over his shoulder and scowled at their entourage. Larabee,
Jackson and Sanchez flanked them a good twenty yards behind.
followin’?” Tanner grunted.
indeed escorting us to the Wells’ residence,” Standish agreed
disgruntled. As if they were planning on going anywhere else.
He wiped the fine beads of sweat off his forehead and drank down a swallow
from his flask. “I’d offer you some, but Mr. Jackson was quite
adamant about your intake of alcohol. Perhaps some water?”
want ta lie down,” he replied weakly.
“We are almost
there, Vin,” Ezra predicated. Another ten minutes in the saddle
should see them at the ranch. “I’ll wager Mrs Wells has baked up
a storm for you.”
Tanner returned. “’Sides I ain’t hungry.”
“She does have
a soft spot for you,” Ezra teased.
just being neighbourly, is all.”
“Ah, come now,
Mr. Tanner. She treats you like a long lost son.”
mighty jealous there, pard,” the tracker croaked.
his head; he was indeed envious of the paternal mothering Nettie Wells
smothered unconditionally on Vin Tanner. It was amusing to watch the
pair at times. It was so unlike anything he’d ever received from
his own mother and he wondered if that was how a normal relationship
between a mother and son should be. Maude was not, and had never
been, the clingy type. She was not one to fuss, kiss or cuddle or
show any virtuous affection, unless it was advantageous to a situation.
Standish often contemplated how much his mother really loved him, and if
she did at all. There were so many times during his formative years where
he’d been dumped on his relatives and left without knowing when Maude
would return. During those times he figured his mother wished
she’d never given birth to him.
She had never
made him anything special, like Nettie Wells did for Vin, and on a whole,
even forgot his birthdays. Useless sentimentality, she’d say.
There was one birthday Maude remembered though, his sixth. She’d
gotten him a present; it was his first deck of cards. He had been so
excited and he still treasured that deck; it was safely tucked away in his
room over the saloon. He didn’t use them in any of his high stake
poker games, as the corners were ragged and several cards were creased
badly and some even torn, but he did pull them out occasionally and play a
game of solitaire with them.
over at his friend and was surprised by the far-away expression on the
gambler’s face. Vin wasn’t serious when he mentioned that
Standish might be jealous, because he didn’t figure the statement could
be farther from the truth, but the long drawn-out silence made the tracker
believe that maybe there was some merit to his comment. “We’re
here, Ezra. Reckon I could do with a hand ta get down.”
dropped to the ground from Chaucer and swayed needing to steady his
position by holding on to his mount; he wondered if Vin noticed, but
assumed he hadn’t when nothing was said. Bringing the scene back
into focus, he rolled his shoulders and straightened his stance.
Damn, it was good to get out of the saddle. And there was nothing
wrong with him that a steaming hot bath would not remedy – or so he
tried to convince his weary frame. “Time to get you inside, Mr.
Vin threw his
leg over the saddle horn and balanced precipitously. Standish stood
with a wide stance, but was still not prepared for the weight of the
tracker as he slid to the ground. Ezra felt his knees strain with
the extra burden and he leant Tanner against Peso as he adjusted his hold.
Jackson appeared on his left and the black man swooped in to help ferry
W…what are you doing?” Ezra stuttered.
think I was going to leave Vin’s care up to you, did you, Ezra?”
And who would look after you when you fell ill? he wondered.
“Neither of us
has distemper, Nathan, but I am grateful that you would selflessly commit
yourself,” Standish stated. He knew the fears and reservations
pitted against himself and Tanner. He was stunned by Jackson’s
altruistic approach to their welfare even though there could be no
possible way they could have contracted the disease. Was there?
Nathan easily dismissed, although he was more than a little troubled.
“Let’s get you inside, Vin,” Jackson urged with concern, anxious to
examine his patient.
tiredly and allowed both men to transport him to the bedroom and deposit
him on the large double bed.
immediately, not going farther than the top steps of the veranda and
addressed his fellow peacekeepers. He didn’t smile; he was far too
worried. “Distemper, or putrid fever, is contagious,” he stressed seriously,
“and it don’t take much to keep on spreadin’. It will strike
down anyone, it don’t play favourites. Kids are usually more at
risk, but that don’t mean it won’t attack an adult. I don’t
want any of you to come any closer than you already are! None of you
are to step inside this house. You’ll be safe if you stay
away…probably should head back to town…”
Larabee informed the solemn group.
and Sanchez agreed with Chris.
