The Magnificent Seven gang doesn't belong to me. That honor belongs to MGM and some others. I'm just taking them out for a little exercise. They will be returned.

Closer

By

C7

Whoever they had been, they'd left him for dead. Shot in the chest. His body discolored by a merciless beating. Mary Travis watched through pained eyes, tears tightening her throat, as Chris Larabee lay unconscious in his bed, unsure if this time the gunslinger's fatalism had finally caught up with him, frightened by what it would do to her if it had.

"We've got to go after 'em, damn it!" Buck Wilmington's voice blasted from the other side of the closed door, grabbing the widow's attention.

"Calm down, Buck." Vin Tanner's soft reason floated from the hallway. "We are going after them, but we can't get a decent start 'til in the mornin'. Besides, we aren't even sure who we need to go after."

"Oh, I think we've all got a damn good idea who did this." Mary heard the heated fury ooze from Buck's voice as she listened to him spit out the words. Like she and the rest of the men, he'd been a jumble of worry and fear while Nathan worked to remove the bullet from Chris's chest, but now that the immediate danger had passed, and the waiting had begun, his anger quickly found its way to the surface.

"We can't be sure that it was the Taylor bothers, Buck." Again, Vin tried to interject a little objectivity.

"I can be sure." The reply was low and filled with a deadly resolve.

A foreboding chill slipped along Mary's spine as she recalled the three men to whom Buck referred. They'd ridden into town on a cold January morning five days ago. She might not have noticed them as they slowly moved down the street if not for the black patch that covered an eye of one of the men. It had stood out like a badge of admonition against the light complexion of his weathered face. He'd appeared as harsh and unforgiving as the winter wind that whistled around him. With the recognition, a cold hand of dread had clutched Mary's insides, her concerned eyes following them as they made their way to the livery. She'd soon discovered that she had had every right to be bothered by the trio's arrival.

"Now, Buck... take it easy. We can't go off half cocked." Nathan's insistent voice filtered into the room, pulling the widow from her recollection.

"Half cocked?!" Buck angrily scoffed. "Chris killed John Taylor! Do we really have to guess who did this? The Taylors ambushed him and left him for dead. Damn! I told the stubborn fool not to go out on his own so soon after the shooting."

Mary's eyes moved from the door to settle on Chris's still, pale face, the dark bruises around his right eye and mouth making her flinch. Seeing him like this tore through her heart, an aching need to ease his suffering leaving her frustrated by her helplessness. But as much as she hated to accept it, she knew there was nothing she could do now but wait and pray. If it weren't for the steady movement of his chest under the blankets, she might have thought him dead. '...stubborn fool....' Maybe he was too stubborn to die? She hoped. She prayed with all her heart. He couldn't die. He just couldn't die.

"It was a fair fight, Buck." JD's voice interrupted Mary's trepidation. "They came into town lookin' for trouble, and they found it. They can't blame Chris. He tried to back away, but Taylor didn't give him any choice."

"I know that, and you know that, kid. But you saw 'em. They weren't the forgivin'-and-forgettin' type. They never actually threatened Chris, but I saw the way they looked at him when they rode outta town. They didn't need to say anything."

"Well, whoever it was, we'll find 'em." The determination in Vin's voice brought a sad smile to Mary's lips. The bounty hunter wasn't going to let the man, or men, responsible for his friend's condition go unpunished. "Mister Jenkins will have to take us back to the place where he found Chris, and we'll have to hope we can pick up a trail from there. No sense stumblin' around in the dark. With the ground as rock solid as it is right now, it's gonna be hard enough to pick up on anything in the daytime. We'll leave at first light."

"Chris probably saw who did this to him," JD suggested. "Maybe we should wait. When he wakes up, he might be able to tell us something."

"Perhaps the boy is right, Mister Tanner." Ezra's southern lilt came from behind the door. "Mister Larabee might be able to give us a clue as to where we need to start."

A hushed groan from Chris snatched Mary's attention from the conversation in the hallway. Reaching out from her chair by the bed, she gently wiped the patient's forehead. It was cold outside and downright chilly in the sparse room, but beads of sweat had started to form on Chris's face. Nathan had feared an infection. It had only been a couple of hours since the healer removed the bullet, but it appeared as if one of his greatest fears was being realized. The gunslinger felt terribly warm to Mary's touch.

With a fearful urgency, she opened the door and interrupted the six men standing outside the room. "Nathan?" Her heart began to beat a little faster in her chest. "He's hot. I think he's becoming feverish."

"Shhh...oot." The former slave strode past her into the room.

Mary followed him and was joined by rest of the men, the small group crowded in silent concern around the bed.

Nathan's expression grew dark as he pressed a knowing hand to Chris's brow. Shaking his head, he straightened. "Well, I don't think we're gonna be able to depend on Chris for much anytime soon. He's showin' signs of fever. He may come out of it in hours or it may take days, if he comes out of it at all. I was afraid this would happen. With the beating and the bullet wound, and the fact that he more than likely laid out there for nearly a day, it's not too much of a surprise. I guess I was just hopin' for a small miracle. Looks like I'm not gonna get it. But since he didn't bleed to death or get frostbit before someone got to him, I guess I've already had my miracle for this go 'round." His eyes fell to Vin. "Leaving in the mornin' makes the most sense to me."

'...if he comes out of it at all.' Mary's eyes locked on Chris's battered face as the words replayed in her head. If.

No. Quietly, she rejected the possibility as an icy fear entered her mind. He would come out of it. He had to come out of it.

"All right." Vin's tone was grim as he nodded. "We'll meet at the livery before dawn. After we swing by to pick up Jenkins, we'll start lookin'." His blue gaze clouded with sad pain as it fell on his unconscious friend. "Nathan, you'll stay here with Chris." He looked up at the former slave. "You'll pull him through." There was no question in the last words. It was a simple statement of earnest belief.

"I'll do all I can, Vin."

