Teyla is none too happy with the plan. Well, at least she’s none too happy she don’t get to go with us to Athos. And she makes that very clear as she stands with her arms crossed and watches as we hitch the horses to the wagon and prepare to leave at first light.
"We already talked about this," I remind her. "You confronting Acastus Kolya with a baby in your arms ain’t exactly the smartest thing a person can do."
"Son of a…" Ronon bites off the last of his curse and hops on one foot from where Sheppard dropped the wagon tongue on his foot.
John don’t even pay no mind to his friend seeing how he’s busy staring at me with an odd look on his face. "Did you say Acastus Kolya?"
"Yeah," I confirm in confusion.
"Oh, hell," he sighs with a shake of his head.
Rodney walks over to him still holding the reigns to both horses. "It’s not that Kolya is it?"
"Which Kolya?" Telya demands and is promptly ignored.
"How many Acastus Kolyas do you think there are in this world, Rodney?"
McKay waves an arm. "Well, hell, how many Acastuses do you think there are in the world for that matter?"
"I was hoping at least two," Sheppard grumps back.
Telya crosses the short distance to stand and stare up at John with her hands on her hips. "What do you know about Acastus Kolya?"
"He was a Union Colonel I ran up against back in Virginia. My unit came into a Confederate camp not long after his men had been through. There wasn’t a man left alive, including the injured in their field hospital. Half the Rebs didn’t even have guns and those that did barely had any ammunition left. One of Kolya’s men said he’d ordered them to kill them all, even the ones who surrendered."
"From what I’ve seen of him, I’d believe every word of it," I testify.
"And now we’ve got bigger problems than the fact he’s a murdering bastard," John sighs.
"You think he still remembers you?" Teyla asks. "Surely remembering one soldier out of so many is more than he can do."
"Yeah, but he’d remember the one who got him court-martialed and kicked out of the army on his ass," Rodney points out.
"Only after he tried to have me court-martialed first," Sheppard says in his own defense.
"After you punched him in the face," McKay returns, flapping his arms in the air like an ornery hen.
John pokes a finger in Rodney’s chest. "Wasn’t like he didn’t deserve it and a far sight worse."
"Hey, I just wish you’d gone ahead and shot him dead when you had the chance. That way we could just stay here and eat Charin’s apple cobbler instead of going into town to buy a wagon full of gun powder."
"Even without Acastus, Cowen is still a heap of trouble," Teyla reminds them. "If he had hired someone else I doubt we would be faring any better."
"Teyla’s right," Ronon grunts as he picks up the tongue again on his own. Sheppard finally sees that he’s been laying down on his job and helps him. "With or without Kolya they’ve still got a problem and we still need to fix it."
"That’s exactly what I plan to do," John tells us all, his jaw set even more stubborn than before.
When we finally have the team hitched to the wagon, Teyla takes my hand before I can climb up into the seat and squeezes with a silent warning to watch myself. I nod and take my seat, giving her a quick wink as I take up the reins.
"You boys take care," she says aloud when the other three mount up.
Ronon grins down at her. "Don’t we always?"
Teyla rolls her eyes heavenward in response before she stops Sheppard as he walks his horse past her. "John, now that this is personal between you and Acastus, try not to let it get the best of you."
John shakes his head. "This became personal the day he threatened you and yours, Teyla. The only thing that’s changed is that now I’ll know him by sight."
He don’t wait for an answer, just digs his heels into his horse’s flanks and takes off down the trail. Ronon and McKay follow at a canter and, with a final reassuring smile at Teyla, I whistle and snap the reins to get the cart a rolling along, too.
The summer storms were hard on the rutted trail that leads to Athos and we don’t hardly ever use no ways, so that it’s almost midday by the time we roll into town. There ain’t much to Athos, not compared to some of the big cities I saw back during the war. But it has all a farmer would need. There’s a saloon and gambling hall with a boarding house and stables behind, the stage coach office, the Methodist church, a bank, a smith and feed store combined, the general mercantile, a seamstress shop, and the barber and dentist’s shop, along with a few homes set behind the shops on the main street. At the end of the road sits the school house, and beside that the sheriff’s office and government building that houses the tax assessor and land claims offices.
Cowen tends to spend his days at the Gateway Saloon, and his men are never far. As we ride into Athos, the town folks stop to take a gander at us. Strangers are rare and make for entertainment if nothing else. I recognize a few, and even nod a greeting to Stephen Caldwell and his oldest boy who are loading sacks of feed onto their own flatbed cart.
"Where to?" Sheppard asks, eyes scanning the streets for any sign of Acastus.
"The mercantile is up ahead," I tell him, trying my darnedest to keep my eyes forward like the others I travel with when two of Cowen’s men come out the swinging doors of the saloon and watch us pass before heading back inside, no doubt to tell their boss what they done saw.
The only time Sheppard’s gaze strays from the path ahead of us is when we pass the barber shop and Acastus sits up from the chair, his face half white with foam, to see who is going past. John’s face remains stone still but his eyes never leave the window to the shop.
