July 2005 Challenge - By Rowan: It's time to get the guys out of the water and into the desert - in the middle of July - injured - always got to have an injury. Any one or all of the guys can be injured and the rest, or the one, needs to save the day.
(Moved to Blackraptor October 2009)
With one last crack of gunfire the fight was over. Smoke and dust swirled slowly through the warm air as six men stepped cautiously forward, watching for any sign of reinforcements; of ambush; of sudden movement from any of the dozen bodies strewn grotesquely over the streets of Four Corners. There was none. The Ryder gang was dead to a man.
Gazing dispassionately around him, Chris Larabee reached into his breast pocket and withdrew a match to light the stubby cigar that had remained clenched between his teeth during the shootout. The faint scratch and hiss of the striking flame sounded loud in the sudden stillness. Puffing the cigar back into life, he flicked the spent match onto the body of the dead man nearest him, the contempt he felt reflected coldly in his pale gray eyes. Men like these were the true scum of the Earth to Chris; the kind who took pleasure in the pain and fear of the helpless.
Raising his eyes, Larabee watched two of his fellow lawmen come to stand beside him. Ezra Standish surveyed the scene coolly as he reloaded his gun and returned it to the holster at his side. "Amazing how far luck can take a man when he is unfortunate enough to lack any true intelligence," he commented. "How long have these particular brigands been terrorizing this area; two or three years? And they still lacked the simple foresight to check ahead and see what sort of resistance might meet them before they rode into town, guns blazing."
"Guess they figured a bad reputation was enough, specially since this town didn't have much resistance to speak of a few months ago," offered the third member of the trio, Josiah Sanchez.
Larabee snorted. "Too bad for them they missed the news." Raising a slightly mocking eyebrow he asked, "You gonna say a few words over em, preacher?" He had watched as the other man had calmly knocked two of the outlaws right out of their saddles with rifle shots, then later delivered a third man to his maker with a pistol shot between the eyes.
Josiah recognized baiting when he heard it. Chris respected his fighting abilities and perhaps even more his ability to retain a measure of faith in the face of death and destruction; but found the combination of the two to be slightly hypocritical. Those subtle barbs were his way of questioning that odd combination of warrior/priest without crossing any barriers that his friend might have erected around his past. Chris Larabee was a man who understood the need for barriers.
Inclining his head ever so slightly, Sanchez spoke clearly into the quiet. "Lord, for three years these men before us have been robbing, raping and murdering their way across the country, leaving behind a trail of pain and death. May you speed their souls to the reward theyve got comin to em."
With a faint smile of approval, Chris nodded. Seeing the townspeople gathering on the sidewalks to get a look now that the danger was over, he called out, "Some of you get down here and help us get these men to the undertaker." Checking over the crowd, he pointed to three that had been out on the street when the excitement began. "JD!"
The young lawman trotted up, an eager look on his face. "Yeah?"
"Take these three over to the jail and have 'em write out statements so things'll be all legal and proper for the judge when he gets back. And while you're at it, check over the posters and send out a few wires so folks know that the Ryders won't be threatening anybody else."
Beaming at all this responsibility, Dunne practically dragged the three witnesses off toward the office. Chuckling, Ezra moved off to assist Buck Wilmington in directing the movement of the bodies into the back of a handy buckboard, while Josiah merely crossed his arms and shot his black-clad companion a raised eyebrow. "Sure is nice to see a man get excited about paperwork. Wonder if he'll be as happy when he realizes that none of those three can read or write and he'll have to make out all the statements himself?"
A twinkle lit Chris' eyes. "Well, the kid says he wants to know everything there is to know about being a lawman, don't he? Who am I to deny him the experience?"
Josiah replied with a hearty peal of laughter. "You are a bad, bad man, Mr. Larabee."
Chris grinned but before he could form a comeback, a shout startled them both. "Somebody get over here, quick! Nathan's been shot!"
All sign of amusement instantly died from their expressions as the two men took off running toward the livery stable. One of the doors was lazily swinging in the breeze, hiding what was behind it. Wrenching it out of the way, they were greeted by the sight of Vin Tanner kneeling on the ground pressing a cloth to the chest of the town's resident healer in a vain attempt to stop the steadily growing red stain spreading across his shirt. An equally bright stripe of blood stained the sleeve of Vin's own brown gingham shirt and as the others joined him, he explained, "I was lookin' for Nathan to have him stitch up this crease in my arm, but I didn't see him anywhere. When I came to find him " he trailed off, lips pressing together grimly as more blood seeped over his fingers.
