By the time Jim pulled himself back together and returned inside, he found the others had securely bound the dressing with broad strips of white linen gauze around Sandburg's midriff, and had moved Blair onto a more comfortable cot, covering him with a soft, cotton blanket. Most of the lanterns and candles had been extinguished, the room now shadowed. The mess of the surgery had been cleared away, the bloody clothing and linens set to soak in a pail by the stove. The instruments had been cleaned and placed upon the worktable. Medicines had been returned to the cupboard. And a basin of warm soapy water was ready for him to wash up. Rafe and Simon were gone, and Joel was sitting by the cot. The older man looked up at him, and nodded, but didn't say anything.

Jim blinked and sighed, and then moved to wash his hands, arms and face just as Simon came back into the room, carrying clean clothing for him. Only then did Jim realize his shirt and jeans were slick and sodden with Sandburg's blood.

"How're you holding up?" Simon asked quietly. When Jim just shook his head with infinite weariness, Simon set about helping him get out of the bloody garments and then steadied him as he pulled on the clean jeans and shirt. "You did good, Jim, real good. Any chance he has is because you gave it to him."

Ellison again shook his head slowly as he turned his gaze on Sandburg. "He saved my life tonight, Simon. I was the target - not him."

"I know," Banks sighed as he put an arm around Jim's back and guided him to a chair on the far side of Sandburg's bed. Though Jim looked like he needed to lie down himself, Simon doubted there was any point in suggesting it. Ellison wouldn't give way to exhaustion until he knew if Blair was going to live or die.

"I'll go put on some coffee," Joel said as he stood and left the infirmary. It was going to be a long night.

Jim reached out to grip Sandburg's wrist and, oblivious to everything else around him, he concentrated on listening to Blair's shallow breathing and the irregular beat of his heart.

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

A single lantern flickered low, its fragile illumination dancing into the shadows. Simon and Joel had both fallen asleep on other cots more than an hour before, long after Rafe had returned briefly to let them know that the corpses of the dead had been attended to, and that everyone in town was over at the church, praying for the life of their doctor. Jim had nodded, grateful for the support of his friends and the townspeople, but he hadn't said anything.

In the silence that was broken only by the sonorous, low snoring of the older men, Jim studied Sandburg's face, starkly pale beneath the dark shadow of his beard, as his mind drifted back over the past year.

One year ago, he'd resigned his commission in bitterness and disgust, and had felt lost, with no direction. It had been a hell of a way to celebrate his thirty-fifth birthday, and put an end to twenty-two years of everything that had been his life.

One year ago, he'd been locked in a cell with nothing but his thoughts and recriminations for company.

One year ago, he'd vowed never to trust, never to care so much, ever again…

So much had changed since those dark hours.

He'd found new purpose, and joined a fine community of people…had made good friends. Had learned to understand his confusing senses, and had learned to trust again. Simon had been a big help, a tremendous source of strength and encouragement.

But it was Sandburg who had really made it all happen for him. Had healed him, in so very many ways. Had explained what he was - a sentinel, a watchman, specially gifted to serve and protect his community. Had given him a home - had become his best friend. More, Jim admitted to the anguish in his heart. He loved Blair more than he loved life itself, more than anything in all creation. He'd vowed to himself, almost a year ago, to protect Blair, to always keep him safe…

And now Blair had saved his life - without doubt the best and the very worst, birthday gift he'd ever received, though of course Sandburg had no way of knowing that, when the kid had taken a bullet to save his best friend with no thought to his own safety…but at what cost?

Ellison knew he would forever curse the day of his birth if it led to Sandburg's death…

Biting his lip, Jim again forced back the thickness in his throat, as he had countless times throughout the night. He couldn't imagine what his life would have become if he hadn't met Sandburg. Crazy kid. So brilliant and insightful, it was scary. Funny. Kind. Generous. Wild curly hair and big wide blue eyes, endlessly curious and almost always talking…except when he was listening with everything he was - his mind, his heart and his soul. Nobody else would have known how to help him, would have picked up and understood about his hypersensitivity. Blair filled up all the empty spaces, warmed away the chill of disillusionment and bitterness, brought hope and joy, his laughter too infectious to resist, wise man and imp, healer and friend…and brother. From the first moment, Blair had offered everything he had to give, openly, generously, with no thought of recompense of any kind. And now he'd offered his life…to save a man who'd far rather die himself than lose Sandburg.

Ellison felt a flush of shame as he recalled the fight they'd had the afternoon before and his wild accusations. He'd never really thought Blair would betray him - it had all just been his defensiveness about the damned senses and how different they made him feel, and he knew it.

Reaching out with trembling fingers to stroke Sandburg's brow, he wished he'd had a chance to apologize, to say he'd never meant any of it - that he did trust Blair completely, without question. God, he hoped the kid knew that. Didn't still believe that Jim doubted him. As for Megan Conner, well, sure, he thought bitterly, she was attractive, but he hadn't ever given her much thought. No - it had all been about the notes and his fears of being seen as a freak of nature. Stupid, so stupid - why hadn't he realized Blair was keeping the notes only as a backup in case Jim needed them? He'd never thought about the possibility of Blair not being around - and now, as if putting that terrible possibility into words had worked some kind of curse, only hours later, Blair could well be dying.

Bowing his head, Jim wondered what he'd do if Sandburg died, and the inconceivable grief of that possibility twisted in his gut and squeezed his heart, making it hard to breathe. He wasn't sure he could bear the thought of remaining in Bitterwood Creek - but he was equally sure Blair would be disappointed in him if he left. Smiling a little to himself, he imagined the arguments that Sandburg would pose - that the town needed him, and he needed the town - that his friends were here…

And he wondered what Blair's life would have been like if he'd never ridden into this town. One thing was sure…he wouldn't be lying here now, his life hanging by a thread…

"Live," Jim commanded quietly, as he brushed a wayward curl from his friend's face. "You're needed here, too. Your friends don't want you to go. This is your home - our home. Live…"

As if in response to his voice, he heard Sandburg's respirations deepen, and his friend stirred weakly. Jim's heart clenched and he hated to feel so helpless, with little idea of how to ease his friend's suffering, as he saw Blair grimace in pain as he came back to consciousness. "Easy," Jim murmured softly. "Easy, Chief…"

Blair blinked, his gaze confused and unfocused as he stared up at the flickering shadows on the ceiling. Ellison tightened his grip on the kid's arm reassuringly and watched awareness return to Sandburg's eyes as his friend's gaze tracked toward him.

"J'm?" Blair sighed, agony deeply etched into the lines around his mouth and sunken eyes, huge in his pale, pinched, face.

"I'm right here," Ellison assured him. "What do you need?"

Sandburg blinked as he thought about the question, feeling fuzzy and disoriented. Pain, searing in its intensity was distracting him, demanding attention. "Laudanum…no more than two drops…every six hours," he mumbled, as if giving a prescription.

Ellison nodded and, having the medicine and a pitcher of water ready at hand, mixed up the analgesic and then supported Blair's head, helping his friend to drink from the cup he held to Sandburg's lips.

As the strong medicine eased the fire into a slow, remote burn, Sandburg sighed with relief. Focusing again on Jim, he said wearily, though more strongly, "You did everything right. Thanks."

When Jim's gaze broke away, Sandburg snorted weakly. "Stop it," he sighed. "Not your fault. Who were those guys?"

Jim shrugged. "Men with a grudge," he replied, his voice tight. "We don't know their names…"

Blair closed his eyes, weakly shaking his head. They might never know. Taking a breath, wincing a little, he returned his attention to Ellison. "Not over yet," he whispered, knowing the aftereffects of the wound could still kill him. "Give me water, maybe broth, whenever I'm awake. If a fever starts, tepid baths to bring it down. If the wound gets infected, may need to drain it - use sulfa, and some of the herbs Whispering Waters gave me." He paused, but his jaw tightened and he continued, "If the wound goes bad - use maggots to clean it out."

Ellison's lips thinned against a sudden stab of nausea as he involuntarily pictured the horror of that, but he nodded to signal he understood what to do. "You're going to be okay," he asserted as he brushed Blair's cheeks with the tips of his fingers. "You've beaten worse than this."

Sandburg smiled faintly, but it faded as he said solemnly with painful deliberation, "Regardless - whatever happens, don't blame yourself…I'd do it again in a heartbeat."

"I know," Ellison grated, not wanting to go there - never wanting this to happen again. "But - the price is too high…"

"No, 's not," Blair asserted, but his voice was growing wispy, slurring, his eyelids blinking heavily. "Jim, you'd do the same for me."

Though he nodded, and was glad Sandburg knew that for a fact, Ellison really didn't want to talk anymore about it. To him, it sounded as if Blair was trying to say 'good-bye', trying to console him, and he didn't want that. Didn't want to think about the possibility that Sandburg might yet die.

"Shh," Jim urged, soothingly, to distract Blair from his worries about him. "No more talking. Just rest, Chief. Concentrate on getting better, okay?"

"'kay," Sandburg sighed, exhausted, and allowed himself to drift into sleep.

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

"Hot…'m so hot," Sandburg muttered, thrashing feebly, barely conscious.

"I know, shhh, it's okay," Jim murmured back as he swabbed his partner's face gently with a cool, wet rag, and then lifted Sandburg's head as he held a cup of water to his lips. Once Blair had taken as much as he was going to, Ellison settled him back on the pillow and bent to again bathe his friend's body and limbs with the tepid water in the basin by the bed.

The fever had started to build about an hour after Blair had first wakened, flushing his hot, dry skin a dull red. For the past four hours, Ellison had been diligently, even tenderly, bathing Sandburg as he fought the fever, so far without much success. Blair moaned softly as though, even only semiconscious, he was trying to hide the pain. But, the kid's hands kept straying to the white bandage, stark against the dark hair that blanketed his chest, and it was clear how much he was suffering. Biting his lip, Jim wondered if he should follow Sandburg's orders and wait another hour to give him some laudanum. When Blair flinched, trying to curl on his side, groaning softly, Ellison made his decision and gave his friend more of the medicinal mixture. He couldn't stand to watch Sandburg suffering, not when he had the means at hand to dull the torment.

"How's he doing?" Simon rumbled, as he sat up and rubbed the sleep from his face.

Ellison shook his head as he lifted away the bandage to again check the wound for signs of the infection he could already smell. He winced when he saw slimy green pus leaking out of the reddened and raw incision. "Infection," he grunted as he straightened up. "He's been running a high fever."

"Damn," Banks sighed, as he stood and moved to stand beside Jim, to get a closer look at the kid. "Now what?"

Sighing as he rubbed the back of his neck, Jim replied, "He woke up a while ago - told me this might happen. I have to reopen the wound and clean it out."

Simon grimaced as he swallowed, but he turned away and set water to boil on the stove.

Joel was awake by the time everything was ready, and he held Blair down as Simon assisted Jim. Not that the kid put up much of a fight; he was too weak to do more than twitch and thrash ineffectually. They all wished they could have given him some ether, but they didn't know how much to use and were afraid of doing him harm if they just guessed.

Jim snipped open the sutures binding the wound, his nose wrinkling at the putrid smell. Swallowing, he cleaned it out, splashed in some whiskey that made Sandburg grunt and jerk violently in reaction. And then he dusted in the sulfa and some of the crushed herbs Whispering Waters had given Blair. He'd found them earlier, after Blair had said he might need them, when he'd searched Blair's desk for the deerskin sack. Once again he closed the now torn edges of the wound, sprinkled on more of the medicines and covered it with a linen pad and bandages.

Using the Indians' herbs had reminded him of the other small medicine bag in the sack. Once he washed his hands and arms, he went through to retrieve the one tied with the tiny wolf. Back in the infirmary, he gently slipped the leather thong around Sandburg's head so that the bag would lie on his chest.

"What's that?" Joel asked softly with a puzzled frown.

"The Indians gave us each one," Ellison explained as he moved to fill another bowl with tepid water; Blair's fever seemed hotter than ever. "They said it would give protection and strength."

"Ahh," Taggart reflected thoughtfully. "I've heard they have pretty powerful medicine. Can't hurt."

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

Though the others offered to help fight Blair's burgeoning fever, Jim refused to cede his role as Sandburg's caregiver. Having to reopen the wound had been hideous, his senses raging out of control so that his world was filled with the sight, sound and scent of Sandburg's suffering. But the infection was the enemy now, and Jim exerted his full capacity on doing all he could to defeat it. He reined in his senses with ruthless deliberation, forced them to his will - harnessed them to help him clean out the wound with meticulous care. And once the ravaged flesh had been again closed and bandaged, Ellison resumed his tireless bathing of Blair's hot, dry skin.

It sickened Jim to see Blair so helpless and vulnerable, scared him to think the kid might really be dying. But if this was the last service he could offer, the last stand he could make to save Blair's life, he sure wasn't going to share it with anyone else. Blair had taken the bullet for him; now all he could do was fight back, with every scrap of energy and tenderness he had in his being to help Sandburg cling to life.

Over and over, he bathed Blair's face, gently cooling his fevered brow. Countless times, he carefully drew the damp cloth over Sandburg's throat and shoulders, his thickly matted chest, arms and hands. With unaccustomed tenderness, he attended to Blair's abdomen, hips and legs, his touch focused to feel the fever, so that he knew whether the tawny skin was hotter or cooler for his efforts. It was an invasion of Blair's person, to touch him with such familiarity, but one Sandburg had granted to him when he'd said the tepid baths might be required. It was a trust Blair had given him, granting dominion over his helpless body - turning to Jim in his need. It broke Jim's heart, to see him so ill, so weak - so much in danger of slipping away. But Jim wouldn't let go. Literally. He kept his hands on Sandburg's body, holding onto his life with resolute determination, cherishing in the only way he could, soothing as best he was able.

It was another two hours before the fever finally broke, drenching Sandburg and the cot he was lying on with sweat. Jim and Simon cleaned and dried his skin and, since it was easier than trying to remake the bed with him in it, Ellison just carried him to another that Joel had made up with fresh, clean sheets.

Dawn had long since come and gone, and soon neighbours started showing up, to express concern or to offer help. Maisie brought fresh bread and a stew for the men, as well as a pot of chicken broth. "It's been thickened with moldy bread and then strained," she said diffidently. "I recall Doc said making it that way could beat infection." Delores McCready also showed up, bringing a jug of juice she'd squeezed from crushed apples. "He always seemed partial to the apples from our tree," she explained, her voice tight with emotion. Sarah Sloane arrived, insisting they give her the laundry she knew needed doing. Her eyes filled with tears when she saw the massive, ugly, brown bloodstains, but she swallowed and carried it all away. LeeAnn Raymond brought a pot of the willow-bark tea and a jar of honey to sweeten it. Megan Conner came by with an armload of fresh sheets and towels, as well as strips of good quality cotton she'd ripped up to make extra bandages. Henri took on the care of all their animals, shaking his head when they offered to pay him for his time and supplies of hay and oats. Sam and Angus dropped in, and later, Johnny and Dan, all wondering if there was anything they could do to help. Some children, quiet and solemn, brought a bunch of wildflowers in a mason jar; more broth and casseroles arrived, until the counter in the kitchen was overflowing with filled bowls and jars. They were all very worried about Sandburg - and all very relieved to know he was alive and holding his own. "I'll pray for him," was a constant murmur when they took their leave.

Joel and Simon took turns visiting with the folks who dropped in, thanking them all for their help and support, but Jim remained by Blair's bedside with one hand firmly grasped around Sandburg's arm. The big lawman looked utterly exhausted as he slumped forward in the chair, his gaze locked on Blair's face. Finally, when Jim again refused anything at noon, probably too tired and worried to eat, Simon figured the Sheriff's vigil had gone on long enough.

"You need to get some rest, Jim," he said kindly but firmly as he stood behind Ellison. When Jim started to shake his head in mute protest, Banks continued, "You know I'm right. You won't do Blair any good if you drive yourself into exhaustion. Go lie down on the cot over there. Joel and I'll watch him, and call you if there's any change."

Reluctantly, Jim nodded and stood. With a last long look, he turned away and laid down - falling asleep short minutes later.

"He's taking this hard," Joel murmured softly as he gazed at the sleeping sheriff.

"Uh-huh," Simon grunted. "S'pose any of us would, if our best friend got shot by a bullet meant for us."

Taggart frowned at the heavy tone and shot a sharp look at his partner. The men who'd come into town had been looking for Jim and Simon, as well as Jed, for that matter, who was back at the ranch. "This wasn't any more your fault than Jim's, Simon," Joel said then.

Banks sighed as he ran a hand over his face. "I guess I know that," he muttered. "But - I keep thinkin', when we knew there was likely to be trouble, we should've told the kid to wait for us here."

Joel snorted. "Right. And I'm sure he would have sat back like a good a little boy and quietly watched all us big, tough, men go off to deal with the bad guys," he drawled sarcastically.

Banks had the grace to smile softly at the unlikelihood of that ever happening. No, all they would have managed to do would have been to insult the young man, and make him remind them, as he had about riding out after the rustlers last spring, that he was the Deputy Sheriff and he had a job to do. "You're right," Simon finally conceded, and then sighed again. "God, I hope he'll be okay."

"Blair's tougher than he looks, Simon," Joel consoled, thinking of the ugly scars on the kid's back, knowing what they represented. "He's made it through the worst of it. Now, he just needs rest."

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

Blair slept through the remainder of that day and the whole of the night, waking only briefly and groggily, his muted moans of distress indicating his need for water, tea or broth and laudanum. His caretakers took turns watching over him, and carefully helped him drink the fluids and medicine before smoothing his blanket as they encouraged him to go back to sleep. Jim became hopeful that his wound was healing; the reddened skin was fading to a more healthy pink with only faintly bloodied clear drainage. Though Sandburg seemed marginally more alert when he roused for brief periods the next day, he was still frighteningly pale and weak - too weak to make it out to the privy, so he resignedly used the porcelain urinal Ellison handed to him. Mostly, he slept another day and a half.

The next afternoon, Jim was watching over him when Blair sniffed and lifted a hand to rub his face, blinking and yawning as he looked around with clearer, more alert eyes.

"You finally deciding to wake up?" Jim teased with a slight grin, relieved to see Sandburg looking a little more like himself, and less like a limp rag doll.

"Uh, yeah, I think," Sandburg muttered and then yawned again. "How long've I been out of it?"

"Almost four days," Ellison told him as he poured a cup of water and then leaned forward to support Blair's head to help him drink.

"Ah, that's good, thanks," Sandburg sighed as he settled back against the pillow. "There anything to eat?"

Jim laughed a little hysterically at that, close to weeping with the sure knowledge, now, that Sandburg really was on the mend, causing Blair to give him a puzzled look. "Chief, we've got enough food in the kitchen to feed an army! Every woman in town has been dropping off chicken broth, beef and vegetable soup, stews, casseroles, bowls of eggs, slabs of bacon, fresh bread, four different kinds of cheeses, juice, willow-bark tea and the kids have been coming by with cookies and cake, 'cause that's what they like when they're sick, or so they tell me."

"You're kidding?" Sandburg smiled, amazed by the largesse and touched by the consideration.

"No, I'm not," Jim grinned. "And you've got jars full of wildflowers back in your office, also courtesy of the kids, the laundry has been done, twice, and we've been given more sheets and towels from the hotel." His eyes softening, Jim squeezed Blair's shoulder as he continued soberly, "You've got a lot of friends in this town, Blair. They all care about you - and they've all been over at the church, praying for you, even Silas and Moe, if you can believe it, but I think Delores and Lucinda hogtied them and dragged them there."

Blair's breath hitched at that, and he looked away as he blinked. "They're good people," he said quietly.

"So, Doc, what can you handle? A bowl of plain broth or do you want something more substantial?" Jim asked as he stood.

"Uh, I think a little soup, maybe with some bread and a small hunk of cheese," Sandburg replied. "Oh, and some juice and a mug of the tea."

"Coming right up," Jim saluted as he headed to the kitchen. He made it from the infirmary to the privacy of the hall before his legs let go and he sank to the floor, curled forward as he tried to hold his tears inside. Oh God, Blair was going to live, going to be strong again and whole. Bowing his head, Jim thanked a God that he was beginning to believe in again, for the gift of Blair's life. For long moments, he trembled with overwhelming relief. But, conscious that Simon or Joel could happen upon him at any time, Jim finally wiped his face, sniffing as he pulled himself back up onto his feet. With a lighter heart, and a smile that wouldn't quit as joy bubbled within his chest, he continued to the kitchen to heat up the soup and make the tea - Blair would live, and now it was time for the happier task of helping him regain his strength.

Joel and Simon wandered in as Blair was eating, enthusiastically pleased to see him so much stronger, his colour more natural, and in good appetite. He'd mend, of that they were now certain. After visiting for a while they took their leave, explaining that it was time they got back to the ranch. Sandburg thanked them for all their help, but then yawned again. He didn't protest when Jim ordered him to rest, and he napped through the rest of the day and into the evening.

When he next woke, Jim was again sitting in the chair by his bed, the oil lamp glowing softly on the small table beside him.

"Don't you have something else to do, Sheriff?" he teased drowsily.

"Nope," Ellison quipped back, though his voice was quiet. "Thought I'd give up keeping the peace and take up nursing the sick and infirm."

Sandburg snorted, but he studied his friend closely. "You look exhausted, Jim," he observed with concern. "You should rest. I'm doing all right."

Shrugging, Ellison replied, "I'm fine," as he leaned forward and almost unconsciously brushed Blair's hair back from his friend's brow and cheek. "I'm really glad to see you're so much better. You scared me, Chief."

Sandburg's eyes glowed with affection as he smiled softly, "I'm better 'cause of you. I know the…the surgery was hard, but you saved my life, Jim."

"Makes us even," Ellison replied, his voice tight with emotion. He bowed his head in silence for a moment, and then looked up to meet Blair's eyes, his own troubled and dark with apology. "About the fight we had. I was wrong. I shouldn't have doubted you…I do trust you, Sandburg. More'n I've ever trusted anyone in my life."

Blair's eyes softened as he nodded. "Thank you," he murmured as he lifted his hand to grip Jim's wrist, accepting the apology. "Now, go to bed before you fall over. Doctor's orders."

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

It was a month before Sandburg was strong enough to pretend he was back to normal - not that he wasn't recovered, but he knew it could take up to a year to attain normal energy levels after a major operation like the one he'd had. As for the ragged scar, he smiled whenever he saw it - the ugliness of it didn't bother him because it was a tangible reminder of how Jim had worked so hard to save his life. When the others wondered if there'd be any problems living without a spleen, he just shrugged and told them it was pretty useless. No reason to have them all worrying that he would be more susceptible to infections from now on - he wasn't about to stop being a doctor and caring for those who were sick, regardless of the risks that posed for him. Doctors all knew it was a crapshoot - that they could always catch something and possibly even die as a result; if they worried about it, they wouldn't be doctors.

Blair very much appreciated everyone's concern on his behalf, and the attentive care he'd received, especially from Jim. But a little smothering goes a long way, and he'd grown restive under the constant preoccupation with his health and wellbeing.

"I'm fine!" he insisted with a laugh when Jim wasn't sure he should go back to accompanying Ellison on his evening rounds. "A walk will be good for me. I need the exercise."

It was a typically rowdy Friday night, and there was no way he was letting Jim head out alone. For the past few weeks, Simon had come into town on the weekends to help out, but he'd sent in word with one of his hands that he'd banged up his knee when a colt he was training to the saddle had thrown him. Joel and Rafe were gone with the herd being driven to the stockyard at the railhead in Wichita, so they weren't available either. The young ranch hand who'd brought in the message shyly offered to help out; but he was just a fresh-faced kid, likely no more than sixteen years old, and Ellison told him not to worry about it when he thanked him for his offer and for bringing Simon's note.

Now Ellison was contemplating his partner, not happy about Blair joining him for the night's patrol. He hadn't been well all that long - and he could get hurt.

Sandburg had gotten pretty good at reading Jim's silences, because his best friend's unconscious expressions and posture were so indicative of what he was thinking or feeling. "Jim," he said quietly as he moved closer to grip his friend's arm, "you can't just pack me away in cotton to keep me safe, you know. I won't let you."

Jim shook his head and shrugged. "I just don't want you hurt again, that's all," he muttered.

"I know, and I appreciate that, but we worked together for almost a year before those gunmen rode into town, and nothing happened. You watch out for me, I know you do - and I'm careful," Sandburg replied reasonably. "It was a fluke, Jim…"

"It might have been a lot of things," Ellison cut in sharply as he looked down at his best friend, "but it was no 'fluke'. You jumped in front of that bullet! Don't try to pretend you didn't, because I know better. And you'd do it again, dammit!"

"Jim, Jim…I know it's hard to come to grips with the idea that someone else cares about you, but get used to it, big guy. I'm your backup, your deputy, your doctor and your best friend - of course, I'm going to try to keep you from getting hurt! That's my job! Now, come on, we've got rounds to make," Blair mocked gently, his tone teasing, but his eyes very serious. Patting Ellison on the arm consolingly, he just walked on out to the street, starting the rounds and assuming the sheriff would follow.

Jim heaved a deep sigh and shook his head. "Some job," he muttered. "It's not like you get paid much for it. Nowhere near what you're worth."

But he followed, catching up and looping an arm around his friend's shoulder, to pull him into a quick sideways hug. Sandburg grinned as he reached up and around to pat Jim's back. Then they split apart, back to business and alert as they ambled along the boardwalk, watching and listening for trouble.

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

Skirmishes in the Indian conflicts erupted with increasing regularity as the summer drew toward fall. Throughout the western territories, the indigenous people continued to strike back against the onslaught of settlers and, particularly, the building of the railroad because it would only bring more and more settlers to till the land, to build towns and cities. It was a hard, frightening time - there was little tolerance or moderation on either side. But though the people in Bitterwood Creek, as well as the farms and ranches round about, kept a wary eye out for surprise attacks, for some reason the battles and skirmishes, the raids and massacres seemed always to happen somewhere else.

From time to time, US Cavalry soldiers rode in to restock their supplies, because it was the one town in that part of Kansas that still seemed to have their supply routes intact, and lots of produce and beef to sell. Folks in town liked to hear the latest news from them, so it wasn't uncommon for any number of people to gather around the General Store during their sojourns and, inevitably, someone would recall their own experiences with Indians in the area…though all admitted it had been strangely quiet, Praise the Lord, since the past winter when the doctor had been taken captive. But, by the Grace of God, he'd managed to escape and their brave Sheriff had found him and brought him back home. The soldiers would nod, pay for the supplies, load them up and head on out of town to return to the business of chasing down renegades.

However, usually it was just the supply sergeant and maybe a corporal to help manage the packhorses who came into town, so it caused quite a stir one day when the whole troop rode in toward the end of August. Jim sauntered out of his office to see if there was any trouble brewing in the area and, though he wasn't surprised to see Major Rutherford dismounting, he wasn't all that overjoyed to see the man again.

"Major," Jim acknowledged when the officer stepped up to the boardwalk. "You find those Indians Sandburg escaped from last winter?"

"No, Ellison, we didn't," Rutherford replied tightly as he gazed up and down the street. "However, my men heard some interesting rumours when they last came in for supplies." His cold gray gaze came back to meet Jim's eyes.

"Really?" the Sheriff replied, holding the stare. "Well, you know rumours. Can't usually put much credence in them."

"Uh-huh," the Cavalry Officer grunted, his gaze shifting to the Doctor's Office next door. "Seems the good Dr. Sandburg has been known to aid and abet wounded hostiles in the past - rumour has it that's why the Indians let him go…"

"He escaped," Jim cut in sharply.

Rutherford chuckled mirthlessly. "Now, you don't think I ever really believed that story, did you? Escaped? With an Indian pony and a rich deerskin robe?" he responded sarcastically. "Too farfetched. And it begs the question of why they didn't kill him in the first place. My men heard he was out at some farm when they attacked, and one brave stopped another savage from killing him, and the people he was with. All sounds pretty friendly to me."

"What do you want, Rutherford?" Jim asked mildly, though he was having a hard time keeping his temper in check. Everyone in town knew about the Indian Sandburg had treated months ago. Though they'd never told anyone, not even Simon, about Swift Eagle's promise to leave their immediate area alone, folks speculated, like folks always would. Raids and skirmishes were going on all over the west…except around Bitterwood Creek.

"Well, I'd like to speak with Dr. Sandburg again. If there's a question of him giving succor to the enemies of our nation, well, that would make him a traitor, wouldn't it?" the Major drawled, his eyes glinting with malice. "And I believe you remember what happens to traitors, don't you, Ellison?"

Jim's jaw tightened as he studied Rutherford with all the warmth he'd show to a sidewinder. "Dr. Sandburg is a hero, Rutherford. He's also a doctor; one folks think works miracles. I'd suggest you be very careful about suggesting he's any kind of traitor."

"I've heard that Sandburg wasn't alone when he cared for that renegade," Rutherford continued, unfazed either by Ellison's hostility or his warning.

Just then, Sandburg loped across the street. He'd been over at the McCready place, checking on one of the boys who had a case of the mumps.

"What's going on?" he asked as he joined them. Looking from Jim to Rutherford, he nodded in brief, cool acknowledgement. "Major Rutherford."

"Seems the Major has heard some rumours about the help you gave to that Indian awhile ago," Jim replied stiffly, "and wonders if there's any connection with them taking you later to their camp. Apparently, he still has some questions about your escape - and has some doubts about your loyalty."

"Oh, really?" Blair replied, as if he were startled by the officer's suspicions. Turning to the Major, he said as he waved toward the building next door, "Maybe you'd like to step into my office and we can discuss your concerns. Jim, were you busy or did you want to join us?"

"I was just working on some reports," Ellison replied with a speculative look at his best friend - Blair seemed unusually calm about what was going down. "They can keep."

The three men strode the few paces to the entrance to the doctor's office and residence where Blair led them into his office. Waving them both to chairs, he sat behind his desk. "Go ahead, Major. What's on your mind?" he asked earnestly.

"I heard you, and Ellison here, gave aid to a renegade a few months ago," Rutherford replied. "It's contrary to this nation's interests to be giving succor to the enemy. I'm sure you know that, Doctor."

"Yes, I do," Blair replied steadily. "But, while it's true that we came upon an Indian male almost a year ago, actually, there was nothing to suggest he was a renegade of any kind. It looked like he might have been hurt in a hunting accident, though it's hard to say for sure, since he didn't appear to speak English and neither of us speaks his language. I patched him up and he left the next day."

"Hunting accident?" Rutherford jeered. "Hunting innocent victims for their scalps, maybe."

Sandburg sighed, but he leaned forward, his hands clasped between his knees. "Pure supposition, Major. He was alone, posed no threat, certainly did not display any aggressive behaviour when we found him, and Jim kept watch on him the whole time he was here, in the event that he did prove to be hostile. He had a bad gash along his side, no way to tell how he'd gotten it, and no reason for me to believe him a threat of any kind. I'm a doctor, Major. It's my job to treat those who are injured or afflicted, regardless of race or creed. I took an oath on that, and I do my best to live up to it."

"Why didn't they kill you when they first raided that farm?" Rutherford demanded abruptly.

Sandburg leaned back and shrugged. "Your guess is as good as mine - I sure thought they were going to. Frankly, I imagined that they planned to torture me slowly and then collect my scalp," he replied soberly, with an expression that revealed some of the fear he'd felt at the time. "I don't mind confessing that it was a terrifying experience."

Rutherford studied Sandburg for a moment, while Jim remained silent as he sat back in his chair, letting Blair handle this, if he could. "Tell me how you got away," the Major asked quietly, his tone suspicious.

Leaning back, squinting toward the ceiling as if he was trying to recall the exact chain of events, Blair replied, "I was taken to a tent and tied - this was after we'd ridden for the night and a good part of the next day. God, I was frozen - I hadn't been wearing my coat when they took me - and stiff from having been tied to the pony after I'd tried to escape earlier. Later, one brought me some bannock and meat, and after I'd eaten, he took me back to their latrine area. I figured it would be my best chance, so I pretended to stumble and when he grabbed me, I came up hard with a fist under his chin, knocking him out. It was dark, and no one else seemed to be paying any attention…we were out behind the ring of tents. I slipped away, and took one of the horses."

"And the deerskin cape?" Rutherford demanded.

"I was wearing it - it had been in the tent, and I'd wrapped myself in it to get warm. I was still wearing it over my shoulders when I was escorted out back," Blair replied easily. "It was cold, Major, as you might recall."

"What happened then?"

"I led the horse some distance away, and then managed to mount him," Blair replied, then shook his head and grinned softly, as if in wry memory. "Not easy getting up on an unsaddled horse, is it? Anyway, I kicked him and he ran. I didn't have a fine clue where I was going, only that I wanted to get as far away as fast as I could." Shifting his gaze toward Jim, he smiled as he continued, "I cannot begin to describe to you the relief I felt when Jim found me - I doubt I could have survived out there alone for much longer."

Rutherford looked from Sandburg to Ellison, and saw an answering smile on the lawman's face. "I told you he gets turned around in the middle of nowhere when everything looks the same," the Sheriff said indulgently.

"Yes," the officer snapped, "so I recall. It was fortunate that you were able to find him 'in the middle of nowhere'."

"Yes, it was," Ellison replied, his voice and eyes cold as he stared Rutherford down.

The major snorted and shook his head, knowing there was no way to prove his theory, but still certain he was right, nonetheless. "Can either of you explain how Bitterwood Creek and the area hereabouts is so fortunate as to not have been attacked since Sandburg was taken?"

Jim shrugged negligently. "Just lucky, maybe…"

But Blair cut in, "You know, I've been thinking about that. People around here are really scared of another attack and, as Jim says, we've been lucky. Who knows, maybe helping that one Indian last year meant something, after all. Maybe he and his people were grateful." He shrugged as he gave Rutherford a hard look, "But, then, you wouldn't expect that of savage hostiles, would you?"

"Look, I know damned well that you're feeding me a pack of lies," Rutherford replied, provoked by the contempt in Blair's eyes and voice.

"I think that's about enough," Jim cut in, standing. "You've asked your questions and gotten the only answers you're going to hear. You've got no grounds for harassing our town's doctor. I suggest you be on your way."

Rutherford had stood as Jim did, the two of them facing one another like raging bulls. Blair remained seated, but interjected in a calming tone, "Gentlemen, if we're finished here, I have some work to do."

Throwing him an angry look as he pulled on his gloves, Rutherford replied, his voice low with menace, "We're finished for now, Dr. Sandburg - but we'll be watching you."

Sandburg quirked a brow as he observed sarcastically, "Things must be quieting down if you've got time to watch a simple country doctor, Major, but you go right ahead if it makes you feel more secure."

Jim quickly stepped between the two men and pointed Rutherford to the door. When they got outside, they discovered that a sizable representation of the town citizenry had showed up, led by Silas McCready and his man, Moe. "There any trouble here, Sheriff?" Silas called out with a belligerent look at the military officer.

"No, I don't think so," Jim replied, though he wondered why McCready and his lot were up to. "The Major just wanted to ask Doc a few questions about that Indian he treated a while ago, and being taken later from the Wilkinsons' place."

"Uh-huh," Silas rumbled. "I heerd that's why the whole Cavalry was in town. Stupid. Ya think there'd be more to do than worry about one man's experiences with the savages. Why, ya might even think, maybe, that Doc weren't trusted - just 'cause he treated that Injun last year. Cain't say as I was happy about that, but Doc's a good man, and he takes his doctorin' seriously. This town's real glad we got him back, and wouldn't want anythin' to happen to him." The men behind Silas mumbled their agreement.

McCready might have been talking as if to the Sheriff, but his eyes had never left Rutherford. The message was pretty clear. If anyone wanted to mess with their doctor, they'd have to deal with the whole town.

Rutherford looked out over the gathering of tense men, and then nodded as he made his decision. Sandburg might be a renegade in his own right, a traitor, but he wasn't worth tackling the entire town, not when there wasn't any proof. But that didn't mean this was over. He'd given due warning; he'd be watching Sandburg, and Ellison, too, for that matter. One day these despicable men would pay the price for traitorously consorting with the enemy, he'd make certain of that. It was only a matter of time. Coldly, he turned to Jim and touched the brim of his hat in a sarcastic salute as he said stonily, "Seems your doctor has a lot of friends. Let's hope he deserves them."

With that, he wheeled around to stride to his horse. Mounting up, he called out to his men and they cantered out of town.

"Doc alright?" Silas asked Jim as they watched the armed troop leave.

"Uh-huh," Jim drawled as he turned to McCready with a slight grin. "No offence, Silas, but I wouldn't have figured you to be one of Doc's cheerleaders."

McCready chewed on the wad of tobacco in his cheek and then spat toward the street. "He's done right by my family, and the folks in this here town," Silas drawled. "T'be honest, I figure he's worth more to us than the good will of a bunch'a soldiers who never seem to get anywhere until it's too late anyway." Looking down the street, he continued, "Figures the cavalry noticed we ain't been attacked 'round here for months now. Makes some sense that they'd suspect Doc of somehow makin' a deal with the savages." Turning back to Jim, he said, "We don't rightly care if he did or didn't. But we reckon helpin' that brave last fall did us all a good turn. S'good enough for us."

With that, he waved to the men accompanying him and they all strode down to the saloon, probably to talk about how proud they were for having chased the Cavalry out of town. Nobody was going to mess with their doctor, not when he was the only one within more than a hundred miles.

Jim shook his head as he went back inside and ambled to the office. Hanging his hat on a hook by the door, he sank down in the chair at the end of Sandburg's desk. "Seems like you've got a fan club, Junior."

Blair smiled as he laid down his pen. "Yeah, so I heard. Who would have thought McCready'd ever go out of his way on my account?"

"Who would have ever thought you could lie like a trooper?" Jim shot back. "I never figured you for one who could tell a tall tale with such an innocent face."

Snickering, Blair sat back and pushed his hair back behind his ears. "Yeah, well, most of it was true, and that's the trick with a good lie." Sobering, he swallowed as he continued, "I don't make a habit of lying, but I can when it's for the right reasons. I'm more useful here than facing down a firing squad. And, if I'd gone down, he'd've taken you, too. I wasn't about to have that happen, not after you went after me and brought me back home."

"I'm not complainin', Sunshine," Jim drawled with an approving grin, very proud of the kid. "I was just surprised, is all."

