Nathan rode slowly into town, his body aching from a combination of cold and weariness. He’d spent the night at the Carter farm, making sure Joseph’s parents understood the boy needed to stay in bed and give the leg time to heal. The break was easy to set and he’d left a bottle of laudanum with the adults to help with the pain. The healer smiled as he thought of the child and how well he’d behaved when faced with having the leg set.
‘Children bounce back from injuries and illness so quickly,’ he thought as he looked towards the window of Larabee’s room. ‘Wish the same could be said for adults.’
He dismounted in front of the livery and smiled as Tiny came out and took over the care of the tired animal.
“Thanks, Tiny,” he said gratefully. Taking a deep breath, he turned towards the boarding house and his only patient in town. He stopped mid stride as JD Dunne hurried towards him.
“Merry Christmas, Nathan,” the young easterner said as he moved into step beside the former slave.
“Merry Christmas, JD. What’s going on?”
“Nothin’! Just wanted to let you know Inez has breakfast ready if you’re hungry.”
“She got coffee too?” Jackson asked as he continued towards the boarding house.
“She sure does. Good and strong. Come on and I’ll get you one.”
“I’ll be there as soon as I check on Chris,” Jackson told the overanxious youth.
“Okay, JD, what’s going on?”
“Nothing’s going on, Nathan. Can’t one man offer to get another man a coffee without...”
“Okay, where’s Chris?”
“Ah...he’s ...that is...”
“We’re not sure, Nathan.”
“What the hell do you mean you’re not sure! I know I asked all of you to keep an eye on him for me!” the healer said, striding towards the saloon.
“We were. He was in his room when you left and we thought he was sleeping...”
“That man never sleeps. Least not when somethin’s ailing ‘im. Did anyone check his cabin?”
“Vin and Buck rode out that way yesterday. They ain’t back yet.”
“So he wasn’t there,” Jackson frowned as he pushed through the batwing doors, sighing as the warmer air hit his chilled body.
“What makes you say that?”
“If he was, Buck or Vin would’ve rode back here to tell you,” Jackson said as he moved to the table at the back.
“Merry Christmas, Brother,” Sanchez said as the weary healer sat next to him. “How is young Joseph?”
“He’s gonna be fine. Just has to stay off his feet for a while. Unless ya can make him a pair of them crutches.”
“I’ll get working on it tomorrow,” the ex-preacher assured him.
“Good.” He looked up as a plate of breakfast was placed in front of him and a cup of hot coffee was put beside it. “Thanks, Inez,” he said gratefully.
“You’re welcome, Senor.” Turning her attention to the older man she asked. “Any word on Senor Chris?”
“Nothing yet,” Sanchez answered worriedly.
“Damn fool for leavin’ when he’s sick like that,” Jackson hissed as he wrapped his fingers around the warm mug.
“Buck and Vin will bring him back, Nathan,” Dunne said as he returned with a cup of coffee for himself and Josiah.
“When they do I’m gonna tie him to the bed and put a bell ‘round him so we’ll hear him if he tries to escape,” the former slave said, his voice showing his concern for their missing friends. They grew silent, thinking about Larabee’s illness and the storm that crept up on them the day before.
Inez watched the three peacekeepers and knew they were thinking about Larabee, Tanner, and Wilmington. She knew the gunslinger was ill, and realized he must’ve been sicker than she realized as Jackson’s concern was evident on his handsome face.
‘Please bring them home safe,’ she prayed as she returned to cleaning the glasses before her.
By the time Vin carried the little sapling to the small fenced in graveyard, stood and braced it between the two graves, his hands were frozen and his teeth chattered. The wind was bitter and seemed to cut him to the core, but at least the snow had stopped and the sun was seeping over the horizon. He took a quick look around before heading back to the cave. The snow wasn’t deep, and probably wouldn’t last once the sun came up, but they couldn’t wait for that. Larabee needed to be back in town, snuggled under thick, warm blankets. ‘Hell, Tanner, you’d like that yourself,’ he thought with a grin as he entered the cave.
His eyes quickly adjusted to the dimly lit interior and he saw Wilmington in the corner lifting something from the ground. He turned his attention back to the fire and saw the gunslinger turned on his right side, facing the fire. Larabee’s cheeks were flushed with fever and small beads of sweat were evident on his forehead. His breathing was labored and a soft moan escaped his ravaged throat as the tracker watched him. He frowned as a sharp gasp came from the man standing in the corner of the cave.
“Buck, what’s wrong?”
