It was that hard time of the year when the days were deceptively warm only to have the temperatures bottom out when the sun fell below the horizon. The bitter winds rattled the bunkhouse walls when they stormed across the flatlands and whined through the rafters.
Sickness rode in from Blue Creek and had traipsed its way through the bunkhouse. Lou had just finished fighting off a cold and had passed it on to Ike, but it barely touched him and with the help of Rachel’s soup he was on the mend. The pristine calm of the bunkhouse was shattered sometime before dawn.
All right, it was midnight and the noise was bone-jarring.
Cody cracked open an eye and looked around the room.
Tossing his pillow he managed to miss the offender by a nose. "Dammit, Jimmy!"
"Don’t blame this on me, Cody." Jimmy stared at the younger man. "You’re the one that brought the cold to the station in the first place." He punctuated his statement with a coughing fit that had Ike sitting right up on his bunk, rubbing his eyes.
Lou peered out from underneath her blanket. "Jimmy? You want me to make some of Emma’s tea? That worked when I had a cough."
"Sure, I remember that Emma put some of her honey in there."
Pulling the blanket around her as she sat up in bed, Lou smiled. "It sure was delicious. Sweet and warm." She giggled. "It sure helped my sore throat."
Jimmy looked up and massaged his throat with his hand, fingers digging into the skin trying to relieve some of the pressure. "Well, I ain’t got a sore throat… except when you consider how much I’ve been coughing-"
"We know." Buck gave Jimmy a glare. "You’ve been at it most of the night."
"Sorry." Jimmy swiped at his nose, trying to keep it from running away from him. "I ain’t planned none of this and you know it." He leaned back against the wall and groaned deep in his throat. "I’m gonna die."
Ike slid to the floor and knocked on the table top to get someone’s attention. *what about Rachel’s soup*
Buck rubbed at his eyes, barely able to focus them at this hour. "You forgot… she’s visiting with her friend in-"
"Carsonville." Jimmy groaned and mumbled behind his handkerchief. "I should’ve taken that deputy job Teaspoon told me ‘bout. *COUGH* *HACK* cold."
Cody climbed down from his bunk to retrieve his pillow and gave Jimmy a long suffering look over his shoulder before he scrambled back up. "Well, I may have had it first," he looked around the room with an imperious stare, "but if y’all had taken better care of yourselves… you wouldn’t have gotten sick in the first place."
Lou picked up one of Kid’s discarded stockings and lobbed it through the air. "Shut it, Cody!"
Cody was able to knock the white cotton stocking away from his face with a distasteful look on his face. "That’s a dirty trick."
Kid glanced up at Lou and narrowed his gaze when she chuckled out a simple retort, "Dirty, at least."
Grabbing the edge of his blanket, Kid yanked it over his head and grumbled into his mattress. "Sure, make fun of me…"
Another coughing fit and Buck pulled his pillow over his head to try to muffle the sound. The action wasn’t lost on Jimmy. Staring out at the rest of the riders as they tried their level best to ‘ignore’ the noise, it became painfully obvious that while they were going to suffer through it… it wasn’t going to be easy for them. *CHOKE* *HACK*
Ike’s cocooned body twitched at the last cracking cough and Jimmy had had enough for the night. Climbing down from his bunk, he snatched up his pillow and his blanket and stepped out into the night.
Something was spooking the horses. Teaspoon’s mind climbed out of the rather ‘entertaining’ dream that had been occupying his thoughts the last week or so and swung his legs off the end of his bed. His toes sought his shoes for a few moments before he was able to locate them just beneath the edge.
Scrubbing at his hairline he lifted his weary body from the bed and made his way to the door, grabbing his jacket and his Colt as he went.
The barn was warm inside, the thick wooden walls did wonders keeping the cold out and the hay-lined stalls kept the heat in, leaving their mounts with ample warmth in the cold winter nights.
As Teaspoon made his way into the room he caught sight of Lightning, Lou’s usual mount shying away from the stall partition she shared with Jimmy’s mount, her eyes wide and showing white around the edges.
Mixed in with the soft snorts and short bursts of noise from the horses was something that Teaspoon struggled to identify. A kind of guttural snuffling that seemed strange and out of place in the warm barn. Lifting the Colt so that it was even with his sight line, Teaspoon slipped silently through the piles of hay on the floor. He stepped around one of the support beams so that he could get a better idea of what kind of problem they had and nearly pulled the trigger when a loud noise shook him further awake.
