The Lancer Fanfiction Archive

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Ros

 

 

Fever Pitch

Chapter One

 

“Aw, come on Murdoch. Why me?” Johnny complained, irritably slapping his hat against his leg to reinforce his grievance.

Murdoch’s hotel room was small and far too cramped for the three of them to sit comfortably. Johnny sank onto the bed in disgust while his father and brother looked on from the other side of the room.

“That’s a good day and a half ride from here,” Johnny continued petulantly.

 “Exactly, Johnny,” Murdoch told him. “And if you leave now, Scott and I will be finished here by the time you get back.”

 “Makes sense, brother,” Scott pointed out, folding his arms and leaning back against the wall. “We’ll save three whole days and be back at Lancer in plenty of time for Teresa’s birthday.”

 “We’ve got plenty of time to get back. Don’t see what the rush is,” Johnny continued to grumble. “We can all go if you just get Conroy to sign that bit o’ paper.”

 “Where’s the sense in that Johnny?” Murdoch demanded. “There’s no point in all of us wasting three days, when you can have it done and be back by the time Scott and I have finished up here.”

 “Yeah, I know,” he admitted, dropping his eyes to the hat he was absently twirling in his hands.

 “I need Scott to stay here to help close this deal with Jeff Conroy,” Murdoch continued. He too folded his arms determinedly across his chest and Johnny looked up at them both and felt cornered. He turned his head back to stare at the hat in his hands with disgust.

 Scott grinned at the dejected expression on his brother’s face. “Come on, Johnny. You can’t tell me you’re enjoying yourself here.”

 Johnny didn’t answer. He knew his brother was right about that – he sure didn’t like it here. He must have shown his feelings because Scott pressed his point. “You don’t even like Conroy.”

 He looked up at last, a flash of anger in his eyes. “No I don’t. He’s a welcher, Scott,” he said coolly. “I ain’t got no time for welchers. Don’t even know why you two are being so all fired patient with the man. He signed a contract – an’ he oughta live up to it.”

 He didn’t like the man. He didn’t like his way of doing business, and he didn’t like having to sit around here for days arguing with a man who already had a contract with them and only had to keep his word. While Murdoch and Scott seemed to be prepared to sit and talk with him, Johnny felt otherwise.

 “And that’s exactly why you should go up to Toby Roberts’ place instead of Scott. I can trust Scott to keep his temper in check,” Murdoch growled.

 Scott threw his father a disappointed glower and shook his head a little. Once again he wondered if Murdoch would ever learn how to handle Johnny. Some days he only had to open his mouth and the wrong words just spilled out.

 Johnny glared silently at Murdoch and Scott could almost feel the storm that was about to break. The air was heavy with tension for a minute, and he could just about see lightning flashing in his brother’s eyes.

 “Johnny, admit it, you’re bored here,” Scott told him calmly throwing him a distraction. “A couple of days away will do you good.”

 He breathed a silent sigh of relief when Johnny turned back to face him and he saw that the lightning had faded.

 “Maybe,” he said with a lopsided smile, and a hope that maybe he could convince Scott to join him. “Sounds to me like you’d like to come too.”

 Scott smiled back mischievously. “Afraid to go all that way on your own, little brother?”

 Johnny slowly stood up and set his hat purposefully on his head, tilting it low over his eyes. “Nope,” he replied. “But it seems like a long ride just to deliver a check.”

 Murdoch relaxed. It looked like Johnny had given up the argument. “The old coot doesn’t trust the mail,” he told him with a grin.

 “And it is a pretty hefty check,” Scott added.

 “All right, all right,” Johnny finally relented. “I’ll head out first thing in the morning. I’ll meet you back here in three, four days.” He eyed his father and brother testily. “Just don’t go letting that Conroy get away with anything. “

 “We don’t aim to Johnny,” Scott smiled.

 

*

 

        A loaded shotgun aimed at your midsection will stop most men in their tracks, and Johnny Lancer was no exception. A man would have to be a fool not to take notice of two barrels pointing in his direction, and that was something that he had never been accused of being. 

        So he pulled the palomino to a halt, showed both hands openly to prove he was no threat, and looked hard at the old man standing on the step in front of him.

He made quite a picture – short, bow-legged and what little hair he had left on his head was grayed. He was dressed only in heavy blue jeans and his undershirt and stood outside the open door of the ranch house, but he had a damned good grip on that gun, and his eyes bored into Johnny with enough grit to make his point.

Johnny hadn’t the slightest doubt that he would let go both barrels if he felt the need.

The house itself was a sturdy, well-tended building. It was an austere structure – no paint or gardens to break the dreariness. It was built for practicality and not for comfort, but the old man looked ready to defend it as though it was his castle.

“State your business!” the old man demanded tersely of Johnny in a voice that rang clear and explicit.

Johnny kept his horse still between his knees and made no moves at all himself, just in case the man should take it as a threat. He kept his hands up visibly and well away from his gun.

“Lookin’ for Toby Roberts,” Johnny answered equably. “You him?”

The old man stared hard at him out of the corner of his eye. “Who’s askin’?” he asked rudely.

“Johnny Lancer,” Johnny told him without hesitation.

Roberts lowered the shotgun a little and gave Johnny the once over. “You Murdoch’s boy?”

Johnny smiled at him. “One of ‘em.”

“Ya don’t favor your Pa much, do ya boy?” the old man remarked suspiciously, tilting his head and squinting to get a good look at him.

His observation was met with a grin from Johnny. “Nope, guess I don’t,” he answered cheerfully. “Ain’t it a mercy though?”

Roberts laughed explosively and lowered the shotgun. He waved his hand invitingly. “Danged if it ain’t,” he replied. “Well, get on down boy. Come on inside an’ take a load off.”

Johnny sighed quietly and lowered his hands very carefully. He got down from Barranca with pleasure, leading the palomino to the hitching rail in front of the house. Seeing that shotgun lowered sure was a huge relief.

“Charlie!” he heard the old man yell over his shoulder, and an equally grayed and shabby old gent emerged from the barn. “Look after the young fella’s horse,” he ordered him curtly and then turned to go inside.

‘Charlie’ limped slowly over to Johnny and took the reins from him.

“Fine lookin’ animal,” he said admiringly to Johnny, having looked Barranca over from head to tail. “I’ll tend to him like he was my own.”

“Thanks,” Johnny told him and watched the old man lead Barranca over towards the barn.

He took off his hat and dusted the trail dust of two days off his clothes as best he could.

Johnny made a quick survey of his surroundings. The ranch looked like it was well run and, if the size of the check he had tucked in his pocket was any indication, Toby Roberts didn’t want for money. But he sure didn’t spend much on himself or the upkeep of the place. The fences were patched and the house needed whitewashing badly, but it was far from run-down. Everything obviously worked, even if it looked untidy.

And Toby Roberts had to be one of the most untrustingest men Johnny had ever met.

He sighed deeply and mounted the steps heading for the front door behind Roberts. Out of habit, he peered briefly inside before he stepped in, quickly taking stock of the interior and anyone in the room.

Roberts was alone in a surprisingly tidy drawing room. It was just as sober inside as out – no trimmings at all – but not a piece of furniture was out of place and there wasn’t a speck of dust to be seen anywhere.

“Ruby,” Roberts yelled unexpectedly, taking Johnny by surprise. Outside the house, that booming voice of his was loud, but here in the house, it just about shook the glass right out of the windows. “Bring some o’ that lemonade. We got company.”

Johnny smiled. The old man sure did make a lot of noise, but he was taking a liking to him.

Old Toby turned to Johnny. “Thought your Pa was comin’ hisself.”

Johnny nodded and shifted his feet a little uneasily. “Yeah, well, he an’ my brother got caught up in Petersen so he sent me,” he explained briefly. He reached into the pocket inside his coat and took out the check his father had entrusted to him.

He unfolded it and passed it to Toby, who studied it for a moment before saying gruffly, “In my day, money was money. Not a bit o’ paper with some scribblin’ o it.”

Johnny smiled. “I know, but I wouldn’t like to carry that kind o’ money around.”

Toby laughed. “Open invitation to a bushwhackin’ party I reckon.”

“Yep,” Johnny agreed and looked around at the sound of a footstep behind him.

A woman in her thirties came into the room with a jug of lemonade and three glasses on a tray. She looked a little like Toby, which was unfortunate, and she was dressed plainly but neatly with her mousy brown hair pulled back into a straight ponytail.

“My gal Ruby,” Toby introduced her. “Ruby, this here’s Murdoch Lancer’s boy Johnny. Reckon you oughta see to the spare room an’ set another place for supper.”

He got a nod from her as she poured the lemonade into the glasses and handed one first to Johnny and then to her father. She finally poured one for herself and took a seat in a chair facing the two men, making herself comfortable.

“Already done it Pa,” she said with an easy smile.

The old man nodded and smiled approvingly before turning back to Johnny. “You won’t say no to supper an’ a bed I reckon boy?”

“No sir,” Johnny grinned emphatically. “I’d be real obliged.”

“Good,” he answered, taking a good swig from the glass in his hand. Johnny did the same, and found its slightly bitter tang a refreshing change from trail dust and tepid water from his canteen.

“You’ll be well fed too boy,” he told Johnny proudly. “Ruby here is the best cook in three counties, son. An’ damned if she don’t darn so good an eagle couldn’t find the stitches.”

Johnny wasn’t sure what to say to that little tidbit of information, but he began to feel just a little bit trapped. He looked quickly at the woman who was the object of so much appreciation, and, while she might be all he said, she didn’t exactly appeal to Johnny. And she gave him a good few years head-start as well.

Ruby saw his discomfort and laughed out loud. “An’ what is the poor man supposed to say to that Pa?” she grinned at last. “You sound like one o’ them newspaper advertisements.”

She looked over at Johnny and smiled a surprisingly charming and reassuring smile at him. “Don’t worry. I’m not in the market for a husband, Mr. Lancer.”

Johnny smiled back, liking her candor. “Johnny,” he corrected her.

“Huh!” Roberts grunted disparagingly. “Maybe ya should be,” he told her.

She stood up and went past first her father and then Johnny, and then she looked back over her shoulder and smiled as she replied, “I’m doing just fine Pa. You’d be lost without me.”

She left the room with a dignified exit and her father grinned as she left. “She’s right there I reckon,” he told Johnny.

“She’s a widow, son,” Roberts continued as he sat down in one of the easy chairs. Johnny sat down in another and looked uncomfortably at his host. “Got a boy o’ six to look after too. Good kid, but he needs a Pa, an’ I’m gettin’ too old.”

Johnny put down the empty lemonade glass and found his hands were sweating. He rubbed them on the legs of his pants and then rubbed them together, all the time considering how to answer the man. He had no desire to offend his host, but he had a point to get across – real fast.

“She really is a good cook, son,” the old man reiterated, a hopeful tone in his voice.

Johnny finally looked up and bit the bullet – hard! He looked the man in the eyes, smiled and said, “I’m not in the market for a wife, Mr. Roberts.”

The man looked hard at him, and then he laughed loudly. “Well, I reckon we got that outa the way then,” he said candidly. “How’s your Pa?”

Johnny laughed with him, relieved not to have offended him, but glad he had dropped that particular subject. “Is that how you greet all your guests, Mr. Roberts?”

“Call me Toby,” the old man insisted. “An’ why not? One o’ these days one of ‘em just might take her off my hands.”

Johnny grinned mischievously at him. “You’d lose the best cook in three counties, Toby.”

“Yep, guess I’d hafta stitch my own britches too,” Toby laughed. “So what’s your Pa up to in Petersen?”

“Working on a deal with a rancher up there. They got tied up in comin’ to an agreement over the contract.”

“Only ranch up that way that would interest Murdoch Lancer would have to be the Box C,” Toby mused aloud. “That fella Conroy’s a slippery sort o’ coot.”

“He an’ Scott are trying to hold Jeff Conroy to a contract,” Johnny explained.

Toby Roberts nodded his head in understanding. “That oughta keep ‘em tied up for a while then. Heard he’s uppin’ the price on them Herefords of his these days, now that they’ve proved ‘emselves.”

“Yeah, well he signed for a price,” Johnny told him curtly, “an’ that’s all there is to it.”

“Hm… He’s a stubborn man is Jeff Conroy.”

Johnny smiled. “So’s my ol’ man.”

“Yep,” the other man grinned, “I’ve heard that too. Be an interestin’ meetin’ with them two.”

“I think that’s why he wants Scott there with him. Scott has more patience than I do.”

The old man laughed. “Reckon you’d end up comin’ to violence, do ya?”

It was Johnny’s turn to laugh. “Probably.”

“Well, supper’ll be ready soon, so we won’t go tryin’ that patience o’ yours. You will be stayin’ the night won’t you?”

“Sure, an’ thanks - a bed’ll be welcome. Slept out on the trail last night,” Johnny told him and then grinned. “Must be I’m gettin’ soft, or there’s more rocks on the ground than there used to be.”

“Not so’s I’ve noticed boy,” the old man laughed. “Guess you must be gettin’ soft!”

 

*

 

        Toby Roberts had been right. His daughter Ruby probably was the best cook in three counties. He’d eaten the finest meal he’d had since leaving Lancer, enjoyed the company of some real fine people and slept in a comfortable bed for the night.

        Ruby had forced some fresh made biscuits on him when he left in the morning, although there hadn’t been much ‘forcing’ needed.

All in all, it made sleeping out on the trail again next night, after a supper of beans and coffee, just a little less pleasant than usual.

Maybe living at Lancer was turning him soft. The thought had come to him as he drifted off to sleep under the stars, and it had persisted when he woke feeling stiff and sore next morning.

A couple of nights sleeping out and he was stretching out muscles that pulled uncomfortably. Yep, he thought, you’re gettin’ soft, Johnny Lancer. Ain’t no two ways about it. Been livin’ the good life way too much these days.

He stood up and stretched himself out properly, bending his spine backwards against the niggling pain in the small of his back. He felt like he’d slept on a rock or something. Every muscle ached.

Well, it would soon pass once he was back in the saddle and on his way. He’d made good time yesterday and Petersen was only a day’s ride from here. Once he was back there, he could have the pleasure of one of those nice lumpy beds in the hotel tonight instead of the cold hard ground.

Something to look forward to, he smiled to himself.

Johnny got the fire going and made some coffee before starting out. He still had some of the biscuits that Ruby had provided him with yesterday leftover, and while they weren’t as fresh as they had been, they sure went down well.

He cleared everything away and rolled his bedroll up before saddling Barranca and starting out again.

He’d figured that the stiffness would wear off quickly, and for a while it seemed like he was right. But as the morning wore on, and the sun got hotter, the aching in his muscles began to come back and nag at him. He began to figure that either he was getting old all of a sudden, or something just wasn’t right.

By lunchtime, there was a dull throb in his temple. He found a shady spot and stopped early, but mostly just to rest up since the idea of the jerky in his saddlebags really didn’t appeal to him. He didn’t feel all that hungry anyway.

Johnny had spent years traveling alone and looking after himself. It had been rare for him to get sick, but he’d had colds before and that’s what this was beginning to feel like. He hated admitting to the idea. He knew that eventually he was going to feel washed out and lethargic, and he hated the vulnerability of not being at his best. He cursed his luck as he mounted Barranca and headed down the trail towards Petersen.

At least, when he reached there, he could rest up for a while. He wondered if Scott and Murdoch had gotten that old grafter to come to terms with them. Scott might have enough patience to have worked on him for this long, but Murdoch didn’t. He might hold back for a lot longer than Johnny, but it would have ended in a temper tantrum by now if Conroy was still holding out.

 

*

 

Johnny Lancer rode slowly into the dusty little town of Thompson’s Strike. He still had a couple of hours of daylight left and he knew that, if he pushed himself and Barranca a little harder, he could be in Peterson today and be there ahead of the schedule he had set himself to meet up with Murdoch and Scott.

But, right now, that really didn’t matter much to him. They weren’t going to be expecting him there until tomorrow anyway and he was just too tired to press on any further.

No, not tired exactly, that wasn’t really how he felt. What he actually felt was just plain awful. Every muscle in his body seemed to ache and was screaming out to him to find a place to rest up for a while. He just couldn’t see himself going any further.

 

His head hurt like hell too. His head throbbed with every step Barranca took. It was like his brain was being shaken with each little jolt. He stretched his neck and back over and over, but it did nothing to relieve the knots in his muscles.

Johnny had a real foreboding that he was in for a cold or something even worse.

He didn’t usually get sick and he hated the very idea of it. Sure, he’d been laid up with fevers before, but those had been the result of bullet wounds or knives – part of the game, and something he had had to accept. But he hated the feeling of defenselessness that was the inevitable result.

At least, since he had gone home to Lancer, he had not had to worry about that as much. With his brother beside him, he did feel less vulnerable. Throughout all those early years, riding through life on his own, vulnerability equaled life-threatening danger to him. He had had no one to rely on but himself and it had entrenched a fear of illness and weakness within him that he had never yet been able to let go of, even with the sustaining arms of his family around him.

But he told himself now that a good night’s rest would undoubtedly see him okay to travel again in the morning, at least the rest of the short way he had left to meet his father and his brother, without having to push himself. Even if he didn’t feel one hundred percent when he got up tomorrow, Petersen was close enough that he could make it.

Barranca had seemed to sense Johnny’s discomfort some way back along the trail and he had slowed to a steady even gait, treading carefully. Johnny had been wholly appreciative of his horse’s sixth sense, particularly because once or twice he had found himself ‘drifting’ - not really paying attention to what was going on around him. It had startled him when he had come to his senses and realized what was happening, and he made up his mind to stop at the next town.

Johnny didn’t really pay much attention to the dowdy little town as he rode in either. His mind was focused on finding a hotel or saloon with a bed for the night, so he didn’t take in much of the run-down buildings that lined the street. Most of them were in dire need of paint, and there were quite a few that looked neglected enough to make one assume they were abandoned.

‘The Strike’ had flourished years ago, right after Thompson had found gold and spread the word. There had followed a ‘rush’ that had the little town bursting at the seams within weeks and it had stayed that way for a bustling, exciting two years before the gold had played out.

The miners had moved on. The rush had died out, and the only people who stayed were those who turned their hands to ranching or who still had small but viable businesses in town. It wasn’t exactly a ghost town, but neither was it a flourishing little metropolis.

It was a town that was just barely getting by.

Thompson himself was long gone. He’d followed another rainbow in search of another pot of gold and the few miners who had stayed on in the hills around the town found only enough these days to keep themselves in supplies for the winter.

Thompson’s Strike was all but dead as a town these days, but it was on the road to Petersen, a thriving little town by comparison, and it picked up passing trade from travelers like Johnny. The result was that it provided only the bare necessities of life to its inhabitants. There was no school, no telegraph office and no doctor. There wasn’t even a sheriff to keep the townspeople in check.

There was, however, a hotel in town. It seemed incongruous with the rest of the place, and it didn’t exactly do the business that it had done in the ‘boom’ days, but it picked up enough trade from people passing through to keep the doors open.

Johnny found the livery stable and made the acquaintance of the burly man who owned and ran it. He made sure that Barranca was lodged comfortably and being looked after before he threw his saddlebags over his shoulder and headed back for the hotel – and the alluring thought of a bed for the night.

 

Chapter Two

 

His usual self-confident stride was missing as he made his way up the street to the hotel. His legs ached and his back and shoulders complained at every step. The headache continued to pound behind his eyes and he felt a little nauseous too.

But Johnny didn’t feel sorry for himself. Instead he got angry.

‘Damnit!’ he cursed silently. ‘Why couldn’t it have just hung off a bit longer? I could’ve made it back to Petersen.’

The casual observer would never have noticed, but anyone who knew Johnny Lancer well would probably have picked up right off that something wasn’t right. His shoulders sagged just a little, and his brilliant disarming smile was missing. So was the wicked twinkle that sparkled so often in his deep blue eyes.

Instead his eyelids drooped tiredly, his head hung down, and his step was a little forced as he crossed the street and walked up towards the hotel.

He did his best to ignore how he was feeling, and he hoped it didn’t show. There weren’t many people around anyway, but he did not like the idea of anyone suspecting that he wasn’t at his best. Years of living on his reputation had instilled a need to bluff his way through tough situations. There had been too many young guns out there who were only too ready to take advantage of Johnny Madrid in a moment of weakness.

Johnny Madrid might be Johnny Lancer now, and he might not be living on his wits alone any longer, but the seeds of Madrid remained with him. His lifestyle may have changed, but the habits of a lifetime were a different matter, and the thinking of a man who had lived by his nerves for most of his life would stay with him forever.

He found the hotel and walked straight to the desk, pushing his hat back off his head to hang carelessly around his neck. He left his saddlebags over his shoulder and placed his rifle on the desk beside him.

Finding it unattended, he banged sharply on the bell for service. The ping of the bell sent a shockwave through his head that brought a moment of instant regret. He closed his eyes for a minute to let the moment pass, and then waited, leaning against the desk and looking around him.

The lobby was certainly presentable – particularly in light of the rest of the town. It was hardly the classiest establishment that either Johnny Lancer or Johnny Madrid had ever put up in, but it offered some comfort for the night, and, for once, that was what Johnny was looking for.

Johnny didn’t have long to wait. The clerk appeared from a small room behind the counter almost immediately and scurried over to the desk, eager to help a paying customer.

“Got any rooms?” Johnny looked up and asked him quietly.

The clerk was a weedy little man in his thirties, with wire rimmed spectacles and a suit of clothes that looked more appropriate to Johnny for Sundays going to church.

He was also the owner of the little enterprise, and he smiled cheerfully.

“Certainly, sir,” he told his guest quickly as he turned the registration book around for Johnny to sign.

Johnny took the pen that the man offered him and signed the book quickly, putting the pen back down with a negligent thud when he had finished.

“It’s a pleasure to have you stay with us, Mr. Lancer,” the man said, reading the name from the book as he turned it back around to face him. He turned around and took a key off the rack behind him and handed it over to Johnny.

“Your room is number six, Mr. Lancer,” the clerk continued, taking Johnny’s money with a smile. “It’s on the right at the top of the stairs. I hope you find it to your liking.”

In fact, room six was one of only two rooms that Oscar Lang kept made up and ready for guests. Even the locals didn’t know that. Keeping fresh sheets on a bed and dust off the furniture was a big job if he had to do all the rooms.

What with the small amount of trade he did these days, there was no point in making extra work for himself, and a maid was an extravagance he could not afford. So the other rooms were quietly locked up and ignored, but he kept up the maintenance on them so that they were ready to be made up if ever the need arose.

He continued to live in hope, but facts had to be faced, and it seemed unlikely to him that they ever would be needed all at once again.

Oscar Lang surreptitiously studied the man in front of him. He had his saddlebags thrown lazily over his shoulder, and that gun of his was tied down low. He looked like he had Mexican blood in him too. He was covered in trail dust and looked like he had been on the road for days. If a man ever looked exhausted, it was this one and Oscar looked down his long nose at him.

“Will we be having your company for long?”

“Only for the night,” Johnny answered briefly. “I’m just passing through.”

If the hotel owner was disappointed, he made sure that it didn’t register on his face. He was a consummate businessman and knew how to ingratiate himself with a customer.

“Very well, sir. My name is Oscar Lang, and if there is anything I can do to make your stay a pleasant one, please just ask,” he told him officiously.

It hadn’t been like this in the old days of ‘The Strike’, when he had had men literally fighting over rooms and offering him bribes to get one to themselves. There had been that one occasion when Bill Andrews had come to town with some nuggets in his pocket and wanted a bed for the night. There hadn’t been one to spare and the big bear of a man had gone upstairs and picked up one of the sleeping guests by the scruff of his neck and tossed him out, calling out ‘There is now!”

