuddered, wishing he could effectively remove the cloud of death, but he’d already wasted a number of valuable bullets into the persistent circle and still they followed. 

“Not too much longer,” Standish advised the semi-coherent man.  Vin had slipped into a troubled sleep, bowed over the neck of Peso.  “I can’t guarantee a doctor, but if not, we can wire Nathan.  He’s bound to come.”  Ezra waited anxiously for a reply, then sighed disconcertedly at the heavy silence.  “After you’ve recouped your strength, you will feel significantly improved.”  God, he hoped so.  Standish lifted his worried eyes to the heavens and whispered a reverent prayer. 

“Ain’t about ta die on ya, Ezra,” Vin’s hoarse voice drifted slowly to his ears.  

The tone was weak and Standish frowned at the hunched body of the Texan.  The tracker had not moved an inch.   “Pardon?” he asked with trepidation.  Was Tanner actually awake?  Or was his imagination running rampant? 

“Said, I weren’t gonna die,” Tanner rasped. 

The Southerner mouthed his thanks to the darkening sky and a tentative grin touched his lips.  He shot a lecherous grin upward to their constant tail.  “I’m delighted you could grace me with your company once again.” 

Tanner stayed low over his mount.  If he remained perfectly still, then he didn’t hurt so much.  And except for the constant swaying movement of Peso jarring his body, he didn’t feel too bad.  Not really.  Well, not like he did earlier.  Vin had never felt such excruciating pain before, and he’d had his fair share of injuries over the years.  Thankfully it had passed quickly, leaving him with just the gnawing ache to concentrate on.  But his greatest fear was when the debilitating pain would attack him again. And they were still a full day’s ride from Four Corners - that’s if they had been still heading to the western town.  But even now, Tanner guessed they weren’t heading directly there anymore.  What was Standish saying?  “Huh?” 

“Loquacious as ever, Mr. Tanner,” he chuckled.  


Ezra sighed.  Getting decent conversation out of the former bounty hunter on a good day was difficult.  What chance did he hope for today?  “Shan’t be long ‘til we have you ensconced in a bed.” 

Vin closed his eyes and let his mind wander with the rhythmic clip of each horseshoe as it hit the stone-rutted trail.  Without asking, he knew Ezra had altered their route and they now headed toward Cortez, the town he’d originally planned on skirting.  He wouldn’t admit it out loud, but he was kind of relieved that Standish had done that.  As much as he wanted to return home, he was beginning to regret leaving Durango that morning, especially when he was feeling so poorly.  If they’d stayed longer, Ezra could have spent more time at the tables and not been bothering him, and he could have regained his health before departing on the journey west.  That damn tainted meat!  That had ta be the reason he was feeling so poorly. 

The shrill sound of bullets flying over his head drew him out of his stupor.  Peso startled at the uproar and closeness of the bullets.  The mount pranced in a wild circle and Tanner struggled to retain his hold.  In the end, it didn’t really matter because Standish pulled the tracker from his horse and to the ground.  The bone-jarring thud reawakened the nagging ache and he groaned in agony.  “Shit!” he hissed.  

Tanner vaguely heard Standish’s grunt as the air whooshed out of his lungs and the rasped response of, “Eloquently put.”  His vision swam for a moment, but when it cleared he counted six determined souls barricading the entrance into Cortez.  The wide-stance postures of each man mirrored that of the man by his side.  Each toted a rifle and Tanner clearly read the menace in their eyes that stated they were prepared to use them, beyond the warning shots. 

“Go back the way ya come!”  The owner of the heated demand stood sightly in front of the others and at the centre of the pack.  He shot another round of ammunition over both Standish and Tanner’s prone positions.  They lay exposed on the dirt road, but the Southerner tried valiantly to cover the tracker with his body. 

“We’re not here to cause you any trouble,” Ezra protested. Had someone warned the town of their arrival?  That did not make sense.  No one knew that the two lawmen would visit the town of Cortez.  And they’d done nothing to warrant the attack.  Unless…Ezra paused, they were after Tanner for the bounty on his head.  But again…how could they have known?   “I have an ill man…” he proceeded cautiously.  Obviously it was all a mistake. 

The protectors huddled in a circle and an animated muttering occurred between the group of six.   When they finished, they stood two layers deep, barring entry.  “Stay away!”   “Don’t come any closer!”  And “We’ll blow yer fuckin’ heads off iffen ya do.” Were bellowed from a comparative safe distance.  A touch of hysteria and desperation tempered their words. 

