Oak Creek Canyon
Note: This is the first sequel to, and continuation of, Bitterwood Creek. While it is not essential to read the first story in this Old West AU, this tale will make slightly more sense if it is read in conjunction with BC rather than as a standalone story in its own right.
My thank go to StarWatcher for her support as my superb beta, to Romanse and Penny for their encouragement, and to Starfox for hosting my stories.
The sky was a deep, clear azure vault over the stark and barren, yet awesome and strangely beautiful mountains of rosy-red rock. In the forest below their heights, the land fell away gently under the trees, pine and aspen but mostly oak, that followed along the wide, rushing creek, the water dappled by shadows and sparkling sharply in the sunlight. The air was light, dry, and smelled clean. The silence, but for the rippling water, the call of birds and the soft sough of the wind through the boughs, was profound. He rode alone through the paradise, saddlebags laden with supplies, a rifle in its stock and the bedroll secure behind the saddle. Tall, brown-haired, his head covered by a Stetson pulled low over his blue eyes, he appreciated the peace and quiet, the sheer isolation, though he kept a wary watch. He'd been warned of the savages, the Apaches who hid out in these hills; had even been cautioned against making this short trip away from 'civilization', such as it was. So, he rode quietly, keeping to the shadows, but the dire warnings could not suppress his satisfaction at being able to do this bit of exploring, or keep him from inhaling the subtle fragrances around him with deep appreciation.
He needed the time away from the camp to do some thinking about what he'd seen there - and what he suspected. The construction of a railroad was a massive undertaking, requiring hundreds of workers willing to work cheaply. A dollar a day wasn't a bad income, but there were easier and safer ways to make a living. The railroads relied heavily upon imported Chinese laborers who considered the wage a fortune in terms of what they could expect to earn in the barrios of San Francisco or on the docks. He frowned, thinking of the unwholesome, miserable living conditions of the camp's tent city, and the vile slop purported to be food that was served up to the workers. Clearing the roadbed and laying track was hard, physical work that required substantial strength - strength that needed nourishing food to be sustained. Surely, the investments being made back east, along with the generous contributions and land grants by the government, were sufficient to pay the costs of decent food and reasonable shelter for the men who built the line.
His jaw tightened as he looked up and around the pristine beauty of the virgin forest, wanting to be soothed by its purity, wanting to forget the ugliness of the coarse and even brutal way the Chinese workers were treated by those in charge of the camp and the building project. Biting his lip, he knew he didn't wonder so much if graft and theft was going on, but rather to what extent and if there was a way to stop it. No fool, he knew that if he made his suspicions known and tried to act upon them, his very life could be at risk. He had no backup here in the wilds of the Arizona territory, and he was no warrior. In truth, one of the reasons he'd decided to take this side trip was to find a measure of security while he decided on what he needed to do; the wilderness, for all the threat the Indians might pose, felt vastly safer than the corrupt environment of the railroad camp where an 'accident' could only too easily be arranged for a manager from back east who asked too many questions or examined ledgers too closely.
There was little warning. Just a dry, prolonged rattle that spooked his horse into blind panic, rearing back and plunging, twisting away from the danger with insane, reflexive speed - but yet too slow. The mare screamed shrilly when the fangs sank into her chest, and she plunged again in hysterical desperation to evade another lightning quick attack, but her frenzy only served to spread the fiery agony of the deadly venom more quickly through her bloodstream toward her heart.
He tried to hold on, but he was no horseman. He was unseated and fell hard under the plunging hooves, crying out as a dry snap cracked, audible even over the horse's loud distress. But his cry was cut short when his head hit a rock, stunning him, so that he lay panting and afraid, unable to stop his mount as she plunged away through the trees, desperate to outrun a fate that would not be denied.
Grimacing, he grit his teeth in his tightly clenched jaw, dragging in air through his nose as he struggled to remain conscious. His eyes darted around, seeking the snake, but it appeared to have slithered off, its battle won. Remembering that a snake bite wasn't necessary fatal to a creature as big as a horse, he dared hope the dappled gray mare would live to find her way home, and then he wondered bleakly if he'd ever know her fate. The bottom line was that, whether she survived or not, she wouldn't be coming back for him.
"Damn it," he cursed, knowing he was in trouble - knowing he was likely going to die.
He could not even call out for help, for only the Apaches would hear him.
Swallowing hard, forcing back the sick nausea and bile that roiled in his gut, he curled to explore the break in his leg, and heaved a sigh to know the skin had not been broken. No wound then, just the broken bone. Not that that was much of a relief, for now he could not walk, and the way back to the questionable care and safety of the camp was too far to crawl. Stricken, he spent long minutes grappling with his fear, and then he took harried note of his surroundings. He had water close at hand, branches and vines to splint his leg, however inexpertly. His food had gone with the horse, but there'd be fish in the stream, perhaps other small game he might rig snares to catch. But to what purpose? No one knew where he'd been headed and, even if his horse made it back to the camp, no one would come looking. Hell, those in charge of the camp would no doubt be only too happy to write off his disappearance to the Indians or bad luck, for it saved them from having to deal with the threat he might pose to them.
He was going to die. It was only a matter of time.
Again he had to fight off the panic and despair that flooded through him, mingling with the unholy agony of his broken leg and the headache pounding in his skull. Blinking away unwanted tears, telling himself to be a man, he panted as he again looked around seeking some measure of hope, some sign that there might yet be salvation.
And he gasped.
Squatting not three feet away was a young man, a stranger, with intense blue eyes and long curls that seemed unaffected by the slight wind. "Hold on," a low, compelling voice told him. "Don't give up."
And then the man vanished, as if no more than mist under the heat of the burning sun.
Above, on the cliff, Geronimo crouched on one knee as he watched the fallen man impassively. The arrogant fool had come into a dangerous country alone and now lay helpless by the creek. Clearly, from the way he floundered, his leg was broken, and he had no gun but his sidearm, no supplies - an unworthy adversary, warranting no further attention. He would die alone, and suffer the horrors of the cold, hungry nights and the empty hours of long days before he did. It was torment enough.
The War Chief waved to the warriors clustered on their ponies behind him to go but, as he stood tall in the sun to turn away to his own mount, he stopped and blinked. For there, in the thin air before him stood a white man, his eyes piercing as he directed, "Help him."
Geronimo blinked again, but the image remained. A ghost? A wandering spirit? He didn't know, nor did he care. The white man's spirit protectors were inconsequential, and he shook his head slowly, even contemptuously, in response to the brief command. He was turning away even as the vision faded from view.
Once, he might not have been so hard. Once, he would have probably helped. But that was years ago, when he'd still argued that there could be peace with the palefaces invading their lands. Now, his heart was colder than the bitter winter nights, as it had been since the marauding Spaniards from the south had invaded his camp years before while he'd been away hunting - and had murdered his whole family. Since then, all white men were his enemy, and he lived only to see them dead.
Dismissing from his mind the suffering of the injured man who would die by the creek, Geronimo mounted and called to his followers, and the unshod hooves of their horses thudded softly on the red, dusty stone as they rode away.
Jim frowned as he gently stroked Sandburg's brow, and then he resumed bathing Blair's hot body, dearly wishing the fever would break. Sandburg had begun to weaken two days after they'd left the reservation, seeming only tired at first, and pale. But then the cough had started, and his gaze had grown glassy as he grimly tried to remain in his saddle. Jim had called an early halt the afternoon before when he spotted a suitable campsite, and was alarmed at how quickly Sandburg had slipped into a heavy sleep as soon as Ellison had helped him settle on his bedroll. During the night, the fever had built and that was when Jim had realized that Blair wasn't simply asleep, but unconscious. Though Sandburg was restless, mumbling incoherently in his fevered state, Ellison had been unable to rouse him, and the lawman had begun to feel real fear. Blair had drowned less than a week before, but he'd seemed to be recovering fine back at the reservation, and Jim had hoped there'd be no lasting weakness. Now he knew better.
Sandburg's lungs had been badly compromised and weakened severely - who knew how long, or even if, he'd ever recover fully from having drowned to death. It didn't help that Sandburg's immune system had been weakened a year before when he'd lost his spleen after having been shot. Jim had been scared ever since, knowing that, every time the kid caught some infection, it could wind up killing him.
Ellison had tended his friend all through the long night and it was now early morning. Some minutes ago, Blair had suddenly gone completely still, scarcely breathing beyond a rough rasp for long minutes that had held a kind of terror for the lawman. Then he became very deeply agitated, muttering about some guy who needed help, angry when another man refused assistance. A dream from the past, Ellison supposed, maybe even of the prison where Sandburg had been incarcerated for more than a year before the Civil War finally ended. Jim had overheard such nightmares before when Blair was over-tired or deeply worried and his mind returned to the days when he'd felt so powerless to help the hundreds of beleaguered men imprisoned with him though, in reality, the care he had given had since become legendary.
"Easy, Chief," Ellison soothed as he supported the shivering, fevered man against his shoulder and lifted a tin cup of water to his friend's lips. "Shhh," he encouraged as Blair thrashed weakly, mumbling incoherently in distress. "It was a nightmare, just a nightmare," he murmured, wondering if Blair could even hear him, though he tried to feel some relief that Sandburg seemed to be finally waking up. The fever and deep, heavy cough worried Jim a great deal more than the transient bad dream, as poignant and distressing as it seemed to be. He feared that pneumonia was settling into Sandburg's lungs, and that could be fatal. The lawman was all too aware that they were in the middle of nowhere, with no help to be had.
Blinking awake, Sandburg tried to focus on Jim's voice, his tether to tenuous consciousness, but he could still see the injured stranger and the tall, stern Indian. Though they were camped on the open rolling prairie, sheltered by trees on the bank of a river, he could see red stone cliffs looming above them and, in the far distance, snowcapped mountains. There was no time; the man by the creek needed help urgently. He thrashed again, weakly pushing against Ellison's body, but felt the futility of it all. The fever raged, stealing his strength, and it hurt to breathe - hurt more when he coughed. "No time," he muttered, his unfocused gaze on a distant place that Jim, for all his incredible sight, could not see.
"C'mon, Doc," Jim muttered, unsure what more he could or should be doing to tend his friend. Blair had packets of herbs and vials of medicines in his saddlebags, but Ellison was bleakly conscious that he had no idea of which ones to use, and was afraid of doing more harm than good. "I could use a little help here, Chief. You need to wake up."
The bathing with cool water from the river seemed to help and Blair settled again, his breathing congested as he panted a little. When he coughed harshly, Jim pulled him up quickly, supporting his head and shoulders to help him breathe more freely. One of the painful sounding barks finally roused Sandburg enough to look around blearily and then his gaze found Ellison's troubled blue eyes.
"Hey," Blair huffed weakly.
"Hey, yourself," Jim replied, glad to see Sandburg was more alert than he'd been for hours. "I think you might have pneumonia," he added hastily, not wasting what might only be a short window of opportunity to get the help he needed. "What should I be doing?"
Feeling dazed, Blair swallowed as his gaze drifted away with his effort to focus on the question. "My saddlebags," he finally rasped, and Jim nodded. Keeping his hold on his friend, Ellison stretched his free hand to grab the nearby bags, one after the other, and he carefully dumped the contents within Sandburg's reach. Blair studied the pile of medicines and then slowly scrabbled through them with one hand, pulling out a small packet of herbs first, and then a vial of medicine. "Herbs…three pinches in boiling water…tea every three hours, and I need lots of drinking water. The vial…five drops in steaming water to help me breathe."
"Got it," Jim grunted. "Anything else?"
Blair nodded weakly as he tried to summon a wobbly grin. "The tepid bath - good idea to fight the…fever. Thanks. But keep me warm after. Hot poultices on my chest, uh, with this," he added as he fumbled for another packet.
Ellison cupped his friend's cheek as he replied gruffly, "Okay, I'll do my bit, but you concentrate on getting better. They'd string me up if I arrived back in Bitterwood Creek without their doctor."
Blair snickered at Jim's aggrieved tone, but then grimaced as another violent coughing fit assailed him. Jim held him securely until his breathing settled, and he drifted back to uneasy sleep. Easing Sandburg down against his own piled gear for support and covering him with a blanket, the lawman then set about boiling a pot of water.
It was a long day of cajoling Blair into sufficient wakefulness to drink the tea or cups of water that Jim fed to him conscientiously and with infinite patience, and of bathing the physician's fevered body to keep his temperature from ranging any higher. Though he was tired from already having passed a sleepless night, it did not even occur to Ellison to seek his own rest. He prepared the hot poultices and applied them, once an hour, to Sandburg's chest and then supported Blair sturdily as he held the steaming bowl with the drops of sharp eucalyptus near his friend's face. The pungent scent made his own eyes water, but he resolutely turned down the blue lantern in his mind and carried on.
In the silence broken only by Blair's husky breathing and occasional bursts of violent coughing, Jim found himself thinking over their just past visit to the reservation to learn more about sentinels and guides from Stalking Wolf and Whispering Waters. His throat tightened as he recalled how Blair had lain so still and lifeless after he'd hauled Sandburg from the river after he'd been shot off the cliff by Rutherford, but he banished that grim memory with happier recollections. They'd learned a lot from the Arapaho Watchman and his Companion and Jim tried to take consolation, though Blair seemed so ill, that he'd not seen or heard either the jaguar or the wolf - so surely, that meant Sandburg would be all right. Still, the raging fever made him increasingly anxious as the day wore on; Ellison was truly terrified that this illness could kill his partner.
Carefully, with a gentleness that few would have recognized in the often cold and irascible lawman, Jim bathed Blair over and over again, cursing softly when his efforts seemed to bear no immediate fruit. As he toiled, he remembered all that had happened during their sojourn at the reservation, he could scarcely believe what they'd found in one another; it seemed so incredible, so wonderful, as to be a dream. But Jim knew it was real and was afraid of losing Blair, and all that Blair meant to him. He knew that Blair needed him, as a friend and brother, as no one else ever had; their friendship and partnership was as vital to Sandburg as it was to him. And he knew without question that Sandburg loved him, accepted who he was and was his 'guide' - a 'soul brother' who Jim could trust without question, rely upon with no doubts and who always did his best to help Ellison accept himself and his strange senses. Jim returned Blair's devotion and needed the kid in equal, if not greater measure - far, far more than he'd ever before cared for or needed anyone. So he kept up his vigil and his ceaseless ministrations throughout the long, anxious hours, careless of his own exhaustion. Together, they'd damn well beat this infection; there was no other option. For Jim could no longer imagine a life without Blair by his side.
Ellison tried to take solace from the moments when Blair was sufficiently awake to have some awareness. Though he discouraged Sandburg from talking, lest he invoke another terrible coughing fit that caused so much pain and distress, he was encouraged by his friend's weak but steady smile and the affection that glowed softly from Blair's weary gaze.
Finally, as the day was fading and the sky was a brilliant riot of colour in the west, the fever broke, drenching Sandburg with sweat. Jim washed and dried his skin a last time, and then bundled him warmly in their blankets against the chill of the encroaching night. Not long after, the cough became looser, less debilitating, and the sheriff allowed himself to relax, a little. Blair was getting better. After one more round of tea, poultices and eucalyptus-scented steam, he built up their fire and ensured more fuel was ready to hand. And then he stretched out beside Blair, wrapping his arms around his friend to add the warmth of his body to the blankets that covered them, and held Sandburg in a secure embrace as the world darkened and the stars began to glow above them in the velvet sky. At last, Ellison allowed himself to drift into sleep with the hope that Blair would be significantly better by morning.
Sandburg's rough coughing, as his lungs gave up the thick phlegm of the infection, woke them often during the night. After each bout of hacking and rasping, Blair sagged in exhaustion against Jim's shoulder and slipped back to sleep, with scarcely a murmured, "Sorry." Jim would fondly brush back the stray locks that tumbled over Blair's face, his sensitive touch seeking any evidence of renewed fever, but Sandburg's skin remained cool. "S'okay," Jim responded softly each time before again tucking Sandburg in close to his side, lowering his own cheek to rest against Blair's curls and relaxing back to sleep.
When Blair hacked his way back to sensibility shortly after dawn, Jim helped him to drink a cup of cool water. Sighing with gratitude, Sandburg leaned back into Jim's embrace and looked up at his friend, his eyes clearer than they'd been the day before. "Thanks, Jim," he croaked with a warm smile.
"What do we need to do to deal with the cough?" Ellison asked, focusing on the tasks that had to be performed to ensure Sandburg's continued recovery.
"Uh, well, the poultices, to keep loosening up the gunk in my chest, and the tea," Blair replied, his voice hoarse from all the coughing. "The steam, too, to keep my breathing clear. Every few hours, I'll roll over so you can pound on my back with your fingers curled a little, like cups."
And so it went through another day, though by afternoon Sandburg seemed to be feeling a great deal better. Propped up against Jim's saddle and bedroll, he sipped at the herbal tea, a slight frown of concentration on his face.
"Something bothering you, Chief?" Jim asked as he poured a mug of coffee for himself.
"Huh?" Blair blinked and then shook his head. "I don't know. I have this memory and it's so clear. There was this guy thrown from his horse when a rattler struck. The guy's got a broken leg, I think - and he seemed to hit his head pretty hard when he fell off his mount. And there was this Indian, a big guy, who looked…cold. Deadly."
"Fever dream, Sandburg," Jim replied with a shrug. "Not unusual."
But Blair shook his head. "It was so real, Jim." Looking out over the prairie, he continued thoughtfully, "And I saw red stone cliffs and mountains further away." Returning his gaze to Ellison's, he added, "It was beautiful country, but I know I've never seen it before."
Remembering how still Blair had been just before he'd begun muttering about the dream, and recalling with a small shudder how death-like his partner was when in a trance, Jim chewed on his lip. "You think it might have been a vision - or a spirit walk?"
Narrowing his eyes as he gazed sightlessly into the distance, Blair nodded. "Yeah. Maybe. Some guy is hurt real bad and needs help."
"Well, the mountains are a long way away, Chief," Ellison drawled, and then shrugged. "Whoever he is, and if there are Indians anywhere nearby, the guy better hope that someone closer than we are happens along to give him a hand. That is, if it wasn't just a nightmare in the first place."
"Yeah, I guess," Blair murmured, but he was troubled. What if there was no one to help that stranger? Wherever it was, the place had seemed remote. Reluctantly, Sandburg had to accept that there wasn't much they could do to help the guy, not without having a fine clue as to where to start looking for him. But he had to wonder why he'd had the vision, or had actually spirit-walked involuntarily during his fever, if he wasn't supposed to do something to help that badly injured man. And then he frowned again, wondering why it was that the stranger had seemed somehow familiar.
It was several days before Sandburg was strong enough for them to resume their journey, and then they had to take it slow, as his energy levels were easily exhausted. The slower journey also meant that Jim had to supplement their dwindling supplies with hunting for game or fishing, which also took their own time. Though their briefly abandoned responsibilities in Bitterwood Creek weighed heavily upon their shoulders, both men enjoyed, even needed, the extended respite. Much had happened during the short time they'd spent in and around the Indian reservation, and they had learned a great deal from Stalking Wolf and Whispering Waters; the additional time gave them a much needed opportunity to reflect on their experiences and new knowledge - and the new understanding of the relationship between them. They were friends, certainly, best friends and would remain so for all their lives. However, now they knew they were Watchman and Companion or Sentinel and Guide - the naming of what they were wasn't as important as the reality of simply knowing they were vital to one another's life, intrinsic and irreplaceable. So deep was their affinity and need that they now also knew they traveled through time together, living many different lives that were, in some respects, the same lives over and over, bound by an abiding, joyful love and their commitment to their duties to help others. It was a lot to digest and their extended journey home allowed them the chance to become comfortable with their new awareness of one another and all that it meant.
The warmth of the sun, and the easy travel by day, also gave Sandburg the time to heal and regain his strength. Jim was pleased to see colour come back into his cheeks and the sparkle glint again from Blair's eyes. They talked about what they'd learned as their horses ambled through the high grass of the wide prairie, deepening their conscious commitment to one another. But their conversation was neither heavy nor somber; rather, they both felt an excitement in better understanding what they were and in having a better grasp of their different, very unique capabilities. Blair's new ability to start fires sure made setting up camp easier each night. And they teased one another about how their respective tendencies toward stubbornness manifested, Jim becoming more determined and stern, seeming to be inflexible, while Blair more cheerfully simply carried on doing what he wanted. Under their jibes, though, was a solid core of understanding that each had to watch the other, to ensure they didn't lose themselves - Jim in his senses, Blair in giving away too much energy to heal others - and to be there to lend support whenever, or however, it was needed.
In the evenings, once they'd eaten and were settling for the night, they held each other as they slept by the glowing embers of their fire. In a reaction to Sandburg's recent illness, Jim felt compelled to keep his friend close, confirming that he was still alive, while the younger man curled trustingly against him.
By the time they saw the silhouette of Bitterwood Creek rise on the south western horizon late one afternoon - fully a week later than they had planned - they both felt strong and settled, secure in who and what they were to one another and to those they lived to serve.
Henri Brown, owner of the livery stable and the leatherwork shop next door, full-time blacksmith and part-time deputy, had been keeping anxious watch for them for days. He hailed his two friends with no little relief as they rode by on their way to the doctor's office and residence a short distance further along the broad, dusty street.
"Hey, Jim!" Brown called out as he hastened from the barn. "Blair."
"H, good to see you," Jim called back as they reined in their horses. But at the intent look on his deputy's face, he asked warily, "Is something wrong? Trouble in town?"
"No, no trouble," the deputy replied. "At least, I hope not. There's a man at the hotel. He's been here a couple of days waiting for you to get back and he's plenty impatient. He says he's your father."
Jim's face blanked with surprise as he stiffened and looked sharply down the street toward the hotel; beside him, Blair's brows quirked in surprise. "Better see what he wants, Jim," he said quietly.
Blowing out a long breath, Ellison nodded. "Thanks, H," he said distractedly, and lightly kicked Lobo, his black stallion, forward. Blair kept pace with him on the golden brown mare, Butternut, but reined in when they came alongside their residence. "You want me to go with you?" he asked, wanting to meet Ellison, Senior, but afraid of intruding upon what might be a difficult reunion.
"Yeah, Chief, why don't you come along to meet my old man," Jim replied dryly, his voice tight. "I might need someone to hold me back."
"Hey, c'mon," Sandburg soothed. "It's been a long time. Maybe…maybe he just wants to see you."
"My father? On a social visit? Not hardly," Jim snorted bitterly. "Trust me, buddy. After almost twenty-five years, if he's taken the time to track me down that means he must want something, and want it badly."
Having reached the hotel, they dismounted and loosely looped their horses' reins around the hitching post, before climbing the steps up to the boardwalk and then moving inside, the interior cool and dim after the heat of the hot June day. Megan Conner looked up from where she was working on her accounts at the desk and, knowing why they were there, smiled in warm greeting to welcome them home but waved them directly into the hotel's sitting room for guests. Jim nodded, his expression still guarded, as he strode across the lobby to the adjoining salon, Sandburg close on his heels. But when he got to the doorway he paused, somehow surprised to see how much his father had aged. William Ellison was sitting at the small desk provided for guests of the hotel, reading papers in a file folder open before him. There was a subtle rounding to his broad shoulders, and his thick thatch of blond hair had turned gray. He still looked robust, and his clothing was as well tailored as Jim remembered, but wrinkles had etched their way into the strong face in the years since Jim had left home. His father looked tired - and worried.
Taking a breath and stiffening his spine, Jim walked into the comfortably furnished room and, when his father looked up, said with more belligerence than he'd intended, "I heard you're looking for me."
"Jimmy?" William gaped as he stood uncertainly, trying to take in the reality of the tall man before him and reconcile it with the youth who had run away so many years before.
"Uh huh," Jim grunted, offering nothing further.
For a moment, the two men studied each other uncomfortably, both feeling tense and awkward. But then William collected himself and waved his son, and the man with him, to chairs clustered around an unlit hearth. "It's good to see you again," he offered, meaning it.
Jim nodded in acknowledgement, and then introduced his partner. "Dad, this is Dr. Blair Sandburg, the town's doctor and my best friend. Blair, this is my father, William Ellison."
"Uh, how do you do, Doctor," William offered, his tone a little uncertain, causing Jim to stiffen, but Blair responded amiably enough, figuring there was enough tension in the room without him adding to it.
"Fine, thanks," Blair returned with a smile, careful not to hold out his hand since William had not. "I'm pleased to meet you, sir."
"How'd you track me down?" Jim asked then, honestly curious; he'd had no contact with his family since he'd left home on his thirteenth birthday.
"The newspaper," William explained briefly. "There were stories, a couple of them, over the past year about you, and, uh, Dr. Sandburg. You know, about the problem with the Indians and that military officer, I forget his name."
For a moment, Jim stiffened at the invocation of Major Rutherford's ghost and the memory of how he had slaughtered the Indians at Poplar Flats and then, more recently, had murdered Sandburg in his crazed effort to kill them both. But then he relaxed marginally. His father had no way of knowing what had happened just over two weeks ago at the reservation. "What made you decide to track me down?" Jim asked then, his tone flat, uninviting.
An anxious look clouded William's eyes, but then he straightened, assuming a mantle of authority as he explained, "Your brother has disappeared and I need your help to find him."
"Steven?" Jim replied, looking a little sandbagged, not having expected that. He felt more disturbed than he'd've thought he'd be, but he remembered the little kid who had followed him around everywhere, and his gut clenched to think something dire had happened to him. "Disappeared where? How?"
"He was out in some godforsaken place called Flagstaff, the end of the Santa Fe-Pacific Continental line - we're investors in the railroad expansion to the west coast," William explained, his mouth dry with worry. "He rode out alone one day a little more than a week ago, to do a bit of exploring of the countryside - and never came back. I got a wire from Joshua Danzing, the construction boss, informing me of his disappearance. After making arrangements with my friend, George Pullman, for the use of one of his cars, I came out on the train to Wichita. I'd sent you a wire, hoping you'd meet me there, but when there was no response, I bought a horse to track you down here. I've been waiting for two days! We need to leave immediately - "
"Whoa, back up," Jim cut in, feeling swamped with the rapidity of events and more than a little shocked by the unexpectedness of it all. "You expect me to take off with you to go where? Flagstaff? Where in hell is that?"
"Yes, Jimmy, I do," William replied with austere bluntness. "Stevie's in trouble and there's no time to waste. You're the only person I know who has a hope in hell of finding him. Flagstaff is in the Arizona Territory - Apache country - several days' journey by rail. I've got a private car waiting for us in Wichita."
Jim bristled at the gall of his father showing up after so many years to make such an arbitrary demand, but he couldn't help remembering Stevie. God, he'd be a man now, thirty-two years old. Apache country? What were the odds that he was even still alive? This could be nothing but a fool's errand, and a dangerous one at that. He was still grappling with everything his father had thrown at him when Sandburg whispered urgently, only loud enough for him to hear.
"My vision, Jim. I saw him. I saw your brother! I know where he is - sort of."
Ellison flashed a look at Sandburg, who nodded and leaned forward, clearly wanting to get into the conversation, but then he glanced at the older man and hesitated.
"What do you think, Chief?" Jim asked, to give his friend the entry he sought.
"I think we should go," Blair replied gravely. "And I agree with your father. There isn't any time to waste."
William looked from his son to Sandburg and back again, clearly surprised at the younger man's intervention. His expression suggested that he was torn between being grateful for the unsolicited help, and confused. "Thank you, Doctor, but you wouldn't be expected to come with us."
Turning to the elder Ellison, Blair replied levelly, "Your son might well be injured when we find him, and may need a doctor's care. If Jim goes, I'll be going, too."
"Apaches, Sandburg," Jim replied, his voice low with warning. "They leave no survivors."
Blair just shrugged. "If you think I'd let you go alone, you're crazy," was all he said in firm response.
Again, William's gaze flickered between the two men and, astute at reading others, he could plainly see that they had a close friendship, but it seemed to him that there was something more going on. Shelving his questions for the moment, focusing his attention on the main issue, he demanded, "So, will you come with me, Jimmy?"
Sighing, Jim nodded. How could he refuse? Even if he hadn't seen Steven in twenty-four years, Stevie was still his brother, and Blair seemed to think there was hope of finding him alive. "We'll leave in the morning. I'll need to make arrangements to cover off my job as Sheriff, especially since we've been away already for nearly a month. And Blair has to talk to the guy who provides basic medical support when he's not in town. And, well, Blair is still recovering from a serious illness. We just got off the trail and he needs some sleep before we head out again."
Not happy about the further delay, but seeing that Jim wouldn't be pushed further, William nodded as he stood. "Fine. I'll send a telegraph to Wichita to tell them to have the car stocked and ready to go. And another to Flagstaff to let them know we're on our way." Turning to Sandburg, he gave a brief nod, as he added gravely, "Thank you, Dr. Sandburg, for your offer of assistance."
"Please, just call me Blair," the younger man replied warmly.
They left the hotel together, William carrying on to the telegraph office when Jim and Blair rode around to the small stable behind their home to unload their gear and tend to their horses.
"Chief, how can you be sure the man you saw was Steven?" Jim asked quietly as he curried Lobo.
Shrugging, Blair cast a look over his shoulder at Ellison before turning back to Butternut's care. "It's the only thing that really makes any sense, Jim," he replied. "You were holding me, right? Touching me? So that would have been my link to Steven. And from what your father said, I must have seen it all happen as it was occurring. The timeframe is right. Besides, he looks something like you - same colouring and blue eyes, same general build, though he's a bit slighter, brown hair."
"What did you mean that you know where to find him?" Ellison queried then.
"Well, I saw the surroundings: snowcapped mountains rising to the north and west; red rock cliffs looming above. A creek shaded by oak and pine," Sandburg explained. Finishing the brushing of his mare's coat, he filled the manger as he continued thoughtfully, "Now that we know the starting point is in Flagstaff, we can use the mountains as bearings to know which direction to ride in. Once we get closer to where he is, I think I'll recognize the general area. After that, it'll be up to you to pinpoint his location."
Jim threw one saddlebag over his shoulder, carrying the other as he gripped Sandburg's shoulder while they walked toward the back of their home. "I meant what I said about the Apaches being dangerous, Chief. I've heard of their War Chief, Geronimo. The man is ruthless and very, very dangerous."
"And I meant what I said," Blair replied with a wry smile. "No way are you going without me."
Jim dropped off his saddlebag and left to talk with Brown about carrying on as acting sheriff for a while longer. Henri was sincerely sorry to hear Jim's brother was in some kind of trouble, and told Ellison that going the right thing to do, and not to worry about Bitterwood Creek. It wasn't the same without him, but they'd manage.
Blair headed across the street to meet with Milt Ambrose, the apothecary he'd trained to give basic medical care when he was away. Ambrose was equally supportive of Sandburg's need to leave again almost immediately, but perhaps for different reasons than Brown. He'd been enjoying the added measure of respect he was given as the only 'medical man' in town and, fortunately, as there's been no serious illnesses or accidents, he'd not encountered anything he couldn't handle. "Take as long as you need," he urged with cunning joviality. "We'll be just fine."
Though both Jim and Blair were glad of the unstinting support, they both found it a little disconcerting to think that they weren't really missed all that much.
Later, they had dinner with William, asking Megan to join them in the hotel's dining room. They filled the time spent over the meal with severely abbreviated stories of their recent journey. William still sensed some indefinable undercurrent between them while Megan, knowing them both much better than he did, gazed at them thoughtfully. They'd been close, very close, friends before they'd left, but now they appeared to always know exactly what the other was thinking as they finished sentences for one another or exchanged glances across the table. They seemed easy in one another's company and, though Jim was clearly tense around his father, he and Blair glowed with a happiness that had not been in their eyes before they'd left. Over dessert, William told them that the arrangements had been made and their Pullman car would be ready and waiting to be pulled out onto the mainline as soon as they arrived in Wichita. After agreeing to meet for breakfast at dawn, Jim and Blair left to head back home.
After they'd closed the door behind them, Blair asked softly, "Does your father know about your senses?"
