Strange was the creed of "Doc" Silver, who roamed the West meting out medicine and justice. And to heal the town called Dry Flats he --and his mismatched crew --would need balms --and bullets!
he wagon rumbled into the town of Dry Flats, stirring up the dusty streets and at first drawing little attention from the townsfolk. It wasn't until someone noticed the faded red letters painted on placards on its sides that people began to stare and point.
Someone sent for the sheriff, and that worthy soon appeared from his small office next to the bank, a plump, whiskery figure of a man who resembled Father Christmas more than a town's bulwark of the Law. He stepped into the street in the wagon's path, approaching it from the left as he squintily appraised its driver.
The man at the reins was well-dressed if less than impeccably groomed. He wore a black cutaway coat over a soiled blue vest and a dirty white shirt. Ruffles and gold cufflinks were visible at the ends of his sleeves. He wore a wide-brimmed, flat-topped hat, an undone string tie and dust-grimed black boots. He looked more like a card shark down on his luck than that which his placards proclaimed him to be.
"You a doctor?" the sheriff questioned cynically.
"Excuse me, please," the man begged, lifting a bottle of water to dry lips. He took a long pull, wiped his chin and essayed a winning grin. "Been a long trail, sheriff. More dust in my throat than on my clothes." He threw a long glance back at the sign on the wagon's side. "Yep, that's me. 'Doc Silver, Medic and Surgeon.' Unless you're in need, I'm just passing through. Know where I might get a bath and a place to change?"
"We don't like snake oil salesmen in Dry Flats, mister," the rotund lawman told him bluntly.
Silver grinned again. "I don't sell snake oil, Sheriff." He pushed the hat back on his head, revealing a head of unruly black hair touched with faint silver at the temples. "I don't sell anything. I just make my services as a physician available where needed. My fees are reasonable, and negotiable, based on a patient's ability to pay. I've got a medical degree and a license to practice same, if you want to see them."
"What you doin' here, then?"
"Passing through, is all," the medicine man said. "Now, about that bath . . . ?"
"Try the River Inn," the law relented. He squinted, remembering that the doctor was not the only doubtful-looking newcomer staying there. The other traveller was a strange and even exotic one, but he seemed harmless.
"I thank you kindly," Silver nodded. He looked in the direction the sheriff had indicated, and picked up his reins to move on. "Oh, and if you've any aches or illnesses that need attending to, send them my way and I'll do what I can." His glance over the gathered crowd said that by you he meant anyone in town.
As the medicine wagon trundled up the dust-whorled street, the sheriff turned and clumped back to his office. He didn't know that he trusted this "Doc" Silver. He made up his mind to have his no-account deputy keep an eye on him. He looked around the empty law office. Where was Jones anyhow?
They dismounted, taking great care to keep their horses quiet. One of their number --tall, broad-backed, with stubbly black hair --pointed at the last man to dismount and motioned toward the alley between the sheriff's and the next building, the Flats Savings Bank. That man led the horses into the narrow sliver of darkness, while the other four milled around the law office's entrance.
The door opened silently. A lanky figure let the four in. The office remained unlighted, though if he looked closely, a passerby might have noticed the muted fire of a cigar.
After a few moments one of the men emerged, glanced suspiciously up and down the street and shuffled toward the alley.
The horse-minder was holding the mounts at the far end. The second man stopped before a side door of the bank. Moonlight glinted on something metallic in his hand --a ring of keys. He put one of these into the door lock, twisted, and wrenched the door open. He slid into the bank. Three more men came from the direction of the sheriff's office and followed him. By now, all five had bandanas over their lower faces and guns in their hands.
The first man to enter was already kneeling in front of the enormous vault door. He had drawn something from a pack he carried and was placing several long, thin sticks around the door. A tiny red light glowed a few inches from his face.
Their leader --the tall man --hissed, "Careful with that dynamite, willya?"
"I'm careful," the crouching man assured him.
"You sure that ain't too much dynamite?" groused the leader. His height was all that distinguished him, in the shadowy darkness. "You don't want t' blow us all t' Kingdom Come, do ya?"
The dynamite man grinned and plucked the lit cigar from between his teeth, touched the burning end to the fuses in a few places. He jumped back, waving to the others to take cover. They ducked behind counters and desks and held onto their hats. The dynamiter was last to dive for cover.
He was caught in the tremendous blast that followed, picked up and thrown against the wall. The men under the desks were knocked back as the desks were shoved against them. The tall leader, in a corner under a counter, was unscathed. Both the men behind the desks lie unconscious in the rubble, as did the dynamiter.
The bandana-masked leader staggered to his feet, angry and shaken at the same time. He knew he had little time to salvage any loot from this job, so he ignored his wounded companions and picked his way over fallen beams and the sundered vault door to where the money was. He was scooping it greedily into saddlebags when he heard the first shouts from outside. The uproar meant crowds were responding to the middle-of-the-night blast, and he gave up gathering swag and, with saddlebags half full, made for the door they'd all come in by.
The door had been blown off its hinges. He emerged into the alley and heard their horses neighing in terror. The fifth robber was fighting to hold them in place.
"Get goin'!" yelled the black-haired leader. "Dam' fool used too much dynamite an' too short fuses! The whole town'll be on us!"
