Dr. B.Sandburg, Traveling Medicine Man - Scribe
"Did you ever hear tell of Sweet Betsy from Pike, who crossed the big mountains with her lover, Ike. With two yoke of oxen, a big yaller dog, A tall Shanghai rooster and one spotted hog."
The young man at the reins of the physick wagon threw back his head, long red-brown hair glinting in the Washington sun as he sang the chorus lustily and almost on key. "Hoodle dang fol de di do, hoodle dang fol de day!" The dog (plain brown rather than yaller) perched on the swaying seat beside him howled along. Whether it was in protest or to provide harmony, who could say? In any case, it got a laugh from his master.
He reached over and rubbed the animal's ears with rough affection. "I know, Darwin, I know. Sometimes I just have to hear a human voice, even if it IS my own." Naomi, the lead mule of his pair flicked her ears and arched her neck to stare back at him accusingly. "Well, apologies to you, too, lady. I can't help it if those high notes give me trouble." Naomi snorted so vigorously that the warm, fragrant spray spattered the tips of Blair's boots. "Oh, ugh, Naomi!" He sighed, and said conversationally to the dog, "Everyone is a critic. No wonder I don't draw the kind of crowds I might. I expect I should stick to the banjo and leave the singing to you, Darwin." Darwin yipped. "Well, you don't have to agree quite so wholeheartedly."
They were on a long, straight stretch of road, and some ways back, Blair had noticed a signpost. He'd been studying it as he approached; trying to remember what town was next on the route, wondering if this would be the place he'd finally feel like settling in. He didn't hold forth much hope. He'd come clear across the nation, all the way from Boston, and he hadn't found any place yet that seemed much better than another. Nothing to make him want to unload his wagon at last and settle down, any way.
As he came alongside the sign, he guided his team over to the side of the road, pulled up even with it, and hauled back on the reins. He made sure to do this several dozen yards before he was actually even with the sign, as sometimes it took Naomi a little while to decide whether or not she wanted to obey the command.
He'd estimated correctly this time, and was close enough to read the sign easily. Cascade, 10m. "Cascade." He spoke the name aloud, getting a feel for it. "Sounds nice, doesn't it? Maybe..." Burton, his other mule, had joined Naomi in staring back at him. He shrugged sheepishly. "Wouldn't you two like it if I decided to stay there? Then you could rest your weary bones and get fat and lazy." Burton looked interested. Naomi snorted again. "Yes, well, that's your opinion."
He clucked, slapping the reins. After pausing a moment to let him know that she was only moving because she wanted to move, Naomi started again, and Burton went along obligingly, as he always did.
"You've got to show your independence, don't you, Naomi? Just like your namesake." Blair had named the mule after his mother. Some might say that was an insult, but it wasn't. Blair had cherished his mother, but he wasn't blind to her faults.
Naomi Sandburg was a woman born out of her time. Blair felt sure that in a hundred years or so, a woman like Naomi would have been admired, or at least tolerated. As it was, her family, and society as a whole, had found her scandalous.
When she had turned up pregnant with Blair, not only had she refused to marry the father, she had refused to name him. Since there was only one person to be ceremoniously shamed instead of two, Naomi's parents had banished her from the family fold, and the world where she had grown up. They would support her and her bastard as long as she stayed away, and did not draw unwarranted attention.
This suited Naomi just fine. She had always felt stifled by the limited life she was forced to lead, and dismayed by the even more limited future she had been expected to pursue. As a fallen, disgraced woman, Naomi was free to actually live her own life, and she did, with a vengeance.
Blair's childhood was spent in dozens of different locations: London, Paris, Vienna, Moscow, Rome, and Edinborough, but Naomi did not limit herself. They also visited India, Japan, China, and Tibet. By the time he was in his early teens Blair had traveled more than most seasoned explorers thrice his age. He and Naomi were, as she liked to say, 'citizens of the world'.
Everywhere he went, Blair learned. Books were considered a necessity, not a luxury. There was some formal education, but most of it was self-taught. Naomi had tried sending him to a 'real school'. Once. Blair had corrected a master on a scientific formula. Surprisingly ungrateful for having his mistake pointed out before the class, the man had administered several strokes across Blair's bare buttocks with a peeled willow switch. Naomi noticed Blair rubbing his bottom, and asked why. The reaction... Blair likened it to the eruption of Mount Vesuvius, near Pompeii: huge, violent, and with massive destruction in the fallout. That was the last of his time in the schoolroom while his mother lived.
As the wagon rocked lazily along behind the two mules, Blair reflected that he might never have re-entered academia if Naomi hadn't gotten sick. If she hadn't died. It had started when he was sixteen. She'd never actually been robust, but her strength of character and iron will could fool most people about her physical nature. Not Blair. He had known almost at once.
The first thing he noticed was her lack of appetite. They didn't always have meals together so he might not have noticed for awhile. One day he realized that she'd left almost as much on her plate as she'd put on it. When he commented, she brightly finished her meal, and later he heard her throwing up into the porcelain washbasin in the next room. He didn't say anything right then. When it happened again a few days later, he did.
She denied any problem, of course. She denied it for almost a month while Blair watched her grow thinner and paler, saw her rush for the basin even when she hadn't eaten all day.
One day he found a single drop of blood on the washstand. The next time Naomi closeted herself Blair waited till he heard the retching sounds, then kicked down the door. He found her crouched over a bowl filled with bile and blood. They were in London at the time, and that next morning he sent a telegram to his grandparents in Boston. They wired back a substantial sum of money and told him to please contact them through their lawyer in the future. As far as Blair was concerned, they died right then.
Over her protests ("Who is the adult here, Blair?") he had booked passage back to America and had taken her back to what had once been her home: Boston. He did not try to speak to his grandparents. Instead he set them up in a small apartment. It was comfortable and close to a large, well run hospital. She refused to go into the hospital ("People die there, Blair." "They die everywhere, Naomi." "I won't have them poking and prodding me into the grave, darling. If I go, I want to go peacefully.")
He had talked to the lawyers. He had stated that if his grandparents did not wish to have their dying, wayward daughter and her bastard son show up on their doorstep in the middle of one of their 'functions', they would meet all expenses. Expenses were met. Naomi died peacefully at home, just before Blair turned eighteen.
Blair blinked rapidly, wiping a wet trail from his cheek. Damn road dust really gets in a man's eyes. I'll look like I've been rolled in flour by the time I reach Cascade. Maybe I can find a place outside of town I can freshen up a bit. Again he spoke confidingly to Darwin. "You, too, friend. We must make a good impression. These people may end up being our neighbors." He started keeping a look out for a convenient pond or stream.
He'd been at loose ends when he lost his mother. She had been the bright center that he revolved around. He felt hollow. Naomi had liked to tell him that he had eternity before him, to do with as he pleased. What was he going to do with it?
The family attorney had approached him as he was walking away from the grave, dusting the dirt from his hands after dropping the first handful onto the coffin. It had been very small, almost child-sized. There hadn't been much left of Naomi at the end except heart and spirit.
"Mister Sandburg, I hate to bother you at a time like this. I know how you feel..."
Blair stopped dead in his tracks. The lawyer flinched from the heat in those stormy blue eyes, but the young man's voice was low and controlled. "Has your mother just died, sir?"
"No. No, but..."
"Was she driven from her family and forced to live as an exile? Bought off to appease their sense of morality? Or rather the moral sense of their 'peers'?"
"No. I see..."
"Did your mother hear herself called a slut and a whore, her child called a bastard? And did she then spend her life devoting every ounce of love and care she had to that child before passing on in horrid pain, still abandoned by those who once said they loved her?" The lawyer opened his mouth, then shut it. Blair nodded. "You do not know how I feel. What do you want?"
"The Sandburgs send their condolences. They wish to place a discrete monument on Naomi Sandburg's grave, and they have instructed me to tell you that the allowance, with a small reduction, will continued to be paid to you till you reach the age of twenty. In the meantime, they will pay for you to be trained in the field of your choosing. Have you any ideas on what you want to do with your life? We could easily find you a fine apprenticeship in, say, carpentry. Or, if you are more ambitious, you might study to be a surveyor. It is possible that you could even get a clerkship in a law office. Not ours, of course."
Blair stared at him. So, his grandparents did feel a bit of remorse for how they had treated their only child. Or were they merely following form again? One had responsibilities, and one met them, no matter how distasteful. Well, if they wanted to expiate their guilt...
"As to the monument, I can't stop them, but don't involve me in it. I don't want Naomi coming back to haunt me. And as to my future, yes, I do know what I want." He glanced back to where the sextons had begun filling in the grave, dropping the moist clods onto the wooden box with muted thuds. "I want to be a doctor."
It wasn't an entirely spontaneous decision, but he hadn't been sure till that moment. Naomi had seen a lot of doctors during her last two years. One of them had taken a liking to Blair, and he informally apprenticed him.
Blair went with him on calls, learned how to examine patients, recognize symptoms, prepare medicines... He was particularly good at the last. Medicine had fascinated him from his earliest memories and, whatever country he and Naomi were in, he had sought out the healers. Almost all had been flattered and amused by the voracious interest and intelligence of the small boy with the impish face and the long auburn curls. Yes, another matter of non-conformity for Naomi. Blair didn't want to cut his hair? Blair didn't have to.
In his travels, Blair had learned the healing techniques of a dozen different cultures. He had studied the odd Chinese method of treating an ailment in one part of the body by putting pressure on another, or pricking with tiny needles. He learned how to use the power of the mind to cure ailments, those that were brought about by stress, worry, or grief. He knew hundreds of concoctions to help with everything from asthma to yaws.
They tried to persuade him to try something less ambitious. His grandparents wanted to 'do their part', but apparently didn't think that part included helping their bastard-grandson to a respected profession. He was offered carpentry, masonry, landscaping. When he couldn't be convinced to accept a manual labor position, they tried shop clerk, printer (this might have tempted Blair, if he had not been so determined, for books were his greatest love, now that Naomi was gone). When they suggested valet or butler, he walked out of the attorney's office and would not speak to them for a week, till they were begging his forgiveness. By then they were ready to offer teacher or law clerk. Blair held firm.
Finally, with bad grace, they agreed. He was warned that the course of study took at least three years. He would turn twenty in two, and his stipend would be cut off. He would be on his own. Wouldn't it be more sensible to accept training in a more humble vocation?
After extensive testing (during which he quietly amazed his future professors), he was entered in the Harvard School of Medicine. He studied furiously. His fellow students, all from well-to-do, socially prominent families, pretty much left him to himself. Blair didn't mind. He really didn't have time for a social life, even if one had been offered.
As promised, at twenty, the flow of money cut off abruptly. The lawyer handed over the last check on his twentieth birthday and informed him that his grandparents had magnanimously decided to give him one more chance to be sensible and change to a more fitting profession. Blair ripped the check into tiny pieces and left without a word.
He contracted with his landlord to do repairs on his property in exchange for a smaller, less desirable room. He supported himself by working nights in several of the many saloons that laced the rougher sections of Boston, tending bar and cleaning up. He wasn't afraid, and he wasn't ashamed of his work.
Certain people approached him with offers of ready money, if only he would... Blair was an extraordinarily handsome young man. He had not grown tall, but his sturdy body was slender, and sleek. His features were elfin, his eyes smoky blue, and his hair tumbled halfway down his back in a riot of auburn curls. He drew attention from both women, and men.
Blair turned down all such offers with a smile. Oh, he wasn't a monk. He took bed partners, but not lovers. He had been at ease with his body and his desires for a long time. One matured quickly on the road, and Naomi had always been open and honest with him. Every question was answered, fully and frankly. When at fourteen, living in Japan, Blair had shyly confessed his attraction to the almond-eyed son of their neighbor, Naomi had simply nodded.
"You don't mind?"
"Why should I mind? He's a nice boy."
"But he is a boy."
Blair tried to think of how to express his doubts. Finally he said, "Many people think it is wrong."
Naomi stroked his hair. "Many people think having a child out of wedlock is wrong, but it was the most blessed thing ever to happen to me. Don't worry so much over what 'people' think, Blair." She tapped his chest. "Worry about what this tells you. If it comes from love, and it harms no one, then how can it be wrong?"
What the ones who sought him offered was not love, but usage, and Blair declined. There were more than one that took in his surface delicacy, and thought they could demand, or force. They quickly learned differently. Small he might be, but Blair Sandburg was far from helpless. Herbs and treatments were not all he head learned in the east. He could lay a man near twice his size out flat, groaning, with only a few moves, done so quickly that those who watched were left gaping, whispering of unnatural things.
Blair felt sweat trickling down his temple, and used his shirttail to wipe it away. He hadn't anticipated it being this hot, this far north. But then, it was full summer. The August heat was still and stifling. The mules didn't pull the wagon fast enough to churn up a decent breeze. That wouldn't have been advisable, in any case. The wooden box wagon was a little top-heavy, and prone to overbalancing at awkward moments. He'd been lucky so far, always having someone come along who could help, but he didn't believe in tempting fate. He let the mules go at their own pace which, since Naomi set it, was never more than a sedate amble.
His mind turned again to that last year of medical school. It had been heavenly and hellish at the same time. There never seemed to be enough time to sleep, and there was seldom enough to eat. He could have had leisure and plenty if he'd consented to sell himself, but he wasn't going to do that. He endured. He persevered. He succeeded.
He graduated first in his class, the youngest M.D. Harvard had, to that date, turned out. He graduated with honors, and with several offers to go into practice with established physicians.
After the ceremony, he'd stood to one side, fingering his diploma, and watching the proud families surge around his classmates. There had been a tap on his shoulder, and he turned to find an elderly couple in rich, somber dress studying him. The old man, his lips pressed in a thin line said, "Well, you weren't hard to recognize with that mop of hair. I couldn't believe it when the attorney told us about it. Just like Naomi to let you do something so foolish."
Blair stared at them blankly. The woman said stiffly, "We are your grandparents, Blair. Rebecca and Nathan." Blair nodded slowly, showing that he understood.
"Well," said Nathan. "I didn't believe you'd pull it off, but you did. I honestly didn't think Naomi's child would have enough gumption to stick it out." He didn't notice Blair's brows drawing together. "And, I suppose, now that you've made something of yourself, you'll be wanting to come back into the family fold. We've thought of a way."
Rebecca sounded almost eager. "It isn't unusual for an established family to act as patrons to a young physician, just starting out. We've discussed it, and we're prepared to give you lodging in our home. You would have your own room, and rooms downstairs to run your practice."
"Of course," rumbled his grandfather. "You'll have to work under a different name. We couldn't have the... the association with... I think perhaps Saunders would work well. Or you might prefer Bergman..."
Blair interrupted. "I haven't seen you since I was an infant."
The couple exchanged uneasy glances. "Yes, that's true," said Nathan. "You've been in the world, Blair. I'm sure you understand..."
"Do you know how I recognized you?" He took a small object from his pocket, and pressed it into Nathan's hand. The couple looked at it. It was a daguerreotype, no bigger than a woman's palm. It showed the two of them, much younger, posed stiffly with a dark haired little girl leaning against her mother's knee. "She kept that with her always, through all our travels. She was holding it when she died."
They had stood in stunned silence as he turned and walked away from them.
A few days later, he was still trying to decide what to do with the rest of his life. He knew that he wanted to help people. His landlord, watching as Blair painted a stairwell, had opined that he was a 'knot-headed fool' for not accepting any one of the positions as junior partner that had been offered to him by older, more established doctors. Blair hadn't told him about his grandparents offering to take him in and set him up in practice. The man surely would have had him carted off to the asylum for turning that down.
A knock had come to the front door, and the landlord had gone to answer it. It was the family attorney. Blair paused in his labor, surprised. The fastidious man had never before consented to come to Blair's place of residence. Always before the meetings had taken place in his well appointed office, downtown. Now the lawyer gazed up to where Blair stood, halfway up the staircase, paintbrush in hand. "Mister Sandburg."