Jim bowed his head, and then nodded. "I guess. When I was a kid, he noticed I could see and hear things others couldn't. He, uh, called me a freak…"
"Ah, Jim," Blair murmured as he laid a warm hand on his friend's back. "I'm sorry. No wonder you shut them down."
Ellison shrugged and moved away, uncomfortable with the empathy, like he was uncomfortable with anything that had to do with his past and his family. "Old news," he muttered as he headed toward the stairs. "Long time ago."
"Maybe so, but you know now that he was wrong, right?" Sandburg continued as he climbed in Ellison's wake.
Looking back over his shoulder, a fond smile on his lips, Jim relaxed and nodded. "Yeah, I do, thanks."
Up on the landing, Sandburg leaned against the wall, his arms folded, as he asked, "So, do we tell him what's going on now? That your senses are back on line? And that I'm your Guide?"
Jim's lips thinned as his gaze unfocused while he thought about it. "I think he figures the senses are working," he replied. "I'm guessing that's why he came looking for me, and figures I'll be able to find Steven." Shifting his gaze to Blair, he paused and then added, "I'll tell him about you, and how much I need your help, when the time's right. Okay?"
"Fine with me," Blair allowed with a half-shrug. "It's just that he seems to wonder why I'm tagging along, and the sooner he understands, the more likely he is to accept my presence."
Jim nodded, knowing his friend was right. Sighing, he smiled reassuringly as he squeezed Sandburg's shoulder and said quietly, "Don't worry too much about what he thinks, okay? That's not important. What matters is that we're going to do our best to rescue Steven. Sleep well, Chief; it'll likely be a hard ride to Wichita."
Though time was of the essence, Sandburg still tired easily after his bout of illness and William Ellison was no horseman, having long relied upon carriages that others drove to leave him time to think great thoughts. In his urgency to reach Bitterwood Creek, he'd chosen to ride rather than rent a carriage, but he was awkward on horseback. So, despite their very early start and the moderate, ground eating pace of their horses, they all knew it would still take the better part of three days to reach Wichita.
William chafed under the perpetual delays, the sheer distance that separated them from Flagstaff and his youngest son. He wanted, desperately, to believe Steven was still alive and only lost somewhere in the wilderness. The lost could be found. But his tendency toward cold rationality wore on him. His heart might hope that Steven was alive, but his mind judged otherwise. If they'd been able to go immediately, then there might have been a real chance of finding him. But Jim hadn't been in Bitterwood Creek to receive his urgent wire to meet him in Wichita. Worse, after the long ride to the small, inconsequential town, he'd had to wait another two days for Jim to wander back home. It galled him. More than a week had been lost - a week that could well spell the difference in Stevie's survival.
And he didn't understand why Sandburg had to travel with them. Not that he disliked the man - he didn't know him. Oh, sure, he was a Jew, but so were some of William's most able competitors and partners. They were a sharp people, very bright. Might have to watch them to be sure they weren't engaged in shifty practices but, on balance, he had no personal grievance against the Jewish people. Not a particularly religious man, the differences in their beliefs were of no consequence to him.
But Sandburg seemed an odd sort to be Jimmy's best friend, and was a good deal younger than either of William's sons. He wasn't an outdoorsman, nor a warrior. He was garrulous, always chatting away amiably, cheerful to the point of being an annoyance, as if he didn't fully grasp the urgency of their mission. But, he could see from the way Jimmy treated the younger man that he saw Sandburg as more of a brother than Stevie had ever been. And William resented that, too. He'd never understood why Jim had run away from home or why, as the years passed, he'd never written or come back. After all, William had given him a good, secure home with all the comforts, and he'd had the chance to go to the best schools - could have made something of himself, something more than a lawman in a one-horse town in the middle of nowhere.
Still, having a doctor along might make the difference in the end, so William tried to rein in his resentment and impatience. However, he was used to saying what he thought and having people defer to him, so his idea of holding his peace was a far cry from what Jim might have preferred. Blair, on the other hand, was used to Jim speaking his mind bluntly and expecting to be heeded, so he found a certain amusement in the similarities between the father and son - amusement he did his best to hide, knowing neither would appreciate it much.
The irritating confrontations started almost immediately from the younger Ellison's perspective. They'd not been on the trail for an hour before William started in. "Jimmy, what in tarnation were you doing going to some reservation to meet up with a pack of savages?" he groused, his mind on the eight days lost because of their journey.
Jim stiffened and shot a look at Blair, who shrugged. William was Jim's father and it was up to the sheriff to decide how much of their story he wanted to share, and when.
Flicking an impatient look at his father, Jim replied dryly, "Well, for starters, they aren't savages, or not the only 'savages' on these plains. If you'd read the newspaper article that led you to Bitterwood Creek, you'd know that."
William harrumphed, and then nodded grudgingly. "Well, yes, I did read it," he admitted. Casting a side look at his son, he went on, "I wired a few of the men I know on the General Staff, and let them know I expected something to be done about that renegade major. Man sounded no damn good and had no business holding an officer's commission or even being in uniform."
Jim was visibly startled by that bit of news and asked with a dumbfounded expression, "Why would you do something like that?"
"Well, in the article you as much as said he was responsible for those atrocities, and reading between the lines, I could pretty much figure out that the Poplar Flats incident led to even more fierce fighting across the west," William replied, as if it were all obvious. "Your word is good enough for me. And war isn't good for business. I'm a big investor in the railroads and the settlement of the western territories." He paused a moment, then went on with a tinge of satisfaction, "I also supply enough to the military to expect them to listen to my views."
Jim gaped at his father, surprised to his boots that William would have given such weight to his word or opinion, but irritated that it all came back to profits and the influence of money. When William noticed the very overt surprise and edge of contempt, his shoulders stiffened. Sniffing, he looked away to the horizon as he grumbled, "I don't know why you look so astonished. You're my son and I trust you, always did. And you were an astute, very intelligent boy with a strong ethical streak; no reason to think you'd grow up any different. Too stubborn and prideful, maybe, but not a bad boy. Never could figure out why you took off the way you did, though, and then never wrote or came home again." When Jim just turned away and Blair kept his own expression carefully neutral, his face turned westward, William sighed and shrugged. "Water under the bridge, I suppose. In any event, I heard that major disappeared before they could get him back to Washington for a hearing. And you never did say why you went out to see those Indians."
"There were things that Blair and I needed to learn, Pop," Jim replied blandly, clearly uninterested in offering details.
But it took more than a mere tone of restraint to keep Ellison, Senior, from finding out what he wanted to know. "Learn? What could those primitives possibly teach you? Either of you?" William exclaimed, looking from Jim to Blair.
When his partner seemed disinclined to answer, Blair waded in with no little enthusiasm. "The Indians have ancient herbal remedies and treatment protocols that we know nothing about," he explained. "I wanted to learn more of their methods because I need all the help I can get in treating illnesses and injuries."
"You must be joking," William returned repressively. "You're obviously an educated man. Surely you don't believe they'd have anything of value to offer!"
"Actually, I learned a lot from them, and they showed me herbal medicines that do a phenomenal job at fighting fevers and infections," Blair carried on blithely, not in the least perturbed by the older man's sanction. "There's a lot that we do that doesn't make any kind of sense, like bleeding weak patients with leeches, or refusing to believe that dirt might cause infection." Turning to William, he added sincerely, "Arrogance can result in unnecessary ignorance. The fact is, these peoples have survived in often very adversarial environments and conditions. That can't be all luck. There's a lot we can all learn from other cultures."
"I see," William murmured as he studied Sandburg appraisingly. The man was no fool, so maybe there was something to his ideas. Shrugging off the conversation as not really relevant, he turned back to his son. "Were you there to learn about their medicines, too? Can't imagine why."
"No," Jim sighed, knowing his father wasn't going to leave this bone alone. "No, there were other things I wanted to learn, and I'll tell you about it - just not today."
"But - " William tried to expostulate.
"I said, not today," Jim replied, his tone hard.
Sitting back in his saddle, not happy with having his curiousity frustrated, William's jaw tightened.
Blair, watching both men and, conscious of the profound tension between them, sought an easier subject for conversation, one they all had an interest in. "Mr. Ellison, what was Steven doing in Flagstaff?"
"Steven is an executive with the Santa Fe/Pacific Continental Railroad," William replied, with no little pride. "He's bright and a hard worker. Anyway, he was out there checking on the progress of the line and to evaluate the country already served by the railroad for settlement. Immigrants from Europe and the United States are offered very cheap transportation to move out to the west."
"More profit to be had," Jim observed caustically.
"Yes, Jimmy, more profit," William countered irritably. "What's wrong with that? Money, being rich, isn't a bad thing. It's not like we're stealing from anyone, and millions of settlers benefit."
"The Indians might disagree," Jim replied with a level look at his father. "They seem to think all that land belonged to them and that it's being stolen from them."
Grimacing, William snorted. "Oh, I suppose you're right about that, son," he agreed. "But the fact is they don't need all that land and reasonable treaties have been offered to safeguard what they do need. It's greed, pure and simple, that keeps them fighting for what they don't have a use for."
The younger Ellison shook his head, thinking that his father calling the Indians greedy was entirely too much like the pot calling the kettle black.
"They believe their gods live on that land," Blair replied quietly. "And the spirits of their ancestors. They don't see land like we do, as something to be owned. It's sacred to them - and they think we're destroying it."
William gave Blair a sharp look. But then he shifted his gaze to the empty country around them. He'd never thought about how the Indians viewed the land before. Not that he agreed with such nonsense about pagan gods and the ghosts of ancestors, but the information was something to think about. Destroying the land? Well, there might be some truth to that. From what he'd heard, there were beautiful places out in the west - as there were pretty spots most everywhere, if you looked for them. And it was true that a surplus of people could ruin the aspects nature provided. Maybe it was something he and others who owned the railroads needed to consider. Could be that they had a part to play in safeguarding some of those lovely sites. Whether the ancient gods or ancestral spirits hung around those places or not, William doubted it profoundly, but their pristine beauty spoke to a man's soul and held a kind of healing. It wasn't as if there wasn't more than enough of this empty wilderness to go around - some places could be set apart and kept wild. Nodding to himself, he thought he'd have to discuss some measure of protection with his partners, for certain areas anyway, when he got back to Philadelphia.
They rode on in silence for a long time, each man lost in his thoughts.
They reached Wichita late in the afternoon of their third day on the trail. Blair stiffened as they rode through the busy, crowded streets on the way to the train station. Remembering how Sandburg had told him that he found the noise, filth and crowding of cities oppressive and uncomfortable after the horrors of his incarceration in the Masonville prisoner of war camp, Jim directed Lobo around so that Blair was between him and his father, to give some measure of protection, or at least the sense of it. Sandburg flicked a look at him, his wry smile showing that he understood and was grateful. Wichita wasn't all that big as compared to cities in the east, but after living for years out on the prairie with the open skies and room to breathe, the cow town loomed large and stifling around him.
William noticed the change in their respective positions and wondered about it, briefly. But his focus was on getting to the station. It took half an hour to ride through the bustling town, but finally they pulled up at the wooden building beside the line of track that stretched back to the east and westward, as far as the eye could see. There were large stockyards nearby, empty now of the cattle that were driven in for shipment east, and several rows of rail sidings holding empty stockcars. While the others waited with the horses and their gear, Ellison, Senior, strode up the short flight of steps and across the landing into the office. Minutes later, he emerged with another man who took off running down along the track to the parallel sidings, to the holding track where a glossy Pullman coach stood, elegant and pristine against the filthy cattle cars and the heavy black locomotive it was hitched behind.
"We've got our own engine?" Jim exclaimed softly, shaking his head.
"Yes, but another train will be arriving in about ten minutes," William replied dryly. "We'll hitch up to them. The horses can go into a stockcar that I've asked be made available to us - we'll need them in Flagstaff. Two engines can pull faster than one, and I want to move west as quickly as possible."
"Uh huh," Jim grunted, as he chewed the inside of his lip to keep from saying more. It had been a long time and he'd not realized that his father had attained such success in his world that he could have his own personal locomotive standing by to take him wherever he wanted. It seemed excessive but, given the urgency of their mission, not something he was prepared to criticize.
The younger Ellison winced when a long whistle sounded, loud and getting louder, as the train from the east chugged noisily with much puffing of steam, into the station. The horses shied a bit, made nervous by the noise, but the men quickly settled them. Twenty minutes later, after empty stockcars had been shunted off to a siding, they led the horses up a wooden ramp into a boxcar filled with straw and hay. They stripped off the saddles and tack, ensured water filled the troughs bolted to the inside of the car, and then took their saddlebags to walk along the train to the rear. The Pullman was now positioned in front of the caboose, and back of a line of freight cars and the second and third class passenger cars, the latter filled to capacity with immigrants that would be dropped off at the land sites allocated to them at various stops along the line.
When they climbed aboard, Blair couldn't resist a low whistle at the decadent opulence of their new transportation. The walls were paneled with gleaming mahogany and trimmed with brass oil lamps. There was a well-stocked bar just inside the entrance with a closed door behind it, a roll-top, cherrywood desk in the corner next to it, with heavy and comfortable chairs, upholstered in navy silk, facing a long sofa on one side of the coach, and four high-backed black leather club chairs grouped around a card table along the windows on the other side. Beyond, a handcrafted dining room table and six chairs glowed with a dark, satin finish. The curtains on the windows were deep blue velvet; the carpet looked Persian with rich designs of indigo, crimson, gold and emerald woven tightly in shimmering strands of silk. And still farther into the car, past the private kitchen, Sandburg glimpsed the section of sleeping bunks with down pillows and duvets. It was a mini-mansion, with all the comforts of home - 'Well,' he thought, amused, 'with a lot more comforts than our home.'
A very tall, muscular black steward, around thirty years of age, garbed in a tailored white jacket and black pants greeted them and divested them genteelly of their saddlebags before Blair quite knew what had happened. William seemed to take it all for granted and Jim just stood silently, appraising it all, as he shook his head mutely.
"Mr. Ellison, it's good to have you back aboard, sir. There's hot water in the lavatory, just beyond the sleeping quarters, should you gentlemen wish to freshen up," their caretaker told them, and then added for the two newcomers. "My name is Toby Freeman. It's my pleasure to serve you and I'm here to make the journey as comfortable for you as I can."
"Ah, thanks, Toby," Blair murmured with a shy smile. Being waited upon was a relatively unusual experience for him, and he felt awkward.
"Sounds like a good idea," William replied briskly to their servant as he moved forward. "I'll have a Jamieson's when I get back."
"I think you'll find us easy to please," Jim remarked dryly, as he pulled off his Stetson and ran fingers through his damp hair. "I'm Jim Ellison, and this is Doctor Blair Sandburg."
"Gentlemen," Toby acknowledged with a slight nod. "I'm pleased to meet you."
As Toby moved to the bar to prepare William's drink, he asked if he might get something for them, as well. "Sure," Jim shrugged as leaned his rifle in the corner by the desk and then sank into one of the leather chairs. "I'll have a beer. Chief?"
"Yeah, a beer would be good but, uh, we can serve ourselves," Blair replied, moving toward the bar.
"Please, you've had a long journey," Toby replied with a warm smile as he waved Blair back. "I can manage."
"So, Toby," Blair asked as he turned back to perch on the sofa, "have you worked for the railroad long?"
"A couple of years, Doctor," the man replied cheerfully as he deftly poured their beverages, seemingly unconcerned by the sudden, sharp lurch as the train got underway. "Mr. Pullman hired quite a number of us after the war ended. There's at least one steward assigned to each of these private cars, and others of us work as conductors on the regular cars. It's a good job and I enjoy seeing different parts of the country."
When William returned and had settled with his drink on one of the other chairs, Toby advised them, "Dinner will be served at seven. Tonight we have tomato bisque, followed by steak with a béarnaise sauce, roasted potatoes and a medley of vegetables, accompanied by a salad. For dessert this evening, I have an apple and cinnamon bread pudding. I hope that will be acceptable; and, of course, you may choose the wine from the rack behind the bar."
"Sounds wonderful," William replied with a gratified smile, somewhat more relaxed now that he was in familiar, comfortable surroundings and they were moving westward at a good speed of at least thirty miles per hour.
"If there's nothing else for the moment, I'll withdraw," Toby told them then, graciously. "If you need me, you have only to pull on that cord by the bar or push the button you'll find on the wall in each of the bunks."
Jim and Blair took the opportunity to clean up a bit and wash the dust of the trail from their faces and arms. Each of them was pleased to see the washroom and indoor privy facilities were as clean, commodious and lavish as everything else in the specially designed Pullman coach. Jim, having grown up in wealth, and Blair, having experienced it from time to time in his childhood, were each still amazed that such comfort could be had in a moving railroad car. Though their humble souls found it all a bit overwhelming, they were both pragmatic enough to simply enjoy the brief luxury of such expedited travel while they could. Jim, especially, was glad that Blair would have a respite from the saddle, however brief, before they needed to mount up again at the end of the line.
They watched the rolling countryside until it was time for dinner. After Toby had covered the table with thick, white damask linen, and set out porcelain plates, crystal goblets and silver cutlery, he served them a plentiful and delicious series of sumptuous courses, taking apparent pleasure in their compliments. After the meal, he presented them with small snifters of brandy and offered cigars. William accepted and left to stand on the outside deck at the back of the car while he smoked in leisure.
Replete, Blair and Jim sat back on the comfortable chairs to sip the rich amber libation and watched dusk fall over the land that seemed to be speeding past the windows. The coach swayed a little and took some getting used to in terms of walking around without stumbling. They could hear the distant chugging roar of the engine, the sharp whistle that blew from time to time, and the perpetual clacking rumble of the wheels on the rails, but the sounds were muted so long as the windows remained closed. Though it was a bit stuffy in the car, vents allowed in fresh air without the cinders that blew back behind the locomotives. When William returned, they decided the day had been long enough and all moved forward to choose their bunks.
There were six wide sleeping compartments, three up and three down, all hung with heavy, red velvet curtains for privacy. William chose the one closest to the salon and Jim took the one nearest the washroom, as if he wanted to keep some distance between himself and his father. Shrugging, Blair accepted his place in the middle, thinking it a metaphor of sorts. While both men were being civil with one another for the most part, he'd been conscious of having the role of peacekeeper and resident distraction to keep conversation flowing between them.
Lying down, he could hear, even feel, the rumble of the wheels on the track more clearly and he wondered how Jim was handling the relentless sound and vibrations. The swaying of the coach was oddly soporific, but he fended off sleep until he heard William's soft snores, and then he eased out of his bunk to check on his partner.
"How're you doing?" he asked very softly as he perched on the edge of Jim's bunk. "Hearing okay? Any headache?"
"Not bad, Chief," Jim drawled with a slow smile, appreciating the concern. "I just turned down a lantern or two."
Blair grinned at the reference to the five imaginary lanterns that Jim used to manage his sensory input. "Your father seems a pleasant enough guy," he ventured. "People can change over the years."
Jim sighed, shaking his head a little. "Most people are pleasant enough when they're getting their own way, Sandburg," he replied dryly. "But, yeah, there's no denying he's worried about Stevie."
"Or that he respects you," Blair added.
Jim looked away, but he nodded reluctantly. He hadn't expected to ever see his father again, let alone find him to be a man who would express trust for him, let alone respect. But his dad's manner and words had conveyed both over the past few days. Much as he hated to admit it, even to himself, that approbation - so long sought and never found as a child - soothed something inside, some deep ache he'd nearly forgotten about.
Blair smiled fondly as he patted his friend reassuringly on the shoulder, understanding that Jim was unsettled but that a real reconciliation between the father and son was now at least possible, and Sandburg was very hopeful that the old hurts might truly be healed. "Sleep well, my brother," he murmured, and then turned away to return to his own bed.
The next day began with a hearty, home-cooked breakfast deftly prepared and served by their steward, and then they watched the country flow by the windows, amazed to see snowcapped mountains rising in the distance, and then to be climbing through a steep pass before descending again on a sharp grade into Santa Fe. There was a three-hour stop while freight cars were unloaded and the coal carrier filled. Water was poured into the locomotive's reservoir and new cars were added to the train, including long cars stacked with logs cut from the flanks of the mountains and shaped in a sawmill further north before being shipped south for transportation to the end of the line, where they'd be sawed into ties. Other flatcars were loaded with barrels of spikes and steel rails from the mills in Pennsylvania. A bank car was also added, a forbidding, stoutly built carriage reinforced with bands of steel, with long, narrow portals cut in the walls along each side, and a solid oaken sliding door to protect the squat, black safe with a combination lock; the mobile fortress included cots and chairs for the two guards who rode with the money. The railroad workers' wages were in that safe - twenty thousand dollars worth of payment for labour - as well as substantial funds for the foreman of the project, to buy food and other necessary supplies locally.
William ambled off for a brief meeting with the President of the Santa Fe/Pacific Continental line, while Blair and Jim sauntered around the Spanish town. The roofs were tiled with red clay ceramic, the walls whitewashed with stucco. Gardens bloomed in a riot of rainbow colours and lush floral vines climbed up trellises. The streets thronged with the locals garbed in colourful Spanish-style clothing, and the romantic strains of guitar music floated out of a number of taverns that provided tables sheltered by awnings on patios of flagged stone or ceramic tile. They wandered in and out of shops overflowing with rich goods - finely-wrought silver and turquoise jewelry, hand-tooled leather, pottery painted with elaborate designs, stained and blown glass, woolen blankets and rugs, capes and shawls woven in bright colours, but principally red and green.
However, as diverting as the town's charms were, neither man could relax and simply enjoy it. Thoughts of Steven weighed heavily on both their minds, so that the brief delay seemed interminable. Finally, they headed back to the train station, eager to be on their way once more.
"You think he could still be alive?" Jim asked quietly, wondering if he really wanted an honest answer. It had been almost two weeks since Blair had had his fevered vision.
Blair's lips thinned as he squinted up at his friend, seeing the anxious pain in Jim's eyes. "I don't know," he admitted. "But I could find out."
Ellison paused at that, going still as he remembered how Sandburg had looked in the Arapaho camp when he'd gone on his brief spirit walk. Like he was more dead than alive. But Blair came back, just as he had during the fever. Jim shook his head, not sure he wanted to risk Sandburg getting lost somewhere, or being gone so long his body couldn't survive. "I don't know, Chief," he finally replied, meeting Blair's steady gaze. "I want to know, but I'm afraid of the possible cost."
Blair smiled softly as he reached to grip Jim's arm. "I won't get lost," he said softly with warm and reassuring affection, as if reading Ellison's fears in his eyes. "Trust me. You don't have to worry, Jim - I'll always remember the way back to you."
Jim felt breathless for a moment, but then he nodded as he pinched his nostrils and wiped his mouth. His emotions back under control, he looped an arm around Blair's shoulders as they continued toward the train. "Just see that you never forget, kid," he muttered, but he smiled as he looked down at his partner.
After Toby served them a sumptuous lunch of corn fritters, beef enchiladas and beans, followed by the rare delicacy of ice cream with their coffee, Blair pleaded weariness and said he was going to take a nap. He cast a look at Jim as he left, and the lawman couldn't help but stiffen with worry. But Blair just smiled and turned away.
Steven Ellison lay curled by the water's edge, his shirt tied into a cloth net that he grimly held with one hand as he watched for a fish to swim into his trap. Over the past two weeks, he'd set snares for game but found it hard to eat rabbits or birds raw; at first he dared not risk a fire and later, he discovered he didn't have the skill to start one without the aid of a match. But game had grown scarce and it had been three days since he'd managed to catch anything; his gut roiled with the hollow nausea of hunger. When he tried to reach further out into the rushing creek, he jostled his leg and the pain seared up, blinding him and leaving his head whirling with dizziness.
Fighting back tears of desperation, he rolled over on his back, panting as he struggled to absorb the agony and not cry out. Finally, the surge of fire ebbed back to the slow burn of embers and he let his breath out in a long sigh. Sniffing, wiping his eyes and face, he pulled himself up against a log to sit awhile and remind himself of why he was trying so hard to live; the reasons were growing hazy.
He was scared, all of the time. And the pain in his leg was bad. He'd tried his best to set it, giving up in hopeless despair when he'd been unable to straighten it, but he'd bound sticks around it with vines, to try to at least keep it stabilized. The nights were long and cold, the days empty despite the beauty of the red cliffs and the trees shading the creek. Nobody was coming. He was starving to death, lingering now only because he had water ready to hand - literally having to scoop up what he drank with a trembling cupped palm.
It had been nearly two weeks. He knew that because he'd dug a notch in the log he was resting against every time the sun rose. Two weeks of knowing without doubt that he was dying alone. He'd seen the Indians watching him from the cliff's edge, high above. They were enjoying his suffering, waiting for him to become too weak to even manage catching a fish to eat it raw. Waiting for him to die. He despised the fact that he'd become a kind of spectacle, but was helpless to do anything about it. There were moments when he dearly wished they'd get tired of watching and just come and kill him. It would be so much easier than this hopeless battle against the inevitable.
Weak, wracked by misery, he remembered that man with the mane of long curls he'd seen the first day - the stranger who'd told him to hold on. But he knew it had to have been an illusion, a wishful hallucination brought on by the blow to his head when he'd struck the rock after falling from the saddle. No one was coming. No one knew he was here. He was going to die alone; it was only a matter of time.
Blearily, his gaze wandered…and he stiffened in astonishment. It was the stranger, once again kneeling close by and regarding him steadily. Though he knew he couldn't be real, Steven could not resist stretching out his hand in mute, poignant appeal.
"Don't give up," the vision said firmly, though his gaze was dark and filled with compassion and sorrow for Steven's suffering. "Your father, William, and your brother, Jim, are coming for you. Hold on."
For a long moment, their eyes locked as Steven gaped at the stranger, disconcerted by the words and scarcely able to believe them though he wanted to, desperately wanted to believe his father was coming. Was it possible that William cared enough to walk away from his business for that long, for him? And Jim? God, he hadn't seen his much-missed older brother for more than twenty years. Steven's eyes blurred with hot tears as his heart clenched with longing and hope, but he wondered if he had the strength to last much longer - it had been so long already, and he was so very tired. The stranger waited patiently until, wearily, Steven nodded; and then the vision vanished, leaving him once again feeling bereft and utterly alone.
Steven blinked and rubbed his eyes. Maybe he was going crazy? Must be, to be seeing things. But he frowned as he matched his memory of the first vision with the one just past, and he shook his head as he muttered to himself, "What kind of hallucination changes the colour of his shirt? And his hair was tied back this time, not loose."
Blowing out a shuddering breath, Steven shook his head. He didn't believe in visions, or angels, or anything that wasn't tangible. His father had taught him to be skeptical, even scornful, in the face of superstitious beliefs and sentimentality. But that vision was all he had to hang onto, and he didn't want to die. The hope that his father and brother hadn't forgotten him, but were coming to rescue him, overwhelmed him and, in his pain and exhaustion, he wept with his desire to believe they cared that much for him.
He couldn't let them down, couldn't die before they reached him.
So, he had to hope he wasn't crazy.
And he had to do his best to hold on.
As he watched from the crimson cliffs above, Geronimo's eyes narrowed thoughtfully. Initially, he'd ignored the presence of the injured enemy in his land, but his scouts had reported the man still lived, and that had been a surprise. The white man was holding on much longer than he would have thought possible. The man was either very stubborn or very strong - or perhaps both. Or maybe, more disturbingly, there was some other power at play. So he'd come back to see for himself and this time he'd brought his Shaman with him, to determine if there was some magic here that could be a danger to his people. Just then, his intense gaze caught the flicker of a new presence. It was the ghost - or more likely, as there were no stories of a ghost of a white man with long curls and blue eyes haunting the canyons - the spirit walker. Crossing his arms, the War Chief pondered the drama of the injured enemy and he admitted to himself that he was getting very curious about the man, and about the being that appeared to him. Was it a friend? A brother?
Whoever it was, the spirit walker carried powerful energy, to be seen so clearly by others than the one he was choosing to appear to, and might have very strong magic. Regardless, the spirit walker had managed to give the fallen white man the two things he needed to hold on against impossible odds: the injured one now had hope that help was coming; more, he knew that he wasn't really alone but that someone was watching him and cared about what happened to him. Powerful medicine, indeed.
What had begun as a situation scarcely worthy of note had become a matter of more grave concern. Who else would be coming? How many? And when? Would the white man with the broken leg hold out until they came for him? Grudgingly, Geronimo felt a measure of respect for the suffering man who had not given in to hopeless pain and despair but struggled to live, even though any sane man would know survival was impossible. Yet, he was the enemy, and the friends or family who were coming for him were also the enemy. They could not be allowed to pass unchallenged.
The War Chief turned to the Shaman he'd asked to accompany him to the cliff that day. "You saw him Grandfather?" he asked rhetorically, his tone flat.
"Yes, my son," the old man intoned thoughtfully. His eyes narrowed as he gazed downward upon the injured man and then at the shadows around him. "I see more, perhaps, than you do, Geronimo. The spirit walker did not come alone this time. There are now two spirit animals below, a wolf and a black jaguar. They will guard the injured paleface from animals who might attack in his severely weakened state - and I fear, from us, as well."
Geronimo frowned as his gaze raked the small clearing by the creek. But he could not see what the Shaman saw. "What does it mean? Who is that spirit walker?"
"I do not know," the Shaman, Spirit Talker, replied, his tone musing. "But I will see if they will tell me," he added with a slight smile as he watched the handsome wolf and the deadly big cat. The animals, feeling his scrutiny, looked up to meet his gaze, their own impassive and utterly confident. "There is much power here, my son. I would suggest you tread warily," he murmured then.
Snorting unhappily, the War Chief turned to leave. "I will await your guidance on this matter, Grandfather," he grudgingly allowed. "But know this. White men will not invade our land without paying some penalty, whatever power they carry with them."
The old man nodded solemnly, but he didn't look at the younger man. Instead, he sank down upon the rock and began a low chant, calling to the spirit animals below, asking most respectfully if they would explain their presence and whom they guided.
Geronimo left him to it as he mounted and rode away. But the power of the spirit walker continued to tease at his thoughts, as did the wise Shaman's counsel. He'd not encountered such a thing amongst the white men before. Who was this being? And what would be the risks of challenging him?
Jim tried to relax and watch the scenery flow past as he waited for Blair to return. They'd had a brief stop at Albuquerque and now were heading due west again, into the increasingly arid land of New Mexico Territory's rolling plains, dry gulches and arroyos, and sudden outcroppings of rugged red cliffs. Sheep dotted the browning grass, grazing amongst the tall austere cactus plants or those that looked like big, pointy cabbages, but otherwise the landscape seemed empty of life. William was working at the desk tucked in beside the bar, once again buried in files that held no interest for the younger Ellison.
Finally, unable to quell his anxiety longer, Jim rose from his place by the window and moved back to the sleeping compartments. He found Blair lying on his back, unmoving, but his wide blue eyes were open and staring at the bottom of the upper bunk. Perching on the edge of the bed, Ellison reached out to grip his partner's shoulder and gave Sandburg a little shake as he called softly, "Chief? You here?"
Blair blinked and then focused on Jim. "Yeah," he murmured, his expression troubled. "Steven is alive - hungry and hurting, exhausted - but alive. The Indians are watching him, as if they find his suffering entertaining." Blair's voice was tight, caught between angry disgust and a reluctance to believe such callousness existed. Clearing his throat, he continued, "I told him you and your dad were coming for him, and he indicated he'd hold on. The Indians will know when we get there."
The lawman's eyes flickered away. He was relieved to know his brother still lived, and the news that the Apaches were aware of his presence in their lands wasn't unexpected. But, neither was it welcome. They didn't have the resources to fight off a major attack. Sighing, he knew he'd have to think about what their options might be, as they got closer to Steven.
But, before he could answer, the train suddenly jerked as it came to a sharp, grinding halt and the high, prolonged screech of wheels ripped through his head. He crumpled forward, hands covering his ears as he choked off a shout of agony, his jaw clamped tight and his teeth gritted against the pain. Blair grabbed hold of him and held him tightly, murmuring with low urgency that he had to turn down the bronze lantern; he fought to focus on the image of the out-of-control flame, finally lowering the wick to a manageable level. Sighing with relief, he sagged in Sandburg's steady grip and drew in deep breaths to regain his balance. But, even with his hearing turned down, he still heard the tattoo of racing horses, and the shouts of men from outside the rail car. Swiftly, he lifted his head to look out the windows and cursed softly at what he saw.
