A Most Precious Gift
by Lynn Light
Christmas Day had dawned crisp and clear, a bright sunny day with a bitter bite. It was a day that Chris Larabee dreaded, despite the festive cheer rampant in Four Corners. It was one of those days where the loss of his wife and son bit deeper than most. He’d lingered in the almost empty saloon, where only the lonely few had gathered to steep their sorrows in cheap whisky and regretful silence. Seeing all too clearly the path he was taking, Chris put down his glass and resolved to face the joys of the season, starting with the invitation to dine at Harriet Warner’s. The others had left hours ago, eagerly looking forward to a big home cooked Christmas feast, while he had regretted accepting the invitation to join the festivities. Too many memories had returned to haunt him.
Memories Chris knew he had to put behind him. Like Harriet had her own.
He’d known Harriet as a child. They’d gone to school together and he recalled beating the tar out of one boy for soaking her long pigtail in the inkwell and ruining her new dress. Her Pa, a big bear of a man, had been furious and had punished Harriet for letting Big Ernie Wells do such a thing. So, yeah, Chris had made Wells pay with a beauty of a shiner that lasted for two whole weeks. The black ring around Wells’ eye matched the dark stains on Harriet’s dress and had earned Chris a lot of respect. Wells had never messed with him or Harriet again.
Even then, he’d been kind of sweet on Harriet. She’d grown from a freckle-faced imp into a shy and blushing young lady, and before he could pluck up the courage to ask her for a dance or steal a kiss, Henry Warner had beaten him to her affections, whisked her off her feet, married her and taken her West. Henry had died of the Fever seven years ago, soon after Harriet had lost their only child. Alone, she had struggled to hold onto her home, selling off most of the land and turning her hand to churning butter and cheese for the townsfolk. She’d made enough money to maintain the homestead and for the most part, had avoided Royal’s swindling hand. Harriet had been swift and smart. The rancher she had sold the majority of her land to, had been after the water rights she had cleverly held back from the original sale. When Royal had tried to manipulate her into selling her last piece of land and her home to him, she had gone to the rancher and sold him the water rights, paying off her mortgage before Royal could buy it out from under her.
Foiled, Royal had moved on to bigger and better prey.
Rising from the table, Chris pulled on his duster and donned his hat, then stepped outside into the clear brisk day. He took a deep cleansing breath of the biting air and blew it out, the exchange leaving his body in a long streaming cloud of white vapor, rapidly whipped away by the wind. Fastening his duster, Chris stepped down off the boards and released the reins of his horse from the rail. The ride to Harriet’s would take him about half an hour and he was already late. Annoyed with himself for procrastinating over going, he mounted up and set out for the homestead.
Vin Tanner stirred the fire with the poker, then placed another two logs on. A fresh frenzy of sparks sounded off, snapping and popping, sending a thick dark column of smoke up the chimney. Satisfied with his handy work, he turned from the hearth and faced the rest of the gathering in Harriet Warner’s modest home. J.D. sat cross-legged on the rug with Billy Travis, building a colorful tower from wooden blocks that the boy had received as a Christmas gift from Harriet. Mary Travis sat nearby in an armchair, smiling at the scene and occasionally sipping at a glass of Madeira. Elegantly dressed, she looked like a beautiful queen holding court. Vin took a long look at her. A good looking woman, she attracted the attention of many men, yet managed to hold them all at bay with nothing more than a withering look. Should her tongue become embroiled, she could make a man wish for the whipping post out of pure mercy. Yet still, Mary Travis had an innate grace and strength that any man would be proud to be in the presence of, and even prouder to have at his side. A man could rely on this woman to support him in his endeavors, through thick and thin. She would be a true partner to the man lucky enough to suit her high standards.
Vin sighed and wondered where those astounding thoughts had come from. Perhaps it was the time of year which caused this internal, and often times infernal, perusal of all about him. It was if he were taking stock of everyone, measuring each and everyone’s progress over the past year, holding them up to the unbearable light of the year ahead. Even he was not exempt from this examination. He could see now his own mistakes and shortcomings. And everyone else’s.
Even Chris Larabee’s.
Chris was the only one missing and Vin understood why Chris had stayed away. Harriet was a pretty woman with a luxurious mane of soft brown wavy hair and beautiful green eyes that held an ever-present sadness, even when she smiled. Since Chris had grown up with her, Vin wondered if there was more to their relationship than simply knowing each other, judging by the awkward way Chris tended to avoid her. Mary Travis was wondering the same thing too, he noted. She seemed to be a little relieved that Chris had not shown up, although she had issued the sensitive bromide that perhaps Chris had been delayed by unforeseen circumstances. Harriet had smiled her gratitude, but it had been a bit on the brittle side, all the same.
