Forbidden Comfort



"Damn it, Chris, lay still." Shooting Larabee an impatient glare, Nathan Jackson stopped his attempt to dig the bullet out of Chris's thigh. "I know this hurts like hell, but I can't get hold of the bullet if you keep movin'."

Grabbing the headboard of the bed a little tighter, Chris tried to concentrate on anything but the sharp, biting pain that darted down his limb. If Nathan didn't get the bullet out soon, he would tell him to leave it 'the hell' in there. He clenched his teeth in silent agony as he felt the healer's instrument once again enter broken flesh. Swallowing a tormented groan, he closed his eyes tight and tried to focus on keeping the leg as motionless as possible.

"There!" Nathan's voice echoed with triumph just as Chris experienced a glorious relief from the excruciating pain.

Opening his eyes, he watched his doctor straighten. Nathan held the forceps at eye level and examined the bullet between the jaws of the instrument. "Looks like a 44."

"Yup, that's what he used… crazy fool. This time he's gone too far." Chris relaxed his hold on the bed, the searing pain in his leg dulling to a throbbing ache. "I'm gonna have to bring him in and do somethin' with him."

The pain continued to pulse through Chris's thigh as a sigh of frustration passed his lips. Jeremiah Parker was starting to become a real pain in the...leg. The stubborn ol' coot was going to have to start listening to reason. The land did belong to him, but he couldn't go around shooting anyone who came near it. There was no need. Even though he refused to believe it, the mine he was staked out on no longer had silver in it. It was a well-known fact that the ground had been played out more than ten years ago. However, Jeremiah, who, with unfounded optimism, bought it well past its prime, nonetheless, protected his property like it was the United States mint. He was sure everyone who set foot on or near the place was out to steal his non-existent fortune.

"Well, you ain't gonna be bringin' nobody in anytime soon." Nathan dropped the bloody piece of iron into a small tin cup sitting on the bedside table. "It's gonna take you several days to get back on your feet. You won't be doin' any ridin' for a while."

"It won't take me long to get out of this bed. Now that the bullet's out, I-"

"Now that the bullet's out," Nathan interrupted his headstrong charge. "You'll need a few days rest to give the wound time to heal proper. That means stayin' in bed. Buck and Vin can go get him. He's partial to Buck. They shouldn't have too much trouble." Looking Chris square in the eye, the healer's eyebrows rose as he continued. "Why'd you go out there, anyway? You know how the old cuss is. He especially don't take to you."

"Hell, I was only checkin' on him!" A stab of pain darted down Chris' leg as he raised himself up on his elbows in an effort to defend the less-than-intelligent action. Wincing against the sharp discomfort, he worked to rein in the sudden irritation that taunted him. Lowering his heated voice to a more even level, he explained. "Hadn't seen him in town for nearly a month, so on my way in from the cabin, I thought I'd ride by and make sure he was okay. Reckon I should of known better, but I didn't think he'd take a shot at me. Good thing he can't hit the broad side of a barn. If he could, I'd be dead. Near as I could tell he was aimin' at my head." Some of the angry tension eased as Chris allowed himself to relax back into the pillow, his voice dropping to a disgusted mumble. "I feel like a damn fool."

With a sympathetic grin, Nathan shook his head. "You were only tryin' to help, Chris, nothin' foolish about that. Now try and lay still while I finish gettin' you fixed up." Setting the forceps down next to the cup, the former slave picked up a towel and dipped it into a bowl of steamy water. As he began cleaning the hole left by the bullet, the sting of contact on Chris' raw skin stifled the protest Larabee was about to make; a sharp hiss of discomfort replacing his impatient words.

"Sorry, Chris." Nathan stopped long enough to look up into the pain-distorted features of his patient. "But I need to get this wound good and clean. Here…" He handed the gunman a half-empty whiskey bottle. "Take another drink of this. And be glad that I'm not gonna have to put any stitches in you."

Pulling one hand from the headboard, Chris took the offered bottle and brought it to his lips, thankful for the familiar, numbing sensation as the liquid fire ran down his throat.

Stitches! A foreboding shudder rushed through him as he remembered the last time he'd been sown up. The scar from the knife wound on his side would always be an unpleasant reminder of his time in Jericho. The gunman couldn't decide which was worse-the pain of having a bullet dug out of torn flesh or the pain of having a needle and thread pushed through torn flesh. He'd experienced both one too many times. Having to endure only one this time around was a blessing not taken lightly.

