Disclaimer-----The characters are not mine, but I love to play around with them.
Comments----This is being written as a thank you to Nin for setting up my web page....I’m so grateful to her for taking this on and the wonderful job she’s done. I asked her what she wanted and she asked for an Old west Chris fic...sick and feverish with Vin as comforter. Hopefully this will fit the bill. Thanks again to my wonderful beta, Antoinette.
He rode through the long cold night, his instincts telling him he was still moving towards his intended destination. The night sky darkened as the moon and vast array of stars were obliterated by encroaching storm clouds. He pulled the black duster tighter around his body and buried his chin in the collar as cold rain began to fall, soaking him to the skin in a matter of minutes.
‘I’ll be there, Sarah,’ he thought as he trembled in the saddle. The rain mirrored how he felt as he made his way towards the empty home. A place that had once held the warmest of souls, but was now a cold dead world, empty and devoid of the promises they’d made to each other. Those promises were shattered along with his world when a madwoman paid to have his wife and son ripped from his heart.
He felt Pony stumble beneath him and knew the horse was tiring as he rubbed his hand against his aching chest.
“Not much further,” he said as he patted the animal’s rain slick neck. As if in answer the dark head jerked towards him before turning back to the trail and continuing the journey.
The rain continued to fall, with little consideration for the two lone travelers. Nothing moved except man and horse as they rode silently through the stormy night, intent on making their destination.
Chris’ thoughts turned to the six men back in Four Corners. He knew Nathan’s anger was well grounded and at any other time he would’ve listened to his advice, but it was Christmas Eve. The third since his world had crumbled around him. His right hand found its way to his throat and he rubbed at the raw feeling as the urge to cough continued to build. He knew once he started it would continue until his chest grew tight and his lungs seemed to shrink until little or no air entered.
“Not now,” he shouted hoarsely as the attack began. He pulled Pony to a stop and dismounted, holding tightly to the animal’s reins as he felt his strength give out. He dropped to his knees in the muddy soil and shivered as his body reacted to the chill seeping into his bones. He felt Pony’s head nudge him and tried to speak, but nothing escaped his ravaged throat. He held tightly to the gelding’s reins until the attack subsided, leaving him shivering and cold. He pulled himself up, using the animal and the reins until he was leaning against the wide body.
He opened his eyes and shook his head as he realized he didn’t have the strength to climb back into the saddle. He looked around the dark landscape, surprised to see the familiar windmill in the distance. He was home, now all he had to do was force one foot in front of the other and drag his ailing body across the distance. Fighting the sucking mud he lifted one booted foot and then another, over and over he repeated this action until there was nothing left, nothing more to call on. As if from a distance he heard Pony, but he was far beyond the ability to answer as he gave in to his body’s demand for release.
The clouds overhead parted to reveal a single star shining brightly down on the farm. It illuminated the unconscious man lying next to the door of the burnt out home. Pony stood next to him, nuzzling his owner in an effort to wake him. The horse quickly lost interest and turned its attention to the grass that surrounded the abandoned home.
Having finished a final patrol of the area to the north of town, Vin Tanner rode silently into Four Corners. The rain had long since doused the street fires and the clouds had given way to early morning dawn. He shivered as his clothing stuck to his skin, then tiredly dismounted and led Peso into the livery. He walked towards the stall he used and frowned as he noticed Pony was missing.
‘Thought Nathan wanted ya to stick around until ya felt better,’ he thought as he unsaddled the gelding and reached for the brush. He looked up as Tiny entered the stable and moved towards him.
“I’ll take care of him, Vin. Why don’tcha go on over to the saloon and get somethin’ to warm you up.”
“Should be sleepin’ in his room. Nathan told him if he wanted to be at the Christmas celebration he needed to rest,” Tiny explained as he took the brush from the tracker.
“What’s wrong, Vin?”
“Pony’s not here?”
“He’s not?” the liveryman said, confusion heavy in his voice. “He was here when I went to bed”
“How long ago was that?”
“Just after Ezra rode out on patrol.”
“That was jest after supper. Right?”
“Yeah, I was feelin’ kinda poorly and figured I’d turn in early.”
Tanner turned towards the brightening sky and shook his head as he thought of his stubborn friend. He knew Chris had been depressed since getting sick, but also felt there was some underlying reason why he was fighting Nathan’s advice. He remembered the fever blotches on Larabee’s cheeks the day before and the hacking cough that seemed to tear from his lungs. The gunslinger had agreed to stay put, and they trusted him to keep his word.
“Where’s Buck?” he asked, knowing the scoundrel would be the one to ask about Larabee.
“He’s over at the saloon. So are the others, well except for Nathan.”
“He rode out to the Carter place at the same time Ezra left. Seems their youngest managed to fall outta the loft and busted his leg.”