 A bed had come at premium prices then. He could have asked whatever he wanted, and they would have paid it. Miners who had just made a new claim were always ready to spend big, tinhorn gamblers liked to show they had money, and there’d always been a need for a quiet room for the girls.

He’d tried to discourage that of course, but if they had the money for the night, what did he care?

Oscar had already made up his mind about the stranger. He’d have had second thoughts about letting a saddle tramp like this one spend the night back when ‘The Strike’ was flourishing.

But those days were long gone. They hadn’t even lasted long enough for him to have made his fortune and escaped from this god-forsaken part of the world. He’d dreamed of making enough money out of this place to sell up and buy himself a nice little establishment in San Francisco. He would have been made.

“Is there anything else I can do for you sir?” he asked as Johnny picked up his rifle and turned away.

Johnny was about to say ‘no’ when an appealing thought occurred to him.

“Don’t suppose you’ve got a bath here, have ya?” he asked. He wondered if his aching muscles just might ease up some in a tub of hot water, and there was enough dust on him to fill a desert anyway.

“I can certainly heat one up for you Mr. Lancer,” the clerk told him eagerly. “The wash room is just out back, through that door there. It will cost you fifty cents extra, but I provide a clean towel with it.” He pointed out the door in question, and then continued. “I can have it ready for you in half an hour.”

“Thanks,” Johnny answered quickly. “Real hot would be nice,” he added and, taking the key to his room, he turned and headed for the stairs.

Oscar watched him go. Oh well, the gold rush here at Thompson’s Strike had been a bust. It had run its course too quickly for anyone to have struck it lucky. He was stuck here now, just like the others. There was no one who would buy him out. So he took what he could and made the best of it, even if it meant pretending that saddle tramps were respectable customers. If they paid, that was all that mattered.

“You can get a meal at the saloon next door if you want it sir. The food there is surprisingly good in fact,” Lang called to Johnny as he set his foot on the first step.

“Gracias,” Johnny told him carelessly, without turning around. He appreciated the thought, but somehow the idea of food just didn’t sit well with him right now.

He trudged up the stairs and unlocked the door to his room. In another mood, he might have surveyed the furnishings more circumspectly, but at this point, the only thing that mattered at all was the bed.

He sat down on the closest edge and sighed heavily. It was comfortable enough for his needs and he tossed the saddlebags and his hat onto the end of the bed. He put the rifle down on the table beside it a little more carefully and suddenly, the world seemed to be just too much for him to handle.

Accepting, at last, just how exhausted he was, he leaned back and flopped flat on his back across the bed. He closed his eyes and soon realized that sleep would soon overwhelm him if he stayed where he was.

Johnny suspected again that he was losing his edge. He’d gotten too used to that big comfortable bed in his room at Lancer. That was the trouble. He had real home cooked meals on the table regularly, evenings relaxing with Teresa and Scott, and even Murdoch if he was in a good mood. He was living the easy life – not having to fend for himself – and it was turning him soft.

A couple of nights on the trail and he was a mess. Lancer was making things just too easy for him. That was the real problem, wasn’t it?  A little bit of a cold shouldn’t leave him feeling like this.

The thought passed out of his head just as quickly as it had come. He still had to convince himself sometimes that Lancer was the best thing that had ever happened to him and that he needed it. No, it was more than that – he wanted it. He wanted the life that Murdoch Lancer had offered him.

He wanted the security it offered. He wanted the family he had there now – Scott, Teresa and Murdoch, even Jelly. He considered Jelly just as much ‘family’ as anyone else.

Well, this wasn’t getting him anywhere. He had to get up and get going, before that bathwater got cold waiting for him.

But getting back up sounded a whole lot easier than it proved to be. Every muscle protested as he sat back up. He silently cursed himself for arranging that bath. It just didn’t seem worth the effort of getting up again.

The idea of going downstairs and then having to climb those stairs again to come back to his room seemed like a lousy plan now.

Nevertheless, he told himself that it might help. If it put off that stupid cold for just a little longer – maybe even long enough for the trip back to Lancer – then it will have been worth it after all.

It was annoying that he and his father and brother had had to go separate ways from Petersen. Sure, he could see the sense in Murdoch’s argument, but it grated on Johnny’s nerves now that, if he was still at Petersen with them, he wouldn’t be having to ride out tomorrow morning on his own, and, in all likelihood, feeling really rotten.

Well, feeling sorry for himself wasn’t going to get him anywhere. His head throbbed terribly with every thought that went through his mind, and sitting here complaining wasn’t getting him into that hot bath that was waiting for him downstairs.

 

*

 

When the man had said he could heat up the water for Johnny’s bath, he had really meant it. There was steam rising from it and the room itself seemed to have warmed up when Johnny walked in and stripped off. He shook the dust from his clothes first and laid them out. It hardly seemed worth the trouble of putting on a clean shirt just to ride off into the dust again in the morning.

He put one foot gingerly into the water. It was hot all right, but he found it bearable, and climbed in. The tub was small and cramped. He felt like he’d been squished into a tin can with his knees sticking up out of the water in front of him, but it didn’t matter. He leaned back to let the heat seep into his aching body and he could feel the relief almost immediately.

It had been worth the fifty cents he’d paid for the privilege.

He relaxed and let himself just soak it up for a while, before lathering up with the soap and clearing away a few days worth of trail dust. He washed himself off and leaned back again, enjoying the soothing heat.

Johnny found he had to shake himself awake. He’d drifted off and the hot water had gone tepid and lost all value to him. He ducked his head in the water to wake up properly, then shook the water from his head and ran his hands through his hair to get rid of some of the excess.

Pushing himself up by holding the sides of the tub, he eased out of the water. He was surprised that he hadn’t cramped up in that small space, and he was sure that he would have if he had stayed any longer. As it was, he felt better. All the soreness that had plagued him for the whole day seemed to have faded away.

He dried himself off and dressed quickly, and then headed back to his room.

As he passed through the lobby of the hotel, he stopped for a moment to consider getting a meal at the saloon. He was vaguely aware that he was hungry now, but the thought of eating revolted him enough to dismiss the idea and continue up the stairs to his room.

He opened the door and flopped down to stretch out on the bed. After climbing the stairs, he’d realized that the relief from the bath had been all too temporary. He’d gone to all that trouble, only to return an hour later feeling cleaner, less stiff and twice as tired.

The hot bath had eased his aching muscles all right, but not for long. He also suspected that his temperature was up a little, but, what with the hot water he had been soaking in, he couldn’t be sure.

By the time he got back to his room, his body was starting to seize up on him again. It was still light outside, and, if he had any sense, he ought to be going down to that saloon and getting himself a decent meal, but he had already cast that idea aside and he couldn’t face those stairs again.

So, his other option seemed like the best one. He gave up and went to bed.

 

*

 

        Any hopes that he had nurtured last night of feeling a lot better in the morning quickly dissipated with the break of day. The stream of sunlight through the window woke him and he rolled over to avoid the light in his eyes.

His sleep had been fitful as he had tossed and turned restlessly, trying to force his mind to ignore the pain in his body. There’d been no way to get comfortable, even though there was nothing wrong with the bed. No, he was the problem, or at least his aching body was.

To make matters worse, there was no longer a doubt in his mind at all that he had a fever. He had felt it escalating through the night, and he was pretty sure by now that he was in for more than just a cold. There was no sniffle, no cough and he didn’t feel all stuffed up in the head. No – his head just damned well hurt. He had no idea what it was.

He wondered if there was a doctor here in town, but it seemed unlikely. He hadn’t noticed much about Thompson’s Strike when he rode in, but the shabby, run down atmosphere had been too obvious to miss. It was just one small step away from being a ghost town, and the likelihood of a doctor being here was zero.

Johnny toyed with the thought of just staying where he was. He was tired and felt downright awful, and the very idea of getting up – let alone saddling Barranca and riding out to Petersen – was just a little too much to think about right now. Murdoch and Scott would probably come looking for him, though they’d go to Toby’s first, and that meant it would be days before they got here anyway.

No - he couldn’t stay here. He hadn’t made any plans to stay overnight here in Thompson’s Strike, and Murdoch would be annoyed if he was late.

It wouldn’t normally have worried him much. Murdoch was annoyed with him so often that he had come to expect it anyway. It didn’t bother him much if they bumped heads now and then. It was those really noisy arguments that Johnny hated. And with the way his head felt right now, that sort of a welcome from Murdoch would just about kill him.

So he forced himself to get up and get going. The sooner it was done the better. He could hole up in Petersen when he got there, and Murdoch and Scott could make whatever plans they wanted without disturbing him.

He dressed and collected his saddlebags and rifle, then headed for the stairs. The first step down sent a shaft of pain through his whole body that ended up burning into his brain. He stopped, long enough to catch his breath and to let the fire subside, before he continued more carefully down the staircase.

It was a fair indication of his condition that he didn’t even think of breakfast. Instead he took the key over to the clerk at the desk.

“You wouldn’t happen to have a doctor in this town, would you?” he asked the man hopefully.

The clerk studied him curiously before answering. “I’m afraid not Mr. Lancer,” he told him suspiciously. “Are you unwell, sir? Alby Harris is the closest thing we have to a doctor here. Would you like me to fetch him for you?”

“Nope,” Johnny replied casually. “Nothin’ that can’t wait. Gracias.”

“Very well, sir,” the man answered haughtily. “Come again Mr. Lancer.”

Johnny grinned. The man knew how to be obliging all right, but he had no desire to spend another night here.

After checking out, he walked out of the doors into the sunlight and stopped dead. The light was so bright that he shaded his eyes for a moment and then tugged his hat lower over his eyes. The sun was further overhead than he had expected. He must have slept longer than he had planned and it was already hotter than he would have liked.

He’d wanted to get a nice early start, before the heat of the day set in, and he silently swore when he realized that he had wasted a good couple of hours. He’d hoped to not have to travel in too much sun. It was going to make the trip that much more uncomfortable.

He made his way over to the livery to get Barranca. He passed the owner with only a quick ‘Gracias’ and went to the stall where his horse was waiting for him. His mind was focused only on getting to Petersen to join Murdoch and Scott.

It hadn’t even occurred to him how big a change of outlook that was for him.

In the past, he would simply have holed up somewhere quiet and well hidden until it either passed or he died. It would have been as simple as that. He’d never had any expectations of a long and fruitful life anyway, and, back then, death would have only been meeting up with ‘the inevitable’.

But now – now he wanted to get to his family. He knew he could count on them, and ‘the inevitable’ was something he could fight with their help. He would fight it with their help – fight it with all his might. His instincts had subtly changed without his ever realizing it.

Saddling the big palomino sapped more of his energy than he had expected it to. Unlike himself, Barranca was fresh and eager for a new day, and he fidgeted and playfully tried to nip Johnny more than once.

The saddle itself felt like it was unaccountably heavier all of a sudden. He swung it over Barranca’s back and had to stop to steady himself. He leaned heavily against the big palomino and caught his breath again. He frowned angrily. Frustration was setting in and his temper frayed with it.

There was no way that he was going to let this beat him.

Johnny hurt all over and he had to stop more than once as he was struck by waves of dizziness. But he had no intention of stopping completely. He knew he could make the ride to Petersen, and he knew he could handle Barranca no matter what.

After all, it wasn’t very far, only a few hours down the road at a good pace, and it was a good road. He had no doubt that he could do that, no matter how bad he felt right now.

Johnny finally led Barranca out of the livery and into the sunlight. He squinted against the sudden bright light and pulled his hat down over his eyes once more. He heaved himself up into the saddle, settling himself comfortably. The leather creaked beneath his weight and the sound irritated his aching head, but not for long.

He shifted in the saddle and urged Barranca to an easy walk towards the gate of the corral.

But a wave of dizziness struck him unexpectedly and, to his infinite surprise and his considerable disappointment, a deep dark chasm opened in front of him, and he fell forward into it.

He felt his head strike the warm, muscular shoulder of his horse as he sagged forward, but it was the last thought that registered in his mind.

He didn’t feel the ground when he hit it.

 

Chapter Three

 

“Pete, if your Pa sees us, we’re in for it!” Tom Carson told his friend. They were the same age, all of eleven years old, and they knew very well that they had chores that needed doing.

But the woods had called them away and, being healthy young boys, there was more adventure there than in feeding the hens and swinging hay in a barn. There was just no denying the urge to escape.

Of course, they’d had to bring along Tom’s annoying little brother Robbie. He’d spotted them running off and would have told on them if they’d left him behind. He was only nine, and too young to be trusted to keep his mouth shut, so they took him with them.

“Nah, he won’t see us,” Pete assured him. “He’s too busy in the livery.”

“We’re kinda close though,” Robbie pointed out uneasily. “He might come out.”

“Yeah, Pete,” Tom added. “an’ your Pa’s got one heck of a temper.”

“An’ he’d tell Ma too,” Robbie told them both, fearfully.

“Aw, don’t be a baby,” Pete told him harshly, and then stopped as he turned his head towards the livery stable his father owned.

“Wow, look at that horse!” he exclaimed excitedly.

In all their born days, they had never seen a horse that color before and they sat watching the sun gleam and bounce off that beautiful golden back of his.

“Ain’t he beautiful?” Tom answered, sitting down on the crumbling log at the edge of the woods to get a better look at the animal.

He glistened in the sunshine and tossed his head, throwing his white blond mane in the air. He looked just like something out of a storybook.

They sure envied the man who led him out of the barn. Owning a horse like that would be something special!

“Bet he runs like the wind, Tom,” Robbie whispered in awe, joining his brother on the log.

They watched the man tighten the cinch and then lean heavily against the horse, and they idly wondered why, but then he climbed smoothly into the saddle and made himself comfortable.

Pete looked on jealously as Johnny settled himself in the saddle. He’d never ridden an animal of that caliber before, and he wondered if he ever would.

“Boy, would I love the chance to ride him. I could handle him,” he told them with the confidence of youth.

“Bet ya couldn’t,” Tom teased him with a huge grin.

“Sure I…” Pete began, but stopped mid-sentence and gaped in amazement, as the man seemed to just fall forward over the horse, and then drop heavily to the ground.

*

The three of them jumped instantly to their feet.

“Did ya see that Tom?” Pete, cried out, stunned.

“He fell right off!” the boy answered disbelieving.

“The horse didn’t throw him,” Pete continued. “He just fell off all by himself.”

“He ain’t moved neither,” Robbie added. “Do ya think he’s dead?”

“Could be. Let’s go see,” Pete suggested excitedly and the three of them made a beeline for the corral.

“Do you think he got shot or somethin’?” Tom asked as they ran together towards the fence.

They climbed through the fence and ran over to where Johnny lay. The golden horse that had first caught their attention was standing close by and shied back a little when the noisy trio arrived, but he was the last thing on their minds now.

“Nah, we’d have heard it,” Pete explained dismissively.

Pete ran over and knelt beside the stranger, while the other two boys stood back, unsure what they should do now that they were here.

“Is he dead?” Robbie asked nervously.

Pete looked first at Johnny and then over his shoulder at his friends. “Don’t think so,” the boy told them. He put his hand warily on Johnny’s hand and found it was hot to the touch. “I think maybe he’s sick or somethin’.”

He pulled Johnny over onto his back and looked at him. His eyes were closed and he didn’t make a sound when Pete moved him. The stranger was out cold all right, but there was no blood on him that the boy could see.

“He don’t look like he’s hurt much, but he sure is sick,” Pete told them firmly.

“Maybe we should…” Tom began, but he stopped when he heard the gruff voice of Pete’s father.

“What’s goin’ on out here?” he growled at them as he emerged from inside the barn.

Pete looked over at his father, but stayed where he was beside Johnny. The other two boys took a step back out of the way of the big angry man.

“What are you kids doin’ here? What are ya up to?” he snapped, and then noticed the man on the ground. “What’s the matter with him?”

“He fell off his horse, Pa,” Pete answered innocently. “Looks to me like he’s sick.”

Ben Scrivens strode quickly over to his son and, grabbing his arm, he pulled him roughly away from the man on the ground.

“Then what the hell do you think you’re doin’ touchin’ him? You wanta get sick yourself?”

The boy stood back and looked at his father, and then looked down at his feet dejectedly. “I’m sorry. I didn’t think of that, Pa,” he said self-consciously.

“Yeah well, stay back away from him,” the man told him crossly. “Tom, you go get Alby Harris an’ bring him here, an’ you Robbie, you stay away too.”

“Yes sir,” the boys answered in unison, hanging back as ordered and watching Pete’s father look the man over, carefully avoiding touching him, while Tom ran off to get the closest thing to what the town could call a doctor.

 

*

“What’s going on here?” the woman asked loudly, pushing her way through the small crowd of on-lookers who had congregated around the corral outside the livery stable.

News traveled fast here at ‘The Strike’ since there never was any anyway. People had gathered around the corral quickly when they saw the young boy running down the street, eager to find out what was going on. And when Charity Blaine had seen them, she too had hurried to find out what was the cause. She had seen where the boy had run to and she knew right away that someone must be hurt.

She manhandled them out of her way and finally found the cause of all the commotion – a young man lying unconscious on the ground, while his horse, a beautiful golden palomino, stood quietly by his side.

The animal seemed to be more concerned about him than anyone else was. They huddled close together, but no one had gone to the man’s side to help him. He lay silently in the dust with everyone whispering around him. But he was oblivious to it all.

As she stepped forward, a voice from behind her warned, “Don’t you go gettin’ too close, Miss Charity,” but she only clucked impatiently and went straight over to the young man’s side.

It was obvious that the boy was in trouble. She couldn’t tell immediately whether he was hurt or sick, but he was out cold and lying in the dirt while they stood by and did nothing to help.

They didn’t appear to have even stopped to find out if he was bleeding!

She turned furiously on the group of people around her, thrusting her hands on her hips and glaring at them.

“What happened to him?” she asked angrily.

“Pete says he just fell off of his horse,” Scrivens told her. “Seems like he fainted or somethin’.”

“Didn’t you check if he was hurt?”

“He ain’t hurt, Miss Charity,” Ben replied edgily. “He’s sick. It’s easy to see that.”

Charity Blaine lost what little patience she had left. “What’s the matter with you people?” she demanded. “This boy needs help.”

“Miss Charity, you oughta get back away from him,” Ben Scrivens told her from his place a few feet away, in the front of the crowd. “That fella’s sick with fever.”

The woman looked down at the boy at her feet. At least, he didn’t appear to be more than a boy. She knelt by his side and put her hand to his forehead. Ben was right – he most certainly did have a fever and he shouldn’t be left here on the ground. He should be in a bed being kept warm and with someone tending him.

She checked him over quickly and the only injury that she found was a lump the size of a goose egg on the side of his head. A soft moan escaped him as she prodded gently around the swollen area. It was still soft – a new injury and probably from his fall. The fever had nothing to do with it. And he was certainly sick. Even that bump on his head probably wasn’t the reason he was still unconscious. It had been the result of the fall, not the cause.

Charity Blaine looked at the little group of people gathered around the livery. She was dismayed to see so many of the town’s fine ‘upstanding citizens’ among them. She had thought that most of them knew better, but it seemed that fear crosses all barriers.

She was, herself, a down to earth woman, nearing forty years of age and wearing it well. There was only a little gray showing through her plain brown hair, but it was pulled back into a severe roll at the back of her head and matched the simple style of her brown skirt and checked shirt.

She was usually an easy-going woman, but she did not suffer fools well, and the people milling around in front of her fit that description to a tee – fools – every one of them.

She got to her feet and turned on them angrily. “This boy needs help – now,” she insisted, standing up to face them with grim determination.

“I sent young Tom Carson to fetch Alby Harris. He should be here soon,” the livery owner told her.

“You should keep your distance till Alby gets here, Miss Charity,” the man beside him reminded her, and he was joined by a general murmur of assent.

Charity lost her temper right then and there. “And just what do you think Alby Harris will be able to do?” she blasted them. “He’s not a doctor. He’s not even a vet!”

“That’s as may be, Miss Charity,” Ben answered defensively. “But he’s the closest thing we have to one. Can’t be too careful. Fella rides into town and drops with a fever – could be anything.”

“Well of course it could be anything,” she insisted in angry exasperation. “That’s why we need to get him somewhere that he can be looked after.”

From behind them, a voice called “Let me through!” and the crowd parted to let Alby pass. He stopped just in front of them and came face to face with Charity Blaine, standing over the man with her most stubborn expression on her face.

He looked from her down to the man lying at her feet.

He was young, maybe in his early twenties, Alby figured, and good looking too. He wore his gun low and he probably had some Mexican blood in him by the look of him, but none of those things meant anything to Alby. What did matter was that the man was obviously flushed with a high fever.

“You oughtn’t ta get too close, Charity,” the man told her. “Could be he’s got somethin’ catchin’. You don’t wanta get sick too.”

“What this poor boy needs is a bed and some decent nursing,” she answered adamantly.

Alby moved a little closer to the prone man and leaned over him, but being careful not to touch him.

He noticed the flushed face, and the gleam of perspiration shining on his forehead. “Burnin’ with a fever,” he noted, ignoring her completely. He looked the man over more closely and stopped at the young man’s hands. There was a barely discernable rash of red spots on the upturned wrist of his right hand, and Alby stood up and stepped back from him.

“Spots,” Alby said, as though that meant some sort of judgment.

“What on earth are you talking about?” Charity asked in exasperation.

“See for yourself,” he replied confidently. “On his hand there –spots!”

Charity bent down and confirmed the rash that seemed to have Alby in such a fuss.

“So what?” she demanded.

Alby looked back at the woman impatiently. The conflict between them was of long standing. For years, the people of the town had gone to Alby and, before him, to his late mother, for advice when they were sick or hurt. Alby’s mother had been a fount of ‘wives’ tales’ and home remedies that really had worked for the most part, and Alby lived off her reputation. He enjoyed the position and respect it gave him.

At least, that had been the way things were until Charity Blaine had come to live here a few years ago. She too knew a lot about herbs and remedies, but she had also done some nursing during the war between the states and she tempered her medical knowledge against the fables of people like Alby Harris.

She had been constantly questioning his work ever since, and Alby didn’t like it at all. There were more and more of the townsfolk who looked to her for advice when they were sick or hurt.

He sighed, giving her a patronizing look, as though he were dealing with an amateur. “If there’s spots, it’s catchin’. That’s what my Ma used to say,” he told her, and the assembled crowd.

“What d’ya think it is then Alby?” Ben Scrivens asked him anxiously.

Alby frowned and rubbed his chin, considering. “Well, I ain’t sure,” he admitted slowly. “Could be a lot of things really, but I heard tell that ya get spots with Typhoid fever.”

The crowd murmured nervously and stepped back as one body.

“That’s a ridiculous assumption, Alby Harris!” Charity exclaimed. “You have no right to go frightening these people with that sort of a statement. You’re no more a doctor than your mother was. You don’t know any such thing.”

“My Ma knew what she knew!” he threw back at her angrily. “An’ spots is catchin’.”

“Well that doesn’t make it Typhoid!”

“Ya get spots with Typhoid – I remember my Ma tellin’ me.”

“Oh, for heaven’s sake! You get spots with measles as well,” she answered him furiously. “And any number of illnesses. You can get spots from allergies! It might not even have anything to do with his being sick. Could be anything.”

“Measles an’ things is catchin’ too though, Miss Charity,” Ben called out, stepping back further away. “Can you tell us for sure that he ain’t got Typhoid, or one o’ them other catchin’ sicknesses?”

