Chapter 44 What If?
Every part of his body hurt, from the top of his head on down. It was easy to understand when you looked at the sleeping accommodations – a saddle backed by a boulder for a pillow and the cold hard ground as a bed. Still, the sleep had been a welcome companion last night and he didn't regret it.
Bret Maverick opened his eyes and looked at the sky. Cold and clear, with just a wisp of a cloud to the north. It was freezing outside of the horse blanket he'd used as a cover and he had no fire. He stretched and yawned and wondered how long he'd been there. Let's see, last night –
Oh, last night. Now he remembered why his body ached so. Pain, disappointment and more pain had caused him to flee the relative 'comforts' of Doc Washburn's office floor and run into the wild until neither he nor his horse could run any more. And here was where he stopped running.
Nothing had changed since last night, yet everything had changed. The only path open to him was clear: go back to Silver Creek, help his brother in whatever way he could, and find the men that were the source of so much pain in his life and kill them. Not murder; kill. It didn't matter how they died; swinging at the end of a rope was just as effective a method as shooting them. As long as they were dead. Why had it taken a wild flight from the town and everything in it to clarify his intentions?
It was easier to look at in the cold light of day than it had been in the dark of night. His brother might not ever be the person he once was but, by God, Bart was still his brother. One of the men who had visited so much grief and misery upon the Mavericks was dead; that's what the others needed to be. And if it fell upon his shoulders to make sure they were, he would accept that responsibility. Slowly he threw off the horse blanket and gathered himself for a return to town. He needed to get back and make sure that Bart hadn't slipped away from them after all.
Jody woke up late and didn't have time to do anything but get ready for school. She'd wanted to talk to her mother and stop by Doc Washburn's on her way to the schoolhouse and see if there was any further change in Bart but it took every ounce of resistance in her being to fulfill her first priority, and that was the commitment she'd made to the children of Silver Creek.
On her way past the Doctor's office she noticed that Bret's horse was tethered to the hitching rail in front. Good. Hopefully that meant he was back to stay. Bart needed all the support he could get right now, as did poor Beau. She had no doubt that Bret loved both his brother and cousin, but the man she loved as a brother and the man who loved her mother were her primary concerns. Bret's wounds, whatever they were, would have to wait. She prayed that anything she found when she finally returned to Doc's would be good news rather than bad.
Beau rolled over in the bed and stared at the walls of his room. Yep, they were still there. Doc had the best of intentions last night when he tried to send Jody and Beau home to get a decent night's sleep. He hoped that Jody was more successful than he was.
All night he'd tossed and turned, trying to work out any potential problem with Georgia in his head. He began doing that once he realized that being awake was inevitable. Why was love difficult? He loved the woman and wanted to marry her. Nothing else was important.
Giving up on getting anywhere, either with sleep or Georgia, Beau got out of bed and decided to shave and get dressed. Then even the shaving went by the wayside as he realized that Doc's was the only place he could get hot water this early in the morning. So getting dressed it was, then coffee from the dining room downstairs. He'd spent so many days suffering from lack of sleep that he'd given up drinking tea; it just didn't have the attributes of the hot, black liquid gold they all lived off. The cute server that had attended the Mavericks when they first arrived had been replaced by an older, grumpier version. But efficient, he mused, as he held the steaming mug in his hand. It didn't take long to finish his first cup and start in on his second. By that time he'd already seen Bret, looking exactly like he'd spent a night in hell, ride past the hotel, headed for Doc's office. He put the mug down, threw two coins on the table and left.
Silver Creek was up and functioning by the time Bret rode down main street but most of the townsfolk were still asleep. Only the merchants seemed to be early risers here, the streets were fairly devoid of people. Bret let the horse take his time and meander his way down to Doc Washburn's office. Poor beast had been ridden hard enough last night and Bret was in no mood to tempt fate. He was lucky the animal hadn't broken a leg or taken a header off of a cliff the reckless way he was ridden. Bret promised that as soon as he checked on his brother he would see to his horses comfort.