He glanced back down the alley to the street, but his view was obscured by the cloud of dust and debris issuing from the blown doorway. As he watched, the door's frame gave way and more broken wood crashed to the ground.
There were raised voices and moving lights in the street. Late night or no, it sounded like half the town --at least --was roused. The robber boss grabbed a set of reins and grated a curt order.
"Turn them horses loose! Let's get outta here!"
The horse-holder did as he was bid. Three unridden horses ran free. The robber boss and the horse-minder started climbing into the saddles on the remaining two.
A hunched, bony scarecrow of a man shouldered his way through the throng that had gathered in front of the bank. The scarecrow wore a deputy's badge. Unlike the majority of the crowd he didn't look hastily dressed.
Reaching the fore of the mob, he grunted, "Okay, what went on here?"
A stout, puffing red-faced man with a coat draped over a nightshirt blurted, "They've blown up the bank, obviously! Probably looted it dry first! What are you going to do about it, Jones?"
Deputy Jones flashed a look around the crowd. One person was blatantly absent.
"Go git the sheriff," he ordered the first person he saw. "Stay put here, Banker Crombie; I'll take a look inside."
Jones hesitated as he heard the still-standing timbers overhead groaning, then held a handkercheif over his nose against the drifting dust and smoke and stepped warily inside. He beheld an unholy chaos. Fallen beams, crushed desks, tables and cabinets and three apparently dead bandits half-buried in rubble or sprawled aginst the wall.
"Con-sarn it," he mumbled. Picking his way over large and small chunks of debris, he leaned over the mangled body of a man who still held a burning cigar between two bloodied fingers. Jones bent to the corpse and drew something that jangled from its other hand. He slipped it quickly inside his vest and turned his gaze sharply toward the door to the street. No one had followed him in yet.
Overhead, the timbers still groaned --as did the two robbers on the floor nearer the opened vault. They were stirring, coughing from the dust and trying weakly to get to their feet. The first thing they saw was the barrel of Jones' Schofield .44 caliber revolver aimed right at them.
"Git up slow, boys," Jones drawled quietly. "An' no fast moves."
One of the robbers stood and leaned against an overturned desk --the one he'd taken cover behind. His hand fumbled idly near his own gun.
"Don't you go fer that!" Deputy Jones warned in a raised voice. When the robbers stared back blankly, he yelled, "I told ya!"
Startled, both robbers responded by drawing their weapons. Jones fired first, his slugs tearing into an upright beam --and one robber's chest. The man staggered, weakly leveled his revolver and returned Jones' lead with some of his own. Weak and dizzy as he was, from the explosion and Jones' bullet, his shot went far awry. Jones fired again and the robber fell with a blood-blotched hole in his head.
"Jones, you dirty - !" began the second man as more people plunged into the bank from the street. One of the newcomers held a carbine rifle and got off a fast shot at the bandit. Jones fired too, but both shots missed as the man scrambled for shelter behind the ruined desk. Secure behind the desk, the bandit slung lead at them and the carbine man dropped.
"Step out," Jones demanded, but the robber stayed put.
"So's you can shoot me down, too? No thanks, Deputy. I'll take my chances."
A third man, unarmed, straggled into the bank in time hear a crack and to take lead from the robber in his left shoulder. He crouched, slapping a hand to his arm to stop the flow of blood. Doing so he dropped a small black satchel he was carrying.
A new voice shouted above the ruckus, from the bank door. A small, slim form darted inside. "They's more a' them 'round back! Where's the sheriff? We --omigosh, they shot Doc Willis!"
The girl who'd entered wore jeans, socks but no boots, and her red flannel shirt was untucked. The raven-black fall of her hair had two slim braids, laced with beads, on either side of her brow, and her slightly flat facial features were a reddish-bronze. The sight of a young woman wearing a fast-draw Remington .44 Army revolver at her side tied to her right thigh would normally be startling, except that the townsfolk knew her and had come to expect no less.
She did create enough of a distraction, however, for the last robber to get off a couple of shots from cover.
Jones half-spun as he was winged in his right arm. The bandit's second shot went wild. The girl, seeing her way clear, drew her .44 like a bolt of lightning and fired at the robber's ducking shadow. She hit close enough to send splinters flying from the overturned desk.
"You okay, Depitty?" she asked, but didn't wait for his answer. "If yuh kin keep 'im busy I'll sneak around behind 'im and git the drop on the buzzard!"
"Do that," Jones winced. "An' Princess --shoot to kill!"
The girl made a grimace-face.
"If I hafta," she acquiesced. "An' don't you ever call me that!"
Jones frowned and kept a bead on the desk. The girl faded into shadow as stealthily as a snake and, glad that she wasn't wearing clumpy boots, slowly made her way to a spot where, from behind a pillar, she could see the man behind the desk.
"You jes' keep on believin' yer covered, Jasper," she whispered to herself. Revolver in her hand, she slid from shadow to shadow to where she could plainly see the bandit's back. Stepping out of the shadows as suddenly as a materializing wraith, she yelled out, "Stay whar yuh are, Jasper, an' lose yer piece. I got ya covered."
The man turned and looked as shocked as if she really were a ghost. When the girl did not fire immediately, he scowled and got off a shot at her. The young woman felt a sting as a bullet grazed her left wrist, but kept her head and coolly squeezed off return fire. Her lead bit the man's left leg and he grunted satisfactorily in pain.
