Main Characters: Chris, Nathan
Notes: Written for the “Nathan Goes On Strike” challenge for the Black and Buckskin group.
Webmaster Note: This story was previously hosted at another website and was moved to blackraptor in July 2012.
Nathan Jackson sighed and rubbed a hand across his tired eyes. He couldn’t remember when he had slept last. His entire body ached, his head throbbed, and the only thing he wanted to do was to crawl off somewhere and sleep for a week.
But it wasn’t to be.
The entire week had been filled with one emergency after another. He had ushered in three new lives and eased the passing of two others. He spent two days and nights tending to a family poisoned by their own well, leaving only when they were able to care for themselves. Then, returning to town, he found that rest once more eluded him. A brawl in the saloon kept him busy with minor injuries sustained by several of the combatants. Then, to top it off, he left the jail to find a frantic mother trailing three young children behind her while she carried her bloodied fourth child in trembling arms. Quietly reassuring the woman that her child would be fine as soon as he cleaned and stitched the little boy’s head wound, he gathered up the child and headed toward his little clinic. There, settling the groggy, sniffling child on his bed, Jackson set about brewing a tea to help the boy relax.
Nathan flinched as he heard something crash behind him.
Turning, he found another of the children – all of them boys – standing over a broken clay jug. The contents, carefully dried and crushed herbs, were scattered across the floor. He sighed from the center of his soul as he thought of how many hours he had invested in filling that container.
“I’m sorry, Mr. Jackson,” the boys mother said shyly as she sought to corral her rowdy sons. “I’ll… I’ll be glad t’ replace it.”
Shaking his head, knowing that she would hardly even be able to pay for his services, he said, “don’t worry ‘bout it ma’am.”
His day continued to drain every ounce of strength from him. The injured child spit out the herbal tea twice before he enlisted the mother to help him. They restrained the little boy, forcing the bitter brew past his protesting lips. By the time the child drifted off to sleep, two more pots of dried herbs had been scattered across the floor, the pan of bloodied water dumped by the injured child’s flailing arm to mix with the entire mess. His floor had become a medicinal quagmire.
Just as he finished closing the little boy’s head wound and covering it with bleached muslin, the door slammed open. Everyone but the injured child jumped and turned to find Chris Larabee and Vin Tanner framed in the opening. Vin had his arm around the gunslinger and was supporting much of his weight.
“Sorry Nathan, didn’t know y’s busy.”
The healer bit back several comments and said only, “I’m just finishing up. What happened?”
“We were sendin’ them trail bums we locked up back t’ their boss. One of ‘em took it into his head t’ make his reputation by drawin’ on Chris. The trail boss’ll be lookin’ fer a new hand, but Chris caught one in the side.”
“Took a chunk a hide, but I don’t think it hit anything real important. He’s been losin’ blood pretty steady though.”
Nodding as he finished tying off the bandage around the little boy’s head, he turned toward the child’s mother. “Keep the wound clean, and bring him back in a couple of weeks so I can take out the stitches. If it starts lookin’ infected though, you bring him right back here or send for me right away.”
“Thank you so much, Mr. Jackson,” the grateful woman said. Then she finished in a hesitant voice, “I’m afraid I don’t have any money t’ pay y’ right now.”
Holding up his hand, the healer said, “Don’t worry about it ma’am, pay me when you’ve got it.”
Smiling, she pulled her sleeping son into her arms and shooed the three whirlwinds out the door.
With yet another tired sigh, Nathan turned to his two friends. “Okay, Chris, let’s get you checked out.”
“Oh hell, Nathan, I’m fine,” the blond grumbled. Then he yelped, glaring hard at his friend. Tanner had poked at the wound with just enough pressure to make the gunman flinch in pain.
“Yeah, that’s why you’re bleeding all over my clinic. Now, let’s get your shirt off so I can look at the wound.” He started to where the injured man sat, only to hit one of the wet spots. His feet went out from under him, and the dark healer landed on his rear.
“Uh, Nathan,” Vin said, barely hiding a smirk, “y’ might wanna consider hirin’ a girl t’ come clean up here, seein’ as how it’s such a mess.”
The former slave glared at him, dark eyes flaring with anger and indignity. He fought the urge to start yelling at the other man, and simply pulled himself to his feet. Moving with greater care, he walked to where Larabee sat, a smile on the handsome face. “You say a word, Chris Larabee and I’m gonna use a knittin’ needle to sew you up.”
Attempting an innocent look, the blond said, “I wouldn’t even think of saying anything Nathan, but, um, you’ve got some… stuff on your pants.”
Frowning down at himself and seeing patches of the herbal mush drying on his pants, Jackson growled. He brushed angrily at the muck, but only succeeded in smearing the mess along his leg. Giving up, he found a towel to wipe his hands and returned his attention to his latest patient.
“Now, I didn’t mean anything by pointing that out… it’s just – “ the blond broke off, groaning softly as his wound made itself known. “I just didn’t want you to be –“
Jackson glared darkly at the wounded man and Chris Larabee closed his mouth. Nearby, Vin Tanner committed the moment to memory. He knew, though, that the others would never believe him if he told them that someone had bested the gunslinger with a look.
Easing the man’s jacket, vest, shirt and undershirt off, Nathan helped him to strip to the waist. He gently probed the injury, finding both an entry and exit wound. He also found quite a bit of blood on the well-honed side. “How long ago did this happen?”
