Blair blinked, but he didn't pull away, and Jim was grateful for that. "How did I make it different? Surely you've been around others when these zones have occurred?"
"Yes. Luckily, they've been short ones and I managed to conceal them fairly well. People just thought I was absent minded, or distracted. But at least once I was screamed at and slapped before I finally came out of it." Blair winced at the rough treatment. Jim grimaced. "Yes, Carolyn didn't handle it well. She was almost hysterical. I think she used the term 'freak'. She apologized when she calmed down but it was always there between us afterward."
Blair found himself gritting his teeth. He had thought that aside from his grandparents he would never be able to dislike someone he didn't even know. "Go on, Jim. What made the difference this time? I didn't really do anything. I wasn't even sure of what was happening."
"Usually I just get lost in whatever it was that set me off. This time everything around me seemed to change. It's summer, but there was suddenly heat like I'd never experienced, heat and wet. And the noises... It was kind of like when I was in the deep wilderness, all natural, but so much of them! Like I was surrounded by trees and plants so thick you wouldn't be able to push your way through them, and the sound of animals moving through them. There were smells, too. Earth and something wild, rank. That wasn't right, because I was there in the wagon, with you, but... But it was like I was somewhere else. The other times there was no specific sense of being anywhere."
"It sounds scary."
"I was terrified," Jim said baldly. "There was only one thing that was familiar: a sound. I'd never heard it before, but I knew it better than I know my own voice. A throbbing, a pulse."
"Drums? There are often drums in the jungle."
"No." Jim reached out and touched Blair's chest, spreading his fingers, feeling the warmth. Blair stayed very still, never taking his eyes off the man opposite him, unwilling to interrupt now that he had found the courage to speak. And somehow he knew what Jim was about to say. "It was you. It was your heartbeat. It was like a lifeline. I grabbed and held on, and I pulled myself back to this world." His hand moved, stroking lightly. "It wrapped around me. It kept me safe." He paused. His voice cracked. "Thank you."
"You could hear my heartbeat?"
"I could hear it when you were in your room last night."
Blair stared at Jim as the implications of this revelation sank in. If he could hear my heartbeat... Blair found himself blushing. Oh, God, did I say his name?
"Don't," Jim said quietly. "You don't have anything to be ashamed of. You're young and healthy, you're bound to have needs."
Blair swallowed his doubts and spoke. "What about you, Jim?" Ellison's fingers curled, winding in his shirtfront. If I'm wrong, I'm dead.
"You asked me before if I was bothered because it was a man who tried to seduce me or because it was Kincaid." Jim pulled, slowly drawing Blair closer, and closer still. Their faces were scant inches apart. "It was because it was Kincaid, Blair."
Blair felt a wave of elation pass over him at those words, and he leaned forward, closing that last bit of space, and touched his lips to Jim's. Jim remained still, his eyes open, his lips closed. He hasn't done this much before, Blair thought. I guess I really will get to guide.
Blair took Jim's head gently in his hands, running his fingers into the short, dark hair and rubbing his lips softly over Jim's mouth. He licked the seam, then pressed firmly. Jim made a surprised sound, but his lips parted, and Blair's tongue slid in.
Jim tasted the tang of tomatoes and the yeast of the bread Blair had just eaten. But then another taste, one he'd never encountered, overwhelmed those. It was sweet and earthy at the same time and Jim realized that it was the taste of the man himself. It was Blair. He licked out, eager to explore the intoxicating new flavor, and Blair made a pleased murmur as their tongues slid together.
Most of the women Jim had been with weren't much on kissing. The 'respectable' women felt that too much enthusiasm was improper, and the one's who were 'no better than they should be' usually saw kissing as a waste of time that could be devoted to more... intense activities.
More intense than this? Is it possible? The soft exploration of his mouth was driving Jim crazy. Every gentle probe and lick sent a flash of pure sensation straight to his groin. His arms went around the smaller man, pulling him closer. Blair pulled back a little, his quiet gasps telling Jim that the reason he had broken the kiss was simple lack of oxygen, and not reluctance. Jim let him breathe a moment, studying the flush rising in his cheeks. He took a handful of the auburn hair that lay across his shoulder, rubbing it through his fingers, then said softly. "Come to my bed tonight." Blair closed his eyes briefly, and Jim said, "I'll understand if you don't want to. I've never asked this of another man before, so I won't know what I'm doing. But I promise you that I'll try to see that you don't regret it."
Blair's answer was another soft kiss. He took Jim's hand and tugged, urging him to his feet, then kissed him again when he was standing. "Go to your room. I have to get something, but I'll be right back." When Jim clung to his hand he said quietly, "Jim, I just want to go to my wagon. I won't be gone but a minute." He touched the older man's face, stroking the strong edge of his jaw. "I'm not leaving you." He smiled. "Do you think I could stay away knowing that you'll be waiting for me in that big bed, naked?"
"Naked," Blair said firmly. As if to illustrated he undid the buttons he had fixed at the beginning of the meal. "I'm a little old to be wrestling fully clothed like a teenager." He gave Jim another quick kiss, then turned him toward the bedroom, swatting his butt. "Move."
Feeling a little dazed, Jim went into his bedroom, hearing Blair hurry out the front. He undressed slowly, hanging his clothes neatly on a chair, then sat on the edge of the bed. Now what? He said waiting in the bed. Jim turned down the blankets and slid beneath the sheets. then he lay back, staring at the ceiling, his mind racing. Oh, God, I hope he knows as much as he seems to know because I haven't got a clue as to what he might like. Or really what I might like. I just know I have to hold him and be as close to him as possible.
He was a little startled to hear the front door open again so soon. He must have run there and back. The idea of the younger man being so eager to return to him was gratifying. In fact, Jim found that he was hard beneath the cool, smooth sheet.
There was the rap of Sandburg's footsteps approaching. The lamp in the kitchen was extinguished, and then Blair stood in the doorway. He paused, one hand on the doorframe, staring at Jim silently. Jim could feel himself beginning to blush, and Blair said quietly, "Don't be embarrassed, Jim, please. I can't help looking. You're just so beautiful."
Jim was pleased, but he frowned. "Beautiful?"
Blair smiled as he walked to the bed, setting a small bottle on the night stand. "Beautiful. Handsome doesn't do you justice. Men can be beautiful, too, in a different way from women. You..." Jim's breath caught as Blair ran a hand across the sculpted planes of his chest. "You're like a Greek statue, Jim, but in warm, living flesh instead of cold marble."
Blair began to remove his clothes. Jim watched closely and, yes, he could very well see how a man could be considered beautiful. Blair was smaller than Jim, smaller than many men, but there was nothing delicate or fragile about his body. He was graceful, but sturdy, with a broad chest and narrow hips. When his shirt was gone, Blair began to unbutton his pants, and Jim suddenly leaned forward with an intent look on his face.
Blair stopped moving as Jim reached out and tentatively touched the shiny gold hoop that pierced his left nipple. "I knew there was something different about your chest, but I wasn't sure what. It's like the ones the women wear in their ears."
"Yes. I had that done when I was fourteen, in Japan." He smiled. "I wanted a tattoo, but for once Naomi put her foot down. It's just as well. The design I'd chosen was a dragon that would have covered my entire back, and she never would have stayed there long enough for me to have it finished."
"Does it hurt?"
"No, no more than it does for the women. It did when it was done, of course, but I was careful about keeping it clean, and it healed quickly."
"But why would you do something like that?"
Blair shrugged, and the ring flashed in the lamplight as he again began to open his pants. "I don't know. Adventure? Decoration? It seemed like a good idea at the time. Now I wish I'd had both done."
Jim looked shocked. "Why?" In answer Blair took his hand and drew it to his chest, then closed Jim's fingers around the tiny ring. Watching his face, Jim gave it a gentle tug. Blair's eyes seemed to darken as the pupils expanded and the soft flesh of the nipple swelled and hardened around the ring.
"That's why," he whispered. "Now, let me finish this." Jim lay back while he quickly finished stripping. Then, finally, he reached back to untie the ribbon that held his hair.
But Jim held up his hand, saying, "No, wait. Let me do that?"
Smiling, Blair sat beside him on the bed. Jim reached around behind him, finding the ends of the ribbon, and carefully untying the bow. He pulled the ribbon away, and it slipped from his fingers to the floor, unnoticed. He pushed his hands up under the heavy mass of curls, lifting and loosening, till it was spread freely over his shoulders and halfway down his back. "I've wanted to do that since you tied it up yesterday."
Blair smoothed his hand over Jim's shoulder. "Jim, you said this was the first time you'd asked a man to your bed. Have you ever done anything, aside from that abomination with Kincaid?"
Jim flushed. "When I was a kid. I had a friend and we slept over at each other's house sometimes. We got... curious. But never more than just touching each other."
"Oh, my." Jim looked at him sharply, but there was nothing but warmth in his eyes. "It's just that it's been a long time since I've been with a virgin."
"Virgin?" Jim sounded almost indignant. "I've been married."
"It isn't the same thing, trust me. In any case, I think it might be better if you let me take the lead this time. Do you think you can do that?"
"I... don't know."
"Jim, you don't have to do anything you don't want to. You can ask me to stop at any time, and I will. But I'm going to ask you to give me a chance."
He looked down for a moment, then looked back up at him. "I'm not a coward, Sandburg, but..."
"It doesn't have to hurt, Jim, not if we're slow and careful. Just trust me, and I'll make this good for you. For us both."
Blair waited for his answer. He got it when Jim took hold of his shoulders and lay back, pulling him down with him. He kissed Blair, lips moving from his mouth to his ear, and whispered, "Show me."
Blair tossed the sheet back to the foot of the bed and moved over Jim, arranging his body along the other man's. Jim shuddered at the first touch. Carolyn had never been adventurous enough to try it on top. Anyway, he knew that it would have been different. Blair was so solid, so warm. There was the smoothness of his hands as he stroked Jim's arms and sides, but there was also the tickle of hair, from crisp to silky.
Blair knelt up, straddling his hips, then began to caress Jim, slowly and sensually. When his fingers found the older man's nipples, Jim arched up to his touch, groaning. Jim bit his lip, embarrassed by the sound. "I'm sorry, but no one's ever..." Blair pinched gently, the little bits of flesh stiffening between his fingertips, and Jim groaned again. "Oh, God. I don't know..."
"It's okay, Jim. Lord, don't apologize for enjoying what I'm doing. Don't you realize how big a compliment every noise you make is?" Blair bent his head. Jim felt the cool silk of his hair trail teasingly over one nipple while the other was engulfed in warm wetness. The sound he made was indescribable. He felt as well as heard the chuckle. "That was a good one."
Jim had been half-hard when Blair climbed on top of him. He was fully engorged now, his cock lying stiffly up along his belly. Blair lay down again, still straddling him, and he felt the first brush of Blair's sex against his own. He immediately, instinctively thrust up, but Blair's hands came down on his hips, holding him. "No, not yet, it will end too fast. Just be still and let me take care of you."
Blair brought their staffs together, gathering them in both hands and holding them. Then he began to stroke slowly. Jim felt both the firm pressure of his fingers on the outside of his prick, and the maddeningly smooth glide of Blair's sex on the sensitive underside. He closed his eyes, gripping fistfuls of sheet in an effort not to buck. It was sweet torture.
Blair was watching him avidly. It was so hot, seeing this beautiful man experiencing this form of love for the first time. But Blair knew that, despite what he'd said, this encounter would not last as long as he might like. It was just too new to Jim, and he had apparently been without a partner of any kind for too long. He saw moisture at the corners of Jim's eyes and said softly, "Jim? Do you need more?"
"Yes." His voice was almost strangled.
Blair bent to kiss him, whispering against his lips. "I'm going to make love to you, but first, you have to be ready."
"I am ready." Jim bumped his hips up. "Can't you tell?"
"Yes, I see. But not like that." Blair moved off him, reaching for the bottle. "Lie on your stomach and spread your legs." Jim hesitated, and Blair assured him. "It's all right. I'm going to be gentle and careful. And any time you need to, anytime, just tell me to stop, or go slow. I don't want you doing anything that makes you uncomfortable just because you think it will please me. The best way to please me is to let me please you."
Jim rolled onto his stomach, spreading his legs wide. Blair patted his back in approval, then opened the bottle and knelt in the inviting vee. Jim lifted his head, sniffing slightly, and Blair explained, "Just some sweet oil to ease the way." He put a dab on his finger and held it toward Jim.
Jim sniffed again, and smiled. "Honeysuckle?"
"I can make it with rose essence next time, if you prefer. Or vanilla, if you don't mind smelling like a sugar cookie." That earned a laugh and Blair smiled. He had a feeling that Jim hadn't laughed very much in the last few years and it was a shame. It was a glorious, bright sound.
Blair dribbled the oil on Jim's buttocks, set the bottle aside, and began to massage, working it into the taut, smooth curves. As he had anticipated, the big man tensed a little at the first touch. But Blair was patient, kneading and stroking, moving down to his thighs and up to the small of his back. Gradually, Jim relaxed. Blair got more oil, coating his fingers, then pushed on each cheek, spreading them to expose the shadowed valley between. Jim didn't tense again but his breath sped up.
Blair took a moment to reach under him, rolling his balls carefully in his fingers, then reaching up to skim lightly over the still straining shaft. He got a pillow and slipped it under Jim's hips, tilting him to a better angle.
Satisfied that Jim was prepared for the next step, Blair stroked a finger over the starfish pucker of skin that marked the entrance to Jim's body. Jim shivered, and Blair said, "Is it too cold? Do I need to warm the oil a bit more?"
"No. It's just... strange. Go on, please."
Blair massaged the flesh around the anus some more, feeling the taut muscle finally begin to relax a little. Then he put the tip of his finger to the very center and applied gentle pressure. First the flesh dimpled, then he was sliding in. There was some resistance, but not a great amount, and Blair was fairly sure he wasn't hurting Jim but he wanted to be sure. He glanced away from the erotic sight of his finger penetrating the virgin flesh to study Jim's face.
