Inside, they pushed the door closed against the wind, and shrugged off their dripping slickers to hang on hooks in the hall with their wet hats.

"Jim," Blair asked, his face turned away and his voice deliberately pitched low and soft, "how much can you hear?"

Jim didn't answer. Instead, he carried on into the kitchen to stoke the stove and put on a fresh pot of coffee. Shaking his head, Blair followed him. Once Jim was finished, he touched his partner's arm to get his attention.

"Jim, can you hear me?" he whispered.

"What?"

Sighing, Blair raised his voice. "Can you hear me now?"

Grimacing, Jim rubbed the sides of his face, just in front of his ears. "Guess you caught me," he replied, though that still didn't answer the question.

Practically shouting, Blair asked, "How high is your hearing set?"

"Uh, got the lantern burning full blast, Chief," he finally admitted, grudgingly. "Can't hardly hear a damned thing."

Gesturing at Jim to follow him, Blair led the way to his office where he examined Jim's ears. Afterward, he sat down and scribbled out a note, 'Your eardrums look okay, but I think your hearing got overloaded by the loud thunder – I know it nearly deafened me. And this may also be a residual effect of nearly being struck by lightning this morning. Turn the bronze lantern down to a normal level and let your sense of hearing rest. Don't push it, okay? I think in a few hours, you'll be fine.'

Jim glanced at the note, his brows furrowing as he read. "I was nearly hit by lightning?"

Though he wondered if it had been more than a near-miss, if Jim had actually been struck, Blair nodded and jotted, 'Knocked you out for a few minutes, but you're okay now.'

"You think my hearing will come back, right?" Jim probed, anxious shadows in his eyes.

Nodding reassuringly, Blair wrote, 'Yeah. My hearing is still a bit off, too. Yours is more sensitive, so it makes sense it will take a little longer to improve. I think you should lie down for a few hours, give your body a chance to bounce back. Keep the lantern turned down; don't strain to hear, at least not yet.'

"Okay, Chief," Jim sighed. "You're the doctor. I'll just have a cup of coffee to warm up, and go upstairs. Have to admit, I feel, I don't know, just tired, I guess."

Thinking about how Jim had very nearly died that morning, Blair gave him a wan smile as he nodded in understanding. Waving Jim back to the kitchen, he pushed himself to his feet to follow. His partner wasn't the only one who felt 'tired'. Blair couldn't be more 'tired' if he'd run to Wichita and back. Between what he'd done to revive Cherie the evening before and investing Jim with enough healing energy to breathe, let alone to get back on his feet and chase around town for the last two hours, Blair knew he was just about done in. Jim had helped him immeasurably the night before – it was the only reason, really, that he could even function – but he couldn't ask Jim for more, not until he'd fully recovered from his own injuries.

While they sipped their coffee in companionable silence, Blair continued to ponder the mystery of energy – where it came from, how they shared it, replenished it – and he wondered if he was doing something wrong. Maybe more than one thing wrong. For starters, he didn't think he should be so completely enervated by doing what, he assumed anyway, was what shamans did. Was he missing something? Maybe not drawing on the help of his spirit guide enough? Never before had he felt the pervasive weakness, that odd sense of being less, insubstantial, that he'd experienced after healing Cherie. But then, he'd never reached so far before, either. Jim had. Jim had brought him back from the dead, but nobody had said anything about Jim just about fading away afterward. But then, from what he understood, Jim had drawn upon the power of the spirit guides. Blair wasn't conscious of ever having done that. So … was he trying to do too much alone? Maybe.

Or maybe he was just trying to do too much, period. Until the last little more than a month, he'd only had his skill and knowledge as a doctor to draw upon. Sure, he might unwittingly also have been using some greater force without realizing it, but that wasn't the same, was it, as drawing upon that force on a regular basis? Was he relying too heavily and too quickly upon what felt like magic? Was that a good thing or a bad thing? Was he abusing his new abilities, using them almost arrogantly, simply because he knew he could? And was he abusing Jim's ability and willingness to help him recoup afterward?

He didn't know, and the questions weren't helping him to feel any better. God, he was absolutely exhausted. That kid's words haunted and troubled him a great deal. Not that he thought there was anything inherently evil in trying to help people, in doing his best and using all the resources available to him to heal. He was comfortable, more than comfortable, in accepting that there was a great deal so-called civilized society didn't know about what was possible, that science wasn't the only truth. But…

He was distracted from his thoughts when Jim finished his coffee and stood to put his mug in the wash basin. "I'll see you later," he said, squeezing Blair's shoulder as he left to go upstairs and rest.

Outside, the storm still blew, but Blair thought the rain was tapering off and the wind didn't sound so fierce. Shivering, he wandered down to the infirmary. Lying down on a cot, he huddled under the blanket and closed his eyes.

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

The heavy weight of a hand pressed over his mouth wakened Blair hours later, and his eyes widened in startled shock at the sight of a sixgun held close to his face. Holding himself completely still, his gaze flew around and he saw nearly a dozen men, all of them strangers, surrounding the cot and filling the infirmary. He didn't know them, none of them, but some of them looked vaguely familiar.

They were some of the men he'd glared at the evening before; men who had been in the stampeding throng that had trampled Cherie.

Men he'd cursed.

"Get up and keep yer mouth shut, or I'll blow yer head off, y'hear?" the gunman growled.

He nodded carefully, and the hand was removed. Men grabbed him to haul him to his feet. A gag was stuffed in his mouth, and his hands were tied behind him. And then they were hustling him out the back door into the yard where the youth he recognized from the school was holding the horses. The kid sneered at him contemptuously, standing back while two men lifted him onto one of the horses.

In seconds, they were riding into the wind, down along the creek away from town.

The rain had stopped but the wind still had a sharp bite, and pewter clouds hung low, threatening more bad weather. Blair was afraid. Wherever they were taking him, whatever was they had planned, he knew he was in trouble. Glancing back over his shoulder at his home, he wondered if Jim had heard anything, but there was no movement at the upper window. His heart sinking, he feared Jim's hearing was still a problem, and that no one knew he'd been taken. Maybe no one would ever know what happened to him.

He was on his own and he was certain he was going to die.

They rode for nearly fifteen minutes, then drew up on a wide grassy bank sheltered from any passing eyes by a thick line of trees. Blair swallowed hard when he saw Kincaid was already there, waiting.

He was pulled from the saddle and shoved forward to stand before the southerner.

"Well, now, we finally meet," Kincaid drawled, gesturing with his head at the man behind Blair to remove the gag. "You curse us again and we'll shoot you where you stand."

"What do you want?" Blair asked, though he wasn't entirely sure he wanted to know.

Kincaid gave him a cynical smile that did nothing to warm the icy blue eyes. "You're going on trial, Sandburg, for being a witch, or maybe a demon."

Rolling his eyes, Blair expostulated, "You've got to be kidding. A witch? Give me a break. I'm a doctor, that's all."

"A doctor that brings dead things back to life? Few doctors have such skill," Kincaid sneered.

"You're talking about Cherie Brown, right?" Blair hastened to explain. He doubted these men cared what he had to say, but he had to try. "The little girl your men ran down yesterday? She wasn't dead. She was clipped by a horse and knocked out for a bit, that's all."

Kincaid snorted but, before he could speak, the youth blurted, "I saw you bring the Sheriff back to life this morning. You can't deny it! He wasn't breathing!"

Taking a breath, determined to remain as calm as he could, Blair allowed, "No, he wasn't. He'd nearly been killed by lightning and his body was in shock. But his heart was still beating. He wasn't dead. I just had to get his lungs moving. That's why I was blowing air into his mouth and pumping on his chest. It didn't take long for him to start breathing and he was fine – you saw that for yourself."

"You threatened to turn me into a frog!" the youth screamed.

Kincaid raised his hand to end the discussion. "This trial isn't about bantering words and giving plausible explanations to obscure reality," he revealed with a cold smile. "This is a test of God's will and mercy, to determine whether you're worthy of such blessing – or whether you should be consigned to the Devil."

Blair's throat went dry and he glanced at the river. He'd heard of such ancient tests. If he was bound hand and foot, thrown in, and sank rather than managed to float or swim, they'd let him drown. Some tests included being weighted down by a large stone just to make things more challenging. If he didn't panic, if they didn't tie him to a rock, he was sure, even bound, that he could float on his back. But he'd have to stay calm and not thrash around when they tossed him in.

Kincaid's chuckle drew his attention back. "No, no, we're not going to see if you know how to swim," he clarified. Turning slightly, he waved at a stake behind him, around which was piled stacks of wood. "We're going to see if you can survive fire."

Horrified, Blair gasped. "Fire? You're insane!" he exclaimed, furious and desperately not wanting to die, especially not like that. "All of you. Crazy murderers. All you want is to destroy anyone who isn't like you, who doesn't agree with you. You won't get away with this!"

"Gag him before he curses us again," Kincaid ordered, sounding amused. "And blindfold him, just in case he can turn people into frogs with a glance."

Blair struggled and kicked in desperation, but he knew it was hopeless. There were too many of them. There would be no escape. Men held him while the gag was thrust back into his mouth and tied tightly behind his head. Just before he was blindfolded, he saw Kincaid mount up and turn his horse toward town. "God's mercy upon you, Sandburg," he called sarcastically. "And maybe I'll see you again."

They dragged Blair to the stake and, winding rope around his body, bound him to it. Panting raggedly, he heard them toss more wood around him, and then he heard and smelled them pouring kerosene on the rough hewn logs. He grunted in protest, unable to believe they could be so indifferently cruel, but they laughed at him, joked about watching him burn and blacken into a shriveled vestige of a man. Stones struck his body and grazed his face, gratuitous punishment and pain inflicted for the joy of doing so, for how much more could they hurt him than to immolate him?

Sick with fear, dazed by the heavy blows to his head and body, he heaved against the ropes in a helpless refusal to die without protest, but froze when he heard a match strike.

"Let me torch it!" he heard the youth beg, his voice salacious with ugly desire.

Revolted, Blair shook his head helplessly. How could they allow a child to kill? "Nuh dun," he grunted in despairing protest, the gag garbling his words. He couldn't see, could only hear, and he heard a whoosh of flame, felt a sudden searing heat. There would be no mercy shown. The youth was as eager to destroy as were the men he emulated.

Fury filled him at his impotent helplessness; rage consumed him, blind rage, at the callous indifference, the malicious cruelty. Nor would he be the only victim – probably wasn't even the first they had killed. They took too much joy in it, too much satisfaction. How many more would die at their hands?

And they called him evil?

Smoke stung his nostrils, choking him, and the heat became oppressive, stifling, until he had to struggle to breathe at all. His futile anger built in his chest. Jim. They'd probably go after Jim next because he was all that really stood in their way. And then it would be Henri and his family. And Simon and Joel. And maybe Megan, and even Maisie, for daring to face the world alone, without dependence upon any man. How many would die like this, in horror and despair, tortured by fire? Or maybe just shot or bludgeoned in the dark?

"NUHHHH!" he screamed through the gag, enraged beyond reason, beyond hope, furious to be the sacrificial victim to ignorance, greed and a cynical need for power over others. He struggled with futile impotence against the ropes that bound him, utterly enraged that these murderers acted without conscience, laughing at his death – killers who would go on killing again and again, not only in this generation but in those to come, for they taught their children to kill.

Overcome with his inability to act, to save himself or anyone else, lost in his rage, he screamed again and tears leaked from his eyes to stain the bandana that blinded him. These men who surrounded him like jackals knew nothing of compassion or kindness, knew nothing but hate and envy. And he could not stop them. Could not … could not … he hated them, hated them for what they were doing to him and what they'd done to others, and what they would do in the future; despised them as he'd rarely detested any human being, any thing in creation. They were a sickness, a blight that twisted and perverted and destroyed without mercy or regret. In the midst of his defiant, passionate scream of rage, he heard a wolf howl – a call to the hunt – and a cat snarled in warning. The wind picked up, blowing strands of his hair across his face, fanning it out around his head. Overhead, thunder cracked like cannon, and growled loud and long like a furious, marauding beast. A mighty gust of wind whirled around him, sucking the air and smoke from his lungs. A sudden rushing filled his ears, a whooshing as heat built high and surrounded him and yet … and yet the flames did not touch him.

The laughter around him faltered, turned into screams, hideous screams of horror and unbearable pain. Rain burst upon him, drenching him, and the screaming died away into eerie, high-pitched whimpers until those piteous sounds were drowned in another rumble of thunder.

When the thunder faded, the rushing wind dropped and he was left in silence. The stench of burned flesh filled his nostrils, sickening him – and only then did he realize the inescapable truth of what he had done.

Shocked to his soul, his chest grew so tight with shock and inexpressible guilt, he couldn't catch his breath.

He'd killed all those men. Murdered in furious, blind, limitless rage…

God, he'd destroyed a child!

No, please, I didn't … I couldn't … how …

What am I? What have I become?

Oh God, oh God, forgive me. Forgive me. I … I …

Oh, God, he was a monster….

Chaos spun in his mind, a frenzy of horror; nausea roiled and twisted in his gut, and a keening wail burst from his raw throat. Ravaged by emotion, unable to bear his guilt, panting fast and shallow, his strength and energy spent, awareness faded and darkness swept over him.

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

Sharp rapping on the door roused him but, certain Blair would answer, he just rolled over. But then he heard a woman call, "Doc? Sheriff? It's Marnie! Anyone here? Doc?"

Marnie? Concerned something had happened to the children, Jim shouted, "I'll be right there," and rolled to his feet. Hurrying down the stairs, he wondered where Blair was.

"Marnie? What's wrong?"

"Nothing, well," she stammered in confusion.

Curbing his impatience, he waited for the shy woman to sort out her thoughts.

"That is, nothing is wrong now," she began to explain. "I wanted to let you know I let school out early. The weather looks like it might get bad again, and I thought they'd be better at home with their parents, and some of the settlers came in to collect their children. Anyway, I walked the Brown children home," she said in a breathless rush.

"Oh, well, uh, thanks for letting me know," he replied, a bit confused as to why such sensible actions seemed to make her so nervous.

She wrung her hands and went on, "And, and I was hoping Doc would be here. So I could apologize for what that horrible Walters boy said. Imagine anyone calling the Doc a demon and telling him he's evil?" Marnie shook her head, obviously still incensed. "I wanted Doc to know that I told his father when he came to collect him, that the boy is expelled until he apologizes both to Doc and to Rose, for calling her trash."

"You said this kid called Doc a demon?" Jim clarified, anger building in his chest.

"Yes, it was dreadful," she replied. "There Doc was, doing his best to get you breathing again, and I could tell he was scared, and this brat starts accusing him of these awful things, like cursing his father. Well, it won't happen again. In fact, Mr. Walters said very definitely that there'd be no more trouble about the Doc. Would you … would you tell Doc for me that I'm sorry and that it won't ever happen again, not in my school?"

Distracted by what she'd told him, Jim nodded. "Yeah, yeah, I'll tell him. Thanks." What the hell had happened that morning? What did she mean that he hadn't been breathing and Blair had been scared? And … what did Walters mean that there'd be no more trouble? Those people lived to make trouble.

And where the hell was Sandburg?

As politely as possible, he hastened Marnie out the door. Just as she was leaving, he saw Kincaid ride by, heading toward the center of town. And he heard hoofbeats approaching town – a lot of them. Frowning, he whirled around to check the house, looking for any sign of his partner or any indication of where Blair had gone. He found the rumpled cot.

I wasn't breathing?

Jesus. Had Blair pulled another one of his magic healing stunts? He didn't have the energy left for that.

His jaw tightening, Jim looked around and saw the door to the back wasn't completely closed. Moving across the room, he sniffed the air, scenting traces of other men. Out in the yard, he saw the muddy ground had been churned up by at least a dozen horses.

Alarm erupted into fear. What had happened? Why hadn't he heard anything?

His damned hearing…

"Jim!" he heard Simon's voice call from inside.

"Out back," he yelled. Studying the tracks, he saw they had ridden fast along the creek, away from town.

"Jim, sorry it took us a while to get into town," Simon was saying as he came through the door. "That storm this morning wreaked havoc on the ranch." But he must've read something in Jim's face, because he stilled and his face clouded. "What's wrong?"

Jim held up a hand to stave off more questions as he tried to piece things together. He didn't want to jump to conclusions, but it sure looked like they'd taken Sandburg. Where had Kincaid been riding in from? Jim was turning to Simon when he inhaled deeply to scent the wind for any clues – and he gagged at the sweet, sickly stench of roasted flesh. Whipping around, panting with sick dread, he stared into the wind.

"They've got Sandburg," he gusted, and then broke for the stable to saddle Lobo. "Get H! Tell your men to follow me!"

Simon frowned in concern, but he disappeared into the house.

Jim had barely finished saddling up when Brown, Simon and the Gold Ribbon riders cantered around the corner of the house. Swinging onto Lobo's back, Jim led them in a racing gallop along the creek.

The stench he smelled sickened him; bile burned in his throat. He didn't want to think about what they'd find, but he couldn't stop worrying that the bastards had burned Blair. I'll kill them. I'll fucking kill them all if they've hurt him.

The further they rode, the thicker the air grew with the nauseating stench until he heard men behind him exclaiming, wondering what the hell it was and what they were riding into. He glanced back at Simon and Henri, and he could tell from their anxious, furious expressions that they were afraid they knew. Just like he was afraid. Just like he was enraged nearly beyond reason.

But when they burst onto the meadow, they all drew up in appalled, shocked silence at what they saw: twisted, blackened corpses scattered on the still green grass – and Sandburg tied to a post; slumped, unmoving, surrounded by burned, still steaming faggots of wood.

"Christ," Jim breathed and urged Lobo closer. Slipping off his mount, swallowing heavily against the urge to vomit, he stared at Blair, trying to discern if he was alive or…

"Sandburg?" he rasped, his voice hoarse, as he drew closer. His gaze narrowed and he shook his head, trying to clear the roar of his own blood from his ears. Reaching out with a trembling hand, he felt Blair's face and gently raised his head. "Blair?"

Simon came up behind him and circled around to untie the blindfold and gag, while Brown appeared, to work on the ropes with his Bowie knife.

"He alive?" Simon asked with low trepidation.

"Yeah," Jim told him. "But he's out cold. Don't know how much smoke he inhaled."

"What do you think happened here?" Simon asked then, his gaze going past Jim to the corpses behind him.

"Justice," Jim replied with stark, blunt certitude. He braced Blair as the ropes loosened and fell away.

"Well, I'd agree with you there, just on general principle," Simon said wryly. "But … how?"

Jim ignored the question as he lifted Blair and carried him from the pyre.

"Jim?" Simon called, pressing for an answer.

"Not now," he returned over his shoulder. "We need to get him home."

"And the rest of them?"

"They're not going anywhere. Kincaid can come to collect his dead – or leave them to rot, for all I care."

As he supported Blair and then lifted him up to Jim, Simon observed for Jim's ears only, "One of them was either a real small man or …"

"Yeah, I saw that, too," Jim snapped, not wanting to think about it. Whatever had happened there, however it happened, it was all too obvious who had been bound at the stake, surrounded by fire. Cold with loathing for what they'd intended to do, he couldn't find it in him to feel grief for anyone who had so clearly meant to burn Sandburg alive, only to find the flames devouring them instead.

Holding fast to his unconscious partner, Jim wheeled Lobo around to lead the way back to Bitterwood Creek.

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

Blair started to revive just as they approached the edge of town. Confused, jerking in fear, he didn't seem to understand what was going on. Jim held him securely against his chest, and murmured, "Easy, Chief. You're okay. We're nearly home." He was relieved when Blair nodded and relaxed against him.

When they drew up in front of the house, there was a small crowd gathered, mostly people who were alarmed to know the men had ridden out so suddenly, hell bent for leather. But Kincaid and McBride were there, too. Jim took considerable pleasure in seeing their complacent, smug expressions shift into confusion when they saw that Blair was still whole and apparently alive.

"What happened?" Sam Sloan demanded, his eyes widening at the sight and smell of Blair's singed clothing and smoked-streaked skin.

"Is he alright?" Megan and Maisie called, sounding scared.

Holding Blair steady, Jim slid down to the ground, and then eased Blair down beside him. "I c'n walk," Blair insisted hoarsely. "With a little help," he added, a wan grin splitting his soot-smudged face.

Kincaid and McBride were blocking the door, too pressed in by the crowd to be able to slip away unnoticed. Appearing to be determined to brazen it out, they stared hard at Sandburg as he and Jim climbed up onto the boardwalk. "What happened, Sheriff?" Kincaid asked, unable to contain his curiosity.

Blair stumbled when he heard the voice, and stalled. And then he slowly lifted his head, his expression empty. "Guess you could say God showed mercy – to me, anyway," he rasped without inflection, swaying so dizzily Jim was afraid he was going to collapse. "Though I could wish I'd never have to see you again."

Blair lifted his haunted gaze to Jim's. "Kincaid was there," he said, his voice thin with effort. "He … he ordered it."

"Now, look here," Kincaid blustered. "I don't know what the fool is talkin' about."

"Shut up," Jim snarled. Jerking his head toward Kincaid, he told Simon and Henri, "Lock him up."

McBride slid his hand toward his six-gun, but Rafe, still in his saddle, cocked his pistol and advised, "Was I you, I wouldn't."

"Jim?" Blair whispered, sounding lost, and his knees buckled.

Jim caught him and shifted to pick him up. Giving Kincaid a hard look, he said coldly, "Guess things didn't turn out the way you expected, huh? They're dead, Kincaid. All of them." Glancing at Simon, he growled, "Get him the hell out of here before I do something I wouldn't regret."

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

Blair woke slowly, at first only aware that he was at home, in bed, and that it was night, the darkness relieved only by the thin flame of a lantern on the table by the bed. He felt the bed sag, and then the touch of Jim's hand on his brow.

He hesitated, not wanting to meet Jim's eyes, but he had to, had to face what he'd done. When he looked up and only saw concern, his gaze darted away. "I killed them," he said, feeling dull and empty. "All of them. Even one that was little more than a kid."

"Sandburg, you were tied to a post, gagged and blindfolded," Jim countered, his voice soft, so gentle. "You didn't light that fire. They killed themselves."

Blair swallowed convulsively and shook his head. "You don't … don't understand. I hated them. I … I, I lost control. I heard the wolf and the cat. And then the storm crashed and the wind … was like a hurricane. I did that. I … I destroyed them all."

"Easy, Chief," Jim soothed. "You can't know that. You can't know it wasn't some freak of nature – maybe even the finger of God."

Blair forced himself to meet Jim's eyes. "I know," he asserted. "I did it. I … I don't know exactly how, but I did it."

"Okay, even if you did, that's called 'self-defense'. They were trying to burn you alive, Blair! They deserved what happened to them."

Blair shook his head. "I heard them … dying. Nobody," his voice caught, "nobody deserves to die like that."

"No?" Jim disagreed, anger resonating in his voice. "Me? I call it justice."

Blair's gaze dropped and he tightened his jaw against the urge to argue. What did it matter? They'd all still be dead. "I'm scared," he whispered. "Scared of what's happening to me. What I'm turning into."

Jim sighed and then stretched out beside him, gathering him into a strong embrace. "You're not turning into anything, Chief," he murmured into Blair's hair. "But you are alive, and I thank God for that."

A lump thickened in Blair's throat and his eyes burned and blurred. "I didn't want … I…" he stammered, but was too choked to speak.

"Shh," Jim whispered, stroking his back and holding him while he fought and lost the battle to hold his pain inside. "Let it out, buddy. Let it all out."

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

Simon and Henri were in the kitchen, minding the casserole and fresh bread Maisie had brought over an hour before. Sipping coffee, they stared at the floor, still shaken by what they'd seen and trying to understand it.

Jim found them there after Blair had fallen into exhausted sleep. Sighing, he poured himself a mug of coffee and rubbed the back of his neck.

"How is he?" Henri asked, worry darkening his eyes.

"Badly shaken," Jim replied. "Blames himself."

"What?" Simon exclaimed. "But that's crazy! He couldn't have done … he was tied…"

Evading his gaze, Jim raised the mug and swallowed cautiously. When he glanced at Henri, his deputy met his eyes briefly before looking away. "From all we could see," Brown ventured, "looked like a freak wind blew the flames back on them. And then rain put the fires out."

"Yeah, that's what it looks like, alright," Jim agreed guardedly.

Simon's gaze swept from one to the other. "What aren't you two sayin'?" he asked.

Letting out a long breath, Jim pulled a chair around and straddled it. Crossing his arms along the back support, he bit his lip and then said, "When we were at the reservation, a lot of things happened." Scarcely knowing where to start, he hesitated. "Blair was … was killed. Shot off a cliff and he … drowned."

The other two men gaped at him, speechless.

"Yeah, I know. Sounds impossible. The Indians…" He tossed up a hand and, tight with tension, he got up to pace. "This being a sentinel – I have more than just good senses. I can … commune, I guess … with our spirit guides. Animals only Blair and I and other sentinels and shamans can see. They helped me bring him back to life."

"My God," Simon breathed.

"Yeah," Jim nodded, his throat dry. Leaning his shoulder against the wall, his gaze fixed on the floor, he went on, "Turns out, Blair has powers, too. He's more than a guide, someone who helps me, grounds me. He's a shaman, a medicine man. He has more than the knowledge and skill to heal. He has a gift. He can share health through touch by giving some of his energy to the one who is sick or hurt."

"He can do more than heal," Henri offered solemnly. "He can raise the dead."

Simon stared at him. "How do you know that?"

"Because just yesterday, Kincaid's men stampeded over my girl, Cherie. Broke her neck. She was dead, Simon. Blair brought her back to us."

His lips parted in shock, Simon looked to Jim, who nodded confirmation.

"Well, I'll be," Simon murmured as he rubbed his mouth. "I've heard old stories about healers. Never really believed them."

"He has other powers," Jim said quietly. "He can … he can call up fire."

"You mean he deliberately –"

"I don't think it was deliberate. In fact, I'm sure it wasn't. I think … I think his rage and his helplessness overwhelmed him. I think he struck back in self-defense without being fully aware of what was happening," Jim interjected. "He was bound, gagged and blind-folded. The pyre had obviously been lit. I could smell the kerosene that permeated the wood and the ground around him. He said … he said he heard our spirit guides and then the winds came and the storm. By the time he realized he'd called up more power than he knew he had, they were dead."

Glancing at the hall and the stairway beyond, he grated, "He's sick about what he did."

"I don't think they gave him much choice," Simon observed pragmatically. "They were burning him alive. Any man would fight back, if he could. If he had the means."

Jim nodded. "But most men don't have the means. He thinks he's … he's afraid he's turning into something evil."

"Oh, c'mon! That's just damn foolishness!" Henri protested. "Doc? Why that man nearly kills himself to help other people. When I came in here last night and saw what helping Cherie had cost him – man, he looked like he was dying himself. Evil? Not hardly."

Jim gave him a spare but sincere smile, more grateful than Brown would ever know for the words and the sentiment behind them. "I agree, H. But I'm not sure it'll be easy to convince him of that." Dropping onto the chair, he set his mug on the table. "The man's not a killer. He does everything he can to avoid violence. We all know he's killed when he's had no choice, but it eats at him. And this – hell, one of the men, Walters, had his boy with him. Kid was only fourteen."

"A boy of fourteen knows what's right and wrong," Simon intoned. "He wouldn'a been there if he thought what was happening was wrong."

Jim scrubbed his face. "What's the town sayin'?"

"Well, Henri here floated his rogue wind story and most seem to buy it," Simon replied. "Why wouldn't they? All of us saw that Blair was helpless and unconscious. Hell, his clothing was singed and he was black with smoke."

"The kids might wonder," Brown observed unhappily. Reluctantly, he told Jim, "The girls told us what that Walters boy said at the school. How he claimed Blair had put a curse on those men. That he was a demon, doin' the Devil's work. Some of 'em … 'specially the settlers' kids, well, they're going to believe what Walters said was true."