“Reckon about an hour now,” Vin supplied when he saw that Chris was too busy trying not to yell.
“And how long did he bleed before he said anything?”
“He just happened t’ mention it when we saw blood drippin’ onto the boardwalk a few minutes ago.”
“Figures,” the former slave said in a scolding tone.
“Well hell, Nathan, I didn’t even know I’d been hit… at first,” Larabee protested.
Jackson glared, but didn’t say anything more. With Tanner’s help, he cleaned the wound and stitched it closed. Vin stood right beside his friend, supporting him and keeping the straining limbs from striking out at the healer. Chris, fortified by a few drops of Laudanum, still felt the sting of the needle piercing his flesh. Gripping the sharpshooter’s hands ever tighter, he buried his face against the lean chest, biting back the cries and curses that begged their release for as long as he could.
But, finally, “Gah-God… damn it… Nathan!”
“Just one last stitch, Chris,” the big man said as gently as he could manage. As he spoke, he finished, and tied off the thread. “There, I’m done.”
“About damn time,” Larabee spit out through gritted teeth, his voice muffled by Vin’s jacket.
Jackson straightened slowly, brown eyes flashing as he tried valiantly to keep from exploding. The days and nights of too much work and too little rest, too many demands and too little gratitude, all of it burned through him. And when it did, it scorched his soul.
The other two men looked at him, Chris through tear washed eyes. Finding his voice first, Tanner asked, “what?”
“I said, I quit,” the healer repeated.
“Quit?” Chris asked hoarsely.
“Damn it, don’t y’all ever pay attention to me? I said I quit. Is that plain enough?” He didn’t wait for an answer. Instead, he tossed a roll of bandages to the sharpshooter. “Here, you know what to do with this.”
That done, Nathan Jackson stormed from the clinic, leaving two dumbfounded peacekeepers in his wake as he disappeared.
“Anything?” Chris grimaced as he tried to move without causing the pain to lance through his side again.
“Nothin’,” Vin said tiredly. They had been looking for three days, but found no sign of the healer. They were waiting for Josiah to return from the Seminole Village, as it was likely that Nathan had gone there. He looked down at the blond with concern. Chris’ face was flushed, hinting at a fever, and dark smudges beneath his eyes spoke of nights without sleep. Most of the time, he sat awkwardly in the straight-back chair, favoring his injured side just as he was now.
“Y’ know, y’ ought t' be in bed, Cowboy. Y’ don’t look real good.”
Scrubbing a slightly trembling hand across his face, the man in black said softly, “I’m okay.”
Climbing down fro the saddle, Tanner joined him on the boardwalk as he said, “Ain’t none of this yer fault, Larabee.”
“Never said it was,” Chris said irritably.
“Then why’ve y’ been sittin’ out here all day today and all day yesterday?”
“Been sitting here because I can’t do much else right now,” he admitted. “Figured I could at least keep an eye on things while you were all out looking for Nathan.”
Turning one way and then the other as he studied the nearly deserted afternoon street, the hunter teased, “Yeah, good thing yer on top a all this hub-bub. Why don't y’ take a break and come int’ the saloon and I’ll buy y’ a drink?”
Smiling, Chris pushed himself out of the chair. Then he nearly fell as his knees buckled.
“Whoa there, pard,” Tanner reached out to steady the wounded man.
His face losing the last hint of color, the gunman rasped out, “I’m okay… just… just a little tired.”
Frowning, the sharpshooter said nothing at first, only gripping the other man’s elbow and guiding him into the saloon. “C’mon then, let’s git y' inside before y’ fall down.”
Larabee made it past the threshold, but found it impossible to keep his feet under him. He was vaguely aware of Vin taking hold of him and calling out for help.
“Inez, could y’ bring me a chair?”
“Sí, señor!” The dark-eyed beauty called out across the room as she hurried over. Holding the chair, she watched as Tanner lowered the semi-conscious blond to the seat. “What happened?”
“What happened is, Mr. Larabee here’s a stubborn cuss. He should of been in bed takin’ care a hisself, not wanderin’ around like ain’t nothin’ wrong.”
“Wh-what… Vin?” The hazel-green eyes began to clear as consciousness returned. He tried to push aside the restraining hand to rise.
Easily holding the lean frame in the chair, Tanner said, “Just sit still, y’ ain’t goin’ no place for th’ moment. Inez, could y’ go holler at Ezra for me, I’m gonna need a little help with the blamed fool here.”
“Sí.” With that the young woman dashed upstairs.
“I said… I’m fine,” Chris said breathlessly as he tried to figure out why the world was spinning around him.
“Yeah, I know. Meanwhile, I’m gonna have Ezra help me git y' upstairs and in bed. We’ll have t’ take a look at yer wound t’ see what’s goin’ on.”
“I s-said… I’m fine. I’ve been k-keeping the wound… clean.”
“Yeah? Well, we’ll see.”
The sounds of two pairs of footsteps hurrying down the stairs ended their argument for the moment. Ezra appeared beside them, half-dressed for an evening at the gaming table. “Mr. Larabee, you are looking decidedly unwell.”
“Good to see you… too… Ezra.”
“Let’s get him upstairs,” Vin said with a shake of his head.