His expression was a mixture of astonishment and revelation. When he saw Blair looking at him he said in a surprised voice, "It feels good."
"It gets better." Blair pumped his hand, sliding the embedded digit almost all the way out, then back in. Jim's forehead wrinkled, as if in concentration, and he bit his lip. On the second stroke the lines smoothed away, and he spread his legs another inch or so. Blair smiled at the silent invitation but continued to move slowly. So far it was going well, but he was too realistic to think that this encounter would be entirely without pain. He just wanted to be sure that the pleasure far outweighed the discomfort.
When Jim felt the second finger pressing in beside the first he grunted quietly. His voice a little stiff, he said, "Is that necessary?" He was feeling almost uncomfortably full.
"Yes, it's necessary," Blair's voice was patient as he worked the two fingers in Jim's ass. "You're very new to this. While I'll never rival Burton when it comes to equipment, I'm not exactly small, Jim. If I don't get you properly open this first time, there will be tearing. I'm a doctor, remember? I don't want to put you at risk for infection if I can help it." Jim made a quiet grumbling sound, and Blair's eyebrows rose in amusement. "Impatient? Well, there's something else about my being a doctor that might compensate you for having to wait. You see, I know anatomy."
He pushed deep, fingers crooking, and felt along Jim's internal walls. "Just a moment, and I have a surprise for you." His fingers found the little bump he'd been searching for, and he rubbed.
A burst of heat and pleasure blossomed inside Jim, flowing from deep in his bowels to wash through his whole body. He gasped, grabbing at the mattress, toes curling. When he got his breath again he managed, "What did you do?"
"It's called the prostate gland. Little thing about the size of a walnut. It can cut up the dickens when you get older, but when you're younger, it can be a source of joy," he said playfully. "Women don't have them, poor deprived things."
"Can you do that again?"
In reply Blair rubbed firmly. Jim moaned, sweat breaking out on his forehead. He hardly noticed when the two fingers were withdrawn and replaced by three, because Blair immediately sought that magical spot again. "I could bring you off, just like this."
"Don't." Blair hesitated in him ministrations, worried. If Jim asked him to stop, though, he would. He had promised. But Jim was saying, "I want you inside me when I finish."
Blair reached down with his free hand and caressed Jim's aching cock. He found it slick with pre-ejaculation, and he murmured, "Then we'd better get on with it because you're close, my friend. Can you get up on your hands and knees for me, Jim?"
Jim pulled himself up, bracing sturdily, and Blair moved up behind him. "I'm going to go slowly. Tell me if you need time to adjust."
"I mean it, Jim. This is no time to be tough about resisting pain. If it hurts, I can take more time."
"Believe me, I'll let you know."
Jim felt another touch at his rectum, different this time. It was broader, hotter. It's his cock he thought, wonderingly. I'm about to let another man put his cock in my ass and it feels like the most natural thing I've ever done. Then he was being spread open, and the thick, solid mass that was Blair was slowly pressing into him. Jim concentrated on making his breathing steady. I don't want to pass out. I don't want to drop off the edge of the world now.
There was a slight ache as the inner walls of his rectum were spread apart for the first time, but nothing that approached actual pain. And even that small ache was a part of the pleasure that he was experiencing. Blair stopped moving. "Are you all right? You're so quiet."
"Yes, I'm good." He sighed. "Oh, I'm so good. But there's more, isn't there?"
Blair sounded surprised, and pleased. "I'm only about halfway in. But this is about as deep as I managed to go before, and I want to be sure..."
Jim heard soft laughter. "Greedy!" Blair took hold of his hips and pushed forward, sliding in another inch. He moaned, "Ah, Jim! You're so tight." Not really knowing what he was doing, but acting on instinct, Jim flexed inside. Blair gasped as he felt the squeezing motion. "Damn! Jim, hold up or it will be over before it's half begun."
"Then move, Sandburg! And I know there's still more of you." His tone was almost accusatory. "I want it. Give it to me."
"My, oh, my. You are the bossiest virgin I've ever run across. Well, ask and ye shall receive." Blair pushed again, and Jim groaned as the last few inches slid home. He felt Blair molding against his backside, the younger man's balls lightly tapping against his own.
"Oh, God. It feels like you're all the way up to my throat."
Blair ran his hands over Jim's back. "We can try that later, if you like. Are you ready?" Jim nodded. Blair gripped his waist and pulled back till only his cock head was still trapped inside Jim's body. Then he pushed back in, almost as slowly as he had entered him the first time.
It was incredible. Oh, sex was never less than good, but this... Besides the fact that Jim was so beautiful, so perfect, there was the added excitement of knowing that he was the first to ever give him these sensations. And Jim was an appreciative lover. Every murmur, every tiny motion showed Blair how much he was enjoying it. It made Blair hotter than ever, knowing that he was bringing pleasure to his partner. He pumped slowly, careful to allow Jim's body to adjust to the new activity. But he had prepared Jim well, and the joining was smooth.
"Jim, put your arms down, and lean on them." Jim obeyed, and it tilted his pelvis, giving Blair's penetration a different angle. This time when he moved back in he rubbed over Jim's prostate. His partner gave a pleased grunt and pushed back eagerly to meet him. In just a few strokes, they found a rhythm and moved together as smoothly as if they had been lovers for years.
At first, Jim was afraid to fully experience what was happening. The thought of zoning during this act was terrifying in its possibility for humiliation. That was what had elicited the screaming bout from Carolyn. They had been together in bed. She had taken a little more brandy than she usually did, and was feeling relaxed and kittenish. She had been more giving of herself than ever before and the sensations had overwhelmed Jim. He had fallen into the nothingness while buried in his wife's body. He could understand her rage. She'd taken it as an insult, believing that he'd completely lost interest in her. She wouldn't listen when he tried to explain that it was exactly the opposite.
He was so afraid that the same thing would happen now. He had felt it coming close: the first time he felt the wet swipe of Blair's tongue, the first time Blair caressed that magic spot deep inside. But when he felt the grayness closing in, Jim had concentrated on the strong, steady beat of Sandburg's heart and pulled himself away from the edge of oblivion. That was what he did now. But the difference was that he could not only hear the pulse, he could feel it, beating deep inside his own body.
Jim was concentrating so hard that he was startled when Blair reached around to caress him. The young doctor's fingers were slick with the oil he had used to lubricate Jim, and they glided easily on his turgid shaft.
"How do you like it, Jim?" he whispered. "Like this? Long strokes from base to tip?" He demonstrated with a full, tight stroke. "Or would you rather have me concentrate on the head? That can be so sensitive." His fingers encircled Jim's cock, just below the head, twisting and rubbing, then slowly squeezing up over the glans.
"Anything." Jim was surprised to hear that his voice was almost a whimper. One or two whores had asked him perfunctorily what his preferences were before they began their transactions but he had never felt that anyone was truly seeking out ways to give him pleasure, till now.
"Tell me. Because I'm close and I'm not sure you'll have your ambition of coming while I'm inside you if it isn't soon."
He's close? Suddenly his own orgasm seemed less important to Jim. He was determined to bring his lover over the edge now. He squeezed inside again and heard a breathy, surprised curse from Sandburg that made him smile. Then he began to shove back at him as hard and as fast as he could.
Blair realized quickly that he was no longer in control of the situation. With a big man like Jim it would be hard to make him do anything he didn't want to without ropes on him, or a gun to his head, so Blair simply hung on and enjoyed.
He almost made it. Jim was rushing toward orgasm when Blair thrust hard, and he felt the hot liquid gush into his bowels. It was almost enough to trigger his own release, especially with the muted cry his young lover made as he lunged one more time into his accepting flesh. Even with his own need pounding through him, Jim couldn't help but feel a certain smugness that he'd managed to do that to a partner who was so much more experienced. He whined in frustration, though, as the softening flesh slid out of him, and he reached down to finish himself off.
But his hands were pushed away. "Back. On your back," Blair said, his voice thick. Jim rolled onto his back, and Blair moved swiftly. He enveloped Jim's rigid cock in one long swallow, and began to suck, bobbing his head up and down. Jim's breath hitched. When he had finally pulled in enough to shout, he cried out Blair's name and climaxed. The young man did not pull away, but continued to suck, swallowing every drop of Jim's sperm as it pumped down his throat.
When he was done he gave the relaxing member an appreciative lick, then turned and crawled up to lie beside Jim. Ellison immediately pulled him into a strong embrace. He started to bend his head toward Blair, then hesitated. Blair understood. "It's all right. You don't have to. Remember? Nothing that makes you uncomfortable."
Jim studied him for a moment, then finished the motion he had begun, kissing Blair tenderly. His tongue moved over the younger man's lips, then delved inside. After a long moment he lifted his head and smiled. "So, that's what I taste like. Not so bad."
"Not bad at all," Blair agreed. He nestled against Jim, enjoying the closeness. This was one of the best parts when you truly liked the one you slept with: the intimacy afterward. He was pleased that Jim didn't push him away once the sex was finished. There had been a good number who did, more than he'd like to remember. "Can I sleep here tonight?"
Jim turned on his side to face Blair and threw a leg over him. "I suppose if you really want to find out what it's like to have me lay on top of you, you could try to leave, but I thought we might save that for another time. I'm kind of sleepy right now."
"What a surprise."
"Are doctors supposed to be so smart mouthed?"
"You weren't complaining about my smart mouth a minute ago."
"Sandburg," Jim's voice was drowsy. "I'd say you should add comedy to your show, but if you joke like this in public, I'll have to pull you in for public indecency. Go to sleep."
"Yes, Blessed Protector."
In a few moments they both slept, and it would have surprised anyone watching to note that their breathing fell into perfect rhythm. After the sweet vigor of that workout, Jim would have expected a dreamless sleep, but he was wrong.
He often dreamed of being in the forest. Hell, it was natural enough. He'd spent a lot of time in the deep woods, alone, on Army business. But this was different. It reminded him of that spell he'd had in Sandburg's wagon. This was a different type of forest: lusher, more verdant. He had the feeling that these trees never turned, never lost their leaves to the sad spell of autumn.
And he wasn't alone here. Someone... something moved beside him. He looked down and saw the smooth ripple of black fur, and halted in his tracks. The creature stopped also, and turned it's huge head back to look at him. He felt his mouth drop open in surprise. Cat's weren't supposed to have blue eyes. It was watching him with what could only be impatience. Well?
It wasn't exactly speaking, but he heard it, nonetheless. Who are you?
The animal sighed and sat down, looking up at him. It's hard to explain, Jim. It would be easier if you just accepted, and let the knowledge grow inside, gradually. Now is not really the time for long explanations. It stood up. Now, come on. They're waiting.
I'm not going anywhere with someone... something I don't know.
The tone was mildly disgusted. And he said his human was stubborn. You know me, Jim. You've known me for a long time. Remember all those months when you were in the woods, alone? Who do you think helped you through that? Kept you safe.
Jim had tried to forget that part of his life. He'd ridden to his new post, deep in the wilderness, only to find it deserted, abandoned. Whether it had been rebellion by soldiers tired of being isolated at the edge of nowhere or an Indian attack was never known. But Jim had been there, alone, for close to a year before the army had thought to check on why there were no reports coming from that particular station. He'd been half wild when the relief had arrived.
During that time alone he had not seen a single other man, but he had occasionally sensed a precense. It walked with him through the forest, somehow warning him when there was a danger of predators. More than once the sense of warning had prompted him to take cover just before a bear or a wild boar had appeared.
Considering the cat sitting before him now, watching him with cool blue eyes, Jim realized why it seemed so familiar. Yes, this had been his unseen companion. It said patiently, You trusted me then. Trust me now. Jim found himself nodding. When the beast continued on, he followed.
They came to a great tree. Lying beneath it, curved together, were Blair and a great grey wolf. Jim's heart froze when he saw the grizzled snout resting on the pale column of Blair's throat. But the shaggy head lifted, and turned eyes the same smoky blue as Blair's on Jim and the panther. Wonderful. And now mine is asleep. Do you think we'll ever get these two completely together?
The panther settled next to the wolf. We've made the first step. They've mated in body. I expect the mating in spirit won't be too far off.
Jim frowned. I'm right here, you know.
He never would have believed than animals could laugh, but both of them definitely chuckled. The wolf said, Yes, they're suited. He looked at Jim. Well? You know where you belong.
And he did. Jim lay down beside Blair, pulling him into his arms, and experienced the very odd sensation of falling asleep while he was asleep.
Jim had hoped to wake up to a warm Sandburg blanket, but not only was the young doctor not where he should be (draped over Jim) but he was not in the bed, and nowhere in the room. For a moment Jim had a sick, sinking feeling. He had gotten what he wanted, and stolen away in the night. His wagon would be gone from in front of the burned out store, his mules' stalls empty at Rafe's livery.
Then he heard the soft voice out in the cell. "Oh my darlin', oh my darlin', oh my darlin' Clementine. You are lost an' gone for-ever. Dreadful sor-ry, Clementine..."
Jim felt a smile spreading across his face. "All right, so he's not a nightingale," he murmured. "He has other talents." The pungent aroma of brewing coffee drifted to him, and suddenly his stomach was rumbling. Why not? he thought as he dressed. I guess I worked up an appetite last night.
Jim was pouring himself a cup in the kitchen when Blair came in from the forge. Jim eyed him. He was wearing his plum colored jacket again, and the hair that had tumbled so wild and loose last night was once again scraped into a semi-respectable tail. Again he felt the sick clutch in his belly, but he kept his voice calm. "Dressed for traveling?"
Blair laughed. "Lord, no! I wouldn't risk my best outfit on a long trek. However, I'm going to be visiting potential patients today, and it never hurts to look one's best." He did a turn, arms outstretched.
"Am I presentable?"
Jim slipped an arm around his waist, pulling him close. "You look good enough to eat."
