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frozen bones in throes of sickness

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Snow is a child’s wonderland.  Work or school is put on hold, and once the storm passes they’re free to play in the frozen flakes until the roads are cleared.  Often, it’s any adult’s hell, and that doesn’t change for Faraday.  The day his father died in the cave-in, he was officially a man.  At 13 years old his world changed, taking with it the innocent fun of a tussle in the snow and turning it into yet another act of labor.  But he would never, ever even consider complaining.  His mother was all he had left and the look on her face every time she would be forced to send him out to work for their scraps of food would make any form of complaint stick in his throat.

 

But enough about the past.  It’s done, and this isn’t the moment to be introspective.  He and the others are currently trudging through the snow, leading their exhausted and freezing horses to a town they spotted two hours ago.  It had been all fun and games earlier when just a couple snowflakes were landing in their hair, just a light dusting on the plains.  Now Faraday can’t see past his damn nose.  The only thing keeping him from collapsing on the spot is Jack’s hide jacket.  The man had insisted everyone take a jacket, warning them of this very situation.  Faraday would have to pay him back for such a smart idea, especially because he had claimed that whiskey would keep him warm.

 

The wind is the only thing Faraday can hear at this point aside from his own thoughts.  He would try to quip, lighten the mood and all that, but if he opens his mouth, the amount of snow that would tumble in would never be worth whatever laughs he pulls.  And anyway, he doesn’t feel like joking, not when there’s a serious risk that his fingers will fall off.  He doesn’t even want to acknowledge the throbbing agony racing up his leg and across his hip; he doesn’t want to risk making it any worse.  Faraday doesn’t know if it can get worse but the magnitude of pain doesn’t inspire curiosity in the least.

 

Relief floods his shivering body as Red's horse first steps into town.  Not two minutes after they’ve gotten into the slight cover of the buildings, a tall and broad man steps out of what looks like the town hall.  He’s wrapped in layers of fur and woolen blankets, and when Faraday finally gets close enough to hear his voice, he sees that the man is barely steady enough to stand.

 

“Get out!  You have to get out of here before it’s too late!”  The man’s cheeks and nose are bright red but the rest of his face is so pale he may be half-frozen already.  “The-the sickness will get you, too, if you don’t leave now!”  He goes down a few steps, wobbling until he almost falls over before Chisolm steadies him by the shoulder.  The man immediately recoils and covers his mouth with one of his many blankets.

 

“Sir, we can’t go anywhere, we’ll freeze.  What’s your name?”

 

“M-my name is John Withers.  The town is infected with s-some sort of sickness.  It’s been killing children and elderly folks for a week now.  Please, leave.”  The blanket muffling his voice doesn’t mask the desperation or the earnest worry.  “There’s a c-cabin, southeast.  You can leave your hor-horses in our stable.”

 

Faraday’s gaze sharpens on the man’s drooping and bloodshot eyes.  Something about them are strikingly familiar, as well as the violent trembling of John’s entire body.  There’s blood crusted on his nose.  A memory sparks in his mind, but Chisolm is already turning on his heel and leading them back into the snowstorm.

 

 

He doesn’t quite regret leaving Jack in the stable, but a part of him also wishes he were dead, so the pros and cons of leaving the horses in town are conflicting actively in his mind.  The freezing snow slaps him in the face with each gust of wind, his nose is dry and colder than it’s ever been, and even the thick leather of his boots doesn’t keep his toes from numbing worryingly.  But it’s all worth the delicious warmth of the cabin he’s expecting.  Starting the fire will be a welcome difficulty, if only to keep his blood circulating.  He’d do just about anything to wipe the snow from his eyelashes and keep it off instead of the inevitable build-up he’s met with.

 

Faraday is beginning to envy Jack’s size.  The natural insulation may not help as much as he hopes but the hellish landscape is turning his thoughts to a singular point: get warm or die.  He knows it’s his instinct, but he’s sick of it. 

 

Finally, the cabin becomes more than a gray smudge in the distance.  It’s thankfully not as ramshackle as the darker parts of Faraday’s mind were telling him it would be.  The wood seems solid amidst the blizzard.  He can only hope the inside is dry and protected enough to shelter whatever fire they can start up. 