For a moment, Josiah simply watched in numb fascination while Chris pulled out a handkerchief and joined the other man in applying pressure to the wound, muttering darkly over the irony of the only serious injury having been dealt to the one man among them with any real doctoring practice. The one man with any doctoring practice. The words reverberated in Josiah's brain as he spun around and cupped both hands to his mouth, bellowing, "Buck! Ezra! Get over here, we need your help!"
The two men had not heard Vin's initial shout but this time they came on the run, joined halfway by JD, who had also heard. Skidding to a stop when they reached the scene, Buck groaned, "Oh, no. Damn it!"
"Help us lift him, gentle as you can," Sanchez told them. "We need to get him over to the clinic and get that bullet out right away."
"But who's gonna " Surprised widened JD's brown eyes to the size of dinner plates as he took in the grim determination on the older man's face. "You?"
Ignoring the disbelieving question, Josiah continued. "Soon as you get over there, put some water on to boil and get that shirt off him. Nathan keeps some knives and a pair of bullet tongs in the chest in the back. Get 'em out, along with whatever bandages you can find." He ignored the looks exchanged by the other five. He did not make a habit of issuing orders, and he suspected that it was that very fact which prompted his friends to obey when he snapped, "Now!"
Carefully, the others lifted their injured companion and began to carry him toward the stairs leading up to the small medical clinic. Noticing that Josiah had not moved, JD laid a hand on his arm. "Ain't you coming?"
"I'll be right there," he promised. "Just get him ready." Silently he watched the young man run ahead of the others to get the doors open and a space cleared. Josiah drew a shaky breath, stubbornly fighting down the frightened protest gibbering deep inside his mind. He had no choice but to do this. Lips silently moving in a fervent prayer for strength, he reflexively reached up his left hand and clenched it around the cross dangling against his chest. He too, needed help to get ready.
"Could you bring that lamp a little closer? Thanks, that's good."
Vin held the lamp aloft, ignoring the cramp forming in his bicep as he struggled to keep the light still above the body of his unconscious friend. He had been holding his position for over thirty minutes and in spite of his best effort, the lamp was beginning to dip. A hand came up to steady him just as he feared he would lose his grip entirely and Buck Wilmington smiled as he transferred the object from Vin's grasp into his own. "Second shift, partner," he said, giving him a nod. "Why don't you go take a seat for a few minutes?"
Josiah had been working steadily on Nathan, concentrating hard on not causing even more damage. He had not even realized how much time had gone by, but at his companions' exchange he paused, wiping beads of sweat from his brow with the back of one wrist. Guilt washed over him as he observed the young man shaking out his numbed arm and wincing as the motion aggravated the furrow Chris had bandaged up for him only an hour earlier. "Sorry, Vin."
Waving off the apology, Tanner retreated to the opposite side of the room. "Don't worry none about me. Just go on doin' what you have to do."
Nodding his thanks, Josiah flicked a glance at Ezra. The gambler was standing at the patient's head, where he had been carefully administering drops of ether to a cloth covering Nathan's nose and mouth. He had volunteered for the job and seemed to know what he was doing, so Josiah went back to his own task.
Taking a deep breath, he poised the small instrument in his hand once more over the incision he had made. He had tried reaching the bullet without cutting, but the tissue had closed around it in such a way that he'd had no choice but to enlarge the entry a bit. A second attempt at the object had been equally unsuccessful. Please, God, let me get it this time, he prayed silently. Aloud he muttered, "Third time lucky."
The bullet tongs probed carefully into the ragged hole. Nothing, nothing, again nothing, and then, "Got it!"
Cheers and murmurs of approval issued from the other men. Buck leaned closer, trying to get a look at the wound without blocking the light. "Son of a bitch is in there real deep, ain't it?"
A distracted grunt was all the answer Josiah could spare as he concentrated his whole being on not losing his fragile grip on the hunk of metal at the end of his tongs. Slowly and carefully he pulled upward, more drops of sweat rolling down and stinging his eyes, but at last he pulled the instrument out and dropped the bullet safely into a waiting dish. A swell of blood bloomed out of the hole and Josiah suddenly found JD standing at his elbow, a cloth proffered to help staunch the flow. Accepting it, he carefully pressed against the wound, allowing the site to bleed freely for a moment in hopes that any stray slivers of metal would be carried out with the fluid. "I need to clean this out good before I sew him up."
Like magic, two full whiskey bottles and a silver flask appeared in front of Josiah's eyes, making him grin a little in spite of the seriousness of the situation. Accepting one, he uncovered the wound and liberally poured alcohol over it. "That should do," he decided after a moment. "Now comes the tricky part."
The other five men watched with interest as their friend threaded a large needle and began carefully putting sutures into Nathan's chest. It was slow painstaking work, but at last it was over, and Josiah heaved a gusty sigh of relief as he cleaned the area one last time, then stood back to survey his handiwork.