Wilmington swallowed the lump that formed in his throat and turned red-rimmed eyes towards the sharpshooter. His gaze quickly swept over the sick man and back to the item he cradled in his arms.
“Vin. I...it’s...I mean...Chris...He made this the year Adam was born. K...kid loved it a...and al...ways had it w...with him.”
“What is it?” the tracker asked, joining the older man. He saw the item held tightly in the trembling hands and waited for the ladies’ man to explain.
“Adam was born on a night like the one we had last night. A storm raged outside and we couldn’t get to the doctor. Sarah was wrapped in blankets beside the fire and Chris sat on a chair next to their bed. He held her so tenderly, Vin. I know you wouldn’t think Chris could have such feelings to look at him, but he was the best damn father and husband anyone could ask for. Well, he held her when the pain got so bad and she gripped his fingers in her own,” his voice trailed off as he chuckled. “She broke one of his fingers. He never let on, never did tell her, but she knew. Hell he couldn’t keep a secret from her if he tried. Anyway, Adam was born a little after midnight and Sarah was sleeping, the infant cradled in her arms. I watched Chris that night, Vin. Watched his eyes and knew there’d never been a man so in love. He leaned over and kissed them both and walked over to a stack of wood beside the door. He never said a word, just picked up this piece of wood and a knife and walked back to the bed. He sat in that chair with the lamp beside him and started cuttin’ into that wood.” Wilmington lifted his head from the carving and tears shone in his bright blue eyes as he glanced beyond the tracker to his long time friend, before continuing with his story.
“Have you ever tried to make something with a knife and a piece of wood, Vin?”
“No, can’t say I have,” the tracker answered.
“Well I tried, made a helluva a mess of it and ended up throwing it in the fire where it belonged. But Chris...” his voice held a wistful quality as he walked to the fire.
“He could carve anything when he set his mind to it. He sat beside that bed all night, making cuts in that piece of wood until the sun came shining through that little window. I tell you it framed Sarah and Adam in a wonderful light and I can still hear ol’ Chris’ voice as he looked at his wife and son. ‘My beautiful angels.’ That’s what he called them and you know that’s what they looked like...little did he know...” again his voice trailed off as he handed Tanner the intricately detailed carving.
Vin couldn’t take his eyes off the carving. The details were amazingly accurate, and although he’d never seen Sarah or Adam Larabee, he knew instinctively the features were accurate. Sarah lay with her eyes closed, her right arm wrapped lovingly around a tiny infant. Larabee had indeed captured the love of a mother and her child and Vin was once more amazed at how little he knew about this diverse man.
“It’s beautiful,” he whispered.
“Yeah, it is. Chris gave it to Sarah that Christmas and when Adam turned two he found it on the tree and wouldn’t put it down,” the scoundrel laughed warmly at the memory. “That boy just jumped up and down saying ‘daddy made me and mommy...it’s me and mommy.’ Sarah and Chris didn’t have the heart to take it from him and he took it with him everywhere.” He frowned as he looked down at the fevered blond.
“What’s wrong?” Tanner asked.
“The carving disappeared a week before me and Chris l...left for Mexico. I remember Chris and Sarah searching for it, but they wouldn’t ask Adam if he knew where it was because they didn’t want to upset him.”
“So how did it get here?”
“Remember I told you Adam loved to play in this cave. I think he must have put it here before we left.”
“Ya gonna give it to Chris?”
“Yeah, when we get him back to town. I think it’d be too hard on him today.”
“W...what’s t...too hard?” Larabee’s voice was barely above a whisper as he struggled to sit up.
Wilmington took the small carving and wrapped it in his own blanket as Tanner knelt beside the blond.
“Hey, Cowboy, how’re ya feelin’?” the tracker asked as he watched Larabee’s eyes.
“Lo...lou...sy,” he rasped between harsh coughs. His eyes watered as he struggled to catch his breath and pulled the blankets closer around his shivering body.
“Reckon ya do,” Tanner said, his hands making small circles around the man’s back.
“Did y...you...did you get it done, V...Vin?” the blond asked as he met the wondrous blue eyes of his best friend.
“Yep, now why don’t ya lie still and let me and Buck finish it and we’ll...”
“N...no!” the voice was weak, but firm as the sick man threw back the blankets and struggled to stand.
“Chris, you’re sick,” Wilmington said as he joined the two men.
“I k...know...but I have to do this Buck...Please, Vin, just help me out t...there and I’ll do any...thing you w...want. I j...just need to do this,” Larabee said as the two men held him down.