Blair put his hand on his hip, scowling at him. "Yes?" He wouldn't dignify the man by using his name. When the man hesitated, he said, "Please state your business quickly. This will dry streaky if I don't hurry."
The man shook his head, murmuring, "I never thought I'd see it. A Sandburg, working as a common laborer....."
He backed up, becoming a bit alarmed as the young man came down the steps toward him, his pace slow and deliberate, and his eyes hot. Blair advanced, and the man backed up till he could go no farther, his back against a wall. Leaning into him aggressively, but not quite touching him, Blair growled, "I may labor, but I am far from common! Tell me why you are here, and then get out of my life."
"Y-your grandparents... a peace offering... set you up however you like..." the man babbled. He slapped a piece of paper down on the hall table, and fled.
Blair snatched up the check, intending to shred it, as he had the last one. But then he paused, and took a closer look. He noted the figure. Slowly his creased forehead smoothed, and his lips pursed in a silent whistle. This was more than a comfortably off man made in a year's time.
He held the check between thumb and forefinger, as if it might bite, waving it gently. While he hated the idea of accepting anything from the two shrivel-hearted beings that had exiled him and his mother, a lot of good could be done with a sum like this. He tried to think.
How can I use this to the best advantage, and give them the most aggravation? After a moment, a slow smile formed on his face. The smile was angelic, but the devil glinted in his blue eyes. Then next day he contracted to have the physick wagon built.
Jim Ellison got his horse from its stall in the town's stables, saddling it himself although the hostler offered to do it. He enjoyed taking care of Rainier; he didn't really look on it as a chore. He saddled the big roan, gently working the bit between his teeth, then stopped. Putting his face close to the horse's mouth, he sniffed, high brow wrinkling, then scowled.
As he led the horse between the box stalls on either side, he called to the stable master, "Rafe! I told you not to give Rainier any more sugar unless I said so! His teeth are going to rot if you keep loading him with sweets."
The dark haired man mending tack near the exit looked up in surprise, and guilt. "It was just one lump, Jim. He teases me something awful when I muck out his stall if I don't feed him."
"Well, give him a carrot, or an apple, or something like that. No more sugar." As he led the horse out, and swung up into the saddle, Rafe called, "How did you know?" Jim pretended not to hear the question, and set off on his patrol.
How did I know? I smelled it on his breath, that's how. Squinting in the sunlight, Jim pulled the dark spectacles out of his shirt pocket and slipped them on. That was better. Sometimes simple daylight was almost more than he could stand. Funny thing was, it wasn't that the brightness washed out details. On the contrary: he could see too much. There was just too much there. It could get... overwhelming at times. He found that the smoked -glass lenses usually kept it down to a tolerable level.
Jim took his job as constable seriously and made a daily round. He earned the small salary the city had awarded him for keeping the peace. He rather thought that, when they decided it was time for a more official form of law enforcement, he would see about running for sheriff. He'd most likely get it; he had a good record. They seldom needed to use the two small barred cells that were set up in the back of his blacksmith shop.
The patrol of the town streets was quick and uneventful. There still wasn't much to Cascade, only a couple of dozen streets branching off from the main road through town. Besides his smithy, they had a church, a general store, three saloons, a barbershop, the stables, and the undertaker.
There was talk of getting a school, but for now the parents taught the children, some gathering a handful in their homes to share lessons. There was even a small bawdy house, but it operated outside the city limits, so it was no concern of his, and since it catered mainly to the single laborers from the area, and passing travelers, it didn't bother the womenfolk of the town overmuch. He might eventually have to see about closing it down, but for now there was no problem.
Jim made his rounds of the small town, nodding to the men, waving to the children who greeted him, and lifting his hat for the ladies. There was more than one woman who watched him ride past with an appreciative eye. Constable Ellison was a fine figure of a man: tall, muscular, and ruggedly handsome. He had icy blue eyes that too often were hidden behind the smoked lenses of his dark glasses, but somehow, the mystery of that just made him more attractive. He was still in his prime, hardly forty, and it was whispered that it was a shame that he didn't have a woman.
He had been married before, to a woman named Carolyn, but no one seemed entirely sure what had happened to her. He had been alone when he came to Cascade a half-dozen years ago, and no one had quite had the nerve to question him closely about his past.
His patrol of the streets finished, Jim began to ride the perimeter of town. He kept his eyes open, and he tuned his hearing as acutely as he dared. He had to be careful that the sound of the wind rustling the leaves didn't send him into a trance state. He had the same problems with all his senses as he did with his sight. They were very acute, and sometimes, the details just overwhelmed him.
Today Jim was particularly interested in the area to the south. A little earlier, he had seen a faint cloud of dust rising above the road that led into town. Not much of a cloud, probably just one rider, or one wagon. It was most likely just a peddler coming to town, or a drummer planning to sell some stock to the general store. Still, he'd check it out. Particularly since the traveler hadn't arrived yet. The cloud was gone. That meant that they had stopped somewhere out on the road. If they had stopped this close to town, Jim figured he'd better find out why. There might be some sort of trouble.
A little ways out, he heard something, and tuned his hearing up even higher. There was the creak of leather harnesses, and the stamp and snort of draft animals; two, from the sound of it. There was also the sound of water splashing. Yes, there was a nice little pond about a mile outside of town. The traveler must have stopped to water his team before coming in. If he hadn't unharnessed them before he led them to the water, his wagon might have gotten bogged down. It had happened more than once.
But as he got closer, Jim decided that the splashing was from another source, because he also heard someone humming cheerfully. It sounded like 'Sweet Betsy From Pike'. So, the stranger had decided to freshen up before going into town. Jim couldn't blame them, it was hot and humid today, and the road dust would have made it miserable if they'd been on the road for any length of time.
He topped a little rise, and there was the wagon, pulled off beside the road. Jim's eyebrows climbed. Well, now. What have we here? That wasn't any ordinary wagon, or carriage. It was a huge, boxlike affair, and it was painted a red so screaming that it was even bright through the layers of trail dust. A pair of fine mules, still in harness, was patiently cropping the lush grass. Jim dismounted, leading Rainier onto the grass so that his steps would be muffled. He didn't exactly intend to sneak up on whoever was there, but it never hurt to be cautious.
The pond was in the center of a small stand of close growing trees. Jim made his way to the pond, moving through the greenery with no more noise than a prowling mountain lion. When he was just at the edge of the trees, he halted, dialing his hearing back down to normal, then stepped out of the trees.
The traveler was, indeed bathing. There was a pile of crumpled clothes almost at Jim's feet. The humming had stopped abruptly, and he did not see anyone in the water. For a moment he was worried that the traveler had stepped off into an underwater hole. He was just about to kick off his boots and dive in when she broke the surface.
She was facing the center of the pond, with her back to Jim, in water up to the middle of her back. The first thing he noticed was the magnificent wet cascade of dark red-brown hair than spilled down her back, the ends trailing once again in the water. The bather, totally unaware of her watcher, reached back and gathered the lush hair into one thick handful, wringing out water.
The back was slim, but well muscled, the shoulders wide. She's a sturdy little thing. Jim thought admiringly. He wished that she'd chosen a shallower spot for her bath. He really would have liked a look at that ass. He had a feeling that, given the toned look of the rest of her, it would be firm and round.
She was holding a bar of soap, and began scrubbing with it, humming again. Her movements were vigorous, but graceful. Jim watched the foam gather on the pale skin, then watched the water glisten as the soap was sluiced off. He found that he was getting hard. Turn around. He thought. I just want one good look, then I'll leave you to your privacy, and maybe we can meet in town. I think you're someone I'd like to know.
As if hearing his wish, the bather, massaging a handful of lather over her face, turned slowly toward Jim.
Jim Ellison got one of the biggest surprises of his entire life. Instead of the plump breasts he had been expecting, there was a broad, well muscled, very hairy, distinctly male chest. His jaw dropped. The bather splashed water on his face, revealing piquant, elfin features. His eyes shut against the soap, his lashes lay thick and dark against his cheeks, and his mouth was as beautiful as any woman's. Then he opened his eyes, and Jim's heart almost stopped.
They were smoky blue, and they were gazing right into his own.
The young man (because there was no denying that this was a young man) blinked in surprise, stumbling back, slipping, and going under water. He came up again almost immediately, spluttering. When he caught his breath, he cried, "Jesus, don't do that to me, man! Were you trying to give me apoplexy?"
"Sorry." Jim apologized. "I just wasn't sure how to make myself known." I was too busy lusting after you in my heart, until you turned around. And he suddenly realized, to his shock and embarrassment, that the turning around hadn't greatly changed things. He was still half hard.
"'Hello' would have worked. Even 'You there!' Why didn't you say something?" He started wading toward the shore.
Jim tried to explain. "I saw you from behind, and I thought... I didn't want to embarrass..."
The young man nodded, eyebrows lifting. "Oh, I see. You saw this..." He shook his head, and the wet hair flew about his head. He wiped away several of the strands that had plastered themselves across his face, grinning, "and thought you'd found yourself a lady." He shrugged good-naturedly. "Sorry to disappoint you." He didn't seem offended by the mistake.
"I'm not disappointed." Again the eyebrows rose. "I mean, I would have been surprised, a woman traveling by herself." Smooth recovery, Jim. You only sound half a fool.
The young man had stopped waist deep in the water. He pointed to the ground at Jim's feet. "How about tossing me one of those towels?" Jim looked down to see two towels folded neatly next to the clothes. He picked them up and walked to the water's edge, tossing one out.
The boy caught it neatly, and began wading toward shore again. As he emerged from the water, he wrapped the towel about his hips, tucking it securely. "It's not that I'm very shy, mind you," he explained, "But I'm too modest to traipse about in just my hide if we haven't even introduced ourselves."
"Jim Ellison." Jim offered his hand.
"Blair Sandburg." Blair's handshake was firm and warmer than Jim would have expected with him fresh from the pond. "Are you from town, Mr. Ellison?"
"Yes, Cascade." He paused. "I'm the town constable."
Blair had taken the second towel and started drying his hair. Now he paused, peering out from under the cloth. "Are you, now? Well, I had expected to meet you, just not so soon." Jim felt a twinge of surprise. He had been... expecting him? Blair was drying his arms with long, brisk strokes. Jim imagined how the rough texture of the towel would feel, moving over his skin.
"Now, why would you expect that?"
"I make it a point to meet the law in every town I come to. It just makes things a little easier if we understand each other right up front." He was raking his hands through the long fall of hair.
"That's a sensible attitude, Mr. Sandburg. If everyone had it, my job would be a lot easier." Jim noted that his compact body was slender, but muscular. This wasn't a boy, despite his lack of stature. This was full-grown man, and very definitely a man, despite the long hair and almost pretty features. The tangle of chest hair was as impressive as any Jim had ever seen. There was something about his chest that nagged at the corner of Jim's mind, but Sandburg was speaking to him again, and he dismissed it.
"Do you mind if we continue this discussion back at the wagon? I'd like to get into some fresh clothes and get this mop combed out before it gets a chance to tangle."
Jim followed him back to the wagon. He actually had to hurry a bit to keep up with him. He might have shorter legs, but he was a real bundle of energy, making up for length of stride with his rapid pace. At the wagon, he climbed up and opened the door to the box. Hesitating, he said, "Would you mind waiting out here a minute while I get dressed? Then you can come on in for a drink."
"That would be fine." He went inside, shutting the little door. Jim took the time to study the wagon itself. He drew a finger in the road film that covered it, and the trail he left showed screaming red paint, fairly fresh. There was a sign on the side. In impressively ornate letters of shining yellow it said 'Dr. B. Sandburg, Medicines and Physiks. Men, Women, and Children Attended. Sorry, No Horses.'
Jim grinned. It was common in the less settled areas for the local 'horse doctor' to treat both man and beast if an actual medical doctor wasn't available. This man was boldly declaring himself to be a 'people doctor' only. Probably not true, though. What would a real doctor be doing way the hell out here?
The door creaked open. "Come on up."
Jim climbed up onto the wagon and went through the door. He almost had to squeeze. He was a big man and the entrance was not built on generous proportions. The interior of the wagon was dim, but he could see well enough with his sensitive vision. He saw Sandburg in the process of lighting a lamp, and looked away quickly, shielding his eyes before he could be blinded by the sudden burst of light. When he was sure he could handle it and looked back, Sandburg was watching him curiously. But he didn't say anything. He just pointed to a small bench fitted on one wall. "Have a seat. I'll just be another minute or two."
Jim sat on the bench while Sandburg continued buttoning up the loose white shirt he'd donned. Jim had never been inside a physik wagon before, and it was interesting. Both sides were lined with deep shelves, the shelves having barriers around them to keep the various jars, bottles, and boxes from flying off when the wagon moved. There were also cabinets and a small fold down desk, which now held the lamp. The unfortunate thing was that the smell of herbs and chemicals was nearly overwhelming. He was going to have a raging headache if he stayed more than a few moments.
Sandburg had taken a comb from one of the shelves, and was stroking it through his hair, fluffing it as he went. It was already starting to dry. The lamplight picked out red glints in the rich brown. Jim looked away. "I don't see any bed."
"I could have had one, but I preferred to use the space for storage. I sleep on a bedroll, outside most of the time. If it's too cold or wet, there's just enough room to spread it out here in the aisle."
He put aside the comb, stroking the length of his hair between his hands in a final smoothing motion. "Now, about that drink. Would you like a nip of spirits, or is it too early in the day for you?"
Jim pulled out his watch and consulted it. "Well, I expect I'll just have something the temperance ladies would approve, if you have it. It's still a tad early for me."
Blair nodded. "Sensible. You have a choice of cold brewed herb tea or sarsaparilla."
"Sarsaparilla will do fine."
Blair got two glasses out of a cabinet and took a jug and a small bottle off a shelf. He filled the glasses from the jug, explaining, "Sugar water. I keep a little mixed up, but not too much at a time, else it'll start to ferment." He added a few drops of dark liquid from the bottle to each glass, and stirred them with a long, slender rod, then handed a glass to Jim. "Sorry it's not colder. I keep the jug in the coolest part of the wagon, but that's none too cool these days."
Jim took a sip. The sweet of the sugar and the bite of the flavoring filled him, and he knew he wasn't going to be able to drink much of it, but felt he had to manage a few swallows, for courtesy's sake. "This is fine." He took another small sip.
Sandburg picked up his own glass and cocked his head. "You sure about that?"
Surprised, Jim replied, "Don't I sound sure?"
Blair nodded, "Oh, you sound sure, right enough. But the face you just pulled..." Jim felt himself flush. Had it been that obvious? "Look, Ellison, you don't have to force anything down to spare my feelings. I haven't had to do for anyone but myself for a long time, so my skill with victuals and potables may be a bit rusty."
"I'm sure it's fine." Jim set the glass down, a little relieved that he wasn't going to have to keep up the pretense. "I just have funny tastes. Almost anything with a strong flavor is too much for me."
"I'll keep that in mind if I ever invite you to dinner. I happen to be a mite dry despite that ducking I got." He took a long swallow from the glass, tilting his head back.
Jim watched the pulse of his throat as he swallowed. "I'm sorry about that."
Blair licked the last of the sarsaparilla off his lips, and Jim was mortified to feel his dick stiffen just a little more. "No need to apologize, friend. It's my own damn fault for putting my back to the shore. I should know by now not to put myself in a situation where someone can sneak up on me after all the traveling I've done."
Sandburg sat in the only piece of furnishing not built into the wagon: a single straight back chair in front of the desk. "Well, now. We've had our introductions, and we've had a social drink. What shall we talk about now?"
"You're heading into Cascade?"
"That is my intention."
Blair cocked his head, combing his fingers through the sheaf of hair that swung over his shoulder, gazing at Jim. "I don't have anyone to visit, Constable Ellison," he said quietly. "My last relative..." he smiled faintly, "Well, the last relative I'd claim, anyway, died more than six years ago, and I've never stayed in one place long enough since to form any real attachments."