Buck let go an admiring whistle. "You fellas gotta see this. I've had real doctors that didn't stitch me up half this good. You got more surprises in you than a Mexican piñata, Josiah."
"Yeah, where'd you ever learn to do that?" JD said wonderingly. "I thought Nathan was the only one around here who knew any doctoring."
Using the task of washing his hands in a basin of clear water to avoid meeting the eyes of his friends, Josiah shrugged tiredly. "You live long enough, you pick up all kinds of things. Some of 'em even useful."
"Such skill is hardly the sort of thing that one simply 'picks up'," Ezra protested. "In my experience-"
"Ready for the bandages?" Chris asked loudly. Nobody missed the flicker of relief that passed over Josiah's face at the interruption and each resolved to curb his curiosity, at least for the moment. At the preacher's signal, Buck slid an arm beneath Nathan's shoulders and carefully lifted, allowing bandages to be wrapped around the injured man's body.
Observing Nathan's shallow breathing and slightly grayish skin tone, lines of worry creased Wilmington's brow. "Is he gonna be okay?"
Fighting the urge to fire back, 'how the hell should I know?' Josiah answered, "Hard to say. I did all I could, but we'll have to keep an eye on him to make sure that hole doesn't get infected. Somebody should stay with him until he wakes up - probably through the night. We'll just keep checking for high fever or anything that seems wrong."
"And when he does wake up?" JD prompted.
Scratching his salt and pepper curls thoughtfully, he suggested, "Try to get a little food in him then let him sleep, I guess. Least that's what he's always done after patching me up."
Buck grinned slyly. "Maybe we oughtta make up some of that special tea of his to go with it. Reckon a man with a gunshot wound needs lots of tea."
A chuckle passed through the room, relieving some of the tension. Nathan Jackson swore by God-awful tasting medicines whenever any of them were sick or injured. It seemed only fair that he get his share.
"I'll take the first watch," Vin offered quietly.
Despite having agreed to watch over Nathan in shifts, no one left the little clinic. There wasn't much to do except sit and wait but each of them felt that his place was there, at least for the moment. Vin and Chris passed the time cleaning weapons while Buck and JD kept them entertained with stories. Ezra listened and interjected an occasional wry comment, as he absently played game after game of solitaire with his ever-present deck of cards. Josiah occupied himself with cleaning up, refusing all offers of help with a silent shake of his head. Once that task was done, he simply sat, staring at his wounded friend with a far-away expression in his eyes. He stayed that way, silently brooding for so long that it made the other men startle when he suddenly surged to his feet and walked out without a single word to anyone.
The five remaining lawmen looked at each other for a long moment. "Took a lot more out of him than he was letting on, didn't it?" Buck said finally.
"Reckon," Vin agreed. "Don't know if I would've been able to do it. Not like that anyway. I've dug a bullet out before; reckon most of us have, but cuttin' into a man then sewin' him back up good as new?" He shook his head. "That's tough."
"Especially tough when that man is your best friend," Ezra added, respect taking away all trace of his usual sarcasm.
For a few moments everyone was quiet, then JD tentatively asked, "Shouldn't somebody go after him? Just to make sure he's okay?"
Larabee put on his hat and grabbed his bottle of whiskey from the table where Josiah had set it. "I'll talk to him." Passing by Nathan, Chris briefly laid a hand on the unconscious man's shoulder. "Fire a couple of shots in the air if there's any change."
The late afternoon sun was just beginning its descent toward the western hills when Josiah reached the end of his energy. He had practically run from the clinic, his long legs pumping in fast ground-eating strides as he escaped the suffocating confines of the small building. There had been no clear destination in his mind, only that need to escape the sight of the friend whose lifeblood had so recently saturated his hands, and the five others whose sympathetic gazes had been suddenly impossible to bear. His breath caught in his lungs, making him cough as he finally stumbled to a halt, leaning over and resting both hands on his legs as he hung his head and fought to get his breathing under control. After a moment, he looked up again, surprised to find himself standing outside of Four Corners' small cemetery. Instantly, his mind rejected the idea that where he had headed was anything more than a coincidence. Nathan was not going to die. But what if he does? a small voice whispered. Part of it will be your fault, won't it?
"No," he said aloud. He couldn't let himself think that way. It had been a long time since he'd been called upon to use his meager medical skills, but he had done his best. Now he just had to find the faith to believe that everything would work out all right.
With a deep sigh, the sometime preacher entered the cemetery and took a seat under a tree planted near one of the graves. Why was telling himself to have faith always so much harder than telling other people? Maybe Larabee's right, he thought with a spark of grim humor. Maybe you really are a hypocrite.
"Mind if I join you?"