"Sheppard?" Rodney dares to mumble quietly as he rides beside John.
Sheppard finally turns his attention back to the main street. "Come on, let’s get your supplies."
It comes as no surprise that the shop keeper don’t want to sell me what I need when we reach the mercantile. He’s a nervous little man with fuzzy hair, glasses, and a thick accent, not to mention a last name I ain’t never been able to sound out properly. I have a feeling I ain’t the only one who has difficulties, which is why most people call him Radek.
Radek waves the piece of paper with the list of supplies McKay gave him under my nose. "Canaan, I have told you and told you I cannot take your business."
Sheppard take money from his pocket and lays it out on the counter. "He’s not the one buying; I am."
Radek looks from Sheppard to me and back again, his eyes wide behind his thin wire frames. "I am not so sure that would be acceptable either. Mr. Cowen has been very clear as to who I can or cannot trade with."
"Mr. Cowen isn’t here right now," Sheppard points out as he leans casually on the counter beside the money, pulling back his duster to reveal one of his guns. "But me and my money and my friends here are."
Ronon is using one of his knives to dig under his nails and Rodney is peering into the pickle barrel with a crinkle of his nose, but his hand rests casually on his own revolver.
Radek’s eyes widen even further and dart to look out the window of his shop. "Please. I am not wanting any trouble with you or your friends. But I will have much bigger trouble if I sell you what you ask."
"Oh, I don’t know," Sheppard drawls, "Ronon here is pretty big on his own. Wouldn’t you say so?"
Finishing up with his grooming Ronon twirls his knife and puts it away before he takes up a whetting stone from the table and sets to sharpening his tomahawk.
Radek swallows at the sight, and I can’t say as I blame him. "Please, you must understand, I cannot do this."
"Do what, Mr. Zelenka?"
We all turn to see Acastus as he walks into the shop with three of the men under his command behind him.
"Ah, Mr. Kolya, I was just trying to explain to these men that I would not be able to help them with their purchases today."
Kolya takes the list and reads it with a raised eyebrow. "That’s a heap of gun powder you’re looking to buy. Planning on doing a little mining?"
"Clearing some land for the spring planting," Sheppard explains in return.
"Is that a fact?" Acastus looks between Sheppard, who has straightened by the counter, to his money that still rests there, then he gives a small grin. "I don’t see what the problem is, Mr. Zelenka. It appears these men have plenty of money with them."
Radek is as confused by the permission as I am. "But, I was told… that is, Mr. Cowen has said… you yourself has said I am not…"
Acastus holds up a hand to quiet the stammering man. "He obviously has the funds necessary to purchase whatever he needs. Isn’t that right, Major Sheppard?"
The smile on Kolya’s face makes my skin crawl but Sheppard don’t pay it any mind. "I have the money."
"And it’s Lieutenant Colonel Sheppard," McKay corrects.
"Is that a fact?" Acastus looks around at the man who spoke to him before turning back to Sheppard. "I apparently owe you some belated congratulations."
"Actually, it’s just John Sheppard now. I’m no longer a member of the United States Cavalry."
"Then we have more in common than I ever thought possible," Kolya tells him, the smile never leaving his face.
Sheppard takes a step in closer to the other man and his voice is pure steel. "We have absolutely nothing in common."
Kolya spreads his arms wide and walks a circle through the store. "Oh, I don’t know. We both found ourselves here in Athos, didn’t we?" He stops and looks McKay up and down before turning back to John. "Mind telling me why you and your companions are here in our fine town?"
"Visiting family," Sheppard tells him simply.
"Family, is it?" An eyebrow rises at the comment and Acastus turns to look at me. "Is he your kin, Canaan?"
"Teyla’s," I say. "They’ve come to see the baby."
"Ah. So they’re all kin are they? I had no idea the Emmagans and Sheppards were relations." Acastus waves a hand at Ronon and Rodney and asks John, "And from which branch of the family tree do these fine gentlemen hail?"
"Ronon Dex and Rodney McKay," Sheppard introduces.
Kolya’s lips twitch in humor. "Cousins, no doubt."
"Our relation to Teyla and Canaan is none of your concern," John informs him. "And neither are our purchases from this store."
"Actually, it is my concern because Mr. Cowen holds the deed on this store and I speak for him in this town. And Canaan here hasn’t exactly been neighborly to Mr. Cowen lately."
Rodney snorts and Acastus turns on him instantly. "Do you find something funny?"
"I think it’s the other way round and Mr. Cowen is the one not being neighborly."
"It’s fairly simple, Mr. McKay…"
"Doctor," Rodney corrects. "It’s Dr. McKay."
Kolya seems plum surprised by the title. "A man of medicine then?"
"Not that kind of doctor," Sheppard tells him and Acastus seems even more amused.
"Forgive me, Dr. McKay. But seeing as you’re obviously a learned man, you should be able to understand that Mr. Cowen wishes to enter into a business arrangement with Miss Emmagan and seeing how she refuses to do that, it wouldn’t be beneficial to Mr. Cowen to allow them to trade in his place of business."