It was a gang of train robbers - more than half a dozen mounted, rugged men in sweat-stained, dusty clothing, broad-brimmed hats pulled low ever their eyes, and faces covered by bandanas, were brandishing handguns and rifles.
Swiftly, with a low, "Stay here and keep your head down," Ellison lunged for his bunk to grab his guns and swiftly belted them on.
"What are you going to do?" Blair hissed, his gaze shifting from the outlaws milling about on their mounts while keeping well out of range of the gun portals in the bank car, to Jim.
"Stop them," Ellison replied dryly, squinting against the headache that pounded in his skull, and then he slipped out the far end of the car toward the caboose, easing the door closed behind him.
"Dammit, Jim, be careful," Sandburg cursed softly as he scrambled from the bunk and hastened back to the salon, wondering if there was a way to help, maybe by creating a distraction. But he skidded to a stop, his hands lifting into the air when he saw two of the bandits had already entered from the other end, their guns pointed at William and now at him. Toby was nowhere to be seen.
"Uh, hi," Blair stammered with pleasant nervousness, earning a pained look from all the other men present, including William who looked thunderous with anger, his face flushed. Which gave Blair an idea. "Look, you don't need the guns, okay? My patient has a heart condition…"
"You're the old coot's doctor?" one challenged sarcastically, not impressed with the youthful man in scruffy jeans and an old flannel shirt.
"Yeah, Dr. Blair Sandburg," he replied, his throat dry. "We won't give you any trouble."
"Must be rich to get fancy trappings like this and have his own doc dancing in attendance," the outlaw sneered to his comrade. "Not anyone the railroad would want hurt." Gesturing with his weapon, he ordered, "Outside, both of you. Try to fight and you're dead."
"Please, you don't need Mr. Ellison," Blair countered persuasively as he sidled toward the doorway, indicating that he'd go out without further prompting. "Just the, er, excitement alone could bring on a heart attack. He needs to sit quietly, even lay down. Look, you can see how flushed he is. You don't want him dropping dead on you. Not much of a hostage then."
The outlaws hesitated. They'd killed before and probably would again, but rarely without some gain or provocation. Stealing money was one thing; even the wanton killing of unimportant people could be gotten away with. But the murder of someone notable with powerful friends was another, and they didn't have enough bullets to kill every witness on the train. Robbery meant prison if they were caught, and what they sought was wealth. With luck, they'd be able to get away without anyone having to die and no risk of one day dangling from the end of a rope. Finally, nodding, one barked at the older man to sit down and stay out of the way while they both moved back to let Sandburg precede them off the train. Neither seemed to have noticed the rifle leaning in the shadows of the corner behind the bar.
Licking his lips, Blair took a breath to calm his nerves and continued on toward the portal. "You just take it easy, sir," he called over his shoulder. "I'm sure these men will be finished with their business and gone very soon."
William snorted, but he went along with the charade, lifting a hand to his heart as he sank into one of the chairs. "Don't you hurt him!" he called after the outlaws as they followed Blair out and to the ground. As soon as they were gone, he darted for the rifle and called quietly to Toby, whom they'd quickly decided should conceal himself in ambush when they spotted the two outlaws heading toward the Pullman, "You can come out now."
The steward emerged from his quarters, another rifle in his hand. William smiled in approval and both men crouched low as they approached the windows. Neither wanted to provoke more violence if it wasn't necessary. So far, no one had been hurt and it seemed it was only money that the bandits wanted - but nor would they stand back and let Sandburg be dragged off as a hostage once the villains had the money in hand.
"I wonder where my son is," William muttered, understanding that Blair had swiftly concocted a story that wouldn't have the bandits looking for anyone else in the Pullman. No one ever thought to look for stewards or conductors, not seeing them as any threat.
"I heard him tell Dr. Sandburg, just as the train stopped, that he was going to stop the robbery, sir," Toby replied, very quietly as he watched the scene outside play out.
One of the thieves had a gun to Sandburg's temple and was marching him up in front of the sliding door of the bank car. "Open up and give us the money, or I'll blow his brains out," the ruffian shouted, secure that he was blocked from the guns inside the car by his hostage's body. To underscore his threat, he dug the barrel into Blair's head, making the physician wince.
The nickering and snorting of the horses was very clear in the sudden silence as everyone waited for the reply of the men guarding the treasure in the safe.
Jim had shimmied up the side of the Pullman car to the roof, and then in a crouching run had made his way forward so that he had a clear view of the bandits clustered around the mobile bank vault. Keeping low, he glanced along the long line of cars and spotted one of the bandits up front, with a rifle trained on the engineer. Just a little ahead of the leading locomotive, he could see that rocks had been piled on the track to force the train to stop or risk derailment. Below, he counted seven bandits and two more were positioned outside the other passenger cars. Not great odds, that got worse when he overheard the conversation in the Pullman coach and then saw Sandburg jump down from the car, escorted by two burly men before being shoved toward the bank car. The threat and the sight of the six-gun pressed tight against Blair's head made his blood curdle.
"Forget it," a muffled voice finally shouted, sounding strained with the weight of the decision that had been reached inside the fortified car. "He ain't worth what's in this here safe, nor our jobs neither. But if ya shoot him, if'n yer caught, ya'll hang."
"Get out the dynamite," the leader growled from horseback and then nodded coldly to the bandit holding Blair. "Shoot 'im."
Blair stiffened, but before the outlaw could cock the hammer, Jim yelled, "Drop it, or you're dead!"
Startled by the voice from above, the bandit gaped and instinctively began to bring his weapon up and around to shoot Jim. As soon as the muzzle of the gun was clear of Sandburg's head, Jim fired, hitting the outlaw between the eyes. Ellison had already swiveled before the guy fell, to shoot the leader out of his saddle. Blair dropped to his knees, scrambling under the wheels of the train and rolling clear to the other side, as more weapons fired, from the bank car and the Pullman, the caboose and further ahead from the locomotive as well. The coalman had taken the distraction offered by Jim's shout and shots, to shoot the bandit covering the engineer.
The train robbers were thrown into confusion at the unexpected and very aggressive resistance. They fired back defensively as they swiftly wheeled their horses away, kicking them frantically to get as far as possible from the deadly hail of bullets, as fast as they could go. Six of them were shot from their horses, but the two that had been watching the passenger cars and one lucky bastard from the cluster in front of the bank car, made it to safety, disappearing across the arid land in a cloud of dust.
Jim scrambled over to the far side of the car and looked down, relaxing when he saw Blair below, safe and apparently sound. "You okay?" he called out.
"Yeah," Blair replied, though he still looked pale and shocked as he beat the dust off his clothing. "You?"
"I'm fine," Jim assured him as he began climbing down the narrow, rusting ladder bolted to the side of the car. When he reached the ground, his father had joined Sandburg at the front of their car, looking relieved to see that Jim was all right. "The line up ahead is blocked with rocks and boulders," he informed them. "Chief, let's you and I give them a hand to clear the tracks."
"I need to check the wounded," Blair said as he moved toward the gap between the cars, to climb over the metal couplings.
"They're all dead, Blair," Jim told him quietly, one hand reaching to grip the younger man's shoulder. Though it always amazed him, Ellison knew the physician inevitably felt badly whenever someone died, regardless of whether they deserved it - as if he felt their deaths might have been so easily avoided by having found honest work instead of trying to rob a train. "They brought it on themselves."
"I know," Sandburg acknowledged tightly. Sighing, he went on, "They'll need to be buried."
"I'll see to that," Toby called out, having joined William at the back of the Pullman, before turning away to organize the burial party.
"You okay, Dad?" Jim asked with the hint of a smile as he teased gently. "Your heart's not acting up, is it, after all the, er, excitement?" he added in a passable mimicry of Sandburg's tone earlier.
William snorted, but he watched the younger men walk alongside the train and up toward the front to help clear the line, a thoughtful expression in his eyes.
Not quite two hours later, the track was cleared, the dead buried and their horses loaded into the stockcar, and the train was rolling again. Toby insisted upon serving his three charges healthy shots of the rare and smooth whiskey from the special reserve that was kept in a locked compartment under the bar. He said, with a meaningful glance at the two younger men, that it seemed an appropriate beverage for heroes and then, with quiet dignity, he excused himself to prepare their dinner. Easing back in their chairs, the men quietly sipped the twenty-year-old Scotch, glad to be alive but with no air of celebration. It could too easily have been a wake. Clearing his throat, William said sincerely, "I want to thank you, Blair, for your quick thinking and your efforts to ensure my safety."
"Don't mention it, Mr. Ellison. I'm just glad it worked out," Sandburg replied with a small smile.
Nodding in agreement, William offered, "So am I, son. And, by the way, you can call me Bill."
"Thanks," Blair acknowledged, his smile broadening.
Jim bowed his head to study his drink, pleased. As he recalled, there weren't many men his father allowed to call him by the diminutive of his first name, very few who got past the formality of 'Mister', if it came to that.
William Ellison looked back over his shoulder to be certain that Toby was out of earshot, and then he leaned toward Jim, as he observed, "And that was pretty fancy shooting on your part, Jimmy. Not to mention that I wouldn't have thought you close enough to hear what Blair said to those bastards, let alone know they were all dead without checking."
Blair's gaze flickered to Jim and then to the glass in his hand. Shifting to stand, he said uncertainly, "Uh, maybe I should go clean up a bit."
"No, that's okay, Chief. You can stay," Jim reassured him, his voice a bit edgy. "My father realized a long time ago that I had unusual senses. He just doesn't like to be reminded of them." Turning to his father, he added bitterly, "But I'm still a freak, Dad, sorry."
Flinching as if he'd been slapped, William protested, albeit keeping his voice low so as not to attract Toby's attention, "That's not fair! I never said you were a freak, Jimmy. I was just afraid other people might think, well - folks don't take to people who are too different. I didn't want you to be hurt."
Feeling the tension between father and son, certain he was an intrusion, Blair again tried to make his escape to give them time to talk alone. Setting his glass down on the long, low table between the chairs and the sofa, he stood. "I really do need to clean - "
"No, I'd like you to stay," Jim cut in as he sat straighter. He'd been surprised by his father's words, as that wasn't how he remembered the long ago conversation when his father had ordered him to hide what he was. "Blair's my Guide," he informed the older man. "He helps me understand and control my senses."
"Guide?" William echoed in confusion as he turned to Sandburg, not understanding.
Sinking back into the chair, Blair replied almost diffidently, "Yeah. I discovered information about ancient Sentinels and Guides, or Watchmen and their Companions, years ago. I first met Jim after he'd been wounded stopping a bank robbery, when his senses were understandably acting up. Anyway, we tried a few things that seemed to help, and we've been working on them ever since."
"I've never heard of any of this business about sentinels and guides before," Ellison, Senior, admitted with a quick glance at his son, who was regarding him stonily. Finding Sandburg more receptive, he turned back to the younger man. "Tell me more."
"Well, basically, all through time and in just about every culture, there have been people, man and women, with enhanced senses to keep watch over their tribes, their communities. The watchers need companions, who help them focus their senses and not get lost in just one. And, I guess, to watch their backs while they're concentrating so hard on something else. That's, uh, the main reason we went to visit the Arapaho reservation. We met a tribal watchman and his companion, and we wanted to learn from them." Blair quickly checked to see if Jim wanted to add anything, but the lawman was staring into his drink. Biting his lip, he turned back to William. "We, uh, figured that it was because of Jim's senses that you thought he'd be able to find Steven. Jim can really do some amazing things, Mister, uh, Bill. His senses are a real gift."
William took a quick gulp of his Scotch, and then leaned back against the chair. He raked his fingers through his thick thatch of hair and then nodded. "I know they are a gift," he said quietly. "But they can also be a terrible burden." Taking a breath, he went on, "Jim's mother, my wife, Grace, had enhanced senses, too. They, uh, drove her crazy, to be frank with you. We told the boys that she went back to her parents but, the truth is, she went to a private sanatorium. I was afraid something like that might happen to Jimmy some day if he didn't find a way to, I don't know, shut them off, while he was still young."
Jim looked up, astonished. "Why didn't you ever tell me that?" he exclaimed, dumbfounded.
Shifting uncomfortably, William replied, "Well, you were just a kid. I didn't want to scare you and neither did she. And, well, I meant to tell you when you were older, but you ran away." Lifting his eyes, their depths dark with sorrow, he added, "I'm sorry, son. I know I wasn't much of a father - too busy making a living, I guess. I was good at that, but as a parent I didn't know what the hell I was doing half the time. I wanted you, and Stevie, too, to grow up strong and independent, able to take whatever life might throw at you, but I never meant to hurt either of you. I've just never…never been good at expressing my feelings. But I…I do love you, son. I always have."
Jim looked away, at a loss for words. Nothing was what he had thought it to be. His mother hadn't abandoned them. His father didn't think he was a freak. His dad hadn't meant to be cruel - in fact, loved him. Trusted and respected the man he was.
His father, though, seemed unaware of Jim's confusion. Grimacing with the fear he'd been trying so hard to hide, William murmured, his voice cracking, "I lost you years ago, Jimmy. And now I'm afraid I've lost Stevie, too."
Reaching out to grip William's arm, Blair sought to reassure him. "We'll find him," he said with quiet confidence.
"You can't know that," William contested wearily as he twisted the glass in his hands. "He's likely been dead all this time and this is a fool's errand. But I couldn't not try to find him."
"Steven's alive, Dad," Jim said then, his voice warm, gentle and reassuring in the face of his father's evident distress. "Blair told you about sentinels, but he didn't tell you that guides have some pretty amazing gifts of their own. He's a…shaman, I guess. He can spirit walk and he's seen Steven. We know he's still alive."
"What?" William gasped, looking from Jim to Blair, wanting to believe but finding it very hard. Mysticism wasn't something he'd ever had much time for.
"Pretty weird, huh?" Blair offered with a grin. "And you thought enhanced senses were odd." But he sobered as he continued, "Steven's horse bolted when a rattlesnake attacked. He was thrown and his leg is broken. He's hungry and exhausted, but he's near water. He knows you and Jim are coming for him and he seemed pretty relieved to hear that."
"You've talked to him?" Ellison, Senior exclaimed, flabbergasted.
"Yeah, just a few words, to reassure and encourage him," Sandburg replied. Apologetically, he added, "I'm pretty new to all this and it's still hard for me to manifest strongly enough to be seen for more than a second or two, let alone be heard."
"My God, that's…that's incredible," William breathed. He swallowed and, as if trying to regain his equilibrium, he continued in a stronger voice, "Thank you for giving him, and me, hope."
"So you believe us?" Jim demanded, not certain that his father wasn't simply humouring them.
William turned back to his son, his expression candid and vulnerable. "You've never lied to me, Jimmy," he replied staunchly. "I won't say I don't find this…very nearly unbelievable. But, if you say it's so, then it must be true."
Jim's throat tightened and he had to look away to quickly blink away the sudden burn in his eyes. Sniffing a little, he looked back at his father, his voice shaky as he said, "Thanks, Dad. I appreciate that, I really do."
Blair surreptitiously swiped at his own eyes. He wondered if Bill realized just how very much his words that day meant to his eldest son, and he was immensely glad that Jim had finally gotten to hear them.
That evening, William asked Toby to join them at the table for dinner in recognition that he had helped to fight and defend their lives. He was an austere man but not a bigot. And though he didn't make a practice of eating with his servants, it wasn't so much because he thought he was better than they were, only that they had their own jobs and places in the order of things. In his mind, Toby had earned a place with them at the table. The steward was taken aback, and at first refused, but Blair set another place and Jim gently pushed him down into the chair as William poured the fourth goblet of wine.
When they finished up the meal, Toby insisted upon clearing away the remains without their help and William decided to turn in early while Jim and Blair played a quiet game of cards. As the steward headed to his own bunk in the cramped chamber behind the bar, he nodded to the two men. "Have a good night, gentlemen," he said with a smile.
It wasn't long after that the lawman and the physician headed back to the sleeper section, grinning at the soft snores coming from William's bunk as they slipped by. But Blair sobered as he caught Jim's arm before the older man could continue along to his own bunk, to acknowledge with whispered gratitude, "You saved my life today."
Ellison bowed his head and nodded, but then he reached out to grip Blair's shoulder as he murmured in reply, "You save mine every day."
They regarded one another wordlessly for a long moment, both knowing all too well that far greater dangers laid ahead. For tomorrow they would reach Flagstaff, and then they would ride into the canyon of Blair's spirit walks - the canyon of pine and oak along a wide creek sheltered by crimson cliffs. They had no doubt that they would find Steven, but they both knew the Apaches were also waiting - and there was no way to know if either or both of them would even still be alive when they came to the end of that journey.
Wanting to comfort, Jim pulled Blair into a tight hug. "We can't borrow trouble, Chief. We can only do the best we can," he whispered hoarsely.
"I know," Blair murmured in reply, wishing he wasn't so afraid. He returned the hug warmly, but then pulled away. Schooling his voice and expression to a calm he didn't feel, he whispered, "Good night, Jim."
"‘Night, Chief," Ellison returned with a fond smile before moving on. Sandburg's heartbeat belied his apparent composure but on this occasion, if on few others, Jim sincerely respected his friend's brave attempt to let appearances deceive him.
The next morning, they were all tense with the anticipation of the end of the rail journey. Jim told his father that the Apaches were well aware of Steven lying injured in their midst so they needed to think about how to rescue him without drawing unwanted attention. They agreed they'd have to head in during the dark, with the hope of evading detection.
Toby, listening to the discussion as he laid the table for lunch, offered a different suggestion. "Perhaps you could trade for you son, Mr. Ellison."
"What do you mean?" William asked sharply as he swiveled around to look at the steward.
Diffidently, Toby explained, "The Indians prize horses, right? Well, we have a stockcar full of the horses the robbers were riding - if they belong to anyone, they belong to you for fighting off the attack. You could drive the horses into the area and, maybe, make a deal."
Scratching his cheek, Jim nodded. "That's not a bad idea, but it means deciding to go in openly - and that's a big risk."
"What are the chances that we can realistically invade their territory, even at night, and not be detected?" Blair asked thoughtfully. With a glance at Toby, he added with careful wording, "If the Arapaho have skilled watchmen and scouts, the Apache likely do, too."
"Yeah," Jim sighed as he sank back against the chair, looking worried as he chewed on his lip and considered the odds. They wouldn't be able to travel fast once they found Steven. From what Blair had told them, his brother was hurt badly and very weak. Finally, shrugging, he decided, "There are risks either way. I think Toby's idea may be our best option." Looking up at the steward, he added, "Thank you."
Toby smiled with gratification and then turned back to his chores.
When the train finally came to a stop at the end of the line at the edge of the huge camp of construction workers, it was mid-afternoon. The men were ready to depart, their saddlebags packed and over their shoulders when Toby emerged from his personal cubbyhole, dressed in jeans, faded blue shirt and a weathered jacket, a broad-brimmed hat shading his face, a pack over his shoulder and a rifle in his hands.
Startled, William asked, "You planning to do some hunting for the larder?"
"No, sir," Toby replied earnestly. "If you'll have me, I'd like to ride with you. I used to be the wrangler for my master's herd on the plantation so I can help drive the horses. And, well," he added wryly, "it would give me a chance to see more of the country."
"Toby, this is a very dangerous undertaking," Jim cautioned. "There are no guarantees - "
"I'm aware of that, sir," the steward replied soberly. "But you're going to need all the help you can get. I know how to ride and I know how to shoot. And, frankly, gentlemen, it might make a difference to the Indians to see a coloured man in your party, riding as an equal. I doubt they've seen such a sight - they will only have seen white men lording it over those of other colours."
"He could be right, Jim," Blair offered. "Toby's presence could change the equation."
William was regarding their steward thoughtfully. "Toby," he observed, "you've made a couple of very sensible suggestions about how the Indians might react to us and how we might improve our odds. May I ask how you've acquired such an intimate knowledge of how they may think?"
"Years ago, my brother ran off to join up with the Seminole," he explained, "and since the war, I've managed to track down the community he became a part of. It's a mixed group of ex-slaves and Indians - most of what unites them is their distrust of white folks."
"I see," the elder Ellison murmured. Nodding, he continued, "Well, sir, if you're willing to risk your life riding with us, we're grateful. Let's go."
They stepped off the Pullman and into the noisy chaos of the construction camp. Hundreds of people milled around, shouting instructions or calls for help or just plain passing the time of day. Sledge hammers pounded metal spikes with repetitive ringing clangs over the continuous clatter of rails being shifted or dropped on top of one another in piles along the expanding line to the west. Jim flinched, grateful for Sandburg's steadying hand on his back as he swiftly turned down his bronze lantern to mute the sounds as they made their way toward the stockcar to saddle their horses. There was plenty of daylight left and they all felt an urgency to be on their way.
"Mr. Ellison!" a man called out as he hurried to meet them. "I'm Joshua Danzing, the foreman here. I wired you about your son's disappearance."
Stiffening, William nodded. "Yes, I recognize your name. We're heading out now to look for him."
Shaking his head with a great show of sorrow, Danzing swept off his hat as he said discouragingly, "As sorry as I am to say it, I'm afraid you're wasting your time and only putting yourself, and the other members of your party at risk. Why, there's not even any clue as to which direction to begin searching."
"Thank you for your concern, but we're wasting time here," William snapped back as he pushed past the obsequious man.
"But, sir, the Apaches -"
"We're well aware of the risks," Jim cut in, his tone repressive.
Danzing subsided, his lips thinning with irritation. Shaking his head, he waved them on, calling after with a tone verging on sarcasm, "Good luck to you then. I hope you find him."
The men ignored him as they climbed up the wooden ramp into the stockcar, William directing Toby to pick out the horse he wanted as his own. As they saddled up, Jim asked quietly, "So, you got any idea in which direction to start looking, Chief?"
Blair nodded soberly as he tightened the girth around Butternut. "Yeah. There are snowcapped mountains to the west and north, but not to the south. I saw mountains to the north, so we head south."
Toby listened, but made no comment. There were those amongst his own people who had had visions that could be trusted, and he'd heard of similar occurrences amongst the Indians. Some folks just had the gift of second sight, and he couldn't see why Sandburg couldn't be one of those individuals.
Blair and Jim rode off the car first, William and Toby slapping the rumps of the loose horses to follow, before mounting themselves. Though neither Blair nor William had much experience herding animals, Jim and Toby quickly got the remuda in order and in minutes they were out of the busy camp and heading south through stands of pine.
The Shaman rode sedately back into the large camp of tents, nodding at the greetings of the people who called to him, his gaze indulgent as he noted children at play, pretending to be warriors and great trackers of game. Women and girls working at the campfires, preparing the evening's meal, bowed their heads respectfully as he passed on his way to Geronimo's tent.
The War Chief, having been alerted that the Shaman had returned, came out to meet him. "So, did they speak with you, Grandfather?" he asked, the concern in his voice evidence of his unsettled preoccupation about those that were coming.
"They did," Spirit Talker replied calmly as he waved the War Chief toward the fire outside his tent. The two men dropped down, their legs comfortably crossed, and Geronimo poured water from a gourd into a clay cup and then handed it to his principal spiritual adviser.
Accepting the ritual greeting of welcome and respect, the Shaman drank. Setting the cup down, to indicate he was refreshed and needed no more, he said, "The spirit walker is called Touch That Heals and the wolf is his guide. The jaguar is the guide and protector of one called Brave Star. They are Watchman and Companion, and you are right - they are coming for the wounded man, who is Brave Star's brother." He paused and studied the War Chief. He'd known Geronimo for all the younger man's life, and grieved at the anger that consumed the brave warrior's soul. Grieved as well for the lost family, and others like them who had been killed without provocation in years past. "Listen to me, my son. Heed my words. These are not men like those you have encountered before amongst the palefaces. They have pure spirits - they are not our enemies."
Anger burned with hate in the warrior's eyes before he shuttered his gaze and turned his face away. "They are all our enemies, Grandfather," he grated. "Have you not learned that lesson yet?"
Shaking his head, the old man reached to grip Geronimo's shoulder. "You are wrong, and you know it, my son. You let your heart speak, and you are guided only by pain and hatred. That is not a wise course for a leader. Listen to your head, and let your reason balance your heart. There are good and bad amongst all men, whatever their colour. Pose them a test, if you require it, to judge their merit and the strength of their medicine. The gods and spirits abandon those who do not value what is good and true. Be not so blind as to destroy wantonly, for that path will only lead you, and therefore all of us, your people, to destruction."
Reluctantly, Geronimo nodded tightly. "I hear your words," he allowed. "I will think on them."
They'd made a cold camp in the forest the evening before when it became too dark to travel, and had each taken their turn to stand watch. They'd not seen any hostiles, but Jim had heard birdcalls that sounded slightly off to his finely tuned ear, and he was certain they were being watched.
They'd set off again as soon as the gray light of dawn had made it feasible, riding quietly, stiffly alert and wary of attack.
Blair tried to remain confident as they rode through a thick forest of pine, the trail now dropping steeply to the south. But he could no longer see the mountains behind him, and there were no signs of either a creek or looming red cliffs of rock and he worried that he might have somehow misinterpreted the lingering visions of his two spirit walks. The shamanistic skills that Whispering Waters had guided him to find within himself were too new and untested, too strange for him to be truly certain.
The others, too, were anxious. Steven had been missing for so long - he couldn't afford the time for them to wander around in the wilderness, seeking some sign of his passing. But they all kept their worries to themselves, riding in silence but for the occasional call by Toby to keep the unsaddled horses in line.
Jim kept scanning the ground, seeking tracks, however old or faded. He'd spotted any number of faint signs of unshod horses, and the knowledge that they were in hostile territory sent a shiver of uncertainty down his spine when he looked up at the others. How was he going to protect them if they were attacked? He wondered if he shouldn't have made this journey alone so that only his life would be at risk. His and Stevie's, but he shrugged off that brief thought, knowing neither his father nor Sandburg would have countenanced such an idea.
It was late morning when he caught the scent of decay on the breeze, decay mingled with leather. Shifting direction slightly, he rode a little ahead of the others and then pulled up. Looking back over his shoulder, he called softly, "You've put us on the right track, Chief."
The others rode closer, the loose horses shying from the stench. It was a dead animal, bloated and obviously ravaged by carrion hunters, both four-legged and winged - Steven's horse, dead of the rattlesnake bite before it could make it back to the camp.
They rode on, more quickly now and Jim soon scented and heard the rush of water, the creek of Sandburg's spirit walks. And the forest thickened around them, no longer only hardy pine, but with more varied species including large stands of oak. Within another half hour, they came to the creek and began to follow it - and as the forest parted before them, they saw the first of the breathtaking red cliffs of stone looming further to the south.
It was hard not to hurry their mounts to an even faster pace, but Jim sensed the eyes of watchers upon them, though he hadn't yet spotted any Apaches. He called low to the others to continue at a measured pace, indicating confidence in the face of no doubt overwhelming odds, knowing the watchers would be intrigued and maybe, hopefully, even impressed.
Within another forty-five minutes strained by urgency mingled with the wariness of honest and legitimate fear, they reached the bottom of the canyon, the cliffs now looming on either side as the land narrowed and tightened along the wide, rushing creek.
And ten minutes after that, Jim spotted his brother lying on his side by the creek's edge. "There he is," he called to the others, waving them forward as he finally set a faster pace. But his eyes raked the shadows and he knew as yet unseen watchers were closing in around them - he could smell them and their silent ponies, could hear their heartbeats.
When they rode up to Steven short minutes later, Blair and William quickly leapt from their saddles to hurry to the still, silent man by the creek, while Jim and Toby remained on their mounts - Jim watching and waiting for the Indians to make their move, Toby keeping the milling horses in check.
"Steven!" William called out, his voice breaking with fear, terrified that they were too late, as he fell to his knees beside his youngest son.
Blair nodded respectfully toward the spirit animals only he could see, and then he too knelt by Steven Ellison and gently turned him onto his back, reaching to feel the pulse point at the base of his throat. Steven was haggard and gray, the bones of his face standing out starkly under the taut skin, his body emaciated, mute evidence of the privation he'd suffered for so long. But he was breathing, and his pulse was steady, if weak. "He's holding his own," he murmured reassuringly to William, knowing Jim would also hear him, and then he turned his attention to Steven's broken leg. Gently, he unbound the twisted vines and pulled away the crooked sticks the younger Ellison had found to splint his injury, and then he pulled out his knife to slice Steven's pant leg up to the knee.
The leg was swollen and angry looking, reddened with soreness. Carefully, gently, Blair felt along the bones, sorry when Steven moaned even in his unconscious state, knowing he was causing pain. Closing his eyes to concentrate on what his hands were telling him, he could tell it was the tibia, the shinbone, that had broken and it now felt crooked and thickened around the break, having begun to heal. Swallowing, he looked up at William and then to Jim. "It'll have to be rebroken and set, but that can wait until we get him back to camp. He's not strong enough to ride. We need to build a litter to pull him back. I'd also like to get some food into him, some broth and tea, before we leave - he's very weak."
"Build a fire with what you've got handy," Jim replied, his voice tight with his effort to remain calm; his eyes still on the trees around them. "I don't want anyone wandering off yet to do anything else. We've got a lot of company, but I'd like them to make the first move."
The others glanced warily at the trees, and swallowed hard; they all knew they were in deadly danger and courting death. William hastily began to gather up dried driftwood while Blair pulled matches and supplies from his pack. Though he could start a fire simply by thinking about it, he normally didn't use his skills unless he and Jim were alone. Nor did he want to advertise his ability to the watching Apaches, in case he needed it for a surprise distraction if they attacked.
It didn't take them long to get a fire started, and Sandburg soon mixed some nourishing herbs and small chunks of dried beef with water from the creek, and set the small caldron over the fire to heat. Then he filled another pot, to boil water for tea. Only then did he dip a rag into the cool rippling water, and ring it out before moving back to Steven to bathe his face and upper body.
"You can relax now, Steven," he murmured quietly as he worked over the sorely ill man, while William cradled his son's shoulders and head against his chest. "You're not alone anymore. Your Dad and Jim are here and we're going to take you home. Steven? Can you hear me? I need you to wake up."
Gradually, Steven responded to their ministrations, and he blinked, at first confused and wondering if he was dreaming. But it was the man from his visions, touching him now, washing the dirt from his skin. And then his gaze shifted to see who was holding him so closely, and his eyes widened before filling with tears. "Dad?" he whispered, his voice hoarse with emotion.
"I've got you, son," William soothed as he reached to stroke his son's cheek, fighting his own tears. "I've got you, Stevie, and you're going to be okay, you hear me?" And then he drew his youngest closer still, as he bowed his head to kiss Steven's brow.
It was then that Geronimo rode out from under the trees, his warriors following his lead as they circled around the small group of white and black men and the horses they'd brought with them. Stern, austere and silent, their manner was meant to intimidate and evoke fear.
The rescue party stiffened as they watched, equally silent, until Geronimo reined in his pony. Blair recognized the tall warrior from his spirit walk, and realized he was recognized in turn by the cold look sent his way. He stood slowly and moved to stand between William and Steven and the Apaches who encroached upon them. Knowing it was vitally important to show no fear, Sandburg did his best to assume the mantle of slightly mocking authority he'd seen Whispering Waters assume when he was irritated. "I remember you," he said with a slight tone of aggrieved mockery. "You would not help this man. Does the Apache not honour the visitor in their camp or feel compassion for one who is suffering?"
Jim flicked a look at Blair, but held his peace, allowing Sandburg the lead in this deadly dance.
Geronimo stiffened at the censure, more used to whites being terrified by his presence. The calm confidence was disconcerting and very irritating. "You are fools to wander where you are not wanted," he spat back. "Fools whose lives are forfeit."
"You are discourteous," Blair sniffed as if massively unimpressed with the threat as he hid his relief that the Apache spoke English. "We have brought you gifts," he continued as he waved toward the small herd of horses, "and yet you threaten us and make us unwelcome."