Blair put his hands on Jim's chest and said in a deliberately simpering voice, "My, Mr. Ellison! How you do go on!" His voice dropped into its natural register as he planted a quick kiss on Jim's lips, then stepped out of his embrace. "Later, Big Man. I have work to do. I want to get out to Kincaid's and have a look at the ladies."
Jim scowled. "They don't usually welcome visitors till late afternoon."
"I'm not going to be a visitor. Look, Jim, you're a lawman, and a man of the world. You must know how much damage a single diseased prostitute could do? I must make sure they're clean, for the sake of the community as well as their own good."
"What will you do if they're not?"
"I can treat them for most things. They'll have to lay off work till they're cured, and..."
Jim gave a bark of laughter. "Yeah, I can see Kincaid letting one of his money-makers have a vacation."
Blair frowned. "This is serious, Jim. If any of the girls are infected, they must cease taking customers immediately. Normally, I'm all for letting them live their own lives, but this is too important. If I do find any that are sick, can I count on you to make the ban official?"
Jim sobered. His duty as law enforcer was being called upon. "Well, I'm not sure how I'd go about it, aside from putting her up in one of those cells. And she'd need some kind of support. It's their livelihood."
Blair sighed. "Well, we can worry about that when we come to it. This area doesn't have the flow of travelers that the bigger cities have, so there's a chance that none of the women have been exposed."
Jim stared into his cup and said softly, "I really don't like the idea of you going out there alone."
"I appreciate your concern, but..." he hesitated, then said slowly, "It is concern, isn't it?"
Jim's look was sharp. "Of course it is. I told you what Kincaid was capable of. What else could it be?"
Well, it could be jealousy, but I don't think now is the time to get into that. "Don't worry. I have more than a little experience with dealing with persistent people. Anyway, it's going to be broad daylight."
Jim's expression was bitter. "There's a lot of evil goes on in the light of day, Sandburg."
"I know. And the ladies will be there. Surely Kincaid won't try anything with witnesses all about, will he?" "Maybe. He didn't seem too worried that other time."
Blair sighed. "Look, caution is good, but I can't let it keep me from doing my job. I'll be fine. When I come back, I want to have another talk with you about your condition. I want to begin working on controlling your senses. I have to tell you, you surprised me last night." Jim's eyebrows quirked, and Blair smiled. "Oh, no. I knew you were going to be... mmm... special." He stroked Jim's throat. "I mean you didn't zone. I thought that the new physical sensations would probably overwhelm you. I was prepared to have to talk you down."
Jim laid a hand lightly on Blair's chest, over his heart. "This stopped it. I concentrated on your heartbeat when it started to be too much."
"That's good. But we need to find a method that will work when I'm not here."
"Why?" Blair went still. There was a world of meaning in that simple one word question. Jim was saying that Blair would be welcome to stay. No, he was saying that he wanted Blair to stay. But how can I trust that decision? I don't think he realizes what it would entail. Not just in dealing with his friends and neighbors, either. There's more to this Sentinel and Guide relationship than even I know. I know there were things that Sir Richard couldn't write about in his paper, things that just aren't mentioned in public. God, if only I could talk to him. But I have to stumble along as best I can, because it isn't just an interesting theory anymore: it's a living, breathing man. A man I think I may be falling in love with.
He said carefully. "I like Cascade. I think I'd like to stay here. But you never can tell, Jim. Things happen."
Jim's clear blue eyes clouded a little. He likes Cascade. Well, I couldn't really expect him to want to stay for me, not after just one encounter. But he wants to stay. There will be time. "Just be careful, okay? I wouldn't mind a reason to kick Kincaid's ass again, but I don't want to get it because he does something to you."
Blair stopped at the restaurant and got some leftovers from the sleepy cook, then went to his wagon and fed Burton. Afterwards, he loaded a carpetbag with things he thought he might need and headed to the livery. At the stable Rafe agreed to let Blair borrow a saddle and bridle. "I'll get your mule ready for you. Which one will it be?"
"Burton, of course. I have enough trouble persuading Naomi to draw the wagon. She'd be mortally offended if I tried to ride her and I'd rather not have to doctor myself after having a chunk taken out of my leg."
As Rafe saddled the mule he said casually, "I saw Megan... I mean Miz Conners out at your wagon yesterday. She's not sick, is she?"
Blair studied Rafe. He wasn't a Sentinel, but it was impossible to miss the genuine concern in the dark haired man's voice. "No, she's fine."
"Yeah?" There was a hint of relief, but he gave Blair a speculative look. "That's good to know."
Um. I think I just found Daddy. And judging from that suspicious look he's giving me, he's serious about her. I can't in good conscious tell him, though. As Blair mounted up he said, "Thank you. She should be all right, though I am a little worried about her lifting things around her store for the next few months."
Rafe wasn't a stupid man. Blair could almost see the gears meshing behind his eyes. "You just drop the mule back here when you're done, Dr. Sandburg, and one of my boys will take care of it. I need to go talk to Megan." He was hurrying toward the general store as Blair made his way out of town, whistling to himself. He just hoped Rafe didn't mention where he'd gotten the notion that Megan was expecting. Blair had a feeling that the Australian could be salty when she wanted to, and he wanted to stay on good terms with her, so he could keep an eye on her pregnancy. He was sure she'd be too practical to let irritation keep her from getting the best care, but he wanted to avoid any awkwardness if he could.
He found Kincaid's place about fifteen minutes outside of town. It was a large, pleasant house: two story, which was unusual. There was a stable and a corral off to the side, but at the moment the corral only contained one rather dispirited looking horse. Blair put Burton in with the other and carried his bag up on the front porch, then knocked on the door.
There was a sleepy murmur of voices inside, and the door was finally opened by a pretty, if rather blowsy young woman, wrapped in a flimsy robe. She regarded him, giving him a raking glance from head to toe, then drawled, "Sugar, you picked the wrong time o' day for a visit. An' if that," she gestured at his bag, "means you're plannin' on stayin' a bit, I gotta warn ya that the fees will be awful steep."
Blair bowed. "No, miss, I'm not here as clientele." Her lips pursed into a smile at the title of 'miss'. "Allow me to introduce myself: Dr. Blair Sandburg, traveling medicine man and physician. I'm here to see to the health of the ladies of this establishment."
Thin plucked eyebrows rose. "Wal, I'll be. Some o' the boys was sayin' somethin' about a new medicine man in town. Said you was a genuine doc, not a quack or a vet. That true?"
"I didn't bring my diploma with me, but yes, it's true. I am fully licensed to treat illness, prescribe medicines, and perform surgeries."
"Ain't no need o' that here, Sugar."
"Please, miss," Blair said earnestly. "Some of the diseases you could find yourself exposed to in your line of work are insidious, hard to diagnose and hard to treat."
"Lila, who the devil are you..." Kincaid, in his shirt sleeves, came up behind the woman. When he saw Blair his sour expression turned welcoming. "Ah, the good doctor! Don't just stand there, you ignorant twit.. Let him in."
Blair frowned, wanting to call the man to task over the insult, but Lila was watching him, and she shook her head minutely. He understood. It wouldn't be worth the trouble to her. As Lila shut the door behind him Blair said, "Good morning, sir. I suppose I should have made arrangements beforehand, but you'd left town by the time I thought of it, and I thought it would be good to get on with this. The quicker I can set the ladies' minds at ease, the better."
"To be sure. Some of them are still abed, lazy sluts, but I'll get them up for you. You can see them in the front parlor, if you like."
Blair hesitated. "They might want a bit more privacy."
Lila gave him an almost amused look, and her tone was sarcastic. "Doc, privacy ain't high on our list of necessities around here. I'll go tell the other girls. One at a time, Garret?"
"Yes." He turned to Blair. "There's only a half dozen of them. It shouldn't take you long. Do you need anything?"
"Well, a couple of sheets would be good." They'd entered the parlor. "I can put one on this settee for an examining table, and they can cover themselves with the other."
"You'll be examining them in the nude?"
Blair looked at Kincaid sharply. There had been an unhealthy note of interest in his tone. "Not if they object, of course, but it's much more effective if I do."
"They won't object." Blair had opened the bag and was removing his instruments, laying them out neatly on a table. As the young man pulled up a shade to let more light into the room, he examined them. "Quite an assortment you have here, Doc. Mind telling me what they are?"
"Well," Blair pointed to each instrument. "Stethoscope, to listen to the lungs and heartbeat. Many diseases can be diagnosed from abnormal sounds. This is a sphygmomanometer. It helps measure blood pressure."
"Well, you know how water can be forced through a pipe by increasing the pressure behind it? Blood is pumped through the veins in much the same way by the heart, and if the pressure is too great or too weak it can cause all kinds of trouble. Then there's my magnifying glass, the funnel to make it easier to examine the ears, and the speculum."
Kincaid reached toward the spatulated metal instrument. "What's this for?"
"Don't touch it!" Blair said sharply. When Kincaid drew his hand back, frowning, Blair said more quietly. "I'm sorry, but it's clean right now, and I don't want it contaminated. I have to clean it with alcohol between uses. It's for the, erm, female examination."
"Oh, I see." Kincaid's smile was rather nasty. "But why bother? It isn't as if they're all that particular about what they put..."
"It's simple medical precautions," Blair interrupted. He was feeling more and more distaste for the other man. He had a very cavalier attitude about the women who worked for him. "I don't want to take the chance of spreading germs."
"Germs? Yeah, I heard of them. Supposed to be critters so tiny you can't see them." The disbelief was clear in his voice.
"They exist, and they are the major cause of disease and infection. I'd prove it to you, but my microscope was broken in Dodge City, and I haven't been in one place long enough to replace it."
A petite girl with long blonde hair done up in a messy bun wandered into the room and stared at Blair apprehensively while she spoke to Kincaid. "Lila said the Doc was here to check us out, Garret. I'm feeling good. I don't need no doctor."
"That isn't for you to decide, Rose. Now, strip off and let him look you over."
The girl wearily started to unbutton her dress, and Blair put a hand on her arm to stop her. She looked at him in surprise as he turned to Kincaid and said, "I'll ask you to leave now."
Kincaid frowned. "Doc, these girls are my bread and butter. I'd rather stay and see for myself that they're all right."
"No offense meant, Mr. Kincaid, but I doubt if you could tell the difference between a hematoma and a hysterectomy." He looked confused. "Please. The girls may have one of their friends present for modesty's sake, but I do not do examinations with another of the opposite sex present unless it is the husband, or in the case of the very young, the father."
"I don't know..."
"I do. I have to insist on this."
Kincaid finally shrugged with bad grace and left the room. Blair turned his attention to Rose, who was watching him with renewed interest. "Rose, isn't it?" She nodded. "Rose, would you like one of your friends here? Would that make you more comfortable?"
"Why do you care?" There was no real hostility in the remark, only curiosity.
He smiled. "Rose, my sole aim in life is to keep people healthy and happy. The more relaxed and comfortable you are while I examine you, the more accurate I'll be."
"I guess I'd like to have Lila here, if I could. She's sorta mother hen around here."
"Fine. Why don't you fetch her?"
Rose left and returned in just a moment with the older woman. Blair nodded to her. "Miss Lila, can you hold the sheet for Rose to undress, or do you need me to help?"
The two women exchanged looks, then Lila said slowly. "I reckon I can manage. You want her to strip all the way?"
"It will be the most convenience, but..." he addressed Rose directly. "as I said, nothing that makes you uncomfortable is required."
Lila held up the sheet while Rose stripped behind it, then wrapped her in the sheet. The girl sat on the settee, and Blair began the exam. He was quick, but thorough: peering, listening, thumping, palpitating. She didn't even blink when he asked her to lie down and spread her legs so he could give her a pelvic examination. The women again exchanged looks when he wrapped the speculum in a clean cloth and warmed it in his hands before using it. Rose screwed up her face as he began the exam, but gradually her expression relaxed. The young man was being incredibly gentle and careful.
When he was done he said, "Well, you seem to be in excellent health, aside from those blisters on your feet."
"She will wear her shoes a size too small, vain thing," Lila said in a scolding, but kind voice.
"Rose, I want you to stick with loose slippers till those are healed. Don't try to lance them, and try to keep them from breaking. Blood poisoning is a very real danger with those sort. I'm going to leave you some Epsom salts to soak them, and some salve in case they do break. That's all for you."
Blair cleaned his instruments as Rose dressed and the next girl was called. The exams went smoothly, and Blair was gratified that the women all seemed to be in good health. He examined three more girls, then Lila herself. As she was dressing again she said, "Doc, can I ask you a question?"
He was ready for a medical question, instead she said, "How much are you chargin' for this?"
"Mr. Kincaid said he'd take care of it."
"Oh, I've no doubt he said that. How much?"
"Two dollars each for the standard, plus a little extra if needed. Like Rose's salve and that throat wash I gave Julia."
Lila scowled. "Huh, I thought so. Would you mind if we paid you personally? It might take a day or so for some of us."
"Certainly, there's no hurry. But there's no reason why you should pay this yourself. Why not let Kincaid pay it for you? After all, I think it should come under working expenses."
"We'll do it ourselves 'cause if we let Kincaid do it he'll hold seven dollars outta our cut. Most of us can't afford that. Louise has a little girl in Sacramento, stayin' with her Ma, an' the kid starts school next year. She's got to save as much as she can."
Blair scowled. "Do you mean to tell me that he was going to charge you more than triple the proper rate?"
"That's nothin' new. You should see what he charges for board an' linens. I could have my sheets sent out to the Chinaman in town for less. Some of the girls wanted to do it themselves, but he charged so much for the soap that it wasn't practical. On the whole we get about a quarter, thirty-five cents outta every dollar that comes through here. Unless a customer wants to leave a tip, an' then Garret damn sure better not find out about it. Had a little gal about a year ago who didn't tell him about a silver dollar a cowpoke gave her. Knocked that girl clean out."
"But... that's outrageous!"
