Author Notes: It’s pretty pure h/c. Some language, and descriptive illness passages for those of you reading this over lunch. Vague references to my story Every Mother’s Son, but nothing that will keep you from enjoying (well, I hope you enjoy it!) this story.
Written for my Gemini Twin, TrackerGirl, for her birthday.
Webmaster Note: This story was previously hosted at another website and was moved to blackraptor in September of 2012.
It had started off the day before as a headache and a general feeling of tiredness. He struggled to keep them both from his companion, knowing that the other man would want to stop so he could rest. The fact that he had promises to keep in the little town of Four Corners would be shrugged off, and he wasn’t about to let that happen. So, he had kept the wide brim of his hat low to shade his aching eyes from the late spring sun and managed to hold himself in the saddle through the long hours.
But today, Vin Tanner had to admit that he was sick.
Chris Larabee looked across the low cook fire at his companion. Tanner was huddled against a fallen tree, wrapped in his coat and blanket, looking about as miserable as a man could look. He had known the day before that the younger man was hiding the fact that he wasn’t feeling well, but had let it go when Vin hadn’t complained of anything. The Texan was as stubborn as they came, and he knew he’d sit his saddle as long as possible before admitting anything was wrong.
By the looks of him, the blamed fool would be doing good to get into the saddle this morning.
Padding across the camp, Larabee squatted on his haunches beside the man in question. Squinting a look at the red-rimmed eyes and flushed cheeks, he said simply, “You’re sick.”
“Always said you were quick,” Vin rasped out, his voice scratchier than normal.
Ignoring the jibe, the blond said, “What’s wrong?”
“Hell, you name it,” Tanner said in a disgusted tone. “Head’s ready t’ explode… throat’s on fire… guts rollin’ seven ways from Sunday.”
Reaching out a hand, Chris lightly touched the man’s face, eliciting a sharp intake of breath from his friend. “You’re burning up.”
“Yeah? Feels like yer freezin' from where I sit.”
“You planning on being cantankerous the rest of the trip, or just this morning?”
“Ain’t decided. Think y’ could stop yammerin’ at me? Ain’t helpin' my headache none… and talkin' ain’t helpin’ my throat.”
Looking up at the brilliant blue sky, Larabee said, “We can stay over here today, weather looks decent.”
“I’m fine… don’t need t’ lay about when we got travelin’ t’ do.”
Shaking his head at the man’s stubbornness, the blond said, “Fine. You can at least take it easy for a little while, I’ll see to breakfast and getting the horses ready.”
Vin looked as if he would argue, but in truth, he was grateful for the offer. Nodding his head finally, he said, “Reckon I can do that.”
Grinning at how the sharpshooter could make it sound as if he were doing him a favor, Chris left him huddled in his blanket and set to his chores. He fixed breakfast, taking his time in doing it. Despite his stirring in a healthy portion of sugar, Tanner couldn’t swallow the cornmeal mush he’d made him. He was barely able to drink the coffee Larabee handed him.
“Vin, you look like hell. We’ve got another three days ‘til we make town, but only two to go back to Renson.”
Shaking his head, Tanner croaked out, “I can hold out an extra day t’ sleep in my own bed. Besides, probably where I got it.”
He was probably right, Chris had to agree. His mind brought up images of at least two of the working girls in the saloon where they had bunked. They had been pale and red-eyed, one of them coughing frequently into a ratty cloth. The blond looked at the pallid features, took in the tremors that coursed through the lean frame and the slight wheeze that accompanied each breath, and knew that Vin wouldn’t be sleeping in his own bed when they reached town. He’d be in the clinic. “I mixed up some of Nathan’s potion for fever, you’re gonna drink it down while I get the horses ready.”
“Yer a coward, cowboy… jist don’t wanna be around while I drink it.”
With a lopsided grin, the gunman said, “Damn right.”
As he had with breakfast, the man in black took his time saddling the horses. Still, he returned to camp to find Tanner still nursing the potent brew. “Does it taste better cold?”