McKay crosses his arms and lifts his chin. "But burning down their barn is beneficial to Mr. Cowen?"
"I wouldn’t know anything about something as unfortunate as that," Acastus tells him.
"Of course you wouldn’t," Rodney snorts.
"McKay," Sheppard warns, but it’s too late.
"Are you saying I’m lying, Dr. McKay?" Acastus’s tone is as smooth and coiled as a rattle snake set to strike.
"If the murderous spurs fit…" Rodney tells him and ends up with a gun in his chest.
At least half a dozen more make an appearance as a result, including my own rifle, and the shop keeper disappears behind the counter.
Kolya don’t pay them any mind, instead he asks McKay, "Are you calling me out?"
"No, no, I’m not doing that at all," Rodney tells him, all his bravado gone as he nervously eyes the gun pointed at him.
Sheppard keeps one gun on one of Cowen’s men at the door and places his second a hair’s breadth from Acastus’s head. "You looking to die today, Kolya? ‘Cause I’ll be mighty happy to oblige you unless you put that gun away."
Kolya doesn’t move to lower his gun, just warns quietly, "This is just like you, Sheppard. Sticking your nose in where it’s none of your concern."
John pulls back the hammer on the revolver that Rodney made him. "Trust me, you threatening to kill McKay is my concern."
"A man don’t insult me and live to tell it," Acastus tells him.
"You’re an insult to yourself, Kolya. You’re a spineless, no count coward who murders sick and unarmed men and attacks farmers in the night." When Kolya turns and snarls at Sheppard, John just smiles. "And I am calling you out."
* * * *
In the dime novels, shootouts always take place at high noon. There’s always a clock tower what chimes and the townspeople scatter and the dogs tuck their tails and hide under the wagons as the hero and villain step out on the dirt street to face one another down. In real life, it apparently don’t happen that way because it ain’t even a quarter after eleven and neither Sheppard or Acastus seems to want to wait until full on noon. Besides, there ain’t no clock tower in Athos no how, so it don’t really matter.
I don’t see no dogs neither, but the townsfolk do skedaddle away inside their shops and homes as the two men walk out onto the street.
"You don’t have to do this," McKay is telling Sheppard as he steps down from the storefront.
"Yeah, I kind of do have to do this," John says back.
"But I was the one who insulted him first. You wouldn’t have had to do this is not for me."
Sheppard checks his gun and shrugs. "It was coming to this as soon as I heard he was here in town. No sense blaming yourself."
"It wouldn’t have come to this if I had just called him out like he tried to get me to do. I mean, I could do this just as well as you." John looks at McKay like he’s gone absolutely crazy to suggest such a thing. "Yeah, okay, so maybe I couldn’t but that doesn’t mean you have to go out and get your ass shot because of me."
"I think Kolya would beg to differ with you, McKay."
"It’s just… he’s fast." There ain’t no lie in what McKay has to say. That gun Kolya pulled was pointed at Rodney’s heart in a blink of an eye.
"That may be, but, so am I," John tells him confidently, pulling his duster back to hook behind his belt. "You need to clear out, Rodney."
Acastus is doing something similar with his coat at the other end of the street and Rodney backs off to join us back on the steps to the shop with a worried frown.
Ronon is looking up one side of the street and down the other. "Where did he go?"
"Who?" I ask the large man as I scan for the unknown person myself.
"Kolya’s other man. He had three in the shop but I only see two now."
"Maybe to go tell Cowen," Rodney suggests but I just shake my head no.
"That there’s Cowen over across the way in the green vest."
"Then where…" McKay starts before he grabs Ronon’s arm and points above the saloon. "There! He’s up there with a gun."
I can just make out the hint of rifle pointing out from behind the woodwork on the roof. "Kolya’s cheating," I declare.
"Can you hit him?" Rodney asks of Ronon who is already pointing his own gun toward the roof.
"I can’t get a clear shot," Ronon tells us before darting down the walkway toward the building to get a better view of the hidden gunman.
Rodney watches him go then looks back out on the street where the men are about to draw their guns. "Oh, hell, he’s never going to make it in time."
Before I can even ask him what he plans to do, Rodney strides out purposefully into the street and right up to Sheppard.
But that’s all Sheppard manages to say before McKay rears back and punches him in the jaw. And that’s when the gunshot cracks the air.
It takes that sound of the gun for me to look away from Sheppard and McKay both on the ground to where Acastus stands, his hand still on his gun in his holster. Another shot has Kolya ducking low and I realize that one came from Ronon, and the man on the roof, the man who apparently shot the first time, falls to the street in front of the Gateway Saloon. Now Kolya has his gun out and shooting at Ronon who dives behind a barrel. Then John is firing, trying to push himself up to his knees from the ground, so the shot goes wide, and Acastus scurries across the way and into the saloon, firing as he runs.