With Tanner on one side and Standish on the other, Chris felt himself lifted up and half-carried through the saloon. He managed to stumble along between the two men until they reached the first landing on the stairs. There his legs gave out and he hung limply between the two men.
Exchanging concerned looks, Vin and Ezra pulled the unconscious man’s arms over their shoulders and lifted his buckled legs. They carried him upstairs, finding an empty room to use. While Vin balanced the blond on the edge of the bed, pulling off his jacked and shirt, Ezra pulled back the blankets and lit the lamp. Together they striped Chris down to his drawers and settled him in the bed. Neither man missed the fact that a days old, dark stain covered one side of the bandages.
“He ain’t even taken off the bandage… that’s the one I put on ‘im,” Vin growled softly. “Damn it! I knew I shouldn’t a took his word that he was takin’ care of it.”
Gripping the lean shoulder, Standish said, “He’s a grown man, Vin, he knew what he was doing. Don’t blame yourself for his stubbornness. You stay with him, I’ll go to the clinic and get some of Nathan’s supplies. I’ll send Inez up with some water and a rag, you can start working on getting his fever down.”
Tanner nodded, his eyes never leaving the blond. As the gambler left, he retrieved his knife and carefully sliced through the bandages. Gently he eased the muslin from the lean abdomen, stopping only when the dried blood pulled at the wound. With a sigh, he maneuvered Larabee to his side, and with painstaking slowness began to loosen the material. As Chris moaned in protest and tried to push him away, he said brusquely, “Serves y’ right, y’ stubborn fool. I ought t' let y' lay here and boil in yer own juices. Now lay yer ass still ‘n let me take care a y’.”
“Vin?” The woman’s soft voice called from the doorway.
Tanner didn’t look up, only saying, “Just put the stuff on the table for me, would y’, ma’am?”
“I can help.”
“I ‘appreciate it ma’am, but reckon me and Ezra can handle it fer now. I would appreciate it if y’d keep an eye out fer the others though… send ‘em up here soon as they get back. From the looks of things, we’re gonna need t’ find Nathan soon as possible.”
“Sí,” the young woman left the cool water and several cloths.
“Vin?” Glassy eyes blinked owlishly at him.
“Lay still, Chris, we’ve gotta git this bandage off,” Tanner couldn’t keep the anger and frustration out of his voice.
“You say yer fine and I’ll yank the rest of this off.”
“Sorry,” Larabee finished softly. “I didn’t think… it was bad.”
“Reckon y’ would a known if y’d bothered t’ change the bandage.” He pulled the cloth loose then, dropping it to the floor. He grimaced as he saw the angry, swollen red flesh at the site of each wound. “It’s all infected. We’re gonna have t’ clean it out.”
With a soft groan, Chris said only, “okay.”
“How is he?” Standish’s voice asked as he entered the room once more.
“We’re gonna have t’ clean out the wound, it’s infected,” Vin repeated his diagnosis.
“Well,” the sharpshooter sighed, “let’s just say I sure as hell hope they find Nathan soon.”
Josiah Sanchez smiled wearily as the Seminole Village came into view just as the sun touched the Western horizon. He was almost certain he would find Jackson there, finding solace in the arms of Raine. Since his father’s death a few months ago, the young Seminole woman was the closest the former slave had to family.
Other than the other six peacekeepers, Josiah reminded himself.
He had to admit, though, that the soft-spoken man didn’t seem to want much to do with them at the moment. With a sigh, the former preacher shook his head sadly and urged his mount down the winding path. As he drew near the cluster of adobes, he saw many of the men coming from their homes to see who was approaching. When they recognized the oldest member of the seven peacekeepers, some waved in greeting while others simply went back inside.
The old chief, Tastanagi, came out last of all, a toddler fast on his heels. Sanchez smiled as he recognized the baby as the little boy born just before their first visit. He raised his hand in greeting, waiting for the chief to invite him to dismount.
“Greetings, Josiah,” the Seminole leader said. He stood watching the oldest member of their protectors as he dismounted, his long white hair blowing in the wind. “It has been a long time.”
“Too long, my friend,” Sanchez agreed, taking the man’s hand. “There never seems to be time enough for the important things in life, only the wasteful details of getting from one day to the next.”
Nodding, the old man said, “And I would suspect that you have not come to visit this time, either.”
“No sir, I haven’t. I’ve come looking for a lost lamb, and figured he might have sought refuge out here.”
With a knowing smile, the chief said, “that he has.” He nodded toward one of the adobes. “I believe you might find him over there, visiting with my ‘daughter’ Raine.”
With a grin, the big man nodded and headed toward the little house.
Vin flinched as he heard the heart-rending moan that issued from his injured friend, but continued at his work. While Ezra struggled to hold Chris still, Vin was gently snipping loose the stitches Nathan had so carefully closed the wound with just three days ago. They had to clean the infection out of the bullet holes, and he didn’t know any other way but to open them up again.
“Don’t… stop,” Larabee muttered, half delirious with the growing fever. He struggled feebly to fight the offending hands. “Le’me be.”
“Y’ might as well give it up, Cowboy, we gotta do this. Reckon next time y’ll take better care a yerself.”
“I wouldn’t bother wagering on as sure a bet as that,” Standish said, shaking his head.
