The path Chris Larabee followed was overgrown – hard to find. It wasn't as if many people had reason to come this way -- the place he sought was too hidden to chance upon, and the owner of the acreage was known to have a temper -- not appreciating unexpected guests. Job clomped along and Larabee kept his gaze traveling. Almost there, Larabee thought. Couldn't be soon enough. He glanced behind himself to ensure that he was still followed. "Won't be much longer," he stated, not expecting a reply, and then continued onward. Where the hell is it? he thought. Should've been there by now. Finally, as he crested a low hill, a simple cabin was revealed.
He stopped the slow progression of his horse and took a moment to appraise the state of his cabin. It was as he'd left it -- looking a little forlorn with its emptiness. A house, a shed, a corral… a privy. A butter churn and a cheap tin lantern sat on the porch where he'd left them. They waited, untouched by anything beyond time and the wind.
He allowed himself a small smile, proud of the work he'd done. Someday, there would be a big barn, and horses in that corral -- colts with their dams, spirited stallions nearby. Someday, there'd be a cow -- and her milk would be turned to butter. Someday, he'd have a dog or two to chase the rabbits -- some cats to keep the mice from the feed -- chickens for eggs and Sunday supper -- a pig fattening against the winter. He'd move out here -- permanently. Someday, this would be his home. Someday…
The smile faded as he considered this. Well, maybe. Truthfully, this cabin never felt like home to him. It wasn't anything he planned to stay in. It was just a temporary thing to him – like a box made of tin – it could do its job but it wasn't meant to endure.
When he had built a home for Sarah, he'd made it to last. She'd been his light -- his salvation -- his strength. She made that place a home. They'd planned to have a mess of children, planned to watch them grow -- planned a lot of things. Adam, and those that followed, would become young men and women. Grandchildren would dance beneath the trees. That house would have been the seat of his patriarchy. It would have been 'home' to generations. He and Sarah would have lived there until the ends of their days.
It should have lasted forever. God, how it had burned.
Even as he gazed at this new house, he knew he had no similar aspirations here. No, he couldn't see himself as an old man on that porch with the butter churn… and the pig and the cow and the cats. No, this place was his 'tin' home. It held the impermanence of anything made of that metal, bound to be battered and bent and made useless in time -- something that would be tossed away when it stopped being useful.
Glancing over his shoulder for the umpteenth time, Chris assured himself that his traveling companion was still with him. Following by a few lengths, Ezra's horse kept a steady pace as his owner hunched in the saddle.
When the horse finally came to a stop, just out of reach of the gunslinger, Chris sighed, getting a good look at the gambler. Standish huddled in his jacket, his head tucked into his collar. His brow was knitted -- his face, pale and sweaty. Standish didn't bother to look up when Chaucer stopped.
"Ezra," Chris called sharply. Ezra's head snapped up as he blinked blearily. "Ezra," Chris repeated, softer. "We're here."
The gambler looked about in a daze. He kept a firm grasp on the saddle horn as he squinted at the structure before them. He puzzled for a moment and finally croaked, "This doesn't look like the saloon."
"It ain't," Chris responded as he jogged Job down the little hill. He waited as Chaucer followed at a slower gait.
When he was astride Chris, Ezra examined the place again before saying, "I don't think I know this place." His drawl was drawn out and sluggish.
Chris considered this, wanting to tell him differently, but had to answer, "I s'pect you ain't been here before." He dismounted and moved around his horse. "It's my cabin."
Ezra swayed in the saddle as he tried to find Chris. He blinked at the empty air above Job until Larabee snapped his fingers to draw Standish's attention. Trying to hide his embarrassment, the gambler uttered, "How quaint."
"Yeah, that's just the word I was gonna use," Larabee commented as he grasped Job's reins and then moved to capture Chaucer's. The chestnut snorted at him but didn't step away. "Get down, Ezra," the gunslinger ordered, seeing that Standish had made no attempt to move.
Realizing that this might be a good idea, Ezra nodded numbly, and swung out of the saddle. Chris kept the horse still, letting Ezra do this on his own, but he kept one hand free in case he was needed. The gambler landed clumsily, stumbled, but managed to keep his feet. Not releasing his grip on the saddle horn, he pressed his hot head against Chaucer's side and stood for a moment, trying to find his equilibrium.
Chris waited, watching the southerner breathe harshly. There was no reason to ask, "are you okay?" because any fool could tell that Standish was god-awful sick. There had been a fever flying through Red Rock, taking down townspeople for the last couple weeks. Nothing serious, the local 'doc' had assured, as long as the sick were properly looked after. Leave it to Standish to catch any bug that lit upon him. He was too damn social, mixing with everyone in that place. Had no sense whatsoever, Chris figured. It wasn't a bullet that'd eventually end Standish, Larabee decided, it would be some stupid cold.
"Ezra," Chris started, once Standish had recovered somewhat from the move. "Go in. I'll take care of the horses."
Ezra turned his head against his horse, his fevered green eyes glinted at the gunslinger. "That would be… most appreciated," he muttered, and took a moment to lick his dry lips. "Most appreciated," he repeated softly. He straightened, gave Chaucer a friendly pat, then shuffled a few steps from the horses. He came to a stop as he narrowed his gaze at the cabin.