Vin sensed that the two strong and beautiful women might clash over his friend, Chris Larabee, and maybe that was what was keeping him away. Chris didn’t want to hurt either of them, therefore, he was trying to stay out of any possible position that might overbalance the scales and send one of them off in a vitreous spiel. If not both. And yet, staying away today was certainly causing a great deal of pain to Harriet Warner.
Chris may have just made the biggest mistake of all.
Shaking off the surreal divination, Vin strolled back to the card table where Ezra, Nathan, Josiah and Buck were finishing up a hand, and rejoined the game.
Riding at an easy pace, even though he knew he was late, Chris was pondering his predicament when he heard a small whimper of distress. He drew rein on his horse and turned to the direction the small cry had come from. It came again and he scanned the roadside, seeking the source. Amongst a pile of rocks, he spied a small bundled blanket with a piece of paper attached. It had been carefully lain in a spot sheltered from the breeze, where the weak winter sun could still reach it. He stared at it for a long moment, dreading what it was, yet knowing all the same.
Dismounting, he went to the bundle and saw the attached paper was a note. It read, “Please take me home and raise me as your own.”
“Oh Christ,” he swore softly.
Another tiny squeak of distress emanated from inside the bundle and Chris carefully unraveled enough of the blanket to reveal the tiny face of a newborn scrunched up in displeasure. He tenderly stroked a finger against the baby’s cheek and it instantly turned its mouth toward him, seeking sustenance. When it didn’t find the nourishment it sought, it began to cry.
Hungry. The baby was hungry and getting cold.
A sense of alarm and dread filled him. This baby needed caring for, but he wasn’t equipped to handle this situation. Harriet. He had to get the baby to Harriet’s. The mother, or the person who had abandoned the child, was obviously long gone, but he’d have to make a quick search just the same. Picking up the disgruntled bundle, he tucked it inside his duster, nestling it close to his chest to help keep it warm, then he mounted his horse and looked for anything that might give him a clue as to where the baby had come from.
The baby stopped crying and Chris looked down at the small face nestled inside his coat. For an instant, he saw Adam laying there. The image smiled up at him, followed by the ghost of Adam’s laughter. Memories...
Life went on, Chris reflected sadly. Life went on.
In the dining room, Harriet Warner surveyed her humble domain. Roughhewn though it was, there were the trappings of the civilized world that she had managed to bring with her from the East. Though they were old and most likely out of style, the lace table cloth, linen napkins, highly polished silverware and expensive china lent an air of elegance to the homestead that it rarely saw. Crystal glasses sparkled in the sunlight that shone through the window. The table was set and the feast was laid out all ready. Steam rose from the huge stuffed turkey and the various platters that surrounded it.
This gathering should have been a happy moment. It wasn’t. Despite all the company in the other room, it was one of the loneliest. With a sigh of defeat, Harriet walked to the drawing room door, plastered a smile on her face and braved the small crowd. “You must all be starving by now,” Harriet declared.
“Why, Ma’am, I am truly ravenous,” Buck grinned.
“Then it’s a good thing that the food is on the table. Please, do come eat before it gets cold.”
“That wonderful aroma that has been assailing our senses all morning is truly mouthwatering,” Ezra added, getting up from the table.
“Heavenly,” agreed Josiah.
“In that case, Josiah, perhaps you’d like to give the blessing?” Harriet asked.
“It would be my pleasure, dear lady. Let us proceed forthwith to the feast.” Josiah took Harriet’s arm and led her back into the dining room. The others followed. When everyone was seated, there was still an empty place where Chris should have been. Everyone noted it. No one commented on it. Josiah cleared his throat and everyone lowered their heads in respectful silence as the preacher spoke. “Lord, we ask that you bless this gathering and particularly the lovely lady Harriet, for providing us with this most Heavenly feast. But Lord, please do grant us the good sense to stop eating when we are full. Amen.”
“A little on the irreverent side, my friend,” Ezra remarked.
“An ounce of prevention is better than a pound of cure. I, for one, do not wish to hear those pathetic cries of ‘God, why did you let me eat so much?!’ when all is consumed,” Josiah grinned.