Neither man would voice their true concern, that Chris Larabee wouldn’t survive to win or lose that bet. They continued to struggle with the blond, working to drain the bloody pus from the wounds. His cries grew weaker and weaker as the fight drained what little strength he retained. In the end, he lay trembling on the mattress, moaning breathlessly as they continued to work on clearing the gore from his side.
Finally, satisfied that he had done all he could, the tracker packed the weeping wounds with a poultice to draw out any remaining infection. Wrapping the lean abdomen with clean cloth, he and the gambler lifted the weakening man from the bed, while Inez quickly changed the linen. Then, settling the trembling frame back on the bed, they covered him and watched as he sank into deep unconsciousness.
Vin sat on the edge of the bed, one hand brushing gently at the thick blond locks. He took up a fresh cloth, dampened it, and bathed the ashen features. “Reckon yer just plum wore out, Cowboy. Sorry we had t’ hurt y’ like that, but we gotta take care a that infection. Y’ rest though, and get yer strength back.” A hand settled on his shoulder, and the sharpshooter looked up to see Standish standing beside him.
“He’s a strong man, Vin, as strong as I’ve ever seen. If I were to wager on the outcome, I would put my money on Chris.”
Tanner smiled, nodding his head slightly at the comment. He could only hope the gambler was right. Then the sound of heavy boots pounding up the stairs and down the hall caught his attention. Both men looked up when the door opened, and Buck bounded inside.
“How is he?” Wilmington said breathlessly, quieting only when he saw how Chris startled at the sudden noise.
“Well, if y’d settle down a minute and look at ‘im rather than tryin’ t’ scare the hell outta ‘m, y’d see fer yerself,” Tanner lectured, his drawl deepening in his frustration.
“He’s holding his own,” Ezra answered. “However, I believe we would all feel better if Nathan were to return.”
“Damn it!” Buck growled. “Ain’t a sign of him anywhere. Josiah gone to the village?”
“Yes, he should be there by now.”
“Well, my money’s on Nathan bein’ out there. Reckon if anyone can get ‘im t’ come back its Josiah.”
Looking down at the still body, Ezra breathed, “I pray that you’re right, my friend.”
“Josiah, you’re wastin’ your time,” Nathan looked up from where he lay on the bed. He had barely left it since arriving the night before, his body feeling heavy with exhaustion.
“It’s mine to waste, brother,” Josiah said quietly. “I wanted to come see you, and find out what happened.”
“That’s easy, I got tired,” Jackson said quietly.
Coming farther into the room, the big preacher said, “understandable. We put a lot on your shoulders, my friend.”
“Well, you’re the only one that seems to recognize that.”
“I doubt that,” Sanchez disagreed.
“I don’t,” Nathan shook his head, then wearily pushed himself up, sitting on the edge of the narrow bed. His shoulders slumped even as he propped his elbows on his knees. Hands dangling loosely, he dropped his head to his broad chest. “It’s the truth.”
The big man studied his friend for a few moments, folding his arms across his broad chest. The younger man was the picture of despondency, every muscle in his body expressing his pain and sadness. With a shake of his gray head, Josiah lowered himself onto a nearby chair, still watching the dark man. “You’re tired.”
“Think I already said that.”
“Yes, but it’s not a bodily tired, it’s a tired of the soul.”
Scrubbing a hand across his face, the former slave said, “Ain’t really in the mood for your preachin’, Josiah.”
“Then I won’t preach. I’ll just say this… we need you Nathan.”
“Yeah? Well, seems folks have a poor way of showin’ it.”
“I agree.” The dark head rose, a frown on the handsome face as Jackson stared at him. “I believe that we’ve taken advantage of you my friend, many, many times. We have forgotten what a gift you have, and that you could have chosen not to share it with us.”
Frowning, the dark man said, “No I couldn’t have.”
Smiling, the preacher said, “No… you couldn’t have, because that’s the type of man that you are.”
With a sharp laugh, the former slave said, “Yeah, the kind that gets taken advantage of time and again.”
Leaning forward to stare into the flashing brown eyes, Sanchez said, “Or the kind who shares his gift with others simply because he is able to.”
Jackson sighed, dropping his head once more. “I can’t honestly say why I do it Josiah. Not any more.”
The former preacher stood, stepped across the small room, and laid a hand on each slumped shoulder. “You need more rest I think, and I’ve been in the saddle far longer than I care to think about today. Why don’t I see if I can find someplace to bunk for tonight, and we’ll talk more in the morning.”
“Yeah, okay,” Nathan agreed. When he looked up, the big man was gone. One side of his mouth quirked up in a grin and he shook his head. He had wondered if the other six would come looking for him, and knew they’d find him if they chose to. He was glad that it had been Josiah to come after him. While the other men would have come to drag him back if that was what they thought best, he couldn’t have talked to them. Not like he could talk to the big preacher.
But he wasn’t certain what he was going to say.
Buck looked down at the frighteningly quiet body lying in the bed, barely able to acknowledge the fact that it was his oldest friend. He had convinced Vin and Ezra to leave long enough to get some dinner, giving him some time to spend alone with Chris. He sat on the edge of the mattress, gently bathing the fevered face. There was no indication that the blond even felt the ministrations, or any thing at all.
“Damn it, Stud, I don’t know what you thought you’d prove pullin’ a stunt like this. You always were a hard headed cuss, but I thought y’ were smarter than this. I swear, soon as you get your strength back, I’m gonna kick your ass.”