Josiah's eyes opened slowly. He had been concentrating on getting his thundering heartbeat to slow and the trembling in his limbs to stop and had not heard anyone approach. He grimaced slightly; that kind of inattention could get a man killed. Fortunately there was no danger, for this intruder was a friend.
Gazing impassively at the dark clad man standing just outside the low gate that bordered the graveyard, he asked, "How'd you know where to find me?"
Taking the blunt question for an invitation, Chris slowly approached and took a cross-legged seat on the ground nearby. "Wasn't hard. You didn't exactly sneak out of town, y'know. Three people stopped me to ask where you'd been goin' in such a hurry."
A wry half-smile acknowledged the words, and unlacing his fingers from around one upraised knee, Josiah reached out to accept the whiskey bottle his friend offered, taking a long satisfying swallow before handing it back. "Thanks."
Larabee also took a generous swig. "They were pretty worried when you took off like that." No need to say who 'they' were, or to confirm that he had also been concerned. "Figured somebody oughtta go look for you."
"And you got the short straw?"
"Long straw. I figure I'm the only one not back there gettin' cleaned out by Ezra."
Sanchez snorted and reached for another pull of the bottle. He was glad Chris had come. Part of him had been craving company while part of him still desired solitude. Larabee somehow gave him both.
The two men sat in the deepening twilight, drinking in companionable silence. Finally in a low voice Chris said, "Nathan's gonna be all right. I can feel it in my gut. Gonna be damn proud of the job you did, too."
"Just as long as he doesn't try to palm his job off on me permanent-like," the older man replied with a lazy chuckle. The whiskey had calmed him, taking away the last of that terrible urgency to escape. "Don't know what got into me back there. Makin' out like I'm some kinda surgeon just cause I've had a little experience with bullets. Any one of you could've done as much."
"I don't think so," Chris countered quietly. "Don't take much know-how to dig a bullet out, but not messing things up any worse than they already are does. And operatin' on a good friend takes guts."
Josiah's bark of laughter sounded oddly loud in the quiet cemetery. "Guts? Well, maybe." He sighed and ran a hand back through his hair. "More like pride, I'd say. If I'd stood back and let somebody else cut into Nate and it had gone wrong, I'd have been kicking myself from here to sundown for not having enough nerve to do the job myself."
"So you did do it yourself, and nothing went wrong," Larabee observed evenly. "You did a good job but you're beating yourself up over it anyway. Why's that?"
A startled expression widened Josiah's blue eyes. Then he saw the wry smile on his friend's face and gave in to a reluctant laugh. "Guess I'm just worried about Nathan, and my nerves are stretched a little thin. Been a long time since anything scared me as bad as what I did today."
Larabee gestured with the bottle. "You didn't show it."
"Didn't let myself feel it until it was over. Had to stay numb and pretend Nathan was just another stranger. One more soldier in a long, long line who might have a chance at livin' to see tomorrow if I did a fair enough job of fixing him up."
A flicker of surprise crossed Chris' face at the word 'soldier'. He had never talked with Josiah about the war; hadn't even known he'd been involved. Deciding to take a chance, he asked, "You want to talk about it?"
For a moment, Josiah's posture stiffened, then he sighed and gave a shallow nod. "Not here." He waved a hand at the quiet graves around them. "This is all a little too close."
Chris understood. The dead might be good listeners but their silence could also be condemning. Unwinding his legs, he got one under him and stood, offering a hand. For a moment, the other man just looked at him, but finally he clasped a large hand around the offered wrist and allowed himself to be levered to his feet. "Saloon?" Chris asked as they began walking back toward town.
The suggestion was tempting, but Josiah didn't feel like being around people just yet. "Church."
There was no more conversation until they reached the sanctuary of Josiah's small, dilapidated chapel and had taken seats in a couple of empty pews. Shifting his body on the hard bench seat, Josiah rested his upper arm on the high back and tucked his chin into his shoulder, studying an empty spot on the bench behind him rather than looking at Chris. "Nathan ever tell you how he and I got to be friends?"
Chris shook his head. "Guess I figured you'd met here. Kinda goes together, healer and preacher."
"Dual guardians of life and death," Josiah intoned solemnly, then softly added, "Mostly death." The moments stretched out long before he continued, "I first met Nathan in May of '63. A little patch of hell set down in the north of Virginia."
Instantly recognizing the reference, Larabee asked, "Chancellorsville?" A nod confirmed the guess. "I remember reading in the papers how bad it was. Nothing like being there, I suppose."
Sanchez hunched his shoulders to suppress a shudder. "No. History will never paint a picture as ugly as the truth of that. God, nine years ago and I can still see it crystal-clear if I let myself. Smoke and blood and fire all around, so much that it seemed unreal except that the screaming, and begging and dying couldnt be anything but real."