The look slanted toward him told Larabee that he’d just asked one of the dumbest questions ever. With a chuckle, he stood patiently while the younger man managed to finish the tea. He took the tin cup in one hand, offering the other to his friend. The sharpshooter glared at him, but took the hand and allowed himself to be hauled to his feet. Chris caught him as he swayed, a small moan escaping tightly pressed lips. “Whoa there, pard.”
“S-sorry… lost my b-balance.”
“Vin,” Larabee said, with a patience he really didn’t feel at the moment, “you need to rest.”
“Ain’t plannin’ t’ c-carry my horse… all I gotta do is sit my saddle.”
“All right,” he surrendered to the man’s stubbornness and released his hold. Tanner stood stock still for a few seconds before shuffling off toward the horses. Shaking his head and muttering under his breath, the older man followed close behind.
Vin managed to haul himself into the saddle, dropping to the broad back with a tired grunt. He took up the reins, looking to see that Chris was already seated on Pony. Together the men headed back to the trail. They traveled without talking throughout the morning hours, Larabee keeping tabs on his ill friend without hovering over him. If there was one thing he knew about Vin Tanner, it was that the man hated to be coddled. He decided that he’d just bide his time and, if it came to it, he’d pick the man up off the ground and put him to bed.
They stopped by a fast running creek as the sun hit its zenith, camping beneath a wide spreading tree. Vin slumped against its trunk, closing his eyes with a sigh. He didn’t move until he felt himself being observed, squinting one eye open enough to see Chris beside him. “What?”
With a grin, Larabee held out his canteen, “It’s cold.”
Vin took the container, feeling the icy bite on his fingers. He sipped tentatively at the water, smiling when the cold water ran along his swollen throat. Careful not to take it too fast, he drank for some time. Finally, sated, he lowered the canteen to his lap and lay back against the tree. “Thanks.”
The blond capped the container, watching as the lithe body relaxed. Vin began to snore softly, his strength sapped by the fever and the morning’s ride. Chris moved off and built a fire, heating up beans and cornbread along with coffee and more of the healer’s special tea. Tanner didn’t move until he carried a mug to him. Nudging the buckskin-clad shoulder, he said, “Vin? Wake up and drink some of this.”
The tracker muttered something unintelligible, but didn’t wake, which began to worry the gunman. Sitting the mug aside, he shook him a little harder. “Vin? You need to wake up.”
Slowly his lids slid back to reveal two slits of blue, “Lemme be.”
“Drink for me, then you can go back to sleep if you want.”
Frowning, Tanner said, “Horse piss?”
With a chuckle, Larabee answered honestly, “Coffee.”
A trembling hand reached out blindly to snare the mug, which the blond put in its grasp. He stayed where he was, watching to see that Vin didn’t spill the stuff in his lap. When he was successful in drinking the coffee, Chris moved to the fire and returned with the medicinal tea. “Now drink this.”
“Horse piss,” the sick man growled.
“Don’ want it,” he muttered petulantly.
”Don’t care. Drink it.”
“Ain’t my mama.”
“Sure as hell hope not, now drink this or I hold your nose and pour it down your throat.”
With a string of curse words in a variety of languages, Vin grabbed the mug and drank down the bitter brew as quickly as possible. Handing the empty mug back to the other man, he rasped out, “happy?”
Squeezing the bridge of his nose between two fingers, he complained, “Y’ sound like Ezra… stop it ‘fore I shoot y’.”
Shaking his head, Larabee said, “You insult me and then threaten to shoot me? That’s the thanks I get for taking on all the work and fetching and carrying for you?”
“Chris…” blue eyes widened just before the contents of his stomach made a sudden appearance on the blanket he was wrapped in. “Ah, hell.”
“Jesus, Vin, I’m beginning to think you’re more trouble than you’re worth,” the gunman complained as he pulled the soiled blanket from the other man and carried it directly to the little run of water nearby. He dipped the wool covering into the water, letting the current pull the gore from it. After a few minutes he pulled it out and spread it out across the thick prairie grass. Going to his black gelding, he retrieved his own bedroll and moved to carry it to his sick friend. He frowned when he saw that the tracker wasn’t sitting beneath the tree. Looking around, he found Tanner, stripped to his drawers, just stepping into the mountain fed creek. “God Damn it, Vin!”