“We need a real doctor to tell us for sure,” she explained. “Until Dr. Rawlins gets here from Petersen, we need to get this boy inside.”

“By the time he gets here, we could all be infected,” Alby told her.

“Well, it really doesn’t change anything. We can’t just leave him here. He needs a bed and some careful nursing.”

“An’ how’re you thinkin’ you’ll get him to that bed, Miss Charity? I sure ain’t touchin’ him,” Scrivens told her bluntly. “An’ I don’t reckon anyone else will either.”

“I only need a couple of you men to give me a hand, and we’ll get him back to his room at the hotel.”

From the back of the crowd a voice called out urgently. “Oh no, you won’t! That’s out of the question. He’s already checked out.”

“Oscar?” Charity looked at him questioningly. “You have all those rooms sitting idle?”

Those in front turned around to see the speaker. Oscar Lang, the proprietor of the hotel across the street, shook his head resolutely.

“No, he can’t stay in my hotel. I’ll already have to clean out that room he stayed in last night as it is and I will probably have to burn the mattress too. I can’t afford to have him die in my hotel.”

“Bad for business, hey Oscar?” an anonymous voice quipped from behind him, and was rewarded with a few snickers from the crowd.

Lang turned angrily on the man. “Well, I don’t hear you offering a room at your house! Why should I be any different? And yes, I do have a business to run, and I’m not putting my livelihood at risk for his sake.”

Charity flew into a rage. “What’s wrong with you people?” she demanded. “In common decency we have an obligation to look after this boy.”

“Only obligation I’ve got is to my wife and kids,” Ralph Turner told her emphatically. “Ain’t no drifter gonna come into town and make them sick.”

The crowd agreed with him, and started to get vocal.

“That’s right, Miss Charity,” called out another voice from the back. “It’s all very well for you - you ain’t got family to think of. We gotta take care of our own.”

“Then help me get him to my place and I’ll tend to him myself,” she suggested furiously.

“I don’t know, Miss Charity,” Ralph Turner answered loudly. “I don’t think he should be in town at all. I mean, if you got sick, and then someone else got sick from you. Where would it end? We’ll be no better off.”

“They say that Typhoid spreads awful fast,” Ben Scrivens added morosely.

“Why, it could wipe out the whole town!” Oscar Lang called out angrily from behind him.

“We got women and kids to think about,” yelled another anonymous voice from the gathered mob.

Their indifference towards the man enraged Charity beyond measure, but she began to see that she wouldn’t get through to them. They were frightened – panicking - and frightened men turned on whoever was handy. It was their own good luck that the sick man was an outsider, and not one of their own.

It made their decision easier to make. He was a stranger, and a threat.

“We don’t even know that he has Typhoid in the first place,” she persisted. “It could be anything.”

“And maybe what he’s got is worse,” Oscar shouted. “Can you tell us that he hasn’t got some disease that could spread through this town and kill everyone? Can you tell us that Charity?”

Charity shook her head sadly. She was completely disillusioned by the people she had considered her friends, and good Christian folks.

The young man sighed and moved his head a little to one side, and the gathered crowd stepped back a little further.

“No, you know I can’t. No more than Alby here can tell you that the boy has Typhoid. We don’t know what’s wrong with him.” She looked around at them disapprovingly. “Don’t you see? He needs a doctor, and he needs tending. If you leave him like this – it’s as good as murder.”

“That’s not fair, Charity,” Alby answered coldly. “An’ you know it. These folks do have their families to think of. You don’t wanta see little kids sick with this do you?”

“It just ain’t worth the risk,” came a voice of finality from the crowd, and she knew she wasn’t going to convince them. In their warped way, they were right. She couldn’t put the children at risk either.

The young man on the ground, unconsciously causing all the fuss, began to stir. He moved his head again and frowned, and then he tried to roll onto his side.

Charity knelt by his side, took his hand in hers to soothe him and he relaxed again. She looked from the young man to Alby Harris, who was still standing over him.

There was steel in her voice when she spoke.

“I don’t care what they say, Alby,” she told him firmly. “We can’t just let him die.”

“We have to think of the town first, Charity,” he answered, pleading with her. “You must see that it ain’t fair to take chances with the folks in town – not for an outsider we don’t even know. He’s just a drifter.”

“So he doesn’t matter?” she cried out. “Alby Harris, he’s a human being. We can’t just leave him to die without trying to help.”

“Charity, I don’t see what we can do!”

“Oh, your mother would be so proud of you Alby,” she hissed at him.

Harris looked furiously at her, but said nothing.

“No, Alby’s right, Miss Charity,” Ben told her. “We can’t have him near our kids.”

Charity looked down sadly at the sick man lying beside her. She ran her fingers gently through his hair and put her hand to his forehead. He was burning up, and he needed help quickly if he was going to survive.

And she wasn’t going to let him down.

Alby Harris watched her and came to a decision. Her words rang in his ears. What would his mother have done?

“Get a wagon harnessed Ben,” Alby ordered finally.

“What for?” the man asked.

“I got me an idea,” he told the man. “Just get the wagon. Oscar, you go get a mattress and pillows an’ blankets from the hotel. An’ anything else you can think of to last a few days.”

He turned back to the crowd and spotted Ralph Turner. “Ralph, you go get some supplies from the store. Charity will tell you what she’ll need.”

“What have you got in mind?” Charity asked him coldly.

“We can’t have him in town, Charity,” he told her. “You gotta see that. But if you’re so all fired sure you wanta do this, then we can move him out to the old Andrews place. It’s far enough from town that we ain’t puttin’ no one at risk, an’ you can nurse him best as you can.”

“You mean ‘quarantine’ him?” she answered. “Alby, that’s all very well, but that Andrews place was abandoned years ago. It’s filthy, and it’s falling apart. The draughts in that place would kill him in no time. Surely, you can’t be serious.”

“Take it or leave it, Miss Charity,” Ben Scrivens insisted boldly.

The woman sighed heavily. She couldn’t let the boy down, and she didn’t appear to have much choice. It was better than nothing.

“All right then,” she relented at last. “But you have to send to Petersen for Dr. Rawlins. This boy needs a doctor, and if he is contagious, we might all need him before this is over.”

“We’ll get him, Miss Charity,” Ben replied determinedly. “An’ we’ll get whatever supplies you want.”

“Do it then,” she told them coldly, and then turned her attention to the crowd. “And may God have mercy on you all.”

Amid the resultant whispering, Ben Scrivens came forward and passed by her without another word. He went into the barn to get the wagon harnessed for her. All the while, the image of his eleven year old son holding the arm of the stricken stranger played over and over in his mind. He hadn’t told anyone that his son had been that close to him.

His boy Pete was as healthy as a horse. He wasn’t going to get sick. He was sure of it, but a twinge of fear that it could happen lay in the depths of his brain. He’d sent all three of the boys home, out of the way. They shouldn’t be exposed to the stranger any more than they had been already, but he’d have to tell their parents about it. They had to be awake to any signs of sickness in their boys.

He turned back to have another look at the woman kneeling on the ground beside the sick man, and he cursed the luck that had brought the man to their town.

“Oscar,” she called out to the hotel proprietor as he slowly turned away to get the things she would need from the hotel. He begrudged them to her because he knew that he would never get them back. They would have to be burned when the man died. That was certain, so he was throwing away good money in doing this.

He frowned morosely as he heard his name called. “Yes,” he answered coolly.

“He was signed into the hotel last night, wasn’t he?” she asked.

“Yes he was,” Oscar replied curiously.

“What is his name then?”

He looked uncomfortable for a moment and lingered, looking down at the man who had been his only paying customer in weeks, before answering.

“His name is Lancer, Johnny Lancer,” he told her at last, turning his back on the stranger who suddenly seemed more human now that he had a name.

Charity looked back down at Johnny. He looked so young – so helpless. His head was moving restlessly from side to side and a frown creased his brow. He was still unconscious, but he was all too obviously in pain.

“Well, Johnny Lancer,” she whispered to him softly. “I guess it’s just you and me now.”

She felt his forehead once more, and she was sure that the fever had gained ground even in the short time since she had last done it. A silent tear for him escaped and rolled down her cheek. It was a pure shame to be so alone while he was fighting to stay in this world. It wasn’t fair.

“I’ll do what I can for you,” she said quietly. “I just hope I’m good enough.”

 

Chapter Four

 

“Damn, will you look at that?” Charity Blaine said to herself in frustration. She hadn’t really expected much more but had hoped for a miracle.

She hadn’t gotten one.

She drew the wagon to a halt outside Bill Andrews’ abandoned cabin. She eyed it critically and found it distinctly wanting.

Bill had picked up and walked out two years ago and no one had lived there since. The house was all that remained of one man’s dreams of striking it rich. He’d built his cabin and staked his claim, and then he had tried for two whole years to find himself a treasure in the stream that ran by the house.

But after finding only those few early traces of ‘color’ that had set him to thinking of great riches and a life of ease, there had been nothing but disappointment. He hadn’t even found enough to live on, and eventually he had packed up and left without a word to anyone, following his dreams somewhere else.

The place was a mess.  It was overgrown with weeds and long grass, and the shutters were hanging off the windows, although at least there was still glass in those filthy windows and the front door was still in place.

There was no way of telling if the roof was intact yet. It looked all right from the ground, but she hoped that the weather would hold and she wouldn’t have to find out if it leaked.

She sighed heavily and dreaded what she’d find inside. If the outside was any indication, and she figured pessimistically that it was, then the inside was going to be daunting.

“Well, Charity, you better take a look and see how bad it is in there! Sitting here looking at it isn’t doing you any good,” she said to herself. “There’s work to be done and it won’t do itself.”

 She pulled hard on the brake and tied off the reins, and then she clambered down to the ground, resolutely hitching her skirt up out of the way and disregarding the presence of the two men riding behind. Her days of caring what folks thought of her were long past.

 Charity looked into the back of the wagon where Johnny laid, wrapped in a blanket now and wedged in with the supplies she had brought with her from town. Once she had rolled him onto the blanket, Alby and Ben had been prepared to help lift him into the wagon, all the while being very careful not to touch him.

 She’d known these people for years, but fear had turned them into strangers. She felt like she had never really known them at all. It grieved her that people who had been good kind neighbors were turning their backs, not only on the young stranger who lay sick in her wagon, but on her as well. By helping him, she had found that they were prepared to cast her out and force her to fend for herself, and for him.

 Johnny hadn’t come round at all during her battle to get him into the wagon. There’d been some times when she had thought he might. His eyelids had fluttered briefly on occasion, and an intermittent groan had escaped him, but that crack on the head had knocked him out cold and he had remained unconscious throughout the ordeal of the journey.

She had stopped and picked up supplies from home on her way out of town – her herbs and remedies - as well as accepting the things that the hotel and the store had handed over to her, albeit grudgingly.

There was a clean mattress rolled up with some pillows and some spare blankets, ‘courtesy’ of Oscar Lang, along with a couple of lamps and some linen to spare. They had provided plenty of supplies from the general store, and Charity had the feeling that they were assuaging their guilt by being so ‘generous’ to her.

It meant very little in the end. She would have preferred their help instead.

Charity checked that Johnny was still unconscious in the back of the wagon before turning to go take a look at the inside of the cabin. She studiously ignored the two mounted men behind the wagon who had provided an escort for her.

“You sure you wanna do this, Miss Charity?” Ben asked her as she turned away.

“You know we can’t let you back in town while you’re around him,” Alby added.

She spun around to face them, her eyes blazing angrily. “I know what I’m doing,” she told them.

“I ain’t so sure, Charity,” Alby said gruffly. “What’re ya gonna do if you catch what he’s got?”

Charity’s temper snapped and she put her hands on her hips and glared at him.

”Well, if I get sick too, at least you won’t have to go to the trouble of bringing me out here to die, will you?”

“Aw, come on Miss Charity,” Ben whined. “That ain’t fair.”

She stared at them in disgust. “Don’t you talk to me about fair, Ben Scrivens,” she said coldly.

“We gotta think of our families. We told you that.”

“Yes, I’ve heard it all, Ben.” She glowered at him. “Now, if you aren’t going to help me, then get yourselves out of my sight.”

Their silence, and the fact that they made no move to dismount, made it obvious that they had no intention of helping her. So she added, before turning away again, “And you get that doctor from Petersen. Lord knows this boy is sick enough, but we might all need the doctor before this is over.”

“Sure Miss Charity,” Ben assured her. “We’ll get him.”

“And what if I need anything? How can I get word to you if you won’t let me in town?”

Alby looked uneasily at Ben and then looked back to her. “We’re plannin’ on putting a man out here to watch things Miss Charity. You just give him the message.”

“Is that right, Alby?” she asked him sarcastically. “You mean to make sure we don’t go sneaking off and spreading your precious ‘epidemic’ don’t you?”

“Has to be done, Charity,” he told her sheepishly.

Charity gave them both a black look and told them, “There’s nothing in this that ‘has to be done’ Alby. You have no idea what’s wrong with that young man, and you have these people frightened half to death. I hope the good Lord finds forgiveness for you Alby.”

 The two men looked at each other, unsure of themselves, but then they turned their horses around and headed back to town, leaving her alone with her charge.

 She looked him over one last time and then headed for the house. As she put her foot on the raised board that represented a step and then onto the little porch, she was grateful that she didn’t fall through the boards. Maybe Bill Andrews had been a better builder than he had been a miner.

 She pushed the door open carefully and it creaked an eerie protest as it moved. The sound must have frightened something in there, because she heard the patter of sharp claws as something skittered across the room.

 Looking inside quickly, she sighed again. It was just as bad as she had expected. There was a thick layer of dust on everything, even on the cobwebs, thick and aged, that decorated the furniture and the corners of the room.

 Evidence that vermin were using the place as their own was everywhere. Tiny pellets of faeces littered the floor and made it difficult to find a place to set her foot. The cockroaches were bolder than the creature that had dashed into hiding on her approach. They didn’t even try to hide from her.

 There was a stench in the room that turned her stomach over and the leg of one of the stools in the room had been savagely gnawed by something, reinforcing the idea that there must be rats in residence. Well, they were going to have to pack up and move out!

 In his disgust, Andrews had left just about everything behind him. There was a rough-hewn table and two chairs with a couple of stools. If he had expected to have company, living out here, he had put the cabin in the wrong place, but he had obviously been prepared just the same. He had left a pot bellied stove in the middle of the room. There was a bench in the kitchen and a small larder.

 She hoped he had at least emptied that before walking out, but probably not and that would be what had first attracted the vermin.

 He’d built a small room off to the side where he had put his cot. It was still there, and so was the mattress he had used. The dust of two years had settled on it and on everything else.

 There was no way she could bring Johnny in here yet.

 Before going back outside, she went back to the kitchen and looked around. Finally, she found what she wanted. She picked up the broom and headed back to the doorway, looking out to see that Johnny was still safely unconscious in the back of the wagon.

 Reassured, she turned back and took a deep breath. “No use putting it off, Charity,” she said aloud. There was no one to hear her, and, she hoped, no thing either. She knew there were rats in here. Lord only knew what else as well.

 Her first priority was that bedroom. She hoisted the filthy mattress over her shoulder and took it out to the porch. She’d have to give it a good switching later, and then she could use it herself. She’d replace it with that clean one in the wagon for Johnny.

 It took a good hour to clean out that room, and she had stopped intermittently to check on her charge outside. He’d been restless the last time she had looked at him, about ten minutes ago, and she had stepped up the pace so that she could bring him inside before finishing up the rest of the place.

 Charity got back to the wagon just in time. A groan, louder than before, greeted her as she got to the doorway and she hurried back and climbed up beside him, just in time to come face to face with a pair of dark and, surprisingly, blue eyes.

 But those eyes registered confusion on a vast level.

 “Where am I?” he asked shakily. “Who are you?”

 Charity smiled gently at him. “My name is Charity Blaine,” she told him. “Just take it easy. You’re not very well, and you took a fall. You just rest for now, okay?”

 “Where…?”

 “I’ve brought you somewhere so that I can look after you,” she explained to him briefly. “ Your name - it’s Johnny isn’t it?”

 He nodded and the small action brought on a shaft of pain that hit him like a bullet to the brain. He closed his eyes and put his hand up to his head as if holding it would make it go away.

 “Johnny, listen to me,” she urged him softly. “I have to finish straightening up inside before I get you to bed. Are you all right here until I come back for you?”

 Johnny turned his head to face her, but he frowned in confusion before he answered. “Guess so,” was all he eventually said.

 “Good boy,” she said with a smile to reassure him. “You take it nice and easy here boy, and I’ll be right back.”

 She wasn’t sure he understood what she had said, or even if he had heard her as he closed his eyes and sighed softly. He had lost consciousness again.

 She dragged out the mattress and hefted it over her shoulder, and then picked up one of the pillows and edged out of the back of the wagon.

 

*

 

        “Johnny, can you hear me?” he heard a gentle voice saying from somewhere, a long way off.

He forced his eyes open and the glare of the sunlight above him hit him hard. He squinted against it and his head roared with that small movement.

He moaned softly and turned his head in the direction that he thought the voice was coming from.

“Johnny?” the voice repeated. It was a woman’s voice – but that was all he knew. He didn’t recognize it. It sure wasn’t Teresa and she didn’t have Maria’s heavy Mexican accent.

He struggled through the thick fog in his head and blinked to clear his sight.

“Can you hear me Johnny?” she asked again. It was a pleasant voice, and she sounded concerned about him.

“Yeah,” he finally managed to answer. His eyesight was clearing a little and her face began to take form in front of him. Even blurred, he was sure he didn’t know her.

“Good boy Johnny,” the woman said with a smile. She had a nice smile. It was about all he noticed at the moment. He couldn’t make out her features yet and he concentrated on what she was saying. Her voice seemed to fade every now and then. “I need you to help me to get you into the house.”

“House?” Johnny asked. It didn’t make sense. Was he at Lancer? If he was, he sure didn’t remember getting there and who the hell was she?

“That’s right Johnny,” she told him firmly. “It’s time to go inside. Can you stand if I help you?”

Johnny laughed at the idea and then stopped. It had sounded a lot like hysteria and it worried him. Stand? How did she think he was going to be able to do that when there wasn’t a nerve in his body that would obey his commands right now?

Before he could answer though, he felt her arm slide under his back and heave him forward. As he came up, she wrapped her other arm around his chest so that he wouldn’t fall forward. He was grateful to her for that. It would have been embarrassing.

“Come on, boy,” the woman urged him, her voice echoing the strain of supporting his weight. “You’re going to have to help me a little bit.”

Instinctively, Johnny threw his right hand out and grabbed the closest thing he could reach to keep himself upright. It happened to be the side of the wagon, though he hadn’t realized that he was even in one. He gripped it hard, as though his life depended on it.

 “That’s good, Johnny,” she said encouragingly and she stopped to give him a moment to catch his breath. “You’re doing just fine.”

 It was just as well that she did because Johnny’s world was spinning crazily. He clamped his hand on the side of that wagon so hard that his knuckles turned white and he held on until the dizziness gradually came to a stop. His head felt heavy on his shoulders, but his mind was floating in some sort of light-headed haze that bewildered him.

 He could feel the woman’s arms holding him steady and he wondered what would happen if she let go.

 Johnny had no idea what was wrong with him, but he sure felt lousy.  His body ached all over, and he was hot and shaky. He recognized the signs of a fever, and wondered where it had come from.

 His head hurt like hell, and his left shoulder screamed when he moved it. Had he been shot? Damn, he didn’t know! He just couldn’t remember anything.

 “Are you ready to try standing up, Johnny?” the woman asked him softly.

 He smiled and slowly turned to face her. “Lady, I ain’t sure of anything right now,” he told her sardonically. “An’ you can count standin’ right at the top o’ the list!”

 Charity smiled in return and released him from her support. He managed to stay upright, much to his surprise and her satisfaction.

 She edged out of the wagon and climbed down to the ground to stand in front of him.

 Johnny was pleased that he didn’t fall on his face without her arms to hold him up. That would have been awkward to say the least. But getting out of the wagon bed, now that was another thing altogether.

 ‘Well, Johnny boy, you’re not gettin’ nowhere just sitting here,’ he told himself and eased himself forward to the edge. The movement brought a lance of pain to his shoulder and he wondered again what he had done to it.

 He took a breath and fought back the pain. Then he lowered his feet to the ground, and stood up, swayed, and grasped the hand that Charity offered him quickly.

 She put her arm around his waist to steady him further and waited for him to find his feet.

 “There you are, Johnny,” she said soothingly and not without a little pride in her voice. “I knew you could do it.”

 She looked at him and didn’t like what she saw. He was white as a sheet and covered in perspiration. He shouldn’t be on his feet, but she had no choice. She had to get him inside before he collapsed, and she had a feeling he was close to it already.

 “Come with me,” she urged him calmly. “It’s not far.”

 She watched him make the effort to move his feet and he started to walk, with her support, unsteadily towards the house. She directed him gently towards the door and stopped him as they reached the step.

 “There’s a step here,” she warned him, and he looked down and focused on putting his foot on it firmly and stepping up.

 It took more out of him than she would have liked, and he stood on the little porch, swaying terribly, but staying on his feet. The boy had guts - that was for sure.

 Charity gripped him tighter and wrapped her other arm around his chest until he regained his composure.

 “Nearly there, Johnny,” she assured him, though she wasn’t sure how much further he could stagger.

 He turned a pair of confused eyes on her, and she smiled again at him. “You’re doing great. Do you think you can make it the rest of the way?”

 “I c’n make it,” he told her firmly, and with a slight edge to his voice. She had the feeling that he hated relying on her for help. Most men just naturally did, in her experience, but this young man’s face told her that he truly resented it.

 “Glad to hear it,” she replied, ignoring the tone of his answer as she released her arm from his chest. “Come on then, let’s get you inside and off your feet.”

 By the time she got him into the bedroom and sitting on the side of the bed, he was panting and sweating profusely. She let him sit there for a while to get his bearings. She understood how bewildered he must be.

 He sat on the edge of the cot, holding his head in his hands, for some time. When he looked up at her at last, he had regained some of his color, but his confusion was obvious.

 “Who are you lady?” he asked her at last. “Where the devil am I an’ what am I doin’ here?”

 “One thing at a time, boy,” she answered him calmly. “Like I said, my name is Charity – Charity Blaine. You’re sick and I intend to get you well, even if you’re not inclined to help me.”

 Johnny laughed a little. “Lady, you don’t need to tell me I ain’t well!” he told her coldly. “What happened? My head feels like hell.”

 “Well, that’s what happens when you fall on it.” She grinned at him. “It doesn’t pay to try mounting your horse when you’re not up to it.”

 He looked up at her in surprise. “You sayin’ I fell off my horse?”

 “Why, does that embarrass you?” she asked him ironically. “I’m sure you sit a horse very well, young man, but not when you’re running a fever. Now, I think you should get out of those heavy clothes and into bed. Do you need a hand?”

 “No!” he snapped back at her.

 Charity caught a touch of anger in his reaction and laughed. “So you have a temper, do you?” she teased him. “And I’ll wager you’re a dangerous man to cross too. Well, you don’t frighten me one bit right now, young man. So just you get those clothes off and get into that bed, or I’ll strip you myself.”

 Johnny Madrid Lancer was not accustomed to being spoken to in that way by unknown females. Forgetting his condition for a moment, he jumped to his feet, and immediately found himself paying the penalty.

 He threw his hand out to grab hold of something – anything – to keep from falling flat on his face. The fact of the matter was that the room was practically bare and the only thing to keep him from crashing to the floor was Charity herself. She caught him quickly as he started to sag at the knees.