Larabee shifted slightly, sternly clamping down on the painful memories those sadly spoken words evoked. Now was not the time to wallow in his ever-present grief over his own family, lost to the evil of an arsonist's torch. Right now it was someone else's turn to grieve.
Not being privy to his friend's dark thoughts, Josiah went on. "Hell of a place to be makin' friends; not knowing from one moment to the next if one of you was about to die. Guess I was still new enough to the whole thing that I hadn't gone completely numb yet. I'd only joined the Union at the end of March, after the draft was expanded to include men over 25. Nathan, he was an old campaigner of four months."
A grimace of understanding met the spark of irony in Josiah's deep voice. In a life-or-death situation like war, four months could be a lifetime. "So you got drafted, huh?"
"Sort of. I'd suddenly found myself with a lot of time on my hands, so when the age of enlistment went up, I figured I might as well see if I could follow a sergeant's orders any better than I could a priest's."
There was a twitch of interest in Chris' face at that. He knew that Josiah had been thrown out of the priesthood for disobedience and a tendency to get into fights, but now that fact was taking on a whole new dimension. He wondered if there was a connection between the two events but Josiah did not elaborate. Instead he said, "I split the difference and went in as a chaplain. Fought when I needed to fight; helped look after the other boys when the fighting was over."
"Answered Lincoln's call after the Emancipation Proclamation. He was a stretcher-bearer but it didn't take long for him to be needed a lot more as a field doctor." Josiah closed his eyes against a sudden onslaught of images, his voice becoming low and strained. "We weren't even supposed to fight at Chancellorsville. We were on our way to Fredricksburg when word came down that General Hooker had changed our orders."
Chris grimaced. That particular battle had become the stuff of legend practically overnight, one of the biggest Confederate victories to that date. "Worst mistake he ever could've made."
A grunt of agreement filled the half-darkened silence of the little church. "Over 15,000 of our men went down in less than 24 hours. Another 10 on the Reb side. Some victory, huh?" He reached back to retrieve the bottle that had been sitting forgotten on the bench beside Chris and took a swig. "Course I only heard the numbers later on. Right there and then, there was no way to count. I can't even remember now just when I quit fighting and started patching. It seemed like one second I was hunkered down with a rifle in my hands, shooting at some poor soldier boy, and the next I was standing over a table, up to my elbows in blood, doing my damnedest to help piece another boy back together. That's what most of 'em were, you know? Just boys; kids dying before they ever really had a chance to live."
Again, Larabee shifted in his seat and this time the motion did not go unnoticed. "I'm sorry. I guess I shouldn't be talking about this with you."
Instantly defensive, Chris demanded, "Why not?"
Josiah met his hard gaze steadily. "Because I'm obviously stirrin' up bad memories. I can see it, and that wasn't my intention."
The truth of his apology showed clearly in Josiah's deep-set eyes, and slowly the tension eased from Chris' body. "I know. What you intended was to let go of a little pain by sharin' it with a friend. And my intention was to listen so that you could. I'd like to hear the rest if you're still willin' to tell me."
"And maybe you'll let me do the same for you one of these nights."
Chris was not surprised by the gentle offer, but he was a little shocked by the sudden urge that welled up in him to accept it. Not tonight, though. That story would wait for another day. Reaching for the mostly empty bottle Josiah had set on the back of the pew; he sloshed the remaining liquid around. "Next time, and you can provide the pain-killer."
The preacher smiled. "Deal. So, where was I?"
"Just getting to Nathan, I think."
He took a deep breath. "Right..."
The fighting seemed to be all but over now. The constant pounding background noise of rifle cracks and cannon booms had all but disappeared, and the resulting lack made the groans and screams of the wounded seem even louder. Under it all, Josiah could hear the soft litany of prayers mumbling in a constant stream from his own lips; prayers for the souls of the dead and dying; prayers for strength and courage for those who might live. In truth, he hardly knew what he was saying by now. He could have been speeding those souls aloft on the wings of a limerick and he wouldn't have known the difference. Neither would any of the boys he was talking to; and had been talking to for what seemed like hours; for his voice was all but gone; his throat dry and burning from lack of moisture and too much smoke.
"Sanchez! Get your ass over here, we need you!"
He turned to answer the strident order by habit. There was nothing more he could do for this boy anyway. Those pleading eyes had long since glazed over and there were many others; too many; that still needed help.
"Hold him down, Sanchez. This leg's gotta come off and we ain't got any more pain-killer."