That’s when all hell breaks loose as Cowen’s men are shooting at us and I join in and start shooting at them. Ronon is still hunkered down behind that barrel, Sheppard ain’t getting up from where he sits in the street and Rodney ain’t moving at all.
I’ve seen battle. After seven years of war ripping a scar down the middle of the country and those same generals trying to stitch it up again the same way, there ain’t many men alive these days who ain’t seen their fair share. This ain’t exactly the same as shooting at an entire regiment across a Virginia hay field but gun play is gun play, and when a man shoots at you, you’d best shoot back if you plan to still be drawing breath at the end of the day. If the man next to you goes down, you have a choice; you can write him off and hope God watches over the souls of fallen soldiers or you can do your damndest to cover you and him both. A lot of times that choice comes down to deciding what that man would do if the tables was turned. Sheppard has already made that choice given the way he’s staying put by Rodney’s side, and now it’s time I made mine. The thing is, the day they delivered me to Teyla’s doorstep, that decision was made for me. So I lower my rifle and pull my revolver and go out and try to cover them as best I can.
"McKay!" John is yelling even as he shoots. "Rodney, you best fucking answer me else I’ll shoot you myself!"
The only answer he gets is a groan but even that seems to be a relief to us both. I keep my attention on the men trying their damnedest to shoot us dead, hitting one behind a wagon across the street. Ronon is working his way down toward us as I fire back at one of Cowen’s men who’s broke out a window in the barber shop. Behind me, Sheppard’s managed to get McKay on his feet and is dragging him back toward the mercantile.
We bust through the door, me and Ronon still firing out into the street as Sheppard checks over Rodney. "Oh, Christ." I glance back to see a spreading red patch across McKay’s shirt. "What in the hell came over you to do a fool headed stunt like that, McKay?"
"Man on the roof," McKay tries to explain, breathing hard and nearly dropping to his knees as John presses a bandanna against the wound in Rodney’s shoulder. "There’s a man…"
Sheppard catches him before he goes down and takes Rodney’s own hand to press into the makeshift bandage. "Well, he’s not there no more."
McKay seems to take notice of the blood coming out of him for the first time. "Hey, I’m bleeding." His words slur and that arrogant chin dips to his chest.
Grabbing Rodney’s coat by the lapels, John give him a sharp shake. "It’s nothing. You hear me, McKay. Nothing. So stop your bellyaching. Got it?"
McKay shakes his head hard to try to clear it. "Got it."
But he slumps against John so that Sheppard wraps Rodney’s arm around his shoulder in an attempt to keep him on his feet even as he reloads his own guns. "Canaan, we need a doctor. Is there one in this town?"
"I’ve heard tell there is but we ain’t never had no use for one."
I’m hunkered down doing my own reloading as I tell him this, sliding further when a table full of china explodes above my head from a gunshot. From behind the counter I can hear what can only be cursing in a foreign tongue.
Sheppard peers over the counter with his gun out in front of him. "Where’s the doctor?"
Radek’s voice is muffled as he frantically tells him, "Two houses down, one street over, if you go out back door to store."
"Much obliged." John actually tips his hat before calling back, "Ronon, Canaan, time to go."
I move as fast as my limp will let me toward the back of the shop. Only slowing when Radek asks from where he’s hunched on the floor, "Is Mr. Kolya dead?"
"Not the last I saw." Radek’s face shows the same disappointment as my voice. "But it weren’t from lack of trying."
He nods in understanding before apologizing. "Canaan, I am sorry. It is just Cowen holds my deed and this store… it is all…"
"We plan to put a stop to it all."
He nods again. "Good luck."
"Canaan, let’s go!"
At Ronon’s order, I hobble after them, through the store room, and out into the alleyway. I take the lead, looking out for any of Cowen’s men. With us not firing back, they are sure to know we ain’t there no more, and sure enough it ain’t long before we hear them coming behind us. Ronon’s covering our tails and he pauses to hitch his head ahead of us. "Go on, I’ll catch up."
I look back to see him vanish into the shadows of the livery. Sheppard doesn’t even look back, only catches McKay when the hurt man trips over his own feet. "Stay on your feet, soldier. This is no time for lazing about."
"Not a soldier," McKay mumbles.
"Oh, so now you decide to remember that," John grumbles as he tightens his hold on the staggering man to steady him. "Couldn’t do it when the gunplay was about to start, though, could you?"
I can hear gunshots behind us and look back at Sheppard at the sound, because that can only mean Ronon’s been discovered.
"He can take care of himself," John tells me with no room to argue, but I can’t shake the notion he’s saying it as much for hisself as me. "Right now we need to get to that doctor."
Peering carefully around the corner of the building, I see the shingle up ahead of us hanging from the eaves on a neat, white house surrounded by a picket fence. But I also see one of Cowen’s men coming on horseback down the street. Sheppard’s hand on my shoulder stills me from shooting.
"Let him pass," he whispers, leaning back against the building and taking Rodney with him, letting the shadows hide us. "We shoot and it will just draw them to us."
