by J. Brooks
The rifle barrel panned lazily across the hillside, following the ridgeline. From time to time the weapon paused to line up targets in its sights. A burned-out tree. A scorched boulder. The back of the crazy man's head.
One-Eye tsked regretfully as he drew a bead on the stranger. The big man was still tearing into the hillside as if he expected to find something a lot more valuable on the other side of those rocks than a flattened gambler. Marsh's eyebrows shot up as he watched him send a pair of good-sized boulders flying. Crazy man was strong as an ox.
He took aim again, weighing his options. Clean shot to the back of the head? Boring. He let the rifle sight drift lower, centering on the broad back as it bent to its task. Not much entertainment value in that shot either. He nudged the barrel down, down the spine, down the left leg to the knee that was bent, supporting the man's weight as he crouched to lift another heavy rock.
He squinted, centering the target. Already, he could imagine the recoil against his shoulder, the sulfurous blowback from the old gun barrel, the agonized shriek from the hillside. If the gambling man were here right now, he'd bet him a fistful of dollars that the old fool would stagger back up on his one good knee and keep digging. He wondered what odds the gambler would lay once he shot the stranger's other leg out from under him.
Marsh drew a steadying breath, willing himself not to cough and spoil his aim. He exhaled slowly, held it -- and let his finger tighten on the trigger.
"Bang," he whispered, as the hammer fell with a soft snick over the empty chamber.
Below, the big man kept digging.
Marsh pushed himself away from his lookout post on an undamaged stretch of the mission wall and tossed the empty, fire-warped rifle away with a disgusted sigh. It looked like he was going to have to do this the old-fashioned way.
He took a long drink from the canteen he'd refilled at the mission's debris-clogged well and stared into a sky that was beginning to clear to blue. The sun shone weakly through the lingering smoke, just two hours west of the spot it had been shining when the gambling man first started throwing dynamite around.
Two hours ago, Elias Marsh's world had been damn near perfect. More money than God. Underlings who were smart enough to follow orders but not smart enough to question them. And a reputation that had the whole territory trembling before him.
Gone now. All gone. All his work blasted to nothing by a chance encounter and a clever plan to spread his fame.
One of Marsh's hands crept up to touch the knotted scar tissue that ran up his cheek and across his empty eye socket. His eye patch could join the list of things he'd lost today. Maybe he'd keep it off. Give the next group of stagecoach passengers he met something to stare at in their final minutes.
He tapped the eye socket thoughtfully. If his encounter with the gambler had taught him anything, it was the dreadful folly of leaving anyone alive to tell the tale. There had to be a better way to make people remember his name.
Marsh hefted the serrated kitchen knife he'd liberated from one of the mission's inside rooms -- the only intact weapon in the place. When the time came, he'd carve out the stranger's eyes. That'd give the papers something to write about. No need to leave witnesses behind if anyone who visited the crime scene could tell at a glance that One-Eye had been there.
He cocked his good eye at the stranger still laboring on the hillside. This was getting old. He'd give the crazy man ten more minutes and then he'd carve him to pieces, whether he'd unearthed the gambler or not.
+ + + + + + +
Larabee found Vin pacing the riverbank, watching the opposite shore where the charred ground still glowed ember-hot.
"Sit down 'fore you fall down, Chris," the tracker greeted him quietly, not bothering to turn as Larabee limped up to join him.
"How much longer?" Larabee grunted, sinking down without protest next to a bundle of filthy rags. The bundle stirred, grumbled, and produced a earthenware jug of mescal from somewhere within its depths. A familiar pair of rheumy eyes regarded him over the rim of the jug, before offering it to him.
One fool saved from the flames, at least. Wordlessly, Larabee pried the the jug from old Emilio's clawlike hand. The stuff tasted like flaming turpentine, but it cut through the smoke that clogged his throat and lungs like a dirty wool blanket.
"Not long now. Wind's shifted. Fire's burning itself out," Tanner replied. He nodded to the small knot of villagers who were standing guard over the bridge in a bucket brigade. The plank bridge had come through the fire with nothing worse than a few scorch marks and a broken railing. Chris's battered ribs twinged in sympathy as he stared at the splintered wood.
With a final glare at the smoldering shoreline, Vin lowered himself down beside them. Larabee eyed his friend critically. The tracker's jawline was grossly bruised and swollen, and one of his arms had been splinted and strapped to his chest. Vin met his gaze challengingly, daring him to say anything.