By now the horror of this day had receded to a dull ache in Josiah's heart and mind, but a fresh stab of revulsion pierced him as he realized what the other man was saying. This wasn't the first time he had been asked to do something like this. There were few enough able-bodied men to help with the wounded now, and Josiah had a sturdy frame and strong muscles that the field medics could put to use transporting men from the field, setting splintered bone and restraining soldiers against their own pain. Still, that didn't make it any easier to bear as he leaned across this young man's chest, exerting all his strength to keep him still while the boy screamed in agony, doing his best to pull right off the table where he'd been laid.
"It's almost over. You're doin' fine. Everything's gonna be okay."
The reassuring tones, warm and deep with a strong southern drawl filtered into Josiah's tortured ears as they strained for any sound that would take away the reality of what was happening. Opening his clenched eyelids, he looked across to the next patient over. Most of the wounded were being laid out on the ground outside, waiting their turn for attention, and some could be tended right where they lay. The others; men whose wounds required more leverage or room to tend, had been brought inside a tent that had been erected when the cease-fire was finally called.
The words of comfort over the next cot continued in a soft chant, the same sort of rhythmic nonsense that Josiah had been mumbling. He wondered if the young black man speaking those words was any more aware of what he was saying than he himself had been. Vaguely, he remembered seeing the man earlier in the day, standing across from him on the stretcher that had made several trips transporting wounded before he had been pulled aside for another task. Josiah watched the man's large slender fingers moving with deft certainty to remove a bullet from his patient's torn abdomen and admired his control and calm.
The soldier under Josiah's hands jerked; nearly bucking him off, and his muscles tensed to add more strength when he realized that his grip had loosened with his drifting thoughts. Abruptly, the tension under his hands relaxed as the soldier's body went limp. Checking quickly, Josiah's shoulders slumped in relief. Not dead, just passed out from the pain. Exchanging a nod with the battle surgeon sewing up the stump left behind by the amputated leg, he straightened and looked around to see where he should go next.
"I could use some help over here if you're finished."
He turned and his eyes met those of the young black man. He was standing awkwardly, trying to hold a ruptured organ together with one hand and staunch the flow of blood with the other. Josiah hurried over and asked for instruction.
"Hold this here," the other man told him, passing the bloody cloth over for him to press against the wound. "I gotta get this hole sewed up before he bleeds out."
The two men worked together silently for several minutes until satisfied that the man on the table was at least temporarily patched together. The next one was already being brought in as this one was carried out and it was obvious that he would need more care than one man could provide so Josiah stayed where he was. A jagged furrow was ripped open along the patient's leg and his lifeblood was slowly seeping away from two more holes in his chest and arm.
"You sew up the arm and leg and I'll see to the chest," the young medic suggested. "Needle and thread's right there next to you." He must have seen the older man's hesitation, for he added, "You ever sew up a shirt; patch up a ripped out seam, maybe?"
"Yeah, sure," he replied, hands automatically moving to tear away the remains of the soldier's shredded pant leg.
The young man gestured toward the wound. "Same thing here. Just add a couple of stitches in deep to keep the muscle from separatin'. Back stitch it so it don't come loose and then just sew that leg together like a pair o' pants."
It wasn't quite as easy as that, particularly when the 'material' was bleeding all over your hands, but by taking quick glances around him at other operations, Josiah managed to get the leg fixed up, then quickly moved up to the arm and repeated.
"You done a good job, mister," his partner approved as he put in his last stitch. "That'll hold real good."
Throughout the rest of the afternoon and evening, the two men worked steadily. Sometimes side by side, but more often separately, and by the time someone came to relieve Josiah he had all but forgotten about the young medic. His mind had gone completely numb along with his body. He washed his hands after the last wounded man had been removed from the table in front of him, then just stood there, unable to think or move. It was only after he'd been steered outside and pressed to a seat on the ground in front of a small campfire, and had a cup of coffee and some hard-tack put into his hands that he noticed the identity of his caregiver.
The young man smiled, white teeth flashing brightly against his dark skin. "It's always like that the first couple of times. First time I ever got put to work healin' folks, I didn't have the sense of a jackrabbit for two hours after."
"Does it get easier?" Josiah asked, coughing a bit as the words stuck in his dry throat. He took a sip of the hot coffee and added, "You ever get used to it?"
"It gets easier to keep going, 'cause you know you're all those boys got," he replied with a shrug. "But you don't never get used to it." Suddenly he smiled again, this time extending his right hand. "Name's Nathan. Nathan Jackson."
Fumbling the untouched bread into his other hand, he shook. "Josiah Sanchez."
"I don't think I said another word to him that night," Josiah recalled, shaking off his memories to look Chris in the eye. "I just couldn't work up the energy to talk. Only ate because Nathan kept nudging me to and filling up my silence with words of his own. It'd got to be a habit with him by then. Anyway, after a while, I just wandered off and found a place to sleep. Probably could have slept the clock around if it hadn't been for the nightmares."
