Author's Note: Small spoiler for the M7 episode Inmate 78.
Third story in the Christmas Wish series.
"It wasn't your fault, Nathan. You did the best you could," softly intoned Josiah Sanchez as the pair rode slowly back to town from one of the outlying farms.
The healer shook his head in frustration. "I know, Josiah. But it wasn't enough. At least it wasn't a person, but that cow meant a lot to the Browns and I couldn't save her. I just wish I knew more! I can set bones and heal wounds, but I don't have enough medical learnin' about the insides of people and animals to fix everythin' I need to! I picked up what I could from the docs at the army hospital where we took the wounded soldiers when I was a stretcher-bearer, but that was mostly war wounds and sickness, and the docs didn't have time to teach me about other illnesses, they was so busy stitchin' up bullet and bayonet holes and tryin' to save legs and arms and all."
Jackson gave a deep sigh. "I know I ain't got the money to go back east to medical school, even if there is one that would take me, but I wish I could get my hands on some books at least that could tell me more than I know now. I got that complete medical kit from that old woman's store when Chris was thrown in that prison camp, but I need to know how to properly use some of those instruments and how to diagnose inner complaints, not just outer ones. What I know right now just ain't enough, Josiah!"
Sanchez simply nodded, knowing nothing he could say would make his friend feel better. While he and the rest of the peacekeepers would take Nathan's doctoring over many men with medical degrees, the healer was always torn apart when he couldn't save a patient, be it human or animal.
The rest of the ride was conducted in silence, Josiah doing some deep thinking. JD had already talked the seven into exchanging gifts for Christmas this year. It was October now . . . that gave them a couple of months to figure out what they wanted to do for each other and come up with the gifts. He'd talk to Chris and the others . . . maybe they could all pitch in and find something for Nathan that would be an answer to his wish.
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During the month of November, those who were observant noticed that Ezra seemed to visit the telegraph office a little more than normal, though most just figured that Judge Travis was communicating with the peacekeepers or that Standish was wiring his mother wherever she happened to be at the moment. None of the other six appeared concerned, so the residents went on about their business first with Thanksgiving plans, then starting their shopping for Christmas, etc. Nathan was particularly busy with influenza and cold season, so he was out of town a lot and even when he was there, he didn't have time to pay attention to the idiosyncrasies of their resident gambler.
The first week of December Chris sent the chestnut-haired man off on an errand to a nearby town, papers conspicuously being stuffed in his saddlebags as he tacked his horse. Assuming that the leader was using him to deliver something for the judge or pertaining to their duties, no one thought much about the occurrence.
A couple of weeks before Christmas Wilmington and Standish headed out, ostensibly to help with peacekeeping duties at Eagle Bend for a few days while the new sheriff was laid up with the 'flu. Nathan considered asking if he should go along to check on the man, but Eagle Bend had its own doctor now and he had plenty of patients to look after right where he was, so he decided the other town could take care of itself unless they asked for his help.
Figuring that the gambler would spend his off-duty hours at cards, happy to have a new audience for his talents, and the ladies' man would find some new females to spend his free time with, no one expected the two men to be back until the end of the week. Larabee seemed fine with the arrangement, so once again the rest of the town went about their own activities.
Five days after they left, the duo rode back into town with big grins on both their faces. Nodding at Chris that all was well, the pair took care of their horses and then slung their saddlebags over their shoulders and headed to their respective rooms. If the bags seemed a bit heavy, no one said anything. It was barely a week before Christmas and they had decided to exchange gifts, so there was an unspoken agreement that they wouldn't mention anything unusual that they saw the others doing.
Buck and Ezra met with Chris later in the jail, apparently to report on their trip. The blond appeared pleased with what they told him, the trio heading to the saloon for drinks afterward.
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Vin went with Josiah to visit his sister in Vista City not long after Wilmington and Standish got back, the rest riding out to join them.
When they returned, the seven spent some of their time cutting greenery for Inez to decorate with, and helping some of the shop owners hang swags of evergreens and bows for the holiday, as well as finishing their own shopping and so forth. Vin went hunting, getting a wild turkey for Inez to fix for their Christmas dinner, and then he and Buck cut down a small tree to put in the saloon.
On Christmas day they all gathered in the drinking establishment to partake of the excellent meal Inez had cooked for them. They were done and were just getting ready to open their presents when JD drew their attention to the fact that it was snowing outside. Since it was such a rare occurrence in their part of the territory, they all headed outside to enjoy the event.
Coming back in damp and red-cheeked, they all shed their coats and gloves and gathered around the cast-iron stove to warm up. The pretty Mexican brought them whiskey-laced coffee, smiling at the grins and sincere thanks she got as she handed out the cups.
Once the chill had worn off and the coffee was finished, the seven men moved back over to their table. Wilmington played St. Nick, delving under the tree in the corner and handing out packages as he came to them.
Jackson was one of the first to get a gift, letting out a small grunt as he lifted the heavy present that had been placed in front of him with a 'thump'. Another slightly smaller one was deposited at his spot before he could do more than turn the larger one around in puzzlement.