“Damn, hope the kid’s able ta have Christmas,” the tracker said, remembering his own childhood and the lack of family to celebrate with. He managed on his own for so many years, and had been looking forward to a celebration, with his new family.
“Me too. Hate seeing kids suffer, especially at this time of year.”
“Yeah. I’m probably gonna be riding back out as soon as I talk with the others. Ya got a mount I can take. Peso’s worn out.”
“Sure, you can use Thunder,” the liveryman answered.
Vin knew Thunder was not as mean spirited as most people thought he was and he nodded his thanks to the horse’s owner. He hurried out of the livery and moved towards the saloon. He knew he needed to get out of the wet clothes, but it would have to wait until he spoke with the others. He pushed through the batwing doors and looked at the four men seated at their normal table. He was shocked to see the gambler sitting with them, but realized he probably hadn’t been to bed yet.
“Would you like some breakfast and coffee, Senior?”
turned to the pretty Mexican woman and nodded gratefully.
“Yes, ma’am,” he said and joined the other peacekeepers.
“Is everything alright, Vin?” Wilmington asked, noting the worry in the expressive blue eyes.
“Not sure. Anyone know where Chris is?”
“Should be in his room, sleeping. Nathan gave him one of his special teas and told him to rest,” Sanchez explained.
“I think Mr. Larabee has the right idea and if you will all excuse me I’m going to retire to my own warm bed for the...”
“Day,” Dunne teased.
“Well, I have been up all night, Mr. Dunne,” Standish said, standing and stretching his tired body.
“Pony ain’t in his stall,” the tracker informed the others as Inez brought him a plate of bacon and biscuits and a cup of steaming black coffee. Vin took the cup and took a small sip, his eyes meeting Buck Wilmington’s.
“Did you check his room?” the ladies’ man asked.
“Not yet. Wanted ta see if’n he was here with you boys first.”
“Dammit! Nathan wanted him resting. Vin you eat. I’ll go check his room,” Wilmington told him.
“Thanks, Buck,” the tracker said. He sat at the table and picked at the food. He could feel Sanchez watching him and turned to meet the ex-preacher’s gaze. He wasn’t surprised to see Standish had retaken his seat and that JD was watching Buck’s retreating form. They remained silent, waiting for the ladies’ man to return, hoping that Chris Larabee was tucked tightly in bed, sleeping like he was supposed to be.
Chris struggled to open his eyes, and frowned as he realized he was lying on the cold hard ground. The rain that started the night before had changed to snow and he shivered uncontrollably. He briefly wondered why it was snowing, but shook it off, realizing he had a promise to keep. He fought against the weariness invading his body and tried to sit up, smiling as Pony nuzzled against his back.
“Hey, Boy,” he rasped, amazed at how weak his voice sounded. He swallowed painfully and felt the heaviness in his chest. He reached for Pony’s reins and pulled himself up, moaning as his legs threatened to give out and the world around him swirled in white snowflakes. He placed his head on Pony’s neck and kept his eyes closed until the nausea passed.
Chris reached for the canteen and uncapped it with numbed fingers. He took a small sip and wished he had something a little warmer to drink. Recapping the canteen, he placed it back on the saddle and wrapped his arms around his body in an attempt to warm them up. He felt the familiar tickle at the back of his throat and almost instantly the quiet, snow filled morning was filled with the torturous sound of his coughing. He dropped to his knees and landed hard as he struggled to breathe. Over and over the harsh sound left his throat, making him feel like he was breathing in fire, instead of the cold, crisp, morning air. He had no idea how long the attack lasted, but it left him feeling weak and drained. He spit thick mucus on the ground and again fought his way to his feet.
The landscape around him came into focus and he recognized the burnt out remains of his dream. Tears filled his eyes as he moved towards the remnants of the home he’d shared with his wife and son. They’d spent so many nights in front of the fireplace, sharing their dreams of the future. The love they had for each other would last forever and deep in his heart he knew they’d be together again someday. Until then he promised himself to spend each Christmas, reliving the happy memories they’d made during their short time together. He looked towards the stuffed saddlebags and knew it wasn’t filled with normal supplies. The contents represented nine Larabee family Christmas’. The first six were memories of his life with Sarah and Adam, the final three were made to show how much he still loved and missed them.
The sick man reached for the item he’d placed in the second saddlebag. Something he’d need if he was to continue to keep his promise to the ones he loved. He picked up the hatchet and made his way towards the strand of trees growing along the creek. Chris knew he’d find the perfect tree somewhere along the banks, and he would cut it down and bring it back to the small fenced in graveyard. There he would put the tree between the two graves and place his carvings on the tiny branches.
Larabee rotated his shoulders in an effort to work out the stiffness in his neck and shoulders. His chest continued to feel heavy and he knew he was sicker than he’d thought. At any other time he’d make his way to shelter and relish the warmth of a fire, but this promise was one he could not break, would not break, no matter what. He pulled the black duster closer around his body and tucked his head down into the collar as he trudged through the gently falling snow. The creek was heavier than usual; the level higher because of the heavy rainfall, but nothing would deter Chris from finding the perfect Christmas tree to share with his family.