With a wordless tip of his hat, the bounty hunter turned and left the room.

"Well, I've got some prayin' to do." Josiah looked at Chris before raising a hand to the brim of his hat, a frown pulling at the corners of his mouth. "I'll see you all first thing in the mornin'." He glanced at Nathan. "Let me know if anything changes or if you need any help."

"Yeah," JD piped up, his hands restlessly fidgeting with the guns at his sides. "If I can do anything to help, just let me know."

"I will." Nathan cast the group a grateful smile. "If there's anything y'all can do, I'll be sure and let you know. Now, you better get some rest. You're gonna need it."

Heads sadly nodded in unison before Josiah, JD and Ezra slowly filed out of the room.

Buck walked up to stand next to the bed. Leaning down, he placed a gentle hand on Chris's bare shoulder, his voice a broken whisper when he spoke. "We'll get whoever did this, pard. You just get better, ya hear? I'm not ready to lose anymore friends. But more important than that," a thread of sympathy tugged at Mary's heart when she noticed sudden tears shimmering in the big man's eyes. "I promised Sarah I'd keep an eye on you. I can't have her disappointed in me." Straightening, he rubbed a quick hand over his eyes before turning to face the two people standing behind him. His anguished gaze moved from Mary to Nathan. "He's got to live." Bowing his head in the widow's direction, he left the room.

As she watched the door close behind Buck, Mary felt some of his desperation prick the back of her mind. He was right. Chris had to live.

"Well, Miz Travis, I'm gonna go get some towels and water so I can work on tryin' to get that fever down. Would you stay with him until I get back?"

"Of course, Nathan." Mary nodded as the healer walked to the door.

"I'll be back in a few minutes."

As the door closed, another soft moan filled the room. Mary was at Chris's side in the next second, the sound of his discomfort causing the faint panic to rise in her again. Resting a tender hand on his cheek, an alarmed gasp died in her throat. He was burning up now, stray locks of blond hair plastered to his forehead. As she smoothed the wet hair from his hot skin, he began to thrash his head from side to side.

"Chris. It's all right. Shhh." Even though she knew he couldn't hear her, she tried to soothe him with a gentle voice. "Nathan will be back in a few minutes and we'll try to cool you off."

But, in the next instant, the restlessness only increased as his strong arms mindlessly pushed her away, and he kicked the blankets off his fevered body.

The shocked confusion from Chris's violent action only registered in Mary's head for a few seconds before another kind of confusion quickly took its place. The heat of something she didn't want to examine too closely coursed though her body as she stood rooted to the floor unable to pull her wide eyes from the powerful picture of masculinity before her. She knew she should be turning away or covering him up or something, but she just couldn't find the will to move. A little voice in the back of her head chastised her for the wanton behavior, but she wasn't paying it much attention. She couldn't hear it very clearly over the rapid beating of her heart. And she wasn't altogether sure if she wanted to hear it. Rational thought was just too difficult at the moment.

Now that the blankets were no longer covering him, Chris seemed content, laying quietly oblivious while Mary, mesmerized, took slow stock of him. Even the terrible scars he carried from this and previous misadventures didn't detract from his male beauty. He wore only the bottom half of a pair of long johns. It looked as if the top had been cut off with a dull knife, the ragged material at the waist held in place by what looked like a scarf or a long strip of some other type of material tied with a loose knot. Mary's eyes trailed from the slim waist over long, finely muscled legs, their power plainly evident through the long johns, now pulled tightly around him as a result of his recent struggle with the bed linens. His feet were bare.

Another languid pass over his lower limbs led the widow's captivated gaze to Chris's naked upper body. Her view was partially obstructed by the bandage covering the bullet wound on his left side several inches beneath the shoulder, but what she saw still triggered a hungry want, a deep, burning need that wouldn't be smothered. Her eyes skimmed the hard, tight muscles of his stomach and traveled up to the smooth, chiseled strength of his chest, the strong muscles rippling slightly as he restlessly moved his arms from their position over his head. Mary followed the powerful arms as they rested by his sides, and she wondered what it would feel like to be held in their passionate embrace, to experience their demanding power.

Like a moth caught in the damning light of an all-consuming flame, the widow took one step forward, and then another, and another. She stood over the beauty that was Chris Larabee and reached out to him. But before she could touch him, the spell was broken by Nathan's footsteps as he bounded up the stairs.

Blinking, Mary took a deep breath and tried to calm her racing heart. It was absurd, her powerful reaction to this man. But more than absurd, it was frightening, terrifying. Not even with Steven had she felt such a basic, carnal attraction. That she should experience it with any man other than her husband, let alone with this dangerous man, left her shaken to the core. It was wrong, so very wrong.

And just as strong as her fear was her utter embarrassment. She felt the heat rush to her cheeks. Chris Larabee was fighting for his life, and she was standing over him gawking like some brazen harlot. Her hot cheeks grew hotter as she reached for the blankets Chris had unknowingly discarded on the floor. As she started to pull them back over the gunslinger, Nathan opened the door. Walking into the room, he deposited a pitcher and several towels on the small table beside the bed.

Mary tucked the covers around Chris's shoulders as she spoke, her voice a tad bit unsteady to her ears. She prayed Nathan wouldn't notice. "He's getting very restless. The fever seems to have gotten worse. He kicked the blankets off while you were gone."

"Well," the healer joined her at the bedside, his worried eyes looking down at his now quiet patient. "I hope bathing his face and shoulders with this water will help, but as cool as this room already is, I don't want to give him a chill by cooling him down too much." He indicated the far corner of the room with a nod of his head. "That old wood stove isn't puttin' out much heat. We're just gonna have to ride this out and hope the fever breaks sooner rather than later. If he starts to thrashin' around too much, he's gonna tear that wound open again and make things worse than they already are. He can't afford to lose anymore blood."

