Breakfast begins peaceful.
It begins peaceful and sociable, with coffee and eggs. Ends in a mess, half of them scouring town for a missing person and Nathan sitting all alone.
The eggs are just right. Hit the spot perfectly, bring the promise of a good day. Nathan's satisfied, not thinking of anything more taxing than several more cups of coffee. That's when he notices that Buck's tipped his chair on to its back legs, is staring out of the window with his mouth open.
"Buck?" JD's noticed too.
"Lynch party headin' our way," Buck murmurs, then rocks his chair back on solid ground. He turns to them, grinning. Josiah peers over the top of the batwings, elaborates.
"Chris and Vin," he says. "And a box."
Josiah frowns. "A box," he confirms. "Yes, definitely a box."
In a moment more comes the sound of clumping footsteps. Chris holds open one batwing and a box enters sideways, Vin underneath. The burden is carried in, dumped noisily on another table. It's not too heavy by the look of it, a small, roughly-made pine crate with stamps all over it.
"Delivery for Mr. Nathan Jackson," Vin announces, regarding the slivers of wood sticking into his hand. "There a Mr. Nathan Jackson around here?"
"Are you sure?"
"That's what it says." Chris slaps a hand on top of the box. "Come all the way from Chicago with your name on it."
Nathan lays down his cup and rises slowly to his feet. He knows it's not herbs. Doesn't trust anyone to send him the right ones.
"Here," JD says helpfully and hands him a fork.
There seems to be no mistake. His name is emblazoned on both sides and the top all right. After a few seconds' hesitation, Nathan takes a deep breath and sticks the fork into a gap under the lid of the crate. There's a satisfying, splintering sound and the fork bends. The lid lifts and Nathan peers in.
There are layers of balled-up newspaper.
"It alive?" Buck questions.
Nathan prizes off the lid, tack by tack. Impatient JD plucks it from his hands and drops it under the table with a clatter.
Under the first layer of newspaper there is a book and an envelope. Nathan becomes aware that he's being watched intently. Buck's mouth is hanging open once again and Josiah is frozen in place, coffee cup suspended on one finger. Vin and Chris slouch nearby, elbows touching. All of them seem fascinated, won't be going anyplace until they know what's been delivered.
Extracting a single sheet from the envelope, Nathan clears his throat and reads aloud.
"Enclosed the item we discussed. I hope the book will be instructional. Please consider this a gift and a motivation. Awaiting your return with hope, I remain yours very sincerely, Dr. Erich S. Freiber, M.D."
"A gift?" JD says, impressed. "He must think a lot of you."
"I don't know about that," Nathan replies. He pulls the book from the newspaper, half revealing a rectangular object lying beneath. The volume is laid on the table and flipped open. The others glance at it and then away. Complicated illustrations, tiny, tiny text. They're more interested in the real contents of the box.
Nathan feels his heart bumping in suspense.
It's a black leather case, about the size of a tea-tray, six inches deep and sealed with a small silver clasp. Nathan picks it up, holds it against his arm and wipes sawdust from the top surface.
Vin and Chris look at one another.
There seems something precious about it, that's all they know.
In expectant silence, they watch him place it on the table next to the open book, shifting the plates and cups out of the way. He looks up for a second, gives Josiah a nervous smile. Then he unfastens the clasp and opens it.
Everyone leans forward.
"Hooo-wee," JD breathes. "What in the tarnation ...?"
It's a box of candies, of toys.
"Lord," Nathan breathes in reverence.
There are about fifteen objects of different sizes nestled into a plush red velvet interior. Each lies snugly in a bed just the right size and shape. They are all pristine, fashioned from shiny metal, some with polished bone handles. A couple look like long bullets, others seem like miniatures. There are scissors that aren't quite scissors. Neat little scythes and clippers, tools that look like they'd be useful in cabinet-making.
"You takin' up a new hobby, brother?" Josiah asks in amusement.
"Trephines," Nathan says in excitement, pointing. "A Hey saw ... these are spreaders." He glances at the book on the table, fitting the items to their corresponding ink drawing, squinting at the tiny letters, the unfamiliar names.
"What the hell?" Buck puts a hand on the large tool in the center. It looks like something you'd fix to the edge of a carpentry bench. If you were a master craftsman.
"A brace." Nathan's pleased. "For trepanning."
Trepanning sounds like it's something to do with gold-mining, JD decides.
"Jesus God," Chris says. "This ain't for nothin' good."
He moves closer, picks out a neat instrument that looks like a corkscrew, holds it up so they can all see. Slides his eyes to Nathan, who seems abashed.
"It's special," Nathan says. "Goes into skulls."
Buck shakes his head. "No, not fallin' for it."
Nathan takes the instrument from Chris, presses the end against the back of his hand, makes a gentle grinding motion.
His eyes are shining. "Fer makin' holes in bone," he says. "Neat holes you can work with."
Buck looks back into the box. He's turned a little pale. "All of this?" he asks in a dry voice. "For cuttin' into heads?"
Trepanning doesn't sound so interesting anymore. And the implements don't look beautiful and intriguing. They don't look like candies or toys. Saws and spreaders and braces. They look like instruments of torture.
"Excuse me, gentlemen," says a voice and Buck freezes, raises horrified eyes to Vin. "What is causing so much fascination heah? If I could just ..."
Un-noticed, Ezra has come downstairs. He's evidently wondering if there is something particularly enthralling about breakfast this morning. Worming his way speedily through the group, he looks down at the open case and book on the table, interest lighting his face and then puzzlement.