Vin looked up as Wilmington returned from his search of Larabee’s room. He knew from the look on the older man’s face, the news was not good and he pushed his half eaten meal away.
“He ain’t there!” the irate ladies man informed them.
“Nathan’s gonna have his head!” Dunne exclaimed, remembering Jackson’s stern warning that Larabee needed to rest if he expected to get well.
“Nathan ain’t the only one, Kid!” the ladies man hissed and he leaned on the back of a chair.
“Where would Mr. Larabee have gone on such a miserable day?” Standish asked, all thoughts of his warm bed vanished as soon as Wilmington told them the news.
“Maybe he went out to his place,” the young Bostonian suggested.
“Mebbe,” Tanner said, drinking the last of his coffee and standing up.
“Goin’ somewhere, Vin?” Sanchez asked.
“Figured I’d take a ride out ta Chris’ place,” the tracker answered.
“I’m comin’ with ya!” the scoundrel snapped, his tone telling them he wasn’t going to back down.
“Alright. Me and Buck’ll check Chris’s place. Josiah...”
“Don’t worry, Vin. I’m sure JD, Ezra and I can keep an eye on things around here. If you find Chris you might want to hog tie him and get him back here before Nathan gets wind of it.”
“We’ll do our damndest,” Wilmington said and the two friends walked swiftly out of the saloon.
“I stopped at the livery and had Tiny saddle the horses for us,” the scoundrel explained as they headed for the stable.
“Thanks, Buck,” Tanner said, the worry he felt at Larabee’s disappearance easy to read in the set of the young man’s shoulders.
“Don’t worry too much. Vin, we’ll probably find ol’ Chris snuggled up in his bed with a bottle of whiskey to warm him up.”
Vin nodded his head slightly, knowing Wilmington was just as worried as he was. He remembered Nathan’s warning that Chris could easily end up with pneumonia if he didn’t take care of himself. They reached the livery and found that Tiny had both animals ready for them.
“I thought you could use some fresh supplies,” the liveryman said, pointing to the full saddlebags and canteens.
“Thanks, Tiny, we owe ya,” Tanner said.
“Don’t owe me nothing, Vin. You boys have done so much for Four Corners since ya took over as peacekeepers. Ya have no idea how many horses were stolen from me before ya’all were hired by Judge Travis. It’s about time I was able to give somethin’ back. Hope ya find Chris,” he said as the two men led the horses from the livery.
“Thanks, Tiny...we will!” Wilmington vowed as a tiny snowflake floated past his nose. He tugged his coat closer around his body and realized Tanner was going to feel the cold today, but there was nothing they could do about that.
Chris picked his way carefully through he thick mire as he spotted a small sapling that would be perfect for what he wanted to do. The rain and snow made things treacherous as he made his way towards the tree, and he stumbled a few times. Twice his feet landed in the cold water, but he would not give up his quest for the perfect tree to hang his memories on. He lost track of time as he grabbed at brush and trees to keep from falling and dropped to the ground beside the sapling as exhaustion and fever wracked his body. He pulled the damp duster around his body and blew into his hands to warm them up, but to no avail. He trembled and held his chest as another attack of harsh coughing tore from his chest. His throat felt like a swarm of bees were beating against the sides and he looked for his canteen, belatedly remembering he’d left it beside Pony. He looked at the small creek and sighed heavily. He forced himself to his feet and made his way to the creeks’ edge where he dipped his hand into the frigid water. He drank as much as he could, and sat back on his haunches as his stomach grumbled rebelliously. Over and over his stomach heaved until there was nothing left to expel.
The gunman had no idea how long he knelt on the ground, trying to get his ailing body under control. He coughing stopped, but the bees continued to attack his throat as he made his way back to the sapling. He lifted the small hatchet and began to hack at the trunk. The only sound besides the thwack of the hatchet hitting the sapling was the sound of the harsh breathing as the gunslinger tried to catch his breath.
The two worried peacekeepers rode steadily towards Larabee’s little piece of heaven. The tiny cabin he’d built was slowly becoming home for the blond and Buck knew his long time friend was laying down roots. Something he didn’t expect to see from the man again, yet all the signs were there.
“Do you think he’s there, Vin?” the ladies’ man asked as the light snow subsided and a cold wind blew across them.
“Don’t know. Hope so,” the tracker answered simply.
“If he is Nathan’s gonna be downright ornery when he finds out. I mean he did tell Chris to stick around town until he was feeling better. Damn stubborn bull headed...”
“Best not let Chris hear ya sayin’ that,” the younger man said as they crested the hill and spotted the cabin.
