Mrs. O'Kelly's breakfast was as delicious and filling as her supper had been: fried potatoes, scrambled eggs, ham, bacon, fluffy light biscuits with honey, and hominy porridge, plus strong hot coffee.
"Good thing we ain't gonna be here long. Sire'd end up with a swayed back for sure," Vin said as he sent Mrs. O'Kelly a wink. "Buck and JD are gonna be plumb disappointed they missed it."
"Where are those two boys?" Mrs. O'Kelly asked.
"Sound asleep," Nathan replied. "Heard 'em snorin' when we walked past their room."
"That was a mighty fine feed, ma'am," Josiah said with a smile.
"I gotta admit, I enjoy cooking. Me and my late husband had five strapping boys. Cooking for all of you reminds me of those days."
"Where are your sons now?" Nathan asked.
"Two oldest were killed in the war. My youngest two are in California and the middle one's in Colorado, all raisin' their own families now."
"Why aren't you livin' with one of them?" Vin asked.
"I couldn't live in a house with another woman. I'm too used to doing things my own way, and I like running a boardinghouse." She sighed. "There's just so many things to do, sometimes I despair of ever gettin' them all done."
"I ain't been one to just sit around twiddlin' my thumbs. Maybe I can give you a hand," Vin volunteered.
Mrs. O'Kelly waved a blue-veined hand. "I couldn't be havin' one of my guests working on the place."
Vin shrugged. "I don't mind. Fact is, I'd rather be doin' somethin' than not."
"I'd be willin' to lend a hand, too," Chris spoke up. He grinned self-consciously. "It's either that or spend my time in the saloon."
Mrs. O'Kelly studied the two of them for a moment. "I've been meanin' to whitewash the fence and house one of these days. If you'll do it in exchange for room and board, I'll show you where everything is."
Vin could see the woman's pride in her expression and he nodded somberly. "We could do that, ma'am."
She smiled widely and clapped her hands. "Then we have us a deal. The whitewash is in the shed out back. You and Chris can start whenever you'd like."
Chris glanced at Nathan and Josiah. "What about it, boys?"
Nathan smiled. "I'll give you a hand, but first I'd like to go see the doctor in town."
"You sick?" Mrs. O'Kelly asked.
He shook his head. "No, ma'am. I'm kinda what you'd call a healer. I ain't had no doctor learnin', but I picked up a few things during the war. I like to talk to real doctors 'bout things so's maybe I can learn more."
Mrs. O'Kelly's expression grew troubled. "Our doctor died about a year ago, but his widow took over."
"You got a woman doctor?" Nathan asked in amazement.
The older lady nodded reluctantly. "She took her test about six months back and got permission to hang out her doctor shingle, but she doesn't have many patients. Not many folks will talk to a woman about their ailments."
"I'd still like to visit her," Nathan said after a moment's hesitation.
"Her place is at the south end of town. Big house with a wide porch. Can't miss it."
"Thank you, ma'am." Nathan stood. "I think I'll head over there."
Josiah also got to his feet. "I'll walk with you, Brother Nate. I'd like to pay a visit to the Lord's house."
The two men said their good-byes and filed out of the dining room.
Nathan and Josiah walked side by side, observing the early morning traffic, both on the street and the boardwalk. Though it was barely eight a.m., people were bustling in and out of the shops and businesses. At the end of town, Nathan caught sight of a large house with a sign that swung gently with the breeze. As they grew closer, he could make out the lettering: Dr. Elise James, M.D.
"You want some company?" Josiah asked Nathan.
The healer shook his head. "Don't need any." He flashed Josiah a smile. "'Sides, I figger you're wantin' to get over to that church to visit with the preacher."
The large man grinned sheepishly. "I'm always interested in other shepherds of the flock."
"See you at lunch."
Josiah nodded and headed across the street toward the steepled building. Nathan climbed the stairs to the porch of the doctor's home and knocked on the door. A few moments later, it was swung open by a woman in her early thirties with dark hair knotted at the base of her neck.
"Yes?" she asked curiously.
Nathan removed his hat and held it in front of him. "Are you the doctor?"
She nodded. "Can I help you?"
"No, ma'am, I'm just travelin' through town. I'm a healer--just thought I'd stop by and maybe visit if you ain't too busy."
The woman studied him a moment, her hazel eyes curtained. She stepped back, opening the door further. "Come in, Mr..."
"Nathan Jackson, ma'am. You can call me Nathan," he said, walking across the threshold.