Larabee passed him the mescal without comment and settled back to wait.
+ + + + + + +
"Day of wrath, day of mourning. Heaven and Earth in ashes burning..." Josiah's voice rattled like pebbles in a can. A hoarse counterpoint to boulders grinding against boulders as he worked to clear the way to Ezra. Ezra, who hadn't made a sound since the last coin came flying out of to greet him.
"Almost there Ezra," Josiah reassured the rock wall, digging his fingers around another boulder and wrenching it loose, welcoming the pain of abused muscles and abraded skin. A small measure of the other man's suffering that he could take upon himself.
He jumped back as the rock released a small avalanche of dirt and pebbles, finally clearing a space large enough for him to see into the cave.
For a moment, he simply stared at the opening, reluctant to put his faith to the test.
He rested a hand against the rocks and slowly raised his head to peer into the hole in the hillside. A weak shaft of sunlight filtered into the cave, illuminating a scattered handful of gold coins, awash in red. A pale hand lay outstretched in the blood, as if reaching toward the light.
Oh, please. He knew a hundred prayers in half a dozen languages. Where were the words now? With a frustrated roar, Josiah fell on the rock wall, tearing furiously into the barrier. Dust swirled up to mix with the smoky air and debris showered down upon him, unnoticed.
With a final heave, he broke through, tumbling to his knees next to the still figure on the cave floor.
"Ezra," he whispered, reaching out to touch the bloodied hand. The skin was cold, despite the stifling heat of the cave.
Josiah stared down in utter disbelief, taking Ezra's hand between both of his, trying to force some warmth back into it. Instead, the chill seemed to seep from Ezra's cooling flesh to his, until he was shaking, shaking as if he would never be warm again.
+ + + + + + +
The body was burned almost beyond recognition, crushed and broken by falling rubble. Vin studied it for a long moment, then straightened with a shaky sigh. Turning, he made his way out of the collapsed house and back to the spot where Larabee waited, in the middle of what used to be the village saloon.
The ashes of Vista City drifted around his boots as he walked.
Larabee kept his back to him, trailing a hand across the scorched surface of the old stone bar, the only part of the cantina still standing.
They'd started across the river as soon as the ground cooled from hot embers to warm ash -- on foot, since the horses refused to budge from their refuge in the convent barn. Larabee was the one who had insisted on a quick search of the town. Maybe he'd spotted something through the drifting smoke. Or maybe he just recognized the smell of charred flesh. Vin hoped not.
Vin hadn't wanted to look, hadn't wanted to find that this was as far as Josiah had gotten on his mad quest, and no farther. But if he hadn't searched for bodies, Larabee would have. And it was costing Chris enough just to be in the burned-out village, with his personal nightmare reflected in every smoking doorway.
"Well?" Larabee barked, not turning as Vin crunched closer. It was another mark of the wrongness of this day that he could track the usually soundless tracker's movements by ear.
"Goat," Vin reported, watching Chris's hands slowly relax their death grip on the stone slab. "It was just somebody's goat."
Larabee coughed, nodded jerkily and pushed away from the bar. Vin fell in behind as they walked in silence to the edge of town. Through the smoky haze, they could just make out the distant hill that had been the fire's flashpoint. The ravaged landscape stretched between, mile after lifeless mile.
"Heard Josiah tell once about holy men in India who walk barefoot on burning coals," Larabee said softly.
Vin toed a smoldering tree stump, testing the heat. "Reckon we'll have to ask him how that trick works, when we find him."
They started north, avoiding each other's eyes.
+ + + + + + +
Josiah knelt, too numb to feel much beyond cold shock and the cold hand in his. He rubbed a thumb gently across Ezra's bloodied knuckles, back and forth, worrying them like prayer beads. His own hands, he noted absently, were blistered and blackened, scraped and raw. They'd probably hurt like hell, once the shock wore off.
Everything was going to hurt like hell.
Ezra lay curled on his side, huddled beneath his jacket. With infinite care, Josiah untangled a hand and reached out to tuck the fabric more snugly around the still shoulders. I'm here son, he would have said, if he had any voice left at all. I came for you. Not in time, never in time. But I was here. You weren't alone.