Standish winced at the last remark.  These men weren’t murderers; there was more urgency in their tones than any real threat.  Something bad must have happened.  “We are lawmen from Four Corners and my friend has become unwell on the journey home and needs medical attention,” Standish persisted, confused by the entire situation.  At this point he was beginning to wonder at the rudiments of just leaving and continuing on. 

Vin rose up on his elbows and interrupted the gambler with a light tap of his boot to Ezra’s knee.  “Let’s go,” the Texan urged; feeling like crap and not wanting a fight.  

Standish twisted to look at the tracker and a frown marred his handsome features.  “We can’t, Vin,” he implored.  Lifting his head from the heady earth he returned a venomous glare at the hostile welcoming party.    “He requires a doctor.”  Standish waved his hand in the direction of Tanner, attempting one last-ditch effort. 

The muttering among the group began again in earnest.  One man stepped a fraction forward, then thinking better of it, slid back securely within the crowd.  His partners looked to him, waiting for him to voice their unanimous decision.  They didn’t have to wait long.  “Look, we’re real sorry an’ all, but we ain’t lettin’ nobody through,” he explained.  “The whole town has been beset with diphtheria, and we can’t take the chance of it spreadin’ further.  Ain’t willin’ ta risk it.  Don’t want nothin’ else coming in either, we got enough ta deal with! You two best be on yer way,” he shooed them with the barrel of his rifle.  “Real sorry fer scarin’ ya, Mister, but we hadda make sure nobody passed.” 

“Yer friend would have a better chance of surviving if he don’t come into town, ‘cause if he did, he’d be leavin’ in a wooden box,” another voice added sympathetically. 

Ezra nodded his head in understanding, and sighed despondently.  It was so easy for diseases to wipe out an entire community.  In fact, these six town’s men probably were jealous of Vin and Ezra being free to ride away and leave Cortez well behind, where they, no doubt, were doomed to succumb. They might all be dead within the week.  He rolled on his side and cautiously rose up on his knees, not wanting to provoke another attack.  “I don’t suppose you could persuade your local medico to commute here to at least check my friend?” 

A man with a mop of untidy mouse brown hair and a tatty slouch hat pushed to the front of the line.  Raising his weapon to his shoulder he failed to hide his anger.  “Doc’s dead!” he growled, wiping at his red-rimmed eyes and swollen nose. “Now git back on those nags, ‘cause yer wasting our time.  My wife is lying on her deathbed, I’ve already lost my eldest son and three-year old daughter and I’m here arguing with the likes of you when I should be with her,” he ranted, shaking his fist in the air as the rifle dropped forgotten to his side.  The first speaker dropped a sympathetic hand on his shoulder and the remainder of the group all nodded in unspoken empathy, for they’d all suffered the harsh loss of one or more of their children, and or spouse. 

Ezra watched the united front and the unconditional comfort issued; he accepted that they’d receive no help from these people.  His first priority was to get Vin help, and as the husband with the dying wife stated, they were wasting time debating the tos and fros.  “We will heed your advice and take our leave.” 


Part Three


“Ez, do ya mind if we stop now?” 

Standish glanced around the unforgiving land; tufts of buffalo grass pushed through cracks in the slate rock ground and clusters of wildflowers dotted the landscape.  The ground was flat and sparse, with no shelter or barriers from the weather should it turn for the worst.  The warmth from the day had heated the rocky surface, and it would be some hours before it left and the wicked cold of night penetrated the inner layers of the rock, making them the texture of ice against one’s skin.  He glanced at the dying sun and over to the tracker.  “Might as well, retire for the night.  I trust you’ll be satisfied with the meagre accommodations,” he teased lightly.  The soft sound of a chuckle from Tanner brought a wry smile to the gambler’s face. 

“It’ll do, Ezra,” Vin acceded.  Hell, so long as he was off his mount, Tanner didn’t care where they camped for the night. 

“Then here will suffice,” Standish drawled, he sniffed at his jacket and grimaced; it had dried, and as he’d predicted, stank worse than the outhouse in summer.  It would be a dry camp, but the canteens were still partially full, and he would use some of the water to sponge his jacket.  The gambler climbed down from Chaucer and moved stiffly to the side of Tanner’s black.  

“Can get down m’self,” Vin retorted. 