Jim winced and pressed his lips together. What would Blair do if the children started to fear him?

"An' Kincaid's men will want someone to pay for what happened," Simon added. "God, what a mess."

"I don't know what to do," Jim admitted. "Not about Kincaid's bunch. Let 'em come. We can deal with them. But the rumors?"

"You face it down, is what you do," Simon replied with gruff kindness. "It'll blow over. Hell's bells – the rogue wind story makes a whole lot more sense than that a man tied to a stake can call up fire on his enemies."

"That works for me," Jim told him. "But I'm not sure it'll work for Blair. He knows what really happened, and I don't know how he's going to find peace with it."

Simon shrugged. "He'll have to find a way. What's done can't be undone – and I wouldn't want it to be. The only other way it was going to go was for Blair to die himself. It was self-defense. That's it; that's all."

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

A week and a half later, the Circuit Court Judge, Morton C. Stillwater, rode into town with his unlikely escort, an ex-con named Mark McGettrick who, when anyone asked and even if they didn't, steadfastly held to his story that he'd been wrongly sentenced by the Judge some years before for stealing his own horse. Stillwater, a hard man in his sixties, had a shock of gray hair, flinty blue eyes and a pugnacious jaw. McGettrick, a much younger man, had wild curls under his broad-brimmed hat; his smile came easy, but he wore the flint-handled sixguns low on his narrow hips and had a reputation for being fast. Whatever the truth of the story between them, there was no doubt the young gunslinger would protect the Judge with his life.

Jim was glad to see them, having grown heartily sick of Kincaid's whining and bellyaching for company, and he'd be glad to get the man off his hands – not to mention free up the Gold Ribbon riders who had pulled deputy duty to help him make sure the prisoner's friends didn't over-run the jail to set him free. Stepping out on the boardwalk, he tipped his hat as he greeted them. "Judge, Mark, good to see you."

"Got your wire, Sheriff," Stillwater said as he dismounted and rubbed his hands together. "Looks like you've got a meaty case for me this time 'round."

With a grimace, Jim nodded. "Guess you could say that. I'll be glad to see the back of him."

"Well, let's get the ball rolling," the Judge directed, never one for wasting any time. "We'll set up in the saloon. If I convene the court in an hour, that give you enough time to round up men for me to choose a jury?"

"Plenty of time," Jim agreed. "And Judge? Everyone from hereabouts is likely to sit in on this trial."

"Uh huh," Stillwater grunted, his tongue probing his cheek. "Well, so long as they behave themselves and don't try to turn the trial into a circus, we should all get along fine. C'mon, Mark, let's go tell Silas that we'll be ruinin' his business for the next day or so an' get his grumblin' outta the way."

An hour later, the improvised courtroom was packed, with standing room only in the crush around the walls and spilling out the door. Kincaid's men jockeyed for seats on the jury, but the Judge quickly dismissed any volunteers who had lived in the town or its environs for less than six months. Once the jury was arranged in a double row of chairs to one side, the Judge took his place on a stool behind the bar, a gavel in one hand and his sixgun, 'old Betsy', laying conspicuously beside him in case the gavel wasn't enough to maintain order in his Court.

"Sheriff," the Judge commanded, "bring in the prisoner."

When Garrett Kincaid was brought before him, Stillwater looked him up and down, taking in the expensive, well-cut clothing and smartly groomed appearance. "Well, Sheriff, looks like you've taken good care of the prisoner – certainly he doesn't appear any the worse for a sojourn in your jail. Garrett Kincaid, I'm Judge Morton C. Stillwater an' I'll be presiding over your trial for assault, kidnapping, and conspiracy to commit murder. Since there's no lawyer here to advise you, I'll ensure your legal rights are respected. How do you plead to the charge? Guilty or not guilty?"

"Most emphatically not guilty your Honor," Garrett sang out, his tone insolent. "I protest this mockery of a trial."

"You do, do ya? Duly noted. You'll get a chance to tell your story later. Now sit down and be quiet. The Court calls Sheriff James Ellison to the stand. Bailiff, swear the Sheriff in."

Looking amused by the fancy title, McGettrick held a Bible out for Jim to swear his oath to tell the truth, and waved him to a chair by the bar.

"Alright, Sheriff Ellison, explain to me why Mr. Kincaid has been coolin' his heels in your jail," Stillwater suggested with a thin smile.

Jim related the tension that had grown between the new settlers and the townsfolk, and stiffly explained that the newcomers had little respect for any who didn't subscribe to their view of the world and truth, giving examples of what Kincaid had said to him about his deputies upon his arrival back in Bitterwood Creek. He described their wild riding along the street that had nearly resulted in the death of a child and which had occasioned an exchange of words, which he repeated verbatim, between Doctor Sandburg and Kincaid's men, several of whom had died in the clearing by the river the next day. Jim then testified about finding the tracks in the mud outside the back door, and following them to where they'd found Doctor Sandburg bound to the stake, blindfolded, gagged and unconscious, probably from inhaling too much smoke, and surrounded by the corpses of the men and the one youth who had assaulted him and were intending to kill him.

"So, Doctor Sandburg was tied to a stake, surrounded by a still smoking ring of wood and was unconscious," Stillwater clarified, making a note.

"That's right, Your Honor."

"And how does Mr. Kincaid factor in this personally?"

"He was seen riding into town from the direction of the clearing just before we went in search of the Doctor. And when we arrived back in town with Doctor Sandburg, the Doctor reported that Kincaid had been there and had ordered his men to burn Doc Sandburg to death."

"Judge, that's a damned lie!" Kincaid shouted.

"As I've already told you, Mr. Kincaid, you'll have a chance to tell your side of the story. In the meantime, shut up." Turning back to Jim, the Judge went on, "Thank you, Sheriff. I think I've a good idea of the atmosphere of the town and the events leading up to the attempted murder. You may step down. I call Doctor Blair Sandburg to the stand."

Jim was worried about Blair. For the last ten days, he'd been sleeping 'round the clock, and had retreated into himself, eating little and saying scarcely a word. He looked pallid and wasted; his head was bowed as he shuffled toward the bar, his shoulders slumped, like a man who'd been whipped within an inch of his life. Jim reached out to firmly grip his shoulder reassuringly in passing, and then looked at the Judge. Stillwater's expression was closed, giving nothing away, but the shadows in his eyes and the sudden tightness of his jaw revealed his concern at the change in the man he'd previously known to be a wellspring of energy.

"Bailiff, get the Doctor a glass of water, would you? And then swear him in."

Blair thanked McGettrick for the water, and his voice was low and tight as he swore his oath. Frowning, Stillwater asked gently, "Doctor Sandburg, are you sure you're up to giving testimony today?"

With a shallow nod, Blair made an effort to straighten his shoulders as he lifted his head to meet the Judge's eyes. "Yes, sir. I'd just like to get this over with."

"Alright then. Take your time and tell me what happened that day."

With scarcely any inflection in his voice, Blair testified to being dragged from his home at gunpoint and taken to the meadow, where Kincaid had been waiting. Slowly, as if every word hurt, his gaze fixed on some distant point, Blair recounted what Kincaid had said.

Kincaid leapt to his feet, his face flushed, and yelled, "Damned Jew's lying! Can't believe a word he says!"

Blair's eerily calm recital came to a dead stop while the Judge thumped his gavel and Jim pushed Kincaid down onto his chair. Pointing his gavel at the defendant, Stillwater growled, "Sir, you are sorely testing the patience of this Court. I won't stand for your shenanigans and I will have you gagged if you don't shut up." Turning to Blair, his tone softened as he said, "I'm sorry for the interruption, sir. Please continue."

With another shallow nod, Blair resumed his testimony as if nothing had happened, beginning with Kincaid riding off and what happened after … up to the point of being tied to the stake, gagged, blindfolded and stoned before he smelled the kerosene, heard the match strike and the whoosh of flame, and felt the heat of the fire.

But at that point, his voice faltered. His gaze flickered to Jim and then away. "I don't … I don't know what happened then," he murmured, his voice so low that he wouldn't have been heard if the saloon hadn't been absolutely silent. "I know I was furious and I know I was sick to think that they'd probably killed others, and would kill again, and I couldn't stop them. I … I think I tried to scream at them." He'd paused and swallowed. "I heard a wolf howl and what sounded like a mountain lion. And … and the wind was wild, roaring around me all of a sudden, and the thunder … was so loud, like it was right above me."

Taking a shuddery breath, he blew it out. His voice cracked as he told them all, "I heard … I heard them screaming, dying. I … I heard it all. And … and that's all I remember until I woke up later when … when the Sheriff and the posse brought me back into town." He took a deep breath and looked straight at Kincaid. "And that's when I told Sheriff Ellison that Kincaid had been there and had ordered me to be burned to death."

The Judge lifted a warning hand toward Kincaid, who was again half out of his chair, and scowled at him until the defendant settled back down, his expression thunderous.

For a moment, there was absolute silence in the court, and then Stillwater sighed. "I'm sorry, sir, that you were made to suffer such a terrible experience. But I'm very glad you lived to tell us about it. Thank you, Doctor Sandburg. You may step down."

Stillwater then called each of the members of the posse and listened patiently as they individually corroborated the Sheriff's testimony. When the last one had finished, he rubbed his mouth. "Well, I think we could all use a break before we hear what Mr. Kincaid has to say. Members of the jury, I charge you not to discuss what has been said here today with anyone during the recess." He squinted at his pocket watch and intoned, "We'll resume in an hour." After he banged the gavel, he crossed his arms and watched as Kincaid was escorted back to his cell by one of the temporary deputies – he thought the man's name was Taffy – and as the Sheriff hunkered down beside the Doctor, his expression very evidently concerned. Glancing at McGettrick, he waved his 'bailiff' over.

"What do you think?" Stillwater muttered out of the side of his mouth.

"I think you should throw away the key … the man's slime."

Chewing on his lip, the Judge nodded and then stretched. "Well, he's got a right to state his case. But it damned well better be good. C'mon, let's get something to eat over at Maisie's place."

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

Precisely an hour later, Stillwater reconvened the trial, called Kincaid to the stand and had his bailiff swear the prisoner to tell the truth. McGettrick cut him a look that suggested he wouldn't bet money that the truth was what they'd hear.

"Alright, Mr. Kincaid, you've been anxious to tell me your side of the story and now's your chance. Why don't you begin by giving me a little background on how you and your people came to settle here in Bitterwood Creek?"

"Glad to, your Honor," he replied with urbane charm. "And I'd appreciate it if you'd refer to me as Colonel Kincaid."

"Colonel? I'm sorry, sir. I didn't realize you were a serving officer. Is there a reason you're out of uniform?"

Kincaid flushed at the question. "I was proud to serve the South."

"Ah, I see. And the people you led here, were they men who served with you?"

"Yes, sir, they were. Fine, upstandin', brave men, all of them. Deserved better when the hostilities ended, but the damned carpetbaggers from the North picked over all that was left like locusts, stealin' the land from rightful owners."

"Uh huh," the Judge grunted, but nodded encouragingly. "So you came out here to homestead on free land, did you?"

"We did, and we are committed to making Bitterwood Creek a place we can be proud of."

"Needs improvement, does it? Not up to your standards?"

"No, sir, it is not," Kincaid confirmed, with a sharp shake of his head. "The town has potential, but it needs a firm hand and strong leadership. Needs God-fearin' people to take a stand and clean up the sordid practices goin' on."

"Sordid practices?" Stillwater echoed, one brow lifting with interest.

"Yes, sir. Disgraceful situations – women running their own businesses," Kincaid explained with evidently heartfelt sincerity. "Nigras actin' like they're as good or better'n white folks. A Jew parading around pretending to be a doctor, deceiving these poor Christian people with his lies." Kincaid shook his head as if he couldn't believe his own litany of scandalous goings-on.

Stillwater scratched his cheek. "You'd be referring to Miz Conner and Missus Dunning, who runs the bakeshop and restaurant across the street; to Henri Brown who runs the livery and blacksmith, and acts as part-time deputy; Simon Banks and Joel Taggart, who own the Gold Ribbon Ranch; and Doctor Sandburg, who holds a degree in medicine from Georgetown University?"

"Uppity women who don't know their place," Kincaid drawled with deep disgust. "Runaway slaves no better than trash and as for the Jew? The lot of them are liars and cheats, killers of our good Lord, Jesus Christ."

"Well, I seriously doubt Doctor Sandburg was present for the crucifixion," Stillwater muttered. "Alright, I think you've established your determination to put this town to rights. Now, let's talk about the specific day in question. Doctor Sandburg says you ordered your men to burn him at the stake."

"He's lying; I was nowhere near there. And I seriously protest the assertions that my men did anything wrong. I believe the Sheriff and the nigras and their worthless riders set upon my men and brutally murdered them."

Stillwater coughed and reached for a glass of water. After drinking deeply and setting the glass down, he reflected, "That's an interesting interpretation. I'd be interested to know what you'd offer as proof."

"Everyone knows the Sheriff lives with the Jew, an' is in the pocket of the rich nigras," Kincaid retorted angrily. "Can't believe a word any one of them says."

"So … who tied Doctor Sandburg to the stake?"

"There was no stake."

"Alright, then what was Doctor Sandburg doing out there with all your men?"

"He cursed them; put them under a spell to lure them there to their deaths."

Stillwater blinked. "Cursed them?"

"He's a Jew, Devil's spawn. He's the one should be on trial here, not a God fearin' man like me."

The Judge looked out over the audience, taking in Sandburg's pallor, Ellison's barely restrained fury that was scarcely less livid than that of many of the other townsfolk and Gold Ribbon men, and the smug, self-righteous expressions on those he assumed were Kincaid's people.

Turning back to Kincaid, he observed disarmingly, "I can see you're a man of substance, Colonel Kincaid. Why, I'll bet you're a man who carries a goodly sum on his person at all times."

Kincaid smiled arrogantly and nodded with evident satisfaction at the Judge's assessment.

"Now then, just let me clear. It's your sworn testimony that Sheriff Ellison, the men who rode with him that day, and Doctor Sandburg conspired to kill your men; and it's your further contention that Doctor Sandburg is some kind of witch, who lies with abandon and isn't a doctor."

"Yes, your Honor, it is."

"I see. Well, Colonel Kincaid that, sir, is slander, which is against the law. I'll appropriate the money you've got in your pockets as the penalty for your lies and award the damages to the Sheriff and the Doctor."

"What!" Kincaid bellowed. "Slander? It's the God's own truth!"

Leaning on one elbow, Stillwater jabbed a finger at the apoplectic defendant. "You seem to think you're talking to a fool, Kincaid, but I assure you, you are not. For the past five years, I've stayed at the hotel and often dined well in the bakery – I'd be hard-pressed to find two less scandalous women than the very intelligent, independent and decent Miz Conner or Missus Dunning. The owners of the Gold Ribbon ranch have been the backbone of this community for nigh on twenty-five years. I stable my horse at Brown's livery and know him to be a fair, honest, and hard-working man. And I've known these two men for years," he went on in high temper, gesturing toward Jim and Blair. "The Sheriff is one of the most ethical men I have the privilege to know; he was the man who brought the US Military to account for the slaughter of defenseless men, women and children at Poplar Flats. As for Doctor Sandburg, he also has a reputation as a brave man and healer, dating to the Civil War. To my certain and personal knowledge, he has saved countless lives in this town since his arrival. But you, sir, are another matter. You offer no proof of your ugly and ridiculous accusations and, instead, hang yourself with your own words of bigotry and contempt for a good many upstanding members of this community. You want to be called, 'Colonel', do you? Well and good. You've convinced me, and I daresay you've convinced the jury, that your men would not act without direct orders from you. Your disgusting attitudes and hatred make it pretty damned clear that you believe the good Doctor belonged on that stake."

Shouts rang out in the saloon, Kincaid's people jeering and yelling their outrage and contempt. Stillwater hammered his gavel and shouted, "Silence! Silence or I'll have the lot of you thrown out!"

His lips thin, Stillwater gazed at Kincaid with unbridled disgust. "Your wallet," he directed, holding out his hand. "Or shall I have the bailiff relieve you of it?"

Glaring at the Judge, Kincaid pulled his billfold from inside his jacket and slapped it on the bar. "You have no right to take my money," he growled.

"I have every right, you puffed-up popinjay. I'm the Judge. I determine when someone has broken the law in these parts and what the penalty will be. And if you kick up a fuss or make any other objectionable comments, I'll fine you more." Stillwater pulled a stack of bills from the wallet, counted them out, divided the stack in four and waved Ellison forward. "For you, for Doctor Sandburg, and for the women he demeaned," he said. "Less compensation than any of you deserve for such vile slander but I hope it will suffice as an example that I won't tolerate such nonsense in my court."

"Thank you, Your Honor," Jim replied with a wry half-smile as he accepted the bills, and then returned to his seat.

Turning back to Kincaid, the Judge said sternly, "Now that you've entertained the Court with a pack of lies and vicious slander, perhaps you'd like to give the truth a try. Or didn't swearin' on that Bible mean anythin' to a 'God-fearin' man' like you? Hmm?"

"You have no right to treat me like a criminal!" Kincaid railed furiously. "They killed my men!"

"I take it you have nothing more to add," Stillwater responded dryly. "You're dismissed. Go back to your seat, sit down and keep your mouth shut, or I'll have your sorry ass hauled back to jail right now." Ignoring Kincaid's glare of outrage, Stillwater turned to the jury. "You've heard the testimony, just as I have. I have formed my own opinion about what happened, but it's your duty to form your own, unanimously if possible. If not, a simple majority will suffice since this is not a murder trial. Mr. McCready has made his storeroom available for your deliberations. Please advise the bailiff when you've reached your verdict." Turning back to the crowd, he directed, "Court is adjourned pending the jury's verdict." And he slammed the gavel on the bar.

But the jury didn't even leave the room. After a hasty conferral, they waved to McGettrick and called, "We're ready."

Stillwater banged the gavel for order and called, "Court is back in session. The defendant will rise and face the jury. Members of the jury, what is your verdict?"

Sam Sloan stood up. "I'm the jury foreman, your Honor. Unanimously, we find Garrett Kincaid guilty of conspiracy to murder Doctor Sandburg."

"Well done. The jury is dismissed. Garrett Kincaid, I sentence you to twenty years hard labor in the Kansas State Prison for instigating the kidnapping of Doctor Sandburg from his home, the assault upon his person, and the vicious, heinous attempt to murder Doctor Sandburg by burning him to death. You're lucky he survived. I'd like to sentence you to be hung by the neck until your sorry carcass rots, but I'll have to make do with life in prison. Take him away."

When the saloon again erupted, he banged the gavel and waved it at Kincaid's irate followers. "You lot, you listen and you listen good. Mind your manners and respect my ruling, or I'll have all of you thrown in prison with him!"

A surly silence fell as the settlers filed out of the saloon. Taffy grabbed Kincaid by the arm and hauled him back to the jail. Stillwater looked at the Sheriff and shook his head. "You're going to have your hands full with those people."

Jim nodded in bleak agreement, and then he turned to support Blair as he stood to make his way back to their home. Their friends surrounded them and Joel drew close to gather Blair into a hug, but the young doctor didn't respond. He seemed too broken to even be fully aware of what was happening. Stillwater bit his lip and frowned in concern. Stepping around the bar, he approached the physician. "Dr. Sandburg," he offered, his voice low and steady, "I am truly sorry those men did what they did to a good man like you. I very much hope, sir, that time will heal the memories you bear and mute them to give you peace."

"Thank you," Blair murmured, sounding strained and exhausted. Stepping back, Stillwater watched Ellison put an arm around his shoulders and shepherd him out of the saloon, their friends forming a phalanx around them as an informal honor guard.

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

For days after the trial, everyone in town – with a few notable exceptions – talked about the details they'd heard for the first time during the testimonies like Blair had been saved by some kind of miracle. Pastor Stevens was especially vocal about that, asserting that God had saved the righteous and condemned the guilty. At least, the adults seemed to believe that was what happened. The kids started playing games where one cursed others and they ran away shrieking in gleeful horror.

The first time Blair ventured out of the house a week later and saw them playing their new game, he went white as a sheet and barely made it around the side of the building before he vomited.

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

Jim watched his friend serve up their dinner and, for about the thousandth time, bit his tongue and held his peace. Though a month had passed since they'd freed Blair from that damned stake and brought him home, it wasn't over; far from it. Oh, Blair spoke when he was spoken to, managed to even sound natural, like everything was fine, great, normal. Yeah, right, normal. How 'normal' was it for Sandburg to never initiate a conversation, not once since the night he'd stammered out what had happened? Or to sit in his office, avoiding people? Sure, he went out when he was called, and still did all he could to help anyone who was sick or hurt. The quiet spell had passed and his patient load had again picked up. Now, that was normal – just when Jim perversely wished his partner could have had more time to heal. He was afraid Blair was using the excuse of being busy to avoid dealing with what had happened.

And the settlers? Jim grimaced as he ate his meal in silence. Without Kincaid, they seemed to have lost confidence … and Jim thought they were damned scared of Blair. They grumbled and still spread their toxic beliefs every chance they got, but they'd settled down on their farms. Jim wished they'd pulled up stakes and moved on, but they hadn't gotten that lucky.

Jim had known it was going to take time for Blair to reconcile what had happened, and had done his best to be patient and supportive. But he was getting increasingly worried that no such coming to terms was taking place. Instead, Blair seemed to be drifting further away. It couldn't go on like this. It was driving him crazy that Blair wouldn't talk to him, wouldn't … wouldn't let it go. When Jim pushed, he just said, "I'm fine," and turned away, closing in on himself.

But what scared Jim the most was that Blair scarcely touched him anymore, except when he had to ground him, and slipped away whenever Jim tried to touch him. The only ways Jim knew how to help were to listen and to touch, to express his love, to share whatever he had, to help in any way he could.

But it was like Blair didn't want help – didn't think he deserved it. Being patient and supportive didn't seem to be doing a damned bit of good, and that left Jim feeling increasingly helpless and anxious because he just didn't know what to do, how to make things any better. He found himself becoming impatient and angry … and he was afraid he was soon going to lose it completely and shout at the man who didn't need any more pain or grief in his life. For days now, he'd been keeping a tight leash on his temper but it was getting harder and, if anything, things between them seemed to be growing ever more stilted and tense. He hated it. Hated seeing Blair so miserable, hated feeling impotent to make anything better – hated that it was tearing them both apart.

He glanced across the table and saw Blair, as usual, only picking at his food. In the last month, the kid had lost too much weight and was beginning to look gaunt. "You can't go on like this," he chided, but as gently as he knew how. "If you don't keep your strength up, you won't be any good to your patients. Worse, you'll end up getting sick. And you know what that means. Without a spleen, you could … could…" But Jim couldn't say it. Was too afraid that maybe that was Blair's plan.

"I'm fine," Blair muttered as he pushed away from the table and carried his plate to the counter; pulling his usual stunt of avoidance.

Jim couldn't stand it. Couldn't hold it in any longer – the fear and anxiety, the despair that, even though Blair had survived, Kincaid had still killed something inside of him, the anger at being shut-out. He slammed his palms down on the table and shouted, "Fine? You call this fine? This walking death? This … this travesty of 'normal'? You're not fine, Sandburg. I don't know exactly what you are, but 'fine' isn't it."

Blair flinched but didn't turn back to face him. Just stood there, silent, absorbing it, not defending himself, not fighting.

And then it hit Jim. Not fighting. For all that Blair was a peaceable man, he wasn't a coward. He didn't back down; he held his ground. And when he had to fight, he did; though he often regretted it, he also accepted it. Why wasn't he accepting it now? Christ, the kid hadn't had any choice! What was he supposed to do? Just stand there and let them burn him to death without any protest? No, dammit. And he hadn't stopped fighting, even though he'd been helpless. Because Blair was a fighter, not a quitter.

So why was he quitting now?

Standing, Jim moved to grip Blair's shoulders and, when Blair tried to pull away, he wouldn't let go. "This isn't you, Chief," he asserted. "You don't give up, not like this. I know, I know, you feel bad about what happened. But, hell, they were murderers, the lot of them. Even the Walters' boy. They were murdering you and would have murdered others. Why the hell can't you see that?"

"I do see it," Blair replied, his voice tight. "I saw it then, while it was happening. That's … that's what made me so damned angry."

"Then I don't understand," Jim sighed, still holding on, not letting him escape this time. "Why can't you let it go? Why is it tearing you apart?"

"Don't…" Blair grated.

"Don't what? Don't care? Don't feel sick at seeing you like this? You're hurting, Sandburg. Worse than I've ever seen you hurt before. You can't go on like this. Talk to me, dammit. Tell me what's going on here."

"I can't."

"Don't give me that," Jim growled in frustration, his irritation again growing. "You just don't want to. You'd rather shut out your friends, turn into some kind of martyr – to what, I don't know."

"Let me go."

"No. No, not this time. We're going to have it out here and now. What the hell is wrong with you?"

"Dammit!" Blair cursed and jerked an elbow back into his solar plexus, startling him and breaking his grip. Twisting around, Blair shoved him back, hard. "Leave me alone!"

"NO! No, I won't leave you alone. I will not let what those bastards did to you destroy you. Do you hear me, Sandburg?" Jim yelled back, though he felt a spark of hope that Blair was fighting him. The anger was a whole lot better than that terrible silence. Crowding closer, using his bulk to fence Blair in, Jim grabbed his shoulders and shook him. "Tell me what's eating you! Tell me what's wrong with you!"

Panting, Blair brought his arms up to break Jim's grip and tried to surge past, but Jim grabbed his arm and spun him back around.

"Don't, Jim. Please!" he begged. "I can't … I can't…"

"Can't what?"

"Can't control it!" Blair shouted, tears glazing his eyes. "Don't you get it? I'm … I don't know what I am, but I'm not … I'm … God, I'm a monster. Jesus, Jim – who does that? Calls down the fury of the gods and destroys other men with fire – just by loathing them so much, despising them, hating them for what they were doing, what they would do! I … I'm terrified. Can't you see that? Terrified I'll do it again!"

"I'm not sure you did do it," Jim shouted back.

"What?" Blair exclaimed, his voice rising in disbelief. "Who the hell else was there?"

"The spirit animals."

Blair gaped at him and turned away. "Yeah, right, the wolf and the cat decided –"

"Decided those bastards weren't going to win that round," Jim cut in. "Weren't going to kill a damned decent man for sport. Decided their evil stopped there."

"You don't really believe that," Blair sighed. Raking back his hair, he looked up at Jim, all the fight gone out of him. "Nice try, though. As far as absolution goes, very nice try."

"I can believe it a whole lot easier than I can believe you're some kind of monster, Chief," Jim argued. "And it wasn't absolution because I don't think you need to be absolved of anything. You were fighting for your life – hell, not even that, because you didn't intend to call the wrath of God down on them. You were sick to your soul about their cruelty and what they'd do next."

Blair flinched and looked away.

"What? You think I don't know you were probably thinking about them coming after me? And then after everyone else their kind despise? People you love. People who are worth loving? If … and I mean that … if you did that, stopped them in the only way you could, if – you did it for the rest of us. To protect us. You didn't do it in revenge for what they were doing to you."

"You don't know that."

"Yes, Chief. Yes, I do, because I know you," Jim insisted, desperate to keep him talking now that the dam had burst. "When have you killed, huh? Name one time that you took another life to save your own."

"Quinn."

"Quinn had shot Joel. Would have killed him for sure if you hadn't stopped him, and you know it."

Blair closed his eyes and bowed his head. "You don't understand," he whispered, sounding beaten.

"Then explain it to me."

"I wasn't in control," Blair murmured, his voice shaky. "I … I didn't know what I was doing. Didn't know I could do something … something so…" He shook his head. "I don't want that kind of power. I don't want to play God."

"Even when it means being able to save a kid like Cherie?" Jim asked, aching at the pain he heard in his friend's voice.

Blair's shoulders start to quake and he covered his face with his hands as he sank to the floor, bowing forward to curl into himself.