Ignoring the other man, the sick man walked to the middle of the running water and dropped into it with a pain-filled yelp. He wanted nothing more than to jump back out, but forced himself to sit there. The slight tremors became more pronounced as the frigid water soaked into his fevered body. Vin looked up as he sensed a presence nearby and found Larabee standing on the bank, hands planted in fists on each narrow hip. “C-c-c-come o…o…on in… th-th-the w-w-w-wa-wat-water’s f-f-f-f-f-ine.”
“You damned fool, get out of there! What the hell are you trying to do to yourself, have a heart attack and drown?”
“K-k-k-killssss th-th-the f-f-f-f-f-fever,” Tanner argued.
“Jesus, Vin, get out of there, you’re turning blue!” Chris ordered as he watched the man’s lips take on a sickly hue.
“M-m-m-m f-f-f-f-iiiine,” came the argument through chattering teeth.
“No you’re not, now get out of there before I come out there and drag you out.”
“A-a-a-in-ttttt m’ b-boss,” the sharpshooter growled. Then he felt his stomach give a heave and looked up at the other man, calling out “Ca-ca-ca-ca-Chris,” just as he began vomiting into the water.
“Damn it,” the blond cursed as he waded into the creek and wrapped his arms around the heaving shoulders. Kneeling in the freezing water, he held onto the sick young man as he suffered through the attack. By the time he was dry heaving, Tanner lay curled against his friend, completely miserable. Chris pulled him up, keeping his arms wrapped around the trim body as he half-carried him from the water. He got Tanner to the fire, lowering him to the ground carefully, and helping him out of the sodden underwear. He grabbed his spare shirt from his saddle bags and used it to rub the trembling body dry, then covered his friend with his dry blanket. Throughout it all, Vin lay listlessly, eyes fluttering open only to close again, soft groans carried on the breeze as the sickness battered his body.
Heating more tea, Larabee sat beside the semi-conscious tracker and pulled him carefully up to rest against his chest. “Come on now, drink some of this. I put some mint in it this time, to help with your stomach.”
With a weary sigh Vin reached out to hold the mug, but couldn’t find the strength to grasp it. He lay against his friend, whispering, “tired.”
“I know you’re tired, pard, you just drink. I’ll take care of the rest.” He settled the tousled head against his shoulder and pressed the mug against the lax lips. Tanner slowly sipped the strong brew, sandy brows frowning at the taste. Larabee continued feeding him the tea until the cup was empty. Sitting the mug aside then, he used the edge of the blanket to wipe his friend’s mouth. Holding Vin against him, he tried to decide what to do. They were in the middle of no where, Four Corners not that much farther than Renson now, and he knew he could get his friend some help back in town. The only problem now, was getting him there. Staring up at the cloudless sky, he decided that they would stay where they were, at least until morning. Maybe if he rested for awhile, Vin would be better able to tolerate the trip tomorrow.
“I can make it… jist lemme sleep… a little,” Tanner muttered softly, reading the other man as he usually did.
“We’ll head out in the morning,” Chris said decisively.
“Doesn’t matter. You need rest.”
“But – “
“Go to sleep Vin,” Larabee said in a soft, even voice.
With a sigh, Tanner did just that.
Morning brought no good news. Vin had spent a restless night, tossing and moaning as the fever continued to ravage his body. Chris carried canteen after canteen of water from the creek, bathing his friend win the frigid water in an effort to give him some relief. The appearance of dark clouds above them did little to elevate the blond's mood as he scrubbed a hand across his handsome face. He had hoped they could stay put for a day or two, to give the Texan a chance to rest, but the weather seemed to have other ideas.
Larabee managed to get his friend dressed, fed him more of the tea, and got him into the saddle. Mounting his own black gelding, he reached over and pulled the blankets tighter around the shivering frame. Looking at the miserable expression on the finely chiseled features, he pulled his black duster off and added it to the layers surrounding the lean body.
They needed to find shelter before the storm came.
Chris took Peso’s reins, and caught a watery blue eye. “Cutter’s Forge is only about 10 miles away. Think you can stay in the saddle that long?”