Mary's self-condemning preoccupation disappeared as Nathan put the situation into grave perspective. The next few days were going to be critical for Chris's survival. She would have to be prepared to do what ever was needed to pull him through. And they would pull him through. She wouldn't let him go without one hell of a fight.

A resolved shudder passed through the widow as she looked down at the gunman's handsome, flushed face. As much as she'd tried to ignore it over the past several months, there was a tender spot in her heart where she kept Chris Larabee and that small place grew a little larger everyday. The physical attraction she felt for him paled in comparison to the deepening affection that seemed to be taking her over. She still tried to bury the growing emotions, but it was becoming more and more clear to her that she was fighting a losing battle. But.... The voice of sanity thrust its way forward. Wasn't this tragedy the very reason she should push Chris out of her heart?

Yes. The answer came simply enough, however the logic didn't seem to hold much sway with her anymore. Her feelings were becoming much too strong to overlook.

"Well, Miz Travis," Nathan's quiet tone halted Mary's inner turmoil. "You should be getting back. You need your rest too."

Mary smiled at the concern in her friend's voice. "You do too, Nathan. You can't stay up all night with him alone."

Another soft groan issued from the bed. The widow's smile fell as her eyes traveled back to Chris. His arms came out from under the blankets, and he pushed them down to his waist, once again, leaving his chest bare. This time the sight brought only a wave of dread washing over Mary. Her gaze never left the gunslinger as she spoke again. "He's probably going to be a handful. I can stay and help you." The long seconds of silence drew her Mary's eyes away from Chris. She confronted the doubt in Nathan's expression, but it didn't deter her. "I want to help him."

"I understand, ma'am, but it isn't proper for you to be up here alone all night in a man's room. Folks 'll talk." The healer pulled the blankets back over his patient. "Leave Chris to me tonight. I should be able to handle him okay. If I need help, I'll send for one of the others."

"But..." The protest hovered on her lips. He was right. Her presence in this room, no matter what the reason, would already cause gossip. If she stayed all night, the chatter would be rampant, if it already wasn't. But regardless of the childish town prattle, she didn't want to leave Chris. What could she say to Nathan to make him understand? What was she prepared to admit out loud to both him and to herself? She didn't know.

"Mary, go on. If anything happens, I promise I'll send for you." Nathan placed an encouraging hand on her arm. "Go get some rest. You can relieve me tomorrow for a few hours."

"All right." The widow reluctantly moved toward the door. As she turned the handle, she looked over her shoulder, another stab of apprehension finding its way in to her mind. She watched Nathan place a moistened towel on Chris forehead and begin to wipe away the beads of sweat that covered the gunman's hot skin. She caught a trembling lower lip between her teeth as she said a silent prayer. She hoped beyond hope that God would see fit to see this precious life through the night. With that wish, she made her way back to the paper.

Unable to hold it in any longer, Mary allowed herself a simple release once she stepped into the silent darkness of the Clarion office. Leaning her back against the closed door, she shut her eyes as the dam broke, the fear and sorrow pouring forth in a steady steam of hot tears. She didn't know how long she stood there lost in the flood of despair. It could have been a minute. It could have been an hour. But after a time, the torrent slowed and finally stopped, her weary body unable to muster one more drop.

Wiping her eyes, the widow willed herself to calm down. Her weakness wasn't going to help Chris or Nathan. She needed to get some rest so she would be ready to relieve Nathan in a few hours. She had to be alert if she was going to be of any use to him.

Pushing herself off the door, Mary walked to her rooms in the back of the building, her eyes accustomed to the dark enough that she didn't try to find a lantern. Once in her bedroom, she tossed her coat on a nearby chair and slumped on the side of the bed. She was exhausted, but she didn't see how she was going to be able to get any sleep. Her thoughts wondered back to the man whose life had come to mean so much to her. A smile touched the widow's lips. Chris had become a friend to her, and a hero in the eyes of her son. To Billy, the gunman was bigger than life, a brave champion who had saved his life, a kind companion who whittled toys and took him fishing. Chris could do no wrong as far as her son was concerned. To Billy, he was the embodiment of a strong, steadfast protector; a loving, gentle helper. A father?

The speculation sent a jolt of surprise darting through the widow. Is that truly how Billy looked at Chris? If she were honest with herself, she would have to admit that the affection her son held for Chris was very much like that of a son for a father. But the consequences of that closeness had always been too frightening for her to face.

And how did she see Chris Larabee? Mary's perplexed frown deepened. How, indeed? A friend. He was a friend. That seemed simple enough. But... She slowly shook her head. It wasn't that simple anymore. The gunman had become more, much more. Somewhere along the way, he had taken up residence in her heart, and there seemed to be no way to evict him. Even as her greatest fear played out before her eyes, she still couldn't find the will to banish him. His hold over her had become too strong, her feelings for him too deep. No matter what happened, she knew she would never be able to reject the tender emotions that held her captive.

A yawn escaped Mary as her eyelids drooped. Laying back on the bed, she told herself she would just close her eyes for a few minutes. Just a few minutes...

"I'm sorry, Miz Travis. He's gone." The sad voice of Nathan Jackson filled the room.

Mary stood at the end of the bed, the pain of loss eating away at her insides. The tears ran freely down her face as she shook her head in firm denial. "No. No. No. No." She repeated the word over and over.

"We did all we could do, ma'am. He was just too far gone."

"No!" The widow moved around the bed and flung herself on Chris's lifeless body. "No!" she sobbed into his still chest. "You can't leave, Chris! I won't let you!" Looking up into his ashen face, she shook his shoulders. "You can't leave me, Chris! I have so much to tell you." With gentle fingers, she smoothed the fine hair that lay across his forehead. "Please." Her voice dropped to a pleading whisper. "Please, come back to me."

In the next instant, she felt strong hands on her upper arms. "Come on, Miz Travis." The healer's voice sounded close to her ear. "You shouldn't be here. There's nothing you can do for him now. Leave him be."

