Six: The Medicine
Jessie didn't stop until she was in front of the general store, pulling up Strider sharply and tumbling off. She'd forgotten that she hadn't slept. When her feet hit the ground, her body didn't care to hold her. She was sitting on the ground when Samuel and Sawyer stopped their horses next to Strider. Sawyer dropped from his horse in his usual fashion and Samuel just stared down at her. His face was grinning. She just looked up at him through tired eyes.
Letting out a loud breathe, the outlaw leader dropped down, holding out a hand to lift her to her feet. Jessie leaned against him, unable to really stand on her own. "What were you thinking girl?" She didn't answer. "Sawyer, go and buy the girl some appropriate clothes." Samuel tossed some money at the other man.
"Where are you goin', boss?" Sawyer took the money, counting it briefly.
"Find a place for her to nap for a bit. She ain't no good to us if she's asleep." Samuel led her down the wide, dusty street toward what looked like a small Inn. She didn't fight him, too tired to try. Jessie wasn't even sure how she ended up in the hard bed, but she guessed that Samuel tossed her in it.
She woke up a few hours later with his back to her, cleaning one of his pistols on the side table he'd dragged in front of him. At the foot of the bed laid a plain, tan blouse and a maroon walking skirt. Still a bit groggy, Jessie sat up, the squeak of the mattress making the outlaw turn.
"You're awake. You need to change. We're behind schedule." He turned back around, finishing what he was doing and offering a bit of privacy.
Jessie frowned, but dressed as quickly as possible. The blouse was a little big, but the skirt fit. She didn't know what to do with her old clothes, so she just left them there on the bed. "How long was I asleep?"
"A few hours. Sawyer's out front waiting for us. By now he's bored and in a bad mood, so I advise you to be on your best behavior." He had his gun back together and in its holster. When the outlaw glanced in her direction, he assessed her appearance, then nodded his approval. That sickened her and pleased her in one moment.
"Let's just get the medicine for John." Jessie headed toward the door, throwing it open and wincing when it banged off the wall. Samuel caught it before it swung back and smacked her in the back end. She didn't want to look back and catch his face, instead, Jessie decided to head out to meet Sawyer. As she went down the main stairs and toward the door, the inn keeper gave her quite a look. A few of the men leered at her and then snapped their mouths shut. Samuel must have done something to make them regret thinking she was one of those painted ladies of the brothels.
Sawyer was leaning lazily against the building, hat tipped down over his face and his arms crossed. When he heard them come onto the porch, he stood up, adjusting his hat. He looked her over, "Well, what do ya know boss, she is a girl."
Jessie did something stupid; she moved to try and hit Sawyer. Samuel pulled on both her elbows, making her stumble backward. "I am a girl."
"Act like one," he whispered in her ear, then let her go. The outlaw leader let the way down off the porch. She followed behind him with Sawyer taking up the rear, keeping his head low. For a man who wasn't afraid to shoot just about anyone, including a military officer, he sure was skittish in town. Jessie was in her element.
As they walked, heading for the general store or some such, Jessie floated close to the fronts of the buildings. The town was quite well off, with a few specialty stores and even a dress store. Without thinking, she wandered up to look in the window more. It had been such a long time since she wore a gown, even back home, that just seeing one and seeing a lady come out of the store in a fashionable new dress, made Jessie jealous.
Samuel didn't notice her pause, but Sawyer did, seeing as he was following behind her. He looked up at the window, at the woman who eyed him and back at Jessie. "We couldn't afford that one."
Confused, Jessie tore her eyes from the dress. "Come again?"
"That dress," he nodded his head toward it. "We couldn't afford that one. And it was a might too big for you."
Jessie looked at him like he had a third eye. "Mr. Sawyer, what are you talking about?"
He let out a slow breath. "That dress. I was going to buy it for you, but it wasn't right. No use wastin' money on somethin' that wasn't gonna fit."
A slow, smirking smile came to her face. "Why, Mr. Sawyer, if I didn't know better, I'd say you just showed your softer side."
Before she could react, Sawyer shoved her down the street, in the direction they were going. Jessie let out a little huff and looked back at him. "Keep walking." And just like that, whatever softer side Jessie might have glimpsed in Sawyer was gone.
A few people glanced their way, eyeing her more than the men she was with and Jessie knew why. A girl her age hardly walked around without either her father, brother or husband. Neither Samuel nor Sawyer looked or acted like they could pull off those parts. Their scrutiny made her raise her chin a little and walk a little more surely, despite how she wished to run in their arms. Just one of them could rescue her, but Jessie couldn't. There was John to consider. He couldn't be left to die out there because she was weak.