“Not… likely,” a raspy whisper caused the big ladies man to look up with a smile.
“Hey, pard. You awake?”
“K-kind…a,” Larabee managed, adding with a frown, “th… thir… thirsty.”
“Imagine you are. Hang on just a second, okay?” He reached for a pitcher and glass, pouring half a glass of the cool well water. He slipped a hand beneath the sweat-soaked blond head, lifting Larabee enough to sip at the liquid. The big man watched to make certain that his friend was handling the water all right. Chris managed to drain the glass before his head lolled against his friend’s chest. Sitting the glass aside, Buck lowered him back to the bed.
Stroking the thick hair back from the pale face, Wilmington sighed. “Damn it Chris, don’t you dare die on me. If you do, I swear I’m gonna ride right into hell just to kick your ass.”
“Me and you both,” came a familiar drawl from the doorway.
Buck looked up to see Vin and Ezra standing in the doorway. “Thought you boys were gonna get some dinner.”
“We did,” Tanner said as he came to stand next to the bed. “Even had a drink and played a couple hands of cards. Would a played more, but I was beatin’ Ezra, so he wanted t’ quit.”
With a snort, Standish said, “Only in your demented imagination. We’ve been gone more than two hours, Mister Wilmington, how have… things… been here?”
“He woke up just a few minutes ago, took some water,” Buck informed them.
“That sounds promisin’,” Vin said.
“Unquestionably,” Standish said.
But the big man wasn’t convinced. “We need Nathan here… now.”
“Josiah’ll bring ‘m back if he is out at the reservation, Bucklin.”
“But what if he’s not?”
Nathan woke to the smell of hot coffee. Blinking his eyes open, he slowly focused on someone a lot larger and a lot paler than he was expecting. “Well, you ain’t Raine.”
With a deep laugh, the preacher said, “Don’t think anyone would ever mistake us for one another, brother.”
Grinning, the former slave pushed himself up to lean against the head of the bed, accepting the steaming mug from the other man. “Thanks.”
Nodding, Josiah dropped to the nearby chair. “Thought I’d see how things are looking this morning.”
“Ain’t had my eyes open long enough to look yet.”
Nodding, the big man said, “I’m going back to town today. I’d sure like to have some company.”
“Don’t know that I’m ready to do that.”
Studying the other man for a few minutes, the gray head dropped, and a big hand ran from forehead to chin. “What do you need from us, Nathan? What can we do to make it better for you?”
Shrugging, Jackson began, “Don’t rightly – “
“Yes you do know, my friend,” Sanchez broke in. “This is me, remember? Don’t try lying to me Nathan, you never have before. I want to help you, but I need your help to do that.”
“My help… that’s just it. Everyone wants my help, every day… every night… sunup to sunup they expect me to be at their beck and call. And what do I get for it? No sleep, no pay, and no thanks. It’s almost like… like…”
“Almost like before? When you were a slave?” Josiah asked softly.
The healer’s head snapped up and he stared at the other man. A myriad of emotions ran across the handsome face, his eyes filling with tears. Finally he whispered, “Yes.”
Sanchez watched him for a minute before he said, “You’re feeling trapped?”
“Yeah, I guess.”
“Yeah, I… wait,” Jackson realized that he had fallen into a verbal trap, answering in rote. “Look Josiah, I never said I felt like I was abused. It’s just that, well, it seems like folks only see me when they need me, but they ain’t abusin’ me.”
Nodding sagely, the big man said, “But you feel trapped by all these people that don’t see you unless they need you?”
“Well, I guess maybe they ain’t trappin’ me…”
“Maybe you’re trapped by your sense of loyalty?”
Frowning, the younger man said, “You’re sayin’ I’ve been puttin’ up with all that stuff because I want to?”
“Maybe not want, but I think your sense of loyalty toward the town has grown to an extent that perhaps has you running scared.”
“Scared of what?”
“You’re the only one that can answer that.”
With a deep, heavy sigh, the healer said, “Reckon I sound awful childish, mopin’ because folks ain’t sayin’ ‘thank you’ like I think they should.”
“You sound like a man who’s overworked and under-appreciated, my friend. Can’t say I blame you for feelin’ like you do.” He paused, then continued quietly. “I’m going to be leaving in a couple of hours. I’ll understand if you choose to stay here, my friend.”
Nathan looked thoughtfully at the older man, but didn’t answer. He watched the former preacher leave, then dropped back to the bed. Staring at the ceiling, he ran the conversation around in his mind.
He looked up to see the beautiful young Seminole maiden who had stolen his heart so many months ago. She was standing in the doorway, the morning sun framing her in a golden aura. With a sigh, he smiled, holding out his hand to her. Raine returned the smile, and padded softly to join him on the bed. Perching on the edge of the mattress, she stroked a hand down his face, then dipped her head down to kiss him. He wrapped one big hand through her dark hair, holding her fast as he returned the kiss.
Sitting back, her dark eyes searched his face for a long moment. “I have the feeling you have found more questions than answers after talking to Josiah.”
“Well, that tends to be the way of things when you talk to Josiah.”
“Has he helped you to find your path?”
“Yes,” she nodded. “Isn’t that why you came here, you had lost your life’s path?”