"Now, drop it, or next shot's closer t' home," the girl drawled. "Don't think I missed a killin' shot --I winged yuh like thet on purpose."
The man on the floor went pale. He let his sidearm fall to the floor.
"Now stand up," she continued. "Hands high!"
The robber stood, cast a quick glance at where Deputy Jones stood, nursing his right arm. He had apparently holstered his gun. The robber did as the girl bade him.
She was about to take a step toward him, weapon still leveled at the man's head, when he cried out in sudden terror and, spinning around, fell to the floor.
The girl yelled her outrage. "He was surrenderin'! What'd ya wanna do that for, Depitty?"
"Dammit, girl, I told you to shoot to kill!" Jones roared back. "You can't trust these buzzards to play fair, even when surrenderin'. He saw half a chance, he'd a' gunned you down cold!"
She still looked mad. Face redder than ever, lips a thin twist, she remanded, "I weren't about t' give 'im half a chance. Now, 'stead of a prisoner, we got another dead 'un. He might'a talked . . . told us whar his gang that got away was!"
Jones paled and looked as if hit by a horse. He had forgotten about the ones who'd escaped. Ignoring the girl, he strode toward the caved-in side door where the robbers had broken in. Sticking his head cautiously out, he saw them on their horses, about to gallop off, and glanced down the alley to see if any of the mob was heading to cut them off.
A few timorous souls had entered the alley, too late to do anything useful.
"Stay where ya are!" Jones ordered. "I'll get after them!"
He ran to the back end of the alley and saw only the retreating backsides of two horses. His own mount was stabled elsewhere. He had no way of pursuing the gang.
The man he had called Banker Crombie came up the alley, now that it was safe, pale-faced and breathing hard. Jones fired a few useless shots after the horsemen, but he knew it was no good. He turned to the banker.
"No use," he shrugged. "They got away."
Out of the ruined side doorway came the girl. She glared at the two helpless-looking men.
Jones told her placatingly, "We'll rouse up a posse first light of dawn."
"Dawn?" she repeated unbelievingly. "You know what these flats're like! By mornin' the dust'll have covered up their tracks clean as a baby's bottom. We'll have no chance of catchin' 'em then!"
The deputy ignored her. "We got wounded to attend to," he said dully. "An' since the town doctor's one of 'em, we'll need all the help we can get. I'll assign some people to it while I take names fer the posse." He paused. "You, Princess; I heared you got some healin' skills?"
"I do," she admitted. "An' I'll help where I kin. But I still advise yuh t' get after them badmen now, Depitty. At least see what Sheriff Coggin's got t' say . . ."
"He's still sound asleep, I figure, Princess. Take more than the bank buildin' blowin' all t' Hell to wake him up."
"Then you go do it!" she half-spat. "An' I told ya never t' call me that!"
As soon as she re-entered the broken bank, she heard more ominous creaking of ceiling timbers.
"How's Doc Willis?" she asked of a young man who was tending him.
The doctor managed a weak grin. "The doc's okay, Anne. Took it in my left shoulder, tore some muscle, but no bone or vital organ damage. I'll be up and around in a week. I'm left-handed, though, so that's a problem."
"Yeah, who's gonna take care of the other wounded?" she asked. "Includin' me." She looked at her wrist and frowned. "Well, it's th' left one, so I guess I can apply a poultice with my right."
Willis nodded and gestured at his black bag. "You'll find some gauze and antiseptics in there, Anne. Treat yourself first and then see what you can do for Jones, Westin and any surviving robbers."
"Ain't none," she clipped. "Depitty saw t' that."
She took the offered bag and began removing the things she'd need. Jones stumbled in and sat down on what was once a desktop. Cradling his right arm --it was drizzling blood -- he glanced at the doctor and the girl. "You gonna be able to treat me, Doc?"
Willis gave him a lopsided grin and feebly tried to lift his arm. "Not much use without this," he replied. "But Anne can fix you. She's trained in minor surgery and medicine, and working toward a degree."
"None a' yer chants, though," Jones snarled at the young woman.
"Who's t' say chantin' don't work?" Anne demanded. "White men don't know everything 'bout healin'!"
Tying only a rude bandage about her wrist, she bent over Willis. As she examined his wounded shoulder she sang softly in a Native chant.
"Oh, Great Spirit
Whose voice I hear in the winds,
And whose breath gives life to all the world,
hear me, I am small and weak,
I need your strength and wisdom."
Jones vented a soundless scowl and turned away. She soon had Willis' arm wound bandaged and cleaned. "How's Westin?" she asked.
"Not good," Willis told her. "The bullet may have punctured a lung, way he's breathing. Damn it, if I had two good arms . . . "
Just then a heavyset, white-haired newcomer entered the scene. Sheriff Coggin paused and listened, watched the fall of debris from above them.
"You'd better move these folks outside, Doc," he warned. "I got a feeling this place is gettin' ready to collapse."
"Ever'body can walk," Anne judged, "'Cept Mr Westin. We'll need a stretcher t' carry him out."
"Even with that," Willis added, "We have a one-armed doctor, a half-trained girl and four wounded --counting the doctor and the girl."
"We need more doctors," Anne replied.
Coggin thought. He motioned to Anne. "Run to the River Inn, girl --there's another doctor come in this morning. Go fetch him; name's Doc Silver."