"Ain't it, though?"
"Why don't you report it to the constable?"
She laughed raggedly. "For a minute there I thought you was gonna ask why we didn't leave him. Glad you got better sense than that. I'll answer it anyway, 'cause I can see you're wonderin'. Cause as bad as he is, it's safer than workin' on your own out here. He runs off the ones who are too rough, an' sees that we get at least some of our money. That's somethin'. I useta run into too many men who didn't want to honor their bargains once they got what they wanted. And the reason we don't tell the law..." She shrugged. "Sugar, it ain't exactly illegal. Might be wrong, but it ain't illegal. There's no laws against a man bein' a hard business man."
Blair's expression was hard. "He won't be doing business with me. Yes, Rose, I'll accept direct payment. If he gives you a hard time about it, you can refer him to me."
"That's right nice of you."
Kincaid came into the room. "Well, Doc, all finished? How are my girls?"
Blair's voice was chilly. "The ladies are in excellent health so far. But I believe you said there were a half dozen. I've only seen five."
Kincaid looked at Lila. "Okay, who's trying to dodge?"
"It's Patty, and she's not trying to dodge it. She's just still asleep."
"What, at this late hour? Lazy slut. She's been sleeping more and more lately," he explained to Blair. "Hardly would bother to get up to meet customers if someone didn't haul her ass out of bed." His smile was greasy. "Of course, that's where business is conducted, but it's only polite to greet the customers in the parlor first, don't you think?"
Blair ignored him, looking at Lila. "Is she ill?"
Lila's expression was a mixture of sorrow and worry. "Not--exactly." She glared at Kincaid. "You know what the problem is," she said, her tone accusatory.
He shrugged. "She's a grown woman. She makes her own decisions. As long as it doesn't interfere with her earning power, who am I to complain?"
Again Blair ignored him. "Lila, what is it?"
"I think you better see for yourself, Doc. Come on up to her room."
Kincaid watched them leave, frowning. He didn't like the indifference the young man had been showing to him, he didn't like that at all. He wondered if Lila had been filling that pretty head with nasty stories. She was a trouble-maker, that one, far too independent. If she wasn't so good at keeping the other girls happy and productive, he would have gotten rid of her months ago. But lately she was the only one who could get Louise to stop crying over not seeing her brat, or get Patty up and semi-sensible when it was time to do business. Still, he'd have to think about letting her go soon if she was going to interfere with his plans for that sweet little sawbones.
Ellison looked up, startled. Rafe was standing in his kitchen doorway, regarding him with a concerned expression. "Rafe..."
The dark haired man gestured apologetically. "I'm sorry to just barge in like this. I knocked."
Jim sighed, putting down the Burton paper. He'd picked it up again, meaning only to skim it, and had found himself immersed once again, even more deeply than he had been the night before. "Come on in. There's coffee on the stove if you want it."
Rafe picked up the pot, then shook it and lifted the lid to peer inside. "I'm afraid this one is dead." He took it to the sink and pumped some water into it. The water hissed and steamed as it hit the heated metal. "It had boilded dry. You should be more careful, Jim. You're going to start a fire that way."
Now Jim noticed the acrid smell of burnt coffee. That was right, there had only been a little left in the pot. He should have taken it off the stove, but he had gotten so engrossed... "I'll be more careful. Sandburg was going to borrow some tack from you to get out to Kincaid's place. Has he come back yet?" Jim badly wanted to talk to the young man again. The more he read of the paper, the more he was convinced that Burton had outlined his situation exactly. He was a Sentinel and he needed a Guide. From what he'd already experienced with the curly headed young man, it seemed fairly obvious that Sandburg was the natural choice, and Jim couldn't help but be pleased by that prospect.
"That's what I came to tell you. He's been there, and now he's gone back."
"What?" Jim sat up, frowning. "What do you mean, Rafe?"
"Just what I said. He rode out there this morning, and came back a little while ago, got a few things from his wagon, and went back. Asked if he could keep the equipment for a few days, as he was going to be out at the... er, establishment. In fact, he sold his harness to me. Said he would be needing the money." Rafe snickered. "If he's going to be staying any amount of time out there, I guess he will need it. I thought he was staying here with you?"
Jim's voice was grim. "So did I." I can't believe it. After what we shared last night, he's going to go hole up in a cathouse?
"Anyway, he asked me to tell you. Don't know why he couldn't have stopped in himself, since it was right on his way." Jim knew, or was pretty sure. He hadn't wanted the awkwardness. He supposed he should be happy that Blair had stayed the night instead of sneaking out while he was still asleep. "Said he'd be back in a couple of days, not to worry, and he asked if you'd feed his dog for him."
"Why should I worry? He's a grown man. I guess I can feed the dog. No reason why he should suffer just because his master is irresponsible."
His friend's tone was unusually brittle, and Rafe looked at him closely. Jim looked strained, even more so than usual. Maybe his news would cheer him up. "Jim, I wanted you to be the first to know. Megan and I are getting married."
Jim blinked, and Rafe had the satisfaction of knowing that he'd taken his friend by surprise. "Well, I didn't see that coming. You kept it pretty quiet."
Rafe shrugged. "You know how people talk in a small town. We just thought it would be easier..." He blushed. "Oh, hell. You know how people talk about widow women, even when they're as proper as church mice."
"I know." He stood, patting Rafe on the shoulder. "I wish you both my best. I suppose you'll be getting married as soon as you can?"
"Next Sunday. I've already talked to the pastor, and..." He trailed off, looking at Jim suspiciously. "Why would you assume we'd be in a hurry to get married?"
Uh-oh. Don't want him to think Sandburg blabbed to me, though why I'd want to protect that brat's reputation, I don't know. "I just know that if it was me I'd want to be able to squire my lady around as soon as possible."
Rafe's expression cleared. "I'm glad you're all right with this, Jim. You know, for a while there everyone was thinking that maybe you and Megan would make a good couple."
"No, Rafe. Megan's a fine woman, and a good friend, but she isn't what I need." ...or want. Dammit, what I want doesn't seem to want me. I guess I should just forget him.
Jim tried. He threw himself into his work, turning out sets of horseshoes that he really didn't need, forming a new plowshare on the off chance that some sodbuster would need it when it was time to plant again. It didn't work. His mind kept drifting back to smoky blue eyes and auburn curls.
By the time late afternoon rolled around he was thoroughly disgusted with himself. He filled a bowl with chopped meat and bread and, after a moment, poured some bacon grease over it, then carried it to the physik wagon. As he approached, he looked for signs of the brown dog that had accompanied Sandburg to town.
He finally spotted him about a half a block away. The dog was on his hind legs, lapping water out of a horse trough. As Jim approached the wagon, though, his head jerked toward it, muzzle dripping. The dog dropped down and started back for the wagon at a fast trot, ears going back.
Jim stood still beside the wagon, hoping that he wasn't going to have to do anything to the animal. It was only doing its job, protecting its master's property, after all. But as the dog got closer it slowed. Bright, intelligent eyes studied Jim. Finally it sat before him, tongue lolling out in a doggy grin, and gave a short yip.
"So, you remember me, do you?" The dog yipped again, eyeing the bowl in Jim's hands. He sat up on his hind legs, front paws waving, nose lifted as he sniffed. Jim laughed and sat the bowl down. The dog began to eat with obvious appetite, but without the urgency of real hunger. When it was done it gave the bowl a few final licks then sat back with a sigh, and burped. Jim laughed again, reaching down to scratch its head. "Did Sandburg teach you your manners? His leave a bit to be desired, you know, running off like he did."
Jim sighed, leaning against the wagon. He put his head near the seam at the side, and closed is eyes, sniffing the complicated aromas that came through the crack. It was a rich, complex smell, comprised of the many herbs and medicines he stored inside. But overlaying it all was the scent of the man himself, warm and musky. Yes, he'd been inside this wagon not long before. The smell was fresh.
Jim frowned. But there was something wrong with it. It was heavy, and there was a faintly sour undertone. Not exactly fear, but worry. He had been very agitated about something. And there was another faint, sweetish odor that gave him pause. He recognized it from some dealings he'd had years before with certain Chinese gangsters in San Francisco. It was the aroma of opium. Not opium smoke, but it still was the drug. That scent didn't belong there. Sandburg had been very adamant about not using narcotics, and Jim was sure that he would have noticed the scent when he had been inside the wagon before.
Something's going on. Maybe he just came to the wagon for clothes, but then why would there be that poppy stink? It isn't like him to traipse off for a few days of debauchery without seeing to his dog first instead of leaving it to chance. Hell, damn my insecurities. I really don't think he'd just brush me off, either. His gut twisted into a knot. I'd better ride out to Kincaid's and see what's going on.
Jim went to the livery and got Rainier. As he rode past the wagon the dog trotted out and followed along after him. Jim thought about turning him back, but decided against it. The animal was used to staying close to Sandburg probably missed him pretty badly by now. Besides, he wouldn't mind having a protective dog along at Kincaid's.
It was evening by the time he reached the house, and there were several horses in the corral. He didn't see Burton, though, but there was a small stable where Kincaid kept his horse. Maybe the mule was in there. Jim put Rainier in with the other animals and went up on the porch. Darwin followed him and sat just behind him as he knocked on the door.
There was a murmur of voices behind the door, male and female. Somewhere in the background a girl was singing a bawdy song in a pleasant, husky voice, and a man was laughing. Footsteps approached. A brown-haired young woman in a low cut satin dress, her face thickly powdered and rouged opened the door. She looked startled, then grinned at him. "Wal, hello Sheriff!"
"Hello, Lila, and I'm a constable, not a sheriff. You know that."
She waved her hand. "Law is law, however you title yourself. Haven't seen you for a good long while." Her smile thinned, and her eyes were worried. "Not since... Didn't think I'd see you here again. Unless there's somethin' wrong? You after one of the boys? I know it ain't one of my girls. They all stay out of trouble."
"No, Lila. I'm just..." He shuffled his feet. "The young man who came here this morning?"
Lila nodded. "The doc. Yeah, he's here. Upstairs, with Patty."
Again Jim's stomach twisted, but he continued. "I want to talk with him."
Lila started to say something, but a voice from the front parlor called, "Lila, you ignorant bitch, what are you doing keeping a customer standing out on the porch? Bring him in." Kincaid's voice trailed off as he came into the doorway and saw who was standing at the door. "Well, I'll be," he drawled. "Certainly didn't expect to see you here, big man."
Jim stared at him, eyes icy, then looked back to Lila. "Could you ask him to come down and speak to me, please?"
"What, you asking after the little curly-haired dude?" He came up behind Lila. "I do believe he said that he didn't want to be disturbed unless it was real important." He smiled, and it was a nasty expression. "Took a real liking to our Patty. He paid for three days of her time, all to himself. That's quite a chunk of money for a common whore."
"Garret..." Lila started to speak, but the man gave her such a scowl that she bit her lip. "Mr. Ellison, he did say he needed time alone with her. I'm s'posed to bring him up some things in a little while. If you'll wait, I'll ask him then."
"I'd appreciate it."
"Why not?" Kincaid opened the door invitingly. "Come on in and have a seat in the parlor. I know you don't want to take advantage of my other hospitality, but I suppose I can stand you a drink."
Jim came in. "I'll accept the seat, but not the drink," he said stiffly.
"Oh, come now, Constable." Kincaid shut the door behind him. "Surely you're not going to hold a grudge over that little misunderstanding?"
Jim just stared at him, then walked into the front parlor. There were two cowboys and two girls there already. One of the men sat in a chair with a girl on his lap, the other two sat close to each other on the couch. Jim went and sat at the end of the couch, settling in to wait as long as necessary.
Lila hesitated at the parlor door, then came over to him. "Ellison, about the doc... I don't know what you think, but..."
"Lila," Kincaid came up behind her. "There's three potential money men playing cards in the kitchen. You go see if you can't coax one or two of them upstairs with you."
"I just wanted to..."
"Now, Lila. I've been more than generous, letting you help the good doctor, but now it's time for you to tend to your duties. Go on." She left reluctantly, and Jim froze as Kincaid sat down beside him. "Lazy women. I swear, I'd go bankrupt if I didn't keep after them all the time."
Kincaid grinned at Jim, studying his grim profile. "I heard that Sandburg was staying with you in town. I thought you didn't go that way, Jim."
Jim shot him a glance as cold and sharp as a knife blade in January. "Look, Kincaid, I don't want to talk to you. Just leave me in peace."
"You seem to forget," he drawled, "that you are in my home, on my sufferance. But," he stretched his legs out comfortably. "I'm willing to be tolerant. I'm in such a good mood, having Blair here." Jim glared at him. He didn't like hearing his erstwhile lover's name on Kincaid's lips. Garret could tell, and he smirked. "Such an interesting young man. You know, all that travel has really broadened his outlook on life. He isn't nearly as tight-laced as most people around here."
Jim stared down at his boots. "I can go wait out on the porch just as easily."
Garret stood up. "My, but you're touchy. Maybe if you'd been a little more sensitive before, things might have worked out between us." His hand moved toward Jim's face.
The Sentinel said coldly, "Kincaid, if you touch me, I'll have to hurt you. Badly."
Kincaid drew back his hand, unruffled. "All right, I'm not your type. I can understand that. But if you have your heart set on our little physician, I think you're wasting your time. I have plans for him myself, and I think he'll be more appreciative than you were."
Jim tensed, fighting the urge to just leap on the man and start beating him. "Leave him alone, Kincaid."
Garret's dark eyes were as flat and cold as stones. "He's a grown man, Ellison, and I don't recall him mentioning you as his guardian. He can make his own decisions."
"You just be damn sure that it is his decision, Kincaid," Jim snarled. "I seem to recall that you're bad at asking, and worse at taking no for an answer."
A man appeared at the door, a bored looking Lila snuggled against his side. "How's about a bottle to take upstairs?"
"Coming right up, my friend. That will be five dollars."