Samuel stopped outside of one building and pointed toward the entrance. A carved sign read "General Store," like any other sign in most other towns. This one, however, had a couple of potted flowers outside the doors on the porch. Apparently the place was well loved. Blowing a slow breath through her lips, Jessie took the steps up and into the store.
The walls were lined with carefully ordered shelves and goods. Labels were facing the same direction. Everything seemed to have its place, including the well fed cat sitting at one end of the counter. It looked up lazily at her, let out a yawn and settled back in to nap. A man came out of the back, stocky but well dressed. "Can I help you, miss?" He asked politely and Jessie was instantly homesick.
"Uh, yes, yes, I do hope you can." Jessie remembered herself as she opened her mouth. Her part was that of a distraught mother. She had to make him believe it. "You see, sir, my son, he's ill with a fever. My husband is away on a drive and…"
"At this time of year?"
Jessie frowned. "Yes, yes, but sir, my son…"
"My dear," he had an affected accent that she couldn't place, "you should really inform him that this is not a good time of year for a cattle drive, especially leaving you and your son alone."
"We're not alone," she bit out, "I have two ranch hands with me." Impulsively, she pointed out the window where Sawyer stood with his back to her and Samuel leaning against the post holding the porch in place.
The store owner peered out the wavy glass to look at them. He stared long and hard at Samuel, but when he turned his attention back to her, he seemed perfectly at ease. "Well, Miss, you shouldn't be traveling with those sorts all by yourself."
"I will keep that in mind," Jessie's patience was being tried. "But my son, sir. I need medicine."
He gaze fell on her then, taking her in from her clothes to her short hair. Jessie fidgeted. "You'll have to see the doctor. We agreed that he would handle such things."
All that just to be sent in another direction? Jessie wanted to strangle the oversized store owner. Outwardly, she gave a polite nod and bolted. She was grumbling and mumbling under her breath the whole way to Sawyer and Samuel.
They turned to her in unison, a practiced motion. Their expressions were looking for an explanation, and Jessie couldn't give it to them. All she could think about was getting to the doctor and then to John. She was a girl on a mission.
Neither said a word to her, but stayed on her heels. Her eyes went from shop window to shop window, reading the signs as quickly as she could until she found where the doctor set up. Without even a glance at the two men, Jessie grabbed her skirt up in a fist and climbed the stairs.
A little bell jingled above her, making her turn and bit her lip. The sound had nearly stopped her heart so it was nothing when she heard a male voice close behind her. Jessie turned into the office. It was a small place with a room off to her left, probably for patients, and a hallway with two more doors to her right. Both the doors were closed. For such a small space, it was rather light, with the sun shining through the modest windows.
"Are you the doctor?" She tried to make her voice sound small and frightened.
"Nichols," the doctor introduced himself. He was young and from the east, judging by his accent. "What can I do for you, miss?"
Realizing she still had her skirt balled up in her hand, Jessie dropped it. "My son is ill. I need medicine for him. I can pay, so that isn't a question."
He regarded her with intelligent eyes. He was suspicious of her, that much read in his face. "Is your son with you?"
"No," Jessie told him, "he was too sick to move. It's just a fever, I know it. Please, sir, I just need the medicine."
"It's really better if I see him for myself. Let me get my things and we'll-"
"No. No, please. Just the medicine." Jessie knew the moment she jumped forward to stop him, she had blown it. She was too quick.
He was watching her carefully, as if she was some rattlesnake ready to attack. "I cannot give you the medicine without seeing him."
All of Jessie's stubborn resolve was seconds away from disappearing. "Sir, please-"
"Ma'am, if you are seeking this medication to… improve your own health, I will not give it to you."
So that's what he thought she was after; she had heard it well enough before in town gossip. The old widow, Jacobs, was said to have taken medication even when she was not ill. Jessie frowned, crossing her arms over her chest; she wasn't like the old widow Jacobs. "If I wanted to improve my health there is a perfectly good tavern in this town, is there not?"
Doc Nichols was taken aback by her sudden turn. "That is one method, though I don't recommend that one myself."
Of course he wouldn't, not an upstanding doctor like himself. Her mood was turning foul and time was running short for John. "Please, Doctor Nichols, it really is for a boy. Around fourteen and he's had a fever a day and night now. When I was young, my brother would get fevers often and I know medicine will cure it."
"I really need to see the boy." He persisted, though he sighed in a tired manner.
Jessie dropped her arms, defeated. They were circling the same argument. It felt like arguing with Samuel. "I can't let you do that. You have to trust me."
The doctor shook his head. "I don't know you, ma'am. Or your son."
"Millie Smith," she held out her hand. "Now we are introduced."
He sighed, getting frustrated with her. "I still don't know your son."