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

The hot summer finally broke, the earlier sunsets and cooler winds blowing in off the prairie warning that fall was around the corner. September arrived, signaling the official end of summer, and the kids all started back to school, most of them grumbling every step of the way, though they had to admit, their new teacher wasn't too bad - not like Miss Bascome, but okay. Marnie, Angus' oldest girl, had taken over the role of schoolmarm the spring before, after Nellie had been murdered. She was still struggling a bit with her new role, but she enjoyed working with the children, and they responded ever more positively to her as they settled back into the familiar routines. Leaves turned golden and russet, some a bright blaze of crimson, but had not yet fallen. The dry air smelled crisp with that smoky tang of autumn, and the sun was still warm on the face. The annual fall harvest was well underway, the homesteaders humbly grateful for the continuing fair weather.

But though the season was changing, the business in town hadn't slowed down any. If anything, it was busier, with the farmers bringing in their produce, and heavy wagons of grain being hauled to the nearby mill on the river. Drifters and gamblers continued to wander into town, the stagecoaches still rolled through, dropping off some folks and picking up others who were moving on, or going to visit relatives back east. On weekends, fistfights and sudden drunken brawls were still a common occurrence, but it was mostly routine, nothing of any real concern. Blair was gratified that his people all seemed in pretty good health and, except for the occasional broken arm, wrenched back or the routine birthing, which he loved because he got such a kick over helping new life into the world, he didn't have a whole lot to do.

He and Jim had gotten closer since the summer, easier together and yet also very much enjoying their friendship, not taking it for granted as maybe they had, unconsciously. Near-death experiences tend to remind folks of their fragility and the vulnerability of life. Jim stopped bitching about the endless tests, and made no further comments about the notes that Blair kept - except non-verbal ones, only they weren't resentful anymore. If anything, he'd look at the notes with a kind of dread and then would turn away, as if denying their very existence; he knew now they'd only be used if something ever happened to Blair - and he never wanted that day to come.

Blair was out of town - helping Sadie Wilmington's fifth child into the world - when three men got off the stage and carried their carpetbags to the hotel. Two looked like they might be sons of the tall, erect, older man, the way they fell in behind him, deferred to him and shared similar sandy-brown, straight hair, odd amber eyes and thin mouths. Megan welcomed them to her establishment as they signed the hotel register and learned they were just passing through, only planning to be in town for a night or two. Glancing down at the register as she handed them their two room keys, the older man having requested a separate room, she smiled as she said, "Mr. Ralston, I hope you and your sons enjoy your time in Bitterwood Creek."

He smiled in return, though his cold eyes gave her an inward shiver, as he replied with a warm Southern drawl, "Oh, ah expect we shall, madam. Thank you."

The three men kept to themselves mostly, though they ambled along the boardwalk later in the day, pausing briefly to read the note on the door of the Doctor's Office that indicated, in case of emergency, he was out at the Wilkinson farm but expected to be back the next afternoon for regular office hours. They sauntered on to the livery stable, and then back to the hotel for an early supper in the small dining room beside the reception desk. There wasn't anything about them that was overtly threatening, but they carried an air of something unwholesome. Maybe it was the cold, amber eyes they all shared. Maybe the slight sneer on their lips as if they felt themselves superior. Whatever it was, it made Megan uneasy and she kept an eye on them.

So she noticed when they were up very early the next morning, leaving without any breakfast, as if they were in a hurry to get someplace. She went out the front entrance, curious to see where they were going. Cocking her head as she watched them walk away, she frowned, thinking they almost looked like they were marching, backs so stiff and resolute, their strides evenly matched. When they disappeared into the livery stable, she shrugged. Maybe they knew folks in the area and that's why they were staying in Bitterwood Creek for a couple of days. They weren't obliged to tell her their business. Having work to do, she went back inside without waiting to see which way they went.

But the men, and their odd, uncomfortable manner, continued to wear on her mind. Finally deciding to give in to her misgivings, though she thought she was maybe being silly, she set off to the Sheriff's Office.

"Jim," she said as she entered, a slight frown between her brows, "I may just be being foolish, but there're some visitors staying at the hotel that, I don't know, seem odd."

"Odd?" he echoed as he looked up with an expression of mild interest. "Odd how?"

Crossing her arms, she shrugged a little. "I don't know, exactly. Cold? Aloof - act like they're better than everyone else. It's a man and his two sons. They stand and walk as if they were military officers, but they aren't in uniform. Likely because they're Southerners…I'd guess the father, at least, fought in the War. I suppose it sounds crazy - they just gave me the creeps. Anyway, they were up early and went to the livery stable. Maybe they're just visiting someone…but…I've got a bad feeling about them."

Jim thought about it. There was nothing in what Megan had told him to suggest the men meant any harm - but she was sharp, and if she'd picked up a sense of threat about them, then maybe they did mean trouble. "What's their name?" he asked.

"Ralston. He's…" she replied.

"What?" he snapped and then surged up from his seat, his expression thunderous as he grabbed his hat from the peg on the wall by the desk.

"Ralston, Jeremiah, and his sons, Joshua and Job," she elaborated, wondering at his sudden reaction. "You know them?" she asked with increasing concern as he swore under his breath.

"Oh yeah," he grunted as he passed her on his way out. "Thanks, Megan," he called back over his shoulder as he loped around the corner and down the alley to his stable. He quickly saddled Lobo, and mounted before cantering over to the livery stable.

Meanwhile, Megan, even more curious and now seriously alarmed by his reaction, jogged to the livery stable to ask Henri if he knew anything more about the three men, or where they'd gone. When Jim clattered into the yard a scant few minutes later, he found Brown saddling up his own horse and Megan busy filling a saddlebag with extra rifle cartridges.

"Which direction did they take?" Ellison called from horseback as Megan threw on the saddlebags and Henri mounted, his rifle already in its sheath on the saddle.

"They asked for directions to the Wilkinsons' farm," Henri called back. "They're after the Doc, aren't they?"

"'Fraid so," Jim replied brusquely, wheeling Lobo around. "You stay here - they're dangerous."

"That's why I'm comin' with you," Brown replied staunchly. The blacksmith hadn't appreciated the uppity, superior manner of his most recent customers; hadn't at all liked being called 'boy' in that condescending tone. He'd read the cruel callousness in their eyes and had suspected they were bad news, for all they'd claimed to be relatives of the Wilkinsons. If they were after Doc, then the young man was in deep trouble. And Doc had been real good to Henri and his family - he wasn't about to stand back and let men like that hurt Sandburg.

Not having time to argue, Jim nodded and kicked Lobo into a fast gallop, Henri on his heels as they lit out of town.

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

Blair was tired but happy as he set out from the Wilkinson farm. Sadie had delivered another fine, strapping, baby boy just before dawn, and he'd've left sooner but Jake had insisted he stay for a good, hearty breakfast, the only payment the proud farmer could really afford - that and a promise to bring in some preserves and a supply of flour, once Sadie was on her feet again. So, he was well fed, and well-satisfied with life as he hummed softly, looking forward to getting home and maybe even a couple of hours of shut-eye.

He was about a mile from town when three riders charged out of the shelter of the trees by the creek, quickly surrounding him.

"What the…" Blair called out, startled more than worried - until he recognized the older man. "Ralston!" he exclaimed, and then looked quickly at the other two men, his stomach twisting in unconscious revulsion at how much they looked like their dead brother, Jonas.

"Thought I'd forget you, huh, Jew?" Ralston, Senior, sneered.

"No, I just kinda hoped they'd thrown you in prison and tossed away the key," Sandburg snapped back, his voice level as he kept a wary eye on them. This wasn't good, and he knew it.

The ex-Colonel of the Masonville prison camp laughed, a harsh, cruel bark. "In the interests of peace and respect for brothers in uniform, officers were forgiven their misguided rebellion and afforded the opportunity to either retain their commissions or retire honourably." He spat into the dirt, a gesture of contempt. "As if I'd ever wear the blue."

"How'd you find me?" Sandburg asked, his voice tight as he tried to control his fear. They hadn't drawn their guns yet, but he had no doubt of what they intended - there was no way they were going to let him get away alive.

"Took me a while," Ralston replied philosophically. "I tracked you to the hospital they took you to, but just missed you. Heard you'd headed back to Maryland - but the folks there don't think much of you, do they, boy?"

Blair looked away at the reference to Eliza and her husband, Lucas, his former partner. Ralston laughed again, vastly enjoying himself. "Anyway, I lost your trail for a time, but your local little newspaper is quite a help. Ran across a story about the brave doctor of Bitterwood Creek, who'd first come into town to help folks quarantined with diphtheria and who didn't have a doctor to care for them. And then he nearly got himself killed, saving the Sheriff's life - because it seems he's also the town's Deputy Sheriff. Very warm-hearted story - got picked up by the national papers. And here I am."

"Yeah, here you are, with your two fine sons," Blair returned sarcastically as he eyed the younger Ralstons with disgust. "Take after Jonas, do they?"

Rage filled Ralston's face as he shouted, "Don't you talk to me about Jonas, you no-good murdering Jew! You should have died more'n two years ago!"

Blair looked from Ralston to his sons, and decided he'd be damned if he was just going to sit around and let them torture him, because that's what they'd do, before they killed him. So, he gave Butternut a sharp, sudden kick, yelling, "Go, girl!" as he bent low over her neck and burst past Ralston. Shots rang out, and Butternut's right foreleg jumped; she stumbled, her sudden speed making her crash to the ground. Blair rolled free, and was scrambling to his feet as the three riders thundered up to surround him and his horse, their guns leveled at him. Swallowing, he turned to check on Butternut but she was already climbing back up onto her feet, her grazed right foreleg dribbling blood from a deep gouge. "Easy, girl," Sandburg murmured, reaching up to stroke her neck. "You're okay."

Ralston snorted and waved his gun toward the creek. "Get moving - that way." And then he swiveled his Colt toward the wounded horse. "Or I'll kill your horse."

Swallowing, Blair gave a jerky nod and, his shoulders stiff, he turned and walked toward the trees. Joshua Ralston caught up Butternut's reins and tugged her along behind as the three mounted men paced him until they had arrived under the cool shadows of the gloriously golden trees.

They had fun roughing him up a bit, but that wasn't what they had planned for the main attraction. They wanted him conscious, and very aware - wanted him to die slowly. So though they bruised his ribs and laid open his face with a cut above one brow and a split lip, they exercised restraint and kept their knives in their sheaths.

"Let's do it, Pa," Job urged with eager cruelty sparking in his eyes. "I want to see him kick."

"All right, son," Ralston agreed with a cold smile. "Go bring his horse over here."

Joshua held Blair tight, an arm around the smaller man's throat, squeezing viciously, while Ralston bound Sandburg's wrists together behind his back. And then the older man looped a rope around his neck, drawing it tight.

Blair swallowed hard. He'd not said a word, nor made a sound, as they'd beaten him - hadn't wanted to give them the satisfaction of knowing their blows had hurt. But he knew that no matter how hard he tried, he wouldn't be able to stop his body's fight for air as he slowly strangled to death, or the ugly rictus of death by asphyxiation, his face blue and tongue swollen out of his mouth, his bowels loosened as the sphincter gave way. It galled him to know that they'd enjoy the spectacle - and made him nauseous to think of his friends, of Jim, eventually finding him swinging from the end of a rope.

They hauled him to his horse and lifted him up into the saddle. Ralston threw the end of the long rope up over a limb that would do nicely, and then tied it off around the tree trunk so tightly that Blair was pulled up stiffly in the saddle. He blinked and swallowed, his jaw tight and his lips compressed to a thin, determined line. He was wondering if he fell a certain way, if he could break his neck even though the knot wasn't designed to do that.

Ralston came to stand in front of Butternut as he looked up at Sandburg and said with formal relish, "For the heinous crime of murdering my fine son, Jonas Ralston, I hereby sentence to you to hang by the neck until you are dead. Do you have any last words?"

"Go to hell, Ralston," Blair grated, his eyes flashing with defiance. "And take your two misbegotten sons with you - may you all burn there with your 'fine son, Jonas'."

Ralston's eyes flashed with fury, but he held it in check. Stepping out of the way, he nodded to Joshua, who smacked Butternut's haunch hard, as he yelled out, "Hiya!" - and the startled horse bolted.

Blair grunted as the rope jerked tight, strangling him as he dangled four feet off the ground.

But then a shot rang out - and the rope snapped, dropping him, choking, to the grass.

The three Ralstons whirled, shocked by the sudden turn of events, their weapons instantly in their hands, firing toward the two men thundering down upon them. Jim's gun cracked again, and one of the boys cried out as he spun and dropped. Henri's rifle boomed, and the other son fell. The riders were almost upon him as Ralston, maddened with fury and holding Sandburg responsible for the loss of all his sons, whirled around to level his weapon on the man who was on his knees, bound and helpless, desperate for air he couldn't get - the rope drawn too tight to allow him to breathe.

Just before Ralston could pull the trigger, Jim dove off Lobo, tackling him and driving him to the ground. Ellison was so maddened by fury that he wanted to tear Ralston apart with his bare hands. As they rolled, Jim grabbed Ralston's gun arm but the older man was made strong by his insane rage and he punched Ellison hard in the face, while he fought to bring the gun down and around to shoot the Sheriff. Job, thought to be dead, struggled to bring his gun up and he shot Jim in the back barely a second before Henri rode in and shot the murderous lout, killing him. Freed of Ellison's restraint by the last perfidious action of his son, Ralston wheeled again on Sandburg, and was bringing his weapon up to shoot Blair in the head when Brown's next bullet rammed into his heart.

Henri jumped off his horse and raced to Blair, whose face was now blue with hypoxia. He was sagging to the ground, his strength rapidly waning as the rope around his neck choked the life from his body. The big man hastily loosened the noose and hauled it over Sandburg's head, and then he pulled out a knife to swiftly cut the bindings on Blair's wrists.

Heaving for air, gasping violently, Blair's gaze was locked on Jim who was laying on his back, apparently unconscious…or dead. As soon as he was free, Sandburg scrambled toward his best friend, hastily checking the pulse at the base of his throat and then pulling Jim forward, carefully, to rest on his knees as he bent forward to examine Jim's back. "Henri, give me your knife," he commanded with hoarse urgency, holding out his hand and, when he had it, he sliced through the blood-soaked shirt, baring the wound and the blood pumping from a powder-blackened hole to the right of Jim's spine, below his ribcage.

"Dammit," Sandburg cursed as he ripped off his own shirt. The wound was pumping out blood, rich and red - too much, too fast. As a doctor, Blair knew with chilling certainty that Jim had been hit in a bad place, that this was a mortal wound, but he'd be damned if he'd let Ellison die. Wadding up his shirt as an impromptu pressure pad, he quickly tied the remains of Jim's shirt tightly around Ellison's body to put pressure on the improvised dressing and hold it secure.

"Henri," he called out, his voice painfully raspy, "help me get him on Lobo. We've got to get him back to town!"

Brown, who'd just finished quickly verifying that all the Ralstons were dead, caught Lobo's reins and drew him closer to Ellison and Sandburg, and then he bent to pull Jim into his arms as easily as if he were picking up a child. But instead of placing Jim belly-down across the saddle, he settled him in a slumped, seated position. "Hold 'im, while I climb up behind," he directed Blair. "Wound like that, he shouldn't be shaken up by a rough ride."

Lobo, who didn't usually take to strange riders, seemed to understand his cooperation was needed, and stayed rock still as Blair steadied Jim and Brown climbed up behind him, and then pulled the unconscious man back to rest against his chest, one strong arm holding him securely. Though the gouge on Butternut's fetlock was no longer bleeding, Blair knew she could manage neither his weight nor the speed he urgently needed. Trusting her to find her way home at her own pace, Blair climbed onto Brown's horse, and raced ahead to get things ready in the infirmary.

He hadn't a moment to lose…Jim was dying…

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

Megan was keeping an anxious watch, so when Blair rode in so fast, leaping from Brown's horse and racing into his office, she ran along the boardwalk to follow him inside.

"What happened?" she demanded, finding Blair in the back, a pot and a knife already heating on the stove as he rapidly sorted through the instruments he'd need.

"Bastards shot Jim," he rasped, his movements tight with controlled, economical precision. "Henri's bringing him in."

"The Ralstons?" she asked.

"Dead," Sandburg spat, growling, "and good riddance to them."

He turned and dumped the instruments into the already simmering water, glancing at the clock on the worktable as he moved to the cupboard to pull out towels, linen pads and bandages. Setting them on the workbench by the operating table, he then gathered up the medicines he'd need, also putting them on the bench, ready to hand.

"How bad is Jim hurt?" Conner asked, standing with her arms crossed, wishing she knew what to do to help.

"Bad," Blair grated. He heard the clop of hooves in the back and raced to the door to open it. Brown had already slipped off the saddle, Jim in his arms, and he carried the Sheriff past Sandburg to lay him on the table, where Megan immediately set to work pulling off his boots. Brown took off Jim's gunbelt to hand to Blair, and then loosened his belt, giving Megan a look before he pulled down the jeans. Taking his point, she winked, as she said dryly, "I'm sure he doesn't have anything I haven't seen before," but in deference to the unconscious Sheriff's dignity, she hurried out of the room.

Henri snorted and shook his head as he hauled off Ellison's jeans. "What can I do to help?" he asked Blair. "I used t' help out on the plantation when folks got hurt…"

"Good, thanks," Blair replied as he placed the gunbelt on the worktable, and then grabbed the bottle of ether. "Help me turn him on his stomach and then go wash your hands. I'll need you to hold some instruments while I operate."

While Brown washed up, Blair carefully administered the ether. Though Jim was unconscious, he could revive at any time, and that wouldn't be good in the middle of the operation. Then, checking the clock, he quickly washed his own hands, arms and bare chest, taking a fresh towel to dry himself off. He pulled the instruments from the boiling water, using the ends of tongs that had also been boiling away, a hot towel around them to keep from burning himself as he arranged them on another clean linen that he'd laid on the tray.

Moments later, he was working over his best friend. The bullet had angled up to the ribs, but then deflected deeper into Ellison's body. Silently, with grim, utterly resolute determination and ruthless precision, Blair traced its path, keeping the wound as small as he could and still do what was needed. He kept his field of work dry by using linen to mop up blood that still bubbled up from somewhere inside and from small capillaries damaged by the incision. When it became necessary, he fitted retractors into the wound, drawing them to the necessary position and quietly asked Henri to hold them steady.

Finally, he found the bullet embedded in Jim's liver. Blair swallowed hard as he examined the extent of the damage, and then sighed. Most of the organ was intact, only one end ruptured by the lead pellet. Not great, but better than it might have been. Swiftly, he extracted the bullet, and then spun to the stove to pick up the red-hot knife. Returning, he angled the blade carefully into Jim's body, and seared the damaged liver, cauterizing and sterilizing the lacerated part of the organ. Tossing the knife away, he spilled some whiskey into the open wound, then some of the herbs Whispering Waters had given him, and then closed, using small, precise, tight stitches. Before he bandaged the wound, he dusted it with more of the herbs, as well as sulfa powder.

Henri watched it all silently, wordlessly in awe of how fast the doctor worked. When Blair was finished, Brown turned Jim gently, enough to slip his arms around his back and under his legs and then carried him to the clean cot Blair pointed him toward. As soon as Jim was positioned on his side, supported by pillows, Blair drew two heavy quilts over him.

When Brown asked why the heavy blankets, given the day was warm and the stove had made the infirmary downright hot, Sandburg explained quietly that shock, from the blood loss and from the trauma of the very invasive and traumatic surgery, was the biggest danger now. He needed to keep Jim as warm as he could, his feet slightly higher than his head - and having explained why, asked Brown to lift the foot of the cot while Blair put two thick medical books under the legs to keep it elevated.

Finished, he stood back and blew out a long breath as he studied Jim, and then he wordlessly turned away to wash the blood off his hands and arms. He wanted to weep and rage, scream out about the injustice of this happening to Jim, but it would do no good. So he gritted his teeth, and swallowed his rage and his fear - there wasn't time to indulge his own grief and terror that Jim might not live - no time to wallow in guilt because Ellison had been hurt so badly by men hunting him.

"What about you, Doc?" Brown asked.

"Me?" Blair rasped, looking over his shoulder with a puzzled frown as he lathered his hands. Jim was the one they all needed to worry about, not him.

"Your neck's pretty messed up with raw skin and rope burn," Henri pointed out. "Got some ointment or something I can put on it for you, maybe a light bandage to put around it, so's it'll heal?"

Wearily, Blair gave his friend a slight smile as he nodded. "Thanks, H - I forgot all about it."

When his own injury was attended to, Blair looked up at the big man. "I really appreciate all your support today," he rasped through his raw throat. "For coming with Jim to save my neck - literally - and for helping me with him. You're a good and brave friend, Henri."

Brown looked down and away, embarrassed by the praise. "So're the two of you," he replied quietly. "T'was Megan told Jim the Ralstons were in town - she didn't like the look of them," he told Blair, sharing the credit for his rescue.

Connor returned then. She'd been lingering in the doorway, anxiously watching the surgery, ready to help if needed. But when Henri was moving Jim onto the cot, she'd gone back to the kitchen to make a pot of tea. Holding out a mug of the restorative beverage, which she'd sweetened with honey, she said to Blair, "Jim's not the only one in shock. Sit down and drink this before you keel over. Only thing that's been keeping you going so far is sheer nerve." Turning to the blacksmith she ordered, "Help me bind his ribs. From the look of those bruises, I'd bet some are pretty banged up."

Blair blinked at her as he took the mug she shoved at him, and had to admit, now that there was time to notice, his ribs were aching pretty badly. When they finished binding his chest, she then cleaned up his face, putting antiseptic on the cut over his eye, making him hiss with the sting of it. That done, she stood back and gave him an assessing look, and then nodded. "Okay, I guess you'll do," she said crisply.

Blair couldn't help the small grin as he bowed his head in gratitude, and then looked back up into her bright eyes. "Thanks, Megan. For this," he waved at himself and the tea, "and for sending Jim out after me."

She nodded, only sorry she hadn't sent the Sheriff sooner. Looking at the bandages around his throat, remembering how his neck had looked and the hoarseness of his voice, she said hollowly, "They hung you, didn't they? Bastards. But why?"

Sandburg sighed. "Long story - we were on opposite sides in the War. I'm okay." When she gave him a skeptical look, he insisted, "Really, I'm fine. Look, I can take care of Jim now - you guys have businesses to run. You should go - but again - thank you, both of you, for everything."

They didn't really like to leave, but could see he needed some time to catch his breath. "Is he going to be all right?" Conner asked, pausing in the doorway.

"I hope so," Blair replied hoarsely, biting his lip as he turned away.

Silently, Megan and Henri nodded, and then they headed home. But they each pondered what neither had mentioned, nor ever would - the ruin of Blair's back. And they each wondered about the kind of hate that would engender such hideous abuse - if it was the same hate that had driven those monsters to ruthlessly hunt down a good and decent man, for the purpose of hanging him until he was dead. And then, they thought about Ellison, so desperately wounded by those same bastards.

Like Blair, they both consigned the Ralstons to hell.

Alone, Blair drew all the shades and dimmed all the lamps but one. He grabbed a spare shirt out of the cupboard and pulled it on, and then dumped the soiled linens and clothing that stank of blood into a bucket and set it outside the back door, to be attended to later. He cleaned his instruments and took away his medical supplies, closing them off in the storeroom. And then he picked up a basin and carried it to the small table by the cot. After filling a pitcher with water, and pulling down the laudanum from the shelf above the worktable, he carried it, the pitcher and a cup to the table. Last of all, he pulled out the small medicine bag with the panther talisman that he'd saved from Jim's shirt pocket, and slipped over his best friend's head.

And then he sat down in the chair beside Jim, waiting - hoping - his best friend would wake up. Taking Jim's limp hand between his own, clenching the long fingers tightly, he choked past the sob in his throat, "I did my best, but I don't know if that's going to be enough. God, please, don't leave me. You have to fight, Jim, you have to live…"

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

Two hours later, Jim groaned miserably. "Sick," he rasped urgently.

Blair shifted the basin quickly to the floor just below Ellison's face. Then, lifting a knee to rest his thigh against Jim's abdomen and pressing down with one hand on the wound to keep Ellison's body immobilized, he supported his friend's head as the man vomited over the side of the cot. "Easy," he soothed, his voice pitched low. "It's the ether - makes most people sick."

Ellison moaned again as Blair wiped his lips and then gave him a sip of water. "Feel like I've been stomped by a horse," he muttered weakly, grimacing with pain.

"You were shot in the back," Sandburg told him calmly. "How're the lanterns? All turned down?"

"Huh?" Jim mumbled, bleary with pain, nausea, blood loss and shock, not to mention the aftereffects of the surgery. "Oh, right." He pressed his eyes closed, fighting to concentrate on the images in his mind. "Damned things are bright," he grated.

"Okay, we can fix that," Blair soothed. "Let's start with the red lantern…"

Once he'd worked Jim through the process of lowering his sensory sensitivities, Blair gave him another drink, this time with a drop of laudanum in it. It would knock Jim out and keep him still - and right now, that was what was most needed so that he didn't pull any of the stitches and cause more internal bleeding. Sandburg knew the liver could heal, but it needed time. Especially since it would be working overtime trying to make up for the blood Jim had lost.

It wasn't long after that before folks started to come by, worried about their Sheriff. Blair appreciated their interest, and was grateful when Delores took charge of the laundry, and Maisie brought chicken broth and stew, along with fresh bread. But he was worried that too much company even in the front of the house, with people talking and asking questions, expressing their concern, would disturb Jim. So when Megan dropped in again, he asked her if she could stay and take charge of the door to the street - thank people for coming, but send them quickly on their way again. He asked in such a way as to present it as a favour to him, so that he wouldn't have to be constantly going to greet people.

Megan nodded, but she looked around at the dimmed room, and hadn't missed that Sandburg was speaking very softly, even for a guy with a raw throat. "Too much light and noise bothers him, doesn't it?" she asked astutely, her own voice soft. "I've noticed sometimes that he winces on really bright days, like he's got a headache. And he seems to overhear conversations no one else possibly could."

Blair's eyes flickered away from hers as he replied, "I guess, but lots of people have better hearing or vision than other people do…"

"Uh-huh," she grunted but let it go as she turned back to stand watch and fend off intruders, doing what she could to give both men a chance to rest and heal.

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

Blair kept Jim asleep for the better part of five days.

It meant painstakingly feeding liquids into him, virtually drop by drop, and massaging Ellison's throat to encourage swallowing, but Blair worked over him tirelessly, only stopping for quick, brief naps. When he'd ensured Jim's first need, for liquids to sustain his strength and help compensate for the blood he'd lost, Blair turned his attention to Ellison's body. Through Megan, he'd bought a sheep's skin from the General Store, rich with lanolin, to protect Jim's back, and got Henri to help him turn Ellison three times a day, to take pressure off his spine and hips. Hour after hour, he soothed lotion into Jim's skin, over his long arms and legs, and into his back and hips, so that his skin wouldn't dry or become irritated with lying too long on the rough cotton sheets. As he soothed and massaged, careless of the burn in his ribs as he lifted and bent the heavy limbs, he gently exercised Ellison's arms and legs, to keep circulation going and to lessen the weakening of Jim's muscles.

As he cared for his best friend, Blair's eyes blurred as he thought about how this was the third time that Jim had saved his life in less than a year, had simply refused to let him go. First, through the bitter cold and across the endless white prairie, at the risk of his own life, to get him back from the Indians and bring him home. And then, fighting his own terror, Jim had pressed his hands into Blair's body to staunch the hemorrhage that was killing him, and to remove the bullet that had brought him to death's door. And this time, thundering out to save him from being murdered by that scum, the Ralstons, only to have his boundless courage and unhesitating determination rewarded by a bullet in his back. Sandburg had done all he could, as fast as he could, to help Jim; hell, he'd move heaven and earth to save Jim's life, if he could. But he didn't know if his best would be good enough - and he was desperately afraid that Jim might yet give his life for having saved his.

And he talked, endlessly, a soothing ripple of sound, oblivious of the rawness of his own throat - soft words of respect and admiration, continuous encouragement to rest and focus on staying alive. Words that he could never say when Jim could hear them and know that one soul in this world wanted nothing more than his wellbeing and happiness, lest he embarrass the proud man. But this one soul sorrowed for Jim's pain and Ellison's silent grief over his inability as a man to right all wrongs, and in poignant regret that Blair could not better ease the burdens that Jim carried with such strength of body and character.

Feeling, somehow, that he should be able to do more, willing to give all that he had, Blair could only lay his warm palm over Jim's heart and bend to kiss this beloved man's brow, as he murmured, "I love you, my brother. I want you to live."

Minute by minute, hour by hour, day after endless day, Sandburg kept his vigil by Ellison's side, afraid that if he left, on his return he would find Jim gone…

If, and when, anyone in town needed his attention, he asked that they come to him, and he treated them in the office or the kitchen, leaving the infirmary quiet. He was quietly pleased when he learned that a prayer group had started over at the church, and that they were taking turns praying so that the prayers never stopped as the sun rose and fell and rose again as the days slowly passed. The preacher, Pastor Stevens, stopped by to offer good wishes and to assure Blair that he only need call on him or any of his flock for whatever help the doctor might need in caring for their Sheriff.

On the fifth day, guardedly hopeful that the wound was healing well and immensely relieved that Jim only had a slight fever, normal given how hard his body was working to heal, Blair stopped using the laudanum. It was time for Ellison to wake up - time for him to start taking in more than water and thin broth to regain his energy and strength.

A couple of hours later, Jim began to stir and Blair began a low murmur of encouragement to draw him back to consciousness.

"Hmm?" Jim mumbled and then sniffed.

"Come on, big guy," Blair soothed. "Time to wake up and show me those baby blue eyes."

"What?" Ellison muttered as he blinked and frowned up at the ceiling, his eyes slowly tracking toward Blair's voice. "What happened?" he sighed, grimacing with discomfort.

"I'll explain, but first, let's check your lanterns," Sandburg directed quietly. When he was satisfied that Ellison was as comfortable as he could be, he gave Jim some water, and then reached for the gruel he had ready and waiting on the side table. "I want you to eat some of this," he said, as he lifted a spoon to the Sheriff's mouth.

Jim took it and swallowed, but made a face, cutting his best friend a dirty look.

"I know, not your favourite thing, but you're not quite up to steak yet," Blair grinned, relieved beyond words that Jim was so coherent and responsive.

But Jim was now scrutinizing Sandburg, and from the way his eyes narrowed, he didn't seem to like what he was seeing. "Chief, you look like shit." And then memory seemed to return and he scowled as he stared at the light bandage around Blair's throat. "You okay?"

"Yeah, it's still a little sore, and my voice is a bit rough, but your marksmanship won the day - how the hell did you manage to hit that swinging rope with only one shot from that distance?" Blair replied, subtly redirecting the conversation away from his own injuries.

"I was motivated," Jim grunted, concern still in his eyes. "Jesus, Blair…when I saw…"

"I'm okay - as you can plainly see," Sandburg cut in, neither of them needing to dwell on that particular memory. "Thanks to you, with a little help from our friends."

"Those bastards better all be dead," Ellison growled, furious and sick with the memory of Sandburg swinging from the end of a rope.

"They are," Blair answered shortly, as he lifted another spoonful to Jim's mouth. "Now eat - doctor's orders." While Ellison ate, Sandburg told him again that he'd been shot in the back, but that he'd gotten the bullet out and was hopeful that Jim would have a full recovery. "I want you to take it easy for at least a month, and as soon as you can take more solid food, you can eat all the steak and liver you want until I figure you've had enough red meat to restore your blood loss."

"If I'm doing so great, how come you look like something the cat dragged in?" Jim demanded before Blair could stick another spoonful of the gruel into his mouth. "Don't try to snow me - I've seen you take care of enough sick people without half killing yourself to do it. When did you last get some decent sleep?"

Blair looked away from the too penetrating gaze and set the nearly empty bowl down. Memories of the wound and the extent of the damage flickered in his mind, and he swallowed. "You were lucky," he replied quietly, turning his gaze to Jim's, "the bullet didn't hit anything that wouldn't heal. But it was…a critical injury, and I…I wasn't sure…I did my best…as fast as I could…but I was afraid…"

His voice cracked and he turned away, blinking hard as he drew in a deep breath. Swallowing, he murmured, "Sorry…I was just really scared for awhile…"

Jim reached out to grip Blair's wrist, holding on as firmly as his weakness would allow. "How long since I was shot?"

"A little more than five days," Sandburg replied, swiping at his eyes with his free hand before he turned back to face Jim. "I kept you knocked out so that you'd be still, and heal. But you are healing, and you're going to be fine."

"Of course, I'm going to be fine," Jim murmured fondly. "I've got the best doctor in the world looking after me."

Sandburg snorted, but he smiled faintly. "Yeah, well, you've got a doctor who tries real hard, I'll give you that." Reaching up to stroke Jim's brow, he dropped his voice as he added, "And your doctor says you need to go back to sleep and rest some more."

Weary, feeling far weaker than he'd ever want to admit, Jim nodded and closed his eyes, but when he felt Blair cover his hand in a light, reassuring grip, he murmured, "Make you a deal, Doc - I'll go back to sleep if you go over to the next cot and lie down. I can hear your heart beating, so you don't have to hold my hand to let me know you're nearby…"

"You can hear my heart beat?" Sandburg exclaimed in astonishment. "Really?"

Ellison grimaced, unhappy with himself for having blurted out something he'd not previously mentioned, because it felt so invasive and embarrassing. But then, struggling to make light of it, Jim blinked open one eye as he muttered, "Don't bother the guy who's trying to sleep, okay? Go lie down like your 'blessed protector' tells you to do." And then he closed his eye, immediately pretending to snore.

Blair laughed at the familiar tone of teasing, taking great comfort that it looked like Jim was going to be just fine. But as he stood, he leaned forward to drop a light kiss on Jim's brow before turning to sink down on his own bed, finally feeling he could relax enough to really rest. "I love you, my brother," he whispered as he closed his eyes.

"I know," Jim rumbled from the other bed. "I love you, too, kid. Now, for God's sake, go to sleep."

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

The leaves fell from the trees lining the banks of the creek and the nearby river; slowly at first as single, individual leaves lost their last grip on life and dropped to dance for dizzy moments on the wind, before sinking to rest and return to the earth. Then for two days, there was a virtual blizzard of crimson and gold tumbling from the trees, leaving them suddenly stark and barren, bereft. The wind no longer blew warm, but had a biting, bitter edge that cut through clothing and chinks under doors or between tiny gaps in the walls and around the windows. At dawn, the ethereal lacing of frost reflected the first, glittering beams of the rising sun. The homey scent of wood smoke filled the air, rising on plumes of wispy gray against the clear, deep blue sky; and the chill crispness of the air clarified and purified sound so that it fell sharper, cleaner, on the ear. Autumn and winter were dancing together, one spinning into the lead with a sun that could still be warm, and the other, blowing cold whispers of what was to come.

Activity in Bitterwood Creek slowed down as fewer drifters passed through, relatives stopped visiting from out of town, and everyone hunkered down to get ready for the coming winter. Women toiled over hot stoves, canning and making preserves. Men chopped and stacked endless cords of wood for the fires that were essential to survival once the snows came with their killing cold. Women pulled out the winter layers, going over them to repair rips and tears, putting on patches, letting down hems for children who were taller this year. Men went hunting, to lay in meat for the dark months. There was less time for casual socializing, a greater sense of urgency that there was only so much time to get ready before that first blizzard hit and locked them indoors for long, dreary, months.

Word came over the telegraph that the Cavalry's war against the renegade Indians, who refused to stay on the land assigned to them, was heating up. Wagon trains had been attacked as they'd lumbered across the western territories. A whole Cavalry brigade had been wiped out up in the Dakota Territory. Several homesteads scattered across Kansas, Texas and up in Nebraska had gone up in flames over the summer. It appeared the Cavalry was stepping up its efforts to contain the Indians. Soldiers were shipped west from the Union on the same trains that brought Gatling guns and huge stores of rifles and ammunition. There was a big push on to bring the hostilities to an end.

Folks in Bitterwood Creek felt charmed when they heard about the depredations in other places. Though Doc and the Sheriff refused to be drawn into any discussions about their collective good fortune, people had their own ideas - and were, frankly, astonished to think the Indians would be that grateful to have been helped by a single white man. They wouldn't have credited the savages with such a fine degree of decency and honour. Still, nothing else could explain their good luck, so they offered up their prayers for continuing safety every Sunday - and kept the good doctor stocked with meat, eggs, fresh bread, vegetables from their gardens and fruit from their trees, and a good stack of chopped wood, out by the stable.

Simon's sprained knee was taking a while to heal, and he still couldn't ride into town. Until he could, Jim and Blair both knew Sandburg couldn't maintain the peace in Bitterwood Creek alone. Henri Brown didn't know what to say when Sandburg approached him to ask for his help. As the Deputy, while the Sheriff was laid up, Blair had the authority to bring on another deputy, but no way under the stars would Brown have expected he'd be asked to take on such a high-profile, trusted and respected role in the town - to wear the badge that Sandburg kept in his own pocket. His throat tightened up, and he brushed his hand under his nose as he sniffed, muttering something about having a cold, as he blinked rapidly. It made him proud to be asked to wear the small tin star, to be considered as someone whom others, black or white, would trust and respect, even defer to. So he took the badge and pinned it on, wearing it with a new level of confidence and visible commitment to do his best, to be worthy of Sandburg's, and Ellison's, trust in him. It never seemed to occur to him that the Ralstons might well have killed both Jim and Blair, if he hadn't ridden out with Ellison, but the Sheriff and his Deputy knew how it could have ended. Henri Brown had declared himself that day as a man who would make a stand when the chips were down and one of his people was threatened. So far as Ellison and Sandburg were concerned, he'd earned the badge, pure and simple.

Later, when Simon was able to come in for the weekend nights, Brown was as likely to be his backup as was Blair. It was a measure of the people who lived in Bitterwood Creek that most only thought the arrangement was sensible. Banks and Brown were capable good men, big strong men who could keep the peace, and that's what the job was about, wasn't it? Besides, Brown had helped save the lives of Doc and the Sheriff, so it only made sense that they'd asked him to help out.

The bottom line was, as Simon, Joel, Blair and Henri all assured him, it meant that Jim didn't have to worry about the security and wellbeing of his town and its citizens while he took whatever time he needed to heal.

The reassurance was thoughtful, even kind; but didn't do a damned thing to reconcile Ellison with the sorry fact that the bottom line, so far as he was concerned, was that he wasn't doing his job!

