Disclaimer: The Sentinel, Blair Sandburg, Jim Ellison, Simon Banks, and all other characters are property of Paramount and Pet Fly. No copyright infringement is intended, and no money has exchanged hands.

Bitterwood Creek

by Arianna

My thanks go to…

… StarWatcher for her incredible beta work on this story. She has an unerring eye and ear that capture the grammatical and typographical glitches, but also allows her to hear the voice and rhythm of the story, so she provides invaluable coaching in helping me to make your reading experience as pleasurable as possible. Further, I must credit her with key research and substantive creative ideas; for example, she came up with the symbolism for Jim's senses …and though I had chosen the title out of thin air, her contributions in identifying a natural and centuries old remedy made an accidental title truly meaningful…

…and to Romanse for her continued enthusiastic encouragement. She also made very substantive suggestions on how to enrich this story from its original draft to its final finished version. Finally, this story came into being only because she asked me to consider creating something I would never have thought of doing…a TS AU situated in the Old West…

…and of course, as always, to Starfox, for coding and posting my stories in her beautiful Mansion…

I hope you'll have as much fun reading this story, as I had writing it!

********************

Thirty-two hooves pounded rhythmically into the trail, such as it was, kicking up dust and grit that rose in a choking, stinging cloud made larger by the cut of the four heavy, iron-rimmed wheels into the uneven, rocky terrain. Most of the billowing fog of loose sand roiled up behind the stagecoach, but some of it, inevitably, blew in the open windows on the hot, dry wind, thickening the air, making it hard to breathe inside the stifling interior without coughing. The creak of wood and the jangle of harness, the rumble of the wheels and the thundering hooves created an unholy racket, so that it was impossible to talk within the coach without shouting to be heard. Not that anyone was talking. The perpetual lurch and jerk of the stagecoach as it lumbered over rocks and ruts, and the unforgiving discomfort of the hard leather benches, had long past numbed everyone into a weary stupor of resignation. They stared into space or out the windows across the rolling prairie, toward the line of cottonwoods that followed the nearby river that wound lazily from the northwest across the endless rolling Kansas plains dotted with herds of cattle.

The river allowed some measure of escape for at least one passenger as he fantasized about how it would feel to walk naked into its cool depths and wash off the salt of sweat that dried instantly in the stifling heat, and the grit that got into every joint and wrinkle, matting hair and irritating eyes…he imagined the water's silky, luxurious rush over aching bones, soothing away the stiffness and fatigue…breathing the sweet, clear air that rustled through leaves above while floating in the dappled shadows of those arching trees, out of the harsh glare of the sun. Floating gently, cushioned by the river's strength to wherever it was flowing… hearing the lazy plop of a fish or the soft, gurgling rush of the water over stones by the sloping bank… peaceful and restorative…

He was jerked back to hot, dusty reality by the jolt of the stagecoach coming to a sudden stop. Blinking, he looked around, wondering what had broken the journey and realizing they must be close to the noon stop at Bitterwood Creek, a small oasis in a sea of grass burned brown by the relentless sun of still early summer. But, when he leaned forward to look out of the window cut into the top half of the narrow door, he could see they were yet a good ways from town, its wooden structures rising brown and gray against the pale blue, cloudless sky. Above and forward, he could hear the driver muttering to himself as he climbed down from the wooden bench, "Poor, luckless bastards…"

Frowning, he pulled on the small, metal latch of the door and pushed it open to step down to the ground.

"What's going on, driver?" he asked, curious. "Why have we stopped?"

"Well, I was just a'comin' to tell ya'll," the sun-weathered, lean man sighed as he took off his broad-brimmed hat to wave toward the town, or perhaps more particularly toward the yellow bandana hanging limply on a post pounded into the side of the trail. "Looks like they got some sickness yonder. Must be bad, for 'em to warn off travelers," he continued with a grimace of rough compassion as he mopped the runnels of sweat and dust from his brow with a faded and wrinkled handkerchief. "We'll have to water the horses at the river, and keep goin' 'til we hit the next stop."

The traveler could hear the other passengers mutter and groan, unhappy to know there'd be nothing to eat until suppertime, but he ignored them. Frowning thoughtfully as he gazed at the town, he asked, "They got a doctor in this town?"

"No, old Doc Wilcox died last winter," the driver replied sonorously, looking regretful. "He was a good man. Too bad, a tragedy really."

"What happened?" he asked, a hint of concern mingling with curiousity in his voice and eyes.

"Got caught in a sudden blizzard on his way back from attendin' a birthin'. Froze t'death," the driver sighed but then shrugged in resignation. Life could be hard on the prairie.

He winced and shivered, despite the heat of the mid-June, noonday sun. Gazing again at the yellow rag, his generous lips compressed in thought, and then he nodded to himself. It wasn't as if he was heading anywhere in particular. He'd thought he'd only be passing through Bitterwood Creek on his way to somewhere else, but this town was as good as any, and it seemed they needed him. "Better pull my bags down from the top," he said, sturdily determined in his posture and tone. "I'll be staying here."

"Are you loco?" the dust-covered driver demanded in astonishment, as he pointed again at the tattered flag of warning. "Son, people are dyin' in Bitterwood Creek!"

"I know, and that's why I'm staying," he said evenly, his clear blue gaze lifting to meet the startled gray eyes of the driver. "I'm a doctor."

"Ah, well, if'n you're sure," the rugged, middle-aged man replied uneasily as he regarded the young man standing quietly before him. He seemed hardly more than a kid, with his worn, but carefully mended, blue shirt, the sleeves rolled up to bare lightly bronzed, lean forearms and hands, faded jeans, and scuffed boots. His hair was a wild mane of dark chestnut curls that the hot, dusty wind blew around his face, while wide, very vivid, blue eyes returned the driver's uncertain gaze with steady calm.

"I'm sure," he said with quiet determination as he turned and pointed up at his three, travel-worn bags.

Minutes later, he had a canvas pack over his shoulder, his leather medical bag in one hand and his battered suitcase in the other. He nodded courteously to the driver and the other passengers as he took his leave of them, and turned to stride resolutely toward the town.

"Good luck to ya, son!" the driver called out before climbing back up to his wooden bench. "Hiya!" he called to his horses and whipped the reins to urge them into motion, and moments later the stage was rattling toward the river, and then onward across the Kansas plains.

********************

Dust devils whirled and danced on the wide street that ran through the center of the town. It wasn't much, more of a village, really, with its clapboard church and one-room schoolhouse, a good-sized general store, blacksmith, livery stable, land registry office, post office and saloon. There was one two-story hotel that claimed clean rooms and good food, with a public bath next door; on the other side of the hotel was a barbershop, that boldly asserted that teeth could be pulled there. A bank, solidly built of stone with a broad glass window, stood across the street; and next to it was a bakery that advertised home-cooked meals could be had inside. The sheriff's office and jail; a newspaper office and print shop on one side, the deserted doctor's office with grimy windows and living quarters above, on the other; a boarding house; and a telegraph office pretty much rounded out the businesses. There were houses scattered on the far end of the town center, most of them arranged around the church, closer to the creek that supported the growth of shade trees - mostly willow and elder, with the odd sycamore and oak, and stands of birch and aspen. The houses, like the business establishments, were mostly built of weathered wood, though some looked more prosperous and were painted, with broad verandahs and tended paths.

Returning his attention to the street he was walking along, the young doctor noted the dusty boardwalks that lined the thoroughfare, about two feet above the ground - unnecessary at this time of year, but no doubt appreciated when the street was a river of mud in the spring and slushy, icy muck in the dead of winter. Some of the wood-planked walks, in front of the deserted doctor's office, newspaper office, hotel and barbershop, were covered and sported wooden chairs or benches for people to sit awhile to gossip, and watch the activity on the roadway. Hitching rails and water troughs stood sturdily in front of every establishment. In the back, out of sight - 'But not scent,' he thought wryly as he sniffed - he knew he'd find the outhouses: privies, washhouses, sheds, chicken coops and wagons as well as small private stables for horses and maybe the odd milch cow. Since he didn't see many wells in plain sight, he figured he'd also find them back of most establishments and homes, and he wondered if that's what had caused the sickness - wells dug in ground where waste soaked in too close by, polluting the soil and hence the water that filtered through it.

The place looked deserted, as if everybody had upped and moved away, abandoning the town to the eerie low moan of the wind and the dusty, shifting sand. But he knew the appearance was deceptive. The people would be inside their homes, fearfully avoiding contact with their neighbours, and safeguarding their children - either frightened of catching ill themselves or struggling desperately to care for those already stricken. And the sick, if there were so many that it had warranted that yellow rag of warning outside town, where would they be? Many were probably in their own homes, but surely if the situation warranted quarantining the town, some few must be caring for the others who were unable to care for themselves? In the church, maybe? Most likely, as it would both provide the floor-space required and give the comforting illusion of being closer to God that He might better hear their desperate prayers.

He was headed that way when a door banged from the street behind him and he turned at the sound. A slender, sandy-haired woman had just come out of the telegraph office and, seeing him, was looking at him curiously.

"Didn't you see the warning outside town?" she called out, one hand lifting to shade her eyes from the sun's glare.

"Yes, I did," he replied with a tentative smile, as he walked back toward her. She looked to be in her mid-twenties, her hair not yet gray. And she looked very tired, her plain but pleasant face pale and worn by worry, her clothes wrinkled, as if she might have been sleeping in them, likely in a chair by someone's bedside. "I was passing through on the stage and thought I might be of some use. My name is Blair Sandburg, and I'm a doctor."

She sighed and her shoulders slumped as if a great burden had just been lifted from them. Smiling wearily in return, she nodded as she said with devastating sincerity, "Dr. Sandburg, you're the answer to our prayers. Welcome, sir, to Bitterwood Creek. I'm the school teacher, and my name is Nellie Bascome."

********************

Captain James Ellison, US Cavalry, led his scout patrol warily around Chief Running Deer's village in Poplar Flats. The patrol had left their horses farther back in a copse of trees - the better to remain undetected - and approached stealthily under the cover of the thickly growing brush and willows by the stream. His men were nervous, uneasy, and they undoubtedly had every right to be - tensions between the whites and the Indians had broken out into sporadic raids and massacres wherever settlers were putting their roots down across the west. But so far as Ellison could determine, as he strained to hear the activity in the camp without getting too close that their presence would become known, Running Deer seemed to have brought his people into line and was living up to the terms of the most recent treaty…

"Sir! Captain Ellison, sir! Is something wrong?" Corporal Shamus McAdam hissed urgently, keeping his voice low as he shook his unresponsive officer's arm.

"Huh?" Jim jerked back to conscious awareness of the world around him. Mortified, he rubbed a hand over his face and nodded as he murmured back, "Yeah, I'm fine - I was just, uh, listening to what's going on in the village."

McAdam looked confused as his gaze shifted from his Captain to the village some good distance away and back again. "You can hear them, sir?"

"Well, enough," Ellison replied brusquely, as he swiveled on one knee to head back the way they'd come. "Round up the others and let's get back to our mounts. Everything's quiet here, and it looks like Running Deer has settled down. At least for now."

As they rode back to the fort, Ellison chewed his lip in silence, once again preoccupied with his well-hidden anxiety about why, since the War, he seemed to slip into these waking fainting spells. He didn't understand them, or why they happened, because he didn't feel ill, except for the headaches that plagued him when the light was too bright or he was surrounded by too much noise and confusion. Oh, sometimes foods bothered him, seeming suddenly too sweet or spicy, and his woolen clothing caused a rash from time to time, but he was hale and strong. The mysterious malady frankly scared him, as did the times when sounds seemed to crash into him like a physical blow, or his eyes played tricks on him, making him think he could see for miles - because the spells were unpredictable and, therefore, dangerous. What if he lost track of all awareness, freezing into an unresponsive stupor in the midst of a battle? By ignoring the spells, he knew he was unquestionably putting himself at risk, but what troubled him far more was that he could also be putting his men in danger - and that, for someone who bore his leadership responsibilities as a kind of sacred commitment, was utterly unacceptable.

********************

Nellie took Blair around Bitterwood Creek to see all the people who had succumbed to the disease…at least, those who were still alive. As they walked, she did her best to tell him what had happened. In the past week, not a family had been spared, with at least one child and frequently more, as well as some adults - mostly ones who were elderly and not strong - suffering from the grave illness. The stricken were delirious with fever, complaining bitterly of throats that felt like they were on fire, and in considerable breathing distress. While most people were still trying to manage in their homes, about fifteen had been taken to the church to make caring for them easier. As they passed the small, well-tended cemetery beside the church, she mournfully told him that six children under the age of two, and one old grandmother had already succumbed to the disease. In a population consisting of fewer than two hundred souls, each individual death brought grief, and increasing fear, to all the rest.

Blair paused for a moment, looking at the hand-carved, engraved stones or lovingly crafted wooden markers. Sadly, he shook his head as his gaze wandered further, the grave markers telling their own grim story of the harshness of life on the prairie. Children were disproportionately represented, the coincidence of dates on various markers hinting that this wasn't the first time the town had suffered a wave of deaths over a short period of time, through some contagion or another. But there were also a heartrending number of markers that indicated too many children hadn't lived more than a day or two after being born; some not even lasting a day, or perhaps stillborn, who hadn't lived long enough to be given a name of their own. On too many markers there was only the family name followed by Baby Girl, February 16, 1861, or Baby Boy, August 23, 1857, to say those poor little babes hadn't had any chance at all. Plots were clustered in family groupings, and he could read the sorrows and tragedies that many families had endured as they struggled to raise children on the prairie. It gave him a deeper sense of the history of these people he was about to meet - and a profound empathy for how very frightened so many must be that they would lose their precious children to this most recent sickness.

Gently, as he went from house to house, he examined each patient, listening to them breathe as he took their pulses, testing their reflexes, checking their ears, throats, necks and underarms, palpitating their abdomens, and gauging the heat of their fevers against the skin of his inner wrist. Though his manner remained reassuring and steady, inwardly he was both troubled by the seriousness of their disease, and deeply relieved to not have found any buboes that would have signaled plague. Nevertheless, his patients were very ill, suffering considerable discomfort and malaise, and this disease had already proven it was both very contagious and could kill. Behind his easy smile and kind eyes, he grimly catalogued their symptoms in his mind: breathing difficulty, husky voices, enlarged lymph glands, increased heart rate, the stridor or shrill breathing sound he could hear as they dragged in air, copious greenish-yellow nasal drainage, swelling of the palate on the roof of their mouths, obviously very sore throats, and low-grade fevers. In many cases, he noticed the telltale membrane that was forming over the throat and tonsils. It was this membrane, he knew, that did the killing, cutting off the victim's ability to breathe, and asphyxiating them. It was a terrible, frightening, way to die. When he found that symptom, he acted quickly, using a mixture of baking soda and water as a mouthwash, and urging his patients to cough to clear away and spit out its residue.

In three urgent cases, he immediately saw that such prophylactic measures would clearly be inadequate, as the young children were in dire danger of imminent death. To the horror of the parents looking on, he had to perform an urgent, unavoidable tracheotomy upon each of those three suffocating little ones. Blair had the panicking parents look at the membrane to know it was real, and he explained to them why his radical treatment was necessary if they wanted their son or daughter to survive. When, sorely frightened, desperate in their hope, they gave uncertain permission, he pulled a sharp scalpel from his bag, washed it and his hands with soap and water, and then held the blade in a candle's flame to cleanse it. Though not all his professors or colleagues thought such routine cleansing was necessary, he'd recently read an article in a medical journal from Britain postulating that disease was passed by tiny, invisible entities called germs - and that it appeared frequent cleansing of the hands with soap and water, as well as the sterilization of equipment and materials through immersing them in extreme heat for several minutes - either boiling water or fire - could reduce the incidence of infection and disease. Since he'd long ago learned firsthand that it was post-surgical infection that killed more patients than the original malady or injury, he'd taken the stark, if still disputed, lessons of that treatise to heart.

In each instance where he had to intervene immediately to save the child's life, the mothers whimpered with fear, while the fathers took their wives into their arms while gritting their jaws and glaring at him helplessly as he slit the small children's throats and windpipes just below their Adam's apples, and then eased in thin, hollow, glass curettes. But, when their child's breathing immediately eased, the parents gazed at him with awe and tearful gratitude. He told them how to keep the airway open, and that he'd be back to check on the child later. Then, as he had at every other stop, he told them how to fight the fevers with tepid baths as well as how to help their children breathe by leaning them over bowls of steaming water. Some, who believed too much bathing could be hazardous to the health looked at him askance, but nodded when he insisted. When the patients were in acute breathing distress, he also instructed them on the use of improvised tents of steam, employing basins of steaming water and towels; he gave them small amounts of oil of eucalyptus, that he pulled in a brown bottle from his bag and poured sparingly into small cups or bowls, to be added to the steaming water.

And then he moved on to the next house, and the next, completing his diagnosis of the disease and the extent of its spread in the town. When he was told of the old grandmother who had died the day before, he asked how she'd gone, and heard of chest pains, laboured breathing and swollen extremities. Nodding with compassionate understanding, he reflected silently that heart failure was one of the causes of death - particularly of the weak, whether very young or elderly - from the disease he was certain he was up against.

Finally, as he and Nellie walked up the church steps to enter into the lofty chapel, she told them the names of the three women who were helping to care for those whose own parents were ill, and for some of the elderly from homes where the sick children required time that could not be given to their care. As they stepped into the interior from the small porch outside, Sandburg couldn't help but notice the care and subtle artistry that had gone into its design. It was modest, yet peaceful; the plain wood of the chancel, the altar and the stark, simple cross, as well as of the pews (which were currently pressed against the walls), gleamed with natural beauty. Windows were cut into the walls along the sides creating a light, airy ambiance.

There were fifteen people lying on pallets on the floor, covered by homespun blankets, and three of the town's matrons were doing their best to provide comfort and care. Eleven children and four elderly people, all of them women, were in various stages of lethargy and compromised respiration.

Before he made his way around all of the sick, Nellie introduced him to the women who were nursing the others. Lucinda Gurney, whose husband worked in the saloon, was a blowsy brunette with the ripe complexion of a peach. Though her manner was unsophisticated, even a bit unconsciously forward, and she was the only woman in town he'd met so far who used rouge on her cheeks and lips, he was impressed with the warmth of the genuine kindness in her eyes. LeeAnn Raymond was married to the man who published the local weekly paper and sold stationary as well as other paper products. A tall woman with gold-spun hair caught in a chignon on her nape, shy in her manner, she had an air of natural refinement and delicacy as she moved with unconscious grace. She, too, exhibited kindness and a tender touch as she held a young child in her arms to help the little mite breathe.

And then there was Urseline Tucker, wife of the bank clerk in town. Bossy in her manner, mincing in an attempt to present herself as a woman of quality and substance, she was overly loud with the sick, her voice grating and far from restful. Still, observing her quietly from across the wide room as he entered, Blair assumed she must also be well motivated. Not everyone was blessed with Lucinda's natural, if rough, charm or LeeAnn's ethereal dignity. Curious about the handsome stranger, eager to take charge, Urseline Tucker bustled across the room to accost them before they were scarcely in the door. Nellie hastened to introduce him and she blustered out an exuberant welcome. Smiling, he turned away to begin assessing the condition of his patients, but she followed along on his heels, determined to learn all she could about this startling new doctor.

"Dr. Sandburg, ah, that's an unusual name," she fluttered, thinking herself subtle. "Where are you from, exactly?"

"Back east," he replied pleasantly as he knelt to examine a boy of nine or ten years who looked dull with lethargy and his weary effort to breathe. "I was just passing through on the stage and thought I might be able to lend a hand."

"Well, I'm sure we're very grateful and, may I be so bold as to say, I hope you'll be staying awhile," she carried on, fluttering her eyelashes at the handsome young man. "We've gone too long without a doctor in Bitterwood Creek. Dr. Wilcox was a fine man, to be sure, but not very sensible going out in that blizzard…"

"Mmm," Blair murmured as he ruffled the boy's hair and then moved on to the little girl on the next pallet.

"You know, I don't think I've ever met anyone by the name of Sandburg before," she dithered. "Really, most unusual. I must say, it's really too bad that your first visit to our church has to be under these deplorable circumstances, but I'm sure you'll see it as it should be on Sunday."

Blair blinked as he straightened, finished with the little girl, who'd said with a lisp that her name was Annie, and turned to Urseline. "I'm afraid, as I'm sure your Pastor understands, we'll be needing the church as a temporary hospital for at least a week, and if others fall ill, probably longer."

"Oh," she fluttered caught between being appalled and alarmed, her hand patting the base of her throat. "Pastor Stevens doesn't know about the sickness. He was called out of town, oh, almost a month ago now, because his dear mother had fallen ill." She looked away, wringing her hands in distress, though her tone indicated his mother had been quite inconsiderate, falling ill the way she had. "He wasn't sure when he'd be back, and every flock needs a shepherd, don't you think? Still, I'm sure he won't mind and he'll be glad to meet you the first Sunday he's back for services."

Blair lifted his chin slightly, and his gaze was direct though his tone was mild, as he replied, "I'll look forward to meeting him as well, but it won't be at Sunday prayer services. I'm Jewish, Mrs. Tucker."

"Jewoh, dear," she gasped, very flustered and, if the way she lurched backward was any indication, more than a little horrified. Looking wildly around the sanctuary, she faltered, "But, then, you must find it very awkward being in here."

"Not at all," Sandburg answered smoothly. "It's a fine building, very beautiful. And I'm quite comfortable in a House of God. But as my faith and traditions are different, I'm sure you understand why I won't be attending on Sundays."

With that, he turned to move to his next patient, leaving her more than slightly breathless with astonishment and somewhat in fear for her soul to have welcomed him and urged him to stay before knowing he was quite unsuitable. Putting distance between herself and the young doctor with unsightly haste, she darted over to whisper loudly to LeeAnn Raymond, "He's a Jew!"

LeeAnn merely nodded, unconcerned. Not getting the response she felt was warranted in the circumstances, Urseline peered at him over her shoulder as she observed, "But, don't you think it's odd for a Jew to be caring for good Christian folk in God's House?"

Lifting one brow, LeeAnn shook her head. "No, why should I? He's a doctor and these poor souls need his care."

"Well, that's very forgiving of you, my dear, I'm sure!" Urseline snipped righteously, "considering, his people crucified our dear Lord Jesus and it's blasphemy, that's what, him even being inside this holy place!" Her lips pursed and, flushed with indignation, she cast one last withering look at Blair and then flounced out of the church, clearly unwilling to countenance such 'blasphemy' herself.

Nellie was ready to die of embarrassment. "I'm sorry," she murmured to Blair, a bright blush staining her cheeks. "Mrs. Tucker is, well…"

But Sandburg just shook his head. "Don't worry about it," he smiled in return. "Meeting new people unsettles some folk."

Bowing her head, Nellie admitted uncomfortably, "Mrs. Tucker isn't the only person in Bitterwood Creek who is 'easily unsettled', I'm afraid," she told him softly, wanting to be honest, but mortified by the confession. Looking up at him, she went on with touching candour, "But, please, pay them no mind. You…you were so good to come to help us and we need you…"

"Really, it's alright, Nellie," Blair assured her with a wry grin of complicity, amused by the euphemism; so much more pleasant than 'bigoted' or 'discriminatory', which was why he'd come to employ the term; it caused less defensiveness but still allowed acknowledgement of the reality. "I've met lots of 'easily unsettled' people before. Don't worry - I came to help, and I will."

When he'd seen the last of the afflicted in the church, Sandburg waved Nellie outside where they could talk quietly. "It's not scarlet fever or measles," he told her, as she'd expressed her fears earlier that it might be one of those relatively common diseases that appeared without warning to carry off the lives of innocent children. "There are no spots or distinctive flushing of the skin. It's diphtheria."

"Oh, no," she sighed, shaking her head. Diphtheria was a voracious killer, and one for which there was no known cure.

"As you heard me explain to the parents as we went along, we need to bring the fevers down, by bathing the victims frequently with tepid water. And they all need to be encouraged to drink nourishing broths to keep their strength up," he told her. "I've noticed chicken soup seems to work wonders with some infections, though I don't know why." Chewing his lip, he added quietly, "Most of the kids seem like they were basically healthy and well-nourished before becoming ill, so they've got a good chance of beating this thing. We need to help them breathe, though. Breathing-in steam will help, and I've got a little more eucalyptus with me to keep us going. Can you get some of the healthier folk organized to haul extra buckets of water to every house and here to the church? We'll be using it up fast with the baths and the steam treatments. Wood will need to be chopped to keep the fires going, and maybe ten or so chickens could be slaughtered and boiled, the broth shared communally."

Blair paused as he gathered his thoughts. There was something else he needed but he hadn't brought sufficient supplies with him. As he looked toward the trees, he grinned with sudden wry awareness, belatedly realizing that the plethora of willows along the creek was probably why the town had been called Bitterwood Creek - either by the first settlers, who'd have known about old home remedies as they had to fend for themselves without a physician nearby, or maybe it was a translation from the original Indian name for the area. "And I need someone to peel off about a bucket's worth of bark from the willow trees down by the creek," he added, turning back to Nellie. "Try to ensure the bark is dry, as I'll have to pound it into a powder and steep it to make tea - it'll relieve their aches and help bring down the fevers. Tastes pretty bitter, so we'll need some honey to sweeten it, if it's available."

Glad of having something concrete and useful to do to fight the disease and save the children she'd come to love as her own, Nellie readily agreed to see his directions were immediately carried out. Then, thinking about what he'd said about running short of the meager supplies he carried with him, she ventured, "There might be more medicine in Dr. Wilcox's office…"

"Good idea," Sandburg agreed enthusiastically, rewarding her with a bright smile. "Who do I see about getting a key to the place?"

"The sheriff, Jeb Strong, will have it," she replied, pointing to the second house away from the church on the left.

Blair nodded - he'd met Jebediah Strong just a few minutes before. Three of his four children were ill and one of them had required an emergency tracheotomy. Sandburg had been impressed with the quiet strength and dignity of the man, his resolute determination to do, and accept, whatever was needed to ensure his kids got well. His wife, too, had been sensible, if still desperately afraid for her children - as he recalled, she'd taken in two neighbours' kids who were ill, sending her one still healthy child next door to what she hoped was a safer environment, still free of the ravaging disease.

When he strode back to the indicated house and asked for the key, Jeb gave it to him willingly and told Sandburg to make himself at home in the place, explaining that Old Doc Wilcox had lived alone and there'd been no one to claim his professional or personal belongings. Not only was there an office, according to the Sheriff, but also an adjoining storeroom in which the former physician had mixed and stocked his medicines, equipment and supplies. Further, in the back, also connected with the storeroom as well as the main hall, was a large infirmary, containing four cots for patients recovering from surgery that the doctor had performed on a specially crafted, high, narrow table in the center of the chamber. As well as the medical facilities, the spacious, clapboard building also held a private kitchen across the wide hallway from the office, where patients awaited their turn, and two good-sized bed-sitting rooms upstairs, one in front and the other in back. As far as Jeb was concerned, Sandburg was more than earning the 'inheritance' of the fully furnished home, office and infirmary.

Twenty minutes later, as Blair finished inspecting the office, small apothecary cum storeroom, airy combined surgery and recovery infirmary, and bright eat-in kitchen in the downstairs, and the two, good-sized bed-sitting rooms upstairs that provided comfortable personal living quarters, not to mention the well, privy and small stable with a cobwebbed-enshrouded buggy in the back, Blair couldn't help but shake his head in wonder and grateful delight.

Returning to the apothecary to inventory the stock of medicines, pitching that which was clearly too old to be useful and smiling as he found a good stock of eucalyptus, he murmured to himself, "Well, looks like you've finally found a place to put down some roots, Dr. Sandburg. Welcome to Bitterwood Creek."

********************

"But, sir, I don't understand…" Captain Ellison protested to his Major; shocked, he was certain he couldn't have heard correctly, or had misunderstood the new orders.

"What's to understand, Captain?" Major Rutherford asked him superciliously. "Your orders are clear. We will attack Running Deer's camp and kill all the murderous vermin before they have a chance to massacre any more decent people."

Honestly appalled, Ellison blinked and swallowed back his fundamental loathing of his superior. Rutherford might be a prime example of the worst officers in the military - rich, spoiled, undisciplined, arrogant and stupid - but that wasn't the issue or of any real import. The issue at hand was the incredible, and even criminal, abominable new orders. "With all respect, sir," Ellison argued forcefully even as he strove to maintain at least a thin approximation of deference for the role, if not the person, of his superior officer, "These orders are currently unjustified. I've just returned from Poplar Flats, and I can assure you that Running Deer is holding to the terms of the treaty…"

"As if the word of a savage means anything," the Major sneered disparagingly.

"Regardless, our word should mean something, sir; we promised him peace if he kept his people out there in the encampment and didn't cause any more trouble," Jim pressed, straining to keep his voice tone even and non-judgmental. "The vast majority of the people in that village are women and children…"

"Who will grow up to murder our wives and children in their beds," Rutherford cut in ruthlessly. "Enough, Captain. Your orders are clear. We will attack at dawn."

Ellison blinked and swallowed hard. He'd always followed orders, ever since he'd joined the Army at the age of thirteen, running away on his birthday from a rich but loveless home in Philadelphia. He'd fought for the North through the whole of the Civil War, and he'd found the experience so horrific as to be beyond his means to describe or express in mere words, even to himself. Though the War had ended the year before, he still had nightmares about the cold that ate through inadequate clothing, numbing hands and feet until they felt like blocks of ice, the filth of blood-soaked mud, the screams of wounded and dying men - too many of whom had been scarcely more than boys who should have been safe at home. The noise of cannon and musketry exploding, the endless marches with too little sleep or food. And the disease that killed twice as many men as the enemy did…

…but, in all of that time, for all of his twenty-two years in service to his country, he'd followed orders. Some he'd questioned, and some had left him feeling uncomfortable, but never before had he felt this - revulsion. This was wrong. The acts planned for the morrow were a pure, absolute, dishonorable - and, yes criminal - betrayal of a trust. And, most wretchedly loathsome of all, it was an abomination to willfully and deliberately ride with the express intent to kill helpless women and innocent children.

The very idea thoroughly sickened him to his soul.

The Indians were the enemy, fine. He would never hesitate to engage them in battle or to chase them down if they violated the terms of an existing treaty and left the land assigned to them, however poor it was. But in his heart, he knew much of the land given over to them could not sustain them without the provision of food from the Indian Agents. He wondered how such proud warriors could humble themselves forever without feeling the need to fight back to retake what they'd had - all the land that the settlers, or the ever-expanding railroad, now claimed.

Suddenly, Ellison felt unutterably weary, and filthy, as if the wanton cruelty embodied in the orders, and in the subjugation of a whole people, stained him personally somehow. Was this why he'd fought a war that had, in part, been to free people of colour from the abomination of slavery? To be sent out here to a western outpost so that he could turn around and kill people of another colour, just because they fought for what had been theirs? Massacre them, just because of who and what they were born to be?

No.

He just couldn't do it.

No.

Shifting his cold, furious, gaze from his superior's face to stare at the wooden wall of Rutherford's office, he made his decision. It was June fourteenth, his thirty-fifth birthday - his twenty-second anniversary in uniform but the time had come to take it off.

With grim formality, Ellison said brusquely, "I hereby submit my resignation. I'll be out of the Fort before sunset, sir."

"You're not serious!" Rutherford jeered, appearing to be frankly astonished. "You'd give up your career because of a few, filthy savages?"

Jim's gaze then shifted to meet the Major's eyes, and what Rutherford saw in those cold blue orbs made him take a step back. "The orders are wrong, and you know it," Jim said with quiet menace. "But I know very well I would have no choice to follow them, or face court martial, if I hadn't become fully eligible for retirement more than a year ago when the War ended, and able to take my leave at any time thereafter in accordance with regulation. However, I am eligible and I expect you to accept my resignation, effective immediately. Sir."

When Rutherford shook his head, looking as if he was about to refuse Ellison's resignation regardless of the regulations, Jim grated, "If more than twenty years of honourable service to our country, including throughout the whole of the worst war this nation has ever fought, doesn't compel you to adhere to my request, I hereby report to you that I am afflicted with a medical condition that makes me currently unfit for duty. I had fully intended to see the medic, following my report of the scouting mission to you, and have myself taken off the duty roster until my…condition could be diagnosed and treated. But that won't be necessary now - at least not here. Therefore, Major, as it turns out, I'm unfit for duty, anyway, so you have no choice in releasing me from the requirement to carry out these orders."

"What's wrong with you?" Rutherford demanded angrily, not believing a word of it. Ellison was, quite evidently, exceptionally healthy, his musculature well developed beyond performance requirements, his posture, bearing and demeanor conveying great strength and resolution. The Major had never seen anyone look less 'medically unfit' than the tall and vigorous officer standing before him.

"That, sir, is none of your business," Ellison snapped back scathingly. "If you'll excuse me, I'll put my resignation in writing and pack my gear."

Without waiting to be dismissed, Jim wheeled and left the Major's office, slamming the door on the way out.

Jim immediately wrote and submitted his formal resignation, but he'd underestimated Major Rutherford's reaction. He'd barely had time to change out of the wool uniform that badly irritated his skin, into a loose blue flannel shirt and jeans, when Rutherford arrived at his quarters with two armed, enlisted men. Before Ellison quite knew what was happening, he found himself marched under guard to the stockade under threat of being physically compelled if he didn't submit willingly. The barred door of the cell clanged as it was slammed shut and locked behind him, and then Rutherford abruptly dismissed the men who had escorted him to the fort's jail, leaving them alone.

"I don't trust you to uphold your vows of service to this country, the trust of your commission, or your loyalty to men you've led. I believe, if I let you ride out of this establishment now, you would warn the savages, destroying the element of surprise and forcing us to retreat before completing our mission. I will not allow that to happen. A stalemate would not be to this nation's benefit," Rutherford lectured coldly. "The orders are clear and will be followed - no matter how 'wrong' you think the action may be. These are savage murderers who cannot be trusted not to kill again. An example must be made, so that others of their kind understand that their continued atrocities and resistance will not be tolerated, but met with maximum force. The Indians will learn from this and submit to our domination. I'm convinced that, in the long run, more lives will be saved than lost. Regardless, the bottom line is that the job of this military is to safeguard and protect American lives. Whatever the cost."

So angry he was bereft of words, Ellison glared at Rutherford, and then deliberately turned his back on him.

Exasperated, Rutherford's eyes glinted with hate. "Be grateful I haven't charged you with insubordination and refusal to follow orders. But, frankly, I'd much rather be rid of you - you're a stiff-necked, self-righteous bastard, Ellison. And, you're right, you are unfit for duty. I've accepted your resignation and, once it's too late for you to interfere in matters which no longer concern you, you'll be free to go to the Devil for all I care." With that, the Major turned and stomped away.

For all the hours of the very long night that followed, Ellison paced his cell, utterly sickened by what was about to occur and almost mad with his frustrated helplessness to stop it. For all of Rutherford's pompously sanctimonious rationalizations, there was a line an ethical man didn't cross, not in honour or decency. But, as the hours trickled by, he was honest enough to admit that, in the long run, Rutherford and their superiors could well be right - maybe more lives would be saved than lost in the overall equation; maybe it was the military's job to serve and support, to follow their orders, at whatever cost. But - he couldn't accept that. Couldn't pay that price to the Devil. He wasn't God, so how could he know that killing a village of innocents would save other lives somewhere else when the Indians finally gave up their battle for their homeland? How could anyone, but God and the Devil themselves, know the ledger would balance in the end? Bitterly, he shook his head. Somewhere back in the War, he'd lost his belief that any compassionate God could possibly exist; he'd seen far too much wretched ugliness, cruelty and sorrow to give the idea of an Almighty Father much credence anymore. But the Devil? Oh, yeah, of that he was damned sure. Ellison had long, cynically, believed that the Devil existed - if only in the evil that lurked within the souls of men.

In the darkness of the cell, he felt trapped by more than cement walls and iron bars. His memories of the pain and despair and misery he'd seen for too many years rose to torment him, leaving him disgusted with the inability of men to find solutions, or compel agreement, other than by the force of their weapons. Yes, there had to be some order, the innocent protected, the guilty brought to justice - a time when all else failed and force remained the only option. But, God, he was tired of the bloodshed even when it was required; he couldn't stomach wanton destruction and death.

Finally, three hours after he'd heard the troop ride out just before dawn, and a full two hours after he'd heard the first distant thundering of continuous shooting and the screams that he knew would haunt him all his days, the guard unlocked his cell and waved him out. Sick to his soul at the atrocity, knowing there was nothing that he could do for the now dead victims of the massacre, he stalked stiffly back to his quarters. In a haze of fury and despair, he finished packing his personal gear in his saddle bags, buckled his double belt of matching six-guns around his hips, and pulled on his sturdy black, oiled-canvas, weatherproof duster. Jamming his black Stetson onto his head, he grabbed his saddlebags and bedroll, and strode out to the barn where he saddled the magnificent ebony stallion, Lobo, that was his own, and not the property of the US Cavalry. Mounting up, he turned Lobo toward the open wooden gates of the Fort and headed out without a word to anyone. As soon as he was clear of the high walls, he urged his mount into a fast gallop out across the open prairie. He knew it was crazy, that there was nothing he could do, but he couldn't ride away as if the atrocity hadn't happened. He felt compelled to go, if only to be the one white man who bore witness to the betrayal and see it for the abomination that it was.

By the time Ellison drew close to the remains of the camp at Poplar Flats, the Cavalry had long finished their grisly work and moved on, chasing after those few who had managed to escape with their lives. Smoke rose on the wind, acrid and harsh, sickening with its strong odour of roasting flesh. His lips compressed, fighting the nausea that threatened, Jim rode forward without pause - maybe there were some victims who still clung to life, some he might yet help. As he drew closer still, and could begin to clearly see revolting details of the utter destruction, he couldn't help cursing in futile fury as his hope of being of help to anyone died.