Jessie didn't bother saying anything more. She looked at him helplessly and prayed she wouldn't be walking away to watch little John die. The poor boy had thought this was all a big adventure without knowing it would be his only. All she could do was go back to the dirt and the bush and sit with John. Jessie could do that, she could sit with him.
Picking up her skirt again, she turned to go. She had opened the door and was stepping out into the sun when she felt a hand on her elbow, stopping her. "Listen," Doc Nichols began, "Without knowing for sure what is making him ill, I can't give you anything specific, but I can give you something. Tomorrow. Come back tomorrow and I'll have it ready for you."
She beamed at him, ready to ask if he was sure and held back. "I'll be here. Thank you, Doctor Nichols."
"You're welcome, Mrs. Smith. You look less harsh when you smile." He still had her elbow and realizing it, he let her go quickly.
Jessie felt the blood rush to her face. "It's Ms. Not Missus."
"Ms. Smith then."
She ducked out the door quickly then, joining Samuel and Sawyer on the wide, dusty road. Samuel didn't give a single glance back at the doctor, but Sawyer eyed him and then her. There was a sly smile on his face, as if he knew a secret she didn't.
"I don't see anything in your hand, girl," Samuel was the first to speak, his tone unhappy.
"No, you don't. Tomorrow." And she walked ahead of them.
Jessie didn't look back to see if they followed, but she heard the crunching of the ground behind her, so she assumed that they had. Walking down the road, she wasn't even sure where she was going. They had to wait until tomorrow, which meant that they would either return to the others or stay in that place.
"Does the boy have until tomorrow?" It was Sawyer, unexpectedly from behind her.
Jessie stopped, fear shoot through her before she had to tell herself once again that she'd been through fevers before. "My brother, the one you dumped in the middle of the desert, he took fevers often when we were children." She forced herself to sound confident. "If it doesn't break on its own tonight, tomorrow will be just as well." Then she started walking again.
"That means we'll be staying another day." Sawyer spoke once more, this time directed at Samuel.
Jessie ignored him and looked through the windows .She stopped, letting them pass her by when she saw the small dress shop again. It probably served for both men and women, but it was bigger than the shop back home and the dress that was in the window was far better than what she'd seen before. Jessie had seen Rachel Miller, the girl her brother fancied, in a dress like that.
It was a lovely evening down with a low, square neck. The fabric wasn't the finest silk, but it was the color, a jeweled ruby color that drew Jessie in. Along the hem was a soft black, pleated trim and the waist came to an elegant point in the front. She'd feel like a proper city girl in that dress, though she knew that no matter what became of her now, she wouldn't wear a dress like that.
If she somehow managed to get herself and John home, she would return to her ranch home, keeping the hands fed and caring for her father and brother. Marriage seemed to good for a girl like her and after this mishap, she doubted any man would have her. Perhaps she would become a school teacher, or continue on the ranch, a companion for the woman James would marry. Secretly she did hope it was Rachel; then she could have her old dresses and a gentle woman to talk to.
What did it matter now? Jessie was certain she wasn't getting home and already she was mixed up in the outlaw schemes. She wasn't a proper lady like Rachel. Unlike the stories, Jessie would have to make her own way in the world, that much she was certain.
"Girl," Samuel's bark shot through her thoughts. "Stop staring at that dress and let's move."
Jessie turned to look at him but her eye caught the figures behind him. She froze. Samuel noticed her suddenly lack of movement and spun around. A man with a deputy badge proudly displayed and two other well armed men were walked down the road, clearly making for Samuel. The outlaw's eyes flickered over to Sawyer, who snatched up her arm and dragged her into the dress shop.
Too confused to fight back, she let him pull her in, but as soon as the door shut behind them, Jessie was peering through the window. The three men walked up to Samuel, slowly coming around him. There was a heated debate and Samuel almost reached his pistol, thought better of it and put his hands in front of him, empty.
"Sawyer," Jessie had a pleading tone in her voice. He was just standing there, watching them take his leader.
"Pick out a dress," he ordered her, his jaw barely moving.
Jessie bit her lip and went over to the counter. She watched the man, tense as a cornered coyote, while the woman came over to talk to her about dresses and the latest fashions coming out of the East. Only half listening, she pointed to the dress in the window. "Can we fit that to me?"
The woman hesitated. "You'll need a proper corset." She looked uncomfortable mentioning that in front of Sawyer.
"Then get her one." Came Sawyer's curt reply.
"I suppose we're getting a dress and everything that goes with it." Jessie told the woman, unsure about the whole situation. Suddenly she felt very vulnerable.
"Of course, right this way Miss…"
"Millie. Millie Smith." She let herself be led away to be measured and fitted into a new dress, but as much as she wanted the dress moments before, her attention was entirely on Sawyer. He wasn't the predator she knew him to be; right then he looked like a frightened young man who had just watched his father be dragged away.