She struggled against the hands that pulled her from Chris's body, but they were too much for her lesser strength. She was being dragged out of the room, but she refused to take her eyes off the man in the bed. "No! Chris!"

"Chris!" The name shot from Mary's lips as she bolted upright on the bed, her breaths coming in short, quick gasps. Her terrified eyes darted around the room and the familiarity of her surroundings broke through the horrific illusion. She was in her bedroom, in the Clarion. With her heart pounding in her ears, she took a deep breath. It was a dream, a horrendous dream. But...

Anxiously, she looked at the window behind her. The sun was just starting to make it presence known in the early morning sky. She'd slept much longer than she had intended. With a heightened urgency, she splashed a little water on her face, changed her clothes and ran a brush through her loose hair, before grabbing her coat and heading out the door.

Nathan hadn't sent for her during the night, and she looked on the fact as encouraging. But nonetheless, she wanted to get to Chris to see with her own eyes that he was still all right. Or as all right as he had been the night before.

Pulling her coat a little tighter, Mary tried to protect herself from the cold wind that beat against her. It would be another gray, bitter, winter day. As she walked, she noticed they had gotten a light dusting of snow sometime during the early morning hours. She hoped the light covering wouldn't hamper the efforts of the other men as they tried to pick up on the trail of the person responsible for hurting Chris. She glanced in the direction of the livery. All was quiet. The five men had already gone.

Mary knocked lightly on the door to Chris's room. The only response she got was silence. A dim panic sparked in her mind and without any more hesitation, she stepped into the room. Her eyes immediately gravitated to the man laying on the bed, and she was relieved when she saw him unconsciously reposition his head on the pillow. As before, he had successfully pushed the blankets from his body, the brown wool a chaotic heap around his feet. Mary's gaze ran the length of Chris's still form to settle on his flushed face. She tried to ignore the burning ache that the sight re-ignited deep inside her, but the heated desire washed over her with such force denying it was impossible. The same hungry need that had consumed her last night when she'd looked upon him mercilessly licked her body now, and with its return, so too came the embarrassment. How could she allow him to affect her so profoundly, especially at a time like this? It was ridiculous. It was outrageous. It was...sinful.

She closed her eyes against the onslaught and took a deep breath. I don't know you anymore, Mary Travis. Get a hold of yourself. Silently, she scolded herself.

Opening her eyes again, she avoided looking in Chris's direction and found Nathan, his arms folded in front of him and chin resting on his chest, asleep in the chair next to the bed. A smile pulled at her lips as the picture warmed her heart. Nathan Jackson was one of the kindest men she'd ever known, his need to help people as strong as any she'd ever seen in a person. The town didn't know how lucky they were to have him here.

Stepping over to the chair, Mary placed a gentle hand on the healer's arm. "Nathan?"

Her quiet voice pulled him from his respite, his eyes springing open as he sat up straight in the chair. Looking up, he offered her a sheepish smile. "Miz Travis. Mornin'. I guess I could have used your help last night after all."

Mary returned the smile. "How was he?"

"Oh," Nathan rose from the chair and walked to the end of the bed. "He had some rough moments, but over all, it wasn't too bad." He worked the pile of blankets from under Chris's feet and started draping them back over his patient. "Even though the fever's still got a good hold on him, he's as weak as a kitten. So, he hasn't been able to do too much damage to the wound." He straightened from his task and frowned down at the gunman. "He's holding his own right now, but I sure wish this fever would break. I really don't know how much more of it his body can take. The water baths have helped a little, but he's so hot, they don't work for very long."

The anxious fear, which was never very far beneath the surface, worked its way back into Mary's mind as she listened to Nathan. She had hoped to hear something encouraging from him, but Chris's condition hadn't changed, the fever continued to ravage his body. She wracked her brain for something else, anything else, they could do to bring down his temperature, but nothing, other than what they were already doing, came to mind. She felt so helpless, so completely helpless.

"Well," Nathan looked back at Mary, his frown replaced by a reserved smile. "I'll go get some breakfast and try an' catch a little sleep, if you'll stay and keep an eye on him for me."

"Of course," Mary nodded. "Take all the time you need." She moved to the table beside the bed and looked into the pitcher.

"I just refilled it with water not too long ago." The healer walked to the door and opened it. Turning, he cast Mary a reassuring glance. "You should have enough to last until I get back. I shouldn't be more than a couple of hours, Miz Travis. Try to keep him covered and quiet. I changed his bandage an hour or so ago, so don't worry about that. He shouldn't give you too much trouble. If he starts getting too hot, wash his face and shoulders with the water. Runnin' the towel over his lips wouldn't hurt either. I can't get any water down him like this, and every little bit 'll help. And if you need me, just holler at Jesse. He'll come get me. Thanks, Miz Travis. I won't be long."

With that, the door closed, leaving Mary alone with Chris. She pulled off her coat and draped over the back of the chair. Without the added layer of clothing, she felt the biting chill that permeated the small room. Why Nathan had chosen to leave Chris here, she didn't know. Perhaps he felt a move through the bitter cold outside would be worse. But at the moment, she had her doubts about that. This persistent nip in the air couldn't be good for his patient.

Running her hands over her arms, she walked to the far corner of the room. The stove was hot, but the rest of the room was anything but. Grabbing a towel to protect her hand, she opened the black door of the small furnace. It was full of logs, the wood crackling fiercely in the bright flame. Nathan must have filled it not long ago also. As she secured the door, Mary heard a now familiar sound. She looked to see Chris shaking his head back and forth on the pillow, another uneasy groan leaving him.

The widow quickly moved back to the bed and placed a concerned hand on the gunman's cheek. He was burning up. Taking one of the towels from the bedside table, she dipped into the pitcher of water. Wringing out the excess liquid, she sat in the chair and began bathing Chris's face. He moaned again as the cool clothe moved over his forehead, and once more, Mary wished there was something else she could do to ease his suffering. Seeing him like this scared the wits out of her. It seemed as if he were losing the battle, as if the fever was winning, slowly pulling him from her life.