"Five?" Kincaid was unlocking a cabinet and removing a bottle from the stock inside. "Hell, I can get one for three in town."
"But you can't drink it in the company of such a charming young lady, now can you?" He took several coins from the grumbling man and passed over the bottle. "Personally, I'd drink that after you had your fun. She's going to start her time as soon as you get upstairs, and you pay extra for going over the hour limit."
"Don't complain. In a good house in one of the larger cities you'd be charged by the half-hour. Now get on with you."
Lila looked past Kincaid to Jim. "I'll go see the doc as soon as I can, Constable. Just sit patient, okay? I know he wants to see you."
"Lila, keep your mind on business," Kincaid snapped. As the pair went upstairs he gave Jim one more considering, amused glance, and went into the kitchen, calling, "I understand there's an open chair in this game?"
Jim sat. He felt the urge to get up and pace, but forced himself to stay still and think. The more he thought, the more certain he was that any suspicions he had about Sandburg's reasons for being here were unfounded. Blair had said more than once that he didn't believe in paying for sex, and Jim knew that it wasn't just the masculine 'I never pay for it' attitude that a lot of men had. Blair didn't think he was too good to pay for it, he just thought that it was an experience that should be shared by people who liked and respected each other.
Jim closed his eyes and concentrated, letting his ears sift through the various sounds in the house, searching for one that was familiar, and fast becoming dear. He pushed aside the murmur of the men playing cards in the kitchen, the squeak of bedsprings and harsh gasps of people coupling in the upstairs bedrooms. There were so many heartbeats here, but he finally found the one he was looking for. It was unmistakable. He didn't question for a moment that he had found Sandburg.
He was relieved to find it strong and steady, but the more he concentrated on the area it was coming from, the more worried he became. There were disturbing sounds coming from there, too. Almost pathetic moans that chilled Jim's blood even after he realized that they were not coming from Blair. Then he heard Blair's voice. "Patty, no, don't try to get up."
A woman's voice, weak, but angry, answered him. "Let me up, damn you! I need it!"
"No, you don't. I know it hurts, but you're going to feel better by tomorrow. The very worst of it will be over by day after tomorrow, you have to trust me."
"Why should I? I didn't ask for this!"
"Yes, you did. You asked me to help you this morning. You made me promise that I would, no matter what you said or did, and I'm keeping my promise." His voice was firm, but gentle, and Jim felt his heart swell.
"I was crazy, I didn't know what I was saying. My... my brain was addled, you know that."
"You were affected, yes, but you never said anything saner."
"Oh, God, please. Just a little. I want to sleep. I can't sleep without it."
"Drink some of this."
There was the sound of something striking the floor, and the brittle sound of china or crockery breaking. Straining to hear everything, Jim even heard the slosh of liquid. Whoever was upset had thrown a glass or cup to the floor.
Perhaps more disturbing than these sounds was the smell that drifted down to Jim. It was awful. It was a combination of sweat, vomit, and human wastes. Someone up there was very, very sick. Without speaking to him, without speaking to anyone, Jim knew now why Blair was here. Despite the lascivious hints Kincaid had made about his motives, Blair was doing what he had to do: he was caring for someone. He was healing someone. And remembering the scent he'd smelled at the wagon, and Blair's speech to the crowd after that first show, he thought he knew just what he was fighting.
Jim waited, pulling out his watch to check it occasionally, waiting for the hour to pass. Apparently the cowboy had decided to pay for extra time. Finally he heard a voice call down from the top of the stairs. "Lila?"
Jim went to the bottom of the stairs and looked up. "Lila is busy, Blair. What can I do to help?"
Blair looked down at him silently, peering over the rail. He looked tired and drawn, his hair escaping from the ribbon to curl around his face. He was a little pale, and there were already shadows under his eyes, but when he smiled Jim's heart still turned over. "Can you bring me up a basin of water, and another cup? Maybe a few clean cloths."
"As quick as I can."
As Blair went back into the room behind him Jim headed for the kitchen. The three men at the table looked up from their cards as Jim came in. He ignored them and searched in the cabinets till he found a cup and a basin. He chose metal containers, remembering the sound of the cup breaking on the upstairs floor. After pumping water into the basin he picked up several cloths off the counter, and one of the men said jocularly, "What's the matter, Bo? The woman you picked so lazy that she's makin' you take care of the cleanin' arrangements?" Jim just shrugged and left, hearing the rough laughter behind him.
He carried them upstairs, being careful not to spill the water. Up on the second floor he tapped gently at the door, and Blair opened it after a moment. "Thanks, Jim. Lila and the other girls have been helping as much as possible, but they have to work. If they fall behind in their earnings, Kincaid makes their life hell."
"Can I come in?" Blair hesitated. "Please."
Blair bit his lip. "It's between doctor and patient, Jim. I can't tell you."
"You don't have to, Chief. I think I know what's going on." He smiled. "I'm a Sentinel, remember? Opium has a very distinctive smell, and I remember what you said in your show."
Blair took the cup and cloths. "All right, come on in. I may need to your help later. I've only done this a few times, and it... it's draining."
Jim came in, and Blair shut the door, and locked it. "Put that over on the stand by the bed, please." Jim went and placed the basin on the stand, then turned his eyes to the girl lying in the bed.
She was a pretty girl, or might have been. Her long, fair hair was in a sloppy braid, but it was unraveling from being tossed about, and it was soaked at the temples with sweat. The scent of the sweat was pungent, mingled with the smell of vomit and... other bad smells. Her face was thin and pale, and the shadows under her eyes were like bruises. Her lips were dry and chapped.
As Jim studied her, Blair poured something from a bottle into the cup and added water from an ewer. The he sat beside the girl on the bed and touched her gently. "Patty? Patty, honey, I need you to drink this." Never opening her eyes, the girl slapped out at him, but he moved out of the way. He glanced at Jim. "I wasn't fast enough last time. I expect you heard the cup break?"
Jim nodded. "That's why I brought the tin one."
Patty slitted her eyes. The lids were gummy. "Who's there?" Her voice was raspy.
"It's Jim Ellison, Patty," Jim said. "The town constable."
"You ain't takin' me in. I know my rights. I'm outside the city limits, got no call to arrest me. Garret promised."
"I'm not here to arrest you."
"No." The chapped lips curved into a sickly smile. "Oh, I see. Yeah, sugar, sure." Trembling fingers moved to the buttons of her gown. "I'll show you a good time."
Jim gently took hold of her hands and pushed them down to her side. "No, little girl. I'm not here for that, either."
She scowled. "Then what good are you to me? I need money. I took the last of my medicine, and I need more." She glared at Blair. "He won't give me any." Her eyes moved past Jim, fastening on the dresser on the far wall, and her voice became coaxing. "Look there. There's the bottle. He says it's empty, but there might be a little left. That's all I need, just a little. Get it for me, won't you? I... I'll do whatever you want, if you'll just get me my medicine."
Jim went to the dresser and picked up the small brown bottle, examining it. The label said 'Slumber's Friend. Laudanum. Administer in liquid. Recommended dosage..." It went on to suggest various numbers of drops for men, women and, to Jim's horror, children... and infants. The raw smell of alcohol and opium was heavy.
Patty's voice was eager. "There's some left, isn't there?" She held out her hand. "Give it to me!"
"No, Patty, it's empty."
"I don't believe you! Give it to me!"
"Patty," He uncorked it and turned the bottle upside down. "Nothing. Dry as dust."
The girl lay back, shaking, and tears began to seep from her eyes. She looked at Blair and whispered, "You could get me some, if you wanted to."
"Patty, if you drink this, it will help." Blair again offered the cup.
"Is it laudanum?"
"No, dear. But it will help with the pain and the nausea." She allowed Blair to support her head and put the cup to her lips, then swallowed the contents of the cup. When it was empty he glanced at Jim. "Jim, come turn the pillow, would you? It's gotten sweaty, and the fresh side will be cooler."
As Blair held her, Jim turned the pillow, and Blair let the girl down gently. She was so light. Under the voluminous nightgown her bones felt fragile, birdlike. She sighed, and looked up at him, her eyes over bright. "I...I'm sorry, mister. I'm not myself." She looked at Blair. "Doc? Have I been... very horrible?"
Blair smoothed her hair off her forehead. "No, baby. You've just been very sick. And I'm afraid you're going to be sick for awhile longer. But I'm here, and I'm going to help you. Can you sleep a little now?"
"I think so."
"Try. When you wake up we'll try to get a little soup into you. Louise promised to make some." He smiled. "Those new tinned condensed soups are wonderful inventions."
"That sounds good." Her voice sounded as if she were trying to convince herself. She clutched at his hand. "You won't leave me, will you?"
"I may step out into the hall, but I won't go far."
"Promise." She closed her eyes. Blair sat beside her till her breathing evened out into the rhythm of sleep. He got up carefully and went to the door, beckoning Jim after him. Out in the hall he closed the door almost all the way, leaving a crack. Then he leaned against the wall wearily, rubbing his eyes. "God, it's been less than a day, and I'm already so tired."
Blair nodded. "When are they going to pass laws against that shit? Oh, it is a medicine, and it can be a very effective one. But they won't regulate it. They sell it to anyone who asks, and so many of them haven't the will to use it only as it should be."
He stared bleakly at the wall. "Most of them become addicted accidentally. They don't realize what they're doing to themselves, and if they have a supportive environment, perhaps they never realize."
"Blair, that bottle gave a recommended dosage for babies."
His hand curled into a fist and jerked toward the wall, but Blair barely managed to stop himself from pounding it. He jerked his fist a few times in futile anger, as if he desperately wanted to be beating something, or someone. His voice was choked. "They call it soothing syrups, and market it to help with colic and teething. But so many people use it to quiet fussy infants. And it's so easy to put just a drop too many in the dosage..." He turned haunted eyes to his friend. "Do you have any idea how many people murder their own children while trying to have a peaceful night's sleep?"
"You've seen that before, haven't you?"
He fell back against the wall and slowly slid down till he was sitting. Jim sat beside him. "I'd been on the road for about three months. I was treating myself to a night in a hotel. Oh, it wasn't much of a hotel. It was cheap, but it was close to the theater district in New York, that's where I was. That's why a troupe of players was staying there. The leading lady had a six month old little girl. Jim, she was the prettiest thing you ever saw, with big brown eyes and just the tiniest bit of peach fuzz hair, and such a wide, pink gummed smile. But she was colicky, cried and cried, and they don't allow that in hotels. The management said they had to keep her quiet or move out. I tried to help. There are herbs you can use, natural ways to help, but they don't work every time, and they can't just make the symptoms go away. So they bought one of those 'calmers'."
He drew his knees up, hugging them, and pressed his forehead to them. His voice was shaky. "I didn't know. I never would have let them if I had known. That night there was the most godawful screaming from their room. Everyone ran out to see what was wrong, me included, and she came out of her room carrying the baby. She ran straight to me and pushed her into my arms and said, 'Mary won't wake up! Make her well. You're a doctor, make her well.'"
His shoulders heaved, and Jim saw a tear streak down his face. He reached over and pulled him close. Blair's arms went around Jim, and he buried his face against his broad chest. "She was still warm, Jim. Oh, God. I might have been able to help, if only they'd known a few minutes earlier. There are stimulants. It would have been dangerous with a baby, but I could have tried. But it was too late."
Jim stroked his back. "You did all you could, Chief," he said gently.
"But it should never have happened." He was quiet for a moment, then said in a small voice. "That... was the first one."
Jim closed his eyes. This explained a lot of things: Sandburg's adamant refusal to sell any form of narcotic, and his pointed offer to help anyone who had a problem with the substances, and perhaps it had a little to do with his restless roving, too.
Blair was speaking. "I knew about it when I was in school, of course. The pain killers are still so new. They're regarded as miracles, and they are, Jim, they are. If only they had been more widely available during the War Between the States, unimaginable suffering could have been avoided. But they've flourished too quickly, their use has spread too fast, and people are using them to dull more than physical pain. They're escaping the pain of their lives instead of dealing with it. That's what happened to Patty."
He rubbed his cheek on Jim's shirtfront. "A lot of the prostitutes use opium in one way or another. Some of the pimps and madams purposely get the girls to use it because it makes them easier to control. You saw how she is. They'll do anything to get it. Anything."
"Did Kincaid..." Jim's voice was raw.
"No, I don't think so. She was already using it when she came here about a year ago. But he sure as hell hasn't discouraged it, and he's helped her get it. None of the stores locally carry it, it has to be ordered, and Lila tells me he's been placing the order for her when he makes a trip to Lansdale. He doesn't care, as long as she keeps making money. Lately he's been angry because she'd gotten to the point where her work was suffering. She didn't want to eat, and she's lost a lot of weight. She's been sleeping all the time, and when they could get her up she was only half-awake. Groggy. The customers thought she was disinterested, and that isn't good for business." The last words were bitter.
"So he was willing enough to have me try to cure her, but he wasn't willing to lose any of the money he might earn during the time she'd have to be isolated. He demanded to be paid if I wanted to keep her from working."
"That's why you sold your gear to Rafe."
Blair nodded. "It bought me three days. I don't know what I'll do after that. I may have to part with the mules. I'd hate to do that."
"You won't have to. I have some money saved."
Blair looked up at him, eyes concerned. "Jim, I couldn't do that."
"Maybe you can't, but I can. I can see how attached you are to those two ornery beasts. Do you think I'd let you part with them? Besides, I have the feeling that the next owner would have Naomi at the glue factory gates in no time flat."
Blair laughed weakly, and Jim felt his heart lift. "Yeah, she's cussed, all right. Thanks, Jim. A week will see her through the worst of it. After that... Well, it's up to her. Some of them make it, some of them don't."
"But will you make it, Chief?" He ran a thumb over Blair's chin. "You're already tired. I'm worried about you."
He said softly, "I have to make it. I will make it." He looked into Jim's eyes. "As long as I know you're there, waiting for me, I can do what I have to."
