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Chiaroscuro 2: Compassion

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Chiaroscuro 2: Compassion
by S

 

"Mark, are you sure you want to do this? I mean I know how you feel about killing." Scott Lancer turned to look back at his friend, riding the chestnut, Issus.

The two men had ridden out from Lancer in the chilled January morning, hoping to make the line cabin in the hills before the early dusk set in. Fortunately, there hadn't been much snow in the hills that year although it might be a problem for the spring and summer when the run-off was needed to fill creeks and rivers.

"Scott, I told you. I understand the killing of deer for meat. I know your father has his heart set on some venison. It's the indiscriminant killing of animals for hides that I deplore. I've seen what it has done to buffalo herds when a buffalo hunter goes after them, taking only the hide."

"Yes, I've heard about that too and I'm sure that it will only get worse as more and more settlers attempt to take over Indian lands. I know the railroad has brought many advantages, but I fear it has also brought troubles to the Indian."

The two men rode side by side silently for a time. This was one of the things Scott enjoyed about his friendship with Dr. Mark Donnelly. He could talk openly to the man about his impressions of the western life or choose not to talk if he desired. Donnelly didn't push.

"I'm glad that you were able to get away. I thought doctors never had time off," Scott suggested.

"Well, Dr. Sam said he didn't mind taking over the practice for a few days. This way he can have one last chance to put his hand end before he and his wife move back east. I know he's happy that he can finally put down his scalpel and stethoscope. It's taken his wife quite awhile to convince him that he's entitled to some time to spend with her and their children and grandchildren, instead of miners, wranglers and errant Lancers who keep getting hurt!"

Scott, at his Bostonian best, appraised his friend. "I hope you aren't saying that I am injured a lot?"

Mark's grey eyes twinkled as he solemnly answered, "Of course not. I'm sure he was referring to Murdoch or Johnny. I know he told me that one of the reasons he finally considered retirement is that Johnny no longer lives nearby so half his business is gone!"

The blond let out a whoop of laughter. "That's the truth! Johnny was a target for every bullet and disease known to man, but now that he's married, I'm sure that will change."

"Oh, why?"

"Because he won't have me there to take over his jobs, of course. Cindy's not a soft touch like me!" Scott explained.

Speaking of marriages, how are Teresa and Steven doing? I understand they'll be visiting soon?"

"That's right. Murdoch is really looking forward to it. Teresa will always have a special place in his heart."

"I think it's easier for a man like Murdoch to be more demonstrative with a girl who is like a daughter than with sons."

"Particularly when he's known her all her life." Little clouds of white breath quickly dispersed as the two men rode along in the chilled air.

"Is that still a problem between the two of you?" Mark asked with concern.

"Not really. I acknowledged his closeness to Teresa years ago. She gave him the affection he needed. Johnny and I were afterthoughts."

"And nowâ€"with Johnny gone too?"

"It's easier in many ways. I know it wasn't Johnny's fault exactly, but I always felt like I was a referee in one of those bare-knuckle fights. Johnny and Murdoch are so different that they were bound to clash. Now, Murdoch is just so happy when Johnny can be with him that he doesn't think to criticize or bring up the 101 things they used to disagree about."

"The relationship between a father and his son can be a difficult one. I know my own father was content with my becoming a doctor until my older brother was killed in the War. Then suddenly he wanted me to leave medical school and join him in his business. I'll never forget the day he took down the sign which read 'Donnelly and Son' from in front of his firm. It was the day before I took the train to Washington to take up my post at the hospital."

Scott nodded at his friend's comment. He knew only too well that Harlan Garrett had hoped that Scott would join his grandfather's office. "Considering I never even knew my father until five years ago, I suppose it's not surprising that we're still working things out between us. I don't know quite what I expected when I stepped down from that stagecoach, but it certainly wasn't what actually happened. I suppose that's the only thing a man can expect from lifeâ€"surprises."

"Exactly. After the War, I thought nothing could be unexpected again, but I'm learning something new every day from my patients and that's something my instructors never told me. They pontificated on and on about the miracles of modern medicine as if doctors are just one step below God. All I ask is that the people I take care of understand that I shall do all I can for them, but I'm not the Creator."