*COUGH COUGH* *CHOKE*
This time it was Sundance that tried to rear up, her hooves beat a frantic rhythm on the wooden partition.
"Awwww, come on…" Teaspoon lowered his weapon as he recognized the craggy voice. "Look I’m sorry."
Teaspoon chuckled as he stepped into the center of the barn. "Son? Is there some reason why you’re sleepin’ out here with the horses?"
Jimmy raised an eyebrow at him and bared his teeth in a near snarl. "If anyone was sleepin’ out in the barn, you’d expect it would be Kid."
It took a split second for the two to start laughing and another moment before Jimmy’s laughter turned into a coughing fit. *HACK* *CHOKE* *COUGH* *COUGH*
"I’m guessin’ the others were havin’ a hard time sleepin’ through your… lullabies?"
Wiping his nose off with a swipe of his hand, Jimmy laid his head back against the wall and sighed. "They didn’t ask me to leave… if that’s what you’re thinkin’."
Teaspoon held up his free hand in surrender. "Nope… I was just wonderin’ if you’re at all comfortable out here in the barn… it can’t be easy bunkin’ down with the rats and-"
Jimmy waved off his worry. "The rats don’t bother me none… I’m pretty sure Sundance would stomp them to death. She’s not one to worry about the little things."
Nodding his head with a sage expression, Teaspoon set his hand on his hip. "Well, son… why don’t you come back into my room and I’ll spot ya a shot of whiskey."
Jimmy set a hand on the stall and a hand on the ground and with a mighty push he stumbled to his feet. He staggered after his mentor and wondered aloud. "Whiskey gonna help my coughin’?"
Teaspoon paused in the doorway, a hand braced on the rough-hewn border. "I dunno, I can promise you’ll sleep… is that good enough?"
The hope that colored Jimmy’s features with a smile bloomed from that promise and a few moments later, Teaspoon was handing the younger man a tin cup with a healthy slosh of whiskey nestled inside and lifting his own full cup into the air. "To our health!"
Jimmy returned the salute silently, not trusting his voice to make anything more than a cough or a croak at this point.
The morning sun found Jimmy collapsed against the side of the bunkhouse, his stockinged feet braced on the porch while his back held up the outer wall. He cracked one eye open as a shadow descended over him. He reached down with his right hand for his Colt before he remembered that both it and the other pistol were hanging from his bunk in his gun belt.
All he had left for his tormentor was venom and a piercing stare. "Go away, Buck."
"You look like your horse dragged you in from your last ride."
"When did you get back, Noah?"
The older rider gave him a knowing smile. "Just about an hour ago, Jimmy. I was surprised to see you weren’t in the bunkhouse. You, ah," he looked over at the barn, "keepin’ some sweet filly to yourself?"
"Har… Har…" Jimmy grimaced at the volume of his own voice. Teaspoon’s ‘cure’ had helped for a little while, but it had also created another problem. Why wouldn’t his head stay the same size…? Jimmy didn’t know. "I’m sure they told you that I caught the cold that Cody had."
"What a generous soul," Noah added.
Cody walked by and gave them all a sour look before continuing on to wash up for the morning meal.
"Yeah, well, I spent the night in the barn so all of you could get some ‘shut-eye’… son instead of givin’ me a pain in the neck… what about ‘Thanks, Jimmy.’"
Buck shook his head. "I think I can help."
Jimmy gave the other rider a measuring glance. "You can?"
Shrugging, Buck started to walk toward the bunkhouse door. "You can sit out here and cough until you lose consciousness, or you can come and let me help you."
Even after the bunkhouse door closed, Jimmy remained seated on the bench. He caught Noah’s hooded expression and wondered aloud. "You think he can *COUGH* help?"
Lifting his chin toward the door, Noah shrugged. "It ain’t up to me, Jimmy. You gotta ask yourself," he paused to think over his words, "you willin’ to live with the cough… or give Buck’s medicine a try?"
Jimmy’s head hung limp from his shoulders as he followed after Buck.
There were only a few riders left at the station by the time Buck’s medicine was ready. They’d all wanted to stay and see what was going on, but Buck wouldn’t let them near the fire pit that he’d constructed near the edge of the property.
Jimmy yanked open the door and paced out onto the porch. "Buck?"
The way Buck’s hair covered his face made him appear all the more a Kiowa as he sat cross legged before the fire, stirring the pot slowly.
Stepping down from the porch Jimmy swiped at his nose and stuffed his handkerchief back into his pocket. "You done with that ‘cure’ of yours?"