Several more gifts joined the others, the men having agreed to wait until they had all of them before they opened any.
Nathan grabbed the first one that had intrigued him when Chris signaled for them to start unwrapping the items. Elegant green fabric covered it, and as he undid the knots of the string it was tied with, he discovered that it was padded with more cloth. He didn't notice that the rest of the men hadn't opened any of their gifts yet, and were all watching him.
Finally getting the material out of the way, the healer's mouth dropped open in amazement as he took in the thick copy of 'Gray's Anatomy, Descriptive and Surgical' that was revealed. Marked as a second edition and dated 1862, the volume was obviously used, but was still tightly bound and readable. Reverently opening the leather cover, he slowly flipped through the more than eight hundred pages and paused to glance at a few of the 388 illustrations. He vividly remembered one of the surgeons at the Army hospital having such a book that he occasionally sent the stretcher-barer to fetch for him from his tent. Nathan had used the opportunities to grab quick peeks into the intriguing tome, always wishing that he had time to discover more.
After he'd flicked through the huge book, he looked around at his companions, dark eyes full of excitement and hope.
"Y'all got this for me?"
The other six nodded, smiles on their faces.
"Indeed, Mr. Jackson. I contacted an old paramour of my mothers who happens to have been a surgeon in the late unpleasantness. He is retired now, so I wired to inquire if he by chance had any medical volumes that he could part with. He assured me that he had several and asked what I was wanting them for. When I explained it was for the further education of a friend who was a healer and had served in the war, he suggested this one specifically. I asked if he could send it to me, and he agreed to do so. It came by train, which is the reason Mr. Larabee 'assigned' me to the 'errand' at the first of the month. I didn't wish to trust it's further travel to the stage line, so I went to pick it up myself."
The tall form looked speechless for a few moments, then he reached over to grab the gambler's shoulder and squeeze tightly.
"Thank you, Ezra." The brown gaze swung around to take in the rest of the figures. "Thanks to you all. I don't have words t' say what this means to me."
Josiah patted the broad back with a big hand. "We understand, brother."
Buck pointed to the second present that he'd placed in front of the healer.
"Open that one next, Nate."
Eyes still roaming over the anatomy book with pride, Jackson did as instructed. This one was smaller and not as heavy, and was wrapped in brown paper with a bright red ribbon tied around it.
Undoing the bow, the nimble fingers quickly folded back the paper to reveal another leather-covered volume. This one was titled 'Handbook of Surgical Operations', with the author's name listed as Stephen Smith, MD and a publisher's date of 1863. Not quite seven inches tall by five inches wide, it contained 261 pages accompanied by multiple drawings that were quite detailed and yet easy to understand. Descriptions of surgical instruments and their uses were covered, as well as procedures. This one was again used, but not as much as the other.
Before the healer could say anything, Wilmington pushed another package toward him with a wide smile.
This one was tied in a colorful bandana, indicating Buck himself probably wrapped it. Undoing the knot, Nathan pulled the neckerchief away to reveal a third book. Just a bit larger than the second one, this had 'Anatomy of the Arteries of the Human Body' printed on its spine and looked new. When the talented hands turned to the title page, it was revealed that it included a descriptive anatomy of the heart by Dr. John Hatch Power and was published in 1862. Illustrations were again included and the rest laughed as Jackson immediately stuck his nose in the volume and began poring over the information it contained.
"Did ya get these from your ma's old beau too?" asked the deep voice, even though he didn't raise his eyes to the others as he spoke.
Ezra again answered, "No. These came via the new physician at Eagle Bend. I wired him to see if he might be able to get us a couple of other books to go with the large one. When I explained what I wanted he replied that he had been considering ordering a new edition of the surgical handbook for himself, so he would be happy to sell us his old copy at a reasonable price, and he agreed to add the one on arteries to his order for us as well." The gambler's gold tooth gleamed as he gave the dark-skinned figure a smile that wasn't seen by his target. "That is what Mr. Wilmington and I went to Eagle Bend for, not to help out the sheriff, though we did arrest a couple of drunks for said lawman while we were there."
Jackson nodded absently, nibbling his lower lip as he carefully read part of the description of how the heart worked.
"Well, we won't find out what Nate thinks about the rest of his presents, he probably won't put the books up until bedtime," commented Josiah with a grin.
"Will too," answered the healer with a sheepish smile as he raised his head. "And I appreciate everything. But anythin' else is just gonna be icin' on the cake. Y'all have given me the best gift of all . . . knowledge. I couldn't wish for anything more or for any better friends. Y'all are like family."
Larabee waved to Inez and the barkeeper brought over a bottle of imported Scotch whiskey. Pouring seven shots, the blond handed them out, keeping one for himself. Then he lifted his glass and softly said "To family". The rest echoed the sentiment, not really needing the whiskey to make them feel warm. Christmas was about wishes and another one had just been granted.
Next story: Ezra
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