"Ezra," Nathan says at once.
Ezra just stares. He licks his lips, takes in the diagrams, the title of the book, brain working fast as ever. His eyes return to the contents of the case and then flick to Nathan with a flash of pain.
"Now look," Chris says hastily, "There's nothin' funny goin' on here, Ezra. Nathan's just uh ... borrowin' these to look at, there's nothin' here that's anythin' to do with you."
The color is draining slow and steady from Ezra's face.
"I saw these," he says. "In that charmless German lunatic's office. H-he had great ca-cabinets full of them. I know exactly what these are."
"They're beautiful scientific instruments," Nathan says stoutly. "Handcrafted. Could save lives."
"Never." Ezra's voice is fainter than they care to hear, already falling into the uneven stutter that denotes impending crisis. "I'm telling you. I will n-never submit to it. You will have to incapacitate me to the p-point of death before any of this will evah be used on m-me."
"For God's sake!" Nathan bursts out in disgust. "I can't use any of it on you, Ezra, even if I wanted to, because I'm not skilled, am I? I'm not trained. It's just to look at, like Chris said. What? You think I'm about to lay you out on the table and start boring a hole in ya head just for the hell of it?"
"Why don't you put it away now?" Vin puts in quietly. "And, pard, why don't you park ya butt?"
Josiah has produced a bottle of whiskey and a shot glass. Someone has shut the lid of the case with a thump.
"Sit down," Larabee orders.
Ezra backs away, shaking his head.
"Aw, come on now, hoss ..." Buck begins but Ezra dodges the outstretched arm and disappears out the batwings at a stumble, leaving them flapping forlornly in his wake.
There's a uncomfortable silence. A hurt and angry Ezra spraying consonants around like grapeshot does not herald a good start to the day. Nobody seems to feel like finishing their eggs.
Vin scratches the back of his neck.
"And it's really just ta look at? You ain't actually thinkin' ..."
Nathan scowls at him. "If I was going to pick a field," he says testily, "I don't think it'd be one in which nine outa ten patients die under the knife."
"Hmmm." Buck's thoughtful. "He ain't gunna be turnin' his back on you for a while."
Nathan looks at the letter. "Well Freiber can't wait to get his hands on him. Still inviting us ta come back."
"Ezra's doin' all right," Chris says sturdily.
"He don' trust any of us far as he c'n throw us." Vin makes a meaningful face at Nathan. "And I know just what he's thinkin' too." The others look at him in ill-disguised scepticism but Vin carries on regardless. "He's figurin' the next time he takes a fall, you're gunna have at him with those things. Knowin' him he probably thinks we're all in cahoots, that we're gunna jump him when he ain't lookin'. I'd send 'em right on back if I were you, Nathan. Iffen you ain't gunna use 'em."
"I'm not sendin' 'em back! They're a gift. And they ... well, they could come in useful." Nathan pauses doubtfully. "You never know."
Vin shakes his head. "Shit," he says. "I'm not damn well turnin' my back on you either."
"You aren't thinking, brother Nathan, that you can maybe teach yourself?" Josiah motions at the book.
Nathan finds that they're all looking at him closely and he can't quite work out what they're thinking. Whether they're appalled at the idea, or impressed, or just plain clutching at straws.
"Can't get that kinda skill from a book," he says heavily. "You can only get it by practice, by doin' the job, and it sure as hell won't benefit the poor soul you're practisin' on. I've told you all a thousand times, I ain't no surgeon."
JD has gone back to the leather case, lifted the lid again, his face a study in concentration.
"But this is what Freiber'd use? If he was to do the operation on Ezra?"
"Well it's givin' me a goddamn headache," Larabee growls. "Shut the damn thing up, JD."
JD lets the lid drop.
"Where'd Ez go anyhow?" Buck asks worriedly.
"He ain't gunna be comin' back in here for a while," Vin states and that presents a conundrum because if Ezra doesn't feel safe in the saloon, he really doesn't have many other options.
Larabee's starting to look pissed. "Well wherever you're gonna keep that goddamn box of tricks, you'd sure as hell better keep it outa his sight. And I just fuckin' hope to God you never get tempted to try usin' it."
"He ain't likely to set foot in your place again without a loaded gun," Buck observes.
Nathan knows what these objects represent to Ezra. He knows better than any of them how raw the terror is, how fragile the trust. And that he can't afford to be the enemy. They will turn to him, after all, when the chips are finally down.
"Go find him," he says. "Better one of you than me."
When they're gone, Nathan stands in front of the table, flips through the book once more. The text jumps off the page at him, fuddles his mind. He's really not sure he could work out a word of what it means, suspects it will make no sense at all.
He can't help but open the little silver clasp again though, feels the lid swing back on its smooth hinge and lie open, presenting him with delights. The glinting items fill him with both hope and fear, They entice him to touch. Carefully he picks out a tool, presses a finger to its wickedly serrated edge.
The implement feels cool and balanced in his hand.
Things would have to be real bad, he thinks. They'd have to be desperate and beyond hope.
Damnit, Ezra would have to be begging him for help before he'd even consider it.
Before he could ever, possibly ...
Nathan sighs. He slides into the chair he vacated earlier, thumbs through the pages with one hand, the other still holding the beautiful, hand-crafted saw. When a block heading catches his eye, he pauses.
Making the first incision.
Really. Desperate, beyond hope and begging.
Before he could ever possibly be tempted.
He reads the paragraph several times over and finds to his utter amazement that it makes perfect sense.