“Sentiment noted, Josiah. Now pass the platter!” ordered Buck. “I haven’t had a meal like this since...” Buck’s grin faded away and he couldn’t finish the sentence. He hadn’t had a meal like this since before Sarah Larabee had been killed.
“Me either,” chimed in J.D., saving Buck’s bacon from disaster. “I can’t tell you how much I appreciate this, Mrs. Warner. It brings back a lot of fond memories, too.”
“Yeah. That it does,” Buck murmured, grateful to J.D. for picking up the thread.
Upon the first mouthful of yams, Ezra sighed, “Mmnnn, purely delicious, Ma’am.”
“Thank you,” Harriet blushed. “I’m so glad you all came.”
All but Chris. It was the one unspoken thought that went through every mind at the table, except maybe Billy’s. No one commented on it. Everyone ate and bantered back and forth with merriment, everyone enjoying the food except for Harriet. Although she smiled and laughed, and partook of the various conversations, she felt like an impostor sitting there. A stranger in her own home. Where was the real Harriet? she wondered. The sad and lonely woman who wanted to flee this all too cheerful event? She took another bite of the maple-baked yams, but could not taste their sweetness.
The righteous streak in Mary Travis could not decide if she was outraged with Chris Larabee for not attending and would take him to task for it, or if she was perversely delighted and would not mention his slip in decorum at all. As one woman to another, she could read the underlying distress in her host and did what any woman in her position would do. She ignored it, for to acknowledge it would be to draw attention to it, which would embarrass poor Harriet no end. No woman would appreciate that kind of humiliation.
Instead, the meal was consumed and afterwards, Buck ushered Harriet and almost everyone out of the dining room. “J.D., you’re with me, boy.”
J.D. muttered something under his breath but turned and grinned at Buck, “Of course, Buck. You wash, I’ll wipe.”
With a hearty laugh, Buck told him, “I’m so glad you said that. I hate drying the dishes.” He slapped a nonplused J.D. on the shoulder and began clearing the table. “Well, come on. These dishes ain’t going to clean themselves now, are they.”
“I guess not.” Still, J.D. couldn’t be mad at Buck. It was a great meal and it wouldn’t be fair to leave their host to the aftermath of it. He didn’t mind doing dishes. Not really. And while they cleaned up and put food away, music and singing emanated from the drawing room, as Harriet played her piano and everyone gathered around to sing Christmas carols.
“I wonder why Chris didn’t come,” J.D. said quietly as he dried dishes in the kitchen.
“Who knows,” Buck replied, scrubbing at a pan, but he had a fairly good idea why. “This time of year, things get to gnawing on a man. Could be any number of reasons.”
“I guess. Do you think Harriet will forgive him?”
“I reckon so. Women usually do when they’re a bit sweet on a man.”
J.D. made a sound of agreement to that and they finished up the dishes in silence, listening to the carols from the drawing room, with Josiah’s booming voice sounding out strong and fervently above all the others. By the time Buck and J.D. rejoined the group, they had sung all the more robust carols and were now on to a sweet lullaby. Billy was sitting on his mother’s lap, getting sleepy, while outside, the daylight was fast fading.
In the hush that followed the end of the lullaby, Mary said, “I suppose I should be going. I have some preparations still to make for tomorrow.”
“Think I’ll ride back with you,” Vin said. “Make sure you get back safe.”
“That’s really not necessary, Mr. Tanner.”
“Maybe not, but I’d feel a little better about it. I’ll go get the wagon ready.” With that, Vin pulled on his coat and hat, and stepped out into the windy evening.
“I think I’ll ride along too,” Ezra said, thinking he might find a bit of entertainment in the saloon by the time they returned to town. He turned to Harriet and added, “It was a most splendid day, Ma’am. And a veritable feast of delights. You must allow me to return the honor sometime soon.” He took Harriet’s hand and bestowed a chaste kiss on the back of it, to which she blushed, clearly no longer familiar with the gentlemanly gesture.
“You’re too kind, Mr. Standish. It was my pleasure.”
“Trust me, fair lady. The pleasure was mine.” Ezra winked sassily at her and followed after Vin.
Mary helped Billy put on his coat, and then pulled on her own. Turning to Harriet, she too thanked her for a wonderful day and the lovely gifts she had given them all. “You will come tomorrow, won’t you?” Mary asked her.
“Of course,” Harriet replied, although she sincerely doubted that she would go to Mary’s, where Chris was bound to be present. That would be too painful to witness.