"Aw, Chief," Jim sighed with compassion, tears stinging his own eyes as he dropped to one knee to wrap his arms around Blair and hold him close.

"I'm glad I saved her," he choked. "But … I didn't know … I didn't know…"

"Didn't know the scalpel could cut both ways," Jim offered.

"Scalpels don't," Blair moaned. "I know how to wield a scalpel."

"Well, maybe … maybe you can learn how to wield this, too," Jim murmured into his hair. "It's not all bad, Chief. Don't be afraid of the good you can do."

"The kids…" Blair stammered then, his fingers clutching Jim's shirt like a lifeline. "They … some of them … I can tell they're afraid of me now. Afraid of what I might do to them."

"Afraid you'll turn them into toads," Jim agreed, finding it hard not to smile. "I know. I heard what you said in the school that day." He hesitated and then added with a chuckle, "I hear Urseline Tucker is a little worried you might do that to her."

"It's not funny," Blair insisted, smacking his chest and trying to draw away.

"It's not the end of the world, either." Jim loosened his grip, but still held on.

"You still don't get it," Blair charged, sitting back and impatiently scraping the tears away. "I'm scared of me."

Snorting, Jim sat down beside him and looped an arm around his shoulders. "Well, get over it. I'm not scared of you and nobody who knows you – knows the kind of man you are – is scared of you. Scared for you, maybe. Scared of what you're doing to yourself. But … scared of you? No."

"Maybe you should be," Blair retorted.

"Is that why you've been pushing me away? Pushing everyone away? Because you're scared you'll hurt us?" Jim asked, honestly astonished. "You've got to be kidding me."

"Why? If I could lash out like that without knowing what I was doing, who's to say I won't do it again, huh?"

"Well, if anyone is ever set on burning you at the stake again, I hope you do."

"Jim," Blair wailed. "Be serious about this."

"I am being serious," he insisted. "And if you asked any of the others who know what went down – Henri, Simon, Joel – they'd say the same thing. Hell, the night we brought you back, H sat in this kitchen, and when I said I thought you might be afraid of hurting people, he said 'No way,' not you. 'Cause you live to help people. That's what he said. And Simon said he was damned glad it turned out the way it did, because otherwise you'd be dead."

When Blair didn't speak and wouldn't look at him, he sighed. "Blair, for God's sake – yes, fine, it might happen again, but not by accident and not because you got annoyed or some damned thing. But if killers push you to the wall, and they threaten to hurt decent, innocent people, and it's the only way you can stop them – yeah, maybe, it'll happen again. And I say, good. Because when push comes to shove, you're the one I want walking away from that kind of encounter. And, frankly, I don't give a damn about who might not walk away."

"But it's wrong, Jim, to be judge and jury, to condemn and destroy with such incredible power. It's wrong."

Jim kneaded his shoulder. "When we found you – and them – Simon asked me what had happened there, and I said, 'Justice'. And I meant it. Sure … all things being equal, I'm all for locking the bad guys up and letting the law do its thing. But there was nothing 'equal' about what was going down there. They were savage murderers, Chief. They had no capacity to feel remorse. They were going to kill again. And they were killing you. They got what was coming to them. Exactly what was coming to them."

Blair shuddered. "Nobody deserves to die like that."

Jim sighed. "Look, I'm not going to go round and round on this. I hear what you're saying and I get that you're scared of these powers you have, that they're more than you ever imagined, and they … well, they horrify you. But I think you've let it get blown out of proportion. You've been worried about judging them – but what about how unfairly you've been judging yourself?"

Bracing his elbows on his knees, Blair pressed the heels of his palms to his eyes. His shoulders slumped as the last of his resistance bled out of him, and he leaned against Jim – the first time he'd sought such support since the night it had all happened. Jim wrapped both arms around him and just held him.

"You're not a monster, Sandburg," he finally offered into the silence. "I don't know exactly what you are – an avenging angel, maybe? An instrument of God's will. If there is a God; you've always been more convinced of that than I am. But, mostly, you're a healer. And in your own way, you're a protector, just like I am. It just … just hurts you more when you can't save everyone. Even the bad ones."

Blair nodded against his chest. And then, to Jim's immense relief, Blair slipped his arms around him, and hugged him back.

For a time, Jim was content to simply savor the closeness, the contact. But there was more he had to know; more that had to be said. Bowing his head, he pressed his lips against Blair's head, and then asked, "Why have you shut me out? Why won't you let me help you?"

At first, he didn't think Blair was going to answer. But then his partner sighed. "I'm sorry," he said. "I … I haven't wanted to drag you down with me. Haven't wanted to … use you. Use what you give me. I need to deal with this myself."

Lifting his head, Jim looked up at the ceiling and rolled his eyes. "Use me?" he echoed, sorely tempted to shake the stuffing out of his stubborn friend.

"Yeah," Blair admitted, his face still turned away. "You know what I mean. When I'm … when I've spent too much of myself, gone too far, you … your love, your care and concern … your strength – you give it all to me. I, well, I haven't felt I deserved that, I guess. I made this mess. I should clean it up."

"Sandburg, that is such bullshit," he griped. "Sonofabitch, Chief, are we or are we not partners? Did we or did we not promise to share what comes and support one another as best we can? Huh?"

"Yeah, but –"

"Have you thought about what it does to me, to not be able to touch you?" Jim charged, knowing it was selfish, but what the hell? It was the truth. "You think you're the only one who needs what we give each other?"

"Ah, geez, that's not fair," Blair protested. "Lately, all I've been doing is taking … and that really isn't fair to you."

"Don't you want me to touch you?" Jim pressed.

"Oh, don't," Blair moaned, straining against him, holding him tighter. "You know that's not it. It's been so hard, so damned hard, but I … I don't want to use you. Don't ever want to use you."

Jim threaded his fingers through the curls and tugged gently. "Look at me, Chief. C'mon," he tugged again, "look at me."

Slowly, Blair raised his face, and Jim tenderly traced the lines of strain as he gazed into the troubled eyes. "I love you, you moron," he said as gently as he knew how. "And I need you, Chief. Every bit as much as you need me. Maybe more. When you hurt, I hurt. I just want to hold you, okay? Just … just let me help you."

Blair pressed his lips together and he swallowed convulsively. His eyes grew damp but he blinked the insipient tears away. "Okay, Jim. I … it's been so hard man, and I'm so tired."

Jim smiled. Relief flooding him, he asked with simple hope, "So we're okay?"

And then, after far too long, Blair smiled at him. Rising to his feet, he held out his hand. Jim clasped it strongly, accepting the offer and the request Blair was making, understanding the symbolism of it, the import, and could have burst with the happiness that coursed through him.

The healer – his healer – had finally consented to be healed.

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

Thinking about it all the next day after Jim had gone to work, Blair was grateful to his partner for confronting him and literally shaking some sense into him. For so long, he'd felt as if he was locked in a fog, unable to sleep or think straight, mired in horror, fear and guilt. He doubted he'd ever think about those terrible minutes, hearing those dying screams, without feeling sick. But he was finally able to accept that he wasn't some kind of bomb that could go off without warning, that he wasn't a constant danger to the people around him. Intellectually, he could also accept Jim's arguments – which were strongly seconded, he knew, by Henri, Simon and Joel – that he'd acted, to some extent, with instinctive self-defense, even as a kind of protector who couldn't bear the thought of others being tortured and killed by those men. But the magnitude of his action, however unexpected and unintended, still left him feeling very anxious about how little he understood or was able to control his new abilities.

The bottom line was that he couldn't change what had happened and guilt didn't make it better. And Jim had said something else later last night that had really given him pause. Jim had said he'd wished it could have gone down differently, that he'd understood sooner the danger Blair had been in, that the bastards had been killed in a gunfight with Jim and the others, instead of Blair having to live with the responsibility of their deaths. Blair had caught himself nodding in wistful agreement – and then had realized how hypocritical he was being.

Down deep, he really wasn't sorry those men were dead; hell, in many ways, he was relieved because they had been conscienceless killers and had posed a continuing threat not just to him but to a lot of people. If anything, it was his lack of regret that they were dead that had been haunting him, because he didn't want to feel good about something like that. Blair was disgusted with himself for squeamishly wishing it had been someone else who had killed them, for wishing that responsibility on Jim and the friends who had ridden to rescue him. What a hell of thing to wish on people he loved, and how utterly ludicrous was it to mope around about it when he'd be just fine if anyone but him had killed them?

Get over it, he'd told himself then, impatient with himself for his foolishness. It's done, you did it, and you're not sorry they're dead. Not happy about it, sure, fine; but not sorry, either.

So he was determined to do his best to move on, just as he had had to do when he'd killed in the past. He didn't feel any better about it, but he was going to stop wallowing in how badly he felt. Looking back, he could see how Jim and his friends had tried to help him – Joel, especially, had done his damnedest to help him through the trial. He remembered Joel wrapping his bear-like arms around him and was ashamed to know he'd just stood there, unable to accept the support. He'd been so mired in his misery, so utterly self-absorbed, he'd made himself deaf and blind to everything anyone had said or done. And he fervently hoped he'd never, ever, have to face such a situation again. Chagrined now that he could think clearly, he was sorry he'd caused his friends to worry so much about him, but was very touched that they cared so much. And, man, he was thankful that Jim had finally just had enough of putting up with the bullshit, and had forced him to face it rather than giving up on him.

God, he wished he understood it all better, and knew how to handle it better. Shaking his head, he recalled how he'd pretty much reveled in his newfound abilities when they'd allowed him to know Steven was still alive and to help find him; when he'd been able to draw upon them to create fire to impress Geronimo and his people and to create a distraction in the railroad camp, like some kind of parlor trick. And he could never be sorry that he had the capacity to heal. But … he now knew to the depths of his soul that these weren't just handy little tricks or benign abilities. The realization was chilling and he sorely wished he was certain of how to control what he could do, and he sure in hell hoped he'd never willfully contemplate turning such power against other human beings. The magnitude of what he was able to do and the responsibility his abilities conveyed were staggering, leaving him feeling both humble and afraid.

Shuddering, he couldn't even imagine doing something like that again – didn't want to imagine it.

Taking a breath, he told himself he'd just have to deal with how overwhelming it felt; his gifts helped him heal and that's what mattered most.

At least … at least as awful as his memories were about what he'd done, with Kincaid in prison and the worst of his followers dead, his people had settled down. The threat the new settlers had posed to Jim, their friends – hell, the whole town – seemed to be over. Maybe now, life could get back to normal. And for that, he could be very grateful.

Pushing away from the table, he washed up the dishes from breakfast and poured himself another cup of coffee. Still a bit shaky but feeling better than he had in weeks, lighter somehow, he ambled into his small dispensary to make up the packets of medicine he'd need to take on his rounds later that morning.

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

Days melted into weeks under the summer's burning sun; July came and went and soon it would be September. The settlers kept pretty much to themselves, busy with building their cabins to ensure they had more than tent canvas or wagons for shelter when the weather turned cold. Some of the men had come in to clear the away the wreckage of the construction sites, hauling the wood and used nails back to their settlement to use in building their new homes. They'd been sullen and glowering while they worked, but hadn't caused any trouble. And, in keeping with the requirements for homesteading, they were improving the land, planting crops … and bringing in sheep to raise for the wool, and to slaughter for the markets in the east. They finished building their own meeting house, too, to hold their worship services. With the school closed for the summer, there was little reason for them to come into town other than to buy supplies at the general store or to call on Milt Ambrose if they were sick or someone had been hurt.

Jim wanted to believe the crisis was over, the danger passed. Things had sure quieted down. Mostly, he was glad that Blair seemed to have bounced back. He was eating again, and had regained most of the weight he'd lost. Smiling and joking again, he was getting back to normal, but his eyes still didn't sparkle with energy, and that was worrisome. There were times when he seemed distracted, his expression distant and clouded, anxious, and Jim figured he was still battling the ghosts of the men he'd killed. Took time to lay something like that to rest.

But … for all that there'd been no major trouble, Jim felt uneasy. Little things, small in themselves, seemed to him to signal that the river of poison hadn't dried up, had just gone underground. Sam had mentioned the other day that, even though another bank wasn't being built, he didn't know where the settlers were safeguarding their money. They weren't using the bank, and Clive Tucker had taken his own savings out, as had some others in town. Sam speculated that the settlers had set up a kind of credit system amongst themselves, which was fine. No reason they shouldn't … but it signaled that they were determined not to support any institution that did business with people like Simon and Joel.

A rock had been thrown through a church window one night the week before. Could have been kids, a prank; but it could also have been a signal of something more virulent. Some folks in town, like the Tuckers, had taken to attending the new meeting house out by the settlement and talked about the purity of the lessons taught there, the sermons that spoke of the superiority of the white race and man's rightful dominance over women because of Eve's original sin. Women were just weak-spirited, they said, easily led. Jim rolled his eyes and wondered how Clive – or anyone for that matter – could swallow such pig-swill when Urseline was a perfect example of a very strong-spirited, opinionated and cantankerous woman who wouldn't be led by anything but her own narrow-minded ideas.

Someone was writing self-righteous diatribes to Dan Raymond, insisting he print them as 'editorials'; putrid stuff about how people with black skins had descended from monkeys and weren't fully human, and about how Jews couldn't be trusted – and worse, far worse, should all be condemned and exterminated for having murdered Jesus. Dan used the trash as kindling for his small stove in the office. But the anonymous letters kept coming, nasty, ugly epistles of hate.

The Tuckers and their like-minded friends in town had also transferred their families to Milt Ambrose's questionable care. Urseline never seemed to tire of standing on street corners to gossip about how wonderful it was that such a fine, upstanding, brilliant Christian was now offering excellent doctoring to folks in town, and how she just could not understand why anyone would choose to go to anyone else now that there was a choice. Fanning herself, she'd ask how anyone could actually trust someone who wasn't a Christian, how they could feel safe and not fear their souls would be sent straight to hell. Jim swore she had to be stalking Blair because her loud commentary seemed to invariably occur when Blair was nearby, on his way in or out of the general store or when he was walking to or from one of his house calls to see a patient. The last time Jim had overheard the vicious busybody he'd –

Sonuvabitch, she's at it again! he realized, surging up from his desk, nearly incandescent with fury. He could hear her going on about it in the general store. In three steps, he was out the door. He had a few choices things of his own to say about idiots who put their lives and the wellbeing of their kids in the hands of that greedy, self-serving charlatan, Milt Ambrose.

When he stomped into the store, Blair looked around from the counter, where he was paying Angus for their supplies. "Hey, Jim," he called, his cheerful tone belied by the sharp warning in his eyes. "Just in time to help me carry all this stuff home."

"Chief, that's not why –" he growled, shifting his gaze to Urseline who was holding court in front of the barrel of apples. He took a step in her direction only to find his way blocked by his partner.

"Don't," Blair grated so low nobody but Jim could have heard him, and grabbed his arm to stop him.

"Look, enough is –"

"No!" Blair hissed through his fixed smile. "She's got a right to her opinions, not to mention free speech," he insisted. "You're the Sheriff – you're supposed to uphold the law, remember? Not use your authority to intimidate. Now come on. Help me carry this stuff home. Save me an extra trip."

Steaming with annoyance, Jim glared at Urseline – for all the good it did. When he caught the satisfied glitter in her eyes when she looked at him, he wanted to throttle her. But he allowed Blair to turn him toward the counter and he dutifully picked up one of the loaded boxes. Behind the counter, Angus looked even more dour than usual as he counted out Blair's change.

"Sheriff," he acknowledged with a tight nod. "Doc, thanks for the business."

Grinding his teeth together, Jim led the way out onto the boardwalk, but they'd hardly stepped outside when he heard Angus call, "Mrs. Tucker, if you don't mind, this is a store not a ladies' tea party. I'd be obliged if you'd all finish up your shopping so's other customers can get to what they'd like to buy."

"Huh!" Jim gusted. "Good for him."

"What?" Blair asked, looking around in confusion.

"Angus just told Urseline Tucker to finish her shopping and move on," Jim reported with a smug smile of vindication.

"Oh, man," Blair sighed. "I appreciate it, but that won't stop her. Besides, I can't say I miss dealing with her and the others who are now going to Milt. A little worried about their continuing health, maybe, but he's a better qualified doctor than most who claim to know what they're doing, so it could be worse."

"Chief, she's –"

"I know, I know," Blair cut in as he strode toward the house. "I know what's she's saying. Believe me, I've heard it all. But paying any attention to her will only encourage her – she'll get all self-righteous about 'some people' not wanting 'other people' to speak their minds or some damned thing. Jim, people around here either agree with her or they don't; nothing she says or anyone else says is going to change that. Eventually, she'll find something else to talk about; hopefully soon. It's embarrassing but … she's entitled to her own opinions. You just have to ignore her, not let her get to you."

Jim grimaced as he followed Blair into their home to take the supplies into the kitchen. Setting the box down on the table, he asked, "Is that what you do? Not let her get to you? I don't know how you do it – listen to that crap and not fight back."

Blair shrugged as he took cans from a box to put in the cupboard under the counter. "I can't say it doesn't bother me; it does. It is uncomfortable, embarrassing, and well, some days just plain infuriating. But … but it's about picking your fights, I guess. Urseline is annoying, but that's all she is. Guess I'd be more concerned if it was someone I respected."

Listening, Jim nodded thoughtfully. He understood what Blair was saying, and could see his point that it wasn't worth fighting about. Maybe. But … 'uncomfortable' was no way to live, and it pissed him off that Blair had to settle for that. Blair and the Browns, and anyone else who was 'different'.

Sometimes … sometimes he almost missed Kincaid and the fight the man had offered. At least he'd been upfront; Jim could deal with 'upfront'. It was the ones who hid in the bushes and spewed their poison in small but persistent ways that aggravated the hell out of him; there didn't seem to be any way to make them stop. They were like water wearing down stone, just a trickle at a time, but possibly more dangerous in their way, more capable of erosion and massive long-lasting destruction to the fabric of their town, than Kincaid had been. Kincaid had given them something to rally around and fight.

Sighing, not having any answers, not even sure how to name the insidious threat he felt in his bones, he helped Blair unpack and put away their goods.

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

Jim looked up at the creaking of wagons, the jangling of harnesses, and the thudding of more horses than it took to haul wagons. Rising from behind his desk, he stepped out the door to look down the street at the approaching cavalcade, grinning to see Joel atop the lead buckboard, and Simon on his palomino, riding with a dozen or so of their men as escort. Moving to the edge of the boardwalk, he tipped his hat as Joel rolled past, though he was already hauling on the traces to stop the wagon in front of the general store. Jim was puzzled as he looked at the empty wagon beds; wasn't usual for the Gold Ribbon ranchers to stock up on so many supplies at one time, let alone at this time of year when their own gardens met their needs.

"You look like you plan to clear out the whole store," he called good-naturedly.

Joel was climbing down from the wagon as Simon waved their men toward the saloon to wash the trail dust from their mouths. "We'll be in shortly," Simon called as he looped his palomino's reins over the hitching post. Drawing off his hat, he wiped his damp forehead with the back of his hand before resettling the Stetson at a casual angle on the back of his head. "Jim," he acknowledged with a smile, holding out his hand for their ritual greeting.

Smiling broadly, Joel slapped Jim on the shoulder on his way inside the store. "I'll take care of settling the account, and then go see if Blair and H got some time to join us for a chinwag while the men load the wagons."

"Sounds good," Simon agreed, and he and Jim made their way to the saloon.

Jim looked back over his shoulder and noted that the smile had vanished from Joel's face after he'd turned to enter the store. Pushing through the bat-wing doors behind Simon, he took in the expressions of the riders, all of whom he knew well. Rafe was watchful, and the usually cheerful Taffy looked downright grim, as did Reynolds, Nelson and Larkin. They had moseyed up to the bar, but they hadn't turned their backs on the front or rear entries.

"Trouble?" he asked, keeping his tone deliberately mild.

"Hope not," Simon replied with a grimace. "But it can't hurt to be careful these days," he sighed and waved at Moe to send two mugs of beer to the table he chose where he could watch the street out the front windows. "Tex got winged the other day, riding along the northern ridge."

"What!" Jim exclaimed, frowning heavily. "He okay?"

"Yeah, just a graze," Simon sighed. "Didn't see who did the shootin'; just high-tailed back to the ranch. Nobody rides the range alone now, just in case."

"The settlers have your northern boundary pretty well staked out," Jim observed.

"Yeah, and they're crowding on the west, too. Trying to cut us off from town, make us ride the long way around," Simon reported as he took the beer Moe handed him with a nod of gratitude.

"Damn," Jim muttered as he lifted his frothing mug.

"Uh huh," Simon grunted. "You know us – we like to be peaceable. But I swear they're still spoiling for a war."

"Hey, Simon! Guys!" Blair called out cheerfully as he arrived with Joel and Brown.

"Blair," Simon greeted with a warm smile. "You're lookin' a sight better, son, than the last time we saw you."

As he and the others joined them at the round table, Blair gave both older men a smile. "I'm a lot better, thanks." Giving them a bemused look and a tight shake of his head, he added, "I was really out of it … might not have seemed like I appreciated your support, but I did. A lot. Thank you." Before they had a chance to say anything, he swiftly asked, "So what brings you into town? With all those wagons, looks like you're stocking up for winter early this year."

"Nah," Joel replied, his lips twisting with irritation. "Angus got in a load of barbed wire for us. We're here to pick it up."

"You're fencing the range?" Blair exclaimed, looking from one to the other in astonishment. "But, but that's –"

"Not something cattlemen do," Simon cut in, his expression tight. "Can't say as we like it, and we'd be lyin' if we said we're not worried about losing cattle over the winter, if they drift against the fence and freeze to death, but we don't have much choice."

"The settlers've brought in sheep," Joel explained, sounding tired. "We have to protect the pasturage – sheep forage clear to the dirt." He sighed and shook his head. "Stupid to graze them here. They'll have a dustbowl on their hands in no time."

"We're also takin' care to keep the settlers themselves out," Simon intoned as he lifted his mug and drained it. "We're missing steers along the north and west boundaries … and Tex got winged a few days ago up in the same area."

"Is he okay? Why didn't you send for me?" Blair demanded.

"He's fine, son," Joel soothed. "No more'n a scratch. Fair warning, though, that things haven't settled down as much as we hoped they would."

Jim shifted his gaze to Blair in time to catch the flash of despair before it was gone, hidden by other shadows of concern for their friends.

Not for the first time, Jim cursed Kincaid and his band of troublemakers. Setting his mug on the table, he wondered where it was ever going to end – or if it ever would.

"I don't like it," Joel grumbled. "We came out here in the first place so we'd never have to feel boxed in again; never feel like we were in a cage. An' now, hell, we're putting up the wire our own selves."

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

Blair was very pleased with Maisie. She'd followed his advice and had been out walking every day, often twice a day, for nearly two months now. Her color was better despite the summer's persistent heat, and her ankles and hands were no longer swollen. Blair could see that she'd lost fifteen or twenty pounds and was lighter on her feet.

"I feel so much better, Doc," she said with a happy grin. "I don't get so breathless anymore, and I'm not nearly so tired at the end of the day."

"I'm glad, really glad," he replied. "You've been taking good care of yourself and it shows. I'm proud of you, Maisie! Now," he went on, waggling a playful finger at her, "just keep it up!"

"I will, I can promise you that," she assured him, patting his back as she walked him to the door of her shop. "You've made a new woman of me, Doc. I'm grateful to you."

"You've made a new woman of yourself," he contested with a smile.

He was still smiling when he stepped out on the boardwalk and turned to head back to his office – and nearly ran into a woman and her son, who'd just climbed down off their wagon outside of the apothecary.

"Oh, sorry, excuse me," he apologized.

She looked over her shoulder and her eyes widened. "Lord save us!" she gasped and, grabbing her son's hand, she pulled him away, and held up her other hand in a sign to ward off the Devil. "Get away from us!" she screeched. "Get away!"

Carefully containing his expression, though he knew he was probably flushing, he held up his hands and backed off, and then turned to jump down into the street, walking stiffly across to the other side. Jim came out of his office, his scowl thunderous, just as Blair climbed the steps onto the boardwalk outside of their house.

"What was that all about?" he demanded, jerking his head toward the woman who had scurried into Ambrose's shop.

His jaw clenched, Blair looked away.

"Sandburg?"

Still getting his temper under control, Blair muttered bitterly, "What? That? That was just an example of the latest trend going around. The settlers, and some others, have started using a hand sign to 'ward off demons'. Seems to work best when accompanied by hisses or screeches."

"Since when?" Jim asked, looking seriously appalled.

Determined not to vent his anger on Jim, Blair blew a long breath. "Oh, for a week or so, I guess; should be fun when the kids go back to school next week. They'll all be doing it for the scary thrill it gives them."

"Ah, Chief," Jim groaned and bowed his head, the brim of his Stetson obscuring his face. "Honest to God, I don't know what to say," he rasped, fury mingling with pathos and helplessness in his voice. "This is … dammit."

Blair's shoulders slumped. "Yeah, I know," he sighed. Reaching out, he gripped Jim's arm, both to give and receive comfort from the touch. "It's okay."

"No, it damned well isn't 'okay'," Jim snarled, his head coming up, meeting Blair's gaze, his blue eyes hard with rage that Blair knew wasn't directed at him, but was very much on his behalf.

"You're right. It's not. Relegate it to the 'shit we can't do anything about' file," Blair replied. He took another breath and squared his shoulders. "Look, I've got work to do and I know you do, too. But, uh, thanks, man. For being furious. It helps, you know. Really helps that I don't have to suck it up and deal with it alone."

Jim's mouth tightened as he scanned the street. "You don't have to put up with this crap, you know? Just say the word, Sandburg, and we're gone."

Blair gave him a smile and the chill of the encounter melted away. "I know, and I appreciate that more than I can ever say. I'm … I'm still hoping it won't come to that. I'm not ready to throw in the towel yet."

Jim searched his face and gave him a small, tight nod. "It's your call, Chief. You've got a hell of a lot more patience than I do. But it's your call."

His smile widening, Blair slapped his arm as he turned toward their house. "Thanks, Jim," he murmured. "Thanks for … well, just thanks."

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

Blair was making notes on his last patient of the day when he heard the front door open. He looked up, wondering who else had gotten sick or maybe had an accident. But, to his surprise, Jim appeared in the entry, carrying a sack from the general store.

"Hey, didn't expect you this early. Just taking a break?" Blair asked with a smile.

"Nah, decided to play hooky for the rest of the afternoon," Jim replied with a shrug. "You finished for the day?" he asked, sounding hopeful.

"Yeah, I think so."

"Good," Jim said, mouth curving in a conspiratorial smile as he tipped his head toward the back of the house. "Thought maybe we could sneak off down to the creek, do a little fishing, have a cookout." He lifted the sack. "I got us some steaks, in case we don't catch anything."

"Hey, now, that sounds like a plan I can get behind," Blair agreed with a grin. "What else you got there?"

"Oh, a couple ears of corn, some mushrooms and onions – we've got potatoes, right?"

"Uh huh. I'll get them and the…"

"Nuh-uh, you just finish up there and get our fishing rods. I'll take care of everything for supper," Jim cut in cheerfully, as he disappeared from view. "Meet you out back."

Tickled by the idea of 'playing hooky', Blair quickly finished his notes and locked up his records. He heard Jim still messing around in the kitchen when he headed down the hall and through the infirmary to the back door. But he'd just come out of their shed, fishing poles and their small tackle box in hand when Jim appeared carrying a large pot with everything else he needed stuffed inside.

They sauntered in companionable silence across the long grass to the creek, and then along the water to a shady place upstream that had become a favorite fishing hole two years before. A light breeze laden with the light, sweet scent of clover and wild honeysuckle ruffled their hair and gentled the heat of the day. Aside from the rustling leaves, the warble and twittering of birds, and the gurgle of the water whispering along the bank, it was blessedly quiet, the busy sounds of the noisy town lost behind them. Blair took a deep breath and could feel the tension in his muscles ease.