So, starting about two weeks after he was shot and escalating as time went on, Jim complained vociferously that he was fine, that he had a job to do, and it was time to stop the coddling. However, despite his vocal assertions, he was secretly relieved that Blair paid him no mind. The weakness Ellison felt lingered, scaring him - making him wonder if he'd ever regain the resilience and energy, the sheer stamina and strength, that he'd had before the Ralstons had come to town. He felt the cold more, and he was always so endlessly tired, embarrassed to still be napping during the day when he'd slept soundly the whole night before.

He wondered if, maybe, he was getting old. Most men didn't make it to fifty, and he was pushing forty already.

But, much to his relief, he didn't have to confront the fears about his unaccustomed feelings of fragility anywhere but in his own heart, because Blair not only wouldn't believe his protestations about being 'just fine', but actively contested the fact, saying there was 'no way in hell' that Ellison could be fully recovered. He'd lost a 'bucket of blood' - well, alright, maybe only a good-sized pitcher's worth - but it took months for the body to remake and restore what was lost, and there was no way to hasten that 'physiological process'. Furthermore, any major surgical operation challenged the body's resources of energy for up to a year, and Jim did realize that he'd undergone very major surgery, didn't he?

When Jim cocked his head and raised a brow as he looked meaningfully at his younger friend, Blair realized belatedly that he'd talked himself into a confession he'd never intended to make.

Sighing, he allowed as how he still got tired more easily since the 'summer' (his euphemism for having damned near died), and yes, it was frustrating, but it would pass, would eventually get better. He then, immediately, launched into a flurry of impressive and barely understandable medically technical explanations about the impact of 'gross trauma', reminding Jim that he'd suffered an essentially 'mortal', as in fatal, injury, but had been lucky enough to survive. But the massive severity of the injury 'shocked' the body, literally staggered it; and the corrective surgery, while eminently necessary, obviously, only compounded the initial shock and trauma, exhausting the body's reserves of energy as it reeled under the dual assaults and struggled to live, to survive, as in keep breathing! The body was a wondrous creation, but it was not invulnerable, could not and would not pretend to more than it could do - the body was honest! Pain meant something; it just didn't hang around because it was bored and felt like it. Exhaustion was real, not an illusion, not laziness or whatever. It was just plain stupid to ignore the body's messages, and Jim wasn't that stupid, was he? Blair hastened to point out that Jim had lost weight, though he was eating well, citing it as 'empirical evidence' that he was burning energy that his body needed to heal! The naps he needed in the afternoons were the same deal…his body craved nourishment, downtime and rest so that it could restore itself - so that it could build back strength and resilience and stamina! Just exactly what, about all that, didn't Jim get?

The combination of Blair's clinical certitude and personal candour, not to mention his outright indignation, eased Jim's hidden fears and reminded him that Blair had never lied to him. If Sandburg insisted this weakness was only natural and would eventually go away, then it must be true. So, he really tried to settle down to let his body heal without complaint, though he couldn't always contain his restiveness, his inherent need to be active. But, since he couldn't be active physically, he had a lot more time to consciously think about things as he lounged in the well-crafted, well-cushioned and cozy chair and footstool Sandburg had had moved up to his bedroom, along with a beautiful and warm down-filled quilt to keep him from getting a chill - so that he'd have a private place of quiet comfort to relax and rest, away from the hectic office and infirmary downstairs. Comfortable, and warm under that quilt, his gaze drifted out the window over the stark trees by the creek, and he thought about the stuff Blair had blasted him with, when Sandburg had finally had enough of Jim's persistent irritability and routine bitching, as well as his refusal to accept, with 'some modicum of grace', that he needed time to heal. As he recalled the scathing diatribe, he also remembered how Blair had admitted, reluctantly, that he, too, still felt weak after he'd almost died last summer. But then, Sandburg had, as was typical, distracted him away from that admission by haranguing him with ever more, and louder, information as it pertained to Jim's health. As to that, Ellison had to admit he'd never seen Blair so riled up before, though the fast-talking was nothing new.

And that gave Ellison pause, as he reflected that maybe Blair didn't always tell him the honest to God truth - maybe he didn't outright lie, but he'd misdirect, or withhold information, like the fact that he was still fighting residual weakness and a tendency to tire easily, not that he'd slowed down any. Chewing on his lip, Ellison considered that new insight, picking out other examples of how Blair kept his own hurts to himself, hidden by a convincing veneer of cheerfulness overlaying calm kindness. The kid had developed misdirection to a fine art in his efforts to not burden or worry anyone with his troubles, but most particularly his, admittedly, occasionally overly-protective best friend. And, well, he'd sure spun a good yarn to Rutherford just a few short weeks ago. Blair could be a more convincing liar than most anyone would ever believe given his air of still youthful innocence, wide-eyed sincerity and cheerful nature.

Youthful innocence, my ass, Ellison thought with a snort, that man has lived through hell on earth, and has to be pushing thirty!

So…what if Sandburg wasn't being completely honest about the state of his own health?

And that got Jim to wondering why it was, apparently, only 'utterly obvious' that his body, most particularly his liver, needed a chance to heal - but it was perfectly fine for Blair to have a whole organ ripped from his body because the spleen was, essentially, useless. Why was it there in the first place, if was useless? And if blissfully sleeping through a 'profoundly invasive procedure' was so all-fired 'traumatizing', what did it do to a man who'd had to consciously live through the experience? What wasn't Sandburg telling him? With a shaft of sudden, cold, fear, Ellison wondered for the first time if the spleen was a whole lot more important than Blair had ever let on - and that maybe, without it, Blair was somehow vulnerable, might yet pay the ultimate penalty for having saved his life. Sure, he seemed to be fine, but what if he wasn't? What if he was just pretending to be fine?

Jim, having a legitimate and important bone to pick, would have trooped downstairs and confronted Sandburg with his new questions immediately, if the kid hadn't been out tending to a farmer who'd gotten his leg crushed when his wagon had rolled that morning.

So, Jim had to bide his time and - since he wasn't a particularly patient man - his sense of concern escalated to outrage that Blair so quickly lectured him while keeping important information about his own vulnerability from Ellison. They were supposed to be best friends, right? Partners, even. If he couldn't trust Sandburg, whom could he trust? And why the hell didn't the kid trust him to be able to understand and handle Blair's needs? Was it a doctor thing or a Blair thing? Or was there something that Jim was doing, a way of behaving, that kept Sandburg from trusting him? Did he, maybe, think Jim didn't care?

Well, he'd find out, wouldn't he?

Just as soon as the devious little schmuck got home!

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

Jim heard Butternut's distinctive canter on the hard earth long before Blair finally rode into the yard below and swung wearily out of the saddle. Beginning to stand, intending to head straight downstairs, Sandburg's behaviour caught his attention, so he leaned forward, concealed by the curtain, and studied his best friend with new intensity. Sandburg was resting against Butternut, his head bowed against her neck, and his shoulders slumped, looking too tired to stand. Then he straightened up with visible effort to lead his mount into the stable. For long moments, during which time Jim listened closely, he stumbled around unsaddling Butternut and brushing her down, murmuring in low, sad tones that were too soft for Ellison to make out. He caught Sandburg's muted groan as he forked hay into the mangers for both their horses, and Jim was about to go out to help, but Blair was already shuffling out of the stable, his medical bag in one hand, the other clutching his collar closed against the chill wind. As he approached the back door, he looked up at Jim's window, the shadow of a smile on his pinched, worn features. He couldn't see Jim in the shadows, Ellison knew that, but he could see Blair plainly - the lines of exhaustion around his lips, the dark shadows of fatigue under too-wide eyes that were dull with weariness. And then Blair again straightened up, squaring his shoulders and forcing a bounce into his lagging steps, once again appearing the effervescent, indefatigable kid who laughed easily and seemed never to have a care in the world.

Jim's jaw tightened and his lips thinned. It hurt that Blair felt he had to pretend around him. And it made him angry, born of concern and worry for the younger man, but angry nonetheless. It was a lie, all that fine pretense of boundless cheerfulness and sparkling humour. Damn it. He should have noticed a long time ago. He knew what Blair had endured in Masonville, but had hidden away, would probably still be hiding if Jim hadn't seen the scars. Yeah, sure, the kid was probably only carrying on with the easy-going manner he'd likely learned long ago to hide what he figured others didn't need to know or, maybe, couldn't deal with. Sandburg was strong, one of the strongest men Jim had ever known when it came to character and conviction, integrity and honour, and nobody could hold a candle to the depths of compassion in the man. But, damn it - wasn't it lonely? When did Blair give himself a chance to just lean on someone else once in a while? Even now, with the depth of friendship they shared, did he feel he was alone? Had he always felt alone? And, come to that, why hadn't he ever talked about his childhood and youth? Jim frowned, wondering why he'd never asked Sandburg about his past. Maybe because he didn't want to talk about his own childhood and, if he ever raised the subject, Blair would be on him like a terrier, wanting to know what Ellison's home life had been like, and why he'd run away to the Army when he'd only been thirteen. And, sonofabitch, that kid would worm everything out of him and, before he was finished, Jim would have forgotten his original interest had been in hearing about Sandburg's past.

Well, he was wise to the kid now. No more fast-talking and misdirection, no more teasing and shrugs and easy laughter that dismissed the mere question that he might have problems, or worries, or hurts, as of no import. No more. This partnership was a two-way street; they backed each other up. It was time to get a few things straight.

By the time Jim clattered downstairs, Sandburg was in the kitchen, stoking up the stove and gazing at the shelves of canned goods and preserves that the good ladies of the town kept supplying. Hearing Jim, he turned with a smile.

"Hey, how're you doing? Hungry? I was just looking at our overflowing abundance of choices. Man, so long as one of us keeps getting hurt and invoking the mothering instinct around town, we'll never starve. I was thinking maybe some of Maisie's incredible beef soup - it's got lots of vegetables in it - and maybe some bread. A simple but satisfying evening meal - what do you say?" he burbled on as he poured hot water into a tea pot and pulled down two mugs, setting them onto the counter before retrieving the fresh loaf of bread from the cupboard and pulling out a round of cheese go with it - perpetual motion wrapped up in a cheerful package.

Jim crossed his arms, standing like a rock in the doorway. "What do I think? I think it's time you sat down for a bit and caught your breath," he said repressively. "You look so tired that the breeze from a butterfly's wing could blow you over."

Blair stopped and gaped at the tone and the thunderous look on Jim's face. "What's with you, man? Wake up grouchy after your nap? I'm fine, just…a little tired, that's all, no big deal," he replied, his tone teasing and dismissive.

"Cut the crap, Sandburg - I finally figured out the game. I know I'm slow, so it took me more than a year, but I have figured it out," Jim slammed back. "Sit and catch your breath. I'm capable of heating up some soup and slicing some bread for supper."

Blair's eyes narrowed as he studied Ellison. Concerned, he asked, "What's wrong, Jim? Why do you look like Mount Vesuvius just before it blew up and buried Pompeii? I know it's got to be boring, here all day alone, and you hate being tied down. But, if you need something…"

"I'll tell you what I need, Chief," Jim cut in, moving into the room as he pointed a rigid finger at Sandburg, "I need you to start being honest with me."

Too tired to join in this dance, and not having a fine clue what Jim was going on about, Blair snorted and threw up his hands. "What is with you, tonight? What honest? When haven't I been honest with you?"

"What's the spleen really for, Chief?" Jim challenged.

"What?" Blair gaped, feeling slightly sandbagged and wondering if Jim had been amusing himself by reading the medical tomes in the office. His gaze shifted away, as he tried to redirect, to get to the bottom of why Jim was asking now, months and months after the fact. "Why? What brought that up?

Jim looked away, obviously reaching for calm. "You told me the spleen is useless, that nobody really needs one - but that doesn't make any sense. You said yesterday that the body doesn't lie, that it's 'honest'. So why would the body waste time with a useless organ? Why does it exist in the first place?"

"Oh, well, it all has to do with evolution, like your appendix, for example. At one time, it had a function processing the unrefined foods we ate, but now it's not necessary and really only causes trouble. Evolution takes a long time, Jim, and…"

"What's the spleen for, Sandburg? Straight out, okay? No beating around the bush about the appendix and evolution and…"

"I wasn't beating around the bush. You asked me why the body would have useless organs!" Blair cut in, his voice rising.

Jim blew out a breath and didn't know whether to laugh or cry. The kid was working so hard at avoidance of the question that Ellison was getting very worried. What could be so terrible that Blair wouldn't tell him, even when he was asked directly and repeatedly? How serious was it? "You're starting to scare me, Sandburg," he said tightly. "What's so bad that you won't tell me?"

Hearing the genuine fear, Blair sagged. "Ah, Jim…it's nothing you need to worry about…"

"How about you let me decide that for myself," Ellison countered. "I'm all grown up, in case you haven't noticed. I'm not some kid you have to protect all the time!"

"Okay, okay," Blair capitulated as he held up his hands in surrender. He poured two mugs of tea, set them on the table and sat down. Looking up at Jim, he explained, "The spleen really doesn't have a hugely important role, not like the liver, or stomach, or brain or intestines. I didn't lie about that, not exactly. But, it may have a function in helping to sustain the immune system - to help resist and fight off disease. We don't know, not for sure, but people without spleens seem to be more prone to infection than they were before it was removed. That's it. No big deal. But, I didn't tell you because…"

"Because you're a doctor and you're around sick people all the time, and now you're more at risk and you didn't want anybody worrying about that," Ellison cut in, his anger building again. "Dammit! You could…"

"Die, yeah, I know," Blair cut in calmly. "Jim, every doctor knows his work can put him at risk. If we worried about that, we wouldn't be doctors. I'm careful. I'm not a fool or some martyr who thinks dying for my work would somehow be noble. But - I am a doctor. I'm not going to stop being a doctor. And having you, or other people, worrying that every time I go out to treat a case of pneumonia or whatever, is going to…well, the worry doesn't help, doesn't change anything, and frankly, it just takes more energy to reassure than to just avoid the discussion in the first place."

"So, it was deliberate. You willfully chose to as much as lie to me," Jim accused. "You withheld this information, keeping it a secret…"

Having had more than enough, Blair stood up, stomping toward Ellison and poking his finger in Jim's chest as he flared, "Secrets? You want to talk about keeping secrets? How about the fact that you can hear my heart beat? Huh? How's that for a secret? I'm trying to help you use and manage your senses and you don't tell me something like that? Just how long, since we're being so honest here, have you been able to hear my heart beating? Do you hear everyone's heart beating? Because, that's been really worrying me. How distracting must that be? How incredibly annoying! God, how much energy does it take just to cope with that kind of noise surrounding you all the damned time?"

Startled by the attack, Jim backed up, trying to keep the avalanche of questions straight. "Since I first woke up after the bank robbery, that's when and how long. And, no, I don't hear everyone's heart, not unless I really listen. So, it's not distracting, or annoying - it's relaxing, more than anything…"

"All the time we've been working on your senses, and you never told me? Why not?" Sandburg stormed.

"Well, it's not something that comes up, you know…"

Sandburg snorted and shook his head. "Jim," he said quietly, "it's fundamental. I have run countless tests to determine the scope of your hearing, and you've never told me you could discern such subtle…do you know what that means? It means that when you're dealing with other people, you can tell when they're tensing up, or losing control or maybe lying. I can't believe you didn't tell me this until you were so whacked out that you didn't know what you were saying."

Wearily, he turned away, sinking into his seat, his head turned away as if he could hardly bear the deception.

"Chief, look, it just seemed intrusive…embarrassing…I didn't know how you'd feel about me hearing that all the time. I mean ALL the time," Jim struggled to explain.

"I'm a doctor, Jim. The functions of the body don't embarrass me. They fascinate me," he replied flatly, not looking up at Ellison. Shaking his head, Blair sighed and then raised his eyes. "It's okay, I know you're not comfortable with your senses, but please, you have to tell me this stuff or I can't help you."

Chagrined, Jim nodded, and then froze. His head lifted and he glared at Sandburg as he snapped, "You just did it again!"

"What?" Blair demanded, looking thoroughly confused and more than a little annoyed.

"You twisted a discussion about you and your health, and the fact that I want you to be straight with me, to a discussion about my senses, and completely distracted me from what I wanted to talk about," Jim replied, shaking his head, caught between exasperation and admiration for the sheer skill and subtlety of Sandburg's tried and true tactics. But then, at the look of utter confusion on Blair's face, he asked, "Do you even know you're doing it?"

Sandburg closed his eyes and leaned back against his chair. God, he was so tired. What the hell was Jim talking about, and did they really have to talk about it right now? "I'm sorry," he murmured. "I don't understand what you think I'm doing. I'm interested in other people, in lots of things - so I ask questions and…"

"No, Blair," Jim cut in quietly, his anger spent. Sitting down, he laced his fingers on the table and said, "It's not just about curiousity and genuine concern for other people - which you have in abundance. I'm not challenging that. I am saying that you have a habit, conscious or otherwise, of not letting anyone in, of never sharing worries, or burdens, or concerns, or whatever with anyone else. Whenever anyone gets close, you redirect the conversation away from you."

Blair opened his eyes to look at Jim as he listened. "But…" he tried to interject but Ellison held up a hand.

"Just listen, okay? I want to say this, want you to know what I've finally noticed, because it bothers me, and worries me. It's not just the big things, like Masonville or the risks you live with now because you don't have a spleen. It's the little, everyday, things, too. Like tonight. I saw you ride in. I watched you - you looked like you could barely hold yourself up, you're so tired. I heard you, in the stable, not the words, but you sounded so sad. And then, as you approached the house, you straightened up, pasted a smile on your face and bounced in, like everything was just fine. But it's not, is it? You're hurting and you're dead on your feet. Why do you feel you can't let me see that?"

Blair studied Jim for a moment, and then his gaze fell away as a range of emotion played across his mobile features. The mask of pretended vitality slipped away, followed by weariness that quickly changed to such profound sadness that Jim felt his throat tighten in response. "What is it? What's hurting so bad?" he asked, very quietly, afraid if he pushed too hard now, Blair would close up on him again.

Swallowing, Blair replied, in a voice hoarse with control as if he was afraid it might break, "I had to take off Simpson's leg today. There was nothing I could do to save it…the bones were completely crushed, and if I'd tried to save it, it would have rotted - and he'd've died." Twisting the mug in small circles, his head down, he continued, "He, and his wife, and his oldest kid, Nathan, he's nine - they all begged me not to take it off. 'Cause he's a farmer, and he's got six kids and he needs both legs to work the fields and keep his family safe and fed. He told me he'd rather be dead, that Aggie could find another husband then, to care for her, and the kids. He begged me…"

Blair's voice cracked then, and he compressed his lips tightly, his whole body rigid with the effort to not break down under the weight of pity and sorrow he carried. "He hated me, I could see it in his eyes, when he realized what I was going to do, that I wouldn't allow him the dignity of just dying and being done with it. You know how many times I've seen that look in a man's eyes? Hundreds and hundreds of times! All those men and boys in the War…but…life is precious. It's a gift. And I can't…can't just let it slip away, not if I can hold onto it. Nobody but God knows what the future might bring. Nobody knows how much richness they can still have. God…if they have someone to love them, family…if they can feel, and touch, or see the dawn or hear a bird sing…they're still alive, and life is something you don't get back when you throw it away in a moment of fear or despair. Death comes to claim us all soon enough - there's no need to hurry it along."

Blair took a deep breath, his hand coming up to brush his eyes and he sniffed. "I get tired, Jim. Physically, emotionally and spiritually tired, just like any other man. But I know it passes. Whether or not I'm right or wrong about doing whatever is necessary to help people hold onto some quality of life, I know that it's the only way I can be and live with myself." Looking up at Ellison, he asked, "Why would you even want to hear this stuff? Why do you want to know that someday I might get sick because my spleen isn't there anymore? There's nothing that can be done to change any of it. It just is. Why do you think I should tell you things that are only depressing or might worry you when you don't need the aggravation?"

"Because you're my best friend," Jim replied, his own voice unsteady. "Don't you understand? You don't have to carry all this alone. You're not alone, not anymore. I don't know how to say it any plainer, Chief - I don't want you thinking you have to pretend around me. Maybe all I can do is listen, and, yeah, maybe sometimes I will fuss too much, because I do worry about you. You're strong, kid - but nobody should have to be strong all the time, every damned minute of their lives. Why is it so hard to just let me be your friend? God knows, you've done everything in your power to be here for me, to help and support me any way you can."

Sandburg's eyes drifted around the room, not really seeing it, as he pushed his fingers through his hair, dragging it back off his face and behind his ears. "I don't know why it's so hard," he mused, a slight frown between his brows as he thought about it. "I can't really remember being any other way." Shifting his gaze back to Ellison, he continued, "It's not because I don't trust you, because I do. And it's not because I don't value our friendship - you're the best friend I've ever had and I…I honestly don't know what I'd do if I ever lost you." He took a shuddering breath and swallowed hard. "This past year has been the first time in my life that I've known that I'm not alone. You're like a rock, Jim. Solid. You won't ever let me down. Or betray me. Or…just forget about me. When you rode into Swift Eagle's camp, I couldn't believe my eyes. Nobody - I mean nobody - else has ever, would ever, go out of their way, let alone do something so resolute, so brave, just to…to bring me home."

Sandburg's voice cracked as his head dropped into his hands, his shoulders shaking as he fought back the raw emotion that suddenly rampaged through him.

"Ah, Chief," Jim choked as he stood to move around the table. Hesitant, uncertain, he paused when he reached Sandburg's side, but he couldn't bear to see the kid hurting so badly. "Come here," he growled as he gently pulled Blair toward him, dropping to one knee so that he could hug the younger man. Blair turned into his arms, pressing close, his own arms coming up around Jim's back to hold on tight, his face pressed against Ellison's shirt.

"I'm sorry," Blair sniffed, still trembling. "I don't know what's wrong with me…"

"Shh," Jim soothed as he tenderly rubbed his friend's back. "There's nothing wrong with you. Not a goddamned blessed thing. Except, maybe, for your tendency to trick and deceive, misdirect and confuse to protect everyone around you. It's all well-meant, for a good cause, I know - but it stops at the door, okay?"

Sandburg huffed out a broken laugh. "Yeah, okay - I get it. Good causes outside and lost causes inside."

Turning it into a joke, dismissing it, making light of, and denigrating his own value. Jim sighed as he looked toward the ceiling, praying for strength. "No, kid, you don't get it," he said quietly. "You're not a 'lost cause', Blair. Who you are, what you feel, what you want, is important - and here, inside these walls, if nowhere else, you get to relax and just be you. Because, well, because you're worth caring about, and worrying about, and I want you to feel safe with me. Hell, Chief, of course I went after you to bring you home, 'cause this isn't home without you in it. You gotta know by now, I don't have a clue what I'd do if I lost you, either. Nobody in my life has ever been as important to me, as you are. Now, do you get it?"

Blair was quiet for a long minute but, finally, he nodded as he sighed, "Yeah, I, uh…thanks…" Pushing back out of Ellison's clasp, he sat back and looked at his friend. Licking his lips, he said steadily, "I'm real tired, tonight. It was a hard day. And, if you wouldn't mind, I'd appreciate it if you made us something to eat. Something not too heavy. And, uh," he hesitated, looking away, but then turned his earnest gaze back, "I'd really like to talk more about what you can hear - not because I'm trying to avoid talking about myself, but because I'm really interested. Okay?"

Jim's lips quirked in a crooked grin as he said, "Okay." Standing, he ruffled Blair's curls and added, "Now, that wasn't so hard, was it?"

Snorting, Sandburg shook his head as he said, very seriously, "Oh, man, you have no idea."

Chuckling lightly as he turned away to begin preparing their meal, Jim was, in fact, struggling desperately to hide the very deep fear that now took possession of his soul. Blair was at risk. Every damned day when he went out to tend someone sick, he tempted fate. But it was only too clear that Sandburg had absolutely no intention of giving up who and what he was - and if Jim wanted Blair to share his burdens, he couldn't be seen to buckle under them. Once again he despaired of his complete inability to protect a man who refused protection, and could only love him, and pray that Blair's strength of heart and soul would be enough to ensure the health of his body.

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

The walls came down after that - oh, not all at once. Both men were too engrained in their inclinations and habits of just dealing with things on their own. Long years ago, when they were still but young children, they'd both been hurt by life's events and, most of all, by their parents, who hadn't been there to hold and reassure them when things were rough - more, who had most often been the cause of their pain. Both boys had learned - very early in life - they had no one to depend upon but themselves. The despairing and very frightening realization that they were flying on their own, while still so young, had branded their souls. But, gradually, they learned to share more, and risk being vulnerable with one another, if no one else.

Jim learned more about Sandburg's childhood, and tried not to show his very real shock that Sandburg had no idea who his father was, illegitimacy being something shameful for most of society. Frowning, Ellison thought about the ugly names Blair would have been called by other children, and the way he would have been ostracized, as if his uncertain ancestry was somehow contagious. Blair didn't belabour the mystery of his parentage, more or less just treating it like another fact, but Jim saw the shadows in his eyes before they dropped away. Sandburg described his mother, Naomi, as something of a gypsy; but as more was revealed, Ellison thought the description kind more than accurate, though it was true enough that the woman moved around a lot, and had taken her son along for the ride. She wouldn't tell Blair anything about her past, so he had no idea of any family but her. Instead, she told him that it didn't matter where people came from - what mattered was the kind of person they were. And Jim had to admit, that was a pretty good lesson to learn.

Sandburg went on to tell him that throughout Blair's childhood, they had drifted from place to place, and not just in the United States but all around the world. When Jim asked how they could afford to move around so much, Sandburg had shifted uncomfortably before allowing that they didn't travel in style or alone, just not with the same people for long…the same men, for long. Jim had swallowed hard as Sandburg cut him a sideways look, gauging his reaction.

"She's not a bad person, Jim," he hastened to say. "She's great, actually. Just…different."

Jim could see how important it was to Blair that he not judge Naomi Sandburg harshly, so he nodded, and reflected aloud that Sandburg seemed to have learned a lot about the world, that it had helped to make him the kind of person who accepted people as they are. Ellison was rewarded by a relieved smile, and a grateful nod. But he wondered - wondered a lot - about Blair's revelation the first night Jim had begun cutting through the well-built walls that hid his friend's sorrows…about how Sandburg had said that nobody else would go out of their way to bring him home. And Jim began to understand that Blair had been talking about his mother that night, and that's likely why he'd reacted so emotionally to having to accept that it just wasn't normal to grow up feeling that totally alone in this world. Did 'not traveling in style' mean the kid had gone hungry and cold? Did all those men who had apparently streamed through their lives engage Naomi's interests and attention more than did her own son? Was that why he was so self-sufficient? Why he just expected when the Indians carried him off that no one would come after him? How often had he been lost, abandoned, afraid - and no one had come? Jim might have found his childhood home bleak and cold emotionally - but what must it have been like to grow up with no home at all?

Ellison tried to convince himself that, whatever her flaws and foibles, she'd raised a very good, very strong, man. But…he couldn't shake the conviction that Blair had more or less raised himself.

Though he didn't say so to Blair, because it was evident from the way Sandburg talked about his mother that he loved her dearly, Jim sincerely hoped he'd never meet Naomi Sandburg.

He didn't want to hit a woman; didn't ever want to shake one until her teeth rattled…

And Jim learned that he'd been quite right in his assumption that he couldn't just ask questions without having to answer some in return. With a certain degree of wry resignation, he accepted that if he expected Sandburg to come clean about what mattered in his life, then he had to do the same. Blair wanted to know why he'd run away at thirteen to join the Army - and Jim had known the question was pretty much inevitable, having let the information slip when he'd been trying to explain, more than a year ago, why the decision to attack Poplar Flats had been such a betrayal, not only of Running Deer and his people, as hideous as that had been, but also of the honour and word of the US Cavalry and the nation's government, the honour Jim had dedicated his life to upholding.

So, he told Blair about his own childhood. It had been a great deal different, growing up in a rich house in Philadelphia, with both parents and a kid brother, until his mother had gone home to her family, never to return again. He'd been young, only seven, when his mother had left, so he couldn't answer Blair's question as to why she'd gone. He didn't know, only that his parents had fought a lot; very civilized, never violent, but they'd said cold and ugly things to one another. Jim just assumed his Mom had gotten sick of it. Which left him with his father to try to explain. William Ellison was a businessman who prided himself on being astute and tough, and very competitive. Making money was, for him, a battle that men won or lost - victory going to the one who was smarter, faster, the hardest worker, the most determined. There was no room to waver, no time to play - life was too serious for holidays. So he'd driven his sons to excel, and set up competitions between them for his attention and favours. To make them strong. To prepare them for a cold and indifferent world. Jim shrugged and said quietly that he'd just gotten tired of never being good enough, tired of being seen by his kid brother as the barrier that had to be surmounted for Stephen to win their father's love - tired of being the enemy in his own home. And he came to suspect that, much as they tried to win their father's love and approval, William really didn't have any inside of himself to give, so the competitions would just go on and on, never ending…never satisfying…nobody ever winning.

So, he'd called it quits and left.

"I'm glad you realized that it was all about him and had nothing to do with you or your brother," Blair observed softly. "Leaving was the smartest thing you could have done - but it must have taken a lot of courage." He paused for a moment, and then added, "You seem to have a learned a lot, though, taken a lot with you, I mean, about honour, and never giving up and giving your best. That's who you are, but you've chosen to stand for things that are a lot more important than money."

Jim chewed on his lip as he thought about that - he'd never looked at it that way before. If anything, he'd been afraid he'd turned out too much like his old man, as cold and remote. But he nodded slowly. He had made different choices than his father had, for different reasons, and he wouldn't do a lot of things over in his life. He was comfortable, mostly, with the man he'd become.

As Sandburg watched his friend consider his words, he wondered how much it must have hurt the seven-year-old boy when his mother had just left him with a cold, remote father and no explanation of any kind. Did Jim's own decision not to have a family, his sometimes prickly nature and initial reluctance to acknowledge their growing friendship and his tendencies toward being a loner, all grow out of a belief that, for some unknown and explained reason, he was unlovable? Lowering his eyes in the easy silence between them, Sandburg silently cursed Jim's parents for the way they'd both played a part in scarring his soul - and despised Rutherford for having destroyed the fragile peace Jim had found in the solid, predictable routines of community he'd thought he could trust and believe in, if not to love him, to at least give him a purpose that mattered and reason for being.

Blair also thought, but didn't say, that he'd like to sic his mother on William Ellison - she'd make mincemeat out of the idiot who defined money as the objective, as opposed to understanding that it was simply a convenience - a necessary but far from sufficient aspect of life. Shaking his head, Sandburg reflected that, in his experience, most people thought they needed, or they wanted, far more money than was ever really necessary to live a good life. The real wealth in life was the people you shared it with, what you learned, and experienced - what you could give so that your life was worth living.

Easy for me to say, Sandburg thought wryly as he looked around their kitchen, where they seemed to fall into these kinds of conversations at the end of the day. This house was given to me - it's not like I earned it.

As the days went on, Jim found his time of recuperation wasn't so tedious, now that Blair was more candid. For one thing, he didn't feel so useless. He might not be up to busting up a barroom brawl, but he could do things around the house to make things a whole lot easier for a busy physician who tended, perpetually, to do too much. There was laundry to be done, bandages to be rolled, and meals to be made. Scalpels to be sharpened and the office always needed tidying up. And he could just listen, when Sandburg came home tired and careworn - it didn't take any effort, but the kid relaxed when he talked, and Jim knew he was sleeping a whole lot better.

Not that it was all sad stories. They had adventures to share, too; wild and hair-raising, crazy and sometimes so funny that they laughed so hard they had to gasp for air. It didn't really even matter what they talked about after a while.

They just both relished the easiness that had grown between them.

Neither of them felt 'alone', anymore.

And each of them knew with unshakeable certainty, so long as the other one lived, they'd never, ever, be alone again.

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

Winter blew in one icy November night, and the next morning the world sparkled with a carpet of white, the barren trees now decked out with fancy togs that caught the light, their starkness transformed to delicate beauty.

"Yeah, yeah, it's pretty," Blair groused as he shivered in front of the stove, waiting for the coffee to perk.

But Jim just snorted and cast his friend a sidelong look. Sandburg laughed, caught out. Oh, it was true, he didn't like the cold much - but winter had a kind of magic all its own.

"Want to go make a snowman?" he asked, his eyes sparkling like a kid half his age. "Maybe moving around will help me warm up."

"Sure, why not?" Jim agreed as he reached for his coat.

They started out making a snowman, and ended up building a couple of forts with the kids from the town, and tossing snowballs back and forth with hilarious abandon. Coming back inside, flushed red with the cold and exertion, laughing as they debated who had won, they set about making some hot chocolate to drink around the fire in the office.

And the house didn't seem as cold as it had that morning.

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

On a bright clear day in mid-December, Sheriff Ellison and Doctor Sandburg enacted their second annual murder of innocent trees and gleefully helped one another decorate the martyrs to the yearly ritual. Various townsfolk signified their approval by giving them each small ornaments for their office trees, and the two men had a good time eating as much popcorn as they strung, while drinking hot chocolate with marshmallows melting into the rich, decadent brew.

And Sheriff Ellison surprised his best friend by knowing a lot more of the words to the carols sung at the end of the Christmas pageant. When Blair teased him about it on their way home, Jim shrugged as he said, "Well, they are pretty songs, Chief. Someone pointed that out to me, can't recall who offhand, so I paid attention to them, and decided I wanted to know the words, too."

And, though he snickered derisively, Blair was pleased at the subtle tribute.

When they walked into the church, though, on Christmas Eve, Blair really didn't know what to say, or where to look, when Urseline Tucker boomed out with great good cheer, "Well, Doctor Sandburg, it is good to see you! We'll save your soul yet!"

Jim came very close to hitting a woman for the first time in his life when Blair blushed crimson as everyone turned to look at him - the only ostensibly 'unsaved soul' in the building. "Mrs. Tucker, that's…" he began furiously, his own face flushed with anger.

But with a civil nod to Urseline, Blair gripped Jim's arm as he moved them briskly along the aisle to the first convenient pew that still had two spaces available…typically, at the very front of the sanctuary. "Don't, Jim, please," he murmured fiercely, cutting off Ellison's intended diatribe. "Thanks…but don't."

However, there was someone else in the church that evening whom had also had enough of the whispers and snickers, jeers and jibes, the totally undeserved insults to a fine man who served their community with skill and compassion, and who warranted consideration for the respect he freely showed others. Nodding to himself, having decided what he intended to do to redress the balance, he bided his time as the ritualized service progressed, through the opening prayer, and the carols, 'O, Little Town of Bethlehem', 'O Holy Night', and 'Good King Wenceslas'. And then Preacher Stevens rose to regale his congregation with his homily.

"Tonight, on this most special of eves, I wanted to talk about why Jesus was born a Jew," he began enthusiastically, already working himself to thunderous excitement and, evidently, blissfully unaware - or uncaring - of the rustle of surprise in his congregation, at the most unusual subject. To many, it sounded as if it might be more appropriate to Easter, when everyone knew Jesus was crucified by the wretched Jews.

To one, it sounded like a nightmare.

Blair stiffened beside Jim and Ellison froze, wishing to hell they weren't in the very front row and could simply walk out. Sandburg sure didn't need a lot of crap about how evil the Jews had been and how they'd rejected the Lord.

"I think it's important, on this night of nights, to recall that the Jewish people," the Pastor continued, his voice rising, as was his wont, to give emphasis to key points, "the Children of God, are the Chosen of God, and most beloved of all peoples, by our Heavenly Father. From the earliest times, God chose them to be the recipients of His message, despite the fact that they were a poor and, far too often, a besieged, beleaguered and abused community of people by those richer and more powerful than themselves. But God doesn't care about our earthly riches - did not Jesus say to render unto Caesar what is Caesar's, and unto God, what is God's? And does this not mean to render love, sacrifice and quiet, private, prayer? Did not Jesus revile the Temple and weep for the ostentation of public righteousness? Did he not enjoin us to pray in our closets, out of sight and seeking no approbation of others? Abraham, Moses and the Prophets, the men whose actions and words guide us as the foundation of our beliefs, were all Jews! God cares about how we live our lives, about the kind of people we are, and in our worship, we hope to be as beloved by Him as the Jewish people have always been!" He thumped the pulpit for good measure, to underscore his point.

"God chose Bethlehem, a small, Jewish village, as we sang earlier this evening, as the place of our Good Lord's birth into this world; and a simple carpenter and his wife, to be the parents of the man we worship as our Saviour. Good, honourable, Jewish people. And, we're told that he was born, as 'O Holy Night' recalls, because the world had long been 'in sin and ever pining, for the soul to find its worth' - a Glorious gift to this world, the world of people who were lost, to help us find our way. A man born of a woman, to show us how to live compassionately, generously, selflessly, to teach those who had either forgotten God's Word, or who had never known the importance of living to give to others. And, as 'Good King Wenceslas' story tells us, it is for us to look to see those in need, to go out, as Jesus did, even in the dark, cold, bitter weather, when we know another needs our help - quietly, without fuss, but to good purpose.

"In thinking about God's most beloved people, it occurs to me, that we are especially blessed, here in Bitterwood Creek, to have one amongst us who reminds us every day of why God chose the Jewish people as His own from the beginning of time."

Waving widely toward the front pew, he spelled it out, "We have, in Doctor Blair Sandburg, a man who eminently demonstrates to us why God would choose Dr. Sandburg's people as those most special unto Him. Like Joseph and his wife, Mary, Dr. Sandburg is good and honourable, hardworking and unassuming, decent and compassionate - a man who quietly strives every day to hold us safe from the ravages of misfortune and disease. Few choose such a career as medicine, because it brings them into personal danger, doesn't it? But Dr. Sandburg walked into town in the midst of an epidemic, simply because he knew perfect strangers needed him! The first of two Good Samaritans to pass our way within days in answer to our needs…" he paused, as if overcome with such gladness he could barely speak, "who did not pass on, but stayed, to our everlasting great joy."

He shook his head, as if in awe, and then lifted his hands with his voice in exuberant testament, "I don't think it's too much to say, that just as Jesus was God's Gift to our world, sent when He was needed, that God sent us one of His most beloved, Dr. Sandburg, because we had, and have, such great need of him. A great blessing upon us all, to be sure!"

And he thumped the pulpit again.

