by Angie

Since my beta has been out of town a lot recently, I let this one go beta free. Any typos are mine and mine alone. Helpful comments are always appreciated.

It was definitely not the best weather to be traveling by stage. Seasonal storms were racing across the desert and kicking off torrential rains and lightning. The skies were filled with ominous, dark clouds.

The stage rolled into Four Corners and the driver got down and called to the passengers inside. “This is as far as we go until the storm passes! I’ll get you all rooms in the hotel and then I’ve got to get these horses into shelter!”

A loud roll of thunder echoed overhead as the older couple climbed down from the stage. The man wrapped his arm around the woman and guided her quickly to the boardwalk to get her out of the rain. Buck and JD helped the couple up and JD guided them toward the hotel, promising to return for their baggage.

The driver reached back into the coach and steadied a young woman as she stepped down. Buck hurried down to help her. She turned from his outstretched arm to reach back into the coach for something.

From the doorway of the saloon, Ezra observed the goings on up the street. He smiled at first when the woman turned from the ladies man but quickly frowned as he saw what she held when she turned back.

“She’s blind!” The words were out of his mouth before he realized it and Chris looked up at him from his chair.

“How do you know, Ezra?”

“The white cane. They use them to get around and to let people know that they can’t see.” The southerner answered as he moved away from the doorway and started down the boardwalk.

The driver turned the woman and steered her hand onto the outstretched arm. She allowed Buck to assist her onto the boardwalk before introducing herself.

“Thank you, my name is Abigail McKinney. Can you direct me to the hotel?”

Buck stood, dumbstruck, as he took in the small, dark lenses in the glasses she wore. His eyes swept out to the white cane she held in her right hand. Ezra appeared at his side and spoke softly as he touched her arm.

“Miss McKinney, Ezra Standish at your service. Allow me to guide you to the hotel. The proverbial cat seems to have gotten Mr. Wilmington’s tongue. The wall on your right runs the length of the block and the boardwalk is approximately four feet wide. There is no railing at the edge.”

While Buck continued to stand and stare after the woman, the coach driver set her bags on the boardwalk. When Ezra and the woman disappeared into the hotel, he snapped out of his reverie and gathered the bags.

Ezra requested that the woman be given a room on the first floor and placed the key in her hand as he turned her from the desk. Buck heard the gambler as he explained the layout of the hotel lobby and took her to the corner of the hall that led to her room. He watched as she tapped the baseboard with her cane as she walked.

Arriving at the room, she felt the brass number and unlocked the door with the key. She moved hesitantly into the room, using the cane to avoid the furniture. Ezra followed her in and explained the layout of the room as Buck set the bags on the top of the dresser. Abigail turned toward the two men with a warm smile on her face as she thanked them for their help. Ezra took Buck by the arm and nudged him out of the room before closing the door.

They were almost back to the saloon before the ladies man found his voice.

“She’s blind?”

The southerner chuckled, “A most astute observation, Mr. Wilmington. Did you also notice that it’s raining?”

A pair of guffaws sounded from the youngest members of the group. JD had been doing a fair imitation of the look on Buck’s face causing Vin to laugh. Chris tipped his head up and studied his oldest friend before addressing the conman.

“How did you know what to do, Ezra?” The blond had noticed immediately how well the gambler had handled the situation.

“I’ve been around blind people before, Mr. Larabee. There isn’t really anything special about tending to a blind person. They need to be informed of their environment but they are quite capable of navigating for themselves.”

+ + + + + + +

Abby changed out of her wet clothes and put her belongings in the closet. The driver had said that they might be here for as long as a week. She needed to send a wire and let the hospital know that she had been delayed. Running her hands one last time over her hair and clothes, she took up her cane and started out of the room.

The desk clerk rushed around and took her by the arm as soon as he saw her. The very nervous young man guided her to the counter. She smiled gently in his direction as she explained that she needed to send a telegraph. The man stammered that he couldn’t leave the desk but that he would get someone to take her.

Seeing the hotel clerk looking in their direction, Buck walked back down the boardwalk.

“Buck, can you escort the blind lady to the telegraph office? I can’t leave the desk.”

“Sure thing, kid. I’ll take her.” He followed the clerk into the lobby. The woman had changed her clothes. The periwinkle blue dress set off her fair complexion and she had left off the dark glasses. He could see that her eyes were a very pale shade of blue.

“Miss McKinney? Lester said that you need to send a telegram?”

“I do. And you are?” She took a couple of steps toward him and stopped just out of arms reach. Her cane was held perpendicular to the floor as she stood before him.

“Buck Wilmington.”

“You lost your cat?” Her voice and her expression held a teasing note and Buck blushed.

“Forgive me. I’ve never been around anyone who was …” His voice trailed off.

“Soaking wet?” She offered with the teasing tone again.

He chuckled as his face colored more brightly.

“You can say the word, Mr. Wilmington. I’m blind. I have cataracts in my eyes. I’m on my way to San Francisco where a doctor thinks he can treat them.”

“I’m sorry, I don’t mean to offend you.”

“I’m not offended. I understand that a lot of people are uncomfortable around blind people. I’m used to it.”

“Okay, so what do I do?”

She smiled again and took another step toward him. “Place my left hand on your right arm and I’ll walk with you.”