"When you are dead, we will claim all of your horses," the War Chief replied, coldly sardonic.
Blair crossed his arms and cocked his head as he studied the War Chief, knowing full well he was trodding a delicate, very narrow path. If the Apaches had simply wanted them dead, he had no doubt they would have been killed summarily and long before they'd found Steven. Sighing, he held out his hands in an open gesture, palms up and empty. "We have come in peace and mean your people no harm," he said, but small flames leapt from his hands - and the shocked warriors that surrounded them gasped audibly at the display of a shaman's power. As if unaware of the reaction, Sandburg continued, "Our brother has been hurt, as you know. We have intruded here only to bear him home. And, in respect for you and your land, we have brought these horses as gifts for you. How do your gods say that strangers who come in peace with gifts should be greeted? Why do you threaten men of goodwill who mean you no harm?"
"Your mouth is filled with lies, white man," Geronimo sneered, pretending to be unimpressed by the small display of magical power, though it worried him. "You and your kind come to steal our land and our freedom - to kill us. Yet you expect a brother's welcome. Better that vipers should nest in our camp."
"It is truly a fool who sees only enemies where he might find friends," Sandburg snapped back, refusing to be intimidated - knowing if he quailed now they were surely lost. "And it's a blind man who sees only white men standing before him," he added scathingly in reference to Toby's presence in their midst. "If our gifts are not enough to prove our goodwill, what is it that you require from us?" he demanded, his voice now stern, using the tone he'd heard Whispering Waters use to restive warriors who'd threatened him when he'd first been taken to the war camp of the Arapaho, almost two years before - the tone of a shaman fast losing patience, confident of his power and expecting to be obeyed.
"I require my gods to show me that you are worthy of more than my contempt," Geronimo replied, refusing in his turn to be intimidated by the sharpness of the white shaman's voice, as he gave them each a slow, measuring look.
Sandburg's eyes narrowed as he nodded slowly, buying time as he fought the sudden clench of fear in his belly. He knew of too many cultures that demanded proof through challenges that could not be passed, like burning witches at the stake or drowning infidels with the sanctimonious belief that if they were telling the truth of their innocence, then God would spare them. But they had no choice. If they refused to be tested, they were dead anyway. "A test?" he ventured noncommittally for the moment, as if giving the idea due consideration before unleashing his own power.
"A test," Geronimo agreed, and then sprang his surprise. "But not of you, Shaman, Touch That Heals, for I do not trust your magic."
Blair's eyes widened at the use of his Indian name and he flicked a hurt look at his spirit guide, knowing full well where the Apache's own shaman would have gotten the otherwise unknowable information. The wolf whined softly, then barked in encouragement. The black jaguar was as still as a statue, green eyes unblinking as it stared at the War Chief and waited. "What test?" Sandburg demanded as he turned his steady gaze back to Geronimo.
The Apache War Chief turned his own dark eyes upon Jim, having assessed who had to be the Watchman amongst the group of intruders, as he replied stonily. "Brave Star will run the Gauntlet. If he survives, I will accept that our gods find you worthy."
Blair had heard stories of the 'Gauntlet'; it wasn't a 'test' unique to the Apache, but was as old as mankind and as barbaric as any other impossible test to prove the fickle favour of the gods. He thought he might be sick then and there; it would be far more merciful to bind Jim hand and foot, weigh him down with a boulder and toss him in a lake. "How many warriors?" he asked hoarsely, fighting to keep his voice steady, his expression impassive, needing to know what Jim was up against.
"Forty," Geronimo stated harshly.
"What are your rules for victory?" Sandburg asked then, his throat tight.
"It's a simple test. He must only survive and stand alone long enough to show he survived when, if, he emerges from the far end," the War Chief replied flatly. And then he turned his gaze back to Ellison, as he demanded, "Do you accept the challenge?"
The muscle in Ellison's jaw flexed, the only sign he gave of the tidal wave of fear that threatened to drown him - not fear of his own death, but that if he didn't survive, the others would be killed as well, and not mercifully. His mouth dry, he nodded, accepting the challenge; he had no choice.
"Jim - " Blair moaned so softly that no one else heard, sick with understanding of what his friend faced, but Ellison cut over the sound of muted despair.
"Where and when?" Jim demanded, doing his best to seem unconcerned. The bluff Sandburg had been running had brought them this far, and now it was up to him to carry it through.
A thin smile of satisfaction drifted over Geronimo's lips but was quickly gone. He'd heeded Spirit Talker's warning, and was giving the gods a chance to show their will. But he doubted the white devil would survive - and then he could kill them all with the assurance that he was walking the right path. Confident that they would all be dying slowly, if not yet already dead, by the next dawn, he had no concern about leading them to his village. "You will follow us, and bring your injured brother. Tonight, when the moon is full, you will run the Gauntlet."
He waved to one of his warriors to bring forward the litter he'd had fashioned for the one who could neither walk nor ride, and then the Apaches waited in silence for Steven to be bundled onto it and secured with blankets.
"What's this 'Gauntlet'?" William asked, his voice low and wary as he and Blair carefully lifted Steven onto the stretcher crafted of wood and rawhide.
Blair shook his head and blew out a long sigh. Looking up at the older man, compassion in his eyes with his understanding of how much William would suffer having to watch Jim be brutalized, he said quietly, "It's not going to be easy to watch, but you must not show fear, or anything but utter confidence that Jim will succeed. Jim…Jim has to run naked and weaponless between a long row of warriors armed with clubs and maybe other weapons, and survive to stand alone at the far end."
"My God," William swore in horror as he turned to look up at his firstborn. "Jesus, Jimmy," he choked. "I am so sorry, son, that I brought you here, to this."
Jim looked from Steven to his father, his gaze soft and his voice low with warm meaning as he replied, "Don't be, Dad. I'm not." But then his eyes shifted to meet Blair's sorrowful and frightened gaze.
Reading the apology for having brought him into this danger in Ellison's eyes, Blair shook his head and he conjured up a peaceful smile as he said firmly, if quietly, "We travel together, you and I." Then he turned away to kneel by the fire to stir the broth and set the herbal tea to steep on the ground beside him, as he called out clearly for Geronimo's benefit, and to again assert his own authority as a shaman, "We will not follow until our brother has eaten, for you have left him too long without nourishment."
The War Chief wasn't pleased by the delay or the second caustic reprimand, but he waved his warriors to wait. Now that the challenge had been offered and accepted, some measure of courtesy was required between them.
Toby sat silently in the saddle, watching his companions with both respect and compassion as he struggled to master his own fear. And then he lifted his eyes in challenge to Geronimo. "I and my gods would know your name," he called out in a demanding tone, surprising them all. It was a subtle challenge to be sure, but one the warrior understood.
"I am called Geronimo," he replied, lifting his chin with pride. And then he challenged back. "Your gods must be ashamed that you ride with such as these."
But Toby merely shook his head. "You're wrong. My gods are able to see past the colour of their skin to judge them for their true worth - my gods know the purity of their souls and the courage of their hearts. I ride with them because my gods would have been ashamed if I had not. I have no doubt your gods have already done the same and are even now ashamed of you."
Low, threatening growls that only Geronimo and Sandburg heard startled them both, as the wolf and the jaguar appeared to the War Chief for the briefest moment, their fangs bared in twin snarls as they glowered at him before again vanishing from his sight. For the first time, the Apache leader felt a frisson of deep uncertainty about the path he'd chosen as he looked at Blair, who glared back and then at Jim, who sat and stared at him impassively. Perhaps these white men were different.
But he had spoken, and the words could not be taken back. Brave Star would have to run the Gauntlet, however worthy he might be and however misguided it might also be to test him so viciously. Lowering his eyes, Geronimo hoped his gods wouldn't judge him too harshly if the night proved him wrong in his steadfast hatred.
For if his gods turned on him, might it be his people who, ultimately, would pay the price?
Blair smiled grimly and then poured the tea into a clay mug. Turning, he lifted it to Steven's lips. "Drink this. It will dull some of the pain and allow you to eat a little," he said kindly.
Steven gaped at him for a moment before raising a shaky hand to cover Sandburg's, so that they both held it while he drank slowly. When he'd had enough, Steven pushed it away. "Who are you?" he asked then.
Blair grinned ruefully as he tossed away the dregs of the tea and filled the mug with broth. "I'm sorry. I forgot we haven't actually met. I'm Blair Sandburg. I'm a doctor, and Jim's my best friend."
"A doctor?" Steven echoed weakly as he leaned into his father's strong embrace, truly wondering if this was all a dream. "But - how did you appear to me? How did you make fire burn in your hands?"
Shrugging as he lifted the mug, Blair replied, "It's just a little magic. Don't worry about it. I want you to drink this slowly. It's not much; your stomach wouldn't be able to handle a lot after going hungry for so long. But it will help strengthen you."
Meekly, the exhausted man drank a bit and then, in case it wasn't all a dream after all, he looked up at Blair and then at each of the others as he said tremulously, "Thank you for coming for me. But I'm sorry…sorry to have gotten you all into this mess."
"There's nothing for you to be sorry about, Steven," Sandburg replied kindly. "You did your job. You hung on when most men would have quit long ago. Now, all you need to do is rest and let us do what's needed."
"But - "
Blair gripped his patient's shoulder and shook his head, stopping the protest and the expression of the fear he could see shadowing Steven's eyes. Lifting his eyes to William, Jim and Toby before returning his gaze to Steven, Sandburg said with utter sincerity, "Anything is only impossible if we believe it to be so, and never try. But the real truth is that anything is possible - believe that, and act accordingly, and we just might make it out of here."
He lifted the broth again to Steven's lips, and the other man drank deeply. He would need the strength the nourishment would give him for the journey home.
In his weakness and exhaustion, Steven had fallen deeply asleep by the time they finished securing his litter to William's horse. And then he and William mounted up, and Blair nodded to Geronimo, signaling with quiet dignity that they were ready to follow his lead. The War Chief turned his pony, and his warriors fell in around their hostages as they wound their way through the forest and along narrow, winding passes between the walls of red stone. William Ellison followed closely behind Geronimo, Blair and Jim riding behind him, side by side, to ensure that none of the loose horses inadvertently stumbled over the litter. And Toby drove the remuda behind them, silently assisted now by their Apache escort.
As they traveled, Jim broke the silence to ask his partner quietly, "So, anything is possible, huh?"
Blair threw him a sideways look, one brow lifting in gentle mockery as he replied softly, "You're the one who brought a man back from the dead."
Despite himself, Ellison chuckled, not really noticing that his joviality gave their Apache escort pause. "You've got a point there, Chief. But," he continued, worry again darkening his eyes, "what if - "
"You're going to make it through the Gauntlet, Jim," Blair cut in. "I have no doubt of that."
"How the hell can you be so damned sure, Sandburg?" Ellison challenged, though he kept his voice low and his expression impassive.
Blair looked up at the cliffs and then around at the Apaches who surrounded them. "If you were here alone, as I'd assume most who go through the Gauntlet are, then I wouldn't be so certain," he replied with devastating candour, and then turned to look at Jim. "But you're not here alone. I know you, Jim. You might not survive it for yourself - but you'll be damned before you give up, knowing our lives are on the line. You don't quit. You don't know how to give up."
Ellison's gaze dropped away, and his jaw tightened against the sudden thickness in his throat at the certain trust and limitless respect in Sandburg's voice and words. Swallowing, taking a steadying breath, he nodded mutely. When he was certain he could speak with some measure of calm, he asked, "Okay, so how do we play this out?"
Blair looked around and dropped his voice to a low whisper to be absolutely certain that no one else, even another sentinel should one be present, could hear him. "This test is about physical stamina, which you've got in spades; courage, which you also have in abundance; and showmanship." When Jim threw him a quick look of surprise, Blair continued, "Hear me out, okay?" When Ellison nodded, he continued, "We have to shake their confidence - make them believe that there's no doubt you'll succeed. It will worry them, and make the warriors in the Gauntlet uncertain. If they strike too hard, they might well offend their own gods who have chosen to side with you."
Jim thought about that and had to admit it made a crazy kind of sense. He nodded again to signal Blair to continue with the strategy he had in mind for the night ahead.
"Okay, first, we have to make certain you're as ready as you can be for this, and that means getting your senses locked in the right place," Sandburg murmured. "Before the test begins, I want you to turn smell and taste right off. They'll only distract you. I want you to turn sound down, so you won't be overwhelmed by their yells and taunts - but not so far that you can't always hear my voice. When you're in the Gauntlet, I want you to be listening for me and to follow my voice out if everything else gets too confusing and you're stunned by the pain. And, I want you to turn your sense of touch down - but not off. You need to know if you get really hurt, so that you can compensate, otherwise they will kill you. Finally, I want your sense of sight up - you'll be able to see better than they can in the dark, and that'll give you an edge in anticipating and avoiding at least some of the blows - hopefully those that could do the most damage if they connected."
Jim stared ahead, but he nodded grimly to indicate he understood. Blair's words coincided with his own assessment of how he'd have to handle the Gauntlet.
"Okay - now, as for the Gauntlet itself, there don't seem to be any rules that you have to worry about. The point, the only point, is to get through it. You'll go in naked with no weapon, but that doesn't mean you can't acquire one if the opportunity presents itself. But, and this is a big but, don't get caught in battling back. This isn't a fight - it's about endurance and it's important you keep moving through as fast as you can," he continued, trying to imagine how the ordeal would play out, while Jim listened in agreement, having already come to most of the same conclusions. "If you can get your hands on a club, hurt one or two badly - so the others know they are not invulnerable, then strike out randomly from time to time, so they never know when to duck - or, more importantly, are watching to protect themselves at least as intently as they are watching for a chance to hurt you. That defensiveness will make them wary of you, less aggressive. Your head is your only real vulnerability. Keep it down, protect it with your shoulders and arms; use the club, if you can get your hands on one, as a shield. Run, don't walk, but vary your pace as much as possible, drop and roll when you can - keep them guessing about where you'll be when, as you approach those farther along the Gauntlet. You are the one in control of the pace and your actions, not them. Remember that. Even if you have to crawl before it's over, digging into the dirt with your fingers to haul yourself forward, do not stop. At that point, listen only to my voice and follow it."
Blair had to stop and steady his own breathing. He was trying hard to remain coldly rational, but the torment he knew Jim was going to have to endure tore at his soul.
In the prolonged silence, Jim glanced over and saw how pale Sandburg had become, and he winced at the slight trembling of Blair's lips and hands. Sidling Lobo closer, he reached out to grip Blair's arm. "Easy, Chief," he murmured.
Blair shuddered and blinked hard to clear his eyes of the sudden tears engendered by Jim's effort to comfort him. He took a deep breath and nodded, forcing himself back to the business at hand. "Once you're clear, all you have to do is stand on your own long enough to be seen to stand. After that, you can let go. Turn the flame in the red lantern down - I don't want you to feel any more pain at that point. I'll be there and I'll catch you. I won't let you fall."
When Sandburg again fell silent, Jim murmured, "Okay, so that's the physical endurance and the courage part. What's the showmanship part?" He was startled by the sudden bright grin that illuminated Blair's face and sparkled in his eyes.
"Ah, now that's where I'm going to have a little fun," Sandburg snickered. "When the time comes and the test is about to begin, you'll have to strip. I want you to face me when you do, and then I want you to stand tall and proud, as still as a statue, until I place my hand over your heart. At that moment, I want you to drop to one knee in front of me. Leave the rest to me. I'll let you know when it's time for you to move to the start of the Gauntlet while I go to the end of it, to wait for you. Remember, we control the timing of the testing, not them."
Jim's eyes narrowed as his studied his friend. "Do I need to worry about what you're up to?" he asked warily.
"Oh, no," Blair assured him serenely. "Trust me. You're going to really enjoy that part of the evening's entertainment."
Jim quirked a brow, but he didn't press for more information. Wondering what Blair had planned gave him something more entertaining to think about than did dwelling only on the fact that he was going to be beaten within an inch of his life that night. But, he turned his head away as he reflected that surviving the Gauntlet long enough to stand unaided for a moment or two didn't guarantee that he'd live to tell about it. He'd more than likely die of the injuries before dawn. He rubbed his jaw and sighed, wishing they could have some privacy for this conversation - wishing they didn't have to have it at all. But he was the prize bull being led to the ceremonial slaughter, and he had no illusions that they'd enjoy any time alone before it was over. For one thing, Geronimo would want to ensure that Blair didn't slip him some kind of potion that would somehow magically enhance his strength and endurance, or blind him to the pain of the blows that would rain upon his body, beating his desire to live into submission and surrender.
Jim fought hard to hide his despairing certainty of death's inevitability, not wanting to burden Sandburg with such dismal thoughts yet, at the same time, struggling with how to say 'good bye' to Blair. He just didn't know how to do that. And he also felt a deep anguish to know that he'd only just discovered his father and his brother by blood could, perhaps, be a family such as they'd never been in his childhood, but that he'd never get the chance to make things right between them.
Sandburg, however, was watching him and was pretty sure he knew why Jim had gone so silent and distant. It didn't take a lot of imagination - he just had to listen to the fears raging in his own heart and feel the anger that lay so close to the surface that this was being done to them, to Jim, when all Ellison had done was ride to the rescue of his kid brother. It was so massively wrong, all of it. But Jim had to know that his fears of dying from the injuries he'd incur were also very wrong.
"You're not going to die, Jim," he murmured firmly. "So stop worrying about that."
Ellison jerked and threw a startled look at his friend. "How did you know…"
"I know you, remember?" Sandburg drawled with as much amusement as he could muster. But he couldn't sustain it. Starkly serious, he made his vow. "I know you're scared. You have every right to be. But I promise you that you will survive this night."
Jim bowed his head and turned away. "You can't promise that, Chief," he replied softly.
"Ah, but I can," Blair retorted, his tone brooking no argument. "You forget, Jim. I'm a shaman - and I have that power if I choose to use it. Trust me, buddy. If I never use it again, I will tonight to hold onto you. I will not let you go."
Suddenly realizing what Blair meant, that Sandburg would use his own life energy to hold onto his life, even to call him back from death if need be, Jim wheeled around in his saddle to face Blair head on, careless of what any of the warriors observing them so closely might think of the sudden fear on his face. "No - you can't," he exclaimed. "Stalking Wolf said you could give too much, be at risk - "
But the look in Blair's eyes made the words die on his lips. Their gazes locked for a long moment, and then Jim bowed his head to his Shaman's will. The greatest pain either of them could possibly ever endure was not their own death, but to watch the other die. And he could not bring himself to insist that Sandburg suffer what he'd suffered when he'd seen Blair drowned and believed his friend was forever lost to him. Lifting his head, he focused again on the trail ahead, a new, grim determination growing in his heart. He'd just have to find it within his own soul to survive, no matter how bad the injuries were - he couldn't afford to die, not if Blair would risk his own life to bring him back.
God, he hoped he had the strength of will, as much as of body, to get through the hell that the coming night would bring.
Dusk had fallen by the time they rode into the Apache camp in a narrow valley between monolithic red cliffs of barren stone that glowed a soft rose in the dying light of the sun. The inhabitants watched silently as they rode past to the centre of the encampment, wondering what was going on and why Geronimo had brought white men into their sanctuary, even more curious when they noted the black man. When the cavalcade had passed them by, the people followed mutely in its wake, but some ran ahead at Geronimo's shouted order to gather all the villagers together by the council fire outside his tent.
By the time they had dismounted, everyone in the village was present, curiousity glowing in their dark eyes. Spirit Talker stood by the fire, waiting for them, his expression unreadable as he looked at each of the strangers, but his gaze lingered on Ellison and then on Sandburg before drifting away to acknowledge the presence of the wolf and the jaguar.
Geronimo remained on his mount, above the gathered assembly, as he told them in their own language what was to transpire. Though the five men did not understand his words, they could follow the meaning from the expressions on the faces of the listeners, and the way the villagers flicked startled glances their way. When he was finished speaking, Geronimo dismounted and, ignoring them, moved to speak to Spirit Talker.
Warriors began pacing out the length of the Gauntlet, marking one end with their War Chief's council fire and building another a disturbing distance away to signify the end of the test. Blair swallowed and then turned his back on the warriors and the Gauntlet they were defining, to talk quietly with the others. They had to play this out right if they were give Jim the subtle but essential edge he'd need.
"Okay, guys, listen up," he ordered briskly, though he kept his voice low to ensure he was not overheard by the Apaches who watched them avidly, if surreptitiously. "No matter what happens, no matter how bad it gets - and it will get very bad before it's over - from now until Jim stands alone in front of that far fire, we must only appear confident that we are loved and valued by any and all gods anyone cares to name. They must all see, and believe, that we harbour no doubt of the outcome. Jim will triumph. Period. Do not show surprise at anything that happens. You cannot flinch or look away. You must not cry out at any time." He held Toby's eyes and then William's. "Are we clear?"
Toby nodded. He'd been a slave - he had learned long ago how to hide what he thought and felt behind a stoic expression.
But William hesitated, in part in simple astonishment at Sandburg's commanding tone, unused to being ordered by anyone. But when he looked toward Jim and saw that his son clearly backed the younger man, he also nodded his agreement. He was a stranger in a strange land. He didn't know the customs and he wasn't fool enough to let his arrogance override his good judgment in taking the advice of those who knew better than he did what was needed. But his heart quailed. This was his son, so long lost and only just found. He didn't know how he could bear to watch with stolid impassivity. He only knew that that was what he had to do, the only thing he could do, to help Jimmy.
Satisfied, Blair turned to his saddlebags to pull them off Butternut. Looking across the hard-packed earth that separated them from Geronimo and the old man he was speaking with, presuming the buffalo-horn headgear and the painted symbols on the elderly man's face marked him as the community's Shaman, Blair called out in a carefully respectful tone, using the deferential appellation he'd heard others use in the Arapaho camp, "Grandfather, may we have water for our injured brother?"
Immediately, Spirit Talker held up a hand to stop Geronimo's recounting of what had transpired by the creek. With great dignity, he gathered up a large gourd of water and five fire-glazed ceramic mugs and then walked with a measured tread toward Sandburg. When they stood with little more than a pace separating them, he inclined his head respectfully as he said with accented but clear English, "Forgive us our rudeness. You are guests and of course you may all drink your fill. I am Spirit Talker and you are Touch That Heals. Will you present me to your comrades?"
Blair licked his lips, an unconscious indicator of the nearly uncontrollable anxiety he felt inside, and nodded with equal dignity. Turning first to Jim, he said, "This is Brave Star, my Watchman." Jim stiffened in some surprise, but then realized if the Apaches knew their Indian names, then they likely knew the rest of it, or at least had guessed. Moving on, Blair continued, "This is the father of Brave Star, William Ellison. And it is Brave Star's brother, Steven Ellison, who has been left to suffer under your eyes for weeks." Blair didn't bother to even try to hide his immense disgust at that, and Spirit Talker had the grace to bow his head in acceptance of the rebuke. It was a delicate compliment of sorts, that this white shaman was angry, not resigned, conveying that he did not assume savagery but expected the same human decency of the Apaches as he likely did of anyone else. Finally, Sandburg turned to the last member of their party, "And this is Toby Freeman, our staunch and very brave friend."
"I welcome you to our village," Spirit Talker told them formally, as he poured the ritual gift of water and handed each a mug. He hesitated a moment, then spoke from his heart, "I wish this trial was not required of you, for I can see that you are brave and your gift of horses was well conceived and generously provided. I hope that before you leave this camp that we will no longer be enemies."
Blair bowed his head as he struggled for control, unbalanced by the unexpected compassion and sincerity in the older man's voice. Taking a steadying breath, he looked up as he replied with equal candour, "We are of one mind then, Grandfather. Thank you for your courtesy to strangers in your midst."
Spirit Talker handed the gourd with the remaining cool water to Sandburg. "You will wish time to speak together so I will leave you now. But we will talk again, Touch That Heals." When he turned and walked away, Blair knelt to rummage in his saddlebag, and then brought out his small vial of laudanum. He added two drops to Steven's cup and said, "Drink that, all of it."
Suspecting Sandburg's intention, Steven resisted. "I will watch with the others."
But Blair shook his head. "You've suffered more than enough, Steven, without that. And, frankly, you're too weak, too exhausted to maintain any kind of pretense. You will help Jim more by sleeping through what is to come, as if you are confident of the outcome and have no need to watch it to be certain that your life is secure. And if Jim knows you're getting the rest you badly need, he won't have to worry about you having to witness his torture, and suffer it with him. Please, for him more than for yourself, drink it."
Steven's eyes blurred with tears as he looked up at his older brother. He struggled for control, knowing it was necessary, but it was so very hard. "I…I always admired you, Jimmy," he choked, his voice cracking. "I wanted to grow up to be just like you and…and I'm sorry that my jealousy, my self-contempt for never being as good as you were when we were kids caused me to…to do and say terrible things. I was…sorrier than you'll ever know when you left and it was too late to make things right between us. But…but…" He shook his head, blinking hard to clear the tears away before they could fall and betray the fear and grief they all felt.
Jim dropped to his knees and pulled Steven into his arms. "Shh," he murmured. "It's alright, Stevie. Those days are gone. What matters now is that we're here together. I…I've always loved you, kid. Always. Don't ever doubt that."
Steven hugged his big brother as hard as his failing strength would allow. "I've always loved you, too," he whispered brokenly. And then he pushed himself away and reached out to Blair, to take the drugged water from him. He stared into the cup for a long moment, and then drank it down. Handing the cup back, he looked up into his brother's face as he said with all the conviction he could muster, "This isn't the end, just a new beginning. I'm so desperately sorry for what you have to face tonight, but I do know, without any doubt, that you will triumph. It's who you are, Jimmy. Who you've always been."
Jim didn't fight the tear that slipped down his cheek, or even try to brush it away. "Thanks, Stevie," he murmured as he stroked his brother's brow. "Now rest. We'll have plenty of time to catch up when we get back to Flagstaff."
The powerful drug already making him drowsy, Steven nodded and held Jim's hand until sleep captured him.
Blowing out a breath, Jim settled his brother gently amongst the blankets of the litter. Conscious of his father standing close beside him, he said softly, "And, in case you don't know it, Dad - I love you, too."
William gripped his son's shoulder and bit his lip to keep it from trembling. "I'm so proud of you, Jimmy," he said hoarsely. "So very proud."
Jim smiled to himself as he looked up at his father and teased, "Hey, don't get carried away, Pop. We both know you think I could do better than be a sheriff in a no-account, one-horse town in the middle of nowhere."
Caught off guard by the humour in Jim's eyes as much as by the direct hit, William was surprised into a laugh. Hauling Jim up, he enfolded his eldest son in a tight hug. "That's only what you do, Jimmy," he said. "It's not all of what or who you are, son. You're a fine, decent, brave man and I know you became that man all by yourself. I can claim no credit, though I wish I could."
Jim shook his head as he replied with all honesty, "You're wrong, Dad. Sandburg actually thinks I learned a lot from you - and I know, though he hasn't said it, that he thinks we're a lot alike. I have to say I agree with him. We both screwed up and made mistakes. And we were both doing our best at the time. Leave it at that, okay?"
Feeling as if he'd just been granted absolution, William nodded gratefully and then he stepped back. "I do know, just like Stevie knows, that you will get through that Gauntlet. We'll all be here to support you in any way you need to heal when it's over."
Jim grinned wryly at that, and then turned to face Toby. "You sorry yet that you came along on this ride?" he asked, amusement in his eyes.
"Nope," Toby replied with aplomb. "I'm getting to see some beautiful country, meeting new folks and visiting them in their village. Now why would I be sorry about that?"
Chuckling, Jim slapped their steward cum wrangler and new but already very good friend on the shoulder. "You're a good man to have around in a tight spot, Toby. We got lucky when we found you in that fancy parlor car." Casting a glance at Blair, he added, "You're probably wondering about this 'watchman' stuff."
But Toby shook his head. "No, man. I've heard stories since I was a little bitty baby about Watchmen and their Companions. I think I got the two of you pretty much figured out."
Remembering that Toby had been a slave, Jim nodded. The other man had no doubt heard the same stories that Simon, Joel and Henri had heard growing up - he should have realized that sooner. "Yeah, I guess you have figured it all out at that."
Sandburg had stiffened as he'd listened to Jim's exchanges with his family and Toby. Dammit, Jim was doing his best to say 'good-bye' to them without getting maudlin about it. Well, he'd be damned if he'd accept any such attempts at closure. It was going to be rough, hell, it was going to be godawful, but Jim was going to survive this. There was no other acceptable outcome so far as Blair was concerned. So when Jim turned to him, he lifted his chin stubbornly and gave his friend a warning look to stave off any such sentimental nonsense. He didn't have time for it and, more, he didn't want Jim believing he was going to die. Too damned often, people got exactly what they expected - he needed Jim to expect to live.
Ellison paused when he read the message in Blair's stance and eyes. And his throat tightened on the words he might have said. His gaze dropped away, and he nodded almost imperceptively. Blair was right. This wasn't about coming to terms with maybe dying; it was about making certain he did all he could to survive. He took a breath to steady himself, and squared his shoulders before looking up to ask, "So, Chief - anything else we need to be doing to be as ready as we can be?"
"It's time to adjust your senses, Jim," Blair returned quietly. "It's almost dark, and the other fire is lit. The moon has already started to rise. It won't be long now. When it's time, we're going to walk to a point about midway along the Gauntlet, so everyone in the tribe has a good view of the show we're going to put on for them. When we're ready, and that's only when I tell you it's time, you and I will lope confidently to our respective positions at the beginning and the end of the run."
Ellison tilted his head a little as he studied Sandburg. He had to hand it to the kid. From the way he talked and acted so matter-of-factly, anyone would think he was calm and cool as cucumber with nary a worry in the world. But Jim could hear his frantic heartbeat and the shallow pant of his breath. "You know, Chief," he observed quietly with a hint of humour, "if you played poker even half as well as you're bluffing your way through this game, you'd clean up every time."
"Yeah, well, poker is only money, Jim," Blair replied with a brief, haunted look deep in his eyes. "This is a whole different game with much higher stakes - losing isn't an option."
Drums started to beat, a slow steady pulse that resonated through the night, echoing off the surrounding cliffs of stone. The warriors Geronimo had chosen for the Gauntlet moved forward, yipping and howling, waving their clubs, some short, heavy war clubs, others sturdy lances, some large and finely crafted ceremonial weapons and still others mere rocks or sticks of a thickness and length the individual warrior thought suited to the task.
"Your senses where they're supposed to be?" Blair asked softly, breathlessly, as he kicked off his boots, unbuttoned his shirt, and pulled the leather tie from his hair, shaking it loose. He ran his fingers through his mane until it was a riot of curls around his face and his shoulders.
Jim gripped his partner's shoulder. "I'm as ready as I'll ever be, Chief."
Sandburg nodded tightly, his eyes fixed on Geronimo. When the War Chief waved Jim forward imperiously, Blair lifted his chin with equal haughtiness and shook his head. "This is it," he murmured. "Follow my lead."
And then he stepped out, walking with a slow, measured tread, almost arrogant in his bearing, to the position he'd decided upon in the centre of the open space surrounded by the throng of people. Ignoring Geronimo's expression of irritation at the delay in the start of the test, Blair whispered sentinel-soft, "When I stop, move around to face me, your back to the Gauntlet."
Jim strode in a smooth marching glide behind his Guide, unaware of how much his sinuous grace mirrored the jaguar that he could not see but that was padding along on his right - the wolf keeping pace on his left, both spirit guides visible only to Blair, Spirit Talker and once again to Geronimo. When Blair stopped, Jim continued on as instructed and then elegantly turned to stand at easy attention before Sandburg. "Good," Blair murmured. "Now, take off your clothing - and do it as slowly, arrogantly, and as proudly, as you can."