“Fine, then do it!” the Southerner replied brusquely, tramping away from the Texan to unsaddle his mount.  

Tanner was stunned for a moment by the gambler’s compliance, he watched the terse and jerky movements Standish made as he threw the saddle to the ground.  He swallowed the empty words he was about to utter when Ezra stated he was going to collect some firewood. 

The sick man hugged his arm about his waist and leaned forward over Peso’s shoulder.  Shit this was gonna hurt.  Better get it over and done with, before Standish returned and found him still seated in the saddle.  It was done quickly, but it hurt like the demon from hell skewering him with a hot poker.  Vin collapsed to his knees and hung his head to rest on the ground.  The long ride, coupled with Ezra pulling him out of the saddle at Cortez and now his own pathetic attempt to dismount, was too much.  He groaned in anguish as his stomach knotted in pain and heaved where he knelt.    He held his belly with his arm, panted and gasping; sweat trickled down his face.  His head ached; a hammer pounded behind his eyes and a dull roar whined in his ears, he felt utterly miserable.  Unable to deal with anymore torment, he slumped to the side, landing inches from his vomit. 


Part Four


“Vin?” Standish lifted the damp cloth off the younger man’s forehead.  

Tanner wearily opened his eyes and gazed up into the gambler’s concerned features.  He grimaced at the stale taste in his mouth and attempted to roll onto his back, but Ezra had anticipated this and had a knee pressed into his back holding the Texan on his side.  “What happened?” 

“I presumed you might have enlightened me,” Standish curtly replied. 

Vin sighed, leaning into the gambler’s hold.  “Sorry,” he apologised, recalling their earlier argument. 

Ezra slightly bobbed his head, accepting the tracker’s apology.  Hearing the obvious regret in Vin’s voice, the Southerner decided to dismiss the matter and concentrate on his friend’s more immediate needs.   “Are you up to a meal?” 

Tanner screwed up his face and shook his head.  “Ain’t hungry.” 

“Then something to drink…” 

“Not thirs….” 

Ezra held the canteen to his lips and poured the luke-warm liquid into his mouth.  “Drink,” Standish ordered refusing to take no for an answer. 


Part Five


“You are indeed a fortunate man, Mr. Tanner,” the gambler noted with a sigh of relief. 

“Feel like crap, Standish,” Vin hissed, barely raising his head from the hunched position he’d assumed over Peso.  “So what the hell are you yakkin’ about?” he groaned. 

Ezra chuckled.  “Our presence in town must have been sorely missed.” 


“We have a welcoming committee,” Ezra informed the tracker. 


The Southerner led the black leisurely toward the town limits.  He was taken by surprise to find the five lawmen waiting for them and he spurred Chaucer ahead relieved to be able to pass the responsibility of Tanner over to the competent hands of Mr. Jackson. 

“Don’t come any closer!” the man in black commanded.  Chris Larabee held up his hand and pointed at the pair. 

Standish lifted his eyebrow upward into a speculative gesture.  Did Chris just instruct them to stop?  No! That wouldn’t be the case, he’d obviously misheard.  “Greetings, gentlemen,” Ezra waved and continued to approach the line of five regulators. 

“I said ta stop,” Larabee hollered the order. 

Ezra’s eyes widened stunned by the brutal tone of voice Larabee used, but he reluctantly obeyed.  “Pardon?”  This was not going how he’d planned.   They’d obviously heard some rumours while he and Vin were absent, and it could only concern him.  He didn’t for a moment even consider that Tanner could be the cause.  When would they learn to trust him?  “Vin’s unwell.  Mr. Jackson, if you could see yourself to tend him?” 

The healer moved restlessly on his mount, but remained in line with the others.  His eyes darted past the gambler and travelled over the stooped form.  He licked at his lips fretfully.   “Ya been through Cortez.”  It was a statement not a question. 

“Not exactly,” Standish began, shifting uncomfortably in his saddle.  “What has this to do with anything?” 

“Sheriff wired us that ya’d been there,” Jackson paused staring intently at the gambler to ascertain if this news was correct.  At the terse nod, he continued.  “They got a Distemper epidemic,” he paused again, as though it pained him to continue.  "That's putrid fever."