 Helping him back onto the bed, Charity steadied him and then let him go.

 “I’m glad to see that you have some fight in you,” she told him seriously. “But save it for the fever instead of me. I’m here to help.”

 Johnny waited for the room to stop spinning before he answered her. He didn’t look up at her, looking instead at his hands – they were shaking.

“I’m sorry, ma’am,” he said awkwardly. “I guess you mean well, but I can’t stay here. I have to get to Petersen. I’ll rest up a little and then be on my way.”

“Johnny,” she answered kindly, and with no smile this time. “You’re in no condition to get to Petersen even in the back of that wagon. If you had been, I would have taken you there instead of here.”

“I c’n make it. Just need to rest up a bit first.”

Charity sat down on the bed beside him and put her hand to his forehead. The fever had risen a little. His cheeks were flushed with color and his eyes were gleaming, and there was a sheen of sweat on his skin that didn’t leave any doubt in her mind.

“Johnny, listen to me. Whatever the reason you have to be in Petersen, it will have to wait. You’re sick, boy, and you’re stuck here for now. I’ve sent for the doctor there and he’ll probably be here by tonight. Then we can get you well and you can be on your way again.”

He shook his head slowly. “No. I’m already late. Can’t afford to wait.”

His words seemed to be starting to slur and she knew that he was in desperate need of some rest.

She sighed. “Then rest for a while,” she suggested, knowing full well that he wouldn’t be likely to be able to get up again for some time. “Then we’ll see.”

He looked over at her, and that confusion was back in his eyes. “I don’t even know where I am,” he told her and there was unexpected anguish in his words that went straight to her heart.

“You’re in a house on the outskirts of Thompson’s Strike. The good people there thought it best that whatever you’re suffering from was kept away from their women and children. I’m here because you need someone to look after you for a while.”

“Why?”

She frowned at him and asked, “Why what?”

“Why are you here? I don’t know you an’ you don’t owe me nothin’.”

“Well, I suppose I just had nothing better to do,” she replied with a smile. “Now you get yourself into that bed while I get this place tidied up some. Do you hear me?”

Johnny sighed heavily and didn’t look up when he answered her. “Yes ma’am.”

“Good, I’ll be back in a few minutes, or you can yell if you need a hand,” she told him and stood up. She headed for the door and looked back for an instant to find that he was undoing the buttons on his shirt, though slowly and unwillingly.

He was a fine, strong looking young man and he looked fit enough to fight off whatever was laying him low, but she wondered at his question.

Why – that was what he had wanted to know above all the other questions he might have asked. Charity had the impression that he was unused to people putting themselves out for him. What kind of a life had the boy lived that he had no faith in strangers like that?

She turned back and went out of the room and began the horrendous task of cleaning the cabin, but all the while, one thought kept coming to her and she felt a throb of sadness.

He had asked her “Why?”

 

Chapter Five

 

“Have you seen my son Johnny come in yet, Fred?” Murdoch asked the hotel clerk, hesitating as he put his foot on the staircase on his way up to his room. Scott was just ahead of him and stopped to hear the answer.

“No Mr. Lancer, I haven’t seen him,” the man answered. “Of course, he could have gone straight up without my seeing him, Sir. I haven’t been at the desk all day.”

Scott glanced back to see how his father reacted to the news. They had been expecting Johnny for most of the day, but he hadn’t shown up yet, and Murdoch was a stickler for punctuality.

Murdoch’s temper had been getting shorter by the day since Johnny had left. His patience had been sorely tried by his dealings with Jeff Conroy. The man had stretched even Scott’s renowned patience almost beyond breaking point, so it was just as well that Johnny had not been there. But it had paid off in the end. They had finally forced Conroy to recognize and stand by his original agreement.

And now they were ready, and eager, to go home, and waiting for Johnny was frustrating.

At least it had been this morning, and even this afternoon. But now there was a niggling fear beginning to creep into Scott’s mind. He hadn’t voiced his unease to Murdoch yet, so he wanted to see how Murdoch reacted to the news that his younger son had still not arrived.

“Well, thanks anyway, Fred,” Murdoch answered the clerk dispassionately. “If you see him come in, you can tell him we’ll be in the diner in an hour or so.”

“Certainly Mr. Lancer.”

Scott was disappointed. Murdoch Lancer was a hard man to read sometimes and his face remained passive as he heard the clerk’s answer.

Scott turned and continued up the staircase. He heard Murdoch’s heavy tread close behind him, so he didn’t have to look around to know he was there.

The rooms in the hotel were comfortable enough for their needs, but they were small, so they had a room each. As he passed Johnny’s room, still being held for him, Scott stopped to try the door. Perhaps Johnny had slipped by unnoticed and was lying on his bed asleep right now.

But the door was still locked. Scott sighed. Johnny was obviously still not back yet.

He heard Murdoch open the door to his own room across the hall and turned back to face him.

“I’ll meet you in the diner for supper,” Murdoch told him calmly as he stood at the door.

“Yes sir,” Scott replied, moving past Johnny’s room to his own and unlocking it. He hesitated before going in. Without turning back to face his father, but knowing that he was still there and listening, Scott broached the subject with him.

“He should have been back by now,” Scott said anxiously.

“He’s not that late, Scott,” Murdoch answered gruffly. “Don’t make an issue out of it yet.”

Scott turned around to face him. “It’s been four days now, and you know as well as I do that it was only supposed to be a three day trip.”

“I know, but he might have stayed with Toby longer than he planned. Toby’s an ornery old cuss, but he’s a hospitable one. He might have pressed Johnny to visit for a while.”

A glimmer of hope dawned on Scott. “Maybe the old man has a daughter,” he said with a wry smile.

Murdoch smiled back. “As a matter of fact he does,” he told him. “But she’d be close to ten years older than Johnny and I seriously doubt that she’s your brother’s type.”

Scott sighed heavily, his hopes dashed. “I don’t like the alternative, Murdoch.”

“There could be any number of reasons for his being late. Barranca could have thrown a shoe. It might be as simple as that. Trouble doesn’t have to be the alternative, Scott.”

“Then you have been considering the possibility,” Scott surmised.

It was Murdoch’s turn to sigh. “Of course I’ve considered the possibility,” he said uneasily. “This is Johnny we’re talking about here.”

Murdoch Lancer was well aware that where his younger son went, trouble usually followed. It wasn’t even always his past catching up with him either. If he were the fishing type, Johnny would just naturally find the only snag in the creek. It was the way the cards seemed to fall for him.

He shook his head in exasperation and then added, “No, it’s too soon to worry.”

An icy gleam appeared in Scott’s eyes. “Well, just how long should we wait before we do start to worry? Is there some sort of regulation time allotted?”

Murdoch was a little surprised by the attack. “Scott, it’s an easy trip and he’s probably just enjoying being on his own for a while. You know he was feeling cramped sitting around here. Now, cool off and I’ll meet you downstairs in an hour.”

He ended the conversation, turned and went into his hotel room, closing the door behind him and leaving Scott out in the hallway with an angry scowl on his face. Murdoch had a habit of just ending conversations that way, and sometimes, like now, Scott was aggravated by it. He had more to say on the matter, but Murdoch had cut him off cold.

There were times when Scott would have liked to take Murdoch Lancer by the collar and shake some sense into him.

Scott went into his room feeling frustrated and more that a little bit worried, despite his father’s reassurances. His younger brother had a way of getting into trouble so easily that even though he was overdue by less than a day, Scott had to be concerned.

There were men out there who had grudges against Johnny Madrid, if not Johnny Lancer, and even without that possibility, there was a host of things that could have gone wrong.

So, by the time he met his father for supper, he’d made up his mind on a plan of action.

He no sooner sat down than he told Murdoch his plans for finding his brother.

“I’m heading off to Toby Roberts’ place at first light,” he told him firmly, expecting an immediate argument from his father.

But Murdoch didn’t seem to have heard him. He casually called over a waiter and ordered steaks for the both of them without so much as a glance in Scott’s direction.

“Did you hear what I said?” Scott asked him irritably.

Having ordered their meals, Murdoch turned back and eyed his son stonily before finally answering him.

“Yes Scott, I heard you.”

Scott’s patience was at an end and his temper flared. “I’m not asking for your approval, Murdoch.”

“That’s good, because I won’t give it. Johnny will probably ride into town just as you ride out,” his father told him bluntly. “And where will that get you?”

“Then I’ll pass him on the way. Problem solved.”

Murdoch shook his head in aggravation. “We don’t even know that there is a problem,” he insisted.

“Then how long do you want to sit around waiting before we decide there is one?”

“Look Scott, when I hear back from Toby…”

“What?” Scott exclaimed. “What do you mean?”

“I wired him this afternoon, but…”

“You what?” Scott cast him a furious look. “I thought you weren’t worried about Johnny. Why didn’t you tell me about this earlier?”

“For pity’s sake Scott. I never once said that I wasn’t worried about him,” Murdoch fired back angrily. “I know Johnny just as well as you do, and I know that he can find trouble in the unlikeliest places. But I do not want to have to worry about you too. I want you to stay right here with me until your brother turns up. Is that clear?”

Scott dug his heels in stubbornly. “Not if it means sitting around here while Johnny could be in who knows what kind of trouble.”

“I have no intention of ‘sitting around’ doing nothing, but I’m not heading off on some wild goose chase,” Murdoch insisted. “Toby’s a long way from the nearest town and they’ll have to get that wire to him and then get his reply. So it might be tomorrow before we hear back from him. But I want to know that your brother got there safely and when he left If he did, then that’s a lot of territory we won’t have to cover.”

“Why didn’t you say anything about this wire earlier?”

“I didn’t see any reason to.”

“You didn’t…?” Scott gasped in exasperation.

“And like I have said repeatedly, we really don’t know if Johnny’s in trouble, Scott. And if he is hurt, then he might even be laid up at Toby’s place for all we know.”

“Or he could just be having some fun somewhere. Maybe found himself a pretty girl or a poker game. That’s what you’re thinking isn’t it? You just don’t trust him to do the right thing.”

“Dammit, Scott!” Murdoch shouted, thumping the small table loudly. He suddenly realized that he was not at Lancer and was attracting embarrassing attention, so he hurriedly lowered his voice, leaning closer across the table to Scott.

“That’s not what I’m thinking at all. I just want to wait until we hear from Toby before we go riding off looking for him. If we have to ride all the way up there, we might be wasting valuable time.”

Scott leaned his elbows on the table and ran his hands over his face and through his hair as he considered everything his father had said. He knew that he was right about a lot of it, and he had even made an attempt to locate Johnny already. But he couldn’t shake that niggling fear.

Finally, he looked over at Murdoch. “I know what you’re saying makes sense, Murdoch, but I can’t help thinking that something is wrong. I’ve got a bad feeling about this.”

 

*

 

Charity had been busy about the cabin. She spent an hour cleaning, scrubbing and dusting. She’d spent some time forcing the heavily resistant windows open to let some air into the room. She fought those windows gamely, cursing them under her breath in language that would have made her poor father’s eyes roll back in his head, but she’d been determined to be rid of some of that fetid stench that she found so nauseating.

And nauseating had not even begun to describe the ordeal of cleaning out the remains of food that she had found in the larder. She’d had to force herself to clean that out. Even her strong stomach had revolted at the mess she had found.

No wonder the vermin had found the cabin so comfortable. A warm place to nest, with an adequate supply of food as well – it was the perfect place to settle in without fear of being disturbed.

She’d found mouse nests on the bottom shelf, thankfully vacant, and had gotten rid of them quickly and efficiently. She had swept the floor diligently, getting rid of the dust, dirt and excrement that littered the place.

Then she had fetched water from the stream and scrubbed the top of the table and the benches and set the fire in the stove to heat water so that she could clean that larder properly.

She’d given Johnny plenty of time to undress and climb into bed. He hadn’t wanted her help, though he had probably needed it. But she had the feeling that that young man wanted his privacy.

She washed up a little and then poked her head around the doorway to find that Johnny was apparently asleep under a blanket on the cot. She tiptoed in and picked up his discarded shirt and pants and put them on the end of the bed.

A glance back at him showed her that she had been wrong in assuming that he was sleeping. He turned his head towards her as he heard her moving around the room. Those dark blue eyes of his shone with fever and his hair was damp and appeared glued around his face.

Sitting down gently on the side of the bed, she put her hand lightly on his forehead. The fever was still rising. It’s going to be a long night, she told herself as she pushed the hair away from his eyes.

Johnny moved a little, trying to get comfortable in a bed that was hopelessly uncomfortable, and he winced sharply.

“Here, let me look at you,” Charity told him and pulled the blanket down a little. He didn’t try to stop her. His left shoulder was a mass of blackening bruises. She carefully prodded and poked around until she was sure there was nothing broken. It was a relief to find that his collarbone was not broken and that there was no dislocation of the bone at the shoulder. He was lucky to have gotten away with the severe bruising.

She felt the lump on the left side of his head and found that it had stopped growing bigger and had hardened. She satisfied herself that it too concealed nothing more serious than a possible concussion.

“Well, nothing seems to be broken,” she told him seriously. “But that shoulder is black and blue, son. You probably got that and the lump on your skull when you fell off that horse of yours.”

Johnny had stoically bitten his lower lip and held back from groaning throughout her examination. He knew that she was trying to help, but she’d found some tender spots to jab before she’d finished.

He said nothing, watching her face as she pulled the blanket down further past his chest and arms and checked his breathing and his pulse.

He studied her face. She wasn’t a young woman. He guessed maybe about forty, but her skin was still soft and supple, with only a few lines at the corners of her eyes and mouth that hinted at a happy outlook on life. Her brown eyes were large and round and expressive. He figured she might be a handsome woman if she let that tied up hair of hers loose.

She exuded confidence and assurance so that he felt comfortable with her despite knowing nothing about her.

He still couldn’t quite grasp how she came to be here with him. He was sure he’d never run into her before. Yet, here she was, fussing over him and determined to see him through whatever was ailing him – and on her own apparently. He didn’t understand why they were in this cabin and all alone.

He did remember that he’d been in town when he passed out. He could remember saddling Barranca at the livery, but things got blurry after that. But he had been in town then, and he didn’t seem to be now.

“Just where are we?” he asked her at last.

“A cabin just outside town,” she explained very briefly, hoping he wouldn’t ask much more.

He looked at the bare essentials in the room and came to an easy conclusion. “It ain’t your cabin. Whose is it?”

“It used to belong to a prospector,” she told him. “He walked off the claim a couple of years ago.”

“So why’re we here then?”

She sighed heavily. She had hoped not to have to answer that question.

“Well?” he repeated.

“Johnny, you have a fever, and you’re a stranger in town. The townsfolk were worried you might have something contagious, so we brought you out here.”

Now he got it. He’d seen that sort of panic in towns over the years. He didn’t really blame them. There were probably women and children to think of.

“Seems fair,” he said quietly. “Wouldn’t want anyone else catching this.”

Her own thoughts on that subject she kept strictly to herself, but she admired the way that he accepted their behavior. In fact, it put him a class above them in her mind.

“How come you’re here?” he asked her.

“Well, we couldn’t leave you here on your own, could we? Someone has to look after you.”

“An’ you got elected huh?”

“I volunteered.”

She held his wrist gently and counted off the beats to check his pulse.

“You’ve done this before,” he said quietly to her, watching her expertly check him over.

“Oh, lots of times,” she answered him with a smile.

Charity stood up and Johnny’s eyes followed her out of the room. She returned a minute later with a canteen, a bowl and towel, and a chair. She put the chair down by the bed, but she didn’t sit on it. Instead she set the bowl and towel on it and then unscrewed the lid of the canteen and offered it to him.

Johnny eased himself up onto one elbow and accepted the canteen eagerly. He took a couple of quick swallows that eased his parched throat considerably before she put her hand on it and gently eased it back from him.

“Not too much or too quickly,” she advised him and he nodded silently, and then took another swallow before handing it back to her.

“Thanks,” he said quietly and laid back down in exhaustion, a frown on his face all he allowed to show the pain he concealed. Not only his shoulder hurt. He hurt all over, worse than he had when he got up this morning.  His muscles seemed to protest even the slightest movement he made. The simple act of moving his leg resulted in screaming pain.

He watched her pour some of the water into the bowl and dip the towel into it, then closed his eyes as the cool damp towel touched his forehead and brought a measure of relief from the searing heat.

She dipped the towel in the water again and wrung it out, and then he felt the soothingly cool touch as she began wiping down his shoulders, chest and arms.

An immense lethargy that he just couldn’t fight left him comfortable with accepting her ministrations without argument.

Charity stopped for a moment when she reached his hands and she turned them over in hers, looking at them closely. There were definitely spots there, faint but distinct. They were on both of his wrists and she was sure that they had spread infinitesimally since she had first seen them some hours ago at the corral.

Their presence was the main reason for the reactions of Alby Harris and the rest of the townspeople. It was fear of the unknown, fed by the reckless diagnosis of a man who had no more idea of what was wrong with Johnny than she did.

She had no idea what those spots meant, and, while she abhorred the town’s treatment of her young man, she had to wonder if Alby wasn’t right about that. Whatever the boy was suffering from, it might indeed be contagious.

She had no argument with Alby Harris’ plan to quarantine the young man, but to leave them out here in the middle of nowhere, with nothing and no one to help her, was just plain wrong.

“You got any idea what’s wrong with me?” he asked her unexpectedly.

She sighed. “Johnny, I’m not a doctor. I can’t say what’s wrong, but the doctor will be here before you know it, and then you can ask him. Does that shoulder hurt much?”

His first instinct was to deny it, but he figured that that was a waste of time. She had already seen the damage and wouldn’t believe him anyway.

“Some,” he found himself telling her bluntly. “My whole body hurts.”

“From the fall?”

He shook his head. “No.”

“So you were hurting before you passed out?”

“Yeah, guess so.”

“When did it start, Johnny?”

“Yesterday,” he answered and heard the quiver in his own voice. He felt his body start to tremble and he started to feel cold suddenly. Shivering hurt his already strained muscles.

Charity saw it too and she pulled the blanket back over him. He was burning with fever, but it appeared he was starting to suffer chills with it. She didn’t like where this was going.

“Tell me what you can remember. Did it start with the aches and pains?”

Johnny shivered and she tucked the blanket around him tightly. She’d have to get another blanket to keep him warm through those chills. But first, she had to get the answers to her questions.

“So… so cold,” he whispered.

She feared she was losing his attention. He wasn’t focusing and she wanted to be able to tell the doctor all she could, just in case he was in no condition to tell him himself.

“I know, Johnny,” she whispered back and stroked his forehead soothingly. “I know this is hard. Try to concentrate and tell me what you can.”

He frowned.

“How did it start, Johnny?” she persisted.

“Headache,” he whispered wearily. “I remember a headache. The sun… made it worse… hurt… hurt my eyes…tried to mount Barranca… don’t… don’t remember anything then.”

“Good, Johnny,” she told him encouragingly and patted his undamaged shoulder lightly. “It’s all right. You’ve told me enough now. I want you to just rest easy. Do you want some more water?”

He shook his head, just a little. The movement still hurt his head. “What’s wrong with me?”

“I don’t know, Johnny,” she told him again, quite honestly. “Don’t worry about what it is. You just concentrate on fighting it. We can beat it without giving it a name.”

He looked into her eyes and smiled weakly. “Boy, I’m glad you’re on my side, ma’am,” he told her tremulously.

That smile and his words went right to her heart. She smiled back at him. “You can bet on it, boy,” she declared. “Now, when did you last eat? Are you hungry?”

“No, don’t remember…not hungry…”

“Perhaps a little light broth. You need to keep your strength up.”

“No, don’t think I could keep it down.”

She sighed and picked up the canteen. “All right, have some more of this water for now and I’ll get you something more substantial later. Then we’ll see if you can keep it down. But you need to try.”

Johnny looked away tiredly and she opened the canteen and lifted his head enough to allow him to drink a little more. Experience told her that it was important to get as much fluid into him while she could, or risk dehydration from the fever.

He accepted the water, but closed his eyes and leaned back tiredly when he had swallowed only a little. “Just wanna get some sleep for a while. Then I’ll head off to Petersen when I’ve rested up some.”

She lowered his head back onto the pillow and concentrated on putting the lid back on the canteen.

“Get some rest then,” she told him gently. “But I don’t think you’ll be riding off to Petersen or anywhere else any time soon.”

“Have to,” he told her determinedly.

“Why Johnny? What’s in Petersen that’s so important?”

“Scott… Murdoch…” he sighed, finally losing his battle with sleep. He let go and drifted off into an exhausted slumber.

Charity pulled the blanket tighter around his neck and shoulders, wondering who they were and why they were so important to him that he would risk his life to get to them.

She put the thought out of her mind and then left him to go and prepare for the ordeal ahead. It was going to be a difficult night tonight, and she had a lot to do before it got dark.

She brought in another blanket and spread it over him, tucking it tightly around him, but he didn’t waken. He was sleeping heavily for now, and shivered under the warmth of the two blankets, while his fever continued to rise.

Charity wondered just how bad this was going to get, as she left him again and set herself to cleaning up and getting the supplies in out of the wagon.

“This is going to be a long night!” she told herself again and set about getting ready for it.

 

Chapter Six

 

        Ben Scrivens and Alby Harris rode back into town that afternoon and found themselves the center of attention from a large and rowdy crowd of townspeople that had gathered on the outskirts of town.

 Over the general hubbub of shouting, Alby could scarcely hear their questions and he certainly couldn’t answer them all at once. From the confusion, he picked out the most popular question and answered that one.

 “Yeah, we left ‘em there. He’s alive but real sick with fever,” he told them briefly.

 “What if they try to leave and come back here?” one of the crowd called out, concern echoing in his voice.

 “We gotta make sure they stay put,” another yelled at them. “We can’t let ‘em come back here till we know it’s safe.”

 Harris watched the rising tide of hysteria with dismay. Fear did frightful things to the good sense of otherwise good people. “They’re not goin’ anywhere,” he told them firmly. “He’s too sick.”

 “An’ what about if he dies, Alby? Is Charity Blaine gonna just walk back into town an’ spread it around?”

 “Charity’s not sick,” he answered the voice from the mob.

 “Not yet, she ain’t. But she’s just as like to catch it bein’ around him like that,” someone called out angrily.

 “Well, she wouldn’t put all of you at risk by comin’ back if she does get sick.”

 “We can’t rely on that, Alby. We gotta make sure of it.”

 “We’re puttin’ someone out there to make sure they stay put,” he assured them. He didn’t like where this was going. “There’s nothin’ to worry about.”

 “Don’t give us that Alby!” a voice shouted at him.

 This time he shook his head angrily. It was all getting out of hand. “What are you planning to do? Shoot her if she leaves? Don’t be fools! Go home to your families and let us worry about it. I have everything under control and we’ll have the doctor here soon to tell us more.”

 “I say we make sure they stay put till it’s safe, no matter how we have to stop ‘em!” the voice shouted again, ignoring everything Alby had said. This time a swirl of agreement went up around him.

 There was no arguing with them in their present mood. Alby could see that. Fear was driving them and reason had flown out the window. The best he could hope for now was to keep a lid on the situation and hope that they could be swayed when they came to their senses.

 Giving in to their loudest demands now might allow him to influence them in the right direction later when they calmed down.

 At the moment, they were thinking like a mob – and they were out of control.

 

*

 

        Eventually, two men were sent out to the Andrews place to ‘stand guard’. They were armed, much to Alby’s and Ben’s horror, but Harris had admonished them to stay right away from the house. He wasn’t worried that they would go anywhere near it anyway. Fear would see that they kept their distance. What did worry him was how they might react if they were confronted. Panic did terrible things to a man’s common sense.

