Author’s Note: As requested this is a follow up to my quick fic, Just Talkin

Jimmy scrambled into his saddle, but just barely. “Get me out of here, girl,” he muttered and let his mount have her head while he focused on staying upright. He took his hand away from his gut and tried to assess the damage. The world went fuzzy as blood surged from the wound. Tipping his head down to get a look, the edges of his sight darkened and the fuzziness got worse. His bile rose and he choked it back down as he pressed his hand back against the hole in his stomach. With his other hand he managed to pull the kerchief from around his neck and braved leaving the wound open again for the second it took to push the bandana into it.

Been gettin’ careless, Jimmy thought grimly. There wasn’t any other excuse for letting those two get a drop on him. He’d been spending nights alone on the plains for most of his adult life and he knew how to keep his guard up. But just lately the ground had been too hard, the wind too cold, the night too empty and he’d find himself lost in fantasies of houses and children and real cooking, instead of beans warmed over a fire. Tonight those dreams had seemed achingly real and the bullet was halfway through his hide before he’d fired his first round. “Well, at least I got ‘em,” he bragged to no one, realizing how false the pride was when his stomach clenched painfully at the effort of speech.

It seemed like an eternity since he’d managed to pull himself onto his horse and he hadn’t been paying much attention to the scenery. But now, in the graying light of early dawn he noticed the landscape was oddly familiar. It seemed real but in his increasingly addled mind he could only connect it with those warm feelings his daydreams had been making him long for. Struggling against so many forces, the flood of blood against the handkerchief in his hand, the steady pull of a black and inky sleep on his mind, tensing muscles past pain just to stay in the saddle, one fact suddenly burst forth in plain terms to the front of Jimmy’s mind. He knew where the horse was headed.

“No,” he groaned, leaning far over the horse’s neck trying urgently to stop her dogged pace, “Don’t take me there.”

***

Lou was lost in thought. Kneading dough in the kitchen her mind flitted through her many daily concerns and the family that surrounded her. Over the sound of Mary’s slow and studied reading at the kitchen table, Lou monitored the muted sounds from the next room where the baby slept. Across the room, Theresa leaned against a window, daydreaming and sighing wistfully at appropriate intervals. Lou felt a small hand grab absently at her apron and felt a swell of sudden pride that Alice was watching her so attentively. With a smile playing across her lips she glanced out the window and felt her blood freeze as she saw Jed appear over the horizon, riding in a blind panic.

She kept her eyes glued on her son and the rider-less horse that had thundered in behind him, as she wiped her hands briskly on her apron and ran for the door. Jed was already off his horse and running for her. Her heart leapt into her throat at the sight of his face, over run by tears and mucus and absolute terror.

“We gotta help him, Momma, he’s shot,” the boy cried pointing frantically back the way he came.

“Shot? Who?” Kid asked emerging from the barn and trotting towards them. He grabbed at the reins of the strange horse. There was a good deal of blood on the saddle, some even smeared on the animal’s neck and side.

Jed’s words came out garbled by sobs, “My friend. He says he comes out to the fence line to think and sometimes if we see each other we talk for awhile. But today when I rode past he was there but he’s been shot, real bad.” He looked up at his mother, guilt simmering in his eyes, “He’s too heavy, I couldn’t get him back on his horse, and I didn’t know what to do.”

Lou hugged him close, “You did fine, honey, you did just right.” She looked up at Kid. She wasn’t thrilled that Jed had been keeping this friend a secret from them, but that hardly seemed the most important thing at the moment. “Kid, we’d better go see if we can help.”

“We?” Kid asked quickly, already walking to the barn.

Lou followed him, still leading the stranger’s horse. “Sounds like he’s a full grown man, Kid, it’ll take both of us to get him in the wagon and if you take the time to go into town for someone else, it’ll probably be too late.”

From behind them Jed’s voice piped up, “I could take Thunder into town for the Doc, while you’re gone.”

“No, you couldn’t,” Kid stated flatly. It was seven miles into town and it wasn’t a ride Jed would be taking alone.

Lou crouched down to talk to her son while Kid hitched the wagon. “Jed, you’ll need to stay here and watch your sisters and James, alright?” And sensing he needed to feel like he was helping his ‘friend’ added, “I’m sure your friend would appreciate it if you saw to his horse. Looks like she’s been run pretty hard.” The boy nodded solemnly and turned immediately to the task. Lou took one last look at him before accepting Kid’s help up into the wagon. “Theresa, keep an eye on James; we’ll be right back,” she shouted at her sister, who watched them curiously from the front door.