Vin nodded, deciding it wasn’t worth the pain to open his mouth. He huddled inside the cocoon, still shivering and praying for death. Things tilted slightly off-kilter, the familiar sights of the hills and prairie seeming suddenly strange. One trembling hand clenched the saddle horn, while the other held the blankets as close as possible.
Cutter’s Forge was one of those promising little towns that hadn’t made it. The rough hewn homes stood like markers over the graves of dreams ended when the last person left town. It was late afternoon before the men reached the ghost town, fortunately the sky hadn’t released the rain as yet. Larabee was riding close beside Tanner, trusting Peso to stay beside Pony, one hand keeping his friend in the saddle. For his part, Vin was oblivious to the passage of time, his chin resting on his chest. His breathing was nothing more than a raspy wheeze, expelled with painful groans. Then there were the coughing spells that wracked his trembling frame from time to time. Chris was shocked to see a faint trail of blood on his friend’s chin after the latest bout.
They would take shelter until the storm past, then he’d get Vin to Four Corners and Nathan. Jackson would have a better idea as to what the tracker had, and be able to help him fight it with teas and potions.
Larabee surveyed the cluster of beaten down dwellings. Most were little more than a collection of wood, held upright by the dust that covered them. Light shone through wide cracks in the walls as well as through broken windows and open doors. He was amazed to see that one neat little home seemed untouched by either time or looters. He guided both horses into the dooryard, reining them in at the door. He dropped to the ground and hurried around to help Tanner from his big black’s back. Vin slid from the saddle, leaning heavily against him, moaning softly.
Wrapping an arm around the other man, Chris half-carried him the few steps to the door. It resisted his attempts to open it, finally causing him to lean the ill man against the wall so that he could lean his weight against the thick wood. He pushed and shoved for several minutes before he succeeded in getting the door to give. It opened with a loud, protesting, groan.
Larabee retrieved his friend just as Vin started to slide down the wall. “Whoa there, pard. Let’s get you inside before you get soaked.”
As if to show its agreement, the sky above them opened, and the rain began to fall. The blond pulled the tracker inside, leaving the door open so he could see where they were. He found a sheet covered couch and lowered Tanner to it, then found a lamp on a nearby table. Lighting the wick, he smiled gratefully as the oil began to burn. Leaving Vin where he was, the blond hurried outside and took the horses to the shelter of a little lean-to beside the house. Finding a stack of buckets inside the open room, he lined them up just outside the door to catch the rain, before returning to their tired animals. Stripping them of their tack, he left all but the saddlebags and canteens in the shelter, tied the animals, and hurried back inside.
The tracker had yet to move, laying just as Chris had left him. The blond moved to the fireplace in one corner, finding a good supply of wood beside the hearth. It was dry and brittle, but he managed to start a decent fire. As the room filled with light, he closed the door against the building storm. Opening their saddlebags, he lay out the dried herbs and other things he would need, cursing as he saw how little there was left. Putting a small amount of the medicinal plants in one of the mugs, he filled it with water and set it beside the fire to brew. He returned to the couch, noting that one red-rimmed eye was peering up at him.
Squatting beside the man, he said “How you doin’?”
“’Kay,” Vin managed, wincing as pain cut through him.
Reaching out, Larabee wiped the blood-streaked droplets from his friend’s chin. Managing to hide his worry, he said softly, “I’ve got more boiled skunk heating. I’m gonna have a look around, all right?”
Nodding, Tanner let his eyes slide closed.
The gunman found that there were four rooms in total, a kitchen and two bedrooms in addition to the parlor where Vin lay. The fireplace had been positioned so that it heated each one, and soon the entire little house was warming against the chill of the storm outside. He went to the larger of the two bedrooms, finding a four poster bed beneath several sheets. Pulling them away carefully, to trap the thick layer of dust, he found the bed made, complete with a heavy quilt. He frowned curiously at a small, leather bound book laying in the middle of the bed, but simply put aside on the bedside table while he turned down the coverings.
Going back into the parlor, he knelt beside his ill friend, smiling as reddened eyes slanted open to stare at him. “Gonna move you one last time for now, there’s a real nice bed in the next room, think you can make it?”
Nodding, the only communication he could manage at the moment, Vin struggled to push himself up. He felt his friend take hold of him and together they got him to his feet and into the next room. He sighed as Chris lowered him to sit on the edge of the bed, then frowned as the other man began to undress him. “C-cold.”