Jim set down the supplies and, after they sorted out the hooks, they settled, shoulder to shoulder against a couple of comfortable rocks warmed by the lowering sun, and dropped their lines over the low bank into the slow-moving stream. Sunlight filtered through the slightly swaying branches, creating a soothing dappling of shadow and winking brilliant gems of light on the water.

"This is nice," Blair murmured, his gaze drifting across the narrow creek to the trees on the far side. Wild flowers grew in profusion along the far bank, a rainbow of colors crowning through the grass and peeking out from under the low growing bushes. Butterflies, yellow, orange and a few blue, fluttered lazily on the balmy wind.

"Mmm," Jim agreed and shifted to drape an arm around Blair's shoulders.

Soothed by the tranquility, Blair felt himself relax more than he had in weeks. His attention mesmerized by the play of light and shadow on the water, his thoughts drifted away from his worries about the town and the settlers. His breathing slowed and deepened, and he felt the healing heat of the sun soak into his bones…

He woke to crackle of flames, and the scent of woodsmoke mingling with that of frying onions, mushrooms and potatoes, and meat sizzling over the fire. Sitting up, he stretched his arms over his head and yawned widely. "Mmm, that smells good," he sighed as he looked back over his shoulder at his friend, who was squatting by the fire, tending to a pot of boiling corn and the frying pans. "Guess we didn't catch any fish."

"Nope," Jim agreed, and looked up at him with a lazy smile. "Hungry?" he asked.

"Starving," Blair replied with a grin, shifting to sit closer to the fire. "Anything I can do?"

"All taken care of," Jim assured him.

Blair yawned again and rolled his shoulders as his gaze drifted over the countryside. A small smile curved his lips when he looked back at Jim, understanding that his friend had decided he needed some pampering, some time to just … be. Away from the town. Away from everything. Just the two of them with nothing to worry about. "Thanks, man," he murmured.

Jim's eyes searched his and, evidently satisfied with what he found, he just nodded before turning his attention back to their meal. A few minutes later, he stabbed two cobs of corn with a fork, pulling them from the roiling, steaming water and set them on a plate. He flipped the steaks and, while they finished cooking, he lathered the cobs with butter and then salted them lightly, just enough for flavor. Rolling one onto another plate, he handed it to Blair.

They nibbled enthusiastically from one end to another, savoring the rich taste, careless of the butter dripping down their fingers and smearing their lips. Blair was just finishing his when Jim dished up the main course of succulent sirloin, cooked to perfection just the way Blair liked it. Blair didn't know how he did it, maybe using a combination of scent and the springy feel of the cooking meat, but Jim always got it right. Digging in with good appetite, unable to remember when he'd last been so hungry or so enjoyed the taste of food, Blair moaned with appreciation, drawing an amused chuckle from Jim.

"Oh, it's great," he mumbled his praise around a mouthful. "Best steak I ever tasted."

When he swallowed the last bite, having chewed slowly to relish the flavors, he set the plate down and smiled happily. Inhaling deeply, feeling pleasantly full, he exhaled slowly and then said, "That was just perfect."

Smiling broadly, his gaze warm with affection, Jim dipped his chin. "Good, I hoped you'd enjoy it." He settled the coffee pot on the still-hot embers and gathered up the dishes and the pots, taking them to the creek to scour first with the gritty sand along the bank, and then to rinse them clean. The coffee finished perking while he was still doing the clean-up. Using one of the rags Jim had brought to wrap around the hot handle, Blair poured two mugs and carried them over to the creek. When Jim set the clean utensils aside to dry in the sunlight, he handed his partner a mug and they settled on the rocks, their shoulders again lightly brushing against one another.

"I needed this," Blair murmured, gesturing at the water and the trees with his mug.

"We both did," Jim replied, his tone low and easy. Sliding his arm around Blair's back, he looped his fingers over Blair's shoulder and upper arm, massaging lightly. "They don't define who you are, Blair. Hell, they don't know you, don't know anything about you. And they never will, because they don't want to. But that's their loss, Chief." He paused and shook his head. "There's times when they make me so mad I…" But he stopped and turned his head to look at down at Blair. "But, you know what? I could almost feel sorry for them. 'Cause they don't know what they're missing. Almost," he said again, and drew Blair closer against his side.

"Only almost?" Blair echoed with a small, bemused smile.

"Yeah, only almost. If they had any redeeming qualities, I could feel honestly sorry for them. But they don't." Jim tilted his head to look up at the sky. Slow and reflective, he said with quiet conviction, "They have no idea that one of the best men they'll ever encounter in their lives is right here, and that you'd be their friend if they'd let you. You're a good man, Sandburg. You'd … take care of them, if they let you. But they shut you out and treat you like dirt. So I figure they don't deserve the … the privilege of knowing you. I can't feel sorry for people who willfully hurt you, Chief. I can't feel anything much more than contempt for them."

Touched by Jim's words, grateful for them, Blair leaned against his strength and bowed his head.

"The luckiest single moment of my life was on the day I rode into this town and got myself shot; otherwise, I might've just ridden right back out again, and never met the best man I've ever known, the best friend I'll ever have. Jim paused, and his voice was lower when he continued. "You changed my life, Chief. Changed me. Made me a better man than I was; certainly, a far happier one." His gaze roaming the creek now, the trees on the far side, his words coming slower still, he went on, "You've taught me about more than my senses, you know; a lot more. When I rode in here, I was bitter, angry and … utterly alone in the world. I couldn't imagine any kind of future that mattered. You taught me how to trust; how to … how to care again about life, about the people in my life. You taught me how to love. I can't imagine … well, I don't even want to imagine never having gotten to know you."

Blair's throat tightened and he slipped his arm around Jim's waist. Despite his uncertainties and the helpless anger of the day, Blair felt peace and contentment suffuse him, like spring rain falling gentle on the barren desert, bringing a dawning splendor and brilliant affirmation of life ... and hope for the future. For so long, he'd yearned for a home as they'd wandered the world, him and Naomi, ever seeking, never finding. And in his aching youth and young manhood, he'd been tempted by the lure of stability into believing he loved and was loved, but it had been only a mirage, not real. Not lasting. He'd felt forsaken, betrayed, abandoned and had thought he'd never know this fulfillment. For so long, through so many lonely years, he'd wandered seeking home, believing it to be a place.

Now, at last, he knew that home wasn't a place, it was a person. Home was Jim, being here with him, needed and wanted by him. Supporting one another, building a life together, laughing and sharing the hurts, and this … moments like this that were more precious than gold and silver. Whether they were sheltered by stone or wood, or under the wide canopy of the starlit heavens, it didn't matter, so long as they were together.

"Works both ways, Jim," he murmured pensively. "You taught me a lot about trust, too. I didn't know what real friendship meant until I met you. I didn't know what it felt like to … to have someone I could count on. To have … a family, till I met you. I thought I'd always just be passing through, drifting, looking for something – home, I guess – but never expecting to ever find it."

"And … now?" Jim asked, his grip around Blair's shoulders tightening.

"Now, I'm home. Here and now. Not here in Bitterwood Creek; that's not what I mean. I mean, with you; wherever you are, when I'm with you, I'm home."

"So'm I, Chief, when I'm with you," Jim affirmed as he rested his chin on Blair's head. "So'm I."

They sat by the edge of the creek until the sun had slipped below the horizon and stars were beginning to sparkle overhead in the deep indigo of the night sky.

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

September came, school started again, and the settlers' children, along with others who lived on outlying farms and small ranches along the river, made their daily trek into Bitterwood Creek. The littlest ones were accompanied by mothers who took the opportunity to visit friends in town and do a bit of shopping at the general store or the apothecary. After the first few days, when their numbers filled the street for the first hour or so of the day, Blair consciously remained at home. There was only so much warding off the devil or shrill exclamations of hate and fear that he was prepared to face, and he'd already had to stomach more than enough of the hysteria. He didn't say anything about it, just quietly shifted his schedule to do his rounds later in the morning; he rather hoped Jim wouldn't even notice.

But one morning, midway through the second week of September, Jim drained his coffee cup and set it carefully on the table, the conscious gesture of a man afraid he might otherwise smash the crockery into very small pieces.

Blair quirked a brow as he glanced from the blameless mug to his partner's tight expression. Here it comes, he thought, but managed to stifle the sigh.

"You don't have to cower in here every morning until they're gone," Jim grated. "This is your town, more than it is theirs."

"I'm not cowering," Blair countered. "Simply … judiciously avoiding unpleasant encounters."

"Judiciously?" Jim echoed, his gaze narrowing.

"Yeah," Blair explained, an impish grin playing around his lips and lighting his eyes. "I've noticed the Sheriff in town is getting increasingly annoyed by the nonsense. Wouldn't do for him to haul off and smack a woman for being an idiot."

Jim snorted as he stood to buckle on his gunbelt. "More like shoot 'em for being criminally stupid," he muttered. Grabbing his hat from the peg, he asked, uncertainty in his voice and eyes, "You sure you're okay, Chief? This … I'm sorry you have to put up with this crap."

"I'm good," Blair told him, his grin widening. "Don't worry about it; in the great scheme of things, doing rounds mid-morning instead of right after breakfast isn't a big deal."

Though he didn't look convinced, Jim nodded and turned away. "See you at lunch," he called as he went out the door.

Blair's grin faded as he cleaned up the kitchen. "It's not a big deal," he mumbled, but his jaw tightened as he slammed the damp rag down on the counter, and he felt futile anger burn in his chest. "Get used to it," he snarled to himself as he tromped across the hall to his office. "It's the way things are now. Just the way things are."

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

Later that morning, he strolled across the small town to visit Sarah Sloan and Delores McCready on one of his regular visits to see how their maternity cases were coming along and to offer any coaching if it was needed, particularly for the cases in the settlement where he couldn't visit the women personally. When he knocked on the Sloans' front door but didn't get an answer, he wandered around to the back in case Sarah was out of earshot in her garden. As soon as he came around the corner, he knew something was wrong.

Sarah and Delores were sitting on the old bench under an apple tree, and Sarah was sobbing. Hurrying to join them, he dropped to one knee beside Sarah and touched her arm.

"What's wrong? What's happened?" he asked, looking from her to Delores, who also had tears in her eyes.

"Hard case," Delores murmured as she rubbed Sarah's back consolingly.

Sniffing, scrubbing the tears from her face but unable to stop the leaking of more from her eyes, Sarah panted, "Lorelei Samuels … I couldn't … I couldn't…"

"Easy, easy," Blair soothed. "Slow down, okay? Just, just concentrate on getting your breath. Slow, deep breaths, that's it … slow and easy." Looking up at Delores, he asked, "Could you fetch Sarah a glass of water? She keeps a pitcher in a bucket of well water just inside the kitchen door, to keep it fresh and cool."

"Sure thing, Doc," she agreed, and seemed relieved to be given something definite to do that might be helpful.

Blair drew a handkerchief from his pocket and handed it to Sarah, who dabbed her face and blew her nose. Tears still streamed from her eyes, but the wrenching sobs had stopped.

"I'm sorry," she apologized, her voice still catching. "But it was so … so h-hard."

"What happened?" he asked, his tone low and calm.

She sniffed again and swallowed, and twisted his handkerchief in her hands. "Lorelei went into labor yesterday afternoon. But the baby was turned the wrong way. I … I tried to move it, you know? The way you taught us. But it wasn't working. And, and I knew she was in trouble. Her feet and her legs were so swollen and she wasn't breathing right."

Her voice caught, and he took her hand, afraid he knew what was coming. "It's okay, Sarah. You did everything right. I know you've been encouraging her to stay off her feet and watch her diet. And I know you did everything you could."

"I tried," she murmured. Taking a breath, she looked at him. "I begged them, Doc. I begged them to let me get you. I know you could have helped her. If they'd let me get you, she'd … she wouldn't have…"

Her voice broke again and she covered her face with her hands. Delores returned with a glass of water. "Here, Sarah," she offered uncertainly.

Sarah accepted the offering and took a few sips. Her expression was haunted and her tone subdued but tight with anger as she continued, "They refused; both Lorelei and her husband, Reese. Said they wouldn't have you in the house; wouldn't let you look at her, let alone touch her. So they sent for that fool, Ambrose, who was worse than useless. He just stood there, muttering about God's will." She sniffed and took another sip of water as if fortifying herself. With a heavy sigh, she shook her head. "She started convulsing just after dawn, and then she … she stopped breathing. She died and took her baby with her. And there was nothing I could do. Nothing but stand there and watch…"Her voice hitched with a sob. "Watch her die."

"Oh, Sarah," Blair moaned, sick at heart to hear the tragic story and saddened that Sarah had been caught in an impossible situation. He reached out and wrapped her in a firm hug. "I'm sorry. I'm so, so sorry."

"I c-can't d-do th-that again," she stammered through her tears. "I j-just c-can't. I'm s-s-sorry."

"I know, I know, shhhh," he murmured, holding her while she sobbed. "There's nothing to be sorry for, my friend. You did everything in your power and … and I understand that you don't want to be caught in such a tragic situation again. Shh, Sarah. It's okay. It's okay."

Gradually, she calmed and drew away from him. Her expression was tight and her tone was bitter as she said in a breathless rush, "Ignorance killed her and her poor baby. Ignorance and blind, stupid, cruel hate. I can't stand those people, Doc. I feel bad for her, and it was terrible to watch her die like that, but … but they're mean-spirited. About you. About the Browns and Mr. Banks and Mr. Taggart, and even about Miz Conner and poor Maisie, who's only doing her best. They're reaping their own harvest. If they weren't so pig-headed, Lorelei and her baby wouldn't've died. I'm sure of it. And, and Ambrose? I heard him sayin' to Reese Samuels that it was my fault. That they should never have trusted me. He said that if he'd been called in sooner, he would've been able to help, maybe. I was furious! Maybe if I knew more, had more experience, maybe … but that's not the point! I told them they needed a real doctor. They needed you. But they wouldn't listen!" Her voice broke and she pressed his handkerchief to her mouth.

"Sarah, I'm so sorry you had to deal with all that," Blair replied, trying to maintain his own veneer of calm though he felt a knot of futile anger in his chest and a good deal of guilt for having placed her in such an impossible situation. She hadn't wanted to deal with the settlers, but he'd encouraged both her and Delores to keep doing what they could to help. And now this. "You did everything you could. And more. You stayed with her to give what comfort you could right until the end. That's hard. I know that's hard. You're a good, kind woman." Glancing at Delores, he added, "Both of you are."

Rising, he looked off across her vegetable garden to the prairie beyond. "But, sometimes, all we can do isn't enough. There's no guarantee if they had called me that I would have been able to do any better. Sometimes … sometimes tragedies like this just happen."

"Sorry, Doc," Delores said fiercely, "but I'm not buying it. Sarah's right. If they weren't so all-fired stupid and mean, if they'd called you, this wouldn't've happened. I'm done with 'em, too. I can't abide them and their ideas. I can't."

Crossing his arms and bowing his head, Blair didn't know what to say. The settlers, for all their wrong-headedness, were just people, people who needed help like any others. It tore him apart that they wouldn't let him help, wouldn't trust his skills and knowledge, and … and people like this young Lorelei and her innocent child had died for want of his care. All because he was born a Jew. Shaking his head, he wished he had it in him to keep encouraging these two women to continue offering their skills, because they could do so much good. But he'd already done that and now this had happened. Sarah would carry those painful memories with her for the rest of her life. He couldn't force them to help, and he couldn't force the settlers to come to him. "I'm sorry," he said again, low and sorrowfully. "I'm sorry this happened."

"Doc, you have nothing to be sorry for," Sarah objected. "None of this is your fault."

"It's not your fault, either, Sarah," he said with a small, sad smile. "I would have spared you that, if I could have. You were only there in the first place because I asked you to keep doing what you could to help the settlers."

She broke eye contact and her shoulders slumped. "You're disappointed in me. For giving up. For not wanting to help them anymore."

"No, no," he protested, once again dropping down beside her. "I couldn't be prouder of either of you. You've both done your best. You've both done tremendous good for a lot of women and their babies. Please, Sarah, don't misunderstand me. I know that … that you're angry and frustrated. So am I. I wish they would let us help them, but they won't. We can't force that help upon them. It's their choice. I put you in an impossible situation; there are always cases where a doctor is needed, but I've been sending both of you knowing you wouldn't be able to call on me, and that wasn't fair, not to either of you. Believe me, I understand your decision to only work with women when you know you can call on me if necessary."

He could see the tension ease from both of them. "What matters right now is that you know you did your best and you gave what comfort you could. That's what I want you to remember about what happened. You did your best."

She sniffed and nodded. Reaching out to touch his arm, she murmured, "I had a good teacher." Giving his handkerchief a rueful glance, she said, "I'll put this in the wash and bring it back to you in a couple days."

"Ah, don't worry about that," he assured her. "I've got a drawer full of them. So … are you okay?"

She nodded again. "I'm glad you came by, Doc. It helps to know you don't think there was anything else I could have done. It was all just so … so wasteful, I guess. So unnecessary. Stupid and tragic."

"Part of the physician's oath is to do no harm. You did no harm and, in this case, that was all they allowed you to do," he offered, avoiding any more direct comment about her judgment about the deaths. Though he understood and even shared her view, voicing aloud the sentiment, blaming the young woman for her own death and her husband for the loss of his wife and child felt too harsh, even cruel. Deliberately changing the subject, he asked, "What about your other cases? Is there anything either of you wanted to discuss with me? Anything that worries you?"

For the next twenty minutes, he listened to their reports, offered advice, and got them firmly focused on the future rather than the pain of the immediate past. When he left, they were both much more cheerful, their anger and frustration distanced by the discussion.

As he headed back toward his office, he wished he'd been as successful in distancing his own anguish and sense of helplessness. On the way, he stopped to check on an elderly couple who had found the summer's relentless heat exhausting. He ensured they were bouncing back, now that the air was cooler, at least at night. And he discreetly confirmed that they were getting help from their neighbors to stock their larder for the long winter ahead. But, after he left them, his thoughts returned to the settlers and their prejudices, to Milt Ambrose and his unwillingness to seek assistance when it was needed; more, his apparent inclination to blame others – or God – for his own incapacity. He felt angry and frustrated, and … hurt, he supposed, that his name, his heritage, could inspire such hatred. Deep in thought as he skirted around the edge of the schoolyard, he didn't immediately notice the shift in the tone of the usual shouting of the kids.

"Stop that! Take it back!" a familiar young voice sang out angrily.

"Ah won't! He's evil; momma says we all hafta ward him off else he'll steal our souls!"

Blair turned to see Rose shriek with inarticulate fury and haul off to smack a boy considerably bigger than she was. The boy roared and dove at her, driving her to the ground, where they squirmed and scuffled, hitting one another.

"Whoa!" Blair yelled, diving into the fray to separate them. "What's going on here?" he demanded when he had them both up and their feet, holding them each firmly by the arm.

Rose gave the boy a sullen look, her eyes flashing with anger. "Don't matter," she muttered. "He's jes stupid, is all."

But the boy was tugging fiercely, trying to get away from him. "Lemme go!" he shouted, quite obviously terrified. "Don' eat me! Don' kill me! Lemme go!"

"Eat you?" Blair echoed, astonished. Loosening his grip, he let the boy scramble away from him. "What are you talking about? I wouldn't ever hurt a child."

"Tha's not true!" the whelp challenged hysterically, tears blurring his eyes. "Ya'll killed my brother! Burned him up!"

"Jo-Jo!" Marnie shouted, taking the boy by the shoulders. "Hush up! You're being silly and creating a fuss. This is Doctor Sandburg and he saves children who are sick. He never hurts anyone!"

"He's a devil!" Jo-Jo shrieked, holding up his hand to circle his fingers and thumb to make the sign to ward off evil. "Don' let 'im touch me!"

"Marnie, I'm sorry," Blair stammered. "I was just passing by and –"

"Don't you apologize, Doc Sandburg!" Marnie cut in, flushing with embarrassment and anger. "You didn't do anything wrong." She gave the boy a firm shake. "Stop your yelling right now!" she commanded, and Jo-Jo subsided into a sulk. "I'm going to wash your mouth out with soap, is what I'm going to do." Glancing at Rose, she sighed. "Rose, you oughtn't to start fights. You know better. You come and get me when there's a problem, y'hear?"

"Yes, ma'am," Rose murmured, but she gave Jo-Jo a cold look. "But he started it."

"You go on in and write out twenty times, 'I will not fight'," Marnie directed firmly, "and I'll check your notebook to see that you did."

"Yes, ma'am," Rose replied with evidently hard-won docility. Her lips tightened briefly, but she looked up at Blair with wide sorrowful eyes. "Ah'm sorry, Doc. 'Bout what he sayed. T'isn't right."

"No, it isn't," Blair agreed as he knelt beside the child and fondly cupped her cheek. "But you don't have to fight for me, Rose. I'm a big boy and silly words can't hurt me, okay?"

"Okay," she whispered with a solemn nod. "He jes made me so mad."

"I know, sweetheart. I know," Blair allowed. "Thank you for worrying about me, but Miss MacDonald is right. Fighting isn't the answer. Go on in, now, and do what she says, okay?"

She nodded again and, with a defiant look at Jo-Jo, she gave Blair a quick hug and then whirled away to run into the schoolhouse.

"His brother?" he asked Marnie, sick to death that this was another Watson child.

Marnie flushed and scowled at the boy. "His older brother, Lucas, was one of the men who attacked you last summer. Lucas Tremayne was the oldest – sixteen years older than Jo-Jo here; old enough to know better'n to do what they did." Looking up, she met his eyes. "They were all old enough to know better. What they did was terrible an' what happened wasn't any of your fault, that's for sure."

Jo-Jo flashed her a sullen look before glaring at Blair. "Was too yer fault. If'n you weren't here, Lucas would still be alive."

Before Blair could think of a response, Cherie sidled up and took his hand. "He says stuff 'bout us, too, Doc," she confided with a worried sideways glance at Jo-Jo. "Him an' the others. Says mean things about us an' momma and poppa."

Blair frowned and looked to Marnie for a response.

"I tell them it's wrong," she said, sounding close to forlorn, clearly exhausted by her evidently fruitless attempts to address the bigotry the settlers' kids perpetuated. "But the children, their parents … they're just spouting what they hear at home."

Blair cupped Cherie's head with his palm as Marnie hauled Jo-Jo toward the well. Once again he dropped to one knee, his gaze traveling the yard and taking in the hostile and frightened expressions on too many small, pinched faces before he met Cherie's troubled gaze. "Does anyone here hurt you?" he asked gently.

She shook her head. "Shove us, sometimes, me 'n Rose, when Miss MacDonald ain't watchin', tha's all."

"You still like coming to school?"

"Mostly," she replied with a little shrug.

"Okay," he murmured, his thumb stroking her pudgy cheek. "Don't you pay any attention to any of the stuff they say, okay? They're just being stupid. You're a good girl, Cherie, and so is Rose. I'm proud of both of you. But if anyone ever hurts you, you tell Miss MacDonald right away. And you tell your parents and Sheriff Jim and me, too. We'll make sure it never happens again."

She gave him a wide-eyed look. "Would Sheriff Jim put them in jail?" she asked breathlessly, sounding as if she was caught between how exciting the idea was … and how scary.

"No, no," he replied, a bit startled by the question, though he couldn't say it didn't appeal to him at least as a kind of shock treatment for the little creeps. "Sheriff Jim would never put little kids in jail. We'd have to decide what to do, but probably they'd be sent home and wouldn't be allowed back at school until they apologized to you."

"Oh," she murmured, sounding disappointed by the very ordinary idea. But she perked up and piped with gruesome delight, "Maybe you could turn them into frogs!"

Blinking in astonished shock – her eager suggestion sparking memories of that morning in the school when he'd been fighting to get Jim to breathe, the Watson boy's comments … and all of the horror that followed later that day – Blair felt a sudden surge of nausea. Struggling for composure, he told himself she was only innocently repeating what she'd heard him say, but he queasily wondered how often his thoughtless words got bandied around in the playground.

"Honey, you know no one can turn another person into a frog!" he finally replied, forcing himself to smile, to make it all a joke. "That's just impossible." He tickled her lightly, making her giggle, and then directed, "Go on, go and play. Just stay away from the mean kids. Won't be long and you'll be called back into class."

She gave him a gap-toothed smile, a quick hug, and hustled away to play with her friends. Blair stood for a moment, looking at the other children, the ones who glared at him or cowered in fear, and at their surreptitious signs to ward him off. Shaking his head, he sighed as he turned on his heel and continued on his way.

He wondered if Henri and Hannah knew their girls were getting shoved and called names at school. Wondered, if they did, if they were as angry about their helplessness as he was? More, he suspected. God, he didn't know how he'd contain his rage if it were his children being taunted. It had been all he could do to walk away without asking exactly who called them names or shoved them around. But he'd had to let it go because, if he hadn't, he wasn't sure what he would have done. And they were only children, as Marnie had said, spewing ignorance and poison they'd learned at home. If he let his anger show, if he acted on it, he'd only be fulfilling the ugly things they heard about him, only feeding their fear.

Looking up at the wide, prairie sky, the endless blue, he wondered how parents could nurture such hate in their children. Wondered how any of them would ever learn to cope with it without wanting to strike back. But, as he stared at the sky, the import of all that had happened that day hit him. People were dying because of the hate. An innocent baby hadn't even gotten a chance to be born because of their fear and contempt for him. Dear God, an eight-year-old child who had more than enough to deal with in contending with the crap directed at her and her sister had gotten into a fight to defend him!

His eyes blurred and he stumbled. Nausea twisted in his gut and bile rose up to choke him. Hurrying now across the open square, his hand pressed to his mouth, he rushed around the side of the saloon, to the back, barely making it before, leaning one hand against the rough wooden building, he retched again and again.

You killed my brother!

Says mean stuff about us, an' about momma and poppa.

I had to w-watch her die …

I hate them.

Can't abide them …

Don't eat me!

Frogs …

A child fighting to protect him …

He gasped for breath and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. Panting, he kicked dirt over the mess and then, turning away, he stumbled quickly toward the creek. Once there, he hunkered down on his heels on the bank and cupped his hand in the water, to splash his face. He still felt shaky when he stood and continued along the bank toward home, seeking sanctuary but knowing there was none, not really. His mind gave him no rest, the voices swirling, taunting and tormenting, and emotions cramped in his chest, making it hard to breathe.

Blair didn't know what to do; didn't know how to rid himself of the horror he felt. So much, so much guilt and fear about those men who'd died, about a power he didn't understand; so much helplessness to change how those people thought and acted, to change the choices they made that cost so damned much and hurt so many people; so … so much fury and despair that Rose and Cherie were not only suffering the abuse but felt they had to take on even more, to stand up for him.

Was too yer fault. If'n you weren't here, Lucas would still be alive.

Tears again scalded his eyes. There was a twisted truth in what that kid had said. If he wasn't there, then, yeah, the boy's brother and others would still be alive. But … if he left, the people who still trusted him wouldn't have decent medical care. If he wasn't there, Rose wouldn't have to get into fights to defend him. But if he left, what good would it really do? Those people would still hold their ugly prejudices. He'd be abandoning his friends.

But God, he hated it. Hated all of it. And he felt so damned tired. So helpless to change anything.

Once he was behind their house, he couldn't face going inside; couldn't risk anyone coming to the office and finding him so distraught. Stopping in the shadows of the trees, staring at the water and trying to pull himself together, he leaned his shoulder against the smooth bark of an aspen. Struggling to catch his breath, fighting the tears, he slid down and, huddling into himself, wrapped his arms around his body.

"Doc? Oh, Doc." Maisie's gentle voice broke into his thoughts, and her hand came to rest on his shoulder.

Mortified, he turned his face away from her, and didn't trust his voice to speak.

She eased down beside him and simply sat quietly for a long while. When she spoke again, her voice was gentle. "I was taking one of my walks, down around the church, an' I saw and heard what happened. I … I followed you, to see if you were okay, 'cause I could see you were hit hard by what that little monster, Jo-Jo, said."