"So, you're coming to town for business purposes?"
"Business and personal. Tell me, does every traveler who comes near your fair township get the same interrogation?"
Jim felt a little stung. He didn't really consider this an interrogation but, looking at it from Sandburg's angle, he supposed it might seem like one. "I'm sorry if you think I'm prying, but it's my duty to see to the peace of this area. I can't do that if I'm not aware of who's about and what they're up to."
"I understand, and I don't mean to be snappish." He sighed heavily. "I'm a bit touchy about this, I'm afraid. You see, I'm rather tired of being viewed with suspicion, just because I'm new to the area, or I look or act a little different."
“Get a lot of that, do you?" Jim's tone was dry, and he was rewarded with a small smile.
"You might be surprised. No, on second thought, you wouldn't. Yes, I get a lot of it." He fluffed his hair. "You might have noticed, I don't exactly fit the general mold, though it's easier out here than it is in the larger cities. Tell me what you want to know, Constable Ellison. If it's too personal, I'll tell you so, but I'm a generally open sort of soul."
"Why are you going to Cascade?"
"As I said, business and personal reasons." He waved, indicating the stores of medicines. "I sell physiks, and I treat illnesses. I hope to do a bit of business in Cascade."
Jim's expression was stern. "You'll need to get a liquor license before you set up shop and the town council might be a bit hesitant about granting one to an itinerant."
Blair sat back. "Why on earth would I need a liquor license?"
"Well, your tonic. Or rejuvenator, revivifier, elixir, aqua vita, whatever you call it."
"First off, I don't sell any type of general cure-all. I mix specific compounds for specific problems. And secondly, I leave the spirit dispensing to the saloons. They're much better equipped than I am."
Now Jim was confused. "But you're a patent medicine man, aren't you?"
Blair shook his head. "No. I'm a traveling medicine man only in that I do practice medicine, and I do travel. I'm a doctor, Constable. A real doctor." When Jim's eyebrows lifted skeptically, he sighed. "All right. I should know by now that my word alone isn't worth anything." There was a bitter edge in his tone. He opened a drawer in the desk and pulled out a leather folder, handing it to Jim. Ellison opened it, and was confronted by a handsome document, printed on vellum in graceful script. "It's my diploma from Boston Medical College. I'm a certified medical doctor."
Jim studied the document. It looked genuine. But then, so did many counterfeits. He closed it, handing it back. "Very impressive."
Blair took it, replacing it in the desk. "Sarcasm does not become you, sir. I suppose I can understand your skepticism. There are far too many fools and charlatans promoting themselves these days. Do you have a telegraph office in town?"
"Not yet. Soon."
"Damnation! Now how am I supposed to convince you?"
"There is an office in the next town over, Lansdale. Someone is bound to be going there in a day or two. Tell me what you want and I expect they'll be willing to send a message for you. Folks are pretty obliging around here."
"It isn't for me, it's for you. If you'll contact the Boston College of Medicine and ask Dean Herschel, he'll vouch for me. Would that satisfy you?"
"It would. But that may take a while."
"I need to earn my living. Can't I sell my physiks till you get word back?"
"If you let me check what you dispense first to be sure you're not passing off hooch as medicine."
"And how would you know?"
"I can tell if the alcohol content is too high to be justified."
"I told you, I don't just sell booze disguised as medicine. But I agree. Now, is there any particular area in town that you wish me to stay away from? Anywhere it would be best for me to set up? I'd like to be as close to the center of things as possible. My livelihood depends on drawing a bit of a crowd."
Jim thought. "Well, there was that millenary shop that burned down a few months ago. No one has cleared the lot yet, so you could park in front of that if you want. It's close to everything. And there's a stable that'll board your animals for a reasonable price. I expect Rafe might be willing to spot you a day or two board till you can raise some cash, if I recommend you."
"I like Rafe already. So," he held out his hand. "I'm welcome in Cascade?"
Jim shook hands. Blair's grip was firm from the hours he'd spent grinding medicines, and handling reins, but his hand was smooth. "You're very welcome in Cascade."
"Now then," Blair clapped his hands, rubbing them together. "If you don't mind, I'd like to get into town so I can have Naomi and Burton settled by evening. Perhaps there will even be time for a short show to introduce myself and tease the interest of the townsfolk."
Jim regarded him laconically. "You're good at that, are you?"
Blair was opening a cabinet, but he turned back to smile at Ellison, one dark brow rising impishly. "I'm good at teasing interest."
I don't doubt that. Jim thought, as the younger man removed several items of clothing from the cabinet.
Blair turned back to him, a cream colored stock hanging from his hand, and said, "I have a request. Could you remove the specs for a bit? I like to see a man's eyes when I speak to him."
Jim considered. He'd be taking a risk. The lighting in the wagon, with the enclosed lamplight picking out glints on shiny surfaces, was a hazard. He might have one of his spells. But it was discourteous to keep the shielding shades on while visiting, and Sandburg had every right to ask. Jim liked to see a man's eyes when he spoke to him, too. He pulled them off, tucking them in his shirt. "Sorry about that. I'm so used to them that I forget sometimes."
"Are your eyes weak?" Blair was shrugging into a plum velvet jacket.
"No, quite the opposite. Sometimes things are just a little too clear, a little too sharp. It's hard to explain. I just seem to see too much."
Sandburg didn't look at him like he was crazy, like Carolyn had when he'd told her that. Instead, he looked thoughtful. Then he smiled, and said, "You look good in the specs but you look better without them. You have the most remarkably blue eyes, Mr. Ellison."
Jim could feel a flush rising in his cheeks. He wasn't used to physical compliments. The most he got was an occasional, 'Damn, you're a big bastard' from the rougher travelers he had to deal with.
Sandburg was fitting a pair of flashy cufflinks in his sleeves, and they caught Jim's attention. When he noted Jim's interest, he held out his arm, offering him a better look. "I got these in Peru. Lovely, aren't they?"
They were certainly unique. Shaped in the form of a big cat's head, they showed impressive fangs and the eyes were tiny, glittering green stones. "Only copper and some sort of semi-precious stone. They aren't worth much in terms of cold, hard cash but I'm very fond of them. They were given to me by a tribal shaman."
Jim extended one finger, touching one of the cufflinks lightly. At first there was just the coolness of the metal. Then a spark of light struck the green eyes of the cat, and suddenly, there was a flare of heat. The world crashed in on him. As it rolled over him, he thought, Not now! Not when I'm with someone I don't know a thing about.
But he had no control over it: he never did when these spells came. Suddenly one or more of his senses would just become unbearably intense. The softest colors nearly blinded him, the merest sound went through him like a spike, and his skin would be so sensitive that he wanted to rip his clothes from his body, unable to bear their weight. Smells suffocated. He even swore that at those times he could taste things on the air. He never knew what was going to set it off, or how long it would last. Usually the only remedy was to get himself somewhere quiet and dark and ride it out.
This one was different from any that he'd had before, though. It was summer, yes, but he suddenly felt an even greater than normal heat. It was humid, too. Almost like the steam room he'd been in once in San Francisco. Along with the heat there were smells, like forest smells, but somehow different: stronger, riper, and wilder.
There was a river of sound washing over him: the rustling of millions of leaves, and the furtive crackle of an animal moving through underbrush. The sounds were so clear. He could hear the pad of big paws, the whisper of grass and twigs against sleek fur. Green seemed to shift before his eyes in a pattern of moving leaves, and he knew that in a moment the creatures Yes, creatures. There are two of them. that were moving through the jungle Jungle? would appear. The idea excited and terrified him, all at once. It's too much. I can't... I don't want to see this.
But there was also one sound that, though stronger than the others, did not overwhelm him. It was a low, steady beat, an almost throbbing pulse. Ellison focused on this desperately, grabbing at it in the rush and swirl of sensations.
He concentrated on the sound, following it, gradually filtering out everything else till the world began to subside around him, returning to normal. He realized that what he was hearing was the heartbeat of the man standing before him. The man who was watching him closely with a very concerned look on his face.
Sandburg said quietly, "Are you all right?"
Jim shook his head, clearing away the last of the haze, and said casually; "I'm fine. Sorry if I stared. I've never seen anything like them before. Is that supposed to be a panther?"
"Jaguar, though the black variety are called panthers." He refused to be distracted. "You were... gone. Not for long, only, say, a half a minute. But a lot can happen in that amount of time. Has this happened before?"
"A few times." It isn't a lie, there's no quantity put on 'a few'. "If you want to finish getting ready, I'll escort you into town. If folks see you with me, they might be a tad less suspicious."
The slight frown said Sandburg knew he was changing the subject but he didn't call him on it, for which Jim was grateful. Jim didn't discuss his problems. Maybe Carolyn would have stayed if he had, but probably not. She just didn't have the patience to deal with them. Jim figured that no one did, so he didn't discuss it.
Sandburg turned toward a small mirror hung on the wall and wrapped the stock around his neck. "Now for the tricky part. I can grind and mix medicines to perfection, I can perform simple surgeries without trouble and stitch a wound neater than the best seamstress can hem a skirt, but I cannot tie these damn things."
He wasn't exaggerating. Jim watched in amusement as he fought and swore at the simple garment, finally producing a tangled mess. He glared at his reflection belligerently, and Jim found himself offering, "Need some help with that?"
Sandburg glanced back at him through the reflection, and said wryly, "Only all I can get."
Jim stood up and moved to stand behind him. "Hold still, now. I'm afraid this is the only way I know how to do it." He reached around the shorter man; unknotting the mess he'd made, and began to wind the stock into a neat knot. "I doubt it's what's fashionable right now, but it's the only one I know how to do, and it's good enough for a backwater like Cascade."
Blair stayed very still, watching as Ellison's big hands moved with surprising delicacy. He could feel the heat of the constable's body along his back and his own body started to react. He closed his eyes briefly. Careful, Sandburg. A lawman would be a bad one to have against you, you know that.
"There." The hands came to rest lightly on his shoulders. "How's that?"
Blair opened his eyes, and his gaze met Ellison's in the mirror. He only barely managed to repress a shiver. God, those eyes... "Splendiferous, my man. I thank you."
Did he imagine it, or was there the tiniest bit of pressure before the hands were withdrawn? "Any time." And was there the least bit of huskiness in that low voice? Probably wishful thinking, Blair. You've been too long between bed partners. You'll have to try to find someone here or else you're liable to do something not only embarrassing, but downright dangerous.
Ellison had stepped back and Blair picked up a black ribbon from the desk. He pulled as much of his hair as he could back and tied it into a tail. Strands still escaped to curl around his ears and face, but there wasn't anything he could do about that short of a vicious application of pomade, and he didn't like to do that. Finally he lifted a black silk top hat off a shelf and settled it on his head, tilting it at a rakish angle. He turned to Jim Ellison, spreading his arms wide, smiling. "Doctor B. Sandburg, traveling medicine man, ready to enter your fair city and charm the citizens."
Jim couldn't help smiling in response. "You might at that." Be damned if you don't already have a head start on the constable. Jim pulled out his glasses, putting them on again. "Let's get you into town." He climbed on Rainier while Blair took the reins of his mule team.
I'm going to do well here. Blair thought as they entered the little town. Oh, it was small, but it was prosperous and it was growing. He could see several new buildings in various stages of completion, one of them obviously a good-sized hotel. Lots of workers meant lots of minor injuries. Possible work. There were many families in from the surrounding area, shopping or just visiting. He nodded to himself. Lots of children, lots of sniffles to be attended to. Good, good. And they all followed the big, red wagon with the exotic driver with curious eyes. Blair smiled to himself. A good entrance was half the job.
Jim led him to a spot on main street, just in front of a tumbled, charred ruin of a building. Blair situated the wagon so that it was sure to be out of the way of any traffic, then climbed down. Ellison had dismounted also. "I have to go stable my horse now. Unhitch your team and I'll take them over for you. You can go by and talk to Rafe later."
"He'll trust me before I pay him for their board?"
"If I vouch for you, he will."
"Then thank you kindly. I appreciate it."
"Not at all. We help each other out here." It was a bit of an exaggeration. Yes, Jim felt it was part of his job to assist travelers, but he seldom went as far out of his way as he was doing now. "I'll unhitch them. You don't want to get your outfit messed up."
Blair shook his cuffs, grinning. "Nope. We must look nice for the customers. Do I need a permit to put on a show?"
"You're not gonna have any naked dancers, are you?"
Blair's mouth dropped open for a second. "Um... no. My repertoire does not include naked dancing."
Pity. "Then it's all right. As long as you don't offend the womenfolk, give the kiddies an education their mamas and daddies wouldn't approve of, or scare the horses."
"I think I can keep it within those restrictions." Blair reached back into his wagon and came up with a banjo. He plucked it experimentally; adjusting a couple of strings while Jim unhitched the team. Nodding his satisfaction, he laid it back down and unhooked some sort of fastenings on the side of the wagon, then went inside. A moment later, Jim was astonished when the side of the wagon lowered, opening it up.
Sandburg hopped back down out of the wagon and busied himself setting braces under the platform that had been formed. Jim realized that it was now a stage, with the man's 'office' open behind in. Blair went out onto the stage. The bench Jim had sat on inside was a solid block, and it served as a seat, even tipped on its side. Sandburg sat on it, put his banjo over his knees, and began to pluck out a lively tune. People were already beginning to stop and listen when Jim reluctantly led the mules away.
Rafe met him at the entrance. "Jim, is the circus coming to town? I saw what had to be the gaudiest wagon on the face of the earth roll past a minute ago."
"Not the entire circus, Rafe, just the ringmaster. I need you to put these beasts up for a few days. He hasn't got the cash right now, but I'll take care of it, if it comes to that."
"Sure, Jim, no problem." Rafe called a groom over to take the mules. "I think I want to go see what's happening down at the other end of the street. Looks like it might be interesting." They walked back down together. There was already a fair sized crowd around the physik wagon, and more coming.
Sandburg, looking totally at ease, was strumming out a spirited rendition of "Oh, Susannah," singing along in a pleasant, slightly cracked voice. A brown mongrel dog was on the stage in front of him, prancing along on its hind legs, yipping excitedly. The crowd laughed as it spun, waving its paws and hopping. Laughing children clustered around the front of the stage, with indulgent, curious parents behind them.
Sandburg finished the song and there was a generous smattering of applause. He stood, removing his hat in a sweeping bow. Several coins were tossed, ringing on the stage at his feet. He placed the hat on the stage and said, "Darwin, please be good enough to collect the generous offerings." The little dog immediately began to pick up coins in his teeth and drop them in the hat. This generated another small hail of money. Children were begging their parents for pennies.
Blair laid aside the banjo. "Now, good people, as talented as I am in music," the smile was self-depreciating and he rolled his eyes. The audience tittered. "Now, now. As I was saying, as much as I love music, it is not my profession." He pulled a cord, and a small sign unfurled over the wagon opening, bearing the same words that were painted on the wagon.
"Doctor B. Sandburg, Esquire, at your service. As the sign says, I treat only God's noblest creations, and I'm sorry ranchers, I do not mean horses." More laughter. "No, I only treat people. It's what I was trained to do. It's my passion. Let me assure you that I am qualified. I attended the great medical college in Boston. Your esteemed constable..." Eyes turned toward Jim, and he tried not to shuffle. "...will be checking the veracity of that claim. Now, what do I offer? If you're looking for a cure-all to treat everything from grippe to goiters, and fit to rub on or consume, you will be disappointed. If you expect bottles of spirits with medicinal labels, you may as well go to one of the fine saloons I noticed on the way in. I sell medicines. I listen to your complaints, review your symptoms, and prescribe accordingly. I will not just hand over anything you ask for. I will examine you, judge what you need, and prescribe accordingly."
His smile faded, his blue eyes becoming more serious. "I may as well also add that if you are one of those unfortunates who have become dependent on laudanum or opiates, I cannot and will not feed your addiction. I will, if you ask, try to help you wean yourself away from it."