The camp that, the day before, had been a thriving tent city of more than two hundred people, was now a blackened wasteland. It was eerily silent, as if even the birds in the nearby copse of trees and the wind in the brush had been struck dumb by the horror of what had happened there. Slowly, Jim rode through the remains of the village, past still smoldering scraps that had been homes only a few short hours before. His throat tightened as he saw the pitiful, often scorched, bodies of the women and children, shot as they'd run in mad panic to find some place of safety, left to die of their wounds or by fire; the men, old, young, all warriors in their last moments, their corpses either between those of their families and the Cavalry as it had rampaged into the camp, or lying over other bodies, a last, pitiful attempt to protect when there could be no protection. Some few of the dead looked peaceful in their final repose, but the vast majority had died with terror on their faces, caught in mid-scream. The place stank of blood and fire - of death.

Though he had no real hope of finding any that still lived, Jim quartered the remains of the entire camp, to be absolutely certain there were none still clinging to life, hopelessly suffering. He counted 114 children, 42 women and 37 men…194 dead. As he stood at the edge of the smoky massacre and stared down at a girl that couldn't have been more than four years old, a cornhusk doll still clutched in her tiny hand and a great, gaping crimson hole in her chest, he fell to his knees and bowed his head, no longer able to stave off the tears of grief and pity, disgust and guilt.

If he'd ridden out immediately, without alerting Rutherford to his complete antipathy for their orders, he might have warned them, might have been able to stave off this attack. But he hadn't expected to be locked up. Stupid. So stupid. How could he have been so naïve as to think Rutherford would just let him ride away? He'd've been labeled a traitor, and his own men would have looked upon him with contempt and loathing for having perhaps placed their lives in danger by alerting Running Deer, but surely his useless life was worth less than all of these lives. He would have been shot by a firing squad, but at least he would have died for a reason. But he hadn't just ridden out in violation of his commission and the trust placed in him while he wore the uniform, however repugnant the orders had been; he'd still been acting from a basis of honour, where there was no honour - of trust, where trust had no place. He'd been a fool, and now these people, these innocents who'd believed the word of the US Cavalry and the terms of their treaty, were dead.

Brushing the tears from his face with the back of his hand, Ellison stumbled to his feet, once again looking back over the killing ground. It felt indecent to ride away without burying the dead, but it also felt wrong to cover up what had been done. It was overwhelming and should stand as mute evidence of the perfidy of men. Looking to the north, he wondered if any had really escaped. He hadn't found Running Deer's corpse, or those of some of the other warriors he'd come to recognize. No doubt it was treason, but he hoped to hell they got away, to spread word of what happened here, so that it could never be hushed up, never be forgotten.

"I'm sorry," he choked into the silence. "This was wrong. I'm sorry…"

And then, he swung up onto Lobo's back. Riding southwest, he was not so much heading anywhere in particular as he was trying to leave the atrocity at Poplar Flats behind him. Relentlessly, he drove Lobo to get as far away from the horror as fast as the mighty stallion could pound out the miles.

But…no horse, however fast or unfailing, can outrun the thoughts, the emotions, or the memories a man carries in his head, his heart and his soul.

The wholesale, wanton massacre had destroyed something, some innocence he'd always managed to hold onto, no matter what had ever happened to him. He'd believed in the honour of the community he'd lived within for more than twenty years, the decency and fairness of the institution within which he'd grown into manhood. He'd once worn that uniform so proudly - the same uniform that had just massacred more than a hundred innocent children. The savagery of it, the callous cruelty tore at him, so that he was certain his soul would never be whole again. And he knew, without doubt, that this day would haunt him for the rest of his life as he remembered the voices of those women and children screaming in helpless terror, and their faces in death, not understanding why they were being ridden down and ruthlessly murdered.

Rutherford and others could self-righteously claim that it had all been for the greater good - but nothing could ever make it right!

Finally, miles away, he understood he couldn't outrun the horror and he pulled up, dropping from the saddle to his knees, vomiting over the hot prairie grass. He retched over and over, until there was nothing but dry heaves and he could scarcely breathe. Exhausted, feeling dead inside, he sank back on his haunches and lifted his tear-stained face to the empty sky. In those moments, he honestly believed that he'd never be able to feel anything but fury and a sick conviction that he had failed in the most hideous of ways. Any shred of innocence that might have still lingered in his soul had been seared by the flames of betrayal and wholly annihilated. Never again would his wounded heart be able to love, for all love, all trust that he'd ever felt, had been charred into ashes back at Poplar Flats.

Something fragile, yet essential, had broken within him over the past twenty-four hours, leaving him angry and hurt, ashamed for ever having been such a fool as to trust the institution he'd served - with all that he was - to use its power wisely, to not be corrupted by it. He'd never shirked any task, never refused a posting, even to the most remote or miserable of outposts, had fought in the most heart-breaking of wars. He had even chosen never to marry, never to have a family of his own, believing it wasn't right to offer a woman his life and strength, and then leave her alone in some godforsaken, dreary fort in the middle of nowhere while he went off to do his duty to his nation. But this institution, that he'd believed was worth any sacrifice to serve with honour and devotion, after all was said and done, was only as good and as brave and as compassionate as the men who led it - and it seemed to him that, ultimately, it was true that men are corrupted by unlimited power. He'd believed his whole life in nothing but a lie…worse, in something that had become evil and corrupted, a means to destroy innocence rather than safeguard and uphold its sacred trust.

Bitterly, he asked himself how he could be surprised. After all, it was with a lie that he'd begun his career, to find a measure of personal peace and purpose that had never existed in his home, when he'd claimed to be sixteen years old when he'd signed up on his thirteenth birthday. And now, after fully twenty-two years during which the military had been his life, his home and his reason for being, his career had ended with the lie of peace that he'd helped feed to Running Deer and his people.

Ellison swore then that he'd never again subordinate himself to another, nor would he ever trust anything or anyone to act only with selfless honour and decency.

Finally, weary to his soul, he yet straightened his shoulders and climbed to his feet, mounted Lobo and continued his aimless journey to the southwest. He couldn't do anything more for those pitiful souls behind him but, he vowed in that dark hour, he would spend the rest of his life atoning for that horror by dedicating his life to the protection of others. He was only one man, and one man couldn't make all the wrongs right. But for so long as he lived, he would do his best to honour the innocent women and children who had died by defending those who still lived. It wouldn't be enough, would never be enough, but it was the best that he could do. Perhaps if he could live a life, and maybe die, safeguarding the defenceless, perhaps then his life might yet have some worth.

Profoundly angry and thoroughly disillusioned, it was a hard, embittered man who rode hell-bent across the prairie that day…one who felt lost and had no idea anymore where he belonged or what his life was for.

All he knew was that he had to make it count for something.

********************

Simon Banks, a tall, vigorous man in his middle years, had just come out of the barn with his partner, Joel Taggart, when they looked up to see one of the hands, Rafe - sometimes known as 'Dude', for his flashy way of dressing and almost eerily immaculate appearance even when riding the range - turning the wagon in through the main arched gate of the Gold Ribbon Ranch. Having expected to see the wagon loaded with their biweekly supplies from town, Banks frowned to see the buckboard was empty.

"Dude, you run into a problem?" he called out, he and Taggart reaching the wagon just as Rafe climbed down.

"Yeah, Simon," the younger man replied with a look of deep concern in his eyes and a modest air of uncertain deference. He'd signed on only recently and was still uncomfortable referring to his employers by their given names; neither held with much formality, and both were dead set against being called 'boss'. "There're yellow rags posted all 'round the perimeter outside'a town. Didn't figure I should go in - but I'm worried about how sick folks must be."

"Yellow rags?" Banks repeated, his eyes widening in anxious surprise as he shook his head and looked at Joel.

"Must be somethin' pretty bad," the older man murmured, also looking shocked and very worried. They had a lot of friends in Bitterwood Creek.

"Uh-huh," Banks grunted as he rubbed his chin. "Rafe, saddle up Chance for me, would you? I think I'll mosey on into town and see if they can use some help."

"Simon, I'm not sure that's wise," Joel cautioned, concern for his old friend evident in his voice and eyes. "We have no idea what the sickness is - you could catch it yourself!"

"Could, I suppose," Simon shrugged philosophically as he tipped his Stetson back and looked out over the horizon toward town. "But they ain't got no doctor and it's likely they need some help. They been good to us over the years, made us welcome. Maybe it's time for a little payback."

"Fine. Then I'll go with you," Taggart said staunchly, turning toward the corral.

Banks smiled warmly but caught the older man's arm, stopping him. "Uh-uh," he refused, though his appreciation of Joel's willingness to back him up on this, as in all else, glowed from his eyes and warmed his voice, "One of us needs to stay here, to look after things. Don't fuss - I'll be all right. You know I'm too mean and contrary to die so easily!"

Taggart chuckled and shook his head. "All right, if you say so - but if I ain't heard from you in two days, I'm comin' in."

"Fair enough," Banks nodded. "If it looks like they need more help than one strong back can give 'em, I'll send Chance on home with a note in his saddlebag, letting you know what we need."

A few minutes later, the big man mounted the glossy palomino he'd named in whimsical tribute to the luck that had brought them great good fortune, and headed into Bitterwood Creek.

********************

Doc Sandburg hadn't gotten much sleep the past two nights, just a few winks caught here and there when exhaustion slowed him down enough to remain in one place for five or ten minutes at a time. With so many patients, it seemed he'd just finish his rounds of the town when it was time to start over again. Five more kids had needed urgent tracheotomies to keep from suffocating to death. But, he was thankful that the prophylactic treatment he'd prescribed for the rest was beginning to have positive effects - and so far, there'd only been two new patients added to the list of the ill. As the children grew a little stronger, less dehydrated and exhausted from the simple fight to breathe, they were able to eat, and that made them stronger still. Blair suggested thickening their broth with moldy bread to make a thin gruel, as he'd learned inadvertently over the years that moldy bread, or cheese, had some properties that somehow seemed to help folks fight off an infection.

Blair had honestly been surprised at how quickly the populace of Bitterwood Creek had accepted him and his directions for their care, but he understood that their need of him - well, of his skills - had overridden their disquiet at his evident youth…and his heritage. Nevertheless, he knew it was hard for them to trust a Jewish kid the way they had Old Doc Wilkins, but they didn't have a whole lot of choice. Accordingly, he took care to be personable as well as competent, quietly confident as he showed them that he knew what he was doing - no more had died since he'd arrived in town - and the good Lord knew, he'd certainly arrived when he'd been most needed. If some of the townspeople thought it odd to see a Jew treating sick people in their church, they kept their thoughts and opinions to themselves - or at least, most of the 'easily unsettled' didn't air their views where he could hear them, and Sandburg appreciated the courtesy.

Maybe, he thought whimsically, they were reminding themselves that their Saviour had also been a Jew.

He was good with the kids, teasing them into soft laughter, and gentle with the old folk, kindness soft in his eyes. He could talk up a storm, always asking questions, about the history of the community and where folks had come from, getting them to relax as they talked about themselves. But he didn't say a whole lot about himself; the thing was, he kept the conversations going so well, nobody really noticed, not at first, anyway. What mattered most to the folks in Bitterwood Creek, at least in these days of crisis, was that he was the doctor they sorely needed.

One thing about an epidemic, he thought ironically as he yawned in the early light of dawn on his third day in town, not yet having made it to his new bed, you sure get to know people in a hurry.

He trudged down the quiet street and let himself into the office, heading on through and up to his bed. The spread of the illness had finally stabilized enough, his patients regaining sufficient strength, that he could get some much-needed rest. Exhausted, he did no more than kick off his boots before he sank down on the deliciously comfortable bed, already asleep before his head hit the feather pillow.

He woke with a jerk, alarmed and wondering why, when he heard the sharp scream again.

"What the…" he muttered blearily, scrambling to the window and pulling on his boots as he looked down on the street below.

Instead of the typically empty street he'd become accustomed to, there were half a dozen horses hitched at the rail outside the bank. Maisie Dunning, the feisty but very kind, middle-aged widow who ran the bakery and eatery beside the financial institution, was struggling to get away from a man who had a solid arm around her neck - but her struggles stopped cold when he put the barrel of his gun to her head.

Appalled, Blair turned and clattered quickly down the steep wooden steps and out the door of his office. Then, walking calmly, slowly, he began to cross the street, but stopped in the middle when the six-gun was leveled at him.

"What's going on, here?" Sandburg asked soberly as he lifted his hands in the air to signal he was no threat, if not in surrender. "What do you want?"

********************

Ellison had ridden all the previous day, stopping only to water Lobo at the edge of a river, until dusk had begun to fall. Pulling up by the banks of a tree-sheltered creek, Jim unsaddled his stallion and rubbed him down, then let him loose to chomp on the long grass. Pulling his fishing line and hooks out of his saddlebag, he found a slim branch that suited his need and made himself a fishing pole. Less than twenty minutes later, he was grilling perch over a small fire. It was full dark when he finally rolled up in his blanket to stare through the leafy branches at the stars.

When he woke at dawn, he caught another fish for breakfast, and then kicked out his fire. Saddling and mounting up, he kept riding, south and west.

Wanting some decent food - as in cooked by somebody else - when the sun climbed high and hot, Ellison pulled up on a low rise to get his bearings. Spotting a small town in the distance, he headed toward it, slowing when he got closer and saw the tattered yellow flag. But when he heard a woman screaming and then shots, he urged Lobo back into a fast gallop, not even noticing when they raced past the yellow warning to stay away.

It occurred to him that the poor folks in the town up ahead had no end of trouble - first the sickness and now some bastard was terrorizing a woman and shooting up the town. Well, Ellison thought as he rode hell-bent toward danger, he might not be good for much, and he didn't know why he was alive, but he did know that he could fight - in fact, he was itching for a fight. He hadn't been able to help the women and children in Poplar Flats, but he sure as hell could try to help the woman who sounded so terrified in the town up ahead…

********************

During the easy, half-hour ride, Banks gazed out over the land he'd come to love. It was different, very different, from the rich green and well-treed country he'd been born in. South Carolina was a pretty place, with rolling hills, rich farmland and temperate weather. A very pretty place, that he had no interest -whatsoever - in ever seeing again. For Banks had been born a field slave on a cotton plantation, his daddy sold off before he'd even been born. And, when he was only seven years old, his mama had died from a beating she'd received from their master when she'd fought back in despairing disgust, having had enough of his foul lust one night. Bravely, Simon had tried to stop the brute, but had been flung back against the wall of their shack, and soundly whipped, for his efforts.

It had been a hard, mean life, one without hope of anything better. He'd learned, as they'd all learned, to bow and scrape, to say, 'Yes, Massa', 'No, Massa', 'Yes, Boss' or 'No, Boss', and to act too dumb to think. It was the only kind of resistance realistically open to them, to move slowly, make mistakes, screw things up, be a nuisance. It was a fine balance, sometimes, walking the narrow edge of passive resistance - go too far one way, and you got a beating for not working hard enough. Go too far the other way, and you got a beating for being uppity and angry. It hadn't been easy for him to learn to keep the fire of hate from his eyes, no, not easy at all - not easy to learn to act stupid, either, for that matter.

As the years passed and he grew so big, so fast, he figured he must have scared the overseer, probably because he looked, and most assuredly was, a mite too much to handle. So…he was sold off at the age of fourteen, marched in chains to another plantation in West Virginia. Also, Banks reflected mildly as his thoughts drifted over the years long past, a very pretty country of rolling hills thick with forest that turned crimson and gold in the fall, and was bedazzled by snow in the depths of relatively mild winters. It was on the tobacco plantation in West Virginia that he'd met Joel Taggart, a youth older than him, poised on the edge of manhood. Though they were almost of a size at that time, Joel had taken to looking out for him, just as if Simon was his kid brother. Smiling fondly, Banks reflected that Joel had always been too kind for his own good. There just wasn't any meanness in the man, never had been, and he'd always seemed wise, somehow. He never did let the anger eat at him, didn't even seem to get angry - unless it was on someone else's behalf, when no man of conscience could stand back and watch excesses of wretched abuse go on.

It was that innate decency that had gotten Joel into trouble two years later, standing up for the younger Banks when he'd mouthed off once too often one morning in the back corner of the field, and was about to have his brains clubbed out of his head by the irate overseer. Joel had probably saved his life that day, but then had been forced to tie himself to a post in the field, and whipped where he stood for his courage or, as the overseer had screamed in rage, for his insolence in interfering with his betters.

Simon, consumed by a red haze of guilt, fury and despair, couldn't take any more. He wasn't going to just stand there and watch Joel be whipped to death, not on his account - not for anything in the world.

Without thinking, he'd picked up a rock from the earth at his feet and bashed the overseer on the back of the head, laying him out cold. Untying Joel, who was only semiconscious at best, he'd slung the older youth over his shoulder and lit out into the forest - and had kept running for a long, long time, much of it up to his knees in the woods-shrouded river that led away from the estate and up into the hills, to keep the dogs from getting their scent. As he'd raced to freedom, he didn't know if he'd killed the man with that rock but was only bothered by the fact that he didn't much care.

He cared for Joel and physically supported him on their desperate journey, until the nineteen-year-old could run on his own. And then they'd run side by side, scrambling through the brambles of the forests and over the long hills, for weeks and weeks, to put that pretty country behind them. They'd chosen to run west rather than north, because it was always assumed that runaways headed north to the free states or even further to the lands held by the British and the French. Most of the runaways got caught and hauled back, especially if they didn't have the good fortune to find the brave people who ran the Underground Railroad.

It was a risk to head west, but Simon and Joel were lucky - they were never caught. One night, though neither of them was proud of it, they broke into an old schoolhouse and stole a few of the books, the ones used to teach little kids how to read. They knew they had to learn, that ignorance was dangerous. So, mostly attributable to Joel's patience and good humour, they figured out the books, and taught themselves how to read and write. As for figuring, well, they'd learned how to do that for themselves long past - adding and subtracting, multiplying and dividing how many sacks of tobacco or cotton they had to pick to pass muster, or how many slaves it would take to get a job done in the time allowed, given the size of the job. It was all about survival - and not being as stupid as they were believed to be. Not stupid, at all, Simon chuckled in retrospect. Now that, thank God, they were all free, he was able to remember those hateful days with a certain pride that he and his people had been able to survive by using their wits to fool the so-called superior white folk. A hell of a lot smarter than the dumb-ass overseers and masters who never caught on to our act!

Once they got into 'free' territory where slavery was outlawed, they were able to stop grubbing for food and look for paying work. Big as they were, and young, they were strong and they both sure knew how to give an honest day's labour. With a yen to see the world, as well as to keep moving far away from the South, they took jobs stringing telegraph wire across the West, all the way to San Francisco. Then, with their wages in their jeans, they thought about what they'd do next. Gold was all the rage then and, though it was risky, they decided to take a chance and used every dime they had to grubstake themselves.

Not having a clue, really, about what they were doing, they'd headed into the gold country high in the mountains of California, with a mule and the mining tools they'd bought, and staked a claim. It was hard, backbreaking work, but they didn't care. Joel discovered a hidden talent for explosives, able to discern how much dynamite to use and where it needed to be placed to blow out a tunnel without bringing the whole damned mountain down on their heads.

Within a year, their gamble paid off. They struck it rich. Very rich - a broad ribbon of pure gold so wide and so long that, for the longest time, they'd just stood and stared at it, shaking their heads and wondering if they were dreaming.

Laughing like fools after they realized what they had, they'd left the mine at the end of the day, sat back by their fire under the stars and talked and talked. About the country they'd seen, as they'd come west - about the kind of hopes they had, now that they didn't have to bury their dreams as so much childish drivel. They'd seen the vast, mighty Pacific, and had stood in awe of its power, but they didn't want to go to sea as captains, or even owners, of merchant trading ships. The mountains were majestic, but the massive piles of granite left the young men feeling crowded, overshadowed, trapped somehow - and then they remembered the rolling Kansas plains with the wide-open, clear blue sky. A man could see for miles in every direction, and never feel locked in. Not interested in ever digging another row to hoe, they'd decided to run a herd of cattle.

Anxious to get on with their dreams, after they'd hauled their first heavy load of gold to the assayers in Sacramento, they'd sold their claim for a fortune and, feeling like kings, they rode in style in a succession of stagecoaches headed back east, until they reached Wichita. There, at the land registry office, they selected and paid for 250,000 acres of prime grazing land in the middle of nowhere, and then went on to the stockyards to buy their first herd of cattle, and horses for a remuda. When they started driving their small herd across the prairie, they didn't know any more about cattle ranching than they'd known about gold mining, but they were smart, and they learned fast. Banks chuckled in memory as he recalled some of the misadventures of their youth - hell, it had been a challenge just to learn how to stay on top of an ornery horse, let alone master the intricacies of ranching. But, smiling with quiet satisfaction, he reflected that they had learned.

And now, here they were, owners of the largest spread between the Mississippi and Wichita with no fears of ever feeling crowded or boxed in again.

Contemplating the town up ahead, and the folks who were now fighting some kind of raging sickness, Simon thought about the early days, oh, more than fifteen years ago now. The white folk had been distinctly standoffish at first, wary of them because of their colour. But Joel never paid it no mind. He was always one of the first ones there when a barn had to go up, or new settlers were felling wood to build their house, and he had always dragged Simon along.

"They'll get used to us, in time," he'd say. "Give 'em a chance." If anybody put them down for their colour, and Simon would angrily ask how his partner could stand the insults that drove him into a fury, Joel would just shrug and ask, "What do I care what they think? I know what kind of man I am." And then he'd put his hand on his friend's shoulder, saying with all seriousness, "Simon, you gotta learn to let it go. There're fools and bigots all over this world, and that's their bad luck. You can't let their opinions matter to you. T'ain't worth the time it'd take to deal with 'em, and be about as useful as spittin' into the wind. I got better things t' do. An' so do you."

It was Joel who had won the townspeople over with his steady good nature and patience, his humour and his enduring sense of himself as a man of integrity. It shone through in everything about him - his kindness and good sense, his pure and simple decency - it was all there in his eyes, slow smile and thoughtful manner for everyone to see. Over the years, wariness had grown to acceptance, acceptance to liking, and then to respect. Simon had watched it happen and counted himself lucky to have a friend to teach and guide him, and who took him along for the ride as Joel built rock solid relationships with their neighbours. And, in time, Simon had learned to let his anger go, and found a kind of peace in this land, with these people. Now, when some smart-mouthed stranger carried on in a superior way just because they were white, the townspeople didn't take it or let it ride. The strangers were set down and told what was what and they could either stay or go, but if they stayed, well, then, they were expected to learn some better manners.

Those people were suffering now and needed help. Joel had done the hard work in the beginning for both of them, gaining their neighbours' trust and friendship. Simon figured this was his chance to give a little back. Besides, he was younger, bigger and stronger than Joel. If one of them had to risk getting sick, better it be him than the man he couldn't love more than if Joel had been his brother by blood.

He'd just passed one of the dusty and ragged yellow bandanas hanging from posts planted around the town, when he heard shots ring out, shattering the quiet of the day…

********************

Sheriff Jeb Strong had heard Maisie's first scream and had come running from home. But by the time he arrived and took cover behind a wagon in front of the General Store, the new doctor was already standing in the middle of the street, trying to distract the stranger's attention from the clearly terrorized woman. Studying the horses outside of the bank, not recognizing any of them, Jeb cursed under his breath. Some gang of outlaws, who figured to take advantage of a town already under siege by an invisible enemy, had evidently decided to rob the bank when nobody was looking. Poor Maisie must have either been passing by or, curious about the strangers, had wandered out for a look, and realized belatedly what was going down. The ruffian who held her had to be the lookout, left outside with the horses. He appeared to be about twenty, scruffy and scared. Not a good combination. Jeb sure wished he knew how many innocent people were being held hostage inside the bank, their lives now hanging in the balance, too.

Licking his lips, his heavy Colt .45 steady in his hand, Jeb tried to figure the odds of everyone getting out of this mess safe, with the notable exception of the six bank robbers themselves, and didn't like the probabilities.

"Jeb?" Marcus Candling hissed from just inside the barbershop behind him. "What'cha gonna to do?"

Sheriff Strong snorted softly. Marcus was a good-natured old coot, but this wasn't exactly the time to start up a conversation. His attention focused sharply back on the business at hand when he saw the gang's lookout level his gun with the obvious intention of shooting Sandburg, and Jeb knew he had to act. Stepping away from the wagon, he leveled his gun at the villain. "Drop it, mister, or you're dead," he said, his voice as steady as his hand.

As the gun barrel began to swing toward him, Maisie, bless her, must have felt the kid trembling and maybe felt his grip on her loosen. Probably terrified to her toes but as feisty as ever, she elbowed him in the brisket, hard and sharp, and then stomped on his boot. Startled, distracted, the grip of his arm around her throat fell away and she darted aside, stumbling to her knees.

But the gun barrel started to level toward him again, and Jeb had no choice but to shoot first - and one more young outlaw would never grow old. Yelling at Sandburg to get out of the street, he dropped back down behind the wagon immediately, knowing action from the bank would be next - and there were five of them and only one of him. Out of the corner of his eye, he was glad to see Sandburg hustle swiftly across the street as the new young doctor scrambled to practically carry the plump Maisie into the safety of her bakeshop.

"Back off or we'll kill the clerk!" a gruff voice shouted from inside the bank, giving the Sheriff more information than perhaps he'd intended. Clerks weren't usually the first victims threatened in a holdup unless there wasn't much other choice.

Jeb blew out a long breath, fighting for calm. It was almost noon, so he figured Sam Sloane, the manager, had already gone home for lunch. Nobody in town was doing much business with so many down sick, so there'd be nothing to have kept him at the bank. One of his boys and his daughter were two of the sick children Jeb's Susannah was nursing, while Sam's wife, Sarah, had taken in their son who had not fallen ill. So, Sam would want to get home early, to check on his kids and make sure Sarah wasn't wearing herself ragged trying to watch over kids who were restless with healthy energy. That meant the clerk, feckless Clive Tucker, was likely alone inside.

"You kill anyone and you'll hang!" Jeb called back. "Toss out your weapons and come out with your hands up!"

Harsh laughter and the whine of a bullet whizzing by his head was the only response he got.

Suddenly, another voice intruded from behind him, low but firm, "I spotted a window in back of the bank that I can lever open to sneak inside - give me a minute to get back over there and then distract them."

Jeb turned and saw a tall stranger with cool blue eyes crouched by the wall in the shadows of the narrow alley between the store and the barbershop. He was dressed in worn jeans and a long, black duster that didn't quite conceal the Colt on his left hip - a match for the one in his right hand - and a black Stetson was pulled low over his eyes.

"Who're you?" Jeb hissed back.

He got a slight, ironic smile in response. "Does it matter?" And then the stranger slipped quickly back into the shadows, as silent as a ghost.

Jeb blinked, and then looked down the street to see Simon Banks leaping off his golden stallion, his fist already gripping his Winchester as he crouched low and nodded to the Sheriff. Strong grinned as he sketched Simon a quick salute and then held up one palm to signal the older man to wait, thinking things were definitely looking up and the odds of winning this fight had just gotten a whole lot better.

Checking his pocket watch, he gave the tall stranger his minute and then, not wanting to risk hitting Clive or the mysterious Good Samaritan, he leveled a shot over the roof of the bank rather than through the fancy plate-glass window. Immediately, shots rang out in response…and there went Sam's expensive window in a shower of glass. He'd not be pleased with having to replace it, Jeb thought wryly.

Shouting and a single sharp shot rang out from inside the bank, followed by a flurry of others, and then the door was flung wide as four outlaws made a break for it. Bullets whined and ricocheted around the street as they blasted their way out, rushing toward their horses. The animals, panicking, terrified by the gunplay, were bucking wildly in desperate attempts to pull free of the reins tying them to the hitching rail; one succeeded and bolted down the dusty street, while the others neighed and heaved in a frenzy, effectively blocking both Jeb and Simon's aim. One outlaw leapt onto the back of his mount, and whirled to race away - Jeb stood to shoot him down before he could escape - and the bandit's arms flew out as he stiffened, toppling from the saddle to lie still in the dust. Meanwhile, the tall stranger had chased out of the bank on the heels of the bandits, tackling one and rolling with him onto the boardwalk. Simon had gotten a bead on another robber and blew him back against the wall. But still another was at the same moment taking advantage of Jeb's distraction on the runaway and shot the Sheriff, even as another muffled explosion sounded from the men wrestling on the planks. The outlaw's own weapon had discharged into his gut just as Jeb felt a blistering burn slam into his gun arm and he spun around, hitting the dust hard. Simon's rifle cracked again but, in the confusing mêlée of shifting, bucking horses, he missed the last outlaw still standing. Conscious, struggling to rise, Jeb saw the Good Samaritan twisting to bring his Colt into line, just as the last outlaw shot him in the back - with a startled, strangled shout of pain, the stranger dropped like a stone; a split second later, Simon's rifle exploded again, bringing the last bandit down.

The horses still bucked and neighed shrilly but the guns had silenced as gunsmoke lifted on the light wind, acrid against the smell of blood and hot sand. Doc Sandburg, pale with the shock of the sudden violence, slipped out of Maisie's place just as Clive poked his head around the open bank doorway, looking like he was in still in one piece, if a bit green around the gills. His people safe, Jeb slumped back and curled to protect his shattered arm, the fingers of his left hand stained red as he tried to stem the tide of blood pouring from the wound just above his wrist. Damn, but it hurt. Simon ran up to check out the bodies while Doc came toward him, but he called back, his voice strained with the pain. "See to the stranger. He saved Clive's life!"

Jeb heard Clive gabbling to Simon, with all the excitement of one who was sure he was going to die only to surprise himself by still being alive, "There's another dead one in here!"

And then Jeb's world went gray…

********************

At the direction of a kid he didn't know, but who had suddenly taken charge of the wounded, Simon carried Jeb into the Doctor's Office and on back to the surgery to lay him on a cot. Clive, Marcus and the kid carried in the stranger who'd been shot in the shoulder, the bullet gone clear through, so he was bleeding heavily both from the front and the back. The battle had been fast, and Simon wouldn't have known the guy was on their side if first Jeb, and then Clive, hadn't been so quick to say he'd saved the bank clerk's life. The stranger was laid, straightaway, on the raised operating table in the middle of the whitewashed infirmary that had big windows to let in the light and a black woodstove in the corner. Wryly, Simon reflected that Bitterwood Creek seemed to be having a run on strangers coming to town - the kid, the Good Samaritan, and six dead outlaws nobody would miss. It was odd, he thought in passing, that none of them had been dissuaded by the yellow bandanas blowing their, apparently, very much unheeded warning to stay away.

Much to his surprise, the kid turned out to be a doctor who had, according to Marcus, turned up out of the blue, two days ago. The new doctor quickly checked out the stranger, and then Jeb, while simultaneously asking Simon about the condition of the wounded outside.

"They're dead and in no hurry to be seen to," Simon drawled in reply. "How's Jeb?"

The kid shook his head, his lips set in a grim line. "He'll live, but I don't know how much use he'll have of his right hand," he replied quietly just before Jeb's wife, Suzannah, came flying in, her eyes wide with fear. Sandburg reassured her calmly and put her to work, cleaning the blood off her husband's arm.

"And the stranger?" Simon continued, looking at the unconscious man on the table in the center of the room.

"He'll live, too - he was lucky. The bullet caught him high in the shoulder, and went right through without shattering anything," the kid replied as he quickly stoked the fire in the stove, put a kettle on to boil and sorted out his instruments on a worktable by the stove, dropping the ones he chose into the already steaming pot. Next he pulled a high stack of towels and bandages from a cupboard, leaving some on the table by Jeb's cot, and the rest on the small workbench next to the stranger.

"I'm Simon Banks," he introduced himself to the young man who appeared to be a virtual whirlwind of perpetual motion.

The kid spared him a quick smile as he nodded and paused long enough to hold out his hand. "Well, you sure arrived in the nick of time! Glad to meet you. I'm Blair Sandburg, your new doctor."

"You need any help here, Doc?" Banks asked as he shook the kid's hand, impressed with the firm, dry grip.

"I'd appreciate it, Mr. Banks," Sandburg replied, and put him to work undressing the stranger and washing the blood from his matching wounds, while the kid first tied back his long curls with a leather thong, and then rolled up his sleeves before washing his own hands and forearms.

"Just call me, Simon," he offered, and the kid grinned again as he nodded.

Two hours later, both injured men had been tended to, their wounds cleaned, dusted with herbs and sulfa powder, sutured and securely bandaged. As he helped the doctor by holding retractors, Simon marveled at the skill and quiet efficiency of the young man. The bones in Jeb's arm had been badly shattered, and Simon swallowed hard with pity when he saw the extent of the damage, thinking an amputation was the only possible option. But, patiently and painstakingly, the kid swiftly worked the slivered bits back into line as best he could; reconstructing what was left before thoroughly dousing the wound with sulfa powder. Closing the wound, he wrapped it tightly, and then splinted the arm securely and wrapped it with more bandages. Simon looked up to meet the young physician's eyes when he finished, the question plain in his own.

"Worth a try," the kid murmured, flicking a sideways look at Suzannah who was sitting stiff as a statue across the room. "We'll see if it heals. Depends on whether any infection sets in."

When Sandburg had to go out to see to his other patients in town, Simon offered to stay and keep Suzannah company, while they watched over the unconscious men. Blair, as he'd asked Simon to call him, nodded gratefully as he picked up his black medical bag and headed out, saying he'd be back in an hour or so.

Shortly after he'd gone, Strong started to stir, clearly coming back to painful consciousness.

"Easy, Jeb," Simon Banks soothed as the Sheriff grimaced and moaned softly.

Suzannah Stone breathed out a shivery sigh to see her man waking up as she brushed an errant tear from her face with her fingertips before leaning forward to plant a kiss on her husband's cheek. "Honey, you need anything?" she whispered as she clutched his left arm and hand.

Jeb groaned softly against the pain in his right arm, biting his lip as he blinked and cut a quick look down to see if everything was still there. He smiled, if weakly, as he then gazed up at his wife, to reassure her before he turned to Simon. "The stranger?" he murmured hoarsely, his voice weak and strained.

"He'll do just fine, Jeb, don't you worry," Simon assured him. "The robbers all died tryin' to escape, so there's nothin' for you to do but rest and get well. Y'hear?"

When Jeb nodded, his gaze going back to Suzannah's, Simon stood to move away, giving them some privacy as he turned to the stranger and pulled a straight-backed chair up beside his cot. The man's wounds - front and back - had been stitched up, and the kid thought he'd heal clean. His left arm had been bound over his chest to keep his wounded shoulder still.

Damn, I've got to stop thinkin' of the new Doc as a 'kid', Simon thought, shaking his head. Even if he does look like he should still be in boardin' school somewhere. Studying the fair-haired stranger, he wondered then, And who might you be?

Having undressed the man who appeared to be in his mid-thirties, Banks had his theories. The stranger didn't have the roughly calloused hands of a labourer; so he wasn't a hard labourer; no ingrained dirt under his nails, so not a farmer. His clothing was well worn but in good condition, his boots well crafted. He'd also worn a pretty pair of Colts - with bone handles to improve the grip - on hand-tooled belts and, from what Clive had said of the sharpshooting in the bank, he knew how to use them. The man had three other old bullet wounds scattered over his body and, given the look of him, he'd undoubtedly served in the War. No way to tell whether for the North or the South, though. Lean, in good shape, clean-shaven, with a magnificent horse they assumed was his tied down the back alley by the bank, and good quality saddlebags, not fancy, just well made. Gunslinger, maybe, but one who had actively chosen to fight on the right side, rather than ride the other way to save his own skin. Curiously, Banks eyed the saddlebags now lying in the corner on the other side of the narrow bed.

But he didn't want to invade the man's privacy.

So he bided his time and waited for the stranger to wake up.

********************

By the time Sandburg got back, Jeb was making noises about wanting to go home. Suzannah looked up hopefully, immediately assuring Blair that she could take care of her husband, and pointing out that Doc had more than enough to do, what with the man in the other bed and all the sick ones in town. Reluctantly, Blair nodded.

"Okay, but I want to know immediately if a fever starts," he ordered them both firmly, and then handed Suzannah a small, cork-stoppered vial of laudanum. "Just two drops, mind, no more than every four to six hours for the pain - and three at bedtime, to help you sleep. I'll be over in the morning to redress your arm." Looking across the room at Banks, he asked, "Would you mind giving Jeb a hand home? I want to check on our mysterious good guy. And, thanks, Simon, for all your help today."

"I'll drop back later," Simon replied as he steadied Jeb onto his feet and took most of the man's weight as they slowly moved from the room. Suzannah had run ahead to get things ready at home.

Once they'd gone, his eyes narrowed in thought as Blair wandered over to stare down at the still unconscious man, and he wondered why the stranger hadn't yet awakened. Sitting down, he noted the deep lines of pain around the mouth and eyes - unusual in a man still so deeply unconscious - but Sandburg didn't really want to give him anything until he was awake and Blair could find out if he'd ever had reactions to medications - it was possible that he was still out cold because of an exaggerated reaction to the ether he'd inhaled - as well as how often he'd been on painkillers in the past. Laudanum was a blessing, but could also be a problem. People grew used to it, needing and then wanting more and more to do any good, until they couldn't function without it, so Blair was very cautious with its use. Still, the degree of pain his patient was experiencing bothered Sandburg, and he wondered if there was something else going on, besides the wound, that was tormenting the man. He'd also noticed the faint rash of irritated skin all over the man's body, which could be another clue that he was reacting to something, his clothes maybe. Some people couldn't wear wool, but then he hadn't been wearing wool. Concerned that the rash might signal illness, Blair reached to touch the man's forehead, but so far there was no fever. He took his patient's pulse, fingers light on the lax wrist, and found it strong and steady. Laying his hand on the stranger's right arm, gripping lightly, he asked softly, "Why aren't you awake?"