Vin returned to say that the wagon was ready. The presents that had been exchanged were quickly collected up and taken out to the wagon, then Vin turned to Harriet and said, “Thank you, Ma’am.”
“You’re welcome, Mr. Tanner.”
Taking their leave, Vin helped Mary and Billy up into the wagon, then he took the driver’s seat and gently slapped the reins on the horses rumps. The wagon started forward and Ezra followed, leading Vin’s horse. “Merry Christmas,” he called as they rode out.
Everyone waved good-bye and those remaining at Harriet’s hurried back into the warm.
Chris had found a trail and had followed it for a while, until he lost it in a ravine. The trail most likely led back to town and probably some unwed young lady who had done an exceedingly good job of hiding her pregnancy. She must also have known that someone would have been on that road today. That didn’t help him narrow down a list of suspects - just about everyone in town knew that Chris and his friends were heading out to the Warner place for Christmas.
Worried about the baby, Chris gave up on the search for the mother. Every once in a while, Chris had checked on him to make sure he was still warm enough and, more importantly, still alive. It was almost dark as he cleared the ravine and the temperature was dropping rapidly.
He had to get the baby to Harriet’s.
By the time Chris made it back onto the road, darkness had fallen completely, and he’d missed the wagon. Although he’d heard it go by. It didn’t matter. Somehow, he knew taking the baby to Harriet was the right thing to do.
When the door opened, Harriet thought perhaps Ezra had changed his mind and returned. Yet it wasn’t Ezra who stepped in. Chris Larabee stood there for a moment, taking in the scene, noting the roaring fire and the remainder of his friends, who were beginning to frown now as they realized that something was wrong. One look at his face was enough to tell them that. Closing the door behind him, he stepped further into the room.
“Chris, what’s happened?” Harriet demanded with concern, rushing to his side.
“I’m sorry I’m so late,” he said.
Harriet hardly heard his apology. “You’re freezing. What happened?”
“I’m okay,” he assured her, then looked at Josiah, J.D. , Buck and Nathan. They all stood waiting to hear what had kept him, knowing it was something serious. They would have to wait. Chris needed to talk to Harriet first. “I need to talk to you, Harry,” he said. “It’s important.” With that, he grabbed Harriet by the elbow and steered her into the kitchen, calling over his shoulder, “Nathan, I’ll be needing you in a minute.”
Nathan raised his eyebrows and looked at each of his companions. None of them knew what was going on. Chris was acting strange and he looked like forty miles of rough desert road. Whatever had happened, it was serious business.
In the kitchen, Harriet turned to inspect Chris for injury or any sign of illness, noticing the odd way he held his arm. She realized he was hiding something under his duster. “What’s this? Have you hurt your arm?”
“No. I’m not hurt, Harriet.” He opened his duster and brought out the bundle he’d kept hidden thus far. Harriet stared at it in surprise as he handed it carefully to her. For a long moment, she said nothing. Simply stared down at the tiny face concealed in the blanket. Then she looked up at Chris, both amazed and concerned. “Where did you get...?”
“On my way out here, I found the baby. Looks like the mother abandoned him, or her. It’s a newborn. I tried to find the mother but she was long gone. There was a note pinned to the blanket. It said, ‘Take me home and raise me as your own.’”
“Oh, the poor little dear. And will you? Raise him or her as your own?”
“Harriet, I have no business raising a child,” Chris protested, flustered at the thought. He looked at her for a long moment then said, “He needs a mother more than anything. Harriet, would you raise him for me? If he lives, I mean?”
“You want me to bring him up?” Harriet was staring at him as if he had antlers growing out of his head.
“Only if you want to. I thought you might want to, though. I mean...” Chris hesitated, for just a moment, uncertain if he should bring the subject up, then knowing he had to. “You lost a baby. I know how deep that cuts, Harriet. If you’d rather not, say so, and I’ll find someone else.”
“You will not!” Harriet declared, angry with him for presuming that she would not want to raise the child. The emotional impact was just too much. She wanted to smack him and hug him at the same time. “Of course I’ll raise him. Or her. What kind of woman do you think I am? Oh bless his little heart, he looks so tiny.”
“Yeah. He is. I’m really scared for him, Harry.”
Harriet looked up at Chris then and saw the concern in his face. She lifted a hand to his cheek and caressed. “Don’t worry. I’ll take good care of him.”
“I’ll get Nathan,” he said.