"It's okay," he replied, keeping his voice as steady as he could but still not able to face her. "I'm fine."

"No, honey, you're not fine. You're hurting bad."

God, what a time for Maisie to confront him with her all-too-perceptive empathy. And she was right; too obviously right to deny. But this wasn't her problem, and he didn't want even a friend seeing him like this. But … she was right. He hurt bad. Real bad.

Desperate to pull himself together, to give some explanation that was true but wouldn't reveal too much, he blew a shuddering breath and replied in muted, strained tones, "It's, uh, it's just been a hard day. Sarah Sloan lost a mother and baby this morning in the settlement because … because they wouldn't let her call me to help." But once started, he couldn't seem to stop himself, and the deeper hurt poured out. "And … Rose … Rose was fighting to defend me. She's just a little kid. She shouldn't have to … have to…" His voice cracked. Humiliated, he hunched more into himself.

Maisie edged closer to wrap a comforting arm around his shoulders. "It's high time somebody did. Rose puts us all to shame. We sit back and wring our hands, and allow them to say and do terrible mean things, all 'cause they got rights to their own sorry opinions. But it ain't right, Doc. I'm sick to death of this town and the hurt bein' done."

When he didn't respond, she sighed and looked out over the gurgling creek. Her tone was reflective when she continued, "I remember the day you walked into this town, a living, breathing miracle come to save us from that awful disease. You've got a gift, Doc. More'n one, comes to that. But do you even realize that not one single soul in this town has died from anything but old age since you arrived? Not one, 'cept for the outlaws who force you men to shoot 'em down, an' those idiot settlers, who won't have no truck with you. Like I say, you got a gift for healin', the like I've never seen in all my born days. Mostly, I guess, it's 'cause you're darned good at what you do."

When his silence persisted, she went on more hesitantly, "But … I think it's more'n that, Doc. I think … I believe … the Good Lord works through some folks, gives them the power to work miracles. An' I think God has blessed you with that gift, 'cause you can be trusted with it. You're just about the best man I've ever known; sure the most caring 'bout simple folks. An' I know right well that even when you can't heal 'em no more 'cause they're just too old an' tired, that you sit with 'em, and hold their hands, givin' 'em comfort and easing 'em on their journey." Her grip around his shoulders tightened, and her voice was rough with emotion as she admitted, "I was never blessed with any children, but if I'd had a son, I'd be right proud if he was even half as good as you. You've given your heart an' soul to this town, Doc. An' I can see what it costs you – it's like you share bits of yourself and you're plum wore out."

"Miracles?" he echoed and shuddered with the memory of those men who had burned to death. "Those are kind words, Maisie. Too kind. I'm just a little tired," he rasped past the lump in his throat, very touched but embarrassed by her words, certain he in no way deserved any such tribute. "I'll be fine. Really, you … you don't have to worry about me."

"An' if that ain't just like a man, pretendin' he has to be strong all the darned time," she chided, warm humor in her voice. "I saw what you did, that day Cherie got trampled," she said then, serious again. "I know what you did."

He stiffened and shifted to try to draw away from her, but she held him close to her side. "An' I was in the saloon durin' the trial, an' I heard what you said about what happened out there. I saw how broken-up you were, an' I've been worryin' about you for weeks now," she went on, kind but persistent. "I think you're scared, Doc. I think you're afraid you did something out there."

"Maisie, please …" he begged, unable to deal with any more and afraid of losing his composure completely.

"I'm here to tell you that I don't think you did anythin' at all," she insisted stoutly. "I think God sent his angels to wreak justice that day. And Bless Him for doing it, too. No man has the power to raise a child from the dead, lessen God sends that power through him. And no man can order the wind – only God can do that, child. Don't be takin' on more'n what's yours to bear. You didn't tie yourself to that stake, and you sure'n blazes didn't light that fire. You weren't the one who was destined to die that day, 'cause you're still needed on this earth."

Sighing, he gave up hoping she'd just let it drop and leave him be. He rubbed his eyes and reached down deep for the composure to answer her. "I appreciate what you're saying, I really do," he said, wishing his voice didn't sound so rough and broken. "I just … I can't talk about this stuff. Whatever happened out there that day, nobody deserves to die like that." Lifting his head, looking at the water rushing past and hoping to redirect her thoughts away from what happened with Cherie and … and the others, he went on, "Ever since Jim and me got back from the west, it's been hard. You're right. The town has changed. But there are still a whole lot of good people here."

"Uh huh," she agreed. "But I'm not sure that's enough. Enough to stay. Enough to put up with the rest of it."

When he again stiffened, her words too close to his own doubts, she went on softly, "You don't owe anyone here a blessed thing, Doc. You blew in here like a breath of fresh air, just when we needed you most. An' you've stayed an' done a whole lot of good. But … it's wearin' you down. I can see it. Everyone can see it, though you're doin' your best to pretend everythin's just fine whenever anyone's lookin'. Times change. People move on. Sure, you could keep helpin' people here. But you could do just as much good somewhere else, someplace where they don't spit at you when you walk by, don't curse you because they're fools. Truth is, I don't think the Browns should be stayin', neither. I'm not sure it's safe for them. Kincaid might be gone, but the poison is still here an' it ain't goin' away."

He nodded slowly. "I'm afraid you might be right about that. But if we just give up, how will anything ever change?"

"Well, that's a good question," she allowed pensively. "I been thinkin' about that, too, an' I sure don't have any answers. All I know is, I used to love livin' here an' now … well, now I don't. An' there're too many of 'em. They scare me, an' life's both hard enough and too short to be livin' it afraid. There's still places to go that maybe aren't perfect, not by a long shot, but're better'n here. Guess it's too late to pull out this year; winter's too close to be settin' up somewhere's new. But, but I've decided that if things don't change, I'm goin' to the Black Hills in the spring." She patted his shoulder. "Guess I just don't want to go without my favorite customer – not to mention, I don't have no idea what kind of doctors, if any, they got there. Lord help me if they're all like Ambrose."

He couldn't help the smile that tugged at his lips at her soulful tone. Tilting his head to look at her, he teased, "Ah, so that's your plan. You're trying to tempt me into going with you."

She grinned at him. "Ah, ya caught me far and square. I'd be a mite happier and easier in my mind about goin' if'n you and the Sheriff were goin', too. From what my nephew tells me, they could use a good lawman in those parts, just about as much as they could use a good cook and a good doctor. So, is my plan workin'? Ya think ya might tag along?"

Gazing at her open, kind face, seeing the affection and concern for him in her eyes, he admitted, "It's a tempting idea, Maisie. Not sure how Jim and I'd make it here without you spoiling us the way you do. Where'd we get our bread?"

She laughed and leaned on his shoulder to lever herself to her feet. Gazing down at him, her expression softened into vulnerability. "I'm sorry if I over-stepped my bounds here today. I know you wanted some quiet time alone. You're not the sort to burden other folks with your hurts. But … but I love ya, Doc, like you were my own boy. Silly, I guess. But I could see you were hurtin', have been hurtin' for a while now, and it t'ain't fair. The way they carry on, the things they do an' say – you deserve better'n that. Pains me to see you sufferin'." Her eyes glistened and, swiping at them, she turned her face away. "I jes … I jes couldn't bear no more, not without sayin' something. Rose has got the right of it, you know. You're worth fightin' for. An' bless her little heart, so is she and all the rest of her family."

"Ah, Maisie," he whispered, rising to draw her into a hug. Deeply touched, he held her close. "I love you, too, you know? I just … I just don't want to be the cause of anyone's fights. You're right – it's getting to me, all of it. I don't know what to do, not yet, anyway, but you've helped me feel better. So, don't worry, my girl; you haven't overstepped any bounds. I'm glad you followed me. Glad you cared enough, and I'm grateful."

"Well, then, that's good," she replied, patting him on the chest and then drawing away. "You think on what I said, y'hear?"

"I will," he promised as he turned to walk with her toward the house and the street beyond. Looking up at the sky, he said, "And, maybe, things'll get better over the winter. I'd sure hate to see you go."

"No harm in hopin' for the best," she said, sounding doubtful, though, that hope would be enough.

Not at all sure, either, he ushered her through the house to the front door. "Thanks, Maisie. You've given me a lot to think about," he assured her as she stepped out onto the boardwalk.

She studied his face for a moment, and then nodded. "Just remember, Doc. You don't owe anybody anything. You do what's right for you to do." Before he could say anything further, she turned away to bustle back to her shop.

Watching her until she was inside, he thought about that. When he closed the door, he looked around at the place that had become his home … and then sternly reminded himself that home wasn't a place. "I wonder what Jim would think about the Black Hills?" he murmured wearily as he raked back his hair and headed into his office. Sagging into his chair, he rubbed his temples to ease the headache that had started sometime that morning. Leaning forward, his elbows on the desk and his face in his hands, he thought a lot about the morning and everything Maisie had said.

Don' be takin' on more'n what's yours to bear.

Simple, homespun wisdom. He thought it was the best piece of advice he'd ever been given and, gradually, the knot in his chest eased a little. With a sigh, he sat back and pushed his hair behind his ears. The fact was, he was a man and it was his responsibility to deal with his problems, but he wasn't the only one contending with ignorance and hate. Hell, he should be used to it by now … but those two little girls were at risk and their safety, both emotional and physical, had to be his first concern.

Rising, he left the house and crossed the street, to tell Henri what had happened in the schoolyard.

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

When Jim got home that night, Blair told him what had happened that day, not just in the schoolyard, but with Sarah, as well. He tried to keep it matter-of-fact; but his voice caught and, swiftly turning away to hide the depth of his hurt, he faltered to a stop.

"Ah, Chief," Jim rasped, as if his heart was breaking. He came up close and, gently, so gently, turned Blair back to face him, and drew him into a warm, strong embrace, holding him until Blair's arms came up to hug him back.

And still, Jim held on. "I'm sorry," Jim whispered into his curls. "I'm so damned sorry I can't make them stop; can't … can't just run them off. But none of it is your fault, Chief. None of it. Be angry; hell, hate the damn settlers. But don't let them hurt you. Don't let them tear you apart."

Blair drew a shuddering breath. "Don't be taking on more than what's yours to bear," he murmured, offering Maisie's advice in his turn. "None of this is your fault, either, man. It just is, Jim. It just is."

"Fuck that," Jim cursed with unusual vehemence. "Tell me when, Chief. Just tell me when, and we'll be outta here so damned fast, they won't see us for dust."

"Ah, man," Blair sighed as the band around his chest loosened. His partner's unconditional, unswerving, and unequivocal support warmed him all the way through, and he couldn't help a small smile of relief. "We'll be okay. No matter how bad it gets, or how hard, they can't touch us, not in any way that matters. We'll be okay."

Jim's embrace tightened briefly and then eased, but he didn't let go until Blair drew away, once again strong enough to stand sturdily on his own.

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

After another week of pushing, shoving and name-calling, of settlers complaining that their kids shouldn't be punished for having the good sense to not want to share a classroom with 'them darkies', and the Browns and the Sheriff expressing concern about the safety of their girls, Marnie MacDonald decided peace wasn't attainable, not as things stood. Using the size of the too-large class as an excuse, claiming there were just too many children to work with all at once, she began teaching the kids from town in the mornings and the settlers' children in the afternoons. None of the parents were happy that their children were obtaining only half of the learning they'd been given previously, but she explained and explained that there seemed no other alternative to ensure both safety and harmony in the classroom and schoolyard.

Her explanations didn't satisfy the likes of the Tuckers in town, or any of the settlers, no matter how many times she reiterated her reasons. In addition to the harangues about her responsibilities as a teacher delivered in person, she began to receive increasingly strident letters of complaint – more, it seemed, with each passing day – until she began to loathe going to the school every morning.

One day about two weeks after the class had been divided, when Jim arrived to pick up the girls, as usual, he found a belligerent crowd of dissatisfied parents, mostly settlers but with a goodly smattering of townsfolk. For the first time, he fully understood the pressure being brought to bear upon their young schoolmarm. Poor Marnie looked like a trapped deer on the school's narrow porch, her back to the door. Her face was flushed, tears glistened in her eyes, and he could hear her heart racing as they shouted over her attempts to reason with them.

Pushing through the crowd to stand beside her, he bellowed, "Enough! I won't permit mob intimidation of anyone, at any time, and certainly not of a woman doing her best to teach your kids! This disgraceful exhibition is over. Go home!"

"Ya got no rights here, Sheriff!" a man yelled back. "Ain't like you got any kids who're not getting' a decent education! So ya'll just mosey on along and we'll take care o' this."

The crowd rumbled its agreement and some waved their fists. Encouraged, another cried out, "This here's a democracy an' that means majority rules. Well, we rule that our chillen get their learnin' all day!"

"An' we don' want no pickanninies in the school, neither!"

Marnie was sobbing, and Jim sorely wanted to shoot the ugly louts. He moved to shelter her with his body and murmured, "You go on inside. When they're gone, I'll walk you and the girls home."

"N-no," she stammered, her voice rising, and he realized she was angry as well as scared. "NO!" she yelled more forcefully as she pushed past him and, her arms akimbo, faced the surly crowd. "I hate you, all of you. You're mean, nasty people and you've taught your children to be the same. I'm fed up with the lot of you, and there's not enough money in the world to put up with what you dish out. I QUIT! This school is closed!"

With that, she stormed down the steps and began pushing her way through the crowd. Taken aback by her unusual show of spirit, the first few fell back to let her through. But others took umbrage at her words and plucked at her arms, arguing with her, telling her she had no call to say those things. Disgusted, Jim called to Rose and Cherie to wait inside for him, and stomped down the steps. Drawing her into the circle of one strong arm, he fended off those who tried to stop them from leaving.

When the crowd still pressed in on them, he roared, "Back off, or I swear I'll shoot the next person who touches her!"

By then, others of the town had gathered, including Blair, Henri Brown, Silas McCready, Moe Gurney, and Marnie's father, Angus. When the crowd around Jim and Marnie failed to fall away, several of the men fired rifles into the air, bringing a shocked silence.

"You let my girl pass," Angus growled, his rifle leveled now on the miscreants.

The crowd grumbled resentfully, but edged back enough that Jim could hustle Marnie to her father's side. Turning back to face the troublemakers, he shouted, "We're done here. GO HOME!"

Sullenly, someone called, "Who's gonna teach our chillen?"

"Well, I guess that's your problem," Jim said with an angry edge of sarcasm. "Not having any kids of my own, I don't much care."

Kids came tentatively out of the school to join their folks, and the disgruntled parents finally started to move off. Brown turned to Angus and Marnie. "I'm sorry," he rasped, both angry and humiliated. "This wouldn'a happened if I hadn't kept sending my girls to school. I'm real sorry, Miss MacDonald, that it's been so hard on you."

Too upset to talk, Marnie just shook her head.

"This wasn't your fault, Henri," Angus muttered, as he held his daughter close, and patted her back. "Them folks brought this on themselves." Shaking his head, he said, "C'mon, girl, let's get you home."

While Angus escorted his still weeping daughter back toward their living quarters above the general store, the other men stood and watched the schoolyard empty.

"Angus is right, H," Jim told him. "Your girls have as much right to an education as any of the rest of them."

"Maybe so," Brown sighed despondently as he turned away. "But now nobody is going to get any teachin'." Henri left them to jog slowly across the open ground to retrieve his daughters.

Once he was out of earshot, Blair said, "You know what this means, right? There's no one else in town who can take over the school. The married women don't have the time."

"Yeah, I know," Jim growled, his expression bleak. "One of them will take it over, claiming the right to ensure their children get their schooling. And it will be a school for white kids only."

Moe and Silas looked at them and frowned but didn't offer an opinion. Jim glanced at them and, knowing they both had school age children, muttered, "Guess you'll do what you have to do."

Their expressions tightened but, reluctantly, they nodded as they turned back to the saloon.

"I'm beginning to really hate this town," Jim grated.

Two days later, the school reopened with a new schoolmarm from the settlement and, as Jim had predicted, the Brown children were barred from attending. Blair added the tutoring of Cherie and Rose to his daily schedule. One afternoon, Cherie asked, "Doc, why do they all hate us so, jus' 'cause we're a diff'rent color?"

"Cause they's stupid," Rose snapped, anger covering her own hurt.

"Is that true, Doc?" Cherie persisted.

Glancing at Hannah, who looked around from the counter where she was preparing the noon meal, Blair wished he could give a simple answer. Lifting Cherie onto his knee, he said, "There are people in this world who think they're better than other people. Some think because they're rich, they're better than the poor. Some who are white think they're better than folks who aren't. Some who are church-goers think anyone who worships differently is wrong. Some men think they're better than women. Are any of them right? No, they're not; they're wrong. What matters is what's in your heart, how you live as a good person, doing your best, helping people in need as much as you can, being generous and kind, and strong and brave. You can't make people like you, and you can't change their minds when they're already made up. But no matter what anyone ever says, you just have to go on being as good a person as you can be, being proud of who you are. Do you understand?"

"Ah'm a good girl, Doc," Cherie said very seriously. "Ah always do my best."

"I know you are, sweetheart; and so is Rose a very good girl. I'm very proud of both of you."

Cherie snuggled in for a hug. Rose looked up at him with her too-old eyes. "We're proud of you, too," she said. "Proud to know you; proud you're our friend."

Blair's throat tightened and he swallowed hard as he nodded. "I know. And I'm grateful, Rose. Thank you. Your good opinion means a great deal to me."

Her solemn eyes brightened and, giving him a wide smile, she hugged him, too.

Holding both girls close, Blair looked up at Hannah, who gave him a shy smile. The expression in her eyes was rich in understanding, mingling both pride and sorrow, before she turned away and went back to her cooking.

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

Emboldened by their success in conquering the school, and with the time afforded by the end of the harvests, the settlers began to spend more time in town; visiting, shopping, gossiping, selling their produce and fresh-slaughtered mutton at the store, and resuming attendance at the church. A cobbler set up a small shop, and then another settler opened a leather goods store to rival the one adjacent to Henri's stable. It seemed to Blair that there was no time during the day or evening, when more of the men rode in to drink at the saloon, when he could walk around town without being confronted by evil glances and glares, and sometimes physical shoving as he went about his rounds. Though he got the very occasional call to go out to nearby farms or small ranches, his patients tended to either come into town or do without his care – and he was afraid they were being harassed by the settlers around them.

Pastor Stevens insisted that the Browns continue to attend his church, and they appreciated it, but by the end of October, they decided the weekly experience was too draining and too upsetting for their girls. But the Pastor continued to visit them, praying with them and telling the girls stories from the Bible. And, Jim and Blair heard, he continued to preach tolerance, compassion and brotherly love, refusing to condone or remain mute in the face of his parishioners' antipathy for the clear messages he gave them.

Jim knew that Dan Raymond was still receiving poison pen letters, and some of the more aggressive men had begun to argue with him on the street and in the church about what he did print in his paper. Urseline Tucker continued to share her poisonous views with anyone who would listen.

Blair and Henri had taken to going to the general store together to do their weekly shopping. Brown didn't want Hannah exposed any more than necessary to the virulent nastiness of what many people didn't hesitate to say. One day in November, Angus took them aside and quietly offered to make up their orders and deliver them so they wouldn't have to come into the store anymore … or, he suggested, they could come to the back door and he would serve them personally.

Blair and Henri stiffened at the suggestions. Glancing at one another, both understanding that Angus was only trying to make things easier for them, Brown nodded to Blair to respond. "You're kind to make such offers, Angus," he said carefully, not wanting to offend the older man, though he knew Henri had been as insulted as he was by the idea that they lurk outside the back, waiting to be served. "And we both appreciate it. But … but, no. Thank you, but no. So long as you'll have us as customers, we'll continue to do our shopping like everyone else."

"Aye, well, suit yourselves. There's no question that I welcome your custom; always have, always will," he said with a sigh. "Bothers me, though, the way some of them carry on. Neither of you should have to listen to it."

Blair smiled and patted the older man on the shoulder. "We've both heard it all before, Angus. But we're grateful for your concern and your support. It helps; helps a lot."

For the first time, Blair welcomed the cold that settled in with the snow in December; it was too bitter for the settlers to wander into town unless they had specific errands to run, and even Urseline was staying indoors. The men still rode in at night, though, to frequent the saloon and, for the first time, he witnessed one of the altercations between Dan and a drunken lout who had stumbled down to the newspaper office to air his grievances. Chilled by more than the cold as he stood by and watched Jim send the settler on his way, he wondered how long it would be before whiskey gave one of these men the courage to do more than hurl words.

Chanukah approached, Christmas looming not far behind. Blair set up his menorah in the back bedroom so his ritual celebration of the Miracle of the Light with the lighting of the candles wouldn't be witnessed from the street. Jim didn't look happy about the change in tradition the first evening, but he held his peace.

However, the next morning over breakfast he asked, "What about a Christmas tree for your office? You want to forget it this year?"

Blair sat back and thought about it. "No," he finally replied, though without much enthusiasm. "The reasons for the tree, for my patients and their children, still hold. And … and just 'cause there are some who are ignorant and disrespectful is no reason for me to become like them. Besides, nominally at least, you're a Christian and it's only right that we celebrate the holiday." He paused, but then added with wry humor, "But I think we can forgo the annual Christmas pageant at the school this year."

Jim graced him with a look of dry bemusement, both of them knowing that there was no chance either of them would be invited that year. After they cleaned up the kitchen, they set out to cut two trees, one for each of their offices, and then spent the afternoon decorating them. As they worked on the tree in his office, Blair teased, "It's too bad, really, that we won't be going to the pageant. You were just getting good at remembering the words to the carols, and I enjoyed hearing you sing them."

"Yeah?" Jim challenged with an amused grin. "You like it when I sing, huh?"

"Uh huh," Blair replied with a wide smile. "You've got a nice tenor, Jim. Guess singing doesn't much go with the persona of a tough town sheriff, but … it's too bad you never sing at all."

"Okay, what's your favorite carol?" Jim asked.

"Good King Wenceslas," Blair replied with an eager lifting of his brows.

Nodding as he strung the popcorn, not surprised that his friend best liked the song that celebrated compassion and charity, Jim sang, "Good King Wenceslas looked out on the Feast of Stephen …"

Blair hummed along happily, occasionally lending his baritone to some stanzas. They heard the front door open and faltered, but Pastor Stevens voice boomed out the next line as he stamped the snow off his boots, and they cheerfully resumed singing along with him as he joined them in the office. Beaming, he rubbed his chapped hands together and then clapped when the song ended. "Well done!" he praised them. "I heard your voices from the street as I was passing along, returning to the church after visiting with the Browns. Couldn't resist coming in to join you and to ask a favor of you. The same favor I just asked of them."

"What favor?" Blair asked, as he reached into a desk drawer and drew out a small tube of lotion. "For your hands," he said, as he handed it to the preacher.

"Ah, bless you," Pastor Stevens replied as he gladly accepted the gift and immediately rubbed some into his dry skin. "The favor? Well, I didn't want to presume that you'll attend the services this Christmas Eve," he went on, his smile fading into sad regret. "And I can more than understand why you might choose not to. But … but I'd very much appreciate it if you'd both come. As well as the Browns, I've asked Simon and Joel if they'd attend, too, and bring in all their hands who might want to participate in our celebration of Jesus' birth."

"Oh, Pastor," Blair sighed and shook his head, but he couldn't help remembering the previous year's service. He looked at Jim, who was waiting for him to make the decision for the both of them, and he once again appreciated his partner's unswerving support. He was about to refuse, but when he looked at the preacher, the hope in those kind eyes did him in. He owed this man. "Alright. We'll be there. But I hope that my presence doesn't take away from the worship. You're sure about this? The settlers..."

"I'm very sure," Pastor Stevens assured him. "Thank you. I know what I ask isn't easy … and I can't predict how things will go, but I'd very much like to have you all there. If a community cannot come together in harmony on Christmas Eve, then when will it ever be possible?" Shifting his gaze to the tree, he asked, "Now, can I help you finish the trimming? And … dare I ask if there might be some more of that wonderful hot chocolate that fills the very air I breathe?"

Chuckling, Blair patted him on the back and went to the kitchen to pour him a mug of the decadent brew. Peace on Earth, good will towards men, he thought with weary discouragement, no longer able to be truly hopeful, and simply trying not to be too bitter that the amazement, warmth and acceptance he'd felt during last year's service was now but a distant memory.

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

None of them were particularly enthused about going to the service, but they all agreed that Pastor Stevens was a good man, and deserved to be supported in his efforts to heal the fractures in their community. Simon, Joel, and their men, along with Susanna and Jeb Strong, arrived in good time to meet the Browns and Jim and Blair outside the church. The air was crisp with winter frost and a light snow was falling as they strolled up the walk and the steps together, a good fifteen minutes before the service was scheduled to start. By arriving early, they hoped to be settled in the pews before any of the settlers or antagonistic townsfolk arrived. The evening would be tense enough without having to face down hostile stares while they searched for seats in a crowded sanctuary.

Pastor Stevens greeted them with a broad smile and, though they would have chosen the back benches, he ushered them to the front, and they didn't have the heart to refuse him when he was making them so welcome. Once they were settled in two rows in the opposite corner from the entry in the back, the pastor returned to his post to greet all who arrived. Not long after, a steady stream of families began to enter the hall, their friends moving up to fill the rows behind them. Determined to be cheerful, they returned the greetings of the Sloans, the McCreadys and the Gurneys, the MacDonalds and the Raymonds. Maisie and Megan arrived together, Johnny Winston right behind them, and they all quickly joined their informal grouping on the right side of the sanctuary. Blair tried not to notice that their quiet but sociable conversation, and the higher pitched laughter of the children with them, formed an obvious counterpoint to the disapproving silence around them, as grim-looking settlers and the cohort in town that supported them filled up the pews on the left side and the rear of the little church. Mostly he was relieved that no one made a loud issue of their presence.

As the Pastor made his way to the front of the sanctuary, they all settled and faced the front, pretending not to see the scandalized glares directed their way. After the preacher had welcomed everyone, he called upon them to stand to sing the first of the evening's carols – Good King Wenceslas. Blair stood and sang with the rest, certain the Pastor had chosen the song deliberately, and touched by his thoughtfulness.

Pastor Stevens read the scriptures, his fulsome voice enlivening the gentle story of the birth of Jesus.

"Peace on Earth, good will towards men!" he exclaimed from the pulpit, his face radiant with his belief in the sanctity and hope in the message of the angels, his eyes and hands lifted toward the ceiling as if he could see them there, shining above them. "Peace on Earth, good will towards men," he repeated as his gaze lowered to roam the congregation, his tone now almost intimate and resonating with sadness as he rested his hands on the pulpit.

"Tonight, on this holiest of nights that, each year, reminds us of our chance for a new beginning, I'm not going to thunder and roar and bring the rafters down with a rousing sermon. Tonight, I just want to talk quietly with all of you about peace on earth and good will toward men. Some of us do our best every day to live that message with the hope of one day making it true for all of us. But too many of us harden our hearts against our neighbors. Tonight, as we reflect upon this great loving gift of God, the gift of his son to live amongst us, I ask each of you to think about how you would welcome Mary and Joseph if they arrived here this cold, snowy night, and knocked on your door seeking rest and safety.

"I ask this question of you with utmost seriousness and concern. For, when I see so many rejecting the Jewish doctor amongst us, I wonder, with a good deal of grief and regret, how a poor, simple Jewish carpenter and his pregnant wife would fare, and I fear that here, as in Bethlehem, they would find a good many doors closed and barred against them. I fear very much that a good many of us would revile them. And then, after their child was born into the Jewish tribe descended from King David, I wonder as well how many of us would also turn our faces away and revile those three kings, who clearly did not seem to mind at all that Jesus was born a Jew and who came bearing gifts from the east, because those kings did not have white faces. Or, in later days, when Mary and Joseph were forced to flee their homeland to save the life of their son, Jesus, I wonder if we'd even have a savior if the people on the continent of Africa, in Egypt, rejected their neighbors when they came in need, as we are inclined far too often to reject our neighbors, right here in Bitterwood Creek, rejecting them simply because they are different in some way."