 

Walking up the steps take more effort than it should for all of them.  A lingering dread settles in Faraday’s stomach when he notices Chisolm coughing into his fist and Vasquez rubbing his drooping eyes.  In fact, it seems everyone is sporting symptoms that the Withers had back at the town.  They’re not as severe yet, but he has the feeling that things are about to get much worse.

 

“I’ll get the fire started.”  Faraday brushed the snow from his hair and shoulders with uncooperative hands and set to packing the fireplace.  It takes him three tries to light the match, and he hopes no one notices, but realizes that everyone is too preoccupied to be watching him.  Red is staring out the window as if waiting for something to happen, hands rubbing up and down his arms.  The old love birds, Goodnight and Billy, are huddled on one of the beds, heads close as they mutter to each other about the old winter of years past – or whatever.  Chisolm is speculating with Jack about when the snow might let up.

 

Vasquez is—

 

“Give me that, guerito.”  Ah, right there.  His voice rasps in Faraday’s ear.  An arm snakes around his shoulders invitingly. 

 

The fire takes to the wool and soon crackles through the wood.  The heat starts to travel through the modest house, and Faraday finally thinks he might keep his fingers, toes, and ears.  But it’s Vasquez’s body that really provides relief, chin settling on Faraday’s shoulder, and fondness tickling the back of his throat.

 

“Thanks, Vas.  I could’a done it, by the way.”

 

Vasquez hums.  Faraday closes his eyes and enjoys the moment.  Something feels off, though, and in the past it’s served him well to assume his gut is right.  Vasquez feels too warm, and it’s too quiet.  By now it should have gotten rowdy, what with the seven of them being in such close quarters.  Usually Billy or Red would be seeking entertaining with Faraday, or Jack, maybe Goodnight, would be telling some long-winded story that was honestly interesting.  But no chatter occupied the cabin, just the faint sound of covered coughs and sneezes.

 

It strikes him all at once.  The familiarity of those symptoms, the way it ravaged a whole town in the middle of winter.  Something sparks in the back of his mind, a memory. 

 

Squirming underneath his covers, blood flowing from his nose, his mother brushing back his sweaty hair.  A man telling her he doesn’t have long if they don’t get the ingredients for the medicine.  He knows a block of time is missing from those days, when it was dark and he hovered between sleep and waking, and he can barely remember when he mother reappeared with a coaxing voice and something vile for him to drink.  The snow outside hasn’t looked fun for years but he’d do anything to calm the burning under his skin.

 

There’s no name for it that he knows of.  His mother had wanted all traces of it gone from their lives after he survived it, all except for how to make the medicine.  Faraday can accurately and quickly recite them after having them drilled into his mind by his mother.  She had told him it was one of the only important things she would force him to learn.  The sickness had almost taken everything from her, and she wouldn’t let it do the same to him.

 

Her face swims in Faraday’s mind, and he shakes his head to clear it.  If he’s right about the situation they’re in, he needs to be alert. 

 

“Vas,” he starts, “C’mere.”  Faraday leads the uncharacteristically docile man to a chair and takes a quick moment to smooth back his curls.  He wants to stay like that, leaning his body against the man he loves, hands carding through Vasquez’s hair until he’s sleepy and pliable, but no one in the cabin has that kind of time. 

 

The men Faraday has decided he can die beside with no regrets are going to an early grave if they don’t get medicine soon.  Now, he has hopes that he can get it to them in time, but the severity of the sickness they have undoubtedly contracted is enough to have him slowly panicking.

 

Chisolm looks winded just sitting by the window, which spurs Faraday into action.  He approaches the man, but doesn’t get the chance to speak before him. 

 

“Faraday.  I can tell you’re thinking from the look in your eyes.  We’ve all been infected but you.”

 

“…I’ve seen it before.  Got pretty sick.  You all need medicine before it gets worse.  It’s worse for the young and the old, but that won’t matter in this cold.”

 

“And you know how to get it,” Chisolm phrases it like a question but it comes through like phrase.  He looks tired already, so different from the stoic officer of the state he usually is.  Faraday can tell it’s going to get hairy soon.  “Well, you’re not getting it in this snow, Faraday.  You’ll freeze solid.”

 

It’s almost satisfying to hear the answer he had expected.  He knows no one would want him to go out in the storm, especially because this batch of men was stubborn enough to act perfectly fine.  But he knows they’ll need the medicine before the weather clears up – something in his gut is yelling at him to get the ingredients now.  Faraday’s already made up his mind, but he has to act as if Chisolm telling him to stand down is an obstacle.