And then, as there was little else he could do, he just kept talking to the guy, idle chatter mostly about the aborted robbery, his tone low and melodious, hoping the sound of his voice would draw the man back to consciousness.

********************

The late evening sun was streaming in from the window an hour or so before sundown, bathing Sandburg - and the patient he watched over - in soft golden light. Blair had done another quick round of his other patients, Simon sitting in to watch over the stranger, and had just gotten back awhile ago, so Simon had gone to find his dinner with friends in town. Really starting to worry about why his patient had not yet awakened, Sandburg occupied himself by smoothing calamine lotion over the man's irritated skin, again talking incessantly, this time about the people he'd been meeting in Bitterwood Creek, and his relief that most of his patients seemed to have turned the corner toward health.

With a groan, the man finally stirred, blinking and then wincing painfully against the light hitting his face. Flinching away from it, his right hand coming up to cover his eyes, he moaned, "Too bright."

Hastily, Sandburg stood to close the shades, muting the light in the room. As he did, he said, "Hey, I'm glad you're finally waking up - you had me worried."

The man grimaced, hoarsely muttering, "I can hear you - no need to shout."

Sandburg frowned as he returned to the bed and looked down at the stranger and then back at the window, thinking that the sun hadn't seemed all that bright to him. Nor had he been shouting, just speaking in a normal voice. Sinking down onto the chair by the bed, he poured some water into a clay mug from the pitcher he'd put on the little side table and supported his patient's head while he helped the man drink. Murmuring softly, he told his patient, "I'm Dr. Blair Sandburg and this is my infirmary. You were shot in the hold-up, but you're going to be fine. I'm sorry, but I don't know your name."

"Ellison, Jim Ellison," his patient grunted as he gritted his teeth against the pain in his shoulder, and then swallowed hard, as if he felt nauseated. "What stinks so bad in here?" he suddenly choked out, nearly gagging, as he grimaced in evident disgust.

"Medicines, probably," Sandburg replied softly, sniffing the air himself and finding it slightly astringent but not anything too offensive; but then, he was used to the smells of his profession. In deference to his patient's sensitivities to the odours, wanting to make the man comfortable, he got up and moved an armful of bottles of ether, disinfectants, laudanum and herbs back into the small storeroom between the surgery and the office, closing the door when he returned to Ellison. Sitting back down, he studied Jim Ellison, a thoughtful look of speculation on his face. "Do you sometimes find your sense of taste is too strong?" he asked after a moment.

"Yeah, sometimes," Ellison grated, in too much pain to worry about the oddness of the question.

"I want to give you something for your pain, but first, I need to know if you've ever had any bad reactions to any medicines," Blair murmured.

Ellison swallowed and then ground out, "No drugs. Knock me out too long. I'll manage."

Sandburg rubbed his hand over his mouth and then stood to pace while he thought about his patient's odd reactions to the stimuli of light, sound, smell, taste and, from the look of his skin, touch. Gazing at Ellison, he could see the man was rigid with pain, and Sandburg couldn't stand to see him suffering so badly. There had to be something he could do for him. Biting his lip as he squinted in thought, he absently pushed his wild hair behind his ears. He recalled reading a book from a library, oh, years ago now, when he'd been first become curious about the world and the people who lived in it. It had been by an explorer, a man named Burton, who had written of his travels in Central and South America. That book had been about men Burton had called sentinels, warriors with enhanced sensory awareness who spent their lives protecting their tribes. Finding the concept fascinating, Blair had searched out other similar phenomena, and had found a good number of stories in many ancient cultural reference books including those of his own heritage, which had told about the watchers who were the sons of fallen angels, and had been born to literally 'watch over' humankind. He'd thought it might all be myth and legend, exaggerated for effect. Still, over the years, he'd met people who had one or two enhanced senses - but he'd never met anyone, until now, with all five.

Returning to the bedside, again sitting, he offered quietly, "I think your senses of perception might be out of control, heightened to levels of discomfort. I want to try something, but you'll have to listen carefully and really try to do what I ask you. I'm hoping it will help cut down the pain you're feeling. Okay?"

"Sure," Ellison gritted. At that point, he was willing to try anything that might help diminish the agony he was suffering. His head was pounding and it felt like his skin was on fire. Nausea curled and clenched in his gut and the wound itself was a torment, pure and simple.

"Okay, first I want you to take some slow, deep breaths…slow! That's it," Blair whispered as he unconsciously laid a light hand on Ellison's right shoulder to reassure him. "You're doing good. Now, as you take the slow breaths, I want you to feel the muscles in your feet and lower legs. They're tight with tension; as you blow out, I want you to feel the tension ease out of the muscles, like it was water flowing out of the soles of your feet." Gradually, Sandburg got his patient to relax, at least somewhat, the clenched muscles all over his body. Taking a breath, shaking his head and wondering if he was nuts, Blair then said, "I want you to picture five oil lanterns with different coloured bases. The flames in each lantern are turned up high, burning so brightly the light fills the glass chimney. Can you see them?" When Jim nodded with a wince of pain, Blair asked softly, "What colours are the lanterns?"

"Uh, tin, bronze, white, red, and blue," Ellison grated hoarsely, thinking the guy was crazy, but what the hell, if it helped alleviate his pain, he'd try.

"Okay, good," Sandburg murmured. "Now, when the flames are turned high like that, they represent your senses when they are wide open; but you can control the flames. I want you to turn the flames down, one at a time, not all the way, but about halfway, so you really have to concentrate as we do this. Now, let's take touch first, that's the pain…the red lantern represents both touch and pain. Imagine the flame flickering back so that it's burning steadily but not so high, reducing the pain you feel as the flame diminishes…not all the way, just halfway so that you feel more comfortable…"

Sandburg could see from Ellison's expression that the man thought he was insane, but his patient blew out a breath and concentrated. It was amazing, but Blair could actually see the lines of strain on Ellison's face gradually ease. "Good," Blair murmured. "Very good. Okay, now we're going to do smell. That's the blue lantern…"

One at a time, Sandburg walked his patient through each of his senses, as Jim imagined turning down the flames in the oil lanterns. When they'd finished, Blair asked quietly, "How's that? Do we need to lower one of the flames still more?"

Jim opened his eyes to stare up at Sandburg, for the first time really looking at him. The guy looked like he was scarcely twenty years old - and he was a doctor? "I…uh…I feel better. How did you do that?"

Blair smiled as he shook his head. "I didn't do it, you did. But, really, how's the pain?"

Swallowing, Ellison replied with reluctant honesty, "Still pretty bad."

"Okay, let's turn down the red lantern some more, so that the flame is just barely flickering - don't ever extinguish it completely, but turn it back," Blair encouraged. Ellison nodded stiffly, closed his eyes and focused on the flame in the red lantern.

"Yeah, that's better," Jim sighed in relief, amazed at how well the trick worked.

"I'm going to heat up some chicken broth one of my patients gave me," Blair told him then. "You need to eat some, to keep up your strength."

By the time Simon wandered back in to check up on how the stranger was doing, Jim had managed a half bowl of broth and then had drifted off to sleep, and Blair was catching up on his treatment records in the office.

"How's he doing? Did he ever wake up?" Banks asked as he jerked his head toward the backroom.

Sandburg leaned back in his chair as he waved Simon to another, at the end of the roll-top desk. "He woke up just after you left earlier, in a lot of pain. But, it's eased a bit and I got him to eat some soup before he slipped back to sleep."

"Who is he and what was he doing in town today?" Simon asked, curiousity shining in his eyes.

"His name's Jim Ellison and he was helping to stop a bank robbery," Sandburg replied with a straight face but his eyes twinkled as he teased the older man.

Simon snorted. "Oh, you're really helpful, you are," he chuckled in return. "Seriously, who is this guy?"

Blair shrugged. "I really don't know, to tell you the truth. He was in too much pain for me to play twenty questions with him earlier."

"Yeah, I can see your point," Banks sighed.

For the first time that day, Sandburg had a chance to ask a question that he'd been wondering about. "Uh, Simon, maybe you could tell me who you are and what you were doing in town today. I'm mean, neither one of you paid any attention to the quarantine flag. And without you, we could've been in real trouble."

Banks laughed, not having thought about the kid being as curious about him as he was about that fellow, Ellison. "My partner, Joel Taggart, and I have a ranch about a half hour from town. When we heard about the sickness here, I came on in to see if I could help," he replied, then gave Sandburg a teasing look as he continued, "I didn't know a doctor had also wandered into town, right past them yellow bandanas."

Blair shrugged. "Well, I was passing through on the stage a few days ago, and the driver told me the doctor here had died last winter," he replied evenly.

"That was real good of you, Doc," Simon acknowledged quietly. "Some might have gone right past, nobody the wiser."

"Not a doctor," Blair replied quietly. "We take an oath - any would have stopped to help."

Simon wasn't as sure about that, but he let it go. "Well, maybe you're right. So, where're you from?"

"Back east," Sandburg replied easily, and then changed the subject. "So, have you got a place to sleep tonight? I've got a spare room upstairs if you're interested."

"Well, if it's no trouble," Simon accepted, surprised and pleased by the unexpected hospitality.

"No trouble at all," Blair said as he stood. "The privy's out back, along with the well, and it's the room at the back of the house. I made up the bed earlier in case it was needed. You know, the ladies around here have been really great. They came in and cleaned up the place as soon as they knew I'd be staying here. Washed the linens - and they're always giving me eggs, bacon, casseroles and stews, or soup, as well as fresh bread, apples and baked goods. So, there's plenty in the kitchen, if you get hungry. I'm just going to check on Ellison again, and I'll likely nap down here in case he needs anything during the night."

As Simon stood with a grin of amusement, he reflected that with those big blue eyes and bright smile, it was no wonder the ladies had all been so helpful. Not to mention how grateful they were that this new doctor was saving the lives of their sick kids. "All right, then, thank you. I'll see you in the morning."

But as Simon clumped up the wooden steps, he was thinking that 'back east' covered a lot of territory - and puzzling over how quickly and smoothly the kid had changed the subject when the conversation had focused on him.

********************

When Jim next woke, it was dark but for the soft flicker of a kerosene lantern on a small table across the room. He could hear someone breathing softly on the cot by the lamp, and the muffled sound of an odd, rhythmic thumping. Trying to get his bearings, Jim shifted in the bed as he craned his head to look around, and then suddenly froze as pain seared through his shoulder, but he couldn't quite bite back a low moan. Instantly, Sandburg rose from one of the three other beds in the small surgery and moved to his side.

"Hey, how're you doing?" Blair asked softly as he laid his palm over Ellison's forehead, checking for fever.

"Could be better," Jim sighed wearily.

"Your shoulder's acting up," Sandburg surmised. "How high is the flame in the red lantern? How hot is it burning?"

"What? Oh, right," Ellison muttered and then closed his eyes as he focused on the vision. "Damn thing is flaring up out of control," he grated, sounding disgusted.

"Okay, easy to fix," Blair encouraged, his hand coming to rest on Ellison's arm to reassure him. His voice low and melodious, he directed, "Picture adjusting the flow of oil, turning the flame back until it's just flickering…"

Jim sighed with relief and then opened his eyes, grateful when Sandburg helped him drink some water. As he settled back against the pillow, he asked, "What'd you say your name was, Chief?"

"Sandburg. Blair Sandburg," the ridiculously young doctor replied as he sat down by the bed, then cocked a curious brow. "Chief?" he echoed.

"Yeah, well, you're the guy in charge around here, right?" Jim replied ironically, but then more seriously, "Thanks for fixing me up, Doc."

"It's what I do," Blair replied with a grin. "So, you want to go back to sleep or do you feel up to a little conversation?"

"About what?" Ellison challenged warily.

"How you happened to be in the neighbourhood to save Clive's life," Blair replied, his voice soft but grateful. "Sneaking into that bank was a brave thing to do. I'm sorry you ended up getting shot."

"I was just riding by when I heard the screaming and the shots," Jim replied offhandedly, as if wasn't a big deal. "Anyone else get hurt?

"The Sheriff, Jeb Stone," Blair told him with a look of concern in his eyes, then added, his expression suggesting that he regretted the rest of the news, "and the robbers were all killed."

Jim's eyes scanned the empty beds. "Where's Stone? Is he dead, too?" he asked, frowning.

"No, his wife's caring for him," Blair explained. "He'll live, but…"

"But?"

Sandburg sighed as he poured himself some water. "The bones in his arm were badly smashed by the bullet. I think we can save his hand, but…" Taking a sip, he shrugged sadly. "I shouldn't really be discussing his condition with you. So - are you from around here?"

Jim frowned as he countered, "Wouldn't you know if I was?"

"Nope, just got into town three days ago, myself," Blair replied good-naturedly. "Where're you from?"

"No place in particular," Ellison replied, looking away.

"Were you headed anywhere in particular?" Sandburg asked lightly, his tone teasing but curious.

"You always ask these many questions?" Jim growled, no more interested in talking about his lack of any plans whatsoever than he was in revealing he'd just resigned his commission.

"Sorry, no offense, Mr. Ellison," Sandburg replied as he held up his hands in self-defence. "You hungry? I got lots more of that broth and there's bread if you want to try something more solid."

"Nah, I'm fine," Jim sighed, sorry to have snapped the kid's head off. "Look, maybe I should just try to sleep some more."

"Whatever you need, man," Blair replied as he adjusted the cotton blanket over his patient and turned to lie down on the bed by the kerosene lamp.

Jim sighed and stared into the muted shadows for a while, wondering what was making the soft but distinct thumping sound he could still hear. It was monotonous, but oddly soothing, and it relaxed him back into sleep.

********************

Simon woke early, rising with the sun. Making his way quietly downstairs, and poking his head into the infirmary to check on Ellison before he headed out to the back, he noted the man was awake. Before he could say anything, Ellison brought a finger to his lips and then pointed across the room. Leaning forward, Simon looked over and spotted Sandburg asleep on one of the other beds. The town doctor was curled on his side, one hand tucked under his chin, his wild curly hair spread over the pillow like a halo, with the crumpled blanket falling half off him. If it weren't for the dark stubble, he'd look about five years old.

Simon couldn't help but smile and shake his head. With a tread that was amazingly light for so big a man, he went to pull the blanket up around the doctor and then slipped back to Ellison's side. "You need anything?" he whispered.

"Could use a hand to get out to the privy," Ellison admitted, still feeling a little light-headed from blood loss.

Simon helped him maneuver outside to do his business and then back into the house, where Ellison suggested they go sit in the kitchen. Banks got some coffee perking, then went back outside to clean up, bringing a basin of water back for Ellison.

"I'm Simon Banks, by the way," he said as he poured two mugs of strong coffee, setting one down in front of Ellison at the table. Continuing to make himself at home, he puttered around the kitchen, finding the utensils and plates in a cupboard, slicing up bread, and stoking up the stove to heat up the frying pan. "You hungry, Ellison?" he asked.

Jim's eyes flickered at the use of his name, but he figured the kid must've told folks his name. "Yeah, I could eat. You work for the Doc?"

"No, my partner and I have a ranch southwest of here," Banks replied easily as he sorted out eggs and bacon. "I came into town yesterday just as the bank was bein' robbed."

Jim nodded as he sipped at the hot coffee. He'd known somebody besides the Sheriff and the outlaws had been doing some shooting.

"What brings you to Bitterwood Creek?" Banks asked then, still very curious about the stranger.

"Just passing through," Jim replied. "I heard some screams, and then the first shots - we must've come in from opposite sides of town."

"Uh-huh," Banks grunted, as he pulled the cooked bacon from the pan, and then cracked half a dozen eggs into the sizzling grease. "You a gunfighter?"

"No, I'm not," Jim answered steadily, but offered nothing more.

Simon watched the eggs as he continued mildly, "I was just curious. When I helped the doc yesterday, I noticed you didn't seem to be a man who works with your hands, or a farmer. And you're handy with your guns, from what Clive had to say. Pretty fancy shootin', gettin' that guy between the eyes when he was holdin' Clive in front of him." Pausing a moment to see if Ellison would offer anything more, Simon flipped the eggs and set the bread on the stove to brown. Finally turning to look at the silent man, Banks said, "Look, if you want to be a mystery man, fine. Everybody has secrets. But, Mr. Ellison, I'd like to thank you for what you did yesterday. Not many men would ride into a quarantined town to help a screamin' woman when guns are bein' fired. We were lucky you were passin' by."

Feeling unaccountably churlish, Jim turned his face away and swallowed. No one here had done anything but try to help him or be pleasant to him - it wasn't their fault that he was still so angry about what happened at Poplar Flats that he could scarcely think. Grimacing with regret, he shook his head as he looked back up at Simon. "I'm sorry," he sighed. "I, uh, was a Captain in the US Cavalry until I resigned a few days ago. Truth is, I left angry and I guess I still am."

Banks nodded as he turned away to dish up the eggs, toast and bacon, setting the plates on the table. Well, he thought, thinking about the War that had only been over for about a year, that pretty much tells me he was fightin' for the North. Sitting down across from Ellison, he asked quietly, "Were you headin' anywhere in particular?"

"No, just riding…wherever," Jim replied as he began to eat. "Why?"

Simon shrugged, then offered tentatively, "That kid, uh, the doctor, Blair? He's pretty good at what he does; actually, he's damned good, better'n I've ever seen. He saved Jed Stone's hand yesterday, piecin' little bits of bone t'gether like it was some kind of puzzle that made sense to him. But, well, I don't think even Blair expects that Jed's ever goin' to be able to draw a gun again with that hand. I can help out as temporary sheriff, for a while, I suppose - but I've got to get back to my ranch eventually. Other folks in this town and the country hereabouts are shopkeepers and farmers, clerks, cowhands. They don't know nothin' 'bout the law, or…well, nobody else rushed to help Jed out yesterday, now did they?"

"You're asking me if I want to be Sheriff?" Jim asked, disconcerted.

"If you don't have anywhere else to be, why not stay here?" Simon replied evenly as he sipped his coffee, watching the younger man over the rim of his cup. "They're good people, it's a nice part of the country - job pays pretty well, Mr. Ellison."

"Call me, Jim," Ellison replied absently, frowning down at his plate. Finally, lifting his eyes, he said, "I'll think about it. Thanks."

"Hmm, I smell coffee," Blair's voice came from the other room, and he appeared shortly after. "Morning," he grinned to both of them and then, pouring himself a cup, he said to Jim, "You look like you're feeling a little better."

Ellison looked down at his left shoulder and arm, which was bound tightly across his chest to keep the shoulder immobile, and nodded. "Not one hundred percent, yet, but yeah, better'n last night."

"I'll check the dressing after breakfast," Sandburg told him as he chose an apple from the basket on the table. "Pain's not too bad?"

Jim stiffened, wondering if Sandburg would say anything about his weird senses in front of Simon. Maybe it was crazy, but they made him feel like some kind of freak, and he didn't really want anyone knowing about them. He relaxed when the kid just sat down and looked at him expectantly, waiting for his answer. "Not too bad," he replied and then turned his attention back to his eggs.

********************

After Sandburg had changed the bandages on Jim's shoulder, pleased that he saw no signs of infection, he helped his patient pull on his jeans and gave Ellison his saddlebags to pull out a clean shirt. But Jim just waved him to go ahead and grab whatever he could find. Blair smiled to himself, glad that the man seemed to have relaxed a bit around him. He and Simon got Ellison settled outside the office in an old but comfortably made wooden chair, and then Blair set out on his rounds. Simon perched on the hitching rail, and the two big men simply soaked up the warmth of the morning sun for easy, silent minutes.

Jim stirred when he noticed Sandburg coming out of one of the houses at the far end of the street and then head directly into the one next door. "How many people are sick - and what are they sick with?" he asked, remembering the yellow rag on the post outside of town.

"Doc thinks it's diphtheria," Simon replied. "And, seems he's right. From what I heard yesterday as I was visiting around, chopping wood for some folks and drawing water for all the stuff he wants them to do, steam-tents, bathing the ones who still have fever, making buckets of willow-bark tea and chicken soup thickened with moldy bread - which is an idea I'd never heard before - anyway, most of 'em are gettin' better. There're about thirty kids sick, I guess, and a half-dozen of the older folk. Why, he even had to cut holes in the throats of more'n a half dozen victims, to help them breathe when their throats closed up."

"I've seen that done, but not often," Jim reflected. More than thirty patients with disease and two gunshot wounds - the kid was busy. "He said he only came to town a few days ago. Where's he from?"

"Back east," Simon replied, and when Jim cocked a brow, the older man shrugged. "That's all he said when I asked him."

"Huh," Ellison grunted as he wondered why an apparently bright young doctor would leave the thriving cities of the eastern United States to travel out to the western territories - and then get off a stage in the middle of nowhere, just because a town full of people were sick and needed him. Wasn't there someplace he was supposed to be where people were expecting him?

During the hour or so they spent in the sun, several of the townsfolk approached to introduce themselves and to thank both Jim and Simon for having helped stop the robbery. They were all very impressed with Clive's story of how the big stranger had snuck in as quiet as a mouse from the back, and then had faced down all five of the outlaws alone, saving Clive and driving the others out of the bank. Jim found all the attention disconcerting, and was relieved when Sandburg ambled back from his rounds, and suggested he should probably go inside to rest awhile.

Simon followed them indoors, and when they got Jim settled, Banks asked as they headed through to the office, "How's Jeb doing today?"

Sandburg sighed as he bit his lip. "Not as well as I'd like. I guess I shouldn't be surprised that there's some infection in his wound," he replied. As he turned back toward his office, he added, as if to himself, "If it gets any worse, I'll have to find some maggots to clean it out."

"Maggots?" Simon repeated, grimacing with disgust.

"Yeah, they've been used for centuries to clean out infected wounds," Blair replied. "I know it sounds disgusting, but it works. They consume the dead tissue before it putrefies and poisons the body, and leave the healthy tissue alone. Better than leaching blood out of already weak people, as if that's going to do them any good." Shaking his head at what he considered a ludicrous, if still widely used practice, he continued down the hall to his office to update his patients' records, while Simon headed out to do his own rounds of the town.

On his way past the livery stable, Banks slipped the note he'd written to bring Joel up to date into a saddlebag, and set Chance free to wander back home. Looked like he'd be staying in Bitterwood Creek, for a while, anyway. With the victims of diphtheria getting better, and no new folks going down sick, the quarantine would be lifted and the transients would begin streaming through again - and then the little town would need a Sheriff to keep the peace.

A couple of hours later, Sandburg heated up a donated beef casserole for the noon meal, figuring Ellison needed some hearty food to get his strength back.

"So, Simon tells me you're from back east," Jim mentioned casually, as they sat down to eat.

"Uh-huh," Blair agreed. "How 'bout you, where're you from?"

"Back east, originally," Jim replied, noting the redirection. "I moved around a lot with the army, and then the Cavalry."

"Oh, so you're a Cavalry officer," Blair guessed, not able to picture Ellison as anything but an officer. The guy had an air of command, and was too quietly intimidating in his manner to be an enlisted man.

"Was - retired recently," Jim allowed. "Where were you headed?"

Sandburg shrugged. "Nowhere in particular. Kind of a case of 'have medical bag, will travel', I guess. A doctor can usually find work in most places. How about you? Where were you headed?"

"No place special," Ellison returned. Then they looked at one another and chuckled, each well aware of the other's bid to get information, and knowing full well that the other guy wasn't saying much in response.

Finding himself oddly at ease with the younger man, and curious about how the kid had known what to do to settle down his senses, Jim asked, "So - how'd you know how to help me last night? I mean, that lantern thing is a pretty good trick."

"I'm glad it worked - I was sorta making it up as I went along," Blair admitted, and then continued, "I read a book a long time ago, about an explorer in Paraguay, who wrote about people he called 'sentinels'. They were tribal watchmen and they all had five enhanced senses. Since then, I've found references to similar legends in other cultures. Over the years, I've met some people with one or two enhanced senses, but you're the first person with all five. It's a real gift, man."

"You think so? Try living with them," Jim grunted. "They drive me crazy."

"Have you always had them?" Blair asked, surprised that a man of Ellison's apparent age hadn't learned to live with something as natural as his own senses a long time ago.

"No, maybe that's the problem," Ellison replied. "They showed up during the War - I was separated from my men behind enemy lines at one point - took me a couple of weeks to get back to my own side without getting caught."

"Isolation," Blair reflected, his expression thoughtful. "Must have been the isolation, and the extreme danger that triggered them. I'd guess that you've always had them, but maybe just, I don't know, shut them down when you were a kid, and forgot about them. I hear it's the same thing with auras. When we're very young we can see them, but when we realize the grown-ups don't, well, we think it might be wrong or bad, so we repress the ability. It's not conscious, more defensive."

"Where do you get all this stuff?" Ellison asked, disconcerted. Auras? Repress? Was he serious?

"I read a lot," Blair grinned.

"Uh-huh," Jim grunted as he shook his head. "You going to hang around this town once all the sick folks are better?"

"Yeah, I think I will," Blair answered as he leaned back in his chair. "They're nice people, most of them, anyway - and they need a doctor."

"Most of them?" Ellison probed, catching the tightness in Sandburg's voice.

Sighing, the younger man pushed his hair behind his ears as he said, "Well, there're some people who can bring themselves to accept help when they need it, without necessarily accepting the man giving it. Some take time to accept people they see as different from them, and some never do."

Ellison nodded, wondering about the tensions in the town. Some folks would have a lot of trouble, he expected, accepting that the richest man around was black and their new doctor was a Jew. Some folks remained fools for their entire lives, and worse, taught their children to grow up to be fools, as well. Breaking the silence that had fallen between them, he asked, "How's Jeb Stone doing? I heard you mention to Simon that his arm's infected. Is he going to lose his hand?"

"No, I hope not," Blair sighed as he rubbed the back of his neck.

"But…" Jim prompted, seeing the darkness of empathy flood the kid's eyes.

"But, I'm not sure he'll be able to use it as well as he once could," Blair murmured. "There was so much damage to the bones and tendons…"

"From what Simon told me, he's lucky he had you working on him, or the hand and part of his arm would already be gone," Jim offered, feeling a need to console the kid. He just looked so damned sad, and almost guilty, as if there was something more he should have been able to do. "How'd you get to be such a good doctor when you're what, only twenty-two, -three?"

Blair smiled. "I'm older than I look - and I graduated from medical school when I was eighteen."

"What? You some kind of genius or something?" Jim exclaimed.

"Or something," Blair laughed as he stood to clear the table. Changing the subject, he noted, "It's good of you to be concerned about Jeb. You don't even know him."

"You don't know him all that well, either," Ellison pointed out. "But, well, Simon guessed that maybe he might not be able to handle a gun again. Suggested I might want to consider taking on the sheriff's job."

Blair had just finished filling the basin with hot water from the kettle simmering on the stove, to wash the dishes. He turned in astonishment. "Really?" he exclaimed, and then added thoughtfully, as he sadly considered Jeb's prognosis, "That's not a bad idea, actually. I think we're going to need one."

Jim looked unconvinced. "I don't know - this isn't that big a place. How much crime could happen here?"

Blair looked meaningfully at Jim's shoulder, and the older man caught the point and wryly quirked a brow in acknowledgment. As he turned back to the washing up, Sandburg said, "I've heard from the banker's wife that, though Bitterwood Creek isn't all that big, quite a few people wander through here on their way to Wichita or back East. And, apparently, Simon and his partner, Joel Taggart, run something of a cattle empire. Bought it after they struck it rich in a gold mine or something, fifteen or more years ago. There's a fair amount of cash in that bank." He looked back over his shoulder with a grin. "You'd be surprised how much people tell you when you're their doctor."

"Hmm," Jim reflected. "Is there a boarding house in town? If I did stay, at least until someone could be hired from another town, I'd need a place to bunk."

"You can stay here, if you want," Sandburg offered with a shrug. "I've got lots of room, and it's a short, leisurely stroll to the Sheriff's Office next door."

"Thanks," Ellison replied with a small smile, surprised by the offer. "I'll think about it."

But his eyes remained cold and wary, distant as they dropped away from Sandburg's clear, wide-eyed gaze. Intellectually, Ellison knew there was nothing to suspect about this man. The doctor had no ulterior motives, nothing to gain by only pretending to generosity or even kindness. Sandburg had cared for his wound, and worked wonders in helping to understand his senses. Had, in fact, exhibited the warmth of friendship in his manner and his evident hope that Jim would accept the job as sheriff. But, what did he know about Sandburg? That he was another drifter who wasn't forthcoming about his past. Was the kid hiding something - a crime? Was he running away from something? Hell, he was talented, sure, a great doctor by all reports, but who knew if he was even legally licensed to practice medicine? The story of finishing his training when he was only eighteen wasn't very credible, when Jim really thought about it.

Part of him wanted to accept the simplicity of what Sandburg seemed to be offering. Wanted to believe the help and the offer to share the house was without guile. But Jim had walled himself off, vowing never to trust again, never to believe in anything or anyone else - he couldn't, wouldn't, risk being made a fool again.

Belatedly, he realized that Blair had been studying him silently, a thoughtful, even sad look in his usually sparkling eyes. Quietly, as he dipped his head and then turned back to the dishwashing, he said, "Whatever you want, Jim. It's up to you. Whatever makes you comfortable."

********************

Given how little was really known about when diphtheria was contagious, before or during its appearance, Sandburg insisted they wait a full week after the last case of diphtheria had appeared and was well under control, and most of the other victims fully recovered, before he agreed to allow the yellow flags of quarantine to be removed from the posts outside town. Some grumbled at his caution. Silas McCready, who ran the saloon, was amongst the loudest; he counted on the stage, and the ramblers who wandered through - not to mention the cowboys from the ranches in the area - for his business. But others in the town backed the young doctor, so Sandburg's decision prevailed.

Leading Chance on a halter, Joel rode into a town a couple of days after getting Simon's note, to bring him a few more shirts, some socks, and another pair of jeans, given he'd be staying in town for a few weeks; at least, until the matter of a more permanent Sheriff could be sorted out. For Simon's instincts proved true: Jeb Stone wouldn't be able to continue with the job. Before the young couple could even begin to worry about what that meant for their economic survival, Simon and Joel went to visit them, offering Jeb a job on the ranch and his wife the work of being their housekeeper and cook, if she was willing to consider the position. The offers were delicately made, understanding that some might think it odd for a white woman to be waiting on two black men, and not every white man would consider working for men who were black. But Suzannah had always liked the strong, kind, older men, and Jeb had learned to respect both of them a long while back - both young people saw the kindness, as well as the concern for them, behind the offers, and were only too grateful to accept.

As Jim's strength returned, he began to amble around the town, getting a feel for the place. Quiet himself for the most part, as he wasn't given to a lot of talk, he spent his time listening to the stories people told about themselves and Bitterwood Creek. Before long, he concluded that Simon was probably right about the fact that there were no other candidates for the sheriff's job in town. Oh, there were men who might have done the job, if they'd been interested. Silas McCready, for example, was a big man who wore a gun, if tucked away in a shoulder holster, but he was more interested in making money - as was the banker, Sam Sloane, for all his blather about wanting to see Bitterwood Creek grow, and being concerned about the wellbeing of his neighbours. The blacksmith was another possibility. Henri Brown was a big, strapping man a few years younger than Jim, and he didn't look like he took any guff. But he was also a jovial man, smarter than he let on, wary of assuming too much. He'd come into town with his wife and two young children after the War Between the States had ended, looking for a new start after having been freed from his slavery as a Cajun plantation owner's 'smith. Freedom was still a new way of being for him, and he wasn't ready to take on responsibility for the safety of white people whom he wasn't entirely comfortable with yet. Angus McDonald, a thin, taciturn man, ran the General Store and he, too, seemed preoccupied with the bottom lines in his ledgers. Marcus Candling was the barber and well suited to his profession. He loved to gossip and speculate about anything under the sun, but he was no fighter - slightly paunchy with the flushed complexion of one who liked his drink, he wouldn't know what to do with a weapon if his life depended upon it. Moe Gurning, the bartender and bouncer at the saloon, was a beefy man who ran more to muscle than fat - he didn't talk much either, but Jim wondered if it was meanness he saw glinting in the other man's eyes when he thought no one was watching, or just a tendency toward hard and rigid judgments. The man who ran the newspaper, Dan Raymond, and Johnny Winston who worked in the Telegraph Office as well as keeping the local stage schedule, were good men - decent, hardworking men - but more interested in books than in potentially violent undertakings.

Most of the women in town seemed to be wives, daughters or dependent sisters, or old grandmothers, with the notable exception of a few independent creatures. Maisie Dunning was such a one, a widow who swore she'd never marry again, but who was probably just bluffing about that. She was a great cook and outspoken, but kind-hearted and seemed lonely. Jim found her solicitous attention to him a little suffocating, quickly learning to smile pleasantly, tip his hat and amble off before she hauled him into the bakery for a coffee and a 'bit of sweet' to fatten him up. He just had a feeling that if he wasn't careful, she'd have him hogtied and at the church in front of the preacher before he'd quite known what had happened. It didn't help that Sandburg, apparently, thought Maisie's infatuation quite funny. Nellie Bascome, the schoolmarm, was bright and insightful but, though she was ready to help anyone who needed it, she was a little retiring by nature, and more comfortable with the children.

The surprise was Megan Connor, who owned and ran the hotel. An unusually tall woman with a flaming mane of red hair - and a temper to match - she took no nonsense from anyone. Smart, efficient, more than a little caustic in her observations and humour, she frankly seemed to terrify most of the men in town. Still, she was also exotic, having come all the way from Australia on the other side of the world; and very beautiful, so she was fascinating to the others in town, and the subject of a good deal of gossip.

And, when the quarantine was lifted, Jim understood why Simon was so certain the town needed a fulltime sheriff. Bitterwood Creek transformed overnight from a veritable ghost town to a lively, bustling center of business and entertainment for the area, as well as a way-station, of sorts, for people passing through, either on the east or westbound stages that rumbled through town daily, or for riders drifting into town on the way to somewhere else. Music spilled out onto the street from the saloon, along with the tinkle of glasses and the chink of coins on the bar or the poker tables - and the high-pitched laughter of women who were rarely seen or heard in the light of day. Whiskey flowed in an endless river, while barrels of home-brewed beer emptied as if by magic. Cowhands rode in with their wages in their jeans, looking for entertainment, either in the games of chance, or with the ladies who lived above the saloon. Gamblers came and went like the drifting tumbleweed, fleecing the locals with glib words and fancy dealing, and not everyone was a good loser. Brawls were a common occurrence, and the occasional gunplay cracked through the night. As the accommodation in the jail came into more regular use, Jim learned that a Circuit Judge came through every fortnight, though most of the offences, the drunks and the disorderly, were simply fined in the cold light of dawn and sent on their way.

It took three weeks before Sandburg would even begin to consider giving Ellison a clean bill of health, though his wounds had healed in two. For the third week, and into the fourth, Blair supervised a specialized exercise program he'd developed to build strength and resilience back into Ellison's shoulder. And, during that time, Sandburg also devised a plethora of tests and exercises for Ellison's senses, so that if he did choose to move on when he was fully healed, he'd have a better understanding of his own unique capabilities - as well as how to control them better.

At first, Jim had been reluctant to work with Blair on his senses, feeling a little like a guinea pig for a bright doctor whose other patients had all recovered. But the third time in two days that Sandburg caught him staring off into space, at the stars, or the flame in a kerosene lantern, or once just when he was stirring a pot of soup on the stove, Ellison had to reluctantly agree that he needed help - and needed it badly. He never told Sandburg, but Simon had caught him once, too, lost somewhere in a haze after he'd tried too hard to listen into the hushed conversation of a few disreputable drifters who were eying the bank suspiciously. Simon had managed to bring him around, mostly by shaking him 'til he snapped out of it, but Blair never seemed to need to resort to such physical interventions. It was as if the touch of his hand and the sound of his voice were homing signals that drew Jim back to awareness quickly and without a lot of fuss.

So, it became their habit that in the evenings to work on Jim's senses, if Sandburg wasn't out on a call or mixing up medicines to replenish his supplies. Blair had him refine his sense of touch by handling and identifying various things with his eyes closed. Kernels of various grains, cooking oil and lamp oil, threads of cotton or catgut, buttons of bone or wood. Or Sandburg would talk him through his sense of hearing, gradually having Jim open up his capacity to listen in on conversations in the saloon down the block or the hotel beyond that. Then he'd tell Ellison to try to block out the cacophony of that incessant chatter, and concentrate instead on the creek behind the house, the rustle of leaves, the stomping of the horses in the stable or the distant lowing of cattle on the open range. Sometimes, it was his sense of smell that Blair wanted to hone, again having him close his eyes to sniff at various vials, jars and bottles of medicines, herbs, fruits or vegetables. When it was sight Sandburg wanted to explore, he'd pull out the heavy medical tomes from the bookshelves in the office, or one of the journals that came every week or so for him in the mail brought by the stage, and he'd have Jim read the things - from increasing distances as Blair moved farther away across the room or out into the hall, in varying light, as Sandburg turned down one wick after another, until Jim realized he was reading the words up to twenty feet away, in virtual darkness - and often, upside down as Sandburg would tease him by flipping the book or journal without warning, just to see how Jim would react.

And, always, Blair maintained a low tone of never-ending encouragement, often touching him lightly to reassure him that he could do whatever was being asked. If he sank too deep and was losing his sense of place and self, Sandburg seemed to sense it, and always drew him back before he was lost. They'd work on the lanterns, so that Ellison could consciously turn senses up or down at will, one or more at a time, and Blair suggested that he never focus or 'heighten' only one sense at a time, especially if he were alone, as that would increase his risk of fogging or 'zoning', as Sandburg came to call it. Blair figured using two senses at a time would help to ground him.