“Damn, this ain’t good!” Wilmington swore as they spotted the cabin. Pony was absent from the corral and there was no sign that Larabee was at home.
The sharpshooter didn’t argue as he led the way towards the cabin. They dismounted and searched the grounds surrounding the cabin and corral.
“There’s no sign he’s been here since before he got sick!” the tracker said as he returned from the creek.
“Dammit! Where can he have gone?” the ladies man hissed.
“Thought fer sure he’d be here. Think, Buck, where would Chris disappear ta on Christmas Eve.”
“I’m not sure, Vin. I mean it has to be something he felt he needed t do or he wouldn’t have left town. We both know he respects Nathan as a healer. Hell, we all do.”
The two men stood quietly for a few minutes, trying to figure out where the gunslinger could possibly have gone. Vin looked towards the darkening sky overhead and knew there was more bad weather in store for the area.
‘Where the hell are ya, Cowboy?’ he thought as he pulled his buckskin jacket closer around him.
“Damn!” the ladies man swore as he turned to the tracker.
“Think I know where Chris has gone...”
“Where?” the sharpshooter asked hopefully.
“Back to his old place.”
Tanner frowned and looked towards the north where the clouds seemed heavier and seeded with rain or if the temperature continued to drop, more snow.
“Why would he go there?”
“Something he said to Sarah when they were first married. I remember thinking they were the happiest couple I’d ever seen. Felt like I should leave ‘em alone, but they wouldn’t hear of it. We’d just finished decorating the Christmas tree and Sarah and Chris were snuggled in front of the fire while I warmed up some cider. I didn’t mean to listen in on ‘em, but I guess I was a little jealous at the time,” he explained and swiped at his eyes.
Vin didn’t miss the moisture in the ladies’ man’s eyes, and he waited patiently for him to continue. It didn’t take long and Tanner listened to the tale of the Larabee’s first Christmas.
“I remember Chris making a promise to Sarah...”
“What promise?” Tanner coaxed when the man became distant and sullen.
“That he’d make sure they were always together at Christmas,” Wilmington said wistfully. “You know he made that promise every year when he added another ornament to the tree. The la...last one he m...made was especially for Adam. A little wooden train with wheels that actually turned. A...Adam was so excited about it that Chris used to take it off the tree and let him play with it.”
“Chris was working on something over the last few weeks. Figured it was for Billy, but I reckon it was a mite tiny fer that.”
“He was probably making an ornament and if he was then he’s gone back to the homestead.”
“Guess we’d best go check on ‘im,” Tanner said, moving towards Thunder.
“Hell, if that’s where he is I’m gonna....” he trailed off as he realized he would probably grab the blond in a hug as was his habit.
“Let’s ride!” Tanner said as he mounted and waited for the ladies’ man to do the same. The trail was slick from the freezing rain as the headed north towards the burnt out Larabee homestead.
Chris breathed a sigh of relief as the tree toppled softly to the ground. He tried to draw a deep breath but his ravaged throat seemed to close over and he fought the urge to cough. He dropped the hatchet and vigorously rubbed his hands in order to warm them. He looked up at the darkening skies as he stamped his feet to get the circulation flowing once more. He knew he needed to start a fire and dry out his shoes and socks before he started working on the tiny tree.
‘Get a move on, Larabee!’ he silently ordered and lifted the end of the sapling. He reached for the hatchet and slowly moved along the riverbank, swearing as he slipped more and more. The top layer of mud was quickly becoming icy and he knew he had to be careful or he’d be taking a dip in the creek.
The gunslinger had no idea how long it took him to make his way back to the farmyard. The empty corral tugged at his heart as he remembered the day Buck helped him take the string of horses to Mexico. He swallowed painfully as he looked at what he’d returned to. The home that was so filled with warmth and love when he left was now cold and lonely as the wind swept across the clearing. He strode towards the remainder of the front stoop and sank down on the step.
“God, Sarah, I miss you both so much,” he cried and was forced to wrap his arms around his chest as the ache in his lungs grew worse and another spasm of coughs erupted from his fevered body. He tried to stand, but the cold and exertion caught up with him and he dropped to the ground, drawing his long legs up to his body in an effort to conserve whatever heat remained within him. Tears continued to flow from his eyes as consciousness left him.
They moved towards him, fear on their faces as they knelt beside the man they’d both loved in life. Their voices could not be heard by the still form, but their presence registered in his subconscious and he reached for the warmth they supplied him in life.
“Be still, Love! Buck’s coming for you and he’ll make sure you’re alright,” the ethereal form of Sarah Larabee whispered into the growing cold.
“Sarah...sss....so...ccccc...cold,” the gunslinger stammered, his eyes remained closed and his breathing harsh in the still air. His chattering teeth told the two spectral images just how cold their loved one was.
“Please, God, don’t let him die like this!” Sarah begged as tears formed on her angelic face.