Jim cupped Blair's face and kissed him gently. The younger man put his arms around Jim, leaning on him as the Sentinel's tongue slipped between his lips and lapped softly. When their lips parted he murmured. "Be my strength?"
Jim gathered him even closer, burying his face in the still fragrant mass of his hair and responded. "Yes, Blair. And you... you be my heart."
"Well, who says you can't find true love in a whorehouse?" The voice was snide.
Jim and Blair both started, but it was Jim who held on when Blair started to pull away. He glared at Kincaid, who was standing halfway up the stairs, watching them. The sandy haired man surveyed the embracing couple with a malicious smile and drawled, "I do hate to interrupt you, but if Patty is feeling any better I have a customer downstairs who's interested."
Blair did pull away from Jim, but gently, his hand lingering on his arm. "She's off duty, Kincaid, and you know it. Her time has been paid for."
"Look, Sandburg, from all I can see all she's doing is laying in that bed. She could be earning good money while she does that. Why don't you ask her what she wants?"
Blair stood up and went to the head of the stairs, glaring down at the other man. "You know damn good and well what she wants, and you know that it's the drug that's driving her to it. Why, Kincaid? Maybe you couldn't have stopped her completely, but by giving her such easy access and implicitly approving it, you've made it easy for her to almost kill herself."
He shrugged, "I told you before. She's a grown woman, she can make her own decisions."
"Damn it, she can't be more than eighteen!"
"And she's been earning her living on her back since she was fourteen. She's no delicate child who needs to be protected. And I didn't force her into this life."
"No, you just profit from it!" Blair spat.
Kincaid's dark eyes glittered. "Looking down on me as a pimp, Doctor? You hardly have room to be very moralistic when you're a..."
His voice trailed off as Jim stood up and came to stand beside Blair. His voice was low, deadly, and his eyes were flat. "What, Kincaid? Go ahead and finish your sentence."
"When he's no better than he should be. You know, Sandburg, you shouldn't keep that little nose of yours so high in the air--you could trip and hurt yourself." Blair started to say something, but there was a thump from the room behind them, and the sound of weak swearing. Dismissing Kincaid, he turned and hurried back into the room. Jim lingered long enough to give him another hard look before following him.
Kincaid looked after them, lips thinning into a knife edge line. Too good for old Garret, eh? Both of you, too good. Well, now, I have a little something to teach you, and that is nothing and no one is too good for me. His face thoughtful, he went down the hall to his room. Shutting the door behind him, he opened his closet and rummaged in it, then came out with a small box. He opened it and pulled out several wads of crumpled paper, then removed a small brown bottle.
He read the label. "Slumber's Friend. Dilute in water. Men--6 to 8 drops for gentle slumber. Hm. I wonder how much it will take to knock him on his pretty ass?"
Back in Patty's room Blair and Jim picked the delirious girl up off the floor, dodging weak swipes of her nails, and bundled her back into bed. When she had finally calmed down enough for them to release her Jim said, "Chief, I hate to say this, but maybe you ought to tie her to the bed."
"No, Jim. It's important that she be allowed to maintain what little dignity she can through this."
"Yes, well, the dignity isn't going to do her much good if she bashes her brains out falling, or attacks you when you're half asleep, but I suppose I can see your point."
"She's going to be very weak for awhile. I think I'll be all right watching her."
"When will you sleep?"
"The girls have promised to spell me when they can."
"That still won't give you much more than a couple of hours a day, and that will probably be in short naps that won't really do you much good."
"I swear, Jim Ellison, you worry over me worse than my mother ever did. Look, I know my limitations, I've come up against them time and again on the road. I won't push myself too far because that won't be helping Patty. I can't do her much good if I can't function to the best of my abilities."
He went over and looked out the window. "Well, I'll be..." He smiled. "I see Darwin followed you out. He's going into the stable. Must be going to say hello to Burton."
"He was worried about you." Jim came up behind him and slipped his arms around Blair's waist. The smaller man leaned back against him, putting his hands lightly on Jim's where they rested on his belly. "He doesn't have to be. Neither do you." Jim rested his chin on Blair's shoulder, and Blair reached up and back, cupping his cheek. "Jim, I had a funny dream the other night."
"Was it about a wolf and a black jaguar?"
Blair went very still. "How did you know?"
"Were they scolding you about being stubborn, and slow? Did the wolf lead you to the cat?"
"Jim..." he whispered.
"Was I there?"
Blair turned in his arms, looking up at him. "Shared dreams? I've heard of such things, but it's rare. The people have to be very close, share a special bond."
"I'm not entirely sure it's just a dream, Chief. I've felt the presence of the cat before. I'll tell you more about it when you're back home and we have more time to talk. But the strongest time I've ever felt him before last night was in the wagon, the first time I met you. You remember? I saw your cuff links and zoned. He was there."
Blair looked down, eyelashes veiling his eyes, and said softly, "They're rather presumptuous, don't you think? I mean, the cat said... something about mates."
Jim's arms tightened. "Yes. That we were mated in body and would be in spirit."
Now Blair looked up at him again. His voice was serious, his eyes grave. "I don't understand this, Jim, but I feel like I'm being pushed... no, led. Led into something... big. With you." Jim nodded. Blair bit his lip. "It's very sudden, I know. I can understand if you want to back off and take some time to look at it from all angles."
"Blair..." Jim put his hand in the deep thicket of Blair's hair, feeling the silky strands wind around his fingers. "I've been moving toward this most of my adult life. I just didn't realize it, and I wasn't ready for it. I think I am now." He chuckled. "I'd better be. I think the wolf and the cat will kick my ass if I'm not."
Blair swallowed. "You mean you're willing to consider... being with me?"
"Didn't you hear me, genius? I said 'when you get home.' Not back to town, not back to the forge: home. With me. I want you to stay, Blair. Not because the community needs a doctor, but because I need you. And I think you need me." He leaned close. He didn't kiss Blair, but their cheeks grazed, and he whispered in his ear, "If you'll have me."
Blair's arms went around Jim in a fierce hug. "Home sounds awful good to me, Big Guy. We're going to have so much to talk about, but..." he pulled away and went to pull the covers up over a shivering Patty. "It will be a couple of days. Why don't you go on home now?"
Jim followed him. "Are you sure you don't want me to stay?"
Blair patted his arm. "Of course I want you to stay, but you should go get some rest. Your place is back in town, in case something goes wrong and someone needs you. You can come back and see me again later. In fact, I'd appreciate it if you got me some fresh clothes out of the wagon and dropped them by tomorrow." He sniffed himself pointedly. "A little longer and it won't take a Sentinel to tell I've been living in these."
Jim nuzzled his neck. "Have I told you how good you smell?"
"Not directly, no, but I get the idea." He pushed Jim away, swatting him on the chest. "Now, go on before we get carried away and do something indecent in front of the girl."
Jim flushed. For a moment he had actually forgotten Patty. He gave Blair a quick kiss. "I'll be out tomorrow. Will you need anything besides your clothes?"
"Let me see." Blair got his case from beside the door and rummaged in it. "I brought a pretty good supply with me when I came out, but..." He held up a bottle that was about a quarter full of white powder, and examined it. "I'm a little low on amphetamine sulfate. She was in a bad way when I first saw her, she'd taken very close to an overdose, and I had to use it to bring her back. If you'd stop by my wagon and bring me a little more, just in case, I'd appreciate it. It's in a box on the second shelf, clearly labeled."
"Sure, Chief. What's it do?"
"I told you there were stimulants; this is one of them. I try not to use it unless absolutely necessary. I don't use much when I do use it, because too much can be just as damaging as too much of an opiate. I just wet my finger, dipped it in, and rubbed it on her gums. It works very quickly." He rummaged in the bag again and showed Jim another, smaller bottle. "I'd much rather use the ammonium carbonate."
Although it was tightly corked, Jim's head jerked back from the acrid whiff that rose from the bottle. "Smelling salts. God, that stuff could get a rise out of a week dead horse."
Blair smiled. "Colorful language, but it still wasn't enough for Patty. The amphetamine sulfate did the trick, though, thank God. I'd have had to try a stronger solution in an injection if it hadn't worked, and that's so chancy." He put the medicines away and stood up. "Anyway, that's all I need. I have stuff to help her with her nausea and constipation."
Jim studied the girl. She was pale, and sweating profusely, but she was shivering. He said softly, "She really did a number on herself, didn't she?"
"Most people who try to run away from life do."
Jim rubbed his thumb along Blair's jawline, acutely aware of the rasp where his beard was beginning to grow out. "Explains a lot of the trouble I've had. I'm through running now, Chief. I can stand and take whatever life decides to throw at me, if you'll be with me."
Blair took Jim's wrist and kissed his palm. "Get out of here before I'm tempted to throw you across Patty and climb on top of you."
Garret Kincaid watched as Jim Ellison went out to the corral and got his horse, mounted it, and rode off. Again he examined the bottle, smiling, then slipped it in his pocket and left the room to go downstairs. It was too early to try anything. Later, after the customers had left and the girls were asleep, that would be the time.
Blair wiped Patty's forehead, relieved to feel that it was cool. She wasn't sweating so badly now, and he thought that she might have actually slept a little. He'd managed to get her to eat almost a whole bowl of soup, and she'd managed to keep most of it down. That was good--she needed to keep her strength up.
He sat back in the chair, yawning. Damn, he was tired. He'd been up longer than this many times before, but this period had been emotionally as well as physically grueling. Still, he wasn't prepared to try to sleep yet. Maybe tomorrow, if she continued to improve, he'd find a settee and take a nap. He supposed he could doze a little in the chair: he'd done such a thing often enough before. But, truth be told, as appealing as a little rest seemed, he really didn't want to go to sleep in this house. Not unless he could put a stout lock between himself and Garret Kincaid.
He hadn't really liked the man before he came to the house. What he'd seen and heard since he'd been here had made him actively dislike him. He was cold and self-serving, lacking any human concern for the women who were more or less under his protection. And the way he had looked at him and Jim made Blair's skin crawl. He had been the object of unwanted attention before, and he knew what it felt like.
He heard the door open behind him, and turned wearily. "Lila?"
"She's gone to bed, like the rest of them. We ended up having a busy night tonight. Of course, part of that is because Patty was out of commission." Kincaid shut the door behind him.
Blair frowned at him. "Don't start."
"I'm not going to. I was just making a comment." He walked to the bed and stared down at the girl, showing a hint of detached interest. "How is she?"
"Better, but still a long way from cured."
"And how are you?"
"I've been better."
"You look tired."
Blair sighed. "I'm not surprised. Kincaid, I can't believe that you're overwhelmed by concern for either of us. What do you want?"
Kincaid shook his head. "I don't know where we went off track, Sandburg. We were getting along famously in the saloon. I had great hopes for our friendship." He put his hand on Blair's shoulder. "I'm not such a bad sort."
Blair shrugged his touch off and said coldly, "We're never going to be friends, Kincaid, and we're damn sure never going to be more than friends, so you might as well just leave it alone."
If he had been looking at Garret as he said this he would have seen the dangerous glint in his eyes, but when he did look up, the other man's expression was neutral, even a bit apologetic. "Well, I'm sorry to hear that. No reason why I can't be civil, though. Could you use anything? A drink perhaps?"
"No alcohol, not while I'm watching Patty."
"How about a little coffee, then? It wouldn't take but a few minutes to fix."
Blair eyed him in disbelief. Kincaid was offering to go through the trouble of fixing him coffee? He considered. He could certainly use a boost: it was going to be a long night. He nodded. "That would be good."
"Fine. I won't be long."
When he left Blair told the dozing Patty, "Well, what do you know? I guess even the snake likes to be seen as civilized now and again."
"Shouldn't trust 'im, Doc." It was a whisper, barely a sound at all. Patty cracked gummed lids and looked at him. Her eyes were lucid. "You're right when you said he's a snake. Sneaky and slick."
"I don't trust him, Patty. Never fear."
"Where's your friend?"
Blair was surprised that Patty remembered Jim. "He had to go back to town. He's the constable, and can't be away for long."
"Too bad." She smiled faintly. "Big, pretty man." Blair had to answer with a smile of his own, and a nod. "It's good, you two bein' together." Blair's smile faded. She really had been more aware than he would have credited. Her smile grew a little broader. "Oh, hell, Doc. After all the things I've seen, you think I'm gonna be bothered that your sweetie wears pants instead of petticoats?" Her eyes closed. "Just don't trust that Kincaid. Tried to give this stuff up once on my own. I got so moody and hard to live with he bought a bottle himself an' gave it to me. Said to do everyone a favor and take it."
Blair felt chilled to his core. He counted himself a tolerant man, but when this was over he was going to see if there wasn't some legal way to get Kincaid run out of the area.
Kincaid came back and offered a thick mug of coffee. Blair glared at him as he took it, and Garret said mildly, "My estimation seems to have fallen even farther. What brought that on?"
"Contemplation." Blair sipped the coffee and grimaced.
Kindaid watched him. "Bitter?"
"Yes." Blair didn't feel obliged to coddle Kincaid's feelings.
"Must be the chicory."
"I've spent some time in New Orleans. That isn't chicory."
"Then I'm afraid the beans weren't roasted properly. Rose doesn't stir them, and they burn in spots." He paused. "I can make you a fresh pot, if you'd rather."
Blair sighed. "No. I'm drinking it for effect rather than pleasure. Maybe the taste will help keep me awake." He drank some more, then said baldly, "You can leave any time now, Kincaid."
The older man sat on the side of the bed. "I think I'll just sit for awhile. Everyone's asleep by now and I don't feel like going to bed."
"I'd rather you left."
Kincaid's eyes narrowed. "Perhaps you would, but this is still my place, and I reckon I'm entitled to sit where I please. You'll just have to brace up and stand it, Doc."
Irritated, Blair finished the coffee in one gulp, trying to ignore the bitter flavor, then made a face as he set the cup aside. "Well, I guess that should keep me awake, if it doesn't kill me."