There was a slight, uncomfortable shift in the crowd. People didn't like to think or talk about such things. Oh, they knew they existed, even in such a small town as Cascade. Jim had seen the results of the sort of problem Sandburg mentioned himself. Occasionally the unconscious man he picked out of an alleyway or gutter would smell of opium smoke instead of whiskey. It was rather remarkable that the young man would so boldly mention the problem, much less offer his help. Society, in general, seemed inclined to ignore the ones who suffered with this problem.
"Now, one more tune, and I'll be ready to listen to any who want to consult. There's no rush. I intend to be here for awhile, so take your time." He sat back down, took up the banjo, and struck into "Buffalo Gals." The music was infectious. Most of the children, and even some of the grown ups, danced with it.
Rafe poked Jim in the side. "Well, this is the most excitement we've seen around here in some time."
"He's different, all right."
"I'll say. There's gonna be some daddies locking up their daughters, I think." Rafe indicated a cluster of teenage girls near the stage. They were whispering and giggling to each other. When Sandburg shot them a pointed grin, they almost collapsed in fits of nervosa excitement. He was the most exotic thing they'd ever seen in their young lives.
Jim sighed inwardly. With that sparkling personality and offbeat attractiveness, of course Sandburg would be a magnet for female attention. You were fooling yourself, old man, thinking that there might have been a spark back there. Even if he was the sort to consider a man, what makes you think you could compete for a young stallion like that?
As Blair laid aside his instrument and prepared to greet his first customers, his eyes were drawn again to the tall figure at the back of the crowd. Ellison was wearing the smoked glass spectacles again and Blair couldn't read his expression. He seemed to be watching closely enough, though. Jim turned and walked back up the street and Blair took a moment to admire the smooth glide of his walk before turning with a gentle smile to the young woman who was holding a croupy baby in her arms.
Jim had work to do. Simon Banks, a local farmer, had a set of wagon wheels that needed new rims. He was a good customer, and Jim had no desire to make the man wait for his order, no matter how interesting the traveler might be.
His forge was seldom cool, and it didn't take long to heat it to the proper temperature. Jim made a pot of coffee while the metal bars were heating, taking the time to savor a cup while the forge did its work. Then he stripped off his shirt, put on his heavy work gloves, and got the tongs. He reached into the forge with the tongs and extracted a bar of iron. Yes, it glowed the right cherry red color.
He picked up his hammer and laid the iron on the massive black anvil that was the center of his work world. He turned the metal a couple of times, looking at it, getting a feel for it. Then he tried to push down his sense of hearing, raised the hammer, and brought it down ringing on the bar in front of him.
He pounded with steady, heavy strokes, gradually stretching and thinning the metal, working his way down the bar. When he had it flat and thin enough to suit him, he dropped it into the large tub of water he used as a cooling bath. The metal had lost heat as he worked, but it still hissed and sputtered, sending up steam when he dropped it into the bath. Then he went and got another bar from the forge, and began the process again. He'd need at least three of these, possibly four, to make one rim.
As he pounded, he was grateful that his sense of touch wasn't over active today. There were times when he couldn't work, as much as he wanted or needed to, because of the sparks. They would be painful and irritating to anyone with normal tactile senses. When his started to act up, it was sheer agony. A shirt would have helped shield him a little, but in this summer heat? It would be courting heat stroke.
Blair gathered the small collection of bottles into a box and spoke to the half dozen people clustered around his wagon. "I'm sorry about the delay but I promised Constable Ellison I wouldn't dispense any medicines without getting his approval first. Please understand that he's only doing this for your own good, to protect you. After all, he doesn't know that I'm not a quack." Blair smiled sunnily. "Though how he could not trust this face is beyond me."
There was laughter, and someone directed him to the smithy just a little way down the street. "I'll be back in just a few minutes, friends. I just need to present these and get approval." He bustled down the street to the large building with the huge double doors standing wide open.
He paused at the entrance. The sound of metal ringing on metal had been clear, even at his end of the street. Here it was almost strident. He stepped cautiously into the dim interior. The large room, almost the size of a small barn, was lit only by the sunlight spilling through the doors behind him, and the glow of the open forge at the other end.
There were stacks of different sizes of ingots of metal piled in various spots. Tools he couldn't identify hung neatly on the walls above leaning wagon wheels. There was a large wooden tub filled with water in the center of the room. Next to that was the huge anvil, and before that was Jim Ellison. Blair froze, staring at the man, the box of medicines in his hands forgotten.
Ellison was standing with his legs spread for balance and stability as he swung a large; flat headed hammer again and again against the piece of metal that he held against the anvil with a set of tongs. The jeans he wore were old, faded and worn thin by many washes, and so tight that they hugged his body like a lover's caress. They coated long legs, and defined one of the most perfect asses Blair had seen in his wide, wide travels. But that wasn't the most alluring part of the picture.
Ellison was working stripped to the waist. Blair was treated to the image of a wedge shaped back, glistening with sweat, the muscles rolling smoothly as his arm rose and fell with the steady rhythm of his pounding. He watched for almost a minute, almost hypnotized by the steady ring of the hammer and the flow of his muscles.
Suddenly the hammer fell still as it landed one last time, and Ellison's head jerked around. Blair almost flinched as the pale blue eyes found his own, and he thought, almost panicked, He knows. He knows I've been looking, and he knows what I've been thinking. But that was ridiculous, of course. He hadn't started to get erect. Yet. He no doubt would have, if he'd watched much longer.
He smiled bravely, and came forward. "Hello. Sorry to disturb you but you said you needed to approve anything I wanted to dispense. Well, I already have three patients."
Ellison dropped the iron bar he'd been working on into the water bath, laying the tongs and hammer on the anvil, then pulling off his gloves to lay them aside also. "That was fast work."
Blair shrugged. "This is going to be a good town for me. Only a few wanted anything I could give them without a consultation. The others will be back tomorrow or the next day, and I expect word of mouth to bring me a good number of their neighbors."
Jim held out his hand, and Blair passed over the little box. "What do we have here?"
Blair started ticking off on his fingers. "Well, there's an elixir to soothe a cough for a baby. I made that one very mild. That's the only one that will be taken internally. The others are for a rather nasty poison oak rash, and to draw a boil to a head. He'll come to me to have it lanced in a day or two. You'll notice that I carefully labeled the one's that are to be rubbed on, not swallowed."
Jim opened each bottle in turn and held it to his nose. Blair watched in fascination as the well shaped nostrils flared. The older man frowned in obvious concentration, high forehead wrinkling as he sifted through scents. Can he really learn that much just from smelling those?
Jim held up the last bottle. "There's alcohol in this, but not much."
Blair was surprised. "Only a few drops, to help mix the other ingredients."
Ellison re-corked the bottle, returned it to the box, and handed the box back to Blair. "It's wood alcohol, not grain. Be sure you're firm with him about not drinking this. I don't want to risk any of my townspeople going blind."
"Of course." Blair started to turn to go, but hesitated. He had patients waiting, but still... He turned back, and his breath caught in his throat. Ellison had wet a towel in the tub of water, and was cleaning the sweat from his body. He'd already wiped his face and neck. As Sandburg watched, he rubbed the rough towel over his chest, down his torso, and across his flat belly. Dark nipples stood out sharply, puckered by the sudden coolness.
He didn't realize he'd been staring till Jim said, "Was there something else?"
"Oh. I... was just wondering how you could tell about the alcohol being wood instead of grain."
He shrugged lazily, walking toward him. "I could smell the difference."
"I don't want to say I don't believe you, but you have to admit..." He'd come very close. He was standing only a few inches away, stroking the towel down sinewy arms, wiping modestly furred armpits. Speaking of smells, that is the cleanest, most stimulating scent of a hard working male I've ever run across.
"Admit what?" His voice was husky, and Blair thought he detected a faint amusement.
"That it's a little farfetched."
Ellison shrugged again, and Blair tried not to be mesmerized by the play of muscle beneath smooth skin. "Maybe so, but that's just how it is." His eyes narrowed. He leaned another inch or two closer, and Blair saw his nostrils flare again. For just the briefest second, his teeth flashed in a smile that was not polite and civilized. "You'd be surprised what I can smell."
Blair actually felt himself starting to get hard. I've got to get out of here fast if I don't want to have this gentleman wiping the floor with me. Thank God I chose the loose trousers. He started to back toward the door. "Well, thank you again. Please keep an ear out for someone who might get to a telegraph station and send that inquiry. I'd really like to get started."
Oh, Lord, he was following him out. "I'll do that. I hope this pans out. We need a doctor around here something fierce."
Blair nodded; unaware of the way it made the curls that had escaped his ribbon bounce and float about his face. "Yes, several people mentioned that. It's a shame, a nice little community like this."
He'd left his top hat at the wagon, and Jim watched the way the sunlight seemed to set sparks in his hair, then he looked away quickly, pretending to study a perfectly ordinary section of wall, as if contemplating whether or not it needed painting. "A man could make a good living around here."
"Yes, I'm sure. Well..." He didn't seem to think I was that odd outside of town. Maybe it's just seeing me surrounded by all these nice normal townsfolk. I guess in his position he can't be seen to be too friendly with anyone most people would consider strange.
"Would you like to sleep here tonight?"
Blair's mouth dropped open. It snapped shut when he realized Ellison was staring at him again. "Beg pardon?"
He gestured toward the back of the large room. "If you don't mind bars. I have a couple of cells complete with bunks, and they're empty right now. No reason why we couldn't leave the door open and let you have a bunk for the night. Or for as long as you like."
"I... well... That's nice of you. But I can't afford..."
Ellison cut him off. "Did I ask for money? I don't run a hotel, I just have spare space, and there's no reason why you shouldn't share it if you've a mind. Well?"
Blair stared at him. Finally he said quietly, "You don't know me, Constable. Do you trust me enough to take me into your home?"
"Well enough. I haven't noticed anything threatening about you, doctor. A little off the beaten path, yes, but not..." He cocked his head. "Antagonistic."
"I get along with the world as well as it will let me. Sometimes it hasn't been too friendly," Blair said honestly.
"Hopefully, you won't have that problem here. These are good people. We get some roughnecks through, but troublemakers are encouraged to leave." His eyes glinted. "Encouraged strongly. But I get the feeling you'd be an asset to the community, unless I hear differently from your Dean back in Boston. I'd be pleased if you'd stay with me."
Blair took a breath. He might regret it. Being close to this man and not showing that he found him sexually exciting wasn't going to be easy. But passing up the chance to be close to him proved to be impossible. "I'd appreciate that, constable."
Blair nodded. "Jim. I have to go tend to my patients."
"Come by when you're ready. I'll fix supper, no need for you to spend money at the restaurant."
Blair felt a twinge. It had been a long time since anyone had offered to take him into their home as a guest, not a boarder. "Thank you." He turned and hurried back up the street.
Jim leaned in the doorway for a moment, watching him retreat. Even when he hurried, there was a certain grace to his bouncing stride. The young man's voice had been almost a whisper when he said the last two words. He's lonely, like me. His eyes half closed, and his sex stirred as he remembered the musky scent that had first alerted him to Blair's presence. It had reached him even over the sharp metallic tang of the iron he was working and his own sweat. It was the unmistakable smell of male sexual arousal. And in the brief pause of his hammer strokes, he'd heard that soft, thudding pulse again, heard it speed up slightly, and had known exactly who he would find when he turned around. He was watching me and he smelled like sex.
Then, at the wagon, Jim saw the trio of giggling teenage girls milling around the medicine man. One of them reached out flirtatiously to touch the tiny gold hoop in his left ear, and Sandburg smiled at her. Catching her hand, he gave it a quick kiss before releasing it, which sent her and her friends into fresh paroxims of ecstasy. Jim felt a sinking sensation, and sighed. So, that was it. Stupid, Ellison. Good thing you saw that before you did something very stupid.
Blair managed to fend off the girls without being too obvious, but he felt relieved when they left in a swirl of skirts. Teenage girls made him nervous. They usually came with large, irate fathers or brothers. And I never do anything to provoke it. he thought with utter innocense. They're nice enough, I suppose, but they're not really what I want out of life. I'm interested in more mature partners. At that age they're just too... unformed.
Blair liked women. Hell, he loved them. But he was honest enough with himself to admit that he liked men a hell of a lot more. He supposed it might have had something to do with his upbringing. It had been so unsettled, so unsure, that he couldn't help but be drawn to strength. Not brutish strength, though. That was disgusting, and frightening.
No, what really drew Blair, what really quickened his heart and heated his blood, was a man that was strong enough to be gentle. One who took the time to be considerate of others when his greater strength would have allowed him to trample feelings and sensibilities.
As he handed the proper bottle to the man who had the boil coming up in an embarrassing spot, and warned him sternly to rub, not drink, he found his gaze wandering back to the smithy. Ellison was still in the doorway, looking up the street toward him. Even at this distance, Blair could see the blue of his eyes.
But his face was a mask, bland and blank. He turned and went back into the dusky room. Just frontier hospitality, he thought sadly. Or maybe civic duty. He may be hoping to persuade me to stay around a little longer.
Blair thought again of the way those tight jeans had hugged Ellison's lower body, presenting his buttocks as two near perfect globes. Actually, it might be a good thing to stay around, for a little while at least...
Rafe at the stables turned out to be a very amiable man, and Blair parted with a few of the coins that he'd collected for his show, making payment for the care of his team rather than running an account. It left him with precious little cash, but he had the promise of room and board himself with the town constable, and he could afford to stretch his finances a bit.
Rafe was also a handsome man, Blair noted. But after a few minutes of pleasant conversation Blair had decided that he wouldn't be seeking a bed companion here. He could always be wrong, but there just wasn't any sense of attraction from Rafe, no interest beyond the kind that always seemed to result when Blair met someone. He knew that these people considered him strange and colorful, and he tried not to confuse interest with attraction.
His animals seen to, Blair took a short tour around Cascade, getting a feel for the place. Like most towns in this part of the northwest, there wasn't much to see--yet. But everything was built solid, meant to last. Nothing had been thrown up in the hasty, lackadaisical way that characterized a lot of frontier boomtowns. The people of this township intended for it to grow, they weren't here just following a gold or silver strike like some of the Colorado and California towns he'd passed through. Blair had a feeling that many of them would be nothing but rotting shells in the next twenty years, but Cascade... Well, Cascade was like a sturdy oak sapling in a stand of brush: you just knew it was going to outgrow and outlive all that was around it.
The golden light of evening was starting to give way to the lavender of dusk when he came back to the main street. He briefly considered one of the saloons, but decided he wanted a better feel for the place before he ventured into one of those establishments. So far the community seemed fairly tolerant of his eccentricities, even amused, and intrigued, but that attitude did not necessarily extend to the denizens of the rougher establishments.
Instead he went to the general store, glad to see that the OPEN sign still rested in the front window. There were no other customers, most of the townsfolk were at home preparing supper or readying children for bed by now. The only occupant was a strikingly handsome woman behind the counter. Blair might not be tempted to bed women very often, but he appreciated beauty in all its many forms, and this was a beautiful woman. Especially when she gave him a wide, friendly smile. She had a distinct accent when she spoke. "Well, you'd be the new sawbones the girlies have been twittering about."
Blair swept her a courtly bow. "One and the same. Dr. Blair Sandburg, at your service. Who do I have the pleasure of speaking to?"
She sketched a curtsy that was good-naturedly mocking. "Megan Connor, if it please you, sir." Her cheeky grin said and even if it doesn't please you.
He returned the smile. "You're a long way from the outback, ma'am."
She looked surprised. "Well, bless me! You're the first one to get it right, mate. Most of 'em figure me for a Brit. How did you know?"
He shrugged. "I spent some time down under when I was in my early teens. Learned a few things from the aboriginal wise men about herbs and such. What brought you to Cascade?"
"I could ask you the same."
"You could, but I asked first."
She shrugged. "My husband had a dream." She waved her hands around. "This was it. Not a bad dream, as dreams go, but he didn't live to enjoy it. He passed on last year. I suppose I could have sold and moved back to stay with my mum and dad but I rather like being independent. Now you."