“Yes. Get Nathan.” Harriet turned to the table and set the bundle down, slowly unraveling the blanket to reveal the tiny child. It was indeed a boy and he was heartbreakingly small. And in need of a bath. Dried blood covered his pale skin and the soft fair hair on his head. Exposed and disturbed from his warm cocoon of sleep, the baby opened his tiny mouth and produced a loud demand. He was hungry and didn’t like the cool air on his sensitive skin. Naturally, his crying brought not only Nathan and Chris, but the others too, curious to see what was going on.
“A baby?!!? J.D. exclaimed. “Where did he come from?”
“Well if you don’t know by now, boy,” Buck grinned, “you ain’t ever likely to learn.”
“A newborn,” Nathan observed, moving closer to examine the baby, as Chris had been about to ask him to do.
“Where did you find him?” Nathan asked Chris, while he checked the baby and Harriet prepared a bowl of warm water from the kettle on the stove.
“On the side of the road,” Chris explained, telling them what had transpired, ending with, “Harriet’s willing to raise him.”
“He seems fine. A little underdone, in my opinion, but healthy and hungry,” Nathan reported, then moved aside so that Harriet could bathe him.
The men just stood around and watched as she gently cleansed the boy and dried him off, then she swaddled him in her shawl to keep him warm.
“A most precious gift,” Josiah said softly as Harriet cuddled the baby close.
“Yes,” she agreed. “And a very hungry one too.” She passed the baby back to Chris, who didn’t really want to take him, but did anyway because everyone was expecting him to back away. He didn’t dare meet anyone’s gaze, especially not Buck’s, so he kept his eyes focused on the baby while Harriet quickly prepared some milk for the baby and a plate of food for him.
“Well,” Buck said cheerfully, “I guess it’s time we all moseyed on back to town.”
“Indeed,” agreed Josiah, his smile growing as he caught on to Buck’s ploy. He slapped J.D. on the shoulder just as the young man was about to protest. “If I was a betting man,” Josiah grinned, “I’d wager that we’d find Ezra at the saloon, running a nice little hand of poker.”
“And probably cheating at that,” Nathan added with a laugh. “If y’all won’t be needing us, we’ll be heading on, Mrs. Warner?”
“Chris and I can handle it,” Harriet assured them all, quite pleased that they were willingly deserting their friend and leaving him in her company for a while. “You boys run along.”
Chris cursed under his breath but refused to look at the rats deserting the sinking ship and the horse he rode in on. Instead, he drew a chair at the kitchen table and sat down, the baby still snuggled in his arms, saying, “And don’t forget to button your coats. It’s a little chilly out there.” As he took off his hat and plopped it on the table, he did manage to look directly into Buck’s laughing face. He smiled, but it wasn’t a pleasant one. More of a ‘just you wait!’ promise. Paybacks were long overdue.
Buck just laughed all the harder, rubbing his hands together in glee. “Yes sir! There’s a definite nip in the air tonight! See you in the morning, Chris. Good night, Ma’am, and thank you again for a wonderful Christmas.”
“You’re welcome, Buck,” Harriet smiled, following the men to the door and seeing them off.
When Harriet returned to the kitchen, she set a plate of food in front of Chris and relieved him of the baby. “You don’t have to stay,” she told him. “But you will eat before you leave.”
“I ain’t leaving,” he said, watching her sit and feed the baby.
“Eat up,” she told him.
Chris ate, glad of the food. He was starving. And the meal was delicious. When he set down his knife and fork, the plate was clean.
“Had enough?” Harriet asked, the baby now propped sleepily on her shoulder.
“Yes. Thank you. It was delicious. And I’m sorry I was so late.”
“You had a good reason.” Harriet didn’t want to know why he was late in the first place. She had her suspicions but she wasn’t going to root around for answers she was sure to dislike.
Chris knew well enough to leave it at that.
“I should probably try and look for the mother again in the morning,” he said.
“You can try, but if she doesn’t want to be found, you’ll be wasting your time. And if she doesn’t want this sweet little thing, then I most certainly do.”
“Are you sure, Harriet?”
She met his concerned gaze head on. “Yes. Of course I’m sure. Now, if you wouldn’t mind, I need a hand with a couple of things.”
“Of course. What do you need?” Chris asked, getting up from the table and taking his plate to the sink.
Harriet watched him and all she could think of saying at that moment, was: ‘You.’ Thankfully, her tongue had become attached to the roof of her mouth, preventing that truth from escape.
Chris turned to face her. “Harriet? What do you need?”