“Please help Papa get better,” the small boy pleaded as he glanced into the cloudy gray sky.
Sarah and Adam continued their vigil over the ill man, feeling his hold on life flowing from his body with the little heat he still held. As day slowly waned into night the two figures remained where they were, praying constantly for a miracle for the husband and father lying on the ground. Sarah lifted soft eyes heavenward as a bright light shone overhead. She felt the heat flowing from the lone orb in the sky and smiled as the blond moaned softly. She knew her prayer had been answered and although her husband had a battle ahead of him, help would get there in time.
“Uncle Buck’s gonna help him, right, Mama?”
“I hope so, Honey,” Sarah Larabee whispered into the silent night. On this Holy Night she prayed that the man she’d loved like a brother would be there to save her husband. His time on earth was not over yet and if he lost his life to soon he would be in limbo for the years he was supposed to live. She prayed this would not happen as again her gaze returned to the bright light shining overhead.
“He has to, Mama. He has to help Papa live.”
Sarah pulled her son into her arms and held him against the chill winds, sheltering their loved one’s body with their own until Buck Wilmington and his companion arrived.
Buck knew they were getting close as a light snow began to fall once again. The cold was fierce as the wind seemed to cut through the heavy clothing he wore. They’d been riding in silence for so long that he felt alone in the world. He knew this was one of the reasons Chris and Vin got along so well, the two men could communicate with just a flick of the head or a meeting of the eyes. It still amazed the ladies’ man to see the two peacekeepers silently signaling each other without even realizing they were doing so.
Vin rode slightly ahead and to the left of his companion and was grateful for the silence between them. He knew Wilmington had a tendency to make small talk, but the man seemed to understand his own need for quiet. He knew from Buck’s explanation they were nearing Larabee’s old spread and the beating of his heart felt like a hammer against his chest. He knew the gunslinger was there, could feel something tugging at him to race towards the homestead, but to do so would be dangerous in the darkness. Normally he’d have insisted they stop for the night, but something nagged at him, something only he could feel, yet he knew the ladies’ man felt the same way.
“Should be just over that rise, Vin!” Wilmington said as they picked up the pace without realizing they were doing so.
The horses seemed to sense the urgency of the two riders and crested the hill at a near gallop. When they reached the summit they reined the horses to a stop and looked down at the dark shadows outlined against the midnight black sky and powdery white snow covering the ground. Nothing moved and for a few seconds the two men thought they’d made a mistake and that Larabee was not there. A soft whinny from near the shell of the house told them they hadn’t made a mistake after all. Without a word the two friends hurried towards the homestead, hoping to find the missing gunslinger.
“We have to go now, Adam,” Sarah whispered as she saw the two silhouettes atop the hill.
“But, Mama, Papa n...needs...” the small boy sniffed as tears came to his green eyes.
“Uncle Buck will look after him now, Honey. You and I need to get back. We’ll see your Papa again, but it’s not his time yet and he has so much to do here,” Sarah answered, bending down and placing a gentle whisper of a kiss on the cold cheek.
‘I love you, Christopher Larabee!’ she whispered as her form shimmered in the cold night air.
“I love you, Papa,” Adam Larabee said, wrapping his small arms around the lean shoulders.
“Take care of him, Buck!” Sarah whispered into the wind.
‘Take care of him, Buck!’ Wilmington heard the words as if they’d been spoken inside his mind. He felt warmth spread through him as he realized Sarah Larabee was still looking out for her husband. There was no doubt in his mind that she’d been here and he briefly felt Adam’s presence as they neared the homestead.
“I will, Sarah,” he answered softly.
“What?” Tanner asked as they rode side by side.
“Oh...uh... nothing...” the scoundrel smiled in spite of his worry.
Vin spotted the still, snow covered form lying in front of the remnants of the barn and hurried towards it. He knew Buck was on his heels as he dismounted and knelt beside the gunslinger.
“I’ll get a fire started, Vin. You take care of, Chris!” Wilmington ordered as he flipped the reins over a piece of railing and went in search of dry wood.
Tanner nodded and turned his attention to Larabee just as a raspy moan left the slack lips. He brushed the light covering of snow off the dark clothing and spoke softly to the ill man.
“Easy, Chris, I got ya...”
“S...Sarah...” Larabee gasped as his blurred vision focused on the soft brown hair hanging down over the shoulders. He tried to sit up as the scratching in his throat signaled another attack was eminent. He felt strong arms reach for him and lift him forward as the first of a series of tortured sounds came from his throat.
Vin held the trembling man as the painful sounds continued. He knew Larabee was sick, and from the sounds of things he needed to get inside and warmed up. The ride back to Four Corners would be hard, especially in the darkness, yet he knew they had to get the gunslinger warmed up. He lifted his head and gazed around as Wilmington rejoined them.
“Everything’s soaked,” he said as he knelt beside them. He turned his attention to the wheezing form cradled in the tracker’s arms.
