Kate dashed down the stairs, two at a time, hoping to stop the pounding before it woke up the entire house. The carillon had been set to sound only in her room, but whoever was outside had given up on that, instead resorting to an insistent banging that thundered throughout the building. The desperate customer must have been out on the plains a long, lonely time.
“Hold on, hold on.” Punching on the foyer light, she pressed a few buttons to fine tune the peep screen. The rain, however, was coming down fast and the men were too saturated and disheveled for identification. Were they Liberty Weekend revelers arriving early? “Hey, listen,” she called through the door, “the kids are sleeping. They need their beauty rest. Come back tomorrow and they’ll be all nice and fresh.”
“Kate, open up!”
That voice...like the rumble of a slow tanker on take-off. It was unmistakable.
“Kate, it’s Bear! Open up! It’s an emergency!”
Tapping in the code, she heard the bolts clang open. “Bear?” Throwing open the door she was greeted by the massive hulk of a man she gave up six years ago. Soaking wet, he tumbled into the foyer, dragging something along with him bundled in a cloak. It was a man, by the looks of things, dripping wet as well, but slighter and half dead. Supported by the larger man, the bundle groaned in a half conscious delirium.
Stoic as ever, the huge man flatly asked, “Kate, you have a bed free?”
“Sure. Sure we do.” Noting drops of blood staining the water puddles on the floor, she said, “But he needs to go to the clinic.”
“A doctor, yes, but a clinic is out of the question.”
“Bear, he could die.”
From the stairs behind them, a sleepy, curious voice called out, “Kate, what’s going on?”
“Renny.” She turned and motioned for the young man to join them downstairs. At the sight of the travelers, the young man’s pale eyes widened, but he remained calm. “Renny, listen to me. I want you to run to the clinic and fetch Dr. Naulish. If he’s not there, track him down at his house.” Sensing the need for discretion, she told him, “Tell him that I accidentally shot myself. With a slug, not a tazer. There’s a lot of blood.”
The boy glanced at the two strangers. “But, Kate...”
“Tell him also that I’d like the accident kept quiet. Remind him that he’s run up quite a tab here.”
The boy nodded and, with a last look at the strangers, sprang upstairs to find his rain gear.
Then Kate took hold of the injured man’s free arm and placed it around her shoulders. As they inched up the stairs, more of her charges peeked over the third floor railing. To their gasped questions, she said, “Never mind. All of you back to bed. Tomorrow’s a big day.”
Bear didn’t like the sound of that. She could tell from his grunt.
They struggled down the east hall, the injured man fighting off waves of pain evident by the way he groaned and squeezed her shoulder. She was right in her guess. This was no tazer attack, judging by the blood trailing after them. It was either a blade or a slug wound, neither boding much promise. She wondered how much of his dampness was rain and how much was fever sweat.
She steered them to a room at the end of the hall that hadn’t been used since her aunt died four years before. It was spacious and bright, done in the healing tones of pink that had helped comfort the woman in her aunt’s painful battle with Paler’s disease. A losing battle. Since the last day, Kate had changed the bed linen regularly, adding fresh shurai blossoms daily. But she never had the heart to let anyone use the room. Customers and personnel were not allowed. There’d be no games played in that room. Too many memories.
Now, watching Bear ease his companion onto the bed, she hoped that the room wouldn’t see another soul pass.
“Kate, can you help me?”
Bear was trying to undress the man without moving him too much. The wound on his left side oozed red. Hurrying over, an ironic thought struck her. She had certainly undressed many an unconscious man in her time, but they were usually intoxicated and saved her a night’s work, only too ready to believe the convincing lie she gave them the next day. This night was going to be an all-nighter.
As she undid the man’s weapon belt and started on his pants, a door creaking caught her attention. Looking up, she saw pretty little Deeta staring at the scene. The girl’s pale, young eyes, which had already seen so much, still registered shock at the unaccustomed sight of lingering death.
“Kate,” the girl started softly, “can I help?”
“Yes, honey. Go to the kitchen. Fetch hot water, some towels, some perox soap and...”
“Some yskatol,” Bear grumbled.
Kate looked at him. “We don’t need liquor, we have anesthesia.”
“The yskatol is for me.”
She nodded at the girl, who shot out of the room. “I guess I shouldn’t bother with anesthesia till the doctor gets here. Though from what I remember about your constitution, the anesthesia would have more effect on you than the yskatol.”
“The drinking is half the fun.”
Going into the bathroom, she gathered a few towels and returned to press one on the wound, discarding a makeshift bandage soaked with blood. “Here, hold this,” she told him, using the other towel to gently wipe the dirt and sweat from the squirming man’s face. “So, who is he, Bear?” A million questions ran through her mind, but for some reason this seemed most important.
“He’s my brother.”
“Brother? You told me you were an only child.”
He stared at his brother, and for a moment his face softened. “Guess now it looks like I might get my wish.”
Before Kate could reply, Deeta brought in the first-aid and stood over Kate’s shoulder while it was applied.
“Is he gonna die?” the girl asked breathlessly, almost fearful.
Bear shot her a hard look but Kate told her, “We can’t be sure. The doctor should be here soon.” To Bear, she said, “I don’t see an exit wound. That slug in there has to come out. I’m assuming it’s a slug.”
He frowned, nodding.
Deeta seemed at once fascinated and frightened. Fascinated, no doubt, by the looks of this handsome young stranger, Kate figured. At one point, the patient stopped writhing and opened his eyes. The stunning purple gaze grew even brighter with fever and landed upon Deeta. For the first time, he grew peaceful and calm as if looking upon some angelic vision sent to soothe him. He smiled. Then his eyes closed, his smile fading, and he fell into deep unconsciousness.