"That's all any man can do, Mark, his best and you know I intend to do my level best to bring home some venison for Murdoch so we'd better move along. I don't like the looks of those clouds. In this elevation snow can be heavy and I don't want to resort to cannibalism if we're snowed in!"

A look of horror crossed Mark's attractive face. "Scott the cannibal Lancer! Now that is a surprise!" Joyfully, Donnelly kneed his mount into a canter as they climbed higher into the hills near Lancer.

It didn't take Waterloo long to catch up to the other horse so the two rode happily together, taking in the beautiful but somewhat austere country around them. For Mark it was particularly gratifying since he had rarely had the opportunity to explore in the days since he had made his home in California.

Finally, the line cabin made its appearance. They would spend the night there and then go out early to hopefully bring in the deer that Murdoch had set his heart on.

Dismounting his horse, Mark mentioned, "It's too bad Murdoch still didn't feel up to coming with you."

"His back is much better, but I think he's finally realized you were right about his not being thirty anymore. He's spent enough time in the saddle to know what the ride would do to his back."

"And it gives me the opportunity to get out of my office for a few days. It's good to be away from sickness and injuriesâ€"and Mrs. Gordon! Her newest ailment has all the symptoms of the plague!"

Scott ignored his friend's remarks as he sniffed the air. "Mark, I think somebody's been using the cabin."

"What?"

The blond looked around. "Look there are some footprints leading up to the cabin."

Donnelly stared down at the barely visible marks. "Maybe they're old? One of the hands. . . ."

Scott started to reach for the rifle he had at hand when a voice shouted out, "Wouldn't do that if I was you, mister." The rasping voice started to cough and then continued, "Throw the rifle down if you want that friend of yours to see another sunset!"

Scott silently did as demanded.

"Now you, mister!"

"I don't carry a weapon," Mark pointed out. "I'm a doctor."

For a moment there was only silence. "You really a sawbones?" The hulking man, who appeared from behind the lean to, asked after a paroxysm of coughing.

Donnelly nodded. "I practice in Morro Coyo."

"Then couldya look at my friend inside the cabin? He's hurt 'n I didn't know what to do for him."

"Of course. You can put the gun down. I won't try anything."

"Mebbe you won't, but that feller yur with ain't so reliable. Both of you inside. I'm keepin' this here gun on you."

Mark entered the darkly-lit cabin with alacrity while Scott took his time. He hoped that their captor would come close enough so that he might tackle him, but the man carefully stayed back, even when he picked up Scott's rifle. "Inside with ya or I'll just tie you up and leave ya out here in the cold."

Inside the two men found Donnelly kneeling beside the bunk where a younger man lay. The left shoulder of the garment he wore was covered in dried blood.

"Git over there 'n start up the fire agin. Put it out when I heard you ridin' up."

Scott did as directed. The fireplace against one wall would help to heat the frigid cabin and provide some light in the late afternoon. It took only a few moments for the still glowing embers to grow into a life-giving flame.

"Scott, I'm going to need some boiling water. Can you put a pan on to heat? This man has a bullet in his shoulder and his clothes have stuck to the wound."

"There's a coffeepot over there on the shelf," the captor informed them. "Couldn't find no coffee though."

"I have some in my saddlebags if you'll let me go out and get it," Scott announced.

"Boil some water for Freddy first. He needs that bullet out," the man ordered. "Mebbe then we can have coffee. Take the chill out of these bones of mine." Weary from talking, the man sat down at the wooden table.

Once again Scott did as requested. As soon as the water boiled, he grasped a rag to use on the hot pot, pouring the water into a basin. "Here it is, Mark."

"Good. I wish I had my bag, but I think I can get the bullet out with a knife. Fortunately, he's unconscious right now. Scott, I need you to hold him down, just in case. Bring that lamp over here so I can get a better look once I soak the material away from of the wound."

A terrible silence, except for the regular spasms of coughing, filled the small cabin as the doctor worked patiently to clean the gore from the wound. In the lamplight he could see the pallor of the young face as he probed and finally made his incision. To his delight the bullet was not deep since he had only the knife and fingers to work with. In a few short minutes the offending piece of lead was out. Holding it up between bloody fingers, Donnelly looked over at the man in the corner. "Your friend was lucky. If a piece of the cloth had gone in too, he'd probably have an infection by now."