“How is he?” he asked.
“Not good. We need ta get ‘im outta the cold. Hey, Cowboy,” he said as Larabee raised his head and stared at him for a few seconds.
“S...SSSarah...” he mumbled tiredly as he reached for the snow covered mantle on the Texan’s head.
Vin and Buck looked at each other before turning worried frowns on the sick man.
“Hey, Chris, that’s Vin holdin’ you,” the ladies man explained to the fever bright green eyes.
“B...Buck...S...she’s here...hhhheard her and...and Adam...” Larabee insisted, shivering as the cold continued to sap his strength. He felt the strong arms tighten their hold on him and knew instinctively who held him. He lifted his head from the lean chest and met the soft blue orbs set in the worried face.
“How are ya feelin’?” the tracker asked as Buck set about finding them some shelter from the incoming storm.
“Ccc....cold,” Larabee answered, his breath visible in the frigid air.
“I know ya are, Pard. Buck’s looking for a place ta get a fire goin’,” the tracker offered and smiled as the ladies man returned with a bedroll.
“This should help, Chris,” Wilmington said as he opened the blanket and draped it over the shivering man.
“Th...thanks,” Larabee whispered, his eyelids growing heavy once more. His grip on Tanner’s arm tightened as he felt the young man drawing away.
“Easy, Cowboy, just gonna make sure the blanket’s covering ya,” the sharpshooter soothed. He watched as the scoundrel again moved away in search of a place to shelter them from the worst of the wind and snow. The flakes were thicker now, as the wind blew from the north, carrying with it the frigid winds of the mountains to the north. He had no idea how long he sat holding the ill man, but Wilmington’s voice came to him from the west. He turned his gaze in that direction just in time to see the older man run across the yard.
“There’s a small cave cut in the hillside a short distance from here. I remembered it from when A...Adam was alive. It was his favorite hiding place.”
“Big enough for the three of us,” the ladies man explained.
“Alright, Gimme a hand ta get Chris up,” Tanner said. He pulled away from his friend and smiled as he felt Larabee’s grip tighten once more. Then blond looked vulnerable as he lay shivering on the ground and his pale face worried the sharpshooter. He looked towards the ladies’ man and nodded as he reached for the gunslinger’s other arm.
“N...no....t...tired,” the blond rasped, his head lolling to the side as they lifted him to his feet.
“I know you are, Pard. You just lean on ol’ Buck and Vin and we’ll get you warmed up and let you sleep,” Wilmington said.
Larabee moaned and opened his eyes as the queasiness returned with the pain in his chest. He fought the urge to be sick and waited for the dizziness to abate. He felt two sets of hands holding him, but fought against them as his gaze landed on the tiny sapling covered in snow. He frowned as his groggy mind latched onto the reason he’d come home in the first place.
“Come on, Chris,” Wilmington insisted as he pulled Larabee away from the ruined farmhouse.
“N...nnnooo, ha....have tttto...fin...ish it!” the blond insisted through chattering teeth.
“Finish what?” the ladies’ man asked.
“T...tree...pro...missed...Sarah....Adam... be to...gether...Christ...mas,” the gunslinger wheezed, but couldn’t get away from the hands holding him upright.
“Chris, you’re sick, Cowboy...”
“I k...know I’m sssick, Vin...but...I nnneed t...to do this,” the blond insisted, trying unsuccessfully to pull away from his friends.
“You need to get warmed up first!” the tracker warned.
“Pro...missed,” Larabee stammered, his teeth chattering as they half carried him away from the house and the memories it held.
“Chris, me and Vin will help you with the tree tomorrow...”
“No, Chris! Not now! Sarah and Adam would not want you to make yourself worse by staying out in this storm.”
“They’ll understand,” Wilmington insisted as he led the way to the cave. He knew Larabee didn’t have the strength to fight him and Vin, yet the blond continued to try and pull away.
“Look, Larabee, yer freezin’ and yer sick! Ya really think Sarah and Adam would want ya ta ignore yer health?” Tanner snapped as they continued towards the shelter.
“We’re cold too, Chris, and the tree can wait until tomorrow!” Wilmington hissed, impatient with the sick man as they entered the cave. The fire he’d started before returning to get Vin and Buck cast a soft glow over the rock walls.
“Can ya hold ‘im fer a minute, Buck?”
“I got ‘im. Vin,” The ladies man said as he held on to the shivering gunman.
Tanner took the blanket from around the lean shoulders and spread it on the cold ground. He stood up and grabbed onto Larabee’s waist and helped him to the blanket. They eased the gunslinger down, and the tracker saw the pain in the half-mast eyes.
“It’ll be alright, Chris...”
“I promised, Vin. D...don’t wa...want them a...lone at Christ...mas,” the sick man said as a single tear dropped from each eye and tracked its way down his red cheeks.