I nod and remain silent, but McKay mumbles against Sheppard’s shoulder. "John?"
"Right here, Rodney," he promises.
"Arm hurts." Rodney sounds almost confused by the notion.
"I know, but you need to keep quiet."
"Patrols?" Rodney’s eyes are more closed than open and his head flops like a half-stuffed rag doll, and I reckon he’s back in that night where Sheppard was the one shot up and they was trying to get back to friendly territory.
"Yeah," John hisses as he hoists the injured man up once more. "Now hush up."
McKay does as he’s told and I watch close as the rider passes our position without seeing us, but we wait for him to leave the street entirely before we cross over to the doctor’s place. Ronon joins us again before we do, wiping blood from his blade before putting it away.
"You okay?" Sheppard asks, relieved to see his friend returned.
"I’ll feel better as soon as we see a doctor to get this bullet out of him," John tells him.
Ronon’s face is grim and determined. "Then let’s get him in there."
I signal the all clear and we cross the street to the pretty little house with the stone walk leading to the porch. We don’t bother with knocking, simply open the door and step inside to a nicely furnished house. The first doctor who ever treated me in my life was Doc Beckett. Home cures work just as well as most tonics a doctor can whip up and it just seems a waste of hard earned money or the couple of hens in trade to pay for one. But I can say honest and true that if not for Carson Beckett my bones would be rotting in an unmarked grave in that hellhole prison camp.
Beckett was from Scotland, a land of green grasses and rolling hills a lot like my own home in Tennessee. But there weren’t no green when I first set eyes on him. Instead it was red… on his hands, on the table the man he was working on lay, on the strap of leather he gave the man to bite and on the saw he held as the man screamed while the Doc took his mangled arm. Even the bucket of water they poured across the wooden slab before they set me up there couldn’t clear away all that blood and it sure in hell didn’t touch the red that was soaking my pants to the point the blue wool was black.
"Please," I’d begged, "don’t take my leg." All I could think was that someday the war would end and when it did how was I supposed to walk out of this prison camp with just one leg.
He cut away the soaked cloth and shook his head. "Lad, I’m afraid even removing it might not save you."
I swallowed down bile, thick and bitter. I couldn’t say if it was caused by the smell of coppery death that hung heavy in the air or the fear of the same. But if I was honest, death couldn’t be much worse than what I’d already seen on the battlefield. "Then, at least put me in the hole in one piece."
"I’ll sew you up as best I can," he promised. "The rest is up to you and the good Lord."
But he did more than just stitch me up. He cleaned my leg, made sure I ate, read to me… everything from the Good Book to tales from an ancient people who lived on the other side of the world in Greece. He talked to me about his home both across the ocean and the one he’d come to love in Augusta, Georgia. He told me about the beauty that had been Atlanta and said it might as well be Atlantis now seeing as it was gone forever; excepting that great city had been lost beneath Sherman’s flames and not the ocean’s waves. He talked about how he’d been conscripted by the Confederacy before he could enlist for the north and found himself treating Union soldiers, as much a prisoner as the men he cared for. He talked about his mother’s kitchen garden and the tomatoes she grew there and the peach cobbler she made and how he missed helping her weed and turn the soil because he found some of the best night crawlers in that black dirt for fishing.
Rodney would come by the hospital at night and play chess with Carson or to visit Sheppard when he was in there after a beating by the guards. That’s how I come to know them and how I come to find Teyla and how I am finally fighting for a piece of land that is mine after being forced to fight for years for land I’d never laid eyes on.
The last time I saw Doc Beckett was when Ronon cut through the wires and came in looking for Sheppard and McKay. Rodney came to try to convince Carson to go with them but he refused to leave, claiming he was all those injured men had to hold off the Reaper. But I was doing poorly and the weather was turning colder and Beckett knew there was no way I would see spring if I stayed in that camp. So they took me and left the Doc.
His parting words to me were, "You’re a strong lad, Canaan. Stronger than you know, stronger than your name. You remember that and you’ll come through this just fine."
I’ve thought about him a lot over the years, wondered if he came through as fine as I have. Wondered if he found his way back to Augusta to help his mother with her vegetable patch. Wondered if he was sitting right now on the banks of the river fishing with those big fat worms he dug up. Wondered if was able to forget about that red world and go back to one that was green and fresh and smelled of dark earth instead of copper pennies.
The doctor’s house in Athos don’t smell like neither. It smells like cornbread baking for the noontime meal.
"Hello?" Sheppard calls. "We need to see the doctor."
A young woman dressed in a light blue dress, her light brown hair up in a neat bun, comes down the stairs and looks at us in surprise. But that surprise turns to worry when she sees McKay. "What happened?"
"He’s been shot," John tells her. "Bleeding pretty bad, so if you could just go fetch the doctor, I’d be much obliged."
She don’t have time to answer because I’m calling out a warning, "Sheppard," when I see Kolya and some of his men, along with Cowen and the sheriff heading our way.