He brushed gently across the dust-matted hair. And not even the blessed numbing cold could protect him from the pain of that contact. Again. He'd let it happen again. He bowed his head, bringing Ezra's hand up to rest against his forehead in a gesture of apology, of utter anguish. Unfair, he wanted to scream until it shook the gates of Heaven. Unfair, these halfway miracles of the Lord.
Darkness flickered at the edges of his vision. No. He jerked upright, breaking the contact. If he let himself truly feel this loss, if he let the pain break through; the pain would break him. He'd curl up on the floor next to Ezra and never move again.
Squaring his shoulders, Josiah braced for one final act of contrition. I'm taking you home, son. He squeezed Ezra's hand reassuringly.
And felt Ezra's fingers tighten in return.
+ + + + + + +
The startled yelp from the cliffside jerked One-Eye out a happy daydream about eyeballs, floating like pickled eggs in a jar. He'd seen something like that in a tavern in St. Louis once. Only it had been ears, swirling around and around in murky vinegar. Souvenirs the bouncer had lopped off rowdy patrons on their way out the door. Young Elias Marsh passed one of the quietest nights of his career in that bar.
Damn, he blinked, noticing the hole in the hill for the first time. When had that happened? Watching the crazy man dig got so boring, he'd plumb lost track of time.
He hefted the carving knife critically, testing the blade's edge against his thumb, smiling as the skin parted in a crimson slit. It'd do.
Knife in one hand, empty rifle in the other, the bandit heaved himself to his feet and made his way down from the mission wall. It was time to dispatch the crazy man and pay his respects to the flattened gambler.
He trailed the tip of the blade along the soot-covered wall, enjoying the grating scrape of steel against stone. At the mission gates, he paused to admire the view. Half the valley lay in smoking ruins, while the other half survived, untouched. Upwind of the blast crater, flowers bloomed and long dry grasses swayed in a breeze that carried the faint scents of dust, sage, and clean, un-burned things.
Marsh coughed wetly, tasting smoke and blood. Oh, if the gambler was still alive in that rathole up the hill, he would make him pay, and pay, and pay again for this, he thought, skirting carefully around the formless lump that had once been his stash of gold coins.
He reached the foot of the hill and started upward, knife flashing in the sun.
+ + + + + + +
Josiah found himself sprawled on his backside, chest heaving as he tried to force air back into his lungs, eyes wide and disbelieving.
Before him, the dearly departed was stirring. Bloodshot green eyes fluttered open, squinting up at him in confusion.
"'Siah?" Ezra croaked. "Why you holdin' my hand?" The gambler frowned and tugged fretfully at the larger fist clamped around his.
Josiah's mouth worked, but no sound came out. He blinked down at the hand in his, feeling the faint bump of a pulse beneath his fingers. Odd. He always figured he'd lose his mind someday, but he thought the madness would creep up on him slowly, stealing his wits a bit at a time -- not in one sudden snap.
Hesitantly, he released the hand and reached out to touch Ezra's face. The skin was warm there, warmer by far than the hand had been. He rested his palm against the younger man's cheek. "Ezra?" He forced the question past his tightening throat.
Ezra suffered the touch with a small, embarrassed smile. "Ezra P. Standish at your service," he whispered. "The P' stands for parched." His gaze slid hopefully to the canteen that lay on the cave floor, maddeningly out of reach.
Josiah caught up the canteen with a shaking hand. He tried to hold it steady for Ezra, carefully raising the injured man's head so he could drink. Standish managed a few sips before slumping back wearily against Josiah's arm.
Josiah kept hold of him, transfixed by the shallow rise and fall of the gambler's chest. Belatedly, other details began to register. He nudged back the gambler's jacket and grimaced at the ruin beneath. Blood had saturated the fine linen shirt, drying hard and black.
Instincts, honed by long hours sitting vigil in Nathan's clinic, kicked in. And suddenly it didn't matter if this was a delusion. All that mattered was that Ezra needed help, and for a wonder, Josiah had been given a second chance to offer it.
"Ezra," he repeated, with more confidence this time, carefully peeling back the stiffened fabric for a better look at the injuries.
"Present," Ezra murmured. "Perforated, parboiled, penned-in, piqued " The litany cut off with a muffled grunt as Josiah probed at the handkerchief that was plugging a jagged hole in Ezra's side. Standish grumbled and swatted at his rescuer as Josiah levered him into a sitting position, searching for more bullet holes.
" Perfectly fine," he concluded, slumping face-first into Josiah's shoulder.