Pastor Stevens sighed wearily, and shook his head as he gazed out upon them. "The angels did not proclaim peace only on one part of the earth – the part where white people live – or call for good will only toward white men. Or perhaps, in your arrogance, you think God made a mistake in choosing Jewish people to be the patriarchs, the prophets, the writers of the psalms and proverbs, the disciples, the parents of his Son, and Jesus himself? I caution you from the depths of my heart that such arrogance will imperil your soul."

He paused, his eyes lingering on various members of his congregation, his words hanging in the air. "God created this Earth for all of us, not just for some of us. God loves all of us … not just some of us. But I fear when He looks down on Bitterwood Creek and thinks about how we've treated one another in the past few months, how we've made some of our number unwelcome, and actively reviled one of his best-loved sons as well as other beautiful and innocent children, I think God might well weep for us. And that's the best I think I could hope for right now, in this time and place; that He would weep and not simply turn His face away in anger for a too-strident piety that is hollow and debased by the hatred harbored in too many hearts, despising us for our intentional meanness and cruelty."

Once again he paused, and Blair could see his eyes had glazed with tears. His voice shook with emotion as he said with slow precision, "God gave us his Son for love of us, all of us. Jesus lived the whole of his too short life showing us how to treat one another with compassion and gentle kindnesses. Jesus taught us not to judge. He taught us not to cast stones. He constrained us to pray in private, and ordered us not to draw attention to our self-righteous goodness by praying publicly for all to see. He instructed us to love our neighbors as ourselves. And yet, as I walk our streets and listen, I hear so many of you speaking in anger, berating one another, judging how others live their lives, and publicly condemning one of God's most beloved people along with many other of his beautiful and beloved children. How dare you call yourselves Christians when you act with so little charity and no apparent compassion, when you so actively reject the teachings of our Lord and his Father?"

Again, he paused and he half-turned to look at the simple cross behind him, as if seeking strength or guidance. Facing them once more, he went on with solemn dignity, "Tonight, this eve when we celebrate Jesus' birth, should be a time of peace and joy, of hope and love and communion of spirit, but it is not, not even here in God's own House, for I can feel and see the antipathy of some for others amongst us. I know this is not a message many of you wish to hear, but I am here to share the Shepherd's message, to search out and find the lost lambs, and bring them back into the fold. I am deeply afraid for our community. I'm deeply afraid for many of your souls." His voice cracked and he bowed his head, visibly struggling with his emotion.

Taking a deep, shuddering breath, the preacher lifted his head and held out his hands in appeal to them. "Tonight, on this holy Christmas Eve, I beg you to hear the message God sent to us with his angels and made manifest in his Son. I beg you to open your hearts to those around you; to rejoice and be exceedingly glad that we are all here together, praising God together. I implore you to remember that God does not care about the color of our skin; He only cares about what is in our hearts, and about how we treat one another in charity and compassion. God doesn't care if we are a man or a woman. He does care about whether we give one another respect, and reach out to one another with love in our hearts. God doesn't care how we choose to worship Him, so long as we when we leave His church or meeting house or synagogue, we live the lessons He taught us – live every day so that our actions and our words make manifest His teachings. God's message is really very simple. He wants us to love one another, love our neighbors as ourselves."

As he listened to the poignant and very evidently heartfelt appeal, Blair bowed his head and closed his eyes. Clasping his hands together, he tried to find compassion in his heart for those who mocked and reviled him, for those who taught their children to hate. But it was hard. He felt great sorrow for those who grew up knowing no other way, but he had no idea how to … how to make anything better. Looking up at Pastor Stevens, seeing the pain and sorrow on the good man's face and shadowing his eyes, Blair bit his lip and wished he could be as good a man, as forgiving a man. Wished he had the courage to stand before the whole community, as this preacher was doing, to try to heal these wounds of the spirit. But he could hear restlessness in the church, a low thrumming of anger, and he was afraid that Pastor Steven's efforts were in vain, that his words were falling on deaf ears. But, God, he was trying. He was doing his best for him and the Browns and Simon and Joel, and for everyone, really, to express the hope God had for the world and all who dwelled upon it.

Maybe some would hear. Maybe … maybe they would all leave with something to think about, something to reflect upon; some measure against which they could each examine their behaviors toward one another. Even if everyone only really heard and remembered the angels' message … things would be better than they'd been.

"Let us pray," the Pastor called. Lifting his hands and eyes to God, he asked, "Dear Lord, on this Your birthday, please gift us with eyes to see and ears to hear. Open our hearts, and fill us with the light of Your love and mercy. We are all Your children and, like children, we have become confused and lost, we argue and call one another names; we have not yet learned Your lessons by heart. Be patient with us, I pray, and with the dawn, please grant us peace here in Bitterwood Creek. Amen."

"And now let us complete our search for goodness in our souls, and in the world around us, by singing the hymn, O Holy Night." The congregation dutifully rose and sang, but many voices were strained with anger and resentment. There was no sense of joy or celebration in the sanctuary that night, and precious little hope.

When the song ended and there was again silence, Pastor Stevens lifted his hands in benediction. "This night, I will keep watch as did the shepherds of old, and I will pray for a new and glorious dawn for all of us, a Christmas morn that will bring us peace and the spirit of good will toward all men and women and children amongst us. My beloved children, my precious lambs, go forth now in peace from this place, and let love guide you on your way through the darkness."

For a moment, there was only silence. And then boots scraped and clothing rustled as people stood to slide into the aisle and then, with muted, aggrieved muttering, hastened out of the sanctuary into the cold, snowy night. Subdued and silent, Blair and Jim, and their friends from the ranch and the town, waited until the others had gone. Pastor Stevens also waited, remaining behind the pulpit until most of the sanctuary was empty and the anger had seeped from the hall. There was nothing of the fiery man who had preached up a storm the year before in his visage or posture but, though he looked tired as he stepped down from the chancel, there was a quiet determination and strength in the set of his shoulders and jaw.

"Thank you, sir," Joel said quietly, reaching out to shake the preacher's hand. "I … we appreciate…"

When Joel faltered, Blair understood, for he felt the same way. It would be too easy to assume the message the Pastor had given that night was meant only for the others, the settlers and their cohort. But … hadn't they all judged all settlers the same? Had they made any effort at all to get to know any of them? It was too easy to only find fault with the others, and ignore their own failings.

But the preacher simply gave Joel a slow smile of understanding. "No, thank you, Joel – thank all of you – for coming here this evening, for what you do every day. I see you all, all year long, year in and year out, doing what you can, serving this community each in your own way, whether through the printed word, or healing, or selling provisions to nurture our bodies, lending money to help us achieve our dreams, keeping the peace, providing a place to rest, making bread, raising children … all of you doing your best to make this a good community to live within, to be good neighbors. And I see the suffering, the abuse, the unfairness, and I wish … I wish there was more I could do to make this a better place, more I could do to bring the factions together and end the suffering."

"You do plenty, Pastor," Simon rumbled. "You … you live what you preach and you've tried hard tonight to heal a lot of deep wounds, to give this community a chance to come together." He hesitated and then, tentatively, asked, "Would you like to come out to the ranch tomorrow, say around one o'clock, to share our Christmas dinner? I have to warn you, though, there'll be a crowd of us," he went on with a smile as he gestured around the group. "We're all going to be there, to celebrate together this year."

Pastor Stevens brightened at the invitation and stood a little taller. "I would very much like to join you all. Thank you," he replied with the simple eagerness of a child, and Blair suddenly realized the man had fully expected to spend that Christmas alone. For the first time since he'd come to Bitterwood Creek, he reflected upon how lonely a shepherd's life could be.

The preacher walked with them to the door and, as they left, he shook hands with most, hugged some, and wished them all a hearty good night. "I'll see you all tomorrow!" he called, sounding lighter, happier, just before he closed the door of the church to return to his vigil in the sanctuary.

Jim and Blair walked Megan and Maisie home then, Blair shivering and hunching his shoulders against the cold, hurried the last few steps to their own door. When they were inside and shrugging out of their coats, Jim said, "You seemed to be taking the preacher's words to heart tonight, Chief. But I don't think he was talking to you in particular."

Still shivering and moving into the kitchen to warm himself by the stove while he made a pot of hot chocolate, Blair replied, "I think he was talking to everyone there, Jim. Sure, the most pointed messages were directed toward the settlers and the likes of the Tuckers, but … we've been no friendlier to them than they've been to us." Glancing over his shoulder, he recalled, "From the moment we got back into town, we've seen them as trouble, as the 'enemy'. And, yeah, with reason. But we didn't make an effort to get to know them, to find out if they all feel the same way."

Grimacing, Jim nodded grudgingly. "Fair enough. But..."

"There're always reasons for not doing things, always rationales to rest upon," Blair cut in. Reaching for a spoon to stir the heating libation, he gave Jim a small smile. "I'm not arguing with you. Really, I'm not. I just don't think any of us can afford to see ourselves as entirely blameless from the perspective that Pastor Stevens was arguing tonight. About the only person in town who really tried to make things work, to have a … a common ground between both sides, was Marnie. But the divisions between philosophies and belief systems pretty much doomed the effort, because nobody was really trying to see and understand the other perspective."

"Oh, come on," Jim challenged. "You can't be saying that we should have tried to understand and accept their callous bigotry?"

"No, no, I'm not saying that I think their views have merit. I don't. But maybe trying to talk to them, trying to get to know them so that … well, so that I'm not just a Jew and the others aren't just black, but are real people, just like them, might have … I don't know … maybe helped them to see us as people and not as things."

Sighing, Jim sat down at the table. "Well, in theory, maybe you have a point. But the way it all played out, I'm not sure when the chance to 'get to know them' ever happened. Kincaid was threatening me, the construction workers were rampaging through town, there were already problems with Henri being a deputy and with his kids going to the school, and hell, three days after we were back, they came after you. Little hard to turn the other cheek after they stoned you and tried to murder you."

"Yeah," Blair murmured as he stirred the hot chocolate to keep the mixture from thickening and burning at the bottom of the pot. "But if I understand the Christian teaching about that, the time to turn the other cheek is specifically after having been unfairly abused."

"You're not a Christian," Jim replied, his tone dry.

"No, but there is value in what Jesus taught, even if I only regard him as a prophet and a very wise man."

"Is this conversation going anywhere, Sandburg, or is this just one of your philosophical ramblings?" Jim asked, sounding tired.

Blair didn't say anything while he filled two mugs and transferred them to the table. Sitting down across from Jim, he shrugged. "I guess I'm just trying to see what I can learn from Pastor Stevens' sermon. It's impossible to change the past, and I'm seriously not sure that we'll ever find a way to live peacefully here. But I don't want to hate them, you know? The hate only makes me feel bad, whether it's mine or theirs." He blew on the hot concoction. "He was very brave tonight, to stand up there and say things that most of his congregation would resent hearing."

"You think any of them really listened?"

"People like the Tuckers – probably not. But maybe some did. I hope so, anyway. But, regardless, Pastor Stevens did what he could. The only way the sort of situation we've got going here will ever change is if men of good conscience, and hopefully no little influence, like him, get up and say what we've got isn't good enough."

Silence fell between them while they soaked up the warmth of the kitchen and drank their hot chocolate. Blair flipped the lid off a tin of cookies Maisie had given him earlier that day, grinning to find it filled with her delectable shortbreads. He took one and offered the tin to Jim, who also smiled appreciatively as he appropriated two cookies.

"Is there anything we need to do to get ready for tomorrow?" Jim asked before he took a bite.

"Nah, I think we're good to go. All the presents for the kids 'from Santa' are wrapped and are ready to go into my buggy in the morning – well, the ones we're taking from everyone in town, anyway. Joel's coordinating their contributions out at the ranch. The idea Megan had of a draw was great; nobody's been burdened with either buying or making a lot, and no kid is going to wind up without anything from Santa this year. Maisie brought over the fruitcake we ordered for Simon and Joel when she brought the cookies. She's really looking forward to coming over here for breakfast tomorrow, along with Megan and the Browns – said it would be the best Christmas morning she's had in many a year, and just the beginning of the best Christmas Day. They'll all be here by nine."

"Good. That'll give us time to get everything ready," Jim replied with a smile as he leaned back and stretched out his legs, happy to relax for the rest of the evening. "It's going to be a good day. I've been really looking forward to it."

"Me, too," Blair agreed between sips of cocoa, and it was the truth; for weeks, he'd been anticipating the fun promised by their plans for Christmas. But he also wondered if it might be their last Christmas in Bitterwood Creek, which left him feeling sad. He loved these people. They had become family to him. Simon and Joel were the fathers he'd never had, Maisie was like a beloved aunt – even, in some ways though she was far too young, the grandmother he'd never known. Henri, Hannah, and Megan were siblings, and all the others were the cousins and nieces and nephews he hadn't realized he'd missed; even Pastor Stevens felt like an uncle or, at least, a very good friend of the family. He was going to miss them if … but then, maybe….

His thoughts stalled. He didn't want to think about the problems, the tensions in town; didn't want to worry about the changes or sorrows the new year might bring. Meeting Jim's eyes, he smiled. Whatever the future brought, he'd share it with Jim, and that was the best and most enduring gift of his life. "It's going to be a great day!"

Jim's gaze searched his eyes, and his smile faltered. Shifting, he sat up straighter and placed his mug on the table, cradling it in his hands and studying it with a look of uncertainty. Confused by the abrupt change of mood, Blair asked, "What's wrong?"

Jim scratched his ear, and gave his head a small shake. "Nothing's wrong. I just don't know how to do this."

"Do what?"

"It's complicated," Jim replied, with a slight twist of his lips. He hazarded a glance at Blair before returning his gaze to his mug.

Blair sat back and, frowning with concern, studied his partner. "Are you having trouble with your senses?"

"No, no, they're fine," Jim assured him. He sighed again and straightened his shoulders. "Okay, I guess one part at a time. I've been wanting to talk to you for a while … there's something I want to give you and, well, Christmas is a time for gift-giving, right? Christmas and birthdays? But I didn't want to wait for your birthday."

"Jim, if you want to exchange our gifts tonight, that's fine with me," Blair suggested, thinking maybe Jim just didn't want to lump their personal giving to one another into what they'd planned for their friends in the morning.

"No … no, we can give the regular Christmas gifts to one another tomorrow, like we planned," Jim said. "This is about something different." He looked at the ring Blair had given him, and then twisted it thoughtfully, a small smile playing on his lips. Raising his eyes to Blair, he went on, "This is about something bigger, Chief. About … well, about who and what we are to one another. About … about the fact that our partnership is for life. This ring … whenever I think about it or feel it, look at it, I remember what you said when you gave it to me. But what I have for you isn't exactly the same kind of symbol, and I'm not sure how you'll take it. But I want you to take it. Because I think it's something you need, and … and well, I just want to give it to you."

"O-kay," Blair replied, giving him a quizzical look. "I'm sure I'd treasure anything you gave me, so I don't think you need to worry about this, Jim."

But Jim didn't look so sure. He took a breath and said on the exhalation, "Maybe just let me lay it out for you, so you understand why I want to do this, and why I really hope you'll accept it and not … and not think it's too much, or whatever." His gaze wandered around the kitchen and then came to rest on Blair's face. "Chief, I know you're doing all you can to make it work here, but I know you're not happy. You haven't been happy since we got home last summer. And I know part of it is that you feel you somehow owe the people here, the ones who still come to you for help. I think you'd hate to leave them. But … but I don't think you owe them anything more than you've already given all the years you've been here. Hell, I don't think you owe them anything. They will always owe you for walking in here past that quarantine flag."

"Jim –"

"Please, just let me finish, and then you can argue with me," Jim cut in. "Anyway, I think another reason you hesitate to leave is that you're not sure how you'd get started somewhere else; how you'd set up a place like this again, with a dispensary and office and infirmary, not to mention living quarters. I know you barely make a dollar from one month to the next – people pay you in kind, with food, or whatever. So part of this gift is about granting you the freedom to choose, without worrying about all that."

Narrowing his eyes as he studied Jim, not sure he liked where the conversation was going, Blair started to comment but Jim rushed on. "And … and I think, sometimes, what you need is a break; some time to regroup, maybe go to see Swift Eagle and Whispering Waters. I know you're still not comfortable with what happened last summer, even though you never talk about it. But you get this haunted look sometimes and I … I know that's what you're thinking about. Worrying about. I don't know anyone else who can help us to understand all that better than they can. But again, I know you're reluctant to leave here; it keeps circling back to that, and I just don't think you should be trapped by what you think you owe people. I think you need to give more weight to what you owe yourself." Jim pushed his mug away and reached into his shirt pocket to draw out a small leather folder. "And … and the rest of it is about telling you what I did last winter, only I didn't think you'd accept it then."

Again he looked at his ring, tilting it so the light from the kerosene lantern ignited the star in its depths. "But when you gave me this ring, you put into words what we mean to one another, who we are in one another's life." Looking up at Blair, his face was open and vulnerable, naked with his affection and his hope that his gift would be accepted as he'd accepted the ring. Swallowing, he said, "Since the day I rode into this town, I've been living under your roof, eating the food that your patients give you in payment. Sure, I've contributed here and there, but…"

"Jim, this whole house was a gift to me. I wasn't going to charge you for sharing more space than I need," Blair interjected.

"No, it wasn't a gift," Jim argued. "This house was earned by your years of study, by your knowledge and skill, and by the fact you saved any number of lives when you got off that stage, when anyone in their right mind would have kept on going."

"You didn't. And you got shot for your trouble."

"And I also got a job that pays me a regular monthly salary," Jim retorted. He held up his hands, clearly not wanting to fight. "Look, we're partners for life, right? We share what we've got freely with one another – that's what this ring symbolizes, right?"

When Blair nodded, albeit a bit reluctantly, because he couldn't argue with the sentiment, Jim gave him a definitive nod in return. "Right," he stated firmly. "So this is really just about me sharing what I have with you, just like you've always shared what you have with me." He placed the leather folder on the table between them. Taking another deep breath, he went on, "Most of my salary as sheriff has gone straight into the bank. And most of what I made in the Army went straight into the bank, too, because I didn't need much beyond what they provided. I bought Lobo and my own gear but … I never had a family to share it with or spend it on. And … and well, I also had a trust from my grandfather that was transferred into my full control when I was twenty-five, and that money has just sat in the bank, earning interest."

"Jim, wait. I don't want your money," Blair said in a rush. "You don't owe me anything and –"

"Was this ring about owing me something?" Jim countered.

"Well, no, but…"

"See, I could go out and buy a ring, but that's not what this is about, Chief." Jim struggled to explain. "It's the symbolism, not 'you gave me something so I have to give you something'. It's not that at all. This is because you're the most important person in my life, and we're partners in ways nobody would ever understand; well, nobody except Swift Eagle and Whispering Waters."

He slowly pushed the leather folder across the table. "This isn't about money. This is about being able to fulfill whatever dreams we may have. About the freedom to stay here or go; the freedom to go back to the reservation and spend whatever time we might want with them, to learn from them. It's about maybe giving a lot of it away, but I want to do that with you, so we give it together to people or causes that we both think need the help. A year ago, I made out my will and left it with Sam, leaving everything I have to you; and I put the account in both of our names. But…" Jim's voice caught, and he had to clear his throat. "But I've decided it's stupid for the money to just keep sitting there. And … and I put the account in both our names specifically so you can access it for anything you need or want, but you can't do that if you didn't even know it existed."

When Blair didn't reach out to take the folder, he looked up with vulnerable hope. "Please understand. This is … this is about us being family. This is about sharing all we have with one another, literally until death do us part. Please don't deny me the right to share with you what I have, just as you've shared everything you have with me."

Blair let out the breath he'd been holding, and swallowed hard. How could he argue with Jim's reasoning? But to take money … just didn't feel right.

Jim sighed, and slumped in his chair. "I was afraid you'd react like this. It's why I was afraid to do this. But I'm not trying to buy you, Chief. I hoped you'd … well, I hoped you'd understand." He ran his hand over his head and kneaded the muscles in the back of his neck. "Felt dishonest, not telling you about this. Like I wasn't being straight with you, but there never seemed a good time to just tell you that I'm not a poor, itinerant cowboy."

Blair heard the plaintive, helpless tones, and he realized he was hurting Jim by hesitating to accept what he was offering. Biting his lip, he reached out to draw the leather folder closer. "It's just that … well, nobody has just given me … everything they had," he murmured. "I've never been that important to anyone before, and I guess I'm not sure how to..."

"You're that important to me, Blair," Jim said, his tone low, fragile. "Nobody has ever been as important to me as you are. Nobody is family to me the way you are. You said … you said I'm the star in your sky. Well, you're the foundation that I stand on. I can't say it any plainer than that." He hesitated and then implored, "Please, Chief. Just take it."

Blair picked up the folder, and opened it to find a bank book. Lifting the book out, he opened the cover and saw the account number, and his and Jim's names as the account holders. Turning a page, he looked at the balance and gasped. His eyes wide with disbelief, he gaped at his partner.

Jim flushed and shrugged. "Yeah, I know. It's obscene. I'm a rich man, Chief. Maybe not as rich as Simon and Joel combined, but … rich."

Blair felt hysterical laughter bubble in his chest, and he couldn't hold it back. "R-rich?" he stammered, gasping for breath. "Jim, this is … this is…"

"A fortune. Yeah, I know," Jim agreed, a bemused smile playing around his lips. Spreading his hands, he shook his head helplessly. "I'm a simple man, and I don't need that money. I have everything I want, right here, right now, with you – and I'd be just as happy somewhere else, as long as we're together. But it's not doing any good moldering in that bank."

Leaning forward, Jim urged, "We can go anywhere you want. Set up just like this," he waved around at the house, "anywhere. And we could maybe do some real good with the money. But I don't want to make those decisions alone. Or, or if you want to stay here, fine. But well, I really think we should go back to the reservation for a while; you could advertise for a doctor back east to come in to look after your patients, and pay the guy's trip out here and back home again, pay him a salary even, to make it worth his while. And I know you've been worried about getting low on some of your medicines, now that you can't buy stuff from Ambrose. And some of your equipment, well, I've heard you muttering about needing to replace some of what you have. Mostly, I … I want us to be partners in everything, Chief." He sighed and searched Blair's eyes. "I want whatever is going to make you happy, Blair. I want … I want to see the sparkle in your eyes again. I want you to be able to do whatever is right for you to do, what you want to do, not what you feel you have to do, or what you're constrained to do because of circumstance."

Blair's hands started to tremble, and he had to set the bank book on the table. His throat had thickened at Jim's words and his chest felt tight, almost too tight to breathe. Sniffing, he blinked to clear his glazed eyes. Nobody had ever cared so much for his happiness, not ever. He didn't need this from Jim to know the man cared about him, or that they were partners bound in a mystical way that nobody else could ever fully understand. He didn't need the symbolism of the money, any more than Jim had needed the symbolism of the ring. But he remembered how important it had been for him to give that ring to Jim; how good it had made him feel to give the best he could because Jim meant everything to him.

And, as he'd listened to Jim, he'd realized it was the same thing, the same kind of gesture. As Jim had listed the ways in which he thought Blair could use the money, the large and small opportunities that would make his life easier, help him to give the best care he could, give him choices, wanting only his happiness, he'd understood that it wasn't at all about the money, but what the money represented. Their future. Their choices. And the examples Jim had given showed how attuned he was, how much he noticed little things, and how much he wanted them to share in everything … how much his happiness mattered to Jim.

Jim was saying, was showing him, that he meant everything to Jim.

"Thank you," he managed to stammer. When Jim continued to look uncertain, he reached out to grip his friend's hand. "I m-mean that. I understand. I do. And … and I'm overwhelmed." He waved at the bank book. "I never expected anything like this. But … I do understand. It's exactly what I meant when I gave you the ring. Exactly." He took a deep breath and let it out slowly. And then he smiled. "I have everything I want, too, you know. Here, now, wherever … so long as I'm with you."

Jim visibly relaxed and, almost tentatively, returned his smile. "Maybe," he demurred gently. "But you're not happy, Chief. I'm worried about you."

Looking down at the bank book, thinking about what it represented, about all the possibilities it made manifest, Blair swallowed hard. His voice lower, softer, he admitted, "You're right. I'm not happy here, and I don't know if it's possible to ever be happy here again. Things've changed … too much. And you're right that we need to go back to the reservation. I've tried, really tried, to wrap my head around … but, it's too much. I don't even know where to begin, and I'm … I'm still scared. Scared of what I don't understand, and don't have the first idea about how to control."

"I know," Jim murmured, his hand turning to grip Blair's. "But I'm sure they can help us."

Us. Jim had said that more than once. Help us. Blair bowed his head and drew a shuddering breath in his attempt to contain his surge of emotion. As much as they'd shared, as much as he intellectually and even emotionally understood what they were to one another, he was still sometimes blindsided and overwhelmed to realize that he truly, truly wasn't alone anymore. Didn't have to fight his own battles, cope with whatever came at him, alone. Not anymore. It was an oddly hard lesson to learn … and it never failed to move him to the core of his being to know Jim really was there for him, in everything.

"Ah, hey," Jim exclaimed as he came around the table and knelt beside him to wrap him in a hug. Of course, Jim would smell the salt of his unshed tears and hear the hammering of his heart, the tightness of his breath. "What is it? What's wrong?"

"N-nothing," Blair stuttered as he turned to hug Jim, and hold onto him with all his strength. "I just … you blow me away sometimes. I can't explain how much it means … it's like I keep forgetting that I'm really, really not alone anymore."

"Oh, Chief," Jim sighed and held him close. "Never alone. Not so long as there's breath in my body."

Blair nodded against his partner's shoulder as he drew in one deep breath after another, until the shakes had passed. Sniffing again, he drew away far enough to look into Jim's eyes. "I accept your gift," he said quietly. "It's wonderful, and I'm grateful. But the greatest gift in my life is you. You're the treasure, not the money in that bank."

Jim blushed and gave him a quizzical look. "Ah, there you go, getting all sappy again," he teased and ruffled Blair's hair. But his expression softened as he said gently, "I was alone, too, you know. You were the one who taught me I didn't have to live that way anymore. Even before we went to the reservation, I knew I never wanted to be without you … I just never dared hope that you'd feel the same way. That you'd want to share a lifetime with me."

"I know," Blair whispered, as he squeezed Jim's shoulder. He felt a profound sense of peace fill him and, for the first time in months, he didn't feel the least vestige of fear. "Until we went to the reservation, I didn't dare hope you'd want that with me, either." Leaning back, he glanced at the bank book. "I'm sorry. I should have talked to you more these last few months about how I was feeling. I just … well, I know you feel a protectiveness about the people here, just like I do."

"And you didn't think I meant it when I said I'd go, if that's what you wanted. You thought it would hurt me to go."

Blair nodded. "It will hurt. Leaving our friends here. Our family. It's never hurt so much before … leaving, I mean. But staying hurts, too." He sighed. "I've found it so hard to know what's best to do, you know? There doesn't seem to be a right answer."

"It's not about what's right or wrong, Chief. It's about what we need. And, yeah, you're right. It won't be easy to ride away from here. From H and his family. From Simon and Joel. Or Maisie or Megan. But … but it's killing something inside of you, staying here. There are too many people who won't let you help them, and despite that sermon tonight, I don't think they ever will. It's tearing you apart." Jim paused. "And that tears me apart. I get so damned angry with them. And, hell, I'm supposed to be their Sheriff, too. But I know they hate me, don't trust me. And I don't trust them. I can't do my job like that, either."

"I hadn't thought about that," Blair replied with a frown. Looking around the kitchen, and then out the window at the dark night, he said, "It's impossible, isn't it? To stay, when it's like this?"

"I think so, Blair," Jim agreed. He reached out to finger the bank book. "That's why … well, that's why I had to talk to you about this, and couldn't put it off any longer. I wanted you to know we've got lots of choices here. We – we – need to decide what we're going to do. Make plans. Because as soon as the snow melts enough, as soon as winter's worst is over, I think we need to move on."

