Skallen, Part II
By Shellie and Mary
January 10, 2001
Sunset brushed the sky in watercolors of pumpkin and rose. Chris, Vin and Ezra appeared as black silhouettes against the backdrop of color. The wind moved and swirled dust through the air. The smell of raw earth hung heavy around them.
The metal shovel scooped up a thick layer of dirt. Chris swung it in a slow wide arc and dumped it on the mound. Ezra watched as Vin added another load of dirt then turned the tool over and patted the ground flat over the grave.
Garrett shouldnít have died. Chrisí thoughts were betrayed as deep lines framing his mouth. His hands tightened around the wooden handle. With a viciousness that mirrored his emotions, he shoved the sharp end of the shovel into the ground. Cupping both hands over the top of the handle, he leaned forward. Flashing images burst into his mind as he recalled recent events.
"We'll be right out here, JD. Don't take any chances. Take a good look around, see how many of them are in there, then find a way to get you and the kid to safety. We'll come in soon as I know Buck and Vin are in place."
Chrisí anger sharpened and drilled through his gut. Find a way to get you and the kid to safety -- JD didnít even ask how. The kid had entered the saloon with nothing but blind courage to back him up. I should have gone in. The revelation came too late. Remorse beat a familiar pattern through his thoughts, driving the stake of guilt deeper into his soul. His anger sputtered and drowned in the cold wash of failure. Chris straightened and pulled the shovel from the ground.
"Weíre done here -- " He turned to leave then stopped. The brief thought of a eulogy crossed his mind until it occurred to him that he didnít know anything about the kid, except that heíd probably saved JDís life. Josiah would have known what to say. Anger resurfaced with the inadequate burial ceremony. He held the darkness at bay, unwilling to let go of his control, wary of appearing vulnerable to his friends.
His boots crunched on loose gravel as he walked down the hill back to town. Ezra and Vin fell in behind him, close but not too close. Apparently his dark mood was easier to read than he'd intended. He left the shovel leaning against the wall of the undertaker's cabin, then continued on to the barn where they'd left Buck and JD.
Dusk pulled its shroud over the sky, tucking the sun into a gray blanket of mist. Honey light spilled a fan of color out of the barn. Chris moved inside and headed for the back stall where he could hear Buck's low rumbling voice.
He found JD sitting propped up against the barn wall, his head back, eyes closed. Black, sweaty fingers of hair clung to his cheeks. His shirt was open and drawn back over his shoulders, the pull of the material granting an extra measure of steadiness. Chris watched as Buck reached behind JD working the end of a makeshift bandage around with one hand and keeping pressure on the knife wound with the other.
Vin stepped forward and knelt on the other side of JD. He slipped his hand behind the injured man and lifted him slightly away from the wall so he could take the cloth from Buck. JD grunted softly, his head falling forward to Vin's shoulder for a moment.
"Easy, kid." Vin's reassurance was almost a whisper as he tied off a knot in the bandage while Buck released his hold on the wound. JD slumped against the wall again.
Buck sat back on his heels. "It's a deep cut, JD. Youíll need more than that." He pulled the shirt back over JD's shoulders and began to button it.
"Itís OK. I'll live." JD shrugged out of Buckís grasp to fasten the shirt himself. He swallowed and took a deep breath. "You take care of Garrett, Chris?"
"Yeah," Chris answered, the word bitten off between tight teeth. The need to run after Skallen and gun him down ached deep inside. Revenge was like a golden ring held frustratingly out of reach.
JD gripped the nearest barn support pole and pulled himself up carefully to stand next to Chris. Buck and Vin stood, too, resisting the impulse to steady the young lawman. "Letís get after him then," JD said confidently.
"There ainít but two hours of daylight left," Chris answered, watching the kid regain his balance. Appreciating the young manís spirit he reached out to hold one arm -- offering an anchor. "Ezra went to get us a room here for the night. Come dawn, Vin and I are gonna track down that bastard. Then weíll meet you back at the shack." Besides, youíre in no shape to go anywhere. Chris could feel a tremor of exhaustion run through JD as he released his hold.
"If thereís a decent bed in this town Ezra will find it." Buck said hopefully. They picked up their gear and walked out of the barn slowly, JD keeping pace with the three gunslingers, one arm pressed tight to his side.
Vin led the group into the dismal, dust filled street. Ezra met them on the boardwalk and gestured to the nearest building. "Iím afraid our accommodations are rather bleak, my friends but weíll have a bed and a roof at least."
Vin flipped his bedroll from his shoulder into Buckís arms. "Yíall go in and Iíll see if I can scare us up some dinner."
The room was simple but decent. A couple of worn chairs, two single beds, a dresser and a wash basin greeted the tired group. The men dropped their saddlebags and shrugged off their dusty coats. JD sat bonelessly on the edge of the bed, sagging as much as it did. Buck grabbed two handfuls of JDís jacket and slipped it off without resistance.
