Below Par

By Yolande

Part Seven


Ezra glanced over his shoulder and scowled at their entourage.   Larabee, Jackson and Sanchez flanked them a good twenty yards behind. 

“They still followin’?” Tanner grunted. 

“There are 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?” 

“Nah…just 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.” 

“Ha, ha” Tanner returned.   “’Sides I ain’t hungry.” 

“She does have a soft spot for you,” Ezra teased. 

“Nettie is just being neighbourly, is all.” 

“Ah, come now, Mr. Tanner.  She treats you like a long lost son.” 

“Ya sound mighty jealous there, pard,” the tracker croaked. 

Standish bowed 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.  

Tanner glanced 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.” 

The Southerner 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. Tanner.”  

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 Tanner inside. 

“Mr. Jackson? W…what are you doing?” Ezra stuttered. 

“Ya didn’t 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? 

“Sure,” 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.  

Vin smiled tiredly and allowed both men to transport him to the bedroom and deposit him on the large double bed. 

Jackson returned 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…” 


Part Eight


“I’m stayin’,” Larabee informed the solemn group. 

Both Wilmington 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. 

Wilmington growled and Josiah snarled at the gunslinger. 

“They’re our 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. 

Larabee sighed.  “We need at least another in town with JD.” 

“Well, I 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 something rash.  

Larabee folded his arms and stared down both men, neither flinched under the deadly glare.  “Ain’t a choice, someone’s going,” he barked.  

“Then we’ll 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. 

“Don’t head out just yet, Josiah,” Chris said.  “We’ll give Nathan a while longer, maybe they don’t have it…” 


Part Nine


Chris guided 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 Buck. 

“Nope, JD 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.  

Larabee glanced 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.  

“He’s gonna be fine,” Buck’s platitude broke into his thoughts. 

Chris dropped 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.” 

The grizzled 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.” 

“What’s that mean, Josiah?”  Buck frowned in confusion.  Sometimes the older man could confuse him worse than Standish with his hidden and double meanings. 

“Don’t be writing off our brothers, before we know what ails them,” he translated. 

Larabee nodded 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.  


Part Ten


“Ezra, let’s 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 feelin’, Vin?” 

Vin automatically rolled on his side and tucked up his legs.  “W’ll be fine,” he slurred, “Just need ta rest up a bit.” 

Nathan reached 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.  “Here.” 

Jackson lifted 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 in demeanour.  

The healer 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 hand. 

“Agggg!  God, Nathan!” 

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.” 

“He hasn’t got distemper?” Standish smiled.  

“Ain’t gonna rule that out just yet, but maybe not.  How long has he been sick for, Ezra?” 

“Definitely 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.” 

“What ya 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…” 

Standish surged 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. 

Jackson roughly pulled his arm free of the gambler’s hold.  “I ain’t a doctor!  I might kill him if I tried to do it.” 

“And Mr. 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 time?” 

Nathan ducked 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. 

“I ain’t 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. 

Jackson 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.  

Standish 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.   

Wilmington handed the preacher the list he’d hastily scribbled and then Sanchez was on his way to retrieve the healer’s equipment. 

“What’s going on?” Chris asked, attempting to see past the gambler and inside the dwelling. 

“Mr. Jackson 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 premises.” 

Wilmington squeezed Chris’ forearm.  “So he ain’t got this distemper?” 

“That has not been ruled out yet,” Standish admitted soberly.  

“Reckon you’d best get back inside, ‘fore Nathan starts hollering,” Buck suggested. 

“That would be appropriate.  I shall endeavour to keep you informed.”  Standish held eye contact with Chris, vowing to assist the healer in every way possible.  

Wilmington leaned forward and spoke softly to Chris.  “He look okay to you?” 

Larabee turned 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 tired.” 

“Yeah, I guess,” Buck answered thoughtfully. 


Part Eleven


Ezra 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. 

Standish peered 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.  

“Ezra!” Nathan called out impatiently, drawing the gambler back in sight.  “I need that water boiled!” 

Standish sighed, 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…” 

“What about the table?  It has to be scrubbed clean…” Nathan stood and took a step towards the kitchen.  “Maybe I should check…” 

“It’s done, 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.” 

Standish sighed 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.” 


Part Twelve


Josiah Sanchez 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. 

He heard 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. 

“Josiah,” JD 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. 

“Nathan says that it’s Vin’s appendix…and he’s gotta take it out.” 

JD gasped, concerned for the Texan.  “And Nathan can do that?” 

“Reckon so, 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.” 

“Figured, I might head on out to Nettie’s place again…” 

“John,” 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.” 

“But I…” 

“I  know, JD.  Now I really got ta be getting back.  Nathan wanted this stuff urgently.” 

Dunne followed the preacher down the stairs.  “Will you make sure, Nathan checks Ezra, too?  He didn’t look so good.” 

Sanchez nodded.  “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. 


Part Thirteen


“Ezra!”  Jackson shouted.  “Not too much!  Just a drop at a time…don’t try and drown him in it,” the healer admonished.  

The gambler’s 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…” 

Jackson thumped 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 finished.” 

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.” 

“Finally,” 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. 

Everything came 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 infection.” 

Standish was 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?” 

“Like I 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.” 

Ezra graced Jackson with a smile.  “Should we inform the others?” 

“You can do that.  I want to stay with Vin for a while.” 

Standish nodded, 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. 

“According to 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 up…” 

Ezra gripped the upright tightly and leaned into the post.  “Mr. Jackson, feels it necessary to maintain…” 

“Aw crap!” Larabee advanced on the gambler. 

“Chris,” 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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