“Alright, Cowboy, but ya jest sit still and let me and Buck help ya.”
“...okay...” the blond agreed, too weak and tired to mount even a verbal protest. He closed his eyes and lay back against the saddle as the two men dressed him. He felt them struggle to put on his boots and smiled weakly as he felt Tanner help him sit up. His arms were forced into the sleeves of his duster and he felt trembling hands work at the buttons. He opened his eyes as the two men helped him to his feet, grateful for their firm grips as he swayed dangerously.
“Alright, Chris, let’s get this finished and get you back to town,” Wilmington said.
“Buck, grab my saddlebag,” Larabee wheezed, turning his head away from the two men as he coughed and sneezed.
“Got it right here, Pard,” the ladies’ man said sympathetically as he heard the pain in his friend’s voice.
Vin picked up Larabee’s flat brimmed hat and planked it down on the blond head. He helped lever Larabee across the small cave and out into the chilly air. He knew it would take a longer time to get the gunslinger to the graveyard as they supported most of his weight between them. The ground was treacherous as they walked towards the graveyard, and Vin could feel the tremble in Larabee’s body as it grew more intense with each footstep. He lifted his head and met the concerned blue eyes of the ladies’ man over Larabee’s bowed head.
Chris concentrated on moving one foot at a time, his gaze straight ahead as they neared the graveyard. The two crosses were as he’d left them the year before and he felt as if a tight band was wrapped around his heart. The two people he’d loved more than life itself were buried beneath the cold soil, their lives cut short by individuals as yet unknown. ‘I’ll find them and make them, pay,’ he silently swore as Wilmington reached out and opened the small gate. The tree stood between the two graves, a stack of rocks holding it in place. He glanced at the tracker, sending his gratitude in that simple contact. His throat burned raw as he struggled to speak past the soreness.
“Gimme the bag, Buck!”
Wilmington released his grip on the gunslinger, knowing Tanner’s keen reflexes were ready if needed.
“Tell me what you want first, Chris,” the ladies man ordered as he opened the bag.
“S...star,” Larabee stammered painfully.
Buck recognized the item as he pulled it from the bag. He’d been at the house when Larabee presented it to Sarah and she’d cried out in delight. The Star was carved from a piece of wood and the five points were perfectly shaped, and stained by Larabee’s own hands.
“I d...didn’t know you still had this. Thought it got burned...”
“Sarah insis...ted on k...keeping the ornaments in the barn until we got ar...ound to finishing the extra room,” the ill man explained as he reached for the star. “I f...found them there w...when I c...came back a y...year la...ter. God, I miss them,” he said as he placed the star in it’s rightful place. His words held the pain of a man who’d lost the most precious gift someone could be granted, and Wilmington and Tanner realized that was exactly what had happened to their friend.
Vin watched as Wilmington reached inside and pulled out a second item. A small horse, perfectly carved cradled in his large hands, before being lovingly handed to the gunslinger.
“I remember when you made this one. A...Adam loved it so much...said it was Buck’s horsy,’ the ladies’ man said with a grin.
“Y...yeah,” the blond wheezed as he attached the wooden horse to a small branch. He smiled as Tanner reached for his arm and steadied him. “Thanks.”
“Ah, Hell, Chris,” Wilmington said as he pulled a small silver bell from the bag. He’d given it to Sarah after several failed attempts at making a home made Christmas decoration.
“It’s part of this, B...Buck,” Larabee said as he hung the bell and smiled as the small sound broke the silence of the morning.
“I’m honored, Pard,” he said simply as he reached for the next item. Again he smiled as he pulled the tiny red wooden wagon from its resting place.
Chris took the miniature toy and held it in his numbed fingers for several minutes. He remembered how much time this one took and knew each cut had been made with care and love. He saw the tiny scar at the tip of his left index finger, a reminder of the slip he’d made when carving this one. He sucked in a deep breath as he felt the warmth of Sarah’s breath on his fingers as she pretended to kiss it better for Adam’s sake.
Vin had been watching Larabee closely and saw the tears forming in the sea green eyes.
“I’m okay, Vin,” Larabee assured him as he placed the wagon on the tree below the silver bell.
The next item nearly fell from the scoundrel’s numb fingers as he saw the beautiful needlework done by the small hands of Sarah Connelly Larabee.