“Oh. Um... The crib. There’s a crib in the ... spare room.” The one that would have been a nursery had her baby lived. “Could you get it?”
He nodded, not daring to say anything.
“Oh, and there’s a trunk in there also. Could you bring them both to my room?”
Again, he nodded, then he lit a lamp and left the kitchen. Harriet heard his gentle footfalls on the stairs and slowly, she followed him up, with the sleeping baby boy in her arms. She went directly to her own room, lit the lamp there on the bedside and set the baby down on her bed. Turning to the fireplace, she struck a match and lit the tinder that was already set there, while she heard Chris moving about in the next room. Moments later, he brought in the crib and set it by the bed, then vanished to get the trunk she had spoken of, while she found something to use as bedding in the crib.
When he returned with the trunk, he set it on the footlocker at the bottom of the comfortable looking bed. Harriet opened the trunk and stared at the contents. Chris watched her and the array of emotions that flitted across her face. She slowly lifted out a tiny gown and regarded it sadly. “I suppose I should have thrown these away,” she said. “But I just couldn’t. It’s good to finally see them put to some use.”
“Harriet, I’m sorry...”
“Don’t be. It was a long time ago.” She lifted out several garments and baby blankets, setting them close to the fire to warm them.
“Listen, I’ll go take care of the animals,” he told her, needing to escape for a while.
“Thank you.” Her careful tone told him that she knew why he was doing it.
Chris left, going out to the barn to tend to the animals, feeling guilty for the need to put some space between them. He figured that Harriet probably needed a few minutes to herself too, even though she might be reluctant to admit it.
Harriet warmed the baby clothes and blankets, all the while acknowledging the impossible dream that she had come to harbor regarding Chris Larabee. He wasn’t interested in her as a woman. She was no Mary Travis, that was for sure. She called herself a fool and gently tended to the baby, covering his tiny body with the warmed clothes and wrapping his tiny bottom in a diaper. She was just tucking him into the crib when Chris returned. He paused to watch her cover the boy, knowing that she was going to be a good mother to the little boy. She deserved a child. One of her own. Sadly, she had never been given the chance to raise her own - hers had died in her womb. He saw her smile at the sleeping baby, a smile that was a little bit sad as she remembered all the things she’d never had the chance to do for her own baby.
It was a poignant moment and his own loss twisted in his heart, a constant worm of pain that writhed there and sank in its unexpected teeth when he was the least prepared for it, reminding him sharply of all the things he would never get to see Adam grow up to accomplish.
“A most precious gift,” he quoted softly.
“Yes. The most precious gift a man can ever give a woman.” Looking at him then, Harriet supposed she shouldn’t have said it. It was far too forward and brimming with meaning, however, the expected blush that usually accompanied such a tongue slippage, never stained her cheeks. Perhaps by merit of it being the truth, the embarrassment that would ordinarily have mustered on her face, drained into her stomach to fortify her stand and quell the butterflies of anticipation that were beginning to take flight there.
Her words touched something deep inside Chris. Like a warm breeze through lacy sheers, they slipped through the cracks in the stony wall he’d built around his heart, melting the icy vines that had grown there, and blowing the dusty shards of his guilt and grief to the far corners of his mind, breathing new hope into his weary soul. They fanned a forgotten ember of desire and it ignited in his gut, rushing wildly along his veins and sparking life into long dormant nerves.
Chris was never sure just who moved first. Maybe Harriet took a step toward him. Maybe he just reached out to caress her face. Maybe by some unspoken agreement, they moved together. Which ever it was, he neither knew nor cared. Harriet was in his arms and that was all that mattered. Slowly, he bent his mouth to hers and was welcomed. There was no place for thoughts after that. Whatever might have clamored for attention was resolutely ignored - neither wanted to think about tomorrow and what it might bring. There was only a man and a woman, melded together in mutual need. Clothes vanished in the magical warmth of desire and flesh found flesh, pressing together to become one.
When the baby cried in the night, hungry and wet, Harriet slid from the warm haven of Chris’ arms and pulled on her robe. Lifting the baby from his crib, she turned to look at her sleeping lover, only to find that he was laying there watching her with a tender smile on his face. Returning his smile, she lay the baby on the quilt and changed his diaper. Chris rolled out of bed and tended to the embers of the fire in the grate, placing another couple of logs on. When he straightened and turned, he found Harriet looking at him. Her gaze traveled the length of him, absorbing the look of the body she had been intimately involved with earlier.