 

“Nah, nah, nah, I can handle the cold, but you haven’t experienced anything like this, I promise you.”

 

He wouldn’t wish this on many people.  Joshua is young; he’s never felt agony like this.  His whole body aches so deeply his bones might really be twisting and prickling inside him.  Fire infests his veins, burning away any coherent thought he may have.  He can barely focus on his mother’s hands toweling away the sweat from his forehead.

 

“You’re not going out there,” Goodnight’s voice pipes up without invitation, “We’ll be fine, Faraday.  It’s not that bad.  We’re all big boys here.”  He can feel the rest of the men’s eyes on him. 

 

“You know what, y’all can just keel over if you want.  I’ll be over here drinkin’ if you want to lose any more money.”  Faraday injects some annoyance into his voice, some resigned acceptance into his hands as he throws them up in faux surrender.  It’s enough to fool most of them, though it’s probably because they’re all coming down with a sickness that might kill them, and not just Faraday’s expert acting.  Billy stares at him a moment longer.

 

Making his way into the corner to pass the time until they’re all passed out, he pulls his flask out and leans his side against Vasquez’s. 

 

 

Spread across the room are his ailing companions.  About half an hour ago the nose bleeds started.  Red had been the first to lie down once his symptoms got too uncomfortable.  Jack had insisted the youngest of them take one of the tiny beds, and no one had complained.  But Faraday knew first-hand how uncomfortable it was as is, and he knows everyone wants the bed.  It’s only when Vasquez is half-unconscious with a fever that he can guide him to the bed Red is in.  It’s a snug fit, and Faraday would rather not have them escalate each other’s body heat, but it’s better for them to rest.

 

Goodnight and Billy take the other bed, wrapped in each other’s arms and shivering.  At this point only the crackling of the fire occupies the cabin.  Faraday quietly makes his rounds, hoping that that Chisolm and Jack will fall asleep soon.  If it escalates farther, he’ll be torn between keeping an eye on them and going out to get the medicine.

 

The universe seems to have mercy, and grants his wish.  Chisolm looks stiff and uncomfortable slumped in his chair in the corner, but he’s snoring.  Jack’s head has finally relaxed against the bed behind him, hands limp in his hand.  Faraday is spurred on by the blood on all of their noses.

 

He takes Jack and Vasquez’s hide jackets – the former for the thickness and the latter for luck.  He’s got his new card pack snug in his pocket and both guns at his hips.  It’s all he can take.  The faster Faraday is, the faster they get the medicine, the less amount of time he has to spend in the cold.

 

Bracing himself, he shoves the door open.  The snow is heavy against his shoulder, and he has to grip the knob to keep the door from slamming shut.  The wind is screaming in is ear; visibility is even worse than before.  He has to get to the apothecary, though.  A little bit of precipitation won’t stop him now.

 

Taking the first steps into the snow is…difficult.  His body screams at him to stay back, to not sink into the snow that goes up to his knees.  Snowflakes whip against any bare skin – most of it is the sensitive bits on his face, and he has to squint to keep his eyes clear.  Moving at all is a struggle.

 

Faraday throws his arms up to try and keep his face from freezing too quickly, brow scrunched and mind racing with curses.  Breathing is an ordeal, with the cold air feeling like needles in his lungs and nose.  He’s barely ten steps out and wishing he just didn’t care as much as he did about those dumbasses back in the cabin.  But it’s too late to go back.  He’s determined, now, and not much gets in the way of Faraday when he’s stubborn.  He proved as much against the gatling gun.

 

Walking is a mental battle as much as it is a physical one.  Every instinct is telling him to go back into the warmth of the cabin where he can rest among those he trusts, and at the same time the only thought going through his mind is move-move-move-get-the-medicine-move-keep-moving.  He’ll freeze if he stops moving.  One tumble and he’ll be a statue of ice next morning.

 

The tips of his fingers start to hurt now, numbness spreading across his extremities.  Breathing is an agony at this point, forcing Faraday to take shallow, quick breaths.  Half of his pants are soaked through from the deep snow but honestly, he can’t feel anything from the knee down so plowing through the snow is almost easier like this.  He can swing his foot forward and send his legs and body with it.  ‘Walking’ is a generous term for the staggering, limping gait he can’t shake.