“Ya can’t come into town,” Larabee reluctantly finished, “in case ya got it too.  Can’t have it spreadin’…”  

Ezra was getting extremely tired of the bantering back and forth across the twenty-yard distance.  Chaucer was anxious to return to the stables, as he was to his own bed.  He grinned wryly and kneed the mount to close the gap.  He almost fell from his horse when his five friends drew their weapons and pointed them in his direction.  He swallowed abruptly, staring dazed at the raised weapons.  His mouth dropped open as he stared at the five regulators he’d thought were his friends.  He moved his gaze along the line, not one of the men would meet his eyes.  Why would they resort to this?  “Vin was ill prior to our visit to Cortez,” he persisted.  He couldn’t have Distemper…could he?  He was just ill…something he ate, Vin had said. 

“Sheriff from Cortez said one of the town folk’s visited Dove Creek right before he was struck down with the illness.  He brought it back with him.  They buried him and his family the day before yesterday.  We sent a wire to Dove Creek, they’ve got the illness there too.”  Larabee shifted in his saddle; he glanced sideways at Buck, he could see the same apprehensions on Wilmington’s face that were pressing down on him.  God, his Colt felt heavy in his hand, it shook slightly and by its own will, drooped.  He had never had to pull a gun on a friend before.  He glanced beyond Buck to ascertain how JD was holding out.  Dunne had been, by far, the most vocal about drawing on Ezra and Vin.  Dunne stared blankly at the pair; his face was pained and uncomfortable. 

They had discussed the possibility before they left Four Corners that Tanner and Standish might be resistant to their precautions.  None had been particularly impressed when Chris suggested they draw their guns should either man not heed their advice.  While they rode from town they argued loudly about what they planned to do.  Larabee had pulled them to a halt and laid down the law; they needed to act as one, if they didn’t, the tracker and gambler would dismiss their warning.  Jessup, the sheriff from Cortez, hadn’t been clear about how much contact Vin and Ezra had with the town, the note was alarming in its severity and brusqueness.  Nathan had been terrified when the wire had been passed around. It never occurred to them that they would find one of their friends showing signs of illness.  Such a development scared them witless.  

The gambler sidled alongside the tracker and reached for his shoulder, squeezing it reassuringly.  Under his breath, so only Tanner could hear, Standish muttered a promise to help him.  “We hardly had any contact with the citizens of Cortez,” he muttered.  “Hell, we didn’t even get passed their blockade.”   He smiled weakly at the dispirited croak from Vin.  

“Do as they say, Ezra.” 

“What are his symptoms, Ezra?” Nathan intruded, then not waiting for an answer, supplied them himself.  “He have a fever?  Headache?  Sore throat and feeling sick?”  

The gambler glanced at the tracker and nodded, disheartened, as Nathan listed off the symptoms.  

“He having trouble breathing?” 

“No,” Ezra stated triumphantly.  That means he hasn’t contracted it…doesn’t it? 

“That’ll probably come later,” Jackson announced philosophically.  He turned to Chris, “He could have it; dunno ‘til I check him over.  But we can’t take the risk of lettin’ ‘em into town.  It’s too risky.”  

“You gonna know then fer sure if he’s got it?” Chris queried.  He felt the pit of his stomach boil wondering if he was doing the right thing.  When the wire from Cortez had arrived and Nathan had declared that Vin and Ezra needed to be stopped from entering town, he was hesitant to follow the healer’s advice.  Surely if the two lawmen had come in contact with the disease Jackson could treat them?  But Nathan had studied his medical books and was determined to keep the disease from entering Four Corners.  It was Josiah’s voice of reason that persuaded the sombre gunslinger to sway on the side of caution.  Still, it went against his grain. 

“Maybe,” he shrugged. 

“What about Ezra?” Dunne questioned uncertainly.  “He ain’t sick.”  JD glanced at the Southerner to verify his assessment and frowned at the grimace that passed over Standish’s face as he shifted in his saddle.  The gambler tensed under the sheriff’s scrutiny and returned the blatant appraisal with a face of indifference.  Dunne had to wonder what it was he thought he’d seen.  Ezra was probably just anxious about Vin’s condition and plum eager to be out of the saddle, he reasoned. 

“Yeah, but he’s been with Vin the past few days.  There’s no telling whether or not he’s gonna be coming down with it, too,” Nathan added morosely.  “We need to get ‘em both someplace safe so they won’t be passing it on.” 

“There’s my cabin,” Larabee rubbed at his jaw in thought. 

“Thanks, Chris, but I don’t reckon it’s big enough for the three of us to share.”  Nathan had already determined that he would be staying with the pair. 