Taking the offered hand, he guided it onto his arm and turned with her toward the door. He turned left and led her toward the telegraph office. At the end of the block, he stopped and warned her about the steps. She probed the depth of the step with her cane and stepped down. He led her across to the next set of steps and she stepped up without incident.

After she had delivered her message to the telegraph clerk and paid for the service, she turned to Buck. “Is there a restaurant where I might have lunch?”

“I’d be honored if you’d have lunch with me,” Buck offered as he took her hand again.

There was an awkward moment when the food arrived. Buck was certain that he should help her but he didn’t know what to do. Her fingers touched the edge of the plate and found her napkin. Reaching farther out, she found her water glass and moved it slightly.

“Can I help you with something?” The ladies man asked nervously.

“If you imagine that the plate is a clock and the top is 12, just tell me where things are in relation. It’s really easy.”

After he explained it to her, they continued with the meal. She made polite conversation as she ate. He noticed that she was very careful with her food. When they had finished, he invited her to go for a walk. There wasn’t much to do and there weren’t too many places to go while it was raining but he didn’t want her to leave just yet.

They ended up on the glider that Mary Travis had set outside of her office. Mary and Billy had taken the stage earlier that week to visit a friend of the newswoman. Buck was amazed at how animated Abby was when she spoke. He found himself staring at her. The storm continued to dump large amounts of water on the ground, but the wind had died down so that they could sit on the boardwalk without getting soaked.

At one point in their discussion, Abby lifted her head and turned it slowly. Suddenly, she reached for her cane and came to her feet.

“We have to get inside!” Panic was etched on her face as she reached for Buck.

“What’s wrong? Abby?” He took her hand and led her back toward the hotel.

They had scarcely taken three steps when the lightning struck the top of the church tower. A horrendous explosion ripped through the air as the small steeple and a section of the roof exploded. Buck wrapped his arm around the woman as the shock wave struck them, throwing both into the wall.

A sharp pain caused Buck to gasp as he sagged against the woman. Peripherally, he was aware of other voices and hands touching him as he collapsed to the boardwalk. The voice he was most focused on was the one attached to the soft hand that gripped his.

“You’re going to be all right. Don’t move!” Abby had allowed Buck to pull her down as he fell. She knew something was terribly wrong and all she could do was try to keep him calm. Another set of hands arrived and an unfamiliar voice began asking questions.

“Buck? Where do you hurt? Buck? Talk to me!” Nathan looked at the woman kneeling at his side. He had already heard about the blind woman who had fascinated the ladies man. “Ma’am, I need to turn him over.”

Abby nodded as she tried to move out of the way. She found herself being pulled to her feet and guided away from the fallen man. Her hand was placed on another arm and she clung to it. The wool coat was familiar. “Ezra? What happened?”

“Lightning struck the church tower and it exploded. It would appear that Mr. Wilmington caught a piece of shrapnel in his back. Fear not, Mr. Jackson is most skilled at repairing whatever damage seems to befall us. Allow me to take you back to your room. I will inform you of his condition as soon as Mr. Jackson has completed his ministrations.”

Before they could move away, Buck opened his eyes and called for her. Abby pulled away from Ezra and moved with uncanny accuracy to his side. He caught her outstretched hand as she knelt at his side.

“Don’t go! Please?” His hand tightened on hers until she winced under his grip. She began to shake her head.

“No, I won’t go. Lay still and let Mr. Jackson tend to you. I’ll be right here.”

“Buck? We gotta get you up to the clinic. Do you think you can stand?” The healer was concerned for the amount of blood he was losing and needed to assess the damage under more sanitary conditions. Josiah and Chris moved forward to lift the injured man to his feet. He lost his grip on Abby and resisted their effort to move him.

“Come on, Buck, we need to get you to the clinic,” Chris’s voice held a mix of anger and fear as he cajoled his injured friend. Ezra moved to help.

“I’ll escort Miss McKinney to the clinic. You go along with them Mr. Wilmington.” As the southerner spoke, Abby reached out and caught his arm.

They struggled to get Buck up the stairs, as he was unable to bear weight on his legs. When they reached the clinic, they placed him on his stomach on the bed. Nathan moved to wash his hands before examining the shrapnel imbedded in Buck’s back.

Ezra retrieved Abby’s cane and led her to the clinic. He pulled off his jacket and draped it around her shoulders as they stepped out of the shelter of the boardwalk. She moved confidently, trusting the southerner not to let her run into anything. When they reached the top of the stairs, he steered her into the clinic and settled her in a chair.

It was an ugly wound and Josiah flinched when he realized that what they were seeing was a piece of the old iron cross that had topped the church. The metal was buried in Buck’s back, just below his ribs. The metal had been hot when it hit him and had cauterized the skin but the damage had been worsened by his collapsing onto his back and driving it deeper.

“Get him undressed, Josiah. Chris, I need hot water. JD, if you’re gonna stay, you gotta stay calm, understand?” Nathan looked at the boy and waited for the slight nod. The last thing he needed was for the kid to get hysterical or fall out on him while they were tending to Buck. Vin guided JD to the cot and the two of them sat quietly, the tracker’s arm resting across the younger man’s shoulders. Ezra remained at Abby’s side as he watched Josiah removing the sodden clothing.

The motion of removing his clothes roused Buck and he winced and hissed in pain. His hand swung around and connected soundly with the headboard as he fought to lie still. Josiah had removed the shirt and boots and was about to remove his pants when his eyes fell on the woman. He stopped and looked at Nathan and then pointedly at Abby.