The large head of the man nodded. "He gonna be all right?"

"I think so. I've cleaned out the wound and now I'll bandage it. He needs rest, food and drink."

The captor stared at him as if the words didn't mean anything.

Scott started towards the door when the 6-gun came up level with his heart. "Where you goin'?"

"To get the coffee and the other supplies we bought with us. I'll also put the horses under the lean-to for the night. Can't leave them standing."

The man appeared to think it over for a moment and then agreed. "Just don't try nothin' or your friend here will be breathin' air from his belly." A rumble of coughing caused the gun to waver alarmingly.

"I'll be right back," the blond assured him.

Scott was as good as his word. While Mark bandaged the man with a piece of lint he'd discovered, Scott made coffee and took out some jerky and dried vegetables he'd brought along for stew. "I'll just throw these in a pot. The broth should be good for your friend. Freddy, is that his name?"

"Yeh, Freddy. He's all a nineteen."

"And what's your name?"

For a long moment the man hesitated and then answered, "Bill. Don't need to know more 'n that."

"I suppose not, except that I know you and Freddy are escaped prisoners."

The big head snapped up. "Wha'? Why'd you say that?"

"I can see the marks around your wrists. You and Freddy. What did you do escape, find some clothes and break your shackles somehow?"

"Real smart, aren't ya?" A fierce grimace filled the grey face. "Been on the run for days. Freddy got shot when we stole the clothes. Figured nobody'd look for us up in these hills."

"Why don't you give yourselves up? There's no way you can escape," Scott tried to point out.

"No?" Bill struggled to his feet. "Not even with them two horses you rode in on? Soon as Freddy feels up to it, we'll ride out."

"And leave us dead?"

Watery eyes appraised the man in front of him. "Mebbe. Might just leave you both tied up here. Might make it out by spring. A chuckle started to emerge from the cracked lips but then a bout of coughing took over."

Mark stood up to stand next to Scott. "Bill, I don't think you'd get far with that cough. You're a sick man and you know it. Let me help you."

"Help? Help me right back into that hellhole of a prison! If I die out here, at least I'd die a free man!"

"Free? How can you be free when you have to look over your shoulder every minute? What I don't understand is why you didn't leave Freddy when he was shot?" Scott challenged.

The ugly, lined face grew red with anger. "Whatya know about it? Think jest 'cos I been in prison, I ain't human. Freddy's my friend. Needed somebody to take care of him, bein' just a boy and I did it. Din't. . .couldn't leave him behind." Bill slumped down in the chair.

"Why was Freddy in prison?" Scott went over to the fire to take the pot of coffee off the flame. Carefully, he poured a large cup, setting it on the table so Bill could reach it.

"Stole. . .stole some food. His daddy lost everything in the troubles of '73. Family couldn't make ends meet so Freddy stole a few things. Got caught and was thrown in with the worst cutthroats this side of the Barbary Coast. Tried to help 'im." Bill took a large gulp of the steaming beverage.

"Bill, if it was just something minor and you agree to go back, I'll do everything I can to help you and Freddy."

Bill took another drink of the reviving brew. "And just why would you do that, Blondie? You one of them Bible-thumpin' do-gooders they send around to the prisons, tellin' us to repent our sins?"

"No, but I am willing to help if at all possible. My father has some influence with the Governor."

"Governor?" The man snorted. "He don't give a damn about two-bit thieves like Freddy or murderers like me."

Donnelly gasped and then asked, "Who did you murder?"

"Some son-of-a-bitch who raped my sister and then killed her. Squeezed the life out of him, jest like he did her. Onliest reason they din't hang me 'cos the feller made a practice of doin' the same to lots of young girls. One of 'em was the judge's niece. Really lucky, weren't I?" A bitter laugh started in his belly only to be overwhelmed by a hacking cough. "Sometimes I wish they'd a hung me. Better 'n the prison, least 'til Freddy showed up. He's a good boy. Don't deserve what they did to 'im."

"So what were you planning to do after you escaped?"

"Not real sure. Just knew I din't want to die in that place. Would've meant leavin' Freddy ta the mercy of the guards and the rest of that filth. Got our chance and we took it. Then Freddy got shot. You say he'll be all right?"