"I'll bet," Chris said softly. "I don't care what kind of faith a man has. He'd have to be stone cold dead inside not to be bothered by something like that."
"You're right," he agreed. "And my faith was pretty damned bruised by then anyway. I actually resented Nate for being so philosophical. Boy hardly looked old enough to be off his mama's tit and here he was in the middle of a war, snatchin' men back from the jaws of death all day and still having enough energy to look after a stranger and pass out advice."
Larabee grinned. "Guess that's why he and JD get along so well. Even on a bad day that kid's got enough drive for ten people."
That observation met with a chuckle. "Nathan's the same way when he gets a burr under his saddle about something. Turned out that he wasn't quite as untouched by everything as I'd figured though "
Josiah came awake with a strangled shout, struggling out of his blanket and lurching to his feet before he was even fully aware of his surroundings. His heart was hammering and his skin was drenched in sweat, the cries of pain and death still ringing loud in his ears. Slowly, the darkness and quiet around him penetrated his consciousness and he realized that he had been dreaming; reliving the day gone by. Pressing a hand to his chest, he forced himself to breathe deeply and slowly as he looked around. He knew he should try to sleep again, that he would likely need every second of rest he could get on the morrow, but the thought of returning to the grip of those nightmares made him shiver, instantly rejecting the thought.
Movement usually helped settle him after a bad dream, so he quietly picked his way over the huddled, slumbering bodied of fellow soldiers and walked the perimeter of the Union camp. Guards observed his movements but made no protest as he paced along. Small campfires were lit here and there but he had no desire to join the groups of men talking quietly around them. He had a small bottle of whiskey in his pocket, picked up at the last supply stop and all he wanted now was a little solitude in which to drink it.
As he crested the top of a short slope, Josiah spotted a familiar figure. It was Nathan, still sitting almost as Josiah remembered seeing him last, one leg tucked under him and the other pulled up to rest his arms upon. Only now, the young man's cheerful equanimity seemed to have deserted him. His shoulders were slumped and his head was down, every line of his body screaming dejection and pain. Josiah approached, feeling drawn to that silent need, and as he got close enough to see Nathan's face in the faint moonlight he could make out the shiny wetness upon his cheeks.
Taking a seat on the ground, he nudged the boy gently to get his attention. Nathan's tear-filled eyes raised, confusion in their depths until it slowly registered that he was no longer alone. Josiah pressed the bottle into his hand and smiled. "Here, Doc. For medicinal purposes."
Nathan stared at him for a moment, then looked down at the bottle and slowly took a drink. He said nothing as he handed it back, only giving a small nod of thanks. Josiah waited him out, and finally he said, "I told you that you don't get used to it. Sometimes it just takes awhile to sink in."
"You did all you could," the older man told him. "A lot more boys are gonna live to see the dawn because of you."
The other shrugged again, shifting to wrap both arms loosely around his leg. "Not as many as if they'd had a real doc to tend 'em. All I know is what I learned out here these four months gone."
Josiah took a drink then returned the bottle. "We're quite a pair, ain't we? A doctor with no medical background and a preacher with no faith." The young man looked up at that, surprise shaking him out of his melancholy. Josiah nodded. "All we can do is take whatever God gives us and try to do our best with it. We gave our best today and maybe that's all we were supposed to do."
"And what do we get in return for all that givin'?"
"Knowing that we helped somebody?" he suggested. "Maybe a lot of somebodies. People who might help other people somewhere down the line."
Nathan smiled. "Yeah, I like that. If I hadn't learned a little field medicine before now, I might not have known what to do today when those fellas needed me."
"And you wouldn't have been there to show me what to do either," Josiah reminded him.
"Hard to believe you never done that before. You got a real talent in you, Mr. Sanchez. Think you might want to try doctorin' after the war's over?"
Josiah laughed. "Not a chance! I was just trying to piece things together without throwing up my last ten meals today. I'd be just as happy if I never had to doctor anybody else again as long as I live."
With a chuckle, Nathan tossed back another sip from the bottle. "Maybe you're right at that."
"We talked a long time that night, 'bout all kinds of things. Anything and everything, as long as it didn't have to do with the war. That wasn't the last day I spent stitching men back together, or the last time either one of us got beaten down by the whole thing, but it got a little easier after that. Kinda helped us both, havin' a friend to talk things out with."
"And you been friends ever since," Chris noted.
"Yep. You go through something like that side by side; you form bonds that last the rest of your life. Even when we took off in different directions after the war was over; we managed to keep track of one other. Then when Nathan settled into this town a while back he wrote to me. I figured it sounded like as good a place as any to hang my hat for awhile. Turns out it was a lot more than that."