“Gentlemen, Miss McKinney cannot see Mr. Wilmington. Please continue with your work. You’re in no danger of offending her sensibilities.”

Abby turned her face up toward Ezra with a questioning expression.

“I believe that Mr. Sanchez was about to protest your presence as he is about to render Mr. Wilmington nearly naked on the bed.”

Something between relief and embarrassment crossed her face before she nodded. Josiah continued with his work and quickly placed a quilt over Buck. Chris arrived with a bucket of hot water and set it on the stove in the corner. Nathan sighed deeply before he moved to examine the wound again. The metal was fused to the skin on one side and had torn away on the other side. He tested the depth of the wound and found that the metal had hit a large vein. The heat had partly cauterized the vein but it was still pumping a large amount of blood with each beat of Buck’s heart. Attempting to grasp the vein with a clamp, Nathan felt his patient writhe and heard the cry of pain.

“Can you stand this just a little longer, Buck? I need to stop the bleeding and then I’ll give you something for the pain.” The healer had both hands in the wound and didn’t want to have to stop and go through washing his hands again.

“Hurry, Nathan, please?”

Abby shifted on the chair and a hand rested lightly on her shoulder. She grasped the hand and squeezed it. Her stomach was tied in knots from not knowing what was happening. She could hear the heavy breathing and smell the fear sweat that poured from the men in the room. The hand on her shoulder had a slight tremor.

The vein disappeared into the muscle when Nathan tried to get the clamp on it. He looked up and Josiah reached out tentatively to offer assistance. When he managed to get hold of the troublesome bleeder, Nathan passed a piece of thread around it and tied it off. He breathed a sigh of relief and sat back for a moment.

“Chris, get the bottle of laudanum and bring it with a spoon. Are you still with me, Buck?” He glanced toward the headboard to see that the ladies man had finally passed out. “Never mind with the laudanum, let’s just get this out of his back.”

It took several minutes to remove the imbedded metal and clean and close the wound. They then wrapped it securely in bandages and turned him onto his back. A tremendous sigh of relief passed around the room as Nathan washed his hands.

“What now?” JD asked from the quiet corner.

“Now we wait. It’s for sure he’s gonna run a fever. That piece had a lot of rust on it. You all might as well get some rest. Josiah and I can take the first watch.”

Chris stood and moved toward the bed. He reached out and rested his palm over Buck’s heart feeling the strong, steady rhythm under his hand. Casting a glance at Vin and JD, he moved aside. The two younger men moved in and JD sank to the edge of the bed and picked up the large, still hand. Vin lightly massaged the kid’s shoulders until he nodded and eased off of the bed. The three of them stepped out of the clinic and headed for the saloon.

A light squeeze on her shoulder brought Abby to her feet and she was guided to the bed. She sat carefully on the bed and touched Buck’s hand. She drew a shuddering breath before she lost control of the tears that she had been holding back. A handkerchief was pressed into her hand and she dried her eyes. Lifting her head, she searched for the healer.

“May I stay, just for a little while? Until he wakes up again?”

Nathan questioned Ezra with a glance and he shrugged.

“I don’t see as it will hurt anything. I’ll leave you with Josiah while I get a bite to eat. Ezra can come back for you in an hour or so.” Nathan watched the woman closely to gauge her reaction. She nodded.

Pulling Ezra’s jacket from her shoulders, she returned it and shivered slightly. Josiah moved to get a blanket to drape around her as the other two men left the room. When he returned with the blanket, Abby had moved closer to the head of the bed and had stretched out her trembling hands toward Buck’s face. Her fingertips danced lightly over the contours of the handsome face, smiling as she encountered the mustache. The blanket touched her shoulders and she wrapped it around herself.

“Can you tell me what happened out there?” Josiah asked as he moved to sit where he could see her face.

“We were just sitting on the glider. I felt the tingle in the air and we got up to go inside. I heard the crash and he shielded me. A moment later, he collapsed against me.”

In his mind’s eye, Josiah could see the glider. It had been completely demolished by the larger section of the cross and the top of the steeple. They would have to make some major repairs to the wall in front of the Clarion office because of the damage.

“You say you felt a tingle? You actually felt the lightning that was coming?” His voice was incredulous.

“It makes my hair crackle and my skin tingles. I just knew it was going to happen and that it was going to be bad. If I had spoken sooner …”

“Wasn’t your fault,” Buck whispered. He opened his eyes and looked at the woman sitting at his side. He raised a trembling hand and touched her arm. “Just as long as you weren’t hurt. Are you okay?”

“I’m fine. You seem to have taken the brunt of the damage. How do you feel?”

“It hurts. Josiah, did Nathan leave any of that God-awful tea?”

A chuckle escaped before Josiah could catch it, “No, he left the laudanum for you. Do you want me to see if I can whip up a batch of the tea?”

Buck laughed and groaned in pain. “Don’t make me laugh, Josiah.”

“I owe you my life,” Abigail whispered.

“I think you got that backwards, darlin’. If you hadn’t insisted that we move, I have a feeling this would have been a lot worse.”