Mark nodded.

Bill drew a shaking hand across his exhausted face. "I'm so tired. We been runnin' 'n there's been little to eat. Just don't know what to do. Can't let Freddy go back there alone 'n it'll kill me to go back." The plea in the brown eyes burned into the two friends.

"I'm afraid you're right. I believe you have consumption," Mark observed. "Your only chance is a hot, dry climate. That may help for awhile, but there's no guarantee."

"Don't need a guarantee. Just don' wannna die in that place. Don' want Freddy to spend another ten years in that hellhole. He deserves a chance at life. Mine's almost overâ€"at thirty-seven."

Scott glanced at Mark. Bill was only seven years older than himself and yet he looked as older than Murdoch.

"There might be a way." Mark didn't look at Scott.

"Mark!"

"Scott, please, I know what I'm doing."

"Do you? If anyone found out we helped two escaped men, we'd be held guilty too."

"I'm not asking you to help. Go back to Lancer. All I ask is that you don't say anything to anyone."

"Mark Donnelly, what kind of man do you think I am? One who would leave you to take all the risks?" Scott's blue eyes flared with anger.

"A smart man would go and not look back."

"So? I never purported to be smart, just handsome!" A flicker of a smile curved his lips.

"All right then, Handsome. We're going to need a wagon. Neither Bill or Freddy can ride."

"I'll ride into Green River to pick up a wagon. Murdoch would ask too many questions if I went back to Lancer."

"Good. Come back as soon as you can. I'll give you a list of things to pick up for me while you're there. Both of our charges need care," Mark replied with an assumed confidence.

"What the hell's goin' on here?" Bill attempt at a thundering voice came out a squeak.

"There's no need to be concerned. I'm going to stay here with the two of you while Scott finds a wagon. Then we'll get you out of here and take you somewhere safe."

"What makes you think I'll let 'im go? Still got the gun."

Mark moved closer to the big man. "Bill, this is your only chance, yours and Freddy's. If you don't trust us, you'll die in prison and who knows what will happen to your friend. It's your decision."

"Can't think. So tired. Trust? Ain't trusted nobody since I saw my sister in the middle of a puddle of blood." Bill's head slumped forward onto the table.

Quickly, Mark looked for a pulse. "Finally. He's exhausted. I don't know how he's kept himself going this long. As soon as it's light, Scott, you'd better go to Green River. They both need to sleep and then I'll try to spoon feed them some broth to help their strength."

"Right. I think I'll take back my rifle and the 6-shooter, just in case. I may not be all that smart, but I'm not stupid."

"Good idea. You'd better get some sleep too since it will be a long ride" Mark suggested.

"Amen. Just hope I don't run into Val Crawford while I'm there."

"Who's he?"

"The sheriff."

"Oh, then stay clear of him. One more thing, Scott."

"Yes?" Scott started to roll himself up in a blanket.

"The next time you want to go hunting, I think I'll stay at the office and lance boils."

Scott was asleep even before Mark stopped laughing at his own joke.

LLLLLL

By the time Scott returned with a wagon, the two escaped prisoners were awake and looking more like men than hunted creatures. Freddy, in particular was weak from his ordeal, but the news that they would soon be out of the area had helped his spirits. After talking with the gentle-voiced young man, Mark was more certain than ever that they were doing the right thing.

He had also conversed with Bill at some length about what had happened to his sister. The lad of sixteen had seen the brutality the rapist had forced upon the fifteen year old girl. The grief in the brown eyes had spoken volumes about the injustices done to both men. Mark could only hope that some time spent in a dry, hot part of California might help him survive.

The door opened with a bang as Scott burst in. A small part of the slim blond had feared that he might find Mark injured or even dead. Instead all three men were partaking in a cup of coffee.

"Come on in, Scott. There's one more cup of coffee in the pot. How did it go?"

"I found a wagon, but they're looking for them. Val stopped me to ask about Johnny and happened to mention that some men from the prison had gone through Green River looking for two escaped prisoners."

"I was afraid of that," Mark replied. "Then I suggest we leave first thing tomorrow. It will take us several days to reach our destination."

"And just what is our destination if you don't my asking," Scott lowered his voice.