"Who amongst us has the right to judge another soul? Did not Jesus, our Saviour, in fact actively caution us against judging others, lest we bring judgment upon ourselves for our arrogance? Yet, have we not been guilty, in our zeal and ignorance, of blaming all of our Good Lord's family, His community, for the actions of a pitiful few? Not all Jews were lost in sin! Far from it, or there'd never have been suitable parents for Jesus in Judea. Not all Jews were blind to the truths. He brought us, or there would have been no Disciples. It was good, strong, humble and sincerely God-loving Jewish people who were chosen to show the rest of us how to live," he harangued his flock with his full, ringing voice as he waved his arms to lend emphasis to his words.

"Just as Dr. Sandburg, each day, renders mercy; who walks as a man of peace in a dangerous time when most men go armed; who does not judge between the rich and the poor, as to who can pay for the goods he brings, whether the skills to heal, or the medicine he provides - he ministers to all, according to their need. Who among us will ever forget his extraordinary sacrifice last summer, when he gave the greatest gift any man can, when he offered his own life to protect his friend, our second Good Samaritan, as it happens, our good and brave Sheriff Ellison - we can only thank God, for not taking either of them from us! And, like Good King Wenceslas, Dr. Sandburg is often out in the darkness and bitter cold, alone and unseen, quietly bearing what is needed to those who are suffering, without hesitation. And even as Jesus never cared about creed or colour, or God's message would not have been sent through Him to all of us who are descended from heathens, who either had never heard God's Word or did not even know of God, Dr. Sandburg didn't hesitate to help an Indian, someone the rest of us might only have reviled, who he came upon injured and in need - and we wonder," his voice dropped as he leaned forward conspiratorially, "amongst ourselves, why we've been spared the depredations that go on all over the west but not here?"

Standing tall, his voice again rose to the rafters, "Every day, in every act, he shows us why God loves the Jewish people most of all, and why he entrusted them with the care of his Son!

"So, tonight, as we recall that Jesus was born a Jew, to grow into manhood amongst the community of God's most beloved, I think it appropriate to be grateful that God also sent Dr. Sandburg, one of His most beloved, to us to remind us of why Jesus was born a Jew!

"Thank you, Dr. Sandburg, on behalf of all of us, for the grace you bring to our community, for the love you show to all without discrimination, and for the fine example you set of how to live in accordance with the Word of God. And, thank you, sir, for joining us tonight, as we celebrate the birth of one of your brothers.

"And, now, let us rise, to sing 'Silent Night'…"

Blair had gasped as Pastor Steven's message and purpose became clear. As the good pastor extolled his virtues with thunderous acclaim, he sat with his head bowed, grateful but embarrassed, never having wanted or expected such tribute - most especially, not here, in the midst of the Christian congregation. He sniffed softly as the sermon went on and Jim saw him brush furtively at his eyes more than once. And when Pastor Stephens addressed him directly, he took a deep breath before he looked up, overcome with the honour the minister was giving him so publicly. Smiling tremulously, he inclined his head in acknowledgement and appreciation of the gratitude expressed to him.

But while Blair sat with his head bowed in humility, Jim had sat straighter, well pleased with the tributes being given his best friend, thinking them richly deserved. It appealed to his sense of irony, to know good Mrs. Tucker, and others like her, were being lectured with fervent zeal and very precise language as to exactly why Dr. Sandburg's soul had no need of saving. When the preacher thanked Blair, Jim gripped his friend's shoulder, adding his own wordless agreement to all that was being said, proud to know Sandburg had chosen him as his best friend. And he kept his arm around Blair's shoulders as they stood to sing the last hymn of the service, a hymn about family, peace and love.

Most, but not all of the congregation had sat enthralled and in broad agreement with their Pastor's fervent endorsement of God's Chosen and their own local member of that exalted community of people. Urseline and her husband, Clive, stiffened - aghast - in disbelief as the preacher thundered on, flushing deeply with insult and silent, hot fury. Nor did they miss the sidelong looks of amusement or condemnation from their neighbours, miserable little people who had no right to judge them! Never before had they heard such loathsome drivel, and it was quite clear that their Shepherd had taken complete leave of what little sense he'd ever shown. Why, his entire manner was shockingly appalling - blasphemous - and they seriously wondered if the Devil had taken possession of the poor, misguided man's soul. Urseline's hand fluttered at her throat as she looked warily around the sanctuary as if expecting to spot Satan leering at them all. And let other, stupid fools shift away from them as if they smelled bad, who cared? They'd see, they'd all see on Judgment Day who was rewarded for piety and who was cast into the fire! Oh, when would the dreadful man stop and sit down?

Sitting at the rear of the church they, and some few others like them, couldn't wait for the hideous service to end. It was the hypocritical worshippers at the front of the sanctuary, pushing themselves forward to curry favour with the preacher, who were usually the last to be able to leave; which was why, of course, sensible people came early to get the good seats in the back. But, as the service ended that night, people respectfully waited for their preacher to move down aisle to the back where he'd shake their hands as they left, thereby effectively blocking the Tuckers' haughty march to the door. And then, as if that delay wasn't aggravating enough, Pastor Stevens stopped by the first pew and waved to Blair to join him. Shaking their heads, their lips thin with sarcastic disapprobation, they watched as the 'second so-called Good Samaritan', another who must obviously pray in private - assuming he prayed at all, which was doubtful as he certainly never prayed in the church - stood and stepped into the aisle behind the minister, making way for Blair to slide out of the pew.

"Thank you," Blair stammered quietly when he reached the preacher's side, conscious that all eyes in the church were again upon him. "That was very kind…"

"No, it was richly deserved and too long coming," Pastor Stevens replied bluntly, but he smiled warmly as he hooked his hand over Blair's shoulder. "Walk with me," he invited, drawing Sandburg with him as he turned to move along the aisle to the back of the sanctuary.

Taking a breath, Blair lifted his head with unconscious dignity as they strode what seemed an endlessly long path in what was only, really, a small chapel. At first, he didn't look at anything but the door at the far end, intent upon making his escape. But as they moved past the other townsfolk, people reached out to touch his arm, or to shake his hand, as they murmured their thanks in echo of the preacher's words. There wasn't a family there he hadn't helped in the past year and a half, and a good many of the children were alive that evening because of his care - and everyone knew it. So, he ventured to look around as they made their way forward, and was deeply moved by the affection, the gratitude, and the pride that he was one of theirs, that he saw in most of the gazes he met.

So as one who had entered that building feeling apart, who was greeted callously about his difference from everyone else present, marked as an interloper who didn't belong, Sandburg was walking out with the affirmation that most of the folks of Bitterwood Creek not only saw him as one of theirs, but were genuinely not only grateful, but also held him in affection and high esteem. When they reached the doorway, Blair's eyes were damp as he turned to Pastor Stephens to shake his hand.

"Merry Christmas, Pastor Stevens," he said, his voice unsteady with emotion. "And, please, accept my thanks for making me so welcome. I never expected…"

"Humble men never do," Stevens chuckled as he cut in to pull Blair into a hug and slapped him on the back while the rest of the congregation waited their turn to leave. "You're a fine man, Dr. Sandburg - I meant every word. You are a blessing upon us all, and as sweet Nellie told me once that she'd said to you: you, sir, are the answer to our prayers. Don't ever let anyone tell you any different. Happy Chanukah."

When Pastor Stevens released him and turned to shake Jim's hand, and then the others in their turn, Blair stepped outside and took a deep breath. Jim was right behind him, and looped an arm around his shoulder as they stepped down to the shovelled walk and then along the boardwalk toward home. The only citizens to live on the far side of town, they walked in silence, hunched a little against the cold, until they'd left the others behind.

"That was…incredible," Blair murmured once they were on their own, shaking his head, a smile of wonder on his face, still scarcely able to believe what had just transpired. "He honoured a Jew - on Christmas Eve!"

"Two of them, actually," Jim drawled with a warm grin as he looked down at his best friend. "You and the birthday kid." When Blair snorted, he went on, as if musing in reflection, "Well, actually, that's not quite right, is it? Let's see, he mentioned Mary and Joseph, Abraham, Moses…the Prophets, the Disciples, the whole Jewish people since the dawn of time…and reminded us, for good measure, that the rest of us were the heathens. Fine sermon, one of the best I've ever heard; useful, too, the way he pointed us to a walking, talking example of how to live a life in accordance with scripture…"

Blair elbowed him as he laughed. "Stop! Enough! Any more of this and my fine hat won't fit my head."

Ellison just shook his head as he smiled fondly at the younger man. "Laugh if you want to, Chief. But Pastor Stevens was absolutely right in everything that he said - including that it was long overdue. I think I could get to like that man."

"You'd have to give up fishing on Sundays," Blair teased.

"Uh-uh," Jim grinned. "You forget, I go fishing with the walking, talking - very talkative, actually - example of …"

"Merry Christmas, Jim," Blair interrupted with a bright smile.

"Happy Chanukah, Chief."

The next morning, when they exchanged their gifts, Blair gave Jim a new pair of boots that he'd had specially crafted by the new leatherworker at Brown's saddlery. He'd snuck out with Jim's old pair when the lawman was sleeping through a Saturday morning, after a long Friday night's work, so that they'd been made to fit his feet according to the wear pattern, designed to be comfortable on his endless patrols around town. And, a black sleeping mask Blair had fashioned himself out of a small piece of silk he'd bought at the ladies' millinery shop, much to the amused speculation of the clerk, so that Jim could rest better during the daylight hours.

Jim, mindful of how Sandburg felt the cold during the long winter, had asked Maisie to knit a sweater especially for Sandburg, thick and warm, with a pattern of a grey wolf with eyes an unusual shade of blue. He'd remembered that Swift Eagle had told Blair the year before that Sandburg's spirit animal was a wolf, and the kid had gotten such a kick out of the idea that he apparently had a spirit guide.

And they were each very happy, with the gifts they received, but most of all with the pleasure that resulted from the gifts they gave.

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

The long winter that year was hard, the snows deep and the wind a perpetual icy moan across the featureless, white plains. It broke what was left of the spirit that had driven the Indians, on that part of the prairies, to defy their fate. Their core way of life, built around communities that survived by drawing upon their collective strength, fragmented. The men were unable to live with their families when they were perpetually on the run, fighting in lightning raids or being decimated in bitter, bloody battles. The women and children grew thin without their men to do the hunting. Babies died, and the elders, the hope of the future and the wisdom of the past disappearing too fast, unable to keep up with the constant movement to stay ahead of the Cavalry. There was no time to prepare for winter. No time to find a sheltered winter campsite where they could ride out the worst of the season.

The leaders came to wonder what it was they thought they were fighting for, if not to secure a future that respected and cherished their past.

Weary, the war bands came in, one by one, weaponless supplicants, their heads bowed. They needed food for their families, and shelter from the cold. Prideful resistance had become too costly to sustain. It was time for a different kind of courage - the courage to endure, to live to share their traditions and beliefs, their values and rituals with their children. Time to come back together as a people, before they all were killed or died of privation, and all that they had been just blew away on the wind, like the tumbleweed and the dry leaves of autumn.

Jim, once again walking his patrols of the town, stopped in to visit with Johnny Winston at the telegraph office late one afternoon, to warm up by his fire and catch up on the news. As he slammed the door on the blustery wind that surged in behind him, he could hear the ticky-ticky-tac of the telegraph, sending news across the country. It was amazing, he thought, how fast things were changing, with the railroad and the telegraph bringing the country together and making distance almost irrelevant.

Johnny looked up and nodded, but bent his head down immediately as he continued transcribing the message. Going to the potbelly stove in the corner, Jim checked the fire and pushed in a couple of extra logs, stoking it up, and then he poured himself a cup of coffee.

When the wire finally fell silent, he asked, "So what's the word, today, Johnny?"

"The Indian Wars are over, at least in Kansas," the young man replied, seeming almost stunned by the news. As well he might be, for the fighting had been a way of being for over half his life.

Jim paused in the act of raising the mug to his lips. "Really? What happened?"

"They gave up, quit - surrendered," Johnny replied. "The treaty was signed yesterday at Fort Nash. The Indians will be moved to specific parcels of land, that will be theirs 'so long as the wind blows', and the Government will ensure Indian Agents look after their welfare - you know, make sure they got enough food to eat and medical care." The kid paused and thought about that. "Must be nice," he mused with no little bitterness, "getting land and food and doctoring for nothing."

Jim's jaw tightened as he set the mug down. "Oh, they don't get it for nothing, Johnny," he said as he headed out to resume his rounds. "Believe me, they paid plenty to be told they aren't free anymore."

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

"So, the fighting is done," Blair reflected when Jim found him in his office and told him the news. He knew he should feel better about it, but it seemed sad, somehow. "It's a good thing that the dying is over…"

"You mean the killing," Jim replied abruptly, and then sighed as he shrugged out of his heavy coat and hung it on the coat-stand in the hall, just outside the office door. Tossing his hat on a hook just inside the doorway, he agreed, "Yeah, it is a good thing. Too many innocents got caught in the wrong place at the wrong time."

"You think the treaty will be honoured this time?" Sandburg asked as he leaned back in his chair. "By both sides?"

Jim blew out a breath as he stared out the window at the snow that swirled and gusted along the dreary street outside. It would be dark soon. "Yeah, Chief, I do. The Indians don't have anything left to fight with, so there's no reason to fear them anymore. They've lost everything, Sandburg. There isn't anything left that we can take from them."

Blair bowed his head, frowning as he thought about that. "No," he said, looking up to meet Jim's eyes. "I don't think that's completely true. They've lost a huge amount; don't get me wrong. But…they still exist, Jim. They are still a people with beliefs and values all their own. With a heritage of tradition that binds them as a community." Looking away, he murmured, "It's gotta be terrible, to face such a massive and irrevocable change in a way of life, but it's not impossible to change. Maybe now, we can start learning from one another instead of killing one another, just because of who we are."

"I hope you're right, Blair," Jim sighed. "But I don't know. It takes something from a man, something in his soul, to capitulate in an unconditional surrender. The wound goes deep, and it can fester for generations."

"I don't doubt that's true," Blair countered. "But men can change, a people can change - it's happened all throughout history, Jim. My own people were forced from their land almost two thousand years ago, sold as slaves all over the known world. But they've come together, in communities, held to their traditions. They've been persecuted and reviled and forced to move on, time and time again. Sometimes, adversity makes a people stronger." He paused a moment, and then said, thoughtfully, "Though, yeah, you're right about the wounds never healing. One of the traditional salutations for Jews is 'Next year in Jerusalem'. After almost two thousand years, a very great many still dream of going home…"

Turning from the window, Jim grated, "I know empires have grown and collapsed all throughout history - we're taught about all that at West Point. But, right here, right now, we've forced a proud and independent people to give up their land and their freedom to move upon it. We've made them dependent upon the nation for such basic things as food and shelter. What happens if, someday, we get tired of their dependence? Johnny already thinks that it's an easy life they've been given in the treaty, and he figures they got it for free. What happens when we all forget that it cost them everything they valued?"

"If that's the case, then why did they surrender?" Blair asked, honestly grappling with the issues, trying his best to understand them. "If it really cost everything of value, why did they choose to continue living? Why not fight until the last one falls?"

"You tell me," Jim sighed as he ran his hand over his head and kneaded his neck. "I thought maybe they would fight until the last warrior died. I…I'm glad it's over, I really am. They could be vicious and wily adversaries - and whole families were wiped out. I can't claim to understand how they think - but I didn't think the word 'surrender' was in their vocabulary. Especially after Poplar Flats."

"Maybe they don't think much differently from the rest of us - we're all human beings. I imagine they probably had to weigh out the different things that mattered to them. Got to that place where they had to decide what they were living, or dying, for. Their families were dying, too, Jim - a lot faster, and a lot more of them, than they ever killed in their raids. Maybe they chose to live, to not be forgotten. Maybe they traded land and freedom for the lives of their children."

"Hell of a bargain, Chief," Jim grunted.

"Maybe," Sandburg replied. "But a bargain, nonetheless. They aren't a stupid people. They could see as well as you could, especially with the push by the Cavalry these last few months, that defeat had to be inevitable. At some point, fighting just doesn't make sense anymore - not unless you really are prepared to be completely annihilated."

Jim nodded. "Yeah, I guess." He sighed as he slumped down in the chair by Sandburg's desk. "Most everybody will see this as a great thing. In a way, it is. But - for years now, I've just felt it's all wrong."

"I didn't say it was right," Blair sighed. "I really wish that it didn't have to be this way; that there could have been a different relationship from the very beginning."

"Which way, Sandburg?" Jim challenged, cynically. "That the Indians killed off all the Pilgrims while they landed, before we got a foothold, instead of giving them food over the winter, or that we started out paying fair value when we bought Manhattan?"

"We really are the bad guys, aren't we?" Sandburg grimaced.

But Jim shook his head, too knowledgeable and experienced with war to see only one side of the conflict, or to think there were ever any easy answers. "Are we? Maybe. But people came to North America for good reasons. Life in England, Scotland, Ireland and the rest of Europe wasn't great or they would have stayed there. The hardest part about all this is that most people, on both sides, were only doing what they thought was right and necessary."

"And we didn't find a way to communicate so that we could each understand and accommodate the other's vision of what was 'right and necessary'…" Sandburg reflected. "Do you think we ever will?"

"Sure, someday, maybe, when we learn to respect that different isn't bad," Jim shrugged. "Take you, for example."

"Me?"

"Uh-huh," Ellison nodded. "You were dragged off against your will, terrified to your boots, but you saw people who needed help, so you did your best. Because that's what you do. And - in the middle of it all, you were trying to learn about their medicines and all excited about the fact that Swift Eagle could see your spirit guide. Because that's who you are - you want to learn, want to understand, you're curious and you don't just assume your way is the only right way. If more folks were like you, on both sides, maybe we'd find a different way than beating one another's brains out until one side cries, 'uncle'."

"Do you think Swift Eagle and Whispering Waters are still alive?" Blair asked, his eyes troubled.

"I don't know, Chief," Jim replied as he slung his arm around his friend to walk him toward the kitchen to get supper ready. "But we can find out."

As they sauntered down the hall, Jim tried for a nonchalant tone, "So, about this, 'Next year in Jerusalem,' thing…you weren't…"

Blair tilted his head to look up at the best friend he'd ever had. "I said, 'many hope to go' - the ones who haven't found a place where they feel they belong, who still long for their homeland," he said soberly, but then added with a sweet smile. "I'm not one of them, Jim. I've stopped wandering, 'cause I've found my home."

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

It didn't take Jim long to find out if Swift Eagle and Whispering Waters were among those who had survived; he just sent a telegraph to the Indian Agent responsible for the reservation about a hundred miles northwest of Bitterwood Creek. But they both agreed that winter didn't seem the best time to head out on what would be several days' journey, and that was only one way. Sandburg was especially concerned about leaving the town without a doctor for so long. Still, he definitely intended to go when the weather turned warmer, as he really wanted to learn more from both of the older Indian men, so he puzzled about how he could leave in good conscience. Finally, he came up with a three-part solution, which still wasn't ideal, but was about the best he could do to not leave them without some support in his absence.

First, he paid a visit to Marnie MacDonald at the school one afternoon just after lessons had ended for the day, to see if she'd agree to him using the building for a course he wanted to offer in first aid to anyone in town who'd like to learn. Marnie thought it was a wonderful idea, but made the stipulation that he'd also have to teach her students the same lessons. Delighted by her enthusiasm, and thinking it would be good for the kids to know some basics, he agreed readily.

Then, he visited two of the women in town he'd come to have considerable respect for - Delores McCready and Sarah Sloane, to ask them if they'd consider working with him to become midwives. Neither was quite certain how to respond, as pregnancy and birthings were very private matters, very personal. They were also two of the town matrons, and weren't sure if it quite suited their positions as wives to one of the most successful businessmen, and the town banker, if it was at all proper. But Blair had selected well. Both women were intelligent and both were compassionate; they were also very sensible, quick to render aid and bored out of their minds. Though each said she'd have to think about it, they had both accepted within two days. He began tutoring them immediately at the office and, for the rest of the winter and into the spring, he always took one or the other with him when he attended a delivery.

And, lastly, he crossed the street to visit the apothecary, Milt Ambrose. He'd come to know the man well in the past months and Milt had stocked the medicines Blair had recommended be kept on hand; he'd also proven most able at mixing up special prescriptions when the need arose. When Sandburg asked him if he'd be willing to work with Blair to learn the signs and symptoms of the more common ailments, such as pneumonia, heart failure, gout, and skin rashes, as well as the most worrisome, like diphtheria, measles, scarlet fever and influenza, so that he could provide emergency assistance and appropriate medicine if the Doctor was out of town and unavailable, Milt agreed. Most doctors didn't attend any formal medical school, so he figured Sandburg's training would be as good as any, and it would enhance his status in the town.

It also made good sense to him that the Doc was preparing for possible contingencies. When Sandburg had been hurt so bad last summer, the townsfolk had not only worried about him as someone they liked and respected, but were also deeply concerned about what they'd do if a doctor was needed and he wasn't well enough to do what was necessary. They'd been lucky; there'd been no summer sickness last year, but it was Milt's opinion that Sandburg had been up and around long before he should have been, and he was concerned that the younger man still looked peaked, the bitter weather sapping what energy he had.

The day and evening classes at the school, the tutoring of the new midwives and the work with Milt filled all the spare time Sandburg had that winter, but as spring edged nearer, he felt good about the fact that soon he would no longer be the only one who could be called upon when folks were sick, injured or about to have a child.

Meanwhile, as Jim listened to folks around town talk about what a blessing it was that those vicious savages had finally surrendered, or spit on the street in disgust at the idea that murderous, no good, Indians should now be guaranteed what other, decent, folk had to work for, like food and shelter, Ellison grew increasingly uncomfortable. It was too one-sided, this assessment that the Indians had all been ruthless marauders who got more than they deserved, considering it was them who broke the peace, violating the original, early treaties to quit the lands they'd been assigned to go on killing and mutilating innocent white settlers. Sure, the Indians had been ruthless, terrifying, enemies, but Jim knew and would never forget that atrocities had been done by the Cavalry, too.

"It just bothers me," Jim grated in disgust to Blair one blustery March night that rattled the shutters on the windows. "It's not right to blame the Indians for everything that happened. God, listening to some of them, I think they'd give Rutherford a medal for what he did at Poplar Flats."

Shaking his head, Blair sighed, "Yeah, well, I guess Major Rutherford isn't the only man in the west who seems to believe the only good Indian is a dead Indian. The only difference is that he had the power to put his views into action."

Jim stilled at Sandburg's words, and then looked up at his friend. "What did you just say?"

"What? About Rutherford?" Blair asked. "Well, it's just that he could give the order to…"

"My God," Jim cut in, looking stunned. "I never thought…I just assumed…"

"Assumed what?" Blair demanded in concern, when Jim's voice drifted away.

Focusing again on his best friend, Jim shook his head and then swallowed. "When Rutherford gave me those orders, I assumed he'd received them from higher up. The orders were just too…contradictory to our former directions to subdue and restrain, with a view of engaging in peaceful settlements, if we could. No commander of a small, pretty insignificant outpost would just turn around and massacre people who had already surrendered unless directed to do so. But…what if I was wrong? What if it was all Rutherford? What if he made up those orders himself?"

"Wouldn't he have that right?" Blair asked. He hadn't had a lot of direct experience in the command structure of the military, being more an adjunct to the Union Army than a regular officer during the War, but from what he'd seen, officers could pretty much order their subordinates to do whatever they wanted done.

"No," Jim shook his head. "Oh, there's some discretion to deal with local matters, particularly in emergency or war conditions, but not to act contrary to higher direction with no just cause." He sat back in his chair as he thought it through. So far as he knew, there hadn't been many incidents like the massacre at Poplar Flats, where the military had exercised maximum force against what were considered 'civilians'… the noncombatants, the women and children.

"So…maybe Rutherford's higher command didn't issue the order," he mused thoughtfully.

"What difference would that make now?" Blair asked, wondering where Jim was going with this.

Leaning forward, his hands clasped between his knees, Ellison explained, "After Poplar Flats, the Indians erupted in full-scale conflict across the west, leaving settlements and violating the terms of peace treaties. That conflict is still going on farther west - it's only ended here because the Indians had nothing left to fight with. I wasn't surprised when things blew up because I figured Running Deer had sent out warnings that the peace treaties couldn't be trusted, and that their people were in danger of being massacred, too, if they remained in the villages on land assigned to them by the military. That's why I thought the order was stupid, as well as criminal - if anyone escaped alive from Poplar Flats, then whatever fragile peace had been attained elsewhere would be thrown into question. And I was right - the conflicts got worse afterward."

When Blair frowned, not understanding, Jim clarified, "Don't you see, if Rutherford acted on his own, without due authority or rationale…he was in violation of orders, had instigated a criminal action and could be held accountable for the violent reactions on the part of the Indians. He'd be court-martialed, discharged dishonourably as a minimum - might even be sentenced to prison."

"But, the newspaper accounts I read indicated that the Indians, unprovoked, fired rifles on the Cavalry when they rode in," Blair reflected. "He could say he was just reacting…"

Jim had avoided reading any of the official accounts of what had occurred in Poplar Flats, so he hadn't known this was the rationale that had been put forward for the annihilation of the camp. "That's not possible," he replied flatly. "When Running Deer first surrendered, the terms included forfeiting all weaponry, except for the spears, knives, bows and arrows that could be justified as essential, to permit them to hunt for food. I supervised the surrender myself, and my men and I searched the whole camp to make sure we had confiscated all the rifles, sidearms and ammunition."

Grimacing, Sandburg muttered, "If everyone knew the truth you know, maybe they'd see that lies and murders occurred on both sides…maybe they wouldn't see the Indians as being the only wrongdoers, or somehow evil."

"Then maybe someone should tell them," Jim said grimly as he stood and began to pull on his coat.

"Where are you going?" Blair asked uncertainly, as he also stood. "What are you going to do?"

"I've held my peace about what happened for too damned long," Jim replied as he reached for his hat. "I thought it was the command structure that ordered that atrocity, but I'm beginning to think it was all that bastard's idea, and his alone. And I know just how to find out, and educate a few folks at the same time."

"How?" Sandburg demanded, scooting around Ellison to block his departure.

"Why, I thought I'd have a chat with Dan Raymond - give him a good story for the next edition of our local paper," Jim drawled as he smiled slowly down at Sandburg, and watched the wheels turn behind his friend's eyes as Blair figured it out.

It didn't take long before Sandburg nodded thoughtfully and, giving Jim a light push back out of the hall, he said, "Just wait up a minute until I get my own coat on. I think I'd like to hear this story, too."

Three days later, Raymond published a front page story in the Bitterwood Bugle that told of how a retired US Cavalry Captain, their own Sheriff Jim Ellison, had been riding across the prairie almost two years before, the morning after he'd retired with full honour after an illustrious career spanning more than twenty years. But his leave-taking was sidetracked when he heard the sounds of gunfire and screaming from the direction of the Indian settlement in Poplar Flats. Knowing the Indians there didn't have rifles or handguns, he wondered if maybe a rival band had attacked them. Setting out to learn what was going on, he arrived in time to see the Cavalry riding fast in the other direction, apparently chasing after some Indians. And then the story went on to describe what Jim had found in the camp in brutal detail, listing the number of dead women and children…and describing the tiny little girl with the cornhusk doll and a hole blasted in her chest.

According to the article, Ellison claimed not to know what had happened there, and had only heard later that the Cavalry had been reacting to being attacked. But he didn't see how that could have happened, as he'd personally supervised the confiscation of weapons from the camp only a few days before. It was a sad event, tragic, and the article went on to reflect that maybe atrocities had occurred on both sides, that in the emotional pitch of war, terrible things happened. The story concluded with the observation that peace had finally been attained in Kansas, at least, and hopefully a similar peace could be attained across the whole of the west. It was to be hoped, the last line said, that perhaps, if both sides tried to better understand each other, such terrible events would never happen again.

Raymond sent a copy of his article to Wichita, and it was reprinted there…and then it was sent to New York and Washington, reappearing in the large eastern papers.

Two weeks later, two senior military officers got off the stage in Bitterwood Creek. Seemed they were from the nation's capital, and they wanted a word with Sheriff Ellison to verify the facts in the newspaper story. Apparently, there were notable contradictions with the official report submitted at the time by Major Rutherford. They were hostile at first, angry that Ellison had put the military in a bad light, implying they'd somehow lost control in the tension of prolonged conflicts and fear, and had over-reacted to a modest threat.

"There was no threat," Jim asserted coldly, and then leaned forward as he hammered them with the truth. "The massacre was deliberate. I resigned because Rutherford ordered me to lead my men on an unprovoked attack against a peaceful, unarmed settlement and I refused. When he received my written resignation shortly after, he had me tossed in the stockade and I was held there for the rest of the night and until three hours after the troop had ridden out before dawn. The last time we talked before the massacre began, he led me to believe that the order was mandated to 'show the Indians a lesson' so that others would understand their resistance would be met by maximum force. I didn't share that information with our local newspaper publisher because I was in uniform when I received that order and I wasn't about to abuse the confidentiality or trust of my commission - nor did I think that it would do any good for people to believe the military they trust is capable of such wanton betrayal and murder. I'd still like to believe there's some decency, integrity and honour in the institution."

"You believed the orders you received represented the views of Command?" Colonel Simmons exclaimed, offended, referring to the most senior ranks of which he was a part. "Major Rutherford had no authority to take such action, and from what you say about the settlement being peaceful, no legitimate reason to attack those people."

"If you say so," Jim shrugged. "I only know what he ordered me to do…and what was subsequently done. If there had been any indication on his part that he was in violation of his orders, I would have reported the incident formally to our seniors at the time. I think it's pretty clear, from subsequent events, that the Indians sure believed Poplar Flats represented the policy of the entire Cavalry."

The two colonels sat back and stared at him thoughtfully. They've reviewed his record before they'd come west, and knew he'd been a respected, dedicated and highly ethical officer who'd worked his way up the ranks based on effort and excellence.

"Why did you decide to tell this story now?" Colonel Mayberry asked.

"Because I'm sick and tired of hearing people self-righteously go on about how the Indians are the worst scum of the earth and can't be trusted, while the Calvary is uniformly held up as a shining example of noble integrity, courage and honour. I didn't violate my commission, but I could not stomach living with what I know to be a lie. Those innocent victims deserve the truth to be told, to bring some balance to what we remember about what happened. Right now, there's still tremendous resentment against the Indians, a belief that they are being better treated than is warranted. There's no appreciation that they were defending their land and liberty, and that they were taught, by the events at Poplar Flats, that they couldn't trust our offers of reconciliation and peace."

The two colonels asked him a few more questions, to ensure they were perfectly clear on his version of the events that had transpired. They were no longer hostile in their manner, but neither could he tell if they really believed him. Shortly after, their expressions impassive, they took their leave and, later that afternoon, they were on the next stage headed back east.

As they watched the stagecoach roll out of town, Sandburg asked, "Do you think they'll nail Rutherford?"

"Hard to say, Chief," Jim replied with a shrug. "They'll have to conduct an investigation. Get corroborating testimony from the soldiers in the attack about their orders, and whether or not they were fired upon first by the Indians. As a minimum, they'll be watching Rutherford and they may pull him back to a staff job in Washington - remove him from the opportunity of future field commands."

Blair nodded and then laid a hand on his friend's back. "At least now you know that the institution you believed in and served honourably wasn't at fault. It was Rutherford's decision alone, not official policy."

But Jim shook his head. "They're responsible - they promoted a man like him to command others. Too many senior commissions are still bought by wealthy fathers for unsuitable men," he said, his voice hard. "Maybe, someday, the military will only promote those who have proven to be worthy of command authority and privileges."

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

Late on a Friday afternoon in early April, a pack of riders rode of out the gray fog and drizzle that surrounded Bitterwood Creek, and cantered directly to the saloon. Wet droplets dribbled from the broad brims of hats that shaded their grizzled faces, and off their dark gray slickers as they dismounted. Apparently in no hurry to get indoors, they cast assessing looks along the main street, the disparaging tone of their muted mumbles and arrogant postures suggesting they found little that was impressive - except for maybe the bank. Turning, they pushed inside to find what amusement might be had.

Jim had heard them coming long before the shadowy forms first emerged from the swirling mist and, from behind the window in his office, he'd watched them ride in - ten men, rifles prominent in the stocks of their saddles. Though the rain had muted their words as they'd stood in front of the saloon, he hadn't missed their interest in the bank or their insolent manner. 'Might as well check them out now, as later,' he thought resignedly as he pulled on his black slicker and reached for his hat.

Upon entering the smoky saloon, the lawman found quite a number of his fellow citizens wiling away the dreary afternoon before heading home to their suppers. The newcomers were clustered at the bar, some leaning their elbows back on it as they studied the other customers, slickers now loosened to reveal the six-guns slung low on their hips, while others called out raucously to the bartender, Moe, for attention. They were of varying ages, some middle-aged, their greasy long hair and stubble on their chins gray; others were much younger, maybe their sons…and the rest fell somewhere in between. One of the younger and scruffier riders surveying the place suddenly spat on the floor in disgust, as he turned to call out to another, his Southern accent dripping with offended scorn, "Dawson! They serve nigras in here!"

A man with graying, sandy brown hair, so long it hung almost to his shoulders, turned from the bar to survey the saloon. Leaning back on one elbow, affecting a kind of cocky nonchalance overlaid by shocked astonishment at the very idea of something so inconceivable, his chin lifted as he let his cold, flat eyes drift around the crowded room. The middle-aged stranger projected unmistakable, implacable and deadly threat. As the eyes of other men dropped from his own in the sudden silence of the saloon, he smiled in thin amusement, vastly enjoying the game of intimidation. But the cold eyes flared hot with hate when he spotted the robust black man unflinchingly returning his stare from the table across the room by the wall, not far from the doorway to the street. His voice resonated with scorn as he sneered, "Why, I see ya'll are correct, Sammy Joe - well now, imagine that."

Henri Brown, sitting with Johnny Winston, carefully set down his mug of ale as he watched the little drama at the bar, his expression impassive though his eyes hardened as he stared the other man down.

Jim sauntered over to rest a hand on Brown's shoulder as he asked, his voice clear in the silent room, "You ready for another, Deputy?" Henri relaxed marginally, while Jim directed his own hard look toward the bar.

"No, Sheriff, not just yet, but thanks," Henri drawled in response.

Dawson snorted with contemptuous incredulity as he turned back to the bar, and waved down Moe as he challenged, "Ya'll want our business, or do ya want to keep servin' that uppity darkie?"

Moe narrowed his eyes as he looked from the lawmen to the stranger. Crossing his beefy arms, he replied calmly, "You're free to spend your money where you like - but my regulars don't have to put up with any o' your lip. D'ya want drinks or not?"

"Whoa, ho!" Dawson snickered derisively. "Well, since ya put it so plainly, sir, and since there don' seem to be any alternative in this one-horse, no-account town… sure, we'll drink your whiskey. Set 'em up."

Moe shook his head resignedly at the provocative words as he filled the shot glasses. These boys were spoiling for a fight, but some good firewater might mellow them out some - either that, or make them careless enough that he and the Sheriff, along with Deputy Brown, could settle up with them. A night in the local jail before chasing them out of town might teach them some manners.

Once he'd served the Southern 'gentlemen', he filled a mug of beer and carried it to Ellison, who had pulled up a chair with Henri and Johnny. Keeping his voice low, he asked, "How do you want to handle these loudmouths, Sheriff?"

"So long as they don't do nothin' more than talk, and otherwise keep to themselves, we've no quarrel with them. A man can't help being as dumb as a stick," Jim replied, his tone level. "But, I think I'll hang around for a while and see how it goes." When Moe nodded and went back behind the bar, Jim leaned over to Johnny, as he said, "I'd appreciate it if you'd let Doc know where I am."

"Sure thing, Sheriff," Johnny agreed readily as he drained his mug, happy to have a legitimate excuse to leave the saloon in a hurry. Though the piano had started up again, and the strangers were exhibiting interest in the scantily dressed ladies clattering down the wooden stairs along the back wall to offer the evening's entertainment, the atmosphere in the saloon remained tense.

"I don't mind going, Jim," Henri offered with quiet dignity, knowing his continued presence only aggravated the situation.

"Only if you want to, H," Ellison sighed, pushing his slicker back to give ready access to his guns as he leaned back in his chair. "Personally, Deputy, I'd be obliged if you kept me company for a while. Might need your help with these jackasses, if they get rambunctious."

Nodding, a twisted grin of appreciation for the support on his lips, the part-time Deputy settled back in his chair and unobtrusively ensured his own sidearm was easily accessible. "Always happy to oblige, Sheriff," he replied, as his gaze shifted back to the men at the bar.

Not long after, Sandburg ambled into the saloon, apparently relaxed and without a care in the world as he called to the bartender, "I'll have a beer when you get the chance, Moe."

"Coming right up, Doc," Moe shouted back over the din of the music and the shrill, coy laughter of the flirting women flaunting their wares, as Blair sauntered over to Jim and Henri to pull out a chair at their table.

Dawson turned, curious to check out the local sawbones, scowling when he saw where Sandburg had chosen to sit. Blair held his gaze as he smiled back winningly, as if daring the man to say anything. Dawson's eyes narrowed but he shook his head as he turned away.

"So those are the charming drifters Johnny told me about," Sandburg muttered, the false smile gone as he turned to Ellison and Brown. "They look like trouble."

Jim nodded. "In addition to insulting our colleague here, I saw them eyeing the bank when they came in," he replied in a low murmur. Shifting his gaze to Henri, he added, "I think we'll need to keep a watch on them until they ride out."

Just then, Sam Sloane, the banker, came in with his two best customers, Simon Banks and Joel Taggart. Seeing Jim, Blair and Henri, they all headed toward their table, calling to Moe for a jug of beer. Simon picked up on the tension amongst their friends first. "Something going on here?" he asked, looking around and spotting the strangers, stiffening as some returned his gaze with obvious loathing. "Ah, I see," he muttered as he leaned back in his chair.

Joel had followed his gaze and nodded in his turn, but Sam was a little slower on the uptake. "What's wrong?" he asked, uncertain.

"New boys in town," Jim replied as he tilted his head toward the bar. "Southern drifters who don't know the War is over and that all men are free - and they exhibited a potentially unfortunate interest in the bank when they rode in."

"Ah," Sam frowned, tensing as he gave them a closer look.

"It's alright, Sam," Ellison assured the banker, "we'll be keeping a close watch on them 'til they leave."