Ezra removed a flask from his pocket and offered it to their youngest member, then hung his jacket over a chair. JD drank gratefully; feeling the liquorís warmth spread in his chest. Ezra took the flask and tugged a folded quilt off the foot of the bed. "Get some rest, Mr. Dunne. We can alert you to the arrival of dinner."
"Thanks, Ezra. But I ainít hungry." JD sat quietly, staring at his boots, working up the strength to pull them off. Buck reached down and removed them without a word, then gently guided JD to the center of the bed and pushed him back to the pillow.
"Hey! I can take care of myself. I ainít a kid, Buck." His dark brows knit in frustration but the expression was lost in a flash of blankets. Ezra snapped the quilt in the air and allowed it to float down draping JD.
Tomorrow, JD, Chris thought dragging a chair out of a dark corner. You can be strong tomorrow. Let us take care of you now. He pulled his fingers through his hair and sat heavily, the wooden legs creaking under him. How did I let this happen to him?
JD pulled the blanket close and rolled over to his uninjured side, shifting to find the least painful position. The rage that had burned inside him all day began to drift until he lost track of it completely in his exhaustion. He just didnít want to care about anything right now. "Thanks guys." JD's voice was muffled, his earlier irritation gone. His breathing evened out and the room grew quiet.
Buck opened the bedrolls and stacked them in two piles. He felt so tired now that the floor looked as comfortable as a down filled mattress. Stretching long limbs, he joined Ezra at the roomís only window. They stared out at the desert that met the edge of town. Skallen. He was out there somewhere.
"Weíll find him." Ezra murmured. Buck turned to look at the gambler, surprised that his thoughts had been read.
The rectangle of fading light cast through the window gradually lengthened, reaching into the room, but it was unable to dispel the shadows.
A soft statement broke the quiet. "Casey told me."
"What? What was that JD?" Buck asked. Three heads turned to the sleeping lawman; no one sure of what they had heard.
"No." JD mumbled. "Please donít wear thatÖ" Chris smiled slightly, surprised at the unfamiliar stretch of muscle across his face. He got up and laid his palm across JDís forehead.
"Fever dream." He said simply.
Buck grinned. "Sounds like a good one." He paused and his mood turned sober. "Iíd sure feel a lot better if Nathan were here."
As if in answer, footsteps echoed down the hallway and stopped outside the door. "Itís me, Vin." He came through the door sideways, a wide tray of food in his arms, a bottle of whiskey heavy in his pocket. Ezra moved the wash basin from the dresser and Vin placed the tray there.
"Howís he doiní?" Vin indicated the occupied bed with a tilt of his head.
"Fever." Buck replied, his mouth already full of fried chicken. Ezra found glasses on the tray and filled four with whiskey. The men moved as far from their sleeping comrade as possible and ate their meal in a comfortable silence.
The room grew dark and Vin took down the lantern that hung from a hook in the ceiling. He groped in his pockets for a match.
"I canít reach youÖ" JD said clearly.
The plaintive voice worried Vin and he moved toward the bed.
"Whatícha need, kid?"
Chris touched his arm, holding him back. "Itís just the fever talking."
Vin hesitated and began searching for the match again. Suddenly, a flame flared revealing Ezra standing beside him.
"May I?" Ezra leaned forward and lit the lamp.
"Thanks, Ez. Didnít realize how dark it had gotten." Vin took the glowing lantern across the room and held it close to JD, still unnerved by his friendís cry. He held his hand to JDís face for a moment and felt the heat burning there. Leaning in close to the still form, he studied something dark on the blanket.
"Jesus Christ!" The others rushed forward as Vin lifted the covering. It was soaked through with blood. The bandage had held as much as it could. The blood had then saturated JDís shirt and had spread out on the bed along his belly and back. Buck pulled JDís shirt open. He produced a knife and slit the bandage apart, then pressed his palm to the seeping wound.
"Let goÖhurtsÖ" JD grabbed Buckís wrist but there was no strength in his grip. Ezra took the knife from Buck and slit the unsoiled part of the bed sheet. He folded it into a pad and slid it beneath Buckís palm and began to cut another. Vin held the lantern close.
Chris grabbed his coat. "Iíll get help."
"And get another lamp. I canít see a damn thing!" Terror shook Buckís voice. Chris hurried from the room and the door slammed behind him.
JD lifted his head, disturbed by the noise. "Wait! Wait for me, Buck!"
"Easy, kid. Iím right here." Buck gripped the young manís shoulder holding him firmly on his uninjured side. "Weíre not going anywhere without you." And from now on, you donít go anywhere without someone to watch your back. What could he do to keep the kid safe? What if he wasnít there the next time to stop his life from flowing out of some damn knife wound? What if he couldnít save him this time?