"What about Westin . . . and Jones?"
Willis cut in. "I can tell the sheriff what to do to stabilize them. He's right; being here when that roof caves in's not a smart idea." He forced himself to his feet. "You find that doctor, Anne. Bring him to my office. Sheriff, send somebody after one of my stretchers, and I'll tell you what to do about Westin . . . and Deputy Jones, here --" he tossed Jones a roll of gauze --"take this and wrap yourself up; I'll look to you when Westin's stable."
Grousing under his breath, Jones caught the roll and set to work binding his right arm with his left one and his teeth. Then, "I'm goin' over t' the office, Sheriff. Got things to do to get that posse ready."
The man called "Doc" Silver had been hard asleep. After days on the trail, he had not even heard the explosion at the bank. He did awake, however, to a pounding on his door. He swung himself out of bed and started to don a pair of pants --the grimy ones he'd come in with --over his longjohns, then thought better of it. He also drew a Colt .45 Peacemaker revolver.
It would be difficult to say who was more surprised: Silver, at seeing an Arapahoe girl at his door in the middle of the night, dressed in cowhand's attire, though, or Anne, at sight of a .45 in the hand of a barefoot man wearing only his underwear. He started to lower his weapon, then noticed the gun strapped to the girl's leg.
Still, she had not drawn it, and she looked more like she needed help than like a road agent. He smiled his best smile and said, "Can I help you, Miss?"
"Yo're a doctor?" she blurted. "Doc Silver? There's been a --well, a robbery an' people have got hurt."
Silver did not let her cowhand-like speech throw him. People were injured.
"Where?" he asked quickly.
"At th' bank --well, the robbery was at th' bank, but they're movin' the wounded to Doc Willis's place. We'll need t' meet 'em there."
"Your Doc Willis needs help? How many casualties were there?"
"O'ny four --but Doc's one of 'em. Left arm's shot up bad, he can't work proper. We could sure use another sawbones."
"Of course," Silver replied. "Your wrist?"
She gave a weak grin. "I'm one a' the four."
"I'll get my bag," he told her, then grinned. "And my pants!"
The cowboy-Indian girl stood in the doorway as he pulled them on. There was no reason for modesty; he wore them over his longjohns, which she'd already seen. With lives possibly at stake, he didn't bother with a shirt under his coat or, like the girl, shoes. He hefted his medical bag and followed the anxious girl down the hall to the stairs.
"I'm Jackson Silver," he introduced. "MD," he added unnecessarily.
"Anne Morningbird," she replied, then, "Gimme some'a yo're gauze an' I'll patch up this here wrist up proper as we go!"
Silver frowned. "Not so fast." He stopped her by taking her hand and looking at the bullet scar. "Not very deep. Just a scratch --but it'll have to be disinfected first."
They had reached the street. "Which way?" he asked.
"Foller me, Doc!"
At the physician's they found Willis bending over the wounded Westin on a tabletop.
"This here's Doc Silver," the girl announced. "Doc, this's Doc . . . er, Doctor Willis."
"Doctor," said Silver.
"Doctor." Willis nodded.
Silver stepped up to the table and looked at the fallen man, whose chest was bandaged carefully and securely, although temporarily --they still had to get the bullet out. "Tell me, Doctor, how'd you manage to do this with one hand?"
"I didn't," Willis told him. "Anne did. She's training in medicine with my help."
"Miss Morningbird," Silver acknowledged. "You did a good job. Can you help me remove the coverings now, and we'll get to that bullet? Doctor, I'll need your instruments . . ."
An hour later, the lead slug lay on the tableside and Anne Morningbird was re-patching the injured shoulder. No lung, or other vitals, had been penetrated. The bullet had torn through some muscles and shattered a rib, but Westin would recover nicely.
Silver got Doc Willis's arm into a sling with Anne's help after she'd applied mercurochrome and a light bandage over her own wrist.
The tall scarecrow figure of Deputy Jones returned from the sheriff's office.
"Thanks much," Willis smiled weakly at the new doctor. "Not often we get this much action in Dry Flats."
"Glad to help," Silver nodded. He seemed distracted. He had looked over all the robbers and pronounced them dead. "How many got away?" he inquired.
"Two," Jones said.
"That's whut it looked like," Morningbird agreed. "L'il hard t'tell in the dark, though."
"Were any of them wounded?" Silver wondered.
"Nope. Made a clean getaway," Jones replied glumly.
"Too bad. If one of them was hurt, it might've be possible to catch them when they sought treatment."
"When we find 'em, they ain't gonna be needin' any treatment," Jones snarled. "Just burial."
Anne Morningbird turned on him. "Why you so all-fired trigger happy, Deppity? Ya hadn'a kilt all the ones we had cornered we might'a learnt where the rest'a the gang is!"
"Princess, somebody's shootin' at me . . . not t'mention innocent townsfolk like you and Doc Willis . . . I'm not too scrupulous about how I stop 'em!" He scowled and muttered, "Now, I'm off so's I can get a few hours' sleep before the posse gets goin' at sunup."
As she watched him saunter off, the girl set her hands on her hips and said to no one in particular, "An' that's another thing! He waits till dawn to go after them polecats! Precious little trail they'll be left by then!"