Jim rolled his eyes, all too conscious of all the people, men, women and children, perfect strangers and those he loved best in the world, watching his every move. But he feigned nonchalance as he unbuttoned his shirt and slipped it off his shoulders, letting it fall to the ground. Then he kicked off his boots and after pulling off his belt, he unbuttoned his jeans. Shoving them down over his hips negligently, he stepped out of them and stood tall in the firelight, feet spaced for balance, arms by his side, his chin up and his expression haughty. His pale skin seemed to glow in the flickering firelight, illuminating the scars of a seasoned warrior and the build and bearing of a god.
"Very good," Blair murmured approvingly and even dared a smile, all too conscious that he was putting on this show as much for Jim as he was for all the others, so that Ellison would begin the Gauntlet with as much confidence and sense of personal power as was possible. And then, he began to chant - he didn't know the words that had been used less than a month ago when they'd danced around the fire on the reservation, but he would never forget the tones and cadence. Softly at first, his voice sounded in counterpoint to the drums as he slowly stripped off his own shirt and let it fall - and the scars on his back and abdomen gave testament that he, too, was a warrior as well as a shaman. Then, in opposition to the drums, his voice rose and set a different beat, and he began to move in his own rhythm, challenging the drums to follow him.
Louder now, only his voice and the drums echoed through the silence of the night as the Apaches watched, curious and then enthralled as he began the Companion's Dance around his Sentinel, his back to Jim as his feet thumped the ground solidly as he circled around. "Hey-ah-ah, Hey-ah, Ho-y-ah-ay, Hey-ah-hey," he chanted. The firelight gleamed on his bare torso and illuminated the proud high steps of his stamping feet. His arms lifted to the stars even as his head bowed to the earth and the two bright fires. Round and round he went, faster, stomping harder, his face stern as he glared proudly at the Apaches that surrounded them and watched, spellbound by his beauty, and he then he smiled wolfishly as he heard the drums finally succumb and begin pounding to the beat he was setting.
But he'd not dared hope that any others would join his chant - so when Spirit Talker added his voice in honour and respect, he exalted and his body responded with ever more impassioned movements in a dance created to celebrate the Guide's unconditional love for, and his steadfast commitment to, his Sentinel before any odds, any fate, any gods, anyone would care to name. His dance was a statement, but also a challenge. If they killed his Sentinel, they would also have to kill him, or try, before he wreaked his own revenge. In honour of his courage in the face of such impossible odds, in respect for his commitment to his Sentinel, other voices followed the old Shaman's lead, until the sound of the chant filled the night and the drums beat louder and louder still.
But some voices faltered in sudden shock and fear of his magic when flames burst from the ground behind each of his steps, rising from the earth as he danced ahead of the fire he was creating, so it followed him and created a circle around his Sentinel, a circle of pride and protection.
A circle of power.
The challenge of his dance was no idle threat and their gods were permitting this display of his power in their midst. It gave the watchers pause - and gravely worried the warriors in the Gauntlet. Were the gods indicating that this test was somehow wrong and, perhaps, even an affront to them?
Sandburg's voice rose higher, louder still, compelling, mesmerizing the Apaches - and their captive comrades - who all gaped at the spectacle before them, shocked into silence as the flames rose higher and higher so that it was only his voice, and Spirit Talker in low harmony, and the drums that filled the night.
Until Blair did one last turn that brought him again face to face with Jim, who had stood throughout like the statue Blair had asked him to be, though he could not constrain his expression of absolute pride in his Guide. Blair stopped cold, his hands in the air and his head thrown back…and waited until there was absolute silence in the encampment. Then he dropped his hands to his side and took a step closer to Ellison. Reaching out, he laid his palm over his Sentinel's heart, and Jim dropped like a stone to one knee before him. Blair kept his right hand steady on Jim's chest and then lifted his left high in the air, flames shooting from his fingertips high toward the stars, even as the circle of flames around them continued to burn strongly, so that they were illuminated, starkly etched against the darkness, as if the gods themselves shone down upon them that they might be seen by all and respected as chosen ones.
And then he bent to kiss Jim's brow - and the fires he had created blinked out - so that the last clear image in everyone's eyes was that of a powerful shaman blessing his protector. In the sudden dark silence, illuminated only by the flicker of the two fires at either end of the Gauntlet, Blair whispered, "I would give all I am if I could do this for you. I'm so sorry that I can't."
And in his heartfelt message, the Sentinel heard what he needed, to know absolutely that it was his place to take and triumph over this test. For there was no way on earth that he would ever allow his Guide to be so abused. Jim stood then and gripped both Blair's shoulders as he replied, "I'm not sorry, my Guide. This is my task to do, my test and my place in this moment in time."
Blair nodded, his eyes glistening with pride and love. "Go now, my Sentinel. And triumph. Know that I wait for you at the end of this challenge - and I will not let you fall."
They turned as one and loped with deceptive casualness to their respective positions at either end of the Gauntlet.
The warriors who formed the walls of the long channel of pain shuffled around into their places, disconcerted and uneasy, some in awe, some fearful - the power they had just witnessed was great indeed, and their own Shaman had shown his respect for these strangers. The gods were watching - and the gods had already made their decision about how this test would end. Each man along the line swallowed as he wondered if he would please the gods that night - or offend them.
Spirit Talker turned a measuring look upon Geronimo and quirked one brow, his mouth set in a stern line.
Geronimo held the Shaman's gaze for a long moment, reading the message plainly in the older man's eyes. He had been warned - and he had not paid sufficient heed.
And now the test must be done.
Ripping his gaze from his Shaman's, the War Chief called out, first in his own language and then in English. "This white man has come unbidden and unwelcome to our lands. He and those with him claim friendship. They claim they come in peace. They claim to offer no threat. But how can they be believed when all their brothers have only told us lies? It is for the gods to show their favour. Let the gods decide if they warrant our welcome and our trust or if they should die for their lies."
He raised his arms into the air and every club was lifted along the line.
"Run, white man," he commanded. "Run for your life."
But though the command had been given, Jim did not immediately race forward. It was one thing to contemplate the idea of being beaten savagely, another to know it was about to happen. Harder still, for the warrior that he was, to know he could not fight back but must only endure. Breathing deeply to quell his fear, he lifted his head, opening his vision to look down the long passage at Blair at the far end, standing straight and proud and then smiling at him, knowing Jim had truly listened to his words and, by refusing to be commanded but determining his own time to begin, was assuming control of his actions. He would enter the Gauntlet by his own choice, when he chose to do so. The Apaches didn't control this race, he did. He would determine when it started and how it would be run. The warriors along the line had lifted their clubs long moments ago, muscles tensed to smash down blows upon him. But now they waited, confused and uncertain, their arms growing tired, their concentration no longer focused. He looked again to Blair, who nodded - and then Jim lunged forward with great, long strides, so that he was well into the Gauntlet before any blow caught him.
But the initial advantage of modest surprise was only momentary. Blows, hard and sharp, rained down upon his body; most were glancing hits, because he was already past, but others connected with staggering force. He'd not gone five paces before he felt ribs crack and his shoulders, back, arms and chest were throbbing with fiery agony. The Apaches around him resumed their high-pitched yipping and his whole world tunneled down to blood-curdling noise and increasing pain. Another step, his arms up to protect his head and absorb the blows, and then another - and then he dropped and rolled, the clubs swinging through suddenly empty air. Surging up, he grabbed a club from a startled warrior who had not expected the attack, and he swung it hard, right to crack one man's knee and then, with blinding swiftness, left to shatter another's arm, leaving them suffering their own anguish in his wake. And still he kept running, the club now a shield to block blows more than a weapon, but he shifted and feinted from side to side as he raced ever onward, occasionally striking out with stunning effect. The warriors along his path did not know when he would swing out with swift, sudden blows, so they stiffened in unconscious defence when he was, most often, simply racing by.
A Gauntlet of forty men, twenty on either side, is not a great distance when measured by ordinary standards, a pace between each warrior, not more than sixty feet. But it seemed an infinitely long alley of relentless agony and utter confusion, an endless passage that appeared to grow longer with every step. One blow, the hardest so far, landed squarely across his kidneys, driving the breath from his body and he stumbled to his knees. And as soon as he faltered, the thuds fell harder and faster on his flesh, and the shrieking of the warriors erupted with new frenzy. Shaking his head, he forced himself to move forward, lurching now in a crouching stumble, gasping for breath.
Another blow broke his arm, sending a white hot flash of sharp, nauseating fire into his shoulders, his neck and chest. Blinking as he staggered onward, he saw another club coming toward his head in a killing blow, and he dropped swiftly to roll, but with less speed, less strength than he'd had what seemed an eon ago, and the blow clipped the back of his head, stunning him. But, stubbornly, he pushed himself to his feet, dizzy, lost, not sure of how far he'd come or how far he had yet to go.
And still the blows rained heavily upon his naked body, opening cuts so that he bled, his skin streaked with glistening dark crimson in the firelight.
"Chief?" he grated desperately, his jaw tight against the pain as he strained to hear Sandburg's voice despite the cacophony of sound that surrounded him. He was scared now; afraid he was going to fail after all.
"I'm here," he heard Blair respond, his Guide's voice pitched low and steady, his tone as pure as a deep bell on a clear winter morning under the howling of a distant wind. "You're almost home, Jim. Keep coming. You're winning."
Winning? He gasped and lunged forward; stumbled to his knees but then pushed himself up to a crouching, agonizing stagger, heedless now of the blows to his back and shoulders. It was all one consuming torment and he could no longer differentiate new blows from the agony of those that still burned so fiercely in his body.
"Listen to my voice, Jim. Follow it. I'm here, waiting for you. Not far now. Don't stop."
In the utter confusion that voice was his compass, the only means he had of knowing which direction would lead him to sanctuary. He was crawling now, digging the fingers of his right hand into the dirt to haul himself forward, his left arm dangling uselessly at his side. He could scarcely see for the blood blinding him after a rock had opened a wide cut on his forehead; couldn't think past the hideous pain pounding in his skull and over every inch of his body. Blood and pain were his entire reality - blood and pain and Sandburg's compelling voice drawing him on - like the north star on a raging sea, a rope in the utter darkness of a cave - his path, his strength.
"That's it, Jim! Just a few more feet and you're home!" Sandburg's voice cheered him on. There was no hint of doubt, no hesitation, not the least note of anxious fear. Calm, confident - and increasingly exultant as he won his way closer and closer still.
The pain had no meaning now. It didn't matter that he couldn't see. There was only Blair's voice in the chaos around him - and he clawed his way forward, his teeth bared in a snarl and his jaw tight with determination; his breath harsh in his chest.
Until, suddenly, the wild yipping and high-pitched keening became utter silence. And he sagged to the ground, wretchedly grateful that the blows had also miraculously stopped. The storm had ended.
"Stand up, Jim," Blair commanded sternly, though he spoke so low none but Ellison could hear him. "You have to stand up - NOW!"
God, he hurt. Stand? Dazed, barely clinging to consciousness, he panted for breath.
"You can do this, Jim," Blair soothed. "Stand - and then you can rest."
It was the utter irresistible and compelling confidence in that voice that had him gather the last vestiges of his strength. Sandburg was so close. He had to stand. Had to reach out. Had to touch.
Slowly, in the utter silence of an awed people, the Sentinel pushed himself to his knees, and then got one sole planted solidly on the earth. He pressed down on his thigh with his right hand, shoving himself up to his feet. He stood swaying, blinking, gasping for breath. Reaching out, he groaned in vulnerable, trusting need, "Blair…"
And before he felt his knees give way, his Guide's strong arms were around him, holding him securely. Safe now, he sagged in Sandburg firm, steady embrace - confident that his Guide would not let him fall though darkness swirled around him and he knew the last of his strength was fully spent.
"Extinguish the red lantern, Jim," Blair called urgently.
He blinked and shut down the flame - and there was only darkness.
It was over. William could no longer suppress the sob in his throat and his face fell into his hands as he wept. He'd felt every blow, suffered every break and bruise, every cut and welt. He'd been scarcely able to draw breath as Jim fought his way with poignant, courageous determination toward Sandburg. He would have given every cent he had to his name, every possession, to have spared his son such torture.
But he could only watch and clutch his grief and pain to his heart, until he thought it might burst in his chest - until, finally, it was over. And Jim had won his way through.
Toby gripped his shoulder in silent compassion, and then moved forward quickly to help Sandburg ease Ellison to the ground. Though Blair didn't want to relinquish his hold, Toby gently shifted to get his arms around Jim's back and under his knees, and then he stood, tenderly cradling the big man like a child in his arms. "You need to get your medicines and supplies, Doc," he murmured kindly. "I'll carry him to wherever you want me to lay him down."
Blair looked up at the taller man, his own control gone, tears filling his eyes and streaming down his cheeks. Numbly, he nodded and pulled himself together. Jim needed him now. He didn't have the luxury of falling apart in a grief so massive that it clogged his lungs and cramped in his gut. He turned, one fist gripping Jim's limp hand, unable to let go completely, to lead them back to William and Steven.
But Spirit Talker moved across his path and, with a steady hand upon his shoulder, guided Sandburg to his own tent, that Jim might be placed upon soft furs, sheltered from curious eyes. The Shaman called to one of his people to bring Touch That Heals' bags, and then he quietly directed others to bring Brave Star's father and brother to be with him in the tent.
So far as he was aware of anything beyond Jim's battered, broken and bloodied body, Sandburg was grateful. But everything else seemed so distant, even meaningless. Once they had moved inside the tent, he knelt beside Jim and mutely began to assess the damage, determining the degree of severity and urgency for treatment of too many cracked and broken bones. A basin of water was set beside him, and clean cloths. Swiftly, but with a delicate, tender touch, he bathed the blood from Jim's face and body. Turning mechanically to reach for his saddlebags, he rummaged and found his fine bone needle and the length of catgut he'd boiled back on the train and left in a clean pouch, so that they would be ready for use if needed - never dreaming that he'd be sewing up gaping, swelling gashes all over Jim's head, shoulders, arms, chest and back.
Once the deepest cuts were closed, with Spirit Talker's help he manipulated broken ribs into place and bound Jim's chest tightly, to support the damaged bones and help him breathe. And then he set the broken arm after correcting the dislocated shoulder. He spoke not a word, looked at no one but Ellison for all the two hours that he tended to the wounds, splinting and binding damaged bones. He was dimly grateful that Ellison remained deeply unconscious throughout his ministrations, but also very worried about the possibility of head or other internal injuries. He tried to take solace from the fact that Jim's pupils reacted evenly to the flicker of candlelight, that his breathing remained steady with no blood bubbling on his lips and that there were no obvious symptoms of internal bleeding. Jim had been able to stand at the end, so his spine was intact. But his upper body and face were turning black with a multitude of contusions and bruises and, as deeply unconscious as he was, there was no way to determine if his injuries were life threatening. Once he'd bandaged the last wound, Blair laid one hand on Jim's brow and another over his heart. Bowing his head, he closed his eyes and pictured Jim strong and whole, healed, and willed him to be that way again. Blair felt warmth grow in his body and flow from his hands into his best friend, and continued with his spiritual healing, the transfer of his own life energy into Jim until he felt the world begin to darken around him; only then, did he pull back. He couldn't afford to pass out; he needed to keep watch over Jim until his Sentinel came back to him.
Sighing heavily, feeling cold and hollow inside but for his overwhelming sorrow for how much Jim had suffered and would suffer still, he opened his eyes and sat still mute, hunched into himself, feeling utterly desolate. His fingers trembled and then he began to shiver with the cold of his own shock as reaction to all that had happened swept over him. His chest was so tight it was hard to breathe. Still, he struggled to maintain some vestige of control, however pathetic and probably, ultimately, pointless.
William watched him and knew that Sandburg was shattering in front of his eyes but was still fighting to hold on, to not break down, and his heart twisted at the terrible pain he could see in Blair's eyes. For once in his life, he didn't think - he just acted swiftly to pull the young man into a tight embrace, holding Blair's head against his shoulder, just under his chin. "Let it go, Blair," he murmured. "You can let it out now. It's okay, son. I've got you."
For a moment longer, Blair held himself stiffly in the older man's embrace, and then William heard a low, terrible keening that was quickly stifled. Sandburg's shoulders shook as he wept silently in utter exhaustion, no longer able to hold it all in. He shuddered with the force of his grief and sorrow - and guilt. For he'd been the one to broker the deal for their lives with Geronimo, but it had been Jim who had had to be the martyr for all of them. It wasn't just the physical injuries that tore at Blair, as grievous as they were. No one, not even Jim, could take such relentless, wretched abuse, be beaten mercilessly to the ground, without the ordeal leaving scars that could not be seen but which would never fully heal.
"Ah, Jim," he wept brokenly. "I'm so sorry."
The momentary breakdown, born of exhaustion and anguish, didn't last long. Sniffing, embarrassed, Sandburg pulled himself together and eased his way out of William's grasp.
"Sorry, Bill," he muttered, as he wiped his face with his fingers. "Guess I lost it. Thanks, for, uh, well, giving me someone to hold onto."
Ellison, Senior gripped the younger man's shoulder. "Please, don't apologize," he soothed, his voice raspy with his own harrowing emotion. "At least I felt like I could help someone here tonight. You…you did a good job patching Jimmy up."
Blair sighed and nodded as he turned his gaze to Jim's battered face. "He'll be in a lot of pain for a few days. But he's going to be all right," he replied. Blair rubbed his face and then pushed his loose hair back behind his ears. Turning to Steven, who was sleeping a few feet away, he said, "Since we can't get Steven back to Flagstaff right away, I better fix his leg now."
"Oh, hey," William protested. "You're done in. What you need is some sleep."
But Blair shook his head dully. "I won't sleep until Jim wakes up, and I know that…" he hesitated, not wanting to worry William about the possibility of head injury, "uh, that he's mending okay. And Steven has had to suffer that leg way too long already."
"Can we help?" Toby asked, having been watching quietly, wishing there was more he could do to be of use.
"Yeah, actually, there is," Sandburg confirmed with a grateful nod. "It's going to be a bit rough. I have to break the leg again, as it's started to heal wrong, and then reset it. William, if you could stand by to hold Steven if he flinches, it would help him and me. Even though he's unconscious, he's likely to feel this, and hearing your voice will reassure him. Toby, you can help me make sure the leg is set straight and stays that way while I bind and splint it."
It was a long arduous thirty minutes, but at last it was done, and Sandburg hoped Steven's leg would heal as strong as it had ever been. They'd need to ensure that he was well nourished, so that his body would have the strength to heal itself, but at least now they weren't on the run and had access to healthy food. When he was finished, he gave Steven another dose of laudanum, and then returned to Jim's side.
Some of the wounds hadn't required stitches, but were still oozing through the bandages. So, with William's help, he removed the soiled rags, cleaned the sore scrapes and applied fresh herbs and then redressed them. It occurred to William, with poignant sadness, that he had done more in that one night to give physical care and support to his sons than he'd ever done when they were children. He hadn't been one to hold them when they were hurting, or when they cried, and he wondered now why it had seemed so hard those long years ago. Maybe too much of his heart was still so bruised over losing his beloved Grace, because he hadn't been able to help her and he ached with his inability to protect her. Maybe he just hadn't had anything to give when the boys were small. He regretted that now. Regretted it profoundly. They'd all been hurt and confused and it had pretty much destroyed their family. Watching his sons sleep now, grieving for the pain they suffered, he hoped with a kind of desperation that maybe it wasn't too late, and they could be a family, a healthy family, again.
He also found himself watching Sandburg. The man was a constant surprise. First, he'd not seemed the sort William had thought Jimmy would choose as a close friend, and had even resented him. But there was strength in the small, young man and, often, wisdom. He was a skilled healer, that much was clear. 'As well as compassionate,' William thought when he remembered how Blair had spared Steven the ordeal of watching Jimmy be brutalized in the Gauntlet. And that stuff with the dancing and the fire - that had come out of nowhere; had been astonishing. He found himself wishing that Steven had seen that and resolved to tell him all about it. He'd never seen anything so primal - or beautiful. And he'd never witnessed such a passionate display of friendship in his life. That boy would die for his Jimmy, he was sure of it. And that made the young physician very special to the older man. He was glad, when he thought back on it, that he'd had the sense to comfort the man when he'd wept with the strain of it all - glad he hadn't retreated into his more normal, insular shell of discomfort with any display of emotion. Blair was doing his damnedest to support all of them, and it made William feel protective and strong, paternal he supposed, when Sandburg had accepted his comfort. Made him feel needed, and he hadn't felt that in a long, long time. That night, with all that had happened, and all his fears for Steven over the past weeks, he sorely needed to be needed.
Finally, exhausted, he laid down near Steven, not far from where Toby slept and, as he drifted to sleep, he watched Sandburg keeping vigil over his older son. And he smiled to himself, thinking that Jimmy was in very good hands.
When Jim finally woke the next day, long after the sun had risen in the east, he felt oddly separated from his body, numb and disoriented. He could feel the distant aches, and he felt utterly exhausted, too weak to move. Blinking, he gradually focused on his surroundings and frowned, not having any idea of where he was. He could smell wood smoke and he was in a tent; for a moment he wondered if he was back on the Arapaho reservation.
"Hey," Blair called softly and lightly squeezed his leg - his upper body and limbs were so bruised and battered than Sandburg didn't dare exercise any pressure upon them.
Jim's gaze drifted slowly to look up at Blair and he cleared his throat, wondering why he felt so parched. Gently, Blair supported his head and held a cup of cool water to his lips and he drank it with a sense of delicious relief.
"How are your lanterns, Jim?" Sandburg asked quietly.
Ellison thought about that for a minute and then murmured, "I'm okay."
Blair smiled, but it didn't reach the sadness in his eyes. "Do you remember what happened?" he asked then.
It took effort, but then Jim's eyes sparked with the memories and he looked up with an urgent expression of anxiety. "The Gauntlet," he gasped. "Did I…did I make it through?"
This time the smile was real and Blair's eyes glowed with pride as he answered, "Yes, Jim. You made it. You were magnificent. They will tell stories about you until you are a legend. Now all you have to do is rest and get strong again."
Ellison closed his eyes with the indescribable relief of knowing he hadn't failed the others. But then he frowned as fractured memories reminded him that it had been…painful. "Why don't I hurt more?" he wondered, again searching Sandburg's face. "You drugged me, didn't you?" he demanded accusingly.
"Yeah," Blair admitted, unrepentant. "You suffered enough, big guy. In a couple of days, you won't need help dealing with it, but you've got a fair number of cracked or broken bones and most of your body is one massive bruise. So, relax, float a little. Sleep."
But Jim wasn't entirely reassured. He fought the muzziness and the profound urge to close his eyes. There was something else he needed to know first. "Are you okay?" he asked anxiously, his eyes dark with worry. "You didn't have to, uh, take any trips to The Forest or anything?"
"No, no trips to The Forest for either of us," his Guide replied evenly, avoiding any mention of the energy he'd poured into Jim the night before to heal Ellison physically but also, he hoped, emotionally and spiritually. "I told you. You were absolutely magnificent. You took everything they could dish out, and you stood tall at the end. And when you finally did let go, you still held on to some core of strength inside to make sure I didn't have to do anything you'd think was stupid. All I had to do was patch you up."
Jim studied Blair silently, and then shook his head weakly. "You talk a good line of bull, Sandburg, but I ain't buying," he rasped hoarsely. "You look half-dead; I think you're hurting worse than I am. Frankly, Chief, you look like you're about to fall over on your face."
"Geez, you look like shit, man. Please don't tell me I look that bad!" Blair quipped with a teasing grin, but he couldn't do much to bring colour to his bone white face or slow down the anxious beat of his heart. Giving up the charade, knowing Jim could read him like a book, he bowed his head as he murmured, his voice catching, "I'm just so damned glad you're okay, you know?"
"I know, Chief," Jim sighed. "Come here, kid," he added, reaching up to take Blair's arm and tug him down until his head was lying on Jim's chest. Sandburg tried to resist, but didn't want to struggle too hard lest he hurt Jim, as he muttered about cracked ribs and that Jim didn't need his heavy head making it all that much harder to breathe. But Ellison just kept tugging at him, and cut over the flow of protest, "I'll breathe and rest better if I know where you are. Relax, Chief. You need to sleep, too."
Blair stilled and sighed, finally allowing himself to be pulled down until he was lying beside Jim, his head resting on Ellison's chest. Gradually, he relaxed as he listened to the steady, sure sound of Jim's strong heart beating evenly under his ear. "Okay," he murmured.
Ellison smiled drowsily, as he lifted his good right arm up around Sandburg's shoulders. He took a deep, contented breath, secure now with the feel and sound and scent of his Guide. But just before he drifted back to an easier sleep he murmured, "I wouldn't have made it without you, Chief - you didn't let me fall."
When Jim next woke, his first awareness was of Blair, deeply asleep beside him, one arm across his body like a kind of shield. Yawning, he sniffed and was more aware of the pain, so he adjusted the flame in the red lantern before he opened his eyes to look around. Things still seemed a little distant and remote, but he felt a lot more connected, more alert, than he had that morning.
He was surprised to see Geronimo sitting cross-legged on the ground beside him, and he couldn't help tensing a little as he watched the Apache with narrowed eyes. The War Chief nodded solemnly. "The gods have spoken, Brave Star. You have proven the strength and purity of your heart, and you and those you protect are welcome in my village."
Relaxing at the man's words, a sardonic smile played briefly around Jim's lips, but he mastered his tendency to mock with ironic humour. "I appreciate that," he said dryly. "But, hopefully, we won't intrude upon your hospitality for long."
Geronimo's eyes sparked with humour. "You will remain here until my Shaman and yours agree that you and your brother are strong enough to make the journey back up the long hill."
Ellison did grin at that. Clearly, both of them well understood who was really in charge, however much others might not. "How is my brother?" he asked, suddenly sober again.
"He grows stronger," Geronimo informed him and then nodded toward the far wall of the tent. Shifting his gaze, Jim saw his brother sleeping peacefully and noted his colour was already a whole lot better. His father and Toby were also dozing nearby. "He will recover, Watchman. You are strong men - you both survived and triumphed when others would have surely died." Thoughtfully, the War Chief's gaze dropped to Sandburg. "Knowing others believe in your ability to prevail and knowing, as well, that you are not alone are often what determines who will live when there is no real cause for hope and the path is, in truth, impossible to follow."
"Trust me, Geronimo," Jim replied hoarsely as he stroked Blair's curls. "Those are the only things that keep a man alive when his own strength is gone."
When Blair woke in early evening, he found Jim was sleeping peacefully next to him. After checking Ellison's dressings, and then moving across the tent to give Steven another dose of laudanum, he slipped out of the tent. William and Toby were sitting by the fire with Spirit Talker and the three men were eating a stew that smelled appetizing.
"How're you doing, Blair?" William asked. "Hungry?"
"I could eat," Sandburg smiled and sank down with the other men. Spirit Walker filled a clay bowl with the fragrant mixture of venison, sage, small wild onions and other things Blair didn't recognize. The Shaman handed him a wooden spoon and a piece of small flat bread to complement the simple meal. As he ate, he told the others that his two patients seemed to be doing fine.
When he'd eaten his fill, he set the bowl aside with thanks to Spirit Walker, and then stood. "I think I'll take a walk - I won't go far." And then he turned away before the others could offer to accompany him. Weary to his bones despite hours of sleep, Blair ambled toward the red cliffs that rose behind the village and gazed up at the rosy colours softened with an almost ethereal glow from the dying sun. He inhaled deeply and tried to let the peace and serenity of the place ease his soul.
"You need rest, my son," Spirit Walker spoke quietly behind him. "Your strength is thin."
Blair looked over his shoulder and then up at the cliffs. "I will rest soon, Grandfather."
The Shaman moved forward to stand beside him, regarding him in silence for a long moment. "You gave much to your Watchman last night. He will not suffer from his ordeal."
"No more than he already has," Sandburg agreed quietly. Sighing, he looked around and then sat on a nearby boulder. "I appreciate your counsel, but we both know I can't rest yet; when Jim is stronger, in a few days, it will be time enough."
"I hear you, Touch That Heals," Spirit Walker replied soberly. "But hear me. The unity of a Watchman and his Companion requires both to be strong; you need time to allow your spirit to be restored. Beware that you do not wait too long."
Spirit Walker turned and left him then to think on the Shaman's words. Blair crossed his arms and bowed his head in the silence of the dying evening. He knew the wise old man was right, but being right didn't change reality. There were miles yet to go before he could relax his own vigil for their collective security. He would just have to pace himself and hope that nothing more would demand him to expend more energy than he had to give.
It was a week before Spirit Talker and Touch That Heals agreed the two Ellison brothers could be safely moved from the camp and, by then, Jim was long past being willing to lie around all day being fussed over. The swelling of his injuries had diminished and the bruises were fading from blue-black to mottled yellow. The lawman was glad there was no mirror in the camp for him to view the damage to his face, if the way others winced when they looked at him was any indication of how bad he looked. He still ached all over and his muscles were stiff, and he was so weary that he slept more than he was awake. He imagined that being trampled by a herd of cattle would leave a man feeling pretty much the same way as he did. Reflecting back, it all seemed like a nightmare of fractured images and sensations and of feeling lost, unable to fight back but only having to keep running and running with a mounting sense of desperation. The memories not only haunted his sleep but also ambushed him in waking hours, leaving him feeling anxious and unsettled.
But he couldn't complain of the care given to him. Sandburg, his father and Toby hovered around him and Steven, leaping to respond to their every wish or need, soothing and reassuring with low voices and gentle touches, calming the nightmares during the night and the sudden attacks of nameless, humiliating anxiety during the day. Jim sometimes found it hard to look into their eyes, though, for they were haunted by their own memories and their pain was harder to bear than his own.
For all of that week of healing, the Apaches treated them with gracious solicitude, bringing food and water and wood for their fire. He noticed most seemed shy of him when he finally ventured from the tent, bandages swathing his head and torso, his left arm in a sling and leaning heavily on Sandburg's shoulders. The villagers looked at him only from the corners of their eyes and he could see awed respect on their faces, hear their honour of him in the tone of their voices. The children, especially, gaped at him, and Sandburg as well, for that matter, as if they were some wondrous beings, not quite of this earth. It was…unsettling.
But despite the discomfort of his healing injuries, Jim found himself feeling increasingly at peace. He was getting along with his father better than he ever had in his life, and he and Steven had begun to catch up on the lost years. But there was also something about the red stone cliffs that soothed him, and the air felt invigorating. He could see the others relaxing in their environment as well. Blair said, when he mentioned it, that he felt energy in the place that was restorative and comforting. Sandburg also noticed that Jim's injuries were healing faster than he would have expected and that even Steven seemed stronger than he could have predicted, given how long he'd been in pain and without sufficient nourishment. There was something about this land around Oak Creek Canyon that gave strength and made people feel…happy.
So, when the time came for them to leave, it was with a certain, inexplicable reluctance on all their parts, almost as if the high red cliffs were entreating them to stay. But it was time to move on, to return to their own lands and lives. They settled Steven on his litter for the journey back to Flagstaff. Though he was still gaunt with privation, he was much less fragile, and his bones no longer pushed so sharply against his skin. Jim, however, insisted that he was well enough to ride and simply snorted when Sandburg suggested he, too, should rest on a litter. They would take it slow, covering the distance in three, maybe even four days, so that neither of the brothers suffered any significant discomfort.
When they rode out, the villagers were as silent as when they'd ridden in more than a week before, though this time their silence was less curiousity than it was awe. These were the first white men to leave their camp in almost a decade - all others had been brought as captives and killed. As the riders moved past the edge of the village, they were exceedingly surprised to see the Apache warriors who had formed the Gauntlet aligned on their ponies on either side of the path, their lances at rest. It was a rare gesture of respect from the Indian warriors to others who had earned their homage. At the end of the kind of 'honour guard', Geronimo sat proudly on his pinto on one side of the trail, and Spirit Talker faced him on the other side. As they rode past, no words were spoken, but Spirit Walker gifted them with a smile of brotherhood while Geronimo first stared at them with wary respect and then inclined his head briefly, as was appropriate in the presence of honoured enemies.