“Oh, God,” he said, tears streaming from his eyes down his cold cheeks. In his hand was a delicate miniature pillow with the names Chris, Sarah, and Adam embroidered on one side, together, now and forever on the opposite. It held as many memories for him as it did for his friend and his fingers trembled as he passed it over and the blond gave it a place of honor on the sapling.
Chris surveyed the tree and knew there was only one more item of his family’s life together. The other three he’d made after their deaths and were his memories alone. He watched as Buck pulled out the tiny bird. A symbol of the spirit he’d seen in his wife and son. A dove was a bird that represented love to him, something his mother had told him as a child, and Sarah had proved to him as an adult. He placed the dove at the top of the tree, next to the star and held his chest as he again coughed harshly. He felt two strong sets of hands on his arms and waited for the torture to end.
“Th...thanks,” he said as he found the strength he needed to stand on his own two feet. “There should be three more in there, Buck,” the blond wheezed, pain emanating from his chest as he felt his lungs constricting from lack of air.
Wilmington again relinquished the ailing man to the tracker as he reached into the bag. He pulled out three figures, and couldn’t help but smile. The carvings were of three figures and he knew in his heart they represented Chris, Sarah, and Adam. He smiled as he handed them to the gunslinger, but Chris shook his head.
“You put them on, Buck. Next year those three will be j...joined by six others,” the blond said as his strength gave out and he sagged against the sharpshooter. His eyes opened to half-mast and he watched as his long time friend placed the figures just below the dove.
“Love shone on the three of you, Chris,” he whispered.
“T...thanks, Buck,” Larabee whispered as a shadow flew across the clearing. He looked up and smiled as a dove, pure and pristine white was easily visible against the backdrop of a perfect blue sky.
“I love you, Sarah and Adam, and I...”
“Kept your promise, Chris,” Wilmington said as Larabee succumbed to unconsciousness. He held tightly to the gunslinger as their shared memories of Christmas’s past ran through his mind, bringing tears to his eyes.
“We need to get going, Buck,” Tanner’s soft Texan drawl broke through Wilmington’s jaunt through the past and he nodded once.
“Yeah, alright, Vin, Let’s get him back to the cave while we get the horses ready,” the ladies’ man suggested. The two men supported the blond between them as they walked back to the cave. Buck glanced one last time over his head as tears slipped from his eyes. The two graves didn’t seem so lonely now that the tree sat between the two crosses. He knew in his heart that Sarah and Adam could feel the love Chris Larabee still held for them and he took a deep breath as he turned away from the past. The man in his arms needed him more than his memories and he would make certain he was always there for him.
“Vin,” Wilmington said as they entered the cave.
“You stay with Chris while I get the horses ready.”
“Okay,” Tanner said, knowing the ladies’ man needed some time to himself. He added wood to the fire and sat down, waiting for the older man to lower Larabee’s still unresponsive body to him. He lifted the black clad man so that he rested against his own lean chest and pulled a blanket over him. He nodded to Wilmington as the older man left and turned his attention to the flushed face. Larabee’s labored breathing bothered him as it reminded him of his mother’s illness. He flicked back the stray locks of blond hair and felt the heat rising from his sick friend.
“Ain’t gonna let ya go, Chris. Yer ‘bout the best friend a man could ask fer and I ain’t ready ta give that up...” he grew silent as Wilmington returned for one of the saddles.
It didn’t take the moustached man long to saddle the horses and return to the cave. Tanner still cradled the blond against his chest, his arm held protectively around the lean gunslinger.
“How’s he doing?”
“Same’s he was,” Tanner answered worriedly. “Horses ready?”
“Yeah, we’ll have ta ride Chris in front of us.”
“Reckon.” The tracker watched as the scoundrel doused the fire and returned to help get the gunslinger on his feet. A soft moan alerted them that Larabee was waking up.
“Hey, Chris, how’re you feeling?” Wilmington asked.
“Chest h...hurts,” the blond wheezed past a painfully swollen throat.
“I know it does. Won’t be long and we’ll have you back in town and Nathan’ll be fussing over you,” the ladies man told him.
Larabee nodded, moaning as the movement caused fireworks to explode inside his skull. He was grateful to the two men holding him steady and let his eyes close as they began the journey out of the cave.
“T...tell Nathan...sorry...le...left,” the gunslinger muttered.
Tanner didn’t like the defeated quality to Larabee’s voice and he turned to face the older man.
“Ya can tell him yerself when we get home! I know ya feel lousy, Chris, but ya’ll be jest fine once we git ya ta Nathan.”