Jim wasn't used to being touched as often as Blair touched him. In the military, touch was rare, most often no more than a helping hand when a guy was wounded. The rigid posture of attention, the protocols of hierarchy, even amongst men of the same rank who had their own chain of responsibilities, prohibited overt physical demonstrations of friendship or support. In part, Ellison figured, it was the underlying, often unspoken but nevertheless very real, caution and aversion to encouraging undue physical and emotional familiarity between men living in such close communal relationships. There were moral issues, if the men were lovers, as such relationships were considered aberrant, and abhorrent, abominations. Further, very close personal relationships, even if only between good friends, could present ethical dilemmas and even real danger in a military environment. If a man cared too much about the wellbeing of another, his judgment could be affected and impaired, putting the morale and safety of the entire troop put at risk. Promotions and plums assignments could be perceived as favouritism. In crisis situations, men could break ranks, trying to save the good friend or, if the friend was killed, could become lost in an emotional fog of grief or rage.

Consequently, at first, Jim stiffened when Sandburg touched him until he realized he was being foolish. The doctor wasn't trying to compromise his ethics or morals. He was a healer, who used touch to reassure and to lend support. That was all. So, Ellison relaxed and accepted what Sandburg seemed to do unconsciously, hardly even aware that he was touching when they worked on his senses - because, certainly, the doctor kept his hands to himself, otherwise. But, even the sound of Blair's voice assumed undue significance; when he spoke, particularly when coaching Jim through his senses, it was like being immersed in a crystal clear pool that was warm and limpid on the skin. Relaxing and reaffirming at the same time. Soothing, but stimulating.

Ellison found himself, despite all his convictions and vows to remain separate and apart from others for the rest of his days, being undermined by the simple trust that the helpful and caring young man inspired in those around him. Still, a voice in the back of his mind warned Jim that he found the touch and sound, the very presence, of the younger man too comfortable. Worse, after a time, he came to miss it when Blair was out doing rounds, tending to other duties, as if in its absence, warmth had been taken from the world. It was disconcerting.

So, instinctively, Jim tried to maintain a certain coolness, a distance, a wall of space and emotion, between himself and the man who was doing so much to help him understand, and accept, who and what he was.

But Sandburg seemed to sense when those walls of defensiveness and irritation began to get in the way when Jim was tired, or irritated with the tests, and needed space again, some distance - when enough was enough. When Jim grew increasingly frustrated, even surly, he'd call a halt and pull out a deck of cards for a casual game, or dig out the former doctor's chess set, restoring a sense of distance while still maintaining a mood of comradely friendship. Sometimes, on the nights when Jim was especially weary, Blair would simply say he had to do some reading or catch up on his patient records and leave Ellison in blessed peace and quiet. Before long, Jim realized it was deliberate, not happenstance, and that Sandburg just seemed exceptionally well tuned to his moods and needs. But it took a while to realize that a good deal of that patient record-keeping that Sandburg was doing, were notes Blair was making on him and his senses. Jim wasn't at all happy with those notes being kept, but Sandburg just shrugged and said the notes might be helpful someday.

"I'd rather have them, and never need them, than not have them, and wish I did," Blair said. "They're confidential notes, Jim - locked in my cabinet and nobody has the key but me. Don't worry, I wouldn't keep these records if I ever thought they'd be a danger to you."

Ellison had left it at that, but he never felt good about it. Still, as time went on, and Sandburg referred back to the notes once in a while to check on something, or to clarify some confusion, he reluctantly began to see that maybe they were useful.

Gradually, despite his best intentions, Jim found his defences slipping. One night, after Blair had been teasing him, and clowning around outrageously as he wittily recounted his past experiences in working in some hospital somewhere, the stupid rules, the maddening bureaucracy, the overly sensitive caste system of required obeisance to doctors - and some of the more idiotic foibles and practices of the doctors, themselves - Jim found himself howling with laughter, so hard that there were tears in his eyes and he could hardly get his breath. Blair glowed at his reaction, snickering himself at Ellison's sudden helpless abandon, though at the time, he didn't understand the full import of Jim's hilarity. Many of Blair's anecdotes resonated with Ellison's experiences, within the military bureaucracy, that he'd found inane and ridiculous and often very amusing. He hadn't thought he'd ever be able to laugh again about his life in uniform, but that evening healed some of the wounds in Jim's soul - he could again think of his past with something more than bitter recrimination.

Later that night, chuckling in recollection of Blair's antics as he settled down to sleep, Jim found himself trying to remember when he'd last laughed, let alone with all-out, even giddy, delight. And then, try as he might, he just couldn't resist or deny any longer the honest affection he felt for the kid. He liked Sandburg. More, he knew that somehow, the doctor had snuck in under all of his defences and had become, without any help from Ellison, the best friend Jim had ever had. Not that he'd had many good friends, or had even felt the need of them before now.

The next morning after his office hours had been completed, Sandburg called Jim inside from where he'd been chopping wood to ensure Blair had enough stacked by the stable to last him through winter, and led him back to the office.

"What's up?" Jim asked a tad warily, wondering if the good doctor had more irritating 'tests', or frustrating 'suggestions', about his senses. Grudgingly, Jim pushed away his churlish thoughts. Though Sandburg's suggestions and tests hadn't been easy to master, Ellison had to admit they had helped - a lot. And though some had been annoying or irritating, Blair always made an effort to also make most of them as entertaining as he could, and they often ended up laughing at some of the more bizarre tests he dreamed up. So, Jim settled himself in the chair at the end of the desk and waited to see what Blair wanted of him, only then realizing how serious, even somber, the kid looked.

"I was just wondering," Blair replied as he gazed at Jim steadily, "if you plan to use your gun anytime soon?"

"Well, I don't plan to rob the bank, if that's what you're worried about," Jim jibed back, thinking it an odd question, wondering what was bothering the younger man.

Sandburg shook his head, not rising to the banter. "No, of course not, but I want to know if you can draw your weapon as easily, and as swiftly, as you were used to doing before your injury. I suspect that you came to count on the skill you had, and I'd like to be certain that you have either adjusted to the fact you're maybe a bit slower now, or that you're practicing to get your skill back. 'Cause, otherwise, well, you could get yourself killed," he concluded soberly, but then grinned like an imp as he added, "and that would waste all the hard work I've expended on you."

Ellison looked away, not fooled by the teasing glint in the kid's eyes; touched by the unexpected concern. "I've been practicing," he admitted. "You're right, I'm a little slower, but not much. And my right draw is as good as it ever was."

"All right, then," Blair sighed mournfully as he sagged despondently against the back of his chair, "you're free to go."

When Jim looked at him in surprise at his sorrowful manner, the kid added with painful sincerity, "But, uh, I think Simon was right to offer you the job of sheriff here, and I hope you'll stay."

"You just want to run more tests on me," Ellison accused, but a smile twitched at the corner of his mouth in response to the unexpected glow of warmth he felt in his chest to realize how much the younger man hoped he wouldn't just pack up and leave. It felt good to know that maybe, the kid had begun to see him as a good friend, too, and would honestly miss him if Jim decided it was time to move on.

"Yeah, you're right," Sandburg agreed readily. "Your senses are truly amazing, an extraordinary gift, but I think there's a lot more you could be doing with them, and they still sneak up on you every once in a while. I, uh, well, I'd feel better if you were in the neighbourhood of someone who knows something about what's going on with you."

"Sandburg, if I take the job, I'll be on my own," Ellison replied, figuring whether he stayed or left, he'd be alone with his senses when he went up against what could be a dangerous world. "It's not like you'll be tagging along with me."

"Well, I could," Blair offered, though his eyes fell away, expecting to be refused. "I mean, sometimes, I have to be out with a patient, but most evenings I'm just hanging around. I could, ah, walk the patrols with you, back you up, sort of, if trouble's brewing in the saloon."

"Chief, you don't wear a gun," Ellison objected, frankly astonished by the unlooked for, and certainly unexpected, offer. "Sure, most times, there's nothing to worry about. But there are times when…"

"Well, I figure I'll just learn to duck," Sandburg cut in, his eyes lifting again to Ellison's gaze. "I can help you, Jim. I can help you focus your sight or your hearing and catch you before you zone. Frankly, I'm a little worried about you trying to do it all on your own. Right now, anyway. Maybe, in time, you'd have good enough control, but admit it - you don't right now."

Ellison's gaze dropped as he thought about his options. He could ride away, just disappear - but to where, to do what? This town needed someone like him to keep the law, and wasn't that he wanted to do with his life, to be of some use protecting those who couldn't protect themselves? And, though he hated to admit it, Blair was right. He didn't have the mastery he needed to count on his own ability to manage and control his senses himself. His lips tightened as he considered the offer Sandburg had made, weighing the dangers to the younger man, and how he could ensure his safety - until, finally, he looked back up at Sandburg, who was watching him with a hopeful expression in his eyes.

"That offer of a room still good?" Jim asked, trying for a nonchalant manner, as if it were no big deal but hoping Sandburg hadn't changed his mind.

Sandburg grinned jubilantly, and then nodded. "It goes with the job of sheriff - so, I guess it's all yours, man." Then he stood and stuck out his hand as he said happily, "Welcome to Bitterwood Creek, Sheriff Ellison."

********************

Simon was delighted, and relieved, when Jim agreed to become the Sheriff of Bitterwood Creek. Having sounded out the townspeople, he knew there was a solid majority who hoped Ellison would stay on - and, besides, it was long past time for him to get back to his ranch.

So, later that day in the Sheriff's Office next door, a committee of citizens swore Jim in, and he pinned the badge to his shirt. As soon as the official ceremony was concluded, he thanked people for their confidence, told them he'd do his best by them, and then urged them to get about their business. As he said it with a smile, they chuckled and drifted out of the office. Simon had already packed up his gear, and Chance was hitched to the post outside.

"I'm real glad you're stayin', Jim," he said as he held out his hand to shake Ellison's. "If you ever need backup, you let me know."

"I will, Simon, thanks," Ellison replied with a sober nod. "And - well, thanks for setting this up for me."

"It's in my own best interest, Sheriff," Simon replied with a devilish grin as he jerked his thumb over his shoulder at the bank across the street. "My life savings are over yonder, and I like to know they're secure." Turning to Blair, to shake the young man's hand, Banks leaned down as he said, "You make sure he stays out of trouble, you hear?" When Sandburg laughed, Simon added, "And thanks for putting me up. This town got lucky the day you walked in, just 'cause you knew folks needed you." Looking up to include Jim, he added, "Got lucky with both of you. When you have the time, you're both welcome out at the ranch. Take care, now." With that, he turned and they ambled out with him as he left. Once he was mounted, he raised his fingers to the brim of his Stetson in an informal salute, and then guided Chance out of town.

"Well, I guess I should be getting about my business," Blair said with a grin, deliberately echoing Ellison's words to the other townsmen.

"Ah, just one thing before you go," Jim countered as he waved Sandburg back inside. Walking around the desk, he rifled in a drawer for something and then moved back to stand before Blair. "Raise your right hand," he instructed.

"What?" Blair asked, frowning in confusion.

"Raise your right hand," Jim repeated, and when he did, Sheriff James Ellison swore in his new deputy, and then handed him a badge.

Blair was gaping at it as Ellison said, "I don't want you wearing that in case it makes you a target, but I want you to have it. If you're going to back me up, it's going to be official. From now on, you're my part-time deputy as well as full-time doctor to this town. You sure you can handle both?"

"Oh, yeah," Blair replied soberly. "I won't let you down. Thanks, Jim, for trusting me."

Jim nodded, and believed the younger man. Despite all his best intentions, all his convictions that he'd never trust again, never care enough for anyone or let himself be vulnerable to the actions of another soul - he trusted Sandburg. And he was deeply appreciative of how soberly Blair responded to that trust. Utter and absolute sincerity glowed from his eyes as he vowed to be worthy of Jim's trust in him, and his voice was unsteady with gratitude for the gift of it.

********************

Until Simon had moved his gear out, Jim had continued to bunk in the infirmary downstairs. But he moved upstairs immediately thereafter, and made himself at home. Though he settled in and, within the walls of his new home or with Sandburg in the streets, felt a calm he'd rarely felt anywhere, he still held a deep and abiding anger coiled in his gut. When he was tired, or tense, he was prone to snap at Sandburg, mostly because the kid was 'safe' and he didn't have to guard himself around Blair, like he did with everyone else. Though he felt guilty at first, Sandburg seemed to understand and not take it personally; he'd just snap back if it was warranted, or shrug it off, giving Jim an even greater sense of peace and security around the younger man. Sandburg took him as he was; there was no need of any pretense of any kind in his company.

But one late night after the town had finally settled down, instead of heading up to bed, Sandburg invited him into the kitchen for a mug of tea. Still wound up from sorting out a brawl that had almost gotten ugly, Jim accepted. Once the mugs were filled with one of Sandburg's herbal brews, they sat kitty-corner across the table from one another, the only light from the soft glow of the candles Blair had lit from the coals of the stove. As soon as they were settled, Sandburg asked quietly, "What makes you so angry all the time, Jim? It's not good for you, you know. You grind your teeth at night, and you're going to get an ulcer. I don't want to pry, but I wonder if, maybe, it would help to talk about it."

Ellison stiffened and looked away, not sure he wanted to talk about the fury that burned in his gut almost all the time. Swallowing, he toyed with his mug, turning it in small, tight, circles on the wood-plank table. Taking a breath, he cut a look up at the man who had somehow become, in such a few short weeks, someone who felt closer than a brother. A man he knew virtually nothing about, except that he could trust him and that Blair accepted him for all his prickly ways. Now, as he gazed into his best friend's eyes, he saw only honest concern for him. "Tell you what, Doc, I'll make you a deal. I tell you my secrets, if you'll tell me yours."

Blair's gaze dropped then, and he sat back against his chair, thinking about it. Finally, he shrugged as he looked up and said quietly, "Okay, not that my secrets are any big deal. But, I asked first, so you go first."

Nodding, his mouth and throat suddenly feeling parched, Ellison took a sip of the hot tea, scarcely noting the light taste of refreshing and calming mint. "I joined the Army when I was thirteen," he began, looking at the mug in his hand. "I was big for my age, so I lied, and told them I was sixteen. Anyway, it became my…home, I guess. It wasn't perfect, but I believed in what we stood for - or what I thought we stood for. Protection of the nation. Courage, honour, loyalty. Safeguard the people and fight for what's right."

He flicked a look at Sandburg who just nodded as he sipped his own tea. "Anyway," Ellison continued, "like a lot of other guys, I fought in the War and saw a lot of things that I hope I never see again." His eyes got a faraway, haunted, look, and then he shook off the memories as he went on, "But as bad as that was - the worst thing I thought I'd ever experience - it wasn't. I resigned my commission just a couple of days before I rode in here." Bowing his head, his voice tight with pain and pity and the ever-present fury, he ground out, "I was ordered to lead my men in a surprise raid against Running Deer's encampment at Poplar Flats. I knew the Chief was abiding by the terms of the treaty; that massacring them as some kind of example was wrong for so very many reasons. So - I refused a direct order for the first time in my life. And I quit. My superior officer had me locked in the stockade until after the raid was well on its way the next morning, and then I was given my leave to go. I…I rode out there, thinking maybe some would be alive, maybe there was still something…but the camp was a smoldering ruin and they…they were all dead…one hundred and ninety-four people, a hundred and fourteen of them just kids…"

Jim's voice broke, and he shook his head, striving for control.

A look of appalled astonishment, followed immediately by aching compassion, glittered in Sandburg's eyes, but he quickly blinked away the stinging moisture. This was Jim's story to tell, his anguish to be assuaged, if there was any way of comforting such terrible memories. He'd read in the local paper about the horrific massacre, though not everyone saw it that way, and the details that had been given had been far from this reality of an unprovoked extermination of an entire community. He'd had no idea that Jim had even been there, let alone witnessed such a devastating atrocity. No wonder the man always seemed so angry, so cynical and distant. Jim had arrived in Bitterwood Creek only a couple of days after the Poplar Flats attack and, now, Sandburg really understood why that angry, embittered stranger had ridden into a quarantined town just because he'd heard a woman screaming in fear. Silently, he waited for Ellison to continue.

Swallowing convulsively, Jim grated, "I believed in what I thought our military stood for - I believed in the honour of the institution. But I was wrong. And, I guess, I'm ashamed to have not seen it coming. To have not been able to do something…"

Licking his lips, taking another sip of tea, he looked up at Sandburg, who was gazing at him with sorrowful understanding. "It was wrong because those people, the women and the children especially, didn't deserve to die. It was wrong because we'd given our word in the treaty, and then we dishonoured it in the most obscene and treacherous way possible. It was wrong because it hasn't been some kind of twisted lesson for the Indians to come into line, or else - all it did was prove to them that we can't be trusted to keep our word. So, from what I've gathered from the newspaper reports and the telegraph bulletins, hostilities are worse than they ever were and more people are dying. And…and I didn't stop it."

When Jim's voice died away, Blair blew out a long breath. Reaching across the corner of the table, he gripped Ellison's arm as he said, "YOU didn't break your word. YOU acted with honour. You can't wear this, or blame yourself for an atrocity that you didn't have the power to prevent. Shit happens, Jim; it happens all the time, man. You can only be responsible for how you act in terrible situations - like riding into a strange town to risk your life to save folks you didn't even know. Your anger is understandable; you were betrayed by something fundamental that you believed in. But your anger can't bring those people back, can't turn back time. It can only shred your own soul, for a crime you didn't commit. You're not God, Jim. Just a brave man who does his best."

Ellison shook his head, grateful for the words, but the disgust and the fury choked him, too strong to let it go - he should have been able to do something! "If I'd just turned around and walked out, maybe I could have warned Running Deer…I don't know. I didn't expect Rutherford to toss me in the stockade - maybe I should have…"

"How could you have divined the future to anticipate your superior would treat you so unconscionably?" Blair cut in. "Seriously, man, to have ridden off without first resigning your commission would have been a violation of your word of honour, the very thing you were resigning over - a fundamental breach of trust. You did the only thing you could have done in the circumstances." Sandburg paused, and when Jim still didn't seem convinced, he asked quietly, "Look at it this way; if our situations were reversed, and it was my story to tell - would you see me as somehow responsible for having failed those people? What else could I have done? Or - is there something more could I do now, to try to ensure it doesn't happen again?"

Ellison sighed and shook his head, but the guilt he felt eased some. "Nothing," he replied quietly. "There was nothing you - I could have done." But was there anything he could do now? Was there a way of stopping such hideous slaughter, a way of calming the violence and restoring some hope of peace? Finally, he added, "I guess I can't do much about what happens in other places - but I can help find some way to restore peace, here at least, if the conflict between the whites and the Indians begins to involve us. Maybe, maybe if we could make things work out differently here, it would be an example, a model or something, for other places."

"Maybe," Blair smiled slightly. "We can't ever change the past - we can only try to create a different future by being committed to something better than we have now. You're doing that already, by keeping the peace, protecting the innocent, safeguarding our community. You are making a difference for the good, Jim. You're our watchman - our Sentinel. And I know, with absolutely no doubt, we can all count on you."

Jim felt a lump in his throat, his eyes stinging as he blinked rapidly at the plainly stated, unvarnished and simple trust Blair gave to him. He could feel Sandburg's warm grip on his arm, and the strength of his compassion and confidence. Blowing out a shuddering breath, he felt something ease inside. He'd always be angry about what happened, and would never forget it, but maybe he didn't have to carry it all with him, fresh and raw, into his every waking moment. In the comfortable silence between them, the tension eased from his shoulders and he sighed. "Thanks, kid," he murmured quietly.

Sandburg patted his arm and gathered up the empty mugs, rinsing them with hot water he'd poured from the kettle into the basin when he'd made their tea. Turning to lean against the cabinet that held their food supplies and crockery, he said quietly, "It's late - how 'bout we continue this discussion another night?"

Looking up at him, Ellison replied earnestly, "I want to hear your story." And, almost surprisingly, Jim meant it - he'd not cared a lot about others in his life, not for a very long time. But he cared about Sandburg, and found himself honestly wanting to know more about the younger man.

"I know, and I'll tell it to you, but just not tonight."

Looking at his younger friend, Jim could see the faint lines of weariness in his face, the shadows under his eyes, and he nodded. "Okay. I trust you to keep your word."

Ellison wondered if Sandburg understood how much that meant - how very hard Jim found it to trust anyone as he'd discovered he trusted Blair.

But when the kid's eyes glittered before he blinked quickly, and the way his voice quavered, just a little, as he said, "Thanks," Jim figured, maybe, Sandburg did know. And was warmed by how much his trust seemed to mean to the younger man.

********************

Whether it had anything to do with the full moon or not, Jim could never figure it out, but on those days and nights, things always seemed more hectic than usual. It didn't help that it was a hot, dry spell with a wind that never seemed to quit and that aggravated people no end. Or, that it was the end of the week, when the cowboys came to town, looking for fun and all too often finding trouble. Not only was there a steady stream of fights through the long afternoons and evenings but also, once the town seemed to settle in the wee hours of the morning, Sandburg inevitably got busier. He'd just finish patching up a cut over an eye, or a busted finger, and he'd be called out to deliver a baby or to treat some kid with the croup.

So Jim bided his time, waiting until things quieted a bit, before again signaling his interest in hearing more about his friend's past. Or he intended to wait, until he heard Sandburg come in one morning just as the pale light of dawn was streaking the eastern sky, and wandered downstairs to see if the new baby in Bitterwood Creek was a boy or a girl.

Sandburg was standing by the washbasin in the kitchen, splashing the sweat from his body and cooling himself, as the air was still blisteringly hot; the darkness of the just ending night having brought little relief. He'd taken his shirt off and, as the early light of day streamed in the window, Jim couldn't believe what he was seeing. His mouth dropped open and he shook his head, scowling in sudden anger at what had been done to Sandburg, and from the look of the scars, not more than a year or so ago.

"My God," he swore. "Who did that to you?"

Blair jumped in surprise at the sound of Jim's voice, but then settled quickly as he turned and reached for his shirt. But Ellison strode to his side, and turned him a little to lightly touch the still-reddened crisscrossing scars. "You've been whipped within an inch of your life!" he grated, nausea twisting in his gut as he pictured Sandburg being so viciously abused.

"It's, uh, part of my story," Blair murmured, his head falling forward and his hair hiding his face, but he didn't pull away from Jim's touch. "It's okay - I guess the scars look worse'n they are. It doesn't hurt anymore, not much anyway."

"I want to know who did this!" Jim snapped as his hand dropped and he shifted to stand in front of his friend. Ellison had never held with brutality or abuse - in his view, it was simply, profoundly, wrong. But, though the reality of abuse disgusted him, rarely had he felt such a surge of outright rage - an almost mindless desire to find the one who had done this to Sandburg and punish him in kind. He could imagine no one, most especially the gentle young man standing before him in the early light of day, ever warranting such bestial discipline. God, from the look of his back, it was a wonder he hadn't died of the trauma of such vicious torture! And the thought of Sandburg dying, dying in such pain, twisted something inside Jim, arousing an almost desperate need to safeguard and protect this special young man.

Sandburg swallowed and nodded as he lifted his head, but then quickly covered a wide yawn as he asked wearily, "Can I get some sleep, first? I'm really whacked out, Jim."

Ellison could see the deep shadows of fatigue under the eyes that lifted to meet his own. Ellison's rage died, extinguished by the very evident need Sandburg had to simply rest. He'd learn who had done this, but not at the expense of causing more grief to Blair to do so. "Okay," he said with a curt nod. "But - when you wake up, we're going to talk."

********************

When Blair came downstairs about four hours later, glad that it was a Sunday and he didn't have any office hours, he found Jim in the kitchen, making him breakfast. "Thanks, Jim," he sighed gratefully as he took the proffered mug of coffee and sank down at the table. Minutes later, a good solid breakfast of fried eggs and potatoes, bacon, sliced tomatoes, toasted bread and a healthy chunk of cheddar was set in front of him. "Since you didn't have time to eat last night, I assumed you'd be hungry," Jim said as he poured himself some coffee.

Gratefully digging in, Blair flashed him a grin as he replied, "I can always eat, man - this is great, thanks."

Quietly, Jim sat down and waited, giving his friend a chance to finish his meal before insisting upon knowing how Blair had come to be whipped so brutally.

Finally, Sandburg stood to take his empty plate to the washbasin, and to fill both their mugs with more coffee. Sitting back down, he leaned forward to prop his elbows on the table as he held the cup in front of him, like it was something of a shield. "I'm guessing you want to hear my story, now," he said quietly.

"You'd be guessing right," Jim agreed, his eyes focused intently on his young friend.

Blair bit his lip for a moment, as if trying to decide where to start, and then set his mug down as he began, "I told you a while ago I became a doctor at eighteen. I studied at Johns Hopkins in Maryland. My Mom and I traveled a lot when I was a kid…the years I spent at the university and the hospital were the first years I ever really felt like I belonged anywhere. It felt… good. After I graduated, I set up a practice with my best friend, Lucas Wheeler, and we were getting a pretty good reputation as bright, up and coming, modern physicians. Within a year of graduation, I met the woman I wanted to marry, Eliza Mayhew, and, much to my great joy, it seemed she wanted to marry me, too."

Blair smiled a little in memory, but then his eyes darkened and the smile faded. "We got engaged just before the War broke out. I, uh, didn't support the South. Oh, I know a big part of that war was really about economic issues and the South's resentment of how the North controlled trade, but it was also about slavery - an institution I consider loathsome. So, I decided I had to move north of the Mason-Dixon Line, and I wanted Eliza to come with me." Blair's lips tightened as he looked away. "She refused. She supported the South."

"I'm sorry," Jim murmured sympathetically, though he thought the woman a fool to turn her back on the love of such a good man, and resented her deeply for betraying her trust to Sandburg, for hurting him. "The War split a lot of families apart."

Nodding, Sandburg sighed and then continued. "I told her that I loved her, and that I'd be back - and that I hoped that she'd wait for me. Anyway, I joined the Army as a doctor, and did my best. But it was such a slaughter. The filthy tents where I treated the injured were like abattoirs. God, Jim, I had to amputate so many limbs that I knew I could have saved if I'd only had more time - but I only had time to save as many lives as I could. And the disease, God, the disease - partly the result of malnourishment and exhaustion, not to mention exposure because so few had decently warm or dry clothing, mostly I think, because of the filthy conditions - killed twice as many as bullets did. Some days, and many, maybe most, nights, I wondered if I really did anyone any good. So very many men died in such fear and agony…" his voice tightened and he paused to look into Jim's steady gaze. "I know you've seen it, too. I saw it in your eyes the other night."

Yes, he had seen the horror of it, and it haunted his nightmares still. It grieved Ellison to think that Sandburg, yet so young, had been so mired in the horror of what that war had cost in lives, whether through outright death, or through wounds that would never heal. He could imagine, only too well, how much Blair would have suffered doubts about his value in such circumstances, and the empathy he felt filled him, robbing him of words.

When Jim nodded, Blair took another sip of coffee, and then set the mug down. "About six months before the War ended, some of us got caught when the front shifted too quickly for us to evacuate," he continued, his voice low with his effort at control. "I was in the middle of surgery when the Rebs overran us. They, uh, wouldn't let me finish - just hauled me away from the table and chained me up with everyone else who was ambulatory. Then they herded us away, leaving the ones who were too badly hurt to walk, including the poor kid bleeding on that table, to die. Eventually, they loaded us into cattle cars and shipped us south to Masonville."

"Ah, Jesus, Chief," Jim cursed as he closed his eyes against the image of Sandburg being hauled away from men who would die without his help - and, knowing Blair, he figured the kid hadn't just peacefully up and left a bleeding patient on the operating table. Jim could also picture the malodorous muck in undoubtedly filthy cattle cars, and they'd have been jammed in like animals …and then to wind up in Masonville? God, the place was infamous as the foulest prison camp in the South. A hellhole in a damp, swampy area rife with disease, designed for a hundred men, but housing nearly a thousand prisoners packed together like sardines, with scarcely room to sit or walk without banging into someone else - not enough food or water, certainly none for bathing, blistering hot sun during the day, and swarms of mosquitoes in the twilight hours. Just thinking about it all was sickening - how much worse must it have been to live through such terrible things?

But as Sandburg had begun to relate his story, Jim became aware of something else, something that had puzzled him for some time, and had suspected, but now knew with certainty - and it confused him as much as it left him uncomfortable. That peculiar low, monotonous thumping he'd been hearing for weeks had sped up as Sandburg had begun his story - and for the first time, Jim consciously realized he was hearing the sound of Blair's heartbeat, and had heard it from the moment they'd met. He didn't know what it meant - that that sound was always there in the background - because he sure didn't hear anyone else's heartbeat unless he was really concentrating on them in his job as Sheriff, because he thought they might mean trouble. Almost unconsciously, he'd noticed that an increase in the heartbeat and more rapid, shallow breathing could be indicators of severe anxiety, potential lying or excitement. But he didn't have time to think about it because Blair had started to speak again.

"I did what I could to treat the sick and wounded in the prison, but it was never enough," Blair grated, his voice thick with the hideous memories of his helplessness, and his own quiet rage. Clearing his throat, not looking at Jim, he continued, "We heard the Union Army coming - we could hear the artillery for days, and then the musketry, getting closer. The guards got increasingly nervous, wanting to pull out, but Colonel Ralston, the Camp Commander, was sure the Rebel forces would prevail. His son, not being so certain, wanted to use the time remaining to wrest as much pain and terror from the prisoners as he could, before he lost his license to act with sadistic abandon. Anyway, he was torturing this kid, who couldn't have been old enough to fight but was in the Army anyway; he'd been captured about a month before. Jonas wanted that kid to die with terror in his eyes, and he…"

Blair's voice caught and he closed his eyes, shaking his head. "I couldn't stand it. I went berserk, I guess - I shoved him away from the kid, and we ended up wresting for the knife he'd been using - and…in the struggle…I killed him."

Jim didn't know what to say. In the weeks since he'd come to know Sandburg, he knew the kid held all life sacred - hell, he'd even felt badly that those murderous bank robbers had all been killed - so to have killed a man himself must have hurt something very deep inside of his heart. Must've damned near destroyed him. "It wasn't your fault," he said quietly, wanting to reach out and comfort, but frustrated that he didn't know how.

"I know," Blair replied, sounding very old and very weary. "Of course, Colonel Ralston didn't see it that way. He had me chained to a post and he whipped me - I think he planned to whip me to death. He didn't care that the Union Army was on the doorstep, or that the War was as good as over. He just wanted me dead, and he damned near succeeded."

Jim frowned, his eyes flickering in memory, and suddenly his gut clenched with nausea, utterly sickened by his dim recollection of the limp body of a skeletally thin man being freed from the whipping post, his back a ruin of bloody ribbons of skin and muscles with the slick white of bone visible in places along his ribs and spine. Horrified by his realization that he had seen Sandburg that day, he was almost overwhelmed by guilt that he'd done nothing then to help the younger man when he'd had the chance to do so - but he'd thought the beaten man dead - had never imagined anyone could survive such devastating abuse. He swallowed convulsively as he mumbled, "I was there."

"What?" Sandburg exclaimed.

"I was there, with the Army, when we liberated the camp," he explained slowly to the man he'd thought dead - as had every other witness in the crowded yard. It had been chaos, and he'd lost track of what happened to the 'body' of the whipped man as he and his men tried to restore order. The prisoners had been wild with grief and fury, raging against Ralston, who'd been dragged away for his own pathetic safety, imprisoned himself until he could be tried for his appalling treatment of the prisoners under his authority. "We heard from all the prisoners about this guy they called 'Doc' - about how they'd've died for sure if Doc hadn't saved their lives, and kept them alive. But they thought he was dead; that Ralston had killed him. It was you. They were talking about you."

"Yeah," Sandburg agreed, his voice husky, not realizing Jim had actually seen him that day. "I don't remember the rescue, to tell you the truth. I don't remember much of anything that happened for some time after. He'd, ah, beaten me before he chained me up to the post. It was three months before I was well enough to leave the hospital I was transferred to from the prison. As soon as I was discharged, I went back to Maryland, looking for Eliza; I needed to know she was alive and all right, you know? Stupid really. Don't know what else I expected - I guess I should never have gone back, never have hoped…I found her; she'd married Lucas. They were both very bitter about how the War ended and they treated me like a traitor. They, uh, despised me."

Pushing his hair back from his face, sitting a little straighter in his chair, Blair shrugged as he said, "That was about nine months ago. It was pretty clear that my life there was over and I didn't have much more than the clothes on my back, my medical kit, and my back pay to my name. I didn't have a clue where to go to start over. So, I bought some basic surgical instruments and a small supply of medicines and just started traveling around, stopping whenever I got someplace that folks needed a doctor, and then moving on again when the need was gone - I…well, I discovered that a lot of folks aren't comfortable with a Jewish doctor, if they have any choice." He paused for a moment, shaking his head sorrowfully, and then shrugged as he looked back at Jim. "To tell you the truth, the big cities back east made me feel claustrophobic, surrounded by noise and squalor, the press of crowds pushing and shoving, always in a hurry. I've found it hard to be around so many people since, well, since Masonville. So, I wandered further and further west until I got here - and decided to try staying awhile, maybe make someplace 'home', again."

Seeing the dark concern for him in his friend's eyes, the honest sorrow, Sandburg summoned up the shadow of a smile as he said, "I guess I should thank you. Not only did you arrive in Bitterwood Creek in time to help stop those robbers from killing anyone, but it seems you also arrived in Masonville in time to save my life - and the lives of hundreds of other men. You have no idea of how much it meant to us to hear you guys coming - to know that we might actually survive and be able to go home again."

Shaking his head, Ellison tried to imagine the kind of betrayal and utter abandonment Blair must have felt when he'd finally made it back 'home' to Maryland and found he had no home there or anywhere - but Jim knew he was just trying to avoid remembering what the kid had endured in Masonville. Jesus, he wanted to hit something! For someone as gentle and decent as Sandburg to have been confined in that horror of a camp, starved and beaten as a way of life; forced to kill to save another kid's life - because for all that he was a doctor, Sandburg had been very young - and then brutally battered and whipped, tortured very nearly to death…Jim didn't have the words to describe the combination of fury and disgust, pity and revulsion that churned in his gut, and he couldn't even begin to imagine how the kid had managed to survive so apparently whole. Because, unlike many, many others who had suffered in the War, nothing in his manner had ever given away the horror that he'd endured. Jim had heard stories since, of how men who'd been imprisoned in Masonville had later killed themselves, unable to feel worthy again, forever lost in the nightmare of the existence they'd known as prison inmates in that noisome hole - and other stories, of countless others who had sought oblivion in the bottle or through drugs…

…but this kid had just gone out looking for other people he could help. And when he'd found them, the ignorant morons had rejected him as soon as they didn't need him anymore. So…he went looking for other people to help…how many times in the past nine months had he picked up his courage and moved on looking for a place where he'd be allowed to settle, accepted for the good man he was?

"I don't know what to say, Blair - I'm sorry we didn't get there sooner," Ellison finally sighed. "God, I'm so sorry you had to endure all that…"

"It's not your fault, Jim," Sandburg replied. "Like I said, you, and the men with you, were our saviours, our heroes. Without doubt, I owe you my life." Suddenly, from the dark depths of his eyes, the distinctive sparkle that was all Sandburg's sprang into life and his expression and voice lightened from somber recollection to impishness, as he said teased, "You know, in some cultures, when one person saves the life of another, he becomes that person's 'blessed protector' - and is responsible for the one he saved for all the rest of his life."

Despite the jumble of his emotions, Jim couldn't help the smile that twitched in response. "You telling me I'm responsible for your welfare from here on in, Sandburg?"

"Uh-huh," Blair snickered. "So, I guess you're stuck in Bitterwood Creek - 'cause I kinda like it here and don't plan to move on anytime soon."

Jim sat back as he gazed fondly at the younger man, a little in awe to know he was facing the legendary 'Doc', a man who'd disappeared and was thought dead. But he frowned a little as he absorbed how very tired Sandburg was looking, and he wondered when the kid had last done anything that was just for fun, just to relax.

"What?" Blair asked, wondering about the frown.

"I was just thinking that if I'm your 'blessed protector', then I have to have some rights to be able to tell you to do what's good for you," Jim replied thoughtfully.

"Oh, yeah?" Sandburg quipped. "Well, good luck, man. I'm pretty used to doing things my own way."

"I was thinking that you look like you need to spend the afternoon under a shady tree upstream on the banks of the creek, catching fish…" Ellison drawled as he quirked one brow.

An eager grin lit Blair's face. "Oh," he temporized as he stood. "Now that I think about it, you know, you're right. Only makes sense that a blessed protector should have some advisory rights - and as your doctor, I can say that I think you need the same medicine."

Rising, Jim laughed lightly as he slung an arm, for the first time, around Blair's shoulders. His need to touch Sandburg, to comfort him, moments before had been too raw, even too intrusive, given how hard Blair was struggling to keep his story as unemotional as possible and retain some measure of control. Jim respected and understood that need. But surely, a comradely touch, a quick hug of sorts, couldn't be wrong, and it assuaged Ellison's need to give some measure of physical affirmation and support to the younger man. "You know, partner," he said as they went to get their fishing gear, "I think we're going to make a pretty good team."

But much as he was willing to let Blair distract him from the horrors and pathos of his friend's story, Ellison felt overwhelmed by what Sandburg had endured. And Jim decided, then and there, that though Blair might think the 'blessed protector' bit was something of a joke to lighten the mood, he accepted it as a solemn undertaking. So long as he was around, Sandburg would never suffer like that again - never.