Jim and Blair returned his stony gaze and kept their heads high - they had earned the respect being shown to them, but they both smiled softly and inclined their own heads to Spirit Talker in friendship. Toby and William rode with their eyes straight ahead, nervous in the midst of so many fearsome warriors and Steven felt particularly helpless on his travois. The complete silence was eerie and, other than Spirit Talker's demeanor, there was no sense of warmth or friendship surrounding them. They were all relieved to clear the camp and leave the Apache warriors behind them as they wound their way through the red cliff canyons back to Oak Creek and the first leg of their long journey home.
Traveling through the sweet-smelling cool shadows of the lush forest was pleasant. And now, with no fear of the Apache, they could talk and tease back and forth, their laughter often ringing out to echo against the high cliffs. The others were downright curious about, even in awe of, Jim's senses and Blair's astonishing power to create fire, so the two partners shared some of what they'd learned on the Arapaho reservation. Toby then told the stories that he'd heard as a boy about legends from Africa about Watchmen and their Companions, and similar tales he'd heard from his brother's adopted people, the Seminole. Jim and Blair shared stories of their lives in Bitterwood Creek, and they learned how Toby had made the shift from wrangler to steward, having been raised a house slave, and even educated a bit, as the playmate of his master's son. But when he'd grown older, taller, his master's wife had decided she wanted a playmate of her own and the master had decided it would be better for all if he left the house to work in the barn and corral. William and Steven talked about their lives in Philadelphia, spinning hilarious yarns about the intricacies of survival in the self-conscious and vain high society of a big eastern city.
And now that the crisis of survival was past and they had the time to reflect on matters back in Flagstaff, William asked Steven to explain the wire he'd sent just before he had disappeared, about his concerns that something seemed 'fishy' in the construction operation there. Steven told them that he'd thought there were discrepancies between the reports sent back east and the actual progress on the line - and that the inventory of supplies and rail stock seemed far less than it should have been, given the orders shipped. He'd also been uncomfortable with the way he'd seen the workers treated - routinely cowed by intimidation and even physical abuse. He hadn't had time to investigate, however, to either confirm or resolve his suspicions, and he'd been nervous of pursuing the matter when he was completely on his own. If there were illegal activities going on, he'd've been vulnerable to their attack. As they discussed the situation, the five men decided how they might determine if, indeed, something illegal was going on once they got back to the camp. Steven was gratified that they took his impressions seriously and were prepared to help him find the truth of what was going on back in Flagstaff.
They took comfort in one another's company around the campfire at night as they began to learn more of one another's lives. Much more than broken bones and a wasted body were healing during that journey - the recent hidden wounds of having to watch a loved one suffer, and the older scars of an unhappy family, also healed and began to fade.
Late in the morning of the fourth day of their journey, they arrived back at the railroad camp - and everything stilled around them as they rode past, men watching mute and wide-eyed, as if they were seeing ghosts in their midst.
It was only then that they realized they'd been gone so long that everyone had assumed they were dead. When the import of that realization sank in, William hurried to the telegraph office to disabuse his partners, Steven and Toby's employers and the people of Bitterwood Creek of the mistaken assumption. Being dead, the elder Ellison observed sardonically, wasn't at all good for business.
Toby and Blair got Jim and Steven settled in the Pullman coach, Steven being assigned Sandburg's lower bunk while the physician moved to the one over Jim's at the far end of the car. But both brothers were now long past the need for constant bed rest, and Steven was particularly restive after such prolonged inactivity while bundled tightly in the travois. So Toby fashioned some crutches for him so that he, too, could amble around despite his broken leg. Over the next few days, all five men could often be seen walking around the construction camp, chatting casually with people or just watching with keen, observant eyes.
Some began to wonder why they were still hanging around and hadn't gotten their fancy car rolling back east. Joshua Danzing, the foreman, finally came right out and asked why they hadn't yet headed back home. William regarded the man blandly and simply said his sons needed more exercise to build back their strength than they'd be able to get in a cramped railroad car, and added for good measure that the fresh air and sun was good for them.
The idle ramblings of the other men around the camp and worksite were far from as casual as they were designed to appear. Under the guise of indulging their own particular interests, they split up during the day to gather information, and they pooled their observations in the evening.
Sandburg took on the exploration and evaluation of the huge tent village and the infrastructure supporting the workers - food, health care and safety standards. It took him less than a day to stomp back to the Pullman, livid with what he had found. The living quarters were noisome hellholes of inadequate shelter against the elements, and vile sanitary conditions. He'd discovered the workers had set up their own informal and wholly inadequate infirmary in a group of tents at one end of the camp, because there was no one charged with providing them with any kind of medical attention or care. There were more than three hundred men on the dollar a day payroll, and more than forty of them were off sick at any given period of time - their pay duly docked for the days they didn't work. The ill and injured men suffered in stuffy tents on filthy cots, many nearly delirious with fever. So Sandburg spent the next several days simply doing what he did best - doctoring the sick. As for the food, he pronounced it loathsome, inedible and utterly lacking in anything that passed for healthy nutrition. There were no fresh vegetables or fruit, and precious little meat - the meals were a uniform, unappetizing gray gruel of boiled oats or rye and hard tack. In the evenings, he wrote up his findings into a concise report that was damning when held against the records that William spent his time studying in the construction office.
Neither needing the exercise or having any interest in roaming around the camp and worksite like the younger men, as a major investor in the railroad, Ellison, Senior simply presented himself at the office and made himself at home with the ledgers, invoices and inventories of stocks and supplies. Danzing wasn't pleased, but Ellison was a senior partner in the company and could hardly be refused. The files Jim had observed William studying in Bitterwood Creek and during the train ride to Flagstaff were records he'd gathered when Steven had first wired him. So he was well versed in the investments, reports of progress and the expenditures on wages and supplies before they'd even arrived. On site, he studied the ledgers and records to see if there were any inconsistencies with the formally submitted reports. Between them, he and Blair quickly found the discrepancies of what the books said had been purchased in terms of food, supplies, tenting, clothing, medical necessities and so on and what actually existed in reality. The books were a lie, and the money purported to have been spent legitimately was missing.
The two semi-invalided brothers, Jim and Steven, added their own observations to the growing pool of evidence. Steven hobbled about on crutches, Jim at his side to lend support, as they spent most of their time on the worksite, watching the road bed being leveled, the rails and ties put in place and secured with hammered steel spikes. William's formal files claimed a certain rate of progress, and therefore a specific rate of consumption of supplies needing replacement for the track to move on to the west. But the pace of work claimed and the materials ordered was greater than the actual work done - yet there was no surplus of steel in the camp's inventory. In addition, though a goodly supply of wood was ordered and paid for, workers were also involved in chopping down trees locally to saw into ties. It appeared there was considerable theft going on, the surplus inventory being sold to as yet unknown parties somewhere along the supply line, and the money pocketed by whoever was doing the selling. The two brothers also very quickly picked up on the oppressive atmosphere of fear that pervaded the worksites. Many of the crew bosses strutted about like bantam roosters and routinely practiced both physical and verbal intimidation, drunk with their authority and power over the hapless workers.
Toby spent his time chatting with the workers themselves. And he found his own sorry evidence of abuse of authority, outright prejudice and discrimination against the black and Chinese workers that left them whipped and battered by their callous, cruel overlords. The wanton abuse of power was bad enough in its own right - but the steward heard disturbing tales about the disappearance of workers who challenged back. Not just one or two here and there, but more than a dozen men had gone missing in the last two weeks alone. The supervisors shrugged and said it was a transient workforce. They weren't paid to be babysitters and if a man decided to move on, it was no concern of theirs. But William pointed out that even if the workers had simply gotten fed up and left, the books showed they were still being paid and, when that came to light, they went back and checked on the names of those who were down sick. It appeared that they were still getting paid as well, though the workers weren't seeing the money. Outright fraud was going on.
And maybe worse. They'd need to find a body to prove it, but increasingly the five men began to suspect that murder was being done - on a wholesale scale.
Regardless, they had more than enough evidence to support the arrest of Joshua Danzing and several of his subordinates. However, Jim was the only gunman in their small group, and he knew there were too many armed men for him to take on alone. They considered just hitching up to their locomotive and chugging right on out of Flagstaff, with the intention of reporting the situation directly to the President of the Railroad, in Santa Fe. But, they knew that their own behaviours had been watched and that Danzing and his lot were suspicious. If they left, evidence could either be hidden or destroyed, or the crooks could use the time to make good their escape. It was a risk to send a wire outlining the criminal activity and requesting legal support, but they were unwilling to simply leave Flagstaff without seeing justice done, or being there to support the charges laid by pointing out the specific evidence of perfidy. They knew it could be no more than a matter of days before Federal Marshals arrived to take matters in hand. In the meantime, they fondly hoped that, if their actions were exposed, Danzing and his crowd would hesitate to use violence that might be very hard to explain to the federal officers. One man could meet with an 'accident'; even two could be unlucky. But if five men died in such a short period of time, it would be mighty hard to explain.
So William sent a wire to the President of the railroad in Santa Fe, giving a broad outline of what they'd discovered and requesting immediate armed support from the federal authorities as the railroad came under federal law. And then they waited to see if there would be any reaction from the bad guys.
Within hours of the wire being sent, they knew where they stood and that the telegraph operator was evidently part of the illegal operation. Danzing wasted no time in approaching William, making a thinly veiled offer of a deal. "Well, Mr. Ellison," he said unctuously, "now that you've finished your review of our operation, I'm sure that you can see it is very complex and far-reaching. You're a man of business, someone who understands how the world works and that profit can be made in any number of ways."
In other words, William thought shrewdly, he was being offered the possibility of a no doubt substantial bribe to hold his peace when the investigators arrived, or even stave off their arrival with another wire claiming it had all just been an unfortunate misunderstanding. But he listened impassively, chewing on his inside lip as he nodded. "Yes, I know what you mean," he replied finally, "and you make a good point about how one can profit from unexpected opportunities. Take you and I for example," he carried on thoughtfully, "we have interests in common in terms of this railroad and the profit to be had from it. I'll have to think about just how similar our interests are. Let me get back to you and perhaps we can continue this interesting discussion at another time."
Danzing's eyes narrowed, wondering whether Ellison was stalling for time or just wanted to consult with the others before accepting a deal, but he nodded as he offered his warning, "Well, I know you'll likely be on your way before much longer, so there's no time to waste. Let's have that talk very soon, shall we?" He wondered if, maybe, Ellison just needed a little persuasion to see where his interests lie.
Not long after that, Blair was making his weary way back to the Pullman from treating injured and ill men in the tents on the other side of the camp. He'd just left one of the tents and was skirting along the edge of the shallow latrine trench that was far too close to the tents, but the sick men didn't have the strength to go any further from their cots. He wrinkled his nose at the foul stench of the viscous muck and shook his head, certain it was a breeding ground for disease. Just then, one of the burly work crew bosses came barreling around the edge of the tent just ahead and slammed into Blair so hard that the smaller man went flying - and landed awkwardly on his side in the soppy filth of refuse and excrement. The force of his landing splattered bits of the scummy waste into his face so that he spluttered and spit reflexively as he recoiled in disgust and scrambled to get out of the fetid pit.
"Oh, hey, I'm sorry, Shorty," the oaf insisted sarcastically, as he helped Sandburg to his feet, his grip on the smaller man's arm so hard as to leave bruises. "I didn't see you - a man's got to be careful around here. Accidents can happen with no warning at all."
Blair grimaced at his filthy, sopping condition as he wiped away scum that had splashed his mouth and nose. Wordlessly, he glowered at the bully who loomed over him, a taunting look in his mean eyes as if daring Sandburg to make something of it. Blair shook his head and swallowed hard to get his temper under control, and then he seethed, "Yeah, well, you best be careful. 'Cause I'm the only doctor in this godforsaken camp and if something happens to me, there won't be anyone around to help you if you have an 'accident'." And then he turned on his heel and stomped away.
At just about the same time, Steven had a similar accident when another of the nastier crew chiefs knocked one crutch askew when Jim wasn't looking, sending the youngest Ellison to the ground. Steven groaned when his back wrenched painfully as he twisted to protect his broken leg. Jim whirled around at his grunt of pain, and growled menacingly at his brother's assailant as he bent to help Steven to his feet.
The man backed off at the murderous look in Ellison's eyes, his hands up as he protested with false joviality, "No harm done, mister, I'm sure. But a construction camp is no place for a cripple, now, you know that." Gesturing toward the sling Jim wore to protect his broken arm, he continued ever so helpfully, "Even that bad arm of yours could put you off-balance. Accidents can happen so easily. It's best to be real careful."
"Is that right?" Jim threatened as his right hand hovered over his sidearm, his tone deadly. "Then, I suggest you be very careful. Be a shame if an 'accident' happened to you."
The brute looked from Jim's face to the gun on his hip, and carefully lifted the rifle he was carrying to his shoulder. He'd been told to give a message, not start a war, so he only nodded and then turned away.
Toby, like Jim, was a little too big to casually knock over. Instead, he noticed that he was being overtly followed around the camp by a couple of the crew chiefs, one smacking a coiled whip into his hand as the two of them made loud comments about 'uppity nigras who don' know their place and mebbe needin' a lesson they wouldn't never fergit'. Toby stiffened and threw a hard look back over his shoulder at them but, with the restraint born of a lifetime under a whip, he refused to be goaded into a fight. When he turned to continue on his way, they laughed evilly, enjoying the game. When he got back to the Pullman, he reported to William that things seemed to be heating up.
Jim and Steven arrived back at the Pullman just as Blair jogged slowly into sight from the far side of the camp.
"What the hell happened to you?" Jim exclaimed, his face twisting at Sandburg's malodorous appearance.
"Don't ask," Sandburg grated angrily. "Turn down the blue lantern and get me some clean clothes and a bucket of water. I need to get out of this shit and clean up."
When Jim approached to see if he was hurt as well as filthy, Blair backed away. "Don't touch me, man. I'm a walking cesspit. Just get me what I need, okay?"
Ellison frowned but nodded and went to help Steven up into the coach, following behind him. He returned almost immediately with a clean shirt and jeans, Toby behind him with a bucket of water warm from the parlor car's small black iron cook stove. Sandburg had stripped off his shirt and rolled it inside out. Inside the coach, Jim could hear his dad helping Steven into his bunk.
"So, what happened?" Jim asked again, while Blair kicked off his boots and shucked off his jeans. He tossed them onto the crumpled shirt and glared at them until a flame shot up and consumed them.
"One of the bullyboys, Sharky, I think his name is, knocked me into the latrine trench by the sick tents," he muttered. Reaching for the wet towel and soap Toby was handing to him, he added gratefully, "Thanks, man, this stuff is foul."
Jim looked around to see who might be watching them but there were no obvious troublemakers in sight. "Seems to be a run on little accidents," he muttered and then turned back to Blair and Toby. "Ronny Sands knocked Steven's crutch out from under him."
Startled, concerned, Blair looked up from his cursory sponge bath. "Is he okay?"
"Twisted his back, but I don't think it's serious," Ellison replied darkly. "Toby, you have any trouble today?"
"Just a couple of good old boys trailin' around behind me, yapping about putting 'uppity nigras in their place'," he drawled with disgust. "When I got back, Mr. Ellison told me they offered him a bribe about an hour ago. Said he'd think about it - guess they figure we all need some persuasion."
Jim nodded grimly and handed Sandburg his clean clothes. "It's going to be an interesting few days before backup arrives," he sighed. "We need a plan."
Blair checked on Steven, ensured his leg was okay, settled a hot water bottle wrapped in a towel under his back and then steeped a potion to relax the muscle cramp. Once he was feeling better about an hour later, they all gathered in the parlor to decide how they were going to hold off more aggressive assaults in the days to come.
"I've been giving it some thought, and I think we can stall for a couple of days," William said.
"How?" Jim asked.
"Well, a delicate matter like this takes a certain amount of negotiation," he father replied with a humourless grin. "I can't very well know if the 'profit' they're offering is a fair deal until I know the extent of the operation and how much they're scamming off the top." Turning his gaze to Steven, he went on, "Between you and me, I think we could run them around in circles. We need to know how long this has been going on and what they've amassed so far in their own pockets, so we have some idea of the capital reserve. How many other 'partners' there are along the supply and distribution chains - greater numbers mean greater risks of betrayal or mistakes. What do they estimate they'll make between here and 'Frisco? What proof do we have of their ability to payout on 'dividends' in our little partnership, both now and on a continuing basis? We'll need details, lots and lots of details and then we'll have to argue probabilities, do risk analysis, cost and profit projections, before we even begin negotiating a mutually agreeable 'settlement'. What do you think, Stevie?"
His younger son was grinning. "Sounds like fun," he chuckled. "We can spin a good two days out without them guessing we're just getting them to dig their own graves deeper and ever deeper."
Jim nodded thoughtfully. Most of it sounded like gobbly-gook to him, but he figured they knew what they were talking about. "Okay, but it might still be another one or two days after that before the federal authorities arrive." He looked around the Pullman as he added, "This little palace is sturdy, but not designed to hold off a concerted attack. Even if we still had the bank car, they've got enough dynamite to blow us to kingdom come. One very big, unfortunate 'accident' and all their worries are over. At least until the railroad can order a full-scale audit, and by then, they'll be long gone."
It was why they hadn't left in the first place. Danzing had obviously figured out that they were on to him. As soon as the Pullman had cleared the camp behind its locomotive, he and his lot would head in the opposite direction. So, they'd stayed to bluff it out, but it was beginning to look as if the gambit might well get them all killed.
"Well," William sighed, "we can buy a little more time after Stevie and I are supposedly sold on the deal to get the agreement of the rest of you."
Jim grimaced but nodded. They didn't have a lot of options.
"What if we just took off and laid low in the forest until reinforcements arrive?" Blair suggested.
"I don't think that'd work, Chief," Jim replied with a shake of his head. He looked at his splinted arm and Steven's leg. "We're not in any shape to travel fast and loose. There're too many of them - they'd just track us down and bury the bodies. Say the Indians got us or whatever."
Steven looked away, knowing his brother was just being kind. The only one slowing them down was him and he knew it.
"What about the Apaches?" Toby asked then. "Maybe they'd help."
Jim thought about it, but shrugged, doubting Geronimo would care let alone take any risks for them. William scratched his cheek and shook his head. "Nothing in it for them," he muttered.
"I don't know," the steward persisted. "They were some impressed - and might think they still owe us for the insult. Honour means a lot to them. And they're loyal to their allies."
"It's got to be worth a try," Blair chimed in. "I'm willing to go and ask them."
But Toby objected, his tone indulgent. "With all due respect, Doc, your sense of direction isn't the best. And, well, much as they are wary of your magic, some young buck would just see your lilywhite skin and shoot before they recognized you. I'll sneak out tonight. At least they'll take a second look at my black face before they stick me with some arrow." His expression wry, he added with an exaggerated drawl, "With luck, Danzing and his crowd will just think 'the nigger is hidin' in the fancy car, doin' the cookin' and cleanin' an' such'."
"You mean you'd abandon us to our own cooking?" Jim teased, pretending to be aghast. "Toby, I thought you were a friend of mine, er, ours."
The steward snorted and grinned.
Blair had been thinking about what Toby had said and ventured, "If things get out of hand, I can create a few distractions, I guess." His gaze on the carpet, he added with quiet reluctance, "Could probably make them all go up in smoke, if I tried."
Silence greeted his words as they all turned to study him, all of them knowing what it had cost the younger man to offer an act he'd consider murder, albeit in self-defence. Finally, Jim observed, "Chief, I don't pretend to know how you do that trick with the fire. But - that doesn't feel like a good idea."
"It's not," Toby interjected soberly, having learned something about it from visiting his brother's people. "Conjuring fire, as one of the blessings of the gods, is a soul-gift. Use it wrong and it can come back on you. It's not meant to kill; none of the shaman's gifts are to be used to harm. You're a healer, Doc. Not a killer."
Blair looked up, his eyes dark with the burden of his skill and his resolution to do whatever he had to do to protect them all. "I won't let them kill us if I can stop them. Jim can't fight them all alone and the rest of us are scarcely gunfighters. Besides, like Jim said, all they'd need is a couple of sticks of dynamite and we'd be dead. If push comes to shove, I'll shove - hard."
Jim licked his lips. "Only as a last resort, Chief," he said quietly. "Agreed?"
Just then, Jim held up a hand. "We've got company," he murmured.
Moments later, Joshua Danzing appeared in the entryway. "Excuse me, gentlemen. I hope I'm not interrupting anything, but I heard there were a couple of unfortunate mishaps earlier today and I just wanted to make sure everyone was fine."
"Very thoughtful of you," William purred with all the warmth of a jungle cat and his gaze was hard. "As you can see, no lasting harm was done."
"Ah, well, I'm glad of that. Be a shame if anyone got hurt bad," Joshua replied, smiling with sarcastic superiority. He made to turn away, but then paused. "Ah, Mr. Ellison, when would you like to continue our little chat?"
William affected an air of boredom as he gazed out the windows. "It's growing late in the day and I'm just about ready for my dinner. How about Steven and I come around to the office tomorrow morning?" he replied, and then looked back at Danzing, his gaze sharp with anger. "Depending on how his back is after his 'mishap' today, we might be a little late - but we'll be there. It seems we have a great deal to discuss with you."
"I'll look forward to that," the crook said, well satisfied that the 'persuasion' had apparently worked.
Toby slipped out shortly after midnight that night and, since there was no outcry after he left, Jim dared hope he'd gotten clean away. The next morning after a leisurely breakfast, William and Steven took themselves off to begin their scam. As they left, William looked back and winked as he said cheerfully, "You can't cheat an honest man, but you can con a con every time. It's the greed. Makes them stupid."
Jim chuckled and poured himself and Sandburg another cup of coffee, though he reflected darkly to himself that these crooks were also pressed for time; stupid and nervous was a dangerous combination. Shrugging philosophically, knowing that they had no choice now but to play it out, he turned and frowned as he studied Blair, thinking the kid looked too pale and very, very tired. But, half an hour later, Blair insisted he had to check on the sick and injured workers, so Ellison pulled on his Stetson and escorted him across the camp. It was the first time that Jim had ventured to the informal infirmary, and he was appalled by the conditions and how deathly ill so many of the men were.
"What's wrong with them?" he murmured, grimacing as he hurriedly lowered his sense of smell. The stench was overwhelming.
Sandburg shrugged as he replied quietly, "Dysentery, half a dozen of cases of cholera - there'll likely be more - influenza, three cases of pneumonia, more than two dozen infected wounds from work accidents and a few diseases I don't pretend to recognize - something exotic, from China, maybe. Not sure."
"Jesus, Chief," Jim exclaimed softly, appalled. "You sure it's safe for you to be anywhere near this place?"
Blair gave him a 'get real' look and turned away, rolling up his sleeves as he got to work but, in truth, he was exhausted. For the last month, with the brief respites of traveling across country on the train and the few days in the Apache camp, he hadn't stopped since his illness on their way home from the reservation. For much of that time, he'd been going on adrenaline, most especially when they were first taken by the Apaches - and he'd used up just about everything he had left the night following the Gauntlet when he had poured his energy into Jim. But too many of these men were deathly ill from their illnesses and injuries, and would perish without adequate care. So far, no one had died since he'd found the sick and injured men on his first day back in the camp; regardless of his own state of exhaustion, so long as he was able, he wasn't prepared to abandon them, not when he knew they needed him.
He didn't want to think about what would happen to these men when the time came for them all to head back east. He'd had William insist in his telegram that a physician be sent to the camp as soon as possible, but there was no telling when, or even if, one would ever arrive. Sighing, he washed his hands and began changing dressings, grateful when Jim silently began to help.
Moving from one patient to the next, Sandburg either bantered cheerfully or rendered compassionate care, depending on how alert and responsive the man was. Those who were at all conscious watched him with mixtures of relief and gratitude; those who were strong enough smiled when he glanced their way. Even those who were delirious with fever or restlessly semiconscious seemed to settle when he touched them. Jim watched as the day progressed, sometimes beside Blair, sometimes across the tent, as he took on the simple duties of washing weak and wasted bodies and changing the linens that were in the worst need. There weren't enough clean sheets to refresh every bed each day - some didn't get changed for a week or more, if ever.
Blair seemed all right, if less animated than usual, maybe a little slower by the end of the round of treatments, but he'd been working steadily for more than five hours, so Jim tried to shrug off his disquiet. Sandburg had a right to be weary. Still, something nagged at Jim. Something wasn't quite right. The kid's heartbeat was steady, his breathing clear. Maybe it was his eyes. Yeah. They seemed dull and lifeless. Exhausted. Sandburg needed rest and he needed it soon.
Blair was conscious of Jim watching him and he appreciated the concern but, if anything, the constant scrutiny only made him feel more depleted. He couldn't relax. Couldn't just sag on a stool for a few minutes, or Jim would be all over him - worried and demanding he slow down. He simply had to keep going until he was finished.
So Sandburg toiled on, letting his skill and training carry him on routine tasks when his mind blurred and drifted. It was only a few more days. He could last, do what he could for these sorely ill men, until the time came to leave and he could finally rest for a few days on the trip back to Wichita.
Finally, he'd done what he could for that round of care and he followed Jim out of the last tent to head back to their coach. He was grateful for the arm Ellison circled around his shoulders as they crossed the camp, both of them silent, Jim keeping watch for trouble. Sandburg felt nauseated with exhaustion; the blazing heat and light of the sun hurt his eyes and aggravated the pounding headache that had started earlier that morning. He wanted desperately to sleep. As soon as they climbed up into the Pullman, Jim pushed him down into a chair and went to heat up some soup. When he returned what seemed an eon later, Sandburg roused himself enough to shuffle over to the table and make an effort to eat, he but was too tired to be hungry. When Jim told him to go lie down and rest for a while, he didn't argue - and was asleep before his head hit the pillow.
William's strategy to hold the wolves at bay seemed to be working, though Danzing wasn't either happy or amused about the extensive and detailed questioning about how he conducted business. But when the crook bristled, Ellison, Senior sniffed contemptuously and told him he had a lot to learn about the subtleties of a successful operation and the niceties of a profitable partnership. Steven did his part, as well, seeming almost casual, if a tad sarcastic, as he lectured the project foreman on how he could have covered his tracks better in the first place. The two businessmen waxed eloquent about the intricacies of sophisticated book-keeping, blind accounts, banking practices and the cascading effect of balance transfers that made it nearly impossible for the authorities to track the accumulation and dispersal of funds. They were so inordinately precise and helpful that, by the end of the first day of elaborate obfuscation, Danzing thought he might have struck gold with these new partners.
By the time they got back to the coach that evening, Jim had a simple meal ready for them. He went back to wake Blair, but the younger man mumbled he just needed sleep and Ellison didn't have the heart to drag him out of his bunk. Blair could eat later, when he was more rested. But he never wakened that night, just slept through until dawn. At breakfast, he felt muddle-headed and a little nauseous so contented himself with some tea and a few bites of dry toasted bread.
The scam worked until early afternoon. But, at that point, Danzing and his bookkeeper, Murphy, were feeling the relentless pressure of time and wanted the deal struck. When William tried to demur, citing all the information he still needed to negotiate an appropriate settlement between them, the foreman scowled and shook his head.
"I've tried to be reasonable because I'd rather we come to a mutually agreeable solution," he grated, frustrated. "You're an important man and if you tell the investigator that it was all a misunderstanding, you'll be believed. But I'm through dancing around. You forget - you really don't have a choice. So name your price and I'll decide if it's acceptable."
William sighed and shook his head. "Fine," he agreed. "Let Steven and I discuss this and we'll get back to you later today."
"No. I want it ended now," Danzing insisted with anxious impatience, drawing his sidearm, Murphy following his lead. "What's it going to be, Ellison? Do we part friends? Or do I make you and your people disappear?"
"There's no need for gunplay," William stated contemptuously. "Just give us a minute or two to work out the numbers."
Jim and Blair had returned from the rounds of the sick tents by noon and, while Sandburg picked unenthusiastically at an omelet, the sheer sight of it making his gut roil with nausea, Ellison tuned his hearing into the office not far from where their car was parked on a siding.
"We got trouble," he grunted, standing up and reaching for his hat.
"What kind of trouble?" Blair asked sharply as he abandoned his meal and pushed himself to his feet.
"Danzing is threatening Dad and Steven," Ellison growled as he checked his sidearm and then moved to grab the rifle and ammunition from the corner by the bar. "Looks like the showdown is going to happen earlier than we hoped. Even if he believes we'll make a deal, we can't send out a wire to call off the Federal Marshall. The game's over."
"Okay," Sandburg muttered, frowning as he worked out what he could do to buy time. "I'll head over there and try to distract him while you go in the back way and get them out."
"Chief - "
"We don't have a lot of options here, Jim," Blair cut in, stiffening his spine. "I'll put on a bit of a show to scare the shit out of him and walk away before he gets his act back together. Let's go."
Jim didn't like it, but Sandburg was right. They were painfully short of resources and he didn't have any better ideas. But if they failed, they could all be dead in a matter of minutes. Jim reached for Blair, pulling him into a quick, tight embrace, and Sandburg returned the hug with a kind of desperation. "Be careful, Jim," he murmured when they parted. Jim's throat tightened as he nodded tightly. "You, too, Chief," he replied hoarsely. And then Blair was gone.
Ellison waited until Blair had swung down to the ground and was striding toward the office, loudly calling out for Danzing; and then Jim slipped out the back way along the rear of the car, his rifle in hand and the sack of ammunition over his shoulder. The only hope they had now was to break free and take their chances in the forest. He reflected, grimly, with stark objectivity, that he didn't like the odds.
The Sentinel fought back the despair he had no time to acknowledge. He'd get his people clear and cover them to give them the best chance he could. But he felt as if the world was closing in on him - and he steeled himself to die, if need be, to fulfill his duty.
"Danzing!" Sandburg shouted again, the sudden burst of adrenaline helping him to keep his exhaustion at bay. "Come out here. I want to talk to you!"
"What the hell do you want?" the foreman yelled from the entrance to the office, his weapon concealed by his side. Inside, Murphy was keeping a close eye on the Ellisons.
"I'm fed up with the games we're playing," Blair called back, as he came to a stop a few feet from a heap of refuse in the yard. "It's over."
"Is that so?" the crook drawled, bringing his weapon into view. "You talk pretty cocky for a man who doesn't wear a gun."
Blair crossed his arms, his feet spaced for balance, as he snapped back coldly, "I don't need a gun."
The refuse heap exploded into flames.
Danzing gaped at the sudden roaring inferno, his gaze cutting between the large fire and Sandburg. He'd heard no explosion. No one was close enough to have tossed a torch. And then, fire started dancing up the steps to the office entrance, small, bright, hungry flames that flickered on the battered wood.
"You want me to send you up in flames?" Sandburg called out belligerently, his confident, cocky manner belying the energy it was taking to keep the fires burning and under rigid control. "Either drop your gun or you'll be a living torch before you can pull the trigger."
The coward flinched back from the sparks that leapt around his boots, uncertain, terrified by what he didn't understand. The steps in front of him were now well on fire and the wood under his feet was blackening. When shouting and then a shot rang out from behind him, he jumped, not knowing which way to turn. He'd heard enough to know Ellison had taken out Murphy. He'd never done the rough stuff himself - had been a master of delegation - and, now, caught between fire and gunplay, he froze in momentary panic. Blair blew out a breath, too weary to be gratified and began to sidle quickly toward the edge of the office, intending to meet Jim and the others in the back.
But Blair's 'distraction' had drawn other interested parties. Starky and Sands had come up behind him before he realized they were there, and he stiffened when he heard their guns cock threateningly.
"Can you start three fires at once, Shorty?" Starky growled menacingly.
Ruefully, playing it out, Sandburg shook his head as he lifted his hands into the air as if he were surrendering. But he'd spotted Jim in the shadows at the corner of the wooden office building, so he knew William and Steven were clear. He also knew Jim could take out two in the heartbeat of time that was now left to them - but three was a stretch - and Danzing had recovered some measure of control, and was again leveling his own sidearm at him.
"Kill him!" Danzing yelled, hysteria in his voice. "He's some kind of witch!"