         He had told them firmly to keep their minds on the job, and not to shoot at the first thing that moved, so he had to leave it at that for now.

With that taken care of, and the crowd dispersed and about their business again, Ben turned to Alby. “You know it’s too late to head for Petersen today, don’t you?”

Alby nodded. He didn’t like it, but he knew that Ben was right. “Be dark by the time ya got there, Ben. Better to leave in the morning and bring the Doc back then.”

Scrivens rode slowly beside Harris until they reached the corral outside his livery stable. As they dismounted, the question that kept burning in his own mind forced its way out

“Alby, you got any real idea of how catchin’ this sickness is?” he asked as he watched Harris get down from his horse.

Harris shook his head dejectedly. “Nope. Dunno for sure. Charity’s right about that – I ain’t no doctor,” he admitted to the man. “Why?”

Scrivens did not want anyone to know just how close his own son had gotten to the sick stranger. The way this town was acting right now, he didn’t know how they would treat his boy. If they found out that he had actually touched the man, they might want to quarantine him out there with him even before he showed any signs of being sick.

He didn’t trust even Alby Harris with that information, but he was frantically worried that his boy would catch it. Lord knows, it could kill a small lad like Pete in no time, judging by how sick that stranger looked.

“Oh just wonderin’,” he answered Harris non-commit tally.

“I guess we gotta hope that no one got close enough to catch it, Ben. I guess poor ol’ Oscar must be kinda worried.”

As if to reiterate the thought, Oscar Lang approached the corral and called out to them urgently.

“I’ve been waiting for you two to come back,” he told them nervously, as though it was somehow their fault. “Alby, I need to talk to you.”

He hurried to their side and stopped breathlessly. “I need to know if I’ve done all I can with that room he slept in last night. I already burned the mattress and pillow and all the linen and blankets. Do I need to do more?”

The man sounded frightened, which didn’t really surprise Harris or Scrivens. He was a finicky man at the best of times, and under this sort of strain he was bound to panic.

“Hard to say for sure, Oscar,” Alby told him seriously and calmly. “Why don’t you just close up the room for now?”

“Well, I could I suppose,” the nervous little man admitted reluctantly. “I don’t want people thinking they’ll get sick if they stay at the hotel. Business is bad enough as it is.”

“The doctor will be able to tell you more when he gets here,” Ben suggested helpfully.

“Doctor?” Lang asked blankly. “You’re sending for the doctor?”

“Well, of course we are,” Ben answered in some surprise.

Lang’s face took on a horrified expression. “Alby, I don’t know that that’s such a good idea.”

Alby and Ben were both stunned by his reaction. “We have to get a doctor in, Oscar!”

“But we don’t want people thinking we have some sort of epidemic here. Why, it’ll be all over Petersen before you can say Jack Robinson!”

“Are you suggestin’ that we just let him die?” Ben asked in disgust.

The hotel owner stopped and looked hurt. “Why of course not, Ben!” he told him, sounding shocked to the bones. “I’m sure that Charity Blaine is as good as any doctor in this situation. There’s no cure for Typhoid fever anyway, is there?”

“I don’t know for sure,” Alby replied.

“Well, what good would the doctor be anyway? It will only give the town a bad reputation and that would be disastrous for business. Why, it’s bad enough as it is…”

“Then it’s likely to get worse, Oscar,” Ben said angrily. With thoughts of his own son uppermost in his mind, he added, “What if someone from town catches it? You could catch it yourself. Should we call the doctor then?”

“Me?” the little man exclaimed in horror. “I never touched him. Why should I catch it?”

“You touched the mattress an’ stuff, didn’t you?” Ben told him, ramming home the point and watching the man squirm.

“Well, yes, but…”

“That might be enough.”

The hotel owner looked aghast and turned to Alby Harris for support, but he only shrugged his shoulders and nodded. “It could be, Oscar.”

Oscar Lang shook his head furiously. “I knew that man was trouble the minute I laid eyes on him. I should never have given him a room.”

        “Well, you can’t blame yourself for renting him a room. You weren’t to know he was sick.”

“No, but he sure looked like trouble,” the man growled unreasonably. “All this fuss over one gunslinger anyway. I don’t know why we couldn’t just send him on his way.”

“What makes you think he’s a gunslinger?” Alby asked him, astounded by the man’s lack of common sense, let alone compassion for a fellow human being.

Lang looked at him impatiently. “A drifter wearing his gun low like that Alby? What else could he be?”

“Well, that’s not for me to say. An’ I don’t think it’s your place either. I’m not gonna be a party to lettin’ the fella die, Oscar,” Alby told him determinedly. “I don’t care what he is!”

Harris gave the man a warning look. “An’ if you go stirrin’ up more trouble, Oscar, I’ll close that business of yours up so fast, you won’t know what hit you.”

 

*

        Johnny opened his eyes to a dimly lit room. His mind seemed to be muddled and it took him a while to work out where he was and why his head was clouded.

It was so hot that he tried to push the blankets off him, but something – or someone – was stopping him. He frowned and looked over to see who it was.

A woman was leaning over him, holding the blankets on top of him. He was surprised that she was able to stop him. She didn’t look strong enough.

She looked familiar to him, but he couldn’t quite place her to start with.

“No,” he told her, annoyed by her restraining him. He tried again to toss them aside, but again she held them fast. “Too hot…” he complained.

“Shhh…” she whispered softly. “Leave the blankets alone.”

He frowned and tried to focus his eyes on her face. “Charity?” he asked, as he suddenly realized who she was.

She smiled at him kindly. “So, you really are awake this time,” she said quietly.

“This time?” he asked in a weary tone.

“I thought you were awake about an hour or so ago, but you weren’t really lucid that time, just dreaming.”

He closed his eyes for a moment and tried to get a grip on the situation. His memory was clearing, but his throat was so dry that he couldn’t concentrate. “I’m kinda thirsty,” he told her eventually.

“I’ve got something right here for you. Let me help you up a little.”

Johnny felt her arm slip under his shoulders and lift him. He was grateful for the help, even though it brought a jab of pain to his bruised left shoulder. He hated the reality of his position, but he knew that he couldn’t have gotten himself up without her help. It rankled on him, but there was nothing he could do but accept it, and he knew it.

The listlessness he was feeling was just too overwhelming to fight.

She held a cup to his lips and cool refreshing water spilled into his mouth, but when he tasted it, he pulled back sharply. It wasn’t plain water, but sweet to the taste and his suspicions were quickly aroused.

“What is it?” he asked her distrustfully.

Charity smiled again and reassured him calmly. “It’s just Sage tea - sage, lemon and sugar. It works wonders. Go ahead – try it.”

She put the cup back to his lips and he swallowed a little more. He had to admit that it tasted good as well as bringing some relief to his parched throat.

She lowered his head back onto the pillow and then put the cup down on the chair that she had taken to using as a table.  Purposefully, she wrung out the cloth she had sitting in the bowl of water.

She watched the muscles of his face relax as she wiped the cool towel across his face. There was an unnatural glow to his skin that indicated to Charity that the fever was getting worse. He had been restless in his sleep in the last hour or so as well, rolling first on to one side and then the other, but not able to get comfortable at all.

“So hot…” he whispered lazily to her. His breathing was becoming more labored and heavy as the fever sapped his strength.

Johnny closed his eyes again for a while and then opened them decisively and turned them on her. They were bright with fever, but the deep sapphire blue of them struck her again and his words tore at her heart.

“What’s wrong with me?”

Wiping his face again, she answered honestly. “I wish I knew Johnny, but I don’t.”

His eyes gleamed and they caught hers. “It’s dark, isn’t it? Night?”

“That’s right.”

There was a moment of obvious confusion in his eyes. “What day?”

Charity ran her fingers through his hair to comfort him and brushed the bangs aside from his eyes. “It’s still Wednesday, dear,” she told him reassuringly.

“I’m late then.”

He sounded crestfallen by the thought of being late. “To meet your friends in Petersen, you mean? I’m sure they won’t mind.”

He concentrated on gathering his thoughts together, the effort obvious in his face and the breathlessness of his speech. “Scott – he’s my brother. He worries…”

She smiled at him gently. “So, you have a brother do you? And who is Murdoch?”

“Father...”

“And here I was thinking that you were alone in the world.”

He shook his head slowly. “No… not any more.”

Charity frowned, wondering what he meant by that. She wiped his face and neck again as she talked to him.

“What do you mean – ‘not any more’?”

“Used to be alone…went home…met Scott. Didn’t know I had a brother…”

His disjointed words were taking on an urgent tone and she tried to hush him, but he was determined to continue.

“Please, get a message to them…” he asked her desperately. “Tell ‘em… what’s happened…”

“Of course I will, Johnny. When the doctor gets here, we’ll get one of the men from town to go into Petersen with a message for them,” she assured him. “But for now, you need to rest.”

He fell back in exhaustion and seemed to calm down. “Thanks,” was all he said and relaxed back into the pillow.

Charity had no idea how long it would take to get that message through to his family in Petersen. She hated the idea that they were sitting waiting for him, and probably worrying just like he said. But she was more concerned that there was no sign of the doctor yet.

Surely they hadn’t put off sending for him. She knew the man pretty well and knew full well that he would willingly make the journey at night if he felt the urgency of the situation warranted it. She had fully expected him to be here by now.

Of course, he might not have been available when the message reached him. He was the only doctor for miles around and his rounds covered a wide area. If he was out of town, they were going to have to wait longer as there was no one else to call for.

But she couldn’t let those doubts get through to the boy. He had enough to worry about already.

She continued to bathe his face and arms, reassuring him until she noticed, rather thankfully, that he was drifting off to sleep again. She made sure that she got him to swallow a little more tea before he did go to sleep. The more she could get him to take, the better.

When he finally slipped into unconsciousness, she was almost grateful that he was able to rest peacefully for a while.

Charity looked at him as he slept and sighed. She knew very little about him, but he seemed like a good man. He never complained, but his face sometimes gave away to her that he was in pain. He was young and strong, used to hard work by the look of him.

Well, he needed that strength now - that was certain.

She stood up and took the mug outside into the kitchen to wash it out, but as she turned to go back to him, something outside in the darkness caught her eye.

It was a light, flickering brightly some distance from the house. She went to the window and peered through the night. The light didn’t move except to leap a little bit higher occasionally. It was a fire – a campfire.

Curious, and more that a little alarmed, she picked up the rifle by the bedroom door and walked cautiously out into the yard, heading in the direction of the campfire.

She made her way towards it as quietly as she could, but in the stillness of the night every leaf and twig that cracked or snapped under her foot sounded loud enough to wake the dead.

So she certainly had no expectation of being able to sneak up and catch them unawares, but in the end, that was just what she did.

They weren’t expecting company. There were two of them, talking animatedly and laughing at each other’s jokes. They had made themselves comfortable and sat leaning up against tree trunks, swilling coffee merrily. Her arrival, with her rifle pointed squarely at them, took them completely off guard.

She recognized them both. “And just what are you two doing out here?” she growled at them and was surprised at how loud her own voice sounded in the darkness.

They jumped to their feet, staring down the barrel of her rifle nervously.

“Miss Charity!” one of them gasped loudly. “Ma’am, you don’t need that!” he added anxiously indicating the gun in her hands.

“I don’t know that now do I?” she asked him angrily. “Bob Foster, just what are you doing out here – scaring me half to death?”

He didn’t answer immediately, but looked to his partner for support.

“And you, Charlie?” she asked the other man.

The two of them looked at each other sheepishly.

“There ain’t no call for gunplay, Miss Charity,” Bob Foster told her firmly. “You just put that thing down afore it goes off.”

“If it goes off, it will be because I pulled the trigger, Bob,” she fumed at him. “Now explain yourselves, both of you.”

“We’re just here to watch the place, Miss Charity,” Charlie began to explain. That rifle was sure making him uncomfortable. “Just makin’ sure no one comes or goes – ya know?”

Foster decided to take Charity Blaine head on. “An’ you shouldn’t be out here, Miss Charity,” he told her aggressively. “We sure don’t want to get sick.”

“Oh, for heaven’s sake! Whose idea was this?” Charity demanded furiously.

The men looked at each other but didn’t answer her. The truth was that neither of them really could remember whose plan it had been in the first place. Everything had been so confused and they had gone along with the majority.

It had been decided. That was all there was to it.

“Don’t suppose it really matters, Miss Charity,” Bob told her defensively. “We’re just here to do a job an’ protect the town is all.”

“Protect the town,” she scoffed. “From a man who’s too sick to stand on his feet, let alone walk all the way into town.”

She glared at the two of them. “Or is it me you’re afraid of?” she persisted. “Planning to shoot me if I try to leave?”

“Now Ma’am, you know we wouldn’t do anythin’ like that to you,” Charlie assured her, but not very convincingly.

“Not while I’m looking you right in the eye anyway, right?”

“Ma’am, we just don’t want you or that fella wanderin’ into town and spreadin’ that sickness around our women and children. You gotta understand that.”

“Well, it you plan to shoot anyone, you’d better pay a lot more attention next time,” she pointed out, waving the barrel of the rifle just enough to point out how easily she had gotten the drop on them.

They had the good grace to look embarrassed, but neither of them said anything.

“Has anyone gone for the doctor yet?” she asked angrily.

Bob and Charlie looked at each other, unsure of the answer. “Don’t know, Miss Charity,” Bob finally admitted.

Charity sighed heavily and her frustration with them and their friends was all too obvious. “You people really amaze me. Do you even care if that boy dies?”

“We have our families to think of…” Charlie began, but even to him it sounded lame all of a sudden.

“Well, if anyone else were to get sick, the doctor would be kind of handy to have around – don’t you think?”

“No one else is sick, ma’am,” Charlie pointed out and Charity finally lost what little was left of her temper.

“No, exactly – no one else is sick. So instead of spending all this time and energy on making sure that the poor man is kept away from the town, maybe you should look at getting the doctor here and finding out what’s wrong with him in the first place!”  She felt as though she was talking to morons. They just could not see the idiocy of the behavior of the town.

“Did you ever think that maybe that was the best way to protect your families?” she persisted coldly.

Charlie Doyle shook his head firmly. He wasn’t going to let Charity Blaine double talk him. “No ma’am, Alby said it was typhoid an’ we can’t go takin’ chances with somethin’ like that.”

“Alby is not a doctor Charlie. He has no more idea of what’s wrong with that man than I do. What we need is a doctor, who does know and can get him better so that we can all go back to living normal lives!” she shouted at them.

“Now one of you two go tell Alby Harris that we need a doctor here – fast. And you can pass a message on to that boy’s father and brother that he’s sick while you’re in Petersen.”

Charlie and Bob glanced at each other nervously. “Father?” Bob asked her.

“You heard me. His father is waiting for him in Petersen. His name is Murdoch Lancer, and I’m betting he’s wondering what’s happened to his boy.”

“Sure, Miss Charity,” Charlie answered her. “We’ll see that he gets the message.”

“See that you do, Charlie. And you get that doctor here quickly,” she insisted. “I don’t know if it has occurred to any of you lame-brains, but if this thing turns out to be contagious, the doctor is likely to come in mighty handy.”

“Yes ma’am,” Charlie answered quickly and she shook her head in fury with the pair of them.

She turned away from them and walked back to the house with the rifle by her side and her head hung low in disgust.

 

*

 

Alby heard the banging on his door even in his sleep. He rolled over, half awake, and hoped it would go away. It had been a long day.

It didn’t stop though. Instead it grew louder and more insistent, so he threw off the blankets and got out of bed.

It was still dark, but there was a dim glow through the window that cast an eerie shadow over the room as the first rays of the sun began to peep over the horizon.

He couldn’t see anything in the room except shadows and he stumbled across the room and out the door, only to stub his toe on the leg of a chair and curse savagely under his breath as the pain hit his brain. He hopped and then hobbled to the front door.

“This had better be good,” he grumbled to himself as he turned the doorknob and opened the door.

Tom Carson was standing on the step outside, his hand clenched into a fist as he lifted it to bang on the door again.

The man looked desperate.

“Tom, what is it?”

Panic was written all over the man’s face before he answered, panic that had reached so close to terror that he blurted out the answer immediately and without thought.

“Alby, you gotta come with me. It’s my boy, he’s sick!”

 

FOOTNOTE:

Sage Tea or infusion of Sage is a valuable agent in the delirium of fevers, and has considerable reputation as a remedy, given in small and oft-repeated doses. It is considered a useful medicine in typhoid fever, for colds in the head as well as sore throat and quinsy and measles, for pains in the joints, lethargy and pals

The infusion when made for internal use is termed Sage Tea, and can be made simply by pouring 1 pint of boiling water on to 1 OZ. of the dried herb, the dose being from a wineglassful to half a teacupful, as often as required, but the old-fashioned way of making it is more elaborate and the result is a pleasant drink, cooling in fevers, and also a cleanser and purifier of the blood. Half an ounce of fresh Sage leaves, 1 OZ. of sugar, the juice of 1 lemon, or 1/4 OZ. of grated rind, are infused in a quart of boiling water and strained off after half an hour. (In Jamaica the negroes sweeten Sage Tea with lime-juice instead of lemon.)

Chapter Seven

 

As Alby Harris quickly threw on some clothes, Tom Carson talked away to him anxiously.

“It’s young Robbie,” he told Harris, tension obvious in his voice and his manner. He wrung his hands nervously and scowled as he spoke. “He told us yesterday that his head hurt an’ then he came over all achin’ last night. Martha’s been holdin’ him most of the night while he cried with the achin’. Then an hour or so back, he started a fever.”

“What about the other kids, Tom? Are they sick?”

“No, it don’t look like it. I kept ‘em with me all night. They ain’t showed no sign of it – only Robbie.”

Alby rejoined him, dressed and in a hurry. Carson kept up with him as he brushed past him and the two men ran out of the door into the darkness, heading straight for the Carson house.

“Was he anywhere near that stranger, Tom?” Alby asked as they went up the street.

“I don’t know for sure Alby,” Tom Carson answered worriedly. “I didn’t think so, but Tommy says they didn’t touch him, or even get close. He says that Robbie was standin’ way back from him, further than either him or Pete.”

He stopped suddenly. “Why Alby? Why my little Robbie?”

Harris stopped only long enough to shake his head in confusion and then to take hold of Caron by the shoulder and push him on his way. “I don’t know, Tom. It’s happened a whole lot quicker than I thought it would. Might mean that it’s even more catchin’ than I figured. Or it could be just that Robbie is only a little kid an’ maybe it’s workin’ faster on him. Let’s get to your place and have a look at the boy.”

“Maybe we’re wrong,” Carson suggested in hopeful desperation. “Maybe it ain’t even the same sickness.”

As they reached the gate to the house, Harris turned sympathetically to the distraught father. “You might be right, Tom. It might not be the same. But I ain’t gonna find out standin’ out here jawin’.” He took the man by the shoulder and gently pushed him through the gate. “Come on, let’s go see your boy.”

 

*

 

The rumbling noise of wagon wheels outside woke Charity.

She’d put the second mattress on the floor in the same room where her patient was finally sleeping. After giving it a sound beating outside on the porch to make it a little more appealing, she had curled up and tried to make herself as comfortable as she could.

She knew that she had to get sleep whenever she could take it so that she would be able to sit up with Johnny if or when his condition deteriorated.

And she was very much afraid that it was going to be ‘when’. He was no better yet and he was likely to get worse from what she had seen of it so far. She’d watched over him through the night until she was sure he was sleeping reasonably soundly, and then had turned in herself to get what sleep she could.

As she awoke to the noise, she opened her eyes and blinked against the light. It was morning already!

Her first move was to get up and check on Johnny. She found his fever still high, but not much more so than when she had last checked him. Throughout the night, he had shown no more signs of the restlessness of earlier in the evening. She suspected that exhaustion has a lot to do with it.

Charity went to the window and looked out to see what was going on outside. She was surprised to see Alby Harris pulling a wagon to a halt outside her doorstep. He’d made it perfectly clear yesterday that he had no intention of coming to help in any way. So what did he want now?

After first making sure that Johnny hadn’t been woken up by the racket, she hurried to the front door, opened it and stepped out into the daylight, ready for anything that Harris had to offer.

At least, she thought she was.

“Alby Harris, what’s going on here?” she asked, but suddenly realized that he was not alone. A head popped up above the side of the wagon behind him. She recognized the face immediately, since she knew Martha Carson well. The young mother of two young sons and a daughter, she often came to Charity for advice and remedies of one sort or another. Those boys, especially, were always in scrapes.

Martha looked harassed, tired and distressed, so Charity ran to the wagon and looked over the side fearfully. She dreaded what she would find, but could think of only one thing that would pry Martha Carson away from her brood to come out here.

Robbie Carson, nine years old and usually healthy and energetic, lay wrapped in a blanket in his mother’s arms. He was flushed with fever and looked desperately ill.

Charity turned back to Harris. “You can’t be serious, Alby!” she exploded. “You’re not really leaving a child out here, surely?”

Charity was pleased to see that the man had the grace to look embarrassed. “Charity, we don’t have any choice here. It’s the same sickness as the stranger’s got. He’s got the same spots an’ all.”

“You and your damned spots! It’s a disgrace to have left Johnny out here,” she yelled at him. “But this? This is unforgivable, Alby. This boy should be at home – in his own bed. And he needs the doctor. Have you even sent for him?”

“Tom Carson’s on his way to Peterson…”

“That should have been done yesterday! Not now that it’s spreading.”

“It couldn’t be helped, Charity. We ran out of daylight yesterday. But Doc Rawlins will be here by this afternoon.”

“Yes, if he’s in when Tom gets there. You are a fool, Alby,” she told him furiously. “I always thought you were pretty harmless, but you’re not – you’re dangerous!”

“That’s enough!” he shouted back angrily. “I don’t like this any more’n you do, but we can’t have the sickness in town.”

“Alby, you walk into that house and tell me where I can put this poor little child,” she demanded, knowing full well that he wouldn’t do it. “There’s one cot, that’s all. And the man in that is so sick that he’s like to die there. I’ve cleaned the place up as best I could, but it’s still just a run-down old miner’s shack, and that’s not the place to house sick people.”

“Well, I figured you wouldn’t have much here, so I’ve got Ben Scrivens bringin’ out another cot for the boy, an’ some more supplies for ya. It’s the best we can do.”

Charity looked back at Martha and her heart broke at the sight of the tears in the poor mother’s eyes. Arguing was pointless, and was only upsetting her more than was necessary.

“Come then, Martha,” she said compassionately. “Let’s get little Robbie inside out of the sun.”

“I’m not leaving him, Miss Charity,” the woman stated with a fierce determination, clutching her sick son frantically to her breast.

“Of course not, Martha,” Charity replied calmly. “No one is asking you to. We’ll look after him together and when the doctor gets here, I’m sure he’ll be able to help your boy.”

She watched the young mother wipe the tears angrily from her eyes with the sleeve of her dress. She calmed down enough for Charity to try to get her to hand the boy over.

“Pass him to me, Martha,” she coaxed her sympathetically. “We’ll take him inside and make him as comfortable as we can until Ben gets here with a bed for him.”

Martha Carson nodded, sniffing back her tears and releasing the grip she had on her son so that Charity could take him from her. She climbed down to the ground herself and stood protectively by Charity’s side, her eyes never leaving the child.

Charity glared up at Harris. “You get that doctor here this afternoon, Alby. I don’t care what you have to do to do it.”

Alby nodded silently.