His hand reached out and engulfed hers and gave it a gentle squeeze. She smiled as a soft blush crept into her face. Josiah returned with the laudanum and a spoon. A few minutes later, the hand holding hers went limp and Buck’s soft snore filled the silence. Her hands moved lightly over the blankets, smoothing them over his chest as she smiled.

Ezra returned to escort her back to her room. He draped a jacket around her shoulders as she stood. After sliding her arms into the sleeves, she tucked her hand over his arm. The cold rain and wind assaulted them as soon as they stepped out of the door. It took only a few minutes for them to reach her room. Abigail removed the jacket and returned it as she moved across the room to her closet.

“Would you like me to have a supper tray brought up for you?” Ezra asked as she pulled on a sweater.

“Supper? What time is it?” Abigail asked with a confused expression.

“Nearly seven, you’ve been sitting in the clinic longer than you realized.”

A sudden flash of lightening and an immediate burst of thunder caused the blind woman to jump and she tripped over her cane and the leg of the dresser. She fell hard on the area rug in the center of the floor. Ezra moved to help her until he caught the angry glare on her face. He couldn’t help but smile as his hand froze less than a foot from her elbow.

“May I offer you a hand, Miss McKinney?”

“No, thank you, Mr. Standish. I have been introduced to the floor on other occasions and I’m familiar with the process.”

Abigail got to her feet and swept around her with the cane. Immediately orienting herself in the room, she ran her hand over her hair and took a deep breath.

“I would rather go to the restaurant, I don’t want to be alone here with that storm raging outside. I know it’s silly, but thunderstorms really scare me,” she admitted ruefully.

“Then, may I escort you to supper?” Ezra asked as he stepped close.

Vin and JD were at one of the tables and Ezra guided Abigail in that direction.

“Gentlemen, may we join you?”

“Sure, Ezra. How was Buck when you left him?” JD’s voice was tinged with worry.

Guiding Abigail’s hand to the back of the chair, Ezra kept hold of her elbow until she was seated. He took the chair next to hers and sat down.

“He was sleeping when I saw him, JD. Have you been to the clinic yet?”

“No, Josiah said to wait a few hours. He really didn’t tell me how badly Buck was hurt.”

“He woke up briefly while I was with him. He was in some pain, but he spoke with me and with Josiah before taking some medicine for the pain. He seemed to be all right,” Abigail offered.

“Thanks, Ma’am. That’s good to hear.”

She could almost feel the young man’s discomfort when she raised her face and turned toward him. Her sensitive ear picked up on the tight breathing. She lowered her head quickly. The waitress arrived at the table and told them the choices available for the meal. After placing her order, Abigail lapsed into silence.

Vin studied the woman carefully. She was clearly uncomfortable. He shifted in his chair and she appeared startled. Ezra saw the tight motion of her hand as she searched for the cane and he looked around the table.

“Forgive me, Miss McKinney, I should have introduced you to our dinner companions. To your right is JD Dunne, our sheriff and directly across from you is Vin Tanner. They make up part of the group of men responsible for the safety of our little town.”

“I didn’t realize he was there, he startled me,” she whispered.

“Sorry, Ma’am. Didn’t mean to scare ya,” Vin said softly.

Their meals arrived and Ezra explained what was where on the plate as she spread the napkin in her lap. Her hand trembled slightly as she reached for her fork. She sighed softly as her fingers bumped into the glass of water and she drew back her hand self-consciously. Ezra fired a hard look across the table at JD before he reached over and rested his arm around the back of her chair.

“Is something amiss?”

“Just nerves. They’re both watching me, aren’t they?”

Raising his voice slightly, Ezra directed his comments to the table in general. “I would think it’s because you’re the prettiest girl in the room at the moment. I did neglect to inform you of the water glass, my apology. You see, Mr. Dunne, by informing her of the location of the objects on the table relative to her position, she is able to navigate the table.”

An embarrassed blush warmed her face and ears as Ezra spoke. It was something that every blind person dreaded, being watched like an oddity. She felt the southerner’s hand run across her shoulders in a supportive gesture before his fingers caught her chin.

“Hold your head up, you’ve done nothing to be embarrassed about. Mr. Dunne is young and inexperienced, he meant no offense,” Ezra said softly.

“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to upset you Miss McKinney. I-I didn’t know …” JD’s voice trailed off as his own face colored.

“No harm done. Thank you, Ezra,” she said as she reached again for her fork.

Vin returned to his meal without comment for a few minutes. He watched the woman as she ate and exchanged pleasantries with Ezra during the meal. Another roll of thunder caused her to shudder.

“The storm’s moving off. We’re on the back side of it now. Probably blow itself out before you get to sleep tonight,” the tracker offered.

“I hope so,” she returned with a smile.

The two younger men excused themselves from the table, leaving Ezra as he ordered dessert for the two of them. The apple pie was still warm and covered with a dollop of rich, whipped cream. The conversation had turned to something light, as she regaled him with stories of amusing incidents from her time at the blind school. She was completely at ease with the southern man. By the time they left the restaurant, the worst of the storm was over and there was only a light rain falling. Heavy footfalls caused Abigail to turn and come to a stop.

“Josiah? How is he?”

“Still resting. His fever is up but we expected that. Nathan said we’ll know more by morning. I trust that Ezra has been keeping you entertained?”

“He was kind enough to have supper with me. I was just on my way back to my room. Will one of you let me know in the morning how he’s doing?”