Jim was in the forest again, moving through moonlit trees. He was going somewhere this time, he knew he was. There was a sense of urgency, a feeling of dread that made the hair at the base of his skull prickle.
A solid shadow fell before him, dropping from an overhead branch to land crouching before him. Chill blue eyes in a feline face looked up at him. He needs you.
Jim sat up, sweating, eyes flying open...
...and found himself again looking into those same blue eyes. The black jaguar was crouched at the foot of the bed, staring at him. Jim froze, waiting for the last of the dream to dissipate, waiting for the panther to fade. It didn't.
It shifted, and Jim felt the mattress dip with its movement. The rank, feral smell of wild cat assaulted his nostrils. There was a soft, rumbling snarl. The animal twisted, leaping over the footboard to land lightly on the floor. It peered back over the barrier at Jim and gave a low, coughing cry.
"Good God," Jim whispered. "You're real." The beast crouched, tail lashing impatiently, and cried again. When Jim didn't move it stalked toward him. He flinched as it reared on its hind legs, front paws landing on the mattress near his hips. Massive jaws closed around his forearm, and he expected to have it ripped off at any moment. Instead the gleaming fangs barely dimpled his skin as the big cat tugged at him, then let go. Jim rubbed the spot, and his hand came away slick with warm saliva. Yes, this was real, and the animal wanted something.
Then he remembered the dream. He needs you. Jim threw off the covers and grabbed his pants. By the time he dressed the animal had vanished, and he hadn't seen it go. But he didn't care; he had other things on his mind. He headed toward the livery stable, hoping Rafe wouldn't grumble too loudly about being awakened in the middle of the night, but fully intending to use his status as constable, if necessary.
Garret carefully studied the young man slouched in the chair, watching for signs. Blair yawned and seemed to settle more deeply. Hard to do when you're sitting in an unpadded, straight-back chair Kincaid thought with satisfaction. Shouldn't be long now.
Blair blinked, rubbing his eyes. That coffee should have woken me up at least a little, as strong as it was, but I'm feeling sleepier than ever. No, I wasn't really sleepy before: I was tired. Now I feel like I can hardly keep my eyes open. He gave another jaw cracking yawn, and when his eyes squeezed shut with it, he had to think to get them open again.
Garret Kincaid's voice was sympathetic. "Tired, Doc?"
It would be foolish, considering his obvious state, to deny it. "Some. I've been worse."
"You've got a good spell yet to go on this, haven't you?"
"Yes. Several more days."
"I hope you don't intend to stay up that entire time. That could almost kill a man, and it wouldn't do my establishment's reputation any good to have someone doing themselves an injury here. You ought to take a nap."
Blair stretched, hoping that would revitalize him a little, but his limbs felt heavy. "Maybe tomorrow."
Kincaid plucked at the blanket. "Why not now? Patty's asleep."
"Too soon. I want to watch her in case there's..." For a moment his mind refused to come up with the proper term. "Convulsions." He forced himself up out of the chair, finding that he swayed slightly, and began to pace in hopes that would clear his mind.
Kincaid sat and watched quietly, noticing the slight weave that grew more pronounced. "Doc, I really think you ought to lie down."
"No." He stopped and put a hand against the wall, leaning on it heavily, the other hand to his forehead. "Just need a minute." There was a low, worried sound, a muted whine, and he went to the bed anxiously. But Patty was sleeping, as Kincaid had said.
Kincaid said, "What's wrong?"
"I... I thought I heard..." The whine came again, and he looked around, feeling puzzled. "Something's wrong."
"Are you lightheaded? You look a little dazed."
"Yes. I guess this is getting to me more than I thought."
"Maybe some fresh air would help?"
"Yes, air." Blair went to the window and struggled with the sash. He couldn't raise it. "Stuck."
"Yes, well, it's been humid this summer. It's possible the wood swelled. There's another window at the end of the hall." Blair started for the door, and stumbled halfway there. He would have fallen, but Kincaid leapt up and caught him. "Whoa, there! A little unsteady on our feet, aren't we? I don't want you going out around those stairs like this. I'd better help you?"
The feel of Kincaid's hands made Blair's skin crawl, but he was feeling more dazed by the moment, and desperately wanted to get some fresh air, so he endured. Kincaid supported him out of the room and began to lead him down the hall. At the end of the corridor he more-or-less propped Blair against the wall and tried the window. "Well, I'll be. This one is stuck, too."
Blair staggered away from the wall. "Downstairs."
Kincaid put a hand on his chest, pushing him back. "In this state, and risk you breaking your neck? I don't think so. There's another window in here. It catches the sun, so maybe the wood is drier." With an arm around his shoulders, he steered Blair into his bedroom.
Rafe hadn't been too grumpy at being awakened in the middle of the night, but Rainier was another story. The big horse obeyed readily enough, but he snorted continuously. "You've been associating with Naomi, haven't you?" Jim asked as they trotted out of town.
About halfway to the brothel Rainier shied slightly, ears flickering. Jim spotted the dark figure in the road, a solid shadow among other shadows, with the faint gleam of moonlight on blue eyes. As he approached it turned and loped down the road, paused, and looked back with a coughing cry.
As he did, another figure emerged from the gloom to join him. The silver-gray wolf skidded to a halt beside the panther. Glaring at Jim with dark blue eyes it lifted its snout and howled. The mournful sound died into a worried whimper and both animals looked at the Sentinel. Jim did something he very seldom did: he dug his heels into Rainier's sides. Luckily, the big horse was sensible enough to realize that his master wasn't just being difficult, that there was an emergency. He surged into a furious gallop, and the two spirit guides raced before Jim toward the place where his Guide and lover was in danger.
Kincaid opened the window, and Blair fell toward it. He would have ended up half-out of it if Kincaid hadn't caught his belt, dragging him back. Instead he dropped heavily to his knees, and leaned on the sill, drawing in great gulps of air. It didn't help much. The night was too sultry for the air to clear his head. He closed his eyes, mumbling, "Not working."
"Then you're body's trying to tell you that it 's time to rest." He was lifted and turned.
Blair managed to peel his eyes open again just as he was deposited on the edge of a bed. He looked down muzzily to see Kincaid squatting near his feet. "What are you doing?"
Kincaid pulled off Blair's boots. "Getting you ready for bed."
"No, I told you. Can't sleep now."
Kincaid stood up and smiled down at him. As dazed as he was, there was something in that grin that sent a shiver down Blair's spine: something predatory. The older man's voice was soft. "Doc, you don't have any choice in the matter."
The sense of wrongness swept over Blair again. He was alarmed at how slurry his own voice sounded when he spoke. "What did you do?" Kincaid removed a bottle from his pocket and showed it to Blair before setting it aside on the nightstand. "Jesus! You drugged me!"
Kincaid shrugged. "Had to, Doc." He reached for the buttons of Blair's shirt. "You were just being too stand-offish. Things were going fine till you went back and talked to that damn lawman. I guess he must've filled your head with nasty stories about me."
Blair slapped at his hands. "Nothing he told me could be worse than this!" He tried to stand, and Kincaid easily pushed him back.
"Yeah, well, it's a bit underhanded, I know. I'll just have to make it good enough for you to forgive me, won't I?" He'd managed to get Blair's shirt unbuttoned. Now he pulled it down his arms, trapping them, and shoved him so that he sprawled across the bed. Blair tried to struggle up again, but he was too uncoordinated to do it with his arms restrained. Kincaid immediately got up on the bed with him and knelt, straddling his hips. His knees were on the shirt, trapping Blair even more completely.
Kincaid stared down at the young man, watching as he struggled weakly, enjoying the smooth play of muscle beneath the dusting of body hair. "What's this?" His fingers found the nipple ring. "Oh, my! Sandburg, you are a treasure! You're just full of surprises." He tugged gently.
Blair was horrified when his body responded, the flesh swelling and hardening. He knew that it was just the sheer physical stimuli, but still the idea of his flesh betraying him like this, responding to this monster, was disgusting. Kincaid laughed softly, understanding the emotional turmoil Blair was feeling. "Yes, maybe you don't like me much, but your body isn't so particular, is it?" Blair struggled, trying desperately to throw the man off, but his efforts were pathetic. A hint of cruelty entered Kincaid's smile, and he tugged harder. Now Blair whimpered. The laudanum moving through his system dulled the pain, but he could still feel it.
"I'm sorry, did that hurt?" The contrition in his voice was patently false. "Well, you really shouldn't try to fight me, Blair. I get rough when my toys try to fight me." His hands smoothed over Blair's chest, combing through the crisp hair. "It's no use, you know. I gave you more than the dose on the bottle." He frowned as he moved his hands down Blair's torso. "I'm not really sure how much. I didn't bother with that damn dropper."
Despite the fog invading his brain, Blair felt a stab of terror. He had thought that he was reacting too strongly to a minimal dose of the medicine. Overdose, he thought. The bastard has given me an overdose. Oh, God, I could die. He managed to say aloud, "Kincaid, too much can kill. I need my bag. Let me take an antidote."
"Oh, I hardly think it's dangerous." He sounded completely unconcerned as he removed his own shirt. He began to stroke his own chest, toying with his nipples till they rose to stiff peaks. "Of course I'd hate to have anything happen to you, but if it does..." He shrugged. "I have a nice nest egg in the bank. I'm pretty sure I could get into town, withdraw it, and leave before anyone really misses you. But it shouldn't come to that."
Blair realized with outraged terror that Kincaid really didn't care. If Blair died he'd be irritated at losing a new bed warmer so soon, and angry about having to either explain or flee, but it wouldn't affect him any more than that. He wouldn't lose any sleep because he'd killed a man just to have sex.
Kincaid unbuttoned his own trousers, pushing them down his thighs, then did the same with his drawers. His cock jutted out from a tangle of sandy brown pubic hair, thick and hard. "I've been hard since I went into Patty's room, just waiting for this. I'm afraid the first time is going to be rather quick, but I'll make sure the next time is nice and slow."
As he spoke a clear drop of pre-ejaculation fluid oozed from the tip of his penis and fell, landing on the flat plane of Blair's abdomen. Blair flinched as Kincaid dipped his fingertip in the warm slickness. He tried to turn his head when he saw what the other man was going to do, but Kincaid took a punishing grip in his hair, holding his head still, and rubbed the wetness across his lips.
Blair spat, and managed to hit Kincaid's forearm as he drew back. Garret slapped him almost casually.
"Guess I'll have to wait till you're out to fuck your mouth, but that will come. I'm going to have you in both holes before the night is over. I figure this is my only chance with your stud standing guard, so I'd better make it count. But I'm willing to start off with something a little milder till you're..." he chuckled, "in the proper frame of mind."
He opened Blair's trousers and lifted his soft prick out of the fly. Stroking it, he said, "I don't suppose you'll get hard for me. Still, I wouldn't mind trying." He moved down, still straddling Blair's legs. With a supreme effort of will Blair managed to half rise, only to be knocked back down with another slap, this one more vicious than the first. "Stay down, Sandburg. Don't make this any harder on yourself than it has to be."
Blair almost cried when he felt the hot wetness engulf him as Kincaid swallowed half of his cock and began to suck. It could be such a warm, beautiful act, but this was perverted. It was an attack instead of a caress.
Blair was realistic enough to know that he had been lucky in avoiding something like this up until now. There had been times when it had come close. A couple of times all that had saved him from rape was a well placed knee. But all those times he had been able to fight back. Now he was helpless to do more than lie here and let the horror of the experience wash over him. And it had to happen now, now that he had finally found someone that he thought he could love. Someone who could love him, just as he was.
That was what hurt the most. He'd found his mate, like the spirit animals had said, and now he was going to lose the chance to be with him because of one man's perverted lechery.
"Jim!" He moaned. "God, Jim... Need you."
Kincaid loomed over him, face flushed, mouth loose and wet. "I can give you what you need, pretty man." He flipped Blair onto his belly, jerking his trousers down. Blair moved bonelessly, beyond resistance. "I can make you forget that ox."
There was the sound of hoof beats outside, and Kincaid hesitated, swearing quietly. Then he rubbed Blair's back. "Just another customer, nothing to worry about. One of the girl's will answer the door." He put his hands on the pale globes of Blair's ass, squeezing voluptuously. "Mm. You're so relaxed I won't even need to grease you up, I think. That's good. I like 'em tight."
Perhaps one of the girls would have answered the door, but it never came to that. There was a thunderous crash as Jim kicked the front door in. Kincaid froze for an instant, then leaped to throw the bolt on his door. "Shit!" There was no confusion or wondering about who it might be, they both knew. Kincaid half buttoned his pants as the footsteps pounded up the stairs, seeming to move with incredible speed. There were screams from other parts of the house as the women awoke and reacted to the threatening noises.
Jim took the stairs two and three at a time. He was reaching out with his senses now, using them as never before. By the time he reached the top of the stairs he knew that Blair wasn't in Patty's room, where he had left him, but he was close-by.
The scent was strongest off to the left, toward the end of the hall. He felt a low, rumbling growl build in his chest as he realized that the stink of Kincaid was coming from that direction, too, and it was thick with lust.
As he raced down the hall other realizations hit him. The smell of anger and fear filled the air. He could hear Blair's beloved heartbeat, but something was wrong. It was still strong, but it was sluggish. In this state of fear it should be racing, thundering. Then he smelled the alcohol and medicine stench of laudanum. Patty's bottle had been empty, but this aroma was strong, and fresh. It mingled with the tang of strong coffee.
Jim didn't have time to think about this because he had reached the last door and all the sounds and scents were coming from there. There was a second heartbeat in the room, and it was rapid, pounding. He could hear breathing; both slow and labored, and near gasping in agitation. He hit the door with his shoulder, snapping the bolt that had kept it closed easily, and lunged into the room.