“Now get out of here,” she told him furiously. “And don’t go thinking that you can bring the whole town out here if they get sick. Try for some sense, Alby. And a little human consideration might help too.”

She watched him silently as he turned the wagon around and started out of the yard, a dejected expression on his face. But it did nothing to relieve the rage she felt boiling inside her. They were so isolated out here that they had no one to go to for help, or for supplies – nothing. And Harris and company seemed to think they were doing the right thing.

Well, there was nothing she could do about it. She’d had her say. They all knew how she felt, but her arguments continued to fall on deaf ears, so it was time to get back to what had to be done.

She turned her attention back to the pair in her charge now. She sighed and looked down at the flushed little face of the boy in her arms.

“Let’s get Robbie inside and have a good look at him, Martha,” she told the woman, as kindly as she could. She led the way up onto the porch and into the house.

Showing Martha the way and carrying the small boy in her arms, she took them into the room where Johnny still lay asleep. She put the child down onto the mattress she had been using and sat down on the floor beside him.

Robbie was asleep as well, deeply asleep. Charity pulled aside the blanket and checked him all over. His temperature was very high and his breathing was labored, but more telling than anything else, there were faint rose-colored spots on the little boy’s hands. She found some on his ankles as well – something that worried and confused her. She hadn’t found any on Johnny’s feet.

Charity tucked the blanket back snugly around the boy. She looked over again to see that Johnny had not woken and gestured silently for Martha Carson to follow her out of the room so that they could talk.

          They no sooner got out of the door than Martha lost control. “It’s the same, isn’t it Charity?” she asked, tears in her eyes and a desperate fear in her voice, “He’s got the same sickness as the stranger has.”

“Well, it certainly looks like it, Martha. Has he complained of a headache?”

The woman nodded quietly, holding the tears back bravely. “Yes. He’s been in terrible pain too. He cried all night and says he’s sore all over.”

Charity frowned. “Yes, that’s what Johnny told me too. So it’s the same thing all right. He has spots on his arms like Robbie has.”

“He’s going to die, isn’t he?” the mother asked, her eyes glittering.

Charity wrapped the woman in her arms and held her close. “No one is going to die if I can stop it,” she told her gamely. “Let’s just wait and see what the doctor has to say before we start to panic. I don’t know what it is, and I sure don’t know if anyone is going to die from it.”

Martha could hold back the tears no longer and Charity held her soothingly, patting her back and letting her cry it out while she took stock of the situation. She might have Martha Carson here with her to help and to share the burden, but she also knew that she would want to stay by her son’s side and would probably not be of any help with Johnny.

That was as it should be anyway and she didn’t begrudge the woman her maternal instincts. But she knew Martha Carson well. What did worry her was that Martha was not a terribly strong woman, even under normal circumstances. And these were as far from normal as you could get. Charity found herself hoping that she wasn’t going to find herself having to spend all of her time reassuring the woman and supporting her.

With two patients on her hands now, she was going to need Martha Carson to stand up and be counted. That little boy was going to need far more than his mother’s comforting hand.

“Martha, you have to be strong for your son,” she told her firmly, but compassionately. “You won’t get much sleep and there’s going to be hard work looking after him. Do you understand?”

“I know, Charity,” the young woman answered, wiping her eyes with the back of her hand and sniffing back the tears. “I’ll be fine with you here.”

“I’m going to be busy too, remember,” Charity reminded her. “Johnny is terribly ill. We’re going to both have our hands full.”

Martha frowned. “You mean the stranger? You’d put him above my Robbie? If it wasn’t for him, Robbie wouldn’t even be sick in the first place,” she complained angrily.

Charity sighed. “I’m not putting him above Robbie, but he’s sick too and I’m not letting either of them die. Do you understand me?”

The woman continued to frown, obviously not happy with the answer, but, eventually, she nodded.

“All right,” Charity continued. “Now you go in and sit with your son. Make him as comfortable as you can while I get some things together and then come in to join you. You call me if either of them wakes up.”

“I’m not touching that man,” Martha told her angrily.

“I haven’t asked you to. Just call me if he or Robbie wakes up. Is that clear?”

“Yes.”

“Good, now get in there and watch them. I’ll be with you shortly.”

 

*

 

        Johnny stirred. He hurt all over. Moving his head hurt his neck. Moving his arm or his leg hurt just as much. In his whole life, he couldn’t ever remember ever feeling this bad, even with bullet or knife wounds. And when that happened, he knew what was wrong with him. A bullet in the back was nothing to laugh about, but at least he knew what it was.

         Right now, he had no idea what was wrong with him, and that uncertainty made it worse. He was miserably sick, and every muscle in his body hurt. Why, even breathing was beginning to hurt his chest.

And he was cold. He tugged at the blankets that were covering him and tried once more to get comfortable, but it was no better. He just aggravated the aching in his muscles.

He heard a voice and struggled to recognize it, but it was no good. He didn’t know it. He could hear someone moving in the room and tried to open his eyes. This wasn’t good. He had never felt more vulnerable. He reached under his pillow quickly, but found nothing there.

He always kept his gun there. So where was it? He feigned sleep for a while and tried to get a grip on where he was and what was going on.

Slowly, things started to come back to him. He remembered a woman. Charity, that was her name – a good woman who had been looking after him. But he was sure that that wasn’t the voice he could hear in the room.

He judged it time now to try again to open his eyes and check things out, but the first glimpse of light, as he forced his eyes open, tore through his brain and stung painfully. He closed them again instantly and threw his hand up to keep the light away, gasping in pain.

The strange woman in the room called out Charity’s name quickly and loudly – too loudly for Johnny to take any comfort from it. The sound slammed into him and fractured what little was left of his head. At least, that was how it felt.

He heard, rather than saw, Charity’s arrival moments later, but her touch was reassuring. He’d kept his eyes closed tightly against the light, and he squinted as he opened them again, slowly.

“Johnny,” her voice softly said as she slid her arm under his shoulders and lifted his head to the cup in her hand. “Drink for me, dear,” she added encouragingly.

Johnny swallowed what he could and it felt good – cool and sweet. He was thirstier than he could ever remember being before. It felt like he’d been stranded in a desert for a month.

As she laid him back, he forced his eyes open properly and was surprised at the relief he felt at seeing her kind smile there. If he couldn’t get to his brother, or his father, then he felt he could trust her, but years of surviving on his own had ground certain rules into him and he had to follow them.

“My gun,” he whispered, and was amazed at how the words came out as little more than a croak. “Where’s my gun?”

Charity frowned. “It’s safely put away. You don’t need it.”

He tried to shake his head at her. “No, bring it here.”

“Johnny, believe me – you’re perfectly safe here.”

She was surprised at how determined he became. He shook his head again and repeated his demand. “Need  it … close by…”

Charity could see that he was getting frustrated at her refusal, and wondered briefly why he had such a strange need for the weapon. Nevertheless, she got up and retrieved the gun belt and brought it back to the bedside.

To her amazement, Johnny look the revolver in his shaking hands and reached behind him, slipping it under the pillow. She shook her head sadly and rested her hand on his forehead. The fever had risen a little more and she wondered if perhaps he wasn’t as awake as she had thought.

Well, she could remove it later, while he slept. If it calmed him to have it there now, then so be it.

He was breathing hard already from the small amount of energy he had expended.

“Better?” she asked him with a soothing smile.

“Thanks.”

“Well, let’s have a look at you. How’s that shoulder? Still sore?”

“All of me’s sore,” he told her and tried for a smile himself. It only barely worked, but the half smile that he did manage was disarming. The thought went through her head that if she was only a few years younger…

Well, this wasn’t the time for that now. She pulled the blanket down a little and looked at the bruising. It was black and blue, but hadn’t spread any further, so she tucked the blanket back around him.

She took his wrist and quietly counted off the pulse. His heart was racing.

She looked at the rash on his wrist. It had spread halfway to his elbow, but that wasn’t what had her frowning. The older spots had changed color. They had deepened almost to black.

Charity tucked his hand under the blanket, but Johnny’s curiosity had been aroused. He pulled his right hand free and brought it up close to his face so that he could see what she found so interesting.

“What is this?” he demanded, weakly, but resolutely.

For the first time, his eyes betrayed fear and that worried her. “I don’t know, Johnny. I’ve never seen anything like it before,” she admitted frankly.

She could see that her words had not gone a long way towards reassuring him. She took his hand in hers comfortingly. “Listen to me. The doctor will be here soon. Let’s not worry about it before he takes a look at you. I’m sure he’ll be able to answer your questions.”

Johnny seemed to stare into her eyes for a minute before relaxing. He nodded. “Okay,” he conceded calmly. So calmly that she was surprised at the quick change of character. He seemed to harden somehow and he asked her quietly, “There’s someone here isn’t there?”

“Yes. Martha Carson and her son are here too. Robbie’s not feeling well either.”

He rolled his head slowly to the side so that he could look past her and see for himself. There was a woman sitting on the floor. She had dark hair, straying untidily from the roll that she had coiled it into. She was thin, almost what you’d call scrawny, and she was dressed in a plain brown dress that he knew was home made, but neat and clean just the same. She answered his gaze with a glare and then looked away – back to the child beside her.

Johnny turned back to Charity. “Same as me?” he asked Charity quietly. His heart was beating wildly. He didn’t like what he was thinking.

She nodded. “It looks like it.”

Johnny felt like he’d been floored. He closed his eyes and threw his head back into the pillow, slamming his fist into the mattress beside him. Charity was surprised at the show of temper. She hadn’t thought he had enough strength left to do it a few minutes ago.

“He’s just a kid,” Johnny said quietly. “How old is he?”

Charity could see he was becoming distraught and she had a fairly good idea what he was thinking.

“Johnny,” she answered soothingly. “It has nothing to do with you. Don’t do this to yourself.”

“How old?” he repeated.

“He’s nine. But his being sick may have nothing to do with you.”

He opened his eyes and glared at her. “Sure, it’s just coincidence. If I hadn’t come here…”

“Johnny, you can hardly blame yourself for being sick.”

‘Get him clear of me so’s he don’t get worse, Charity,” he snapped at her. “And his mother too – and yourself. I don’t want anyone dyin’ on my account.”

“I’m not leaving you,” she told him firmly.

He stared at her coldly. “Then you don’t know who I am.”

“I know you’re a good man and that you don’t want me or anyone else to get sick helping you. That’s good enough for me.”

“’A good man’,” he scoffed sarcastically. “You don’t know the things I’ve done. I’ve tried to change, even thought maybe I had, but I guess the devil wants his due.”

Charity was taken aback by the haunted look in those dark blue eyes of his. She wondered what stories they hid, but they didn’t matter to her. “He’s not getting it.”

Johnny half smiled at her suddenly. “He’ll get it all right. But he’s not takin’ no kid or you with me.” He was losing the strength he had found. “I want you to go.”

“No one’s dying,” she told him determinedly. “And there’s nowhere to move him to anyway. Besides, moving him won’t make any difference if he already has it.”

“He’s just a little kid,” Johnny repeated sadly, as he tired and weakened. “That ain’t fair.”

“Nothing about this is fair, dear,” she replied. “Now, since you’re awake, I want you to have some more water. Or are you hungry? I have some broth if you think you can handle it.”

“No, I couldn’t,” he answered her wearily and closed his eyes.

She lifted his head so that he could swallow some more water, and had to satisfy herself with that.

“Are you still cold?” she asked, noticing that he was shivering, despite the high fever.

He nodded without answering and she pulled the blankets tighter around him.

“Look after the kid,” he whispered as the last of his strength faded away. “I’m fine.”

Charity watched him drift off to sleep and took the cloth from the basin and wrung it out thoroughly. She wiped his face, neck and arms with it. That fever had to be brought down.

It no longer really mattered what he or the boy had. The fever was rising again and his strength to fight it was going to be tested. He was steadily becoming weaker as she watched.

She turned her attention to Martha and the boy. The child was still sleeping and his mother was bathing his forehead lovingly, trying to bring his fever down. Charity sighed. If it could do this to a strong young man like Johnny, what would it do to Robbie?

“As soon as Robbie wakes, give him some water,” she advised the woman. “Get him to drink as much as he can.”

Martha Carson nodded silently. She had heard the stranger talking quietly to Charity, but she had paid no attention to it. She hadn’t heard anything except her own son’s breathing and sighs, and she didn’t care to hear anything the stranger had to say anyway.

“Is it Typhoid – like Alby said?” she asked Charity.

“I don’t know Martha,” she told her in all honesty. “But I don’t think so. I’ve never seen a rash like that before.”

“He’s so little, Charity,” she sighed, and Charity Blaine’s heart went out to her. Robbie was her youngest child, her baby, and he had never been a strong child. He was always the first with a cold, first with the measles, and anything else that was going around.

But, he always fought back and recovered. He might not be strong, but he wasn’t the frail child that his mother and father thought he was. He was a fighter, and beating this was going to take all of that – and more.

 

Chapter Eight

 

Tom Carson made it to Peterson by ten in the morning. He’d left at sun up after talking with Alby Harris and he had ridden hard all the way. His horse was near exhaustion, covered in lather and barely up to a trot when he finally got to the outskirts of the town.

He felt bad for the animal. He never treated animals that way as a rule, but his fear for his son was far and away more important right now. He pushed the horse harder, through the street to the building where he knew Dr. Rawlins had his office. It was well marked as a doctor’s office, with writing all over the big front glass window and a plaque by the door with Jacob Rawlins MD engraved neatly on it.

But Tom didn’t need any of it. He knew the place well and made straight for it.

He leapt down from the horse and quickly tossed the reins over the hitch rail. A jab of guilt distracted him for only a moment as he left the animal, and then he ran to the door and burst in.

The doctor was talking to a gray-haired matron of indeterminate years and they both looked over in his direction with questioning eyes.

Tom didn’t wait for them to ask those questions. He didn’t care if he was interrupting them either. There was no time for polite manners now.

He stepped inside the door and blurted out quickly, “Need you in the Strike, Doc, real bad. You’ve gotta come quick.”

The elderly woman gave him a haughty look, obviously meant to put him in ‘his place’. “You will have to wait your turn, young man,” she said importantly. “The doctor and I are talking thank you.”

It had been a lot of years since anyone had called Tom Carson a ‘young man’. At forty-five he was a good few years senior to his young wife and so he was hardly a boy. But the old lady certainly made him feel like a child again – a naughty child facing a stern schoolmarm.

He swallowed hard and forced himself to look her right in the eyes. “I’m real sorry ma’am, but this is urgent.”

Faced with such audacity, she could only gasp, “Well!” for a moment before puffing up and snapping back at him. “And what makes you think that this is not?”

She turned to the doctor for support. He, at least, knew that she was an important person in this town, and not accustomed to letting scruffy, ill-mannered nobodies walk all over her.

Jacob Rawlins lifted his hand soothingly to pacify the lady. “Why don’t we just hear what Tom has to say, Mrs. Winters. He’s ridden a long way – and ridden hard by the looks of him.”

The woman ‘harrumphed’ loudly and disdainfully, and she crossed her arms over her ample bosom with decidedly bad grace, but she held her piece for now.

“What’s happened Tom?” Rawlins asked his visitor. He’d been to the Carson home often enough to know the man reasonably well.

Carson let the story spill out for too quickly to be understood. Without stopping for a breath, he told them about a sick stranger and the town’s efforts to keep the sickness away from their families and his own son’s illness.

But from that whole drawn out story, Rawlins only got two obvious facts – that Tom’s son was ill, and the word ‘typhoid’.

Mrs. Winters heard the word too and stepped back a pace from the man, horror on her face on hearing ‘typhoid’. But before she could say anything, the doctor spoke up calmly.

“All right, Tom,” he said, walking over to the distraught father and taking him by the shoulder. He led him to a chair and then went to his cabinet and took out a clean glass and a bottle of brandy.

            He poured a liberal amount into the glass and handed it to Tom Carson, saying “Drink that down and then start over again – slowly. All I got from that was a lot of nonsense.”

           Tom gulped it down and waited while it burned down his throat, clearing away the dust from the trail and calming him more than he would have thought possible. Still, it didn’t completely dispel the panic he was feeling.

          He took a breath and tried again.

         “My boy’s sick, Doc. You gotta help him,” he pleaded.

         “Of course I will,” the doctor assured him. “Now tell me everything again, from the beginning.”

         The man swallowed hard and was about to speak when the elderly lady interrupted.

         “Jacob,” she said cuttingly. “He said ‘typhoid’. I distinctly heard him say it.”

         The doctor could see the fear in her eyes and answered her without fuss.

         “I know he did, Mrs. Winters. But Tom Carson is not the doctor here – I am. I’ll decide if there’s typhoid or not.”

         The woman remained wary, but calmed down considerably. After all, the dirty, uncouth person in front of her was hardly likely to know what he was talking about.

         “Now, Tom, which of your boys is sick?” Jacob asked him.

         “Robbie – my youngest boy,” Tom replied anxiously. “He got it from that damned stranger who rode in the other day.”

         “Settle down a bit, Tom,” the doctor insisted. “How many are sick up there?”

         “Two so far – the stranger and my boy. But who knows…”

         “Yes, all right,” he stopped him firmly. “Now what gave you the idea that it was typhoid?”

         ‘Alby said…”

         The doctor rolled his eyes impatiently. “I might have known Alby Harris would fit into this somewhere. That man is a nuisance.”

         “He knows what he’s talkin’ about, Doc. He said it was catchin’. ‘Anything with spots is catchin’” – that’s what he said. An’ he was right. My boy came down with the fever real bad. Alby says it’s typhoid.”

         “Yes, well, I’d like to see his medical degree, Tom. Alby Harris probably has no idea at all. What did Charity say?”

         “She wasn’t sure,” he admitted. “But you know Miss Charity. She’s too soft hearted by half sometimes. Ain’t usually any harm in it, but off she went with that stranger to tend to him – right when the town needed her.”

         Dr. Rawlins was beginning to get some idea of what was happening up there. He shook his head knowingly. There was a lot more to this story that he hadn’t gotten to yet, especially if Charity was looking after this ‘stranger’.

         “Start at the beginning. Tell me about this stranger and what happened to him.”

         The longer he sat here, the more tired and impatient Tom was getting. All he wanted was for Dr. Rawlins to come back with him to see to his son.

         “He took a deep breath to clear his head. “A couple of days ago, some drifter rode in and took a room at the hotel for the night. Next mornin’, that’s yesterday mornin’, he walks over to the livery stable, gets up on his horse and falls right back off – out cold he was.”

         He stopped and looked up to make sure that the doctor was paying attention.

         “Go on,” Rawlins encouraged him.

         “Well, Pete Scrivens an’ my boys saw what happened and ran over to see. Tommy – my eldest boy – he ran off to get Alby while Pete and Robbie watched the stranger.”

         “Did they touch him?”

         He shook his head. “Tommy swears that only Pete Scrivens touched him. My boys strayed back away from him.”

         “And Alby said it was typhoid?”

         “Yeah, Miss Charity argued with him, right there in the corral. Got all fired up ‘cos she wanted to take the fella in and tend to him, but Alby said only if he was outa town away from the kids. So they took him out to the old Andrews place, right away from the Strike, but it was too late. My boy Robbie already caught it.”

         The man looked desperately at the doctor. “You’ve gotta come and help my boy Doc.”

         Dr. Rawlins patted him comfortingly on the shoulder. “Of course I’ll come to see him. Give me a minute to get a few things together.”

         He stood up and, almost as an afterthought, he added, “Tom, you have got him separated from the other children haven’t you?”

         Tears filled the man’s eyes as he nodded. “They took him out to the Andrews’ place too. Martha went with him. Said she wasn’t leavin’ him.”

         Dr. Rawlins was annoyed but he said nothing to add to the man’s misery. He definitely had to get up to the Strike right away and find out what was going on. It sounded like the town was in a panic, and he knew who was behind it. Damn Alby Harris!

 

 

*

        The two men rode silently out of town. Dr. Rawlins had arranged for a fresh horse for him and had Tom’s stabled and seen to. The animal was played out. It was a miracle that it had lasted as long as it had.

         There was a lesson to be learned from it too. Jacob Rawlins had no intention of risking killing either his own or Tom’s on their way to Thompson’s Strike, thus ending up on foot and making the trip even longer.

         So, despite the urgency of the situation, he kept a steady pace and was trying to keep Tom Carson in check at the same time. A little moderation was needed here and Jacob was renowned for keeping a cool head in any emergency. It was a large part of why he was liked and respected throughout the area.

         He had his work cut out for him this time though. Tom was desperate, and not surprisingly so. It sounded like the boy was very ill. For the first hour of the journey Dr. Rawlins had had to keep pulling Carson back. His fears for his son were clouding his judgment.

         It was perfectly understandable, but haste right now was not going to get them there any faster.

         He did wonder why no one had come for him sooner though, if there was another patient who had been ill since yesterday morning. Charity would have sent for him straight away, particularly if she had no idea what was wrong herself. She wasn’t one for letting things get worse before they got better.

         He had a lot of respect for Charity Blaine – about as much respect for her as he had contempt for Alby Harris.

         Charity was a clear thinking woman who took no chances. She knew more than a little about caring for the sick and injured from her nursing days, and if she knew the answer and what to do, she would treat it, but if she didn’t? Then she would call on him.

         She certainly wouldn’t have any part in the kind of panic that Tom was describing in that town. No – the mere mention of the word Typhoid had been known to spread fear and hysteria through even the largest of cities. He had seen that happen before.

         But even though the symptoms that Tom had told him might sound remotely like it, he was far from convinced that that was the problem yet. He’d have to see for himself first.

 

*

 

        Charity heard the unmistakable rumbling of wagon wheels outside the cabin again and a chill ran down her spine.

         The prospect of yet another patient was almost overwhelming. There was no space here and the conditions would get worse with every new victim.

         And another patient also meant that they really were facing an epidemic, and a rampant one at that. She didn’t know of many diseases that could spread at this rate, and those that did were all too frightening to consider. She couldn’t handle it on her own.

         For a moment, she hung her head and wondered just what she had gotten herself into, but the dejection didn’t last long. She was made of stronger stuff than that, and she lifted her head determinedly, stood up and went outside to face whatever fate was going to throw at them this time.

         But this time, fate was on her side. Ben Scrivens had already halted the wagon and dropped to the ground beside it.

         “Brought out a cot for the Carson boy, Miss Charity,” he explained, as she appeared in the doorway. “Didn’t like the idea of the little tyke layin’ on the floor for too long.”

         “As opposed to abandoning him out here?” she bit back at him sarcastically.

         The expression on Ben’s face gave her a twinge of regret for having said it. She remembered then that his son had been playing with Robbie when they had come in contact with Johnny.

         “Could just as easy have been my boy, ma’am,” he said sadly. “Could be yet, I guess.”

         Charity stepped down off the porch and walked over to him. “We can’t be certain of anything until Dr. Rawlins gets here, Ben. I keep telling all of you, but no one listens. Alby doesn’t know what this is any more than I do.”

         Ben nodded his head in agreement. “Alby told me that himself, Miss Charity,” he admitted. “But we know that it’s catchin’ now that poor little Robbie Carson has it. That’s about all we need to know right now. We’ve gotta keep it out of town.”

         “Well, I’m not sick,” she told him firmly. “And neither is Martha. What about her other kids? Are they still okay?”

         “Yeah. There’s no one else yet. Looks like we got it in time.”

         “And Pete? Is he okay then?”

         Scrivens eyed her suspiciously at the mention of his son’s name. “He’s fine. Why?”

         “I just wondered, since he was with Tommy and Robbie when they found Johnny,” she explained to him.