A slight smile lifted her lips. "I'm Dr. Elise James."
"Yes, ma'am, I read your sign there."
Dr. James closed the door behind Nathan and motioned for him to follow her into the spacious kitchen. "Have a seat. Would you like a cup of coffee?"
He remained standing as the doctor filled two cups with dark, rich-smelling coffee. She set one on the table in front of Nathan, then lowered herself to the chair across from him. Nathan sat down and took a sip of coffee.
"Were you curious about a woman doctor?" she asked, her caustic tone catching Nathan by surprise.
Nathan smiled self-consciously. "Fact is, I am, but I'm more curious about how you learned all your doctorin' skills."
She couldn't mask her own surprise. "So the fact that I'm a woman doesn't bother you?"
He shrugged. "I've learned that sick folks don't care if you're a man, woman, white, black, or purple. All they want to do is get to feelin' better."
Dr. James relaxed and leaned back in her chair. "You're an unusual man, Mr. Jackson."
"Nathan," he reminded. "No, Dr. James, I ain't that unusual. I just like to help people."
She studied him a moment, her expression thoughtful. "That's what I wanted to do, too, at one time."
Nathan tilted his head in question. "Not anymore?"
The bitterness returned to her features. "Nobody wants a woman doctor to help them, even when they're sick."
"Maybe they ain't been sick enough yet," Nathan said quietly.
"Maybe. Or maybe they'd rather go to a Negro healer than a woman doctor."
Nathan couldn't feel anger at her for her sharp remark because he heard the hurt in her voice.
She reached across the table and laid her hand on Nathan's forearm, startling him. "I'm sorry, Mist-Nathan. That was a petty and mean comment. It's just that I've tried so hard to get people to trust me and nothing has worked."
"Some people just don't understand, Doctor," Nathan said. "Iffen they'd been in the War, they'd be grateful to have a doctor."
"You fought in the War?"
He shook his head. "No, ma'am. I was a stretcher bearer, helped out the doctors and nurses, too. That's where I picked up most of what I know 'bout healin'."
"There's been many advances since then," Dr. James said.
Nathan leaned forward, excitement keening through him. "Could you tell me 'bout some of them? I try to keep up with things in them medical journals, but I don't get one very often."
The woman's expression grew more animated and her hazel eyes lit with a fire that told Nathan of her love of medicine. For the next couple hours, they shared knowledge, personal anecdotes, professional empathy, and the rest of the pot of coffee.
Josiah removed his hat as he entered the silent church. Though larger than the one he'd fixed up back in Four Corners, this house of God wasn't as well kept and the candles were unlit. The altar was bare except for a foot-tall crucifix that stood in the center of it.
Josiah walked halfway up the aisle between the pews, then paused and closed his eyes, trying to absorb this church's unique sanctity. The faint smell of beeswax and extinguished candle flames mixed with the scent of aged wood.
He opened his eyes and slipped into one of the pews, kneeling down and clasping his hands. Light seeped in through the colored glass, illuminating dust motes drifting lazily in the pale rays. The sounds from outside were muted, lending less importance to the matters of men than God's serenity inside.
Josiah rested his forehead on his folded hands and pondered the footsteps in his life that had led him to this place. The rebellion against his father, his guilt over his sister's insanity, the lives he'd taken in the name of God and man, and the six friends to whom he'd chosen to give his loyalty and, if required, his life.
He lost track of time in the contemplative silence, though with every passing minute, his mind shed more and more of its earthly burdens. Only in the Lord's house could he remove the mask he wore and be Josiah Sanchez, whoever that man was.
The low voice startled Josiah back to the mortal world and he looked up to see a man wearing a plain brown robe belted at the waist with a rope. "Hello, Father," Josiah greeted.
"You're new in town."
"Just a lost soul wandering through," Josiah said.
The bald priest smiled. "Not too lost -you found your way here."
Josiah chuckled softly. "Maybe you have a point, Father--?"
"Father Schyma." He sat down in the pew in front of Josiah and leaned across the backrest. The smell of stale liquor from the holy man made Josiah frown inwardly. "What brings you to Pocket?"
Josiah shifted to sit on the hard seat. "My horse threw a shoe. Maybe it was divine providence?"
"Sounds more like a case of bad luck," Father Schyma said dryly.
Josiah laughed. "One man's bad luck may be another's godsend." He paused. "How long have you been here?"
"That's a long time."
The priest averted his gaze and nodded. "Perhaps too long."