"What brought me to Cascade? Naomi and Burton." She looked puzzled. "My mules." When she made a clucking sound he relented. "Not much of a story, really. I'm just looking for a place to settle down, somewhere I'm needed, and accepted for who I am, not who I might be or could be."
Megan nodded. "You might find it here. They've accepted me, and I suppose you know how a single business woman is usually thought of."
Blair knew. Widows had it a bit better than spinsters, but any woman not living under the direct care of a man was suspect. More than one woman, left alone by the death of a husband or parent, had felt compelled to seek a 'protector', a man who would defend them from predation. "Have you had much trouble here?"
She shrugged. "A few of the rougher men tried to get funny a time or two, but Constable Ellison put a stop to that quick enough." She grinned. "Laid the fear of God into them. Or rather the fear of his fists."
There was open admiration in the woman's voice, and Blair felt his heart sink. The widow obviously was interested in Ellison. Well, Blair couldn't blame her, but it did sort of quash any faint hopes he'd been harboring. "Yes, he seems like quite a man. Speaking of him, he's letting me stay in the lock-up for a bit, and I'd like to give him a thank-you present." He pursed his lips, then said in a resigned voice, "A bottle of whiskey would do."
"I have that," Megan agreed. "But you don't sound too enthused. Was there anything else you'd rather have?"
"Well, I would have preferred a bottle of wine."
"Red or white?"
Blair regarded her in surprised. "I'm not sure. I don't know what he's fixing."
She shrugged. "I'd say red, then. It's most likely meat, as the fishing hasn't been too bountiful in this heat. Just wait."
She came around the counter and went to a large iron ring set in a panel in the floor, one that Blair hadn't noticed. When she stooped to it, he sprang to her side. "Here, allow me." He lifted, straining a little. She must be sturdier than she looks if she does this by herself.
There was a short flight of steps, and Megan went down them. Blair saw that she had to duck her head to move off into the space that was at the bottom. He heard a few clinks, and a moment later she was climbing back up, a dusty, greenish bottle in her hand. As he shut the door, she displayed it to him. "A nice little burgundy, not quite five years old. I can let you have it at a reasonable rate." She sighed. "It just doesn't sell well around here. A bit too refined for most of the population's tastes."
Blair took the bottle, examining it. "Oh, I've had a vintage from this vineyard before. They're good." Now it was Megan's turn to look surprised. "I spent my fifteenth summer in Paris," he explained. "They let the children have wine quite young over there." He smiled fondly. "Well, my mother did, anyway. I'd like this, but I may not have the full price."
She waved her hand. "No need to pay now. If Jim trusts you enough to have you in his home, then I can trust you for the price of the wine. Besides, what's the point of having the only wine cellar in the region if no one ever drinks any of it?"
Blair left the store feeling an odd combination of elation and depression. He felt that he'd made a new friend, but the man he was finding increasingly erotic apparently found that new friend attractive.
The wide double doors had been closed, shutting out the evening, and Blair went instead to the simple front door near the side of the building. He knocked and waited, thinking Oh, well, I can enjoy his company. Surely it's possible for me to just be friends with him? The door opened and Ellison stood there, smiling down at him. Blair's heart rose into his throat. Or maybe not.
For a moment the two men just looked at each other. Jim broke the silence first. Stepping back he said, "Don't just clutter up my doorstep, Chief. Come on in."
Blair accepted the invitation. As Jim was shutting the door, Blair said, "I meant to ask you, why do you call me Chief?"
"Well, I've only seen two other men in my life who had hair as long as yours. One of them was an Indian, and one was a Chinaman, and you just don't look like a Fong to me." Blair laughed. He hadn't often found a good sense of humor in such a big man: usually they took themselves much too seriously. Ellison smiled at his amusement. "Where's your dog? He's welcome to stay, too."
"Maybe later. This first night he's sleeping in the wagon, as a precautionary measure. He may look like a clown, but he's very protective of his territory."
Jim frowned. "I can't have a biting dog in town."
"As long as they stay out of my wagon, they have nothing to worry about. A man is allowed to protect his property, isn't he?"
Jim nodded. "When you put it like that..." He pointed at the bottle of wine. "What's this?"
Blair handed it to him. "My contribution to supper. I was quite amazed to find out that Cascade boasts a genuine wine cellar."
Jim studied the bottle, wiping a bit of dust off the glass. "Oh, you've met Megan, then." His voice was casual.
He heard Sandburg's heart rate pick up at the mention of the Australian woman's name, and his spirits sank, then sank a little lower when Blair said, "Yes, I have. A charming woman."
Jim's senses told him that Blair's pulse raised again when he replied, "Yes, very pretty," but they didn't tell him it was because the younger man ached, thinking that he heard a special interest in Jim's voice. "Come on back to the kitchen. Supper is almost ready."
He led Sandburg back through the front room, which wouldn't have looked out of place in a genteel home in Boston, to a cozy kitchen. Blair was amazed at the cleanliness of his surroundings. He'd never yet known a bachelor to be so careful of his living space and it made him suspicious. As he sat at the table and Jim went to stir a pot bubbling on the wood burning stove he said casually, "The place is nice. Who does for you?"
"Hm?" Jim was getting bowls and glasses out of a cabinet.
"Who does for you? Takes care of the place."
Jim rummaged in a drawer for spoons. "I do it myself."
Blair sat up a little straighter. "You're joking." A questioning glance made him continue, "I mean... it's so neat."
Jim set the table. "A place for everything, and everything in its place. I have Mrs. Remington do my laundry, but the rest of it I do myself." He shrugged. "Living alone, it isn't such a hardship. I was in the army for almost ten years, and then Carolyn wasn't much for housework. I'm used to it."
"My wife," he said shortly.
Blair was curious, but he bit back the inquiries that swirled through his mind. There was no wife in evidence now; ergo there was no wife. Why there was no wife could wait for another time. The subject obviously made Jim uncomfortable, so he would leave it for the present. "If you have a corkscrew, I'll open the wine. It should breathe for a couple of minutes."
There was, of course, a corkscrew. Jim handed it over and watched as Blair carefully twisted it into the cork, then began the painstaking process of working out the recalcitrant plug, wiggling the bottle minutely while exerting a steady pull. "Why don't you just jerk it out?"
"And have the sediment mix in with the wine? I don't think so." He worked a little more, and again Jim admired the graceful strength of those hands. Finally the cork pulled free with a subdued pop, and Blair grinned in triumph, setting the bottle on the table. "There. How much longer for the food?"
"Oh," Jim stirred the pot thoughtfully. "Say, another ten minutes. I want to be sure the carrots are done."
"Can I have a taste?" It smelled good, and Blair's stomach gave an interested growl.
Jim chuckled. "It's just stew, but sure." He dipped up a small spoonful and offered it to the younger man.
Blair started to lean forward to taste it, then noticed the steam wafting up. He took hold of Ellison's wrist, bent a little closer, and blew on the stew to cool it. Jim froze when the slim, firm fingers closed around his wrist. He watched as the generous mouth pursed, and felt the cool breath wafting across his skin. The tiny hairs on his forearm prickled at the sensation. Dark lashes drifted down as Sandburg took the spoon in his mouth, concentrating utterly on the food. Then the eyebrows went up, and he pulled back, smacking his lips thoughtfully. "Something wrong?"
"Um, no, not really. It's just a tad... bland."
Jim rubbed his forehead. "Damn! I forgot. Look, I have salt and pepper, but I generally don't use them much in my food."
Blair cocked his head. "So the heightened senses extend to taste, too?"
Jim dropped the spoon in a dishpan set in the sink, sighing. "Yeah. Too much of anything and my belly rebels. There's been times when I could hardly keep down enough to keep body and soul together."
"Hm. Would you be willing to let me try a little something? I think I might be able to put some flavor in that without it necessarily grating on your senses."
"Chief, I'm willing to try almost anything."
Again the dark brows rose. "That's nice to know. I'll be right back." He bustled out; on his way back to his wagon Jim assumed. When he was gone, Jim tasted the stew again, making a face. Bland was too nice a word. Tasteless was more accurate.
Sandburg returned quickly, carrying several twists of paper. He shook mysterious powders into the stew, and dropped in what looked like a leaf, then stirred it. "Now, we just let that simmer so the flavors can meld."
"What was that you put in it?"
Blair looked at him impishly. "Well, I could be all mysterious, and go on about secret family recipes. The truth is that my mother felt hard used if she had to boil an egg, and it's just something else I picked up in self-defense. It's a little basil, thyme, powdered garlic, dried chives, and a bay leaf. Oh, and I almost forgot the most important thing!" He took the wine bottle and poured a health slug into the stew.
"Hey! I thought we were going to drink that."
"We are. But you now have boeuf bourgingoin, rather than simple stew. Trust me on this."
"If you say so," Jim said doubtfully. "Has that stuff panted enough now? I could use a drink."
"I suppose so." Blair poured wine into both the glasses; careful not to let any of the sediment get out. Putting aside the bottle, he lifted his glass. "What shall we toast?"
Jim stopped, the glass halfway to his lips, and smiled at the smaller man. "A toast, eh? I've only done that once, when my brother Steven was married."
"Go on," Blair urges. "You're the host."
"All right." Jim thought for a moment, studying the young man sitting beside him. At last he lifted his glass toward Blair, "How about 'To new friendships'?"
Blair's smile grew a little broader. "That's as fine a sentiment as I've ever heard." He touched his glass to Jim's. "To new friendships." They both drank, watching each other over the rims of their glasses. There was silence for a moment, then Jim cleared his throat and went to stir the stew again. Blair watched him as he moved about, doing useless things, and the smile lingered about his lips. Yes, to friendship. He liked this man. Even if he never got him into bed, he wanted to know him. "So, Jim. I expect you've been here since the town was founded, eh?"
"Mm, no, not really." He leaned back against the cabinet, sipping his wine, brow wrinkled. "I guess it's been about six years since it went from being a handful of buildings to a town, and I've been here about three."
"Really? That surprises me. Your roots seem to be sunk pretty deep. I mean, the way everyone treats you..." His voice trailed off. He wasn't exactly sure what he wanted to say, or how to say it, and that was unusual for Blair.
"I know. This is home. Sometime you know quickly. You come to a place, look around, and know that's where you want to spend the rest of your life. Kind of like with people. You can know someone forever and never feel close to them, then you can meet someone else and it's like you've known them forever."
There was another silence. Both of the men sensed something unusual, some current running beneath their words. But neither was sure of what the other thought or felt, so neither was willing to take it any farther. Still, the silence was not uncomfortable, as it should have been. Finally Jim said, "I think it's ready now."
"Good!" Blair jumped up, bringing both of the bowls to the stove. "My belly thinks my throat has been cut."
"Well, I just hope it doesn't wish that it had been after you get a taste of this."
"Oh, I'll have to take at least half of either the blame or the credit, you know, after tossing in my magic spices." They sat at the table and dipped up a spoonful at almost the same time.
Jim sat back with a low whistle, then grinned at Blair. "I'd almost forgotten how good food could taste."
Blair sampled his stew, then nodded. "Not bad, if I do say so myself."
Jim ate hungrily, then went back for seconds. "Better than not bad. I can't remember the last time I actually wanted a second helping of anything. If you need to supplement your income, I could hire you as my cook."
"You couldn't afford me." Blair joked. "But I'll be happy to do my share of the cooking while I'm here, and I'll show you a few tricks so you can do it yourself when I'm gone."
Jim had been in the process of pouring himself more wine, and he set the bottle down with enough of a thump to make Blair blink. Jim saw his questioning look, and shrugged. "You just arrived. You may like the town enough to stay for awhile."
"I might. I'll admit that I've been looking for a place to settle."
"We need a real doctor around here."
"But you're not sure I'm a real doctor."
Jim flushed a little. "I'm sorry if you feel I'm being too suspicious, but..."
"No, not at all. I can understand. You obviously care about your fellow citizens and take your responsibility seriously. I just want to get someone to Lansdale to contact my college so I can set your mind at ease."
"I think Simon Banks will be in sometime tomorrow to check on the progress of his wheels. He usually rides on to Lansdale this time of the week to take the mail in to the post office. I'm sure he'll be willing to send the message then and pick up the reply in a couple of days."
"Good. But I already have people who want to consult with me. What will I tell them?"
Jim frowned. If Sandburg was legitimate, (and he had a gut feeling that he was, despite his odd appearance and free manners), then Jim didn't want to deny people his services. He said slowly, "There's no reason why you can't see them, talk to them. I'll still need to check anything you prescribe, and I'd rather you didn't do any major procedures or operations."
"That sounds fair. But I'll warn you in advance, Constable." His voice was serious, formal. "If I run into an emergency, or a condition that will worsen with waiting, I WILL treat them. You may run me out of town afterward if you feel it necessary, but I've sworn to heal people whenever I can. I CAN'T see someone suffering and do nothing."
Jim fidgeted. He didn't like that officious tone: it felt too distancing. "If it's an emergency, I won't object. Hell, you couldn't do any worse than anyone else around here, and you'd probably do a lot better." Blair relaxed again, and Jim felt relieved. The last thing he wanted was to alienate this man. On the contrary, he wanted very much to know him better.
They talked some more over the last of the wine. Jim was fascinated. Blair seemed to have been everywhere and seen everything. Things that were just rumors and myths to Jim were facts to Blair. He spoke of a huge winged lion in Egypt, made of stone, and with the crumbling face of a man. When he told of the huge wall in China that ran for hundreds of miles and was wide enough for two good-sized wagons to pass each other on its top, Jim could almost see it.
Blair insisted on helping him wash the few dishes, and they worked together, still talking. As he was folding his towel, Blair said, "Your turn now. I've told you a good bit of my life, time for you to tell me about yours."
Jim opened the back door and threw the dishwater out. When he closed the door and turned back to Blair, his expression was closed. "Maybe some other time, Chief. It's late now, and I need to get to bed. I want to work on those wheel rims a bit more before Simon gets here, so I can show him that I haven't been slacking off."
"Oh. All right." What would a small town constable have that he wanted to keep secret, Blair thought as Jim got sheets and a blanket out of a closet. He lit a lamp and led Blair out to the large attached room.
The two cells were set in the back corner, side by side so that the one in the corner had two solid walls and the other had one. Other than that there were bars: sturdy, thick iron bars. Jim indicated them. "A little grim looking, I know, but you won't have the door locked against you. Pick either one."
Blair chose the second cell, the one that was closest to Ellison's living quarters and most open, and stepped inside. There was a relatively decent cot. He nodded in satisfaction. "Much better than some of the places I've slept." Blair turned, and almost bumped into Jim. The other man had followed him into the cell so quietly that Blair hadn't an inkling he was so close. Jim didn't say anything, just setting the lamp on a shelf, but Blair went on, "And before you ask, yes, I have seen the inside of a jail cell or two. I won't bore you with details, but I've never stolen and I've never hurt anyone who didn't try to hurt me first."
"I wasn't going to ask," Jim said quietly, looking down at the younger man.
Blair looked back at him, and went to the door of the cell, putting his hand on the bars. "Thank you for that."
Jim shrugged. "I try not to judge people until I know them. Until they show me something of themselves."
"But you do judge."
Jim's tone was matter-of-fact. "I have to. It's what I do."
Blair studied him. "Yes, I suppose so."
"Well..." Jim shifted again, awkwardly. "If..." He stopped abruptly, then slipped past Blair, exiting the tiny cell.
He moved so close that his sleeve brushed Blair's hand, there on the doorframe, and Blair found himself shivering. Blair said, "Wait!" Ellison turned back, his gaze questioning, and suddenly Blair had no idea what he was going to say. He gestured helplessly at the lamp. "Hadn't you better take that with you? If you fall in the dark, I'd end up having to treat you and I'd rather like some time off right now."
"I don't need it, Chief."
"You know your place so well?"