********************

Life went on and, when no emergencies, sudden illnesses or confinements required the doctor's presence, Sundays became a ritual day of rest for the two servants of the citizens of Bitterwood Creek. Often, the two men went fishing, but once a month beginning in the early fall, when it was already growing too cool to linger long by the creek, they took to riding out to the Gold Ribbon Ranch, to visit with Simon and Joel, catch up with Jeb and Suzannah, and gradually get to know the ranch hands better. Neither of them was aware that their Sabbath habits reinforced their separateness from the community, their differences. Every Sunday, the people in the small town were reminded that their doctor was a Jew, someone of the race that was responsible for the betrayal and hideous crucifixion of their Saviour. Most of the women were offended that their Sheriff didn't seem to be a God-fearing man, though their husbands secretly envied the officer of the law his freedom. They'd've been fishing, too, most of them, if their wives hadn't dragged them off to the morning services.

The Indian Wars continued, low-burning fires in some areas of the west with the occasional atrocity of a stage ambush or a farm being burned out with all the victims wretchedly massacred, and hot conflagrations in other places as full scale battles erupted between the US Cavalry and various tribes of the Indian Nations. Though Bitterwood Creek and its environs seemed to be still safe, tensions were mounting as fears escalated, especially amongst those living on small isolated homesteads.

One night, as they were returning late from dinner with Simon and Joel, Jim reined in his horse as he held a hand up for silence. Blair, riding behind him on the mount Simon had sent into town for him months ago, a sleek tawny brown mare called Butternut, pulled back on his reins and waited, his eyes raking the darkness around them as he strained to hear what had alerted his friend. But, he knew it was almost certainly hopeless - the reason Jim took the lead on their rides back to town was because he could see so clearly in the dark that it might has well have been the full light of day, and his sense of hearing extended for what seemed like miles on the quiet prairie.

Finally, Jim kicked Lobo lightly, sending the black stallion forward at a slow walk; Blair and Butternut close behind. Shortly after, they came upon a pinto covered by a finely woven blanket - and not far off, Jim spotted the loose horse's rider lying crumpled on the ground. They both slid off their horses, approaching warily, Jim with his six-gun in his hand. But the Indian didn't stir. Jim picked up the hot, metallic scent of blood, the slow, deep respirations, and murmured quietly, "He's wounded, unconscious - bleeding a lot."

Blair pushed forward and dropped to one knee beside the fallen warrior, squinting to see where and how badly he'd been wounded. "There's a long gouge in his side, pretty deep, likely from a rifle shot," Sandburg murmured as he continued his examination. "And another wound in his left arm. He needs to be stitched up, Jim. We have to take him back with us."

Ellison hesitated only a moment, listening to the sounds only he could hear on the low night wind as it whispered through the long prairie grass, wondering if the wounded warrior had any friends nearby. But, no, he seemed to be alone - must've gotten separated from his war party. Though Jim was of two minds about taking the brave into town, pretty much knowing the reaction they'd get from the good citizens of Bitterwood Creek, it was a lot closer than heading back to Simon's place. He appropriated the Indian's knife from his war belt, and then helped Sandburg lift the warrior up over Butternut's saddle, ensuring he was secure. Mounting Lobo, he gave Blair a hand up to ride behind him. Ten minutes later, they carried the Indian from the yard behind their home into the infirmary, and Blair set to work while Jim bedded down their horses. The pinto had followed them into town, skittish but unwilling to leave his rider, so Jim looped a rope around his neck, and tied him in an open stall in their small stable.

Inside, Blair had turned up the oil lanterns and gotten busy cleaning the two wounds, while his instruments boiled on the stove. He worked as quickly as he could, wanting to be done before his patient regained consciousness. By the time Jim had come in from the stable, Sandburg had extracted the bullet from the warrior's arm, and had stitched up that wound. Next, he turned his attention to the deep gash and washed away the blood to get a better look at it. Skin and muscle had been torn for a space of about three inches just over the Indian's right hip, angling back to front. But for the powder burns, the injury looked fairly clean, so he simply pulled the tissue together and sewed the muscle and then the layer of skin back together.

"You know how folks are going to react when they hear…" Jim began slowly as he watched his friend work.

"He's a human being and he needs help," Blair cut in, his voice low but even. "He'll be okay; just needs rest and some fluids, mostly - and maybe a bath," he added, his nose wrinkling at the ripe scent. He powdered both wounds with herbs, and then covered them with clean linen bandages.

"I think we should tie him up, Chief," Ellison said reluctantly. "When he wakes up, he's going to be scared. And he didn't get those wounds from hunting deer…"

"Yeah, I figured that," Sandburg sighed as he turned away to the door to toss the bloody water outside, and then carried the basin back to his worktable where he poured in more hot water from the kettle on the small stove. "I don't really want to bind him - not his bad arm anyway. I've already immobilized it across his chest. When he wakes up, he's going to be weak and dizzy, in pain and disoriented - being tied won't reassure him any. I think it'll be all right. I'll stay down here with him. As soon as he's strong enough to leave, I'll show him to his horse in the back…"

"I'm not letting you stay down here alone with a patient who makes a habit of collecting scalps from white folks," Jim cut in with a look of exasperation. "He's dangerous…"

"Not right now, he's not," Blair countered firmly as he washed his hands clean of the warrior's blood. "If you want, you can bunk down here, too, tonight."

Shaking his head, Ellison pulled off his Stetson and duster, hanging them on a hook by the back door. When Blair Sandburg got that look in his eyes, and used that tone of voice, Jim had learned there was no point in arguing with him. It didn't look like either of them were going to get a lot of sleep that night.

It was nearing dawn when the warrior stirred, moaning a little as he came back to consciousness. Blair immediately began murmuring in a low, reassuring voice as he intently watched his patient awaken. Without even being really aware of the gesture, he reached out to lay a light hand on the man's shoulder, instinctively offering comfort. Jim rose from the nearby cot and came to stand by the end of the cot, his gun in his hand.

The Indian blinked and then froze, suddenly aware that he was in a very foreign place, a grimace of sharp pain on his face as he turned his face away from the lantern's light. It wasn't much, but Sandburg picked up on the reaction and squinted thoughtfully as he kept up murmuring simple words of reassurance, hoping that some of them might be understood. The brave's expression flattened, and he lifted his chin to stare at Jim, his dark eyes hard with suspicion but no fear, and then shifted his gaze to Blair. Sandburg very slowly reached out to lightly touch the bandages on the man's arm and hip and then pointed to himself. Watching intently, the brave gave one jerking nod, signaling he'd understood. Slowly, Sandburg poured a mug of water and, going on instinct, he added only one drop of laudanum, taking a tiny sip to show it was safe, and then bringing it to the Indian's lips, slipping one hand under his patient's head to help him lift it enough to drink. Thirstily, the warrior drank the full cup, and then sighed as he lay back down, once again watching them expressionlessly, but his eyelids very quickly grew heavy and closed.

Blair blew out a breath, but Jim waited until he could hear the Indian's respirations deepen into true sleep before holstering his gun. Looking up at Ellison as Jim shifted away from the end of the bed, Blair wondered whether to share his suspicions about the Indian, but decided to keep them to himself. He didn't really have anything to go on, it was just a feeling more than anything concrete - but he was pretty sure there was more than one man with enhanced senses in the room. Whether or not his patient had all five, like Jim, and was a bonafide sentinel, though, Blair doubted. He suspected that Jim would possibly be able to sense that - a kind of atavistic awareness of an enemy who possessed the same level of special capacities - even a kind of territorial instinct. But, that, too, was only speculation and he'd drive Jim nuts if he started blathering about those kinds of possibilities.

So he didn't say anything at all about it - just kept an eye out for other indications, and kept the dosage of laudanum low so he wouldn't overwhelm the Indian's sensitivities to the medication.

********************

They might have been able to hide the Indian's presence from everyone in the town if little Josie Miller, daughter of the man who owned the small flour mill on the nearby river, hadn't fallen out of a tree and broken her arm. Her father, Davy, carried her to the doctor's office and then, not finding Blair there, headed straight back to the infirmary, calling out as he continued through the house.

The anxious father's shouts for help woke the warrior and Jim drew quickly to keep him settled in his bed, while Blair moved to meet Miller - but the man had gotten far enough down the hall to see into the infirmary and he froze, his mouth dropping open in stunned shock. "You've got an Indian in here?" he shouted in angry fear.

"Calm down, Davy - he's not hurting anyone and Jim's watching him," Blair soothed as he turned his attention to Josie, who was sniffling in pain. "What happened?" he asked, as he noticed her torn clothes, the bruises and the scrapes on her arms and knee.

"She broke her arm, I think, falling out of a tree," Miller replied, momentarily distracted back to his little daughter's needs.

"Well, we can fix that up," Blair replied encouragingly with a smile at Josie, his thumb gently brushing tears from her cheeks.

"I'm not taking her in there, near that savage," Miller grated, his body tight with tension.

"You don't have to - I can fix her up in the kitchen," Sandburg replied. "You just take her in there and I'll get the supplies I need."

It didn't take long to treat Josie's injury. Blair put a few drops of ether on a square of linen, and held it to her little pug nose and, in moments, she was deeply asleep on a blanket Blair had laid on their kitchen table. With sensitive fingers, he tracked the line of the break, and then drew the bone back into position, deftly splinting it and then binding the arm snugly with a roll of cotton bandage. Miller stood tensely by the table, watching, but at regular intervals his gaze strayed to the door to the hallway, as if expecting rampaging Indians to come at them at any moment. As soon as Blair was finished, Miller scooped his still sleeping child into his arms to carry her away to safety.

"She'll be nauseated when she wakes up, and in quite a bit of pain for a couple of days," Blair told him matter-of-factly. Handing Miller a small brown vial, he added, "Give her a drop of this in some sweet tea when she wakes up for the pain. After that, she can have willow-bark tea sweetened with lots of honey. No solid food till tomorrow, but she can have broth later if she's hungry. Her arm will take at least three weeks to heal, so no rowdy playing for a while. Bring her back in a couple of days, and I'll check the splint and make sure everything's still okay."

"That Indian should be hung," Miller growled, not distracted from his fear. "He's a murdering savage!"

"He's a man who was injured and needed help," Blair countered with a sigh as he pushed his hair behind his ears. "Look, Davy, maybe if we help these people, they won't see us as enemies - you ever think of that?"

Miller gave the smaller man a scornful look as he blustered, "You can't trust 'em, any of 'em. You shouldn't have brought him here - better he be left to die than made well again to kill more innocent people."

Blair tightened his jaw but didn't dispute the matter further; in some ways, he thought wearily, Davy probably had a point. But if there was never any compassion between the sides, for one another as simple human beings, if each side only ever dealt with the other with cold brutality, then what hope was there of any reconciliation and peace between them some day? "You should get Josie home and to bed," he directed quietly, lifting a hand to guide Miller toward the hallway back to the street entrance.

Less than half an hour later, a delegation of angry citizens gathered outside the back door of Sandburg's office and clinic. At the angry rumble of voices, the Indian stiffened with tension, his eyes darting from Blair to Jim and back again. Blair lifted his hands in a gesture of calm and peace. Keeping his actions smooth and unhurried, he touched his ear as the warrior watched him, and slightly shook his head. If the man's hearing was sensitive, the shouting would only aggravate him further. The brave's eyes narrowed as he watched the subtle gestures, giving nothing away, and when his eyes dropped, Blair just sighed and then went to meet his 'visitors'.

"We've come for the Indian," Clive shouted loudly.

"To string him up!" Silas growled.

"Nobody is stringing anybody up," Blair called back calmly as he stood with his spine straight and firmly pressed against the closed door. "He's injured and no danger to anyone, and the Sheriff has him under constant guard. Tomorrow, Jim and I will escort him far out of town and send him on his way."

"It was a big mistake to bring him here, Sandburg," Sam shouted angrily. "You endanger the whole town!"

Angry shouts of agreement backed up his claim.

"So, you want me to leave town, too, and never come back?" Blair countered sharply, his tone now hard.

That gave them pause. They all knew they needed a doctor, and he was good - he'd already saved a lot of lives, most of them children. They shuffled around, not having an answer.

Watching them, knowing he'd taken the steam out of their virulence, Sandburg repeated quietly, making the point he'd made to Davy Miller, "He'll be gone by noon tomorrow. And maybe when he tells his band of brothers that he was helped here, they'll leave us alone and move on to somewhere else."

Grumbling, the crowd drifted away - but the damage was done. They'd already seen Sandburg as different, and now they began to think he might be dangerous to have around.

********************

Early the next morning, Sandburg changed the Indian's dressings and, content that the wounds were both healing well, he decided they could let the man go. After giving him some cooked eggs, bacon and bread, and some water as coffee didn't seem to appeal to him, Jim and Blair helped him out to the back and up onto his pinto. Blair had already saddled their horses while Jim watched his patient, and so they mounted up and escorted him out of town, taking the back trail along the creek.

Twenty minutes later, the two friends slowed their horses. Blair told the warrior he could go, waving out across the prairie to give meaning to his words. The Indian, who had spoken not a single word the entire time he'd been in their care, looked at both of them steadily for a long moment, his visage as impassive as ever. Finally, he kicked his pinto into movement and was shortly galloping away without ever once looking back.

"You're welcome," Sandburg muttered dryly as they turned their mounts back toward town. Jim just shook his head and kept his opinions to himself.

When they got back to town, they both noticed that an unseasonable deep freeze had settled into Bitterwood Creek, as folks ostentatiously went out of their way to avoid them, crossing the street to walk on the other side, turning their heads away while some, and not only Urseline Tucker, venomously mumbled 'Indian lover' just loudly enough to be sure Sandburg heard. Jim didn't much care, as he wasn't all that sociable to begin with, but he felt bad that it bothered Sandburg.

Long used to a certain degree of suspicion and hostility given his Jewish heritage, Blair had been aware that his acceptance by the townspeople was precarious, though he'd dared to hope that most had gotten used to him, accepted him - but almost everyone in town was quick to condemn his actions. Perhaps he couldn't blame them. Admittedly, they seemed almost as angry with Jim as they were with him. They were, understandably enough, very frightened of Indians. But - he didn't want to move on, yet again; he'd come to think of Bitterwood Creek as home. So, hoping they'd get past their anger in time, the younger man tried not to let the hurt of the very overt ostracism show, and he kept his head up as he ambled around town, greeting folks as if all were normal, forcing himself to smile, but Jim could see the sorrow in his eyes.

Inevitably, pride had to be swallowed when need overcame anger. Old Granny Makins 'took a turn' and her very evident chest pains scared her family enough that they sent for Blair. He increased her prescription of digitalis powder, warned her against eating anything with salt, prescribed gentle exercise and chatted amiably with the family. One of the Sloane kids tripped over his father's axe, cutting his foot, and again there was no choice but to ask for the doctor's help. Angus MacDonald slipped off the ladder while stocking shelves in his store, badly wrenching his back. Blair treated him first with hot water bottles to ease the cramped muscles, prescribed medication for the pain and fashioned a back brace for him, along with suggesting exercises that consisted of lying on the floor and slowly raising his legs a little ways off the ground, increasing his range over time, to strengthen his back and abdominal muscles. It was hard to shun Sandburg after he'd been so helpful and continued to be so pleasant. Gradually, the chill thawed, but the underlying distrust and fear didn't go away.

********************

Winter blew in with a howling vengeance a couple of weeks later, bitter, icy winds driving hard pellets of snow across the prairie. The storm lasted two days and nights before moving on to leave behind the deep, heavy drifts of a white wonderland that sparkled blindingly under the brilliant, clear blue sky. The temperature fell like a stone, the cold seeping in under doors, through chinks in the wood-frame buildings, and around blanket-covered window frames so that, even with blazing fires in the stoves and fireplaces, it was impossible to fight off the drafty chill.

"Oh, man," Sandburg shivered miserably as he held his hands over the stove to warm them. "I hate the c-c-cold!" Even indoors, he was wrapped in layers of wool shirts, and Ellison had no doubt his friend was wearing at least one, if not two, pairs of long johns under his jeans. Two thick pairs of socks covered his feet and he had a long woolen scarf wrapped around his neck.

Jim poured two mugs of steaming coffee and pushed one into his friend's hands. "Here, this'll warm you up and put hair on your chest."

"Like I need more fur on my chest," Blair grimaced and then shivered again as he sipped the restorative beverage. "And then, maybe I do."

Grinning, Jim told him, "Cheer up, Chief. Winters are long out here on the prairie - you'll have plenty of time to get used to the cold."

Throwing his tall friend a withering look, Sandburg muttered, "Gee, thanks for the sympathy, big guy - not to mention that encouraging bit of news. You're all heart, Ellison."

Jim just laughed and set about making their breakfast.

********************

Though Ellison's work slowed down in the bitter weather, if anything, Sandburg's increased. People came down with chills that grew into pneumonia; many others suffered chilblains and even some minor frostbite. And babies still insisted on being born…

Mindful of how his predecessor had met his untimely and tragic end the winter before, Blair packed his medical bag with a certain degree of trepidation as early dusk fell and the blustery, bitter wind keened down the street outside. It was probably crazy to go; Sadie's fourth child wasn't due for a couple of weeks, but he'd not liked the look of her the last time he'd been out to check on her. He couldn't explain it, but he had a compelling, ultimately irresistible urge to head out to the isolated homestead immediately, despite the miserable weather.

"You want me to go with you, Sandburg?" Jim asked, sensing his best friend's nervousness.

"Nah, I'll be all right, thanks," Blair replied with a wan attempt at a smile. It was stupid, he knew it, but he couldn't shake his sense of impending doom, attributing it to his antipathy for the cold as well as his concern about Sadie. Silently, he told himself sternly to grow up and be a man, as he replied out loud, "Their farm's only about five miles out of town. Depending on how things go, I could be out there for a day, maybe two - far too long for the Sheriff to be absent from his duties."

Jim shrugged and nodded, but he remained uncertain. Still, it was probably only Sandburg's dread of the freezing five miles between town and the homestead that was making him look so - unnerved. He went out to saddle Butternut while Blair finished getting his gear together, and then stood in the entrance of the stable to watch Blair ride away, until he could no longer see - or hear - the horse and rider as they disappeared into the night.

The first morning after Sandburg had headed out to the Wilkinson place, Ellison felt restless. The town was quiet and his own paperwork was caught up, so he busied himself around the house, washing the floors and cupboards in the upstairs bedrooms, the main hall, kitchen and infirmary. A man who'd spent more than two decades in the military, Ellison knew how to clean, and he liked things neat and orderly. After he'd finished the common areas of the house and still felt unaccountably unsatisfied, he decided to tackle the least neat and orderly room in the whole place: Sandburg's office. Not that it was a disaster area but, inevitably, medical books were pulled from the shelves built into the wall, to lie haphazardly on the desk or the table by one of the upholstered reading chairs, usually open to the last page referenced. The niches of the roll-top desk were jammed with medical journals, recipes for various medicinal remedies, odd bits of paper with jotted notations, and the writing surface was littered with quill pens, stubby, chewed pencils, bottles of ink, more loose blank pieces of paper of varying sizes, a small hammer to test reflexes, boxes of matches, and various and sundry other odds and ends. Jim sorted and stacked, returned books to their proper place on the shelves and then washed the floor. Last but not least, he ran a cloth that he'd dampened with linseed oil over every wooden surface until it gleamed.

As he dusted the last piece of furniture in the room, the locked cabinet in which Blair kept his patient records, Jim found himself thinking again of the notes the kid was keeping on him. It was true they were locked away, but Jim remained uncomfortable about them. Every time Blair came up with new tests, he'd disappear sometime afterward, claiming he had to work on his records, and Ellison had known which records he meant. Shaking his head, still not sure why the damned notes were necessary, Jim considered rifling the lock and burning the file, but he knew that was out of the question. Sandburg had never shown anything but trust in him, and he trusted Sandburg, right? Right. So he turned away, heading back to the infirmary to dust in there, and to check Doc's supply of bandages.

Hours passed while he busied himself around the unusually silent, too still house, but no matter how much he immersed himself in the routine domestic chores, he was conscious that something was nagging at him, leaving him uncomfortable…until he realized it was the very silence and stillness of the house itself that had his teeth on edge. Which was odd because, for more than twenty years, Ellison had craved peace and quiet, commodities not readily attainable in the close communal living quarters of the military. All during those years, Ellison had always pretty much kept to himself and had found a kind of isolation even amongst so many others. Oh, he knew he could be irascible and sometimes moody, so other officers tended to avoid him; and, as an officer, he hadn't fraternized with the men. Sure, sometimes it had been lonely, but he preferred whatever measure of solitude he could get, so he'd never gone out of his way to be pleasant or accommodating.

But with only the two of them living in the house, and Sandburg being the kind of sociable person he was, Jim hadn't been able to remain aloof. Blair just kept talking to him, telling him about the latest kid who'd been born, or pestering Jim about more tests, or offering to play a game of cribbage. And if Jim wasn't interested in conversation, Blair just went off humming something softly under his breath, as he did whatever doctors do when patients weren't demanding his attention…mix medicines, wash or roll bandages, whatever; always busy, never seeming to stop except to read the medical journals that came for him on the stage or work on his patients' records. Even when he was quiet, Jim was conscious of his heartbeat. And even though he was often out, tending to people who were sick or injured, Sandburg wasn't usually gone for a full day, let alone for days a time. Ellison was honestly surprised at how uncomfortably empty the place felt without Blair puttering around, coming up with questions, making observations about folks in town, cooking supper and just being companionable, or that the prolonged absence of his friend's heartbeat would leave him feeling increasingly anxious and unsettled. As he set out on his evening rounds, he found himself wondering if the kid would be back that night, and was a more than a little startled to realize how very much he was missing Sandburg's company.

********************

Sadie was having a hard time. When Sandburg arrived, Jake was frantic and couldn't believe his eyes when the Doc came to the door, saying he'd just had a feeling she'd be needing him. The baby was early, but her water had broken just before Blair arrived. Shrugging off his coat, he smiled at the wide-eyed tiny twin girls by the fire and headed straight back to the sparsely furnished bedroom in the back. The wooden building was chilly, the wind keening a high note as it snuck in through cracks and chinks in the rough log cabin, but Sadie was sweating profusely. Moving to her side, he laid a gentle palm upon her clammy brow as he took her pulse and noted the puffiness in her fingers. Murmuring softly, a soothing, calming ripple of sound, he shifted to lift the blankets from the bottom of the bed and saw that her ankles and feet were also badly swollen. But the rest of her body was gaunt, her colour unhealthy and she was holding her great, swollen belly with trembling hands.

"Just breathe in and out slowly," Blair coached, "in through your nose and out through your mouth. I know it hurts and that you're feeling rough, but we're going to get through this. That's it, slowly."

Gradually, the anxious tension of her body eased and he moved again to check on the baby, leaning down close with his ear to her belly to hear the distant heartbeat. It was fast, but not dangerously so, at least not yet. Looking up at her as he stood, his hands moving soothingly on her skin as he checked the babe's position, he said, "The little one is fine, big and strong…have you decided on a name yet?"

"Merissa May, if she's a girl," Sadie gasped weakly, but raised a wan, tentative smile as she continued, "an' Jacob Blair, if'n he's a boy."

Caught by surprise, Sandburg's lips parted but then he smiled with sweet sincerity as he bowed his head in acknowledgement of the tribute. "You and Jake honour me. Thank you. Now, you just relax, we've got a while to go yet. I want you to try to sleep."

Turning his face away from hers, he closed his eyes as he concentrated on what his hands were telling him. The child's head was too high, the baby in a breach position. There was time yet, the position could change, but it worried him - as did Sadie's weakened, toxic condition. Her body had been sorely depleted by her two previous pregnancies, all of them too close together. Existing on the edge of exhaustion, she'd not been ready to create another child so soon. But life was insistent, creation and re-creation a constant, driving reality. Children often died in the harsh realities of subsistence on the isolated prairie - it was instinctive to have as many as possible, to ensure the future. However, the life force, the drive to survive was also both persistent and staggering in its power, so Blair hoped that both Sadie and her new baby would survive this birthing.

Going back to talk with Jake, he directed that water be boiled for the willow-bark tea he wanted Sadie to drink to help ease her discomfort. And then he took an armload of wood to build up the small fire in the other room, to keep it as warm as he could. Later, after she'd drunk the medicinal potion, he explained to both her and Jake that he needed to help the baby turn, so that her delivery could go as easily as possible. Throughout the long night and all of the next day, he kneaded her belly, coaxing the baby to shift, but it was a stubborn little thing, and seemed intent upon hitting the ground running as opposed to taking a big breath of the world first.

Her contractions would start and then stop again, exhausting her with pain, so that she grew weaker. Normally, Sandburg would have had her up and walking around to promote circulation and the onset of delivery, but in her sorely weakened condition, he insisted she remain in bed whenever she fretted about getting up to help Jake with the other children. When her respirations became even more laboured, Blair had Jake come in to sit behind her, lifting her shoulders and back up against his chest, so that she could breathe more easily. As evening dragged into night, he tried not to let his own anxiety show - it would only frighten them and not do a bit of good. Finally, as the second dawn peeked through the dusty, faded curtains over the small, shuttered window, the child shifted and Blair swallowed in relief. He could only hope, now, that the cord hadn't gotten caught around the little one's neck.

The contractions had been coming harder and faster since just after midnight, and by the time the sun had risen over the horizon, Sadie was weeping and keening with the effort, her breath whistling through clenched teeth. Knowing it wasn't yet time, that she'd not dilated enough, Blair kept slowing her down, having her breathe deeply and evenly, if raggedly. Until finally, just before midday, he knew she was ready for the final push, and none too soon. Her skin was parchment, drawn tight over the bones of her face, and dark shadows starkly emphasized her glazed, sunken eyes. She was exhausted and couldn't last much longer without the relief and spiritual burst of restorative glory that accompanied the delivery of new life.

In the other room, Blair could hear Jake giving the twins their lunch, hearty vegetable soup and two-day-old bread. The baby was fussing, hungry, but her mama was too busy to feed her. He could just see the head crowning when the first, guttural yells sounded from somewhere outside.

"Blessed Jesus!" Jake cried out, his voice sharp with horror. The yipping and keening wails got louder as they came closer, circling around the isolated, small, log cabin.

Sadie was too lost in her own agony to take notice, but Sandburg felt the bottom fall out of his belly - there was no mistaking what those blood-curdling war cries meant. Coaching her to pant through the lengthy contractions, to slow her breaths in-between, like she knew well how to do, he turned and pushed through the heavy curtain that separated the two rooms. Jake had grabbed up his old musket, and pushed open one of the shutters of the front window to shoot at the attackers, hoping the sound of gunshots would chase them off. But after two discharges, loud and shocking explosions that made the baby shriek with terror and the twins cower as they whimpered helplessly, the firing mechanism jammed.

Jake struggled with the weapon, but it was useless. Lifting horrified eyes toward Sandburg, he shook his head helplessly.

"Take the twins and the baby into the back," Sandburg directed him swiftly, even as the thud of spears impacted on the walls and the door. "Give the baby Sadie's breast, and put the twins beside her on the bed. Your new baby's coming, and you need to be with her."

When Jake hesitated, stiff with fear, Blair picked up the infant, thrusting her into Jake's arms and then gathered up the twins to hustle them into the bedroom. As Jake followed him, he instructed, "Let the newborn slide out onto your palm. Quickly make sure the cord isn't twisted around the neck. Push on Sadie's belly after, to help her expel the afterbirth. Bind the cord tightly and cut it - you know what I mean. You've seen it before."

The year-old infant latched onto her mother's breast, suckling contentedly, while the two little toddlers grabbed Sadie's arm and held on tight, quaking with fear. Blair left them and swiftly pulled the curtain closed, turning to face the sturdy door even as the assault loosened its hinges, and the brackets supporting the crossbar, from the wooden doorframe.

Blair's gaze raked the small, cluttered living area. He saw a knife, and he could break up a chair to use as a club - but would fighting make any difference now? Might it make things worse, only feed the killing frenzy? His throat was parched with fear, his chest tight with the knowledge that he was probably about to die, but he forced the surge of incipient panic back down, not having time or patience with it. The others were hidden behind the curtain, the children silent, the twins in terror, the infant at peace. Sadie had been muffling her anguish by biting on a pillow even before the Indians had attacked, and Jake knew enough to guard his family first, however much he might loathe another man facing the enemy in his home.

Sandburg knew it was a long shot, and probably hopeless, but there was a chance, if only the barest of hopes, that the Indians might think he was alone - do what they would, take what they needed, and go. He felt a sudden immense sorrow about what was likely to happen. But, oddly, not only because he was certain that he was about to die, but also because he knew he'd never see Jim again, and he felt guilty, somehow, as if he was abandoning Jim when Ellison still needed him.

The cabin was dark even in midday, with the shutters closed and barred; the only light that of the flickering fire in the hearth and the glow of an oil lantern on the rustic table. The battering on the door continued, the wild yelling and yipping louder, excited, triumphant. He swallowed and took a deep breath as the bar across the door gave way and the door burst open to bang against the wall. As five or six war-painted Indians with feathers in their wild manes of hair, wearing worn fringed leather breeches and animal skin robes, burst into the room, Blair raised his arms away from his body, palms out and down, gazing at them steadily as he called out, his voice clear and compelling, "No, don't! Please, stop!"

The lead warrior entered with his hatchet already in the air, primed for a killing blow, but as others jostled in behind him, the tall, terrifying Indian paused a moment in sudden confusion. The man before him stood in the shadows of uncertain light with the glare of the brightness of the day catching him through the open door, throwing him into stark relief. His long, thick hair was a halo of burnished curls, his face pale but resolute and his brilliantly blue eyes smoky with emotion. His hands were lifted wide from his body, open and unarmed, and when he spoke in the sudden silence, his voice was firm, compelling. This was not an enemy gibbering in fear, scrambling from his fate, terrified of death, but a man strong and possessed of dignity, somehow commanding in his surrender. But the warrior's jaw tightened with purpose and his eyes flashed as he drew his arm back, ready to plunge the sharp stone axe into the white man's skull…

…only to have his arm grabbed and held as another warrior pushed past, standing between him and his victim. There were sharp words and shouting, angry and insistent, but the attack was broken off. Blair blew out a hitching sob, but kept his hands up and stood rock steady as he waited to see what was happening, his eyes wide and dark with fear. The second brave turned, then, to look at him - and, with a start of shock, Sandburg recognized the warrior he'd treated months before. The taller man's eyes were as dark and inscrutable as ever, his face as impassive, garish with its streaks of paint. The warrior shouted something to the others, hard and commanding, then he gripped Sandburg's arm, hauling him abruptly from the cabin, while the others hastily grabbed up food from the worktable and blankets from the stack in the corner.

Outside, Sandburg was thrown up onto the back of a pony, the warrior leaping up behind him. The biting, icy wind cut through his thin clothing and he shivered wretchedly with cold, shock and fear. He didn't know why he was being taken, or where. And he was afraid, very afraid, of what would be done to him before they let him die…

In the back room, through a gap in the curtain, Jake saw it all happen - and then saw the first Indian look directly at him and bare his teeth in a snarl, but the terrifying warrior turned away, as they all did, rushing back into the swirl of blustery snow. In seemed only seconds before they were pelting away across the white vastness of the prairie.

Sadie screamed, a high, guttural grunt of effort, as the baby burst from her body, and Jake turned in time to aid his first son into the world. Jacob Blair Wilkinson wailed loudly against the cold, drafty air, indignant and enraged by such a rude welcome.

********************

As the second day dragged on with no sight of the town's doctor, Ellison told himself that Blair must have called it right when he'd said he could be gone a couple of days - and the Sheriff attributed his growing sense of anxious concern, as the day dragged on, to worry about the Wilkinson family. With three little ones already to be cared for, it would go hard for them all if Sadie died of complications. Jim didn't know her at all well, only having seen her once, six months before, when they'd all come in on the buckboard to get supplies at the store. He'd thought, then, that she looked too thin and exhausted and he knew Sandburg had been increasingly worried about her, as her pregnancy had progressed.

However, as the day drifted into evening and the wind kicked up, Jim found himself again looking down the long, wide street, his feeling of edginess aggravated by the distant howling of a wolf somewhere out on the prairie. All afternoon, he'd had an urge to saddle up and ride on out to the Wilkinsons', to see if…what? If he could help deliver a baby? Ellison snorted and shook his head as he let himself into their home to make something to eat. Maybe he'd leave some soup heating on the stove - chances were, Blair would make it back sometime that evening, frozen solid and needing something to warm him up. But Sandburg didn't come home, and though Ellison waited until it was late, frequently checking out the back to see if he could hear Butternut plodding home, Jim finally gave up and went to bed. He was being foolish. Sandburg was a grown man and didn't need someone worrying over him. He'd likely be home before dawn. But Jim didn't sleep well; his restless dreams were broken repeatedly by the seemingly endless yipping and howling of the still agitated wolf.

Jim woke to a silent house, sighing as he asked himself just how long it could take to deliver a baby? But his restlessness and, though he hated to admit it, his concern, kept gnawing at him. Finally, feeling ridiculous, he had just started to saddle Lobo to ride on out to the homestead to see how things were going - when he heard Butternut galloping home. "About time," Ellison muttered as he stepped out of the stable to greet his friend, but his restless anxiety spiked into full alarm when he saw that the horse was riderless.

"Where is he, girl?" he asked the mare as he put Butternut into her stall, stripped off her bridle and saddle to place a warm blanket over her back, and filled the manger with hay and a handful of oats for sweetening. He'd checked her over, as well as her saddle, but there was nothing to explain why she'd come back alone, no note, no clues of any kind. Not knowing if maybe Sandburg had been thrown, Jim hastily grabbed up his bedroll and the saddlebags he kept packed with emergency supplies; he secured a small hatchet, along with a shovel, into loops on his saddle, shoved a rifle into the stock. Though he was trying hard not to jump to conclusions, or to let his concerns get out of hand, he knew Butternut wouldn't have come in on her own unless something was wrong. If Blair had fallen, he might have a broken arm or leg, and Jim might have to fashion a splint or maybe a travois. Working with swift, economical movements, Jim tried not to think about the wolf he'd heard for most of the day and night before, but which was now silent; in the depths of winter, hungry wolves wouldn't hesitate to attack a lone man…and Blair didn't have a weapon to drive them off.

The mare snorted unhappily as Ellison swung up onto Lobo's back and rode out, setting as brisk a pace as he could through the thick drifts of snow.

When he arrived at the homestead without having spotted any sign of Sandburg on the snow-swept trail, he leapt up onto the covered porch and pounded on the solid wooden door that looked slightly askew on its hinges. Moments later, Jake opened it and waved him inside.

"I guess Doc's horse made it back," the beefy thirty-year-old farmer said, his voice tight with sorrow and regret, his face pallid with exhaustion.

"Is he here?" Jim asked, looking around the small frame house toward the door to the bedroom in back. One baby, no more than a year old, was in a small cradle by the fire, and two toddlers, twin girls, sat close by, staring up at him with wide solemn eyes.

"No," Jake replied with bitter, helpless anger, as he shook his head, "they took him yeste'day afternoon."

"Who took him?" Jim demanded, wanting to shake information out of the big, sturdy farmer who was so slow in giving him the facts.

"Indians," Jake spat out with a shudder. "They attacked after I jus' finished feedin' the kids their noon meal. Doc was in with Sadie - she was havin' a hard time, the baby was turned wrong or somethin', but Doc done what was needed and it finally seemed to be goin' all right. Anyways, I tried to defend us, but my musket jammed and they broke in - all painted an' yellin', hatchets raised like they was goin' to kill us all. But Doc, he come out of the back when the attack started, and he made me take the kids back with Sadie, and he put hisself between the Indians an' all o'us. One was ready to club him with an axe, but another shouted somethin', I don't know what, an' grabbed the attacker's arm a'fore the hatchet could fall. Next thing I knew, they hustled Doc on out o' here, grabbed some food and blankets and was gone. I couldn' leave Sadie - she was birthin' the baby when they's attacked…a little boy - or the girls - I didn' know what t' do. But when I went t' the barn t' feed the animals this mornin' 'n saw Butternut, I figgered if'n I set her loose, she'd find her way back t' town. I cain't write, so's I couldn't send a note with her, but I figgered you'd realize somethin' was wrong…"

"Which way did they go?" Ellison demanded sharply, his voice and eyes hard.

"North - the savages took 'im north," Jake replied bitterly. Sighing, he shook his head. "It's a damn shame, a tragedy - good man like that - I don' know how people 'round here will manage without him…and, well, I'm real sorry, Sheriff, I know Doc was yer friend."

Unwilling to accept that Sandburg was lost to them for good, Jim bristled as he growled, "He still is. I'll find him." He was turning toward the door, impatient to set out after Blair, but Jake grabbed his arm.

"He's gone, Sheriff - they done killed him fer sure by now. There ain't nothin' ya c'n do," Jake counseled thickly, sounding sincerely grief-stricken. "Y'll jes' get yerself killed, too!

Pulling his arm away, Ellison growled, "He's not dead - and I'm going to bring him back."

The icy blue eyes left no room for doubt so, although Jake thought Jim was crazy to head out after the murderous Indians alone, he nodded and offered, "Ya be need'n some supplies. Give me a minute."

The other man bustled around the cupboards, filling an old flour sack with bread, cold meats and cheese. Carrying the bag with him, he hurried toward the few blankets and fur rugs left in the corner to pull out a big bearskin, bringing both to Jim, and then he grabbed Sandburg's coat and medical bag from the hooks by the door to give to the Sheriff as well. "Good luck," he murmured. "I'll…I'll get on int' town in the next day or so an' let folks know…"

"Thanks," Jim replied briskly. "Someone can get a message to Simon Banks to come in and cover off my duties 'til I get back." And then he turned and slammed out of the house. He secured the sack of supplies, Blair's bag and coat, and finally the rolled bearskin to his saddle and mounted up, turning Lobo north as he urged his big mount into a gallop.