Larabee took yet another drink from the bottle as Nathan resumed the chore of cleaning the wound. When he was satisfied that the area was clean enough, the healer sprinkled a liberal amount of sulfa powder over the hole and went about the task of bandaging the leg.

Chris continued to indulge in the whiskey until Nathan straightened once again and cast him a smile. "Okay, that should do it."

Just as the statement left Nathan's lips, a rapid knocking echoed from the door.

"Buck, can't you show a little patience?" the healer scolded as he turned toward the urgent summons.

"It isn't Buck, Nathan." The concerned voice of Mary Travis floated from the hallway. "I... I heard that Mister Larabee had been hurt. I... I just wanted to check on him? How bad is he? Is there anything I can do?"

Hearing Mary's anxious questions did any number of things to Chris' composure, not the least of which was startle him.

What the hell is she doin' here? The silent recoil came swiftly, and without thought, as the shocked surprise grabbed him. Why her concern should astonish him, he had no idea. He'd been shot, after all. They were friends. Her worry was only natural. An impatient unease pursed his lips. Yes... it was nothing more than natural. Why was it so much easier to believe she didn't care?

With a deep sigh, he shrugged off the telling question, a less probing concern taking over. He was in no condition to be receiving female visitors, and most particularly not this female visitor. Pulling the blanket over his semi-naked body, he pinned Nathan with a hard glare, silently forbidding any possibility of an intrusion.

But the healer refused to be intimidated, and with a casual shrug and a mischievous smile, he quietly dismissed Larabee's stony ill ease. Playfully clearing his throat, Nathan once again turned in the direction of the door, offering Chris a reprieve when he finally answered Mrs. Travis. "Ah... no, ma'am. Thank you, but I've got the wound cleaned and dressed. Nothin' left now but to let Chris get some rest."

"He's all right then?" The worry faded some as she asked for the reassurance.

Nathan didn't answer right away, and as his hesitation lengthened, a determined resolution set his jaw. Then, as if suddenly deciding that a continued conversation through a closed door was a little on the ridiculous side, he shook his head and strode across the room. Before Chris had the chance to voice his objection, Jackson opened the door and came face to face with Mary Travis, cheerfully answering her question. "Yes, ma'am. He's gonna be fine in a few days."

Although Nathan stood directly in front of Mary, completely blocking her view of the room, Chris felt the need to pull the blanket higher around his waist, a self-conscious embarrassment prompting the move. He still had his shirt on, but his pants were slung over a near-by chair. Looking down at his legs, he checked to make sure they were covered. All he had on were his long-johns, and the right leg was ripped clean up to his crotch, as Nathan needed the area around the bullet wound cleared so he could do what needed to be done.

"You're sure?"

A stubborn fear lingered in the gentle voice, and Chris again marveled at the tender care he sensed in her insistence for another guarantee. His grip on the whisky bottle tightened when he acknowledged the warmth, a whisper of panic darting through his mind. He wondered at his reaction. How could such a sweet recognition conjure such a powerful misgiving?

"See for yourself." The invitation held a subdued chuckle as Nathan stepped back from the door and encouraged Mary's entrance with a wave of his hand.

Chris locked disbelieving eyes on his smiling friend, who seemed all but oblivious to his profound dismay, before his attention was irresistibly drawn to the pale beauty now gracing the room. His grip on the bottle tightened further still as a dull, forbidden need suddenly teased him. Her affect was something close to a violent shudder as that thick need flowed through his body, bathing every muscle in a warm tension. Deeply, it seeped into his mind… saturated his soul. He couldn't control it anymore, and he sure as hell couldn't ignore it, his body craving something he knew to be impossible. Even at this awkward moment, he didn't seem to be immune, and he cursed the miserable weakness. Mary Travis' life would be much safer with him on its outskirts, but that one simple truth seemed to elude him more and more these days.

A few determined steps brought her only a foot or two from the bed. The eyes that searched his face held the worry he'd heard in her voice. But as they slowly journeyed over his features, that concern appeared to fade, the ridged frown softening when she finally seemed to believe her own eyes. "I'm glad to see that you're all right, Mister Larabee. I was worried when I heard that you'd been shot."