Over by the bar, the strangers were nudging one another as they pointed out the presence of yet two more dark-skinned men in the saloon. Dawson shook his head and was about to say something when Moe, standing nearby as he filled the pitcher of ale for his customers, said with quiet authority, "I meant what I said. You want to drink here - you mind your manners. Simon Banks and Joel Taggart are the richest ranchers in the area. It's a free country now - best you get used to that fact."

"Ya gotta be kiddin' us," one of the others protested as he cast a disgusted look over his shoulder at the older men. "They're ranchers?"

"For nigh on twenty years," Moe replied steadily, giving the men an even look before picking up the tray of mugs and the full pitcher to deliver them to the ranchers and their banker.

"Well, if that don' beat all," Dawson muttered with deep disgust, turning to lean against the bar as he stared at the men at the table by the wall. Pulling a grimy pouch of tobacco and papers out of his shirt pocket, he started rolling a cigarette, and noticed the hostile looks of the ranchers as he did so. As he licked the paper and then lit up, he regarded the two allegedly very rich men with contempt. Blowing an elaborate smoke ring, he continued his arrogant stare, noting their tension until one muttered something to the other, and they both turned away in disgust. He was sure they were former slaves - he'd seen that look of hostility before on the faces of tobacco-picking ninnies who forgot to hide their anger. Twenty years they'd been living here rich and happy…twenty years…and suddenly he stilled as his eyes narrowed and his head tilted in concentration. They were older, certainly, but he wouldn't ever forget the faces of the slaves he'd helped to search for after they'd made their run - nor had he ever really stopped looking for them in all of the last twenty-two years. Simon Banks. Joel Taggart. Son of a bitch!

Suddenly, he erupted as he strode toward the table, his hand reaching for his gun. "You lazy, stupid sons of whores!"

But Jim was faster, drawing as he stood. "HOLD IT RIGHT THERE!" he bellowed.

Furious, Dawson ripped his searing gaze from Simon and Joel, lifting it to Jim's steady glare as he shouted, "Them runaways murdered my pappy!"

"I seriously doubt that," Ellison replied dryly. "Now, just settle down!"

"You're the law here - you have no choice but to put them behind bars!" Dawson argued, outraged. "I'm tellin' ya the gospel truth. They was slaves and they murdered my pappy when they done runned off! I'll see them hang for it!"

"BACK OFF!" Jim shouted again. "NOW! Or I swear, I'll run you out of town."

Joel was shaking his head slightly as he looked intently at Simon, who was looking just as steadily back at his partner. Blair was watching both of them. "What?" he whispered, his eyes flashing to Jim and the now very still men at the bar who had turned as one to back their leader. Henri hadn't stood but, surreptitiously, he'd drawn his sidearm and was holding it ready under the table. Sam was frowning and shaking his head, not believing a word of the obviously deluded raving lunatic's claims. Everyone else in the bar seemed torn between ducking for cover and listening in avid silence. Most of the good citizens of Bitterwood Creek had long suspected Joel and Simon had once been slaves, some with hidden contempt and not a little jealousy, others with sad compassion and admiration for what they'd achieved.

Simon cut a quick look at Sandburg, and then shifted his gaze to the Sheriff. "Jim, maybe we should have a little talk," he murmured quietly, while Joel compressed his lips and looked down at the table, clearly very unhappy.

Not taking his eyes off the troublemakers, Jim muttered back, his words a low groan, "Aww, don't tell me…"

"'Fraid so," Simon cut in with a sigh. Once Dawson had started shouting, both he and Joel had taken a closer look at the man. About their age, he had the look of his daddy - mean and arrogant. Sounded like him, too, with that foul mouth. Once they recognized him, they remembered him - a nasty little bully who'd strutted around ordering the slaves to do whatever demeaning or obnoxious chore occurred to his twisted, dangerously intelligent, mind.

"Oh, you've got to be kidding," Sandburg protested in disbelief.

"First off," Jim said then, as he glared at Dawson and his gang, his voice brooking no nonsense from anyone, "everyone is going to just settle down while I look into these serious accusations. Second, let's make no mistake about it, gentlemen, slavery has been abolished and there are no longer any such thing as 'runaways'. You will exercise courtesy when addressing any and all citizens of this town. I trust I make myself clear. If not, I can offer you accommodation in the jail while you ponder my advice."

Flushed with fury, Dawson was breathing heavily as he struggled to bring himself under control. Finally, his jaw tight, he grated, "Fine, Sheriff - but ah will swear on a stack of Bibles that them niggers are murderers!"

Jim shook his head. Very quietly, he drawled menacingly, "You really are bucking for a bunk in my jail."

"All right!" Dawson growled. "Ah'll watch ma words…just so's you do your job, Sheriff." His hands in the air, he backed up to the bar. After he'd cast a sharp, sidelong look at his men, a wordless command to stand down, they visibly relaxed their threatening stances and turned back to their drinks. But all kept an eye on Jim and the others at the table against the wall.

Not trusting them, Jim didn't holster his weapon, but asked softly, "You want to tell me what's going on, Simon?"

"Maybe we should go to your office," the older man sighed. "It's a long story."

Nodding, Jim waved them out ahead of him, and then backed out himself to follow them down the street. Seeing that Blair, Sam and Henri had also left the saloon, Ellison suggested, "Sam, I think it's time you were heading home to supper - and Henri, I'd like you to keep watch out here. If they look like they're going to start anything, come get me."

"Sure, Jim," Brown replied as he dropped back to take up a position to watch through the saloon window. Sam looked like he was about to protest but as he met Jim's steely eyes, he thought better of it. Tipping his hat a little sullenly, he headed on home.

When the four men reached the lawman's office, Jim waved the others to chairs while he took his own seat behind the desk. "What the hell is going on?" he demanded, looking from Simon to Joel and back again.

Simon had pulled off his hat, and was staring at it as he swallowed. Taking a breath, he straightened to look Jim in the eyes. "More than twenty years ago, Joel and I were slaves on a plantation in West Virginia. One day, I had more than I could stomach of our overseer's…insults and bullying behaviour. I, ah, mouthed off at him, and he came after me with a club. Joel grabbed the club from him and tossed it away. The bastard pulled out his whip and ordered Joel to tie himself to a post, and then he began whipping him." Simon had been trying to relate the story with calm matter-of-factness, but his voice faltered as he cut a look at his best friend. Hell, as far as he was concerned, his brother. Licking his lips as he turned back to Ellison, he grated, "I thought he was going to kill Joel. So I hit him on the back of the head with a rock and got us both the hell out of there."

"So, you don't know if he was dead or alive when you ran," Jim clarified steadily, though he felt more than a little sick.

"No," Simon sighed as he shook his head. "I don't - and Joel was unconscious when I carried him away, so he had no idea what had happened."

"And that bastard in the saloon is that man's son?" Ellison asked, his voice tight.

"Yeah, we both recognize him. He pushed his weight around when he was a kid, 'round our age, I suppose," Joel cut in. "He looks just like his daddy."

"I see," Jim sighed as he looked away, thinking about the situation.

"Jim! It was obviously self-defence! Sounds like he would have killed them both!" Blair protested, mistaking Ellison's hesitation for doubt.

Leveling a look at his partner, Jim replied repressively, "Don't you think I've figured that out for myself?"

Blair nodded apologetically as his eyes fell, while both Simon and Joel stared at the Sheriff with mingled relief and disbelief. Jim shook his head at their expressions. "For God's sake. I've known the two of you for almost two years. Hell, Simon, you were acting as sheriff here when I took over the job. You're not a stone-cold killer," he explained with a tone of aggravation. "But - what I believe and what we can prove are two different things. Were there any other witnesses? Did that joker actually see you hit his father?"

"No, no one else was in that back corner of the field," Simon replied. "All you've got is my word."

"And mine," Joel jumped in. "I swear, that fool was going to bash Simon's brains in. He had a fiery temper and no restraint…he'd killed other slaves for less reason than Simon here being smart-mouthed."

"Okay," Jim nodded. "I believe you, both of you. And, since there are no other witnesses, there isn't anyone to say otherwise. I'm going to officially accept your statement that it was self-defence. But that won't necessarily solve this little problem. Junior over at the saloon isn't likely to take the results of my investigation with a grain of salt and then quietly ride on out of town."

Blair cocked a brow and grimaced, while Joel and Simon nodded soberly. This was undoubtedly a long way from being finished.

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

After directing the two older men to stay in his office, Jim signaled to Blair to follow him and they headed back to the saloon.

"What do you think is going to happen?" Sandburg asked quietly, his tone heavy with concern.

"I don't really know, Junior, but I've got a bad feeling," Ellison murmured in response. When they reached Brown, Jim peered in through the windows as he asked, "So, any problems?"

"Loud-mouth is blatherin' on to his buddies about how two worthless slaves killed his daddy," Brown replied in disgust, able to hear Dawson through the open door as he watched from the window. "And some of 'em have been askin' questions about the ranch, and where it is. I'm sorry to say, there're some that were only too eager to tell them everythin' they wanted to know." It both grieved and galled him at how many of the locals were listening avidly, some even shaking their heads in sympathy while supplying the drifters with all the information they wanted.

"Wonderful," Jim grunted. "Both of you, wait out here…"

"Jim…" Blair protested.

"I mean it, Sandburg - you wait out here," Ellison growled. Blue eyes clashed with blue, but Blair finally, grudgingly, nodded.

Satisfied, Jim turned and entered the saloon. Immediately, the rough strangers turned to stare at him belligerently. Pointing at Dawson, Jim said, "I didn't get your name."

"Ambrose Dawson, at yer service, Sheriff," the older man drawled back sarcastically. "Them two murderers in jail?"

His jaw tight, Jim narrowed his eyes as he flicked a look around the saloon. The piano player had again stopped the music as everyone listened in, ghoulishly fascinated by the drama being played out. His lips thinned as he gave a tight shake of his head before turning back to Dawson. "I'd like to speak with you outside, Mr. Dawson…alone, if you don't mind."

"Why, ah'm sure ah have no secrets from all ma good friends heah. Speak yer mind, Sheriff," Dawson taunted as he lounged back against the bar.

Jim gave him a hard look but nodded sharply. "All right, then," he said soberly. "It seems that you have somewhat misrepresented what happened some years ago," Jim began with firm calm into the silence of the saloon. When Dawson began to bluster, the lawman held up his hand for silence. "I'm sorry for your loss. But, I have two men who swear to me that they acted in self-defence. It seems your father was beating them when the incident occurred."

"Ma pappy had ever' righ' to beat them darkies!" Dawson burst out. "They's slaves! They ain't got no rights! I'm a'tellin' ya - they's murderers!"

"That's enough," Jim ruled, his voice rising slightly in command. "There is no slavery in this nation, not any more. You are referring to two upstanding men, who have lived impeccable lives in this community. Frankly, sir, their word means a whole lot more to me than yours does. So, unless you can produce an objective witness who was there when it happened, to contradict their stories…well, we're finished here."

"They's slaves when it happened!" the older man shouted, furious. "Ah demand justice!"

"So do I," Jim cut back sharply. "And it's my job to render it. As I understand it, your father had a habit of killing the people under his direction - that gives credence to the statement of self-defence. This is over, Dawson. I suggest you and your friends move along."

"If'n they's so innocent, then why did they run?" the irate Southerner demanded indignantly.

Snorting, Jim shook his head, as he drawled sarcastically, "No doubt, also in self-defence." Lifting his chin toward the others at the bar, he reiterated. "Good-bye, Dawson - to you and your men."

Sullenly, flushed with anger, the older man glared at Jim for a long, hard moment. Everything stilled inside the saloon and, as he watched from the shadows outside the window, Henri pulled his gun in case things went ugly fast. But Dawson cursed and then looked back at his men. "Let's ride," he grated and then stalked out into the night.

The gunmen followed him, but nobody believed it would end that easily.

Jim cast another look around the saloon, daring anyone to challenge his ruling, but none did. Nodding, he turned to follow the drifters outside, where he stood watching as they mounted up and rode out at a gallop.

"Think they'll be back?" Sandburg asked as he and Brown moved to stand beside Ellison.

"Oh, I doubt they're really gone," Jim sighed, as he crossed his arms and frowned.

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

"Look, don't give me a hard time about this, okay?" Jim exclaimed, exasperated. "If you don't want to put up at our place for a couple of days, then I'm sure you'd find the hotel very comfortable!"

Blair stood with his hands on his hips, a determined expression on his face that clearly backed up his partner, while Henri perched on the desk behind the sheriff, quietly listening. Joel and Simon grimaced as they shook their heads, not wanting to fight with their friends.

"Jim, I know you're only worried about our safety," Joel began in a placating tone to calm the atmosphere in the Sheriff's Office, "but Simon and I stopped runnin' and hidin' a very long time ago. We're about to start the spring roundup, and you know what that means. We need to be headin' back to the ranch."

"A day or two won't make that much difference," Blair retorted, though he was also careful to keep his tone reasonable. "Besides, we all know your men can handle the roundup without you out there supervising them. We're concerned about your safety!"

"Yeah, we know," Simon put in, gruffly grateful. His voice low, he continued, "But the fact is, even if I didn't know it until tonight, not for sure, I did kill that man, and to be honest with you, I didn't care at the time if I did or not. The man was pure evil." Sighing, he shook his head as he went on, "What if they attack the ranch while we're standin' around here arguin'? Huh? Folks out at the Gold Ribbon don't even know there could be trouble headin' their way. Much as we appreciate your support - and believe me, we really do - as well as your concern, we're goin' home."

"You can't keep us here against our will," Joel added quietly.

Jim squinted as he gave them both a hard look. "Don't tempt me," he muttered. Finally, he snorted as he threw up his hands. "Okay, I give up. I'll ride out with you."

"Me, too," Blair said staunchly and, before Jim could protest, Henri chimed in as he stood, "Me, three."

"Sandburg, I don't think…" Jim began only to be cut off.

"I have two words for you, Sheriff," Blair interjected belligerently, as he flicked up two fingers, one at time to emphasize his words. "Deputy. Doctor." When Jim gritted his jaw and looked away, obviously unhappy, Sandburg continued in a milder tone. "If there's likely to be shooting, it's also likely there'll be a need for my services. If we're going, then let's go."

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

As soon as the three townsmen had packed up gear to remain overnight at the ranch, and Blair had restocked his medical bag, they headed out into the misty night. They rode in a tight cluster, Jim slightly in the lead with Blair close behind him. Joel and Simon rode side by side with Henri following them closely. And they maintained a fast pace. None of them wanted to be caught on the empty prairie by ten angry men out for their version of justice. Jim extended his hearing, but was frustrated by the light rain and mist which confused the sounds around them and dampened his ability to determine if there were any threats nearby.

Though it was a tense twenty minutes, they arrived at the ranch without incident. Reining in outside the bunkhouse, they all dismounted and Simon led the way inside. His hands, surprised at the sober delegation that entered so unexpectedly, immediately stilled their card games or looked up from the tack they were mending, clearly wondering what was going on.

Joel came to stand beside Simon as the taller rancher briskly laid it out for their ranch hands. "Earlier today, ten Southern drifters rode into town. Turns out, one of them recognized Joel and me." He paused for a moment, and then took a deep, determined breath. "Years ago, we were slaves on a plantation in West Virginia. When the overseer threatened to kill us, we fought back and I killed the man. We ran." Sighing, he swallowed as he held his men's eyes. "The Sheriff has ruled it self-defence. But we fully expect this man, Dawson, who accused us of murderin' his father, will seek his own revenge. He and the men with him look like they may be gunslingers, so the threat is very real - things could get hot around here, real soon. You're all good men but this isn't your fight, so if any of you want to pull out, well, no hard feelin's. We'll pay you off and you can leave as soon as you want."

He fell silent and waited, though his eyes dropped away, not wanting to seem as if he were challenging them or would think them cowards if they wanted no part of the battle that was probably coming. There was a long minute of silence, and then Rafe spoke up, his tone careless, "Hell, it's been a while since I've been in a good fight. Let 'em come."

The others rumbled their agreement, and that seemed to be that.

Joel and Simon both blew out breaths laden with emotion. As they looked at every man in turn, their gratitude clear in their eyes, Joel said quietly, his voice thick, "Thank you, men. We appreciate your support." Cutting a quick glance up at Simon, he continued, "We'd better post watches through the night. Any volunteers?"

Every one of the fifteen men raised a hand into the air, some of them grinning, tickled to see the two older men a little lost for words, others more solemn by nature but no less glad to show their unconditional support. Most of them had worked with the ranchers for years, and all of them both liked and respected the owners of the Gold Ribbon Ranch. Though surprised to hear them say anything about their pasts, let alone admit they'd been slaves -'cause that had to be a memory neither one of them wanted to revisit - most of the men weren't all that surprised. Simon and Joel's firm egalitarianism and aversion to being called 'boss', their now slight but still noticeable southern accents and the old thin scars of what looked like pretty bad whippings crisscrossing their backs, made visible when they pulled off their shirts when working hard on blisteringly hot days, had been clues enough. Any man who had a problem working with black men, ex-slaves or not, didn't sign on to work for them in the first place.

Simon and Joel smiled slowly, while Jim, Blair and Henri stood with their arms crossed as they leaned on the wall behind them and grinned cheerfully, not having expected anything less of the staunch ranch hands they'd come to know over the years. "Alright, you clowns," Simon laughed as he waved at them to lower their hands. "Rafe, you and Tex have the first watch. Saunders and Nelson, spell them for the second. And Reynolds and Taffy - you guys get to greet the dawn."

"Can you tell us any more of what we might expect?" Rafe asked curiously as he reached for his gunbelt and buckled it on.

Jim moved forward to answer. "There are ten men, and all of them look like they live on the thin edge of the law, if not on the far side of it. They're well armed…both handguns and rifles. They're wearing gray slickers - look like old Rebel Army issue. Don't fool around - if you spot anything, hear anything, raise the alarm. One shot, and the rest of us will come running. We don't care if they know we're on to them. I'd rather discourage them and have them ride away, than have a firefight."

Rafe and Tex nodded as they pulled on their oiled capes, jammed on their hats and strode into the night.

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

Nothing happened that night, or through all of the next miserable, rainy day. When the next night passed equally quietly, despite the lack of any attack, or maybe because of it, the tensions of the men grew as they kept wary watch.

Shortly after dawn on the second day, Blair followed Jim out onto the verandah where they both stood sipping their mugs of coffee. The rain had finally ended, but the sky was still heavily laden with dark clouds that scudded ahead of the damp, ever-present wind.

"You think they've given up and just ridden off?" Sandburg asked quietly.

"Not hardly," Ellison grunted. His eyes searching the horizon, he squinted in thought. "They're out there, somewhere. I can feel it," he muttered. "Could be they're waiting until we relax, expecting us to figure they took my advice."

Blair sniffed and shivered a bit against the early morning chill. "So - what do you want to do?"

Jim shook his head, beginning to wonder about the security of Bitterwood Creek. They'd bet the drifters would attack the ranch, but…he stiffened, fully alert as he strained to see more clearly. "There's a rider coming fast from town - damn it!" he swore when he recognized the rider. "It's Sam."

"The bank!" Blair exclaimed as he followed Jim's gaze, squinting to try to see the distant rider.

Sighing, Jim shook his head. "I should have expected this and left Brown back in town to watch out for them. I just never figured…"

"Don't beat yourself up, man, none of us did - you were worried about lives, not money," Blair murmured in reply. "Doesn't mean they won't hit the ranch next."

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

Sloane was furious that his bank had been left unprotected and made no bones about saying so. They'd broken in during the night and gotten away before anyone was the wiser. The only good news was that nobody had gotten hurt.

"They didn't blow the safe?" Jim asked, surprised.

"No," Sam sighed as he rubbed the back of his neck. "One of them must be a safe-cracker. Figured out the combination."

"Uh-huh," Jim grunted. "Look, Sam, I'm sorry. I didn't expect them to hit the town. But we'll get them, and get your money back."

His ire spent, Sloane nodded. "I know you will. Just made me so damned mad!"

"We're sorry, Sam, to have brought this trouble on you," Joel offered, but Sloane waved off the apology.

"Like as not, they'd've tried to rob the bank anyway from what the Sheriff noticed when they first rode in," Sam replied evenly, but then gave the older man a crooked grin as he added, "'Sides, it was mostly your money they took, anyway."

Taggart chuckled wryly as Simon snorted. "Sorry, stupid bastards," he muttered. Looking up at Jim, he added, "Looks like they've just given you good reason to call up a posse, Sheriff."

"That they have, Simon," Jim reflected, but he didn't look happy about it.

"What's bothering you?" Blair asked.

"I get the feeling they're leading us around by the nose," Jim replied, crossing his arms. "While we go chasing over the countryside, they're likely to hit the ranch."

The others thought about that - and had to agree that the reasoning was sound. "We've got enough men to split up, some staying here and the rest of us riding with you, Jim," Simon offered. "And I've noticed before how good you are at trackin'," he added, with a direct look at the Sheriff. "Chances are, you'll pick up their sign and we can come up behind them."

Blair's brows quirked but he just chewed on his inner lip as he studied the ground, while Jim gave Simon a quick narrow look, but nodded. "Okay," he agreed. "You check with your men and get me half a dozen volunteers. H, you'll ride with me. Sandburg," he said, quirking a finger at his best friend, "let's take a little walk."

Giving Jim a suspicious look, a stubborn glint coming into his eyes, Blair nodded and followed Jim toward the barn.

"Don't even suggest it," Sandburg muttered belligerently as soon as they were some distance away from the other men. "You are NOT going to leave me behind."

Jim cast a look up at the cloud-strewn sky as if silently asking for strength and then he turned to face his partner, his hands on his hips. "Be reasonable, Chief," he returned, trying to keep his tone calm. "You don't carry a gun." Blair started to protest, but Jim held up a hand. "Just hear me out, okay?" When Blair just glared at him silently, he continued, "I'll admit that I think it's marginally safer for you to be here - the buildings offer some protection in the event of a concerted attack and there'll be eleven good guns here if it does come to a shootout. They might well hit before I pick up their trail…"

"You need me to make sure you don't zone!" Blair argued, unable to hold his tongue, though he kept his voice low as he glanced around to ensure they were essentially alone. There were men in the yard and at the nearby corral, but none close enough to hear. "I know you - you'll be listening as hard as you can, trying to hear past the sound of the damned wind. Or, you'll be staring out across the prairie trying to make out some speck in the distance - either way, you could easily get so focused that you lose track of everything else."

Jim bowed his head, having to acknowledge the possibility, but he was increasingly concerned about the ruthlessness and cunning of their adversaries and he didn't want Blair out on the open prairie with little cover if a gun battle occurred. Lifting his gaze to Sandburg's, he argued, "You've taught me how to use two senses at a time, to keep me from getting lost in one of them. I'll…I'll make sure I'm either listening to one of the others or maybe touching one, you know, a hand on the shoulder or something, while I do my thing. Besides, if they attack here, there may be need of a doctor."

"The posse may need a doctor, too," Blair muttered darkly, but he looked away and he took a deep breath, thinking about the options. Finally, he shook his head as he turned back to Jim, "I'm sorry - I just think it's too dangerous for you to go out after them without somebody who knows what's going on with you. If you zoned at the wrong time, they…they could shoot you, Jim. Kill you. Either I go with you or - or you have to let someone else in on this so they can watch you. Simon, H, Joel, whoever."

Jim stiffened, not liking the feeling of being pushed. "You know I don't want…"

"Yeah, I know," Blair cut in. "But face it, man - I think Simon's pretty much got your number and has for a long time. People notice that you can see, and hear, things they can't. Not everyone, no - but Simon has worked with you too closely ever since you came to town. And I think Joel and H are pretty clued in, too, that something is up with you."

"I really don't need this right now," Jim grated.

"Need what?" Sandburg protested, but then forced himself to calm down. "Look, I know you feel… awkward about being different. But I don't always understand why. They're your friends! If you know they're picking up stuff, and they haven't been treating you any differently, then why do you think they'll go all strange when you tell them straight out? If anything, they probably wonder what the big secret is, and why you haven't explained how you do what you do, long before now." When Jim's jaw tightened, Blair shook his head and sighed. "All I'm saying is, I won't let you head out there without the right backup."

"I'm a big boy, Sandburg," Ellison snarled, turning cold, angry eyes on his friend. "I don't need a fulltime babysitter! And, in case you forget, I managed to cross a monotonously white prairie more than a year ago, all on my own, when I tracked you down."

Stung by the anger, Blair's eyes darkened as he said softly, "Forget? I'll never forget what you did, not for as long as I live. You know that. I'm…I'm just worried about you, okay? Is that so wrong? Aren't you worried about me? Isn't that what this little discussion is all about?"

His jaw tight, Ellison breathed heavily through his nose as he struggled for calm. Though he sincerely regretted the hurt in Sandburg's eyes and voice, he didn't want to lose track of his objective, which was to keep Blair as safe as he could. Not in the least bit happy about being forced into choices he wasn't ready for, but recognizing that short of hogtying the kid, he couldn't force him to stay behind, he finally grated, "All right, dammit. We'll do it your way. I'll talk to Simon."

Blair quirked a brow but didn't say anything.

His temper once again flaring, Ellison demanded, "What? You don't trust me to talk to him?"

Holding up his hands for peace, Blair hastily replied, "No, that's not it. I believe you. But, uh, maybe it would help if we both talked to him. I can coach him a little on what it is I do to help you stay focused."

Throwing his hands in the air in capitulation, Jim growled, "Fine. Then let's go talk to him."

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

In the ranch office off the kitchen, Simon heard Jim out, casting a quick glance from time to time at Blair, who was standing silently against the wall, with his thumbs in his belt, in the den inside. Ellison was clearly uncomfortable and having trouble maintaining eye contact as he stumbled through his explanation of his sensory abilities, and the fact that, sometimes, it helped to have backup in case he lost track of what was going on around him.

Jim fell silent, after indicating that he'd like Simon to go out with the posse but without, so far, mentioning what Sandburg did to assist him.

Banks nodded solemnly. "Well, I can't say I'm surprised," he rumbled, but a teasing glint came into his eyes as he added, "Carrots can only do so much, you know? I figured there weren't enough in the whole world to account for some of the tricks I've seen you pull."

Ellison looked chagrined as he shook his head, while Blair lifted a hand to cover his irrepressible grin, his eyes twinkling with amusement.

Turning to Sandburg, Simon went on, "And I presume you're the one who usually helps Jim out?" When Blair nodded, suddenly sober, Banks asked, "So what am I supposed to do, exactly?"

"Uh, basically, when Jim's concentrating really hard, I keep a hand on his back or arm, to keep him grounded," Blair replied with a sidelong look at his partner who was studiously ignoring both of them. "And I talk really softly, unless he's trying to hear something. Then, I pretty much just rely on touch. If Jim starts to zone, er, get too deep, I call his name and maybe squeeze his shoulder. That's usually enough to bring him back."

"Zone?" Simon frowned in memory. Turning to Jim, he asked, "Is that what happened a couple of years ago, back in town? When I had to shake the daylights out of you to wake you up?"

"What? When?" Blair asked, surprised as he shot Jim a narrow look, never having heard of that particular incident before.

Jim cast his partner a silent, wry apology as he nodded, and replied to Simon, "Yeah, pretty much."

"I don't know, Jim - it took me quite a while to bring you back that time. Scared me, to tell you the truth. I was afraid you were having some kind of seizure," Banks hesitated. "I'm not the kid here…"

"It'll be fine," Ellison cut in. "Likely there won't be any problem at all. But Sandburg insists on riding with the posse unless someone else…"

"Ah, now I understand," Simon interjected. "I wondered why you'd finally decided to let me in on what was going on." Turning to Blair, he asked, sincerely concerned, "You really think I can do this?"

"Yeah, I think so," Blair replied. "It's not that complicated - I just wanted to be sure someone was out there with Jim, who'd understand if any problem does arise. But, like Jim said, probably nothing will happen."

"Okay," Simon agreed. When Jim nodded and mumbled, "Thanks," as he turned toward the door to leave, Simon added, "And Jim - thank you for trusting me with this. I know that wasn't easy for you."

Ellison paused and then turned back. "Simon - it's not that I don't trust you. That wasn't the issue," he replied slowly, painfully honest. "It's just that…I haven't been comfortable with letting folks know. Some might think I'm a freak…"

"Maybe," Simon allowed. "But I think most would be damned glad to know they've got such a remarkable man as their sheriff. Likely would make 'em feel even safer than you already do."

Lowering his gaze, Jim bit on his lip as he thought about that. But - he still didn't want everyone to know.

"I think it's best if most people don't know," Blair cut in. When both men looked at him, one with questions in his eyes, the other with relief, he explained, "Right now, Jim has an edge when he's patrolling town or dealing with troublemakers. If word of his talents got around, and you could bet it would, there'd be some who'd come to town just to challenge him - and others who might try to use his sensitivities against him." Casting a quick look at Jim, he added, "Sudden loud noises, or very bright light can cause Jim a lot of pain and distract him briefly, long enough to leave him vulnerable."

"I see I've got a lot to learn about this stuff," Banks muttered but he nodded. "I take your point, Blair, and I guess I have to agree. Just seems a shame, somehow, to have to hide them. Must make things difficult from time to time, when folks notice things out of the ordinary and you can't explain."

Jim nodded silently, but he was impressed that Simon had hit on one of his core regrets. It had been instinctive for him to hide the reality of his senses from everyone but Sandburg, who'd figured out what was going on before he'd understood it all himself - but he'd often felt uncomfortable living with the lies his reticence required both of them to tell to their friends. Blair just looked grateful that Simon understood Jim so well, and so compassionately.

As he stood beside Joel and watched the posse ride out less than half an hour later, Blair continued to feel anxious about not going with his best friend, but he also felt relieved that someone else finally knew Jim's secret - just in case the day came when he wasn't around to help anymore.

Watching the younger man out of the corner of his eye, Joel astutely read the mixed emotions on Sandburg's face. Though the good doctor could play poker with the best of them, he had to concentrate on keeping his thoughts and emotions hidden; in unguarded moments, the young man was naturally, unconsciously, very transparent to anyone paying attention. Shifting his gaze back to the disappearing riders, Joel murmured, "So Jim finally told Simon the truth of what he is…I'd guess it was the only way you'd agree not to go with him, and no way would he want you out there with those vipers lurking around."

Sandburg started in surprise, but quickly looked away.

"It's okay, Blair," Joel continued quietly, "I don't expect you to say anything - it's Jim's decision who he tells. But Simon and I, and I'd expect Henri, too, figured it out a while ago. Jim's a Watchman."

Sandburg turned to look at Joel, his eyes wide with surprise. "What do you know about Watchmen?"

Before responding, Joel waved to his men, sending them to their positions around the ranch compound, Rafe up to the top of the watertower, others deployed to the roofs of the main house, the barn and the bunkhouse, while the rest rode the perimeter. Jeb Strong was with them, Suzanne having been sent, protesting, back to town with Sam. Once the others set about their assignments, Joel turned to loop an arm around Blair's shoulders as he guided him into the house. "I think, maybe, it's time we had a little talk," he said with a warm smile of reassurance. "Just so's you know, finally, that you're far from alone in looking out for Jim."

They went into the kitchen, where Joel poured two mugs of coffee from the pot on the old, black woodstove. Waving Blair to a seat at the plain but well-polished table, Joel joined him there.

"When I was a little'n, back on the plantation, I used to love sittin' around the fire late at night, listenin' to the old ones tell us about where we'd come from, who we were, so we wouldn't ever forget," Joel began, the reflection of fond memories in his eyes. "They'd either been brought on the boats themselves, or had heard the stories directly from others who had." Shaking his head as he focused on Sandburg, he asked, "Did you know the British didn't usually capture slaves directly, but bought them from other black men in Africa?"

Blair shook his head. "No, I didn't."

"Well, that's the way it happened," Taggart carried on. "The tribes of Africa, or the nations, if you'd rather call them that, were like people everywhere else in the world, rivals for power and wealth, fighting battles of conquest over one another. But, to hold onto what was won, or to weaken an enemy state, one side would take the leaders, and their families, hostage - make them slaves. And what better way to get rid of your enemies than to make a profit while havin' them shipped to the other side of the world? So, as it happened, a great number of the slaves who were brought to this country were the best and brightest of their homelands."

Blair nodded, "Makes sense, and explains a lot of things." When Joel quirked a brow in question, he went on, "Well, for one thing, it explains how your people had the strength and endurance to survive in a situation that was soul-destroying. The Spanish and the British both tried to take the local indigenous peoples, the Indians, as slaves and both European cultures felt they had a God-given superiority over the peoples of other races. So, the terms of slavery were different here than in, say, Rome - much more brutal and oppressive. Most of the Indians died, unable to live in chained captivity, which is why they started importing slaves from Africa. I've read a lot about oppressed peoples over the ages - guess you could call it a kind of personal quest for understanding. Slavery has been an institution since the dawn of time, as a form of imposing the military superiority of the conquerors and breaking up communities or acquiring cheap labour. But, it hasn't always been as oppressive as it could be in too many places here, although galley and mine slaves lived under incredibly brutal conditions. But in Rome, for example, they had Greek slaves, who were exceptionally well educated, and who often sold themselves to a rich master as the tutor for the family's children in return for a life of relative ease. Slavery was a matter of political and economic rights, not spiritual or intellectual superiority, the way it too often came to be seen in the Americas." Suddenly aware he'd been talking when he wanted to listen, Blair flushed in embarrassment. He bobbed his head as he apologized, "Sorry, I didn't mean to run off at the mouth. You were going to tell me about Watchmen."

"Yes, I was," Joel replied pensively, thinking Blair's own traditional heritage had its own unhappy past - it was no surprise the kid had wanted to understand oppression and how people survived it. Coming back to his purpose in sitting down with Sandburg, Joel continued, "Well, the old ones told us all about our history, our lost cultures and traditions - story after story about the way things had once been. Some of my favourite stories were about the Watchmen, rare and special people, usually men but not always, who had magical senses. They could see and hear, touch, smell and even taste things ordinary folks couldn't. They became the Watchmen for the tribe, the protectors. When Simon and I realized some of what Jim can do, we talked about it and decided that these Watchmen must occur in every society, though we'd not seen one ourselves before now. Simon had heard the same stories I had, when he was young - and that's why I suspect Henri has heard them, too. The stories helped us survive, helped us be strong."

"I see," Blair murmured, looking away to focus on his mug of coffee; although fascinated and dying to learn more, he couldn't ask - Joel was talking about Jim, and Blair couldn't let on that he was at all interested in such things as Watchmen without betraying his best friend's trust.

Joel smiled gently, and then he said, "The stories told us that the Watchman was never alone, not unless some tragedy happened. He or she always had a companion, someone who understood their magic and helped them - called them back if their spirits ever wandered too far, before they were forever lost. The Watchman and the Companion were closer than brothers and nothing could come between them, so great was their love and loyalty for one another. We've figured, for a long time now, that you're Jim's 'companion'."

Blair took a deep breath and slowly shook his bowed head, not knowing what to say. It was only too obviously ludicrous to try to maintain any kind of pretense - but he'd promised Jim he'd never tell anyone.

In the silence, understanding it, Joel said with warm sincerity, "I told you outside - you don't have to say anythin' at all. But Simon, H and I are only too glad to help, any way we can. You aren't alone in wantin' to look out for him. So long as you know that, I'm content."

Swallowing the lump in his throat, Blair looked up at the older man as he said quietly with heartfelt sincerity, "Thanks, Joel. I appreciate that. Thanks for telling me about some of the old stories." He paused a moment and then added, "Uh, if anything should ever happen to me, and, well, if there's an urgent need to get into my patients' files to help someone…I've kept pretty good records. I mean, just in case."

"That's good to know, thank you," Joel replied soberly, appreciating the trust and respecting it, especially given the close calls Sandburg had had in the last couple of years. "But we all will also do our best to make sure nothin' bad happens to you."

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

It was mid-afternoon before Jim was able to sort through all the muddy trails leading in and out of Bitterwood Creek, but finally, he knew he'd found the tracks they were seeking - but they were hours old and headed in the wrong direction. Standing from where he'd been crouching in the pretense of seeing them better, Jim reflected that he missed Sandburg and the luxury of usually only doing stuff like this in his friend's presence. He could sit up on Lobo, for one thing, and not have to be constantly dismounting so the other men wouldn't realize how good his vision really was.

"The tracks are headed toward Wichita," Simon observed, then asked, "What do you think they're up to?"

"Trying to mislead us, I suspect," Jim muttered as he gazed over the horizon toward the city to the west, and then shifted to look south, toward the ranch compound, which was now about twenty miles away. "I just don't think they're going to Wichita, not yet, anyway. I'm getting real tired of being jerked around by these guys."

"So - what do you think we should do, Jim?" Brown asked. "Follow them or try to intercept them?"

Mounting up, Jim replied, "I think we should cut cross-country over your range, Simon, angling back toward the ranch. I'm pretty sure we'll cut their sign and it'll save us from having to waste time following in their hoofprints."

Shaking his head, Simon cautioned, "If we angle across too sharply, we might miss them…"

Ellison nodded in agreement as he led off at a swift pace across the rolling prairie, cutting a shallow angle toward the distant ranch. They found the tracks of the outlaws doubling back about an hour, and turned to follow this time, as the intended destination was now very clear. But it was getting late, the sun already sinking in the west, and they were still at least fifteen miles from the ranch. All felt an increasing urgency to catch up as quickly as they could - darkness still came early, and the persistent heavy cloud cover would hurry the onset of dusk.

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

The Southern outlaws were cunning. They'd robbed the bank as a lucrative distraction, expecting that it would split the defenders' forces, evening up the odds. With plenty of time to lay their false trail to the west, they'd circled wide before heading back toward the Gold Ribbon, knowing any posse would eat up precious hours tracking them down. They'd been back in the vicinity of the ranch since early afternoon, leisurely taking their positions around the compound, far enough away to remain unnoticed, but close enough that their own field-glasses could easily pick out the sentries in their sector of attack. The sunless day was a gift, pure and simple, the light too feeble to reflect off their binoculars. As the day waned, they cautiously made their way closer, so that as utter darkness fell, they were within easy striking distance. Some carried unlit torches lashed to their saddles, ready to be lit when the riders got close enough to the wooden ranch buildings and the stacks of hay. The dampness was regrettable, but one torch tossed into the open barn door would easily catch on the hay inside, throwing the defenders into disarray.

They had the advantages of time, of surprise, of darkness and of being on the attack. They could plan their specific targets, each man clear on what he was to do, while the defenders could only try to anticipate, wait and react. When the signal came, the first shot of an alert sentry, all of them would already be encroaching closely on the ranch and had only to lash their horses to thunder across the remaining distance, a few pausing only to light their torches as they drew within shooting range of their targets - the barn…and the main house.