"A small town in the Mojave. I think it should help Bill and there aren't many people around and those who are won't ask questions."

"Doc, are you sure about this place? Know Bill needs a place to rest and heal them lungs, but what makes you think this place is safe?" Freddy asked politely.

"Believe me, Freddy, you'll be fine. A friend of mine lives there. He used to be a doctor, but couldn't take the blood and killing anymore. I'm sure he'll make you welcome. After awhile the prison will stop looking for you. Then you can move on wherever you want."

Freddy glanced over at his friend. "Whatya say, Bill? Ain't got much to lose. 'd rather die than go back to that place."

"Ain't gonna die. You 'n me gotta new chance 'n we're gonna make it this time." The craggy face grinned at the younger man.

"Right then. After dinner, we'd all better get some sleep. Long way to go."

An hour later Freddy and Bill were sound asleep, but Mark and Scott still sat near the fire. "Do you think we're doing the right thing, Mark?"

The doctor rubbed one hand across tired eyes. "I don't know. I believe their stories, however, there's no question that they were convicted of crimes. Bill did kill someone, but I don't think he's a killer. He's obviously devoted to Freddy. I'd like to think that we're giving them a second chance."

"I guess I feel the same way. What good would it do to turn them in?" Scott admitted.

"You don't have to go with us. I can get them to my friend's place. Go back to Lancer. Your father must be worried."

"No way. I'm in this just as much as you. I'll make up some story to tell Murdoch."

"Good. I guess this makes a liar of me, doesn't it?"

Scott blinked in bewilderment. "What are you talking about?"

"About playing God!"

"Let's just say that we're helping Him out," Scott smiled.

LLLLLL

Five days later Scott Lancer returned to Lancer, expecting to encounter a furious Murdoch Lancer. The trip to the Mojave had taken longer than expected, but the smiling faces of Freddy and Bill as they waved at the departing men had made it all seem worthwhile. Near Morro Coyo Mark and Scott had gone their separate ways, promising to get together again soonâ€"but not to go hunting.

Walking into the white hacienda, Scott found his father working on his books at the massive desk. Removing his glasses, Murdoch stared at his son. "So you decided to come home? I don't understand why you had to accompany Mark."

"Didn't you read the note I asked Val to send? There was an emergency and I didn't think it was a good idea for Mark to go on his own."

"Well, maybe, but this ranch doesn't run itself you know. And what about my deer?"

Scott looked down at his feet. "I, uh, well, we didn't get one. I can go out again if you like."

The tall rancher slowly rose to his feet. "That won't be necessary. Fortunately, Matthew Henderson sent me one as a gift since he couldn't make it over the holidays. Maria has prepared roast venison for dinner."

"We'll be eating that for a long time!"

"Not really. We have guests!"

Just then Scott heard a giggle. Teresa O'Brien Henderson burst into the room with Steven right behind. Throwing herself into Scott's arms, the two of them twirled around before he put the young woman down to shake hands with Steven. "I didn't think you'd be here until next week!"

"Once my father shot the deer, he insisted that we leave for Lancer immediately so here we are!"

"Well, I'm glad you did. We've missed you."

In an almost shy voice, Teresa whispered, "I've missed you both and Steven isn't quite telling the truth. The deer was only one reason we came early to see you. I couldn't wait any longer to tell you my news. About seven months from now Steven and I are going to have a baby."

The joy of the moment went on for some time before Maria entered with coffee and cookies for the men. Everyone laughed loudly when the woman placed a glass of milk before Teresa. "I am most happy to hear your news, Senora Teresa."

Teresa beamed with pleasure. "Thank you, Maria. I'm so happy to see you again. I've missed you and your cooking."

"Gracias. Senor Scott and Senor Lancer seem to enjoy it as well. I do not burn the pots."

That night Scott took up his new journal:

"I am so pleased for Teresa and Steven. I know that their child will add to their happiness as it has to Murdoch's. I
can see that he'll soon be planning to take the child out to see Lancer.

"I hope Freddy and Bill find some happiness too. Perhaps Mark and I broke the law, but in this case, I prefer to think of it as reclaiming two lost souls. Surely 1875 couldn't start in a better way."

 

THE END