“Do I pass?” he asked softly, amused.
“Oh, I think so,” she smiled, handing him the baby, who had quietened down now that he was dry and was being held. “Here. I’ll be back in a minute.” Harriet hurried downstairs, before she forgot that there was a baby who needed feeding.
Grinning, Chris got back into bed, the baby nestled in his arms, and waited for her to return, regarding the ‘most precious gift’ with curiosity. What if they couldn’t find his mother? Worse yet, what if they did? It would devastate Harriet to lose the baby now, even after only a few hours spent with him. She was already attached. Hell, who was he trying to kid? He was already attached to the baby. Attachments were something he’d purposely steered clear of. Was he really ready for that to change?
If asked, he would have answered no.
The baby didn’t ask. And Harriet knew better than to tread into that quagmire. They had made love and had successfully done so without having to use that dangerous little word. Love. There had been no pretenses. No promises made. And no claims staked. Just two people needing each other, coming together in a mutual union of pleasure, no strings attached. Yet Chris felt something tugging at him, pulling him deeper into waters he wasn’t ready to tread.
Undecided what to do about that, he figured he should just sit back and see what developed.
Returning, Harriet slid into bed beside him, reclaiming the baby, snuggling him in her arms to feed him. Chris in turn pulled her into his arms and cuddled them both, watching the boy greedily drink his fill.
“What are you going to call him?” Chris asked.
“How about John Christopher?”
Slightly unnerved about that, Chris suggested, “What about Henry?”
Harriet’s tone was adamant enough to make him frown and wonder why not. Unable to see her face, he touched her cheek and urged her to look at him. Her eyes were closed and her expression was pained. “Why not, Harriet? What happened?”
“No. I can’t.”
“Don’t talk nonsense. Of course you can. Harriet, look at me. Tell me.”
Opening her eyes, she saw he was genuinely concerned and knew he wouldn’t let her off so easily. She should have just laughed it off. It was too late for that now. “He didn’t die of the fever. I shot him.”
It wasn’t the words that shocked Chris, it was the hatred they were hurled with. Instinctively, he knew there was a reason. “Why?”he asked softly.
“You don’t want to hear this.”
“Yes. I do.”
“I don’t want to remember.”
“It’s too late. You already have.”
“Are you going to send me to jail?”
“Don’t be ridiculous, Harriet. I figure you had a good enough reason. You don’t have to tell me if you don’t want to.”
“I just don’t want you to hate me.”
“Now you really are being ridiculous.”
“I suppose I am. All right. You want to know, I’ll tell you. Henry wasn’t a very nice man. He beat me. That’s why I lost the baby. I couldn’t take it any more. That last day, I swear he was going to kill me. He’d been to town, drinking and carrying on. When he got home, he was in a nasty frame of mind. He blamed me for losing the baby and he lit into me pretty good. The next thing I remember, I was laying on the floor, seeing his gunbelt hanging on the chair. It was right in front of my face and I could hear him coming toward me. I reached for it. I pulled it and held it on him. It went off. I can still see his face, the fury and the surprise. I can’t say that I didn’t mean to kill him. I think I did. I was so scared. Anyway, I dragged him up the hill and buried him next to the baby, and told anyone who asked that he died of the fever. No one disbelieved me. No one questioned me about it. No one cared enough to investigate his death.”
In the silence that followed, Harriet settled the baby against her shoulder and gently rubbed his frail back. Her efforts were rewarded with a rather loud belch for such a tiny boy. Intending to put the baby back in the crib, Harriet started to pull away from Chris. His arms didn't let her go. There was a tension about him now that she didn't dare interpret. Slowly, she looked at him and saw the anger simmering in his eyes.
"A man who raises his hand against a woman," he said in a quiet and yet lethal tone, "is no man at all. If you hadn't done it, I would have."
The relief that sliced through Harriet felt as keen as a knife. A sharp hot pain that pierced the tension in her own innards and left a hundred fluttering butterlies loose in her belly. The sudden weakness it left behind made her dizzy. "I didn't think anyone would believe the truth," she whispered. "Then. The town wasn't like it is now. I could never have gone to anyone for help then. They were all the same, you see."
"I'm sorry, Harriet. If I had been here, I would have helped you."
"I know," she told him softly, and then she cried.