No. She blinked back the tears that suddenly pooled in her eyes. He had to hang on. He had to pull through. He couldn't leave... her.

'You can't leave me, Chris!' The desperation from this morning's dream echoed in her head. She continued to run the cooling towel over Chris's hot skin while the horror of the nightmare tightened its grip on her. In the haunting vision, he had died, the desolation of his loss driving her mad with grief. Mary again fought threatening tears as she recalled the cold emptiness that had numbed her mind as she was pulled from the room--this room.

"No!" The exclamation exploded from her as a single drop spilled from her eye. Stubbornly, she wiped it away. He wasn't going to die. He wasn't going to leave.... Her train of thought slowed to a crawl. Removing the towel from Chris's forehead, Mary sat back in the chair and stared at his precious face. Were her feelings for this man really so strong? Was he woven so deeply into her heart, her soul, that the thought of losing him had become a nearly unbearable agony?

'I have so much to tell you.' The regret-filled words ran through Mary's mind. Tell him? Her brow knitted together in a puzzled frown. What could she tell him? Or more to the point, what was she prepared to tell him? She wasn't sure. And what was he prepared to hear? Again, she had no idea. There had been times when she'd caught him looking at her, a fierce longing smoldering in his eyes. It was at those times when the widow was all but certain the feelings she held for Chris were not one-sided, that he felt something too. But there were other times when the gunman's cold, harshness had made her feel less than a welcome part of his life. If she were brave enough, or stupid enough, to try and tell him what she was feeling, would he laugh? Would he run as fast, and as far, as his horse could carry him? Or would he gently whisper words of joy at hearing her confession? She didn't know. And she was much too unsure to find out. But what if she never even got the chance?

No. She wouldn't allow the nagging doubt any further rein over her thoughts. He was going to live.

Shaking the unwanted questions from her head, Mary dipped the towel back into the pitcher and returned to the tender task of trying to cool Chris's body. He moaned again as she ran the clothe down an exposed arm. If he would just wake up, just open his eyes.

The next hour passed without incident. Mary continued to bathe Chris while he lay relatively quiet, oblivious to the attention, and to the woman whose heart ached for him.

She wasn't sure when she'd drifted to sleep. All she remembered was sitting back for a moment in the chair. Now, she felt a hand on her shoulder and heard a low voice in her ear. "Miz Travis?" Nathan softly prodded her from the abyss.

Opening her eyes, she offered the healer the same sheepish grin he had given her only a few hours ago. "I'm sorry. I guess I didn't sleep very well last night." Her sights darted to Chris, who remained just as she'd left him before her brief sojourn into the world of sleep, still unconscious, the blankets tucked in snuggly around his shoulders. Had he really been that quiet while she slept, or had Nathan straightened the untidy evidence of the gunman's unease?

"It's been a tryin' night for all of us, ma'am. No need to apologize. Why don't you go back home for a while and get some more rest? No sense in us both bein' here."

Mary stood as she shook her head. "I'm fine, Nathan. Really. I can stay."

"No need for you to, Miz Travis. It would be better if you went and got some more rest so you can relieve me later if need be."

He was right, of course. Just as he had been last night. If she could get a little more sleep, she could be more of a help later. And, she had to admit to herself, she was tired, very tired. But she doubted her ability to get any kind of a decent rest with the intense worry that weighed on her. Nonetheless, she would try.

Taking her coat from the back of the chair, Mary took one last look at Chris before walking to the door. As she pulled on the garment, she smiled at Nathan. "I'll bring you some lunch in a few hours." His answer was a silent nod, and after she returned it, she left the room and made her way back to the Clarion.

The hours moved slowly. After an unsuccessful attempt at a nap, she tried to work on the paper, but her mind was not on what she was doing. Spilling an ink well all over one of her latest articles was the last straw. After that, she abandoned trying to work on the next issue of The Clarion News. As noon rolled around, she set about making lunch for herself and Nathan.

When she arrived with the tray, she was disappointed to learn that Chris's condition hadn't changed. She and Nathan sat quietly while they ate, neither one of them seeing the need to talk. Soon after the meal was over, Mary promised Nathan supper before going back home.

Once there, she busied herself with cleaning off the lunch tray and doing the dishes. When the cleaning was finished, she sat at the kitchen table watching the snow fly. They were getting more flurries, the crystalline flakes of ice dancing in the cold wind as they made their way to the ground. Again, the wintry weather made her wonder about the other men and how they were doing, if they were having any luck in their search. A violent surge of anger raced through Mary as she hoped the animals responsible for this tragedy would be made to pay for what they'd done. If Chris died...

"He won't," the widow whispered as she firmly cut short the painful speculation.

Rising from the chair, she started collecting the things she would need to fix dinner. It was a little early yet, but she needed to keep her hands busy. She wanted to make biscuits for Nathan, and it would take her a little extra time to get them ready.

Two hours later, she didn't notice the sun beginning to set as she pulled the golden pastry out of the oven. By the time she was finished with the rest of the meal, and had it loaded onto the tray, it was just about suppertime. Pulling on her coat, she picked up the food and started for Chris's room.

"These are good, Miz Travis." Nathan smiled as he spread butter on his third biscuit. "The whole meal is. Thank you."

"You're most welcome. I'm glad you're enjoying it." Mary returned the smile as she sat back from the tray, finished with her dinner, while her companion continued to eat. The bedside table acted as a pedestal for the tray, which served as their tabletop. They now sat with the makeshift supper table between them.

Mary sat quietly, content to watch Nathan enjoying the meal she had prepared for him.

However, it wasn't more than a few minutes when a loud moan from Chris disturbed that contentment. Within a matter of seconds, the widow was at his side trying to relieve his discomfort. But he wasn't his usually cooperative self as the fever seemed to be at its highest point so far. Thrashing forcefully in the bed, Chris pushed Mary away as he threw the blankets to the floor. Nathan was quickly at the widow's side to put restraining hands on the gunman's arms.