Bret dismounted and wrapped the reins around the hitching rail. Doc's front door was closed but unlocked. He entered and there was no sight of the man to whom he would be indebted for life; Doc had saved Bart three times. At least saved him physically. He walked on into Doc's inner exam room and found Doc seated next to the cot, and he would almost swear that he saw Bart's head move slightly. Doc looked up and saw Bret standing at the exam table and waved him over. Once Bret came round behind Doc he could see Bart's eyes blink and look up at him. Something that had been missing in those eyes before was there now. All Bret could say was "Bart?"
Bart's eyes blinked again in response to the question and Bret knew that his brother not only heard him, he understood him. Bret's whole body sagged in relief. "Doc?" he asked of Doctor Washburn.
"Not talkin' yet, but that's to be expected. But he seems to hear us and understand us. Give him a day or two, you probably won't be able to shut him up!"
Bart made a strangled gurgling noise and blinked.
"Never could shut him up for long," Bret volunteered. His brother was alive! Not only alive, but aware of what was going on.
The door to Doc's exam room swung open and Beau stood there, staring at them. "What's happened?" were the first words out of his mouth.
"Come over and see for yourself."
Beau practically jumped over the exam table to get around the moved out of the way and Bret took his chair, with Beau moving in behind him. Bart blinked, as if in recognition, and Beau's smile was enough to light up the entire town. "Glad to have you back, Cousin."
Again that gurgling sound. Bart was definitely letting them know he was alive. Beau rested a hand on Bret's shoulder. "I'm going to get Jody. She'd never forgive me if I didn't."
Much to Beau's surprise Bret turned toward him and covered Beau's hand with one of his own. "Thanks."
Beau raised an eyebrow in question but never said anything. He knew his cousin meant 'for last night.' He squeezed Bret's shoulder and left via the front door, taking the tied up horse as a mount. "I'll be right back," Bret told Bart and got up to go to the front office, where Doc was busy making what he referred to as 'the devil's brew.' He had an old converted kerosene lamp that he used to heat water and it made the most obnoxious, foul smelling liquid in the state. And Bret would give anything for a cup of it right now.
"Doc, what's gonna happen now?"
Doc turned and faced the concerned brother. He was hoping to have a better answer when the question was asked but right now he didn't. "Bret, my boy, I wish I could give you a 'fer shure' answer but I can't. We just have to wait it out and see what happens. He seems to know what's goin' on and what's bein' said to him. We'll have a better idea of where to go and how to git there once he can talk to us. But it sure does look like he's beat the odds again. Must be the best damn poker player on the planet."
"Or the luckiest," Bret added as an afterthought. "Thanks, Doc. I just want to know what kind of cards we're holdin'."
"Pretty darn good ones, I'd say," was the answer.
A few minutes later Bret had a cup of Doc's potent concoction and Beau had returned with Jody. Rather Jody had returned and Beau followed. She almost flew through the door, stopping long enough to grab Doc's face, pull it down to her level and kiss the startled old man on the cheek. Bret knew better than to stand in her way so he vacated the chair for her to sit in and when he wasn't looking she grabbed his head and planted the same kiss on him. Then she fluttered in to the chair at Bart's makeshift bedside and kissed his cheek for good measure. "Welcome back, Bartley! Lordy, you gave us a scare. Even poor little Adam wanted to know how you were! That's the last time that happens, hear me?" Just then she bent over and whispered something in his ear. Another attempted gurgling noise, but this one actually sounded a little like a chuckle.
"Jody Mayfield, you stop tryin' to make that boy laugh, you hear?" Doc's admonition sounded about as threatening as a newborn baby calf's cry for its mama. He couldn't help but smile at the way she made everyone feel better. She'd be a fine wife and mother someday, and a good strong partner for a strong man. Maybe for one of these boys, if only . . . . . . No, he didn't dare go there. He'd think about if later. When all this was behind them.