Dark brows knitted in a frown, and he studied her words, now tumbling in his mind in a confused concert with those of Sanchez. “Good Lord, girl, you’re almost as bad as he is.”
Smiling coyly, the young woman stroked his face. Leaning in close, she whispered against his ear, “I could show you just how different I can be, as well.”
They had all spent a sleepless night, fighting to vanquish the fever that threatened to consume their friend. They carried water from the town well hour after hour, soaking the heat ravaged body with rags that seemed to dry as soon as they met the fevered flesh. They removed the poultices, finding more poison tainting the wounds. JD, who had been relegated to being the only actively working peacekeeper, was rousted from bed at midnight to help them.
While Buck, Ezra and Dunne held Chris completely immobile so he wouldn’t drain what little strength he held onto, Vin once more cleared the wound of infection. Chris cried out, uncharacteristically begging the other men to let him alone. His pleas fell on compassionate but deaf ears as they continued the fight. As the bloody pus stained the towels beneath him, he fell quickly exhausted.
Holding his friend’s upper body still, Buck loosened his grip when the blond fell silent. Making certain not to disturb Tanner’s work, he gathered his old friend in his arms, whispering softly to the pain-wracked man. “It’s gonna be okay, stud. I know it hurts, but Vin’s only tryin’ to help, Chris. He’s cleanin’ the infection outta those bullet wounds. You just hang onto me, pard, let us take care a you.”
Whether he heard or not, the others didn’t know. But they all watched as one trembling hand grasped at the big man’s shirtsleeve, holding on with everything he had.
Re-packing the wounds with more herbal mixtures, Vin bound them then sat back on the edge of the bed. Wiping the back of his hand across his forehead, the young man said, “That’s the best I can do fer now. Reckon we ought t' change the sheets again while we got ‘im up anyway.”
Nodding, Buck gently lifted the lean body and carried him to the rocking chair they had brought in earlier. He settled into it, cradling his friend in his arms. Ezra stepped over to the two men, draping a blanket over the ill man. Neither of them missed the fact that Chris continued to cling to the bigger man’s arm.
The other three flipped the mattress and covered it with fresh bedding. That done, Buck returned his friend to the bed, settling him beneath the blankets. He considered pulling the clinched fingers from his arm but, with a bittersweet smile, he left it where it was and sat down beside the still body.
They resumed the cool sponge baths, rubbing the well water along his listless frame until their own hands grew numb from the cold. They stopped long enough to bring back the warmth to wrinkled fingers, then resumed the fight.
Just as the sun made itself known in the curtained window, Chris shivered, jerked, and moaned. The bedding was soaked as a final explosion of fever shook his embattled body. They looked at one another, then at the once more still man. Long minutes ticked past as they waited; watched and counted each shallow breath. Finally Vin reached out, pressing his hand against the waxen forehead. Then a small, tentative smile lit his finely chiseled features.
Josiah looked up from where he was tacking Apostle at the sound of footsteps. Smiling when he saw Nathan and Raine approaching, the healer leading his horse, Able, he said, “I take it that I’ll have company on the way home?”
Nodding, Jackson replied, “Ain’t for certain yet that I’ll stay, but don’t want to leave things like I did.”
His smile wavered at the thought of their band breaking up, but the former preacher recovered quickly. “You have to follow your path, my friend, wherever it leads.”
With a deep, hearty laugh, the dark man said, “You and Raine… don’t know which of you is the worse.”
The gray-haired man exchanged a look with the beautiful young woman and they shared a smile. Josiah said with a wink, “I suppose that should tell you something, son.”
“Yeah, such as?”
“We only want the best for you, Nathan,” Raine chimed in softly.
Dark brown eyes glistening, the healer wrapped his arms around the young woman, hugging her tightly. Stepping back only far enough to tilt her face up to meet him, he kissed her deeply. With a sigh, he finally stepped away, holding her hand until the last possible second. Squeezing her hand before he released it, he climbed into the saddle, looking down at her. “I’ll be back, girl. Ain’t for certain how soon, but I will be back.”
Tears streaming down her lovely face, the young Seminole woman nodded. She raised her hand and waved as the two men turned their horses and started away from the village. Nathan turned time and again until they were out of sight, to see her still there.
When they were so far away that he could no longer even see the Village, Jackson finally turned away, riding silently beside the older man.
They rode in silence for some time, Josiah realizing that the last thing his friend needed was small talk. When Nathan was ready to talk, he would. On his part, the healer’s mind was filled with spinning thoughts, each colliding into the next until he thought his mind would simply explode. His head throbbed as he tried to sort through the muddle of where he went from here. The future was hidden by a veil of uncertainty, filled with paths going off in every direction.
“What the hell am I goin’ to do?” He spoke the words aloud before he realized it.
Josiah slanted a look toward his companion. “Are you asking me, brother, or just thinking aloud?”
Shaking his head, Jackson said, “A little of both, I guess. I don’t know, Josiah, it just seems like everything’s coming down on me at once.”
“Yours is a heavy burden.”
Nathan stared across at the older man, trying to decide if he were being truthful, or simply humoring him. Deciding that Josiah was being sincere, he said, “Ain’t no worse than anyone else’s I suppose.”
“I disagree, Nathan. You literally hold the lives of others in your hands time and time again. Without your expertise, there would have been so many more graves in the cemetery at Four Corners… including some of us. There aren’t words enough to repay you for that.”