“Of course. You should get some rest yourself. After the stage ride and then what happened to Buck, you must be exhausted,” Josiah prompted.

“Yes, I am. Ezra? I should be getting to my room. I’ve taken enough of your time.”

“I have enjoyed it immensely. It isn’t often that our town is graced with someone of beauty and intelligence,” the southerner drawled as he patted the top of her hand. A wide smile lit her face and she laughed, embarrassed.

Alone in her room, Abby pulled out her nightgown and changed. As she slid between the sheets, she prayed that Buck would be all right. Something about the man touched her as she thought about the easy way he had accepted her.

In the clinic, Buck thrashed in the throes of fever. Chris and Nathan tried to prevent him from moving around too much as they wiped his body with cool cloths. They coaxed the herb tea into him and he settled back against the pillows.

JD sat at a table in the saloon, watching Ezra playing solitaire on another table. He finally worked up the courage to walk across the room. Standing at the side of the table, he waited for the gambler to acknowledge him.

“Was there something you needed, Mr. Dunne?”

“Can I sit down, Ezra?”

“Of course. I sense that something is bothering you.”

“That woman, Miss McKinney, I’m afraid I hurt her feelings and I don’t know how to apologize to her. I don’t know what got into me,” he said.

“It is only natural to be uncomfortable around people who are handicapped. You can learn about how they get along and what you can do to help them. That will make you more at ease around them. Abigail is not all that different than any other woman, she just needs a few clues about her environment. If you feel the need to apologize, then you should do just that.”

“You make it look so easy, Ezra. You look so comfortable with her. I just didn’t know what to say to her. I don’t want to say anything wrong.”

A light smile crossed the gambler’s face, “Just be yourself, Mr. Dunne. Say whatever comes naturally. I’m sure you’ll do just fine. Can I interest you in a game of chance?”

“No, thanks, I’ve lost my limit for the month. I’m going to check on Buck before I turn in. See you in the morning.”

By morning, Buck’s fever was lower and he was sleeping deeply. Chris slipped out of the clinic to get breakfast for he and Nathan. Vin and JD were just finishing their meal when he arrived and he informed them of the condition of the ladies man. Vin offered to pick up Buck’s patrol that afternoon as it followed his own.

“That’s fine, Vin. Tell Ezra he can take tomorrow and we’ll figure it out after that,” Chris decided before moving to the bar to tell Inez what they wanted for breakfast.

Abigail awoke feeling decidedly disoriented. She hated waking up in strange places. It always took her a few days to adjust to a new room. Before throwing off her blankets, she prayed. It was the same prayer she’d prayed since being offered the chance to participate in the new, experimental technique for treating cataracts.

She had been a normal, carefree teenager when she began to notice the changes in her vision. At first, she had chalked it up to a cold or allergies. When the opaque area in her field of vision grew, she became frightened. In something less than a year, she was completely blind. Her parents had gently but firmly insisted that she go to the state school for the blind.

It was on the trip to the school that she acquired her fear of storms. It had been raining heavily for weeks that spring and the streams and rivers were gorged. The train derailed when a diverted stream washed out the timbers beneath the tracks. Abigail had spent three weeks in a hospital recovering from her injuries before she was able to go on to the school.

Finishing her prayer, she got out of bed and straightened the bedding. Crossing to the closet, she carefully fingered the tags before deciding on a forest green skirt over a cream colored blouse. Her fingers deftly plaited her hair before drawing out a few loose strands near her temples and ears. Taking up her cane, she made her way to the hotel lobby. She wanted to check on Buck before breakfast.

Lester glanced up as the blind woman entered the lobby. He was in the middle of checking the receipts for the past week so he didn’t rush right out to her as he had before.

“Miss McKinney, is there something I can help you with this morning?” He asked.

“Yes, I would like to go to the clinic and check on Mr. Wilmington. Could you give me directions? I believe I can make it there on my own but I was turned around several times yesterday so I don’t have a clear layout in my head.”

“I can get someone to take you over there if you don’t mind waiting a few minutes,” he offered as he checked the next row of numbers on his ledger.

“That’s all right. I can probably make it on my own. Thank you,” she said as she opened the door and stepped out onto the boardwalk.

It had stopped raining and the sun was shining. Abigail’s sensitive nose picked up the delicious smells from the restaurant across the street along with the distinct smell of the muddy roadway. The jingle of a harness rigging told her that a wagon was parked nearby and the horse was shaking his head restlessly.

Reaching out with her cane, she touched the bench to the left of the doorway and sat down. Letting her hands rest on top of her cane, she lifted her chin and let her ears pick up the other myriad of sounds. She smiled at the sound of children running on the boardwalk across the street. After several minutes, she came to her feet and started toward the clinic. When her cane found the steps, she hesitated. She wasn’t sure, but she thought she remembered angling slightly right of straight when they stepped down yesterday. Taking a deep breath, she stepped down and headed confidently across the muddy ground.

Dale Saunders and Tate Lawson had been studying the town for a couple of days. They knew that the army was sending a large payroll shipment through Four Corners in the next few days. The rest of their gang was camped out a few miles from town, waiting for them to finalize the plan.

“You’re sure one of them is laid up?”

“Yeah, the big guy with the mustache is in the clinic. If we grab the kid and the one with the long hair, they won’t dare mess with us. We can grab them tonight and stash them at the hideout.”