“...okay...” the gunslinger agreed, groaning as another series of coughs left him weak and trembling.
“Vin, pass him up to me,” Wilmington said as he mounted the big bay. He could see by Larabee’s face the man was ready to protest and stopped him before he could voice his protests.
“Chris, there’s no way you’ll be able to stay on Pony and if you fall then it’ll be even harder for us to get you home. Especially if you break something. Now the boys are waiting for us to get back so we can celebrate Christmas with them. Are you gonna let your stubborn pride make us miss out on all that?”
“I...I...,” the blond knew they were right and let the tracker ease him up to the waiting arms of his long time friend. He soon felt a blanket draped over him and a set of strong arms wrapped around him. In spite of his resolve not to be a burden he settled back against the broad chest and let his eyes slide closed once more. He heard the flick of the reins and felt the forward motion of the horse, but the steady movement soon lulled him into a light sleep.
Buck knew they had a long ride ahead of them and they’d have to change horses from time to time, but there was little doubt that they’d make it back to Four Corners before the day was over. He glanced sideways at Tanner and knew the younger man felt the same way. Larabee was in desperate need of Jackson’s care or they’d have remained holed up in the cave.
The saloon was crowded with townspeople waiting for the three peacekeepers to return. Plates of food sat in front of them, some picked at, others untouched as snow began to fall once more. Darkness had been on them for several hours and worry continued to show on each face. Four men sat at the back of the saloon, the meals in front of them virtually untouched as they listened to Inez and Gloria Potter singing Silent Night. Their voices rose above the mutterings and soon the entire saloon had joined them in the song.
The storm that had died out earlier had come upon them with a vengeance as they rode through the end of the day. Swirling snow made it a maelstrom of white images as the three men fought to make it home. Darkness had come upon them and Buck Wilmington wondered how the younger man was able to keep them on the trail. It was a gift they’d all seen him use before, but never when it meant so much. Larabee’s life depended on getting him home and out of the cold. There was no one else the ladies’ man trusted to do that job.
‘Get us home, Vin,’ he thought as he pulled his coat tighter around his body.
Chris lifted his head from the tracker’s chest as a new sound met his ears. He remembered stopping several times during the long ride as the two men moved him from one horse to another. Although unclear how many times they made the exchange, he remembered the care they’d taken each time. They made him drink water, forcing it past his lips as he struggled to get it down the raw path of his throat. His eyes opened, but refused to focus as the dark world around him swirled in a kaleidoscope of bright lights. He swallowed painfully as the sound again reached his ears and a smile formed on his face as the warmth of the voices reached him. He struggled to sit further up in the saddle, but his depleted energy made it a fight he was bound to lose.
“Easy, Chris, jest lie back against me,” the Texan ordered.
“I...I hear them, Vin...voices...singing...”
“They sure are, Pard, we’re almost home,” Tanner whispered, his breath visible in the cold air.
“Reckon ya are, but we’ll get ya warmed up real soon.”
“How is he, V...Vin?” Wilmington asked, his teeth chattering.
“Cccold, B...Buck,” Larabee wheezed, his voice making it painfully obvious how sick he was.
“We’re nearly home, pard. We’ll get you up to Nathan’s and make sure he’s got lots of blankets and something warm for you to drink,” Wilmington explained as they made their way towards the livery and Jackson’s clinic.
“Sounds like the whole town is at the saloon, Buck,” the tracker observed as the voices seemed to grow louder.
“Think Nathan’s there?”
“More’n likely. It’s bound ta be a lot warmer there and that’s what Chris needs right now.”
“A...all n...need, Vin,” the gunslinger stammered through chattering teeth.
“Reckon it is, Cowboy,” the sharpshooter said as he turned Pony towards the saloon. He’d changed over to Larabee’s horse during the last exchange and the big animal seemed to sense the need for speed. Now the dark horse sensed the end of their journey as he whinnied softly into the swirling snow.
Nathan listened to the townspeople singing the final chorus of Silent Night as he made his way to the window. The batwing doors had been boarded up to keep the snow and wind out and he tried to see past the blanket of whiteness outside the pane of glass. The town, while unprepared for the freak snowstorm, banded together to keep warm. Mary Travis usually took charge of things, but she’d decided to spend Christmas with her son and in laws. She’d be gone for a month and Jackson knew she’d be bringing her son back with her. Gloria Potter and Inez had stepped in and enlisted the aid of the ladies of Four Corners to bring food and supplies to the saloon. The hotel had been their first choice, but several of the windows had been shattered by flying debris as the wind blew with a vengeance. So now twenty-seven people were huddled in the saloon, taking advantage of the added warmth of friendship and song. The back room had been set up to provide sleeping quarters for the children and the door stood open so the heat of the fire kept them comfortable.