"Goddammit," John snaps when he sees them coming, too. "We can’t stay here."
"This man needs medical attention right now," the woman argues when Sheppard starts toward the back of the house.
"Ma’am, I’m not going to argue that point with you, but those men out there aim to kill us. So the doc patching him up won’t do us a hell of a lot of good if he’s just shot dead a few minutes later."
"But the sheriff is with them," she tells us. When it’s obvious we don’t hold much credence in her reasoning, she grabs John’s arm. "Wait, please. Let me see what I can do."
"Sheppard!" Acastus calls from the street. "We know you’re in there. Come on out."
John yells back, "So you can have one of your men shoot me for you since you can’t seem to do that for yourself? Or maybe you want a shot at another person who wasn’t even in the fight?"
Kolya ain’t none too happy with that. "Sheppard! You show yourself!"
"If we walk out that door, they will kill us," Sheppard tells the woman, and it’s the God’s honest truth.
"Then I’ll walk out there for you. Just don’t go."
She don’t wait on an answer, just opens the door and strolls on out pretty as you please. The men outside lower their guns when Cowen raises his hands and speaks. "Jennifer, you come on out here with us before you get yourself hurt."
"There’s already a hurt man inside and I intend to help him. But I can’t do that with your men threatening them."
Acastus shakes his head. "This is none of your concern, little lady. Now step aside so we can bring them out."
"It became my concern when an injured man showed up on my doorstep. I took an oath as a physician to treat those who need my help, and I intend to keep that oath."
Ronon seems as surprised by the news as I am. "She’s the doctor?"
I shrug. "I ain’t never heard of a lady doctor before."
"I don’t care if she’s a house cat with a stethoscope," John says. "If she can help McKay, I’ll take that help."
Kolya is getting right agitated and calls into the house again. "Is this how yellow you are, Sheppard? You won’t show your face; you’re hiding behind a girl instead?"
The woman doctor crosses her arms. "I am not a girl, Mr. Kolya. I am a well educated woman…"
Sheppard ignores the rant taking place on the front porch. "I suppose placing a man on the roof of the saloon with a gun to shoot me first is fighting fair in your book."
The sheriff looks to Cowen and hitches his shoulders. "He does make a point, Mr. Cowen. And the whole town saw it. How am I suppose to explain dragging these men out of here after that?"
Acastus grabs the sheriff by the shirt front and looks ready to strangle him where he stands. Cowen barks a sharp, "Acastus! Enough."
"But he called me…"
"He spoke the truth," Cowen cuts him off. "And if you’re going to fight dirty, you should at least have the decency to finish the job at the time and not drag it to the front porch of an upstanding citizen of Athos." Cowen tips his hat. "Ma’am, if you’ll excuse the interruption, we’ll be leaving now."
Kolya glares up at the house before doing what his boss man tells him to do. When they’re all gone, the woman comes back inside and we can all see that she was more frazzled by the confrontation that she would be willing to admit. "Come on, bring him back here."
"Thank you," Sheppard tells her in all sincerity, following along behind her. "But that won’t be the last of them."
"Then it would be best to have me examine him before they return."
Ronon still seems to be having trouble accepting that she’s what she says she is. "Are you really a doctor?"
"Of course I’m really a doctor," she tells him in a huff, pointing Sheppard to the medical table in the back room as she sets to washing her hands.
"I’ve never met a lady doctor," Ronon states, as if that will stop all this nonsense.
That just seems to annoy her and she points to a piece of paper on the wall covered in curly script. "That right there is my diploma from the Female Medical College of Pennsylvania and that is my name, Jennifer Keller. And after school I worked in Boston for two years…"
Jennifer continues to give her background to Ronon while gathering her tools, stopping now and then to place her hands on her hips or waggle a finger under his nose, and I’m suddenly hit with a feeling of homesick for Teyla. Meanwhile, Sheppard is getting Rodney settled on the table, pulling back the blood-soaked bandanna to see the wound is still flowing red.
McKay looks up at him, studying the way John’s face twists at what he sees. "It’s bad, isn’t it?"
"Not that bad." John tries for a smile even as he presses down on the gunshot again.
Rodney sucks in a harsh breath and tries to laugh. "You never could lie worth a damn."
"Better than you ever could." This time the smile is a little more genuine. But it don’t last long. McKay’s skin is slick with sweat and his breath catches when Sheppard presses down harder. "Sorry."
Rodney ignores the apology, only looks up into his friends face as if trying to figure out how to say something he don’t really want to say. "John…"
And Sheppard don’t seem much inclined to hear it. "You’re going to be fine, Rodney. We’ve got a doctor and everything is going to be fine."
Dr. Keller is continuing to give Ronon an education of his own. "And then I was allowed to observe two surgeries at Blockley Hospital in Philadelphia, the first woman in the hospital’s history to be given access…"
John grabs her by the arm and drags her toward McKay. "Did you happen to learn how to dig a slug out of a man?"
"What? Of course, I did."