A lazy tug on Larabee's hat brim acknowledged the preacher's statement. Chris felt the same way about the unusual friendship and partnership that had formed among the seven men who kept the peace in Four Corners. "Today the first time you've taken out a bullet since the war?"
Josiah grimaced at the reminder, new worry for his friend rolling over him. "Yeah. I just hope to hell I still knew what I was doing."
Suddenly the sound of gunfire, two shots fired in quick succession, interrupted the conversation. Chris' boots hit the floor with a thud from where he'd had them resting on the back of the seat in front of him. "I told them to fire a couple of shots if there was any change," he said, running for the door of the church with Josiah right on his heels.
By the time they were halfway down the street, the preacher's long legged strides had overtaken those of his companion and he was several steps ahead by the time he reached the stairs leading up to the clinic. His momentum carried him up three steps at a time and when the door unexpectedly opened just as he reached for it, Josiah found himself pitching forward into thin air. Only the quick reflexes of Buck Wilmington prevented an untimely meeting of face and floor.
"Whoa, there partner!" Buck laughed, releasing his arms from around Josiah's torso as the other man regained his footing. The rakish gunman's face split into a huge grin in answer to the slightly embarrassed look on his friend's face. "Y'know, I must be gettin' just too damn handsome for my own good. Usually it's only gals that fall into my arms that way."
"Very funny," Josiah deadpanned, dusting his clothes off in an effort to regain a bit of dignity. "If I ever get that desperate, I expect one of you boys to just shoot me and put me out of my misery."
"Don't say that. If they do then I'll just have all the trouble of stitchin' you back together again," a voice called out weakly.
Josiah's eyes lit up. "Nate!" Shoving his way past the still-grinning Buck, he strode over to the cot where his friend lay. "You all right?"
"Gonna be fine, thanks to you." He glanced down at the quintet of men grinning at him from the foot of his bed and gave them a little nod. "The fellas been tellin' me about what you done today. Looks like I owe you one."
Face alight with both joy and relief, Sanchez rested one large hand against the top of his friend's head. "You don't owe me a thing. Hell, you've patched me up more ways than I can count. Only fair I get a chance to saw on you a little."
Nathan chuckled, the sound soft but genuine. "I s'pose. I'm just glad it was you and not Ezra." He hitched an eyebrow at the smiling gambler. "He still ain't forgiven me for cutting his fancy new shirt into pieces last time he got banged up."
The healer's voice sounded thick and it was obvious from the droop of his heavy lidded eyes that he was fighting the need to sleep. The fact that he felt well enough to trade barbs with his fellow lawmen made Josiah feel as though a half-ton weight had just rolled off his shoulders and it was clear that the others felt just the same.
"Have no fear, Mr. Jackson," Ezra quipped. "I am content to wait until you're well enough to sit a poker table to exact restitution. I suggest you save up your strength for the ordeal." With a wink, he turned to leave, latching on to the sleeves of JD and Buck as he turned toward the door.
"Guess we'll see you tomorrow, Nathan!" Wilmington yelled over his shoulder.
"I'll stop by and see you before I go out on patrol," JD called. "You want me to bring you anything?"
"Hear the store jes' got in a new supply of them dime novels. Pick me out a good one."
A bright grin lit JD's young face as he donned his bowler hat and tipped it in Nathan's direction. "You got it."
As soon as the door was securely closed behind the three departing men, Chris turned back to the patient and smirked. "I thought you said all those books were trash."
Nathan smiled. "Boy don' know that. Give him somethin' else to think about for a while."
The others chuckled and Chris raised a brow toward Vin. "Feel like getting some food?" The younger man nodded and Larabee looked to Josiah. "We'll bring you something back if you want to hold down the fort for a little while."
"Sounds good," the big man agreed. He gave a nearly imperceptible nod, grateful that Chris saw his need to spend a few moments alone with Nathan. Larabee's answering smile was just as slight and just as clearly understood, and as Josiah's eyes met Vin's, he was unsurprised to see the same understanding reflected there.
Nathan's eyes had closed during his friends' exchange and he didn't stir as Josiah checked for fever and whispered a prayer of thankfulness at finding only the slightest level of extra warmth. Taking a seat in the wooden chair recently vacated by Vin, the preacher settled in to guard the other man's slumber. He knew there would be more words exchanged later; a repeat of thanks, a waving off of the same, and plenty of jovial bullying when the stubborn healer started fighting against the restrictions he would have laid on any of his own patients. For now there was silence and the now-welcome memories of days past to keep Josiah company. He smiled as he watched the slow, easy rise and fall of Nathan's breathing. For now it was enough just to know that there would be more days of friendship to come.