"It's going to make tomorrow kinda sad," Blair reflected as he stared out at the darkness.

"Going away doesn't mean we stop caring about the people here who matter to us. Doesn't mean we have to lose touch with them."

Blair thought about that and turned back to Jim. "Maybe … maybe we're not the only ones who need to move on. I didn't tell you, but Maisie has already decided to go when spring comes. She's going out to the Dakota Territory, to the Black Hills." He gave Jim a small smile. "She says they could use a doctor out there, and a lawman, too. And … well, I don't think it's safe here for the Browns, and maybe not for Simon or Joel, either. Not anymore."

Jim quirked a brow. "Megan told me she's been thinking of going out to the Black Hills, too."

"Really?" Blair exclaimed, his smile widening. "You think you'd like it out there?"

Jim chuckled and shook his head. "How many times do I have to tell you, Doctor Sandburg? I'm happy to tag along wherever you want to go. If that's the Black Hills, then that's where we'll go. We can set up shop beside Maisie and keep getting fresh bread for the rest of our lives. Works for me."

"We could help her – to build or buy a place. And … and we could help the Browns get re-established there, too."

"Yes, we could, if they'll let us."

Smiling to himself, letting his imagination and hopes fly for the first time since they'd returned from the far west, Blair mused with a feeling of wonderment, "You know, maybe tomorrow won't be so sad, after all. Maybe tomorrow will just be the start of something really exciting."

He looked at Jim and saw an odd expression on his partner's face. "What?"

"The sparkle, Chief," Jim said almost reverently, his voice husky. "It's back, in your eyes."

With a low laugh, Blair hugged him. "Well, if it is, you put it there. 'Cause it sure wouldn't be there without you. Thanks, Jim. Thanks for making it okay to dream again."

Holding him, Jim rose and drew Blair up with him. "C'mon," he murmured into Blair's curls. "It's getting late. Let's go to bed. We've got a busy day tomorrow."

Blair drew away to turn down the oil lamp, leaving the room in absolute darkness. Touching Jim's back, he said with laughter in his voice, "Lead and I'll follow you anywhere."

Jim laughed, a free, easy sound of unfettered delight, as he slung an arm around Blair's shoulders and guided him toward the stairs.

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

The next morning, when Jim woke, the air in the bedroom was so frosty he could see his breath. Quickly grabbing his clothes and Blair's for the day, garbed only in his longjohns, he dashed down the stairs into the kitchen, the only room in the house that was always warm. After stoking up the stove and putting water on to heat for their morning wash-up, he made use of the porcelain pot they kept in the tub room, because the kitchen stove kept that cubbyhole warm, too; it was just too damned cold to use the privy.

Pulling on his boots and throwing on his coat, he hastened out back to dump the pot, and quickly cleaned it out with snow, grimacing a little to know how cold it would be for his partner unless Blair slept for another good half hour. Setting it aside, he attached the large stone they kept strongly enclosed by sturdy netting to the well pulley, and dropped it down the shaft to shatter the surface ice that always built up on cold winter nights. He quickly hauled it back up, and then sent down the bucket. Glancing around as he pulled on the rope, he admired the pristine snow glinting in the dawn light and surveyed the clear sky.

Moments later, shivering, he stomped the snow off his boots and dashed back into the house. He got a fire started in the stove in the infirmary, and did the same in Blair's office. In the kitchen, he left the pot on the floor beside the stove to warm, and half-filled a basin with the precious hot water to wash and shave. By the time he'd finished, the chill was off his clothing and he could get dressed without feeling as if he was layering ice against his skin. The coffee pot was put on a burner to percolate, and he began sorting out the fixings for their big, holiday breakfast: two dozen eggs, cheese to be sliced and shredded, sausages and bacon to fry, flour to mix with eggs and water for griddle cakes, which would be served with the maple syrup he'd specially ordered through Angus. He sliced up a loaf of bread to toast, and put a dozen of Maisie's plump, light biscuits in the warmer.

As he got things organized, he was conscious of smiling and whistling Christmas songs under his breath. He'd been worried about how things would go the evening before, worried that Blair just wouldn't really understand. Sure, it was a mountain of money … but the size of that mountain only mattered in terms of what it could mean for the both of them, and whomever else they wanted to share it with. But he'd been more worried about trying to pretend to any joy today if he had to keep seeing those shadows in Blair's eyes, and the pinched look that was half fear and half terrible uncertainty and sadness on Blair's face. He just couldn't stand to see his friend so torn between what he knew Blair wanted to do so bad he ached with it – leave this damned town – and what Sandburg somehow saw as his duty to all these people. Jim cared about them, sure. Loved some of them. But they'd all survived for years until Blair had gotten off that stage and had helped them survive the epidemic. So far as Jim was concerned, neither he nor Blair owed them anything. And the pure fact of the matter was Jim was scared stiff that, if they stayed, it would eat Blair alive. Kill him. And that Jim couldn't countenance. Wouldn't.

But Blair, after the initial shock, had understood exactly everything he'd been trying to say; everything he meant that money to mean. It wasn't just dollars and cents. It was dreams and hope and … and choices, options, for the both of them.

Yeah, Jim loved some of the people there, and genuinely liked a few – but not all that many; he was fast coming to loathe the rest of the town and all of the settlers. The sooner they got away from there, the happier they'd both be. And if some of the others were smart enough to go with them, well great. But they couldn't live their lives for other people, not all the damned time.

Just knowing they'd be leaving loosened a knot inside that had been growing ever tighter as the months had passed. They wouldn't be able to go until March at the very earliest, so they weren't clear of it all yet. But soon, soon they'd head to the reservation, and sort out the stuff that was scaring Blair so badly he hardly slept a whole night through. And then they'd head to the Dakota Territory.

His smile widening, Jim planned out the telegraphs he send to Toby and to his father, to let them know he and Blair were moving on. Jauntily humming the melody to 'Tis the Season To Be Jolly', he greased the pans and put them on to heat.

Not long after, he heard Blair yelp at the bitter cold upstairs. "Move your ass, Sandburg!" he yelled. "The kitchen is warm and cozy, and you need to get the stoves lit in your office and the infirmary, if they're going to be warm by the time our guests arrive!"

Listening to Blair clatter down the steps, muttering loudly about the infernal cold and, in high dungeon, stomping straight past the kitchen to get the other stoves lit, he laughed softly to himself. He heard Blair jog back to the kitchen, calling, "You lit them already! The rooms are already warming up!" As he skidded into the kitchen, Jim looked over his shoulder as Blair called with a bright grin, "Thanks, man!"

"Merry Christmas, Chief," he replied, then teased, "Just don't think I'm going to spoil you like this every morning."

"Nah, I know," Blair grumbled with a grin. "You wouldn't want me to get all soft or anything." Still shivering, he hauled on his layers of warm shirts before grabbing his jeans and the pot and disappearing into the tub room. When he came out, he hurried to the back to dump the contents. Returning to the kitchen, he replaced it in the cubby-hole, and then brought three more, including a little one, all with ornate tops, from his office to leave in the cubicle as well, in case any of their guests had need for relief before they set out for the ranch later that morning. As he washed and shaved, he surveyed Jim's progress with approval. "Looks like you've got everything well in hand."

"I think so," Jim agreed. "You can get the infirmary set up. People can dish up in here and we can all perch on cots or chairs in there to eat together. And we can open the gifts in there, too."

"Good plan," Blair agreed. "If we're careful, I bet we could even move the tree in there. Would brighten the room up. Make it more festive."

"Just let me know when you're ready, and I'll give you a hand."

Blair gave his back a companionable pat as he headed off to do his own part in getting ready for their guests. When Jim turned to place dishes and cutlery on the table, he noticed the leather folder and the bank book were gone. Nodding to himself, he smiled and then went back to whistling.

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

Blair and Jim had barely finished arranging the tree and gifts in the infirmary when Maisie knocked and came through the door, bringing the scent of yeast and fresh cinnamon with her, her cheeks rosy from the cold.

"Merry Christmas!" she pealed.

Hastening down the hall to greet her, Jim kissed her cheek and relieved her of the cloth-covered tray she was bearing. "Fresh cinnamon rolls!" he cheered, grinning like a boy. "You spoil us rotten, Maisie."

"Ah, well," she smiled back as Blair helped her off with her coat, "someone needs to spoil the two of you. I've got more in the shop that we'll need to pick up before we go out to the ranch."

"Joel will be singing your praises," Blair assured her as he, too, gave her a kiss.

She patted his cheek, then paused, looking into his eyes. "Something's changed," she murmured. "You look … wonderful." Suddenly flustered, she blushed and looked away. "I mean, not that you've been looking terrible but…" Gazing at him again, she marveled, "it's been too long since I've seen you look happy."

Drawing her into the kitchen where Jim was watching the sizzling meat, he said, "I'm not sure how many people we'll be telling right away, but since you gave me the idea, you should be the first to know. We've decided we just can't live without your bread."

"What? But…" Confused, she looked from Jim to Blair and then comprehension hit. "You're both coming, too!" she exclaimed, happy tears springing to her eyes as she drew him into a quick hug. "Oh, I'm so glad. You've no idea how glad I am! This is wonderful news!" Moving to Jim, she patted him approvingly on the arm. "You've obviously managed to talk some sense into the man. Good for you. The sooner we kick the dust from this poisonous place from our boots, the better, I say."

"Well, it's not going to be easy leaving the people we care about," Blair replied with a sigh. "But, yeah, Jim helped me see that it's time to begin again somewhere new."

Maisie took an apron from a hook near the door and tied it around her plump body. Shouldering Jim away from the stove with a determined, "Here now, you need to be greeting your guests when they arrive. Let me handle this," she glanced over her shoulder. "Well, you know my thinking on the matter, Doc. An' I suspect that if your friends knew the two of you were going, some of them might decide the idea of stayin' on here doesn't have much charm." Tending to the sausages and sizzling bacon, she went on matter-of-factly, "Tell them your plans. Tell them you want them to come, too."

"Them?" Jim prompted.

"Why Henri and Hannah, of course!" she replied. "Simon and Joel, too, for that matter. Fencing in their range," she snorted and shook her head. "Near killed them to do that." Putting another large cast-iron skillet on the stove, she went on with aggrieved sorrow but firm assessment, "T'isn't safe for any of 'em here no more. I hate to say it, but you both know it's true. Once you go, Jim, any protection of the law will be gone."

The door from the outside opened, and Megan called, "Merry Christmas and someone help me with this! It's heavy!"

Jim and Blair both hurried to greet her, and Jim relieved her of the huge bowl of eggnog she'd staggered in with. "You should have come to get me to carry this for you," he chided as he took it down the hall to the infirmary, and placed it on Blair's examination and operating table. Bolted to the floor in the center of the room, it couldn't be moved, but Blair had draped it with a cheerful crimson cloth.

"Oh good," Megan approved as she and Blair followed him into the room. "I see you've put the gifts I brought over yesterday morning under the tree. And the sack over there – the gifts for the children once we get out to the ranch?"

"Yeah," Blair agreed with a smile. "We'll load them into my buggy with you and Maisie."

Pushing up the sleeves of her elegant dress, Megan turned back to the hall. "I'll just see if Maisie needs a hand in the kitchen, and you boyos can bring some cups in here for the eggnog."

Jim gave Blair a bemused look as they followed her down the hall. "What is it with women? As soon as you let them in the door, they start to boss you around," Jim teased, loud enough for Megan to hear him.

"It's just that we know you lads haven't the first idea about how to get things organized," she tossed blithely over her shoulder, and Blair laughed.

The Browns arrived then, the girls chattering full speed and both eager to show Jim and Blair the new toys Santa had left for them that morning. Proudly, they held up the dolls carved and stained a rich brown and garbed in cheerful red woolen clothing. "They're just like us!" Cherie cheered as she whirled in a new dress that matched her doll's.

"And they're beautiful, just like the two of you," Blair assured her and Rose, with a glance at Henri, who had carved them, and Hannah, who had made the clothing. "Very beautiful. Santa must love you two an awful, awful lot."

The girls grinned and jumped up and down in giddy joy, while Henri and Hannah smiled their thanks. Blair took their coats and laid them on the couch in his office. By the time he'd turned around, Hannah was already in the kitchen, helping Maisie and Megan with breakfast, and Jim was loading Henri with cups and glasses to take into the infirmary. Blair poured them all cups of coffee, and then the men got out of the crowded kitchen. In the infirmary, they found the girls on their knees, inspecting the presents under the tree.

"Poppa!" Ruth exclaimed. "There's ones with our names on 'em!"

"Hey, now," he chastised, but gently, "you just be leavin' all that alone for now, and come and have a glass of eggnog."

The girls took their half-filled glasses and their dolls, and perched on one of the cots to whisper together.

"Merry Christmas, H," Jim offered, lifting his coffee cup in a toast.

"And the same to both of you," Henri replied with a relaxed smile. But his face clouded briefly as he added, "Wish I could be as certain in wishing you a Happy New Year. Guess we'll just have to see how things go."

"Well, actually," Blair began, not having intended to raise the subject that day, but unable to resist the opportunity. "Uh, what would you think of maybe moving to the Black Hills? I hear the place is booming, with new settlers moving in. Would be plenty of work for a blacksmith."

"What? The Black Hills?" Brown echoed with a blank look of surprise. "Why would you…?"

Jim explained quietly, "We've decided it's time to move on, H. And Blair and I, well, we hope you and Hannah will go with us. This is no place, not anymore, for you to be raising your family."

Taken aback, Brown looked from one to the other. "Why, I never thought … that is, well, me and Hannah have talked about wishin' we could head somewheres new. But we don't have … everythin' we have is tied up in that stable and forge, an' our house." Looking away, he sighed. "An' I don't expect any of the new folks'll be breakin' down my door to buy my business or my house. Would probably sooner burn 'em to the ground."

"Well …" Jim hesitated, then plunged on, "we'd like to invest in your new business, if you'll come along. And we could help with the supplies for the journey." When Brown frowned and his shoulders stiffened, Jim hurried to say, "Look, we know it's not easy to accept help, not when you're a proud and independent man. But we don't want to leave here without you and your family."

"You're our family, Henri, all of you," Blair interjected as he gripped Brown's arm. "Please think about it. Talk to Hannah."

Brown blew a long breath and looked at his daughters. Pressing his lips together, he relaxed and nodded. Swallowing hard, he hazarded a glance at the two of them, and Blair could see his eyes were moist with emotion before he blinked it away. "Don' get me wrong," he rumbled, his voice low and hoarse. "Means the world that you'd want us taggin' along. When would you be thinkin' of goin'?"

"Soon as the winter has broken," Jim replied. "We want to head to the reservation first, spend some time there."

Brown looked at Blair and away, but he nodded with understanding. "Sounds like a good idea."

"If you and Hannah were going, too, you could maybe take our stuff with you; what we can't take on horseback," Blair suggested. "Honestly, H, you'd be helping us if you went, too. And … well, we'd sure be happy if you would."

"You talked to Simon and Joel, yet?" Henri asked.

"No. We'll probably tell them today, too," Jim advised him. "Bitterwood Creek isn't a good place for them now, either. The Territory is still wide open."

"No fences," Brown murmured with a small smile. "They'd like that." Once again, he gazed at his girls. "I'll talk to Hannah. She'll probably like the idea a lot."

"What will Ah like?" she asked as she came into the room with plates of food for her daughters. After she got the girls squared away, she came to stand beside her husband, a curious look on her face.

"Jim and Blair were wonderin' how we might like to move to the Black Hills, in the Dakota Territory," Henri told her as he slid an arm around her waist. At her expression of astonishment, he explained, "They're goin' to move up there, darlin', an' they want us to go with them."

Happiness flamed in her eyes, banishing the worn look of worry that had seemed always in their depths the last several months, but then was as quickly gone. "Tha's kind," she murmured in confusion. "But, but how would we manage?"

"They want to go into business with us," Henri replied. "And," he went on with a quick look at them, "they said it'd be a help if we took their stuff with ours, 'cause they're goin' to visit the reservation on the way."

"We really want you to come, Hannah," Jim said earnestly. "We don't want to leave all of you here without us."

Blair could see hope in her eyes as she looked up at Henri. "Do ya'll think we could, Henri?"

A gentle smile creased Brown's face, and Blair understood that Henri would do anything in his power to assure Hannah's happiness and the safety of his girls, including swallow his pride at needing to have help to do it. Henri drew her into a hug and kissed her temple. "Yes, darlin'," he murmured. "When they go, there's nothing more to keep us here. Best we should stick with family, right? Someone's gotta watch out for them."

She hugged him fiercely, and her shoulders started to shake. "Ah, now, Hannah," he exclaimed in distress. "Don't you be cryin', girl."

"Ah'm jes so happy!" she gusted. "Ah din' think we'd eva be able to get away from here. T'is like a Christmas miracle!" Sniffing, she drew back and brushed her eyes with her fingertips. Turning to Jim and Blair, she held out a hand to each of them. "T'ank you," she said with a tremulous smile. "T'ank you for wantin' us along."

"Oh, hey," Blair exclaimed, "you've just made this the best Christmas ever for us! Much as we want to go, just as much, we didn't want to leave you guys."

"Breakfast is ready!" Maisie called cheerfully from the kitchen. "Come and dish up your plates!"

Hannah hurried from the room to share the news with Maisie and Megan. The men followed more slowly, Jim's hand on Henri's shoulder. "Blair's right. You've just made this the best Christmas ever. I know it's not easy, needing help. But we need you in our lives. You and your family. Good friends are just too damned hard to find to leave them behind."

"I'll pay you back. Might take a while, but I will," Henri insisted.

"By agreeing to go, you already have," Blair murmured. "Would'a made me sick to ride out of here, without all of you." When Henri looked like he was about to protest, Blair touched his arm. "We'll work it all out in the days and weeks ahead. But those are just details. It's all going to be fine. Better than fine. It's going to be great."

Heaving a sigh, Brown nodded. "Yeah," he agreed, a genuine smile growing large as he lifted his chin and squared his shoulders. "Yeah, it is."

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

After they'd eaten, the girls helped sort the presents, carefully reading the labels and carrying each parcel as if it was fragile treasure to the recipient. Maisie had knitted scarves for everyone, and Megan gave her friends inscribed cards offering dinner on the house at her hotel at a time of the recipient's choosing. She gave each of the little girls a wooden box filled with colored pencils and a tablet of paper to draw on. Henri and Hannah gave them each a wrought iron trivet he'd made in his forge, delicate squares of woven metal on tiny knob legs.

"It's beautiful!" Megan exclaimed as she examined hers. "Henri, you're an artist!"

He ducked his head, embarrassed, while Hannah held his hand and smiled proudly.

Jim and Blair gave the girls a tea party set of tiny rose-patterned cups, saucers and teapot, complete with milk jug and sugar bowl that sent them into paroxysms of delight. The women were each given delicate lace table cloths, and they gave Henri a pair of leather gloves.

Blair gave Jim a new gunbelt of finely-tooled leather. "Just try not to send too many new patients my way," he teased as Jim inspected it, clearly appreciating the detail, and the supple feel and rich, smoky scent of the smooth leather.

And Jim gave Blair a new medical bag, complete with little glass vials and jars for his medicines. Blair examined it with an expression of wonder, finding hidden pockets and compartments. His old bag was close to falling apart, but he'd despaired of ever having enough cash on hand to afford a new one. Knowing full well what such a bag cost, he was glad he now knew that such a gift hadn't required Jim's last dime, or he would've felt downright guilty accepting it.

They visited while they finished the eggnog, and Megan revealed she'd already been advertising her hotel for sale in the Wichita paper.

"I'm sure it will sell by spring," Jim said with unbridled confidence.

Blair shot him a look, and then had to duck his head and hide his grin. No doubt it would sell, to an anonymous buyer, as would Henri's home and stable. Smiling to himself, he felt incredibly delighted about knowing they could quietly help their friends make all of their dreams come true.

Megan checked the little watch pinned to her bodice and blinked. "Oh, my, we'd best be getting ourselves organized. It's nearly time to head out to the ranch."

They made short work of setting the infirmary to rights and washing up in the kitchen. Blair dashed across the street with Maisie to carry back her trays of fresh rolls for the party on the Gold Ribbon. The Browns went home to drop off their gift, and Brown hitched up their wagon. As Blair and Maisie hurried back across the road, Maisie waved to their neighbors, the Sloans, MacDonalds, Gurneys, Raymonds, McCreadys, Johnny Winston, and Pastor Stevens, who were also making their way on horseback or by carriage or wagon to the ranch. Jim went out to hitch Butternut to Blair's ancient buggy and saddle Lobo, the fruitcake and their gift for Simon and Joel in his saddlebags. Megan helped him load the gifts for the kids and blankets to keep her and Maisie warm into the buggy, so by the time Maisie and Blair were back, they were ready to go. Blair helped the women into the back seat and got them warmly bundled, before climbing in the front and gathering up the reins to follow Jim out to the road.

Though the men made no mention to the women of their security concerns, the cavalcade was planned, not happenstance. Well armed with rifles and handguns, not trusting that even Christmas Day could guarantee peace, they all kept a wary watch as they traveled along the edge of the settlers' homesteads on the trail to the Gold Ribbon.

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

As soon as they arrived at the Ranch, the cowboys took charge of the kids. There were pony rides around the corral, and snow forts had been erected for pitched snowball battles. The women scurried through the house to the kitchen, to help Susanna Stone with the preparation of the banquet to be served in mid-afternoon. The men adjourned to the games room, where Simon and Joel surprised them with a new snooker table. Joel poured the libations, and there was a good deal of laughter as the men tested their hand and eye coordination with the long, thin sticks and the brightly-colored balls on the sea of green velvet.

Standing to one side by a wide set of windows, Jim and Blair talked with Simon and Joel, catching up on the latest troubles with the settlers.

"They keep bringing down sections of the north fence," Joel grumbled, sounding exasperated, "letting in their sheep and enticing cattle onto their land. If things weren't already so darned tense, we'd go after 'em for rustling."

Simon nodded, his expression grim. "The cold helps keep tempers down, and the snow stops any real trouble, but come summer? All bets are off. They're spoilin' for a fight. Much as we hate to get into a war, we're ready for 'em."

"Have you considered another option?" Jim asked. "Or would you?"

"What option?" Joel demanded. "I have to tell you, I'm not looking forward to another summer of misery and that promises to only be the beginning, but we're not goin' to just lie down and let 'em walk all over us. These folks aren't going to go away."

"Yeah, we've come to that conclusion, too," Blair replied. He looked to Jim, who nodded for him to continue. "We're planning to move on come spring. Up to the Dakota Territory. Maisie, Megan and the Browns are going, too." He paused at the looks of surprise on their friends' face. "I know, it feels sudden. But … none of us want to live in these conditions and, well, some of us don't even feel safe here anymore."

Jumping in, Jim went on, "We're hoping you'll consider moving your operation up there. It's a brand new territory, wide open land … no fences."

Astonishment gave way to thoughtful consideration as Simon and Joel mulled over the news. "I've heard the Dakota Sioux aren't all that excited by settlers moving in … and the miners in the Hills are downright annoying the hell outta them."

"Yeah," Jim agreed, "I've heard that, too. But the railroad track is already laid, and there's nothing going to stop settlement, anymore than people stopped coming here when this territory opened up. You know that; you were some of the first men to register land hereabouts."

"True enough," Simon agreed. "We got along just fine with the Indians in those days. Traded with them, cattle for the use of what they still saw as their land. Guess we might be able to work the same kind of deal up there."

"With more settlers going in all the time, they'll be needing meat," Joel mused as he scratched his cheek.

"No fences," Simon murmured.

"No fences," Joel agreed solemnly. They looked at one another for a long moment, and then nodded slowly before he turned to Jim and Blair. "It'll make for some cattle drive," he said with a grin. "Long way up along the Missouri."

Simon waved Sam over, and freshened his drink. "Sam, we've just been talkin' about maybe moving the ranch up into the Dakota Territory. We'll want to sell the land here, but it wouldn't have to be sold before we moved off it. What about our other resources? How portable is our wealth?"

Sam nearly choked on his whisky. "Move the ranch?" he echoed, and coughed to clear his throat. "Good Lord, if you men pull out your accounts, well, there goes the bank in Bitterwood Creek. Why, I might as well move on along with you, set up business up there. New territory … probably doesn't have many bankers yet." He paused and considered the idea. "Most of your wealth aside from your herd is already in Wichita or in stocks … too large a fortune to keep in the vault here. So we'd just have to transfer what's left to the main branch in Wichita, and then draw on it once I set up a new establishment wherever we land. But … are you sure it's safe to go?"

"Probably safer than for some of us to stay here," Joel rumbled. "No offence, Sam, but this town ain't what it used to be."

"No," Sam sighed. "No, it isn't."

"Close the bank?" Angus challenged, having overheard part of the conversation. "What're you talkin' about? What about the loans folks have with you?"

Simon looked at Joel who replied, "Don't worry, Angus. Simon and I wouldn't foreclose on anyone. I'm sure Sam can make arrangements regarding mortgage payments and the like before we go."

Angus, who'd directed his question to Sam, now regarded Joel with a frown of confusion.

Sam explained quietly, "All the loans out of the Bitterwood Creek bank have been underwritten by Simon and Joel for years, Angus. I just front for them; they're the real bankers in town."

"Where're you thinkin' of movin' to?" Angus wondered, sounding as if he couldn't quite absorb the news.

"Well, we've just been talking about the Dakota Territory," Simon replied. "Makes a good deal of sense, for all kinds of reasons."

"We'll be going, too," Jim said, looping an arm around Blair's shoulders.

"And me and my family, as well," Brown added. "Megan and Maisie, too."

"When did all this get decided?" Dan Raymond asked, joining in the conversation. "Seems kinda sudden."

Blair sighed. "Well, I guess a number of us have been considering the idea of moving on since the summer. Things just aren't … comfortable for a lot of us anymore, Dan. But most of us just decided today."

The newspaper man looked saddened by the news. "I'll be sorry to see all of you go, and that's a fact. But I guess I can understand why. It's too bad. We had a nice little town here."

Silas McCready and Moe Gurney grimaced and shook their heads, but didn't offer any comment. Johnny Winston just looked stunned.

The preacher's gaze fell away, and he moved to look out the window.

"I'm sorry," Blair said quietly as he moved to stand beside the man. "I know you hoped things might work out here but…"

"You don't need to either explain or apologize, Doc," Stevens said heavily. "I trust in God," he went on, "though sometimes it's hard. But I suspect He has a purpose in leading you and Jim away from us, just as He had a purpose when He brought the two of you to us. Like Dan, I'm … well, I'm sorrowed by the news. But, like him, I more than understand."

"What are we going to do for law enforcement?" Angus muttered, aggrieved. Sam shot a look at Jim, perhaps remembering their conversation the previous summer, when Jim had made it clear he wouldn't stick around forever defending a town that wouldn't defend itself.

"Or for doctorin'?" Silas demanded aggressively. "Delores won't be best pleased by this news."

"I can advertise back east for a doctor for the town," Blair replied, turning to answer the saloon owner. "Whether anyone chooses to come, I can't predict. I know you worry about Milt Ambrose's qualifications and it's true he's not fully qualified, most especially for anything requiring surgery. But if he consents, I'll work with him before I go; leave him some of my reference books. He's not a fool. And he's a whole lot better qualified than many, maybe even most, men who set up practice around this country."

The townsmen didn't look happy, but they let it go for the moment. Jim glanced at Simon and Joel, while Henri rolled his eyes; none of the four of them could understand how Blair could continue to support and promote the man who had treated him so badly.

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

By common consent, the men tabled the discussion for the rest of the day, so as not to take away from the celebrations by worrying the women and children about changes that wouldn't be happening for months yet.