"Then let’s see how well you learned it."
Keller begins unbuttoning McKay’s shirt and he seems to be struggling to focus on her. "Normally, I at least know a woman’s name before she starts undressing me."
"Dr. Jennifer Keller," she introduces with a small smile.
"Dr. Rodney McKay," he tells her in return.
"You’re a physician too?" she asks, peeling the blood soaked cloth away from the wound.
"He’s not that kind of doctor," Sheppard points out, arms crossed as he watches closely as Keller studies the wound.
"Why do you have the need to point that out to everyone we meet?" Rodney demands.
John shrugs. "Well, for one thing, it’s the truth."
"For another it pisses me the hell off."
Sheppard just grins at the confession. "That too."
"Yes, but be that as it may, you don’t have to make a point of telling everyoohhhhh!" McKay cries out when the lady doctor pokes at his shoulder.
"It’s deep," she tells them with a sigh. "It’s not going to be easy to get out."
"Oh, Jesus," Rodney moans at the news. "Can we just let it stay where it is?"
"If you want to lose your arm to gangrene we can," Keller snorts.
"Oh, Jesus," Rodney repeats before pleading, "Sheppard?"
"She’s taking it out, Rodney." John won’t stand for no argument. "Maybe next time you won’t be so quick to jump in front of a gun."
"I saved your life!"
"And now I’m saving yours… with the help of the doctor here."
Sheppard’s inclusion of the doctor in the life saving has her looking heavenward before wiping the blood on her hands on her apron front. "I’ll be right back."
McKay is breathing heavy, eyes a little wild, the dread of what is to come writ all over his face. "I’ve already been shot; removing the bullet should be easy. Right?"
John don’t answer directly, just places a hand on McKay’s other shoulder. "This is the best thing for you. You know that."
"You’ve… you’ve had a bullet removed before, haven’t you. I mean, of course you have. I was there when Carson did it." He gives a rough laugh. "I never thought I’d be wishing Carson was here so he could cut me open."
"Rodney, you’re going to be fine." John tries again. "You hear? She’s a doctor; says so right on there on the wall."
Ronon grumbles from where he stands keeping an eye out the window. "I’ve never seen a lady doctor before."
"You have now," Sheppard snaps at him with a frown before turning back to McKay. "And she’s going to get the slug out of you and you’re going to be right as rain."
But Rodney’s panic just seems to grow as he grabs Sheppard’s arm. "What the fuck is right about rain? It’s cold and wet and shit, Sheppard, that woman is going to cut into me. Cut into me!"
John is trying to pry McKay’s hand off his arm where it’s clamped down like a steel trap. "Rodney, you need to calm down."
"Calm down? Calm down? That’s easy for you to do seeing as you aren’t about to have someone dig a piece of lead out of you!"
"Rodney…" That’s about as far as Sheppard gets before McKay starts up again.
"John, you can’t let her do this! You have to get me out of here! You’re my friend, my best goddamn friend. You can’t let her cut into me! You can’t! You have to…"
The hysterics stops abruptly when Sheppard lands a swift punch on Rodney’s jaw at the same time Dr. Keller walks back in the room. "Why in the world would you do that?" she demands.
John flexes his hand as he stares down on his friend on the table who was now out cold. "Just returning the favor."
"McKay was in a panic," Ronon tries to explain when Sheppard’s reasoning don’t remove the shocked look on the woman’s face. "He did what he had to do so you can work on McKay."
The doctor holds up a bottle and cloth. "I have an anesthetic that would have rendered him unconscious for the entire procedure."
"Oh…. Best not tell him that when he wakes up." When she shakes her head in disbelief, Sheppard waves a hand toward Rodney. "Go on and set to work. The sooner you get him patched up, the sooner we can get out of here."
Keller shakes her head at the suggestion. "He’s not going anywhere anytime soon."
And with that, my own panic grows. "Sheppard, Teyla and Torren…"
He stops me before I can say more. "I know, Canaan. But Cowen’s not stupid; he won’t let Acastus run off and hurt a woman and baby as long as we’re here in town."
"Besides, they’ll be busy setting up an ambush for us," Ronon tells me with a pat to my shoulder. "We’re not going anywhere until after dark."
"I’m not waiting until nightfall." I pick up my gun and head for the door. "My family needs me now."
Ronon grabs my arm. "You won’t do nobody any good if you’re dead. How long do you think Teyla can stand against a man like Cowen on her own?"
"She’s on her own against him now," I remind him and he don’t answer back, just stares at me with hard dark eyes until I jerk out of his grip. "I knew you three was more trouble than help. But Teyla trusted you to make this right and now you’re leaving her all alone out there with nothing but an old farm hand and granny to help protect what is ours."
Sheppard crosses from where he stands watching the doctor work. "I don’t aim to let her down, but I also don’t aim to leave here when all we’ll do is end up dead before we hit the outskirts of town, and I sure the hell don’t aim to leave here without McKay."