“Wouldn’t it be easier to kill them?”

“You hang for killin’ a man. They only send you to the territory prison for robbery. You got a hankerin’ to swing?”

“So we grab the two young ones and leave the note and they deliver the payroll to us? Sounds too easy.”

“That’s why it will work. No one has to get hurt. We can leave directions to the hideout on one of their horses, send it into town after we’re well away.”

Abigail’s hair stood on end as she stood rooted in place. She knew that she had just put herself in danger by hearing their plan. Turning on her heel, she tried to make her way back to the boardwalk. Her cane got hung up in some weeds growing along the side of the building and she tripped. Dale looked up quickly and saw the blind woman sweeping the air for the side of the building. With anger coloring his features, he strode over and stopped in front of the woman.

“What are you doing in here?” He demanded.

“I’m lost. I was trying to cross the street and I miscounted. I dropped my cane, do you see it anywhere?”

Dale waived his hand in front of the woman’s face and she didn’t even flinch. Bending down, he retrieved the white cane and placed it against her hand.

“Thank you! I’m just passing through on the stage and I get so disoriented in these little towns. Could you please guide me back to the boardwalk?”

Abigail hoped the man couldn’t hear the thundering of her heartbeat as she waited for him to decide whether she was a threat to him or not. When he took hold of her elbow, she almost cried out.

“It’s right this way. You really should have someone helping you, you know?”

“Thank you so much! I hate to be a bother. I really don’t know anyone in town. The stage had to put me off here because the roads are washed out. I’m stuck here until he returns.”

“Well, you be more careful, Ma’am,” Dale said politely as he stepped back.

Changing her mind about her destination, she made her way across the muddy street and into the restaurant. Her knees where shaking so badly that she leaned against the wall for a few moments to calm herself.

Tate rushed forward, “Why’d you let her get away like that? She heard everything!”

“What did you want me to do? She’s blind, for pity’s sake! She can’t identify us even if she did hear the plan. I don’t think she heard anything anyway. Calm down. Let’s get the horses.”

Mrs. Potter looked up from the table where she was having breakfast. She made a point of treating herself once a week to a meal prepared by someone else since her husband had been killed. It gave her a chance to mingle with people away from the store where she spent most of her time. She had heard about the blind woman after Mr. Wilmington was hurt yesterday. The woman looked frightened and she went to see if she could help.

“Miss, is something wrong?”

Abigail shrank from the soft voice at first, so concerned was she that she had not been followed. She let go of the breath she had been holding.

“No, I’m fine. I just got turned around and it unsettled me. If you could just help me to a table, I’ll be fine in a minute. Thank you.”

Mrs. Potter brought the woman to her table and placed her hand on the chair.

“I insist that you sit with me. I was just having breakfast all by myself and I would welcome the company.”

If someone had asked her later what she had eaten or what they had talked about, Abigail couldn’t have answered. Her heart was still pounding like crazy in her chest when Mrs. Potter left her at the hotel an hour later. Making her way to her room, she sat on the bed shaking with fear.

The pretty Mexican barmaid had just taken away his breakfast dishes and refilled his coffee cup when Ezra saw the shopkeeper enter the saloon. He quickly came to his feet; Mrs. Potter never, ever came into the saloon.

“Oh, Mr. Standish, there you are! I hate to bother you but I couldn’t find Vin or JD. Would you be so kind as to check on Miss McKinney, she was acting strangely just a little while ago. She insisted that nothing was wrong but she was shaking.”

With only a quick nod to acknowledge the older woman, the gambler headed down the boardwalk at a rapid clip. He had stopped by the hotel earlier and Lester said Abby had gone to the clinic. He had thought he would give her a while with Buck before he went up to visit so he went ahead and had breakfast. He knocked on the door.

Her hands tightened on the cane by reflex as Abigail’s heart leapt into her throat. Even as panic was threatening to overwhelm her, the gambler called out her name.

“Miss McKinney? Are you in there?”

She jumped up and yanked the door open. As soon as he saw her, Ezra knew what Mrs. Potter had meant; Abby was visibly shaken about something.

“Come in, please. I need to talk to you.”

“Is something wrong? You’re positively flushed!” Ezra reached out and touched her shoulder. She flinched and backed away. “Miss McKinney, you must sit down before you fall. You’ve had quite a scare from the look on your face. Won’t you tell me what has caused you such distress?”

After seating herself in the rocker, she drew a couple of deep breaths to calm down so she could tell him everything she had heard. By the time she finished, she was nearly in tears. Ezra drew her to her feet and embraced her for a moment.

“Calm yourself. Will you be all right here by yourself? I must go find Mr. Larabee and inform him of what you overheard.”

“Don’t leave me here alone! Please?” Abby clung to his arm.

“Then I shall escort you to the clinic. Mr. Larabee and Mr. Sanchez are no doubt still sitting with Mr. Wilmington. You will be safer there.”

Nathan had just finished changing the bandage on Buck’s back when Ezra came in with Abigail. There was no one else in the clinic though and that worried the gambler.

“Mr. Jackson, where are Mr. Larabee and Mr. Sanchez?”

“They went over to the jail a little while ago. Why? Is something wrong?” The dark skinned healer could read the tension written all over Ezra’s green eyes.

“I’m going to leave Miss McKinney with you and Mr. Wilmington. I shall return later to explain everything. Do not let her out of your sight.”