"You are pressing too hard, Mr. Wilmington." Ezra squeezed Buckís wrist trying to get his attention. Buck pulled back, releasing a breath he didnít know he was holding. Ezra removed the blood soaked pad from under Buckís palm and replaced it with a clean one. Buck resumed the pressure more carefully.
The gambler soaked the next cloth in the wash basin and wiped JDís face and neck. He wanted the young man to speak again or to have something to drink. Hell, he wanted him to vault onto his horse and best the lovely Miss Wells in a race. He wanted to know the young lawman was still alive.
"Mr. Dunne?" Ezra spoke just inches from his ear. "JD?"
"Mr. Wilmington has decided to get married." An amused glance flew between Buck and Vin. JD twisted a bit to meet Buckís eyes.
"Buck? Öt' who?"
"Well, I figure I got it narrowed down to four choices," Buck said without hesitating. "That is, if I can count the Yoder twins as one... I was wondering if youíd be my Best Man, JD?"
A gasp escaped JD as Ezra began cleaning the blood from his abdomen. His gut was sore but he could barely remember the fight now. What had happened?
Ezra removed the bloodied shirt completely. "I would be pleased to lend you a suit for the occasion, Mr. Dunne." He said, trying to bring the young man around again.
"YeahÖOKÖ Buck. Can I bringÖmy grandkids along?"
A wave of relief moved through the room. Heís still with us, Vin thought. His arm had grown stiff. He lowered the lantern and placed it on the dresser, then filled a glass with whiskey and brought it to JD. "Best drink this, kid. I got a feeling itís the only pain killer available in this one horse town."
JD nodded and drank a small amount of the amber liquid. The tracker held it in place encouraging JD to drink it all. Before Vin put the glass down the door opened and Chris came into the room dragging a shabby, foul smelling man by the collar.
"Thereís the spirit!" The man bellowed seeing Vinís whiskey glass. "A toast to our health!" He held up one trembling finger in salute, his spectacles clinging awkwardly to his crimson face. In his other hand he held a lantern. Chris released him and the eccentric man plopped down suddenly on a chair. He placed the unlit lantern on the floor, his eyes sweeping the room for the whiskey.
"This is Doc Aikins." Chris set a heavy bag on the empty bed.
"Good Lord." The disgust in Ezraís voice spoke for them all. JD tried to turn over and see but Buck kept his grip tight.
Chris yanked the man up by the lapels of his jacket and spoke directly into his face. "The bartender told me this guy was the best Doc for three towns around until he started drinking the laudanum." Aikins pulled back from the blackclad man sensing danger even through the fog of his intoxication.
Chris continued his breath hot with anger. "We need you to fix that kid up. Now."
"Certainly, sirÖ" He slurred, his wandering gaze finally spotting the bottle of whiskey. "What seems to be the problem?"
"Here," said Buck indicating the wound with a thrust of his chin.
Aikins moved in close to the group around the bed. He felt the thick silence. His throat was dry and he wished he were back in the saloon.
A dark haired youth lay on his side on bloody ripped sheets. He was stripped to the waist and breathing hard. Another dangerous looking man eyed him carefully from the opposite side of the bed; his hand gripped the youthís with surprising gentleness. Who were these people? The young manís skin was flushed with fever, 103 Aikins guessed, maybe 104.
"104 what?" Buck demanded.
"His temperatureÖ" Aikins replied, surprised that he had spoken out loud. He leaned in, pushing his glasses on and Buck lifted the cloth. The wound gaped open with the patientís labored breathing. The doctor observed it dispassionately. He had seen it a thousand times in the war, he could sew it closed in his sleep. If only he had brought his bag with him.
"Allow me to assist you with your supplies, Sir." Aikins heard the Southern accent and turned to see a gentleman lighting the second lantern and bringing it to his bag. The doctor was glad to see the familiar satchel and knocked it on its side in his haste to rifle through the contents. He picked up a set of needles and thread and then held up a small phial of clear liquid. Aikins smiled and uncorked the bottle but before he could drink, it was removed from his hands.
"May I inquire as to the contents of this bottle?"
"Itís alcohol in its purist form!" Aikins replied merrily. "I forgot I had that in there!"
Standish was livid. He grabbed the front of Aikinís coat and shoved the man across the room into Chrisí waiting hands. Chris turned him smoothly around to Buckís side.
Aikins was too drunk to be afraid. He wanted this to be over so he could leave the odd assembly. He made up his mind to finish the job. He took hold of the cloth Buck held and put out his hand for the bottle. Ezra hesitated but he could see the change in the man, the transformation to seriousness, and he decided to hand it over. Aikins immediately poured the contents onto the open wound.