Josiah caught him. "Fine," he repeated, fighting a sudden, terrible impulse to laugh like a loon. Ezra was as far from fine as he'd ever seen the man. He was hurt, exhausted and filthy, and would probably be furious with Josiah, as soon as he recovered enough to remember how hed gotten in that condition.
I can fix this, Josiah thought, a smile blooming on his soot-streaked face. He felt the gambler relax against his shoulder and realized he had been rocking back and forth, whispering nonsense -- the way he used to soothe Hannah when she was small and her nightmares could be banished with a hug and a glass of water. This time, this once, I can set things right.
And that would be a fine thing indeed.
+ + + + + + +
Without proper supplies, it didn't take long to tend Ezra's injuries. In all, the gambler sported three new holes and a shallow graze across his shoulder that would probably need stitches.
The nearest needle and thread, Josiah realized glumly, was probably at the convent. The muscles in his legs twitched in protest at the very thought. This rescue, he was ready to concede, could have been better planned.
He rocked back on his heels and aimed his most reassuring smile at Ezra. Ezra arched a skeptical eyebrow in response, not buying it.
"You made a hell of a mess outside, boy," Josiah said with a cough, glancing around the cave in a transparent attempt to change the topic. "Where'd you get the dynamite?"
Ezra shot him a bleary version of his usual look of wounded innocence. He pointed an unsteady finger toward a crate that had been half-crushed in the rock fall, its seams split and leaking old packing straw over the floor. He made a vague gesture that encompassed the crate, the broken shovel on the floor and the wide world beyond the cave entrance. His hand flopped weakly back to his chest. Enough said.
"I see. Good thinking," Josiah said, patting the gambler's shoulder gently. Ezra gave him a small exhausted smile as his eyes slid closed.
The preacher edged over for a closer look at the crate. A lone stick of ancient dynamite poked out of the rubble like a sinister exclamation point. Swallowing hard, Josiah stripped off his shirt, wrapped it around the unstable explosive and lifted it gingerly away from its bed of tinder and shrapnel.
"Be right back Ezra," he called over his shoulder as he eased his way toward the mouth of the cave, holding the bundle at arm's length.
Squinting against the bright afternoon sunlight, Josiah kept his head down, watching his step as he gingerly picked his way down the steep hill.
The voice caught him off guard, a moment before a rifle butt caught him on the side of the head.
+ + + + + + +
"How do, crazy man," One-Eye greeted as he cracked the gun across the stranger's skull with enough force to fell an ox.
He stepped back, waiting for the big man to topple over and clear the path to the gambler.
Except ... the big man didn't fall.
Marsh gulped and took another step back, raising the knife defensively as the stranger staggered, but kept his feet. The big man shook his head slowly, like a bull set to charge. His head came up, fixing Marsh with a red-rimmed glare that burned hotter than the fire ever had. His hand shot out, knocking the knife flying and knotting on Marsh's collar. Marsh let out a strangled squawk as the stranger jammed a cloth-wrapped bundle down the front of his shirt and gave him an almighty shove.
Ice-blue eyes watched impassively as the bandit somersaulted downhill, turning away as Marsh hit a boulder with jarring force; bouncing once...twice...
The unstable dynamite detonated on the third bounce.
The concussion from the blast caught Josiah at the mouth of the cave and flung him inside. A fireball bloomed, then fizzled on the ashes of the first blaze, leaving nothing but a jagged crater to testify to the fact that One-Eye Marsh had once blackened the land.
+ + + + + + +
Two figures stood frozen in the middle of an ash field, waiting for the last echoes of the explosion to roll through the valley and fade away.
In the silence that followed, Vin stepped away from yet another charbroiled goat carcass and stared up at the smoke rising from the hills ahead. Could be anyone, he reminded himself sternly. Prospectors, railroad crews, the damn Marsh gang. Not every explosion in the world had Ezra Standish somewhere near the center of it.
He looked over, but Chris had turned his back again, watching the smoke.
"Ezra?" Vin prompted, squelching a childish impulse to stay silent, as if the name was a wish that wouldn't come true if he said it out loud.
"Idiot," Chris agreed.
Vin started to say something else, but Larabee was already stomping away, spitting insults at the column of smoke as it was caught by the wind and smeared harmlessly across the sky. He kicked a smoldering log out of his way, cursing in a voice worn hoarse by smoke and water and hours of coughing. A few words drifted back to Vin.