The children stampeded in, filling the house with rosy, eager faces, high-pitched laughter and gusts of fresh, cold air. They recounted adventures with the ponies and the outcomes of the snowball fights with great drama and enthusiasm, all their young voices piping at once and ever louder to be heard. Jim was wincing and laughing at the same time and, with an amused if empathetic chuckle, Blair suggested he attend to his bronze lantern. Within fifteen minutes, the women had herded the youngsters into the kitchen to be fed their Christmas dinner, while the cowhands were called to take their places in the dining room, as the first shift of adult diners. Though they'd wait for their own meal with the women, the men drifted into the dining room to join the conversation there. Simon and Joel raised glasses high in a toast to salute their very capable and valiant men.

Tex helped himself to a mountain of mashed potatoes, turnip, squash and turkey, drenching all of it in rich gravy, as he called over the din of conversation, "Hey, H! Your girl, Cherie, tells me you're movin' somewhere called 'Kota Tories."

Rafe and Taffy, who'd been on snowball duty, nodded. "Yeah, Rosie said something about Dakota Territory," Taffy reported. "You holding out on us, buddy? You goin' to look for gold?"

The conversation around the table muted considerably as the riders waited for Brown to answer. "Uh, yeah," he allowed, embarrassed to find himself the center of attention. "Well, not to look for gold. But some of us're pulling up stakes in the spring."

"Some?" Rafe asked, glancing at Jim and Blair.

"Well, now, there's plenty of time to share all the details and make all the plans," Simon interjected. "But Joel and I would be interested in knowin' how many of you would consider making a long drive up the Missouri to open grassland. No rush. Months before the snow'll clear enough to allow the cattle to forage on the way."

"No danged fences," Larkin cheered.

"And no damned sheep," Reynolds added with considerable feeling, wincing a little when Joel glared at him for cursing in the house while there were women and children under the roof.

"Who all is goin' anyway?" Jeb Strong, the former Sheriff asked, his brows lifting with curiosity.

"Well, us, an' the Browns," Joel replied and waited, evidently not wanting to speak for others.

"Jim and me," Blair supplied with a slow smile, unable to hide his relief at knowing they'd be leaving. "And Maisie and Megan."

"And most probably my family, too," Sam joined in.

Jeb nodded knowingly. "Hard to protect folks who are as like to shoot you in the back as look at you," he observed dryly.

"Well, there's that," Jim agreed with wry humor.

Digging into his meal, Tex drawled, "Sounds to me like we got the makin's of a new town. But lessen Miz Connor's goin' t' set up a bar in her new place, we'll be needin' us a saloon."

The other riders laughed in agreement.

Silas McCready shrugged his shoulders. "Not sure we'll be makin' that trip," he said with unusual diffidence, his gaze roaming the walls. "My business is still good, what with the stage comin' through an' all."

"Nothin' wrong with stayin'," Joel hastened to say. "Some of us got more call to look for greener pastures than others."

There was a rumble of agreement around the room, and the conversation moved on.

After the meal, the children were allowed to open the presents under the massive tree in the large, comfortable sitting room at the front of the house. There were giggles and exclamations of delight, and then they were directed by their parents to play quietly with their new toys while the rest ate their Christmas dinner.

Sam caught Sarah's eye as they settled around the table, dishes and platters heaped and steaming for the last shift of diners. Assuming Megan and Maisie had shared the news in the kitchen – and the women had probably heard the men talking, anyway – leaning close, he murmured, "Don't worry, dear. We'll talk about the changes coming and decide what's best for us – stayin', goin', movin' back east closer to your family – but let's not worry about it today, alright?" She smiled at him, and the taut concern in her face eased.

Delores gave her husband a meaningful glance, but he looked away and shrugged. Her lips thinned briefly before she turned her attention to dishing up her plate and passing the bowls along the table.

Simon stood to toast them with wine he'd brought up from their extensive cellar for the occasion. "Joel and I are mighty glad you have all come to join us this Christmas Day. Nothing like the sound of young'uns all excited and happy to make any day cheerful. You've all been real good friends to us, and we wish you a most sincere Merry Christmas. And all the very best the New Year can hold."

"Hear, hear!" the others sang out as they toasted him back and sipped on the rich, ruby wine.

Joel asked Pastor Stevens to give the blessing. The big man stood and they all bowed their heads. "We thank you, Lord, for the plenty you've placed before us. And we ask you to bless this gathering, Dear Lord, of good friends and neighbors, as we join together to celebrate the birth of Your Son. May You bring peace into our lives, and guide us through all our days. Amen."

After they finished eating, they went outside, where the cowhands had prepared wagons for a hayride around the property. The kids all swarmed up into the wagons, many being helped by the men. Afterward, the women served up hot chocolate and cookies.

Just before they left, as the sun was setting in the west and casting a rosy glow over the snow, Jim and Blair presented Simon and Joel with their Christmas tribute, a bottle of well-aged single malt from the Highlands of Scotland.

"Well, now, this is very nice," Joel said approvingly.

"We hope you enjoy it," Jim said with a grin.

"And we held off giving it to you until everyone was leaving, so's it didn't all get drunk during the day," Blair chimed in.

The older men laughed. "Good plan," Simon approved, while Joel handed them their gifts, new slickers and thick sweaters for the both of them.

"I hear it gets mighty cold up north in the winter time," Joel teased as Blair held his sweater up to admire it.

"Oh, man, I forgot about that!" Blair wailed in dismay.

"But the summers are long and hot and dry," Jim soothed him cheerfully.

"Oh, well, that's okay, I guess," Blair allowed with a grin. He paused, and then added with soul-deep sincerity, "I'm really glad you both took the idea so well. I didn't know what I'd do if you, well, if you didn't want to go, too."

"Me, either," Jim added. "You're family and we really didn't want to leave you behind."

"Well," Simon sighed. "I guess someone had to get the rest of us movin'. Lord knows, staying here wouldn't be nothin' but aggravation. Never thought we'd start a new adventure at this stage of our lives but … I have to say, it gives me a good feeling. A feeling of hope that I haven't had for a while now."

Joel nodded, and patted his partner on the back. "'Sides," he added with a grin and a glint in his eyes, "now that we're gettin' on in years, we need to keep almighty close to our doctor."

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

Three nights later, Jim frowned in his sleep, disturbed by something that wasn't quite registering. Snapping into wakefulness, he realized he was hearing low voices and the clop of horses' hooves – at a time of night when silence was the norm. He was just beginning to rise to see if someone was taking a run at the bank when his nose twitched. Smoke!

"Fire!" he yelled loudly to wake Blair as he yanked on his jeans and shoved his feet into his boots. "C'mon, wake up! FIRE!"

Blair was already rolling out of bed as he charged down the stairs, belted on his weapons and grabbed his coat. He could see the dancing flicker of light from flames through the kitchen window, filling him with a sense of dread. Blair raced down the steps as Jim pulled open the door – and nearly gagged at the overwhelming stench of blood.

"What the hell?" Jim gasped, stepping outside in time to hear pounding hooves drawing away. The stickiness under his feet was ignored as he stared at the burning cross planted in the middle of the street. "Sonuva..." he cursed as he jumped down to the snowy, churned-up surface of the roadway and kicked the cross over, stamping out the flames in a barely-contained rage.

But the restless stomp of horses from the stable, a nervous neigh, drew his attention. His nostrils flared, and he picked up the scent of burning hay even as his eyes picked out flickers of light between the boards of the walls on either side of the closed double doors. Blair was now standing beside him, and he gave his partner a light push toward the Browns' house. "Get H up! The stable's on fire!"

And then they were racing across the road. Jim shouldered open one of the doors, but took care not to swing it wide, lest he cause a draft that would only feed the flames. He could smell the sweet stench of kerosene underlying the thick black smoke rising from bales stacked against the back wall, past the forge. Hurrying inside, he opened the stall doors and, with shouts and waving arms, urged the horses outside into the street. By the time he was reaching for a pitchfork, Henri and Blair had raced inside.

"We've got to push the burning hay outside," Jim yelled, "or we'll lose the whole stable!"

Brown darted back outside to around run to the back and open the door there that was blocked by flames. Blair, coughing in the smoke, grabbed another pitchfork and, together, he and Jim began shoving the enflamed bales out of the barn. Outside, Henri took on the task of shoving them further from the wooden structure. Hannah dashed outside, and began drawing buckets of water from the well to fill the large watering trough. The girls huddled in the doorway, their eyes wide with fear.

In scant minutes, they'd shoved the flaming pyre of hay out into the yard, but the back wall of the stable was smoking, the wood glowing dangerously. Coughing, black with smoke, they hauled bucket after bucket from the trough to splash on the burning wall. The air was so cold, the water turned to ice almost immediately, making their footing uncertain in the glaring light of the fire. As fast as they worked, it wasn't fast enough. The kerosene splashed on the stable walls fed the growing inferno. Giving up the battle to save the building, Henri dashed inside to save his tools and equipment, Jim and Blair on his heels. In a frenzy of urgency, they hauled halters, blankets, saddles, hammers and tongs, bellows and other assorted equipment out the front and dumped it clear of the barn, before hurrying back inside for more. Wood creaked and snapped above them, a timber cracked, and Jim shoved them both out just before the roof gave way, crashing down in a shower of sparks and hungry flames.

Panting, they stood helpless to do anything more but watch it burn. Jim lifted his face and turned a slow circle, gauging the wind, but the smoke was rising straight up. They were lucky. There would be no danger of the nearby structures going up in flames. "Hannah," he called, just in case the wind picked up, "take your girls over to our place, so they can't see it burn."

By then, others had shown up. Milt Ambrose and Maisie, the closest neighbors on the street, Megan and a number of her guests from the hotel, and Moe Gurney, who slept above the saloon, all appeared with coats thrown over their nightclothes.

"What happened?" Milt called. "The forge overheat?"

Jim shook his head. "Settlers," he replied with disgust. "I heard them ride off."

Milt gaped at him and then stared at the flames, obviously stricken by the news, horrified by it. For the briefest moment, Jim thought the man might be rethinking his affiliations, but then he heard Milt mutter as he turned away, "Damned fools. Might've burned me out."

Jim's gaze hardened and he growled to Blair, "I never want to hear you defending that bastard again." Turning away, he strode back across the road to inspect the vandalism of their home, and was glad it was so dark that the girls might not have noticed the blood when Hannah had carried them inside. While Moe and the others helped Henri move his equipment onto his front porch, and looped ropes around the necks of the loose horses to tie them to the nearby hitching post, Jim and Blair began cleaning off their stoop.

"Sheep's blood, I think," Jim grated as they shoveled the stained snow onto the street.

Blair didn't say anything. Just went inside to heat water on the stove to wash the door. When he came back outside with a basin and rags, he also carried a bag of salt that he liberally sprinkled on the boardwalk to keep ice from forming.

Hannah had gotten the girls settled and back to sleep in the infirmary, and had made a large pot of coffee by the time they finished the cleanup outside. She'd also filled another basin with hot water, so they could wash the smoke from their faces, hands and arms. Maisie and Megan joined them, as did Moe Gurning. Tired, glad of the warmth blazing from the stove, they huddled on kitchen chairs, silent and morose for several minutes. Henri put his arm around his wife's shoulders to comfort her.

"Dirty, rotten, vicious…" Megan muttered. "Cowards, the lot of 'em. Filthy, mean cowards."

"Did you get a look at them or their horses?" Blair asked wearily.

"No, they'd disappeared around the buildings by the time I hit the street," Jim grated, and then he sighed as he gazed at Henri and Hannah. "I'm sorry. Sorry we couldn't save the barn."

"It's just a building," Henri replied, though he sounded angry and bitter. Visibly reining in his temper, he went on, "Didn't lose anything important. Could've been a lot worse if that fire had taken the horses." He lifted his gaze to Jim's. "Thanks for getting them out. And for helping me save my tools."

"You can all sleep here tonight," Blair said. Frowning, he shook his head. "I don't think you should stay in the house any longer. It's too vulnerable, right on the edge of town like that." He hesitated and then went on, "I think, maybe, you should all stay at the ranch until we're ready to leave. We can help you load your stuff and move out there. Simon and Joel would be glad to have you."

"Maybe you should be moving out there, too, Doc," Henri riposted. "Not sure it's any safer for you to stay in town."

Blair's jaw tightened. "Jim and I'll be fine, at least for now. If things get worse?" He shrugged.

Moe set down his empty mug and stood to go. "I'm right sorry this happened to you, Henri," he rumbled. "Miz Conner's right. They're nothing but scum. The lot o' them." He chewed on his lip and then, looking around at each of their weary, strained faces, he said, "Lucinda and me'll be goin' with ya in the spring. I can't stomach livin' here no more."

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

January passed without further incident, though the tensions between the townsfolk and the settlers was palpable. McBride strutted around town like he owned it; Angus and Silas grew more taciturn and surly. Henri, with the help of friends, loaded two wagons with their household possessions and what he'd saved of his tools and equipment, to take out to the ranch, where his family was already ensconced. Johnny Winston showed up unexpectedly to help, and he asked, with raw uncertainty, if Brown might consider taking him along, to drive the second wagon, when he headed north. Henri clapped him on the shoulder and said he'd be glad of the help.

At the end of the month, Pastor Stevens dropped into Blair's office one bright, cold afternoon. Surprised to see him, Blair eyed him anxiously, noting his unusual pallor and the strain around his mouth and eyes. "Are you feeling ill, sir?" he asked solicitously, as he gestured for the preacher to take the chair at the end of his desk, wondering if the bombastic pastor was experiencing chest pain.

"I'm sick to my soul, Doc," Stevens muttered, "but it's nothing physical." He sighed, and drew a sheet of paper from his pocket and studied it morosely. "Guess my sermon on Christmas Eve fell on deaf ears." Looking up at Blair, he explained, "The Church Council has just terminated my services. Apparently, my words no longer reach their souls."

"Ah, I'm sorry," Blair replied as he sank into his chair. "You did your best, and we all appreciate that you tried … well, you tried to make this a better place. It's not your fault that they're so convinced of their own righteousness that they are blind to the harm they do."

Stevens shrugged and shook his head. Blowing a long breath, he straightened. "I came by to see what you might think of me tagging along when the rest of you leave town. I was thinking that maybe the Territory might have room for a fire and brimstone preacher. I know we don't share the same faith, but I value your opinion."

Smiling, Blair leaned back in his chair. "I think that's a fine idea, sir. It's still a new land up there, a rough land. I have no doubt there'd be many who'd benefit by the message you bring."

"Thank you, Doc," Stevens replied, seeming genuinely grateful for the encouragement. Looking around, he sniffed the air. "Any chance you'd have time to share a cup of coffee with an old and tired man?"

"Of course. I just put on a fresh pot a little while ago. Come on into the kitchen. And I've got some of Maisie's cookies."

"Comfort, indeed, for a wounded spirit," Stevens exclaimed, rallying to his more hearty nature. Blair grinned and led the way out of the office.

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

Late on the second Thursday in February, Jim and Blair were just finishing their nightly rounds when Jim cocked his head and, stiffening, turned back toward the center of town. A light, muffling snow was falling, and Jim tensed as he strained to hear past the rollicking laugher and music coming from the saloon.

"What is it?" Blair asked, unconsciously grounding his partner with a hand on his back.

"Some drunken fool is giving Dan a hard time," Jim grated and took off in a long, ground-eating jog toward the newspaper office where Dan Raymond often worked late to put the weekly chronicle together.

A shot split the night just before they got to the newspaper office. Jim pulled his Colt and, with a swift look through the glass, kicked in the door. "Drop your gun!" he ordered sharply.

Blair, behind him and sheltered by Jim's bulk, saw a settler standing over Dan Raymond, who was crumpled and still on the floor in front of his desk. The stranger sneered at Jim, rage still burning in his eyes, too drunk to reason with and too angry to back down. He twisted to bring his weapon up toward Jim, and Jim shot him, wounding him in the shoulder, to stop him, to bring him to his senses. But the big settler was built like a bear, and he barely staggered back before, beyond reason or warning, crazed and lusting for blood, he again took aim.

Jim shot him again, this time killing him.

Blair pushed past to drop on the floor beside Dan. Reaching out, he carefully turned the man over and checked his pulse. "He's alive," he reported, and then checked the wound. "Bleeding bad. We need to get him to the infirmary right away."

With a last dyspeptic glance at the dead settler, Jim moved to lift the small, wiry man into his arms. Blair held the door wide for him to pass through and then closed it as he hurried along behind. Up ahead, men had spilled out of the saloon, many of them settlers, some transients passing through.

"What happened?" Silas called as Jim and Blair strode toward them. "Dan? Someone shot Dan?" he exclaimed, clearly shocked, when he saw who the Sheriff was carrying.

"Yeah," Jim grunted with a fast warning look at the settlers crowding the boardwalk behind McCready. The burly saloon owner nodded with brisk understanding, and roughly yelled at the men behind him to clear the way. "Saloon's closed for the night," he bellowed, waving at his customers to clear out and go home, as Jim and Blair rushed past. "Moe!" he called, "Ask Lucinda to go get Dan's wife and bring her to Doc's place. Get my rifle and your shotgun and lock up."

Silas followed them into the house, closing the door before he trailed behind them down the hall. Jim laid Dan on the treatment table, while Blair hastily stoked up the stove and got his instruments together. "Get his clothes off," he directed, "and put pressure on the wound while I get things ready."

"How bad is he hurt?" Silas demanded as he helped Jim strip off Dan's boots, belt, shirt and trousers.

"Won't know for sure until I get inside, but I'm hoping not too bad," Blair replied as he dumped his instruments into a pot of water to boil. "Bullet took him in the side, under his ribs."

"And the guy who shot him?"

"Dead," Jim reported succinctly. "Will probably mean trouble."

"Yeah," Silas agreed darkly, turning to grab a blanket from a cot to layer over the publisher, while Jim pressed clean rags against the bloody bullet hole.

"Why'd anyone want to shoot Dan?" Silas wondered with a heavy frown. "Man's harmless."

"The settler was drunk," Jim said. "Just before we got there, I heard him shouting that Dan wasn't publishing the 'truth', and demanding that the letters he'd been writing be printed in the paper. Dan was telling him to get out."

"Letters?" Silas questioned. "What letters?"

Jim flicked a glance at Blair, who caught it and stilled for a moment before turning back to his preparations.

"For months now, Dan's been getting malicious letters, pretty ugly stuff, condemning anyone who's Jewish or colored," Jim replied tightly. "He's been using them as kindling."

"Damn it," Silas growled as he twisted away to go back into the hall. "I'll send Moe around back and I'll take the front, just to be sure nobody tries to create any trouble. You want me to send in his wife when she gets here?"

"Maybe Lucinda could sit with her in the kitchen, make a pot of tea," Blair suggested, "until I'm finished here, and can tell her for sure how Dan is."

"Whatever you say, Doc," Silas replied as he disappeared from view. Blair heard him curse as he stomped along the passageway.

"Surprised Silas is taking it so hard," Jim muttered when they heard the front door slam. "Didn't think he and Dan were all that close. Don't have much in common."

Blair set up his tray on a small table that he'd pulled close to the side. "He's had a bad shock," Blair replied, his voice tight with his own anger. Glancing at Jim, he said, "It's not that he and Dan were friends. It's that Silas thought they – all the rest of them in town – would be safe. I'm sure Angus and a lot of others have been thinking the same thing; that being Christian and white meant they didn't have to worry about the settlers. Now he knows different. None of this is really about religion or color. It's about power and control."

His face stark and pale with emotion that he had no way to rid himself of, Jim grunted his agreement.

Blair was already working over his patient when they heard Lucinda and Lee-Ann come in. Jerking his head toward the hall, he murmured, "Go tell her Dan'll be okay. I'll be done here in a few minutes."

"He's lucky you were here," Jim said quietly, as he squeezed Blair's shoulder before he left with the good news.

Blair didn't reply, just continued sewing up the wound. When he was finished, he taped on a bandage, layered a clean blanket over his patient, and washed his hands. As he dried them, he studied Dan's pallid, unconscious face and sighed. "I'm sorry," he whispered. "You're a good man, a man of peace. This shouldn't have happened."

Setting the towel aside, he gathered up the bloody rags, dumping them into a pail, and put the soiled instruments into the pan still warming on the stove. And he thought about what Jim had said. On the one hand, yes, Dan was lucky he was there. On the other, maybe if they'd already gone, there wouldn't have been the same argument about printing those damned letters. Though he'd meant what he'd said to Jim, that it wasn't all about race or differences of spiritual belief, he hoped things would settle down in town after they pulled out. Hoped … but doubted it. Men of conscience, like Dan, would always have trouble with other men who tried to dictate what he should think or write.

Once the evidence of violence was cleaned up and Dan looked as if he was only sleeping peacefully, Blair went to the kitchen, to tell Lee-Ann she could see her husband, and to reassure her once more that he'd recover just fine.

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

Tensions grew even more pronounced in the town. McBride led a delegation of settlers to rail against the Sheriff for having killed one of their own, shouting that they wanted justice. Jim, backed by Silas and Moe, glared at them all with disgusted loathing.

"Justice?" he echoed and snorted. "Dan Raymond was unarmed, and about half the size of the drunken lout who shot him. I ordered the man to drop his weapon, and when he lifted his gun to shoot me, I wounded him in the shoulder. When he didn't quit and was clearly going to shoot again, I killed him. If you've got a problem with that, take it up with Circuit Court Judge Stillwater the next time he's in town." He ground his teeth and snorted again. "Justice. Like the justice Henri Brown got, when some cowards snuck into town and burned down his barn? You people don't have the first damned clue about justice." With a last scathing look of utter contempt, he said coldly, "We're done here. Go on home."

"We don't want you as our Sheriff," McBride shouted. "We don't trust you."

"Well, that makes us even," Jim snapped. "I don't trust any of you, either. Be damned if I'd turn my back on any of you vipers. I've had it with all of you. In another month, you can have whoever you want wear this badge. I'm done with Bitterwood Creek."

McBride looked startled for a moment, and then smiled smugly. "Decided to move on, huh?" he goaded.

"Yeah. Fair number of us'll be movin' on, soon as winter's over," Jim grated, his hands fisting to contain his urge to punch the obnoxious man until McBride was bloodied and wouldn't wake up for a week. "Can't stand the sight of you – any of you – any longer. For all I care, you can all go to Hell. Now, go on home. This meeting is over."

Silas and Moe cocked their weapons, and the crowd began to break up. McBride wasn't the only one who was now laughing disparagingly, crowing and congratulating one another that they were washing the town clean.

"God, I hate those people," Silas growled, and spat into the street.

By the end of that week, both the saloon and the general store had 'For Sale' signs in their windows.

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

March roared in like a lion, dumping two feet of snow on the town and blowing drifts as high as man over the prairie. But by the middle of the month, there was a thaw, turning the ground into a morass of mud. Sam transferred the remaining assets in his bank to Wichita in an armored wagon sent out by the bank in the city. Wagons lined the street, being loaded with liquor and the non-perishable supplies from the store, as well as with household goods from the living quarters above. More wagons were being loaded as houses were emptied along the street on the far side of the school. Megan's hotel, Maisie's shop and the Brown house had all sold by the end of January, for very generous sums to an anonymous buyer. Delighted by their profits, the women decided to leave everything but their personal belongings behind so, rather than having to cross the long miles in wagons, they could ride in the comparative comfort of the stage, riverboat and train.

No one had answered Blair's advertisement for a new doctor, so he assumed Ambrose would probably move into the house as soon as they vacated it. He'd already packed up his books, medical records, and personal instruments, the medicines and supplies that replaced those he'd carried into town with him. Those boxes along with his and Jim's extra clothing and personal goods were already loaded on one of Henri's wagons, out on the ranch. Blair was leaving everything else as he found it.

The day before they would be leaving, he walked through the house slowly, touching the counter in the little dispensary, looking around the infirmary, and then sitting quietly in his office, remembering the day he'd walked into Bitterwood Creek – and Nellie Bascombe telling him he was the answer to their prayers.

Jim found him there, staring pensively into space.

"Hey," he greeted, as he dropped into the chair by the desk. "You all ready to go?"

"Yeah," Blair replied as he ran his hand along the surface of the desk. "I was happy here, for a long time."

"I know," Jim murmured. "But times change. We'll be okay."

Shaking off his reverie and regrets, Blair smiled. "Yes, we will," he agreed. "You send off the telegraphs to Toby and your Dad?"

"Uh huh. Told them when to expect us in St. Louis. If we don't hear back before we ride out tomorrow, I'm sure there'll be messages waiting at the Telegraph Office there when we arrive," Jim said as he stood. "I'm hungry. What've we got for dinner?"

Snorting, Blair stood. "You're getting lazy. You should be able to sniff the air and tell me what we're having."

"Uh, that's the problem, Chief. I don't smell anything," Jim retorted with a grin as he reached out to ruffle his friend's hair.

Ducking away, laughing, Blair replied, "Well, you're the Sheriff. With the evidence at hand, what do you detect?"

"Okay, smart guy, who's feeding us tonight?"

"Megan. A last dinner in the hotel. You, me, her and Maisie. They're boarding the stage tomorrow."

"Sounds great," Jim enthused as he dropped his arm around Blair's shoulders.

Looking up at him, Blair asked, "So … you think the hotel and bakeshop and the Brown house will ever sell?"

"Couldn't care less if they fell to the ground and rotted," Jim said with a shrug and his tone hardened. "If McBride and his bunch want the buildings and the businesses, they're going to pay top dollar and then some to get them."

"Works for me," Blair agreed whole-heartedly. "Works for me."

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

The next day, they handed Megan and Maisie into the morning stage. "You wait for us in Yankton," Jim directed for the umpteenth time. "I don't want either of you roaming around the Territory until we get there."

"Yes, sir, Sheriff, sir," Megan replied with a snappy salute, and then laughed brightly. "Don't you worry. Maisie and I are going to live like queens in the best hotel in town until you lads arrive."

"Take care of yourselves," Maisie urged, as she leaned out the window and held her hand to Blair.

He took it and then kissed it, and she blushed madly. "We'll be fine. Should be there sometime in late May or early June. You girls behave yourselves. Don't get into any trouble. And when prospective husbands start lining up, you both make it clear that you've got gentlemen friends who expect fresh bread and a good meal from time to time, whether you're married or not."

The women laughed, and Jim firmly closed the coach door, making sure the latch was secure. They stood back and waved as the driver cracked his whip and the stage pulled away.

Wagons were also rolling out on the way to the Gold Ribbon to meet up with the rest of the train, before they turned north ahead of the herd. They tipped their hats to the Sloans as they passed, and then swung into their saddles to ride slowly out of town.

"You okay?" Jim asked, as he watched Blair take a last look around.

"Yeah, I'm good," Blair replied, his eyes sparkling, and his smile wide and carefree. "When I walked in nearly three years ago, all I had was what I could carry. Now … I've got a good horse, the best friend any man could have, and a whole community of people moving on with us, people who've become friends and family. I'm a lucky man. Oh, and hey," he added, leaning in confidentially as they rode side by side, "seems I'm also a very rich man."

Jim threw back his head and laughed. Reaching out to slap Blair's shoulder, he chuckled as he said, "That makes two of us, Chief. Lucky, lucky men."

As they cleared the edge of town, he kicked Lobo gently, urging the black stallion into an easy, ground-eating lope. Grinning, Blair turned in the saddle and tipped his hat to the town. And then he nudged Butternut to move up alongside Jim to pace the stallion. The day was theirs, the sun warm on their shoulders. Blair caught a flash out of the corner of his eye, and saw the wolf and the big, black cat racing along beside them, until the spirits again faded from sight.

Giving the settlement a wide berth, riding easy in their saddles, they turned their mounts northeast toward the reservation and rode on. Behind them, Bitterwood Creek slowly sank below the horizon… until there was only the wide prairie sky.

Finis

Author's Note: Circuit Court Judge Morton C. Stillwater and his 'bailiff', Mark McGettrick, are modeled on, and a tribute to, the characters of the '80s television series, Hardcastle and McCormick.

The references to the Black Hills and the settlement of the Dakota Territory in this story are approximately ten years ahead of the actual historical timeline.

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