Blair immediately dropped and rolled as shots rang out and bullets ploughed into the ground too close for comfort, puffs of dust stinging his eyes. He expected to be hit and tensed for the pain of it - even as he tried to focus on incinerating the men attempting to kill them all. But it was if he were plumbing a dry well; he felt hollow and couldn't seem to concentrate.
There was a confusing thrumming, like angry bees in the air and startled, shocked shouts of pain from behind him. From where he was lying, he could see Danzing was clutching his bleeding wrist and stomping at the flames that surrounded him, licking at his boots. He frowned slightly, willing himself to focus, and the fires snuffed out.
Truly amazed to still be in one piece, feeling stunned, as if the world had assumed the aspects of a dream, Sandburg slowly rolled into a crouch as he turned to find out what had happened behind him - and gaped to see both Starky and Sands lying in crumpled heaps on the ground, arrows buried in their bodies like grotesque needles in over-sized pin cushions.
When he looked up and around, he saw that at least thirty Apaches led by Geronimo were ringed around the clearing - and they had lances pricking the backs of the remaining crew chiefs that the five of them had decided were Danzing's henchmen. He saw Toby grin as the big man slid down from his mount.
Jim was there, beside him, gripping his arm and helping him to stand upright. "You okay, Chief?" Ellison demanded, not liking how pale Sandburg had become in the last few minutes, and he wondered if the kid had been hit, but he didn't see or smell any wounds.
"Yeah, I'm fine," Blair replied vaguely, sounding shell-shocked. "How'd they get here so fast?" he muttered, looking dazedly around at the Apaches that surrounded them. "I thought it would be days before -" But his voice died away, and he swallowed to moisten his dry throat as he strove to regain control of his disjointed thoughts.
Blair saw William and Steven come around from the back of the building, but was distracted when Toby jogged over to him and Ellison to explain, "They've had scouts watching the camp. I ran into them less than an hour after I left. We rode hard all night and made it to their encampment early yesterday morning. Sorry," he added as he looked at the dead and wounded villains, "we thought we should round up the gang so we'd know where everyone was - guess we cut it a little fine."
"No, your timing was perfect," Sandburg sighed, and assayed a smile as he patted the bigger man on the shoulder and then walked slowly past him toward Geronimo, feeling as if his boots were filled with lead. Bowing his head briefly in respect, he looked up at the stern warrior as he said solemnly, "You honour us with your presence and you have saved our lives. Thank you."
Glancing over the younger man's shoulder toward Toby, Geronimo replied with all seriousness, though there was a flicker of amusement deep in his eyes, "My gods would have been offended, Touch That Heals, had I not responded to your call for aid." He looked back over his shoulder, and Blair realized that Spirit Talker had ridden with the warriors. "I have learned to hear my Shaman," the War Chief added dryly as he returned his steady gaze to Sandburg.
Before Sandburg could respond, Jim called out, "We've got more company coming - sounds like about thirty horses. Geronimo, get your warriors and their prisoners behind you. NOW!"
The War Chief barked out sharp orders and there was a flurry of movement as his warriors obeyed while William, Steven, Toby and Blair ranged themselves as human shields between the Apaches and whoever was racing toward them.
None too soon.
A troop of cavalry thundered through the camp, skirting around and between the hundreds of tents, weapons in their fists. Their forward scouts had seen the Apaches riding toward Flagstaff and the Captain assumed the railroad was under attack and needed swift relief.
Jim had already run past the still smoldering heap of refuse and across the trampled dirt of the clearing to intercept the soldiers, his arms up and palms out as he shouted with the all the volume and command of a former Cavalry Captain, "HOLD YOUR FIRE! HOLD! LOWER YOUR WEAPONS! FALL IN!"
Observing that there was no battle underway, the Captain held up his arm and shouted orders to his men to affirm Ellison's commands. Pulling hard on the reins to bring his mount into a sharp stop, he looked around the clearing and then back at Jim. "What's going on here?" he demanded crisply. "Where's William Ellison?"
"I'm right here, son," William called out as he strode forward. "Your timing's not bad, but you're a tad late. Everything's under control for the moment, thanks to Geronimo and his men."
"What?" the Captain barked. "These Indians are hostiles."
"Not today," Jim snapped. "We'd be dead by now, all of us, if they hadn't ridden in to save our lives."
"Now, it seems to me," William called out, quickly moving to the bottom line before the tangible tension between the adversarial groups of warriors could erupt, "you can either accept the help we have been given, or you can start a war. It's your call, Captain."
When more Apaches silently moved out from behind tents and from the forest that encircled the camp, surrounding the Cavalry, the Captain decided that it was not a good day to die. "I'll take the prisoners into custody and secure the camp," he said into the taut silence. "We've been deployed to ensure order here pending the arrival of the Federal Marshal from Santa Fe; we've also brought a medic to care for the workers we understand are injured or ill." Lifting his face to the War Chief, he added with all due respect and solemnity, "Geronimo, the United States Government is grateful for your timely assistance in this matter. You and your people are free to go."
Lowering his voice, he snapped to Jim and William, "But I want some answers and I want them now."
"I'll be happy to respond to any and all of your questions, Captain," William replied urbanely as he waved toward the office. "If you'll come with me?"
Relieved that matters were in hand and conflict averted, Jim nodded and turned away to walk back to Geronimo. Several soldiers followed him at their Captain's signal, to take charge of the prisoners.
"Thank you," Ellison said quietly when he reached the mounted warrior, his voice hoarse with emotion. "You saved my Guide's life today. And my family - my father and brother. Whatever the conflicts and tensions between us in the past, we're even now. I call you, brother." He hesitated and looked at Sandburg, who had moved to lean wearily against the Shaman's mount and was conversing quietly with Spirit Talker. "I wish…I wish you had not known the pain of your family's loss," Jim continued. "I know what it is to feel your heart die and your soul shrivel in the horror of such loss." Returning his gaze to Geronimo, he swallowed and then added, "I was lucky. I got my heart and soul back."
Geronimo nodded soberly. "We are alike Brave Star. We are both warriors who know what it is to have nothing left to lose - but we have both found new purpose. Mine is my people and their freedom. It is good that your heart is alive again - guard him well. May the gods continue to watch over you and your Companion."
With that, the War Chief called to his warriors and they rode silently, proudly from the camp. All but Spirit Talker, who wheeled his mount toward Jim. For a moment, he gazed at the tall man sternly. "You see far into the distance, but miss what is under your eyes," he murmured so quietly, his lips scarcely moving, that those watching believed he said nothing at all. "See to you Companion, Watchman. He gave you too much of himself to safeguard your strength and he has pressed beyond his limits since…his light grows dim."
Jim felt as if he'd just been sandbagged. Breathless, he blinked as he grappled with the Shaman's words, oblivious when the old man turned his horse away and rode swiftly after his War Chief.
"Jim? You okay?" Sandburg asked with anxious concern, as he moved to Ellison's side and gripped his arm. "You look like you just saw a ghost."
Ellison looked down at his friend. "What did you do?" he demanded softly, caught between fear and anger - and guilt.
"What? Nothing. Just started a couple of fires," Sandburg replied, confused, as he gestured around the clearing. "And then I ducked."
But Jim shook his head. "No, not here. What did you do back in the Apache village? You said you didn't go to The Forest." Ellison's eyes flashed as anger won, at least temporarily, and he snapped, "I believed you, dammit!"
"Whoa, hold on," Blair protested, looking around to see who was near enough to hear their exchange as he added softly, "I told you the truth, Jim. I didn't need to go to The Forest. You didn't die."
The camp was in chaos, men and horses were milling and pressing around them as several soldiers engaged in putting Danzing and his men in chains, while the rest got themselves organized and tried to establish order. Workers arrived from the construction sites and were crowding around, some clustered in tight groups speculating amongst themselves, all watching warily as they tried to understand what was going on. William and Steven were leading the Captain into the office to brief him on what they'd learned about the fraud, misappropriation of funds and theft. Toby followed them, eager to share his own new piece of information; the Apaches knew where the bodies of defiant workers were buried and had shown him the location of a mass grave that they estimated held more than thirty victims of Danzing's murderous reign of terror.
While Blair was still absorbing the action around them, trying to make sense of it all, Jim grabbed his arm and started to hustle him back to the Pullman, shouldering anyone in their path out of the way. "Your work is done here, Chief," he growled, deeply frightened by Spirit Talker's warning. "The Cavalry is in charge now and the well-being of the workers is their responsibility for the foreseeable future."
"Jim, what's going on with you?" Blair protested, as he tried to pull his arm away, but Jim's grip was too strong - or perhaps he was simply too weak to break free, his resources spent.
Looming over the younger man, Jim seethed, "Spirit Talker said you gave me too much of yourself. That your light is growing dim."
"Oh," Sandburg exclaimed softly, his gaze dropping to the ground. "Well, ah, I just did a little healing - sort of an energy push."
"You knew I didn't want you to - "
"Yeah, but you were really hurt, Jim," Blair cut in, lifting his gaze back to Jim's glare. Reading the fear under the anger, he added in soft explanation, "What's your problem, anyway? I was just doing my job, both as your Guide and your doctor. I couldn't not - "
Ellison's throat was too tight to argue further, and he held up a hand to stop the flow of indignant words as he licked his lips and nodded. The hell of it was that he did understand. Stalking Wolf had warned him - and he'd failed to ensure that someone watched over Sandburg when he'd known he'd be no use after the Gauntlet. The Arapaho Watchman had said that Companions couldn't stop themselves when they felt compelled to heal; that they didn't countenance the risks to themselves. He should have known, should have realized and had his father or Toby watching Sandburg. But he hadn't. Thinking of the dangerously ill men back in the infirmary tents, he wondered how much of his healing energy Blair had been sharing with them to help them heal. He'd only worried about the obvious danger of becoming infected by the diseases - he hadn't realized what Sandburg's increasing exhaustion had meant. And now he was playing catch up with Blair's well-being. Waving toward the Pullman, he took a shuddering breath and said sternly, brooking no argument, "Yeah, well, you slipped that one by me, Chief. But from now until we get home, you're going to rest if I have to tie you to your bed. You got that?"
Sandburg's eyes searched Ellison's for a long moment. Whatever he saw seemed to relieve him of the need to keep pushing and pushing until he felt like he was fading away into nothing more than a shadow. Just as he had taken care of Jim to the fullest of his ability after the Gauntlet, as was his right and responsibility to safeguard his Sentinel, Jim was now strenuously asserting his legitimate right and responsibility to safeguard him. The relief he felt was indescribable and the reaction was swift.
Blair blinked and swayed, the iron grip he'd held upon himself giving way as he allowed himself to relax into Jim's care, his eyes darkening with ineffable weariness and a sudden lost look that knifed through the lawman. Ellison swiftly swung his right arm up and around his shoulders to steady him. Distantly, he heard Jim calling to him, but the world was already beginning to grow dim. Taking a breath, leaning heavily on Ellison, he staggered the last few steps to the Pullman, and managed to claw his way up the steep metal steps into the sleeping compartment. Nausea spiked and cramps twisted in his belly, but he was too tired to really register how sick he truly felt. A few more steps, just a few more…and, too weary to climb to his own upper bunk, he crawled with indescribable relief onto Jim's bed.
"Don' worry. ‘m just tired…" he mumbled as he willingly, even gratefully, succumbed to the darkness.
"Dammit, Chief," Ellison muttered to himself as he pulled off Blair's boots, loosened his belt and then shifted the deeply asleep man to a more comfortable position before pulling the light blanket over him. "You've got about as much common sense as rabbit." Standing, he ran a hand over his face and then raked fingers through his hair before rubbing the back of his neck. "You are just tired, right?" he grumbled, frowning with concern, wondering if there was anything he should be doing to help Sandburg recover his strength and life energy. Sighing, his jaw tightened and the muscle throbbed with tension. He hadn't seen or heard either the jaguar or the wolf so, surely, there was no real danger. Blair would be fine - he just needed rest and he'd be fine.
Once the Cavalry had taken charge, and they had been fully briefed on the all the evidence the Ellison entourage had gathered, William decided there was really no point in waiting for the Federal Marshall to arrive. When the discovery of the bodies became known, bereaved and angry friends of the murdered men, no longer afraid of their bosses, stepped forward to eagerly offer more and more damning information. Murder charges would be laid and the perpetrators would most probably hang before they could be tried back east for the lesser charges.
Jim, anxious to get Sandburg home, agreed that leaving sooner rather than later made good sense. The others were worried about Blair when they heard he was so exhausted, but not unduly surprised since they'd all seen him start to flag over the past days. Steven was glad to think he was seeing the last of Flagstaff as well, and looked forward to several quiet days and of not having to walk any further than from his bunk to the table to eat. He was still dangerously thin and needed rest as much as Sandburg did.
So, Toby sought out the engineer and they set off before the sun had set, the powerful locomotive chugging along at a good speed with the relatively light load of the Pullman and the stockcar carrying their horses.
When they turned in that night Jim, despite his broken arm, made it up the ladder to Blair's bunk. The kid had slept through dinner and didn't seem to notice the train pull out. Wearily, Jim stared up at the ceiling as he listened to Blair's heart beating and to his breathing. Tilting his head, he squinted as he listened harder. The heartbeat was a little fast, especially given that Blair was sound asleep. And he thought he caught a soft, breathy moan but when he stiffened and listened harder, all he heard was Blair's breathing. And, because he was concentrating so hard, he could hear the very slight, rattling in Sandburg's chest that had been there since Blair had drowned. His lips thinned as he wondered once again if Blair's lungs would ever fully heal. Sighing, he rolled over and let the click of the wheels and the slight sway of the coach lull him to sleep.
An hour or so later, sometime late in the night, Jim came sharply awake and wondered what had disturbed him. Chills crept up his spine when he heard the long, lonely howl of a wolf in the distance, and then he heard Sandburg mumbling softly, moaning a little and thrashing restlessly below him. Silently, he rose and dropped to the carpeted floor. Shifting to sit on the edge of the bunk, he reached out to straighten the tangled sheet and blanket and then brushed strands of curls off Blair's face. When his fingers touched his friend's skin, he stilled. He could feel the beginnings of a fever - a reaction to exhaustion? Or was Blair getting sick? Ellison's memories flashed back to the tents full of deathly ill men, and then he recalled that Blair had been pushed into the latrine trench. A shiver of apprehension rippled through him.
But it was only a slight fever. Nothing too serious.
Maybe it had just been a wolf, not the wolf, that had howled…
In the face of Sandburg's vulnerability and possible illness, Jim could not force himself back into the upper bunk. He felt a desperate need to support his Guide, as if his mere presence might strengthen his friend. If either Steven or his father found them together, let them think what they would. He'd lived his life without their approval and Sandburg meant more to him than they did, or ever would. Made awkward by his broken arm, as gently as he could he crawled in over Blair, closer to the wall, to lie beside his partner in the spacious bunk. Then he slipped his right arm around Sandburg and drew him closer, his head pillowed on Jim's shoulder. Slowly combing his fingers through Blair's hair and stroking his arm and back, Ellison stared up at the bottom of the top bunk, hoping that Sandburg would settle. His wish was granted when, almost immediately, the younger man's restlessness and muttering ceased as he slipped back into a deeper sleep.
But there was no rest for the Sentinel that night. Grimly, he noted the fever notch higher. It wasn't sudden, just a gradual increase of heat pouring off Blair's body as the night wore on. In the hours before dawn, Jim rose and filled a basin in the lavatory with water, grabbed a towel and then proceeded to bathe Sandburg's hot skin.
But the fever only grew worse, as did Sandburg's evident restless discomfort. He curled, wrapping his arms around his gut and, if anything, he became even paler until he looked almost gray-green under the flush of fever. Suddenly he stiffened and his eyes blinked open as one hand lifted to cover his mouth and he fumbled weakly, urgently, to get out of the bed.
"Easy, Chief. What's wrong?" Jim demanded softly.
Blair flashed him an agonized look and mumbled desperately through his hand, "Sick!"
"Right," Jim acknowledged in rapid understanding and immediately assisted Blair up and to the lavatory, supporting Sandburg as he leaned hurriedly over one of the porcelain basins. Sandburg gagged and wretched, emptying the little he had in his stomach, mostly burning, sour bile. And then, though there was nothing left to spew, the dry heaving continued as if his body was desperate to get some poison out of its system.
"Oh God," Blair gasped, fighting to slow his breathing and bring his convulsive urge to vomit under control. And then his gut cramped sickeningly and he spun away out of Jim's grip, lurching for the oval hole as he wrenched down his jeans, stumbling and tripping, desperate not to foul the small room.
Jim steadied him and shoved down his jeans even as Blair sat down, still clinging to him dizzily. The kid looked like he was about to pass out. Blair couldn't restrain a pained groan as his bowels released violently and he shuddered, close to tears in his weakness as he mumbled miserably, "Blue lantern. Down."
Wrinkling his nose, Ellison hastened to comply, but he was more concerned with Sandburg's high fever and sick pallor. Not to mention the violence of the sudden sickness. Even as he began to ask Blair what to do to help, the younger man's eyes rolled up and he sagged against Jim, unconscious.
Jim's gut clenched with fear. This was clearly no simple malady. The kid was really ill. And he cursed his broken arm because he couldn't physically hold Blair and clean him up at the same time. Couldn't lift him to get him back into the bunk. Couldn't leave him or he'd fall to the floor.
"Jimmy? Is something wrong?" William's voice intruded from the partially open door behind him and Jim jumped, having been too preoccupied with Sandburg to hear Steven's call when he had awakened to the sound of retching - or to hear him summon William to help.
"Dad, yeah," Jim replied tightly, reluctant to ask for help but having no choice. "Blair's really sick and he's passed out. My arm - I can't do for him - "
Nodding, looking rumpled in his nightshirt with his hair askew, William crowded into the small room and took the basin of vomit and then, murmuring, "I'll be right back," turned to take it outside to fling it along the track. Leaving the foul smelling vessel on the landing, he returned and filled another from the large urn of water in the corner. "You just hold him steady, son," he murmured as he knelt beside them. "Let me clean him up."
"Dad, I'm, uh, sorry about this," Jim muttered but his father waved off the concern.
"I used to clean your butt, and Stevie's, too, years ago. That's what fathers do," William replied staunchly as he applied himself to the task, his matter-of-fact manner denying any need for embarrassment. "He's sick and he'd do this for any one of us, I know that. Hell, he did it for you back in that Apache camp, and Steven as well, come to that."
Meanwhile, having been listening, Steven struggled up from his bunk and grabbed a crutch to hobble into the parlor to the cubbyhole behind the bar in search of Toby.
Jim watched with something akin to amazement as his stern, very proper father cleaned Blair's skin of the foul greenish slime as gently and tenderly as if the younger man was a much beloved child, and he had to turn his face away to blink back sudden tears of gratitude.
"He's burning up," William muttered anxiously, shaking his head with worry.
By the time he'd finished, Toby had pulled on his pants, suspenders over his shoulders and arrived to see what was wrong, Steven hitching along behind him. William looked up at the steward's voice and directed, "You help Jimmy get Blair back into bed. And then we need to talk."
William slipped out of the room to make way for the big steward, who wordlessly took Blair from Jim's grip and lifted him. Shuffling sideways out of the narrow door, he carefully carried the unconscious man back to the bed and settled him in it. Jim sat down on the edge, reaching out to clasp Sandburg's wrist.
Sighing, the eldest Ellison rubbed the back of his neck as he looked up at Toby. "He needs a doctor. Do you know of any towns along the line where we can stop to get him to the proper help?"
Concern on his face and in his eyes, Toby checked his pocket watch and then looked out into the early dawn light at the dusty, cacti-strewn plains and the sand-coloured cliffs emerging from the shadows in the distance. Nodding, he replied soberly, "About fifty more miles down the line, there's a place not too far from the tracks that has a healer. I remember when there was some trouble when they built this section of the track, oh, a year or more ago. Similar problems as we found in Flagstaff, but more focused on the Chinamen than other workers. Damn, you know everyone thought bringing in Danzing would make things better." He shook his head.
"There a doctor in that town?" Jim pressed, not really concerned about the grim details of the railroad's history.
"He says he's not a real doctor, but the man there is a healer that's well respected. I know because the town isn't far from the settlement where my brother lives now," Toby replied. "The healer and a bunch of other men help to keep peace in the town."
The others nodded tightly, still concerned but relieved that there might be help not too far away. Most doctors didn't have a lot of specialized training - Blair was the exception rather than the rule. A good healer was likely as good or better than a good many professional physicians. "Can you get the engineer to stop there? Or will it block the track?" William demanded, not really concerned about holding up rail traffic, but not wanting to be rammed by another train that expected a clear track.
"Shouldn't be a problem," Toby replied as he pushed past Jim to head forward to the engine. "They have a big cattle empire near there, so a siding was added to let stockcars be loaded without stopping traffic in both directions."
"Thanks," Jim murmured as the steward turned to go up front to speak to the engineer, his very worried gaze locked on Sandburg. He was trying hard not to be scared. But he was failing.
Realizing there would be no more sleep that night, William and Steven turned away to get dressed, and then William encouraged Jim to do the same while he sat beside Sandburg and bathed his fevered face and body. Toby returned, hauling in chairs from the dining room so the men could keep vigil more comfortably. "It'll be about two hours before we get there," he informed them, and then turned to fetch the coffee he'd put on to brew.
Thrice more before they reached the stop, Blair woke, agitated and ill and requiring assistance, each time weaker than he'd been before. Whenever he tried to drink water that Jim held to his lips, his stomach revolted immediately and he'd heave until he couldn't stand. A physician, he wasn't terribly embarrassed by the care his body required of the others, though he did regret, profoundly, his helplessness and his need to impose on them, especially William. But the older man gave no indication of discomfort or resentment, or anything but sincere concern and, for that, Blair was exceedingly grateful.
"What's wrong with you?" Jim demanded, when Sandburg seemed briefly lucid and stable enough to respond.
Swallowing heavily, taking deep slow breaths, Blair weakly shook his bowed head. "Don't know…for sure," he rasped. "Could be dysentery. 'Flu. Food poisoning. Cholera. Maybe somethin' else I picked up in the camp." He gulped and turned back to the basin, the retching starting all over again. "Sorry, Jim," he mumbled miserably when he could again get his breath.
"What can I do to help?" Ellison asked.
"W-water," Blair stammered. "D-dehydrating…"
But every time he tried to drink, the vomiting began again - and that triggered his bowels into their own rebellion. Until finally, he collapsed again, exhausted, unable to remain conscious, his breathing increasingly ragged as the fever climbed higher.
Citing his eldest son's difficulty with his broken arm, William again took over bathing Sandburg's burning body, while Jim and the others watched with bleak concern.
"He'll be all right, Jimmy," William offered, wanting to reassure his son, wounded by the fear he saw in his eldest boy's eyes.
But unable to accept the reassurance however much he wanted to, Jim bowed his head, his shoulders rigid. "I don't know," he finally grated, giving voice to the fear that gnawed at him. "He, uh, he lost his spleen about a year ago, after he was shot saving my life. And…and he drowned a month ago; his lungs aren't good. I don't know…I don't know if he's strong enough…" He didn't know how to even begin explaining about the significance of the howling wolf that convinced him that Sandburg was in very real, deadly, danger.
"Jesus," Steven swore softly, while William echoed in astonishment, "Drowned?"
Nodding, Jim sniffed and pinched the bridge of his nose before looking up. "Rutherford, the Major who ordered the Poplar Flats massacre, tracked us to the reservation. He wanted to kill both of us - shot Blair off the cliff we were camped on, into the river below." He swallowed, his gut clenching at those terrible memories. "By the time I got to him…he was dead."
The other three gaped at him, shaking their heads in disbelief as they looked from Jim to Blair curled unconscious on the bed.
"Then, how…?" William asked, his voice little more than an awed whisper.
Shaking his head, Jim chewed on his lip. He could barely talk about any of this, even with Sandburg. It was all so - inexplicable and even frightening. Finally, he heaved a breath and said flatly, "We, uh, we have spirit animals and the Arapaho Shaman told me to use them to bring Blair back. It's hard to explain, but there's this mystical Forest and, well, I found him there and the animals, they, uh, merged somehow. And Blair came back to life."
"My God," William murmured as he stared at his son. Blinking, he shook himself and returned to the business of tending to Sandburg's fever. He'd never believed in the mystical or supernatural, but too much had happened on this journey for him to discount any of it any longer. His son and Sandburg shared some power that he didn't begin to understand but had come to believe in, nonetheless. Swallowing, he said very quietly, "Then you have to believe, Jimmy, that what the two of you are to one another means that he'll find the strength to survive this. You can't give up hope."
Trying to make sense of it all, Steven asked, "Even if…well, couldn't you bring him back like before?"
Jim swallowed and shook his head. "I don't know. The last time, Blair was healthy and strong before… well, before he died. I don't know if I could bring him back to a wasted, weak body."
"Huh? What?" Sandburg protested in a disoriented mumble when Toby lifted him from the bed. And then he stiffened in excruciating agony as cramps convulsed the muscles in his legs. "Oh, God," he grated, his jaw tight and his eyes closed as he fought the pain. "My legs…"
Hurriedly setting Blair back down, Sandburg sobbed in breath while Toby and Jim massaged the contracting muscles until they finally relaxed. "Jim?" he muttered, looking around, dazed and confused before the darkness claimed him again.
"It's alright, Chief," Jim replied quietly as Toby again gathered the limp body of his friend into his arms and turned toward the exit where William held the door open for him and then steadied him down the steep metal steps. Steven, on his crutches, followed them out but remained standing on the landing. All four men were taciturn, almost wordless in their shared concern.
Jim climbed onto Lobo while William took Blair from Toby and then held him up for the steward to take the doctor in his arms. Then they turned their mounts toward the small town not more than a couple of miles away. William hated the helplessness of just watching them ride off, but it didn't make sense to drag Steven into town, too. So it had been decided that the two of them would wait with the train and try to contain their anxiety until the others returned or sent word.
It was rough country, with gullies and arroyos cutting through the sandy rock and low growing desert grasses. Cacti grew in tortured shapes around them and, in the distance, they could see high hills of rock and the dusty green of scattered trees. The sky above was cloudless, a soft, pale blue and the sun burned hot - which didn't help Sandburg's fever.
They rode as quickly as they could, puffs of dust billowing up behind their horses hooves, Toby holding Sandburg sideways across his thighs, supported by one strong arm. The kid slumped against him, mumbling from time to time and then lapsing into lax stillness. His face was flushed with fever and the heat radiated from his body. Riding alongside, cursing the arm that prevented him from carrying Blair himself, Jim didn't like the way Sandburg's heart was beating too fast and getting a little thready, and his breathing was beginning to sound congested. Blair's leg muscles cramped again and they had to pull up while Jim tried to ease the muscles and Toby held Blair tightly. Not quite conscious, Sandburg whimpered miserably, too weak now to even try to hide the pain or muffle his suffering.
Finally, they clattered past an old stone church and into town. The wide main street was clogged with wagons and riders; and men and women, along with a fair number of kids, ambled or strode along the boardwalks on either side in accordance with the urgency of their business. The large 'Hardware' sign jutting into the street caught their attention, as it was no doubt designed to do, but their gaze slid away from it. There was a covered wagon tied up near the livery stable and a saloon that, from the sounds of the music and laughter rolling out onto the street, was doing a thriving business despite the fact that it was not yet noon. A hotel, an eatery, public baths, a boarding house, newspaper office and bank. Jim thought it looked a lot like Bitterwood Creek, except for the absence of the creek in the back and the wealth of trees that grew in the richer ground back in Kansas. Up ahead, there was a Sheriff's Office, and Ellison spotted a young man sporting an incongruous bowler hat come out and look along the street, lifting his head to gaze at them curiously when he spotted them.
He wasn't the only one who had noted their arrival, despite the busyness of the street. Jim could feel the assessing gaze of several others. One lean man sitting casually outside the saloon, dressed in black with fancy guns on his hips watched them from beneath the broad rim of his hat, and a fancy-dressed gentleman in a bright green coat and lace shirt standing by him turned to see what had attracted the man in black's attention. Another man, dressed in fringed buckskin, who seemed to be part of that little alert cluster squinted a little as he studied them. Not much farther along, two big men sporting luxurious mustaches were leaning on either side of a post on the sheltered section of the walk, and also gave them assessing looks. The older, more rugged-looking one stepped off the boardwalk and moved into the street to meet them.
"Looking for the Doc, are you?" he called out, his voice deep, his expression concerned and his manner helpful.
"Yeah," Jim called out. "Can you point us in the right direction?"
"I can do that," the stranger replied warmly with the ghost of a smile as he turned and gestured toward the boarding house. "You just go up the steps along the side of the building an' you'll find Nathan in his clinic upstairs." Pacing the horses, he added, "Name's Josiah Sanchez - I guess you could say I'm the preacher."
Jim and Toby both shot him surprised looks, taking in the gun slung low on his hip and the dusty clothing more suited to a cowboy than a cleric. Noticing their astonishment, Josiah just grinned slowly but didn't comment. He knew he wasn't the usual sort of priest - far from it. He'd traveled a hard, often disillusioned trail through personal darkness before he'd found his own path to what he prayed was enlightenment.
Just as they arrived at the boarding house, and Josiah was helping Toby dismount without having to let go of Sandburg, the kid in the bowler hat skipped up. "Trouble?" he asked - and that was when Jim spotted the star on his vest.
'What the hell?' Ellison thought, wondering how anyone so young and fresh-faced could handle the job of law keeper in a town as evidently busy and rugged as this one.
"No, no trouble, Sheriff," Ellison replied tightly. "My friend's sick and needs to see your healer."
"Ah, well, you're in good hands, I can tell you," the kid enthused. "Nathan's the best!"
"Glad to hear that," Jim grunted as he crossed the boardwalk and started up the wooden steps, Toby behind him with Blair. Out of the corner of his eye, he'd seen the other watchful men ambling along the boardwalk in their direction. 'A lot of curious people in this town,' he thought, but then turned his attention back to Sandburg.
Josiah had bounded up the stairs ahead of them and by the time Jim turned onto the railed landing, a black man was coming out the door to meet them. "I'm Nathan Jackson," he introduced himself, his voice deep and mellow, calming. "Bring your friend on in and take him straight to a bed in the room at the back."
Nathan followed close on their heels while Toby carried Blair inside and laid him on the narrow bed, then he turned and retreated to linger with Josiah in the hall outside. The preacher was interested in finding out who these folks were and just where they'd come from. Sure weren't from anywhere nearby, that was certain. Both tall men kept half their attention on what was going on in the infirmary, as Josiah pumped Toby for information, and was frustrated by the thin-lipped, brief replies. About all he learned was that they'd been heading east on the train and had stopped on the siding north of town.
"What can you tell me about what made him sick?" Nathan asked, frowning at the heat of the fever, as he and Jim began divesting Blair of his clothing.
"We've just come from Flagstaff, where Sandburg was treating the sick men at the railroad camp," Jim replied. "He's a doctor. Anyway," he sighed with worry, "there were any number of different diseases: cholera, influenza, dysentery, pneumonia and some Blair said he didn't recognize that some of the Chinese workers had come down with. They were all mighty sick, I can tell you that. And, I don't know if it means anything, but he was shoved into the latrine ditch by one of the…well, you don't need all the details."
Nathan frowned in concentration as he began his examination. Sandburg's lips had started to crack with the fever and the dehydration, and he moaned softly as Nathan probed his taut abdomen. Not quite conscious, Blair curled a little to ease the cramping in his gut and then stiffened sharply as the muscles in his legs again contracted painfully, forcing him to dazed and disoriented awareness, clearly confused as to where he was. Tears gathered in the corners of his eyes as he gritted his teeth against the onslaught of rigid agony. Nathan quickly pulled his toes forward, supporting the soles of his patient's feet with his palms as Jim again worked the muscles to relax them.
"This happen before?" the healer asked, concern in his voice.
"Yeah, twice already this morning," Jim replied grimly. "He's been vomiting and shitting his insides out since before dawn. Couldn't keep any water down."
Nathan nodded and, once the cramps had again passed, moved swiftly to his cupboard in the corner where he kept his supplies, calling out to Josiah, "I'll need water put on to boil for tea and a bucket of cool water to bath him. And some dry soda bread."