"Something like that. Sleep well."
"You, too." He watched Ellison walk back to the entrance to his little home, but lost sight of him in the gloom till he opened the door, spilling golden light out into the darkness. He arrived there so quickly that it was clear that there had been no hesitation in his pace. Blair shook his head. It must be wonderful to be so familiar with a place that you could move in it that confidently.
Blair finished making up the cot, then stripped off his clothes, down to his linen drawers and blew out the lamp. He slid between the sheets and punched up the pillow, trying to settle down. After a moment he sighed, stood back up, and removed the drawers before getting back in bed. It's just too damn hot to sleep with anything next to my skin.
Even the sheet was too much, and he soon kicked it off. That was better, at least tolerable. He'd just have to remember to pull the sheet back up some time later. It had been a long time since he'd had to worry about that. Between towns he slept out under the stars, and Naomi, Burton, and Darwin didn't give a damn if he was nude or not.
Blair tossed and turned, and finally sighed. Admit it, Sandburg. You're not hot just because it's summertime. You're hot because of that gorgeous man sleeping a couple of rooms away. His hand rose to his chest, idly brushing through the crisp curls. His fingers came to the small golden ring that pierced his left nipple, and he tugged at it gently. It stayed half-erect, but now with the physical stimulation, it quickly hardened all the way.
Blair groaned. Damn. I wasn't going to touch myself tonight. But his other hand had come up, and now he was toying with his other nipple, teasing it, also. In moments it was a firm peak, and he pinched both of them, drawing his breath in with a sharp hiss as sparks of pleasure lanced down to fan the heat that was building in his crotch.
Oh, hell, why not? This room is huge, any noise will get lost in it, and there are three or four walls between us. It's not like he's going to know...
Jim Ellison was sitting on the edge of his bed in the dark, staring at nothing in particular. In cooler weather he slept in his long johns. In the summer heat, like tonight, he wore a nightshirt. Not that he wanted to: he thought they were rather ridiculous things, actually. But he had to wear something, in case there was an emergency he had to attend to as constable, and at least with the nightshirt he could catch a breeze occasionally.
I should go to sleep. I have to get up early tomorrow, like I told Sandburg, and I shouldn't have thought of Sandburg, because he's why I can't go to sleep. Why doesn't he just settle down? A tiny voice in the corner of his mind said You could try just ignoring him. Sometimes it works. But there wasn't any way he could do that. His senses seemed to be focusing in on the young man on the far side of the building without any conscious effort.
He'd heard the rustling of cloth that meant first that he was spreading his covers, then that he was removing his clothes. Two thumps heralded the removal of his shoes, and another rasp of cloth said he'd gotten in bed. He was puzzled when there was more rustling. It was almost as if he were removing more clothes, and the sound of him sliding between the sheets again had a different tone. With a flush of heat, Jim realized that he'd removed the last of his clothing and gotten back into bed naked.
For a few moments he was still. Jim concentrated harder, finding the slow, soft thump of his heartbeat, letting it wash over him. It sped up a little, and he wondered if he was asleep and dreaming? But his breathing had never entered the steady rhythm that Jim associated with slumber.
There was a soft exhalation, a sigh, then a groan and a hiss. Jim sat straighter, alert, focusing fiercely on gleaning every scrap of information he could. If Sandburg was in any kind of distress, he wanted to know about it, and offer help. Then a faint, musky aroma drifted to him, and he relaxed, smiling. Pheromones. The groan and sigh took on a new significance now.
Well, now. Someone's feeling a little randy. Jim knew that he should lie down, put a pillow over his head, and try to sleep. The man out in the cell obviously thought that he had a reasonable amount of privacy. He knew that Jim's senses were acute, but Jim doubted that he'd be so self-amorous if he knew that they were attuned to the point where Blair's actions were almost as clear as if he were on the other side of the bed. He should try to ignore what was happening out there in the hot darkness. Looking down at the way his nightshirt was beginning to tent in front, he knew that he wasn't going to do that.
Out in the cell, Blair let his hands slide down his torso, over his ribs to his abdomen. His eyes closed, he imagined that it was not his own hands making that erotic journey. Instead he thought of large, square hands, hard and a little rough from swinging a heavy sledgehammer against heated metal.
He skimmed over his hips, then moved to rub his thighs, carefully avoiding the erection that was angling up against his belly. There was no rush: he could take all the time he liked with this fantasy. He spread his legs and let his hands slip around, rubbing and pinching the sensitive skin of his inner thighs. His cock head was leaking a small puddle of pre-come on his belly by now.
Blair swirled his fingers in the warm, slippery wetness, then lifted them to his face and sniffed delicately, smelling his own desire. Would Jim smell differently? Would he ever have a chance to find out?
In his room, Jim closed his eyes. The smell of Sandburg's heat and musk was thick, intoxicating. With an impatient motion he jerked his nightshirt over his head, reached down, and gripped the thick erection that jutted hungrily from his loins. It's been so long.
Jim didn't frequent the bawdyhouse outside of town, and the reputations of single women in small towns were too easily damaged to trifle with them. His only outlet the last few years had been his own hands and the occasionally 'lady adventurer' who drifted through town on her way to richer pickings. He hadn't had sex in over three months, and that time had been about as enjoyable as blowing his nose. And now, to have a dream only a few yards away...
Blair's heartbeat sped up, and his breathing became deeper, more ragged. The sliding sound of skin-on-skin increased. Oh, Lord. He's doing it. He's touching himself. Unable to resist, Jim began to masturbate, imagining smaller, more elegant hands, with smooth, strong fingers.
In his minds eye he saw the sturdy, yet graceful, body sprawled naked in wanton abandon. He imagined Sandburg lifting and opening his legs, bending his knees, presenting himself for Jim's delectation. Jim moaned as he contemplated the shadowy crease of Sandburg's firm, white ass, and his hands sped up. God, it's a good thing his hearing and smell aren't as good as mine. If he knew what I was doing... what I was thinking, he'd run like a rabbit.
Blair rolled on his side on the cot. One hand never stilling on his cock, he reached behind himself with the other. His fingers slipped into the crack of his ass and he found the pucker that marked the opening to his body. He rubbed around it with one finger that was slick with his body's juices, then pushed slowly inside. The momentary ache drew a whine from him that quickly changed to pleasure as he moved the finger in and out slowly. Once his body had adjusted, he began to pump strongly, matching the movements to the strokes of his hand on his shaft.
His lips moved, forming words without sound. More. God, please. Fuck me, Jim! Fuck me hard. If he had even whispered these words things might have been very different in the next few days. Time would have been spared, misunderstandings avoided. But it was only thought and motion, no sound.
His orgasm struck, making his balls and his ass clench. He whimpered. In the bedroom on the other side of the building, Ellison heard the soft cry, smelled the ripe, somehow spicy scent of Sandburg's sperm, and came. His utterance was more of a growl and the spasms that racked him were so sweet that they were near pain.
He sat panting, listening to the racing heartbeat slow again to a steady bump, the breathing smooth out. There was the rustle of a body turning, then nothing except the minute sounds of a man who was in the grips of a deep, satisfied sleep.
Jim rubbed his hands over his face, then finally lay down. I ought to ask around and see if there's someone in town who can give him board. I ought to, but I'm not going to. He'll move out soon enough, and maybe he'll move on. I want him to stay as close as possible for as long as possible. It won't be much, but maybe it will be enough.
Out in the cell, Blair drifted off into a peaceful sleep, and the dream came again. He'd been having the dream for a long time, since he was a small child, and only recently had he come to peace with it.
He was moving through a thick growing forest, pushing his way through brush and high grass. The significant thing was that he was doing so on all fours. Blair had realized a few years back that, in this dream, he wasn't human. Once he had come to that conclusion, it became less disorienting.
He'd even recently become aware of just what he was. In one nocturnal rambling he'd found a small, silvered pond and bent to lap cool water. Gazing into the smooth surface he had seen the reflection of the moon... and his own face. He was a wolf, a blue eyed wolf. It hadn't been so hard to accept. Many of the cultures he'd become acquainted with believed in animal spirits. Blair just assumed that he had found his own, personal spirit, and it was lupine.
It visited him again tonight, and it seemed to have a purpose. This time he was not the wolf, but he walked beside it, naked, through the forest. It led him to a small clearing and crouched at its edge, looking up at him with a whine.
Blair looked. There, under the silver moonlight, two figures slept on the ground. He stepped out, going closer. Dark and light seemed interwoven. As he got closer he saw that one of the figures was human, and the other was feline, so dark that it seemed to melt into the shadows on the ground.
Finally he was close enough to see clearly. It was a great black panther and a naked man, sleeping together. Massive black paws lay against pale skin, and Blair almost winced, imagining how easy it would be for dagger claws to spring out and rip bloody furrows.
But the great cat opened its eyes and regarded him calmly. Blair froze. Instead of the green or gold he had expected, the jaguar had blue eyes, eyes that looked very familiar.
The jaguar yawned, lips wrinkling back from ivory fangs, whiskers bristling, and looked at Blair again. You have been a long time coming.
Blair felt the brush of fur against his leg and looked down to see the wolf sitting by his feet. They're stubborn, these humans.
I know. The jaguar gave the hair of the man sleeping between his forepaws a rough, affectionate lick. He never stirred. You see? His mate has arrived, and still he sleeps.
Blair looked more closely. It was Jim. Of course it's Jim. Who else would it be?
Hesitantly, Blair knelt down. He reached out and touched Jim's shoulder. The skin was warm, and smooth. I've never had such a vivid dream.
The wolf went to lay beside the jaguar, resting his head on the big cat's furry side. I'm afraid mine isn't any more alert. He still thinks that he's making all this up in his own mind.
You might be civil enough to talk to me, Blair complained.
The blue eyes of the cat regarded him. We talk to you all the time, cub. You just have to listen. In any case, there's nothing to be done right now. It's enough that you've found each other. The rest will follow. Now sleep.
Blair lay down beside Jim, moving close to him. But I'm sleeping now.
The scene was fading into the darkness of deep sleep, and he heard the wolf's voice, amused, as he fell into it. Whatever you say.
Blair got up early, pulling on his drawers and going out into the large room to sluice himself off at the large cooling tub. He was drying himself off when Ellison opened the door from his quarters. "You're always wet when I see you."
"In this heat, it's hard to resist."
"Come on in when you're done. Breakfast is almost ready."
"I get breakfast, too? My, this is better service than any hotel I've ever stayed at. I won't be but a minute."
Jim watched him as he returned to the cell, studying the flow of muscles in his strong, hairy legs. His hair was loose again, trickling almost to the middle of his back in a thick mass. He's going to comb it, or brush it, work the sleep snarls out of it. It would be easier for him if someone else did it. I bet it feels like silk. Jim contemplated this. He could almost feel the smooth slide of the hair, feel it tickling his palm as he stroked it, following the path of a comb as he pulled it gently through the auburn mass, coaxing out tangles. "I wonder if this is what it's like to get foolish in you're old age."
A little later Sandburg came into the kitchen, buttoning his shirt. "You know, it's so hot that I'm even foreswearing flannel for the time being. That's unusual for me."
"Cold natured?" Jim put a plate of eggs and bacon before him and went to pour coffee.
"I'm afraid so. The least bit of chill and I want to wrap myself up tight in several layers of blankets." He started on his food. "Preferably with someone else to share body heat."
Jim almost choked on a sip of coffee. "You're a... an open sort of person, aren't you, Sandburg?"
He munched, returning a steady gaze. "I never pretend to be what I'm not, and I'm not a monk. Of course, traveling as much as I do, it's made such things a bit difficult at times. That would be one advantage to settling down. I'd like to find a mate."
Jim cleared his throat. I have to promote Cascade for all it's worth and try to get him to stay. I have to try to avoid thinking of him mating with anyone. Anyone else, anyway. "Well, that could happen here."
"Could it?" Maybe I'm not ready to tell you what I've been thinking about you, Mr. Ellison, but I may as well let you know how things stand with me. I at least need to know how you feel about men being together. Then I'll know whether I should run, or whether there's a chance.
"Sure. There are a number of nice single women in town and on the farms roundabout. And if you aren't interested in settling with one right away, there's..." He trailed off.
He's blushing. Good lord. "There's what?"
"Well, there's a few women outside of town who are no better than they should be."
"Prostitutes?" Jim winced at the bald term, but Blair, usually so in love with words, had little patience with euphemisms about such things. "No, I don't think so. I don't believe in putting a price on anything so intimate."
The blush had faded and Ellison's expression was cynical. "For them, it's hardly intimate." Blair was a little surprised that the man, who seemed so literal, could make the distinction between physical and emotional intimacy when many more 'sophisticated' people could not. "But it is for me. I do not buy, neither do I sell. But now that you've mentioned them, I should make a point of trying to talk them into consulting with me. Ladies in such professions have a wide range of problems that need to be addressed. Now," Blair used a bit of bread to wipe up the last of the yolk on his plate, then popped it into his mouth. "You've apprized me of the single woman situation. What about single men?"
"I'm afraid you'll have a bit of competition. There are more married men than there have been, but there are still a good number who are looking."
"That wasn't what I meant."
Ellison looked mildly puzzled. "No? What did you mean?"
"I meant are there any single men in town that might be looking for other single men?"
This time he didn't blush: he went pale. After a moment he said quietly, "Not that I know of, but I could be wrong. Are you saying that you... like men?"
"Yes. I like women, too, but I prefer men. Is this a problem for you?"
"I... no, I don't think so. I'm just a little surprised. It's not something people generally discuss when they've known each other only a day."
Unless they want to sleep with that person. "I figured since you were being kind enough to let me stay here, I'd better be up front with you. And I wanted to assure you that I'll be discreet. I know this isn't something most people are comfortable with, so I don't flaunt my preferences."
"Like I said, I don't have any problems with it. I just ask that you don't bring anyone here. But then, I'd ask the same concerning women." And I don't think I'd be able to stay sane if you were with someone else here. Because I'd know, and with these damn senses it would be like watching you make love with them.
"That goes without saying." I believe that's our problem, here. I believe there's a great deal going unsaid, but it's too soon to push, so I'll just leave it alone. Blair got up and took his plate to the sink, dropping it in the pan of warm, soapy water that was waiting, and beginning to wash it. "I don't abuse the hospitality that's offered me. If I find anyone to spend some time with, I'll arrange for it to be somewhere else."
Jim wasn't sure how to respond to that, so he treated it like a lot of things in his life that troubled or confused him: he decided to ignore it. He pushed away from the table, saying, "I have to get to work on those wheel rims. Simon will be in sometime soon and I want to be able to show progress. I'll be sure to get him to send that message."
"Good, good." Blair wiped his hands dry, and went to Jim, digging in his pocket. He pulled out a small handful of coins and stirred them with his finger. "How much do you suppose the wire will cost?"
"You don't have to do that, Chief. I'll stand for the wire. I consider it a civic action."
"Nonsense. I pay my own way, Constable. There's only been one period in my life when I accepted what could even remotely be considered charity, and I didn't do that for myself." He chose two silver dollars and offered them, but Jim refused to take them. Shaking his head, Sandburg caught Jim's wrist, pulling his hand toward him. "You're a stubborn man, Jim Ellison." He pressed the coins firmly into Jim's palm and folded his fingers around them, holding Jim's hand closed with his own. "Take them. Please don't turn this into a silly contest of wills."
Again those hands, those strong but gentle hands. Yes, they were the hands of a healer--or a lover. Jim said, a little roughly, "All right." Blair gave his hand a tiny squeeze before letting go. Needing to say something, anything, Jim said, "There's left over stew, if you think your dog would like it."
Sudden change of subject. Interesting. "I'll tell him it's from you. You'll have a friend for life."
Darwin was, indeed, grateful. Blair sat in the wagon, watching as he cleaned the dish thoroughly, taking a moment or two to make sure that he couldn't remove the pattern of flowers painted on the bottom, then sat back with a replete sigh. "Good?" Blair scratched a spot on his chest, and his hind leg thumped ecstatically. "You know, Darwin, you're living proof that one part of the body can be affected by stimulation of another. That sumptuous meal was courtesy of my temporary landlord, Mr. Ellison."