Vin fell in behind, smiling for all the same reasons Chris was swearing. Because for the first time since all hell broke loose, he could let himself think beyond the next step, the next lump on the landscape that was probably a goat but looked, from a certain angle, like a man. For the first time, he could think ahead to what they might find on the other side, and hope.
He glanced over at Chris and the smile faded. All the hope had burned out of Chris Larabee years ago.
This wasn't the first time the man had followed a smoke trail in the sky, trying to convince himself that he'd be met on the other side with welcome-home hugs and sheepish smiles and a story about a spectacularly burnt casserole or a barn fire at the neighbor's place.
Don't know how you bear it, he thought, watching Larabee's stiff back, wondering how either of them was supposed to bear it if he was wrong about what was waiting for them beyond the smoke this time.
Maybe Larabee had the right of it. Some thoughts were best left to nightmares and the bottom inches of whiskey bottles. He dropped his gaze and concentrated on the uneven ground before him. One foot after the other, until they were close enough to smell the sulfur from the blast, acrid through the lingering wood smoke.
Vin walked faster, ignoring the way each step jarred his splinted arm.
Closer now, and there was a low haze of dust and yellowish smoke drifting out of the valley ahead, swirling around an old mission with scorch marks and dynamite scars on its walls.
And there was Josiah, standing in the middle of the ruin with smoke curling around his knees. Just standing there, with his shoulders slumped and a canteen dangling forgotten in his hand; looking for all the world like a statue somebody had chipped out of coal tar and slammed into a wall a few dozen times.
Vin sprang forward and collided with Chris, who hadn't moved. He shouldered around him and started after Josiah, who simply watched him come, his expression unreadable under the mask of soot and blood. Vin found himself slowing instinctively, approaching the big man as he would any wounded wild thing.
"'Ey, Josiah," he said softly. He reached out and latched on to the filthy fabric of the preacher's jacket, just to be sure.
Josiah looked down at the hand on his arm, then up at him. Blistered lips moved soundlessly in the shape of Vin's name. Vin nodded, blinking hard, knowing there were things he should probably be saying right now and questions he should probably be asking. But all he could do was nod and grin like a fool, because he hadn't even let himself hope they'd find Josiah safe.
A bright white smile broke through the grime and Vin found himself pulled into a hard hug that reeked like a thousand mesquite barbecues. He barely had time to catch his breath or his balance before Josiah's full weight came crashing down on him.
+ + + + + + +
Ezra woke, and wished he hadn't.
He tilted his head far enough to glimpse the darkening blue of the sky outside the cave. Almost dusk. He'd promised himself that he would only have to wait until sunset to leave the cave, find some water, and be on his way. Surely `almost dusk' was close enough?
He rolled slowly up on his good arm, shaky and breathless from that small effort.
Something glittered on the floor at his fingertips. Ezra blinked owlishly at the coin for a moment, then pocketed it.
Another coin flashed, a bit closer to the cave entrance. Evidence. Hard proof of One-Eye's sins. Heaven help him if any of the bandit's gold went astray. The others would never believe he'd simply thrown the money away. He could scarcely credit it himself.
Three coins later, he collapsed at the mouth of the cave, wheezing. Water. He'd give every gold coin in his pocket for a glass of water. Hadn't there been water around at some point? He had a vague, mortifying memory of Josiah propping him up and offering the last tepid dregs from the canteen. And had there been hugging afterward? Good Lord.
There was no sign of Josiah now. Nor, more importantly, the canteen.
A final push propelled him out of the cave to sprawl on the gravel slope. Much better, he though smugly, closing his eyes against the too-bright sunshine. The sound of voices below caught his drifting attention. Odd. That sounded just like--
He turned his head sluggishly and spotted Larabee below, pawing at the dead outlaws who lay scattered around the mission gate. Don't touch the Marsh gang, Mr. Larabee. You don't know where they've been.
He blinked the scene back into focus and spied Josiah unconscious on the ground with an agitated Vin beside him, staring up at Ezra. Without breaking eye contact, the tracker scooped up a handful of gravel and winged it at Larabee. When the gunslinger rounded on him, he pointed.
Ezra waved lazily back.
Larabee abandoned the corpses and barreled uphill
He did not appear to be carrying a canteen.