Josiah kept his expression neutral and remained silent, hoping Father Schyma would continue on his own.
The priest sighed heavily, sending another wave of stale liquor breath across Josiah. "Folks come to expect so much from me. They forget I'm a man, too, and want me to perform miracles."
"Like what?" Josiah asked quietly.
"Tell them why their son or daughter was taken by God, or why an innocent babe was born without life." He rubbed his brow. "And why evil continues to flourish when they pray each day for it to leave their town."
"What evil is that?"
Father Schyma's Adam's apple bobbed up and down and a droplet of sweat rolled down his grizzled cheek. "Devils exist everywhere, Mr. Sanchez."
"And most of them are only mortal men who have become greedy in this life."
The priest chuckled, though it was a bitter sound. "Aren't they one and the same?"
Josiah leaned forward. "Let me help you."
"Do you truly want to help?"
"Then go to the saloon and buy a couple bottles of whiskey and bring them back here. I fear my faith needs to be fortified."
"Faith isn't found in the bottom of a whiskey bottle," Josiah said in a low voice.
Father Schyma pushed himself upright. "That's where you're wrong, my brother. Faith is where each of us finds it."
Josiah watched the priest shuffle to the front of the church and go through a doorway leading to his living quarters. He glanced at the crucifix on the altar. "I have a feeling You put that stone in my horse's hoof for a reason. But I'd appreciate it if You'd give me a little clue as to what I'm supposed to be doin' here, 'cause if it's helping this priest regain his faith, You've come to the wrong person. You know better'n anyone I'm lacking in that area myself."
A deafening silence filled Josiah's ears and he nodded reluctantly. "All right. I'll see what I can do, but I can't make any promises."
Then Josiah knelt back down and bowed his head.
"You got some more paint over there?" Chris asked.
Vin glanced over at his partner and noticed he'd removed his shirt, leaving him in his underwear top with the sleeves pushed up to his elbows. Though it was hot, Vin preferred to work with his shirt on, keeping his scars hidden. He carried his pail over to Chris and poured some whitewash into his empty pail. He looked at the side of the house Chris had been working on. "You musta done this before, pard."
The blond man grinned. "Once or twice. How 'bout you?"
Vin shook his head. "Nope. Never stayed in one place long enough." He leaned over to dip his brush in the whitewash and grimaced.
Chris's smile faded and he placed his brush in his pail. "What do you say we take a break and drink some of that lemonade Mrs. O'Kelly left on the porch?"
Vin followed Chris around the house to the wide porch and up the stairs. Chris sat down in one of the rocking chairs and Vin settled in the other. He removed his hat and raked a hand through his long sweat-dampened hair as he watched Chris pour each of them a tall glass of the cool beverage.
The same comfortable silence the two men had been working in all day surrounded them as they drank their lemonade. Vin, however, was aware of Chris watching him through narrowed, concerned eyes. He knew his friend was worried about him--about the nightmares that had dogged Vin since his time with the outlaw gang and about his wound which still bothered him occasionally when he overdid it, like now.
"You all right with this waitin' around in Pocket?" Chris suddenly asked.
Vin understood the layered meaning to his question and he met Chris's narrowed gaze solidly. "I'm all right."
Chris's eyes warmed and he smiled slightly, then poured them each another glass of lemonade.
"There you are, Vin Larabee!"
Vin turned to find the source of the woman's voice and flinched when he spotted Martha Cannary crossing the street. "Aw, hell, now what?" he muttered.
Chris almost laughed but Vin's caged expression made him stifle his amusement and he watched the dread in Vin's face grow as Miss Cannary approached them.
"Afternoon, ma'am," Chris greeted, touching the brim of his hat with a finger. "You here to give us a hand?"
The woman's lovelorn gaze remained on Vin as she answered Chris. "Only if you got whiskey mixed in with that lemonade."
"Well, I guess you're plumb out of luck there," Vin said with forced cheer. "Don't you think we'd best get back to work, Chris?"
"Since when do Mrs. O'Kelly's payin' customers work for her?" Martha asked.
"When we volunteer," Vin said as he stood. "C'mon, Chris."
Drawing his hat brim lower to hide his smile, Chris followed Vin back to their pails of whitewash. And so did Martha.
"It ain't that I got anything against Mrs. O'Kelly. Fact is she's a right fine cook and a mighty good landlady," she said.
"You board here?" Chris asked curiously.
She wrapped her grimy fingers around her gunbelt that was strapped on over her greasy leather jacket. "Used to, 'til she made me leave."