“They won’t be, Chris. Once we get ya warmed up and feelin’ better we’ll put up that tree...”
“That’s right, Stud. Me and Vin are gonna help you with it, but right now you need to get warmed up. Okay?”
“...okay...” the blond agreed softly, his eyelids closing and hiding the pain he still felt. “M...miss ‘em s...so m...much.”
“So do I, Pard, so do I,” the ladies man whispered as the sharpshooter stood up.
“I’m gonna take care of the horses and see if’n I can find some more dry wood,” the tracker said.
“Alright, Vin, bring in whatever blankets we got!” The tracker nodded as he walked out of the cave into the stormy night.
Buck added more fuel to the fire and placed some of the wet firewood close enough to dry out. He turned back to the blond to see the green eyes open and staring at him.
“B...Buck?” Larabee groaned and held his arms to his chest as a hacking cough erupted from deep in his lungs.
Wilmington winced in sympathy and helped the ill man sit up. He let Larabee lean back against his chest in an effort to ease his breathing. He wished Nathan was there, but knew it was up to him and Vin to care for the gunslinger until they returned him to Jackson’s clinic. He sat holding his friend, wishing there was something he could do to ease the trembling and chattering teeth.
“How’s he doin’?” Tanner asked when he returned half an hour later to find the ladies man holding the gunslinger upright. He dropped two more blankets, saddlebags, and a couple of canteens close to the fire as he watched the blond’s face closely.
“Fell asleep about five minutes ago. I’m worried about his breathing, Vin. Tried to lie him down a couple of times but he couldn’t seem to catch his breath.”
“Ya okay with him fer a little longer?”
“I’m gonna bring in Pony’s saddle and maybe we can rig it up fer ‘im ta lean on!”
“I can hold ‘im,” the ladies’ man assured the younger man and watched as the buckskin clad man left the cave once more. Again his mind turned to the days he’d spent with Chris, Sarah, and Adam Larabee. Their love went beyond anything he’d ever witnessed and he wished they’d been given more time to nurture it. Tears came to his own eyes as he thought of the small boy and the day Adam found the cave and hid his treasures here. Buck looked into the dark corner to his right and wondered if there were any of those treasure still hidden there. He vowed to check once Larabee was settled for the night.
The ladies man watched as the tracker made several trips outside before he was satisfied they had everything they needed for the night. The cave was not that big and the fire warmed the surrounding area. Buck watched as the sharpshooter placed a blanket over the saddle and the ground directly in front of it.
“Alright, Buck, we need ta get ‘im outta them wet clothes.”
“Did he have anything in his saddlebags we can use?”
“Yeah,” the tracker said, pointing to the clothes he’d pulled from the saddlebags.
The two men hurriedly removed the wet clothing from the ill man, his lean body continued to shake with the cold. They placed his boots and socks next to the fire and quickly dressed him in the dry shirt, pants, and socks he carried with him. Larabee remained oblivious to their efforts as Wilmington lifted him and carried him across to the new bed. Again they covered him in a second blanket and listened to the raspy wheeze emanating from his lungs.
“Wish Nate was here,” Tanner said softly.
“Me too, Vin. If the snow stops we’d better head on out first thing in the morning.”
“Yeah,” the tracker agreed as he set about making coffee and heating water.
“Tiny thought of everything,” Wilmington smiled as he opened his bags and pulled out some jerky and biscuits. He tossed a couple to the younger man and they sat in silent vigil over their friend.
Vin stood in the entrance to the cave, his eyes gazing over the snow-covered landscape. The storm had stopped during the night, but the wind from the north still carried a biting edge with it. He turned back to the cave as the all to familiar sound drifted through the silence. Turning away from the dawning light he moved back into the relative warmth of the cave. He knelt beside his sick friend as Wilmington grabbed a cup of warm tea from the fire. He’d lost count of how many times he’d thanked God that Nathan insisted they always carry medical supplies with them. Chris’ saddlebags contained a minimal amount of supplies, but it was enough to see them through the night, and part of the day.
Chris groaned as the harsh cough left him breathless. He didn’t feel the strong arms supporting him or the worried looks the two men exchanged. He felt something warm placed against his lips and sipped the liquid gratefully. The taste was bitter, but it helped to warm him and the shivering slowly eased. He turned away before he’d drank half the offering as his stomach clenched tightly and nausea made him gag.
“How are you feeling?” Wilmington asked as a pair of tired, fever bright eyes opened and focused on him.
“...lousy...sick...cold...” Larabee wheezed, the effort to speak obviously painful.
“We’re gonna get you into your clothes and head back to Four Corners...”
“N...no! B...Buck, can’t...” the blond tried to pull away from the tracker as he interrupted Wilmington. “C...can’t leave....Prom...ised.”
“Chris, you’re sick, Pard...”