When she could no longer hear Ezra’s footsteps, Abigail took a hesitant step forward.

“Is he awake?”

“No, he’s fevered and he’s been sleeping a lot. Do you want a chair?” Nathan could tell that the woman was worried about something.

“Would it be all right if I sat on the edge of the bed? Do you think it would bother him?”

“Not at all. You can keep changing the cool compresses. Here, let me guide you around the bed. He’s been thrashing around a bit so don’t be surprised if he moves. He talks out of his head sometimes, too.”

Nathan guided the woman to the edge of the bed. She slid her toe out until she touched the bedside table and then reached for the basin of cool water that waited there. The heat radiating off of Buck’s body guided her hands as she found the cloth and lifted it carefully. After watching for a couple of minutes, Nathan knew she would be able to handle the job of changing the cloths. He wanted to ask her what had Ezra so upset but decided instead to wait.

Taking up the other cloth, she wiped his face, neck and chest. Her hands moved with as much confidence as a sighted person. She touched a ticklish spot and felt his muscles twitch, a small smile lit her face and she carefully avoided that spot afterwards.

As he was walking toward the jail, Ezra watched everyone. There were very few strangers in town and he was watching for anyone who looked nervous. He walked right by Dale and Tate as they were loading their saddlebags with the things they had bought at the mercantile. His green eyes paused on them before moving on as he walked.

Chris and Vin were going over some wanted posters when Ezra came into the jail. The gambler came in so silently that both men almost drew on him.

“Damn, Ezra! You got a death wish or something?” Vin asked as he settled back in the chair. Chris didn’t say anything; he only glared for a moment and then went back to the posters on the desk.

“Mr. Larabee, where is our young sheriff this morning?” Ezra asked without preamble.

“He was headed for the livery when I saw him after breakfast. He wanted to make sure that Ghost was exercised while Buck is laid up. Why? Is something wrong?”

“Terribly,” Ezra answered as he moved closer to the desk.

By the time he had finished relaying what Abigail had heard, Chris was chewing on his lip. He had only just found out about the payroll shipment the day before. It angered him that the army pulled last-minute stunts like this, it could get people killed. He sent Ezra back to the clinic to keep an eye on the woman and Buck.

The lightning strike that destroyed the cross and steeple drove Josiah onto the roof immediately after breakfast to try to get the building weather tight before the next storm rolled through. He had already carried up several bundles of wood and new shingles and was busily filling in the hole. The loss of the cross hurt him but he was grateful that no one was killed. There had to be some kind of a plan in the works, he reasoned, God was like that.

Vin slowly ascended the ladder and climbed onto the roof. Under the guise of helping with the repair, the tracker passed along the information about the army payroll and the men that Abigail had overheard. By the time the two men had closed in the damage, Josiah knew all there was to know about the situation.

Yosemite told Chris all that he knew about any strangers who had boarded horses in the past few days. The owner of the livery had a unique position in the town and generally knew much more than most people gave him credit for. With a promise to keep his eyes open, the big man returned to work. From where they stood talking, Chris could see JD grooming the big gray horse. The young easterner was at his best when he was doing what he enjoyed, tending to the horses that the regulators boarded.

“JD, how much longer you going to be?”

“Oh, I’m finished. He just enjoys it so much I’m giving him an extra going over. Why?”

“Can you go by and pick up lunch for Buck and Nathan?”

“Sure, let me get cleaned up and I’ll get right on it. Is Buck doing better?” JD sensed that there was more behind the request than lunch, they’d had breakfast only a couple of hours before.

“Still feverish. Nathan says it’s because the metal was rusty. He’ll be all right, it will just take a while for his body to fight off the infection. He can’t be too bad off, Josiah and Vin are both on the church fixing the roof,” Chris said casually.

Locking Ghost into his stall, JD walked over to the pump and washed his face and hands. Chris had moved to the corner of the boardwalk so he could keep an eye on the young sheriff without appearing to be watching. Ezra had gone back to the clinic to inform Nathan. Until they knew who was going to try for JD and Vin, they had to go about their normal routines as much as possible. He had been relieved that the robbers didn’t want to kill anyone but that could all change in an instant and he didn’t want to take a chance with any of his friends.

Opening his eyes, Buck smiled at the woman sitting on the bed. She leaned over to put the cloth back into the basin of water and wrung it out. Her smile was warm as she turned back to him.

“I know you’re awake. Your breathing changed. How do you feel?” She continued to run the cool cloth over his fevered skin as she talked.

“Just seeing your face makes me feel better,” he gushed.

A very girly giggle trickled out as her cheeks colored.

“How long have you been sitting here?” Buck asked as he caught her hand and squeezed it gently.

“An hour or so. Are you thirsty? Nathan said you should drink all the water you can to help battle the fever.”

“Yeah, I could use a sip. The pitcher is on the table across the room. Can you get it?”

“I’ll get it for you, Miss McKinney,” the healer called softly.

Nathan’s voice startled Buck as he sat up on the cot. The healer had not slept much during the night for worrying that the ladies man would bust his stitches in the throes of a fever induced nightmare. Since Abigail had things well in hand, he had tried to get some rest.

While Nathan was pouring the water for Buck, Ezra reentered the clinic. He was calmer now than he had been when he left. After Buck finished the whole glass of water, Ezra informed Nathan of what Abigail had heard and what Chris had planned. Buck was angry and frustrated at being confined and helpless while someone was threatening his friends.