         “Well, he ain’t sick,” Scrivens told her, bristling up defensively. “An’ you better get Martha out here to help you with this here cot. I ain’t takin’ it into that house an’ riskin’ catchin’ that sickness an’ takin’ it home for my boy to get after all.”

         Charity was disheartened by the change in his attitude. She understood that he was afraid for his own son, but for a minute she had thought that he was beginning to relent a little.

         She nodded and then turned and went back into the cabin to get Martha Carson. She found her right where she had left her, where she had been all day – right by her son’s side.

         Johnny was still sleeping quietly and the little boy seemed to be the same, so she whispered to Martha that she needed her help outside with a cot for her son.

         The woman was hesitant about leaving him, but some gentle urging from Charity got her to do it eventually. Robbie would be more comfortable in a bed, and that was enough for Martha.

 

*

 

            Scott stood on the sidewalk in Peterson, leaning against a post with his arms folded in front of him. He tapped his hand against his arm nervously and he watched the end of the street in the forlorn hope that he would spot Johnny riding down it at any moment.

         He knew now that it was just that - a forlorn hope. Johnny was yet another day overdue, and he’d been just as anxious as they were to get back to Lancer. Something had happened, and he shifted position yet again in frustration.

         He looked up as Murdoch came out of the telegraph office at last, folding a piece of paper that obviously held no good news, judging by the worried expression on his face.

         “Well?” Scott demanded.

         “I got the wire from Toby. Johnny arrived there all right, and he was on time. He stayed the night and left at sunup the next morning,” he told Scott.

         “How long ago was that then? Three days?”

         Murdoch nodded, frowning. “He should have been here days ago.”

         “Something’s happened, Murdoch,” Scott said angrily, an ‘I told you so’ note in his voice that just had to be said.

         “I know. Get some things together and we’ll get started right away. We’ll back track up to Toby’s place.”

         Scott scowled at him. “I’ve been packed since yesterday, Murdoch.”

         If he expected some sort of angry retort from his father, then he was due for disappointment. “Good,” Murdoch told him as he stepped off the sidewalk beside his son and headed back to the hotel. “So have I.”

 

*

 

        Johnny woke to a sound he didn’t recognize. At first he thought it sounded like the whimpering of a puppy, but that made no sense at all.

         Then, listening closer, he thought it sounded like the crying of a small child, but that made even less sense.

         Or did it?

         There was something about a child trapped in his mind somewhere, but he couldn’t bring it to the surface. What was it? Someone had said something about a kid.

         He forced his eyes open to see what it was, but the light bit harshly and he shut them again quickly. He felt like he’d been punched in the face!

         But the sound was still there – quiet and constant – and he forced them open again.

         This time, he was forewarned about the light and he squinted against it and focused on the roof above him. There was no ceiling, just beams and shingles, and it was rough at that. As he looked up at it, his mind wandered away from the noise and he tried to remember where he was and why. He hurt all over, and he felt lousy, so he soon recalled that he was sick.

         Then the whimpering sound drew his attention again. He turned his head carefully towards it, trying to ignore the pain in his neck that the movement brought on.

         And there, on a mattress on the floor on the opposite side of the small room, was a small boy, swathed in blankets, and crying pitifully.

         Now Johnny remembered. The boy was sick with the same thing that he had. He’d most likely caught it from him too, and he was overcome with guilt. If he hadn’t ridden into that town and stayed, that boy would be out playing with his friends, like a kid his age should be doing.

         Instead, the boy was here, alone and in a strange place with no one to tend him.

         Johnny suddenly realized that they were indeed alone in the room. That didn’t seem right to him. Where was Charity? And he was sure that he recalled seeing the boy’s mother by his side earlier. Where was she?

         No wonder the kid was crying! Left all alone in the room. Hell, if the boy felt anywhere near as bad as he did, then he had good reason to be crying a whole lot louder than he was!

         The boy had not noticed that Johnny was awake, but Johnny had no desire to frighten him any more than he probably was already.

         “Hey kid,” he said, as quietly and as calmly as he could. He found that his throat was so dry that he couldn’t have spoken any louder anyway.

         The boy stopped at the sound of another voice in the room, and looked over towards Johnny, but he didn’t say anything.

         “What’s up?’ Johnny asked him needlessly, but hoping to distract him.

         The little boy sniffed loudly, but still remained silent, staring at Johnny.

         “Not feelin’ too good huh?’ Johnny asked sympathetically.

         “No,” the boy finally whined. “I want my mama.”

         Johnny frowned seriously. “Well, I ain’t surprised. That’s what mama’s are for. Bein’ with ya when you’re sick.”

         The boy looked like the dam was about to burst again, so Johnny hurried to reassure him. “She won’t be far away. Probably be right back,” he told him. “So what’s your name anyway, kid?”

         “Robbie,” the boy answered shyly.

         “Nice to meet you, Robbie. I’m Johnny.” He smiled a weak, reassuring smile. “I ain’t feelin’ great myself.”

         He had the boy’s attention now. Robbie sniffled again, and then answered him. “You’re the man who fell off the horse.”

         “Oh great, so you saw that huh?”

         “Yes.”

         Johnny smiled again. “Well, I don’t usually fall off him.”

         “It was a real pretty horse – all gold like a statue. Bet he’s fast.”

         “Barranca? Sure, an’ he’s smart too,” Johnny told him proudly. “You got a horse of your own?”

         “No,” the boy answered, a little sadly. “Pa says maybe when me and Tommy are older we can have one.”

         “Tommy? That your brother?”

         “Uh-huh. My big brother,” he told him, but his eyes began to well up again. “I want my mama,” he cried again, and Johnny’s heart melted.

         Where was his mother anyway? Surely she wouldn’t leave the boy alone for long? And what about Charity – where was she?

         He pushed himself up onto his elbow and took a deep breath. Then he took a deep breath, leaned his weight on his hands and hauled himself up until he was sitting, and stopped. The room spun nauseatingly and his bruised shoulder protested angrily. He frowned and sat still, letting the dizziness pass.

         It didn’t completely, so he went on anyway and tried to stand up. It came as no real surprise to him that he couldn’t do it. His legs were like jelly – no substance to them at all – and they gave way the instant he put his weight on them. He found himself in an untidy heap on the floor, but at least he hadn’t landed flat on his face.

         He shivered with cold. His long johns were a long way from keeping him warm, so he pulled one of the blankets down over him and hugged it tight around his naked chest.

         Pulling himself up to sit beside the boy, he leaned back against the wall, breathing heavily and waiting for a moment to catch his breath.

         The boy looked up at him curiously, but the distraction had certainly worked. He stopped crying and waited for Johnny to speak again.

         “I’ve got a big brother too. His name is Scott,” he told the boy.

         “Does he boss you around too?”

         Johnny grinned. “Yeah, he tries to. I let him think he can – you know – makes him feel good.”

         “Tommy sure does. He kinda picks on me too sometimes. But I wish he was here now.”

         “Yeah, I wish Scott was too. But I guess it’s better they’re not here. I sure wouldn’t want Scott gettin’ sick, an’ I’m bettin’ you wouldn’t like Tom to catch it.”

         “No, I wouldn’t want Tommy to get sick either. An’ he’d just boss me around anyway. My sister April is worse though. She’s real bossy.”

         “My sister is the same,” Johnny told him, thinking of Teresa and missing her, but he was glad she wasn’t here. The risk of catching whatever he had was too great, and he would never forgive himself if that happened.

         He stopped for a moment, getting more tired and weaker than he had expected.

         “Johnny?” he heard the boy call. “That horse of yours – I ain’t never seen one that color.”

         “He’s a palomino,” Johnny answered wearily. ‘We’ve got lots of ‘em at the ranch.”

         “You got a ranch?” Robbie sounded impressed and Johnny smiled at the thought of Lancer.

         “Sure do. The prettiest place you ever saw. A great big house, an’ cattle an’ horses, an’ a big ol’ river runnin’ right through the valley,” he told him proudly. He found himself wishing he were there now. The now familiar images of the hacienda, the river, the green fields and rolling hills were all so easy to conjure up. Homesickness was new to him. Home was still pretty new to him for that matter.

         The thought that he might never see it again came rushing in on him, and he couldn’t bear it.

         He closed his eyes against the overwhelming pain. This time, however, it was not the physical pain of his body, but the ache in his heart for his family and home. How did people live with it?

        The little boy sniffled again and Johnny opened his eyes and looked over at him. He was so small to be facing something like this. It was one thing for himself, an otherwise healthy man in his prime to be up against this sickness, but Robbie was just a kid.

         “Tell me something kid,” Johnny asked him encouragingly. “Just how tough are you?”

         The boy thought for a moment. “Tommy broke my arm once an’ I didn’t hardly cry at all,” he told Johnny proudly.

         Johnny grinned. “Glad to hear it. So, if you stay tough an’ get well for your mama – I’ll give you Barranca’s first colt. How would that be?”

         Robbie stared at him incredulously. “Really?”

         “Sure,” Johnny answered gravely. “But Barranca’s a real strong horse. His colt will need someone strong enough to handle him. Think you can?”

         “You bet,” the boy exclaimed.

         “Shake on it then,” Johnny grinned, holding his hand out to the boy.

         Robbie stuck his hand out from under the blanket and shook Johnny’s hand seriously, the way he had watched his father seal a pact so many times.

         It was an end to their conversation though. Martha Carson came around the corner and saw him on the floor near her son and screamed.

 

Chapter Nine

 

            Martha Carson was horrified to find Johnny sitting next to her son. She screamed so loud that Johnny thought his head would burst from the noise.

         In a whirlwind of maternal fury, she ran to her son and quickly pulled him close to her, yelling at Johnny to keep away from him. She held the boy protectively, hushing him and ignoring his pleas to leave his new friend alone.

         Charity came in to a flurry of screams and protests from the woman, none of which she understood. The boy was trying to get his mother to listen, and, failing there, calling to Charity to help him.

         From Johnny there was only silence. Despite his raging fever, he was white as a ghost. He looked exhausted, but was ignoring Martha completely. Charity was sure that, had he been able to move himself, he would have just stood up and left the room.

         It would have been funny had it not been for the fact that Johnny was so sick.

         “That’s enough, Martha,” she fumed. “You’re upsetting Robbie.”

         The little boy had started to cry again and his mother held him close. “It’s him, not me,” she accused. “He’s the one who upset Robbie.”

         “Oh, for heaven’s sake Martha,” Charity exclaimed. “Calm down and listen to your boy. He’s not upset by Johnny at all.”

         “I don’t want him anywhere near Robbie. He’s sick enough, without that man making him worse.” She got rolling now.  Her voice rose to a hysterical pitch. “I want him out of here, now.”

         Charity shook her head. “That’s nonsense, Martha. How can the boy catch what he’s already got?”

         “And he got it from that man! I want him out of here – right away from my son.”

         “No mama,” the little boy cried. “Johnny’s my friend. He was telling me about his ranch and his brother, and…”

         “Hush Robbie,” his mother told him, holding him to her breast and running her hand over his head caressingly. “I don’t want that man near you. Mama knows best.”

         “No,” he insisted, getting frustrated now, and more upset. “Johnny says if I’m tough, he’ll give me a golden horse, just like his.”

         “There, you see?” Charity pointed out. “He was only trying to help.”

         Charity went over to kneel beside Johnny, who was leaning back against the wall with his eyes closed. She had to wonder how he had gotten there. She wouldn’t have thought he had the strength to get out of the bed when she had last checked on him.

 

The boy’s mother calmed a little, finally hearing some of what her son was saying, but her anger wouldn’t go away easily. She glared at Johnny, who had opened his eyes as he heard Charity come across the room to his side.

“I don’t need his help,” she said, glaring furiously at him.

Johnny turned to her. His eyes turned to ice. Charity had seen that change once before and she wondered what was going on in his mind that caused it.

“Wasn’t you I was tryin’ to help, ma’am,” he told her. There was a sharp edge to his voice that unnerved both Charity and Martha. “It was the boy.”

Charity stepped in before the sparks flew again. “I’m amazed you managed to get down here in the first place.”

Johnny almost managed to laugh at her. “No, gettin’ down was easy.”

“Yes, well now we have to get you back into that bed. Can you stand?”

“Tried that already – didn’t work.”

She smiled at him. “I’m not surprised.” She turned back to Martha. “I’ll need a hand to get him up Martha.”

“No,” Johnny said, surprisingly firmly, but quietly. He was worn out now and his breaths came in short sharp pants.

Charity turned back to him. “And why not?”

Very quietly, Johnny told her. “The boy should have the bed. It ain’t right for him to be on the floor like that.”

She realized that he wanted only her to hear him. “Don’t worry about it. We have a bed outside for him now. That’s where we’ve been. And the sooner you’re up off the floor and back in your own bed, the sooner we can bring it in and make Robbie more comfortable.”

Johnny nodded slowly, and tried to push himself up. It didn’t work. He just didn’t have the strength to help himself, and he was frustrated by it. He was just about to try again when he felt a restraining hand on his shoulder.

“Let us give you a hand,” she told him sternly. She looked back at Martha for help, but got only glaring resistance instead.

Charity sighed. “Martha, give me a hand please,” she asked again. “We can’t leave him here.”

It was obvious that if she thought she could have left him there, Martha Carson would do just that. She wanted nothing to do with him. But she wanted to see her son settled into a bed too and that meant getting the stranger out of the way.

Martha laid her son back on the mattress and tucked the blankets back around him carefully. Then, without a word, she stood up and walked over towards Johnny. She stepped over his legs to his other side and took hold of his arm roughly.

“Be careful of that shoulder, Martha. It’s badly bruised,” Charity told the woman as she saw the grimace of pain on Johnny’s face.

She was pleased to see that the woman did take notice and eased her grip on his arm.

Together they lifted him enough to support what little strength he found for himself and then turned him and sat him on the edge of the bed.

Johnny drew a few deep breaths and then lay down. He was shaking uncontrollably and Charity guessed it was from a combination of the exhaustion and the chills. She pushed and shoved him into a more comfortable position and then pulled the blankets over him and tucked them tightly around him.

Johnny was past caring. He was asleep already.

 

*

Charity looked up. There was someone outside, but this time it wasn’t a wagon, it was horses.

She wasn’t happy about leaving Johnny. In the hours since they had gotten him back into bed, his fever had risen sharply again and taken a severe turn for the worse.

Robbie was now comfortably ensconced in his cot and his mother was tending him carefully, with only a quiet word of advice from Charity now and then. The boy was still awake and his fever had continued to rise, just as Johnny’s had, but he had not yet complained of chills.

On the other hand, Johnny’s temperature was raging. Sweat poured off him and yet his teeth chattered with cold. Charity had tried every trick she could think of to try to control it, but nothing worked. It was still climbing. She knew that if it kept up this way, she was going to lose him.

He hadn’t woken since they had gotten him back to bed, but he hadn’t been restless yet either, and that was something. He was already completely exhausted.

Sighing resignedly, she stood up and replaced the wet cloth she was using to wash him down into the basin on the chair. She looked him over once more and then glanced over at Martha and the child to see that they were all right for now. Then she went outside to find out who was here now.

Her heart leapt when she found Tom Carson there with Dr. Rawlins. They were just dismounting as she reached the little porch.

“Charity, how’s my boy?” Tom asked before she got a chance to say anything herself.

“He’s as well as can be expected, Tom. He’s got a fever and he’s pretty sick, but he’s a brave little boy,” she told him sympathetically. “Martha’s looking after him just fine, and now that Dr. Rawlins is here, I’m sure everything will be all right.”

“I want to see him,” he demanded, distraught.

Charity shook her head sadly. “I wish I could say yes Tom,” she answered. “But if anyone in town was to find out that you’ve been in the cabin, they’d make you stay out here too, and you have Tommy and April to think about.”

“It ain’t fair!” he exploded.

“None of this is fair, Tom,” she replied, just as angrily and she turned to the doctor. “Has he told you everything?”

“I think so, Charity. Let’s have a look at these two before anything else.” He stopped and looked hard at her. “It is still only the two of them isn’t it?”

She nodded. “Yes, as far as I know. And I’m sure that if there were others, they’d have brought them here right away. There’s real hysteria in town at the moment.”

“So I gather. I met your two ‘friends’ out there,” he told her ironically, indicating the direction in which their ‘guards’ were keeping watch on the cabin.

He went into the cabin, leaving Tom Carson standing dejected and angry outside with Charity.

“Tom, why don’t you go and wait out there with our ‘guards’. We’ll come and give you what news we have when Jacob has looked at them both.”

The man nodded. He knew he had no choice. Charity was right. The word would soon get to town and he wouldn’t be able to stay with his two healthy children either.

He turned and led his horse in the direction of the two men whose turn it was to watch the cabin, thinking ‘Damn them all to hell!”

 

*

 

Jacob Rawlins looked at the little boy first. The child wasn’t likely to be as strong as an adult patient, and this little boy he knew well. He’d known him since he had brought him into the world just over nine years ago. It seemed like yesterday, but he had watched as he was the first in the family to catch cold, or the measles or anything else that happened to be going around.

But the idea that the boy was frail because of it was not one that he happened to share with Robbie’s mother and father. He knew the child was stronger than he looked. He’d beaten everything that had been thrown at him so far.

But he didn’t like the look of this.

He checked him over thoroughly, looking carefully at the darkening spots on his wrists and ankles. He said nothing though and the suspense was finally too much for Martha Carson.

“What is it, Doctor?” she asked him anxiously. “Is it typhoid?”

“No, it’s definitely not typhoid,” he told her soothingly.

“Are you sure? Alby said…”

“Alby’s not a doctor – I am!” he snapped back, and then instantly regretted it. The faith these people held in that man irritated him no end.

He stood up and went to take a look at Johnny. The little boy had been awake and able to answer his questions, but this young man was much further along. He was unconscious, not just sleeping and he was beginning to show signs of restlessness, tossing his head sideways and then back again.

He checked his heart rate and found it much too fast. His breathing was labored, and his temperature was about as high as any human could stand. There were spots on his arms, more than the boy had and darker – almost black, though there were none on his ankles like the boy had.

“Charity, what can you tell me about him?” he asked non-committedly.

“Johnny told me it started with a headache, and then he began to hurt all over.”

“Joints or muscles?” he asked her, and she considered what Johnny had told her about it.

“Muscles, I guess. Moving his head hurts his neck and he did say all over.”

“All right, go on.”

“Well, he passed out on back of his horse. That’s what the bump on his head and the bruising on his shoulder is from – falling off.”

“And the fever?”

“He’s had the fever almost from the start I think, but it’s been getting higher all the time. He’s been getting bad chills, and those spots began like a rash on his wrist - just little pink spots. But it’s been spreading on both arms and getting darker.”

Rawlins looked over to Martha. “Is that how it all happened with Robbie?”

“Yes,” she answered quietly.

“When did Robbie fall ill?”

“Last night. At supper he said his head hurt and he wasn’t hungry. Then he complained of feeling sore all over and the fever started right after that.”

The doctor frowned. “When did your friend here arrive in town Charity?”

“Two days ago. He stayed at the hotel because he wasn’t feeling well. I got that much from him.”

“Martha, how long is it since he came in contact with Robbie?”

“It was in the corral yesterday, just before noon I guess.”

“And did he touch him?”

“No sir,” Robbie answered for her. “Mr. Scrivens told us to stay back and we did. Only Pete touched him.”

The doctor smiled at the little boy. “Thank you Robbie,” he said kindly, and turned back to Charity.

“Charity, are you feeling okay?” he asked her suddenly.

“I’m fine. So is Martha, aren’t you dear?”

Martha Carson nodded her agreement.

He frowned again. “And Pete Scrivens hasn’t shown any sign of getting sick?”

“I don’t think so,” Charity answered. “What are you thinking? Do you know what it is?”

He shook his head. “I can’t figure it out yet. It doesn’t make any sense.”

“How do you mean?”

“For Robbie to have caught it from him without even touching him, it would have to be incredibly contagious. And the incubation period would have to be less than a day. Yet no one else is sick. You and Martha have been in constant contact with them both and haven’t come down with it. And Pete Scrivens touched him and still isn’t sick.”

“Are you saying that my Robbie didn’t get it from that man? That’s crazy!” Martha told him angrily. “You can see that they’ve got the same thing.”

“I know that Martha, and it’s got me stumped. I’ve never seen anything like it before.”

“Then you can’t cure it?” she cried out, terrified.

“I didn’t say that, Martha. I have a few things I can do, so don’t panic.”

He turned to Charity. “We’d better go and tell Tom what we can, and I want to get some things from my saddle bags too. Can you come out with me, Charity?”

“Of course,” she answered with a quick glance at Johnny. She followed him out, stopping only to pat Martha Carson on the shoulder reassuringly.

 

*

 

Murdoch met Scott in the lobby of the hotel. Scott had been true to his word and had only taken minutes to get his things from his room.

“I’m going to leave a message for Johnny with the clerk, Scott,” he told his son. “Just in case.”

He didn’t hold out much hope that Johnny would be back here before them, but a part of him was holding out for any hope at all. The thought that he could lose his son was eating at him. After all the years they had spent apart, and the tempestuous first year of trying to build a relationship with him, they had finally settled into a kind of routine.

Sure, they ‘bumped heads’ regularly, but that was because they were both as stubborn as mules. They both knew that. They probably always would, but it didn’t lessen the love they had for each other – unspoken though it usually was.

Scott followed him to the desk and waited beside him impatiently.

“Fred, we’re checking out for now. We’re going looking for my son Johnny. He should have been here by now,” Murdoch explained. “In case we miss him and he turns up here before we get back, can you just tell him I said to stay put and wait for us?”

“Of course, Mr. Lancer. I hope you find him. I know you and Mr. Scott are worried.”

“Thanks,” Murdoch answered briefly. He wasn’t inclined to go into any more detail. “I’m sure he’s just been held up somewhere.”

The clerk nodded understanding, putting his own meaning to the man’s words and holding back a knowing grin and refraining from winking at him.

Murdoch turned back to Scott, ready to go, but the man behind the desk suddenly remembered something and called him back.

“Oh, Mr. Lancer, if you’re heading in the direction of Thompson’s Strike, you should give it a wide berth,” he called to him.

Both Lancers stopped quickly and turned back to him.

“Why’s that?” Scott asked him.

“Why, it’s all over town. There’s typhoid up there. You don’t want to go anywhere near it.”

“Typhoid?” Murdoch exclaimed.

“That’s right. They sent for our doctor this morning. Half the town has it apparently. Some drifter rode into town a couple of days ago and brought it with him.”

Scott looked at his father with a question in his eyes that Murdoch understood. “Thanks for the warning, Fred,” Murdoch answered, and took Scott by the arm and hurried him outside.

“You don’t think…?” Scott started to ask as they got out the door.

Murdoch shook his head, praying that the thought that was plaguing them both was just a ‘reach’.

“He wasn’t sick, Scott. He would have said something.”

“He wasn’t sick when he left us anyway,” Scott agreed, refining his statement a little. “But he could have gotten sick later.”

“Toby said he was fine when he left there too,” Murdoch reminded him.

But Scott shook his head. He knew his brother well. “I can just see Johnny telling Toby Roberts that he doesn’t feel well, can’t you?” he asked sarcastically.

Murdoch breathed out heavily. “No, you’re right. He’d keep that to himself.”

“I’m not even sure he would have told us,” Scott pointed out angrily.

“Mind you, if the town has an epidemic raging, they’ve probably been quarantined. Johnny might have gone into town and not been allowed to leave,” Murdoch suggested hopefully.