"Canaan," Ronon tries again, "we don’t even have horses. Do you plan to walk all the way back to the farm?"
Damn him to hell, but Ronon’s right. Sheppard may be right, too, but I ain’t exactly ready to admit that just yet. Instead I grip my rifle a little tighter and start up the stairs. "I’ll keep watch from a window up yonder, but as soon as it’s dark, we fetch our horses back and ride."
I don’t look back but I hear Ronon say, "Let him be," so I figure Sheppard was planning on coming after me.
From the top of the stairs I hear the lady doctors say, "I could use some help here."
"Go on," Ronon coaxes. "I’ll keep an eye on Canaan."
"Don’t let him do anything foolish or Teyla will tan all our hides," Sheppard warns.
The thought has my lips twitching in humor, because, it’s true, Teyla can be a frightful woman when she sets her mind to it. But she is just one woman and Cowen has dozens of men and, even with the four of us, the odds are stacked hard against us.
And I have plenty of time to ponder that truth as I sit in one of the upstairs bedrooms and watch out the window for any sign of Acastus or the men under his command.
The sun is already starting to lower on the horizon when Ronon comes into the room. "There’s vittles downstairs if you want some."
"I ain’t exactly hungry," I tell him.
"I didn’t ask if you was hungry, I just said there’s food."
I understand what he’s saying… there’s food, you should eat, because we don’t know when we’ll get the chance again.
"How’s McKay doing?" I ask to avoid talking about food anymore.
"Resting. That lady doctor got the bullet out and sewed him up quick as you please."
"Will he be ready to ride by the time it’s nightfall?"
"He’ll ride," Ronon guarantees. "Sheppard will make sure of it." When I nod, he tilts his head toward the door. "Go eat. She’s a pretty good cook on top of her doctoring."
I decide that maybe he’s right and I should eat a bite before we ride for home, so I make my way downstairs. As I pass by the room where Dr. Keller patched up Rodney, I hear him talking to Sheppard.
"’Member that mine we worked back a year ago?" Rodney’s voice sounds like he’s half asleep.
Sheppard answers quietly, as if he’s waiting for McKay to fall the rest of the way into slumber. "I remember you nearly blowing half the mountainside away trying to get me and those miners out of that cave-in."
"You shouldn’t a’ been in there. Were supposed to be security… not a miner."
"They needed a strong back more than a straight shot that day," John defends.
"That’s your problem; always wanting to help." Rodney snorts at the thought. "Gonna’ get me killed one of these days saving your helpful ass."
"I’ve never asked you to risk your neck to save mine, Rodney. As a matter of fact, I’d be much obliged if you cut it the hell out."
"Then you do the same," Rodney orders.
"Not until we even things up."
"When will that be?"
John gives a little chuckle. "Honestly, I’ve lost count."
A small hand lands on my shoulder and I turn to see Dr. Keller has caught me in my eavesdropping. "Why don’t you come eat something?"
I follow her into the kitchen and she starts filling me a plate, so I sit at the table with the lacy cloth over it and delicate blue and white salt cellar and matching candle-stick holders in the center of the table. "Is McKay going to be alright?"
"He lost a great deal of blood, and the bullet was lodged pretty deep, but he should be fine if we watch over him and keep the fever away." She sets a plate with pork roast, fried apples, late season collard greens, and cornbread in front of me. "I gave him some morphine for the pain to help him rest, which is what he needs most now."
"Thank you for your help," I tell her around a mouthful of collards before grabbing the vinegar and seasoning the remaining greens on my plate.
She sits across from me and folds her hands in her lap. "Sorry, I’m a better doctor than a cook."
"No, no, these are plenty tasty." I assure her as I swallow some pork. "And what you did for McKay, standing up to Cowen like that, that’s not exactly something a doctor would normally do."
"I’ve stood up against repression for a long time now else I never would have become a doctor." She gives me a sweet smile before going on. "I haven’t been here in Athos long, but I can see what Mr. Cowen is doing isn’t right. And I’m glad someone is finally taking a stand against him."
I duck my head and turn back to sopping up the pot liquor from the collards with my cornbread. "It weren’t my choice, to be sure."
"You’re worried about your wife and child, aren’t you?"
"Kindly hard not to be," I admit.
"Surely Mr. Sheppard is right and they wouldn’t go after an unarmed woman with a baby."
"The good Lord willing, you’re right." But my sigh let’s her know I’m not exactly convinced.
Sheppard walks into the kitchen and clears his throat. "Pardon me, Miss…Doctor…"
The woman smiles at his blunder. "Maybe you should just call me Jennifer."
"Jennifer, McKay’s complaining about his shoulder hurting him, and, while he’s known to carry on about these sorts of things more than most, I was wondering if you could…"
"Of course, I’ll check on him right now." She stands, tells me there’s pie in the cupboard, and follows after Sheppard.
I finish my meal, skip the pie, and return to my sentry duty until the sun sets and beyond, wondering when the hell we plan to hightail it out of Athos and head for home.
* * * *
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