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

Just as the light was fading, still a good five miles from the ranch, Jim pulled up and cursed softly.

"What is it?" Simon asked as he turned to squint down at the tracks in the sloppy ground that was not yet covered in fresh, tall grass. "Shit," he muttered, seeing the problem.

"They split up," Jim told the others as they pulled up around him and Simon. "Looks like they're going to attack from different directions. With the lead they have, we'd better head straight back - with luck, maybe we'll get there about the same time."

The riders set off, thundering across the gentle rolling swells until it got too dark to ride so fast without risking the legs of their horses in hidden gopher holes. But, though the men with them urged a more rational pace, Jim kept Lobo at a full gallop, Simon racing unhesitatingly on his heels, and the others fell in behind.

But they were still almost a mile away when the first shot split the night - not quite half a mile away when the orange-red flickering reflection of fire began to dance on the low-lying night-black clouds.

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

They'd waited all day, the hours passing with tiresome slowness as the twelve men watched the horizon all around the ranch compound, tense with their expectation of attack. The day was dull, the gray overcast sky melting into the bland sameness of the winter-starved prairie, wearying eyes that were straining to see, and casting a dismal, depressing mood of foreboding over those who had nothing else to do but wonder and worry. Every man was concerned not only about the impending attack that could come at any time, but also about the posse, wondering whether they'd managed to catch the outlaws - and if so, with what result?

The silence stretched on and on, broken only by the high-pitched keening moan of the wind, not loud but on the edge of perception, irritating and unnerving. The damp sank into the bones of the watching men, particularly those who lay still on the high rooftops and watertower, so as not to attract the attention of anyone who might well be watching the ranch, making the men stiff and achy.

Hour after hour, the minutes trickled past and tensions mounted.

The sky grew dusky as the unseen sun sank away in the west, taking what dreary light there'd been with it. It grew dimmer, the distances harder to make out, until it was completely dark with not even the sparse light of the stars, let alone the silver glow of the moon to aid those who still waited.

Still, the men on the rooftops and those riding the perimeter maintained their position. Though they could no longer use their eyes, they could still listen and their strategically diverse vantage points gave them some advantage - they hoped.

On the verandah, Blair leaned against a pillar, huddled in his heavy cloth coat as he stared into the darkness, a worried expression on his face. He'd been told in no uncertain terms that he was to stay at the house, inside preferably, but no further outside than a pace or two from one of the doors, so that he could hurry back to safety when the attack came - if it came. Though he deliberately did not carry a personal weapon - an unconsciously courageous stance when most men went armed and life was full of danger - at times like this a sense of helpless futility weighed upon him, as it had often during the War, making him question his principles and their worth. It was devastatingly humiliating to feel he had to be protected by other men; worse, that his inability to contribute to their collective defence might well put the others at increased risk.

And he was very worried about Jim and the others. They'd been gone for hours. Knowing better than anyone the skills Jim could bring to bear on the tracking of the bandits, he wondered how quickly the posse could have caught up with the gang. In the protracted silence of the day, he'd had ample time to imagine all sorts of terrible possibilities, all of which only made him feel sick with useless helplessness.

Feeling his tension as if it were a tangible force, Joel spoke from somewhere close in the darkness. "He's all right, Blair…"

"How can you be so sure?" Sandburg murmured back, his voice tight with anxious concern.

"I don't know - I may be 'way off base here - but I honestly think you'd know, you'd feel it, if something happened to him," the older man replied quietly, knowing voices could carry on the quiet prairie.

Blair thought about that, and wondered if Joel could be right. Before he could answer, a shot reverberated through the darkness.

The Dawson gang was coming!

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

Jeb Stone had heard the telltale soft suck of hooves lifting from the soggy ground, somewhere close on his left. It only sounded like one horse, but it was one too many when there shouldn't have been anyone but him on that stretch of the perimeter.

Already wheeling his mount around to race back to better cover at the ranch than the open prairie offered, he shot off his pistol to warn the others that it had begun.

But the marauders weren't coming from a single direction, and the shot was misinterpreted as the sentries wheeled toward it. It was only a few, critical seconds, but more than enough for Dawson's raiders to sweep in from each point of the compass and six more directions in-between…

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

As long as they'd waited and tried to be ready, the immediacy, ruthless speed and strategy of the attack threw the defenders into initial confusion. Joel wheeled sharply and physically shoved Blair into the dark safety of the main house, ordering him down and away from all the windows as Joel crouched by the window, his rifle ready, his two handguns primed and within easy reach on the floor beside him. The first shot was quickly followed by a flurry of others, from every direction, as the attackers ruthlessly closed in on the sentries they'd watched during the day. Men cried out as bullets ripped through skin and muscle.

The thunder of hooves rumbled louder and closer, and then sudden flares of fire split the darkness, the men carrying the torches already racing with deadly deliberation toward their targets.

A matter of seconds after the first shot had been fired, five of the ranch hands were down with bullet wounds, two of them already dead. The remaining defenders recovered quickly, but were still handicapped by the darkness and outwitted by the marauders. The cowboys fired at the sound of the thundering horses, unable to see well enough to pick out precise targets - but the raiders had leapt from the backs of their mounts, to run the last few yards silently while their still racing mounts drew fire.

Rafe nailed one man at the barn entrance, but the torch had already been thrown, catching in the dry hay strewn on the earthen floor, and quickly spreading to eat hungrily into the wood and piles of roughage in the empty stalls and mangers until the whole structure was blazing, flames licking around the chinks in the walls and pitched roof, so that the defender up there, Taffy, had to jump for his life. Fire, brilliantly alive, pulsed heat into the night and - its only good outcome - threw the immediate area into stark relief. Finally, the defenders were on equal footing and could fire at will with deadly accuracy at their adversaries.

Rafe brought down another, and then another, while Joel exercised his own sharp-shooting skills from the house, cutting down two men in rapid succession. But he'd heard his man on the roof, Tex, yell out before he fell, and knew the perimeter of the house was now unguarded. There were too many still coming in the yard outside to worry about the back door, but the hairs on the back of his neck lifted in tense alert to ambush from behind.

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

Dawson had deployed his men with cunning and care, to leave him the best chance to get his own personal target - Joel Taggart and Simon Banks, though he doubted both were still be at the ranch, but whichever one was would most likely be making his stand at the main house. After his gang had split up to ride toward their positions around the perimeter, he'd ridden closer and had verified his assumption with a cold smile of satisfaction when he spotted Joel with that kid, the so-called local doctor. Taggart carried a rifle, but the younger man seemed as unarmed as Dawson remembered him being in the bar three nights before.

When the assault began, Dawson headed straight for the back of the house, but he didn't light the torch he was carrying on his saddle until after he'd gotten close enough to pick off the man on the roof. Slipping from his saddle, taking the torch with him, he crouched in a silent run toward the back door. It was, of course, locked and barred. No surprise. Swiftly, he put a match between his teeth and broke a window into the back kitchen, smashing it so that he could dive inside. Rolling to his knees, he took the match and scraped it on the floor, lit the torch and tossed into the stack of wood by the stove. And then he was running lightly, almost soundlessly, through the dark house toward the sound of a rifle firing in the front.

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

Blair, crouching on one knee by the end of the sofa across the large front room from Joel, heard Tex cry out as he was wounded, and then the sickening thud as he hit the ground outside - but his low moan signaled he was still alive. Bile burned in the back of Sandburg's throat, and he was edging his way toward the window closest to where Tex had landed by the front right corner of the house, intent upon slipping out to haul the wounded cowboy into the house for safety. Keeping low to avoid being hit by the bullets crashing through from the front, as well as to avoid distracting Joel who was now only a few feet away, he heard a window somewhere in the back shatter. Stiffening, he turned toward Joel, who had jerked at the sound, but who was too occupied with another man charging the front of the house to immediately determine the danger from behind.

Out of patience with principles that were great in general and just plain stupid in the face of immediate threat, not only to himself but to Joel, Blair shifted direction to gain access to one of Joel's handguns, his eyes riveted to the dark square of hallway beyond the comfortable room. The burning barn cast enough light to see a few feet past the doorframe. Sandburg was reaching for one of the six-guns when he saw the dark outline of a man step into view.

"JOEL!" he cried as he grabbed the gun and lunged forward to push Taggart out of the way, even as a shot exploded from behind.

There was a sudden flurry of shots as more guns exploded outside, and the thunder of horses closing in from the north. Joel grunted just as Blair caught him, rolling with the older man to the side, and then coming up, between the shooter and his friend, lifting Joel's weapon as he saw the attacker's gun swinging toward him.

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

Jim and the rest of the posse swept into the battle, guns blazing. The deadly fury of the arriving forces quickly outnumbered the few vicious raiders who were still standing, drawing the battle to a swift end. The acrid scent of gun smoke mingled with the sweeter odours of burning wood, hay and oats, the air thick and hot with ash. In the garish light of the flames, bodies lay crumpled, littering the ground. For a moment, there was only silence but for the cracking wood and roar of the fire in the barn - and then the posse, along with the remaining unwounded defenders, burst into action - checking the bandits to ensure they were all dead, running to aid their wounded comrades, sickened to find four of them also dead. Still more raced for buckets to quell the raging fire, only to realize it was a lost cause and that there was another fire glowing from the back of the main house.

Jim and Simon had leapt from their horses to race up the steps of the house, concerned that no one had come out to meet them. His eardrums still resonating with the recent sounds of rapid gunfire, Jim couldn't hear anything from inside - but his gut clenched as he realized he could smell blood.

Together, the two big men bounded across the verandah and shouldered in the wide double doors, dropping to a crouch as they belatedly realized that an enemy might yet lie within. Light from the fire spilled inside and, as they edged around the door, they spotted their friends.

"Dear God!" Simon cried out as he and Jim lunged forward.

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

Looking up at Simon's shout from where he crouched, both hands pressing down hard to stem the out-rushing tide of blood from the back of his wounded friend, Blair snapped, "Good - you're here. Get him upstairs and ready for me. I'll get my instruments into boiling water and I'll be up as quickly as I can. Keep pressure on the wound."

Blair swung away from Joel, ceding his place to Simon, grabbed his bag from where he'd had it near him by the sofa, and then wheeled out of the room, stepping over the dead man sprawled in the hall as if he wasn't even there.

"Ah, Joel," Banks choked as he took in the sight of his partner's blood soaking through the shreds of the shirt Sandburg had ripped open to expose the wound, and already pooling on the carpet under him as he pressed his hands down over the bullet hole. "Joel?"

But the unconscious man was beyond responding, unable to offer any comfort to the big man who trembled with fear for him, his eyes glazing with helpless tears.

Jim had taken in Joel's position by the window, the rifle still clutched in his right hand, and the wound in his back as he turned toward the dead man. He stilled for a moment as he stared at the vacant eyes of Ambrose Dawson, and then at the blood darkening the front of his chest. As he turned back to help Simon with Joel, he saw the handguns, one still by the window where Joel had probably been positioned, the other dropped by Joel's left side, only, Joel was right-handed - and he knew then, without doubt, what must have happened. For the span of an eternal second, his heart clenched, realizing how close it must have been and what Blair had been forced to do. And then he bent, one hand briefly gripping Simon's shoulder to steady him, as he reached to lift Joel's legs. "Come on, Simon. We need to get him up to his bed."

Lurching into action, Simon grabbed Joel's shoulders to turn him. "I've got him," he said thickly as he lifted his brother - in every sense that counted - up into his arms as he rose to his feet. As he turned toward the hallway and the stairs beyond, he saw the dead man, recognizing him as Jim hastily pulled Dawson's corpse out of the way. Banks' lips trembled and he felt a sudden sharp stab of nausea, but he forced it back down as he strode out and hastily carried Joel up the broad wooden steps, following Jim who had bounded up ahead.

By the time Simon reached Joel's room at the back of the house, Jim had pulled back the blanket and cover sheet, and was quickly layering the thick towels he'd found - in the open cupboard by the washstand - over the bottom sheet to absorb most of the blood, leaving a couple near to hand for Simon to press over the wound. As Simon strode in, Jim turned to swiftly light the oil lamps on the tables by the bed and on top of the high chest of drawers. Carefully lowering his partner to the bed, Banks gently, if swiftly, turned him into a three-quarter prone position to expose his back but still allow Joel some ease of breathing. Then, folding one of the towels into a thick wad, Simon resumed pressure on the still heavily bleeding wound. Looking around at Ellison, he gestured with his head toward the full bookcase along one wall under a window.

"Jim, grab a couple of handfuls of those thicker books," Banks directed, his voice low and hoarse. "I remember H telling me that Sandburg had the bottom of your bed propped up when you were hurt so bad last fall. He said it helped fight off shock."

Nodding tightly, Jim did as he was bid. It was a strain to lift the bottom of the heavy wood-framed bed alone, but he scarcely noticed it as he held it up while one-handedly stacking books under one carved claw foot and then the other. While he was occupied with that task, Simon pulled the blankets back over as much of Joel's body as he could, to keep his friend warm.

Standing, Jim moved to the opposite side of the bed, his face pale with worry as he looked down on Joel's lax features and listened intently to check out his heartbeat. Fast, too fast, but still strong. Bending, he eased the ruined shirt from under Taggart's body, and then fumbled to loosen his belt. Pulling the blanket and sheet out from the bottom of the bed, he pulled off Joel's boots and socks, but left the jeans alone for the time being, reluctant to jostle the unconscious man any further. Besides, he reasoned, the jeans would help keep his lower extremities warm.

Suddenly, there was nothing more he could do in the room. He looked up at Simon, his heart aching with his own sorrow and twisting more sharply at the wretched grief on Banks' face - and the glazed guilt in the eyes that lifted to meet his.

"Dawson wanted me," the older man grated. "Me! I killed his damned father, may they both rot in hell. Me. Not Joel…" His voice broke in sob of anger and self-loathing.

Jim shook his head. "You saved Joel's life that day, Simon - you know that," he replied quietly but firmly. "Dawson didn't care which of you laid out his father - he wanted you both dead. This is not your fault."

Simon shook his head helplessly as he bit his lip to stop its trembling. "I'm scared, Jim," Banks admitted brokenly. "I don't want to lose him."

"He's still alive, and he's a strong, determined man," Jim replied as he turned to the door, intending to see if there was anything he could do to help Sandburg. "Don't give up on him yet."

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

Smoke was thick in the downstairs hall when Jim clattered down the steps. Coughing, his eyes watering, he pressed through it back toward the kitchen, knowing Sandburg had headed in that direction. By the time he got there, Rafe and Reynolds were tossing buckets of water to douse the fire that had climbed up the wooden wall beside and behind the stove, and then turning to stamp out smoldering sparks on the floor. A somewhat singed Sandburg was hastily washing up at the sink, his back bare as he'd stripped off his bloodstained and smoke-blackened shirt. Rafe looked up as Jim came in, cutting a quick glance at Sandburg's scarred back and then shooting an angry, questioning look at the Sheriff. Waving it off, Jim crossed the spacious room, broken glass crunching under his feet.

Just finished rinsing the lather off his face, arms and body, Sandburg looked up and around at the hand gripping his shoulder, and then lifted his gaze to Jim's eyes.

"Joel's hanging on," Jim told him, frowning at his partner's fire-reddened face.

"Joel?" Rafe exclaimed, not having realized the rancher had been shot, while Reynolds, the cowboy helping him to contain the kitchen fire, gaped at Jim. "How bad's he hurt?"

"Bad enough," Blair grated as he turned toward the pot boiling on the stove to fish out his instruments onto a clean towel he'd found in a cupboard along the far wall. "Dawson shot him in the back."

"What can I do to help?" Jim demanded.

Over his shoulder, Sandburg directed, "Find a bottle of whiskey, bring it and my medical bag and a jug of hot water upstairs. I'm assuming there's a wash basin up there?"

"There is," Jim replied as he poured the steaming kettle into a large pitcher he found sitting on the kitchen's worktable against the wall under the windows. Taking it and Blair's bag, which was tossed across the room, away from where the fire had been burning, he headed back through the haze of smoke to the front room, where he knew Simon and Joel kept their whiskey in a side cabinet. Blair was just turning up the stairs, a clean towel enclosing his instruments clutched in his hands. And for the first time, Jim saw the singed hair on his chest and the angry reddened skin.

"What the hell did you do?" he demanded as he pounded up the stairs after his best friend. "Walk through the fire to put your instruments on to boil?"

"Basically," Blair called back as he turned into the hall and loped along it to Joel's room. "It was a help, in a way. Let me see what I was doing. Once you've dropped off that stuff, find out how badly the others are wounded. See if they can all be brought into the house and then come and let me know the extent of the injuries."

Jim gritted his jaw and shook his head as he quickly followed the doctor down the hall.

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

Blair, with Simon's assistance, was already well along with the surgery by the time Jim hastened back to report to him.

"How's he doing?" Ellison asked as he came into the room.

"Good, he's doing good," Blair replied steadily as he cut a quick look up at Simon, who was gray with fear, and then glanced quickly at Jim before returning his attention to his work. "How many others and how bad?" he asked.

"Four dead and five wounded on our side," Jim replied tightly as he came closer to watch Blair work, marveling at the sure and steady speed of his nimble fingers. "Five gunshot wounds, one leg, three shoulders and one arm. Two of the wounded also have injuries from falling off the roofs of the barn and the house. Tex was shot in the shoulder and it looks like he's got banged up ribs and a broken arm. Taffy Larkin has a broken leg from having to jump off the barn when it suddenly went up in flames underneath him."

"God," Blair murmured, shaking his head as he finished closing the wound, dusted it with herbs and then covered it with a thick pad. Only three of the men defending the ranch had escaped the attack unscathed. "The gang?" he asked then.

"All dead," Jim told him.

His lips thinned, and then Sandburg nodded once. Grabbing a roll of linen from the table beside him, he looked up at Simon as he instructed, "Help me get the soiled towels out from under him and then we need to wrap this around him. I want him on his back to keep pressure on the wound, propped on a couple of pillows to help him breathe more easily. Jim can help you get his jeans off, and then I want a couple more blankets put over him."

Jim moved forward to help support Joel's body while they pulled away the towels and layered down clean ones. "I can help Simon bind the wound. You go see to the others. Given they weren't too badly hurt, it was easier to take them all to the bunkhouse where they can be cared for together."

"Good, thanks," Blair nodded as he hastily washed the blood off his hands. Turning back to Simon, who'd been utterly silent and gray throughout the surgery, he asked quietly. "Simon, how're you doing?"

Banks swallowed as he kept his eyes on the task of binding the bandage around Joel's torso. "Is he really going to be all right?" he asked, his voice tight with strain.

"Yes. Like I explained during the surgery, the bullet hit him high, between his shoulder blade and spine. No bones were shattered. There was a lot of blood because an artery got clipped, but the nerves and tendons look all right. We got the hole in the artery closed and the bullet out pretty fast," Sandburg replied steadily as he dried his hands and moved to grip Simon's upper arm firmly, reassuringly. "He'll need lots of rest and lots of fluids…you know the drill. But, I promise you, he's going to live and I expect he'll be just fine."

Simon blew out a breath and lifted his damp eyes to Sandburg's steady gaze. "Then, I'm fine, too," he replied, his voice unsteady, and his eyes remained haunted with thoughts of the men who'd died on their behalf. But, he cleared his throat and said more strongly with a deep and abiding sincerity, "You did the fast work, Blair - I thank God, and you, that you were here to help him so quickly."

Sandburg nodded and then grabbed his bag as well as the bottle of whiskey and the towel rolled around the now bloody instruments. In a flash, he was gone, clattering down the stairs to deal with his other patients.

Simon and Jim worked quietly until they had Joel settled. Banks dragged the armchair by the bookcase over to the side of the bed and sank into it with a sigh.

Jim poured him a glass of water from the fresh jug Rafe had brought up after Blair had left, and Ellison was pretty sure it was something Sandburg had requested before heading off to the bunkhouse. As he handed it to Simon, he asked, "Is there anything else I can do for you?"

Simon's hand was still trembling as he took the proffered glass and gratefully drank it down in one long swallow. Looking up at Jim as he handed it back, he said, "I suppose you've also figured out what went down with Dawson?"

Ellison nodded as he returned the glass to the tray on the low cabinet by the washstand. Adding the jug of water to the two glasses, he carried it around Simon to the bedside table, where he saw Blair had left a small vial of laudanum for when Joel woke. "Yeah, I think I have," he replied as he lifted his gaze to Simon's.

"Take care of that kid," Simon directed tightly. "When he slows down, he's going to be hurting. Those burns looked sore and, knowing him, he's likely to react to killing Dawson, however necessary he knows it was."

Jim sighed as he looked from Banks to Joel. Turning back to Simon to pat the older man's shoulder as he moved toward the door, he said huskily, "You got it, Simon. I'll take as good care of my brother, as you'll be taking of yours."

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

It was well past midnight before Sandburg finished stitching up and splinting his last patient. Jim had worked with him, holding retractors and passing him instruments or medicines as he requested them. Rafe and Brown had done the running - cleaning the soiled instruments and setting them to boil again as Jim and Blair finished bandaging or splinting, so they'd be ready for the next patient; bringing water to Blair and Jim when their voices got raspy and dry; tending the already treated patients as they woke, giving them the mixture of laudanum and water to ease their pain; running over to the main house for more towels and linens when the supply in the bunkhouse ran short, and Rafe fished out his own bottle of whiskey when the first one ran dry.

As Blair worked, Jim watched him and frowned at the lines of pain on his face that seemed to etch deeper as the night wore on. He was pale; almost gray, by the time he finished the last treatment. But whenever Jim quietly asked him if he needed a break, he just shook his head and muttered that he was fine.

Finally, they were done. Though Blair had cleaned his upper body between each surgery, his jeans were heavy with the fresh and drying blood of each man he'd worked on, starting with Joel. When he almost stumbled in his exhaustion as he straightened away from splinting Tex's arm, Jim reached out quickly to grab him, to steady him…grimacing when Sandburg winced as his burned skin protested the firm grip. And then Ellison frowned as he felt the faint tremble in Blair's body.

"Okay, time to look after the doctor's injuries," he said with a no-nonsense voice. "We need to get something on those burns."

Blair nodded as he turned, murmuring, "Would you grab my bag? I'll need it over at the house."

Jim took the freshly cleaned instruments from Rafe, loading them into the leather medical bag and followed Sandburg out. His best friend had wandered out ahead of him, and was now limping slowly across the yard between the blackened, still smoldering, ruin of the barn and the house. Loping a few steps to catch up, Ellison looped an arm around the shorter man's shoulders, taking some of his weight to help him across the remaining distance.

As they entered the front room, Blair paused. "Could you get out another bottle of whiskey?"

"Why, you planning to get drunk now?" Jim asked, teasing lightly but worried about his unusually quiet partner.

Looking up at Jim, Blair gave him a wan smile as he replied, his voice sounding suddenly very thin, "Funny, Jim. No, it's just that I've got one last wound to clean out - just a gouge, really, but…" He'd just laid a hand over the blood staining his left hip, when his voice failed and he swallowed hard - and then slid toward the floor.

"Blair!" Jim gasped with a sudden surge of fear, as he dropped the bag and grabbed Sandburg, easing him down.

"'S'okay, not serious," Blair whispered, sounding dazed. "Bullet grazed my hip. I put a pressure pad over it, but it's still bleeding a bit." He blinked slowly, seeming unaware that Jim was working on his belt and pulling down the blood-soaked jeans far enough to check out the wound. "Too much…runnin' aroun', I guess," his voice faltering as it faded. "Wound kep' gettin'… irritated. No' serious…don' worry…"

"Sonofabitch," Jim cursed under his breath when he found the deep, angry gouge that still seeped blood into a bloody dressing. Sandburg's jeans had been ripped by the bullet, just below his belt. In the darkness and confusion, camouflaged by his blood and that of others, it was scarcely noticeable. Lifting his eyes to Blair's, he found his partner giving him a slight smile of reassurance.

"Really, 'm fine," he murmured, his words slurring. "'m jus'… li'l tir…" And then, as if to prove it, his eyes drifted shut as he slipped into unconsciousness.

"I'm going to kill you when you wake up," Jim grated as he grabbed Blair's bag and then heaved his friend into his arms to carry him upstairs to the double bedroom guest suite they used when they stayed over at the ranch.

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

Blair woke to sun streaming in through a window that usually wasn't on that wall in his bedroom; it was confusing but he was still glad to see it was finally shining. Blinking, he sorted through his memories as he looked around the room, placing it at the ranch, and then he saw Jim drowsing on the chair by his bed. By then he'd remembered the events of the day before and pushed himself up on his elbows. He had patients to attend to, wounds to check for infection, dressings to change.

He'd only gotten that far up when Jim snapped, as he leaned forward to push Blair back down, "Where do you think you're going?"

Finding himself flat on his back despite knowing he'd tried to resist, Blair looked preoccupied as he replied, "Got to see my patients, Joel especially," he muttered, and then looked up at Jim. "Why the hell am I so damned weak?"

Ellison shook his head as he poured a glass of water and helped Blair drink. "Why are you 'so damned weak'?" he echoed sarcastically as he sat back down, his expression stormy. "Well, let's see. How about never really recovering from almost dying last year? Or, maybe it was working yourself to exhaustion all winter. Wouldn't be running into a fire - you only got a little singed. How about working over six other men while you were bleeding? Oh…and there's the small matter of your spleen not being there any more and the danger you face from infection - not that that concerned you much as you left the wound on your hip untended. Could be all that - could also just be, as you slurred last night just before you passed out, that you're 'jus' a li'l tired'."

Blair nodded thoughtfully, then hazarded a grin, "Yep, could be all that, but I was probably just really tired when…"

"This isn't a joke, Chief," Jim slammed back as he got up to pace the floor. "The others know what to do - if there's a real problem, they'll come and get you. Otherwise, you're going to rest. Since you don't have the sense to take care of yourself, I intend to stay right here to make sure you don't go anywhere, unless it's a true emergency."

"Jim, I'm not stupid," Sandburg snipped back, deciding to try another tack. "I knew the gouge was an annoyance more than anything and could wait until…"

"An 'annoyance' that made you pass out," Jim growled. "Some 'annoyance', Sandburg. I guess if the bullet had lodged in your hip that would have been really inconvenient. Which bullet was it, by the way - the one that got Joel as you tried to roll him out of the way? Or the one Dawson shot at you?"

"How did you…oh, never mind," Blair sighed, and then admitted reluctantly, wincing in anticipation of his friend's reaction to the near miss. "The second bullet - I fired just before he did and I guess it threw off his aim."

But Jim paled visibly and then he sat down. What the hell was he doing? Yelling at the kid when he'd finally just awakened? Making Blair tense in readiness for more abuse? When Sandburg looked at him with concern darkening his eyes, Jim shook his head tightly and then his gaze dropped as his shoulders slumped and he bowed his head. "I'm sorry," he said quietly. "You didn't need that…outburst. You did everything right - saved Joel, killed Dawson, and took care of everyone else before you let yourself relax."

"Scared ya, huh?" Blair asked quietly.

Struggling to rein in his raw emotions, Jim nodded as he blew out a long breath. "Yeah. It's easier to get angry and yell than…deal with the fear, I guess." Sitting back in the chair, he scrubbed his face with his hands and then looked at Blair. "I'm the one who really screwed up - it didn't help that you're always pushing your limits - but I gave Dawson the upper hand and then let him consistently trump me, all the way along the line. To top it off, I left you in a position where you had to kill him to save Joel and yourself - and could have so easily been killed…"

His jaw tightened as he shook his head and looked away.

Pursing his lips, Blair cocked a brow as he observed mildly, "Well, I guess you've been awake most of the night. Had to have been, to have time to come up with that load of shit."

"Chief, I…" Jim began, but Sandburg cut him off.

"No, Jim, stop," Blair directed firmly. "You have an overdeveloped sense of responsibility. I've known that since you tried to take the burden of what happened at Poplar Flats onto your own shoulders, when none of it was yours to bear. I think it goes with being a Sentinel. But I won't lie here and listen to you berate yourself for ensuring Joel and Simon were safe, or for leaving me in the safer of two uncertain situations, while you went after the bad guys. It's pure, unadulterated bullshit, Jim, and I won't stand for it. Hell, you arrived here last night in the nick of time to save our lives."

"Yeah, well, I'm not the only one with 'an overdeveloped sense of responsibility'," Jim sighed. "You drive yourself too hard, Blair. You got burned last night…"

"Very minor," Blair cut in.

"You left yourself bleeding for hours…"

"Not badly, just a little…"

"Risked infection, when you know you can't do that…"

"I put some of Whispering Waters' herbs on it before I covered it with the pressure dressing…" Blair snickered, beginning to find the debate funny.

But Jim wasn't quite finished, having saved what was likely the worst hurt of all, for last. "Killed another man to protect Joel…"

"Yeah, and I'd do it again," Sandburg snapped, no longer amused as he looked up at the ceiling. "Don't sweat it, Jim. The only thing I did do wrong in this whole sorry affair was not pick up a gun a hell of a lot sooner. Maybe then, Joel wouldn't have been shot in the first place."

Ellison's eyes narrowed. That wasn't the reaction he'd expected. Shifting forward, he gripped his partner's arm, lightly in deference for the still pink burns, but needing to make contact. "You're not wrong, kid, for wanting to avoid shooting other people. You are a healer, not a killer. To walk unarmed in this place and time takes a great deal of courage."

Blair's jaw tightened and, when he turned toward Jim, his eyes were flashing with anger - at himself. "That's fine, Jim, and I appreciate what you're saying. 'Fine', so long as it's only my life I'm being so 'courageous' in risking," he grated, sarcastically emphasizing the quality Ellison had attributed to him. "But it's not 'fine' when others are risking their lives to protect me, and I won't do the same for them. Every man in the Dawson gang was a stone-cold killer. I don't like to take another life, but believe me, I can live with the two I've taken, and I could have lived with having taken a few more last night."

"Good," Jim replied earnestly, "because I'd hate to see you waste a shred of grief on any of them. But don't change who you are because other men are evil. Because…because you're not the one who has to change. You're not wrong to stand as an example of peaceful solutions until there is absolutely no other option to survive but violence."

Blair blinked rapidly as he swallowed hard, his lips tightly compressed. But the shadows in his eyes lightened and he gradually relaxed. Nodding slightly as he held Jim's steady gaze, he finally said, "Thanks."

"Okay, glad we got that straight," Jim relaxed as he sat back in his chair. "Just don't do that ever again."

"What? Kill someone like Dawson?" Blair asked, now very confused.

"No, not that," Jim waved off the idea. "I told you, you were right to kill him. No, fall over, pass out and scare me half to death. That 'that'."

Chuckling at the straight look on Ellison's face, knowing his best friend was pulling his chain, Blair replied with light good humour, "Okay, sorry, I'll try to do better in the future."

"You do that," Jim replied, but a smile played on his lips and danced in his eyes now that he knew for sure that Sandburg was fine, really fine. Just a little tired.

But Blair's eyes clouded as he remembered something else he had to share with his best friend. Concerned, Jim leaned forward again. "What is it, kid? What's wrong?"

Blair squinted at him for a moment, and then told him, "You're not going to like this, Jim. I didn't say anything, I swear to you. But - it seems the old slaves used to tell the young ones stories about life in Africa, about their culture and traditions, so they wouldn't forget who they are - stories about Watchmen for example - and their companions. Simon, Joel and probably Henri, too, have been on to both of us for a long time."

When Jim just stared at him, his eyes losing focus as he considered the surprising information, Blair hastened to add, "Joel told me, not because anyone feels badly that we didn't say anything to them. But he wanted me to know that they're all watching out - for both of us. That we aren't alone."

Jim bowed his head and then nodded. "They're good friends," he murmured. Looking up, he added, "It's about time I trusted that, and them." He smiled crookedly as he added, "Might as well, huh? Since they already know?"

"You're okay with this?" Sandburg asked, his gaze searching Jim's and relaxing as he saw only peace there.

"Yeah, I am," Jim reassured him as his smile broadened. "Better than okay. Feels pretty good to know there are four men in the world that I can trust with my life…even better to know I can trust three of them with yours."

Blair grinned but then, as he thought about it, the smile faded. "Wait a minute. You don't trust me with my life?"

Jim shrugged as he lifted his hands. "Think about it, Chief. I seem to need all the help I can get watching out for you," he said innocently.

Wondering if he should be insulted, Blair gave his best friend a wounded look but then, catching the glint of devilment flickering in Jim's eyes, he couldn't sustain it and started to snicker.

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

When Brown headed back to town first thing in the morning, Jeb went with him to bring Susannah back home, while Rafe and Reynolds backtracked the Dawson gang until they found where the bank's money had been stashed. Simon, grateful for the support all of their men had given him and Joel, lifted the largest sack of the cash from the pile on the porch and handed it back to Rafe. "Divide this up amongst all the men, with our thanks," he said quietly, lifting a hand when Rafe and Reynolds both tried to protest. "Later this week, I'll see to sending help to the families of the men who were killed." And then he turned to head back upstairs to Joel, while Jim asked the two cowboys if they'd mind taking the rest of the money into town. Sam Sloane would be glad to have it back and accounted for.

Later, Jim spent some time with Simon, and with Joel, when the wounded man was a little stronger, to let them both know how much he appreciated the friendship they had shown him and Blair. The next morning, he headed back to town to give the same message to Henri, and let Brown get back to his work at the livery stable. Blair, however, decided to stay at the ranch for an extra couple of days. While all of his patients were healing well, he remained a little concerned about Joel. The older man had been the most seriously wounded but he was alert, and even eating a little, whenever he roused from long, healing sleeps. Thankfully, there seemed to be no nerve damage from his injury or the subsequent surgery. But Sandburg wanted to be absolutely certain the wound was healing cleanly before leaving.

As he spoke with both Simon and Joel that day, and the next, he realized they both felt uncomfortable with the whole town knowing that Simon had killed their overseer, and that they'd been runaway slaves. It was one thing for Jim to have ruled it self-defence, another for their neighbours to really believe it. Though Blair did his best to reassure them, repeatedly stressing their long and respected history as leading members of the Bitterwood Creek community, he could tell they remained unconvinced.

So much so, he wondered when, or even if, he'd ever see them ride into town again.

Finally, he gave up his efforts to convince them, accepting that it would take time for them to face people who now knew something deeply personal about them, and who might well be judging them harshly. Given that, physically, Joel and all the rest of his patients were clearly well on the way to recovery, he was packed and ready to go shortly after breakfast two days after Jim had left, just as he'd predicted.

Unbeknownst to Blair, who would have sternly forbidden such strenuous activity so soon after major surgery, Joel insisted upon getting up and being helped downstairs by Simon, to see the young man off. They were already on the verandah, Taggart having gratefully sagged into one of the rockers by the wide entrance, when Blair walked out with his pack over his shoulder and medical bag in his hand. When he saw Joel, who was gazing up at him with an expression of rueful delight to be there to surprise him, Blair shook his head.

"What am I going to do with you?" he chided, but gently. There was nothing in the whole world that could ever make him harsh with Joel. "You know you shouldn't be up! And you," he scolded turning to Simon, "I would have expected you to hogtie him to his bed, not aid and abet his escape!"

Simon held up his hands in defence as he replied woefully, "Don't be yellin' at me, Doc. You haven't seen Joel when he gets mean. Trust me - it ain't a pretty sight."

Blair looked from one to the other, his deep affection for both of them glowing in his eyes. They were hopeless - as bad as him and Jim. Suddenly laughing helplessly, he bent to hug Joel gently and then stood to embrace Simon. Both older men were evidently surprised, and very touched, by his spontaneous gesture.

"You both know I love you, right?" Blair said warmly, shaking his head. "But I do wish you'd take better care of yourselves."

Simon couldn't speak past the lump in his throat, but Joel, always easier with the soft emotions, replied with equal sincerity, "And we both love you, son. Blair - I know I've thanked you, but I have to say it again. You saved my life and I'll be eternally grateful."

"As will I," Simon rumbled, sniffing as he brushed at his nose.

Sandburg bowed his head as he struggled with his own emotions. "You know," he finally said slowly, and then paused to take a deep breath to steady his voice before lifting his head to look at each of them, "I never knew who my father was. But I can only hope he was as fine a man as the two of you are. You've both given nothing but friendship and support to Jim and me since the day we met, and I hope you know how much that means to us."

They nodded, their eyes damp with emotion at his tribute, even Joel too overcome to respond. They never spoke of it, there wasn't any point, but both older men had profoundly missed not having families of their own. For the first time, they now felt as if they did - and neither could ever have hoped for a son they admired and respected, and just plain loved, more than they did Blair.

Clearing his throat, blinking as he, too, sniffed, Sandburg beamed at both of them. "Well, I guess I should be on my way. I'll come back in a few days just to be sure everyone is healing fine. If I find out you've been up more than half an hour, twice a day, between now and then, Mr. Taggart, you and I are going to have a serious talk. Are we clear about that?"

"Yes, Doc, we're clear," Joel chuckled.

"I'll make sure he's good," Simon added with a grin as he laid a fond hand on his partner's shoulder.

Blair nodded and turned to head down the steps to Butternut, who was already saddled and waiting for him. But he paused, as his eyes lifted toward town and he saw a great cavalcade of people, some on horses, others in carriages or wagons, coming toward the ranch. "What's that all about?" he wondered aloud.

Simon turned to follow his glance, as did Joel, both men frowning in puzzlement, and not a little concern. "Beats the hell out of me…" Banks murmured.

But when they made out Jim, Henri and Sam out in front of what looked like the whole town, they all relaxed. Whatever it was, it couldn't be bad news.

Just a few minutes later, the lead riders were turning into the gate. Jim waved and grinned at them, but waited until several of the wagons behind him had turned in as well, before riding forward with Sloane and Brown.

"Simon, Joel," the Sheriff called out, as he dismounted and climbed up the steps to point back at all the others, "there was a rumour in town that you needed a new barn. So, figurin' there's no time like the present, folks decided to come on out and build you one."

"What?" Simon gasped, literally staggered as he looked from Jim to the wagonloads of lumber that men had spent the last three days felling and shaping. Seasoned wood would have been better, but the need was now, so they'd done their best with the resources they had available to them.

"I…I don't know what to say," Joel murmured, overcome.