It was something to cling to for both of them. Scott hoped that was all it was. The idea of his brother sick with typhoid while they had been sitting here twiddling their thumbs enraged him. Johnny could be dead by now, and they wouldn’t have known.

“Or he might not be there at all,” Scott agreed. “What do you think? Make it our first stop?”

Murdoch nodded. “It’s a risk. They might not let us out of town, once we’re there.”

“They might not let us into it if it’s quarantined,” Scott pointed out.

“With any luck, if he is there, someone might know his name.”

Scott turned impatiently towards the stables. “We’re not going to find out standing here thinking about it,” he said coldly. “Let’s get going.”

Murdoch threw his saddlebags over his shoulder and stepped into the street with his son. If Johnny was in that town, they were going to find him.

 

*

 

        Martha sat by her son's side and watched him drop off to sleep. She sighed deeply, glad that with sleep he would have some relief from the aches and pains that were causing him so much grief.

Robbie was special to her. She loved all three of her children dearly and would do anything for them, but Robbie was more to her than just her youngest. He was her joy in the present and her hope for the future.

She’d been only a girl of sixteen when she had married a man much older than herself. Tom Carson was a farmer and a good man. He struggled to keep his farm going while he took on fixit jobs around town to try to bring in a little more for his family.

Like most men, Tom had wanted a son to run the farm with him, so when their first had been a girl, he had tried to hide his disappointment from her, but he hadn't fooled her. A year later she had given him that son. Tom had been delighted and would have been happy with just the two children to feed and clothe.

But then two years later, a second son - Robbie - had come along. Martha had had a difficult pregnancy, and it was a difficult birth, so there would be no more children after him. But Robbie was her little miracle.

Tom was pleased, but Martha felt that this son was for her. The farm would be far too small to divide between two boys one day, so Martha started planning for Robbie's future.

They soon found out that he wasn't as sturdy as his brother and sister, but that made him all the more dear to her. And she quickly realized that he was smart. Since then she'd been saving every penny she could lay her hands on for his education and she dreamed that one day he could go to a real school and get some decent book-learning.

She smiled sadly as she stroked his face and ran her fingers through his white blond hair and thought of her plans to see Robbie as an educated man one day, with a bright future. Who knew what he could do?

But all her plans for him lay in shreds at the moment. Tears ran silently down her cheeks as the doctor's words echoed in her mind. He didn't know what was wrong with him. How could he save her son when he didn't know what the problem was?

His words rang in her head like a death knell - ringing loud and foreboding.

Behind her, she could hear the tossing and turning of the man who had brought this sickness into town. She kept her back to him, not wanting to even lay eyes on him. She felt nothing for him but contempt.

He would be responsible for her son's death - no one else.

She brushed the fine silken hair from Robbie's flushed face with a delicate touch and pressed her lips to his forehead softly. He was so hot.

Her little boy was dying, and she felt so utterly helpless. All her hopes had rested on the doctor, and he had dashed them completely with his words.

Martha listened to every rasping breath her son took; terrified that it might be his last. It was just so unfair – his father couldn’t even be here with her to share the burden and perhaps kiss his boy goodbye.

As she listened carefully to her son, the stranger’s tossing continued to distract her. He murmured something unintelligible and it infuriated her.

Robbie had just gotten to sleep. If that man woke him now, she’d kill him!

Her son liked him, and that was maddening. He had told her of the crazy promise the man had made of a colt. It was wrong to lead the little boy on like that with a promise he would never fulfill. She’d seen enough of his kind to know what he was.

He’d ridden into town with his gun tied low on his thigh and that cold expression in his eyes. It was all around town that he was probably a pistolero – a man who didn’t mind killing if there was money in it. How was he going to keep his promise of a colt for a little boy? Why should he even remember it?

But Robbie would remember it. And he’d wait. He was a trusting boy. He’d remember that promise for as long as he lived.

Martha closed her eyes in despair. ‘For as long as he lived!” How long would that be? How long before this fever broke him and took him from her? She shook her head and tried to blot out the mutterings of the man behind her as he started to ramble.

Robbie sighed and frowned and his mother feared he was waking up.

If the man would just be quiet! Robbie needed some rest. He needed it desperately.

She turned around furiously and glared at Johnny as he rambled over and over – and then, suddenly, something snapped.

He was killing her son! He brought this cursed fever from God only knew where, and it was killing her boy.

Standing up slowly, Martha Carson was in a daze. Her eyes were glazed and her body stiff with rage. She had to stop his ramblings before he woke Robbie.

She walked over to the bed where Johnny tossed and murmured in a fevered delirium. She reached slowly and purposely for the pillow under his head and carefully pulled it out.

He didn’t wake. He wasn’t aware of her.

He wouldn’t fight her.

Martha’s mind was oblivious to everything but the need to get him to be quiet – the need to make him pay for what he had done.

She took the pillow in both hands and held it over Johnny’s face, bearing it down deliberately.

 

Chapter Ten

 

“Martha – No!” Charity yelled as she came through the doorway and saw what she was doing.

She ran across the room and wrenched the woman away from Johnny, but Martha just fought her off.

“No,” she cried out. “No, get away from me. Let me go!”

The woman writhed and screamed like a maniac, kicking and lashing out with her hands at Charity as she struggled to hold her back. In her fury, Martha was stronger than Charity would have ever thought her capable of being, and she wasn’t sure she’d be able to restrain her for much longer. She took hold of her hands and held them tight, while Martha balled them into fists and tried to hit her.

And then, suddenly, Jacob was there. He took Martha in a crushing embrace with her arms caught so that she couldn’t do any more damage.

She kicked and screamed madly, but the doctor ignored her and ordered Charity to check on Johnny.

Charity had already moved towards the bed. She grabbed the pillow off his face and prayed that he was still breathing The world seemed to stop for a moment as she waited for him to take a breath.

“He’s breathing,” she said with a sigh of relief.

“Stay with him,” the doctor told her and turned around, spinning Martha with him and forcing her ahead of him.

Once out of the room, he held her close and waited for the fight to go out of her.

She stopped screaming, and then she stopped kicking and squirming, all under the pressure of the bear hug he had on her. And then, finally, she broke down into sobbing hysteria. She leaned against his shoulder and cried it out.

“What did you think you were doing?” he demanded furiously as she began to calm down.

She shook her head desperately. “He’s killing my son,” she cried.

“Robbie’s not dying yet, Martha. He hasn’t given up. Are you so ready to give up on him?”

“He’s killing him,” she mumbled hysterically, her face pressed against Rawlins’ chest. “He’s killing my boy. He should pay for that!”

The doctor wrenched her back and shook her hard. So hard that her head shook and her hair came loose from its bonds and fell untidily over her face and down her back. “Come with me,” he ordered her and dragged her harshly by the wrist to the doorway.

“Look!” he told her ruthlessly, and when she only looked down at the floor he repeated his order cruelly. “I said look!”

She glanced up and watched Charity tending to Johnny. She had replaced the pillow under his head and was bathing his face and crooning soft assurances to him, but he still tossed his head back and forth in what appeared to be delirium.

“Look at him, Martha, and tell me how much he should pay. He’s sick! He’s more likely to die than Robbie is at the moment. Are you seriously saying that he’s done this on purpose?”

She turned away. She wanted to look anywhere but at the sick man in that room. Suddenly, that’s what she saw – a sick man, racked with fever and pain.

“I’m sorry, Doctor,” she whimpered. “I’m so sorry. All I could think of was Robbie.”

“No, all you were thinking of was yourself! If you were thinking of your son, you’d still be in there looking after him!”

His harsh words stung. Martha knew he was right. She hung her head sadly. “I want to go to my son.”

“No,” he told her firmly. “Not yet. You have to realize what you did.”

She turned away from him, pulling her hand back out of his grip. “I know. God help me, Doctor, I nearly killed him.”

“I have to be able to trust you. Otherwise you can sit outside with your husband.”

She turned back to him in horror. “No, please Dr. Rawlins. Please don’t do that to me. I know you have no reason to believe me, but I’m sorry. I wish…I wish I could undo it all.”

Jacob Rawlins looked critically at her and believed her. Her face was wet all over and her eyes puffed with crying, but she looked genuinely remorseful.

“All right,” he said quietly. “Go ahead then.”

She looked at him with an odd mixture of guilt and thanks and walked slowly back into the room.

She glanced down to make sure that Robbie was still sleeping, and, remarkably, he was. Then she continued over to stand beside the bed and watch Charity trying to sooth Johnny through his ramblings.

He was younger than she had thought. He was good looking too, but he didn’t see her. He would probably never know how close she had come to killing him, unless someone told him. He was too sick to be aware of anything or anyone.

Charity stood up and moved aside for her. Somehow, she knew that Martha had finally vanquished her demon.

Martha sat down on the edge of the bed and took Johnny’s hand in hers. It was hot to the touch, but she held it gently, ignoring the awful spots that marked his arm. Something suddenly occurred to her.

“I guess he’s somebody’s son too, Charity.”

Charity sighed deeply. “Yes, he has a father and a brother waiting for him in Peterson. He’s been upset about being late getting there.”

Martha looked up at her in surprise. “They must be worried about him then.”

“I tried to send a message to them, but, seeing as how they didn’t come with Jacob, I guess they didn’t get it.”

The woman looked back down at Johnny and whispered, “I’m sorry Johnny. I’m so sorry.”

She lifted his hand to her lips and kissed it gently, then patted it reassuringly and put it down on the bed. As she moved to get up and let Charity take back her place, she was amazed to see him open his eyes and turn a pair of startlingly blue eyes on her.

There was no sign of condemnation in them. In fact, there was nothing but confusion. She smiled at him and let Charity sit down again. Then she went back to her own son.

 

*

The sight of two strangers riding into Thompson’s Strike wouldn’t usually have drawn much attention, but recent events had changed all that. Most people were keeping to their houses, for fear of coming into contact with someone who was sick with the fever.

So when Murdoch and Scott Lancer rode in, the place looked like a ghost town. There was no one in the street, and every now and then they noticed a curtain drawn aside and a face watching them ride by. It was eerie.

The doors were closed on most of the businesses in the town. Even the saloon was locked up, and Scott couldn’t remember seeing that in any town he had passed through since coming out here. Something sure had them scared. It looked like there really was something to the typhoid story.

“Looks like there’s someone at the livery stable,” Murdoch pointed out, obviously picking up the same line of thinking as his son.

“Good, I was beginning to feel like a goldfish in a bowl. There’s people staring at us from just about every window in town.”

“I noticed,” was all Murdoch replied. He turned his horse towards the livery as they approached it and dismounted, while Scott did the same.

The two of them stood beside their horses, holding the reins and looking around them. The doors were wide open, so there was likely to be someone about.

Murdoch got tired of waiting, walked over to the corral and called out loudly, “Anyone around?”

From the darkness inside the building came an answer. “Yeah, keep your britches on - be right with ya.”

Within a minute, a big burly man in his thirties came out into the light and looked them both over. “Can I help you fellas?”

“I hope so,” Murdoch replied. “We heard you were having some trouble here, and we’re looking for my son.”

The man eyed him suspiciously. “What d’ya mean, you heard we have trouble?”

“Down in Peterson they told us that you have some people sick here, that’s all,” Scott explained, being very careful to leave out the word ‘typhoid’. The mere mention of the word panicked people, and he wanted some answers before the man took fright as well and disappeared.

“Yeah, well, it ain’t as bad as all that. Bad enough though. You might wanta think twice about stayin’.”

“Then half the town isn’t sick?” Murdoch asked him with a wave of relief washing over him. They might have been wrong after all and Johnny wasn’t here sick with typhoid. The thought of it had played on his mind all the way from Peterson. Typhoid was deadly serious, and the idea of Johnny having it was too awful to think about.

“Nah, just two so far,” the man told them. “But one of ‘em is a little kid. We’re hopin’ the doctor can pull him through once he gets here.”

Scott didn’t want to ask the question that was burning in his mind, but he had to know. One way or the other, he had to know. “So, one is a child,” he asked slowly. “What about the other?”

“A drifter,” he told them emotionlessly. “He rode in a few days back and brought it with him.”

“A drifter?” Murdoch asked cautiously. “What does he look like? Do you know his name?”

Ben Scrivens looked the two men over and rubbed his chin thoughtfully. “You say you’re looking for your son?”

“That’s right,” Murdoch answered.

Scrivens shook his head. “Nah, this fella’s dark, looks Mex to me. Can’t be no kin o’ your’s, ‘less your name’s Lancer.”

Scott dropped his head and sighed, but Murdoch looked straight at Scrivens and said “I’m Murdoch Lancer. This is my son, Scott. The man we’re looking for is my other son, Johnny Lancer.”

“Oh,” Scrivens gulped. “I’m sorry, Mr. Lancer.”

“Then it is Johnny?”

“That’s the name he registered at the hotel under.”

“How bad is he?” Scott asked quietly.

 “He’s real sick. I guess maybe you should talk to Alby.”

“And just who is Alby?” Scott demanded. “I want to see my brother. Where is he?”

“Wait a minute, Scott,” Murdoch told him calmly, more calmly than he felt. There was a worried frown on his face as he looked at Scrivens. “We heard it was typhoid. Is that right?”

“Well, we don’t know exactly yet. Alby’s the closest thing we have to a doctor in this town, Mr. Lancer, and he ain’t real sure.” He looked at the two men in front of him, both with anxious expressions, and with good reason if they were family to the stranger. “I think you should talk to Alby. Come with me. I’ll show ya where he lives.”

 “If he’s ‘the closest thing you have to a doctor’, then I take it he’s looking after Johnny and the boy?” Murdoch asked him.

“Well, no…”

“Then who is? Where is Johnny?” Scott asked, becoming frustrated with the delays.

“Now, now, he’s bein’ looked after all right. I just reckon the best man to answer your questions is Alby Harris.”

Murdoch stepped up close to the man. Ben looked up at him. Ben Scrivens hadn’t met many men bigger than himself, but Murdoch Lancer topped him by an inch or more, and he was angry now.

“The only question we want answered is ‘where is my son?’” Murdoch growled at him, and Ben gulped nervously.

“Well, I don’t blame you at all, Mr. Lancer. Alby will…”

“If you say ‘Alby’ one more time, I’ll break your neck,” Murdoch snapped back. “I want to see my son – right now.”

“Now, there ain’t no call for violence,” came a voice behind them. Scott and Murdoch turned around to see who it was, while Ben Scrivens heaved a sigh of relief.

Scott found a short man around Murdoch’s age, but unshaven and wearing just his undershirt with his pants and suspenders. He was holding one of the suspenders with his left hand, and had a self-important air to him, despite the untidy portrait he posed.

“What’s goin’ on here, Ben?” Alby Harris asked, looking the two strangers up and down curiously.

“Alby, these here are Murdoch Lancer an’ his son,” Ben told him hurriedly.

Harris scratched at the three-day-old beard on his chin. “Lancer hey? That sick fella must be your boy then.”

“Where is my son?” Murdoch demanded angrily.

“Well, we couldn’t have him here in town with women an’ kids likely to catch it off o’ him, so we set him up outa town. I’ll take ya there, but you gotta know that if you go into that cabin, you ain’t gonna be allowed to come back here to town.”

“Cabin?” Scott asked angrily.

Alby sighed. “Look here son, your brother had a fever an’ we didn’t know what it was. We couldn’t have him here where it would spread.”

“We heard in Peterson that it’s typhoid. Are you saying now that it’s not?” Murdoch asked.

“We don’t know. But the boy had spots on him that coulda been typhoid. That’s all I said. But whatever they were, they were catchin’. The Carson boy came down with it the same night,” Harris explained.

 “Where is this cabin? I want to see my son – now!”

“Sure, I’ll take you right away,” the little man assured them. “I’ll just get my horse.” He went into the livery with Ben beside him, talking quietly together.

Scott looked uncertainly at his father. “I don’t like this, Murdoch.”

“Neither do I. I’m wondering just what sort of care he’s been getting here,” he answered. “If I find out they’ve put Johnny at risk, then someone is going to pay for it.”

 

*

  

As the day wore on, Charity was having more and more trouble calming Johnny, while Martha had had to get another blanket for her son as he began to show signs of chills.

Jacob Rawlins watched the progress of the fever in both of his patients and still could not figure out what was causing it. It was obvious to everyone that they both had the same disease, but why no one else had come down with symptoms, particularly Charity who had been with them both for an extended period of time, was a mystery.

There were no more cases in town, or they would have heard by now.

It simply made no sense. If it was so contagious that Johnny had passed it on to Robbie with hardly any contact at all, then it should have been raging through the town by now.

Rawlins mentally went through every contagious disease he could name, and some he could not, and none of them fit what was happening here. It was frustrating, but more than that, it was heart-breaking. He could do little more than treat the symptoms as they appeared, and Charity had already been doing that with her teas.

“Jacob, I think I’ll try to get Johnny to take some more Sage tea. It might ease the delirium a little,” she suggested, wandering into the kitchen where he sat mulling over the books he had brought with him.

“Well, it certainly can’t hurt, Charity,” he told her dejectedly.

“Have you found anything?”

He shook his head. “No, nothing that fits this. I can tell you fifty things that it isn’t though.”

“Can you watch him for me while I make up the tea? Martha has her hands full with Robbie.”

“I’ll be doing more good there than I am here,” he told her, angrily closing the book he had been studying.

Charity put her hand on his shoulder reassuringly. “You just keep trying. It has to be there somewhere. We know you’re doing your best.”

“My best is just not good enough, Charity. All the years I spent studying, you’d think I could recall something that fits these symptoms.”

“Maybe it’s something new.” she suggested.

“It’s possible that it’s some sort of new variation. But I don’t know anything that matches those marks they both have.”

Charity sighed sadly. She had been counting on him to know what they were facing and she didn’t want him to know how disappointed she was that he didn’t. It was enough that he was trying so hard to find the answer.

“It must be in there somewhere,” she told him.

“Well, you make up some more of that sage tea. It might help. I’ll go in and look after him,” Rawlins answered despondently.

“He’s getting more and more restless. Calling out and hallucinating.” She stopped for a moment, as she balked at asking the question uppermost in her mind, but she needed to know. “How much longer do you think he can go on like this?”

Rawlins sighed. “Even without knowing what it actually is, we can still beat it if we can break that fever. But he’s getting weaker, Charity. I think we can both see that.”

She nodded. “Yes, I know. I don’t know where the strength to thrash around is coming from.”

Charity went to the stove to boil some water for her sage tea, while Rawlins left her and went into the sickroom.

He got there just in time to find Martha trying to hold Johnny down as he tossed violently from side to side. He ran across the room to help her.

“No…Scott…” Johnny called out desperately and flung himself forward into Martha’s arms. She didn’t look like she would be able to hold him, but the doctor reached her in time to grab him and push him back onto the pillow.

Johnny’s face was a visage of distress. “No… let me go… it’s Scott – have to help him…” he cried out again.

Martha moved aside to let the doctor take over. He put his hands on Johnny’s shoulders and pushed hard against him to hold him down, but Johnny’s head tossed back and forth, and his agonized cries for his brother broke Martha’s heart. She knew that it was some sort of hallucination, but Johnny’s distress was no less piteous.

“Martha, go tell Charity to hurry with that tea she’s making up,” Jacob Rawlins ordered her quickly, not daring to take his eyes off the sick man for a moment. He might be terribly sick, but the strength he was finding in his delirium was amazing.

The woman nodded and hurried out of the room to pass on the message, leaving the doctor to try to soothe his patient.

Words weren’t going to be enough. That was obvious. The man was fighting him ‘tooth and nail’.

Johnny frowned and panted breathlessly, relaxing for just a moment, but it was only to catch his breath and he started again, even stronger than before.

He pushed the doctor away roughly as he threw his whole bodyweight against the strong hands that were holding him down. He struggled to get away, and, for a moment, the doctor wasn’t sure he could stop him.

“Scott…” Johnny called frantically. “No… no… I have to get to him… let me get to him…”

Rawlins finally began to get the upper hand as Johnny tried to fight him off. He got hold of him again and forced him down, holding him firmly as he battled with whatever demon was possessing him.

“Take it easy, boy,” the doctor said calmly. “We’ll look after Scott for you. You have to rest.”

But Johnny wouldn’t be appeased and the battle raged for what seemed like hours. In fact, it was only minutes and finally Charity arrived at his side with the tea.

The doctor had a lot of faith in her herbs. Charity was the one woman he knew who knew what she was doing when she used them.

In her hands she carried a mug of warm sweet liquid. She put it down on the chair by the bed while she settled herself in position to help the doctor. She’d been able to hear Johnny’s cries from the other room.

She ran her hand through his hair gently while the doctor forcibly held him down. Cooing softly, she reassured him. “It’s all right, Johnny. Scott is just fine. He’s waiting for you in Peterson, remember?”

Johnny continued to wrestle with the arms that were holding him down and called again for his brother.

“Lift him a little Jacob,” she told the doctor quietly. “Try to hold him while I see if I can get him to swallow some of this.”

It sounded easy enough, but the battle went on for some time, and Johnny turned away from the mug time and time again. Eventually though, they were able to get him to take some, drop by drop, forcing his mouth open to force him to drink it.

By the time the mug was empty, they had gotten him to take about half of it. The rest was on him, and on her from spills and coughs that had spat it back out at her. But she was satisfied that he had drunk enough to allow it to have some effect on him.

“You’d better keep holding him for a while yet,” she advised the doctor, and wiped the spills from Johnny’s face. “It’ll take a minute or two to calm him.”

Slowly, the fight went out of him. The wild look in his eyes faded away, and the doctor felt confident that he could ease up on the pressure on the man’s shoulders. Johnny’s eyes didn’t seem able to focus on anything much, but they were resting vacantly on Charity.

“It’s all right Johnny,” she reassured him and wiped his face and neck with the damp cloth that was always at hand. “Your brother’s just fine. He’s in Peterson, waiting for you.”

Johnny panted in exhaustion and finally closed his eyes as the calming effect of the sedative tea took effect. The deep frown on his face told her that he wasn’t appeased though.

“Johnny, don’t worry about Scott. He’s just fine. But you need to rest, dear. Just rest for now,” she reassured him.

To her dismay, he began to shiver again. She pulled the blankets over him, right up to his neck, and tucked them tightly around him. He didn’t fight her this time, and he seemed to be drifting off to sleep at last.

Once he had quieted, Charity stepped aside so that Dr. Rawlins could check him over again. The frown on his face as he checked his pulse worried her.

"What is it, Jacob?"

He shook his head. "His heart is racing. It's far too fast. If this keeps up, we'll lose him." His frown deepened. "I wish I knew what it is we're fighting. I'm missing something."

"What do you mean?"

"I mean, none of it makes sense. If it's contagious enough to affect Robbie that quickly and easily, then Pete Scrivens should be sick by now. So should you and Martha and anyone else who has been in contact with him. I'm beginning to think that it's not contagious at all. It could be just an awful coincidence."

"And if it is?"

"Then I've been looking in all the wrong places. It could be a lot of things, but I've never seen that rash before." He was silent for a moment, thinking.

If it's not contagious," he began, thinking out loud. "Then it could be a reaction to something they've both come in contact with recently."

"You mean, like an allergy?"

"Could be, but it's one hell of an allergic reaction if that's what it is."

"Surely the reaction would have died down by now though."

He nodded agreement. "Unless..." He looked at her with a startled expression. “Unless they are still in contact with it.”

“I’ve never seen an allergy produce that sort of a fever though Jacob,” she argued. “Maybe some sort of bite that’s infected? Perhaps we’ve missed it.”

 “Or a poison of some sort.” He sighed heavily. We’re right where we started Charity. It could be just about anything.”

To Part Two

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