Silver eyed her calmly. "Won't a trail be easier to follow by daylight?"
She rounded on him. "You don't know thuh lay of thuh land 'round here, Sawbones, nor the weather. The dust will've hid their tracks long before daylight."
He turned a wince into a grin. "Please, I hate that name. I'm Doc Silver."
"Okay, Doc Silverbones! . . . I guess I'm sorry I snapped at yuh. Thet deppity is so lazy, or slow-witted, or sumthin' he jes' riles me up. He knows damn well the trail's gonna be long gone by then."
"Are you anything of a tracker?" Silver asked her bluntly. "I've scouted for the Army. Let's form our own posse."
"But --" Morningbird stuttered. "Yo're a doctor --"
"That doesn't mean I can't handle a gun," he advised. "Besides, we don't need to engage the gang. We'll follow them while the trail's warm, then double back and let the law know where they've holed up."
Morningbird was still looking surprised. "Wall, I guess I don't see why not. There's like t'be no chance'a catchin' 'em otherwise. You sure yo're up to this, Doc Silverbones?"
"We'll use my wagon," he said.
Trudging back to the law office through the streets, Jones halted as he spied a strange form standing in front of the fallen bank, staring at it. Hand on his holster, he came up behind the man.
"Who're you, Mister?" he grated in challenge.
The man turned. His face was dusky-skinned in the darkness, but otherwise Jones made out no features except that something glittered faintly on his head.
"I am merely passing through your town. I see you are having a bank robbery?" His voice had a funny lilt to it.
"We had us a bank robbery," Jones drawled. "I was you, I'd mind my own business."
"Is not such an infraction of the law everyone's business?" the stranger returned. "How may I help?"
"We're formin' a posse at dawn," Jones told him grudgingly. "Be there if you wanna help."
"That I shall," the stranger replied, and turned away.
Jones shrugged and shuffled off to his cot at the law office.
Silver and Morningbird proceeded to the nearly demolished bank. They arrived just after Jones and the newcomer had dispersed, and kneeled to look at the hoofprints there.
"Two," Silver stated.
"An' they lead off North," the girl agreed, coming to her feet. "But we don't know fer sure they ain't more'a them back t'their hangout.
Silver nodded. "Look, the spoor's pretty clear for now. Any chance of me scooting back to my room for some boots and gear?"
"Makes sense," Morningbird reckoned. "I need t'go t'my place an' get my own. Meet you back here."
When she returned, wearing tough boots, a rawhide vest over her still-untucked red flannel, a blue-checked bandana and a dust-colored Stetson hat with a Montana peak, Silver was not there. In a few minutes, however, she heard his wagon rumbling up. Silver, now fully dressed in his coat and boots and wearing a gunbelt with matched Colt Peacemakers, pulled to a halt to allow Anne to climb up.
"There are more weapons in the rear," he advised. "I'm not expecting to get into a fight, but if we need them they're there."
She nodded approval. "No wind yet, but it'll pick up jes' afore dawn." They took off.
"Anne Morningbird," Silver said. "Unusual name. Are you Arapahoe?"
"Yep," she answered softly. "I reckon." She lapsed into silence.
Silver grinned. "Have to admit, you don't sound Arapahoe . . . "
"Warn't raised redskin," she told him. Then, "Okay, since we're gonna pardner up here, here's the story. Local rancher, name'a Gus Morrison, served in the cavalry. One time he rode on a raid that slaughtered muh people's village. Gus was so distraught by whut he done, when he found an infant left alive in the village --Wall, long story short, he stole me away an' raised me as his'un."
Silver frowned. That explained the girl's speech. "The deputy called you 'Princess,' " he said with a question in his voice.
"I hate thet name," she said, slurring her words. "Muh daddy was chief --but I left alla' thet behind me. I'm jes' Gus's daughter an' proud of it."
Silver liked the way she spoke. "I'll not call you that, then. I don't much care for 'Sawbones' either --I mend bones but I don't saw them --but I guess Silverbones will do."
On through the night they moved, one or the other frequently dropping to the ground to ascertain that they were still on the outlaws' trail. A few miles out of Dry Flats they had turned northwest toward a low range of hills.
"Damn," Anne railed. "Might'a thought! I don't know if we can follow them through the hills in this here cart. Ground gets steeper an' bumpier, the further in you go."
Silver glanced around. "There's concealment here. If you're game, we can hide the wagon and continue on foot. How deep do these hills run?"
"A few miles, then they open onto flat plains agin. I reckon we kin hunt owlhoots afoot!"
Driving the medicine wagon into a copse of trees, Silver hung a sign on it that read THE DOCTOR IS OUT.
Anne grinned widely. "If they double back fer some reason an' spot the wagon, they'll figger yo're out huntin' or something."
"That's the idea," Silver said.
The ground was harder in the hills, and hoof-tracks were not easy to find, but there were other traces, and both of them were seasoned trackers. Some broken bushes, a fallen and trampled bird's nest and a fresh wad of chewed tobacco were like a trail of breadcrumbs left behind to mark the way.
They stalked silently, having entered an area of hills that twisted and turned so much that hearing distance of the outlaws could have been around the next bend.
Silver looked eastward. The night sky was greying. According to Anne the wind would be burying the trail with dust. He was debating whether to continue or go back and let the posse know that the bandits had taken to the hills when the girl gripped his shoulder.