The dark man chuckled, shaking his head. “Lord, Josiah, you make me sound like some kind of saint or something!”
“Indeed I do, brother,” Sanchez said with a broad smile, “indeed I do.”
“Vin?” The voice was a hoarse, breathless whisper, but it sounded like a choir of angels to the exhausted man.
Looking up into confused, half-opened eyes, Tanner grinned broadly. “Hey pard. ‘Bout time you woke up.”
Rubbing a callused hand across his chin, the sharpshooter said “Fever broke yesterday mornin’. Been sleepin’ ‘bout a day ‘n a half. How y’ feelin’?”
“Tired… thirsty… hurts.”
Smiling compassionately, the younger man said, “Reckon so. Y’ been through a lot the last few days. Maybe next time y’ get shot you’ll take better care a yerself… although I know what the chances of that’ll be.”
With a wan smile, Chris whispered, “Too stubborn.”
“By half,” Tanner agreed. He reached for a glass and poured it half full of cool water. Slipping his hand beneath the other man’s head, he lifted Chris up and slowly fed him the drink. His thirst slaked for the time being, Larabee smiled his thanks and drifted back to sleep.
The injured blond drifted in and out for the next twenty-four hours, waking long enough to take some broth or water, exchange a few words with whoever was sitting with him, then he would drop back off to sleep. The fever didn’t return, while his color did. By the time yet another day dawned, he was truly awake and pestering the others to be allowed up.
“Chris, we figure if you’re able to hold down breakfast and lunch, we’ll take you out on the boardwalk this afternoon,” Buck informed the bed-ridden man.
“But why not now?”
“Cause the sun’s just barely up, and like I said… you make it through lunch without anything happenin’ and we figure you’ll be ready for the great outdoors.”
“But, if we went out there now –“
“Larabee, would you just shut up? We ain’t negotiatin’ this, so save your energy for when you do get to go outside.”
“Could go myself,” he said, attempting a glare. The wide yawn that followed spoiled the effect, however.
“Yeah,” Wilmington replied with a smile, “You just do that. Meantime, I’m gonna holler down to Inez and get you something to eat.”
Larabee managed to make it through breakfast and lunch. As promised, Buck and Vin helped him into his clothes, then escorted him downstairs. Chris moved slowly, his movements stiff and unsteady, but he insisted on walking on his own. At the top of the stairs, Buck moved in front of him, and Vin walked behind, to make certain that the gunslinger made it down without falling. It took several long minutes for them to make it to the boardwalk outside the saloon. Chris was trembling by that time, a cold sheen of perspiration covering his colorless face. He didn’t argue this time when the other two men helped him to a chair, wrapping a blanket around his shivering frame.
His eyes closed against the pain and nausea, Larabee heard nothing but the loud pounding of his heart and wheeze of his unsteady breathing. Slowly the discomfort eased, and he slanted his eyes open to find the other two men flanking him. “You two gonna sit with me… the whole time?”
“Yep,” Tanner and Wilmington answered in unison.
With a put-upon sigh, the blond settled back and did his best to enjoy the outing. At least his two watchdogs were quiet… not a stretch for the quiet tracker, but he was amazed at how well the usually boisterous ladies man did. The trio sat through most of the afternoon, several of the townspeople making a point of coming by to ask after the gunman’s health. While he would never admit to it aloud, their gestures of goodwill touched the blond. Only a few months earlier, those same people would have been just as obvious in avoiding him.
As the evening sun cast long shadows across the little town, a pair of familiar riders came into view. Buck looked across a dozing Chris when Vin called his attention to the pair. He nodded grimly, not certain that he was ready to welcome the healer back with open arms.
Reading the look of reluctance on the big man’s face, Tanner said, “I know how y’ feel, Bucklin, but he couldn’t a known things would get as bad as they did.”
“He knew Chris was hurt, Vin, and he chose to leave him and go off an’ visit. Don’t know as I’d feel any different with any a the other of you if you went off without doin’ your job.”
The sound of his name calling him back to full wakefulness, the blond between them raised his head. “You ain’t any more perfect than the rest of us, stud. What’s makes it different for Nathan?”
“The difference is,” Wilmington growled emotionally, “him not bein’ perfect almost got you dead.”
Their conversation ended as the two horsemen reined in at the hitching post right in front of their friends. As they dismounted and slapped the reins around the horizontal post, the men got their first real look at the men on the wooden walkway. They took in the cool appraisal of the slender sharpshooter and the smoldering glare of the labile ex-sheriff. Then both pairs of eyes settled on the man between them. The ruddy features were ashen, dark smudges ringed eyes dull with fatigue. The slender body, wrapped in a quilt seemed somehow smaller than only a few days ago, and the leader of their little group sat awkwardly, favoring his side.
“What’s the matter?” Nathan asked without preamble.
“What’s the matter?” Buck spit out the echoed question. “What’s the matter is, Chris damn near died while you were out visitin’ with your girl. That’s what the matter is!”
“Buck,” Larabee’s voice was whisper quiet, but every eye turned to him immediately. When he knew he had everyone’s attention, he continued. “Why don’t you boys go get a drink. I want to talk to Nathan alone.”
“Chris – “
“C’mon Buck, I’ll let y' buy the first round,” Vin moved around his injured friend, one hand quickly squeezing the black clad shoulder as he did. He positioned himself so that Buck was edged slowly toward the swinging doors.