“It’s just gonna be a minute, then we’ll get you wrapped up under the quilt, all right?”
With a sigh, Tanner once more nodded, deciding that he really didn’t have much say in it, anyway. He shifted when necessary, and helped to strip off his clothes. When he was down to his drawers, Chris helped him to lay down, then covered him over with thick coverings. He sighed as his aching body melted into the thick feather bed.
Larabee couldn’t help but smile at the small signs of contentment the young man gave him. He tucked the blankets in around the shivering frame, then touched the curl edged forehead to monitor the fever. Frowning at the amount of heat still pouring off the thin frame, he said quietly, “Go on to sleep, I’ll be near.”
Vin barely managed to nod as he slipped into an exhausted doze.
Watching his friend for a moment, Chris padded softly from the room and went to search through the little house. He listened to the storm that raged outside as he moved through the parlor and into the kitchen. There he searched through the drawers and cabinets, finding them all well stocked. Larabee shook his head, it was as if the owners of the little house had simply walked out and closed the door, leaving everything behind. He didn’t understand it, but he was grateful for it. And even more so when he found the cache of dried plants. Well sealed tin containers revealed a variety of medicinal herbs, each marked with its use.
They were all there, patiently waiting for someone to make use of them. It was a godsend, for which the blond would be forever grateful. He set them on the kitchen table, hurried out into the storm, and returned with one of the now-filled buckets. Emptying the water into a different container, he returned the bucket outside, knowing they would need all the water the buckets could catch.
Not certain as to how much to put into the brew, Larabee crushed a bit of each herb into a mug, added water, and set it to steep on the hearth. Taking the water and a cloth he had found during his search, he returned to the bedroom. Moving aside the little book he had found earlier, he set the big container on the bed table and turned to where his friend lay, still sleeping. Wetting the cloth, he squeezed it out, then gently began to bathe the sweat-soaked face. He was rewarded with a soft moan, and the cracking of two pale eyes.
“Take it easy, pard, I’m gonna try to get your fever down, all right? You just rest and let me take care of things.” The eyes drooped closed in response, and he continued bathing the fevered body. Pulling the coverings back, he wiped down the long arms and lean, muscular torso. From time to time, his ill friend moaned or sighed, but for the most part, Tanner simply lay quietly.
Bringing the mug of tea in a short time later, Chris gently shook Vin’s shoulder. “Come on, Tanner, time to drink some more boiled skunk.”
“Yeah, come on Vin, it’ll help you feel better.” He slipped an arm beneath the warm shoulders, lifting his friend up enough to drink. Pressing the mug against slack lips, he smiled when the other man began to, albeit reluctantly, drink the heady brew. When the mug was empty, he set it aside, and helped Tanner find a comfortable position. That done, he returned to working to cool the fevered body.
The rest of the day went in much the same manner. He forced as much of the bitter medicine on Vin as he could, carried more rain water in, and bathed the fevered body. The storm quieted, but rain continued, and he was worried. While most of the time the rain came and went quickly, there were times when storms raged on and off for days. If it happened now, he was worried as to how well Tanner would make it through. He wished Nathan were here.
Just after midnight, the fever seemed to swell and then, in a violent burst that sent convulsive tremors through the sharpshooter, it broke. Chris looked up in amazement from where he was trying to keep his friend from hurting himself to find Tanner laying suddenly calm on the bed. “Vin?”
“Mm,” came the muttered response. A pair of weary blue eyes opened for a few seconds, regarded the gunman solemnly, then closed once more.
Larabee, bone weary now, managed to change the sweat-soaked linen beneath his friend, and settled him back beneath the quilt. He pulled an over stuffed chair in from the parlor and settled in to keep watch over Tanner for the rest of the night. His head dropped against the backrest, and he was soon asleep.
Chris woke a few hours later, sensing it was morning despite the darkness. Scrubbing a hand over his face, he looked to see that Vin was still sleeping, loose curls spread over the pillows. Touching the long neck, he registered that there was still fever, but not nearly as high as it had been. The other man responded to his touch, blinking open fever bright eyes. “How you feeling this morning?”
