Sarah was sore in body and spirit as she rode Zed into town. Sarah turned the horse into a shortcut, through an alley. The windows of a first-floor photography shop mirrored their dusty progress, and she looked away. The blood on her shirtwaist and cloak was far more extensive than she had supposed.
She’d lost both of them, mother and child, to a form of fever she’d seen before, but could neither prevent nor cure; there was nothing in her vast store of mid-wifely experience or anecdotal memory that could account for this plague. The gasps of the mother’s final breaths as she reached for her child, born still, echoed in Sarah’s ears. She lay her head against Zed’s shaggy mane and let herself weep. The horse slowed.
“What would you have me do?” he said.
“Let us move on,” said Sarah. “Food and water are running low. We may yet receive another Calling.”
“We?” asked Zed.
“You. You, you insufferable beast.” Sarah half-smiled through her tears. Trust Zed to bring her back, always, from the brink. His gift and her skill had bound the pair in their dangerous vocation since she was a girl. He knew her like no human ever had.
The sound of shouting male voices roused Sarah from her reverie. She looked up. Three o’clock in the afternoon or thereabouts. She steeled herself for whatever would come next.
Tombstone. It was a dusty boom town not unlike so many others she and Zed ministered to. The place epitomized a certain ethos. The coercion of metal out of its rocky womb was Tombstone’s prime occupation and obsession, and most of the town’s violent proceedings could be traced to this pursuit.
“Hold steady,” Sarah told Zed.
She reached for the Derringer in her left boot seconds before the group of men appeared at the mouth of the alley.
“Do you recognize any of them?” asked Sarah.
“Nay,” said Zed. “But I know their souls.”
Zed moved sideways in a quick motion, drawing close to the wooden panels that fronted a small saloon. The medical bag that Sarah kept strapped to her saddle struck this flimsy wall with a dull thud.
“It will be fine, Zed,” said Sarah, anticipating his question. “The medicines are well-wrapped.”
Shots rang out. Sarah made herself as small as possible atop Zed. Her gun, were it now to be espied, would make her a target in this circumstance, and she buried it in a deep pocket. She lay her face against Zed’s neck and waited.
It was over quickly. Sarah, used to timing birth pains and heartbeats, figured this gunfight took about 30 seconds, and cost as many bullets. Zed nickered, and Sarah looked up. A thin man with a handlebar mustache lurched toward her, bloodied and limping.
“Mercy,” the man moaned, reaching out, gun still in hand.
Sarah dismounted, and caught the man as he stumbled. She propped him up against the front wall of the saloon before moving toward Zed. The horse backed up and stomped his left foreleg.
“Nay,” he said.
“I need my bag, Zed. He is bleeding.”
The horse shook his head almost sorrowfully, but firmly. “The Calling is nothing to do with the likes of this gentleman.”
The man with the mustache gaped at Zed. His eyes rolled back in his head then, and it seemed his consciousness was lost. Sarah crossed back to him and checked his pulse; still alive. She removed the bandanna from her neck and twisted the fabric to increase its bulk. Sarah pressed it hard against the man’s seeping hip wound.
A new man appeared and yelled to his companions.
“Doc Holiday’s over here! Wounded bad!”
Two other men ran to where the injured gunman lay. Together, they hoisted him up and arranged his dead weight near vertically between them.
“Wyatt?” said one of them.
“Take Doc ‘round back and bring him upstairs; he’s got a room here. Get the surgeon,” said the tall man who, alone of his peers, appeared completely unharmed. The others nodded and went about their task. When they were a small ways away, the tall man turned.
“Much obliged,” he said, executing a small bow before following his friends.
Sarah watched him for a moment before turning to Zed. He met her eyes with an unblinking stare.
“I cannot be a part of these doings of men. Pray, do not ask me again,” said the horse.
Sarah mounted Zed and scratched him between the ears.
“Let us find provisions,” she murmured.
“We need make haste,” said Zed. “A Calling this way comes.”
Carolyn R. Russell is the author of several books. Her essays and short stories have appeared in numerous publications, including The Boston Globe, Flash Fiction Magazine, Club Plum Literary, and Dime Show Review. Carolyn lives on and writes from Boston’s North Shore.