Still grumbling under his breath, the bigger man relented, storming into the dark saloon. Tanner and a somewhat bewildered Sanchez followed quickly behind, leaving Larabee and Jackson alone on the boardwalk.
“Chris, what happened?”
“Sit down, Nathan, I’m too tired to sit here staring up at you.” As the other man settled into the just vacated chair, he continued, “The gunshot wound got infected.”
“Damn it! I should never have left… I should have stayed long enough to make sure you were okay. I’m sorry Chris, I – “
Holding up a hand for quiet, the gunman said, “Nathan, you did your job, just like you always do. I was just too blamed hard-headed to take care of myself after you left.”
“But if I’d stayed, I could have kept an eye on you… made you take care of yourself, made certain the wound stayed clean.”
“I’m sorry, Chris.”
“You don’t have a damned thing to apologize for.”
“But, you just said yourself – “
“I don’t remember it being part of the deal that you have to baby-sit me when I’m too stupid to take care of myself.”
“But, I’m a healer. I should have been here to take care of you… make sure you do what you should be doin’.”
“You’re a healer. It’s your job to patch me up. It’s my job to take care of myself. Nathan, you know what your problem is?” When the dark man stared at him curiously, he continued, “Your problem is that you’re just too damn good at what you do. We’ve come to expect miracles from you, and I think you’ve come to expect them from yourself. No matter how good you are, Nathan Jackson, you’re still a human being. Reckon like any human being, you get tired.”
Lord yes, he was tired, Nathan had to agree. There was just so much a man could take. But one thing he had been wrong about all along, he was not unappreciated. Maybe the others didn’t say it as much as he would like to hear it, but it was being said now.
“I sure as hell don’t blame you for wanting to get away for a few days. Can’t say I was real happy about you leaving at the particular moment you did, but I understand it.”
“I’ve been thinkin’ Chris. Thinkin’ that maybe I’d like to be movin’ on.”
The blond’s face fell, a hint of sadness glittering in his dark-ringed eyes. But in true Larabee fashion, he put those feelings aside and only replied, “I see.”
Rubbing a hand across his face, the healer said, “y’all deserve a real doctor, and the town can support one now. Somethin’ like this… well, it makes me see how y’all deserve better.”
“Anyone been complaining about your work?”
“No! Lord, if anything, I’ve got more work than I can handle. That’s why I left, Chris. I was just so damned tired of everyone needin’ me all at once.”
Chris nodded, pondering the other man’s words. Inside, his emotions were pounding at him, begging for release. He wanted to rant and rave at the former slave, telling him just how much they all needed his caring and compassion. What the man lacked in formal education he more than made up in devotion. Aloud, all he said was, “So you left because you had too much to do?”
“Sounds sort of foolish when you put it that way.”
Nathan stared into the pain-lined eyes, searching for accusation. Instead he found something completely different. He found friendship. Confused, he repeated, “selfish?”
“Yeah… on our part. I think we’ve all come to rely too much on you. We never thought that we were asking too much of you.”
“Not really too much, I reckon… it’s just… ah, hell. I don’t know.”
Smiling, the blond said, “why don’t you go back out to the Village… get some more rest. Maybe if you do, you’ll be able to decide if you want to stay or not.”
Jackson pondered the question for a minute, but then returned his steady gaze to the blond. While Chris was obviously on the mend, he certainly didn’t look well. With a shake of his head, the dark man said, “reckon I’d better stay here for a few days, make sure you don’t have a relapse.”
“Nathan! I thought we just went over that… I don’t need a baby-sitter!”
Pushing himself out of the chair, Jackson said, “you say that, but I ain’t for certain I believe it. Now, I want to get you up to the clinic so I can look at that wound. Like as not I’ll have to put the stitches back in.”
“Well, hell, it’s been fine the last few days without any. Why bother now?” Larabee’s voice grew in volume.
Inside the saloon, the others were listening to the exchange. While Buck still looked like a storm cloud had settled across his features, Vin and Josiah exchanged a smile. Leave it to Chris Larabee to convince someone to stay by telling them how much he didn’t need them!
“Why bother?! Well, how ‘bout because as long as that wound’s open, you can get another infection real easy. Not to mention it’ll leave an ugly scar, and Lord knows you don’t need any more of them!”
“Look, you damned mule-headed fool!” Chris gasped and paled as he tried to push himself from the chair. Dropping back, he managed a few deep breaths before looking up to see a pair of dark eyes studying him with concern.
“All right,” Jackson said softly, “You’ve got two choices, Chris Larabee. Lean on me and let me help you up to the clinic, or I call the others out here and we carry you up.”
“You wouldn’t!” Chris tried glaring at the other man, but the painful tug of his still healing side turned it to a wince, instead. Managing a deep breath, he nodded, putting out a hand to the other man.
Smiling, the big healer took the hand and carefully lifted the smaller man to his feet. With an arm around the black clad shoulders, he led his friend down the boardwalk toward his clinic.
“I’m fine,” Larabee wheezed as he managed to track along beside the bigger man.
“Sure you are. That’s why you look like a three-day old corpse.”
“Well that’s a fine thing to say!”
The others shook their head at the fading exchange. Even Buck, ever the mercurial soul, had to admit that it was nice to have their full number back.
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