“Better,” Tanner rasped, wincing as his throat protested the single word.
With a compassionate smile, the older man said, “I’ll get you a drink. Water, I promise,” he chuckled at the frown the tracker threw in his direction.
Vin pushed himself up against the pillows, leaning back against them tiredly. He couldn’t believe how exhausted he felt after having been in bed for hours. Letting his eyes close, he simply lay there until he heard familiar footsteps coming his way. Opening an eye warily, he regarded the man in black.
Holding up a glass, Chris said, “See? Water.”
Tanner took the glass, marveling at how cold it was to the touch. He sipped at the liquid, wincing at first as the cold water pushed its way through the swollen tissue of his throat. Finally the pain eased and he drank greedily. He glared at his friend as the glass was taken away.
“You need to take it slow, cowboy. The last thing you need is to get sick right now, don’t think your throat could take it.” He frowned, hesitating before adding, “You’ve been coughing up a little blood.”
Vin blanched, the words carrying him back to childhood. He recalled his mother, throughout the last days of her life, coughing up blood as the infection ravaged her body. He looked up at his friend, fear evident in his wide blue eyes.
Larabee wished he could tell Tanner without a doubt that he was not suffering from ‘putrid fever’. Wished he could tell the younger man that he wasn’t going to die as his mother had. Nathan would know. He would be able to calm the man’s fears or fight the disease. Or, at the very least, he could make certain Vin went peacefully. He flinched at that last, and forced the thought away. The rangy Texan was not going to die choking on bloody pus. “You’re gonna be fine, Vin. It’s just a fever, and that broke last night. The other is probably just from coughing and being sick yesterday.”
“Maybe,” the slender young man whispered, unconvinced. Too tired to consider the possibilities at the moment, he let himself be lulled back to sleep by the sound of rain on the roof.
Chris settled back in his chair, knowing that this sleep wouldn’t be as peaceful as the last. He could feel his tired body begging for more rest, and fought it. Looking around for something to keep his mind occupied, his eyes fell on the little book he had found earlier. Bringing the lantern closer, he picked up the book and settled back in the chair. Opening the leather cover, he found the pages inside covered with a neat handwritten text. Someone’s diary. Feeling as if he were invading someone’s privacy Larabee started to close the book, but something caught his attention, and he began to read.
We have settled into a comfortable routine, riding all day in the wagon and settling in beside the campfire at night. Avery is impatient to reach our new home, but I am enjoying the trip. It has been amazing to see the countryside change, to go from mountains to prairie and back again. We have seen such a variety of animals so scarce back home. Today we saw a buffalo herd. I could not believe it when Avery told me that they covered the plains only a few short years ago. I wanted to weep for the loss of such noble animals, but knew that my husband would consider it a sign of weakness.
He smiled at the thought of the young woman, probably a new bride, experiencing the West. Deciding that, whoever she was, had long since forgotten this diary, he flipped through the yellowing pages, reading odd passages as they caught his attention.
“What’s that?” The other man’s pain-filled rasp caught his attention some time later.
“Someone’s diary. Left behind when they moved I reckon.”
Nodding, Tanner simply lay back, studying the room. “Nice,” he whispered.
“Yeah, whoever they were, they sure kept things up. Can’t imagine why they left it all behind when they moved on.” Changing the subject, Larabee said, “I’m going to get you some more horse piss… or would you prefer boiled skunk?”
Glaring at the other man to no avail, Vin tried, “Whiskey.”
“Not yet. You lay still, hear?” Returning a short time later, he found Tanner sitting up against the pillows, his features as pale as the bleached cotton bedding he lay against. He handed the heated mug to the sharpshooter, then settled back in on the chair. Watching to see that Vin was drinking it, he idly flipped through the book.
“What… they write…about?”
Looking up, Chris said, “Just every day life. Want to hear? It’ll pass the time anyway.”
Shrugging, Tanner settled back on the bed, nestled against the pillows, and looked at him. He took that as an affirmative and flipped through the pages until his gaze settled on an interesting passage.
Our home is nearly finished. It will be wonderful to sleep inside once again, rather than in the wagon. Avery says that we should be able to move in within the week. I have already begun to unwrap the china and the bed linen is airing on the line. Our first home. I am so excited.