“Ya both heard
what Nathan had to say…we ain’t gonna be able to help any from out
here. He don’t need you to stay…and the town still needs
protecting…” Larabee stated.
growled and Josiah snarled at the gunslinger.
friends too, Chris. I want to be here,” Buck adamantly stated.
“Reckon JD ought to stay in town, though.”
“I want to
stay also,” Sanchez added loudly.
“We need at least another in town with JD.”
ain’t going,” Buck growled. He knew JD would be safe in town,
but if he were out at Nettie’s ranch the young gunslinger might do
his arms and stared down both men, neither flinched under the deadly
glare. “Ain’t a choice, someone’s going,” he barked.
draw straws,” Josiah challenged, not wanting to leave either. The
preacher moved into the cluster of trees and picked up a small branch and
broke it into three pieces – two were of much the same length, but the
third piece was longer. He arranged them in his large fist and
returned to Buck and Chris. He silently held out his hand and both
men reached to take one at the same time. It left one in his hand
for himself. Even as Josiah opened his palm he knew the remaining
stick was the longest one. His face dropped. Lord it was so
unfair. He needed to be close, but the decision was final.
out just yet, Josiah,” Chris said. “We’ll give Nathan a while
longer, maybe they don’t have it…”
Saber over to the shade trees, leading the black by the reins; he looped
the reins over a low branch and tethered it beside Buck’s grey. He
began unsaddling the gelding; it gave him something to do. So he
took his time with the horse. When there was nothing left to do, he
sat in a circle with Buck and Josiah, who were intently watching the
house. “Have any trouble getting the ladies out?” Chris asked
talked ‘em around,” he answered proudly. Wilmington pointed to
Standish, Tanner and Jackson’s abandoned horses. “Reckon it
would be alright if I put ‘em in the barn?” He wanted something
to do also, Buck hated waiting.
at the three horses and back at the moustached man. He licked his
lips and shot an inquiring glance at the preacher, who in turn shrugged
his shoulders. “Dunno, Buck. Best we just leave them for the
time being. They ain’t gonna stray far.”
“So what are
we gonna do?” he asked.
“Just wait, I
guess,” Larabee nodded at the closed door. The gunslinger was not
used to having to wait and the time was bound to pass slowly. He
hunkered down to the dirt and stirred a stick in the dry earth. He
didn’t look up when a firm hand gripped his shoulder and squeezed it
reassuringly. Trust Buck to understand how he was feeling. He
couldn’t bring to words the concern he felt for Tanner, and Standish –
now that in its self was a surprise. Damn it, yes, he was worried
about both men. When they had stopped the travellers from returning
to town, his gut had twisted in knots at seeing his friend doubled over
the saddle. But Nathan had promised this was for the best. But
best for who? They needed to keep them safe, protect them from
the town, and protect the town from the disease.
Larabee kept up
a resolute scrutiny on the Wells’ home for movements behind the windows,
but nothing stirred as far as he could make out. How long would it
take for the healer to ascertain the cause of Vin’s illness? And
what exactly could Jackson do to bring the younger man back to full health
if he did indeed have the fever? Would Nathan have to watch Vin
struggle to take each breath and then Ezra, too? Who would nurse the
healer when Jackson contracted the sickness?
Chris had known
only a handful of people who had suffered the disease and none of those
had survived the attacks. Admittedly, that was when he was a
youngster himself. He was lucky to have escaped contracting the
sickness at the time that his peers succumbed. How he didn’t come
down with the symptoms, to this day baffled him. Now it seemed like
Tanner, and possibly Standish, would become statistics of the dreaded
disease. And Nathan too, he added with a defeatist sigh. All
his friends. He couldn’t bear to lose them like this.
be fine,” Buck’s platitude broke into his thoughts.
his head and shook it slightly; nobody could guarantee that, not even
Jackson had promised to make Vin better. He smiled wanly and snapped
the branch he been scrawling with in half. Straightening, he looked
deeply into Wilmington’s blue eyes and saw the fear that lurked in
understanding. “Don’t know that for sure, Buck.”
preacher smiled broadly; the gesture did not reach his eyes. He
tipped his hat up a fraction and wiped the sweat from his tired face.