A long moment later, Buck stood and waved Jimmy back into the bunkhouse before wrapping a kerchief around the pot handle and lifting it off the fire.
Noah leaned back against the wall as Buck set the pot on the table top and Lou scrambled off the bench to get a cup. With a curious look over the edge of the pot she handed the tin cup into Buck’s waiting hands.
He laughed a bit as she stepped back, her fingers pinching the bridge of her nose. "What’s in that… soup?"
Buck smiled at her as he offered the cup to Jimmy. "You’re not supposed to drink it… you gargle with it."
Jimmy dropped the blanket from his shoulders and moved closer to the table, his hand outstretched to take the cup. "Gargle with it?"
Picking up the ash bucket by the fire, Buck set it on the table near the pot. "Three times. You can spit it out in here after you’re done with each."
Taking a courtesy sniff at the cup, Jimmy turned his head away and hissed out a few choice words. "It smells."
"Yeah, but it works. I promise."
Jimmy looked into Buck’s eyes and knew that he meant his words. "Fine. I’ll… I’ll try it."
He took a deep breath and emptied the cup into his mouth. Noah smothered a laugh behind his hand as Jimmy’s face wrinkled in reaction to the taste. His cheeks pushing out and collapsing in as he sloshed the brew around in his mouth.
It worked around and around until Jimmy heaved the spent mixture into the bucket, his free hand braced on the edge to support himself. A small puff of ash ballooned up and caught him across his chin and lower jaw, giving him the appearance of a new shadowy growth of beard. "One," he gasped.
"One, " Buck confirmed as he took the cup and dipped it back into the brew. "Here’s two."
"Two." Jimmy poured the mixture into his mouth.
"I’m enjoying this more than what’s probably healthy for me." Jimmy’s glare told Noah he was right.
"Whoa…" Jimmy spat the mixture out of his mouth with a little spit and gave Buck a grimace-like smile. "What’s in this stuff?"
"How is it working?" Lou had her arms wrapped around herself as she ventured closer, her eyes watching his face carefully. "Do you feel better?"
Jimmy handed the cup back to Buck and blew out a breath. "Yeah… it feels… a little numb." He cleared his throat. "But I don’t feel like I need to cough… and it’s not…" he waved his hand at his throat, his expression confused as he searched for the word, "raw anymore."
"Good." Buck held out the cup. "Last one."
Holding the cup in his hands, Jimmy thought better of it. "I’m fine, Buck… really."
Jimmy shrugged. "I feel fine, but if you want me to do it again… who am I to argue with the doctor, eh?" He paused with the cup at his lips. "I’ll do it, but you have to tell me what’s in it."
Noah stepped closer. "Sure… then you two can bottle it and sell it from the back of a wagon."
"I’m not so sure," Buck began.
"Is it something you learned from the Kiowa, Buck?"
He gave Lou a shrug. "I’m not sure where I learned it, but it does work. Right, Jimmy?"
Jimmy nodded. "Right." He tossed back the third cup and slapped the cup down on the table with a pointed look to Buck.
"Go ahead," Noah prompted him, "tell Jimmy what’s in it."
He gave a little look over at Jimmy who was enthusiastically swishing the liquid in his mouth. Grabbing the pot handle, Buck started toward the door as though he were going to dump out the rest. "It’s simple, really. Just made with something that you wouldn’t expect."
"Yes?" Lou’s impatient tone of voice wasn’t lost on any of them and Buck set down the pot by the door.
"Fine… I’ll tell you." His gaze landed on Jimmy. "It’s a boiled mixture of water…" he put his hand on the door, "and cow dung."
The next moment moved slowly as Buck looked from one face to another, finally landing on Jimmy’s. It was stoic at first as if he hadn’t really heard the words. Then, there was a shift in the expression, a hardening that started from between his brows.
Buck pushed and the heavy wood door swung open nearly wide enough for escape.
Jimmy opened his mouth to speak and ended up swallowing the fluid in his mouth. It took another long second for the folks in the room to realize what he’d just sent down into his stomach.
That was all the time Buck needed to run out the door as if the devil himself was on his heels.
"What?" Lou’s question squeaked past her lips as Jimmy’s jaw dropped open.
"Bu… Buck?" Jimmy was heading for the door, the toes of his boots dragging on the floorboards. "BUCK!" He barreled out the bunkhouse door with murder in his gaze, but with a strong voice to scream, "BUUUUUUUCK!"