"Just about the whole town is here, and the homesteaders, too," Jim added quietly. He had also picked up on Simon's worries about how the townspeople would react to knowing about their past, before he'd ridden out two days before. "They heard about what happened when Jeb went in to bring Susannah home the morning after we dealt with the Dawson gang. By the time I got back, they were already working to pull all this together. The women have been cooking and baking to have enough food for everyone today, and all the supplies we need are in the wagons. All the two of you have to do, is sit back and supervise."

Blair murmured, "Guess I'm not the only one who loves you guys…"

By then, most everyone had pulled into the wide yard and folks were waving shyly, not quite sure of their welcome. The ranch hands, including the wounded men, having been alerted by Jeb, Rafe and Reynolds of what the townsfolk planned, appeared from the bunkhouse, the corral and from the kitchen garden behind the house that some had been digging up for spring planting, grinning like urchins at their employers. Susannah appeared in the doorway, having come through the house from the kitchen in back. Her eyes misted over when she saw how very moved Simon and Joel both were by the surprise. Shaking her head, she wondered how they could ever have imagined that people wouldn't take their word over that of those no-good outlaws, or do all they could to help pick up the pieces after the murderous assault on the ranch.

Simon wiped his cheeks as he stepped to the edge of the verandah to look out over the gathered assembly. Pitching his voice to reach them all, he called out, "You folks are truly amazing. For you all to come as friends in need, so quickly, to lend us a hand, means more to us than we can ever adequately express. Joel and I thank you, thank each and every one of you, from the bottom of our hearts."

"Ain't nothin' more than you and Joel 've done fer all o' us o'er the years," Jake Wilkinson called back.

"And that's the God's own truth!" Angus MacDonald chimed in.

Moe Gurning, ever practical and with limited patience for a lot of talk, shouted, "We got us a barn to build! Let's get cracking!"

Laughing, the crowd broke up, some men unhitching teams of oxen to haul off the debris of the old barn, while others began unloading the wagons, stacking lumber ready to hand, and sorting out the hammers, saws, nails and other assorted tools and supplies. The women set up a row of tables off on the far side of the yard, near the watertower and then, after spreading out their handmade tablecloths, began to unpack boxes of food, barrels of lemonade, and eating utensils. Older boys helped the men, feeling 'grown up', while all the younger children were shepherded, or carried, by older sisters or still nursing mothers, to the side of the house where the kids could play safely. There was a good deal of friendly banter as the work got underway.

Simon stepped back to stand beside Joel, one hand again on the older man's shoulder as they gazed out in wonder at all the people who'd come to clearly give them the message that they were still very much valued and respected members of their community. "This is your work, Joel," he said quietly. "All those years of helpin' everyone out. You built these friendships."

But Joel shook his head, brushing again at tears that wouldn't seem to stop growing in his eyes. A little embarrassed by his uncontrolled emotions, he figured it must just be the weakness from his wound, and let the small worry go. "This is for both of us, Simon," he replied fondly. "You were there, helpin' out, too. And for the last couple of years, you've helped keep these folks secure. Actin' as sheriff when Jeb got hurt. Gettin' Jim to take on the job, backin' him up when he's needed it, or been hurt." Joel paused as he looked out at the people who'd come to show where they stood with respect to the ranchers. Chewing his lip, he said thoughtfully, "We misjudged them, you and me. We been hidin' our secrets for so long, so afraid of what these folks would think - we forgot, I guess, that other people, mostly, try to judge the way we do - by what we know firsthand, our experiences, and not by what happened more'n twenty years ago. Make no mistake about it, Simon, this is for both of us."

Blair overheard them, and thought how very glad he was that Simon had helped Joel downstairs that morning. He wouldn't have wanted either of them to miss this moment - not when it so very clearly meant so much to them to finally know, without any more doubt, that they truly belonged here, amongst people who cared about them and held them in high esteem.

"Well, Jim, I guess we'd better pitch in," he grinned as he slapped his best friend on the shoulder.

"Don't you overexert yourself, Chief," Jim ordered sternly as he followed his best friend down the steps.

"Yes, mama," Blair snickered, reflexively ducking, but not quite fast enough to miss the playful tip of his hat forward onto his nose. Jim laughed at Sandburg's feigned look of umbrage as his friend settled his Stetson properly back where it belonged, and then slung an arm around Blair's shoulders as they headed over to help with the cleanup of the building site.

Up on the verandah, Joel and Simon chuckled at their antics, and then Simon dropped down into the rocker beside Joel's. He wanted to give Joel some time to just enjoy the spectacle of friendship playing out before them, before helping him back up to his bed - and Blair had said he could stay up for half an hour at a time.

"Seems we got us a family," Joel mused happily, finally feeling truly accepted after almost twenty years of living in this community of people.

"A right big one," Simon agreed with a wide smile, feeling exactly the same warmth in his heart.

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

True to his word, Sandburg rode out the following Sunday with Jim, to check on the progress of his patients. The fact that it was also Easter Sunday was a happy coincidence, so far as Blair was concerned, though Jim wondered if they shouldn't have remained in town. It would be hard to vandalize a place in secret, if the Sheriff was sitting outside the door for the whole day and evening. Though they both hoped the pastor's sermon the previous Christmas would have some lasting impact, Ellison knew his best friend was prepared for another ugly reminder that some folks, at least, still resented his presence in Bitterwood Creek.

When they arrived, they went to the bunkhouse first to check on Taffy, who was the only one still laid up, because of his broken leg. The other wounded saw them arrive and, gradually, they all wandered in for the Doc to check on their dressings. Sandburg was gratified to see all the men were healing well, though he again cautioned Tex to stick with light chores until his broken arm healed.

And then they went to the main house. Simon, also having noted their arrival some time before, had gone up to help Joel dress, so both men were in the comfortable front room when Jim and Blair walked in with easy familiarity. Family, they'd been told strictly a few days before, didn't ever have to knock first.

Normally, they'd relax with a beer, or maybe a whiskey, before dinner, but that evening Simon and Joel surprised them with an unusual, very good, red wine.

"We stocked a few bottles a couple of years ago," Simon explained as he poured the wine from a cut-glass decanter, "for special occasions."

Blair took his pewter goblet and handed one to Joel; and then he turned to face their two hosts. Having no doubt of what the 'special occasion' was, Sandburg lifted his goblet in a toast as he wished his friends, "Happy Easter."

Jim might have wished their friends had ignored the holiday this year, as they had last spring when they'd visited, but he nodded and lifted his own drink to Simon and Joel before taking an appreciative sniff and sip. It was full-bodied, with a fruity underlay and smoky oak tones. Delicious. The two older men drank, but then exchanged glances before Simon said quietly, "Thank you for the good wishes, Blair but, actually, the special occasion we had in mind was Passover. We heard somewhere along the line that wine was part of that celebration."

Surprised, Sandburg gaped at them for a moment and then smiled. "Thank you," he replied gently. "You're right, wine is part of the tradition. It's good of you to think of it."

Banks shrugged as he sat down in one of the room's comfortably upholstered chairs. "Well, Joel told me about the conversation the two of you had the night the posse rode out and, well…"

"…we remembered that our people are not the only ones who have suffered slavery," Joel continued. "And since Passover, as we understand it, celebrates the exodus of the Jewish people from slavery in Egypt, we just thought that it was a tradition we could very comfortably celebrate with you."

Ellison smiled softly, pleased by the delicate acknowledgement and sharing of one of the traditions of his best friend's heritage. It was good for all of them, himself included, to celebrate a tradition that celebrated how a whole people regained their freedom. Joining the conversation, he said a trifle diffidently, "I'm not really one for a lot of Bible reading, but as I recall, Passover celebrates how Moses convinced Pharaoh, with God's help and, what, six or seven plagues, to allow the Jewish slaves to leave Egypt, right?"

"That's right, Jim," Blair nodded. "But it was ten plagues, in total, that took place as Moses demanded that Pharaoh, in his words, 'let my people go…in order that we may serve the Almighty'. Seven days after they left, the Egyptian Army nearly caught up with them, Pharaoh having changed his mind about letting them go, despite the death of even his first-born son, and that's when the Red Sea split, allowing Moses and those who followed him to pass safely, but then drowned the pursuing army. Passover refers specifically to the scourge that took those children's lives, literally 'passing over' the Jewish households. Fifty days after they crossed the bed of the Red Sea into the Sinai, Moses was given the Torah by God…essentially, the Ten Commandments and the history and laws of the Jewish people. Parts of the Bible mirror the Torah."

"What else does the celebration include, Sandburg?" Jim asked, interested.

"Well, there's a recounting of the story of the Exodus, the eating of unleavened bread represents the hurry of the slaves to leave Egypt, so they didn't have time to wait for the bread to rise that morning, and consuming bitter herbs to remind us of the bitterness of life in slavery. The four cups of wine represent the four stages of redemption, and the eating of a festive meal celebrates freedom," Blair explained. "Passover is an eight day holiday… altogether, it's to remind Jewish people of the experience of 'going from slavery unto freedom."

When they went into dinner a short while after, Blair was unaccountably moved to see unleavened bread in the basket on the table, as well as small portions of bitter herbs at each place. When Susannah came in from the kitchen with steaming bowls and platters, the young man looked from the table to the kind woman who had helped prepare these special tokens of respect, as well as what was very obviously a feast, and murmured, "Thank you."

She smiled softly at him, as she said quietly, "It was my privilege to help honour this tradition for you, Blair. I hope you all enjoy the meal." Seeing how touched he was by the simple gestures, she gave him a quick hug, and then turned briskly away, saying that Jeb and the kids were waiting for her in the small cottage Joel and Simon had provided for them by the bunkhouse.

Over dinner, Blair followed up on something he'd wanted to hear more about since Joel had told him how he and Simon had figured out that Jim was a Watchman, and that he was Jim's 'companion'. As they passed around the bowls of mashed potatoes, squash and beans stored over the winter, and platters of turkey and beef, Sandburg asked the older men if they'd share the old stories with him and Jim.

Glad to share some of their heritage with two men who had become as close as family, Joel and Simon took turns recounting the ancient tales of brave and noble Watchmen who used their magical senses to find game and lead the hunts to feed their tribes; and who stood watch in the forests or out on the plains, outside of their villages or towns, living an isolated life but for the company of their Companions, to ensure security against surprise attacks by enemies. The enhanced senses were considered a gift of the gods to those chosen as the best amongst their people, and as those best loved by the gods themselves, to help the deities protect and safeguard the people. Blair shared with them how the traditions of his people told that Watchmen were the sons of fallen angels, born to watch over human beings.

Jim wanted to hear more about the Companions, and the older men were glad to oblige. The old stories told that the Watchman's Companion had special gifts of their own. Grinning at Blair, they delighted in telling him that one of the strongest gifts was a talent for healing, as if just the touch of a Companion could make the sick well. But the Companions were also said to have the power to see spirits, to work magic, as well as being gifted to help the Watchmen understand and best use their skills, most especially to help hold the Watchman's spirit when it roamed to far distances to see what was there, or lifted on the wind to hear sounds no one else could hear…

It was a wonderful evening, and the two friends were in good spirits when they headed back to Bitterwood Creek. But Jim tensed, as he made out the shadowed silhouettes of men in the small light cast by an oil lantern, doing something outside their door. Cursing softly, he kicked Lobo into a gallop. Sandburg, not knowing what was wrong but able to guess, urged Butternut to race along close behind the big stallion.

When they drew nearer, Blair felt hollow as he recognized Sam and Dan…and Henri. Three men he'd never have figured for vandals - and, as they got closer, he chastised himself severely for his moment of doubt. The men were painting over whatever had defaced the door with silver-gray paint that blended well with the weathered wood of the building.

"We're sorry about this Doc," Dan said quietly as he jerked a thumb toward the door. "And we decided you should know that most people in this town don't hold with the nasty acts of a few. Maybe if they see it won't be tolerated, they'll not do it again."

"Thanks, Dan," Sandburg replied soberly, and his gaze included all of them in his gratitude. "Your support means a lot to me."

Jim also expressed his appreciation of their consideration, and then he noticed a mason jar full of sweet-smelling blossoms under the office window. "Flowers?" he asked with a nod toward them.

Brown grinned as he explained, "Some of the kids thought Doc might like some flowers to, and I quote, 'remember that after the desert of winter, spring comes again and brings new life'." Shaking his head in wonder, he continued, "You got to hand it to them to come up with something that symbolizes leaving the desert of Egypt to find a new life as a free people."

Blair had dropped to one knee to carefully lift the homely, yet beautiful, gift as Brown was explaining what the flowers were meant to represent. He stilled, his head bowed, as he fought the lump in his throat and the sudden dampness of his eyes. As much as he appreciated the actions of his neighbours, and the celebration out at the ranch, this simple token of affection and understanding by the children filled his heart and touched his soul with humble joy to know they loved him as he loved them…

He felt Jim grip his shoulder with warm understanding and he nodded as he sniffed, and then he stood to carry the flowers inside and up to his room.

The next morning, as they made their first rounds of the town, the Sheriff and Deputy were surprised, and very touched, to see that all of the Bitterwood Creek businesses and offices sported newly-painted silver-gray doors…

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

Just past the middle of May, Sandburg was as satisfied as he'd ever be that he could leave Bitterwood Creek for a couple of weeks without suffering so much guilt that it would ruin their journey. Ellison, for his part, didn't want to be away during the hot, busy summer months when the potential for trouble was at its highest. And neither of them wanted to put off their trip to the reservation until the fall. So, they talked with Simon and Henri to get their agreement to cover the town while they were away, and then sent a message to Swift Eagle, through the Indian Agent, that they were on their way and should be there in less than a week's time.

The endless, rolling prairies were at their most beautiful at that time of year. The lush, long grass was still verdant and dotted with delicately-scented wildflowers. Rippling under the light wind, infinite shades of green shifted and darkened under the shadows of light, puffy clouds floating high above across the vivid blue of the sky. The air was pleasantly warm and smelled fresh and sweet. Along the winding river, cottonwood, willows and elder, aspen and sycamore were lushly leaved, casting dappled shadows over the grassy verges and the water that flowed swiftly toward the mighty Mississippi. Cattle grazed alone or in clusters, lazy and utterly unbothered by the two men who rode past at an easy, steady pace.

They were relaxed and cheerful, well contented with one another's company, and looking forward to seeing Swift Eagle, and his companion, Whispering Waters - and to learn what they might from the two older men. The last almost two years had brought some very hard times but, through the troubles and fears they'd confronted, they had also come to know one another better than they might have, had life been more peaceful. Their friendship had been forged by fire and was as strong as any steel, as solid as the rock of the earth. Each perfectly comfortable with the other, they could enjoy the peace of companionable silence as much as the laughter that came with their frequent teasing. There was a lightness of spirit between them that was grounded in the confident surety that their trust and affection for one another was returned in full measure. They felt safe in a way neither had ever been before their paths had crossed, and happy with their lives, as well as at ease with whatever the future might hold, certain that together, they could handle just about anything life could throw at them.

They rode east and north, past the outpost where Ellison had last served, a burned out shell now. Silently, Jim led the way toward Poplar Flats. The remains of the camp, and the slaughter, were long gone, the site a grassed-over meadow shaded by trees near a shallow creek. But Sandburg knew from the look in Jim's eyes that he wasn't seeing the tranquility of the place now, but was remembering how it had been the last time he'd ridden here. Finally, the lawman sighed as he flicked Lobo's reins and they moved on.

Gradually, the face of the land changed, becoming more varied, the rolling sameness of the swell of plains broken by forests and ancient granite walls of rock and shale. Sometimes the land would suddenly fall away, opening up long vistas so that they could see for miles. The air smelled more of pine, and they caught sight of deer in a shady copse by a stream. Eagles glided high on the wind, and hawks dipped after rabbits scampering like streaks of light for cover. Squirrels chattered in the trees around them, and songbirds warbled with blissful abandon.

Their last night on the trail, they camped beside a burbling stream deep enough to provide fish for their fire. Close now to their destination, Sandburg was busy speculating about what they might learn, what mysteries might be revealed. Jim found his younger friend's enthusiasm amusing, but really didn't expect that they'd learn all that much more than what they'd already discovered about his sentinel abilities. Nor did he expect that, by some trick or insight, they'd suddenly be seeing their so-called spirit guides - wasn't even at all sure he wanted to see a black jaguar prowling around on a regular basis.

As the darkness deepened around them, the moon rising in the star-bright sky while the fire burned low and the night wind rustled soft in the trees, they settled for the night. Blair curled in his blanket and quickly dropped off to sleep. Jim was just nodding off when he jerked awake, and stiffened, as he listened to the distant plaintive cry of a howling wolf. He cut a quick glance to Sandburg, to reassure himself that the kid was still there, safely sleeping on the other side of the fire. And then he lay back, shaking his head, telling himself that it was just Blair's blather about spirit guides earlier that had him so jumpy. A wolf was just a wolf, not some weird ghost keening out a warning of impending danger. Rolling onto his side, he forced himself to close his eyes and relax…

…but all he could think of was the last time he clearly remembered hearing the long, lonely howl of a wolf.

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

It was mid-morning when they came into view of the new fort that had been built partly to replace the old outpost burned to the ground in the Indian war, and partly to ensure that the Indians stayed on their new reservation. They were obliged to stop by to report to the Indian Agent, Cecil Cummings, that they'd arrived and would be heading out to the reserve for four or five days. They hoped to get in and out quickly, having no interest in running into Rutherford, who held command of the troops stationed there. Jim hadn't heard anything more after the two colonels had left Bitterwood Creek almost two months ago, but he was pretty sure they would, as a minimum, have asked questions of the troops who had participated in the massacre at Poplar Flats; and he knew Rutherford would be furious to have his orders and actions questioned. The fact that he still held a command was more than a little disheartening, but Jim was resolved to try to avoid further conflict with the man. He and Sandburg had better things to do.

However, Cummings, a stout, talkative man, had some interesting rumours to share. Apparently, there had been investigators, two colonels, out from D.C., asking a lot of questions. The enlisted men, never reconciled to what they'd been ordered to do that distant day, had readily confirmed their orders to ride in at dawn, without warning, and 'kill every savage, every man, woman and child, to ensure none of them would ever kill another innocent white soul again'. Word had it that Rutherford had blustered his way through, claiming his men were misrepresenting the purpose of their inspection at Poplar Flats, imposing their own, very understandable, loathing for the hostiles on their interpretation of his orders to remain alert. The men said no one in the village fired at them first. Rutherford said that was nonsense, but it had all happened so quickly, the men still alive most probably didn't remember the exact details of what had occurred. And, as Rutherford sadly pointed out, unfortunately, the subordinates who knew very well what had happened had been killed in subsequent skirmishes. Nothing appeared to have been decided by the time the two colonels had left for Washington two weeks ago, and morale in the fort was abysmal. The men despised Rutherford and he appeared to detest them with equal venom.

But, Cummings said, lowering his voice in a conspiratorial manner as he leaned toward them, "I've heard, from my own people in D.C., that the Major is likely to be called back to Washington to face a court martial. If he hasn't already received his travel orders, they should be coming in the next pouch when the courier brings in the mail and news from the Capitol." Leaning back, he shook his head as he continued soberly, "Personally, I can't wait to see the back of him. My Indians won't really relax until he's long gone and never coming back."

Jim and Blair had listened, keeping their own counsel, but Sandburg saw the wisp of a smile twitch on Ellison's lips when Cummings mentioned the rumour about the court martial. Maybe some measure of justice would prevail, after all.

Finally, Cummings told them that Chief Roaring Bear and his people had been allocated a parcel of land fifteen miles by fifteen miles or 225 square miles, which he emphasized was over 140,000 acres - a nice piece of land, big enough to let them wander in the forests, hunt, fish in the river and enjoy themselves. Jim shook his head, his lips thinned against the words that Blair couldn't quite restrain. "Not much in return for the whole of Kansas and part of Missouri that used to be their hunting grounds."

Cummings shrugged. "Better than nothing," he replied. "Better than being dead."

When they rode out past the gates of the fort a short time later, Jim felt the hairs prickling on the back of his neck and turned, wondering what had alerted him to a possible threat. At first, he didn't see anything untoward, but then his eyes lifted to the parapets, and he saw Rutherford staring down at them, his face twisted in a grimace of hate. Jim touched his fingers to the brow of his Stetson in a mocking salute, and then turned his back, urging Lobo into a canter to catch up with Sandburg, who had pulled ahead.

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

The village on the new reservation was about an hour's ride from the Fort, on the near edge of the land allocated to the tribe. Much of the reserve land was rocky, with cliffs that loomed over the forests and the river that wound through. They knew, from the newspaper accounts of the treaty settlement, that the Indians were to be supplied with ploughs and seed, so that they could become 'self-sufficient' - but this land was not suitable for farming and both men wondered as they rode toward the village what would happen when the government stopped supplying grain to the community. The amount of land they'd been given wouldn't support them all indefinitely through hunting and fishing alone.

They pulled up for a moment when they came within sight of their destination, to get their bearings. The village itself was on flat ground just above the edge of the river, and backed by the dark forest - a town of more than a hundred very large buckskin cone-shaped tents and open fires. As they rode closer, they could see people sitting listlessly in front of their tents or around the fires, shoulders slumped as if they were all infinitely weary. Some fished lethargically on the banks of the river, and women further downstream were pounding clothing on the rocks. Children squatted in the dust, or wandered along the rocky shoreline, as if they didn't know what to do with themselves. The whole place held an air of defeat and exhaustion, and everyone looked thin, as if they'd gone without decent food for a long time. It took both of them a minute to realize what else seemed off-kilter, and then they realized most of the men were wearing cotton checked shirts of the same dull blue and yellow, and ill-fitting jeans; and the women were garbed in awkward skirts and blouses not designed for the freedom of movement they'd been accustomed to.

"Some bureaucrat or missionary probably decided they had to be 'decently' dressed," Jim grunted in disgust.

Blair just frowned and nodded. These people weren't being left alone to be who and what they chose, but were being forced to change, to become more like the whites who had defeated them. And he wondered what other changes would be forced upon them, to 'civilize' them. Schools, probably, where they'd be obliged to learn and speak in English. Told their beliefs were wrong, if not downright evil. His head bowed in sadness. They'd lost much more than their land and freedom. They were losing who they were.

Clicking to their mounts, they rode forward, each thinking how different this place was from the war camp they'd been in more than a year before. Those men had been proud, and strong - they'd known who they were. Cold, certainly; hungry, probably; but those had been physical discomforts, not a slow poisoning of souls.

As they approached, their presence was finally noticed, and heads lifted. A child went scurrying, calling as he ran. About fifteen men stood and walked to the edge of the village, where they stood silently, waiting for the two white men to approach. As they got closer, Jim recognized them as warriors who had been in the war camp and behind them, with some relief, he saw Swift Eagle and Whispering Waters approaching. When they reached the silent cluster of waiting men, Blair and Jim drew their horses to a stop and dismounted, just as the two older men they'd come to visit approached through the gathered men.

"Brave Star and One Who Heals," Swift Eagle called out with warm solemnity, "We welcome you in peace. It is good to see you again." As he lifted his hand in formal salute and bowed his head, all the other men also bowed their heads in respectful greeting, remembering the one who had helped them, and the other who had ridden in alone to take him home.

"Brave Star?" Jim echoed with a slight frown of confusion.

A slight smile played around Swift Eagle's lips as he lifted his head and waved them forward, to accompany him through the village. "Do you not wear a star on your chest? And was it not brave to ride alone into an enemy's camp to find your brother?"

"Name sounds right to me, Jim," Blair grinned and then turned to their hosts. "It's good to see both of you again. We're sorry we couldn't come sooner. But…" he hesitated as he looked around and then at their clothing, his face clouding with concern, "are you all right?"

Swift Eagle looked around at the camp pitched too close to a river that would flood in the early spring, too unsheltered from the wind that would blow along its channel in the bitter winter. Returning his gaze to Sandburg, he replied evenly, "The Agent has no experience and he does not understand that this is not a good place. But tents are easy to move and we'll find another place in the fall." Wryly, he cut a quick look down at his clothing, and shrugged. "They wish us to look more like you - as if the way we look is also who we are. It is not. Inside, we are who we always were, the children of the Great Spirit. The cloth is but a mantle, nothing more."

The older men led them to the tent they shared on the far edge of the village, closest to the Fort, as if the sentinel was still on guard, standing between his people and those who could yet threaten them. Jim didn't miss the significance of the placement and, as he looked toward the direction of the fort, he told them, "We heard that Major Rutherford is being called back to Washington, to face charges for his actions at Poplar Flats."

Surprised, the two former warriors turned to look at him, stiff for a moment, their hatred for Rutherford glittering in their dark eyes. But then they relaxed and waved their two guests to sit on blankets by the fire just outside the entrance flap. "You bring good news, and we are grateful, Brave Star," the older sentinel said, as they sat as well.

Turning to Blair, he asked, "Have you seen your spirit guide yet, young one?"

"No," Sandburg replied with a chagrined look. "I'm hoping you can teach me how…"

Swift Eagle nodded and turned to Jim, "And, you, Brave Star - have you seen…"

But Jim shook his head, as he said, "I haven't seen anything."

The old sentinel studied Ellison and saw the flicker of uncertain concern in the lawman's eyes. But he said nothing, only nodded.

Whispering Waters leaned forward then, drawing their attention. "Our ways are different from yours, our visions may be different, too. We will share our knowledge, but as it is sacred to us, you must prepare."

"How do we do that?" Sandburg asked eagerly, clearly ready to begin.

"You must fast, and go into the wilderness - there, up to that place," Whispering Waters said, pointing up behind the village to the highest, rocky cliff and tree-covered promontory that loomed against the sky about a mile upstream from the village. Turning back to them, he continued, "For a night and a day and then another night, the two of you must look out over the world, and think on who you know yourselves to be - and think of what it is that you wish to learn and better understand. You must open yourselves to accept new truths and ask the ancients to be with you and guide your path. On your return, you will bathe in the river. We will eat and then answer your questions as best we can. You will go into the sweat lodge, to be purified…and then you will dance by the fire's light, under the stars…dance as brothers in time."

"Okay," Blair replied, turning to Jim. But Ellison and Swift Eagle, as well, were looking toward the hill between the village and the fort. "What? Did you see - or hear - something?"

Jim shook his head as he continued to search the distance, but then shrugged as he turned back. "It was just an impression. I thought I saw a flash of light…like a reflection of the sun on glass." He shrugged again, assuming someone from the fort was probably keeping a discreet surveillance on the village.

When they turned toward Swift Eagle, he was gazing toward Whispering Waters, both of their faces inscrutable. The shaman nodded slightly and then turned to the white men. "This is a time of testing, to clarify your thoughts and commitment to your relationship as sentinel and guide; and to test the strength of that commitment, to determine if you are ready to move forward - it is time for you to begin."

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

"I don't know, Sandburg," Jim groused as they set up a small camp on the one marginally level spot on the top of the promontory. "Sounds like a lot of mumbo-jumbo to me. What kind of test is it to sit out here for a night and a day and another night, looking out at the view? And not eating?"

Blair chuckled as he pulled his sleeping roll off Butternut's back. "Just go with it, Jim. Think of it as an adventure, man. Here we are in the great outdoors, the world at our feet. All we have to do is talk…"

His voice cut off abruptly, as he turned and realized just how close to the edge their camp was…and how far up they were from the river below.

Jim turned at the sudden silence, and frowned at Sandburg's sudden pallor. "What's wrong?" he demanded.

"I, uh, guess, when we were riding up the trail through the forest on the back of this rock, that I didn't realize how high it really is," Blair gulped, still standing beside Butternut, his knuckles white as he clutched the sleeping roll to his chest.

"Yeah…so?" Jim prodded, not understanding the problem.

"So, uh, I don't like heights all that much," Blair admitted, flushing in embarrassment. "Terrified of them, actually."

"Oh," Ellison replied as he looked around at the flat space of rock that curved out and over the river. "It's perfectly safe and we've got lots of room. It's fine, really."

Blair nodded slowly as he looked up and around to keep from looking down. There was another matching cliff across the river, and other rocky outcrops to either side, almost as high. And it was true, they could see for miles and miles from up here. It was…nice, sort of. He jumped when Jim touched his shoulder, having been unaware of his partner's approach.

"Come on, I promise - I won't let you fall," Jim said with a grin, though his eyes were kind as took Blair's arm and led him to the fire Jim had already begun to build. "Think of it as an adventure."

"Right," Blair muttered as he allowed himself to be pulled along - reluctantly. "Have I ever told you that I really hate it when you throw my words back at me?"

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

Once Blair was sitting down, he felt more secure and managed to relax a little. Immediately, he began to focus on the reason they were up there in the first place. As they reviewed the tasks Whispering Waters had posed for them, they both figured they had a pretty good grip on who they knew themselves to be from a variety of perspectives. They'd shared much in the past months, withholding no secrets of their histories from one another. And they knew they were each other's best friend. Jim had long ago accepted that his senses made him what Sandburg called a sentinel, and it fit for him. He was a 'watchman' of sorts for his 'tribe'. Though he still felt uncomfortable about having very different perception skills than others did, and wondered how he'd gotten so 'lucky' as to be some sort of freak of nature, he was resigned that it was who he was and there wasn't anything he could do about it, anyway; so he lived with it as best he could. Blair, however, was less convinced that the companion or guide was anyone special, as opposed to just someone who knew what to watch out for and how to help the sentinel. In his view, anyone could learn how to do that.

"Can they, Chief?" Jim challenged. "Simon, Joel and H can bring me out of a zone, with a lot of effort and sometimes a little pain." He stopped and fingered his jaw, thinking about the last time Brown had caught him lost in some fog and had finally slugged him to bring him out of it. "You never seem to have that kind of trouble, you know? Maybe you have some special gift that, I don't know, resonates with mine. Maybe that's a question we should ask them when we get back."

And that led them into a discussion of the questions they had - or at least Blair had.

"What do you mean you don't have any questions?" he exclaimed when Jim had shrugged when Sandburg asked him what he wanted to know, and then had admitted he didn't really have any questions at all.

"Chief," he began, and then stopped as he looked out over the vista that was now deepening toward night, gathering his thoughts. Turning back to Blair, he went on, "to tell you the truth, I came because you wanted to come so much. Personally, I think we're doing just fine as it is."

"But, the spirit guides…don't you want to be able to see them?" Sandburg pressed.

Jim gave his best friend a quizzical look, as he drawled, "I know these people believe they see things that aren't there - but you're a doctor, for crying out loud! You know what happens to people in our world who see invisible animals! They get called 'crazy', and other people lock them up for their own safety! So, no, I don't really think I want to see a bunch of invisible animals, thanks anyway."

Blair crossed his arms and canted his head a little as he shook it, his lips thinned into resignation as he gazed at Jim. "You're no fun, you know that?" he charged. "Come on, let go of that super-rational, 'if I can't see it, it doesn't exist' attitude. People used to think the world was flat, too - but that didn't mean they were right! I think Swift Eagle and Whispering Waters do see things we don't know how to see. I've read about countless different cultures around the world, and over the millennia, who could do things or knew things, we've forgotten how to do. Like how to build the pyramids, for example. Jiimmm, commme onnn! Give it a chance!"

Ellison gazed into the wide eyes that pleaded with him to let go a little, and listened to the nearly child-like whine as Blair urged him to be open to something unexplainable. And he couldn't help it. He burst out laughing.

"What?" Blair demanded, miffed.

"You, Chief," Jim snickered. "Honestly, I have never in my life known anybody quite like you. You can be the most rational of men one moment and as enthusiastic as a child, at the possibility that fairies might really exist, the next. You slay me, Sandburg."

"Well, fine, laugh at me," Blair huffed. "All I'm saying is that you could give it a chance, all right?"

"Yeah, all right, Blair," Jim grinned. "Just for you, I'll try to see invisible spirit animals. Okay?"

"Okay," Sandburg nodded, but his lips twitched and he couldn't restrain a grin as he chirped, "I hope I can see your jaguar. He sounds very…impressive."

"Go to sleep, Sandburg," Jim growled as he pulled off his boots and then lay down to look up at the stars. But he smiled at the sound of Blair's irrepressible giggle.

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

Still barefoot, Blair was standing about a foot away from the rim, tentatively looking over, with his chin in the air and his eyes peeking down at the river below, his posture somehow conveying that if he stood up tall and leaned a little backwards, he wouldn't somehow tilt over the edge.

Waking, Jim yawned and stretched lazily, and then looked up at his friend. "Checking out the neighbourhood, Sandburg?" he drawled as he lifted his arms and clasped his hands behind his head.

"Well, I guess," Blair replied, as he cut a quick look back at Jim, "I'm trying to desensitize myself a little. If we're going to spend a whole day and another night up here, I thought I might as well use the experience to, uh, learn to like heights…or, at least, not want to run screaming every time I look over the edge."

"Uh-huh," Jim grunted as he closed his eyes again, content to doze for a while longer. "Whatever you say."

Turning his attention back to the view below, Sandburg asked, to distract himself as much as really concerned to know the answer, "You sleep okay? I thought I heard you talking in your sleep a couple of times, like you were upset or something." They both had nightmares from time to time. Given some of what they'd seen and lived through, it wasn't surprising.

As soon as Sandburg asked, fragments of his nightmare popped into Jim's mind. A forest at dusk, the air blue. A wolf howling…finding the wolf dead. And then, somehow, the wolf had become Sandburg - and he was dead. His throat suddenly dry, his chest tight, Jim felt his gut twist as nausea spiked at the hideous memory, and he tried, desperately, to push it away. Blair wasn't dead. He was gloriously alive - it had only been a terrible dream.

"Jim?" Sandburg called when there was no answer.

"It was a pretty strange dream, Chief," Jim frowned, and then allowed himself to be distracted from his churning emotions by the sharp snap of a twig from the forest behind and slightly above them. Probably their horses just moving around, like they had been doing since before dawn, searching for whatever grass they could find…they didn't have to starve for practically two whole days and nights. Lucky horses.

"Oh," Sandburg murmured, grimacing as he decided he'd done enough 'desensitizing' for the moment, and Jim's dream sounded like it might be interesting. "What was it abou…" he was asking as he turned and then froze, his hands lifting into the air. "Ah, Jim? We've got company."

Jim opened his eyes at Blair's odd, strangled, tone, and then began to scramble to his feet as he twisted around, automatically reaching for the guns lying a foot or so away. But a harsh voice rang out, stopping him.

"Touch your weapons, and I'll kill him right now."

Lifting his head, Jim growled, "Rutherford."

The Major was standing about thirty feet away, just inside the tree line, his rifle pointed at them.

"I knew the two of you couldn't be trusted - that you're traitors!" Rutherford spat out. "Nobody would believe me. And now, because of you, they're going to charge me with criminally violating my authority! I'll be taken into custody any day now…"

"Yeah, we heard that," Jim replied, his voice tight. He shifted, wanting to stand, but Rutherford jerked the rifle's action, sliding a bullet into the chamber, so he paused. Watching. Waiting for an opening, any opportunity to act. "What do you want?"

"I want justice!" Rutherford yelled. "I did my job! Those Indians were savages! They deserved to die. So do you for consorting with them, and for aiding and abetting the enemy, for treason. I am your judge, and your jury. And I find you guilty as charged. I am your executioner."

"You can't get away with this," Blair argued, his voice deliberately pitched low, his tone calm as he tried to reason with the frenzied military officer. "If you do this, you'll hang for murder."

Rutherford just smiled coldly, hatred burning in his eyes.

Jim was watching closely, and he could see the Major's finger start to tighten on the trigger. "GET DOWN!" he bellowed to warn Sandburg as he rolled for his guns, hoping to draw Rutherford's fire. The rifle exploded as Jim came up, leveling his Colt and firing it rapidly three times in succession - Rutherford's body jerked back into a macabre dance, and then collapsed, like a puppet whose strings had been cut.

Jim whirled to check on Blair - and found, with a sickening jolt of shock, that he was alone on the cliff-top. Scrambling to the edge, he screamed, "SANDBURG!" as his eyes raked the river with desperate fear. Finally, he spotted Blair, already being carried downstream by the fast-moving current, floating facedown. "No, dear God, NO!"

Jim turned and ran back a few paces, and then raced to the edge, leaping off in a wide, curved dive that would take him as close to Sandburg as he could get. When he hit the icy water, the breath was knocked out of his lungs and he had to struggle to get back to the surface to drag in air. But even in those moments, he was going with the current, swimming with long, fast strokes, his face devoid of every expression but grim determination to get to his best friend.

For long harrowing minutes, Jim chased Blair through the river, but the current was fast and had already carried Sandburg a goodly distance away; and Sandburg was offering no resistance, his limp body bobbing, sinking, and resurfacing as the river bore him onward. Muscles straining, reaching far to cut deep and fast, kicking fiercely, Ellison surged through the water, desperate to catch Blair, to save him. He let loose the flame in the lantern with the bronze base in his mind, as he sought with increasing panic to hear Sandburg's heartbeat, but the rush of water filled his head, blocking out everything else. It was taking too long, and Blair had been shot - how badly? Surely to God, he wasn't dead. Couldn't be dead. Still Jim forged on, consumed with the single desire to get to Blair, but though he rigorously closed the distance between them, Blair remained too far ahead for him to reach out and grab, to turn his face to the sun, so that he could breathe. Jim was furious with how long it was taking, but he refused to give way to despair and give up. It wasn't hopeless! It wasn't, couldn't be, over yet. Blair was strong - they'd get through this, he'd be fine - if only Jim could reach him! Stroke after stroke, kicking hard, gulping great gasps of air, Jim fought the water, time and space to reach his best friend.

Finally, the current pushed Sandburg closer to shore, and his body snagged on a half-submerged tree, holding him bobbing gently in the current. Redoubling his efforts now that Blair was within reach and had slowed to wait for him, his muscles burning with effort as he stroked with mindless determination fueled by desperation, Ellison reached the shallows. Thrashing through the hip-deep water, Jim lunged out to grab Blair's shoulder to haul him over onto his back, while supporting his head out of the water.

"Blair!" Jim yelled, in a frenzy of fear, to the limp man floating against him. When there was no response, he turned and hauled Sandburg toward the shore, dragging him up onto the bank and then dropped to his knees beside his best friend. He smelled blood and he quickly checked Blair's body to find the wound…a deep graze on his shoulder that must have pushed him back, off-balance and over the edge…and a gash on his forehead. But the wounds weren't bleeding and Sandburg's lips and face were blue…and cold. Jim felt for a pulse at the base of Blair's throat, "Come on, come on," he gasped - but there was none to find; the ever-present sound of Sandburg's heart was silent.