“What about Nettie’s?  There is plenty of room out there,” JD spoke rapidly.  He didn’t want to have to send his friends away - not like this. 

“That’ll work,” Jackson agreed, “but Miz Wells and Casey won’t be able to stay there.  They’ll need to understand that.” 

“JD,” Chris ordered brusquely, “get over to Nettie’s place and ask her if she minds, then get her and Casey out of there and into town.  Buck, go with JD.” Larabee worried that Tanner was not going to survive, he didn’t look so good.  He was nearly hanging out of the saddle and had not said a word since they’d met up.  What if Nathan was right?  Could he cure the two men of the dreaded disease?   “How you doin’, Vin?” 

Tanner lifted his head; he acknowledged Larabee’s query by a meeting of eyes.  “Ain’t got no putrid fever, Chris,” he croaked.  He should know, his mother died of the dreaded throat disease.

Chris’ mouth thinned to a narrow line.  He hated having to do this.  “Everything’s gonna be fine,” he assured.  But his confidence in his own declaration was shot. 


Part Six


The young gunslinger and his mentor set a fast pace to the Wells’ ranch.   JD Dunne and Buck Wilmington skidded to a halt in front of the wooden cabin, stirring up a flurry of dust.  Smoke rose from the chimney in a welcoming gesture, but both men were well aware of the frosty reception that awaited them, until they made their identity known.  The older woman would have heard their horses approaching and set up by the window with her Spencer Carbine, ready to take a shot at them.  Nettie Wells was a spritely old woman with a deadly aim. 

“Casey!” Dunne yelled urgently, sliding gracefully from his mount. 

“Young man,” Nettie Wells admonished, stepping from her home, still brandishing her weapon.  “That is no way to come calling on a young lady!” she chastised. 

Wilmington chuckled and tipped his hat in respect.  He’d allow JD to handle the prickly aunt and niece. 

Dunne started an apology, then remembered why they had come.  “Sorry, Mrs Wells…um Casey.  We don’t have real long,” he urged, striding up to the veranda and attempting to herd the women towards the barn. 

“What’s the hurry, JD?” Casey aggressively pulled her arm from the young sheriff’s hold.  “Ain’t goin’ nowhere with you, JD Dunne, ‘lessin’ you explain yerself!” she stamped her foot in agitation. 

Dunne looked back to Buck for support, but the older man seemed to be concentrating on the road away from the farm.  “Ma’am, Vin’s real sick…and maybe Ezra too,” he added sincerely and felt a wash a satisfaction that he’d finally garnered Nettie’s attention. 

“Vin’s sick?” Nettie clarified.  “Well what are we waitin’ for?  Hitch up that wagon, young man, and let’s be on our way.  He’s in town?  That right?” 

“No ma’am…I mean he’s sick and all, but he ain’t in town…” 

“What cha talkin’ about, JD?” Casey interrupted, struggling to follow the path of the conversation. 

“Thing is…they might have putrid fever…” he sighed at the sudden gasp from Nettie Wells.  “Nathan said that they can’t come into town, and we was wondering,” Dunne kicked at the dirt on the ground with the toe of his boot, “if they could come here ‘til they get better.”  JD couldn’t even admit to himself that it could be a possibility they would die. 

Casey grabbed at her aunt’s arm and glared accusingly at JD.  “I can help…” 

“No, there’s nothing you can do.  Now hush girl!”  She glanced over to the ladies’ man and clasped her weapon tighter.  “How long do we have?” 

“Not long, ma’am.  They should be right behind us.” 

Nettie nodded and turned back to her home, perhaps seeing it for the last time. Her home may need to be burned after the disease entered it.  But she couldn’t deny these seven men the right to use her place; she’d willingly make the sacrifice.  “Casey, pack a bag… and hurry girl!” 

“You ain’t gonna let them kick us out of our house, are you, Nettie?” 

“Now, Casey!” she ordered sternly. 

“Thank-you, Mrs Wells.”  JD smiled wanly. 

“There’s clean sheets on both the beds, and I’ve just finished baking bread and biscuits.  Plenty more linen in the chest off the kitchen, if it’s needed.” 

“I’ll be sure ta let ‘em know, Mrs Wells,” Buck thanked obligingly.  

Dunne hitched the wagon and escorted Casey and her Aunt into town, leaving Buck to stand watch over the ranch house until Tanner and Standish arrived.




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