********************

Jim thanked his good fortune that there'd been no fresh snow overnight, as the trail broken through the snow had been somewhat obscured by the wind, but was still faintly visible as it cut across the vast, glittering sea of endless white. Squinting against the glare, reminding himself to keep the lantern with the white base in his head, the one that represented vision, turned low, he held a tight rein on his emotions as he gave Lobo his head, setting a fast pace - maybe too fast to be maintained in the sub-zero weather - but he couldn't bring himself to slow down. It had been almost twenty-four hours since Blair had been taken by a war party and he didn't like to think about what could be done to a man in that length of time. Instead, he focused his thoughts on trying to understand why Sandburg had been taken, and all the others left alive. It wasn't surprising that the Indians were looking for supplies, food especially, and blankets or furs. A fast-moving war party, trying to stay a jump ahead of the cavalry, couldn't carry a lot of goods with them or take time out to hunt, and this sudden cold snap after the blizzard would have left them vulnerable. But - why take Blair? Jim's thoughts turned back to the Indian they'd helped months earlier, and he wondered if there was any connection. He couldn't think of anything else that would have stopped the massacre back at the farm, and he clung to the hope that Sandburg had been taken for some good reason, and not simply for the grizzly amusement of torturing an enemy through a long winter's night, and claiming a rich scalp as the final prize.

Onward he rode, at first oblivious to the bitter cold, but gradually it seeped into his bones, leaving him thoroughly chilled. When it was clear that this was going to be a long ride, he slowed Lobo to a steady lope, knowing he couldn't afford to drive his faithful stallion into the ground; if he did, they'd both freeze to death and Sandburg would be on his own in enemy hands, with no hope of rescue. As for the rescue itself, Jim wasn't sure what he'd do when he finally caught up with the marauding band, having to leave that planning until he got there and saw exactly what he was up against.

The sun sank in the western sky, and then set, the horizon a blaze of fire against the eternal cold of the flame-splashed snow. And still he rode on, increasing the range of his vision to see more clearly in the fading light of dusk. Finally, in the icy darkness of the bitter night, he knew he'd have to stop. Lobo needed a break, and so did he. If he didn't warm up his feet and hands, he'd be no use when he did find Sandburg. Shivering violently with a deep chill, he reined in under a copse of trees for shelter and, hopefully, to find deadwood for a fire. Stiffly, he dismounted, and kicked snow off the frozen grass below for Lobo, before scrounging under the trees for wood with his small hatchet. He felt lucky when he came upon an old fallen tree, the wood on top frozen with snow but, after he'd dug down deep enough, he found the branches trapped underneath dry. He chopped up a goodly amount and hauled it back to his cold campsite, using a match from the box he carried in his saddlebag to get the fire started. Clumsy with cold, aching with it, he pulled off his bedroll, the bearskin, saddlebags with his basic cooking utensils and meager survival supplies of hard tack, beef jerky and coffee, and the sack of food Jake had given him. Wrapping himself in his bedroll, and then pulling down Lobo to lie at his back, he hauled the bearskin over both of them and huddled by his horse, glad of the animal's warmth as he waited for his food, and the frozen water in his canteen, to thaw by the fire before he could eat or make coffee. Too thirsty to wait, he satisfied his immediate need with a couple of handfuls of snow.

Later, after he'd eaten and some of the chill had left his body, he sat huddled between Lobo and the fire, staring into the night, thinking about Sandburg - and praying to a God he didn't believe in that his best friend was still alive and in one piece.

********************

Awaking to the pre-dawn chill, his fire having died sometime during the night, Jim shivered but resolutely climbed out of his nest to face the day. Deciding to forego coffee, he pulled out some jerky and hard tack, chewing the tough, dry food vigorously as he sorted out his gear and got it all loaded back on Lobo. Mounting up, he set off again, heading north.

About two hours after dawn, he knew he was getting close. He could smell smoke on the air, and hear the distant low hum of muted voices. Assuming the camp had a lookout, he slid off Lobo's back to make a lower silhouette against the horizon. Taking the horse's reins as he dropped to one knee, he widened and lengthened his sense of vision, and spotted the distant campsite - pale, snow-covered buckskin tents blending almost invisibly against the surrounding snow. It looked like a fair-sized encampment nestled against a growth of forest. Chewing on his lip as he loped closer in a crouched run, Lobo trailing after him, Ellison reached out with his hearing, struggling to find the sound of Sandburg's voice. Finally, with a surge of such profound relief that his chest ached with it and he had to swallow the sudden lump in his throat, he heard the familiar cadence and tones of his best friend intermingled with a low, rumbling voice that spoke halting English. Using the trick Sandburg had helped him master, of aligning his sight to his sense of sound, he picked out the tent that housed his friend. Tilting his head unconsciously to hear better, he listened until he got a name - 'Swift Eagle'.

Frowning thoughtfully, Ellison again studied the camp, and picked out the sentries - too many to take on - far too many to fight his way in and out. Not that the overwhelming numbers dissuaded him; he was going in to get Sandburg, whatever the odds. Turning away, leaving his best friend behind, was not an option. But, maybe, fighting wouldn't be necessary. Remounting Lobo, he walked the horse toward the encampment, moving at a steady, unhurried pace and, as he got closer, he wrapped the reins around the pommel of his saddle, and rode with his hands up and palms out, the universal sign of offering no threat.

He heard a shout on his left and then three warriors were riding out to meet him, lances held out threateningly, but he didn't waver or slow his advance. They rode up fast, and then around him, shouting and yipping aggressively as they circled, but they didn't attack. Lobo twitched under his legs, and Ellison spoke low and soothingly to his mount, settling him down as Jim continued to urge him forward in the stately walk. When the Indians cut across his path and stopped, forcing him to come to a halt, he said clearly but not aggressively, "I'm here to see Swift Eagle and my friend, Sandburg, the doctor." And then he began to ride around them.

One of the braves raised his lance as he shouted something that sounded like a command to stop. But a yell from the camp stayed his throw. Ellison looked past the warriors and saw another approaching quickly. Even at a distance, Jim recognized the Indian they'd aided months before. As the warrior drew closer, Jim called out, "I'm here to get my friend, Sandburg, the doctor…uh, our medicine man."

The familiar warrior shouted something to the others, and they grudgingly backed their mounts out of Ellison's path, falling in on either side and behind him as an escort, as he continued his journey toward the encampment. Moving at an unhurried pace, Jim took time to study the small village of less than a dozen conical tents. It was a war camp; there were no women or children around the small fires, only warriors, their faces and arms streaked with paint, their hair loosely caught in braids and festooned with feathers. Some remained crouched around the tiny fires, feeding the flames with only dry wood to lessen the smoke, and tending to clay pots that steamed in the cold, crisp air. But most had stood to stare at the intruder, watching him intently, their animal skin robes pulled tightly around their shoulders to block the wind. No one spoke.

As he drew closer, Jim picked up the scent of sickness, and blood. There were wounded, somewhere, out of sight. But even the wounded were silent, schooled as children to be wary and ever watchful. He didn't see Sandburg, but knew Blair was inside the center tent with another man. As he crossed the perimeter of the camp, warriors stood aside to let him pass as he angled toward his goal. The low flap of the center tent was pushed up and out - an old man bending to leave its shelter and then standing to hold the flap as Sandburg crept out and stood.

Jim saw Blair look around, wondering what was going on, and then see him. Sandburg froze, his expression one of shocked and amazed disbelief, and then the flash of relieved joy in his eyes pierced Ellison to the heart. He heard the muted, incredulous whisper, "You came after me?" and then Blair was walking toward him, stopping as Lobo stopped, his eyes never leaving Jim's face, as if he was afraid if he blinked, Ellison would vanish like smoke in the wind.

"Jim," he scolded softly, when he could find his voice, though the grateful glow on his face belied his words. "Are you nuts? Coming after me alone? At all?"

"Bitterwood Creek needs a doctor, Sandburg," Ellison drawled as he dismounted. Moving resolutely toward the younger man, he drew Blair into a tight hug. "I'm glad to see you, too, Chief," he murmured quietly.

"Ah, Jim," Sandburg sighed, his voice quavering a little as he embraced his best friend. "I never expected…"

"I know," Ellison cut in, as he stood back. "I've come to take you home."

Blair nodded and then turned to the old man who, despite his advanced years, still stood tall with an air of dignified calm and strength. "Swift Eagle, this is my very good friend, Jim Ellison. He helped me take care of your son, Deer Stalker."

Swift Eagle nodded solemnly. "You are welcome in our camp, Watchman. I've been expecting you."

"Oh, yeah?" Jim replied, made uncertain by the title given him, but figuring the old man knew from the badge on his coat that he was a lawman. "Well, that's good. If you don't mind, we'll be leaving now."

But the old man shook his head as he lifted his hand toward his tent. "First, you must warm yourself by my fire, and eat. It is a long, and cold, journey back to your village."

Deciding discretion was the better part of valor, Jim nodded and followed the old man and Blair inside, ducking under the low opening, and very much welcoming the smoky warmth of the interior after the biting cold outside. As he took his seat on the furs by the fire, he asked, "What did they want you for, Sandburg?"

"They had a couple of warriors that needed treatment - though they're pretty good at taking care of their own, the men needed surgery to get out bullets," Blair replied. His eyes shadowed and his voice so low only Jim could hear him, he continued cautiously, "I'm not sure they're going to live. Could be trouble if they don't."

"Fear not, 'one who guides', you have done your best and will come to no harm from us," Swift Eagle interjected as if Blair had spoken out clearly. When both white men gaped at him in surprise, he smiled sparingly. "I, too, am a Watchman. My Guide, and brother in time, is our tribe's Shaman - you would call him a Medicine Man."

Blair squinted in thought, remembering the war party's old healer, who'd helped him care for the injured men, as he replied, "You mean Whispering Waters?"

Swift Eagle nodded, replying with a thin smile, "He has that name because his voice sounds like water tumbling over rocks in the river."

"Well, this is all very interesting," Jim said quietly, thinking briefly that the old Indian could also be describing the calming sound of Sandburg's voice, "but we really need to be going."

Using a wooden spoon to ladle out thick glops of stew from the clay pot that was sitting in the ashes of his fire, dropping it into sturdy clay bowls, Swift Eagle nodded serenely. "Eat, and then you may go in peace."

The venison stew tasted wild and strong, but not displeasing. As both men ate, Swift Eagle watched them, his head tipped curiously to one side. "You seemed…surprised," he finally said, having remembered the word he wanted, "when I called you Watchman."

Jim looked up and nodded. "How did you know I was coming?" he asked cautiously. Though the old man exhibited no signs of threat, there was something about him that raised Jim's hackles.

Gesturing toward Sandburg, the old man replied, "The wolf spirit of Touch That Heals came to tell him you were not far behind, but he did not see or understand."

"Wolf spirit?" Blair repeated, his brows lifting in surprise.

"Yes, your spirit guide," Swift Eagle replied. Turning to Jim, he said, "I sense that you also do not see the black jaguar that walks at your side."

Jim swallowed as he looked around the dim interior of the circular tent that would comfortably accommodate a dozen men, noting spears, bows, quivers of arrows, and several sheaths containing knives in the flickering shadows. "No - I don't," he answered evenly, wondering if the old man was crazy, but he shivered when he remembered the persistent howl of a wolf.

Blair was suddenly smiling, his eyes alight with insatiable curiousity, and Jim shook his head, hiding his smile of amusement. The guy was irrepressible. Here he was, surrounded by hostiles who had taken him by force, and as eager as a little kid to learn more about these so-called, invisible, spirit guides.

Frowning thoughtfully, Swift Eagle asked, "You do not know what you are - what the two of you are, do you?"

"Uh, we're best friends," Blair replied, looking confused as his glance flickered to Jim and then back to Swift Eagle.

"You are much more than that, young one. You are chosen ones, beloved of the Great Spirit, sent to watch over your people. Your friend," the old man told him as he lifted his chin toward Jim, "is the Watchman, the Sentinel. You are his companion, his Guide. You both hold great powers within you, and you travel together through time, each needing and safeguarding the other."

"Wow," Blair blew out as he cut a quick look at Jim, and then grimaced at the skeptical look on his friend's face. "I've read about watchmen and sentinels, Jim - you know that!"

"Yeah, I know," Jim replied neutrally as he watched Swift Eagle warily. The old man was spooky.

Swift Eagle chuckled dryly, amused by the skepticism of one and the avid curiousity of the other; it was as it should be - the Watchman cautious, the Guide instinctively learning. "One day, if our peoples find peace together, and we all still live, I would speak with you again, and teach you about what you are. I would see you dance together around the fire, as it should be, united in all things." Looking toward the entrance to his tent, he shrugged philosophically. "But today is not that day." Turning back to them, he counseled, "Listen to your hearts and the dreams of the night - be guided by them, learn from them. Be strong, together."

Jim set down his empty bowl as Sandburg finished his meal, both of them silently thinking about Swift Eagle's words. The lawman stood and inclined his head toward the old man, this other 'sentinel' - who stood when they did - to formally acknowledge his courtesy. "I thank you for your welcome, the warmth of your shelter and the food. I am grateful you have looked after my…Guide. I hope the day will come when we can meet in peace without fear."

Swift Eagle inclined his head in respect as he replied formally, "You and Touch That Heals are welcome amongst our people. In honour to you, we will not harm the people you watch over."

Blair looked up at the old warrior and smiled softly. "Thank you for what you've taught us - I really hope we'll see you again someday."

Leading them out of the tent back toward Lobo, Swift Eagle called something to Deer Stalker, the man they'd met before - the same man who'd stopped the massacre at the farm two days before because he recognized the one who had shown him mercy.

"Deer Stalker is bringing you a pony and some supplies for your journey home. Just let him loose when you have no more need of him, and he will find his way back to us," Swift Eagle told Blair.

Jim handed Blair his coat and, after the younger man had gratefully pulled it on, the two white men mounted just as Whispering Waters appeared from another tent, bearing a long, warm, leather cape lined with soft fur, and a deerskin pouch. As he handed them up to Blair, Swift Eagle explained, "We wish to give you the robe as a gift, to keep you warm on your journey. Whispering Waters has also given you bundles of medicine. There is one for you, and one for your Sentinel, to protect you and make you strong. In the pouch, there are also some of the healing medicines he says you showed interest in last night."

"Thank you, Whispering Waters," Blair replied, very sincerely. He'd been fascinated to learn what herbs, as well as other natural substances gathered from the prairies and woodlands, the Indians used to treat infections and expedite healing.

"It is we who thank you, brother, for seeing past our differences to our common manhood," Swift Eagle replied with a formal inclination of his head. "You are brave and kind. We are grateful that you have helped our people."

Blair nodded and, when Jim turned Lobo away from the camp, Sandburg lifted his hand in peace - and was unaccountably moved when the warriors each lifted a hand solemnly toward him and inclined their heads in respect. Then he wheeled his horse away, to follow his best friend home.

********************

They made good time, but still had to spend one night out in the bitter cold. Worried about Sandburg, knowing he was shivering badly and blue with chill, Jim drew them to a halt before sunset, once again finding shelter under the trees that grew along the river.

"Don't dismount yet," he called to Blair as he slid off Lobo. Swiftly pulling off his bedroll and saddlebags, as well as the bearskin, a small shovel he carried on a saddle ring, and the sack of food, Jim coaxed Lobo down to kneel in a drift of snow. Quickly, he dug a narrow trench in the drift, starting from his stallion's side, and then spread out his bedroll as a ground sheet. Draping the bearskin partially over Lobo's back, he made a kind of tent and then waved to Blair to join him.

"Get under there, out of the wind," Jim directed. "I'm just going to find some wood for a fire."

"I can help…" Sandburg protested through chattering teeth.

"No, you're freezing," Jim countered as he pushed Blair down under the bearskin, and then pulled the pony down to create another 'warm wall' for their improvised shelter.

Sniffing, Blair nodded stiffly as he pulled the deerskin cape closer around his body.

In less than half an hour, Jim had a good blaze going and had melted some water to make coffee. "Drink this," he ordered, as he sank down beside his friend and handed Blair the mug. And then he rummaged in the food sack, bringing out the meat and cheese.

Sandburg was still trembling with cold, but looked less like he was going to freeze solid any time soon.

"Thanks, Jim," he murmured as he gratefully inhaled the steam. Looking up from the mug, he added, "Not just for this, but for coming after me - it was probably an incredibly stupid thing to do, but I'm really glad you did."

Ellison shrugged and nodded, feeling his own weariness catch up with him. Between the fire, their coverings and the hot bodies of their mounts as well as their own, it was beginning to warm up inside the tiny shelter - enough to get ready for the night. "Once we've eaten, we need to take off our outer layers of clothing and pile everything up and around us, our clothes bundled under our heads."

Blair quirked a brow but nodded. Simple winter survival tactics that they'd both been taught in the Army - share body heat and get out of the outer clothes so they'd warm under their heads during the night. Smirking, he asked diffidently, "Does this mean we're engaged, big guy?" But his giggle ruined his intended mimicry of a timid and uncertain lover.

Jim batted him on the back of the head as he growled, "In your dreams, Doc. You're not my type." But he grinned as he said briskly a few minutes later, after they'd eaten cold meat, cheese and bread, "Now strip and roll up next to me."

"Ah, Jim, you say the sweetest things," Sandburg chortled, feeling just the least bit hysterical now that it was sinking in that he was safe, and the near-panic he'd felt for two days was finally easing away.

Despite darkness relieved only by the uncertain, flickering light of the fire, Ellison saw through the humour to the shadows that still haunted Sandburg's eyes. Quietly, firmly, he said, "You're okay. You're safe. I won't let anybody hurt you."

The brave attempt at wry humour flickered and died as Blair took a shuddering breath. Looking down and away, his voice very low, his tone ashamed, Blair admitted, "I was terrified, you know? When they burst into the farmhouse, I was sure we were all going to die. When they just took me, I was…relieved, I guess, that the Wilkinsons would be okay, but I didn't know what they wanted with me. I recognized Deer Stalker, and knew he was the reason I was still alive - he even gave me a cape, like this one, to keep me warm as we rode off. But - I thought they'd either kill me after they got what they wanted from me, or keep me as a slave - and I didn't know which fate would be worse, to tell you the truth." Cutting Jim a quick look, he said, "I tried to escape, once. But they caught me and held a knife to my throat - and then tied me to my horse. I kinda got the message that trying to get away would be a quick ticket to the other side." Sighing, he confessed dejectedly, "I'm not sure I could have survived alone, anyway, in this frozen wasteland."

All the while that he talked, Blair was pulling off the outer layers of his clothing as Jim did the same. Scooting closer, Blair climbed over Jim at the lawman's direction, to lie between Ellison and the horses, and then Jim laid close against him, wrapping long, strong arms around him. When he felt Sandburg shivering, small continuous trembles of cold, he pulled the younger man close and rubbed his back to generate friction and warmth.

"When we got to the camp, I realized what they wanted of me," Blair continued quietly as he curled gratefully against his rescuer. "I guess I could be considered guilty for aiding and abetting the enemy - but I couldn't not help them."

"I know, kid," Jim murmured, his head resting on Sandburg's damp curls. "Maybe we're showing them that not all white men are their enemy."

"I hope so," Sandburg sighed. "They're…decent people in their own way. Scared, I think, and very, very angry." He paused, thinking sadly of the kindnesses shown to him during his sojourn in the camp. "They're going to lose everything, aren't they, Jim?"

"Yeah, I'm afraid so, Chief," Jim murmured. "Our side has superior weaponry, and ultimately, superior numbers. They won't forget who they are and what they believe in, but they're going to lose their land and their freedom. It's just a matter of time."

Blair shook his head, feeling drowsy with the warmth surrounding him and the relief of being safe. "I feel sorry for them," he whispered sadly, knowing Jim could hear him. "Sorry for us, too - our side, I mean - because I think there's a lot we could have learned from them, if we'd listened and not just believed we knew better because we're 'civilized'." Sleepily, he asked then, "What did you think about that stuff about being brothers and having spirit guides…?"

"I've heard stranger things," Jim replied with a small smile. "Like the time I woke up wounded and some strange kid, claiming to be a doctor, started to tell me to imagine oil lanterns in my head…"

Blair snickered softly, but settled and soon Jim could tell from his soft breathing that he'd fallen asleep. Probably the first sleep he'd had since he'd been kidnapped, days before. "Rest well, little brother," he whispered with fondness, surprising himself with the depth of feeling he held for the man who had such absolute trust and faith in him.

But, despite his weariness, Jim had difficulty falling asleep. As his sensitive touch played over Blair's back, he could feel the scars left by the brutal whipping the younger man had endured about eighteen months before. Ellison felt rage sweep through him again, and was only calmed by the reality of holding Sandburg in his arms, close against his skin. He could feel the soft, warm puffs of air as Blair exhaled, and it soothed him. Swallowing, Jim drew Sandburg in closer, and felt Sandburg's body all along the length of his own, legs entwined, arms wrapped around one another. He could smell his best friend's scent, and he reached to tenderly stroke the familiar mane of curls, feeling their silkiness, like the purest of water rippling through his fingers.

Jim closed his eyes and just drank in the solid reality of Sandburg's presence, hearing his heartbeat, his breathing, feeling the warmth of his body and silently rejoicing that he was alive and whole. He'd been so frightened when Jake Wilkinson told him that the Indians had taken Blair - terrified of what they might have done to this man, now safe in his arms. Jim's heart clenched at how easily Blair might have been tortured and killed - and tears sprang unbidden to his eyes. Drawing in long slow breaths to calm himself, Ellison struggled with his emotions.

When Blair had been delayed at the Wilksinsons', Jim had been surprised to realize how much he missed the kid's company. But now, in the darkness, he had to admit to himself that despite his vow to never love again, to never be vulnerable again - he loved Blair. More than anything or anyone he had ever loved. More than he'd thought it possible to love. He would have died trying to get Sandburg out of that camp rather than leave him behind.

He couldn't understand himself, his own deep feelings for Sandburg. Ever since he'd left his childhood behind, he'd felt as if his heart had been locked away, sealed behind some wall, so that he couldn't feel that deeply. Hadn't ever wanted to feel that deeply, because it hurt too damned much when it inevitably went sour. But, somehow, Blair had found the key to unlock his heart's prison, and had snuck in without Jim even realizing Sandburg was there until he'd thought Blair might be lost to him forever.

'My brother,' he thought, but swallowed again, his throat and mouth suddenly desert-dry as he cradled Sandburg against his body, because against all the odds, he knew he cared more about Sandburg than he'd ever cared about his brother by birth. After all the years of isolation, of living his life alone without family, without friends, he now had a brother that meant the world to him. Wordless gratitude welled in Jim's heart and, with Blair safe in his arms, he was finally able to relax into sleep.

********************

Blair woke gradually, a feeling of warmth and security his first awareness, and then sighed deeply, snuggling against the body of the one who held him. It had been so long since he'd felt the skin of another against his own, so very long since he'd been held with gentle care. For a while he drifted, thinking it must only be a dream, a sweet, wonderful dream, for even in this state of semi-sleep, he knew his life was a solitary one, bereft of such basic comfort. And he tried to stay in that place of warmth, feeling loved, even cherished. But as he tightened his arms around the one who held him, wanting to return the affection in kind, the solidity, the reality, of the experience woke him fully - and he remembered, with a start of comprehension, where he was and all that had happened.

Jim was still sleeping, his breathing deep and even, and Blair was loath to disturb his friend. So, for a while, though he felt almost guilty about it, he simply relaxed in Ellison's embrace, and thought again of how incredible it was that Jim had come for him. When he'd first seen Ellison at the camp, he'd thought he must have been dreaming, that it could not be possible. That Jim had followed him through the icy wasteland, tracked him down, knowing the dangers, the very real risk that he could be killed for his efforts, was earth-shaking. No one in Blair's experience had ever thought him so important, to risk such danger - hell, scarcely anyone had ever noticed he was even around, let alone when he was gone. But Jim hadn't been a mirage born of despair and fear - he'd been blessedly, solidly, real. Blair had almost lost it when Jim climbed down off Lobo and walked toward him, pulling him into a strong embrace. Dear God, the man was incredible. A rock. And Blair had held onto Ellison in those brief moments, drawing upon his strength and feeling - what? Happiness - so exquisite that it was beyond anything he'd experienced before.

And now, once again in Jim's embrace, safe, secure, warm - feeling the strength and surety of the man holding him - Blair realized for the first time that he honestly loved this man. Swift Eagle had called them brothers; somehow, against all the odds, he had a brother he could count on never to abandon him, always rely upon, and trust absolutely…

Perhaps it was only the strangeness of the experience, of the emotion, but Sandburg didn't feel even 'brother' covered what was in his heart. It was like Jim had become essential to him, like air. A part of his very being. Unexpected, and certainly unlooked for - but real and undeniable.

And that gave Blair pause.

He'd never felt such tenderness for, or such a need to comfort and protect, another man. Not that he felt such feelings were personally wrong. But Jim would be appalled, maybe even offended, that anyone thought he needed to be 'protected'. Ellison was fiercely independent and prided himself on his ability to take care of himself and anyone else who happened to need assistance. If Jim began to feel smothered - worse, if he felt Blair didn't somehow 'respect' him - he might well move on. And that, Sandburg realized, above all else, he could not risk. Jim needed him, needed his help with his senses - and Sandburg knew he personally needed this - this affirmation that he counted, that in his own way, Jim loved him, would risk all for him. Blair needed someone to love, in whatever way was possible. As a friend, a brother - if that was all he'd ever have in his life, so be it. He knew he cared for Jim deeply, was even devoted to him, would never betray him and would do all in his power to make Jim happy. He knew, from what he could see, and from what Ellison had told him, that Jim had been badly scarred by life. But now, so long as Jim let him, Ellison would have one safe place, one person in his world, who would do his best to make that world a good place to be.

So, while Jim slept, Blair allowed himself this rare and very human comfort of being held in a brother's arms, knowing it likely would never occur again. And when Jim woke, they'd pull apart, and Blair knew he'd make some joke to restore distance between them - to allow Ellison to put it behind them, never thinking about it again except as a night's necessity to survive the bitter cold, nothing more.

Nothing…personal.

********************

They'd traveled for about two hours the next morning when they were quickly overtaken by a Cavalry troop. Jim reined in, and muttered quickly to Blair, "Let me do the talking - I know the turkey leading these guys, and most of the rest of them, too."

Blair hunched into his cape and tried to look inconspicuous while at the same time being avidly interested in the men approaching - suspecting, correctly, that the 'turkey' was Rutherford, the guy Jim had argued with over the order to massacre the Indians at Poplar Flats.

"Major Rutherford," Ellison acknowledged stiffly.

"Ellison," the Major nodded back, equally stiffly. "I didn't expect to find you out here…"

Jim shrugged. "I wasn't looking for you, either," he replied dryly. "Did you want something?" he continued, referring to the fact that the troop had shifted direction to approach them.

"We're looking for a renegade band of Indians," Rutherford replied, his eyes shifting to Sandburg. "That looks like an Indian pony."

"It is," Jim answered easily. "This is my friend, Dr. Blair Sandburg, from Bitterwood Creek. He was captured by a war party a few days ago. He got away, as you can see, by stealing one of their horses."

"Really?" Rutherford murmured, his eyes narrowing as he considered the small, not very impressive man, who didn't look capable of successfully sneaking away from a band of cutthroat savages. "Where's the camp?"

Before Blair could answer with more than a shrug, Jim had jumped back into the conversation. "We're not sure. Sandburg wandered around in circles for a bit before I finally happened across his trail." Casting an apologetic look at his friend, Jim added, "He's not much of an outdoorsman. Tends to get turned around when everything in every direction looks the same."

"I see," Rutherford drawled, not sure he believed much, if any, of the story. Ellison had unfortunate tendencies toward sympathizing with the savages. "I hope that's all the gospel truth - I'd hate to have to charge you with treason for aiding and abetting the enemy."

Jim turned cold eyes on his erstwhile commander. "You'd have trouble trying to portray Sandburg as a less than loyal and brave American," he replied, his voice low and dangerous, yet loud enough to be heard by the whole troop. "You and every man here have probably heard of him - Doc? From Masonville?"

Blair's eyes dropped away in embarrassment as the full troop of men looked at him with surprise and then with something akin to awe. This bedraggled kid was the legendary 'Doc'? But, they knew Ellison wouldn't make up something like that. Rutherford, in particular, looked disconcerted. "I'm sorry, Dr. Sandburg, if my remarks caused any offence," he hastened to say.

Blair just lifted his chin to look at the man as coldly as was Ellison, having this one chance to convey some of the absolute loathing he felt for this man. "No problem," he replied tightly, though he spoke too quietly for the soldiers to hear. "I just consider the source…"

The Major stiffened at the insult as his gaze flashed from Sandburg to Ellison, realizing the younger man knew about their history. Sniffing, grudgingly appreciating the strategic delicacy of keeping the insult private, thereby prohibiting any response without raising the curiousity of the troop behind him, he nodded tightly. Without another word to them, he lifted his arm, calling out to his men to follow as he rode away, backtracking Ellison and Sandburg's trail through the snow.

"Will he find the camp?" Blair whispered uncertainly. "If he follows our trail, he'll know we were lying…"

But Jim shook his head, unconcerned. "It snowed last night, Chief. He hasn't a hope in hell of finding our tracks today," Jim replied. "He's as much of a city-slicker as you are, only he doesn't have the sense to ask for the help of his subordinates when he needs it, and won't take it when it's offered. Come on - let's get home. It's only another hour or so…"

When they finally rode into town, cold and weary, they were frankly surprised by the joyous response of the townsfolk who hastily gathered around them, Simon in the lead. Some shuffled them quickly indoors to warm up while others cared for their mounts. Apparently, everyone in Bitterwood Creek had been certain they'd lost their doctor and their Sheriff to the Indians - and had had time to realize how much that loss meant to their safety and wellbeing. Even those who still regarded the two men as not only different but dangerous, now looked upon them with new respect. And many, like Simon, had sincerely mourned the certain deaths of men who had become their friends, and now were exuberantly joyful to see their safe return.

********************

Later, once they were again alone but for Simon's company, Jim confided some of the details of their adventure with the older man, while Blair pulled the small bundles out of the deerskin bag.

"Jim, look at this," he interjected suddenly, a note of wonder in his voice. In his hands were two beautiful hand-cured, snow-white skin bags, one tied with thin rawhide from which hung a tiny delicate carving of a wolf. The other carried a small but perfect black jaguar talisman.

Ellison took the medicine bag Blair held out to him and studied it thoughtfully for a long moment before slipping it into the pocket of his shirt. When Blair grinned at him, Jim shrugged, as he teased, "Can't hurt to keep it handy - 'watching out' for you, with all the trouble you manage to find, I need all the luck I can get."

The two friends laughed together, but Simon looked from them to the pouch in Sandburg's hand and wondered at the significance of the small fetishes. And he wondered even more why the Indians had given them each a gift of sacred medicine bags. Banks had been in the west long enough to know such tribute was unusual at the best of times, let alone when they were at war. There was something about these two that he'd long sensed, a kind of energy within both of them that seemed to almost to crackle when they were in close proximity to one another. Both aggressively private about their pasts, both essentially loners for all of Sandburg's innate charm, they had bonded almost immediately, their friendship only growing over time. They were special, somehow, unique, but it also seemed that they belonged together - like brothers who had only just met. Reminded him, somehow, of stories he'd heard long ago, around the fires outside the slaves' quarters, when he'd been a kid back in South Carolina…something about warriors and friendship…but he couldn't quite recall the details.

Apparently, the Indians had sensed something different about the two of them, too…and honoured it.

********************

When his first Christmas in Bitterwood Creek rolled around, Blair realized he had some choices to make about how much he wanted to fit in, as opposed to the fact that the holiday was not one his Faith celebrated - though, growing up as he had, he wasn't particularly orthodox by any stretch of the imagination. The businesses along the street, with two notable exceptions, had some kind of decoration in their windows, often made by the school children, and all had a tree, bedecked with strung popcorn and ribbons, candles (which Sandburg considered a very dangerous practice) and various, mostly homemade, hand-carved ornaments. He'd found a box in the storeroom that contained old Doc Wilcox's ornaments, many of which looked liked they'd been donated by patients, so he knew folks expected to see a tree at the Doctor's Office.

It wouldn't kill him to put up a tree in the office, so the patients would feel the familiar comfort of it. There was a stand of pine not too far away, along the river. Maybe Jim would like to help pick one out and decorate it. He hadn't gotten one for the Sheriff's Office next door yet, so maybe they could help with each other's trees.

Which made him think of Jim. His best friend didn't appear to be particularly religious - he sure didn't spend any time at the church - and Christmas was a family affair. Still, it was a time of gift-giving to friends as well as family. Should he give Jim a gift? Or would the older man feel it presumptuous or, maybe, even embarrassing if he hadn't gotten one for Blair? And, why would he? He knew Sandburg was Jewish and didn't celebrate Christmas. Blair shook his head and sighed about the social complexities of life in a small town when a person was 'different'.

He was still trying to decide what to do when a group of school children stopped by his office one wintry day in mid-December, to personally deliver a handmade invitation to the Christmas Pageant at the schoolhouse later in the week. The kids were dropping them off at all of the businesses and, according to the earnest spokesperson - a little girl who handed the one she'd laboriously printed to him - everybody in town always came. She was only about seven years old, and Blair figured she didn't really understand why he never showed up at church; but in her innocence, she was giving him a pretty clear message that he'd definitely be missed if he didn't show up at the schoolhouse. And then one of the other children asked him why the tree wasn't up yet. Had he been too busy with sick folks to have time to get one yet? He allowed that, yes, he'd been pretty busy, which the little ones all clearly thought was a shame, and they wondered, generously, if they could help him, maybe get one of their daddies to cut down a tree for him. He smiled and thanked them, but assured them he could manage, and they went on their merry way.

Swallowing, he went to the storeroom next to the office and pulled out the old box from a lower shelf. He was going through the decorations when Jim blew into the hall, brushing snow from his coat and looking flushed with cold as he poked his head around the office door. When he saw what were obviously Christmas decorations on Blair's desk and on the floor around the box as Blair made his inventory, Ellison quirked a brow.

"What are you doing?" he asked curiously.

"Well, it's been suggested that it's past time that I got the tree up," Blair replied, his normally vibrant voice lacking any animation.

"But…why would you put a Christmas tree?" Jim asked with a frown of confusion. "You're Jewish."

"Yes, I know," Sandburg sighed, as he sat back in his chair to look up at Jim. "But everyone else in town is Christian, and this is one of their, well, your, two most significant traditional celebrations in the year." He picked up the invitation to the Christmas pageant at the school, and handed it to Jim. "I suppose you got one of these today, too." When Jim shrugged and nodded, Blair continued, "The little kids who came by with mine don't understand the differences in cultural traditions - they probably just think I'm like the Sheriff, and not particularly 'God-fearin'' when I don't show up at church every Sunday. But Christmas is very special, and if I don't show up for this school activity, that 'everyone in town attends', or so I was told very strictly," he informed Jim with a quick, small smile, to show he'd taken no offence, though it faded as he continued, "and to the special services at the Church, which, by the way, I'm assuming you'll be attending since the Sheriff has to be seen at something as special as that - well, then they'll wonder why. And then they'll remember that the Jews crucified their Christ - and, some of them, anyway, might start to be afraid of me. Just because. I don't want the kids to be afraid of me, Jim. I can handle the Urseline Tuckers of this world, but the kids…"

He sighed and shook his head as he idly touched some of the ornaments on his desk. "You need a tree for your office, too," he said then, wearily. "We're the only two businesses on the street that haven't put up any Christmas decorations, and it's very noticeable."

"This is really bothering you, isn't it, Chief?" Jim asked quietly.

Shrugging, Blair shook his head a little helplessly. "I can't win, either way. If I don't put up a tree, and don't go to the children's pageant and the church services, then I'm too distinctly different. If I do, there will be many in this town who will label me a hypocrite." Biting his lip, he continued thinking aloud, "Jesus is considered a prophet in the Jewish faith, an important one, so I don't find it offensive to acknowledge his birth and I'm quite willing to show respect for the faith of my patients. But it wasn't a holiday that Mom paid any attention to, unless we were living with Christians at the time, and then she'd tell them they didn't have to give us gifts, because we were Jewish. So, Christmas morning was always pretty awkward, with other people exchanging presents and Mom and I just sitting there, neither giving nor receiving. I hated not giving, and when I was little I couldn't understand why I didn't deserve presents like the other kids. It just all seems so complicated, when it shouldn't be."

Jim felt his chest tighten at the thought of the little kid who had sat empty-handed and wondering why Santa Claus didn't seem to like him much, especially when he remembered the embarrassing abundance of gifts he'd known each year of his own childhood. Clearing his throat when Blair's voice trailed off, as his friend worked out what he was going to do, Jim asked, "Why did you hate, 'not giving'?"

"Huh? Oh, well, I don't know. I guess that it always seemed to me that regardless of whether we were Jewish, it wouldn't hurt to, once a year, show people they were important to us and we cared about them," he replied. "Whether I celebrate Christmas or not for the strictly religious reasons, I do think it's an important opportunity to celebrate love, family and…" he hesitated, realizing he was getting into possibly personal territory, "friendship."

Jim's lips compressed as he looked away, thinking about that. Christmas had always been a formal celebration during his years in service, but he tended not to give gifts, and hadn't received them, either. But then, he hadn't had a best friend before, someone who was as close as a brother. Should he be getting Blair a gift?

As if reading his mind, Blair said quietly, "Don't worry, I'm not angling for a Christmas present."

Jim quirked a brow, but he was thinking about the little kid who'd never gotten any. Sighing, he asked, "So, what do you want to do about the formal traditions?"

"I was wondering if you wanted to go to get your tree, when I go to get mine," Blair replied with a resigned smile. "I could help you decorate yours, if you'll help me decorate mine."

"And the pageant and church services?" Jim asked.