"Why?" Vin asked.
"Sometimes things happen when I'm around a place too long," she replied vaguely.
"Like what kind of things?" Vin questioned, his paintbrush poised in the air.
"Oh, you know, just things."
Whitewash rolled down the brush on to Vin's arm and he took an involuntary step backward, his boot landing in his pail of paint. "Sonuva-"
"Things like that?" Chris asked, gazing innocently at Vin's whitewashed boot and trouser leg.
Martha nodded reluctantly, and laid a hand on Vin's shoulder. "Come on, Vin honey, let me go clean you up."
Vin jerked away from her like he'd been snakebit. "You just stay away from me, Miz Cannary." He tossed his brush in the pail his boot had just vacated and strode away.
"Looks like we had our first lover's quarrel," Martha said matter-of-factly. "Guess I'd best go see if I can smooth things out."
Chris grabbed her arm. "I don't think that'd be a good idea just now. I think he wants to be alone."
Martha thought for a moment. "All righty then. I'll come by later, see if he wants to take me out for dinner."
"Well, ma'am, I'd maybe leave him alone for the rest of the day. My cousin can be downright ornery when he wants to be."
Worry creased the woman's forehead. "Seems he ain't as sweet-tempered as I thought he was."
A genuine chuckle broke through Chris's lips. "I ain't ever heard him called sweet-tempered before."
Martha's shoulders rose and fell with a deep sigh. "You know him better'n me, so I'll take you on your word, and leave him alone for a time and hope he gets over his snit. See ya later, Chris."
He watched her walk away with a stride that would rival any man's. As she strode across the street, she sneezed so loudly Chris could hear it, and a nearby horse began to buck, throwing its rider onto the dusty street.
Chris frowned, remembering the accident Martha had with a tray in the saloon, then what had happened with Vin, and now the bucking horse. It seemed Miss Cannary was a walking calamity looking to happen.
And Chris was suddenly glad he wasn't Vin.
Buck leaned back in his chair, a mug half filled with beer cradled between his palms. He gazed at Ezra across the table from him, engrossed in the business books Kirkwood had left him. "It just ain't fair, Ezra."
"What isn't fair, Mister Wilmington?" Ezra asked without glancing up from the column of figures he was adding.
"Life," Buck replied morosely. "I mean, one minute I got the pick of the ladies, the next not a one of them will give me the time of day."
Ezra scribbled a number down on a sheet of paper on the table. "Perhaps you are being overly dramatic." He raised his eyes to Buck. "Have you perchance tried another establishment?"
"Hell, yes! In fact, I tried all of 'em in town. It's gone, Ezra."
"Your animal magnetism?" Ezra asked dryly.
Buck looked around the Barbary Coast, Ezra's new pride and joy, and nodded dejectedly. "What am I gonna do?"
Ezra clasped his hands together and laid them on the open accounting book. "Would you be interested in gainful employment as a bartender?"
"Of course, here. My bartender only recently informed me that he will not return to his position."
Buck narrowed his eyes. "What'd you do to him?"
Ezra scowled. "I assure you, his decision had nothing to do with me."
"Seems awfully funny that as soon as you win the place, he leaves."
"Purely coincidental." The gambler raised the bottle of scotch on the table. "Shall we drink to it?"
"Sure, what the hell. I got nothin' better to do."
Ezra poured them each a shot of scotch and raised his glass. "To a long and prosperous alliance."
"Why not?" They clinked glasses and downed the scotch.
"Have you seen JD around?" Buck asked.
Ezra, his attention back on his ledger, nodded. "He met his new hero in here around noon and the two of them meandered away together."
Buck felt a sharp twinge in his gut. "He say where they were goin'?"
"No and I did not inquire." Ezra raised his head and aimed his pencil at Buck. "Surely you cannot be concerned with his acquaintance with a man of such stellar proportions?"
Buck rubbed his forehead. "I s'pose you're right, but it just don't seem right, him wanderin' off like that without tellin' anyone." He picked up his mug, emptied it and raised it for another.
Ezra lowered Buck's arm. "You have imbibed all the liquor you will consume for the day. In fifteen minutes, you shall be working behind my bar. And as my employee, you will be completely sober. Is that understood, Mister Wilmington?"
Buck rolled his eyes heavenward. If it wasn't enough that he had lost his magnetism and his best friend, now Ezra was going to turn him into a bartender. A sober bartender.
Go to part 4