"NO!" Ellison screamed as he gripped his friend's shoulders and shook him. "Don't you die on me!" he raged. Panting for breath, he fought the panic that nearly blinded him, forcing himself to think. There had to be something he could do! Roughly, he turned Blair and pounded his back, trying to knock the water out of his lungs, and then Jim pulled him back over, to cup his cold cheeks. "What do I do, Chief? Dear God, help me! What do I do?"

Not having any real idea of what he was doing, only knowing Blair needed to breathe, he shifted to bend over Sandburg, covering his friend's cold, flaccid lips and breathing in his own air. Again and again…and again. "Breathe, Chief…please…breathe…" he panted and then tried again. Frustrated, he pounded on Blair's chest, to force his best friend's heart to push blood through his body, to his lungs. And then he breathed again, over and over into his partner's mouth.

Nothing.

No response.

"He is dead," Swift Eagle said from somewhere close.

Jim's head whipped up and he glared at the two Indians who had appeared out the forest. "He's NOT dead!" he cried, with furious denial. "You hear me? Blair's not dead!"

Whispering Waters stepped forward, his eyes filled with compassion. "Your Guide is dead, Sentinel."

Jim turned his face away, not wanting to hear the hateful words, to stare down at Blair's body, and the sob of defiance at the unthinkable, the utterly unacceptable, reality built in his chest. "NOOOO!" he screamed, throwing his head back, his fists clenched in futile anguish.

"He may yet be saved…" Whispering Waters said quietly. "But only you have the power to bring him back."

"What?" Jim gasped, turning desperate eyes upon the shaman. "How? Tell me how!"

"Do you choose to be a Sentinel?" the shaman asked. "You must choose, you must want to be what you are…"

"How can that…"

"Do you choose?" the shaman demanded sternly.

"YES, fine, just help him!" Ellison snapped, rigid with urgent need to do something, anything, to end this nightmare.

"Then, use your spirit guide, Sentinel - send him to find your Guide and bring him back to you, before he disappears into the Forests of Time…"

"What…" Jim gaped. Spirit guide? Forests of Time?

"Trust your spirit guide to find his," Whispering Waters commanded.

It made no sense.

Shaking his head, Ellison took a deep breath and then looked down at Blair's face. Tears glistened in the lawman's eyes, and he felt as if something were crushing his chest. Leaning forward, he tenderly brushed wet curls from Blair's cold brow, his fingers drifting over the face of the human being he loved best in the world, tracing Sandburg's cheek, his jaw and lingering over the still place on his throat where there should be a pulse. The shaman's words made no sense - but Jim was beyond caring about what was sensible. He'd do anything - try anything - if only he could get Blair back. Blinking, Jim cupped his hands around Blair's face, feeling the chill of his best friend's skin pierce him to his soul.

"Please," he whispered. "Bring him back to me…"

Then he closed his eyes and tried to picture a black jaguar…and felt as if he was spinning dizzily into the blue forest. He saw the jaguar look at him with brilliant, emerald eyes and then turn its head. Jim followed its gaze, and saw a wolf limping slowly away in the distance toward a warm, glowing light; he could hear the wounded animal whimpering in anguished distress, see it hesitating…

"COME BACK!" he screamed into the forest. "DAMMIT! Don't you go!"

And then the black jaguar was racing through the thickly wooded forest toward the wolf, leaping over obstacles in its path. The wolf stumbled to a halt at Jim's call, and looked back over its shoulder - and then it spun around and was racing toward the cat, flat out as fast as he could go.

The two animals leapt toward one another, merging into one another in a blinding, cataclysmic burst of light and heat! And then Jim could hear the essential sound that grounded him as Blair's heart began to beat…the forest blurred until he was once again looking down into the face cupped in his hands. But Sandburg wasn't breathing, was still lying so shockingly and apparently lifeless…

"Breathe!" Jim commanded with sharp urgency and desperate demand and then, once again, he bent over Sandburg to blow air into his lungs. He could hear the heartbeat, weak and fluttering, but there. Again, he emptied his lungs into Blair's body, blowing all that he was, sharing all he could give, all that he had to the depths of his own soul, and then again, and once more.

Suddenly, Blair's body jerked as he gagged, and Jim swiftly turned him on his side, pounding on his back as he held him steady, while Sandburg choked up the water that gushed from his lips. Sagging back against Jim's arm, Blair wheezed and gasped, dragging in breath after breath, his eyes locked on Jim's as he struggled back to life.

"That's it, Blair," Jim soothed, weak with devastating relief as he stroked Sandburg's brow. "Just breathe. Everything's okay, if you just breathe."

Sandburg's hand fumbled up to grab onto Jim's shirt, holding on tight, as he continued to pant sharply. Jim held him steady, supporting his shoulders and head, soothing him quietly, reassuring him that he was going to be fine. Gradually, Blair was able to let go of the panic that had consumed him when he was blown off the cliff to drop through the air to crash through the rock-hard, freezing water, desperately fighting for breath - and only filling his lungs with water - thrashing to find the surface…until there was only a blue forest, dim and primeval with a blinding light beckoning in the distance. As the panic of being lost - of knowing he'd left Jim somewhere behind - receded, his breathing settled until he was drawing slower, deeper breaths.

"You're okay," Jim kept murmuring, his voice quaking with emotion. "I've got you. You're safe."

"Jim," Blair rasped hoarsely as he reached to pull himself closer, as if he could crawl into his sentinel, merge as the wolf had with the jaguar.

Ellison drew him into a tight hug, and rested his chin against Blair's wet curls, oblivious to the tears streaming down his cheeks. "I've got you, Blair. I've got you."

The shudders rippling through Sandburg's body eased to light trembling until they too stilled, while Jim held him tightly. "Shh," Ellison soothed as he rubbed Sandburg's back. "Easy, kid."

Finally, Blair drew in a long slow breath and let it out as he relaxed in Jim's embrace. "I fell," he rasped. "And I couldn't breathe. I was in this forest…and I couldn't find you."

"I know," Jim murmured as he kissed the top of Blair's head. "I had to find you."

"I saw - I saw a wolf going toward a light. And I didn't want him to go…I didn't want to go," Blair stammered, his voice a little stronger. "And then I heard you, calling for me. Oh, God, Jim…I knew you'd come after me. That you weren't going to just let me go…"

"Never let you go," Jim choked out. "Never…"

"And then I saw a jaguar racing toward the wolf, and the wolf turned and raced back toward it…and they… merged in this incredible flash of light…" Sandburg continued, speaking in a rush now. "It was them - our spirit guides. Wasn't it?"

"Yeah, kid," Jim sighed, weak now with the aftermath of panic and the immensity of his relief. "It was."

"You saw it, too, didn't you?" Blair asked, his voice still hoarse and weak, as he pushed himself back to look up into Jim's face. "You sent the jaguar to find me."

Ellison nodded as he reached to stroke Sandburg's cheek. "Couldn't let you go, Chief."

"But how?"

Jim looked up then, at the two older men who had stood silently, watching. "Whispering Waters told me I had to trust our spirit guides, and I had to send mine for yours…"

Blair twisted around, for the first time realizing they weren't alone. He gazed at the older men for a long moment, comprehension growing his eyes. "A test…" he murmured. When they dipped their heads and then lifted their eyes back to his, he asked in a small voice, "Please tell me it's over and I don't have to go back up onto that cliff…"

"Some never pass the test," Whispering Waters said quietly. "And some, if their spirits are strong, pass it quickly. "Come…you have dwelt upon the heights, and bathed in the river. You must eat."

Jim lifted Blair, but Sandburg protested, albeit weakly, "Hey, I can walk."

Ellison cocked a skeptical brow, but he set Blair on his feet. Sandburg took one wobbly step and lurched to the side. Jim caught him and swung the younger man back up into his arms. "Sure you can, Chief." As he followed the older men into the forest and back to the village, he continued with giddy relief, the shock of all that had happened only beginning to make itself felt, "But why should you have to? You've had a busy morning. Desensitizing yourself to heights. Facing down a madman. Getting shot off the cliff. Drowning. Being dead for a while. Very busy morning. Why don't you just take it easy and let me get us there, okay?"

Blair didn't know whether to snicker with more than a little hysteria or gape in disbelief as Jim matter-of-factly listed off the morning's activities. Dead? He'd thought it some kind of weird vision, maybe a near-death experience but…he'd really been dead? When Jim looked down at him, with the sweetest smile that Blair had ever seen on his best friend's face, a lump lodged in his throat and he had to blink against his suddenly stinging eyes. "Okay, Jim," he murmured. "Thanks…for taking this trip with me…and for bringing me home."

Jim just nodded, understanding perfectly. Home was wherever the two of them were, so long as they were together.

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

Swift Eagle told Jim, as they walked the short distance back to the village, that he had sent Deer Stalker to bring back their horses and gear from the promontory. The people had heard the shots from the distant promontory - had seen one fall, and then another dive into the river. Now, uncertain, they stared at the men as they left the forest. Silently, the villagers walked toward them and then stopped, smiling only when they saw the man in Brave Star's arms still lived. Word spread ahead of their passage through the village, a ripple of awed sounds, and then the once again silent, respectful people parted to clear a path for them, bowing their heads as the men passed.

When the four men reached the tent on the far edge of the village, Whispering Waters led them inside. He held forth two breechclouts and warm animal skin robes for them to wrap around themselves once they'd stripped off their sodden clothing. While, outside, Swift Eagle finished preparing their meal of rabbit stew and bannock, the shaman examined the wound on Sandburg's shoulder and the gash on his forehead. He soothed the syrup he squeezed from an aloe plant into both wounds, and bound the shoulder with soft deerskin, leaving the shallow cut on Sandburg's forehead open to the air.

Blair wanted to ask questions immediately, but the shaman shook his head as he smiled, "After you have eaten, Touch That Heals. There will be time, then, for all of your questions."

By the time the meal was finished, Deer Stalker had returned, leading Lobo and Butternut. What he had done with Rutherford's body, nobody asked and nobody cared.

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

As they set their bowls aside, Swift Eagle added a few sticks to the fire as Whispering Waters handed a clay cup to Sandburg, filled with a potion he prepared to help clear the younger man's lungs and soothe his throat. Once Blair had drunk it all, the shaman and Swift Eagle settled themselves and then bowed their heads to their guests.

"You have questions?" Whispering Waters asked, his tone low and formal.

Jim blew out a breath, still too shaken by the morning's events to think clearly, and looked to Blair who blinked and nodded. "Lots of them," he sighed. Looking up at Jim, and then to the others, his voice uncertain, he asked, "Was I really dead?"

Crossing his arms tightly across his chest, Jim nodded tightly as he bowed his head. The emotions that had ripped through him during those terrible moments - from finding himself alone on the cliff, to realizing he'd been too late - were still raw, the anguish he'd felt something he'd never forget.

"So - Jim has the power to bring the dead back to life?" Sandburg murmured in awe, his voice soft and amazed.

"No, young one," Whispering Waters corrected. "Only you, his Guide, can the Sentinel call back from the Forests of Time, and only then, if his love for you is greater than all else in his life."

What power those words had.

Tears suddenly filled Blair's eyes, glittering in the bright sunlight, and he bowed his head, his hair hiding his face, as he trembled with understanding of what Jim had done for him - of what his life was worth to his friend.

Concerned, Ellison shifted over to loop a strong arm around his shoulders. "Hey, kid - take it easy," Jim soothed. "It's okay…a good thing…"

Sniffing, Blair blinked and nodded, knuckling the wetness from his cheeks as he looked up. "Yeah," he agreed, "it's a very good thing. But, it's a hugely hurtful thing, too, if something happens and you can't get to me in time. Jim - I never want you to feel pain because of me…"

Ellison shrugged a little as he shook his head and looked away, not having the words to say all that was in his heart. But he swallowed and then in a low voice breaking with emotion, he said, "You'll never be so far away that I can't follow you…find you. You just have to wait for me to catch up, is all." Looking back at Sandburg, he asked, "You will wait for me, right?"

"Always," Blair murmured. "The scariest thing for me, about what happened? Was that I thought I'd lost you, left you behind somewhere…I don't have to be afraid of that anymore. I know if I wait, you'll come."

Satisfied, Jim nodded. That was good enough for him.

"Do you have other questions?" Swift Eagle asked quietly.

Sniffing, coughing a little to clear his still heavy lungs, Blair nodded. "You've called yourselves 'brothers in time', and you said the place where we saw the spirit guides was the 'forest in time' - I don't understand. Can you explain what all that means?"

Whispering Waters chuckled dryly. "You ask questions that can not be fully answered, young one. But I will try." He paused a moment, gazing out at the river as he gathered his thoughts. "These bodies we wear are like the clothes we put on - when they are worn out, we take them off and go on our way. That which dwells within the body has no end and cannot die. It is the core of our being, our spirit, and has existed for all time." Turning his calm, steady gaze back to Blair, he explained the beliefs of his people. "As in this world, spirits align with like spirits, sharing missions through time, to learn, to help others learn, to experience the beauty of what the Great Spirit has created and given to us. So, spirits journey together through time, and those who are closest, who can not imagine traveling without the other because their need and love for one another is so great, we call 'brothers in time'." Whispering Waters smiled softly as he looked again toward the river, at the women doing their work, "We are men in this life, Swift Eagle and I, so we call ourselves brothers; in another life, we might be sisters, or lovers and call one another 'mates through time'."

Turning back to Blair, he continued, "As we journey, we use the gifts we have, that which makes us unique. Your sentinel, as others, has special gifts of awareness of this world. He has also great strength, and courage - and the desire to serve others, to safeguard them from danger. Brave Star has all of these qualities in each of his lives. He is a Watchman, a favoured son of the Great Spirit, one who is specially gifted to protect others, as the Great Spirit loves and protects us all."

Jim shifted as, embarrassed by Whispering Waters' words, a slight blush crept over his cheeks. Humour flashed in the older man's eyes as he added, "Sentinels can also be stubborn, for they must be persevering by nature. They can become frustrated when those they live to protect endanger themselves foolishly, because that frightens them, as they are afraid of failing in their mission to safeguard. So, sometimes they appear angry, when really they are hurting from their own inability to always protect, as they wish to. They can become impatient, even resentful of their special sensitivities, because these talents are heavy ones to bear, and can bring their own pain. But, life after life, a Watchman's spirit chooses to be a sentinel, to suffer the discomforts that they might do good. They are brave…and often humble in their own way."

Sandburg was smiling at Jim, and nodding, agreeing with everything the old shaman was saying - he had seen it all himself, many, many times. Ellison, however, thought that perhaps they had heard enough about sentinels, and finally found he had a question of his own to ask.

"And, uh, what about the companions, the Guides?" Ellison interjected. "What are their special talents?"

Swift Eagle snorted softly in amusement. "Ah, the companions," he intoned as he looked sideways at Whispering Waters. "The companions, the Guides, never think they are special. Just very ordinary, so they say. But they have different strengths. They have the power within them to be mighty shamans, to heal with their touch and their compassion, not simply the body, but also the heart and the soul. The companions make others whole - they complete the sentinel bond, and soothe the roughness of the senses and the anger we sometimes feel. They are wise, and can often see past the mist that blinds the rest of us, into time itself, the past and the future. They can journey in the Forest of Time, and commune with the spirit guides and our ancestors - they can travel without their bodies to other places, see and be seen, touch and be touched. Companions, Guides, seek knowledge as a thirsty man seeks water. And," with a wry glance toward Jim, "they like to share that knowledge, so they talk and talk, and then they talk even more."

Ellison barked out a laugh, the tone of forbearance from the older man resonating so completely with his own, often fond, weariness in listening to all that Sandburg always had to say. Blair dug an elbow in his ribs and gave him a look of hurt irritation, but then he snickered and Jim ruffled his curls. "Got you nailed, Sandburg," he muttered.

Swift Eagle allowed a spare smile at their play, but then continued, "The companions' weakness is that they take too much into themselves, trying to absorb the pain of others, to heal and comfort. They hide their own hurts, lest they be a burden for others to carry. It can take great energy, and can be wearing, tiring. They can risk taking too much pain, pretending it is of no consequence. But the bodies they wear have limits, and they can hurt themselves badly. They, too, are brave in their way. They are prepared to sacrifice all that they are. So, again, it falls to the watchmen, to ensure they rest and that their spirits do not overreach the strength of their bodies. They have no sense, when it comes to this, Sentinel, so be warned."

This time, Jim didn't laugh, but nodded soberly. He'd already begun to learn this lesson, only too well, but now realized that maybe Blair had not - perhaps even could not - and would bear watching.

"But, uh, I'm not a shaman," Sandburg interjected, biting his lip as he thought about what Swift Eagle had said, and thinking it had been a little overstated, at least in his case, if not with respect to Whispering Waters. "I don't have those skills or that wisdom. I mean, I'm a pretty good doctor…"

Swift Eagle sighed heavily. "You see, they deny their uniqueness," he said to Jim as he shook his head with weary forbearance.

Whispering Waters cleared his throat. "You are teasing the young one," he charged. When Swift Eagle threw him a quick look and then shrugged, he added, "And also you are teasing me - but not without some measure of truth."

Turning to Sandburg, he continued, "You have, within you, the power of a great shaman. But you have not acknowledged it. Yesterday, you asked if we might teach you how to see animal spirits. Look around you, and ask them to appear - believe that they will respond to your summons, and they will appear. Your power is locked behind walls of disbelief. Only you can bring those walls down. You have the power to heal in your hands and in your heart - those you touch draw from your strength whether you have been aware of that or not - your touch cannot help but heal. But be warned. It takes energy to bring a broken body back from the Forests of Time, which is the boundary between this world and the next - and it is in our nature to die and be reborn - so, death is not the enemy. Life is a stopping place on our journey in time. Some of us need only linger a short while before moving on. Others of us have purposes that require a longer moment to fulfill. You carry a great burden of judgment, of knowing when to let a spirit go to continue its journey, and when to call it back. You must listen to your own heart, and your own spirit, as well as your mind - and you must be willing to let a spirit go when it is time, though that might cause you, or those who wish to hold onto that spirit, pain."

Blair cut in, for this discussion touched his most profound beliefs about the sanctity of life, "But, wait - I can't just stand back and let someone die if I can help him or her! I mean - I've had patients who have wanted to die, but that was fear, pain, talking - blinding them to the possibilities that life could still hold."

"There is a difference between the medicines you use that are of this earth, and the skills you use that are of this time - and the power that rests in your spirit. By all means, use what is available to you as you journey through time, but you have yet to simply lay-on your hands with the intention of calling back a life from the Forest. When you do, you will feel the difference, and know the cost," Whispering Waters counseled. "I am saying that it is this power, this extraordinary gift that can defy the laws of this world - this is the one to learn to use wisely."

Swift Eagle leaned toward Jim as he mumbled, "You'll have to watch him. For all that my Guide says it's a matter of wisdom, I have seen him fight to hold onto a soul because it is a compulsion for him to help. There is real danger - it is very wearying, and makes them weak. They are very vulnerable at that time. I've tried to forbid him doing this, but he doesn't listen to me. So - I watch and guard him as best I can."

Blair looked from Swift Eagle to Whispering Waters and found the shaman watching him with amusement in his eyes. Thinking he understood, Blair nodded. The sentinels didn't understand; sometimes it is necessary to risk, to do what is necessary. But Whispering Waters shook his head slightly as his gaze drifted to the other men and back again to Blair. Frowning slightly, Blair knew he was missing something - and then he realized what it was. The sentinels understood that risk is necessary - it was just that they risked losing themselves in other ways, for other purposes. Which is why he had to watch out for Jim.

When his eyes lifted again to the old shaman, Whispering Waters nodded, as he said softly, "You see now why they need a guide and we need a watchman? Why it is that we travel together in time?"

"Yeah, I do…thank you," Blair replied.

Jim, looked from one to the other, and said, "I think I missed something…understand what?"

A smile dancing on his lips, Blair replied, "Basically, big guy, you need me to guide the use of your senses and watch your back when you're giving all you've got to do the watchman thing, and I need you to watch me in case I lose my balance."

"Uh-huh," Ellison grunted, frowning, with a shiver of remembered horror, as he thought of Blair tumbling from the cliff, and nodding in agreement. "Sounds about right."

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

They talked until well past the setting of the sun, until Blair's eyes grew heavy, his body tired and needing rest after the harm that had been done to it earlier that day. Though Jim wanted to indulge Sandburg's endless curiousity, finally his concern about Blair's weariness and the heaviness in his lungs could no longer be denied, and he insisted that the younger man needed to rest. Whispering Waters brewed some bark and sweet-smelling herbs in a pot over the fire and, after straining it, gave it to Blair to drink, saying it would help clear his chest. Gratefully, Sandburg accepted the potion, while Jim's gratitude to the shaman was in his eyes.

Then, they retired under the stars, beside the warmth of the fire, and when the sun rose again, they talked throughout the whole of the next day.

Jim and Blair learned of more things Jim could do with his senses, and how to refine his control of them. But the most important thing they learned, so far as Sandburg was concerned, was that the sound of running water or rain really could block out other intrusive sounds. Whispering Wind had developed a simple mechanism using water and stones, and a hollowed a tube of sturdy but resilient vine, to create a fountain of sorts, where gravity kept the water endlessly flowing. The device helped Swift Eagle sleep when his body was exhausted, either from endless hours on watch or when he was ill or wounded. Sandburg knew he could easily craft a similar device for Jim, using a piece of rubber tubing, and put it in Ellison's bedroom. Simple, but ingenious, and it would give his friend a place where he could rest undisturbed.

Once they had finished answering all the questions Blair, and occasionally Jim, posed about how to work with the sentinel skills, Whispering Winds turned to Blair and asked, "So, young one, are you ready to open your mind and see what more there is in this world?"

Suddenly still, Sandburg licked his lips, nodding tentatively. "I saw the Forest, and both our spirit guides when I…when Jim came to find me. I'd like to see the wolf and jaguar again. What do I have to do?"

"Close your eyes, and call them to you," Whispering Wind counseled, his voice steady and assured. "Tell them you wish to be aware of them, always, to learn what they would teach you, to hear their warnings and trust them. Let all other cares slip away, all doubts, know that they will come to you. And then open your eyes and look - you will see."

Nodding soberly, Blair closed his eyes while the others watched in silence. They could see his shoulders relax as his breathing slowed and deepened. When he opened his eyes, he at first appeared startled and then he smiled with delight, bowing his head to the spirit guides who had appeared by each of their human counterparts. Swift Eagle's was a magnificent golden eagle, its eyes piercingly bright as it perched on the old man's shoulders. Whispering Waters' guide was a stag, with a broad rack of antlers, tall and stately as it stood by the shaman. Jim's black panther laid at the lawman's feet and, when it turned to Sandburg, it yawned as if to say it was about time the kid had figured out how to make contact with them. And Blair's own guide was a sturdy gray wolf with unusual blue eyes. The wolf pressed against him, insinuating its head under his hand, eager to touch and be touched by this most beloved man.

"You're beautiful," Blair sighed to them all, as he stroked his wolf and scratched under its jaw. "Thank you for coming to me - and thank you," he said most sincerely, his voice catching, as he looked first at the jaguar and then at the wolf, "for helping me to stay here, to be where I belong."

Jim looked at the empty space that Blair was stroking fondly, his eyes tracking to where Blair seemed to be looking, but shook his head. He couldn't see a damned thing, and he wasn't sure whether to be relieved or frustrated.

Swift Eagle was alert to Ellison's discomfiture. "You can see them, too, when it is necessary. If they have a warning to bear, they will manifest either to your vision or your hearing, so that you will be alerted when there is danger."

Remembering the howling of the wolf he'd heard, on two occasions now, Jim frowned. Turning to Sandburg, he asked, "Is that the wolf you're petting?"

"Yeah, he's amazing!" Blair enthused as he looked down at the animal, scratching now between its ears.

Taking a breath, and addressing the perfectly empty space, Jim said with all sincerity, "I'm sorry I didn't listen when you tried to give me warning. I didn't understand. In the future, I will listen." And then he asked, "Is the jaguar here?"

Whispering Waters gestured toward his feet.

Ellison shook his head, tentatively reaching out, sincerely wishing he could see the big cat as he said, his voice low and rough, "Thank you…for bringing him back to me."

For just a brief moment, both the wolf and the jaguar appeared to him then, pleased with his sincerity and, in their way, demonstrating their commitment to him. He gazed at them slack-jawed and then swallowed hard, bowing his head to them in a gesture of respect.

Whispering Waters then showed Blair how he could simply focus on wood, or even on sand, and call forth fire with the power of his mind. It was - incredible. But Blair smiled to himself as he reflected how handy the skill would be when he needed fire in an emergency, to cleanse his instruments, or to keep someone suffering from shock warm until he could help them, like Rafe, back when they'd gone after the rustlers.

Finally, the old shaman walked Blair through the process of meditation, of breathing deeply and relaxing as he let his mind either drift or focus on a single vision or sound…and then taught him how to let go of his worldly body to walk on the spirit plane. As one who had learned these skills before, through countless lives, it did not take long for Blair to remember how it was done. For his first walk, Whispering Waters suggested he not go far, perhaps just down to the river, to get a sense of how it felt and to see, as well, how vulnerable he left his body when his spirit walked - so that he would not abandon his earthly form lightly.

Jim discovered that he didn't like, at all, what happened next - while his spirit went for a ramble, Blair keeled over and looked more than half-dead, though his body continued to breathe shallowly. Nor did he immediately return when Jim, considering a minute more than long enough for the experience, lightly shook his partner and called him back. It was at least another minute or two before Blair returned, and only the calm, impassive faces of their hosts kept Jim from taking more drastic measures to rouse his Guide.

With a great deal of restraint in respect for Blair's own choices, when Sandburg returned to his body, Jim yelled, "That's it! You're not doing that again!"

The lawman wasn't sure why everyone else found that so funny but for the first time, he heard Swift Eagle and Whispering Waters laugh heartily, with as much abandon and merriment as Sandburg did.

"What?" he demanded, scowling at them all.

"It's okay, Jim," Blair snickered and then did his best to assume a sober demeanor. "I, uh, I promise not to do that again, unless it's really necessary!"

"How necessary could it be?" Ellison grumbled mulishly. "You've lived almost thirty years without ever having to do it before."

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

On the third day of their discussion, their big questions asked and answered, Blair and Jim were beginning to realize that they soon needed to head home. Though they were sorry to call an end to the fascinating exchange - Blair perhaps more sorry than Jim - they explained around mid-afternoon that they would have to leave in the morning.

Swift Eagle and Whispering Waters seemed unperturbed as they nodded in acceptance but both regretted seeing these two of their kind bring their visit to an end. Rarely did the older men have the opportunity to visit with, talk with, others who understood who and what they were, to share the experience of what it meant to be 'brothers in time' and know their listeners fully appreciated and shared the magic, and mystery, of their existence.

"Then, it is time to move past the talking," Swift Eagle said. "Before you leave, we would have you purify your bodies and spirits, that you may return to your village strong, with joy in your hearts."

Whispering Waters then directed, "Go to the river and swim. When you return, we will show you into the sweat lodge, where you will remain until the moon has risen. And then you will dance."

"Dance?" Jim echoed, his eyes narrowing.

Whispering Waters nodded gravely. "The dance has great purpose and value. As the drums beat in the light of the fire, your feet touch the earth and draw strength from her breast, but your spirit soars with the joy of being one with all creation. When you dance together, it is a symbol of your life together here on the earth and, also, of the union of your spirits in time."

Ellison looked uncertain, but allowed Sandburg to haul him up to his feet to walk with him to the river.

Clad only in their breechclouts, they swam in its cool embrace, welcome after the heat of the day. Sandburg luxuriated in the feel the water's silky rush over sore muscle and bone that still ached from his fall, soothing away the stiffness and fatigue…he inhaled deeply, breathing the sweet, clear air that rustled through leaves above while floating in the dappled shadows of the overarching boughs, out of the harsh glare of the sun…gently cushioned by the river's strength…and he heard the lazy plop of a fish and the soft, gurgling rush of the water over stones by the sloping bank…peaceful and restorative…

Rarely did one have the luxury of immersing, unclothed, in the clear, running water of the creek or even the river near Bitterwood Creek. The good ladies of the town would have been scandalized, and the children would have been sure to be to lurk in the bushes, giggling. But now, he could float in cool shadows near the shore, or further out and feel the warmth of the sun on his face as the water buoyed his body.

And then, he stilled, suddenly reminded of his fantasy while on the stagecoach, so long ago it seemed now, on the day when he had first arrived in Bitterwood Creek.

These moments of peace were more than simply similar to his imaginings…he'd been here for those few peaceful moments. No wonder the fantasy had felt so real…now he knew it had been a vision of his future - when he'd walked away from the stagecoach that long ago day, his footsteps had led him to Jim and eventually to this place, this time. He blinked as he looked up into the sky and smiled. The vision had been a promise of peace - but only if he chose the right path. Had he continued on with the stagecoach, he never would have found his way here…

Jim's voice intruded from somewhere near, "Be careful, Chief - the current is strong."

Flipping to paddle in place, Blair gazed at his best friend with concern at the tight tone of Jim's voice. "You okay?" he asked.

"Yeah," Ellison grunted as he continued to tread water within arm's reach. "It's just that the last time we took a swim, it…wasn't fun."

Blair's eyes dropped and he nodded. "I'm sorry - I wasn't thinking about that." Looking up again to meet Jim's gaze, he asked, "How did you get to me so quickly? I mean, you were way up on the cliff…"

"I jumped," Jim replied succinctly.

"You jumped?" Sandburg exclaimed, his eyes wide. "Are you nuts? You could have killed yourself!"

Ellison shook his head as his eyes strayed to the high wall of rock further up the river. "It's not like there were a lot of options, Chief," he replied with an effort to sound matter-of-fact as he relived some of the scariest moments of his life. Jumping off the damned cliff had been the least of his worries. "I didn't know you'd been hit when I shot Rutherford - I turned around - but you were…gone. I saw you in the water, and you were floating facedown. There wasn't a lot of time to consider alternatives, you know?"

"You are really…amazing," Sandburg breathed. "Thank God, I got off that stage."

"Huh?" Jim grunted, not sure what Blair was talking about.

"The day I arrived in Bitterwood Creek," Blair elaborated. "I'd been on this god-awful hot stagecoach for what seemed like forever. And I was looking out the window at the river, thinking how much I just wanted to immerse myself in its cool depths - when the stage stopped suddenly. The driver had spotted the yellow rag, and wasn't going to go into town, obviously. So, when I found out they didn't have a doctor, I got my bags off the coach and walked into town." He paused a moment, looking at the beautiful world around him, marveling as he murmured, "But it wasn't a wish or a fantasy. It was a vision of the future, Jim. It was here and now…"

"And that links to me being amazing, how?" Jim prodded, a quizzical look on his face. Sandburg was acting very oddly, even for him.

"You didn't know, but the day you gave me my life back was my birthday. If not for you, instead of it being the day of my rebirth, it would have been the day I died. Your friendship is the most precious gift in my life," Blair murmured softly. He paused for a moment to look at the beautiful world around him and then returned his gaze to Ellison's. "Getting off that stage in Bitterwood Creek links to you being amazing because, if I hadn't gotten off that stage, I wouldn't ever have met you - I would have wandered, lost, looking for you, and not even known why or who I was looking for. I, well, I wouldn't want to live my whole life without knowing you, I guess is all I'm saying."

Jim gave him a crooked smile. "Works both ways, Chief. I didn't know I was looking for you, either, until you found me. I didn't have a clue what I was, or what to do with my senses, or any idea where I was going or what my life was for. I thought I was going crazy, to tell you the truth. And then you made everything make sense. Seems like we take turns finding each other, when we're lost."

Looking back at the village, and remembering what they'd been told, Blair mused, "Maybe that's the way it's always been…"

"For sure, it's going to be the way it always will be…" Jim asserted, and then he teased bravely, trying to mask how very much he desperately wished he could keep Blair safe, always, "I may never let you out of my sight again. Hell, I just turn around for half a second and you're gone. Gotta stop doing that, Sandburg. I'm too old for that much excitement."

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

Blair was tired when they came back to shore, his body still weak from the drowning. His lungs were also still a little congested and Jim still didn't like the sound of his lingering cough. But Whispering Waters gave Blair another infusion of herbs, and it did seem to help.

The sweat lodge helped as well. The dry heat permeated Blair to his bones, so that he felt warm clear through. He luxuriated in it, breathing it in and coughing out the phlegm until, finally, his breathing eased completely, the congestion gone. Garbed only in their breechclouts, they sat quietly together in the small hut, occasionally bestirring themselves to pour water over the hot stones to lift steam into the air. Sandburg leaned against Jim's shoulder, dozing against the sure strength of his Sentinel.

Jim rested his back against the wall of the hut made of pine boughs and leaves stuck together and sealed with clay. His eyes closed, he listened to the sound of Sandburg's heart beating, and to his easy breathing, and was relieved that the last of the congestion was gone. He could feel his Guide leaning into him, close.

Safe.

Lifting his arm to embrace Blair's shoulders and draw the drowsing younger man closer to his side, Jim sighed peacefully.

He was content.

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

The air outside the sweat lodge had cooled with the setting of the sun, so when they emerged, the sweat on their skin disappeared, leaving them feeling reinvigorated and refreshed. Swift Eagle and Whispering Waters, garbed now in their traditional breechclouts and short leather kilts, their skin painted with sacred symbols, were waiting to lead them through the village to a huge bonfire that had been built near the shoreline. It looked as though the whole village was there, sitting in the shadows, the firelight flickering on their faces and reflecting back from their dark eyes.

As they approached a drum began to beat, slowly at first, but then quickening in tempo. Another drum joined it, and a third, until their compelling percussion filled the air, echoing and reechoing off the stone of the high surrounding cliffs, resonating through their bodies until they could feel the beat in their bones.

"Watch, and follow…" Swift Eagle murmured in Jim's ear.

Whispering Waters stepped toward the fire, his bare feet catching the rhythm, shuffling a little on the earth. His body moved with the beat, swaying with it, his head and shoulders rising and falling as the pace picked up and he lifted his knees higher as he raised his arms to the night sky. Once around the fire, and then he drew Touch That Heals into the circle of the dance.

Sandburg's hair had dried into burnished curls that glinted in the fire's light. His lightly-bronzed body and well-matted chest contrasted with Whispering Waters' darker, hairless form. But they moved in a mesmerizing harmony of motion, feet stamping the earth, arms lifting to the stars, heads thrown back as they danced around the fire.

Whispering Waters then drew Swift Eagle into the dance, between himself and Touch That Heals. The tempo picked up as the shaman danced facing his watchman, and then danced around him before coming back to face him. Swift Eagle then danced around Whispering Waters, but instead of facing his companion, he faced out to the world, guarding the Guide at his back, while his companion guarded him.

When they came back around the circle, Blair drew Jim into the dance, and all four men stamped the earth, feeling her strength, drawing it in as they reached their arms to the stars, their spirits moving to the rhythm of the hollow, haunting drums. Blair danced around Jim, facing him, as Whispering Waters danced around Swift Eagle, and then the sentinels danced around their guides, strong, proud, protecting what was theirs…

The circle changed as Whispering Waters and Swift Eagle danced into the shadows, leaving Touch That Heals and Brave Star to dance alone around the roaring fire. Light and shadow played over their bodies as they swayed and shifted, turned and turned again - facing one another, to watch - back to back, to protect. The drums grew louder, the beat faster, as they thumped the soles of their feet upon the ground. Touch That Heals' wild mane spun out from his shoulders as he swayed and whirled in abandoned, unrestrained motion, his body pulsing out the beat of the drums. The light caught the blue of Brave Star's eyes as he watched his companion, illuminating the joyful pride…and the steadfast love that burned brighter than the flames. Touch That Heals' face was alight with passionate joy, so that he glowed in the flickering light, smiling with exuberant life as he danced possessively around his Sentinel, amazed and grateful to know he was loved as he loved, so that his spirit soared…

Sweat glistened upon their bodies, catching the flicking fire's light and throwing it back. Glowing ashes spun up toward the stars, and the moon rose high in the sky, shedding its own silvery benediction on the forest, the village of tents, the earth, the gathering of people and the river, uniting them all for this moment in time…

The people began to chant, a low counterpoint to the drums, and then higher voices blended in, creating a mysterious magic of sound and light as the flickering fire cast out heat in an atavistic dance of its own - earth and spirit singing in ageless harmony - while together and bound for eternity - brothers in time - the Sentinel, Brave Star, and his Guide, Touch That Heals…danced…

Finis

Note: This story draws upon actual historical events, such as the infamous massacre of Chief Black Kettle's village by the US Cavalry at Sand Creek, and places such as prisons like Andersonville. During the Civil War, over 620,000 Americans died, with disease killing twice as many as those lost in battle. 50,000 survivors returned home as amputees. Also, the story has basis in the oral histories of African-Americans that recount how they did what was in their power to do, to resist the oppression of slavery. Amerindians were taken as slaves, principally by the Spanish, and most did die as a result of the experience.

The general information on slavery through the ages, and its variations or purpose, as well as the philosophy about slaves in terms of military or economic misfortune versus spiritual superiority, as well as the taking of slaves from Africa is historically correct. The Romans defeated the people of Palestine in 70 AD, selling the Jewish people into slavery all over the known ancient world…it was the desire to return to their homeland that led their descendents to contribute pennies and nickels (or their equivalent in Europe) to three rabbis who literally bought the land in trust, a parcel at a time over a span of years, that led to Israel being recognized as an independent nation by the United Nations in 1948. The Book of Enoch tells the story of the sons of fallen angels, the Watchmen, who were born to protect mankind…

…details on the Jewish traditions of Chanukah and Passover were drawn from the Internet site, http://www.aish.com/ and the information is given is virtually verbatim…

…in terms of the medical elements of this story, the information on diphtheria is correct. The purpose of the spleen is also to be a storehouse of sorts for blood, in the event more is needed by the body in a hurry (which accounts for the severity of the hemorrhaging when Blair was shot), as well as performing the immune function role described. The liver is also a storehouse of blood, and is the one organ that will regenerate itself, so long as at least one-eighth of it is healthy and intact. As noted in the dedication to StarWatcher, willow-bark tea is an old natural remedy that predated aspirin and has many of the same effects of reducing fever and easing moderate pain. Laudanum was, I think, heroin-based and was highly addictive, but few understood its dangers in that era. Maggots, though an unpleasant image, are an ancient healing device, and are still used, in some places, in dire circumstances to clean away dead tissue while not harming that which is healthy.

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