"I'll go along with you, as a gesture of respect to people who are important to me," Sandburg answered. "I can live with that."

"What about your own religious holidays, Chief?" Jim asked then, realizing that in the months he'd lived with Sandburg, he'd never been conscious of Blair's cultural or religious differences. The subject just hadn't come up, and he had no idea of what holidays, except maybe Passover, that Blair might want to celebrate.

"Mom didn't celebrate those, either," Blair replied wryly. "I've got a small menorah that I light for Chanukah, that's the Jewish holiday that coincides with Christmas, more in respect for my forefathers than because I'm a practicing Jew."

With a slight smile of complicity, Jim offered, "Tell you what, let's go get our trees and get them decorated, though to be honest, I think it's a lot of hoopla, and if you'll back me up at the public events, I'd like to hear about your traditions, and maybe I could be there when you light the…menorah. If you can respect my traditional culture, I can respect yours."

"You don't have to…" Blair exclaimed, surprised and beginning to feel guilty that he might have made Jim feel uncomfortable.

Jim's smile widened as he stood and said, "I know, but I want to. Come on, let's go murder us a couple of innocent trees."

Laughing, feeling unaccountably lighter in spirit, Blair stood to get his coat.

But he still wasn't sure about whether or not to get Jim a Christmas present. And, if he did, what it would be? Jim was a humble man, who never seemed to want much of anything…

Late the next afternoon, December 8, 1866, the sun already set as the year drew close to the shortest 'day' of the year on the winter solstice, Blair was waiting for Jim when the lawman returned from his early rounds of the town. Office hours were over, the last patient having left about a half hour before. Sandburg smiled to himself at how happy the little McCready child had been to see the decorated tree. Apparently, his trouble in finding time to get a tree had been talked about in the schoolyard that morning. In a small town, everybody knew everyone else's business. It was disconcerting, but also comforting in a way, to know the kids were worried about whether he had time to celebrate and enjoy the holiday.

Sandburg heard Jim stomping the snow from his boots outside their front door and came out of the kitchen to the hall as Ellison entered and hung up his coat. Jim shivered a little and rubbed his hands together as he blew on them, glad to be inside. It was going to be a bitter night. When he noticed that Blair was looking a little nervous, shifting in place and his eyes not quite making contact, he asked, "Something wrong, Chief?"

"No, not wrong," Blair replied. "But, uh, you said you might be interested in standing with me when I light the Menorah…and, well, tonight is the first night of Chanukah, so I waited, in case…"

"Sure, thanks, I'm glad you waited," Jim hastened to assure his friend. "Uh, what do we do?"

Sandburg waved his hand toward the stairs. "I've got the menorah in my room…"

Together, they climbed the dark staircase and then along the short upper hall to the front bed-sitting room. It was the first time that Jim had been in his friend's room, and he looked around with interest. The double bed was a simple cannonball style with four posts and a headboard crafted from dark pine. It was covered with layers of blankets and a quilt that made Jim grin secretly at how hard Sandburg worked to stay warm at this time of year. There was a comfortable chair and a small table with an oil lamp, an old armoire and a small chest of drawers, also made of pine. On the top of the low piece of furniture, was a simple, beautifully crafted, candelabra of eight candles of even length and a taller, ninth, candle in the center. It was beautiful, quietly elegant.

"You were going to tell me what this tradition is about, Chief," Jim reminded his friend.

Nodding, Blair replied, "Well, as I said, I respect this tradition in memory of my ancestors. In the second century, BC, the Greeks and Syrians, under the leadership of Antiochus, were a strong force in Judea, and the Jewish people were slowing becoming Hellenized - forgetting their own history and culture. In fact, certain aspects of tradition were actually outlawed, including the practice of Brit Mila, and I'll explain that in a minute, and the study of the Torah, which was given to Moses…but that's another story. In response, a band of Jewish settlers took to the hills of Judea in open revolt against this threat to Jewish life, led by Matitiyahu, and later his son Judah the Maccabee, also called "The Hammer", for his warrior prowess. This small band of pious Jews led guerrilla warfare against the Syrian army."

"That's a long time ago, Blair," Jim observed, never having heard any of this history before.

"Two thousand years," Sandburg murmured. "Anyway, Antiochus sent thousands of well-armed troops to crush the rebellion - but that small band of Maccabees succeeded in driving the foreigners from their land. The victorious Jewish fighters entered Jerusalem in December, 164 BCE. The Holy Temple was in shambles, defiled and desecrated by the foreign soldiers. They cleansed the Temple and re-dedicated it on the 25th day of the Jewish month of Kislev. When it came time to re-light the Menorah, they searched the entire Temple, but only one small jar of oil bearing the pure seal of the High Priest could be found - only enough to last for one day…and it would take seven more days to ritually prepare more oil for such a holy purpose. Miraculously, that single, small jar of oil burned for eight days, until a new supply of oil was could be brought to keep the Menorah lit.

"You see, Jim, the number 'eight,' has a special significance to the Jewish people," Blair explained quietly. "In our traditional beliefs, as in yours, the world was created in seven days. There are seven notes in the musical scale, seven days of the week. Therefore, the number seven represents the physical world that we can touch and smell and feel. The number eight, on the other hand, transcends the natural world and represents our spirituality and connection with God. That's why the miraculous days of Chanukah are 'eight'. Though eight emanates from beyond our senses, our souls can still reach out and be touched by its force...

"The Greeks had a particular dislike of the Jewish practice of Brit Mila, the circumcision of a baby boy on the eighth day after his birth. They outlawed the practice of Brit Mila because, to them, every 'body' was another piece of art. To the Greeks, circumcision was mutilation of a masterpiece - but to the Jew, Brit Mila is one of the most essential expressions of Jewish identity. A human being can only achieve its greatest beauty if affected by a relationship with God. Circumcision of the perfectly sculpted human recognizes and embraces the reality of his transcendent soul."

He paused for a moment as he pulled a box of matches from the top drawer of the bureau. Continuing, he said quietly, "From then on, Jews all over the world have observed a holiday for eight days in honor of this historic victory and the miracle of the oil. 'Chanukah' means 'dedication' and during these eight days, we light one candle each night, using the candle in the center, to remember those who fought to safeguard our heritage, who won our freedom to worship…and to remember that miracles happen."

With that, he struck a match and lit the slender center taper, then held the taper to light the first candle of Chanukah and, finally, he blew out the first, 'helper', candle, before carefully setting it back in its center holder.

They stood a moment in silence as the small flame flickered in the darkness, lighting the room with a gentle glow, as both thought about what a small group of people with a powerful conviction can achieve - and about the fact that miracles do happen.

"Thank you, Jim," Blair said softly. "For wanting to share this with me."

Ellison lifted a hand to squeeze his best friend's shoulder and, a moment later, they went downstairs to make their dinner.

********************

When the two men followed the rest of the citizens to the schoolhouse a few nights later, Jim picked up a number of whispered comments from some who were vastly surprised, and not charitable about it, about Sandburg's presence. Some were discreet, and he didn't think Blair heard them, but some, like Urseline Tucker, didn't know the meaning of the word. When Blair stiffened beside him, and blushed faintly at the venomous comments, Jim ground his teeth in anger. This wasn't the place to make any kind of scene, what with the kids so excited and happy, but Ellison began to realize how hard it could be, sometimes, to be 'different'; and he ached that his best friend had to put up with such crap. Because Blair didn't get mad - the younger man just felt sad about it all, and it hurt him to feel ostracized, especially when he was doing his best to show respect to the beliefs of others.

It wasn't any better at the church on Christmas Eve.

"And she calls herself a 'good Christian'," Jim seethed as they made their way home after the service, still furious about Urseline's loud exclamation that she certainly hadn't expected to see Doctor Sandburg there that evening. Why, it didn't seem…well, right. After all, it had been his people who… Blessedly, the preacher had stepped in to cut her off and welcome Blair to the service, and to thank him for his respect in attending. But the damage had been done. Everyone in the church had craned their heads, and the children had begun to ask questions about what the fuss was about. No doubt, all the little Tuckers would be only too pleased to explain it all to their friends. Blair had been right - it was a situation that he just couldn't win.

"It's not important," Blair sighed as he led the way into their home.

"It damned well is important," Jim snapped as he hung his hat up on the peg and shrugged out of his coat. "I'm sorry, really sorry, you have to put up with such ignorant drivel. You're expected to respect their faith, but who respects yours?"

"It's your faith, too, Jim - and you do, my friend," Blair replied with a smile. "And I thank you for that," he continued as he thought about Jim standing with him as he'd lit the candles each evening.

"My faith? Officially, maybe," Jim grunted as he led the way into the kitchen.

Surprised, Blair asked as he followed, "What? You don't believe in Jesus? As a minimum, he was a historical personage of profound influence and a great teacher. Or - don't you believe in God?"

Jim put on the kettle to boil for some of Sandburg's tea, to warm them up from the chilly walk home. Sighing, he shook his head. Turning to Sandburg, he said with all sincerity, "The War pretty much convinced me there is no God, Chief, and Poplar Flats just drove home the lesson. Surely, with what you endured, what you saw, you don't believe in the idea, either."

Pulling down the mugs, Blair replied, "Actually, I do." Seeing the surprise on Jim's face, he went on to explain, "Oh, not the fire and brimstone God, or even the gentle Heavenly Father - but I do believe in an intelligent, even compassionate Creator. I know Darwin's theories of evolution are all the rage, and as a scientist, maybe I should be persuaded by them. But - have you ever really looked at the stars, Jim, and thought about the sheer immensity of this universe? Have you ever thought about the miracle of creating a baby…how complex and amazing that is? I've studied our bodies in great depth and I have to tell you, I find creation, of all life, so diverse and amazing, so intricate and yet purposeful. I can't believe it's all just accidental and happenstance. It's too - deliberate. Too - miraculous. And wonderful, I guess."

Jim shrugged as he leaned against the table, crossing his arms as he asked, "If it's all so purposeful, then why do we have such evil as war? I'll grant you the Devil exists, but God?"

Pulling out the teapot and bags, Blair replied thoughtfully, "Because I think we do have free will. If we didn't, then we'd just be puppets to God's will - and that seems rather pointless. Men start wars and massacre people, not God. I think we do have souls, Jim - and that our souls have lessons to learn through life, choices to make. It's about ethics and principles, behaving with integrity and decency. But, most of all, I think it's about the lessons that Jesus taught, actually. About learning that love is the most powerful force in the world, and that if we just learned to be merciful, to love one another, to accept and be respectful, to want to give more than we receive - lay down our lives for a friend - then this world really would be a wondrous place."

"You're pretty good at quoting a Saviour you don't believe in," Jim observed wryly, and with no little surprise. Hell, the kid sounded like a whole lot better Christian than that bitch, Urseline Tucker.

"I don't disbelieve in him, Him," Sandburg sighed as he poured out the boiling water to heat the pot, emptied it into the dishpan and then filled the pot. "He was a great teacher and a very wise man, a prophet. He may even have been the Son of God - in some fundamental ways, we all are. But I've read about a lot of different cultures and beliefs, and they all have pretty much the same core principles in common. In part, because they create social norms that permit cohesion and some basic security and decency of living in communities - but also, in part, I think, because the divine force of the universe really wants us to get some basic messages and so He, She, It sends us teachers to show us the path."

Pouring out the tea, he carried the mugs to the table where they both pulled out chairs to sit down. "I guess the bottom line for me," Blair continued as he blew on the hot beverage to cool it, "is that I just don't think it's all random. I think there is some purpose, some reason we are born and given the talents, the opportunities, the challenges and trials, like the War, that both test us, so we will learn, and to give us a chance to contribute, to make things better than they are."

"So, it's all some big game. Pass the test and go straight to Heaven," Ellison argued disparagingly.

"You really are determined to be cynical about this, aren't you?" Sandburg teased with a smile, taking no offence at Jim's very blatant skepticism about the matter of his personal beliefs. Everyone had to choose for themselves what they believed, what helped them to make sense of their world. "But, no, I don't think it's a game. I also don't think we all become angels and play harps on the far side of the clouds. I believe that our souls are immortal - that they are the essential energy behind the life force - and that we likely come back, again and again, either here or on other worlds…"

"You believe there's life on other worlds?" Jim interjected, enjoying the discussion. This wasn't stuff he'd spent a whole lot of time thinking about, but he found Blair's views interesting.

"Well, obviously," Blair exclaimed. "I know it's not accepted belief, by almost any religion, but think about it! The universe is HUGE! What's the point of it? To make our sky all nice and sparkly? No, no, no. Of course, there's life elsewhere. Both the scientific theory of evolution, and the religious theory of a divine creator, pretty much require that there be other life. If it could evolve here, it could evolve on other planets - there must be trillions and trillions of them! And if God is the creator, why only create life here or if only here, why create all that other stuff out there?"

Jim grinned, tickled to see his best friend so excited, his eyes sparkling as he got right into his argument over something as conjectural, and pretty much inconsequential, as life on other worlds.

"What?" Blair asked, seeing the grin and the laughter in Jim's eyes. "You think I'm nuts, don't you?"

"No, not at all," Jim contested, shaking his head. "I think you're brilliant, to tell you the truth. But, I also get a kick out of the things you think about - who cares if there's life on other planets? Let alone, substantiate the argument from two completely different philosophical perspectives?"

Blair grinned and shook his head. "I care, I guess." But then he sobered, "Probably because I need to think there can be some good that can come out of the terrible things that people have to endure. I've noticed that folks don't learn, don't grow, without pain - and that strikes me as sad, if there's no purpose to it all. But, if I can imagine a soul that is struggling to learn, and then comes back to teach others in another life, well, then, that makes sense to me. And, I just don't think something as wondrous as this world, and all the richness in it, was an accident of biology in some lake or ocean. I need to believe something more than that nothing really matters. And if I'm wrong, well, there's no harm done. I try to live my life according to ethical and compassionate principles that maybe, somehow, help to create a better community, or even just make one other life better. At least I'll have made a difference for the good, while I used up air and space."

Jim looked down at the tea steaming in his mug as he nodded. "You're a good man, Chief," he said quietly. Looking up at Blair, he added, "You're a very good man. And this world is lucky to have men like you in it."

Touched, Blair bobbed his head in embarrassment. Lifting his gaze, he said softly, "Thank you. But, I figure, it takes one to know one."

********************

Christmas morning dawned clear and crisp, with frost glittering on the buildings and trees. Jim got up early to make them a hearty breakfast, and smiled at Blair cheerfully as he handed him a mug of fresh-perked coffee. Grinning back, Blair chirped, "Merry Christmas, Jim!"

"Merry Christmas to you, Chief," his friend returned. "And, speaking of which," Jim added as he pointed under the kitchen table to a meticulously-wrapped box, "in the tradition of giving gifts to good friends, I wanted you to have that."

Blair looked at the box, so carefully wrapped, and he felt a lump in his throat. It was the first Christmas gift that anyone had ever given to him. "You didn't have to do this," he murmured, his voice a little unsteady. "I told you…I wasn't hinting…"

"Just accept the gift, Blair, because I wanted to give it to you, okay?" Jim replied with a soft smile, pleased that Sandburg seemed so touched. It was about time he got a gift on Christmas - God knew, he was a damned good friend who deserved to know he was appreciated.

Blair set his mug down on the table and then bent to pull the gift out from underneath. Though it was a good size, it was light, and he couldn't begin to imagine what was in it. But he didn't really care. What was important was that it was from Jim. Sitting down with it in front of him on the table, he just gazed at it for the longest time with a delighted smile on his face, as if the wrapped box was the present. Finally, looking up at Jim, he said quietly, but with happiness sparkling in his eyes, "Thanks. I really appreciate this."

"You're supposed to open it first," Jim teased. "You might not like it. It's something you don't have, and maybe that's because you don't really want one."

Blair blinked and swallowed, sniffed a little as he said, "I don't have to open it to be grateful." But then he grinned like a little kid as he said, "But I will!" And then he was ripping into the paper to find a box, and he eagerly opened the box to find a black Stetson. Sandburg's mouth dropped open as he pulled it out and immediately put it on his head. He'd been looking at Stetsons in the General Store ever since he'd arrived in Bitterwood Creek, but they were expensive, and he didn't have a lot of cash; with few exceptions, his patients tended to pay him in kind. Looking up at Jim, he beamed. "How does it look?"

"Like you were born with it on," Jim smiled back approvingly. "It's you, Chief. Really you."

"Ah, I really like it, Jim," he burbled. "I've been wanting one but, well…"

"I just thought that you needed one out here," Ellison explained. "The winters are too damned cold to go around bareheaded, and you'll get sunstroke in the summer. It's not like back east."

"I know - thanks, Jim," he replied sincerely as he took it off and fingered the brim. "This was really thoughtful. "This was truly thoughtful…and I don't know how you could have known, but it's about the only thing I really wanted to buy sometime, that I didn't already have." Setting the hat down, he reached into his pocket and drew out a carefully wrapped package about five inches by four inches by two inches. "I got you something, too," he said shyly, as he offered the gift to Jim. "You already have one, but when I saw this, I just thought it seemed right, somehow. And, well, I figured you could use a new one."

Taking the package, knowing the symbolic meaning that Blair put into Christmas giving, Jim knew the kid would have put a lot of thought into whatever it was. And he was touched. He hadn't been given many gifts since he'd left home a very great many years ago. "Thanks, Chief," he said sincerely.

"You're supposed to open it first," Blair said with a perfectly straight face, while also perfectly mimicking Jim's earlier tones with twinkling eyes.

Jim snorted but he grinned as he began to open the package. Inside was a box, and inside the box was a beautifully designed buckle, crafted in the form of a leaping black cat. "Whoa," he murmured. Blair was right; his old buckle had worn pretty thin and was rusting - probably not even safe to be wearing anymore. Trust a doctor to notice that. But it was so much more than a utilitarian gift. Great care had gone into its making, great artistry. And, oddly, as Blair had said, 'it seemed right, somehow'.

"You like it?" Sandburg asked, uncertain. "If you don't, there were other designs…we could exchange it."

"No, I…this is great!" Jim replied, looking vastly pleased. "But - what made you choose a black cat?"

Shrugging, Blair replied, "Well, for a start, you can see in the dark. And you can hear sounds most human beings can't. You can move as silently as a cat, and when you're stalking someone, it's almost feline, man. And, well, your hat, slicker, duster are all black and so's your leather winter jacket. You have a great sense of smell, and can be as persnickety about what you eat as a cat is - and, well, " he said as he looked down and away, "when I was reading about that guy Burton's work, that I first told you about? The one who wrote about sentinels? Well, he said the local symbol for sentinels was a jaguar. Most of all, I remembered Swift Eagle said your spirit guide is a black jaguar…so, I just thought it made sense. No one else will ever figure it out, but - it's you, Jim."

Jim felt a lump in his throat at how very meaningful the gift was, how it had been selected with such great thought and care - and wasn't inexpensive, but Blair had somehow scrounged together what little he had to get something he knew was so appropriate. "It's perfect, Blair, thank you," he said, his voice a little hoarse with emotion.

Sandburg's face lit up, brighter than when he'd received his own gift, and Jim knew that his best friend truly did get the double joy of Christmas, what it was really all about. The joy of knowing someone cared for you, and the joy of the generous person, who is happiest when they've made someone else happy.

His friend truly was a very good man.

And Jim felt pretty good, too, when Blair again fingered his new hat with a sweet smile of genuine pleasure, and couldn't resist putting it back on his head. He was glowing, just like a little kid who woke up amazed to find that Santa had brought what he'd secretly most wanted on Christmas morn.

********************

Winter dragged on until Blair, at least, was beginning to despair that it would never end; but end it did, with warm damp winds that drove storms of pelting rain across the prairie, melting the snow and turning the rolling plains into a massive, muddy morass. By the time the rain finally stopped, the main street of Bitterwood Creek was deep with sucking, sloppy muck. Blair's assumption about the utility of the raised boardwalks the summer before was proven true as the townsfolk, tired of being shut inside, came out to enjoy the warm sunshine as they paraded along the walks, gossiping, while children laughed and played underfoot.

The town continued to thrive as more people settled in the area, bringing new business and offering more services - a ladies' millinery shop opened in time for Easter, rivaling the General Store's offering of beguiling hats, colourful dress materials and geegaws, like buttons and lace or ribbon for trim. Henri expanded his blacksmith and livery business to include a saddlery next door, employing a man who made leatherwork a fine art. A small apothecary opened up, relieving Sandburg of the chore of mixing all his own medicines, and the new shop offered an amazing array of sweets for the children, and attractive little boxes of handmade chocolates a man could give to his sweetheart, as well as introduced the first soda fountain to Bitterwood Creek.

Johnny Winston decided that he could afford to buy one of the little boxes wrapped in pink ribbon to take to his girl one fine Saturday morning. He was whistling happily as he set off with the romantic token from the apothecary shop and along the broad street to the residential end of town, anticipating her delight at the surprise.

********************

"Sheriff! You better come quick!" Johnny Winston gasped after banging loudly on the office door and pushing it open so hard it flung back against the wall. White as a ghost, his eyes glazed with as yet unshed tears, he choked out, "It's Nellie…she's been murdered!"

Jim stood from behind his desk, where he'd been doing his Saturday morning reports on Friday night's arrests, and reached for his hat, a stab of sorrow lancing through him at hearing the news. Nellie never said much, but she'd been sweet and capable, always ready to lend a helping hand. "What happened? Where is she?"

"In her place behind the schoolroom," Johnny gulped, pale as parchment and looking slightly green. "Her nightdress was pushed…" but he couldn't bring himself to describe all he'd seen, and he gagged.

"Go next door and ask Doc to meet me over there," Ellison directed as he laid a steadying hand on the earnest young man's shoulders. Everyone in town knew Johnny had been courting Nellie, their mutual interest in books giving them common ground. "I'm sorry, Johnny. Real sorry."

Winston bit his lip, almost undone by the sympathy as he swallowed convulsively, trying to get himself under control. With a bleak nod, he left to find the doctor.

Jim loped off toward the schoolhouse and had just begun to examine the scene of the crime when Blair rapped smartly on the door and then entered the small living quarters. When Sandburg saw Nellie sprawled in front of the tiny stone fireplace, her woolen nightgown askew and shoved up over her hips, blood on her thighs, and the ugly bruising on her unnaturally twisted neck, he looked away briefly and closed his eyes. It wasn't that he hadn't seen worse, and death was no stranger, but Nellie had been the first one to welcome Blair to Bitterwood Creek, claiming he was the answer to their prayers. He'd never forgotten that, or her help those first few days. He'd liked the young woman a great deal and had respected her. It was hard to see her dead, let alone abused and murdered, so that she'd died terrified and in pain.

"You okay?" Ellison asked quietly.

"No," Blair replied, his voice low, and tight. "She was a good person. I'll miss her." But he took a deep, steadying breath, opened his eyes and turned back to Jim. He couldn't help her and she was beyond any more pain. Now, all he could do was focus on helping Jim determine who had hurt her so badly and then killed her. "You don't think Johnny did this, do you?"

"No," Ellison replied. "It's always possible, I guess - but we both know that this doesn't seem to be in Johnny's nature. They were going to be married in another month or so - she might have been saving herself for her wedding night, but I can't picture her fighting him so hard if he wanted to jump the gun." His gaze tracked over the evidence around the room that mutely testified that Nellie hadn't died easily.

"You picking up anything?" Sandburg asked then, and Jim knew the kid was referring to his senses.

Jim shook his head as he bit his lip. "Lots of confusing smells here, Sandburg," he muttered.

"Okay, let's try filtering out some of the expected ones, like blood and the smell of death and the fire," Blair replied in his low compelling voice, as he moved around the body to put his hand on Jim's back. "Close your eyes and just concentrate, labeling each scent you recognize until you find ones that don't belong in here."

Blowing out a breath, Ellison nodded and focused his concentration upon the scents in the room. He grimaced as he 'turned up the flame' on the blue lantern in his head. It took him a few minutes, and he was glad of Sandburg's quiet murmurs of encouragement that kept him from losing himself in the odours swirling around him. Finally, he opened his eyes and nodded. "I smell heavy perspiration, the semen, bear grease, and something else - liquor and some kind of fur…not sure which animal."

"Good, that's good," Sandburg replied approvingly. "Now, do you see anything? Any hairs not her colour? Do the size of the bruises on her throat give you any more information?

Jim's gaze quartered the small room, the flimsy, old furniture comprising of a small wooden table and two chairs, a rocker and a padded armchair all in disarray, proof that Nellie had fought and fought hard. The rag rug had been scrunched up and there was broken crockery on the floor. He spotted a couple of large, muddy boot tracks near the door on the otherwise scrupulously clean plank floor. The man was big - the large thumbprint bruises on her neck confirming that fact. Jim shook his head, wishing she'd screamed - he might have heard her - but Nellie was so quiet and she'd have been terrified, probably just too scared to cry out. Turning his attention to her hands and fingers, he found traces of black fur, coarse little hairs, embedded under the nails and a few strands of greasy dark brown hair entangled in her fingers.

"Very big man," he murmured, "long brown hair, likely wearing a coat made of bearskin."

"The trapper we saw drinking heavily in the saloon last night?" Sandburg postulated. He'd been a mountain of a man, impossible to miss as he sat hunched over the bar in his long hide coat, necessary as the wind could still be sharp this early in the spring. Bearded, filthy, surly and sullen, uncomfortable around other people, he'd been keeping to himself as he drank shot after shot of rotgut.

"Yeah, I think so," Jim grated, his jaw tight against his anger as he pulled her nightgown down and then stood. Sighing, he shook his head. "Damned shame."

"You think he's still around somewhere?" Blair asked, as he pulled a blanket from the bed and knelt to lay it over the dead woman after first, gently, straightening her limbs and head, and closing her eyes.

Nodding as he scratched his cheek, Jim figured, "Yeah, I reckon. He'd drunk too much to go far. Let's see if we can find his camp - can't be too far out of town."

They let themselves out of the small living quarters behind the school, stopping by the McCready's, who lived in the nearest house, to ask if they'd heard anything. Delores McCready, Silas' wife, was horrified to hear what had happened. She had five kids in the school and had known Nellie for years. Intimidated by her big, sometimes difficult, husband, Nellie had been the one she'd confided in. Weeping, she told them they'd heard nothing out of the ordinary the preceding night, and then pulling herself together before they left, she said she'd look after what needed doing to take care of her friend's remains.

Heading back along the town's single street, they stopped at the saloon to see if either McCready himself, or his bartender, Moe Gurning, might have an idea of where the trapper camped. Neither did, so they continued on to the General Store, where the man had probably sold his furs. Angus proved to be more helpful, saying he thought the trapper, by the name of Jorgenson, had said he'd set up camp about a quarter mile up the creek, and that he'd likely bring in more furs that day, since Angus had been willing to buy them. The beaver and raccoon skins, especially, were of interest to the shopkeeper, the demand out of Europe for 'coonskin hats' being very high, as well as the bearskins, as they made warm coverings for the deep winter nights.

Ellison and Sandburg thanked him and headed to their stable to saddle their horses. As they rode upstream, the scent of wood smoke on the light morning breeze told Jim they were getting close. Riding into the campsite warily, they found Jorgenson wrapped in his heavy bearskin coat and hunched over his fire, ignoring them as he stared into the flames. Dismounting, his right hand near his gun, Ellison walked a little closer, wrinkling his nose against the man's stench, and then asked, "Why'd you do it?"

The scruffy man, his long hair and his beard matted and filthy, looked up slowly, his blood-shot blue eyes not quite meeting Jim's. "Do what?" he ground out, his voice tight.

"Rape and kill Nellie Bascome," Jim replied coldly. "There's no point in denying it. I know it was you." He knew he had to bluff in the hope of getting a confession, because he sure didn't have much of consequence to put before the Circuit Judge. But the man's tripping heartbeat and tear-blurred eyes told him he was on the right track. The thick scent of fear emanating from the huge man at the sight of his Sheriff's badge was also indicative, if not conclusive.

The red-rimmed blue eyes flickered up to his, and then quickly away; but not before Jim saw the fear in them. Suddenly, the man's big shoulders slumped and he lifted his hands to cover his face. "I didn't mean t' hurt her…" he grated hoarsely. "She was so purdy, and she smiled at me, real sweet like, when I saw her in the Gen'ral Store." Once again lifting his face to Jim's, his expression beseeching, he continued with child-like candour, "Bin a long time since a woman smiled at me. I follered her home, so I know'd she lived in behind the school. I…I was skeer'd, shy - don' know how to talk to women. So I went back to the saloon to get me some Dutch courage." He stopped, unable to face the cold expression on Jim's face, and turned his head down to stare again into the flames, choking out, "When I went to see 'er, t'was late. She didn' wan' to let me in, but I pushed inside. I jus' wanted t' talk, mebbe touch her. I thought she liked me. But she hit me and then threw things - and I got mad." Swallowing, big tears slipping down his cheeks, he bent his head and wept. "I'm sorry," he stammered, sniffling like child. "I'm so sorry."

Ellison heard Sandburg heave a long sad sigh behind him, and he nodded in understanding, but their pity didn't change the ugly irreversible tragedy of Nellie's abuse and violent death, or alter the profound grief for her that ached inside both of them. "Come on; stand up. I'm Sheriff Ellison and I'm arresting you for the rape and murder of Nellie Bascome."

The big trapper didn't resist when Jim ordered him to mount his horse and precede them back to town.

********************

The townspeople were horrified and deeply saddened by Nellie Bascombe's death. Every soul in Bitterwood Creek attended her funeral, and stood in the chilly rain as the casket was lowered into the ground. The school children sang 'Amazing Grace,' and it wasn't only the young ones and the women who wept. Nellie had been very special.

She had lived in Bitterwood Creek all her life, the only daughter of a woman who died giving her birth, and a father, the town's minister, who had succumbed to influenza when she was only fourteen. She'd been a solemn child, always older than her years, but also one who had learned early how to do what needed doing. Left alone, she'd looked around her small community, and decided they needed a school. In the long evenings of their solitary life together, Reverend Bascombe had taught her how to read and write, how to add, subtract, multiply and divide. A cultured man, he had filled their home with books and he shared them with her - histories of the world, an atlas, myths and legends, English literature (with a particular bias towards Shakespeare), and papers written by the Fathers of the Republic of the United States of America. So, after she'd buried her father, she looked at the books and decided, with what she had kept from her childhood, the first readers and grammars he'd bought for her, the fairytales and adventure stories, she had more than enough to get started with. She went round to every home, and soberly asked to be allowed to teach the children in the church, since it was empty anyway, most of the time. Some agreed, wanting to give the child something to do and figuring it couldn't hurt. She began with six children and, after the first year, folks began to think it was a good idea to have their young ones learn and so that summer, the schoolhouse had been built, with a little one-room place in the back for Nellie to live in. That had been thirteen years ago…to some folks it seemed like forever.

She'd be well remembered, and mourned for a very long time.

********************

Pussy-willows appeared along the creek, the first subtle, but looked for and welcomed harbingers of a new season of hope and growth, of birth and rebirth as the seemingly dead and stark trees along the waterways hazed with green, and then broke into resplendent life. The ever-present wind smelled fresh and sweet with alfalfa and clover, and the fragrances of the profusion of wild flowers growing amongst the new long grass upon the prairie. Farmers' fields were tilled and planted; and calves were born, signaling the need soon for a roundup to brand the new cattle as well as take stock of the inevitable winter losses. The days grew longer and warmer, and people gratefully divested themselves of their heavy, cumbersome layers of winter clothing - some too soon, as attested by the rash of spring colds and 'flu; and not just amongst the children, but afflicting their elders, too, the doctor grumbling that they were old enough to know better than to risk illness in their enthusiastic welcome of the milder, but certainly not yet consistently warm, weather.

But spring also heralded the return of the annual scourge of cattle rustlers, outlaws who hoped to profit by making off with cattle before the spring roundup, obscuring existing brands and claiming unbranded calves as their own. On Easter Sunday, taking advantage of their frequent regular Sunday visits to be out of town, Jim and Blair heard Simon and Joel's angry frustration with the losses they were beginning to tally as their cattle were rounded up, and the two ranchers shared their plans to ride out the next day, to search for the outlaws and reclaim their missing cows.

"I'll ride with you," Jim said staunchly. "If we can capture these guys, I'll put them in jail."

"I'll go, too," Blair chimed in.

"Ah, Blair," Joel hesitated, "this'll mean hard, fast riding - and it could get dangerous."

"All the more reason for me to go," the doctor responded stubbornly. "You might need my skills before it's all over."

Jim was about to throw in with Joel when Blair caught his eye and raised one brow. "And I may not wear the badge, but as I recall, I am the deputy sheriff," he cut in before Jim could try to talk him out of riding with them.

The look in Sandburg's eyes reminded the older man of exactly why he needed Blair's backup, whether in town or out on the range. Jim's gaze dropped, but he nodded, if grudgingly. "Blair's right, we might well need some doctoring before this is done."

Simon and Joel exchanged looks, frankly surprised, as they'd long come to appreciate that Ellison had a protective streak a mile wide when it came to the young physician, but they simply shrugged and thanked both men gratefully for their proffered support. When going up against rustlers, it was always handy to have the law on your side - and when bullets were bound to fly, a doctor could come in real handy, too.

Ellison and Sandburg spent the night on the ranch, and they were all up just before dawn when the air was still cool enough for their warm breath to gust in billows of white condensation. The horses snorted and stamped as the men got organized, loading up saddlebags filled with food that could be eaten in the saddle, and extra rounds of ammunition. Blair shivered but didn't complain, aware that no one really thought he should be going along. He wasn't a great horseman and he didn't wear a gun; in some ways, he was a worry without being an immediate or obvious help so, his Stetson pulled down low over his brow, his shoulders hunched, he tried to fade into the background.

Simon and Joel were leaving most of their men behind to watch over the main herd of more than three thousand head of cattle, but singled out five of their best hands, the toughest, and the ones with the best aim, to ride with them. The decision had been made the night before to head to the southwest section, where Rafe had reported seeing some suspicious tracks but hadn't found the cattle known to have wintered in that sector. By the time the sun peeked over the eastern horizon, they were on their way, Rafe taking point to show them the signs of strangers he'd noted as a beginning place from which to track the suspected rustlers.

The prairie, though wide and open, wasn't entirely flat but rolled like sea swells covered with long, waving grass that rippled in the wind. A sizable herd could be hidden in the hollows, unseen until a man was almost upon them. Cattle weren't silent creatures, but lowed in a modest cacophony of sound - unfortunately, the ever-present keening of the wind, as well as the gently rolling hills, obscured or blocked the sound so it wasn't much help in tracking them down. The grasses the heavy cattle trampled in passing were resilient, springing up again, leaving but a faint trail at best. All that to say, the ranch owners and their hands considered the hunt a hit and miss proposition, but were grimly resolved to quarter their land until they found the missing beasts.

When they reached the place where Rafe had spotted the hoofprints of strange horses, and climbed down from their mounts to study the ground, the Deputy sidled over to the Sheriff and mumbled, "You hear or smell anything that might clue us in as to which direction to ride in next, so maybe this won't have to take all week?"

Jim cut an amused look down at his stalwart backup, but obligingly tilted his head, focusing his hearing as he also sniffed the wind. Suddenly, he looked up and turned more toward the west, his eyes narrowing as he studied the horizon.

"You got something?" Blair asked, pleased and excited.

"Maybe," Jim temporized. "Simon," he called out as he waved toward the west. "I think we should head in that direction."

Puzzled as he looked up from the tracks he'd knelt to study more closely, Banks frowned. "Why?" he countered as he gestured down to the cluster of hoofprints that had dried in the spring mud. "The tracks head south."

Jim shrugged. "Call it a hunch, but I think I see some dust over yonder."

Straightening, Simon squinted toward the west and then asked Joel, "You see anything?"

"Uh-uh," the older man grunted. But then he smiled slowly as he admitted, "But that doesn't mean it isn't there. Our eyes aren't as young as they used to be."

Banks rubbed his nose as he looked at his other riders, but they, too, shrugged; they didn't see any dust on the horizon, either.

"Uh, you know Jim was in the Cavalry, right?" Blair offered tentatively. "He got really good at tracking and picking up subtle signs of the enemy that others wouldn't really notice…I guess."

"Yeah, that's likely it," Banks agreed, though he gave the two friends an odd, speculative look. It wasn't the first time he'd noticed that Jim seemed able to see or hear something other people couldn't, or that Blair offered some barely plausible explanation about how he ate so many carrots or had really good hearing. "Okay, why not?" he finally agreed, as he also recalled that Ellison was invariably right. "We'll head west. Let's mount up."

They rode for almost half an hour, Jim now in the lead with Blair close behind, before Ellison lifted a hand sharply, bringing them all to a halt. Dismounting in the hollow of a long swell of land, he crouched close to the ground as he loped up and flattened himself to peer over the top while the others waited, their hands on their horses' muzzles to keep them quiet. They were close enough now that they could all hear the soft lowing nearby, and smell the cattle on the wind.

Jim scrambled back down and waved the men into a tight circle around him. "All right," he said quietly, "we've found them - looks like about a hundred head of cattle in makeshift rope corral. I counted five rustlers, but there may be more. We'll need to spread out and come over the hill fast."

"Wait, maybe we need to make sure these are our cattle before we ride in, guns a'blazin'," Joel cautioned.

"No, I'm sure they're yours; I spotted some of the brands," Jim replied, turning away from Taggart's look of incredulity as he added. "And I recognize some of the men as lowlife drifters I noticed in town more'n a week ago."

Joel turned to Simon, and shook his head. An overgrown brand wasn't always that easy to make out close up - from the top of a hill and at some considerable distance, the rancher would've bet it was impossible.

"Carrots," Simon drawled with amused sarcasm in an undertone to his partner. "Lots'n lots of carrots."