Chris held her for a long time, until she finally fell asleep. Gently, he rescued the baby from her arms and put him back in his crib, then he slipped back into bed and held Harriet again until the dawn came, unable to sleep himself. Some unfounded guilt needled him. He should have known about Henry Warner. He should never have let Warner marry her and take her away from those she loved. Even though he hadn't been much more than a boy himself, he should have done something to stop Warner. He should have known, dammit!
Harriet woke up alone. Instantly, dismay filled her. Chris had left. Gone. Departed. Stolen away in the middle of the night. She should never have told him. Bone weary, she climbed from the bed and froze, staring at the empty crib and the warm fire that was burning brightly in the grate.
At last, she moved, hurrying downstairs. She found Chris sitting at the kitchen table, a sated baby asleep in his arms. "Shhhh," he murmured. "He's asleep."
"I thought... you were gone," she admitted quietly.
Chris looked away. He'd thought about that. Sneaking away in the night, like a coward. But that had never been his way. "I couldn't leave," he said simply.
"Why not? You never promised me anything."
He looked at her then. A careful appraisal that was just shy of a flare of anger, searching for the hint of accusation that could so easily have been packed into that statement. Oddly enough, it was missing. She was merely stating the truth. He hadn't promised her anything. "No," he agreed. "I didn't. I can't."
"I know that. So, why did you stay?"
"Because I'm not ready to leave."
"Oh. Well, then... Good." Harriet moved briskly to the stove then and put on a pot of coffee, unable and unwilling to question him further.
Chris hid a smile and decided that he liked ruffling Harriet's feathers. She was a little nervous this morning, considering that they had made love the night before with no words of love or any accompanying promises of future committments. And yet there was that unspoken one, embedded deeply in the union of their bodies. It would have been crass of him to mention that and ask her outright if she wanted a baby of her own. Yet he knew that she did.
"Thank you for feeding him," Harriet said, indicating the sleeping baby.
"My pleasure," he smiled. "You were sleeping so peacefully, it seemed a shame to disturb you. Besides, us fellas had quite the talk."
"Did you now?"
"Yep. Christopher John here wants to learn to ride just as soon as his Momma will let him."
"Christopher John, now is it?" Harriet grinned. "Must have been some talk. I hope you haven't been filling this sweet boy's head with stories of wild adventures far from home!" she chided with mock severity.
"Not me. But he did mention that you're a wonderful mother and that he'd like it very much if he could have a little brother or sister to torment while he's growing up." Try as he might, Chris couldn't keep the grin from his face.
Harriet smiled wistfully. "That would be nice, wouldn't it?"
"Sure. That would be nice. If that's what you want?"
"You know that's what I want."
"I can give you that."
"Yes. But will you?"
Serious now, Chris asked, "Is that all you want, Harriet?"
"No. But I know you can't give me anything more right now. And I know that there's something between you and Mary Travis. I can't compete with that. I know that much. But having part of you is better than nothing at all."
"You're wrong. There isn't anything between Mary Travis and me. We're just friends. That's all."
"I don't think she sees it that way, Chris. And if you were honest with yourself, you'd admit that."
Chris pursed his lips as he considered that. Slowly, he admitted, "All right. There might be a little spark there, but I haven't pursued it. And I ain't planning to, either."
"Maybe not, but it's there all the same."
"I can't do anything about that."
The simple acceptance of the way things were should have given Chris a sense of relief, and yet, he felt distinctly at odds with this "no claims" relationship. This was the kind of relationship Buck longed and prayed for. Intimate with a full understanding that no strings were to be attached. No conditions. No demands made. No responsibilities taken for the other. Could he really make love to this woman, get her pregnant, and then walk away from her and his own child? Maybe. If it meant they'd both be safe. But at what cost to himself?
Seeing his difficulty, Harriet smiled sadly at him, saying, "Why don't you take some time and think about it? Just for a while?"
"Yeah," he said, standing up. Slowly, he went upstairs and put Christopher back in his crib.
When he returned to the kitchen, Harriet was busy making breakfast. Undeterred, he walked up to her and startled her by sweeping her off her feet. For a moment, she clung to him, a shriek of surprise escaping her. "I've thought about it," he told her.
"I don't think we'll be going to Mary's today."
"I'm going to be way too busy."
"Doing what?" Harriet asked softly.
Chris could have answered that question in a wide variety of ways. Instead, he chose his reply with due care. "Making love to you."
Smiling, Chris stole her breath with a tender kiss and carried her back upstairs to bed. He had a very busy day ahead and he wanted to get to work on it right away. After all, he had a most precious Christmas gift to give to this woman.
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