"I'll try an' hold him, ma'am. You just keep bathin' him with that water. Looks like the fever might be ready to break. Things usually get a little worse right before they get better."

The next hour felt like an eternity to Mary as she and Nathan fought to keep Chris from re-injuring his chest while trying to keep the effects of the fever at bay. For a man who was 'as weak as a kitten', Chris Larabee certainly gave Nathan all he could handle, and then some, several times knocking the bigger man down on his backside. But almost as unexpectedly as the violent bout started, it abruptly gave way to a renewed calm. Mary wasn't sure how, but they'd survived the turmoil without any further damage to Chris's chest. Another one of those small miracles Nathan had mentioned a day ago.

The healer's breathing was still a little rapid as he laid a hand on Chris's forehead. "I think we're through it. I think the fever broke. He feels cooler to me." A wide smile brightened his face as he looked up at Mary. "He's made it through the worst. One or two more days 'll tell for sure, but I think he's gonna be okay." Reaching down beside him, he picked up the discarded blankets and covered Chris again.

Mary listened to Nathan's words and felt the tight cord of tension loosen its grip on her body, a happy smile spreading across her face. And as a powerful wave of relief pulled the strength from her legs, the widow sank into a nearby chair.

He's going to be all right. He's going to be all right. The chant sounded in her head as a sigh passed her lips.

She and Nathan passed the next few moments in silence as they both tried to catch their breath.

The crisis had been over for all of five minutes when Mary heard the urgency of rapid footfalls on the steps outside. A hard knock on the door followed, and Nathan answered it.

A distraught Jacob Garrett stepped into the room, his face darkened by a deep frown. Removing his hat, he bowed his head in Mary's direction. "Mrs. Travis." His eyes only stopped on Chris for a second before he looked to Nathan. "Mrs. Potter told me to come fetch you. The baby's comin', and Amy's havin' an awful time of it. Can you come, Nathan? Please."

Sympathy quickly welled up inside Mary as she looked at the young rancher standing quietly, almost in tears, waiting for Nathan's answer. His wife Amy had lost their first child over a year ago. Born premature, the little girl hadn't lived through her first day. This pregnancy had gone well from what Mary had heard from Gloria Potter, and they were hopeful the birth would produce a healthy child. To hear that the young life was in jeopardy was heartbreaking.

Standing, Mary walked over to the pair at the door. "You've got to go, Nathan."

"I haven't done much baby deliverin', Miz Travis. I don't know how much help I'll be." The former slave shook his head as the worry entered his eyes.

"Well, Gloria thinks you can. You've got to go." Mary followed Nathan's eyes to the now quiet form of Chris. Looking back at the healer, she smiled.

"You said he's through the worst of it. I can stay with him until you get back."

"It's a good hour to the Garrett place, and I might be there most of the night."

"Go, Nathan. We'll be fine." As Mary said the reassuring words, she hoped she wasn't inadvertently telling a fib. They would be fine. Wouldn't they?

"Okay, Jacob. Let's go." The healer grabbed his coat from a chair and pulled it on. "We'll stop by my place and pick up a few things before we head out." Taking his hat from the hook on the wall where it rested next to Chris's, he gave Mary a nod. "I'll be back as soon as I can, Miz Travis."

"Mrs. Travis." Jacob tipped his hat and followed Nathan out of the room.

For the next little while, Chris laid peacefully while Mary went about tidying the room. Placing the dinner tray on the floor by the door, she moved the bedside table back into place and returned the pitcher to its spot on the small table. When she was pleased that things were back where they should be, she took a chair next to the bed.

A tender smile touched her mouth as she pushed a stray lock of hair from Chris's eyes. His recent struggle with Nathan left him even more disheveled than his battle with the fever. But he was alive, and regardless of his unkempt state, he looked wonderful to her. Absentmindedly, she began to rub gentle fingers slowly across his forehead, thankful that he was no longer hot to the touch, relieved that the fever no longer threatened him.

As she continued the soothing caress, Mary felt a shudder move through Chris, quickly followed by another. Now that the fever had broken, it appeared as if the chill in the air was affecting him. The two woolen blankets covering him suddenly didn't seem to be enough. Very quickly, the sparse shudders turned into violent shivering, and Mary frantically searched the room for something else to lay over the gunman. She only found one more blanket. Covering him with it, she sat back down and prayed the intense trembling would soon stop. But after a few minutes, it hadn't. If anything, it got worse, Chris unconsciously curling into a ball on his side as he tried to warm himself. The anxious fear rekindled in Mary's mind as she watched the severe tremors wrack Chris's body. She had to do something, and she had to do it now. Scanning the room again with a renewed desperation, she spotted her coat on the back of the chair and added it to the pile of blankets, but she didn't think it would do much good. He was chilled to the bone. He needed something more. Something...

With only one thought in her head, Mary sat on the bed. Pulling Chris close, she started to rub her hands up and down his arms in an effort to generate some warmth. A subtle heat washed into the widow's face as she all of a sudden became conscious of her position. It was scandalous, being here like this. But it was the only thing she could think to do.

What would the gossips in town have to say if they saw you now? The silent question suddenly nagged. A cynical smirk tugged at Mary's mouth. "Perish the thought," she whispered to herself. Right now, it didn't matter what they would say. All that really concerned her at this moment in time was Chris and his wellbeing. She had no need to be ashamed of what she was doing.

However, as she continued to stroke the tightly muscled arms of the man she held close, a reason for shame soon presented itself, the feel of his smooth skin sending an unwanted spark of need racing through her body. Just as the sight of him had called an intense craving to the surface, so too the feel of him. And, if possible, touching him only served to deepen the re-awakened ache. Closing her eyes, Mary tried to beat back the hungry swell of desire. It was wrong. It was wicked.