"Mistah Lar-a-bee," he drawled slowly, turning ungracefully toward the other man.
"Yeah," Chris responded.
Again, Ezra licked his lips. "The key…" he uttered.
"Key?" Chris cocked his head as he watched Ezra sway.
"For your…" Ezra gestured sloppily. "…Domicile."
Chris chuckled. "Ain't no key, Ezra."
Ezra frowned as he tried to concentrate. "But, in these environs… certainly… it would be necessary to…lock up… what is… precious."
"Ain't nothing here anyone'd want. And, if I locked the door, someone would smash out a window," Chris told him patiently. "This way, I save myself a pane."
Ezra gave Larabee a speculative look. He started to say something, opening his mouth, but closed it as he contemplated.
"Just get in there, Ezra," Larabee urged. Chris would have preferred to grab hold of the southerner and frog march him through that door -- carry the idiot if he had to -- but he waited, letting Ezra take his time.
Ezra made a gesture that may have been a wave, or an attempt to keep his balance as he turned. Then, with determined nod, he shambled toward the doorway of the cabin. Chris waited, wondering if he'd be able to sprint across the distance if Ezra collapsed. But, the gambler made it to the porch without injury. He stepped up slowly, and paused at the door, taking too long to figure out how the simple hasp worked, then pressed open the door.
The door remained ajar as Ezra made his way within the room, disappearing from sight. Made it. With a shake of his head, Chris led the horses to the corral. He didn't waste much time on the animals, not taking the care that he might have in other circumstances. There were other things that needed tending.
Ezra had taken ill shortly after leaving Red Rock. He'd assured Chris that it was only a minor inconvenience and they continued on their way. After all, there was wisdom in putting that infected town behind them. It was only once they were in the middle of nowhere that the chills and the alternating sweats got a grip on Standish.
Every little cold that makes it through town knocks Standish to the ground, Larabee thought as he washed his hands at the trough, then filled a bucket with fresh water from the pump. Can sit at the gamblin' tables for days at a stretch, but the sniffles turn him to mush. Damn inconvenient. Chris grimaced as he straightened.
As Larabee made his way to the cabin, keeping the heavy bucket at his side, he realized that Ezra hadn't complained much during that ride. As much as the gambler moaned about every petty thing, he kept tight-lipped about his pains. Gotta hand it to him for that, Larabee thought as he reached the porch. I know I would 'ave been bitchin'.
Walking through the open door, Larabee glanced to his simple bed in the corner of his one room cabin, expecting to see Ezra laid out on it, but the bed was empty. With a sigh, he found Standish sitting at the table. His head rested against the wall as he slouched to one side in the chair. What the hell was he doing there? What was the matter with that fool?
"Ezra," Chris called as he set the bucket on the table. Eyes pressed closed, Ezra offered him no response. "Ezra," Larabee repeated and Ezra jerked and blinked.
Confused, Ezra glanced around the room. "What?" he voiced softly.
"Comfortable?" Chris asked, noting Ezra's slump.
"Where?" Ezra muttered. "Where am I?" His confused expression was a disconcerting look for the usually composed gamester.
"At my cabin," Chris explained as he pulled a tin cup from one of his cupboards.
"How…how'd we get here?"
"Easier than walkin'." Chris plunged the dented cup into the bucket and handed it to Standish. "Drink this. You're sweatin' like a pig."
"Not a pig," Ezra responded dully, eyes narrowed in a mockery of defiance.
"Swine then," Chris allowed as he set the cup in front of his guest. "You're gonna dry up."
"Swine…" Ezra grumbled, looking annoyed as he gazed at the cup. After second, he realized that he'd have to move. Gingerly, he wrapped one hand around the cup and held onto it. He seemed fascinated with the chipped paint that colored the tin mug. It had once been blue, but a rough life left it speckled and marred… damaged. When he lifted it, the water within sloshed. He watched the ripples, finding them beautiful -- fascinating.
It took a few seconds, but Ezra shook himself from a stupor and drank the contents slowly, wincing as he swallowed. When he finished, he handed the empty cup back to Larabee and returned his head to its position against the wall. He let out a low sigh and asked, "What're we doin' here?"
"Figured we had to stop before you fell off your horse." Chris smiled, enjoying the pointless conversation. It reminded him of Adam and the myriad questions the boy could fire at him. Sarah had told him not to encourage the boy… that everyone would get sick of the constant questions, but Chris had never failed to be delighted by Adam's inquisitive nature. He'd answer any question the boy had.
God, how he missed his son.
Ezra closed his eyes again, slumping further against the wall. "Good idea… stoppin'. Rest for the weary."
"No, you don't!" Larabee barked out, "You ain't sleepin' here.."
Blood-shot eyes shot open at the sharp retort, and a panicked look faced Larabee. "What? Where can I go?" With a confused motion, Ezra managed to get his hands onto the table and press against it to gain his feet. "I know," he said as he stumbled and twisted toward the door, gripping the chair for support. "I'm goin'. I'll be gone."