The dog burped. "I'll tell him you said thank you. So, Darwin, you've met him. What do you think?" The dog whined. "My sentiments exactly. Very nice. The question is, would he be interested, or would he thrash my tail clear back to Boston?" The dog yipped. "Yes, I think he could. Well, time will tell. Do you think you'd like to stay here for awhile? Maybe more than awhile?"
Darwin yawned and settled down, head on his paws. In just a moment, he snored. "I'll take that as a yes." Blair got down out of the wagon and looked up and down main street, considering. He'd just more or less looked around the day before. Today would be a good day to make a closer inspection of the town, and begin introducing himself formally, then perhaps another small show in the afternoon, when more people were in town.
It was a quiet morning. All the business people Blair visited were more than happy to take a little time to chat with the interesting young man. Everyone knew he was in town (that was one thing about small communities that could be both a blessing and a curse), and were curious. He graciously turned down numerous cups of coffee and tea, getting curious looks when he said something about too many stimulants not being good for the health. In compensation he accepted, at various establishments, ginger snaps, sugar cookies, pound cake, and a rather spectacular piece of fudge. He reflected that if he did settle in Cascade, he'd have to take up an exercise regime.
By the time he felt as if he'd made enough progress for the day it was noon. He decided to make one last stop: at one of the town's saloons. He might be holding off on caffeine, but the idea of a beer was very tempting in this heat. He chose a saloon that looked a little more respectable than some of the others, but not so respectable that he thought his long hair would be an obstacle, and stepped into the dim interior.
Garret Kincaid was spending the day in town. He often did this. He knew many men would have been skeptical if he had mentioned the fact that being surrounded by women all the time could be cloying, but it was. He just had to get out of the house sometimes and be around other men, men who weren't totally distracted by the prospect of getting some poontang.
Garret ran the local bawdyhouse. In a bigger town it might have been different. There would have been a steady stream of customers all day instead of the concentration in the evening and early night. No one wanted to pay extra to stay overnight, so the place was usually deserted again by midnight, or one o'clock.
He was there because things had gotten a little hot in Sacramento, and he felt it was prudent to lay low for a few years. But soon he planned to save up enough money to try his luck in San Francisco. There was real money to be made there. Just a few good girls to start with, and with his business sense he could build it into an empire, maybe even get into gambling and the opium trade. That was where the real money was.
Yes, just a couple of more years. What with the charges he laid on top of the cut he took from his girls, he'd have enough money by then. There was already a nice nest egg stashed in a deposit box in the Cascade bank. But in the meantime, my God this place was deadly dull. He'd been in New York and Boston and was used to a more cosmopolitan atmosphere. This town was provincial in the extreme. He had to work to keep the local bumpkins from realizing his contempt. These sturdy pioneers did not react well to disdain.
Not that there was anything wrong with sturdy pioneers, but they were a little tiresome if they were a steady diet. There was usually some farmhand or drover who was more interested in Garret than the girls, once they realized that Garret didn't mind the interest at all, but they were all so rough.
Garret sighed, staring morosely into his glass. When was the last time he'd been with someone who didn't have calluses like leather on his hands? Someone who didn't view the occasional flea as the natural order of things? Someone who didn't think that a boozed up saloon girl singing 'Oh, Dem Golden Slippers' was the height of cultural entertainment?
He heard the batwing doors creek, signaling the entry of another patron, and looked up, more out of habit than hope. Then he straightened alertly, interest immediately piqued by the figure that hesitated just inside the saloon.
He was on the smallish side, perhaps an inch or two shorted than Garret, and Kincaid was not a tall man. The first thing that caught his eye was the hair, all of it. He was turning his head, perusing the room, and Garret saw that the thick ponytail reached almost to the middle of his back. It was a rich red-brown, and even the flickering lamplight picked out glints in its depths. From the tendrils that he was pushing back from his face it was curly, too. Kincaid had an immediate image of what it would look like spread out across a pillow.
The face strengthened the first thought. A lively freshness about it drew you. The eyes that narrowed to peer through the near gloom were a dark blue, clear, and searching. He wasn't a boy: his sturdy body showed the musculature of a fully-grown man. But he was young, quite young. Young enough.
He came a few steps farther into the room and the dolt who tended bar finally noticed him. "Hidy, there. He'p you?"
The stranger broke into a smile that seemed to brighten the room as he walked toward the bar. "I certainly hope so."
As he walked past the table where Kincaid was lounging, the older man shifted in his seat so that he could watch him as he approached the bar. Oh, oh, oh. That ass was absolute perfection. This was someone he needed to get closer to. Much closer.
At the bar Blair offered his hand to the bartender. As they shook he said, "I'm Blair Sandburg, and I just arrived in your fair city yesterday. It's a charming town, but a bit sultry. I was wondering if it would be too early to get a draft of beer?"
Blair heard a soft laugh behind him, and turned at the sound. The man sitting at the table was in his early forties, sandy haired, dressed a little better than most of the townspeople he'd seen so far. His sack suit was well tailored, although a bit out of date. Blair had seen the most recent fashions when he passed through San Francisco, and it was understandable that they might be a little slow to reach this close to the wilderness.
"I said something amusing, sir?"
The man continued smiling. "I wasn't laughing at you, young man. It's just that the very idea of it ever being either too early or too late for a beer in this establishment is... Yes, it's amusing. Hollis, get our visitor a beer, and another one for me. Mr. Sandburg, if you'll join me, I'll be happy to spring for your libation."
"I couldn't possibly refuse such a kind invitation. Besides, though I haven't checked my theological guidelines too closely recently, I believe it is against my religion to turn down a free drink."
Blair waited while the bartender drew two glasses of rather thick looking, dark beer, then brought it over to the table and sat. Kincaid offered his hand, "Garret Kincaid, Mr. Sandburg. I had heard that there was a traveling medicine man in town but you're not what I expected."
Blair took a sip of the beer. "I'm very seldom what anyone expects." He licked a bit off foam off his upper lip, and Garret watched the flicker of the pink tongue with growing interest. "My, this is much better than I had hoped. I haven't had anything this good since I was in Hamburg."
"Very perceptive. The brewer is a German immigrant. We're lucky in that respect. Most spirits of any kind out here are slop."
"I don't know about that. I ran into a rather nice wine yesterday from a Miss Connors' wine cellar."
"Ah, yes. Miss Connors." Megan was a bit of a sore spot with Garret. He'd been hoping that her business would fail after her husband died. It would have made it easier to proposition her about joining his stable. That accent would have made her exotic enough to be very popular with the locals. But the business had prospered, and the constable had made it clear that 'mashers' would not be tolerated, so he'd given her up as a lost cause. "Lovely woman. I suppose in your profession you've traveled a good deal in the states, but you just mentioned Germany. Where else have you been?"
Blair sipped the beer appreciatively. "The more easily answered question would be where haven't I been." He said it as a simple statement, no brag intended. "My mother was a foot-loose spirit, Mr. Kincaid. From infancy to my sixteenth year we seldom spent more than a few months in any one place."
"So your father was a traveling man also?"
"He may very well have been," Blair said placidly. "I wouldn't know. I never met the man."
"Oh." Kincaid winced inwardly. "I am sorry."
"For my illegitimacy, or for having brought it up? Please, don't trouble yourself in either case. For the first, it doesn't bother me. It's a minor part of my makeup. For the second..." He smiled charmingly. "You meant no harm, it was a natural enough question."
"I hear that you're an actual medical doctor."
"I am, complete with the sheepskin to prove it."
"Wonderful. We've been needing one."
"So I've heard, from several people."
"Might you consider settling here? You could make a fair living, though it would be much duller than the life you're used to."
"Mister Kincaid, there are moments of interest and excitement, but there are long stretches of tedium. There's nothing very exciting about sitting behind a mule team for hours on end, traveling from one spot to another."
"It will certainly be welcome to have someone a bit more cosmopolitan in town. I'm glad you dropped by. Many men thinking of setting themselves up in business in a town would avoid an establishment like this and concentrate on tea parlors." He smiled. "If we had tea parlors."
Blair drained his beer. "I quite enjoy tea, but I'll admit to being a little more comfortable in a place like this. I supported myself through my last year of school working somewhere a good bit rougher than this."
"Really?" Kincaid's eyes narrowed thoughtfully. So, you're at home in a less tightly-laced environment, are you? That's very encouraging.
Blair set his glass down with a sigh. "That was precisely what I needed, and I thank you."
"Please don't mention it. The least I can do is provide a bit of common hospitality for a traveler. And speaking of hospitality, perhaps you'd like to visit my establishment in a day or so." He studied his well manicured nails with a faint smile. "Most young men passing through the area find their way to it at least once."
Blair looked puzzled, but then his expression cleared. "I noticed that you said establishment instead of 'home'. Constable Ellison mentioned a, um..."
"Brothel. No point in being too terribly refined about it. It's nothing like what I had in Sacramento, but it's quite good for such a godforsaken area. You'd be most welcome. The rates are reasonable, the girls are clean, and they'd look upon a chance to bed such a handsome young man as yourself as a positive treat." And they aren't the only ones. If I can get you out there, with your mind on sex, half the battle is won.
But Sandburg was shaking his head. "No, I'm afraid I won't be patronizing your business. But I was thinking that I might be able to help you."
That's exactly what I have in mind, but we may have different interpretations of 'help'. "How so?"
"You say your girls are clean. It's difficult to tell with just a casual examination. I could give each one a thorough exam and treat anything that needed treating."
"That would be an excellent idea. It would be a major selling point to be able to tell the customers that my girls were doctor approved."
Blair's smile became the tiniest bit strained. "I'm suggesting it because that line of work can take a lot out of a woman. They need to take care of themselves, and I've found that most of the ladies of the evening tend to be a little casual about their health in general."
"Whatever you say. Just come by during the day: late afternoon and evening is our busy time, and the girls wouldn't be able to take any time off. I'm usually there, but I'll tell the girls to be expecting you, and co-operate. How much for each girl?"
"That will depend, of course, on whether or not they need treatment but I'm a reasonable man. Say... two dollars each for just the initial consultation. We'll see after that."
"Fine. I'll pay you. I take care of all my girl's needs."
Blair smiled at that as he stood up. "Wonderful! Not all bosses in your profession are so caring. I hope you'll strongly urge them to consult with me. It really will be in their best interests. Good day to you, sir."
Kincaid enjoyed watching him walk away. He signaled for another beer, settling back in happy contemplation. That is prime. Co-operate? Oh, yes, Mister Sandburg, they'll co-operate, if they want to keep their teeth in their heads. And I do want to keep my stable in good condition. Let's see... He said two dollars. I'll tell those stupid bitches it's seven, that'll leave a tidy little profit. And if some of them need more treatment, so much the better. As for not using my services... His smile became predatory, and the bartender began to feel a little sorry for the curly-headed young man who'd just left. there's service... then there's service.
Jim was slicing thick slabs off a loaf of bread when Blair returned to the smithy. "I got some cold chicken from the restaurant. Simon was here earlier and he left some fine tomatoes, too."
"Sounds wonderful." Blair worked the handle of the pump at the sink to rinse off his hands.
"So, which one of the local saloons did you patronize?"
Blair wiped his hands thoughtfully. "Do you mean to tell me that you could smell the beer from over there?"
Jim shrugged. "There's an atmosphere that hangs around those places. You might have been offered a beer at one of the other establishments, like Megan's, but there probably wouldn't have been tobacco smoke there, too."
"I didn't check the name. It's about half-way down the block."
As they sat Jim said, "Simon will be sending that telegram, and he'll look for the answer when he goes back day after tomorrow."
"Good. I really don't enjoy having this hanging over my head." Jim started to comment, and Blair said, "It's all right. To tell the truth, it's a little heartening to find someone who doesn't trust too blindly. Many people have been badly hurt that way." Blair's hand hovered over the dish of chicken. "Mind if I have the breast?"
"Help yourself. I don't have chicken all that often because it's a waste with me. All I want is the legs." He demonstrated by taking a drumstick and tearing off a healthy chunk.
"Between us we'll be like Jack Sprat and his wife: we'll lick the platter clean. Did you know," Blair took some bread, "that in the 'better' circles back east, asking for breast of chicken in the presence of a lady could earn you a thrashing?"
Jim regarded him with skepticism. "Why?"
"Too indelicate." He pointed at Jim with a mock stern expression and intoned in a stilted Boston Brahmin voice. "Curse you, sir! You shall ask for a portion of white meat in the presence of ladies!"
Jim almost choked on his mouthful of food. When he could speak again, he managed. "And I suppose asking for a leg would be out of the question?"
"Then you would desire one of the fowl's nether limbs."
Jim shook his head. "I expect that type of delicacy could make it a bit difficult to doctor someone."
Blair sighed. "You have no idea. Modesty is a fine thing, but not when it goes to the point of endangering your health. I'm hoping that won't be a problem when I go to visit the ladies at Kincaid's establishment."
Jim got up quickly, going to the cabinet. "I should have asked. Would you like water?" He didn't want to look at Sandburg till he was sure that he had his expression under control.
Jim got two glasses, and worked the sink pump till the water ran cool, then filled them. He brought them to the table, and sat again, saying casually, "So, you changed your mind?"
"What?" Blair sipped the water.
"About visiting the bawdy house. Can't say I blame you. It must have been lonely on the road."
"No, I'll be going there in an official capacity. Kincaid asked me to check over the girls."
Blair looked at him sharply. "I already told you, I don't believe in commercializing those relations, but I don't penalize those who do. Those women deserve treatment as much as anyone else here in Cascade."
"I agree with you. But you ought to have them come to town, instead of going to them?"
"In the first place, it will look better." Blair started to protest, and Jim spoke over him. "I know, it isn't very fair, but that's the way it is. If there's a chance that you will be staying on, you have to have a little consideration for what the locals think. And in the second place," he frowned, "I wouldn't advise you to go out there and meet Kincaid on his own space."
"Why not? He seemed like a pleasant enough fellow."
"Oh, I'm sure he did. Kincaid can be very smooth. So can a snake."
Blair put down the chicken bone he had just finished stripping and wiggled his fingers. "Do you have a napkin, or do I have to lick these clean?"
Caught off guard by the sudden subject change, Jim looked around, "Um..."
"Too late." Blair sucked each finger clean.
Jim watched, feeling himself start to get hard. Damn! I can't seem to be around him without getting stirred up. Does he know what he's doing to me?
"Now, why do you distrust Kincaid so much? Is there a history here?"
Jim looked away.
There was a history, all right. After Carolyn left, he'd visited Kincaid's establishment a few times, hoping to relieve some of the loneliness he felt. Kincaid had been more than a gracious proprietor, urging the girls to do their bests to please him, pressing free drinks on him. Then there was the night he had a little too much to drink and fell asleep in the girl's bed instead of heading home.
He'd awakened to the feel of a talented mouth caressing his sex. He'd been surprised, as the girls had always been adamant about money up front, and he knew that he'd already gotten all he paid for. Still, he wasn't fool enough to protest this unexpected boon. He'd lain in the darkness, letting the pleasure wash over him. Then...
He couldn't help it; it was his senses again. The smell wasn't right. The hands on his thighs were too large; the nails pricking at his skin didn't have the smooth coat of lacquer he knew the girl he had bedded earlier had been wearing. And as a cheek brushed against his quivering erection, he felt a faint rasp that could only be beard stubble.
He'd propped himself up, staring down the length of his body. The girl who had brought him to this room was nowhere to be seen. Garret Kincaid, his shirt open to his waist, was kneeling between Jim's spread legs, now lapping slowly at the thin trickle of pre-ejaculation fluid that drizzled from the slit in Jim's cock head.