Trying to focus her attention back on how the gunman was reacting to her effort to warm him, Mary realized that his trembling had slowed somewhat. It was working. A few more minutes of this sensual torture and she would be able to get up.

But Chris appeared to have other ideas. With what could only be described as a satisfied grunt, he moved, unknowingly wrapping his arms around Mary's waist and laying his head in her lap as if she were just another pillow on the bed. His sudden change of position did very little to calm the widow's already racing pulse as she stared, in shocked dismay, at the blond head resting on her legs.

Her first instinct was to get up and put as much space between them as was possible, that scorching ache of need growing hotter as she savored the feel of his arms around her. But as Mary looked down at Chris's face, the desire to leave him deserted her. The tormented frown that had darkened his expression throughout his battle with the fever was now gone, relaxed contentment taking its place. In his sleep, the gunman looked as she had imagined he might, handsome features devoid of the guarded harshness that normally resided there, the burdens of life temporarily forgotten in the reprieve of slumber. The peaceful expression gave her pause. She had no wish to disturb that precious reprieve, and she decided that a few more moments of the closeness would do neither of them any harm. Leaning back against the headboard, she took a deep breath before closing her eyes. What was it she had told herself only last night? Just a few minutes...

Mary felt herself smile. She was dreaming again. But this dream was much more pleasant than the last. A gentle hand caressed her face, the roughness of its skin causing a tiny tingle to skirt along her spine. The rugged fingers moved across her forehead and down her cheek. The light touch made the widow feel cherished, and she leaned into the embrace as a sigh left her lips. She didn't want to wake up. She wanted to remain lost in the glow of the tenderness she felt in the touch. But all too quickly she felt herself being pulled from the soothing fantasy as her eyes fluttered open.

What confronted her when she woke started her pulse racing again. Blinking, Mary tried to focus her sleep-filled eyes. Was she still dreaming? She had to be seeing things. But was she imagining the warmth of the tender fingers that hovered on her cheek?

Mary stared into the clear, green eyes of Chris Larabee, his face only inches from hers as he leaned on one elbow, his hard chest lightly brushing hers. She should have felt a profound delight in the realization that Chris had finally come out of his stupor. But the joy was usurped by something more basic as his nearness once again fostered the longing. She knew she should move or say something, but the strength drained from her limbs while the ability to speak suddenly eluded her.

She watched, spellbound, as Chris's hungry gaze searched her face, the passion-filled depths moving from her eyes to settle on her slightly parted lips. She shivered when the fingers on her cheek moved to run lightly over her mouth, the sensual caress drawing a hushed gasp from Mary. At the sound, Chris looked back into the widow's eyes. She thought she saw a question there, but couldn't be sure. As if he were asking her permission for what they both knew was about to happen.

Now was her chance to stop this. To get up and walk away. But as her gaze darted down to Chris's mouth, she knew she wasn't going anywhere. She wanted.... She wanted to feel that mouth on hers. She wanted to taste the passion she saw in his eyes.

And almost as if he'd read her mind, Chris leaned in and covered Mary's lips with his own. The contact was light, tentative, at first, his lips surprisingly soft as they teased her. But the gentle caress soon turned into an intimate onslaught as he increased the pressure, urgently demanding her surrender to his superior strength. A gratified moan rose in Mary's throat as she moved her arms around Chris's neck, her hands feathering through his soft hair. Drawing him closer, she opened to his fervent appeal, relishing the invasion as she tasted his savage sweetness. The kiss was like nothing Mary had ever experienced before, the consuming passion of the caress something she hadn't even had with Steven. It rocked her to the core, leaving her breathless and shaken when Chris finally pulled away.

The air passed over Mary's lips in a faint pant as she looked into the smoldering eyes of Chris Larabee, her heart a loud drumbeat in her ears. Through the dazed numbness that held her captive, she wondered what he was thinking. What he must be thinking about her, about her reaction to him. Heat scalded her cheeks as she recalled her wanton response to his touch. But she could see nothing in the emerald depths except the need that continued to burn there. And even as the doubt and embarrassment descended upon her, she found herself unable to look away, drawn to the forbidden promise of pleasure still lingering in his hungry gaze.

The sound of happy laughter broke through the charged stillness as Mary heard Nathan Jackson and Gloria Potter outside on the street in front of Chris's room. An alarmed tension stiffened her body. They had returned from the Garrett place. Like a bucket of cold water, the realization cooled the widow's heated blood.

Chris seemed to sense her stab of panic, and rolled back a little to allow Mary a dignified escape. His grimace of pain didn't elude her notice however, and she cautiously dislodged herself from the bed, careful not to cause him anymore discomfort.

The warmth continued to singe her cheeks as she stood, nervously straightening her wrinkled dress. She avoided looking at Chris as she gazed out the window. It was still dark. What time was it? How long had she been asleep?

"Mary, I--" Chris's hesitant voice captured her attention. Another wince of pain crossed his face as he turned on his back and pulled the covers further up over him. When the pain had passed, an uncertainty clouded his expression. "I--"

"It was the fever." She quickly interrupted him, not sure of what he was going to say, and not sure if she wanted to hear what he was going to say. Discreetly, she voiced the logical excuse that would make things easier for both of them. "You... you were delirious."

"Was I?" Chris quietly asked, a faint spark of challenge entering his eyes. "Were you?"

In the next instant, there were footsteps on the stairs and Nathan walked into the room. "Chris!" The cheerful exclamation left the former slave as he shut the door. Walking over to the bed, he offered a bright smile to his patient. "Well, it looks like it's been a good night all 'round. You've come back to us, and Jacob and Amy Garrett are the proud parents of a healthy baby girl."

"Oh, Nathan, the baby's okay? That's wonderful." Mary tried to hide her chaotic emotions as she expressed genuine joy at the news of the successful birth, Chris's last words still ringing in her head.

"Yeah," Nathan cast his smile in the widow's direction. "The Lord's been busy tonight passin' out the good fortune. We've all got lots to be thankful for." Turning back to Chris, he placed a hand over the gunslinger's forehead. "So, how are you feelin'?"