He flipped more pages, coming to rest at another entry.
The town is readying for a celebration, preparing not only to celebrate the nation’s birth, but to rejoice in our achievements. Avery and I will have even more to celebrate this night, I hope, when I tell him my news. I pray that I will give him the son he has dreamed of for so long.
I have not been able to stop crying for days, since losing our baby. Avery insists that it is the Lord’s will, but I cannot understand it. Why would a loving God choose to take my child before it had a chance to live? Avery has done little but read the Bible since the loss, but I find no solace in the scriptures.
Our first Christmas in our new home approaches. It is a bittersweet time for us both. I know that my body harbors a new life, but I am afraid to say anything. Avery has so much on his mind as it is. The store is doing well, but takes so much of his time.
I told Avery that I am with child. He says he is happy, but I can see the worry in his eyes. He is afraid to touch me, and has treated me as if I am made of glass for three days now. If he continues, I fear I will lose my mind!
Our child is heavy inside me, and I know my time is near. I spend much of my time resting, and it is difficult. I see so much I want to do in our little home, but Avery insists that I stay in bed. He has asked Granny Weems to come stay with us until the child is born.
Avery Michael was born this morning just after the sun rose. He is a healthy, noisy babe, with a happy disposition. I know that I should be resting, but I cannot help it. All I want to do is lay here, staring at him.
We had a wonderful holiday, spending Christmas with all our neighbors at the church. Alice Taylor surprised us with an exquisite gown for baby Avery and Reverend Mitchell was here to baptize him.
Larabee looked up from his reading to find that Vin was watching him, a wistful smile on his face. He grinned in return and continued relating the young wife and mother’s saga. The dates were sporadic, it seemed that she only took time to write when the mood struck. Her joys and sorrows were recorded in that same, neat hand, left behind for strangers to read some time later. Four more children were born, two of them placed in the ground before their first birthday. The store weathered good times and bad and, with its success the growing family prospered or suffered. She pined for her family, far away in the East and celebrated her own little family.
The two men shared her story throughout the day, Chris laying it aside only to tend to his friend. The fever threatened to return, but retreated as Larabee forced more tea on Tanner. The young man grimaced and complained, but drank the liquid dutifully. He managed broth from time to time, sipping it slowly.
And to the relief of both men, the bleeding stopped.
Larabee left his friend long enough to check on the horses when the rain let up. He made certain the animals had food and water, then returned to the little house. The blond stood in the middle of the room, fists on narrow hips, when he saw the sharpshooter shuffling from the bedroom in nothing but his drawers. “What the hell are you doing up?”
Glaring at his friend, Tanner growled hoarsely in return, “Been drinkin’ too much.”
Smiling broadly as the other man’s meaning, the blond guided him to the little closet at the back of the house. Waiting while Vin answered the call of nature, he helped him back to bed. Tucking his friend back in, Larabee looked upward at the sound of yet another storm. Heaving a sigh, he settled in and took up the little book once more.
I am worried. Avery has not looked well for several days. He even closed the store early yesterday and came home to go straight to bed. He assures me that he is simply tired, but I fear that it is something else. The children notice, too. Avery Michael did his best to keep Katherine and Julian quiet, entertaining them with games and stories in their room.
The reverend visited today, spending the afternoon reading from the scriptures with Avery. He has not been able to leave his bed for over a week, although there is not fever or illness. It is as if his body is simply unable to gain any strength.
We lay Avery to rest today.
Chris closed the book, suddenly embarrassed at reading the unknown woman’s intimate words. He looked up and saw a similar expression on his friend’s face. “Man must have worked himself to death.”
Nodding, Tanner said, “Damn fool.”
Frowning, Larabee argued, “Seems to me he was just trying to make a good life for his family.”
“Then he went… and died… and left ‘em alone.”
There was anger in the roughly spoken words, causing Chris to study his friend. His own feelings had come into play while he read of the loss of three of their children. As a father still mourning his own son, he had felt that pain only too keenly. But Vin? Tanner was feeling the pain of a son, left without parents to care for him.
“No parent wants to leave their child alone,” Larabee reassured his friend.