 

Don’t think about it’ll make it worse thinking about it will make it real and it’ll hurt worse you’re fine you’re fine you’re fine.

 

Before, when he’d just woken up, Faraday had thought his bum would kill him.  Too be he was right, again.  Sparks of pure, electric pain crackle all throughout his scar and the nerves around it.  He hates how weak it feels, how weak he feels.  Anything would be better than the unending torment in his leg.

 

They need you.

 

The town sharpens in his view.  He’s almost there.  All he needs is some herbs from the apothecary and he’ll be on his way back into the sweet deliverance that is the cabin’s heat.  He just needs to put one foot in front of the other and he’ll be fine soon.  Everyone will be fine.

 

 

There’s no one in the apothecary, so Faraday just leaves what may be a little bit less than his total on the counter and takes the liberty to wrap his ‘purchase’ securely.  He tucks the herbs into his shirt and wraps the hides around his body tighter.  The short reprieve is deeply tempting, what with the shop sheltering him from the snow, but at this point Faraday is barely coherent.  All that’s going through his head is cabin-medicine-warm-cabin-Vasquez

 

Stepping out into the snowstorm nearly brings tears of frustration and resignation to his eyes, but the wind blows them away before they can pool.  He sucks in a sharp breath and ignores the needles it sticks in his throat.  The snow has only gotten taller now, reaching past his knees and beginning to encroach on his thighs.  Every part of his body is getting numb now.  Faraday is purposely not looking at his fingers for fear of what he’ll find.  They’re still there, he thinks, but he doesn’t want to see blue skin. 

 

Time passes incoherently for him.  It may take an hour, or two days for him to get halfway to the cabin.  Snowflakes pile on his hair and fall down his jacket, but he only grips his package tighter and leans harder against the wind.  A pressure builds behind his eyes.  Faraday realizes he’s been holding his breath to keep from the pain of the cold, but one gasp later and he realizes he’s too cold to feel it now.

 

It should worry him, but all trains of thought evaporate when he spots the outline of the cabin.  He’s so close to haven, to proving himself useful.  Maybe his mother would be proud of his perseverance.

 

Faraday reaches the steps after…time passes.  He really doesn’t know right from left at this point.  Maybe he should have waited.  The idea is gone from his mind as fast as it appeared.  None of them really knew how bad it could get without the proper treatment – he was right to risk going out.  He keeps telling himself that as he splays his fingers, which are a light blue, over the doorknob.

 

 

Goody’s whole body hurts.  His throat feels like it had been put through a meat grinder.  His head pounds, but at least he’s warm.  He’s about to fall back asleep until he hears a very, very faint, “Wake up you little shit.”

 

And, oddly enough, a thump.

 

Against every rational thought in his mind he opens his eyes.  The cabin roof is dull above him, and Billy is warm against him – too warm.  Memories come rushing back in of the sickness, and Faraday.  More specifically, Faraday giving up way too easily.  Despite the ache in his bones and wish to slip back into sleep, he sits up.

 

On the floor is Faraday.

 

He’s absolutely covered in snow.  It’s in his hair, on his lashes, and his fingers and lips are blue.  In his hand he clutches a small brown package as if his life depends on it.

 

“Holy—,” Goody’s voice is hoarse but appropriately loud.  He nearly jumps out of bed in his need to get to that stupid, silly boy.  “Jack, you might want to wake up, now!”

 

 

Faraday looking like a corpse is not a one-time thing, unfortunately.  Any of the six men that chose to stay in his company could vividly call up the image of the man lying in a bed in a dim room with bloody bandages and a too-pale face if asked to.  None of them would want to.  And most of those men – Goodnight and Billy being the only exceptions – would like to forget seeing Faraday before the doctor got to him.  Even with those unforgettable memories, it never gets easier for them to see him like this.

 

At the moment he’s stone-still in the bed Goodnight and Chisolm dragged closer to the fire, per Jack’s instructions.  The cabin is quiet in the way Goody, Billy and Faraday’s rooms were right after the Rose Creek incident reached its crux.  This time it’s only more suffocating since it isn’t just one man down per enclosed space – it’s all of them.  Faraday may be the odd one out, what with his hard-earned hypothermia, but all of them were hit with the sickness that the town is nearly drowning in.  The only reason the six of them are awake at all instead of struck down by a fever is because of Faraday’s stupid, half-baked plan.