Ezra closed his eyes with a discouraged sigh.
+ + + + + + +
The nuns were too polite to say the word, but it was written all over their faces as they rolled into the valley half an hour later to find two men with three good arms between them arguing about how best to carry two unconscious deadweights all the way back to the convent.
"My sons," Mother Superior greeted them dryly as she climbed down from a mule cart loaded with blankets, medical supplies, a sloshing cask of water, and two more nuns.
"Sisters," Vin replied serenely, as if nuns rode to his rescue every day of the week. "Much obliged."
Larabee shot him a suspicious look. Somebody would have had to tell the search party where to start searching. Before he could work out whether he was grateful, or irritated that he hadn't thought of it himself, the sisters had set to work. Moving with military precision, they lit a fire, spread blankets, laid out supplies and descended on the injured men, tsking.
Vin's easy smile fell as one of the nuns eyed him speculatively, fingers twitching toward a roll of bandages. He backed away, muttering something about scouting the rest of the valley.
Larabee held his ground, sinking down between the injured men, content to let someone else take the rescue from here. He watched numbly, as if from a great distance, as the nuns bustled around him. When they pressed something into his hands, he drank. When they asked for his help, he pinned Ezra's arms down for them.
"It's okay, you're okay..." he heard himself saying over and over, not sure if he was trying to convince Ezra or himself.
"I...most certainly...am not," Ezra gritted back, twisting his wrists sharply, trying to break free. He rolled glazed eyes toward the two nuns poking at his injuries. "I've died...and gone to Josiah Hell."
"You're okay," Larabee insisted, tightening his grip.
He glanced down, but Ezra was unconscious again, pale and shivering cold. Mother Superior touched his arm and murmured something about flesh wounds and blood loss and shock.
Beside them, the third nun was emptying yet another basin of water stained back by the grime she had sluiced off the preacher. It should have been easier to look at Josiah now, with his face scrubbed pink and his blistered hands wrapped out of sight. It wasn't.
Chris turned away and stared out over the ruined valley. He could see Vin pacing off distances between bodies and blast craters, trying to work out what had happened. He swallowed hard as Tanner approached a burned crate and casually shoved aside a stiffened corpse. He tightened his hold on Ezra, trying to blot out the memory of charred flesh crumbling to powder at his touch.
Upwind were the hills the fire never touched. The yellow grasses swayed in the light breeze and a few hardy wildflowers still turned their faces to the setting sun. That was the way of fires. A shift in the wind, a twist of fate, and some escaped while others burned. He shoved the thoughts away. Later, much later, he might let Buck drag him down to Purgatorio to smash up a few saloons while he raged against the injustice of it all. Later.
Josiah coughed and mumbled something that sounded like an apology. Chris watched the nuns settle the hurting man -- trying to reconcile the sight of Josiah laying there pink and alive with the image he'd been carrying all day of Josiah dying alone, in flames.
Chris coughed, and tasted ashes. With his free hand, he fished a battered cheroot out of his pocket and stared at it tiredly.
There was a scrape and a hiss as a match flared to life above him. He looked up to find Vin offering him a crooked smile and a light. He accepted the light, but couldn't work up the energy to return the smile.
He took a deep, appreciative drag of the aromatic smoke -- ignoring the expressions on the nuns' faces as he immediately doubled over, coughing. Once he got his breathing under control, he leaned back, studying Vin over the controlled burn.
He'd beaten the fire this time. He'd gotten two of his own back from the flames.
And he was going to sit here and listen to Josiah snore and feel the bump of Ezra's pulse against his fingers until he believed it.
+ + + + + + +
Josiah startled awake, looking around wildly at the familiar walls of his sister's room. A parade of gray chalk nuns beamed down at him from the plaster three inches from his nose.
"Wha--?" he began, as another coughing fit took him and he curled up, choking for air.
A pair of strong hands propped him up, rubbing his back and offering him a cup of something that smelled so foul it had to be healthful.
"Easy there, Josiah. Nice steady breaths. You just relax, now."
Nathan's voice. Nathan? Josiah choked on the herbal brew, blinking up at the healer through streaming eyes.
Nathan grinned. Then fussed. Josiah slumped back against the pillows, letting the familiar cadences of Nathan's lecture wash over him as the healer fiddled with the mustard plaster on his chest and the bandages wrapped around his hands.