“Don’t matter… they still do.” He closed his eyes, but not before a solitary tear slid down his ashen features.
Chris watched him pretend to drift off to sleep, but knew he wasn’t by the stiff posture of the lean body. He sat back in the chair, openly staring at his friend as he contemplated the complicated man he counted closer than any brother. Tanner had confided in him after several weeks that his mother had died when he was five years old, and that his father had died before he was even born. He had led a hardscrabble existence after that, shipped from pillar to post until he was old enough to care for himself. After that he had led a solitary, nomadic existence until the fateful day that found the two of them staring across the street at one another.
Larabee wondered what it must have been like, no one to turn to or rely on for anything; wondered what it must have been like to live for so many years without anyone to call him son.
They didn’t read any more of the diary until the next day. Vin was restless by then, beginning for feel better, but not yet well enough to do much more than make an occasional trip to the water closet or feed himself a meal of thin mush. The rain continued to beat down on the roof, making it clear that they would reside in the little house for at least another day.
Finally, knowing they both needed a distraction, Chris picked up the book once more. He read from it for some time, stopping only to check the horses, fix dinner and stir the fire. Vin slowly regained interest in the tale, listening while Larabee recounted the young widow’s struggle to raise her family. She had been surprised to find herself with child soon after her husband’s death and, like Rebecca Tanner had done, brought a son into the world who would never know his father. She took over the running of the store, hiring a neighbor girl to tend to her children while she did.
As night fell, and Vin began to drift in and out of sleep, Larabee came to the final, lengthy, entry:
The town is no more. I have watched my friends and neighbors pack their belongings and move away, and I fear that I must do the same. I have written to my family, and they assure me that they will be able to assist me, but I must still find a way to return home.
I find it impossible to imagine leaving this place, it has been my home for over 10 years. I have buried some of my children and my husband here, and the thought of leaving them behind pains me.
Avery Michael, so wise for his years, assures me that we are not truly leaving them, for they will always be with us.
We have secured passage on the stage to return us to Ohio. It pains me, but we must leave almost everything behind. The children are beside themselves at the thought of being forced to leave their toys and books behind, but I see no way around it. Returning by wagon, as we arrived here, is far too costly and time consuming. They have each been told to choose one toy and, for the older children, one book to take with them on the journey.
I must make those same decisions myself and, as sad as it makes me, I must leave this journal behind. I pray that, should someone find it, that they make good use of my home. It has been filled with love for many years.
God Bless you,
Katherine Elizabeth Davis Samuels
Chris closed the book reverently, and he exchanged a bemused smile with Vin. He gave silent thanks for the provision made by this stranger and how mightily it had helped him keep his friend safe and secure while he struggled through his illness.
Three days passed before morning finally found the sun shining brightly into the little house through open windows. Vin was still weak, tiring easily, but both men trusted that he would be able to ride. He sat on the couch while Chris readied the horses and brought them to the front door. Grinning when the blond entered the door, he said, his voice still hoarse, “Y’ finally ready?”
“One more smart ass remark, Tanner, and I’ll let you saddle your own damn horse next time.” Larabee quickly surveyed the little home, satisfied that everything was pretty much as they had found it. “You ready?”
“Hell yeah, jist waitin’ fer you,” Vin pushed himself to his feet, grateful for the steadying hand he felt on his arm. Pushing away only when the dizziness passed, he walked slowly from the little parlor and out into the sunshine. Blinking at the brightness, he pulled his hat down a bit lower. With Chris at his side, he managed to pull himself up onto Peso’s back. Reaching forward, he patted the strong, black neck. “Well, c’mon then, let’s git movin’.”
Shaking his head as he pulled the door closed tightly, Larabee mounted his black gelding. As the two of them resumed their journey home, he contemplated the man beside him and the woman whose life they had learned something of. Both were stubborn, struggling to make the best of whatever life threw at them with quiet dignity, and giving up little without a fight. Some would call them both fools for fighting so hard. Stubborn fools.
But Chris Larabee knew better. Folks like Vin Tanner and Katherine Samuels were among the best humanity had to offer. And he was eternally grateful to call one of them friend.
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June 29, 2002