Chris noticed, but chose not to dwell on, the profound, almost anxious, relief he sensed in Mary as she made the admission. Choosing instead to simply return her subtle smile as he pulled himself up straighter in the bed, squelching a wince when the movement heightened the throb in his leg. "No need to worry, ma'am. Just a flesh wound."

He felt rather than saw Nathan's disapproving reaction to the understatement, but Chris didn't give it a second thought, the need to ease Mary's mind taking precedence over an unvarnished truth. "Jeremiah ain't much of a shot."

"Isn't he, though?" Mary's eyebrows rose with the skeptical question, her doubtful eyes moving to settle on Nathan.

The pointed look caused the former slave to shift his weight nervously from one foot to the other, a sheepish smirk tugging at his mouth before he finally found his voice. "Well, least ways, he didn't hit any vital organs. Chris lost a little blood, but he'll be fine in a few days."

The gunman watched the shadow of a frown slip across Mary's face, the words, for a brief moment, seeming to have the opposite effect of what was intended. It appeared as if she didn't quite believe what Nathan was telling her.

A loud knock on the door didn't allow for any further scrutiny of the situation as the blustery entrance of Buck Wilmington followed. Stopping in the doorway, Buck gave Nathan and Mary the benefit of his happy expression before centering it on Chris. "Well, looks like you're gonna live. It's a good thing. I just told everybody you were. Can't have you makin' a liar out of me."

The broad smile beaming out from under the mustache was contagious, and Chris felt it pull at one corner of his mouth. "Nope, can't have that. Gotta keep you honest as much as we can. Lord knows, you need all the help you can get."

The wide grin faded with the friendly jab as Buck rose to the bait. "Now just what the he-" His eyes darted to Mary for just a second as he appeared to re-think his reply. "What the heck do you mean by that?"

Chris's smile widened, but he kept his mouth shut. He wasn't about to get into a history of Buck's indiscretions with Mary in the room.

As if sensing the damper she was putting on the conversation, the widow was the next to speak as the light of amusement brightened her eyes. "Well, if you'll excuse me, gentlemen. I have to get back to the paper." She looked at Nathan. "If you need my help in any way, please let me know." Her attention then fell back to Chris. The detachment tainting her voice didn't quite make it to her eyes, her profound relief and concern still lingering in the smoky depths. And once again, Chris felt himself unwillingly drawn to that concern, awed by it, thankful for it. "I hope your recovery is a quick one, Mister Larabee. Gentlemen."

"Ma'am." The acknowledgment came in unison.

With a bow of her head, Mary made her departure.

When the door closed behind her, Buck turned a playful smirk in Chris's direction. "Should've known I'd find the pretty Miz Travis up here at your bedside. But does she always have to be so damn formal? It ain't like it's doin' her any good. It's as plain as the nose on her face." Shaking his head with disapproving slowness, Buck's smile dissolved into an uncharacteristic seriousness. "When are you two gonna give it up and admit how you feel about each other?"

The question would have knocked Chris off his feet, if he hadn't already been lying down. He felt as if he'd just been hit with a bucket full of icy water, the sudden shock paralyzing him briefly as he tried to digest the last few seconds of the one-sided conversation. Was his struggle so close to the surface that everyone could see it? He hadn't thought so, until now. Did the others see the same thing? Hell, he hoped not. Buck was one thing. And he supposed he could even take Vin's knowing about his growing weakness. The rest of the men, however, were another matter altogether. No. They couldn't know.

The more Chris thought about it, the madder he got. It was none of Buck's damn business how they felt.. if they felt. It's was nobody's business, as a matter of fact. The frown on his face grew deeper by the second as he felt his eyes harden with the necessity of an angry denial. It was the only form of protection he had left, although he wasn't sure how much longer it was going to serve his purpose, as almost daily he felt his resolve slowing slipping away.

Easily reading Larabee's darkening expression, Buck held up his hands in a gesture of surrender, backing down from the obviously touchy subject. "All right, Chris. I'll let it go. But you two ain't foolin' anybody." Lazily, he crossed his arms over his chest, the sly grin returning. "Now, what's all this foolishness between you and Jeremiah Parker?"

With a resigned sigh, Chris felt some of the heated anger drain away as he prepared himself for the ribbing he was about to receive, and probably deserved. But as he listened to Buck's good-natured scolding, Mary remained a dull worry hovering on the edge of his mind.

End Chapter 1