The fence line wasn’t too far away and it was only a few moments before they could make out the dark lump on the fence’s other side. “What’ll we tell Jed if we’re too late?” Lou whispered, trying to make out the rise and fall of breath.

Kid knocked out the fence rails closest to where the man lay and the two of them scurried to the other side. With tender care Lou rolled the man over, relieved to notice he was still warm to the touch. The first thing she saw was the gunshot in his belly, oozing blood from between his black-gloved fingers. Her eyes flew to his face and the breath in her lungs seemed to turn to lead. “Jimmy,” she gasped.

***

With a gut-wrenching effort, Jimmy eased his eyes open and they stared unfocused at an unfamiliar ceiling. He inhaled the rusted smell of his own blood and became conscious of the dull but relentless pain in his stomach. Turning his head slightly, he saw a little boy staring through a partially open door, his face ghostly white as he stared at Jimmy. The pain in Jimmy’s side suddenly seemed sharper and then unbearable as he clenched his eyes shut and a groan tore through him.

“He’s comin’ to, Doc,” a disembodied voice said and the words floated down to Jimmy through a haze.

“Give him a drink and then you’ll have to hold him down. He keeps jerking like this and I’ll do more damage than help.”

A face, distorted but familiar, appeared above Jimmy and he felt the cool rim of a glass bottle press against his lips as a strong arm tipped him up to take a drink. Jimmy felt the whiskey burn down his throat and for an instant it jolted his vision into startling clarity, so that the doctor’s bloodied arms and the metal pincers digging into Jimmy’s abdomen could be seen in gruesome detail. Instinctively, Jimmy thrashed in an attempt to escape the cruel torture of the doctor’s ministrations. Two hands, calloused and work-hardened pinned him back to the bed and as Jimmy squirmed beneath them his eyes again caught sight of the little boy at the door. The boy’s face was twisted with anguish, and two great streaks of tears ran down from his eyes. Jimmy knew he was the cause of the boy’s sorrow and he gritted his teeth and steeled his nerves, trying to remain calm and steady despite the feel of the surgeon’s tongs chasing a bullet through his innards.

A beautiful woman came up behind the boy and tried to draw him away. The boy wouldn’t budge and Jimmy stared at the lovely woman, her dark hair, her delicate neck, her large eyes. “You won’t do him any good by watching this, Jed,” she murmured, her arm around the boys shoulders, pulling him back against her skirts. She looked up at Jimmy and for a moment he was staring into her saucer sized eyes.

“Lou,” he whispered raggedly, the pain in his belly forgotten as the old wound in his heart re-opened.

“Got it,” the doctor’s voice pronounced as a flame of pain seemed to open up inside Jimmy. He fought against the hands holding him, fought against the blackness that was opening up again around him, reached for his guns in a panic. He heard the sharp ping of metal against metal and suddenly the fight seemed to have drained from him. He collapsed back against the bed and let the darkness take over.

***

Eventually, Jimmy opened his eyes again. He blinked a few times, glad to see that his sight was focused this time. He could clearly see the small face that leaned in over him expectantly, the bright blue eyes and the messy cowlick. He closed his eyes again and took a quick inventory of his condition. He felt the pressure of bandaging across his abdomen, a steady throbbing in his gut, his throat was dry, and his left hand felt strangely warm and something unfamiliar seemed to be pressed against it.

Opening his eyes again, he passed by the face to glance down at his hand and saw a smaller hand gripping it firmly. At last he looked up into the concerned blue eyes. “How you feelin’, Mister?” a young voice asked.

Jimmy tried to smile, but knew it had come out looking like a grimace at best. “I’m alright, Jed,” he croaked and felt his heart jump as a grin broke across the boy’s face.

Just as quickly, however, the smile faded. “I’m sorry if I got you in trouble.”

Too tired to puzzle out the boy’s meaning, Jimmy closed his eyes again. “Don’t worry yourself, I ain’t in any trouble,” he reassured.

“Yeah, you are,” the boy mumbled miserably, “I heard ‘em talkin’ about it. Mama’s real upset. I think she even cried and that’s the worst, ‘cause Pa gets powerful mad when we make her cry.”

Jimmy groaned. “Sounds like I’m in trouble alright,” he muttered and looked up to catch the boy’s guilty gaze. “But it ain’t your fault; I got myself into this mess.”

Suddenly a pair of graceful hands appeared on Jed’s shoulders and Lou’s face leaned in above him. “C’mon Jed, let’s let Jimmy rest now.” Jimmy closed his eyes and gulped. His eyes still closed, he felt the heat of two lips pressing against his cheek and opened his eyes found himself staring into Lou’s. A tear slid off her cheek and splashed onto his forehead in silence. “Welcome home.”

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