"I'm on it," the big preacher drawled and turned away to head back downstairs.
While Nathan worked, Jim told him, "Sandburg lost his spleen a year ago. He said it could make him more susceptible to disease."
The healer shot him a quick look, not sure about that but willing to take a trained physician's word for it - which only meant his patient could be even more at risk now. Nodding thoughtfully, he poured out a cup of water from the clay jug on his worktable and added a plentiful amount of sugar and a few herbs and salts. Turning back to the bed, he motioned to Jim as he said bluntly, having no time for niceties, "Help him sit up. We've got to get some fluids into him or he'll die."
Jim's jaw clenched at the hateful threat of death as he slipped an arm around Blair's shoulders and pulled the limp man up against his chest. "Call you tell what's wrong with him?"
"From what you describe, probably cholera," Nathan replied as he held the cup to Sandburg's slack lips and fed him a little and then a little more, massaging his throat to help him swallow. "Likely from when he was pushed into that ditch, though I am surprised he's this sick so quickly - maybe because of losing his spleen, I don't know for sure."
"But, cholera doesn't usually kill," Jim protested. Sandburg shouldn't be this sick - wouldn't be if he hadn't given away so much of his own strength to him and to the sick men in the railroad camp. He'd left himself too vulnerable.
"It's not the disease itself that's deadly, if it's caught fast enough," Nathan explained patiently with a quick look up at Ellison. "It's the dehydration. Leads to shock. The leg cramps are a signal that he's in bad trouble."
Blair gagged, his stomach rebelling against the sweet fluid and he retched. Jim supported him while Nathan held the basin. Sandburg moaned miserably, and then grated, "Privy."
Nathan shook his head. His patient was too weak to make it to the outhouse in the back of the boarding house. Swiftly, expertly, he slipped a porcelain pan under Sandburg's hips. Jim held his friend compassionately, and brushed errant strands of hair out of Blair's eyes and off his face, while Blair panted for breath and rolled his eyes, frustrated by his illness and his helplessness, and in so much pain from the cramps in his gut that he had to fight to keep from keening in his weakness.
Josiah returned with the water, set the bucket by the small stove and filled a pot to boil. JD arrived right behind him, bearing the bread he'd raced off to acquire. And then, wordlessly, the preacher took the covered pan from Nathan to empty it in the privy and clean it. After they had Blair cleaned up, Nathan started again with the sugared water, encouraging Sandburg to drink.
Blearily, Blair nodded, having some idea of what was going on and trying to cooperate as best he could. But he felt like hell; weak and hot, and his whole body hurt. Vaguely, he knew Jim was there, holding him and, later, he could feel someone bathing his burning body, but he seemed to be floating in a lake of misery somewhere just on the edge of darkness, not fully conscious.
Nathan alternated the sugar water with tea laced with herbs to counteract the nausea and the pain that wracked his patient's body. When they needed it, Toby went for more water, and otherwise kept an anxious vigil in the hall. Finally, after hours of effort, the nausea seemed to abate and the healer was able to get Blair to hold onto the sugared water he drank and to eat a little bread. An hour after that, the fever broke, which was good but the resulting sweat only dehydrated Sandburg further, and he sank into deep unconsciousness, his breathing rough and slow. When his legs cramped again, he grunted and moaned but did not wake. Nathan worried about the weak, thready, too fast pulse and Jim grappled with fear at the struggling and increasingly rapid but weak tattoo of his partner's heartbeat.
They laboured through the day and all during the next night to coax sugared water and tea into his body, until finally, his heart slowed and strengthened and his breathing evened out. Nathan sighed in relief, hoping the crisis was past. An hour after dawn, he decided that Blair had at last settled into a healthier sleep.
"I think he'll be all right now," Nathan told Jim. "You got him here in time."
Wearily, Ellison looked up at the healer. "Thank you," he murmured.
"Glad to help," Nathan replied sincerely. "He'll need a few days rest to get some strength back - he'll sleep mostly. You need to sleep, too."
"No, I'll - " Ellison tried to refuse, but the healer was used to dealing with stubborn men.
"You'll do as I say, the both of you," he cut in, flashing a look at Toby to include him in his prescription. "Neither of you have eaten since you got here. Go on - you can get breakfast in the saloon. And there'll be beds in the hotel. I don't want to see either of you again until you've gotten some rest. Your friend will be fine. When he wakes up, I don't want him worryin' himself over you. Now git!"
Reluctantly, with a last look at Sandburg, Jim turned to go. But he paused at the door and said firmly, "We'll get something to eat and a room for Toby. But I'm coming back here - I'll sleep just fine on that other bed in the corner."
Nathan rolled his eyes but nodded, too tired to pursue an argument he knew he wasn't going to win with the stubborn, worried man.
When Jim and Toby pushed through the saloon's double half-doors, the lawman noticed the six curious men gathered around a table in the corner. Josiah, the preacher and JD, the sheriff, were with four other men - the same men who had watched them ride in the morning before.
Josiah tipped his hat and called gently, "How's your friend doing?"
"Better, thanks," Jim allowed as they moved to the bar to order coffee, eggs, bacon, and fried potatoes. When they turned to choose a table, Josiah waved them over.
"Join us," he invited with a smile.
Jim looked at the others as they made their way to the table, mugs of steaming coffee in their hands. He assumed that these were the men who kept the law in this town, and they were curious about him and Toby. He'd often been the same in Bitterwood Creek when he wanted to determine if there was any threat to his town's peace. The men had no doubt seen his six-guns and wondered where the three of them had come from and where they were going.
"Jim Ellison," he introduced himself as he pulled up a chair. "And this is Toby Freeman. My friend in the clinic is Dr. Blair Sandburg."
Josiah performed the honours for the others. "You've met JD. This is Vin Tanner."
"Howdy," Vin murmured with a slight smile. Ellison's brow cocked; he knew the name - he'd seen it on a wanted poster. Interesting.
"Chris Larabee." Larabee just nodded, his manner taciturn and wary.
"Glad to hear yer friend is doing better," Wilmington said with a warm drawl and what seemed a sincere smile.
"And Ezra Standish."
"I am sorry your journey here had to be made under such dire circumstances, but I'm relieved to hear, as are we all, that Dr. Sandburg, was it? Will be fine. Our Nathan is a healer of great skill," the Southerner drawled. Toby gave him a sideways look, but relaxed at the praise for Jackson. The man might be from the South, but he seemed to have no problems with the fact that all men were now equal.
"Skills honed on working over us," JD observed mournfully as he sipped his mug of coffee.
"So, where are you headin'?" Larrabee asked with a penetrating gaze, getting straight to the point.
Heaping plates were set down in front of Jim and Toby at that moment, and Ellison took another sip of his coffee, deciding to cool their suspicions. "I'm the Sheriff in Bitterwood Creek, Kansas Territory and Sandburg is the doctor there," he replied evenly. "My brother was missing in Apache Territory - we went with my father and Toby, here, to find him and bring him home. We're on our way back now." With a look that clearly asked if that satisfied Larrabee, Jim turned his attention on his breakfast.
"Where are your father and brother now, if we might be so bold as to enquire?" Standish asked. "I do hope that nothing untoward happened to them during your perilous quest."
Shaking his head, Ellison replied dryly, more amused than irritated by the inquisition cloaked in fancy words and an urbane, gentlemanly manner, "They're still with the train, a few miles from here. My brother was injured when he was thrown from his horse nearly a month ago and has a broken leg. It was easier for them to remain behind while we brought Sandburg into town."
"You rescued your brother from Apache territory and no one was hurt?" Vin asked quietly, his eyes narrowing as he studied the two strangers with sharp interest.
"Well, the trip had its moments," Jim allowed with a shrug and a wry glance at his broken arm. "We came to an understanding."
"Uh huh," Vin grunted with a quick glance at Larrabee, who sat back in his chair with a thoughtful look on his face.
"You faced the Apaches?" JD exclaimed enthusiastically. "Why…was Geronimo with them? I've heard of him."
Jim nodded but kept eating, so Toby picked up the ball. "Geronimo and his warriors ended up helping us sort out a problem with the railroad - saved our skin."
"Wow," JD sighed, his eyes wide. "You hear that Buck?" he asked, evidently much impressed.
"Yeah, I heard," Wilmington drawled, his tongue in his cheek, not sure how much of the tall tale he was willing to buy. The Apache rarely took captives, and those they took didn't live long. It had been going on ten years since Geronimo had had any truck with white men, let alone bestirred himself to help any. He was more into killing them on sight.
"What kind of trouble did you encounter with the railroad?" Standish asked, recalling his own misadventures with certain heinous individuals when the line was being built nearby - and an encounter of a completely different kind with a lovely, innocent Chinese maiden, who was still innocent as he sent her on her way with enough money to get her safely home, however much others might have doubted his honour in the circumstances…or the temptation she had so willingly offered.
Fielding the question, Toby explained. "Well, after you cleaned up the problems here," he began, earning startled looks from the others who hadn't known their actions were so well known, "the railroad ended up hiring the same type of criminal crew bosses all over again. Theft, fraud, and even murder were going on."
"I see," Ezra murmured, as he absently riffled a deck of cards. "So, you were not only successful in an encounter with the most notorious war chief in the west, but you overcame the villains at the railroad camp. My, my, you've had a busy time."
Jim shrugged, not unduly concerned that they evidently didn't believe the story; he wasn't there to impress them.
But Ellison didn't strike him as the type to tell tall tales, and Larrabee intervened quietly. "You're that Ellison that blew the whistle on the Cavalry and the massacre at Poplar Flats, aren't you?" Glancing at his colleagues, he elaborated, "Mary was talking about it a few months ago, remember?"
Jim lifted cool eyes as he grunted, "Uh huh."
Meanwhile, Vin was studying Toby. "Ain't I seen you somewheres before?"
"Maybe," the big man replied. "I've been around these parts a time or two, visiting my brother up in the hills. He's with the Seminole community there."
Tired of being on the receiving end of all the questions, Ellison decided to indulge in a few of his own. "I've heard that the seven of you, including the healer, I gather, keep the peace in this town. Isn't that an odd arrangement?" Deliberately, he looked away from Larabee and toward the young JD as he posed the question. Amused, he noticed Wilmington stiffen defensively on behalf of the kid. Clearly, his question suggested JD couldn't do the job on his own, even if he was the only one sporting a badge.
Startled, JD stammered, "Yeah, well, it's been like that from the beginning. Uh, Judge Travis pays us all to keep the peace and it's worked out real well."
"I'm sure it has," Jim allowed mildly, once again picking up his mug of coffee. "I know I've been glad of the backup of my part-time deputies from time to time."
The younger man preened a little at the way Ellison seemed to accept him as the older Sheriff's equal. His friends around the table hid their grins as they all relaxed.
But Jim wasn't quite finished with them yet. "Still, it's unusual to have a man wanted for murder keeping the law in a town," he observed very softly, his gaze straying to Tanner.
"You don't want to go there, cowboy," Larabee grated, his hand straying to the butt of his gun.
Unruffled, Jim shrugged. "Had a similar situation back in my town. One of the men I most respect was accused unjustly of being a murderer." Turning to Larabee as he stood up from the table, he and Toby having finished their meal, he added, "It's best to clear up those kinds of misunderstandings before somebody gets hurt."
Not liking the censure, Larabee's jaw stiffened and his eyes were green shards of ice - but he couldn't deny the validity of the advice.
"Gentlemen." Ellison tipped the brim of his Stetson, and then he and Freeman sauntered out to find their beds.
As they left, Jim heard Standish murmur, "Well, well, now that was an interesting conversation. I wouldn't want to make the mistake of underestimating the illustrious Sheriff Ellison."
"No," Josiah intoned. "I suspect he'd be a better friend than enemy."
"Hey, Chief? You waking up?" Ellison called quietly, if hopefully, when he picked up on Sandburg's increased respirations late that evening.
"Hmm?" Blair muttered, frowning as his face turned toward Jim's voice. He blinked and squinted, needing a moment to focus his eyes. "Jim," he said and smiled weakly.
The lawman stroked the younger man's brow, unconsciously pushing the curls off Blair's still too pale face as he asked, "How're you feeling?"
"Like mush," Sandburg sighed, his gaze wandering around the room. "Where am I?" he asked, puzzled, his voice hoarse and thin.
"It's a small town near the track," Ellison replied. "You needed more help than any of us could give you on the train." He paused, then added, his voice tight, "You gave us quite a scare, Chief."
Blair swallowed and winced, his throat still raw from vomiting so violently and so often. Vague memories intruded and he sighed again, knowing he'd been a lot of trouble to care for. "Guess I was a mess, huh? What was it? Cholera?"
"You could say that," Jim replied with a wry grin. "Don't worry about it, Blair. You were sick, too weak to do anything but keep breathing. And, yeah, the healer here figured it was cholera - maybe from when you were pushed into the latrine ditch."
Sandburg wrinkled his nose at the memory. "Don't remind me," he grated, the thought of being drenched in stinking filth making nausea twinge again in his gut. "Could I have some water?"
"Yeah, sorry, right here," Jim apologized, reaching for the jug on the little wooden table by the bed and pouring half a cup. But with his broken arm, he couldn't both support Blair's head and hold the vessel to his partner's lips at the same time. Sandburg reached to hold the mug himself but his hands were trembling from weakness.
Nathan, having heard their muted voices, came in just then and took the cup from Ellison's hands, and gently helped Blair to drink.
"Thanks," Sandburg murmured as the healer settled his head back on the pillow.
"Blair, this is Nathan Jackson - and he's the reason you're still alive," Jim said with a grateful smile.
"Oh, hi. I'm Blair Sandburg. I appreciate your help. Sorry to be so much trouble," Sandburg offered with a small grin.
"No trouble," Nathan replied. "Just glad I could help. You hungry?"
Sandburg thought about that. "Yeah," he nodded. "I could eat something light. Maybe some soup?"
"I've got some on the stove in my quarters. I'll just go fetch you a bowl," the healer said with a smile, glad to know his patient was hungry. It was a good sign.
"Where're the others?" Blair asked Jim then.
"Toby just left a little while ago to go back to the hotel," Jim told him. "Dad and Steven stayed with the train."
Sandburg nodded, closing his eyes for a minute. God, he felt tired and weak, and his whole body ached. More memories intruded and he blinked as he turned his face again to Jim. "Your Dad. He…he really helped me, didn't he? God, Jim. That had to be hard on him. He's a businessman, not a nurse."
Bowing his head to hide the emotion in his eyes, Jim blew out a slow breath; he was still so amazed by his father's calm acceptance of the situation and his unhesitant, even gentle, help. "He, uh, he said that he'd wiped bottoms before, mine and Steven's specifically - that that's what fathers do. He was really great, Chief. I…well, I was surprised, to tell you the truth," he said quietly when he could trust his voice.
"Yeah, but I'm not his son," Blair murmured. "He's a good man, Jim. Maybe he's changed; I guess he must've as the years passed. But he's not the man you remembered."
Looking up into Sandburg's eyes, Jim nodded. "I know," he replied soberly. "I would never have expected it in a million years - but I actually like him, Blair. And Steven, too."
"So do I, Jim," Blair smiled. He reached for his friend as he added, "I'm really happy for you, you know? It's good to have family that matters to you, and to know they love you, too."
"You're my family, Blair," Jim replied as he clasped Blair's hand in a fervent grip.
"I know," Sandburg whispered back. "But now I'm not your only family. I like them a lot, Jim, and I hope we'll see more of them in the years ahead."
Jim nodded as he pulled back and tousled Blair's hair. "Yeah, well, they're your family now, too, Chief."
Toby rode back to the train the next day, to let William and Steven know that Sandburg was going to be fine and that he only needed a few more days of rest before their journey could resume. He brought out fresh supplies and treated them to a meal worthy of their sense of relief and celebration. The steward agreed to stay with Steven so that the senior Ellison could ride into town and see for himself that Blair was on the mend.
Blair and Jim were astonished to see William ushered in by Ezra Standish, as the older man had first stopped at the saloon to wash the dust from his throat and get directions to the boarding house.
"I've brought you some, no doubt, very welcome company, Dr. Sandburg," the gambler said with an engaging grin. "I know how hours in this entirely adequate but occasionally tedious clinic can be, having spent a few too many here myself."
"Bill, I didn't expect you to ride all the way into town," Blair exclaimed with a bright smile.
"After tracking you two down in Bitterwood Creek, this was a ride in the park," William snorted, but he turned to Standish and graciously thanked him for his help.
"Happy to oblige, Mr. Ellison," the gambler replied with an elegantly deferential nod. "If I may, I would also like to inform you that, if you enjoy games of chance and flirting with Lady Luck, amusement is always at hand in the saloon. Good day, gentlemen."
Jim stood to pull a chair forward for his father on the far side of Sandburg's bed, but William ignored it for the moment as he moved closer to study the young physician. Blair was still too pale for his liking, but a far sight improved over what he'd been. "Well, I must say, you're looking a good deal better than the last time I saw you," he said warmly as he fondly gripped Blair's shoulder.
Blair's eyes dropped and then came up to meet the steady gaze of the older man. "You were a big help, Bill. I know it couldn't have been pleasant, but I want you to know I really appreciate the care you gave me."
William looked from Blair to Jim and back again as he said quietly, "Helping you when you were ill was what family does for one another, son, no more than that. No need to be grateful. You have more than earned whatever I can ever do to help you. You remember that, you hear? Anything, anytime - you only need to wire me."
It warmed the older man's heart to see how ridiculously pleased he'd made his eldest son with those few simple words, and he appreciated Blair's flush of surprised happiness, too. It pained him to know how much he'd lost for so many long years because he hadn't the strength or the skill to be what his sons needed when they were young, but he dearly hoped to make it up now that they were both grown. He'd feared so wretchedly that he'd lost both of them but, instead, he had found them - and this young man had played a big part in that successful rediscovery and reunion. He appreciated all Blair had done to ensure his sons' well-being and, more, had come to care for the young man in his own right. William turned away to find his chair and hide the emotion on his face. It just felt so damned good to be a father, a real father, and to know his beloved sons truly cared about him…and that Blair evidently did, too.
"Where's this healer who helped you?" he asked when he was settled. "I'd like to thank him for all his help."
"Nathan's out making his rounds, Dad, but he'll be back soon," Jim replied.
"Good, good," William murmured as he looked around the Spartan clinic. Money could never repay the gift of Blair's good health, let alone his life, but money could sure help this fine healer get some supplies and equipment that he might well need. It was little enough to show his profound appreciation and he planned to have a chat with the man before he left town - and when he left, he expected to have a long list of supplies and equipment in his pocket to take back to Philadelphia with him, for shipment back to this dusty little town.
In the hours and days that followed, Blair had a number of local visitors drop by. Josiah and JD came back, telling him how glad they were to see he was recovering so swiftly; JD was especially keen to hear about their adventures and about what the land far to the west was like. Vin Tanner dropped in, shy and reserved, but unable to hide his curiousity about how they'd survived their encounter with the Apache. Blair and Jim were reticent, but William had no reservations about telling the buckskin-clad stranger all about their harrowing adventure. Vin nodded and thanked them sincerely, saying he was glad to hear that the Apache were as honorable in their way as other tribes he'd known and lived with. Ezra dropped in to see if the invalid might be diverted by a friendly game of cards and he plied them with questions about life in Bitterwood Creek. He was also interested in hearing about how the railroad workers, especially the Chinese ones, were faring. His loquacious manner and dry humour made him a favourite visitor to the small sick room. Buck came by more than once with trays of food sent by Inez, the woman who owned the saloon and stopped to chew the fat, figuratively, while Blair ate, and then he'd take the trays away again.
Jim noticed that Larabee never made an appearance, but a pretty, blond woman, Mary Travis, daughter-in-law to the Judge who had hired the seven men to keep the peace, came one afternoon. She explained she was a widow and the publisher of their local paper - and so she had questions about a lot of things, like the Poplar Flats story she'd read about, the incident with the railroad, even the comfort of the new Pullman cars, as well as about their encounter with the Apache and Steven Ellison's rescue. Given her interest in the fancy parlor car and her desire to meet Steven, William suavely offered to escort her out to meet his other son, an invitation she readily accepted. Both Blair and Jim were amused to see the elder Ellison's courtly style with the lady, and Jim wondered wryly what Larabee would make of it, given his seemingly casual reference to 'Mary' the day before - that Larabee just didn't seem the casual type.
Nathan monitored the visitors and sent them packing with little ceremony whenever he sensed his patient's energy was flagging. Jim and Blair found his company quiet and soothing and, though it was hard to pry his own story from him, when they told about their friends, Simon, Joel, Henri and Toby, he relaxed somewhat with them.
It was only after a full three days of recuperation that Nathan cleared Sandburg for the short ride to the train, with the promise that he'd rest until they got back to Wichita. When they mounted up, William having brought Butternut into town when he returned with Mrs. Travis, the healer smiled softly at the elder Ellison and nodded wordlessly. The older man had insisted that his son and Blair not know about the help he wanted to give, and the healer had agreed to abide by his wishes. But Nathan was very grateful for all that Ellison, Senior had promised to send to him. It was always a struggle to have a good supply of medicines, and his tools were old and badly in need of replacement. The man's generosity was a marvel and a blessing, indeed.
Blair and Jim both called out their thanks, and then the three men turned their mounts to ride out of town. They all saluted Mary, who came out of her office to wave good-bye. Blair waved and smiled as Ellison tipped the brim of his Stetson when they rode past the five rough men and the boy in the bowler hat lounging outside the saloon, and was amused when they each quietly saluted him back. Gunslingers or not, the west had need of such men, he thought as they left the town behind - men who stood in defence of the helpless and vulnerable, and were willing to put their own lives on the line for what was right.
When they got back to the train, Steven was fulsome in his welcome and relief to see Blair looking so well, if still a bit wan. Toby fussed over Sandburg while Jim and William settled their mounts in the stockcar. And then the small train pulled out, heading east to Albuquerque and then north to Santa Fe. Toby treated them all that night to another exquisite dinner of beef broth and freshly made bread still warm from the oven, braised rabbit he'd caught himself, served with fresh vegetables and salad, and generous slices of apple pie with cheese. Blair ate sparingly, still wary of heavy food, but he enjoyed it all. But, most of all, he basked in the warmth of their collective welcome and evident happiness to have him back, safe and sound.
When they arrived in Santa Fe, William decided to spend an extra night to give himself and Steven ample time to brief the President of the Santa Fe/Pacific Continental Railroad on what they'd found and all that had occurred in Flagstaff. Auditors would need to be sent out to verify inventories of stock and supplies, as well as to determine the exact progress of the construction in order to recalculate the investments needed to finish the venture. New crew bosses and a foreman would need to be hired - and better screened this time around. William also took the opportunity, with Steven's able assistance, to begin his campaign to have the Railroad take some responsibility for safeguarding some of the most beautiful land for future generations. He argued it was a kind of trust that they could not ignore, regardless of the profits to be had.
Jim and Blair took the opportunity to wander more of the town and to acquire small souvenirs of their trip for their friends back home: a silver and turquoise bracelet and matching earrings for Megan; hand-woven, colourful Navaho blankets for Simon and Joel, a silver-tooled Spanish-style buckle for Henri, as well as a delicate silver bracelet for his wife, Hannah, and a silver and turquoise bolo for Rafe to secure his bandana when he was out wooing the local ladies at the Saturday night dance. And then they decided to buy mementos of their journey for the others. They easily found journals bound with hand-tooled leather, one depicting a mountain lion reminiscent of Jim's jaguar spirit guide, and the other a wolf, for William and Steven, that they thought the two businessmen could use; but Toby was more difficult. Of them all, he'd ridden with them purely out of his quiet but resolute sense of decency and rightness - he had no personal interest in either rescuing Steven or facing down the corruption of the railroad bosses. They wanted something special for him, but nothing that might cause him embarrassment or be hard to cart around the country. Finally, they found small fetishes fashioned in silver, one of a wolf, another of a hunting cat and a third of a wild mustang.
When Jim queried why the horse, Blair smiled softly and told him, "It's Toby's spirit guide. It told me it represents stamina, endurance, faithfulness, expanding one's own potential abilities and the freedom to run free; as well as the control of the environment, and the awareness of the power that can be achieved only with true cooperation. The wild mustang also represents friendship and cooperation, travel, guardianship of travelers and, finally one who warns of possible danger and is a guide to overcoming obstacles." Sandburg shrugged as he added, "When you think of Toby and all the roles he played during this journey, it's an amazingly accurate list of his life choices, characteristics and strengths, and the good care he's taken of us."
And Jim had to agree.
They stopped at an outdoor café to enjoy a simple meal in the warmth of the sun. And after, they strolled around the Spanish town enjoying the peace and prosperity of it, and the sound of laughing children. In late afternoon, they sat on a bench by the river to listen to a strolling troubadour sing melancholy ballads of outlaws who risked and wasted their lives in the badlands, inspiring tales of glory and enchanting, sentimental songs of love longed for and won.
It was a day of healing; a time to put away the fears of the last few weeks, to banish the horror to the realm of memory and to celebrate their friendship as physician and lawman, and their partnership as Sentinel and Guide - stolen moments of peace in a turbulent time to rejoice quietly that they lived, and to look forward to going home. Then, as the day waned, they headed back to the train; Jim's arm around Blair's shoulders while Sandburg carried their day's purchases. When Jim looked down at his partner as Sandburg chattered on with his characteristically exuberant, but absent for too long, light-heartedness, Ellison felt a rush of relief and gratitude to see that the old sparkle of energy and life was once again dancing in Blair's eyes and that his easy smile lit the night.
That evening after dinner, Toby joined them for a glass of the old and valued Spanish brandy in honour of their last night on the rails together. Tomorrow, late in the afternoon, they would arrive in Wichita and Jim and Blair would take their leave. William asked them if they'd like to take the sorrel he'd bought when he first arrived in Wichita to search for Jim, as he'd have no use for it in Philadelphia.
"You never know, it might come in useful," he offered almost diffidently, not sure if Jim would accept the gift, hoping he would.
"Thanks, Dad, we appreciate that," Jim replied warmly. "Blair often has to travel all over the area and he wears poor Butternut right out sometimes."
"Might as well take mine, too," Toby said in reference to the big roan he'd ridden. "There's no room to keep him at the tenement where my family lives in St. Louis, and to be honest, I can't really afford to board him."
"You've got a family?" Blair exclaimed, sitting forward. "But - you risked traveling with us to find Steven. You could have been killed - "
Toby nodded and shrugged. "It wouldn't've been right to watch you ride off when you needed all the help you could get."
William shook his head. "You're a good man, Toby Freeman," he said soberly and with no little respect. "You say your family is in St. Louis?"
"Yes sir, my wife Rachel and our three little'uns. Two boys growing up to be as much trouble as their pa, and the sweetest little girl you ever did see. I hate to leave them, to tell you the truth, but this is the best job I could find. It keeps a roof over their heads and food on the table. And, well, St. Louis is a central location for the western lines so I get to see them several times a year."
"I'd like to meet your family," William said then, "if it wouldn't be an intrusion."
"I'd be proud to introduce them to you, Mr. Ellison. We'll have a stop in St. Louis on our way to Philadelphia. If you like, you and Steven can go home with me for dinner that night," Toby invited with a warm smile.
William nodded, well pleased. He had need of a housekeeper and his big old house sounded too empty without young voices. Leaning back in his chair, he smiled and looked forward to meeting Mrs. Freeman and their children. Briefly, he considered buying the horse from Toby, as the man could no doubt use the money - but then he reflected that some things are worth more than money, and one of them was a man's pride and his right to gift his friends in accordance with his heart's affection and desire. He'd not insult such a fine man by trying to buy what he'd already freely given.
Looking into his glass, enjoying the play of candlelight on the amber liquid, Jim reflected, "You know, Toby, if you've seen enough of the country when this trip is done, you'd have a place in Bitterwood Creek. With your wrangling skills, I know Simon and Joel would be glad to have you at the ranch, and Henri's business is growing with the livery, blacksmith and leather-tooling shop - he could use a partner. Or, the way you cook, the hotel would kill to have you as the chef for their dining room."
The steward looked away, moved that his presence would be desired in Bitterwood Creek. "Thank you," he murmured, sincerely. "But, I'd like to see San Francisco and the great ocean beyond. After that, well, my Rachel has been after me to settle down. Sounds like a better place to raise our kids than St. Louis. I'll keep your invitation in mind."
The next day, late in the afternoon, the small train pulled into Wichita and, before taking their leave, Jim and Blair presented their small souvenirs of the journey. They'd inscribed the journals with their love and the hope that William and Steven would visit them soon, and both the elder and the younger Ellison were touched by the thoughtful, useful gifts that would be a reminder of their western ordeals and adventures. Toby was moved beyond words by the small animal fetishes when Blair explained what they represented. His eyes blurred and he nodded, swallowing convulsively to clear the sudden lump in his throat.
"It's been an honour to ride with both of you," he finally managed to say, his voice low with emotion as he held the small silver animals tightly in his big palm. "With all of you," he added with a glance at William and Steven. "My passengers don't usually take any notice of me, let alone call me friend. You'll be seeing me, and my family, in Bitterwood Creek in the next year or so. I'll look forward to that."
"We were lucky to have you with us, Toby," Jim replied as he gripped the bigger man's shoulder. "Real lucky."
And then Jim and Blair saddled Lobo and Butternut, taking the horse Toby had ridden and now given them as a pack animal and leading William's sorrel. There was an awkward pause, and then Blair stepped forward to hug the others in turn, making it all right for the more reserved Ellisons to embrace before parting.
Turning to Toby, Blair held out his arms to the man who had carried him to that small town in the New Mexico territory. "I'll miss you, my friend, and look forward to seeing you and your family, I hope sooner rather than later," he said with warm sincerity.
Jim held out his hand to shake as an equal, as men who were warriors and friends, and Toby was once again speechless with the honour and friendship these men so freely granted him.
And then the lawman and the physician rode away from the station into the busy town.
"It's late," Jim noted, but wanting to leave the choice to Blair, knowing how Sandburg felt about big, crowded cities. "Do you want to find a hotel?"
Sandburg shook his head. "I'd just as soon head out onto the prairie, if it's all the same to you."
"Works for me, Chief," Ellison replied with an easy smile.
They stopped briefly to buy a few supplies for their three-day ride and then cantered out of town. That night and the next, they camped out under the wide star-filled sky, easy in one another's company. And on the third day out of Wichita, late in the afternoon, they grinned to see Bitterwood Creek on the horizon, and kicked their horses into a gallop, very glad at long last to be home.
Historical Notes. I've taken some definite liberties with the history of the construction of the railroads and their routes, but the information about the Pullman car and the direction of the line, as well as the timeframes are generally correct. Four major railroads were built across the west during this period, their routes largely determined by the mountain passes that gave egress to the Pacific. It was a time of great competition amongst the railroads, which were granted land on their right of ways to encourage millions of European immigrants to settle the west. Later, the railroads were the first to safeguard the pristine beauty of lands that, in time, become national parks. George Pullman did hire ex-slaves to be stewards in his luxurious parlor cars and as conductors in the other classes of rail cars. These workers later formed the first union in the United States of America.
Geronimo was active during this period of history, and the facts about his initial peaceful inclinations toward the white settlers, and then his rage at the massacre of his family by the Spanish who then owned Mexico (and were also contending for Texas), are true. He was a fierce, much feared warrior whose name has become synonymous with bold courage, effective leadership and determined, intrepid effort in the face of overwhelming odds.
Oak Creek Canyon and the red, mountainous cliffs can be found about eighty miles south of Flagstaff, Arizona. This is the incomparably beautiful area of Sedona. The story's reference to how people feel at peace and happy while there is very true of that very special place. It is said that the red cliffs contain three elements of energy that are individually rare in the world, rarer still to all be found together in the same location. Whitehorse, Yukon Territory, Canada is another such place as, it is rumoured, the Bermuda Triangle.
Finally, I dedicate the guest appearance of the Magnificent Seven to Romanse, who has helped me develop quite an appreciation for these brave and charismatic, if incongruous, lawmen. ;)
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