“It’s not always easy to wait for bad news…sometimes it’s best to
put that aside and focus on the good.”
mean, Josiah?” Buck frowned in confusion. Sometimes the
older man could confuse him worse than Standish with his hidden and double
writing off our brothers, before we know what ails them,” he translated.
in agreement. He wasn’t planning on leaving until he was satisfied
there was nothing he could do. He’d set up camp and keep a vigil.
put him in Nettie’s room,” Jackson ordered, “the bed is bigger in
there.” They lowered the lean tracker to the mattress and Standish
withdrew to allow the healer room to examine Tanner. “How you
automatically rolled on his side and tucked up his legs. “W’ll
be fine,” he slurred, “Just need ta rest up a bit.”
over and felt Tanner’s forehead, frowning at the warmth that greeted his
hand. Jackson sat his hip on the edge of the bed and urged his
patient onto his back, calling over his shoulder to Ezra who hovered at
the edge of the room. He wanted the Southerner to light a lantern
and bring it closer. While he waited for the gambler to return,
Jackson gently probed the glands on Vin’s neck and was pleasantly
surprised to find them not enlarged. Something positive at last.
“Can you open
yer mouth, Vin?” With the lantern’s reflective light he peered
down the tracker’s throat, looking for the distinctive grey texture that
was expected with distemper, but to his astonishment it was faintly red,
which was more consistent with a cold. He set the oil lamp on the
floor and pursed his lips. He flared his hand over his jaw in
concentration, unaware that he was frowning. “Where exactly are ya
hurtin’, Vin?” he asked suspiciously.
Tanner traced a
line down his abdomen and fanned his hand over his right side.
the extremity and laid it by his side, lifting up the Texan’s shirt.
“What is it,
Mr. Jackson?” Standish watched the healer, alarmed at Nathan’s change
gently prodded Vin’s exposed belly. He moved his hands over the
tracker’s heated skin and his frown deepened. “It hurts here?”
Nathan asked, but didn’t need Vin to voice a reply as he drew up his
legs and cried out in pain. He attempted to bat away Jackson’s
Jackson sat back
on the edge of the bed, closing his eyes thoughtfully. He heard the
Southerner move restlessly behind him and voice another question.
“Vin, I reckon it’s yer appendix.”
got distemper?” Standish smiled.
rule that out just yet, but maybe not. How long has he been sick
since we left Durango, but he was oddly subdued during the journey to
reach there - at least three days, but possibly more. You can give him
something to treat this episode?”
Nathan bowed his
head. He felt Vin’s intense gaze on him, waiting for a response to
the gambler’s query. “Ain’t that simple.”
talking about?” Vin panted.
“I reckon your
appendix is gonna burst. That’s why yer been feeling so bad. And
you need an operation, Vin, to remove it before that happens. An’
I don’t think…”
into the room and captured the taller man’s arm, pulling him off the bed
and hustling him from Nettie’s room. Standish rounded on the
healer the instant they were out of Tanner’s earshot. “You can
not just allow him to die because you won’t perform the surgery,” he
stared wide eyed in horror.
pulled his arm free of the gambler’s hold. “I ain’t a doctor!
I might kill him if I tried to do it.”
Tanner’s chances, if we wait for a competent surgeon to arrive, are
what? Assuming there is somebody capable and able to reach here in
his head, not willing to meet the stormy green eyes of the Southerner.
“I don’t reckon he’ll last another episode,” he admitted.
“Then why are
we wasting time discussing this? We either watch Vin succumb or you
use your skills and save his life.” Standish jabbed his finger
into the middle of Nathan’s chest to further enhance his point.
Jackson was Vin’s only hope.
never done this on my own before, Ezra,” Nathan whispered nervously.