 

Even then, it’s due to sheer luck and stubbornness that he even made it all the way to the town’s apothecary and back without dying.  But none of them will say as much, not until Faraday is out of the woods and awake to hear how much of a dumbass he is.

 

Vasquez sits, upright and somewhat alert, in Faraday’s bed, legs stretched out and pressed as close to the man’s still body as possible.  Jack and Red had worked in tandem to prepare the medicine Faraday had nearly died for and make sure he doesn’t actually succeed in running out of luck.  Jack had warmed up all of the water bags in their possession, forced some of it down Faraday’s throat, and rested the other bags against his paper-white skin.  Afterwards, he said it wasn’t necessary and not too efficient to try warming the man up through body heat but said it wouldn’t hurt if Vasquez wants to be near him.

 

All they can do it wait for him to open his eyes.  It’s painfully similar to after Rose Creek.  The only difference is the hope Vasquez holds this time.  To be surrounded by his companions and share their worry instead of swallowing it down and suppressing it as best as possible, he can deal with the horrible memories.  Last time any of them sat vigil by Faraday’s bed, there had been substantially more blood and less chance that he would ever wake up.

 

In fact, Vasquez can feel Faraday twitch at that very moment.  “Joshua?”  His voice is low but he doesn’t hesitate to reach out and lace his fingers with Faraday’s.  They’re chilly but no longer in danger of literally falling off.  “Open your eyes, querido.”  Faraday breathes in, much deeper than any sleeping man would, and turns his face into Vasquez’s leg. 

 

Vas’s heart skips a beat when his beloved actually rolls over, throws his arm over Vasquez’s legs, and says, “Morning.”

 

“Don’t you morning me, young man,” Jack bustles over, looking like he’s on a warpath.

 

“You absolute bastard.”  Chislom seems to agree with Jack.  “Going out into the snow without any back-up.  How stupid are you?”

 

Vasquez would tell them to lay off, to let him rest, if it weren’t for the fact that he has the exact same question.  With Jack’s help, Vas gets Faraday into a sitting position regardless of his whining and groaning.  Jack shushes him and begins his examination.

 

Faraday’s eyes finally open.  His head lolls a bit onto Vas’s shoulder and his eyes are bloodshot but he’s alive and breathing.   He may not paint a pretty picture at the moment what with how pale he is under the layers of fur and cloth as well as his own red hair, but he looks perfectly handsome to Vasquez.  Vas can feel the last of his worry melting away with each little twitch of Faraday’s fingers as he endeavors to squeeze his hand.

 

Jack finishes his examination, sits back, and says, “Explain yourself.”

 

He rolls his eyes but obeys.  “My mama, she, ah…I got sick like you when I was younger.”  He pauses to sigh and rest.  “She took care of me.  The sickness, it killed so many in my town.  Mama decided ‘gotta teach my boy how to survive this’.  I…I knew what y’needed.  No sense waitin’ for y’all to die.  I like the snow.”  When it’s obvious he’s straining to speak, Vasquez shushes him.

 

“Well, it was a dumbass move, but it did save us,” Goodnight admits.  Billy hums in agreement.

 

Faraday smiles.  Vasquez brings his hand up to kiss his knuckles.  “Well done, amor.  Don’t ever, ever do it again o te chingo y vas a pedirle a dios que te deje morir.”  Vasquez’s voice drops in a threatening promise, and regardless of the difference in language, Faraday can deduce that he means business.

 

 

All seven men recover just in time for the snowstorm to subside.  They decide to wait another day for the snow to melt as much as possible.  Faraday is still feeling weak but deeply satisfied in the knowledge that he had helped.  For months after Rose Creek, he’d felt completely useless.  His hip injury had kept him from walking at first and then, even with a crutch, limping had been incredibly painful.  For all of the doctor’s and Vasquez’s praise, he couldn’t help but feel babied.  Faraday revels in the knowledge that even with his limp he can still be of use.  Plus, he’s gotten far too attached to all of these men to let any of them go without a fight.

 

Vasquez walks alongside him, hand firmly in Faraday’s grip.  He’s ready to get away from this town with his beloved and find the next town to drink, gamble, and maybe save from a greedy landowner.