“They’ll be okay, Brother.”
Jackson turned from the window when a hand was gently placed on his shoulder. He smiled at the man he considered his closest friend and took a deep breath.
“I hope so, Josiah.”
“Nathan, remember what today is and have faith in the miracle of the season. Christ was born on a night like this and that was the greatest miracle of them all, but since then this day has seen many other miracles and I do believe we will see one ourselves before the day is over. Now, why don’t you come join us? Inez just made some of her famous cider.”
“You go ahead, Josiah. I’ll be there in a minute.”
“Alright, Nathan, but don’t be too long. Inez’s cider tends to disappear pretty fast.”
Jackson turned back to the window as the townspeople began another carol. He took a deep breath and was about to join the others when something shifted in the white blanket outside the window. He leaned closer and wiped the condensation from the glass as the shapes began to solidify. Three horses took shape outside the saloon and he turned towards the door.
“It’s them!” he shouted as he started pulling at the boards. He heard the frenzied movement behind him as the carol halted and people rushed to his aid. They heard movement on the opposite side and soon had one of the doors uncovered. The sight that met their eyes knocked the breaths from their lungs as two snow covered men supported a third into the room.
“Thank God,” Gloria Potter’s voice was heard to say, and a chorus of Amen’s quickly followed.
“Nathan, C...Chris’ pretty s...sick,” Tanner mumbled tiredly as the doors were quickly boarded up once more.
“Let Josiah and Ezra take him. JD, Charlie, you boys get Buck and Vin over by the fire. Inez, can you get them something warm to drink?”
“Right away, Senor,” the young woman called as she turned her attention to the pot of stew sitting at the back of the stove.
Tiny watched as Sanchez and Standish supported the gunslinger and Dunne and Charlie Morgan helped the two shivering peacekeepers to the fire.
“Connor, you and Mike gimme a hand ta get the horses to the livery!” Tiny moved to the window and forced it open, climbing out into the cold. He waited outside for the two men to join him and closed the window behind him.
Jackson took a look at the two men as Dunne helped Wilmington out of his frozen coat and boots. He could see Charlie doing the same to the trembling form of the tracker and knew they were in good hands. He quickly turned his attention to the gunslinger as Jack Peterson and Tom Wilson, who was caught in town with his family when the storm hit, brought a cot close to the fire. Martha Wilson quickly placed a blanket over it and grabbed a pillow off the pile in the corner.
“Thank you, Ma’am,” Jackson said. “Okay, Josiah, Ezra, just sit him on the edge and let’s get him outta those wet clothes.”
“N...no. N...Na...Na...” he couldn’t find the air to get the man’s name out and felt the helplessness as Martha Wilson knelt before him.
“Now you listen to me, Chris Larabee. You’re sick right now and ya ain’t got the strength ta fight us. I know how modest ya are and we ladies will move away and let the men get ya settled, but once you’re lying down you’ll have no choice but to let us look after you! Okay?”
“...okay...” Larabee wheezed past his tortured throat. His eyes showed the woman how grateful he was and he tried to take a deep breath as the women moved away. He looked up at the former slave and felt regret stab through him, cutting deep into his soul at the worry he saw there. He forced his right arm up and placed his hand on Jackson’s.
“I...I’m s...sorry, Na...than...Didn’t me...mean to br...break my wo...word to y...you.”
“Right now you need to relax, Chris, but as soon as you’re up to it you and I are gonna have us a real long talk. Understand?”
Larabee smiled as he saw the softness in the eyes. He knew Jackson would give him hell, but the man would wait until he understood what was being said. He lifted his head and met five other sets of eyes and saw the promise in those as well.
“Let’s get you out of these things,” Jackson said as he eased the duster off the shivering shoulders. He looked at Ezra as the gambler looked at him fearfully. He shook his head, hoping the younger man understood now was not the time to talk.
“Josiah, you and Ezra get him undressed and under those blankets. I’m gonna see if Martha can make him one of her mustard plasters.”
“D...damn,” Larabee hissed as his arms were eased from the dark shirt he wore.
“I don’t envy you, Mr. Larabee,” the gambler told him.
“T...thanks, E...Ez...maybe y...you could l...let Nathan p...put it on y...you.”