"Well, I hurt like..." Pausing, Chris quickly glanced at Mary as he checked his words. "I hurt. And I'm mighty thirsty. Can I get some water?"

Nodding, Nathan turned to pour Chris a glass. Handing the water to the man in the bed, the former slave heaved a relieved sigh. "You really gave us a hefty scare."

"Sorry for all the trouble, but I didn't have much say in the matter." The gunman tried to make his response sound light, but the frown that suddenly shaded his face took some of the edge off.

"Who did this, Chris?" Nathan's happy expression sobered.

After draining the glass, Chris's eyes fell to an unseen spot on the floor, his voice something akin to a dangerous snarl. "The Taylor brothers jumped me on my way out of town."

Mary watched the memory bring the anger forward as Chris's jaw tightened. Buck had been right. The Taylors had wanted revenge.

"Well, Vin and the others are out lookin'. They left yesterday mornin'. We haven't heard anything yet."

"From the way the Taylors talked before they shot me, it sounded like they were headin' east." As Chris tried to reposition himself on the bed, he moaned, another flash of pain moving across his face.

"Take it easy now, Chris." The healer sat the glass aside before helping the gunman adjust the pillows. "That wound's still pretty fresh. I think it's time I took another look at it. I need to change that bandage anyway."

"Well," Mary piped up. "I think I'll get home." Grabbing the opportunity Nathan gave her to make her getaway, she stepped to the bed. She smiled at no one in particular. "I'll leave you to it."

Leaning down, the widow reached out to retrieve her coat from the pile laying over the patient. As her hand touched the garment, her eyes collided with Chris's. She was amazed, almost shocked, to see the desire still hovering there. He didn't seem to be feeling any of the bewilderment that plagued her at the moment. There was no silent appeal for tolerance, no sheepish request for forgiveness. Instead, along with the subtle longing, there was a calm resolve in the eyes that searched her face. He appeared intent on trying to read what was going on in her mind, to gage her reaction to what had just passed between them. His steady gaze conveyed a deep need to know what she was feeling, as if the knowledge were a prized object he would do anything to possess.

But giving Chris access to her feelings, her heart, was something Mary wasn't ready to do just yet, especially at this particular time with Nathan looking on. And other than embarrassment and confusion, she wasn't sure what she was feeling. The honesty would have to come later. She just couldn't face it right now.

Lifting the coat, she quickly put it on as she murmured, "Goodnight, Chris." Turning, she walked to the door and stooped to pick up the tray that sat on the floor.

"Here, Miz Travis, let me help you with that." Nathan joined her at the door.

"I'm fine, Nathan. If you'll just open the door for me, I'll be on my way."

He did as she asked. And as she walked out into the hallway, he smiled. "Thanks for all your help, ma'am. I don't know what I would've done without it."

Returning the smile while nodding her acceptance, the widow started down the stairs.

The tray full of dishes sat on the kitchen table, untouched, while Mary stared at the new day just beginning to blossom outside her window, the sun a dusky glow just beneath the horizon. The crisis was over. Chris was out of danger. The intense worry that had been her constant companion over the last 48 hours was now gone. However... Mary took a deep breath as she turned from the window and began making her way to the office. Reluctantly, she admitted the former worry had been replace with a new type of anxiety, the anxiety of consequence. What would be the effect of what had happened this morning? The uncertainty frightened her.

What did happen this morning? she asked herself as she sat down at her desk. The question brought with it a recollection that once again burned Mary's cheeks, a sensuous picture appearing in her mind's eye. Chris's beautiful face swam before her, blond hair damp with sweat, green eyes alive with desire. Of its own volition, a hand moved to Mary's mouth. Slowly, her fingers ran across the lips as she recalled the rough passion in Chris's kiss. She'd lost herself in that passion, given into a need that had been growing inside her almost from the first day she'd set eyes on him. That's what happened this morning. In a second of unforeseen weakness, she'd allowed herself to taste what she'd been craving for far too long.

And what did it mean, this plunge into forbidden waters? She wanted to convince herself it meant nothing, that neither one of them had been thinking clearly. But for her part, she knew that wasn't true. She'd known exactly what was going to happen, and she'd wanted, welcomed, it. The circumstance, coupled with her growing feelings for him, had been her undoing. She'd been helpless, unable to resist acting on the emotions that had stormed within her.

And Chris? What, if anything, had the kiss meant to him? Rising from the chair, Mary walked to stand in front of the picture window of the office. She wasn't sure she wanted an answer to that question, afraid of what it might be. But as she recalled the look he'd given her right before she left his room this morning, she paused. The way he'd stared at her made her think he wanted more, that his feelings were similar to hers, that they shared more than just a physical fascination for each other. But... The ghost of a smile tugged at her mouth. She could also just be seeing what she wanted to see. Blindly hoping he would open up and let her into his broken heart.

The movement of horses down the street garnered Mary's attention. The group moved slowly, heads bowed against the frigid morning wind as it whipped around them. There were seven of them on six horses. Five of the riders were pleasantly familiar. Vin and Buck rode in front of the group while JD and Ezra took a position on either side of the two men sharing one horse as they rode behind the leaders. Josiah brought up the rear. Although surprised to see the men back so soon, Mary rejoiced at their arrival. She smiled. Maybe the men's speedy good fortune had something to do with the conspicuously missing animal. Whatever the reason, she was relieved to see them all return, apparently unharmed.

Focusing on the two men in the middle of the bunch, Mary immediately recognized the black patch covering one eye of one of the prisoners. The two remaining Taylor brothers were being brought back to town to face justice for what they'd done to Chris. Nathan was right. The Lord had been busy. All was right with the world again. Life would go on, and things would be back to normal in no time.

The widow turned from the window as a sliver of doubt sliced through her thoughts. But would they? Would they really? Or would some things never be normal again?

The End