The scene in the room was burned into his mind in a split second. Blair, face down on the bed, naked, his beautiful body limp. His back barely rose and fell with each shallow breath, and the space between breaths was growing longer. Kincaid, shirtless and with his pants half undone, was at the dresser, his hand in an open drawer. As he saw Jim he drew a gun from the drawer, cocking the hammer.
He would have killed the constable then. Even Jim's speed would not have been enough. But he hesitated for an instant when the big man was suddenly flanked by two menacing figures that seemed to materialize out of thin air. A great gray wolf crouched to his left, powerful haunches bunched as if to spring. A huge black cat, like a shadow mountain lion, snarled at him, showing razor sharps fangs the length of his thumb.
That instant of reprieve was all Jim needed to launch himself at the other man. In a blink the animals were gone, and Kincaid started to raise the gun. Jim barreled into him before he could get it halfway up, and the shot he fired went into the floor.
There were more screams and the sound of running feet as they crashed into the wall. Jim had hold of his arm; twisting brutally to make him let go of the gun. Kincaid hung on like grim death, knowing that he didn't have a chance against Jim in a fair fight. The gun went off again, the bullet smashing into the wall not far over the near unconscious Blair's head. Jim pounded Kincaid's hand against the wall, hearing small bones snap as the man howled. The gun dropped, and Jim kicked it spinning.
Kincaid's only hope now was to get away, get to his horse, and escape. He'd have to send a telegraph to have his funds transferred somewhere else, but right now he had to concentrate on escaping with his life. He was a violent man himself and could recognize it in others. He knew that Jim Ellison meant to kill him.
They staggered and wrestled back and forth across the room. Kincaid was no physical match for Jim, but desperation lends its own sort of strength, and he was holding his own. The hall was filled with half-clad women, shrieking and talking excitedly. Lila pushed herself to the front of the crowd. She took quick stock of the situation. Ellison could take care of himself, but Sandburg was in trouble. She went to the bed, rolling the young man over with not a little difficulty. He was solidly built, and he was a dead weight right now, unable to do anything on his own.
She sat beside him, shaking his shoulders. "Doc! Jesus, Doc, what did he do?"
Kincaid managed to throw Jim against the wall, then dove for where the gun lay, just in front of the open window. He was starting to rise again; face twisted in a grimace of fury and hatred, Jim couldn't have reached him with a punch. He was already moving toward Kincaid. He leapt. Just as the gun came up Jim's feet struck Kincaid full in the chest.
The procurer sailed backward, a look of surprise on his face. His head struck the window where it was lifted in the frame, hard enough to splinter wood and shatter glass. He plunged backward through the opening with a shout that was cut off by a heavy thud as he hit the ground.
Jim's battle rage faded immediately as he heard Lila cry out. "Ellison!"
Jim ran to the bed. Lila had pulled a sheet up to Blair's waist, covering his nakedness. Blair's eyes were closed his lashes dark against cheeks that were far too pale. The heartbeat had slowed so much, and for a moment Jim thought he had stopped breathing completely, till he saw the minute rise of his chest. As Jim bent over him the smell of opium and coffee assaulted him again, wafting up from Blair's lips. He spotted the bottle on the night stand and snatched it up. "He drugged him. Dear Lord, how much did he use?"
"Blair!" Jim shook the young man by the shoulders. His head rolled limply, his eyelids never twitched.
The girls were crying. One of them, Rose, wailed, "He killed 'im! That bastard killed the doc!"
"He isn't dead yet!" Jim snapped. He thought fiercely, then said, "Bring me his bag." When no one moved he screamed, "Now! Hurry!" There was a rush to obey him. Jim shook Blair again. "Sandburg, listen to me! You aren't gone yet, you can hear me. Don't you dare leave me now that I've finally found you!"
Rose pushed her way back into the room, putting Blair's medical bag down next to Jim. Jim ripped it open and rummaged through the contents. He found the bottle of smelling salts and uncorked it, fighting his own senses down so that he wouldn't pass out from the intensity of the scent. Then he gripped Blair's hair and put the bottle right under his nose, letting the pungent fumes flow directly up into his nostrils.
There was the tiniest strengthening of his heartbeat. Even with his stethoscope, Blair wouldn't have been able to detect it, but the Sentinel's hearing could not be mistaken, not in something this important. But it wasn't enough.
Then Jim remembered. He dug again through the bag. "Amphetamine sulfate. Where is it? Where..." He found the small bottle. With shaking hands he uncorked it. Licking his finger, he dipped it into the bottle and withdrew it with white power caked on the fingertip. Using his other hand he hooked a finger in Blair's mouth, pulling it open, and rubbed the powder on his gums, working it into the moist membranes. "Work, damn it! Come on! Blair, you said this would work."
He repeated the process, forcing himself to only use a little of the powder. Blair had said it could be dangerous: too much of this could be as bad as too much of the opiate. He was about to try again when the heartbeat sped up a little. "Yes, that's it! You can do it, Blair. Come back." The girls gathered around, silent now. They knew that they were watching a struggle for life.
Gradually the heartbeat became stronger, steadier. Soon it was at its normal pace. The breathing deepened, too, resuming a normal rhythm. Color crept back into Blair's face. His eyelids drifted up, and the pupils, though still smaller than they should have been, were not the pinpoints of someone heavily under the influence of laudanum. "Jim?" His voice was a whisper.
Jim stroked his hair back from his face tenderly. "I'm here, Chief."
"Kincaid. I should have known better."
"Don't flog yourself over that, Blair. We didn't know he had any more of the drug. Are you going to be all right?"
"Help me sit up." Jim supported him, propping him back against the head of the bed. Blair placed his fingers against his own wrist, frowning in concentration. "I... I think I'm okay. But I was sure I was a goner. He must have given me more than quadruple the usual dosage. I don't understand how I'm alive."
Jim showed him the amphetamine sulfate. "I remembered what you told me this afternoon, about stimulants. I knew it could have killed you, but I think you were dying anyway, and I had to try."
Blair smiled weakly. "You did fine. How'd you like to be my apprentice?"
Jim smiled grimly. "Too busy being a lawman. And about that... I hate to leave you alone now, but I have to get after Kincaid before his trail gets too cold for even me to follow."
"There ain't any hurry on that," Lila drawled. She was standing at the still open window. Glass littered the floor around her slippered feet, and there was a ragged gap in the base of the raised window. She peered out. "He hasn't gone anywhere, 'cept maybe to Hell."
Jim went and peered out the window. Garret Kincaid, gun still in hand, was sprawled on his back in the moonlight. His dark eyes were open, and an almost surprised expression was frozen on his face. With his vision, Jim could tell that there was no movement in his chest. He listened carefully, trying to screen out the sounds of the others around him. There was no heartbeat. Kincaid was dead: had been for several minutes, probably from the moment he struck the ground. A fall from a second story didn't necessarily have to be fatal, but it had been in this case.
Jim dismissed him from his thoughts and turned back to his lover. As he sat on the bed Lila said, "Wal, I guess his sins finally caught up with him. 'Bout time. Don't worry, Constable. You have plenty of witnesses. The man was hurting the Doc, an' you was defending him, then defending yourself. The bastard had a gun and you didn't. It won't even get to court, and if it does, they'll have a roomful of tarts giving 'em hell over it."
A thin, wavering voice called from down the hall. "What's goin' on? Doc? Where's the doc?"
Blair tried to get up, and Jim pushed him back. "Where are my trousers?" he demanded.
"Easy, Chief. You need to take a little while."
"My patient needs me. I love you, Jim, but get off of me or I'll hit you."
Several of the girls gasped, but Jim just picked Blair's trousers up off the floor and handed them to him. As the young physician struggled into them, unmindful of the frank stares of the gathered women, Lila sidled up to Jim. "You're gonna have your hands full with that one, Constable."
Jim watched Blair, his gait showing only a hint of unsteadiness, head for the door. "I know. I'm looking forward to it."
"As I was wandrin' down the street, down the street, down the street, a pretty girl I chanced to meet. Under the silvery mo-oon..."
Blair stopped combing his hair and glared at Darwin. "It wasn't that bad!" The dog hooked a paw over his eyes. "It was not! Damn, it's a good thing I don't need to put on shows to attract customers any more with a harsh critic like you hanging about."
Blair wrestled his hair into a tail and tied it carefully with a white ribbon. "Buffalo gals, won't you come out tonight, come out tonight, come out tonight. Buffalo gals, won't you come out tonight, and dance by the light of the mo-ooon..."
This time the howl was doubled, and it was joined by a caterwaul. Blair turned to see the wolf and the panther sitting on the bed, both looking at him with pained expressions.
"Oh, I don't believe it! All of you?"
Jim walked into the bedroom. "What's wrong?"
Blair pointed. "My gallery does not approve of my singing."
Unsurprised, Jim looked at the spirit guides. "Don't listen to them. I've come to the conclusion that they enjoy teasing us."
"When did you decide this?"
"About two days ago when they had the tug of war with my new shirt."
Blair tried not to smile. "Well, I told you that was an ugly shirt. Jim, tell me, my singing isn't that bad, is it?"
Jim smiled at him. "No, it's wonderful." The wolf sneezed. Jim ignored it. "Very... spirited." The panther snarled. Jim gave them a sharp look. "I mean it." The wolf turned and lifted his tail in a demonstration of what he thought of that statement. Jim sighed. "All right. Um... you're a little off-key, sometimes." Blair threw the comb on the dresser, and Jim sighed, glaring at the animals. "I wasn't lying to him, you infernal beasts! I was just... just... Oh, hell, you're supposed to keep us together, aren't you?" They gave him smirking smiles and disappeared.
Blair was glaring into the mirror, jerking at the stock that was knotted at his throat. Jim looked at the tangled mess and groaned. "Blair, what are you trying to do? Didn't I tell you that I'd take care of that?"
"You weren't here." His voice was sullen.
"I had to check on the decorations. The church looks beautiful. The kids found a ton of wild flowers this morning. Stand still." Jim moved up behind Blair, reaching around him to unlace the stock. He began to wind it into a neat bow.
Blair stayed still. Some of the irritation faded from his expression as Jim's forearms rested on his shoulders. "How's Rafe?"
Jim chuckled. "Nervous. I think he's going to wear a groove in the rug before the ceremony starts. Megan, on the other hand, is serenity itself."
"I still can't believe she asked me to give her away, but I'm glad she did. It makes me feel even more than I'm accepted here."
Jim finished the bow and rested his hands on Blair's shoulders, meeting his eyes in the mirror. "You are," he said softly. "This is your home now."
Blair knew that Jim didn't mean here in Cascade, he meant here, with him. He nodded, reaching up to touch Jim's hand. "Everything is working out so well. Those quarters behind Megan's store are going to be perfect for my office, now that she and Rafe will be moving into their own home."
Things had been straightened up quickly. A marshal came over from Lansdale the day after the incident. He questioned Jim, Blair, and the girls. Kincaid's death was ruled self-defense, and he now was buried in an unmarked grave at the back of the small local cemetery.
Since he had no relatives it was decided that Lila, having lived with him for more than two years, could be considered his common-law wife. She had sold the house for a song to Rafe, and then she had removed Kincaid's savings from the bank and distributed it evenly among the other girls, saying that it was theirs, anyway, since he'd sweated it out of them.
All of them had gone their separate ways already. Louise was going back to Sacramento with enough money to comfortably care for her little girl for a long time. Rose had decided to go back East. Several of the girls were pooling their money and going to Colorado to open a house. They figured that there was a good living to be made off the miners. Lila, herself, had a fancy to try her hand at the stage, and was bound for New York.
An older Cascade couple who had never had children had taken in Patty, nearly recovered, at least physically. Blair intended to work with her to try to keep the craving for the laudanum at bay. He told Jim that with a more stable life, and the support of people who cared for her, she stood a good chance. Today she would be sitting in the church when Megan and Rafe got married.
Blair smiled at Jim. "I was wondering if I should hang my diploma in my study, or out in the waiting room where people can see it, in case they're worried that I'm not an accredited doctor, like certain Sentinels I could name."
"I never really doubted you, Chief. You know that." Simon had brought a telegram back from Lansdale that contained a glowing testimonial from the dean of the Boston Medical College. In short it said that the entire population of Cascade should get down on its collective knees and beg Doctor Blair Sandburg to take up residence and open a practice. Blair had said that wasn't necessary. "I've always been aware of your talents." Blair wiggled his eyebrows, and Jim laughed. "Not that."
"No?" His voice was mockingly disappointed.
"You know what I mean."
"Yes, I do."
He turned in Jim's embrace, reaching up to kiss him. "I love you even if you don't like my singing."
"That's a relief, because your singing..."
"Don't push it." He laid his head against Jim's chest. "I want to ask you to do something. I'll understand if you don't want to, but I need to ask."
Jim's hands smoothed over Blair's back. "What is it?"
"You're Rafe's best man, so after I escort Megan, we'll both step to the side for their vows." His arms tightened around Jim, and he said softly. "I can see already that things are going to be all right here. That the people care enough about you to let us live our lives in peace. Oh, I know there will be trouble now and then. It's just human nature for some people to dislike or fear what they don't understand. But we can live our lives together here. I want..." He trailed off.
"What, Blair?" Jim's voice was gentle. "What do you want?"
"We can't be married legally, but I was thinking. When the preacher performs the ceremony, we'll be standing together. Could we... could we say the words to each other? We could whisper very softly, and no one would know, they'd all be concentrating on Rafe and Megan."
Jim tipped Blair's face up and kissed him tenderly. "Someone will hear, Blair. God will hear." He kissed his lover again, pouring out all the love and gratitude he felt for this man who had changed his life so profoundly. Finally he pulled back, just a little, and whispered against his lips, "Yes, Blair. I'll marry you."
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Author's Acknowledgements: Thanks Mary for beta-ing, Suse for the fantastic cover, and Patt, Corinne and Audrey for the illustrations. You're all better than I deserve, but NOTHING is too good for Jim and Blair!