“I’ve only seen it done…”
“Then you at
least know what to do,” Ezra interrupted quickly.
reluctantly nodded his head. But it was years ago, and could he
remember everything? He glanced at Tanner through the open door; his
back was curled tight on the side of the bed, his knees tucked high to his
chest. Jackson came to his decision and rushed from the corridor and
back inside the bedroom. “I need these things from town…” he
called over his shoulder, knowing Standish had followed him and proceeded
to list off several items.
scrambled to the door, flinging it wide. He stood silhouetted in the
frames; staring at the lawmen who ultimately came to attention the instant
Ezra opened the door. “Nathan needs some items from his room,”
he spoke with an urgency that spurred Sanchez to his horse.
handed the preacher the list he’d hastily scribbled and then Sanchez was
on his way to retrieve the healer’s equipment.
going on?” Chris asked, attempting to see past the gambler and inside
is convinced Vin requires urgent surgery to remove his appendix,” he
held up his hand, stopping the gunslinger from coming closer.
“Stay back please, Mr. Larabee. Mr. Jackson is quite serious about
maintaining the quarantine. Please do not attempt to enter the
squeezed Chris’ forearm. “So he ain’t got this distemper?”
“That has not
been ruled out yet,” Standish admitted soberly.
you’d best get back inside, ‘fore Nathan starts hollering,” Buck
“That would be
appropriate. I shall endeavour to keep you informed.”
Standish held eye contact with Chris, vowing to assist the healer in every
leaned forward and spoke softly to Chris. “He look okay to you?”
his head to the side and skewered his oldest friend with a bewildered
look. “Standish?” he confirmed and Buck nodded. Larabee
shrugged, he’d not been paying much attention to the Southerner, other
than absorbing the news he brought to share. “Reckon he’s just
“Yeah, I guess,” Buck answered thoughtfully.
straightened, and tiredly rubbed at his lower back. He’d scrubbed
the table as Jackson had instructed and collected water from the well and
set about boiling it. He looked grimly at the blisters forming on
his hands and sighed. He was not intended to perform manual labour.
He desperately wanted to slide into a bed and forget the rest of the
world. It had been a most arduous excursion home, and he was feeling not
quite up to par.
“I need clean
sheets and towels, Ezra,” Jackson shouted from the bedroom door.
He returned to his patient’s side. “Has Josiah come back yet?”
he yelled from Vin’s bedside.
around the doorway, leaning into the wall. “No. I will
inform you immediately when he returns…”
“What the hell
is taking him so long?” Nathan cursed under his breath. Jackson
dipped the sponge in the basin of water and wiped it along Vin’s chest.
The Texan had slipped into a restless sleep while they waited for the
supplies. The longer he had to think about it the more he was
convinced that he shouldn’t perform the operation. He was angry
with Standish for goading him into making the decision, but he still felt
he had the time to reconsider. He’d need the gambler’s
assistance and Jackson wasn’t convinced Standish was the right person
for the job.
Nathan called out impatiently, drawing the gambler back in sight.
“I need that water boiled!”
attempting to curb his tongue. It was not his place to question
Jackson and he was out of his depth at the moment. “It will
be ready before long…”
the table? It has to be scrubbed clean…” Nathan stood and took a
step towards the kitchen. “Maybe I should check…”
Nathan! I have followed your every direction.” Ezra raised
his arms in frustration.
“Well I need
ya ta put them clean sheets on it, then set up another table the same.”
deeply and closed his eyes in an effort to compose himself. He
opened them to find Jackson staring at him intently. Ezra backed out
of the room before Nathan could say another word. “I shall
continue with the preparations.”
rode on the wings of the very demon he professed to dispel. The
journey into town from Nettie Wells’ was completed with great speed and
little care. He rode at the incredible speed down the main road
until he reached his goal. Josiah took the stairs up to the clinic
three at a time, his large boots barely hitting the boards as he bounded
up the flight.
footfalls on the landing, and hazarded a guess as to whom they belonged
to, but he kept bent over the task of filling the knapsack with the items
from Nathan’s list.
stepped inside the clinic. “Has something happened?”