"Look thar," she whispered. "See thet glow? Somebody's smokin'!"
"Can't believe they're that stupid," Silver muttered. "Weren't they expecting to be followed?"
"Let's take 'em!" Anne Morningbird gritted. "We kin git a mite closer, then you cover 'em an' I'll circle around t'the other side."
Silver nodded. He drew a Peacemaker and, bent low to remain unseen, they crept closer to the small recess between two hills where the tiny red glow bloomed. Silver slid into a spot below the hill's crest while Anne slipped into the darkness.
He peered over the crest to ascertain that there were only two men, then waited till he saw the cowboy-Indian girl's head pop up over the rocks on the opposite hill. They stood up as one, aiming their guns at the pair of robbers. The bandit on watch was stubbing out a fat cheroot in the dirt and his fellow was asleep.
"Don't you move!" Morningbird yelled, loud enough to stir the sleeper and startle the guard into dropping his smoke and fumble for his gun.
"She said not to move!" Silver shouted from his side. "But I'll allow you to lift your weapon slowly from your holster and toss it a few yards away from you."
"You too, Sleepy!" Anne called.
The two bank bandits did as requested, the just-woke one coming to his stocking feet.
"Good fer ya, boys!" Anne applauded. "Now ya jist raise yo're hands over them ugly heads an' don't do nothin' funny. Silverbones an' me'll be comin' down an' relieve ya of any cash money yuh might'a picked up, accidental-like."
"Yep," said the doctor, carefully sidestepping down the knoll. "Seems you boys made a withdrawal and forgot to fill out the slips."
The woke-up robber grumbled, "Nobody was s'posed to follow us --"
"Shut up!" barked his fellow.
"Nobody would'a, thanks ta thet no-count deppity we got," Morningbird scowled. "But me 'n' the Doc, we got antsy."
They proceeded down their respective hills, keeping the outlaws covered. Each tracker picked up one outlaw gun and emptied it of bullets.
"We're going to have to march you boys back to my wagon," Silver said. "I have rope there."
Morningbird took the lead, walking cautiously backward to keep the bandits covered. Silver followed them.
None of them expected what happened next. As Morningbird crested one hill and paused before starting down, she felt a pair of cold muzzles in the small of her back, and froze.
"Um, Doc? We got company," she said cautiously.
"Some jasper's got iron in muh back."
Silver shrugged and lowered his gun, making sure that instead of dropping it, he put it back in its holster where it would remain ready. They had been wrong, he thought: there was a third man.
"Sure wasn't expecting you," Silver said with a weak smile.
The newcomer grinned wickedly. "No one is expecting me. It is most unfortunate for you that you are dealing with the Calcutta Kid!" His voice had an alien, to Silver, inflection --a singsong lilt to it.
"Calcutta?" Silver responded.
"Yes," returned the "Kid." "The fastest draw west of the Ganges."
"Doc, whut's he talkin' about?" Anne piped in.
"He means he's Indian," Silver said.
"Huh! Don't look like no Injun I ever heard of - !"
"That is because you are not Indian. You are a native to this country which is certainly not India. Captain Columbus was, I am afraid, very much mistaken."
"I see," Silver replied.
Morningbird looked dumbfounded, then she recalled what she'd learned in her schooling. Columbus had discovered America by accident. He'd been looking for a westward route to the East Indies, so he called the people he found "Indians."
She knew, too, that there was a land called India, which must be where this yahoo hailed from.
Which, she reasoned, wasn't all that important right now. What mattered was that he'd got the drop on her and the Doc. Something ought to be done about that, she decided, and real hasty-like.
Silver, too, had sized up the situation. He wondered if he'd been wrong in assuming that the stranger was a third bandit. He decided to test that idea.
"Looks like your partner's outwitted us," he said ruefully, glancing at the sullen faces of the outlaws. They certainly did not look overjoyed to see the newcomer.
"Please to not insult me," the man from India snarled, his singsong voice growing deeper. "I am not one of you owlhoots." The western lingo sounded odd in his mouth. "I am intending to bring you in and collect the bounty upon your heads. I must admit, I was only anticipating two bandits from what I have overheard in town, but this is not a problem. The reward shall doubtless be twice as large." He gestured with the twin Colts.
The two robbers exchanged hurried, angry glances. Silver looked at Morningbird with lifted eyebrows.
"And now," the newcomer said, "if you shall be so kind as to line up with your hands above your heads, we shall march back to town and turn you in. Please do not make any sudden movements, or Kali and Shiva will be reprimanding you most severely."
"Who's Callie 'n' Shiver?" Morningbird wanted to know. "Y'mean there's more'a you?"
"Death and Destruction," the stranger said flatly.
"Hindu dieties," Silver explained, starting to recall what he'd heard about India. "I think he means the names of his guns."
"This is correct," the Hindu replied, hefting the weapons in his fists. "Death is in my left hand and Destruction is in my right. Now, begin to march!"
"We don't have to walk all the way," Silver replied levelly. "I have a wagon."
"Ah! You are seeking to trick me, I think."
"No trick," Silver assured him. "And you're mistaken, friend. Miss Morningbird and I aren't with this gang. We were out to bring them in too."
"So you are saying."