What the hell was the matter with him? Chris thought as he blocked Ezra's path. Didn't he understand simple English? There's a goddamn bed right there. Why wasn't he in it? "You ain't goin' any where," Chris told him. "Just want to get you out of my chair. Come on." He grabbed Ezra's arm and tugged the man toward the bed. Ezra's gaze languidly attached to Chris' hands, as if he was fascinated with Larabee's grip. Quickly, Larabee ushered him across the floor and shoved him into a sitting position on the bed. "There," he said as Ezra collapsed. He regarded the fully dressed gambler for a moment before he told him, "Get out of your jacket. Might as well set down your guns. Ain't no one here to shoot but me."
"Might need them then," Ezra declared with a grin.
Chris gave him a glare. "Just get yourself settled," he urged.
Nodding stupidly, Ezra worked at removing his jacket. As Chris started making coffee, Ezra fought his way out of the coat, finally tossing it on the ground turned inside-out. Ezra managed to unlatch his gun belt, and unbuckle his shoulder holster, getting loose from them took more effort. The derringer rig, finally, confounded him. As hard as he concentrated, he could not get the rig un-done. Larabee observed Ezra's pathetic attempts until he gave in and stepped toward the bed.
Gently grasping Ezra's arm, he turned it to get a better view of the mechanism. "Damn, Ezra," Chris murmured as he fussed with the straps. "You don't do anything easy."
"I am a man of leisure," Ezra whispered. "And take everything easy."
"Hot as hell," Larabee commented as he knelt down beside the bed, near enough to feel the heat of Ezra's fever. He found the secret of the mechanism after a little study and soon had it removed from Ezra's arm. He tossed it to the table and it landed with a 'clink'.
"Thank you," Ezra murmured, rubbing his arm once it was freed. "My hands feel swollen like sausages. Useless." He grimaced, swallowed thickly. "Not good for anythin'."
Chris set Ezra's gun belts beside the derringer rig, then picked up the jacket, fixing the sleeves before he draped it over the back of a chair. Ezra hadn't moved, sitting on the edge of the bed looking dazed. Once he had Ezra's possessions settled, Chris handed Ezra more water in the chipped cup.
Ezra drank it carefully. "Thank you," he managed once he was done, then looked about the room in confusion. His red-rimmed eyes met Chris' and he asked again, "Where are we?"
With a sigh, Chris pressed on Ezra's chest, maneuvering him around and easily shoving him until he was flat on the bed. "My cabin," Chris patiently explained. He expected Ezra to fight his way upright, but the southerner was played out. He lay in the bed, looking a little like a dead trout. Larabee grasped hold of the heel of Ezra's boot and started working it off.
"What're we doin' here?" Ezra asked softly, staring up at the ceiling.
"I don't know about you," Chris started as he pulled off one boot and tossed it toward the door, "But I'm gonna make myself some supper. You hungry?"
Ezra made a face and shook his sweaty head. "No… no thank you."
Ezra looked contemplative, but shook his head after laying a hand across his stomach.
"Your choice," Chris responded as he worked off the other boot.
Ezra let out a long sigh and rubbed his eyes as Chris freed his foot. "What happened to me?" Standish asked, running his fingers through his wet hair.
"You got yourself sick. Go to sleep. You'll feel better in the morning."
"Care to place a bet on that?" A small smile lit Ezra's pale face.
Chris managed a smile of his own. "No," he replied.
"Bastard," Ezra muttered, his voice growing softer. "Should 'ave figured that a man of your moral standing…"
"Go to sleep," Larabee repeated -- and like magic, the southerner drifted off. Chris sighed, glad for the gambler's penchant of falling asleep quickly. At least Standish hadn't gone the other way and refused to sleep. It was always one way or the other with Ezra -- feast or famine.
Chris refilled the battered tin cup and set it on the small table beside the bed. Ezra could reach it if he wanted more. Larabee remained a moment, long enough to place one hand on Ezra's brow and grimace at how hot he'd become. Damn. That quack in Red Rock better be right about this fever being 'nothing to worry about', Chris thought grimly.
Unable to do anything more, Chris stood and moved around the small cabin, putting it back in order after its long vacancy. It had been weeks since his last visit. Time passed so quickly. Remember how it flew by while Adam was growing? He'd thought the boy would be an infant forever, but he blinked and Adam was walking, and then he was running and riding and laughing and talking… and then Chris blinked again and…
Abruptly, Chris stopped his pointless messing about and checked on Standish, finding him in a restless asleep, slick with sweat, and still too damn hot. Ezra moved his lips without voicing any words, a look of distress on his colorless face.
With a sigh, Chris pulled a bowl from his cupboards, filled it from the bucket, and placed it on the simple bedside table. He dunked a cloth into the liquid and did his best to cool down the over-heated southerner with the wet rag.
Ezra murmured softly, and tried ineffectually to bat him away. Chris easily outmaneuvered the sloppy defensive moves as he continued to apply cool water to Ezra's face. The simple task seemed to calm the southerner. Ezra stopped trying to force Chris away, and dropped into a more restful sleep.
Imagine that… something so easy quiets him down. Couldn't be that simple if he were awake, Chris thought with a smile. Just took some care, that's all.