He’d only managed to get Mrs Wells and Casey settled in the Hotel when
the former preacher galloped madly through town. Dunne had hastily left
the women, with a promise to inform them of any changes, and immediately
followed Sanchez up to the clinic.
that it’s Vin’s appendix…and he’s gotta take it out.”
concerned for the Texan. “And Nathan can do that?”
otherwise he wouldn’t be askin’ for all this stuff,” Josiah gruffly
answered. He glanced about the room once more, slipped a couple of
bottles into the bag and strode to the door. “I’ll take this
back out, then come back into town.”
might head on out to Nettie’s place again…”
Sanchez paused, knowing that what he said was going to say would affect
the younger man. “It’d be best for you to say in town. Chris
wants someone here to keep an eye on the place. I’ll be joining
you here, too, so you don’t have to worry on that score. Buck and
Chris are gonna make camp out front of Nettie’s. They’ll let us
know if anything goes down.”
JD. Now I really got ta be getting back. Nathan wanted this
the preacher down the stairs. “Will you make sure, Nathan checks
Ezra, too? He didn’t look so good.”
“Brother Ezra is probably tired from tending Vin. Don’t go
fretting, over him.” If Standish were ill, Jackson would have
surely noticed by now. He kneed the large bay and broke into full
flight, returning via the shortest possible route.
Jackson shouted. “Not too much! Just a drop at a
time…don’t try and drown him in it,” the healer admonished.
hand shook; this was not a task that he’d undertaken before.
Administering anaesthesia was not in his job description. “I am
doing the best I can…”
his hands on the table irately. “This ain’t a game, Ezra!
Once I start cuttin’ into Vin, I can’t be watching you as well.
I sure as hell don’t need you complaining and griping at me. I
need to know yer gonna do the job and aren’t gonna quit before it’s
Ezra closed his
eyes wearily; thank goodness he’d had the sense to acquire a seat before
he’d started. “You have my solemn oath that I shall endeavour to
fulfil your requirements.”
Jackson muttered and with a steady hand made his first incision.
Thank God, Josiah returned when he did. If he had been any longer,
Nathan suspected he would have baulked at performing the operation.
Even now, he did not feel confident.
back as though he’d never forgotten. And as he suspected, Vin’s
appendix was ready to rupture. The operation lasted a little longer
than thirty minutes and he closed the tracker’s skin back together with
a sniff of satisfaction. With the innocuous organ removed, Vin
should begin to gain his strength. “You can stop that now,
Ezra,” Jackson glanced at the gambler and noticed for the first time the
unnatural pallor of Standish. “We’ll move him back to the bed;
he should wake up soon. Just gotta hope he ain’t gonna get no
still in awe of the healer’s skill, and a little nauseous also. It had
been difficult to watch Jackson cut and probe inside Vin’s abdomen.
And all that blood; it would need to be cleaned up before Nettie and her
protégé returned home. “He will be all right, now?”
said,” Nathan snapped, and came to a halt when he watched Standish
concentrating wholly on Tanner. He softened his tone; Ezra had
assisted admirably and held his tongue throughout the procedure and his
stomach contents. Many a man had lost their dinner while assisting
in such operations in the field, himself included, Jackson recalled.
“Should know in a few hours.”
Jackson with a smile. “Should we inform the others?”
“You can do
that. I want to stay with Vin for a while.”
leaving the healer to monitor Vin. Larabee was probably quite
anxious by now. “Mr. Larabee, Mr. Wilmington.”
Both men flew
into a standing position and Chris took a few steps to the ranch house
before Buck put a restraining grip around his arm. “How is
he, Ezra?” Buck asked.
Mr. Jackson, it all went well, and he should know within a few hours
Vin’s chances.” He saw the relief take over the gunslinger.
“Can we come
Ezra gripped the
upright tightly and leaned into the post. “Mr. Jackson, feels it
necessary to maintain…”
Larabee advanced on the gambler.
Buck warned, “Listen up, pard. He’ll let us in just as
soon…” Wilmington didn’t finish, his jaw hung loosely, frozen
as Larabee bolted pass his defence and slid into the bottom of the steps
to catch the falling Southerner. “Chris!” again he
stumbled to a stop. “Want a hand?”
“Nope…Stay where you are, Buck. I got him,” Larabee grunted as he lifted the unconscious gambler into his arms. He carried Standish inside the house. “Nathan!”
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