“I don’t believe it.” Bear looked up at Deeta with a grin. “The shape he’s in and he still has the energy to flirt.”
The young girl turned a color she hadn’t blushed in a long time. At that moment, the carillon rang through the house signaling another visitor. Kate locked eyes with Bear. “That’s the front door.”
“The doctor?” he asked.
“Unless your friends followed to finish the job.”
Standing, Bear positioned himself behind the door, tazer at the ready. “Those friends ain’t the kind to come in through the front door.”
Kate knew what to do. She’d been through the drill many times. Play it cool till whoever was coming, came. She only hoped it was the doctor. Deeta followed her lead and together they waited.
“Katie.” It was the doctor, voice as strong and clipped as normal. “Katie, this better be a matter of life or death to roust me out of bed this hour.”
He entered the room and paused at the sight before him. Then he turned at the sound of Bear’s footsteps.
“It’s life or death, all right, Doc.” Bear held the weapon to his mouth. “Yours, if you don’t save my brother.”
“Oh, for Zalla’s sake, Bear.” Pushing the gun aside, Kate led the doctor to his patient, telling him, “I can’t stop the bleeding.”
“Slug still in him?”
“Seems to be.”
A disgusted sigh escaped the doctor’s lips. “Then, damn it! Why isn’t he at the clinic? Though, I s’pose that question’s as off limits as any others I might have.”
“You s’pose right,” Bear growled.
The doctor prepared the tools from his bag and studied the prone man. “I’ll do what I can, but gun or no gun, I’m not a miracle worker. Deeta, you stay and assist. Kate, you take that massive mautek out of here. He’s making me nervous. If I have to operate, you don’t want me nervous.”
Kate thought of the blood soaking into the linen and wondered if fate would be kinder this time than it had been to the last occupant of the bed. Taking Bear’s arm, she dragged him from the room, noting that his movements seemed both worried and weary. Who knew how far they had ridden? Last she heard of him, he was in Tullik Par, a full week’s ride by express.
“We didn’t go by tech,” he told her, taking a seat on the over-stuffed couch once in the privacy of her room. “We rode in on chiitorahs.”
Face quizzical, she handed him a glass of her smoothest, strongest mox, then returned to the liquor cart for her own. He was an extremely accomplished rider, but... “You hate riding chiitorahs.”
“They’re not as clean and easy as tech travel, but on some terrain, they’re perfect for...”
He gulped at the mox. “For a lot of things.”
“Riding chiitorahs in a major down-pour with an injured man. What terrain did you head in from?”
Bear sighed, rubbing his face, reluctant as ever. “Jeffers City. Rode out about five hours ago.”
“Jeffers City is a twelve hour leisure trot on chiitorahs. What made you cover the distance in nearly half that?”
“As you said, I had an injured man with me.”
Kate settled beside him. “Jeffers has a good clinic. Would have to for all the mining accidents they have.”
“You ain’t gonna let this go, are you?”
Smiling, she licked her lips and stared at him. “Bear, who do you think you’re talking to? I was there when you weren’t just riding chiitorahs, you were stealing them. I’ve seen you outgun a man during a game of chips.”
“He accused me of cheating.”
“You were.” This brought a deep chuckle from him that tickled her as well. She grew serious though. “Why’d you leave Jeffers in such a hurry? Why is your brother bleeding to death?”
Rising stiffly, Bear went to pour more mox. Studying the glass, he scratched at his beard, which seemed as full and coppery as his hair. “You know, they say that when my mom was four months along with him, she was struck by lightning. A normal baby still in the stomach might have called it quits and aborted right then. But not that stubborn little...”
“What’s his name?”
“Trouble and with good reason.”
“It’s hard to believe that you’re even related.”
“Pa worked pirating off planet. Trouble was the product of one of Ma’s many marital indiscretions. We got a sister somewhere, too. Pa was never much good with math, so he just figured that he was the proud father of two sons and a daughter. Ma swore us to secrecy years ago.” Bringing the bottle over to the couch, he filled her glass then topped off his, hissing, “Little son of a Sherber.”
“Yep. That’s where he gets all his wiriness from.”
“It doesn’t seem like you’re all that fond of him.”
“Good, cause I’m not.”
She ignored this. “Then again, things aren’t always what they seem.”
“Well, they are in this case.”
He grunted. He growled. He made a variety of noises that he always made during denial. “Okay. I’ll admit, time was when we were kids that a shadow for a younger brother had potential. But that potential never panned out. He’s been a rock in my shoe since the day he was born. Like that fiasco he pulled me into recently.”
“Oh yeah, that fiasco you were just about to tell me about.”
Sighing, he said, “Okay, first understand something. I’ve gone straight. Been clean for the past six years.”
“I knew that you would.”
She smiled. “Bear, you were remarkable at criminal skills, but there was one thing holding you back. That was your conscience. A person can’t mug someone then worry about how the victim will pay for dinner later that night.”
“I s’pose it don’t surprise you to learn that I was sheriff in Jeffers City.”
“Not really. You had to put that energy and talent to some use. Who better to handle criminals than someone like yourself?”Bear conceded this, taking another gulp of mox. “Well, it turns out that Trouble got a bit of
that conscience as well, only I didn’t know it at the time. He’d been making a name for himself
on Landrus, outdrawing slowpokes who never should have called him out in the first place. Hadn’t
seen him in eight years, which was fine by me. Like I said, he’s a problem. When I saw him riding
in that first day, I had a feeling he’d come looking to join me in the action I’d already given up.
Either that, or to try to convince me to dive back into my old ways. This time I made a promise to
myself that I wasn’t going to let him yank me into any of the trouble that traveled with him.”