“Ah, I would volunteer for such an undertaking, but I’m afraid that would not help you feel better.”
“Y...yeah...i...it....would...” the blond wheezed.
Standish smiled as he eased Larabee’s boots from his feet. The socks were wet and cold as they joined the boots on the floor. The ex-preacher lifted Larabee up and the dark pants soon joined the other clothing beside the cot.
Chris moaned as the room spun around him. His lungs seemed to be fighting to draw air through his painfully constricted throat. He felt chilled to the bone as the two men eased him down on the bed. Immediately he found it harder to draw a breath and soon felt his body lifted upwards and two more pillows joined the others.
“Easy, Chris, just relax and breathe easy.”
“Try...trying, N...Nathan...Chest hurts...”
“I know it does, Chris.” The healer took his stethoscope from his bag and listened to Larabee’s lungs. He knew the man was dangerously close to pneumonia...or worse he was showing the first signs of it. The heavy wheeze, the painful cough, the raspy whisper of the usually strong voice, all indicated a lengthy recovery period for the blond. He used his long fingers to gently probe the corded neck, frowning as he felt the swollen glands. His mind wandered back to Sanchez’s words about this being a day of miracles and realized they’d need one now in order to keep their friend with them.
“Nathan, I’ve got some willow bark tea steeped,” Gloria said as she placed the cup on the table beside Larabee’s bed.
“Thank you, Mrs. Potter,” Jackson said as he felt the heat rising from the lean form on the bed. Larabee shivered under the blankets and the healer knew they needed to get the fever down before it sapped whatever strength the gunman had left.
“Chris, I need you to drink a little of this. It’ll help with the fever.”
“...okay...” the blond answered as the cup was placed to his lips. He sipped the bitter brew, feeling the heat slide past his ravaged throat and begin to warm him from the inside out. All too soon he felt his rebellious stomach churning and turned away from the offering.
“S...sorry...Nathan...fff....feel s...sick,” the blond explained.
“Okay, just close your eyes and rest. We’ll try again in a little while.”
“Sorry for what, Chris?” the healer asked, feeling the others standing beside him, watching their leader struggle to speak.
“Ruined Christmas for all o...of y...you...”
“Now, Brother, that’s just not so. Christmas is a celebration of family and life and we have an abundance of those. Right now you need to lie still and let Nathan help you get well. We’ll all celebrate as soon as he allows you to make a toast with us. But, Chris...”
“I wouldn’t expect that to be anytime soon. I have a feeling Nathan is gonna keep you under wraps for some time to come,” Sanchez explained seriously.
“You’ve got that right, Josiah. Now, Buck, Vin, you two need to go lie down before you fall down. There’s extra cots in the room with the kids...”
“No arguments, Buck! You and Vin got him this far! Now you need to let the rest of us make sure he gets well.”
“Vin, go, or I’ll set the ladies to make sure you fall asleep...Understood?”
Tanner heard the threat and knew the healer meant what he said. He’d been the recipient of one of Nathan’s drugged sleeps before and didn’t want to find himself in that state again.
“I’ll wake you both if there’s any change. Now get. Mrs. Potter, Martha, would you two make sure they go straight to bed and stay there.”
“I think Martha and I can handle these two,” the older woman said with a smile.
“Ya heard the man. Ta bed with the two of ya!” Martha Wilson ordered, her voice brooked no argument as she led the way to the other room.
Vin looked down at the blond as he passed and knew the older man was fighting to stay awake.
‘I’ll be back, Cowboy,’ he sent through the silent connection, glad to see understanding in the sick man’s fever bright eyes.
‘Thanks, Cowboy,’ the gunslinger sent back. He watched as the two men were led away and turned his attention back to the healer as the former slave touched his forehead.
“We need to get that fever down, Chris. JD, go get me some water. Make sure it’s not too cold,” the former slave ordered.
“Sure, Nathan,” the kid agreed as he hurried to do the healer’s bidding.
Nathan felt something cold at his back and looked over his shoulder to see Tiny and the others climb back through the window. He was relieved to see the men had returned and the storm could be kept outside where it belonged.
“Chris, think you could try a bit more tea now?”
“T...try...” Larabee said and again took small sips of the willow bark tea. He turned away and took a deep breath, wincing at the tightness in his chest.
“Ezra, can you see if the mustard plaster is ready?”
“Certainly, Mr. Jackson,” the gambler said and moved towards the bar.