"Didn't ya notice our positions when you stuck Callie 'n' Sheeba, there, at my butt?" Morningbird bleated angrily. "We was marchin' these no-counts back t'wards Dry Flats at gunpoint!"
"Yes, you had indeed drawn upon your fellows. A falling-out among thieves is not uncommon." But he seemed to mull her words. "I think the best solution is to bring you all in and allow the sheriff to sort you out."
He motioned Silver, Anne and the two surly, defeated bank robbers to file past him. They were marched two abreast over the hill and down the other side. Immediately when the thieves, who were in the lead, reached the bottom of the incline, all hell broke loose.
Two rifle shots cracked loud in the morning air. One robber spun and fell, blood blotching his chest. The second took a head shot and sat down and died.
"Dive for cover!" Silver yelled.
Morningbird and the Hindu bounty hunter wasted no time getting behind a boulder and a tree. Silver slipped behind another large rock, his pale eyes searching, seeking to ferret out the source of the shots.
"Doc --I seen 'im! Top'a that next rise! It's Deppity Jones," Anne cried breathlessly. "We gotta get his attention --let 'im know it's us."
She stood up, still behind the boulder, and waved her arms wildly.
"Jones! Ya no-count lazy jasper! It's me, Morningbird, an' the new Doc, Silverbones! Hold yer goddam fire!"
"And I am Rahud Sivaramakrishnan!"
But she felt a stir and a heat by her cheek. A round from Jones' rifle flew by like a bee, barely missing stinging her. Cursing like a cowhand, she dived back behind her rock.
"Dammit, I know he heard me!" she called to Silver.
"Why d'you think he's still firing?" Silver wondered.
"Dunno, Doc, he's been actin' looney since this all started. Trigger-happy-like. Gunned down them robbers in the bank when he didn't hafta --they was beat 'n' they knew it."
Silver's eyes narrowed.
"Then, when these rannies got away, dang fool decided not to chase 'em till morning. I tole 'im that'd be too late _ "
"That's not just looney, Anne," Silver interrupted. "That is suspicious."
"How d'ya mean, suspicious?" she demanded. Then her eyes and face lit up. "I see what ya mean! He was silencin' them at the bank fore they could be questioned. An' he let the rest get away!"
"Almost as if . . . " Silver mused.
"Like as if he's a part'a the gang!" Anne yelled. "He didn't want them to talk, less they named him. An' then the skunk gave the others a head start, so's they could get away with the loot!"
"I heard some people wondering how the gang had gotten into the bank building," Silver told her. "The door wasn't blown --just the vault. Does the sheriff's office hold a key to the bank?"
Anne scowled. "Sure does . . . fer checkin' it after hours. Jones pro'ly let them bandits into the bank, then went an' returned the key to the office after the shootin' was done."
"And now he's killed the only surviving members of his gang, so he can keep the spoils for himself," Silver added.
"An' ain't we jes' a little too inconvenient fer him t'have around! So he aims t'take us outta the picture too," Anne bristled. "Wal, I reckon I got somethin' t'say about that!" She added a few more words, mostly unladylike.
Silver grinned. He was beginning to like the cowboy-Indian girl.
"Excuse me," a voice came from behind a nearby oak. "I am overhearing what you are saying. I am afraid I was very wrong about you, my friends."
The Hindu poked his head out to where Silver and Anne could see him but he was still hidden from Jones. He looked sheepish.
"Aw, g'wan," Morningbird shrugged. "Easy to see how you could think that."
"How am I repaying you?" the man begged.
"Wal, pard, ya could help us with the li'l problem a' Deppity Jones here!"
"Gladly I am helping you deal with Deputy Jones," he replied. "However, it seems at the moment he has us --as you would say --pinned."
"Can't git to 'im, that's fer goddamned sure," Anne gritted.
"Of a certainty, we cannot advance," the Hindu agreed.
"No, " Silver nodded. "But we can retreat . . . "
"I get ya, Doc!" she whispered loudly. "We move back, then circle behind thet jasper . . ."
Silver shook his head. "Not all of us, Anne. If we all three suddenly cease firing, Jones will suspect something. I'll go; you two cover me."
Anne frowned. "No 'fense, Doc, but you sure you're a good enough shot ta take 'im?"
"Oh, I'm a fair shot, I believe, Miss Morningbird. See that fallen tree over there, toward where Jones is hiding?"
"Yeah . . . ?"
"There's a twig sprouting from it . . . "
"Three little leaves, yeah, I see it."
Silver said softly, "Top leaf," drew and fired.
Anne and Rahud looked at the twig. The top leaf was gone. They ducked back as Jones returned what he took as a shot at him. Silver faded into the trees and hills behind them.
"We must lay down a furious enough fire," Rahud said, "to convince Mr Jones that there are indeed three of us still here."
"No problem, India," Anne smiled wickedly. She leveled her gun and took deliberate aim to as near to Jones' position as she could judge.
"Then let us give that moodha something to think about!"
A volley of gunfire spilled over the formerly quiet hills.
"Hold your fire!"
Anne was relieved to hear that. She was depleting her ammunition pretty fast.
"That's Doc's voice!" she whooped.
"Indeed, he must have gotten the drop upon the deputy," Rahud nodded.
Peering from their cover, they saw Deputy Jones trudging slowly and sadly down the slope of the hill, hands in the air. Doc Silver followed, his Colts aimed steadily at the small of Jones' back.