Buck Wilmington had been an only child. Growing up in a brothel, he’d never lacked for other kids to play with but he really would have liked a brother or sister. Now, here he was, a grown man and he had found his little brother. John Dunne had arrived in Four Corners with a saddle and a pair of guns. Chris had done his best to drive the greenhorn off so he might live longer, but JD refused to go. The kid had wormed his way into Buck’s heart. The thought that someone might hurt the young sheriff riled the ladies man.

“Now before you go getting any ideas in that hard head of yours; no, you can’t be up and around. You still have a fever and all those stitches in your back. You lost a lot of blood and you’ll fall down if you try to get up,” Nathan warned.

“I can’t just lay here while somebody has it in for JD and Vin! I can still aim and shoot, help me over to the boarding house or someplace where I can back you up,” Buck protested.

“You’re going to stay right up here and keep Abigail safe,” Chris said, ending the discussion. They hadn’t even heard the blond come into the room. JD ducked in behind him with a tray of food.

The plan was to protect JD and let the robbers take Vin. The young sheriff protested mightily at the thought of being coddled. When Chris pointed out that he would also be helping to protect Buck and Abby, he settled some. Their plan was for JD to ‘fall’ and get ‘hurt’ badly enough to have to stay at the clinic. That would put him out of harms way without rousing suspicions.

The young sheriff rode out with Josiah, on the pretext of delivering supplies from the Potter’s store to an outlaying homestead. They had loaded the wagon with several empty boxes and a couple of empty barrels. They rode out to Chris’s cabin and unloaded the wagon. In case they were being watched, JD stumbled onto the porch and fell with a box. He rolled around on the ground holding his arm and shoulder.

Josiah had to admit, the kid put on a good show. JD rolled around and wailed until pinned down by a strong hand on his chest, he then wailed and cried out while the ‘injured’ arm was splinted and placed in a sling. After Josiah unloaded the rest of the ‘supplies’, the two men returned to Four Corners.

Once it was publicly known that JD was injured and would be confined to the clinic for a few days, Vin set out for his patrol. He sincerely hoped that their plan would work; he didn’t relish the idea of getting shot or worse.

As the sun went down, Buck’s fever soared. Abby stayed at his side constantly, cooling his burning skin and coaxing water into him every time he opened his eyes. JD was amazed that she could calm the thrashing nightmares with a touch and softly spoken word. Nathan, Josiah, Chris and Ezra were keeping watch on the town and waiting for Vin.

It was quiet in the clinic. Abigail had coaxed a cup of herbal tea into Buck and he was sleeping soundly. JD was curled up on the cot, sleeping peacefully. The room was a bit stuffy and the woman opened the door and stepped out onto the landing for some fresh air. Her hand swept out until she encountered the railing and she sighed. She wanted to come back through this town when she could see. She wanted to have faces in her mind to go with the memories she was building.

Dale had plastered himself against the clinic wall when the door opened. The blind woman stepped out and rested her palms on the railing. He crept toward her and his hand closed over her mouth. Abigail fought like a cat against the larger man. He used his weight to press her against the wall as he drew the chloroformed rag from his pocket. She managed only a small yelp before the cloth closed over her face and she slumped into his arms. Passing the rag to Tate, he tossed the woman over his shoulder and crept down the steps.

It was nearly dark in the clinic but Tate quietly made his way across the room. The kid was lying on his side on the low cot. Dropping his weight on the inert form, he held the cloth over JD’s face. The young sheriff struggled for a moment before he succumbed to the chloroform. Tate grunted as he shifted the body onto his shoulder and crept away. With an evil laugh, he placed the demand letter on the bedside table.

Peso lowered his head to munch on some grass, pulling the reins from Vin’s hands. The tracker opened his eyes and looked around. He had stayed out much longer than he should have for his patrol and nothing had happened. He hadn’t seen or heard anything all night. With a sigh, he realized that they had been duped. Kicking Peso hard, he raced back toward town.

Hearing the thundering hoof beats, Chris and the others prepared for the worst. When Vin vaulted from the saddle, they looked at each other, confused. Coming out of their various hiding places, the group gathered in the jail.

“I think we’ve been played! Nothing happened to me. Have any of you checked in on Buck and JD?”

With a sick feeling in the pit of his stomach, the gunslinger raced toward the clinic with the other four hot on his heels. When they reached the clinic, the door was standing open and Buck was calling out in the throes of a nightmare. There was no sign of Abigail or JD.

“Buck! Take it easy. Calm down. We’re here,” Chris called as he caught hold of the ladies man and held him to the mattress. Vin turned up the lantern and picked up the note.

“They took JD and the woman. They must have figured out that she overheard,” Vin said softly as he offered the note to Josiah.

It took several minutes for Nathan and Chris to calm Buck and get him settled comfortably again. The note was just as Abigail had said. They would take their hostages to a safe place and would reveal the location after they were safely away with the army payroll. There was nothing they could do now but wait.

Ezra paced angrily in the confines of his room. He had been thrown out of the clinic after pacing there and irritating Chris. His concern was for JD but he was also terribly worried about Abby. Although the robbers had not wanted to kill, knowing that she had revealed their plan, he was afraid that they might otherwise harm her.