He hurt, but whatever had been steeped in the tea had reduced the pain to a distant, annoying buzz. He patted Nathan's arm gently in thanks and let his gaze wander the room, following the chalky line of nuns until he came to Chris Larabee's head. The man slumped in the corner of the room under a mound of blankets, his head lolling against the frescoes. But his eyes were open, watching Josiah with the desperate, unblinking stare of a man trying to avoid the darkness on the other side of his eyelids.
Josiah nodded, wishing he had breath or words for the apology he owed.
Larabee nodded back. Which, Josiah figured, was as close as they were ever going to get to a heart-to-heart discussion of the events of the other day.
Belatedly, he noticed Hannah crouched beside Larabee, a bouquet of black and gray chalk sticks clutched in one hand, dividing her efforts between dabbing at the wall and adding to the collection of chalk streaks on Larabee's face. She stared intently at the lawman, holding up her thumb like a sculptor trying to get the measure of a model, then added a dramatic smudge of black to the end of Chris's nose. Larabee gave a resigned sigh, but made no move to wipe off the chalk.
"Hannah," Mother Superior scolded again. "Let the poor gentleman rest."
The nun rose from her chair near the door and nudged Hannah away from the exhausted man and back to her painting. Only a rough sketch so far, but Josiah's heart sank as he recognized the yellow outline of a halo and a few strokes of red. Saints again. Oh, Hannah, no, he wanted to say. Not again, not today.
Josiah closed his eyes, not wanting to see another martyr take shape on the wall. He and the Mother Superior were going to have words about these sleeping arrangements, as soon as he got his voice back.
There was a soft snore from below and Josiah rolled to the edge of the bed, unsurprised to find Vin stretched out asleep on a bedroll on the floor, chalk streaks all over his face. That only left...
Nathan broke off mid-sentence and turned toward a cot wedged next to Larabee. Hannah was already moving, dropping her chalks with a clatter as she rushed to the bedside.
Ezra let out a feeble gargle as Hannah whipped a dripping cloth out of a basin and swiped it across his face. Mother Superior stepped in again.
The gambler scooted away from the women, bracing himself against the wall and staring wildly around the room, trying to get his bearings.
Josiah shook off Nathan's restraining hands and pushed himself higher on the cot, trying to catch Ezra's eye. The younger man spotted him and froze, staring hard. Whatever he read in Josiah's eyes seemed to satisfy him, and he allowed the Mother Superior to settle him back in bed, half-asleep before he hit the mattress.
Nathan turned back to Josiah and read the questions in his eyes. "Ezra's gonna be fine, just needs to rest up and get his strength. Same as the rest of you."
Josiah frowned, unconvinced. Another thought struck him and he tapped Nathan's chest, one eyebrow cocked inquiringly.
"You wondering were I came from?" the healer grinned. "Your damn horse wandered back to Four Corners on its own. Rest of us set off after you and ran into the messenger the sisters sent out."
Vin stirred on his makeshift bed, then settled back to sleep. Nathan paused to tuck the blankets back up around the sleeping man's shoulders, then picked up the story again.
"Buck `n' JD're around here someplace, helping the villagers. They've already started rebuilding Vista City -- on this side of the river. Nuns say this is the third time in ten years the town's burned down."
He shook his head at the idea that anyone would bother rebuilding Vista City even once.
"We sent for the Army to come clear away the Marsh gang and their mess," Nathan continued.
"Only way we could get Ezra to stop throwing them gold coins around was to give `em to the villagers. Figured we'd save the army boys the trouble of scraping together a reward," Nathan glanced over at Standish and laughed softly. "You should hear the plans they're making for the new saloon."
Hannah took one final, satisfied swipe at Ezra with the cloth and moved back to her picture, murmuring nonsense under her breath. Josiah blinked suddenly as he realized the chalk saint was wearing a red jacket and a low-crowned riverboat gambler's hat.
Mother Superior followed his gaze. "At first, I thought she was drawing Saint Augustine," she said, dubiously. Josiah let out a raspy chuckle. Augustine, author of Hannah's favorite prayer: Give me chastity, O Lord...but not yet.
"But now..." The nun waved to another figure on the wall, dressed all in black with a halo of blond hair. Two more rough sketches, one with long hair and one Josiah easily recognized as himself, were taking shape nearby.
Nathan snorted. "Don't look like saints to me."
The nun smiled knowingly. "It's a work in progress."