JD writhed in agony his harsh screams of pain filled the room. His four friends dived in to keep him from leaping from the bed. Chris lurched forward and wrapped his arms around JD from behind, grasping both his wrists and holding tight. His chin pressed into the kidís shoulder and he could feel the heat of fever on his face. Vin pinned both of JDís legs to the bed. JD bucked wildly but in their grips he could only succeed in the slightest movement.
Buck replaced the cloth on the wound and raising his free arm he suddenly slammed his elbow into the Doctorís face. Aikins remained standing for a moment, stunned, then collapsed to the floor.
Gradually JDís cries were reduced to dry, gasping sobs. Buck kept pressure on the wound and Vin and Chris relaxed their holds but neither man let go.
Ezra came around, stepping over Aikins and picked up the thread and needle. He pushed the thread through the eye and smoothed the ends together.
"Mr. Wilmington." Ezra placed the needle in Buckís free hand. "I suggest we complete this procedure as quickly as possible."
Buck took a deep breath and nodded to the gambler. "JD?" He spoke gently, leaning over his friend. "Iím gonna sew it closed. Are you ready, kid?" He could only see the side of JDís face. Chris still held him tight to his chest. The kidís eyes were squeezed shut and tears traced a path to his chin. Buck waited.
Buck took a calming breath and pinched the cut closed. He plunged the needle in one side and out the other, tying off a knot and trying to think only of the next stitch.
JD made a deep guttural sound and moved his hands to grip Chrisí wrists. His neck strained and he trembled but he fought hard to remain still.
From his position holding JDís legs Vin observed the stitching closely. He tried to remember if it looked the same as when Nathan did it, but it occurred to him that he never watched. It was better to look away, think of something else.
"I believe Mr. Jackson goes deeper into the flesh and the stitches are father apart."
"Thanks for the tip, Ezra." Buck said, his voice airy with tension, "But if you think you can do better itís all yours."
"No, thank you, Mr. Wilmington. Youíre work is truly admirable. I just felt it should resemble Mr. Jacksonís as much as possible." Ezra moved to JDís face and wiped the sweat from his forehead, moving the unruly dark hair aside.
"Whatís the matter with you, Standish?" Buck said spiritedly. "Donít you know youíre not suppose to look when Nathan sews? Everyone knows that." Vin smiled to himself as Buck spoke. "Youíre suppose to think of something else."
"WhatÖwhat elseÖ" JD sputtered. "Do ya Öthink aboutÖ?" His words came out in stuttered gasps and blood sprayed on Ezraís shirt.
"Mr. Dunne, youíre biting your lip," Ezra said. "Bite on this instead." He twisted the cloth into a tightly rolled cord. Pushing down on JDís chin he slipped it between his teeth. JD tried to speak and worked the muscles of his jaw to spit out the cloth. Chris stopped him, his thumb and forefinger holding it in place on either side of the kidís mouth.
"Keep it there, son. Just a minute more and itís over." Chris held the young lawman tightly. "Sorry, JD."
JD grunted in annoyance and pain and squeezed his eyes shut again.
"Think about how youíll be danciní at my wedding, Junior." Buck said without wavering in concentration. "Who you gonna be danciní with? More importantly -- who the hell am I gonna be danciní with?"
Finally Buck finished and sat back, observing the injury from a short distance.
"Excellent, Mr. Wilmington!" Ezra said, placing a cloth in the gunslingerís bloody hands. Soaking another cloth in clean water he squeezed it tentatively over the new stitches. He saw JDís gut suck in and heard him slowly release the breath. The two men worked to place a clean bandage around their friend.
Vin and Chris relaxed slowly, their limbs stiff and cramped. When the bandage was in place they lifted JD carefully and placed him in the clean bed, stepping over the limp form of the doctor on the floor.
Buck layered blankets on top of JD. The other men hovered near, wishing Nathan was there to tell them it was all right now, everything would be fine. Ezra brought a cup of water to the bed and Buck lifted JDís head. He tugged gently on the rag that the kid still held tightly in his teeth. JD arched his eyebrows, releasing his vice-like grip and spit out the cloth, tension escaping with it.
"What do you say, kid?" Buck asked softly, tilting the cup so JD could drink. "Think youíll still be able to dance at my wedding?" Half a smile lifted JDís face briefly before he closed his eyes.
Vin dragged Aikins out of the room by the feet and simply left him in the hallway. His satchel was left there too; short a few items Vin felt were better used in the hands of a true healer.
Silence emerged and soon became an added companion. Gradually, as midnight neared, Vin and Ezra each nodded off to sleep but. Buck's eyes stayed open. and on JD, He sat with his chin propped in one hand watching the kid sleep. He sat with his chin propped in one hand ; the The other hand stole out to touch JD's face occasionally, checking for fever.
Chris sat watch near the door, his sharp hearing trained on the creaks and moans of the building, alert for any danger. Revenge was a cold, heavy stone in his gut. Morning couldn't come soon enough. Skallen's days were numbered.
Coming soonÖSkallen Three