Anne Morningbird placed herself firmly in their path, hands on her hips.
"Shame on you, Deppity!" she scolded. "S'posed t'be an officer a' the law . . . "
"No more," lilted Rahud. "I think they are calling him Prisoner Jones now, at his new home."
Sheriff Coggin was surprised to see the medicine wagon trundling down from the hills to meet his posse. He was even more surprised to see his deputy sitting next to the driver, glumly staring at his bound hands.
Silver made the explanations, which Anne Morningbird backed up. Coggin pushed back his hat and stroked his chin whiskers.
"Wal," he opined, "I allus knew Jones here was useless, but I never thought he'd gone bad."
"He had accomplices," Silver noted. "But they're all dead."
"Y'had to shoot 'em, eh?"
"Nope," Morningbird drawled. "Jonesy took care a' thet hisself. Doc Silverbones here wouldn't'a done that. He jes' winged Jones' hand, made 'im lose his grip on his gun."
Coggin's bushy brows shot up as if in disbelief.
"The Doctor does not like to kill even the bad men," Rahud stated.
"Somethin' about a hippa . . .hippo . . . "
"The Hippocratic Oath," Silver explained. "First, do no harm."
"Thought thet was jes' fer doctorin'," Coggin said doubtfully.
"Sheriff, I am a healer. I do what I can to help justice, but my physician's vows come first."
"Thet may be, but it takes some mighty cool shootin' to do that," the lawman admitted.
"Doc Silverbones is as you have said a 'mighty cool shooter,'" Rahud said seriously. "He is traveling the west helping people, and where justice is wounded he is healing that also."
"No need to get melodramatic, Rahud," Silver smiled.
"Very well; you are the doctor," the man from India replied. "Then, sheriff, there shall remain only the matter of the renumeration."
"Th' whu- ?"
"The reward," Rahud grinned.
"There's a reward?" Morningbird looked startled.
Coggin scratched his head. "Wal, yes, Banker Crombie's ginned up $1000 a head on them yahoos. You got three of 'em."
"That's a thousand apiece," Anne yelped. "Warn't expectin' no reward, but I'll not turn it down!"
"Nor I," added Rahud.
"Thank you, Sheriff. That, and my fees for tending to the wounded, will help. I'm planning to move on, though. Can you get that reward to me today?"
The sheriff owned that he could, and Dr Silver retired to his hotel to resume his interrupted sleep.
Late that afternoon he awoke and, packing his belongings in the medicine wagon, went to the hotel's dining room and ordered a meal. Glancing out into the street as he ate, he saw Rahud approaching the hotel with a wide grin on his dusky face.
The Hindu came to Silver's table. His smile grew wider as he produced two envelopes and set one of them beside Silver's plate.
"Our rewards," Rahud stated. He hesitated, then added, "And I am very much liking to make you an offer!"
Silver looked at him expectantly.
"I am offering my services to be traveling with you, Dr Silver. I too am a seeker of justice and adventure. Is it possible that I may become your partner?"
Silver considered. The Hindu was an honest man and could hold his own in a battle. Silver thought that he might even be able to teach Rahud enough of doctoring to help in medical crises.
"Understand, though, that I am not in this for the money. I have my own reasons for what I do. I charge only what those I help can afford . . . even if they can't afford anything. I use the rewards from the outlaws I capture to keep myself in medicines and supplies. My only interest is in healing --not riches or glory."
"This I am understanding, Doctor!" Then, "I was sent to your country by my father, who wished me to locate buyers for Assam tea from his plantations in India. This I found very boring. Your wide open spaces are appealing to me far more than my crowded, filthy Calcutta. I am only too glad to help bring justice to this new land."
Silver smiled. "Good man, Ra --hmm. Do you want a more American name to go by?"
"No, sir," he replied evenly. "My name in India is meaning 'reliable.' I am very much proud of it."
"Reliable," Silver mused. "That is a good name, Mr Sivaramakrishnan," surprising Rahud with his ease in pronouncing his name. "You have a sense of justice, you're good with a gun, and you tracked those bank thieves as readily as we did. Be honored to have you along!"
Silver consumed his meal, and then headed out into the dusty streets. Rahud hitched his own horse to the back of the wagon.
As they reached the outskirts of Dry Flats a fast-moving palomino caught up with them. Anne Morningbird waved them down.
"Where d'you yahoos 'spect yo're goin' without me?" she cried.
"Ma'am?" Silver questioned.
"You two think yo're goin' Don Kee-ho-tayin' all over thuh west all by your selves? I want in! Sides, doctor needs a nurse, don't he?"
Silver was bemused. "I thought you had a ranch here?"
"Heck, muh foremen kin run the place without me! Got room fer one more, Doc?"
Silver stalled. "The sleeping arrangements would pose a challenge . . . "
"Aw, I don't mind sleepin' on thuh ground. Done it before."
Silver pushed his black hat back, looked at the eagerness that shone like sunlight in the girl's eyes.
"She is tracking and shooting as well as any of us," Rahud put in helpfully.
"An' I was Doc Willis' apprentice, so's I got some medical trainin' . . . "
Silver shrugged. "Tie up your mount and hop aboard, then. I reckon three pair of gunhands --or healing hands --are preferable to two."