Overhearing him, Blair blushed a little, but otherwise ignored the comment. Jim just snorted, and continued coaching his forces for their sweep up and over the rise. Once he had the rest organized to attack on his order, he turned to Blair and said firmly, "Doc - you wait here. I don't want you in the line of fire. Understood?"

"Yes, mama," Blair drawled, causing some of the others to snicker quietly. Jim smacked him lightly on the arm, but grinned as he turned away to mount Lobo.

Seconds later, the Sheriff and the men of the Gold Ribbon Ranch were thundering up the low rise, rifles or six-guns at the ready, and then flying down the other side, catching the rustlers completely by surprise.

Blair bit his lip at the sudden flurry of shots, and flinched as he heard first one man and then another scream out in pain. Ignoring Ellison's direction, he scrambled to the top of the rise to see what was going on, though he cautiously kept low to the ground. Squinting, he tried to sort out the confusion of what now appeared to be chaos: terrified cattle were milling around, pressing against the flimsy ropes of a makeshift corral that held them back, and finally breaking loose but uncertain of which way to stampede, and the plunging horses of his friends who had already reached the herd; the desperate resistance of the rustlers who were shooting back as they tried to make their escape; roiling dust and earth kicked up by the hundreds of hooves; the bellowing of the cattle mingling with gunsmoke in the air; a continuous racket of sound as weapons were fired. Dammit, he hated feeling so helpless and useless while his friends faced danger.

Sandburg saw Rafe suddenly lurch in his saddle, barely hanging on as his mount bucked amongst the roiling cattle. Without even really thinking about what he was doing, only knowing the others were all too busy to notice that Rafe was in trouble, Blair whistled for Butternut and swung up into the saddle, racing over and down the low rise toward his wounded friend - and he got there just in the nick of time, as Rafe began to slip from his mount. Grabbing the wounded man around the waist, Sandburg hauled him over to lie belly down over Butternut's withers. Holding tight to his barely conscious friend, wheeling Butternut around to race to safety, Blair flinched as a bullet whined past his head and ducked reflexively as he continued to urge his horse out of the mêlée.

Ellison saw his best friend suddenly in the midst of the battle and swore, but didn't have time for much else as he brought down a rustler who had a bead on Joel. The confusion of battle seemed long, but in truth, the contest lasted less than ten minutes. Three rustlers were dead and would be buried where they lay, two others were wounded, and one surrendered by tossing away his weapon and lifting his hands - prison was better than a pine box. Rafe had taken a bullet in the arm, and two other ranch hands had been grazed, but they'd all live.

Sandburg was giving hasty field treatment to a pale and very woozy Rafe, packing the wound and tying it off tightly to slow the blood loss until he could get the bullet out at the ranch, as Jim thundered back over the rise, livid with fury that Sandburg had put himself at such risk. Dear God, Blair could have been killed! The very thought of Sandburg putting himself in such peril both infuriated and sickened Jim. If something happened to Blair, Jim was fairly certain he'd fly apart in pieces. Blair had somehow become his rock, his foundation. The thought of how easily he might have lost him made him want to shake Sandburg, so that he'd never do anything so stupid or reckless again.

Slamming down onto the ground, Ellison stalked over, shouting, "I thought I told you to stay back and out of the line of fire!"

"Uh-huh," Blair agreed impassively as he continued with his work, "I distinctly remember you telling me that, yes."

"Then what the hell were you doing in the middle of…" Jim raged, but his words died when Blair looked up and nailed him with a hard, cold look - and, for the first time, Ellison really saw the man who had not only survived Masonville against all the odds, but had also ensured countless others had survived as well - had even killed to protect someone in his care.

"You finished?" Sandburg asked, his voice cool and remote.

Swallowing, Jim gritted his jaw and looked away. "Yeah, I guess I am."

"Good, because I have work to do - have them bring all the wounded to me," Blair directed calmly. "I'll fix them up, at least temporarily, until we get back to the ranch." Dismissed, Jim turned away, but behind him, he heard Blair's voice murmuring so softly as to be almost silent, but still resonating with evident relief, "Jim, I'm really glad you weren't hurt - and thanks for worrying about me."

Ellison sighed and nodded as he continued toward Lobo.

As he rode back over the rise to have the wounded sent to Blair and take charge of the prisoners, Jim was haunted by the look in Sandburg's eyes, and the sound of his voice as he'd made it clear he was his own man, strong and fearless, more than able to face down whatever the world threw at him - and Jim cursed.

How the hell was he supposed to protect a man who refused to be protected? Sandburg wouldn't wear a gun, though he'd quite obviously not hesitate to rush into danger, even when bullets were flying. But, clearly, Blair wasn't some helpless, vulnerable innocent who only required his protection. Sandburg was a man whose strength could rival, maybe even surpass, his own and he wondered who protected whom most in their friendship.

He couldn't help but respect Sandburg's quiet strength and courage…but God such bravery was terrifying.

********************

It was late when they finally got back to town with the captured rustlers in tow. And, when the two friends saw the blood-red cross splashed onto the front door of the Doctor's Office, and the dried remains of broken eggs, they were glad no one about: Jim, because he would have probably shaken the information about who had done this out of anyone within reach; Blair, because he didn't need anyone witnessing him coming home to the vandalism. While the Sheriff got his prisoners settled in jail, the Doctor washed off the door and, remembering the old cans and brushes in the shed in the back, he found some of the paint that had been used on the inside hall. It didn't take long to cover the door with two coats of light blue paint, though he wasn't sure anything but time could erase the memory of the ugliness underneath.

When Jim came in later, still steaming about the viciousness of the act and the stunned hurt he'd seen in Blair's eyes, Sandburg just held up a hand.

"I don't want to talk about it," he said wearily. "We went out to the ranch because we knew this religious occasion could be difficult. I'm not surprised; these things…happen. It could have been worse."

"Chief, I'll find out who…" Jim grated

"No," Sandburg shook his head. "Some did it, others witnessed it and did nothing to stop it. And it was probably just some kids, anyway. If you go after whoever is responsible, it will only make the bad feelings worse. It'll pass, Jim. Let it go."

"It's not right!" Jim exclaimed, appalled that Blair had come to not only accept such abuse, but wasn't prepared to do anything about it.

Blair nodded, his expression carefully controlled. "I don't disagree with you - but I want to make my home here," he explained patiently. "I'm tired of wandering. So, if once a year, part of the price I have to pay is a freshly-painted door, I can live that. But if you go after the perpetrator, and people start to take up sides, I'll lose. And I'd have to leave. So, please - just let it go."

Reluctantly, Jim nodded. Unable to help himself, he moved forward and drew Blair into a hug. "I'm sorry," he murmured. "Really sorry you have to take this kind of crap. It's wrong, Chief. So very wrong."

********************

Spring slid into summer, the sun growing hot and the wind dry, burning the flowing prairie grass brown. The single wide street of Bitterwood Creek again thronged with activity - farmers coming in to sell produce; transient drifters, stopping for a night to drink in the saloon and, if they got lucky at the poker tables, passing a little quality time in one of the rooms above the saloon before getting a good night's sleep in the hotel. The daily stages thundered into town, bringing mail, and sometime folks coming to visit family and friends, but more often, dropping off or picking up those who were just passing through. Drifters and grifters, gypsies and thieves, gamblers and cowboys, and tramps down on their luck, milled around town, some for but a few hours before moving on, some for days. The saloon did a lively business, its music and raucous laughter again splashing out into the night. There were brawls and quick, sometimes deadly, gunplay as frayed tempers sparked. Jim and Blair were kept busy day and night, until both were fatigued to the edge of exhaustion, but there was no rest for the weary.

One day in mid-June, Ellison was ambling along the street when he spotted Sandburg down at the end of town, standing with his head bowed in the church's cemetery. Curious, concerned, he jogged the intervening distance, slowing as he reached his partner's side. Laying a light hand on Blair's shoulder, Jim asked, "Are you all right?"

Blair nodded, but it was a moment before he looked up from Nellie's grave. "It was a year ago today that I wandered into town," he told Jim. "Nellie…Nellie was the first person I met. She, uh, she welcomed me and said I was the answer to all their prayers…"

"She was right, Chief," Jim murmured quietly.

Blair lifted his face to the pale blue sky as he murmured, "I miss her. You didn't get to know her all that well, but she was a really wonderful human being. Kind. Sweet. Quick to help anyone who was in need; and she was so great with the kids. They all loved her. Everybody loved her."

Ellison rubbed his friend's shoulders with gentle understanding, suddenly realizing that maybe Johnny Winston hadn't been the only one who'd been sweet on Nellie. "I'm sorry, Sandburg," he murmured, not knowing what else to say. Sadly, he reflected that if Blair had cared that way about the young woman, in those early days especially, he'd never have said or done anything to reveal his feelings. He was accepted as their physician, but he was also the only person of Jewish heritage in the very small town - back when he'd first arrived, and maybe even now, people wouldn't have taken to him courting a good Christian woman. Jim bowed his head, both deeply angry and sorrowful that his very decent, kind, sweet friend had to carry so many burdens in silent dignity in deference to the stupid, blind prejudices of people who scarcely deserved his care. Like Simon and Joel, Blair was 'different' - and Jim wondered sadly if, like the older men, Blair would grow old without a family of his own to love, and who would love him back.

"Yeah," Blair sighed again, and then turned to walk with his friend back to town. As they passed the bank, Blair perked up as he said, "It's almost a year since you rode into town. Glad you stayed?"

"Oh, yeah," Jim nodded as he cut a quick look down at his best friend. "You know, I think this is the first real home I've ever known."

Sandburg smiled, the sparkle coming back to his eyes as he murmured, "I'm glad, Jim. Place wouldn't be the same without you, man."

Jim slung an arm around his partner's shoulder as they continued along the busy thoroughfare. Lost in their respective and shared memories of the past year, neither noticed the clutch of five grim men who rode in and tied up outside the saloon. Just another bunch of drifters in town for a Saturday night who, like as not, would be gone by morning.

Megan was sitting in a comfortable wooden rocker in front of her hotel, a sheaf of writing paper on her knees, and she was chewing on the end of her pencil as she gazed out at the activity on the busy street.

"How's the book coming along?" Blair asked cheerfully as they approached her.

Connor started, then made a moue of displeasure as Jim echoed disbelievingly, "Book?"

"Yeah," Blair replied with a grin. "Megan's writing about life in a western town. She's going to be rich and famous someday!"

"Well, that's the plan, anyway," Megan grinned devilishly as she batted her eyelashes up at Blair.

Catching the slight flirtation, Jim teased, "I'll bet the local doctor has a starring role in this book. Nobly saving life after life…"

Sandburg snorted, cutting him off. "Hardly. There's not much nobility in treating croup or fixing up fingers broken in fights." Looking up at Jim, he added, "The glamour is in big, strong, sheriffs who risk their lives keeping the law and protecting the citizens of the good town."

Conner aided and abetted the teasing as she added, "That's right, mate. Tall, handsome, silent, eagle-eyed sheriffs who never miss a shot and can suss out bad guys on a hunch."

Jim blushed faintly and looked away. Her observations were a little too close for comfort.

Snickering, Blair added, "If I can ever help you out, Megan, you know with tales of the brave sheriff's daring-do, let me know!"

"Good on ya," Megan laughed as she turned her attention back to her notes and the two best-looking men in town - in her opinion anyway - continued their amble along the boardwalk back to the doctor's office.

Once inside their home, Blair headed toward his desk, saying he had to catch up on his notes from the last tests he'd run with Jim; even after a year, he hadn't given up finding new ways to help Ellison develop the use of his senses.

Jim frowned and scratched his cheek, slowly following Blair into the office. He'd never been comfortable with Blair keeping those notes - they made him feel like some kind of insect being studied, his every behaviour being analyzed and recorded for posterity. His senses were his business and he didn't want anybody else knowing about them. "Sandburg, I don't know why you keep those notes," he complained again, far from the first time. "What if somebody finds them?"

"Nobody's going to find them, Jim," Blair mumbled, already concentrating on what he wanted to write as he dabbed his quill pen into a small bottle of ink. "I've explained to you before; I'm keeping them for reference, that's all."

Ellison swallowed as he crossed his arms, not liking where his thoughts were taking him, but unable to stop wondering. He'd just been thinking that Sandburg had few choices in this town if he wanted to settle down with a wife, but…Conner wasn't from the town. Nobody would think twice if the exotic woman from Australia settled down with the Jewish doctor. And, he'd noticed that Sandburg and Conner teased and flirted quite a bit. He hadn't known about the book. But maybe Sandburg hoped to win her favour by giving her choice tidbits about a certain 'eagle-eyed sheriff' and his 'hunches'. "You weren't thinking of maybe sharing some of those notes with Megan Conner were you?" he asked defensively, his tone aggressive and accusatory.

"What?" Blair looked up, frowning. "Where'd you get that idea?"

"From you," Jim charged belligerently. "You're always flirting with her, and you just finished telling her you had lots of juicy tidbits."

"Excuse me?" Sandburg flared as he stood to face Jim. "You think I don't know you want this kept private? That I'd betray you? For sexual favours? Or - you figure she'd share the by-line and I'd get rich and famous, too, when her book is published? Is that it? You think I've been just using you all this time for my own purposes?"

"You sure keep pretty detailed notes for no good reason!" Jim snarled back defensively, but more now because of the contempt in Sandburg's eyes than because he really believed Blair would sell him out.

"You are a real piece of work, you know that?" Blair seethed. His eyes flashing, he stormed, "You know what I think? I think you're sweet on Megan yourself, but you're too damned unwilling to trust anyone or get close to anyone or make a commitment to anyone, to do anything about it. So you imagine I'm making eyes at the woman you fancy. Well, for your information, yes, I like her, as a friend - that's it. And no, I'm not planning to, in any way or at any time, publish anything about you to get rich. Maybe, someday, if this damned Indian war ever ends and we get to spend time with Swift Eagle and Whispering Waters, I could write an article or something about them and the concept of sentinels, showing that they do exist in our world - maybe it might help somebody like you someday. But, mainly, I've been keeping these notes for you. I'm a doctor - I'm around sick people all the time. What happens if I get hurt or sick someday and I'm not around to back you up anymore? You need help; you know you do! How would you begin to explain to Simon or whoever how your senses work? These notes could help you, man! God damn it, Jim. I thought you trusted me."

With that, Sandburg pushed past Ellison, stormed down the hall and out the back.

"Sandburg!" Jim shouted after him, feeling ten times a fool. He loped down the hallway to the back door, but by the time he got there, Blair was already gone, maybe to walk along the creek. Sagging against the doorframe, Ellison pulled off his Stetson and rubbed a hand over his close-cropped hair. "Dammit," he muttered as he looked off toward the thick trees that lined the creek behind their property.

He bowed his head as he crossed his arms, fighting the fear Blair's words had sparked in his soul. What if something did happen to the kid someday? What if - he lost Sandburg? Pushing off the wall to go back inside, Jim told himself it was never going to happen. Sandburg was strong, and a hell of a lot younger than he was. Blair was a doctor, not a man who faced down fools who hadn't sense enough to leave their guns in their holsters. The odds were, he'd die before Sandburg would - and that was the only thought that gave Jim any measure of comfort. He'd acted like an idiot and had hurt the kid - who had only been doing his best by him. Well, he'd just have to swallow his pride and apologize. He couldn't have Sandburg thinking he didn't trust him, not when he'd gladly trust Blair with his soul, let alone his life.

Blair returned about half an hour later, his expression still stiff. Jim, looking apologetic, rose from the chair in the kitchen, where he'd been drinking a cup of coffee, when the kid walked in. "Chief, I…"

But Blair just lifted a hand to silence him. "Don't talk to me, Jim - I'm still 'way too angry." Resolutely, Sandburg turned his back as he stoked up the fire in the stove, and began banging around the worktable and cabinets as he pulled their dinner together.

They still weren't talking when Simon and Joel came into town later that afternoon with a bunch of their riders, to visit and have a little fun. Their men headed straight to the saloon, while the two ranchers dropped in to see Ellison and Sandburg. The astute older men picked up on the signs of tension, most particularly that the two friends didn't seem to be talking to one another, though they seemed downright glad to have some company. Curious as to what was going on, the ranchers let themselves be talked into staying for a quick meal with Jim and Blair before the lawmen set off on their routine evening patrol of the town. They were just finishing up, and the atmosphere had lightened a little, when Rafe came to find them, walking straight into the kitchen with easy familiarity.

"Jim, Simon - I think there may be trouble brewing in the saloon," Rafe said soberly. "A bunch of tough-looking drifters have been buying drinks and asking for all the details of the attempted bank robbery last year. They seem particularly interested in knowing just exactly who killed the bandits."

"Really," Jim muttered as he stood and reached for his Stetson from the peg by the doorway into the hall. "Well, let's go see what makes these fellows so curious."

They strode out into the evening dusk, moving swiftly along the boardwalk to the saloon. When they reached the swinging half-doors, Rafe took a moment to point out three of the men, but he couldn't see the other two in the dense crowd of the packed establishment. Once inside, Simon moved to one side of the large, congested room, Rafe and Joel to the other, all of them keeping close watch on the three men Rafe had singled out. Their backs covered, Jim and Blair pushed through the usual weekend mob to the far end of the long wooden bar. The air was smoky and the noise of laugher and singing, piano playing and gambling was deafening. Jim struggled to listen in on snatches of conversation as he looked for the other two men Rafe had seen earlier.

Finally, he picked out one of the men, a rough-looking, unshaven cowboy about thirty years old, who was packing some heavy artillery. He was assiduously plying another man with drink while encouraging him to be sure to point out Ellison and Banks when they came into the saloon. The local man, one of the Gold Ribbon riders by the name of Taffy, nodded agreeably, but gave Jim a quick knowing look over the stranger's shoulder. When Jim held up his hand discreetly behind the apparently very generous stranger's back, ticking off four fingers as his eyes darted around the room, and then cocked his brow as he touched his thumb, Taffy shrugged and took another sip of the good whisky the troublemaker had bought for him - he was rather enjoying the fun of babysitting the stranger and stringing him a line, until the Sheriff could sort things out.

Jim rubbed his nose, irritated by the hazy, smoky air and the stench of so many rough, hard-working and seldom-bathed men as he again scanned the saloon, trying to spot the fifth potential troublemaker, but he didn't see any likely candidates. With a quick, deliberate look at Blair, he said firmly if quietly, "Stay behind me, Sandburg." When Blair nodded, Jim moved forward to grip the shoulder of the man who was evidently so eager to meet him. "I hear you're looking for me," he said in a flat tone when the man turned. "I'm Jim Ellison. Who might you be?"

"So - you're the big hero?" the stranger drawled, an ugly light coming into his eyes - hatred, pure and simple.

"I didn't catch your name," Jim pressed, watching the man warily, knowing he meant trouble but not sure why. Could be a friend of one of the bandits shot in the attempted robbery - could be family.

Blair shifted uneasily, not liking the situation one bit. The four men he'd seen so far looked dangerous in their travel-worn, dusty clothing, their unkempt appearances and surly manner - not to mention the way they stood with their hands hovering close to their guns. They were gunslingers - probably outlaws - and they had the air of men on a mission. Looking around, he checked on what was happening with the other three gunmen, and saw them all tensing, as if they were anticipating something, and were ready for violence. He'd seen it in the War, just before battle when men awaited the signal to attack. He was about to warn Jim when he felt a subtle shift of the air as the back door behind him opened. Turning, he saw the glint of lamplight on the barrel of the gun trained on Jim's back - and he only had time to shout as he lurched forward to push his friend out of the way - "JIM! Behind…"

One sharp sudden shot - death's invitation to dance…

Jim - warned, then hit from behind- dropping, rolling, drawing his gun, blasting the ambusher…

…four more outlaws reaching for guns, arrogant, too confident…

…sudden shots, blasting like thunder, sharp, rolling explosions…

…crashing through laughter and music…

…a woman's high-pitched scream of terror…

…bystanders, shocked and afraid, hitting the floor, tables overturning, impromptu shields against the violence and death rampaging unfettered…

…split seconds never to be recalled…

…killers, who'd not kill again, grunting in surprise and pain, eyes wide with shocked astonishment and then…empty as time stopped…bodies already dead crumpling in untidy heaps onto the wood-planked, dusty, sawdust-covered floor…

…five men standing tall and grim, smoking six-guns in their fists…

…Simon…Joel…Rafe…Taffy…the Sheriff…

Silence - as sudden and complete as the violence had been shattering.

Ellison did a quick visual check around the saloon to ensure everything was under control as he muttered, "Thanks, Sandburg."

Then he turned to reflexively help his friend to his feet, only to freeze in stunned disbelief. It couldn't be…not…

"BLAIR!" he cried out as he dropped to his knees beside Sandburg, who was curled tightly on the filthy saloon floor.

Blair's hands were pressed against his left side, just under his ribs, as he vainly tried to stem the bright flow of crimson that already saturated his clothing and was soaking into the sawdust-covered planks beneath him. Jaw clenched against the ravaging, clawing agony, fear flickering in wide eyes dark with pain, clammy with shock, he fought the panic that was building in his chest, stealing his breath.

He was a doctor - he knew what the wound meant.

He was the only doctor in town - he couldn't afford to lose it - had to hold on…

Ellison quickly but gently rolled the kid onto his back, supporting his friend's head and shoulders with one strong arm, as his other large hand came down to cover Sandburg's in his own futile effort to staunch the river of blood, as he gasped, "How bad?"

Simon, Joel and Rafe pushed through the stunned crowd at Jim's horrified shout, arriving in time to hear Blair's low moan as he fought the nausea of shock and pain, and struggled to remain conscious. "Bad," the kid grated; his face was pale and drawn, his teeth clenched against the agony burning through his body. "Bleeding to death…get me…home…"

"Sweet Jesus," Simon swore softly, and then joined Joel and Rafe as they cleared a path through the people who now crowded around in curiousity, some with anxious concern.

Jim pulled Blair into his arms, cradling his best friend against his chest as he stood and strode as fast he could past the sprawled bodies of the unknown gunmen, through the now silent throng of Saturday night revelers, out into the night. The lawman was oblivious to everything but the reality of Sandburg in his arms. He could feel Blair shuddering with pain, could smell his best friend's blood, could hear Blair's heart tripping too fast and faltering, his ragged breathing - and Jim was more terrified than he'd ever been in his life.

********************

Ellison carried Sandburg straight back into the infirmary, and laid him carefully on the operating table; their friends close on his heels. Frantically, he pulled up Blair's shirt and loosened his jeans, taking the towel Simon thrust at him to press against the hemorrhaging wound. When Jim looked up into Sandburg's eyes, he saw that Blair's pupils were dilating from blood loss, his skin clammy and blue-tinged with shock. The kid was dying and he didn't know what the hell to do to stop it…

"Jim…" Blair gasped, reaching out to lock his fingers around Ellison's wrist. "You have to…"

"I don't know how!" Ellison cut in, sick with helplessness.

"Listen!" Sandburg hissed, his teeth clenched against the pain as he struggled to fight off the darkness encroaching on the edge of his vision. "Think it ruptured my…spleen. Have to get it out, spleen and bullet. Not hard…"

"What?" Jim gasped, as he cut a quick look up at Simon and Joel. "I can't…"

"You can!" Blair insisted sharply, having no time to argue. "Simple…you can see…feel…"

Pain flared and he moaned. Panting for breath, Blair swallowed hard against the nausea that twisted in his gut and the agony that ripped through him ruthlessly, blinding him with its intensity. Grimly, with the sheer force of will and a desperate desire to live and not die, he fought through the morass of the hellacious inferno in his gut. Determined to help Jim help him, he dug deep for the strength to speak, to be coherent - to guide. "Cut slowly…" he grated, "through skin, then muscle…three-four inch incision…laterally across the wound."

Another moan he couldn't fight back robbed him of breath, but he laboured on, drawing strength now from Jim's grip on his shoulder, the hand holding his own as they both pressed down on the wound, not letting him go. "Follow path of the bullet," he gasped, pushing past the pain, blinking to clear his vision as he tried to focus on Ellison. Jim needed him, needed help with his senses. More, needed to believe in something, someone. Needed to know one damned thing in his life wouldn't let him down. Wouldn't just disappear like smoke in the wind. Couldn't let Jim down. "Spleen is dark red, likely pumping out blood…tie off two biggest blood vessels, and then, …cut the spleen out…cauterize vessels…."

He had to stop again to catch his breath, fighting a groan that was building in his chest. Breathily, wheezing with the effort, he closed his eyes and just got the rest of it said. "Then, feel for the bullet - gently. Close to intestines. Might have nicked…clean out as best you can. Use whiskey, sulfa powder. Suture any rips. Then close, one layer…at a time."

Jim blinked as he listened, trying to take it all in, trying to make sense of what was happening, struggling not to panic. It was too much, too fast. He tried to concentrate but all he could see and hear was the horrific pain Sandburg was suffering - because Blair had blocked a bullet meant for him. "God help me, Blair, I don't know if I can…"

"Have to…" Sandburg faltered, his eyes losing focus as he struggled with what he was demanding. Did he ask too much? What if…what if he couldn't be saved? Licking his lips, he swallowed and then whispered, "I'm dying…nothing to lose - right? If…if doesn't work…not your fault."

When he heard Jim's muted groan at those words, he struggled to refocus, to see Jim through the haze of shock and pain - saw the lines of strain around Jim's eyes and mouth - and realized the hyper-sensitive senses were acting up with the shock and fear that Ellison was striving so hard to control. Jim's eyes were glazing with confusion as he struggled to understand what he had to do, but he was overwhelmed. He couldn't do this alone.

Sandburg closed his eyes in despair, not sure what to do, what he could do. The pain twisted within him, like a living beast clawing him apart, and he was feeling so hazy from loss of blood that he wanted desperately to sleep. For a long moment, he just focused on breathing and, clinging to consciousness as he struggled with the raw understanding that he couldn't let go, forced himself to think. He couldn't surrender to the darkness that would give him some measure of peace, so he forced his eyes back open. He wasn't the only one suffering. His best friend was coping with more than Jim could handle - the shock and severity of his injury, probably some guilt, and fear that he'd die, in which case Jim would likely blame himself, as wrong as that was. Sandburg understood that Jim doubted he'd be good enough, believed that he'd kill him…and Blair knew if he died on the table, Jim would never get past it. Weakly, he reflected that there was a reason doctors weren't supposed to treat their loved ones, their family. It was just too damned hard. There was no distance, no objectivity. He was the doctor, not Jim. He had to hold on - more, he had to help Jim through the surgery if they were ever to come out of this whole. "Jim," he sighed wearily with resigned acceptance of what must be, of what he'd have to endure. "It's okay. You don't have to do this…alone. Just…just be my hands and my eyes…I'll guide you…each step. Please…be my hands…"

The others listened to Sandburg struggle to coach Ellison, hoping Jim understood the faltering, breathy words, shamefully glad the responsibility wasn't theirs. Simon put a pot of water to boil on the stove, while Joel rapidly sorted through Blair's instruments. Neither had ever had medical training but, over the years, they'd had to do some 'doctoring' of riders injured on the range, so they both had a basic idea of what would be needed. Simon had watched Blair work before, had assisted him, and was willing to do whatever he could to help Jim now. Rafe rifled through the cabinets, pulling out supplies labeled as disinfectant, herbs, sulfa powder, laudanum, grabbing the bottle of medicinal whiskey and putting everything on the worktable, ready if and when needed. Then, he searched out more towels and bandages and put them on the workbench by the operating table. He overheard the word, 'cauterize', and pulled out his own knife to rest on the hot stove until it was needed.

"Turn down…blue lantern," Blair mumbled, knowing he had to help Jim dampen the sensory overload, cut back on distractions - and deliberately giving his friend a task his best friend could do easily to distract and calm him.

The others thought he was becoming delirious but Jim understood and nodded. The effort of focusing on his sense of smell helped to steady him and restore him to some measure of calm. He could do this. He had to. Blair needed him. God, he was terrified, but there was no choice. Sandburg was dying.

Opening his eyes, he reached to lay his palm against his best friend's cold cheek, wordless with the fear of what he was going to have to do - and, more, from his abiding terror that he'd fail. But as he gazed into Blair's wide blue eyes, all he could see was trust and warm affection glowing back at him.

But Sandburg saw the aching fear in his best friend's eyes, and knew he had to do one thing more. He had to absolve Jim of any responsibility if things went bad. It was all he could offer, all he could do to give Ellison some peace of mind. Gripping Ellison's wrist as tightly as he could, he murmured, "Jim, whatever happens…thanks." And then, from somewhere deep in his soul, he conjured up a weak smile as he teased in a breathy whisper, "Just remember…wash your hands first, 'kay?"

"Okay, kid," Jim murmured as he tenderly brushed errant locks from his friend's brow. It was time. He could only do his best. Gesturing to Rafe to take his place in pressing upon the wound to stem the pulsing gush of blood, he summoned his own determination and turned resolutely to the basin Simon had filled for him.

"God, Simon," he agonized softly as he lathered his hands. "I don't know if I can do this."

Banks laid a steadying hand upon his shoulder as he replied with staunch encouragement, "Blair thinks you can, and that's good enough for me."

Having dumped the scalpel, scissors, curved retractors, clamps, steel needle threaded with a long length of catgut into the boiling water, hoping he'd chosen the right stuff, Joel turned to hastily, if gently, undress Blair while Simon lit all the candles and lanterns in the room to give Jim enough light to work by.

Moving back to Sandburg's side as Jim timed the boiling instruments, Simon leaned down to murmur, "What about ether, Blair?"

Weakly, Sandburg shook his head. "Need to be awake…s'long as…possible…to…help," he gasped through the pain. "Just…just hold me down…okay?"

Banks closed his eyes and nodded as he laid his big, strong, hands on Blair's shoulders. "Okay," he choked out. Lifting his head, he looked toward Joel and Rafe, silently asking for their help in keeping Sandburg still. As strong and brave as Blair unquestionably was, it was going to hurt like hell when Ellison started working on him, cutting into his body - and Sandburg wouldn't be able to stop himself from flinching away. The others nodded, all of them speechless with emotion: profound admiration for the kid's courage, pity for the pain he was enduring - and sick with almost certain fear that he wouldn't survive.

Finally, Jim joined them at the table, laying the tray of instruments beside him on the workbench as he swallowed hard. He was white as a ghost, fighting the tremble in his hands as he picked up the sharp blade.

"S'okay, Jim," Blair whispered, his voice little more than a wispy sigh. The others could scarcely hear more than a soft slur of words, and were amazed that Jim seemed to understand. "Take your time…one layer at a time…slow and easy…"

Ellison took a deep breath and nodded to Rafe to lift the sodden towel from Blair's body. Regardless of what Sandburg said, they were running out of time fast, and he had to do what needed to be done as quickly as possible. Laying the fingers of his left hand around the bullet hole, feeling through the skin to the muscle beneath, he drew the blade in a quick, shallow slice across the wound, wincing when Blair gasped. But he couldn't stop. Cutting deeper through the layers of muscles, using a towel to sop up the blood that spurted from the deeper wound and now the incision, too, he was unaware of the sweat that burst upon his brow.

Blair grunted with the effort he was expending to not cry out, to not jerk or fight the drag of the blade. Blinking, he grated, with urgent clarity, "Simon…help him…retractors…"

Joel and Rafe quickly shifted their grips to permit Simon to move across the table from Jim. Reaching for the curved metal retractors on the tray, he inserted them into either side of the wound, drawing it wider to allow Jim to see what he was doing.

Ellison found the spleen, if that's what it was - oddly reassured that Blair was right. It was the source of the river of blood that pumped out of his best friend's body. If he could stop that hemorrhage, then he could save Sandburg's life.

"Got it," he grated.

"Okay," Sandburg sighed weakly, blinking against the gathering darkness, knowing he was fading fast. "Find the vessels and tie them off, red one first…cauterize after cutting…"

Quickly, Jim identified the blood vessels feeding and emptying the organ, fumbling a little as he tried desperately to tie them off with catgut, first the red artery, and then the blue vein. The vessels tied tightly, Ellison severed them, slicing the ruined spleen away; pulling it out, he quickly tossed it on the floor. Rafe risked letting go of Blair's legs as he swiveled to the stove to retrieve the knife he'd left there. Holding the searingly hot blade with a towel, he held out the grip toward Ellison, who paled but took it with a wordless nod.

Jim did what he had to, and the stench of roasting flesh filled the infirmary. Blair cried out hoarsely through his gritted teeth, panting like a steam engine as he struggled to hold on, tears wet on his cheeks…

The deep, gut-wrenching cry gave way to a low keening; his face and body were slick with cold sweat. Joel and Rafe kept a tight grip, and felt the rigidity of his muscles, evidence of the both the pain and the force of will he was exerting to simply endure as long as he could.

But the sound of Blair's suffering was tearing Jim apart, distracting him from the task at hand. "Sorry, I'm sorry," he choked, blinking rapidly to clear his burning, blurring vision.

"Keep going, Jim," Simon encouraged quietly. "You're doing just fine."

"Now the bullet…" Sandburg panted, focusing Jim back upon the actions he had to take.

Mopping up the blood that had pooled inside Blair's body, he then reached in with his right hand, delicately tracing the path of the bullet after it had smashed through Blair's spleen, his eyes pressed closed in concentration. He found the chunk of lead flattened against Sandburg's spine, and swallowed at how close the kid had come to being crippled for life. Shaking, he drew the bit of metal out of Blair's body and flung it furiously across the room. Once more, he mopped up blood, squinting to find the worst bleeders to tie them off so that he could more clearly see if there was any further tearing of tissue. The catgut slipped in his fingers, and he cursed, but persevered and finally succeeded. Now there were only slow trickles of blood, and when he patted the area dry, he could see what he was doing. Aware that Sandburg's breathing was increasingly ragged and far too shallow, the kid's heartbeat thundering like a trip-hammer in his ears, he focused his extraordinary sight, aligning it with touch, and quickly searched for anything more that might require repair. Very carefully, he felt for any nicks or tears, heaving a relieved sigh when he didn't find more damage.

"I think that's it," he muttered.

"Whiskey," Sandburg gritted, the word garbled and indecipherable to everyone but Jim, who stopped and listened closely. "In wound…clean…"

"Simon, get me that bottle of whiskey over on the table," Jim ground out, his own jaw rigid with the understanding of what it would do to Blair.

Banks hastily retrieved the bottle and pulled out the cork plug, before handing it to Ellison.

For the first time since he'd begun the surgery, Jim looked down into Blair's face and quailed at the wretched sight of his best friend's bluish-gray visage twisted in an extremis of pain. "Blair?" he gasped, afraid, wondering how much more Sandburg could take.

Eyes glassy with shock and agony stared up at the ceiling, but tracked slowly to Jim's face as Blair tried to focus. "Thanks, Jim…" he sighed so low that even Jim could barely hear him, and then he closed his eyes tight as he steeled himself for the next assault. "After, just close…do it…"

Jim sloshed a goodly amount of the refined alcohol into the cavity of the wound, knowing it was necessary, hating to hurt Blair anymore…

…Sandburg couldn't help it, though he tried, God he tried. A scream ripped out of his throat and his back arched as the searing burn of the whiskey erupted in his gut, pushing him past all limits of endurance. The scream choked off suddenly as he sagged limply - and every other man in the room froze, afraid it'd been too much - that the final hideous shock of overwhelming agony had killed him.

Grimacing, Jim had doubled forward as the pain of the terrible scream ripped through his head, and he thought he might throw up, but he forced the bile in his throat back down. The odours of blood, burned flesh and whiskey, of sweat and fear, swirled around him, overwhelming him, but he fought for control, ruthlessly turning down the flames in his imaginary bronze and blue lanterns, struggled to hang on and not lose himself in the fog of insensibility. The sudden silence terrified him…and for the first time since he'd met the man, he couldn't hear the rapid tattoo of Sandburg's heartbeat…stricken, he couldn't look up, couldn't bear to see…but he gasped, "Is he…"

Joel fumbled at Sandburg's throat and sobbed out his relief. "Thank God. He's still alive…"

They all sagged then, with relief that Blair was alive - and that he was finally beyond feeling pain. He'd suffered more than enough agony, more than they all knew they could really imagine.

Jim knew he was losing it. His whole body was shaking and his senses were spiking out of control. But he forced himself to focus on what he still had to do.

For Blair.

He wasn't done yet. Couldn't fall apart yet. He had to do this for Blair…had to…

No longer needing to hold Sandburg still, Rafe took the bottle from Jim's hands and passed him a packet of sulfa powder, while Joel stood by Ellison, a firm, steadying grip on his shoulder.

Stiffly, Jim emptied the sulfa into the wound, seeing it adhere to the whiskey and blood. Swiftly pulling his vision back, he willed his trembling hands to still and then he picked up the threaded needle and closed up the wound, a layer at a time. Everything else faded away as he forced himself to complete this last task. And though he wouldn't win any prizes for his fine stitching, he got the job done.

Rafe silently passed him herbs and another packet of the sulfa powder that he'd earlier found in the cupboard and placed on the worktable, and Jim dusted the wound liberally before covering it with a thick clean linen pad.

"That's it," Simon told him when Jim's hands seemed to freeze, incapable of further movement. Looking up, he realized Jim was about to pass out.

Joel felt Ellison begin to sag and shifted his grip quickly to steady Jim as he tilted, and then eased him to the floor. "Deep breaths, come on…" he encouraged calmly.

A shudder rippled through Ellison's body - cold and violent - as the shock and despair of the past hour grabbed hold and wouldn't let go. Jim swallowed convulsively but couldn't force back the nausea and bile burning the back of his throat; knew if he drew breath, he'd lose it. Twisting away from Joel's grip, he scrambled for the door, barely making it outside before he vomited violently. Sinking back against the wall of their home, trembling with his fear that Sandburg was going to die, Ellison gave up fighting the sob that filled his throat. Covering his face with his bloodstained hands, he wept.

********************

Go to part 2