Jackson saw Larabee’s eyes open and glare at him. He knew the blond had been forced to endure this type of treatment before, but it didn’t make it any easier. The smell alone was bad enough, but the burning sensation on his skin was also uncomfortable.
“Chris, you need this to help you breathe easier...”
“H...hate that s...shit...”
“I heard that Chris!”
Larabee couldn’t help but smile at the familiar voice of Martha Wilson. Somehow the woman always seemed to hear him when he used profanity. He met her warm gaze and knew she wasn’t upset with him, but he apologized instantly.
“Thank you. Nathan, the mustard plaster is ready when you are.”
“Ah, Shi...shoot,” the blond grumbled painfully.
“Will you bring it here, Martha?” the healer asked.
“Indeed I will,” the woman said. “Oh, Inez is also making him an home made cough remedy.”
“D...damn,” the blond wheezed as he closed his eyes once more.
Nathan continued to watch the slow rise and fall of the man’s chest. The raspy wheeze continued to fill him with dread and he vowed to do everything in his power to make sure Chris Larabee recovered from this illness. He looked up as once more a strong hand landed on his shoulder.
“Thanks, Josiah,” he whispered of the gesture.
“He’s gonna be just fine, Nathan. It may take some time, but I’m sure he’ll be arguing with you before you know it,” the ex-preacher said.
‘I hope so, Josiah,’ he thought as Martha returned with the medication. The gambler following closely behind.
“Here you are, Nathan,” the woman said, her eyes wandering to the ill gunslinger. “How is he?”
“About the same. Fever’s sapping his strength and his lungs are full of congestion. It’s a miracle he’s able to breath at all,” the healer said. He wanted to prepare the others for the distinct possibility that Chris Larabee, a man they’d known such a short time, might not make it through the night.
“Nathan, it is the season of miracles and the good Lord willin’ we’ll see Chris Larabee beat this one. You said he’s a damn stubborn fighter...”
The woman turned to her husband, a small smile on her face. “Well, he did, Tom, and Chris proved how stubborn he was when they brought him to our place after that man shot him. If Chris is meant to live then he will and I don’t think it’s his time yet. Now, Nathan, let’s see what we can do about making our own miracle tonight!”
Jackson nodded and took the cloth she’d already prepared. He turned to the ex-preacher as Dunne returned with the water and linen.
“Alright, Josiah, pull back the blankets for me,” the healer ordered, pushing back his own fears as he watched the shallow breaths the gunman was taking.
Sanchez pulled back the blankets and watched as Jackson quickly placed the cloth against Larabee’s chest. The gunman’s nose wrinkled as the foul smelling stuff hit his nostrils and he lifted his arms to push it away.
“Leave it alone, Chris,” Jackson said as he grabbed Larabee’s hands, amazed at how weak the blond’s struggles were.
“I know it does, but you need it right now,” the healer told him, as the sea green eyes opened and focused on him.
“See if he’ll drink this, Senor Jackson,” Inez said as she joined the growing group around Larabee’s bed. “I made it from Osha roots.”
“Thanks, Inez, Chris this should help your throat,” the former slave said, placing the cup in front of the slack lips. He watched as Larabee sipped at the soothing syrup and turned a grateful smile on the Mexican woman.
Chris drank the liquid and reached for the cloth on his chest. He turned a patented glare on the gambler as his hands were caught and held.
“I’m afraid that glare lacks its usual strength, Mr. Larabee, but I shall remind you that you owe me one when you’re back to yourself.”
“W...won’t n...need...remindin’,” the blond whispered as he felt the draw of sleep once more. He felt the familiar signs of another attack and turned a pained look towards the healer.
“Sit him up a little more!” Jackson ordered as he listened to the strangled sounds emanating from the swollen throat. “Easy, Chris, just take slow breaths. Don’t fight that cough! It’ll help get some of that crud off your lungs!”
“H...hurts...” the blond mumbled as the first of the harsh sounds escaped his throat. He felt Josiah’s strong arms holding him as he was lifted forward. Over and over he coughed, spitting the mucus from his mouth as Jackson held a basin in front of him. He moaned softly as the attack eased and he was again lowered to the pillows. He heard worried voices around him, but didn’t have the strength to tell them he was okay. His chest hurt, but he found it easier to breathe. He smiled as two faces invaded his dreams, the ones he’d longed to see since they’d been taken from him.
Men and women alike heard his soft plea and glanced at each other. In his fevered dreams he was seeing his family, and they prayed he wouldn’t give into his desire to be with them.