Jim was horrified, as much by the fact that he had not gone soft when he saw who was pleasuring him as by the situation itself. He sat up, pulling away from the warm, insistent mouth, and said, "Kincaid..."
The blonde man's smile was cat-like. "So, you're awake. Good. I prefer my partners alert and squirming, anyway."
"This isn't going any farther. You shouldn't have done this."
Kincaid snorted. "Come on, Jimmy. You were enjoying it, right enough."
"I was drunk."
"Sure, you can tell yourself that, if it makes you feel better." He started to crawl up the bed. His dark eyes were black pools in the moonlight. "Lay back down."
"No, damn it!" He suddenly realized that he didn't like Kincaid. Really didn't like him. It might have been different if the man had approached him openly with an offer of physical pleasure. Jim might have considered it, but he'd never know now. The man had tried to take what he wanted through trickery, and Jim was disgusted by his devious nature.
As Jim started to get up, Kincaid suddenly threw himself at the other man. Garret was smaller than Jim, but he was solid, and strong. He knocked Jim back onto the bed and swarmed on top of him. "You're not going anywhere till I get what I want, big man." The feel of another body, hard and male, pressing down on him was shockingly erotic. Jim froze for a moment, his sensibilities warring with his senses. Then Kincaid laughed, a nasty sound, "I've always been fond of the ones who think they'd never let a man inside."
Jim bucked. "I said no!"
"Just relax and take it. I'm going to enjoy fucking you..."
It wasn't like the other 'spells' he'd had. This one was pure, white-hot rage. He didn't know exactly what he did, but the next thing he remembered clearly was one of the girls trying to drag him away from a limp Kincaid, hissing, "He ain't worth it, mister! He ain't worth hangin' for!"
Jim, now stone cold sober, had stared at the man huddled on the floor, cradling his face in his hands. He reached out with his senses, though the thought of observing the man who had attempted to rape him that closely made him gag. Kincaid's heartbeat and breathing were strong and steady, but the smell of blood was sharp in the air, and there were dark stains on the injured man's hands. Judging from the various aches that were now making themselves known, Jim hadn't done all the damage, but he had done most of it.
Satisfied that Kincaid wasn't seriously injured, Jim had gotten dressed and ridden back into town. He'd waited to see if Kincaid would go to the city counsel to complain, but several days passed, and Jim heard nothing of it. Then he'd seen Kincaid going into one of the local saloons. The sandy haired man had spotted him, and paused on the sidewalk to glare at him.
Fading bruises marked Kincaid's face, and his nose was swollen. Thereafter it would never be quite as perfectly straight as it had been. The two men stared at each other for a moment. Kincaid didn't look away, and Jim felt a crawling sensation at the back of his neck. Then a citizen had come up to Jim to ask him a question about whether or not he could require his neighbor to pen his chickens in order to keep the birds out of his wife's flower beds. By the time Jim had finished speaking to him, Kincaid had entered the saloon.
Since then Ellison had never spoken to Kincaid face to face, and he fervently hoped he would never have to. The man gave him a cold feeling in the pit of his stomach, and he found himself worrying about some of the younger, more naive farmhands that visited Kincaid's establishment...
"Jim?" He blinked, looking back at Sandburg. "What is it?"
Jim took a deep breath. "Kincaid is a dangerous man, Sandburg. I just want you to be careful."
"I can take care of myself, Ellison, I've been doing so for a long time now." He smiled. "It's nice to know you care, but you didn't answer the question. Is there a history between you two?"
Jim was silent, turning his glass in his hands as he considered how to answer. If he refused to say anything, it would leave him open to all sorts of speculation. He didn't want Blair hearing Kincaid's side of the story without his own, but he wasn't sure how to phrase it. He studied the young man waiting patiently on the other side of the table. Somehow he felt safe in revealing it to him. He knew instinctively that Blair would not condemn a man for an interest in his own sex.
Finally he said slowly, "There's a history of sorts. He paid a lot of attention to me for awhile. I didn't think much about it. Then he got me drunk one night when I was over at the house, and I woke up with him in my bed, and his hands on me. I... wasn't ready for anything like that, and I told him so. He didn't want to listen when I said to stop, so I had to insist."
"Ah." Jim dared a look at Blair and was relieved to see no disgust or scorn in his expression, only sympathy, and understanding. "I've had similar incidents, though it never got that far. I'm going to ask you a question. You don't have to answer it, if you don't want to..." he smiled. "but then, you already know that."
"What is it?"
Jim waited for him to ask if he had somehow led Kincaid to expect he'd welcome the advances. Instead he said, "Did you object because he was a man, or because he was Kincaid?"
There was a knock on the front door. Jim stood quickly. "I'd better get that."
As he went to answer it he heard Blair whisper, so softly that no one without his freakish hearing would have heard, "That's one question I'm not going to let you dodge, Jim." Jim dreaded answering it because he had puzzled over just that thought himself for a long time.
Megan stood outside. "Well, hello, Miss Connors."
Megan slapped him lightly on the shoulder. "I think you can call me Megan by now, Jim. Is that handsome guest of yours anywhere around?"
"In the kitchen. Come on back."
Blair rose to his feet to greet the woman, offering her a warm smile and handshake. "Megan, good to see you again."
"I thought I'd check to see how that wine was."
"Excellent! I drank more than I should have, I suppose. What can I do for you?"
Megan looked at Jim, then back to Blair. "Can we talk back at your wagon?"
"Of course. Jim, thank you for lunch. Don't worry about supper, it will be my turn to cook." He walked Megan to the front door and they started off down the street together. Jim watched him go, feeling a twinge at seeing their heads so close together. He resisted the urge to listen to what they were saying, instead going back to finish the rims he had promised Simon.
Megan bit her lip, looking at Blair nervously. "What do you think?"
He studied her, careful to keep his expression and tone neutral. "It's still rather soon to be certain, but I'd say... probably." When he saw the smile break out on her face he was relieved. "So, this isn't bad news?"
She kissed his cheek. "Not bloody likely! My husband and I had been trying when he passed away. I've always wanted children."
"Good." Megan pulled her skirt back on. Blair had only done an external palpitation, listening to her describe the recent nausea, bloating, ravenous hunger and, most telling, cessation of menstrual flow. It was always a pleasure when pregnancy came as a wished for blessing. Too often in his career he'd had to deal with desperate women, aching when they turned away after his refusal to terminate the life growing in them, knowing that many would seek some back alley butcher, and probably lose their lives. He had ambivalent feelings about his decision, not believing in the blind, blanket statement that it was a mortal sin to even consider such a thing. But it just wasn't something he could do, personally. Perhaps because he knew that his own mother could have easily gone that route. Indeed, he had no doubt that his grandparents would have preferred it. "What about the father?"
She grinned. "Oh, I think he'll be pleased. I don't want to tell him just yet, though. I think he's going to propose very soon." She sighed, rubbing her still flat belly. "I hope it's just like him: a little dark-haired boy."
Blair waited a moment, but she didn't elaborate, and he couldn't ask. "You'll have to be particularly careful with your diet, if you're feeding a baby as well as yourself, and no, that does not give you a license to eat like an ox." He turned to his medicines, beginning to pull down bottles and boxes. "I'm going to mix up a solution of vitamins and minerals for you, but I expect you to eat properly, too. You're a little paler than I'd like, and that could indicate anemia..."
Blair found Jim at his anvil again, working furiously. The last wheel was already half completed, waiting patiently for the next metal strip as Jim pounded it into the proper shape. Still Jim stopped as soon as he and Megan entered the big room, and again Blair wondered how he had been able to hear anything over the ringing of metal on metal. Blair found himself wondering. The acuity of his physical senses was reminding him more and more of one of his personal obsessions and he was trying not to get his hopes up too high. There'd been a time or two when he'd thought he might have run across the living embodiment of one of his pet theories, but he'd always been disappointed.
Jim watched him silently, stripping off his gloves as Blair approached, and held out his hand for the bottle. "What's this?" he asked as he uncorked it.
"This actually is a sort of tonic. Mostly vitamins."
Jim passed it under his nose, brow wrinkling. "No alcohol this time. Smells like... raisins?"
Trying not to show his surprise Blair said, "I'd steeped some in the hot water I used to mix this. It adds iron."
Jim re-corked the bottle and handed it over, glancing at the woman hovering near the door. His voice low, he said, "Is Megan sick?"
Blair hesitated. "A doctor is bound not to discuss his patients, but I don't think she'd mind my saying that no, she isn't ill." He went back to Megan, presenting the bottle. "Twice a day, one spoonful, and take it on a full stomach, or with milk. In fact, I want you to drink more milk. Try for a quart or more a day. And eat lots of liver."
"Ew!" Megan's nose crinkled, and Jim found himself wincing in sympathy.
"All right," Blair said agreeably. "If you can't stomach liver, make it dried apricots. Dried, mind you, not fresh, and not peaches. Raisins, too, and spinach, if you can get it. I want to build up your blood."
"Yes, doctor. You'll be staying, then?" There was a hopeful note in her voice. "I'll worry a lot less with you around."
"For a while, anyway." She left, and Blair walked back to the anvil, watching as Jim doused the still glowing metal in the water.
Jim propped his hammer beside the anvil and said, "I'm glad to hear Megan is healthy. I've been worried about her?"
"Why? She looks fine."
Jim shrugged, rolling his shoulders. "I wasn't sure what to make of it, but now, I think I know."
"What do you think you know?"
"She's expecting, isn't she?"
Blair stared at Jim. "How did you...? Even I can't be one hundred per-cent sure about that."
"Maybe I'm wrong, then. It's just that she hasn't smelled right the last couple of weeks."
"Jim, she can't be more than two and a half months gone. You're telling me that you think she's pregnant because she smells different?"
He shifted uncomfortably, wishing he hadn't said anything. "Only for the last couple of weeks. I just hope that the father is going to do the right thing. Megan's a good woman."
Blair felt as if a stone had been rolled off his shoulders. "She said she thinks he's going to propose, whoever he is."
"I wish I knew who it is. That way if he doesn't do right by her I could have a little talk with him." Jim shook his head. "It's none of my business, I know, but I feel kind of protective toward her. She doesn't have had anyone else. Well, I think I've done enough for today. I'll finish this tomorrow." He walked to the front to close off the large doors and hang up his closed sign, but Blair followed him.
"You've already told me that your sight is very sensitive, and I've seen demonstrations of your sense of smell with the medicines, and now with Megan. Your need for bland food would indicate the same is true of your taste, and I've had the feeling for some time that your hearing is a lot better than it has any reason to be. What about your sense of touch?"
Jim sighed, locking the door. "Sometimes I wish I could just tear my skin off. Other times..." But those times, the times when the heat of another's skin or the merest brush had been enough to get him achingly hard, had been too infrequent.
"I can scarcely believe this, but... but I think it may be true. I need to get something from my wagon." Blair disappeared into Jim's quarters and he heard the front door slam a moment later.
Feeling the sweat from his exertions beginning to become sticky, Jim went back to the barrel and began to sluice himself off. He had expected to be done, dried, and dressed before Blair returned, but the young man must have been moving even more quickly than usual. Just as Jim was reaching for the towel on the bench beside the anvil the front door slammed again and Blair almost trotted over to him.
He thrust a sheaf of papers at Jim, and the older man saw that it had been carefully stitched together along one side to form a booklet. "What's this?"
"It may very well be the answer to what makes you different."
Jim leafed through the pages, frowning. "This will tell how to cure me?"
"If I'm right, there's nothing to be cured, just controlled."
Jim hung the towel around his neck, swabbing absently at his face as he walked into his little apartment, scanning the front of the paper as he went. Inside he went into his bedroom. Blair followed, hesitating only a moment on the threshold of the private room. Jim was still reading as he blindly opened a drawer and dug a fresh shirt out. Blair watched in gratified amusement as he shook it out one-handed, then tried to put it on while still reading. He went and took hold of it, helping him slip first one, then the other arm into the sleeves. Hardly seeming to notice, he sat on the edge of the bed, and Blair sat beside him.
Once Jim looked over at him and said, "Burton? Isn't your mule named Burton?"
Blair nodded. "Yes, it's a tribute to the man who wrote that. Don't frown, it's a compliment. After all, I named the other one after my mother."
Jim grunted and turned his eyes back to the papers. Time passed. The only sound in the room, besides their combined breathing, was the rustle when Jim turned a page. At one point Blair got up quietly, went to the front door, and despite his claim to only doctor humans, removed a nasty splinter from the hind paw of a cat belonging to a very distressed little girl. After binding the paw up in his second best handkerchief he advised the owner to bring Puss back the next day for a check up and some salve, if needed, then returned to the bedroom to find the constable still absorbed in his reading.
Jim finally came to the last page and closed the booklet. He looked around the room, blinking. The shades were drawn, and a lamp had been lit. He could hear Blair moving around in the kitchen, and delicious aromas were drifting out to him.
He came into the kitchen as Blair was pulling what looked like a custard pie out of the oven. He sniffed, then said curiously, "I don't smell any sugar or ginger."
Blair smiled, setting the pie on a cloth in the middle of the table. "That's because it's a savory instead of a sweet. This is dinner: eggs, onion, cheese, and ham."
"In a pie?" Jim sat at the table.
"It's called quiche in France." He set a plate and fork in front of Jim and handed him a knife. "Try it." As Jim started to cut a slice, Blair said, "Just a moment." He reached over and began to button up Jim's shirt. Jim was surprised to realize that it had been hanging open for... how long? "There. I'm not really formal, but I do think shirts should be buttoned at the dinner table."
Jim was surprised at how good the egg pie was. It was delicately flavored, but hearty enough to satisfy him, even after his exertions at the forge. Of course, he ate a little more than half of it. He was chasing crumbs around on his plate, and Blair was sipping coffee when he finally said, "So, you think I might be a Sentinel?"
"I'm almost certain you are. It's all there, Jim. The heightened senses, the imperative to protect your community, your tribe, the spells you get when your senses overwhelm you..."
"Everything but the most important part," Jim said bitterly. "Everything but the Guide. And according to the author, a Sentinel is only half a man without his Guide. I can believe that. It would explain why I feel so..." He trailed off.
Blair's voice was gentle, "What? How do you feel?"
Jim shrugged, looking away. He wasn't used to talking about his feelings: his father had thought it was unmanly, and Carolyn had thought it was unnecessary. No one had ever seemed genuinely interested... until this man. But Sandburg wasn't going to give up on it. Jim was beginning to learn just how stubborn the young man could be. "Talk to me, Ellison. How can I help you if I don't know what's wrong?"
The light blue eyes were hooded as he looked back across the table. "You want to help me? Yes, I suppose you would. It's your profession, after all."
Blair shook his head. "It's not just that. Yes, I've sworn to care for anyone to the best of my abilities. And, I'll confess, this theory..." he tapped the paper on the table, "has been a pet obsession of mine since I first read about it. But putting that aside, I want to help you, Jim. Not just a patient, not a possible Sentinel, but Jim Ellison. So tell me what it is that you've been feeling."
Jim sighed, and the next words were abrupt. "Empty. Alone." He paused, then forced out the final word. "Lost. That the most of all, always lost."
Blair reached over and laid his hand on Jim's, saying quietly, "Yes. You need your Guide."
"What if I don't have one?"
Blair squeezed his hand. "You do, all Sentinels do. It's just a matter of... of recognition. It was easier in the ancient tribes. There wasn't as much travel, communities were more close-knit. The Sentinel and Guide usually grew up side by side, and the bond was discovered early. Now..." Blair sighed. "I hate to think about how difficult it will be in the next century. Everyone will be on the move, what with the railways expanding. There's even talk of horseless carriages. I'm afraid that a Sentinel and Guide finding each other then may be even more difficult. But it will make the relationship that much rarer, that much more special."
Jim's voice was low. "Sandburg? The lost feeling... I haven't had that since that spell I had in your wagon. It was different from the others."
"This may be the key. What made it different?"
Jim took a breath, then forced himself to look into the warm, questioning depths of Blair's eyes. "You."
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