“I k...know, Vin, b...but.” His words were lost as again he held his chest and coughed as he tried to get his lungs to take in enough air. He felt Tanner’s hand on his back and knew the tracker was worried about him.
“Pro...missed Sarah and Adam...n...not alone at Christmas,” the blond muttered weakly.
“Chris, they aren’t alone,” Wilmington said, amazed that the blond was still fighting them.
“A...lone...cold...pro...missed, Buck...Have to put the t...tree up so they know I’m with t...them.” Larabee turned towards the tracker, his head pounding at the slightest movement.
“P...please, Vin...Won’t t...take lo...long...miss ‘em b...both,” Larabee’s eyes filled with unshed moisture as he pushed the blanket off and struggled to sit up.
“I’ll do i...it my...self...” the gunslinger wheezed as he fought to stand up. The dim interior of the cave spun rapidly as he tried to stay on his feet.
“He ain’t gonna leave until he sees it done, Buck,” the tracker said, latching onto his best friend’s arm as the man staggered towards the opening.
Wilmington nodded and stood before the swaying figure. He placed both hands on his hips and waited until Larabee lifted his head and looked at him.
“If we’re gonna do this you stubborn fool, then you do as me and Vin say!” he swore.
“Ain’t got no choice, but,” Tanner said from beside the blond.
“You’re gonna be explainin’ it ta Nathan,” the tracker warned.
“...okay... let’s g...go.”
“Ain’t done yet...”
“What?” the gunslinger stared at the longhaired man.
“When we get ya back ta town ya go straight ta Nathan’s and ya do as he says...”
“He’s not finished yet, Chris,” Wilmington said sternly.
“S...said I’d do it...”
“Yeah, but ya stay there and don’t argue. Ya ain’t gonna argue with stayin’ in that damn bed until Nathan lets ya out. Understood?”
“N...Nathan keeps us...”
“Understood?” the ladies man repeated.
“’cause if’n it ain’t, Larabee, me and Buck’ll hogtie ya, throw ya over Pony and take ya back ta town right now!”
“You wouldn’t,” Larabee hissed, his voice lacking its usual strength.
“Oh, I wouldn’t be to sure of that, Pard. You don’t have the strength to fight your way out of a bag, let alone fight me and Vin. Now are you gonna agree to this or do we leave now?”
“...get you...” He didn’t finish the sentence as he turned away and doubled over, coughing painfully as he held his arms against his chest once more. He missed the exchange between the two men who steadied him as his legs began to give way.
“Maybe we’d best git him on back ta...”
“N...no...” Larabee shook his head vehemently.
“Ya gonna do as we say?” Tanner asked.
“Don’t seem like I h...have much ch...choice...”
“Ya don’t. Now stay here by the fire with Buck while I get things set up...”
“I can help...”
“Chris, ya can help by stayin’ put. Jest tell me where ya want the tree,” the tracker ordered softly.
“You’re gonna lie down here and rest ‘til Vin comes back. Now where do ya want the tree?”
Larabee knew he couldn’t fight them anymore. His strength was all but gone now, and he let the two men ease him back down beside the fire. He swallowed, wincing as the pain in his throat awakened with the movement. He nodded and closed his eyes as Wilmington pulled the blanket back over him.
“Put it be...tween the two g...graves,” the blond said. “Want t...them to sssee...it,” his words were troubled as he gave into the demands of his overtaxed body. The cold continued to seep into his bones and he pulled the blanket tighter around himself.
“I’ll be right back,” Tanner said as he moved out the door.
“Vin, the graves are just north of the windmill,” Wilmington explained.
“I’ll find ‘em,” the tracker assured the ladies man.
Buck watched the younger man leave, then turned his attention back to the gunslinger. He shook his head as the green eyes opened and gazed up at him from under half opened lids.
“You should try to rest, Chris. It’s a long ride back to town and we’re leaving as soon as the tree is decorated.”
“W...wish we could s...spend the wh...whole day with ‘em,” Larabee mumbled, his voice low and weak.
“Uhuh, no way, Pard. We need to get you somewhere warm...”
“Warm he...here,” the blond said, his continued shivering belying his declaration.
“Might as well give it up, Chris. This time tomorrow you’ll be tucked under the blankets and under Nathan’s tender care.”
“He didn’t know you’d left. By the time Vin came back from patrol you’d already lit out. I’m sure he’ll wait until you feel better before...”
“Not likely,” Larabee said as his eyelids closed. “He’s gonna chew me out.”
“You deserve it after leaving town like you did.”
Wilmington watched as his friend drifted off to sleep. He listened to the raspy breathing and knew they should leave right away, but he also realized this was something Larabee needed to do for his own peace of mind. He placed more wood on the fire and checked the black duster lying on the opposite side. He was glad to find the duster and the boots had dried out during the long night. He steeped a new cup of Jackson’s special tea and sat down to wait on the sharpshooter.