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She heard the horses and looked over to the approaching motion. She felt the tenson leave her body as she saw the three figures on horseback. She hadn’t realized the depth of her own distress until Claire leapt down from the horse and into her waiting arms. She reached out to accept the young girl instinctively. She didn’t have time to truly consider what that meant as her heart swelled to watch the two young boys in her charge, rush to reunite with their older siblings.

Ethan seemed slow to dismount, and stumbled a bit as he moved to her side. His eyes were on the children the whole time. “The herd’s fine.” She knew he probably wasn’t really thinking about the near miss with anthrax and his livestock, but after all, officially that’s why she was there.

Amelia wasn’t sure where she wanted to cast her eyes. She resisted the urge to hug Ethan as he stood near her. One might say they were becoming friends, but she wasn’t sure she wanted to extend that much of her heart to him so soon. Instead, she gazed at the children as they hugged and greeted each other and the new foal.

She smiled inwardly recalling the birth of the baby horse. The two young boys had certainly entertained her with the myriad of questions about the process. She would have enjoyed watching Ethan struggle to answer several of them. Her smile faded ever so slightly at the disappointment of Ethan missing such a special event in their lives.

Her thoughts went fully to Ethan as he moved closer. She sensed something was off. He seemed to be struggling. She saw telltale signs of a battle on his face and imagined it hadn’t been easy to gain Claire’s freedom. Ethan hadn’t gained his reputation by avoiding any kind of fight, either with fist or gun. She scanned his form and her eyes settled on his right boot.

“Ethan! What happened?” She struggled to control the distress in her voice, wanting to appear calm and controlled. “Your leg is bleeding. Are those punctures?” The apparent injury made no sense in her mind.

Ethan glanced down. “Yah, I scuffed my ankle up. It’s fine.” He swallowed, embarrassed and added, “It was stupid actually. I wasn’t watching where I was going.” His words trailed off as he watched the children. “I should have known. I wasn’t thinking straight.” The last comment came quietly.

Amelia shook her head in disbelief. Laughter from the children distracted her and as she looked back to share the pure joy with Ethan, she knew she saw a flash of pain in his eyes. She knew then, it wasn’t fine. Why did men always have to be so stubborn? She glanced back and forth between his damaged ankle and the laughing siblings. She knew it was all about them. He would do anything in his power to save the children from any fear or harm. She knew he was berating himself for the injury because it had interfered with the rescue.

She touched his hand. He needed someone to care about him, especially since everyone was now safe. “Come sit down. Let’s look at that ankle.”

His eyes never left the children, “No, it can wait.”

Frustrated, she reached for his face and turned it toward her own. “No, now.” She added more gently, “Claire is fine. She’s home and safe with her brothers where she belongs.”

“Amelia…” He started to argue, but decided to succumb as she placed her arm around him to help him to the cabin steps. Amelia expected her support of him to lessen as she started him on the path, but it didn’t and that frightened her. For Ethan to depend on her like this indicated his wound was far worse than he let on. As they reached the small porch, he sank down and took a few deep breaths.

The children soon swarmed the couple at the cabin. Claire quickly assumed her eldest child disposition. “Uncle Ethan. I’m so sorry. We should have looked at your ankle sooner.” She turned to the two little boys, Ben and George. “Boys, go and get water and bandages please.”

Joseph began to walk to his horse. “I’ll go get John Taylor.” He tossed his intention over his shoulder to the adults as he began to mount.

Ethan’s head shot up and as was his typical initial reaction, he shouted. “No! You stay right here. We don’t need John Taylor.” He swallowed as he saw the startled expression on Joseph’s face. His voice softened. “It’s fine. It just needs cleaning. There’s no need to bother him.” He tried to lighten the situation and added, “He’s a hermit, remember? We can’t go disturbing him all the time.”

Joseph swung his leg back to the ground and returned to the steps. “You sure?”

Ethan smiled. “It’s fine. Really. Just a little sore is all.”

Amelia grasped the heel of his boot and lifted slightly as she began to pull. “Let’s get this boot off and see exactly what we are dealing with and then we can decide about John Taylor.” She beamed brightly, knowing Ethan wouldn’t defy her at that moment.

Ethan was just about to start arguing and as he bent to displace her hand and remove his own boot, a fiery pain raged through his leg. “Whoa!” He pushed Amelia’s hand away. His face was pale and he began to sweat.

“Ethan?” “Uncle Ethan?” The two women spoke simultaneously.

Ethan was drawing in quick breaths, “Just hang on there a second. I’ll do it.”

Joseph, Claire and Amelia exchanged worried glances as the little boys returned with bandages and a bucket of fresh water. Ethan used the distraction to compose himself and Amelia could see he was concentrating on control of his features as he pulled off his boot.

The pain was overwhelming and his hesitation showed. As the boot came free, he fell backward onto the porch. Swift action from Joseph kept him from impact. Amelia’s worry grew as she waited for Ethan to remove himself from Joseph’s arms.

Claire and Amelia both reached out and took his arms to help right him. Ben and George stood stock still, terrified. Amelia took a deep breath and as she started to roll his sock off, she called to the boys. “Boys, let’s have that water. A good cleaning with some cool water will feel good about now I suspect.” The even keel of her Australian accent calmed the situation and Ben moved forward with the bucket. George inched close behind him, holding out a roll of white bandages.

The calm facade Amelia was forcing into her words and face evaporated as the sock came loose and blood began to flow. She whispered, only just loud enough to be heard. “Get John Taylor.” Joseph was already on his way to the horse.

The pain and blood loss left Ethan in no condition to argue. He couldn’t even speak. Amelia saw the struggle clearly on his face, she only hoped the children hadn’t detected it. He would do all he could not to scare the boys. Even under these conditions, she knew he was setting an example for them.

Amelia wet one of the bandages and dabbed at the wounds gently. Glancing at the grimace on his face, she knew Ethan was struggling. “Boys, why don’t you go turn down the sheets on your uncle’s bed.” She smiled at Ben and George. “I suspect he’s ready for some rest.” She didn’t really think Ethan was paying much attention to her words and she wanted to get the boys away.

Ethan had been listening and pulled his leg away from her at the request. “No. That’s not necessary. I’m fine.”

Ben chewed his lip, wondering what to do. Amelia caught his gaze and she knew he was struggling, but ultimately, she knew his loyalty lay with his Uncle. Instead he began to ask. “ww. www.” His stutter was obviously enhanced by the stress of the situation?”

As always, George jumped in. “What should we do?”

Ben’s eyes widened with frustration. “No! W…”. He took a deep breath while all waited for his true question. His head bobbed as his resolve was formed, “What happened?”

George’s eyes sparkled with curiosity. “Ja, what happened anyways?”

Ethan stretched his arm out and pulled Ben down to his side. “Well, you see, we were looking for Claire so hard, that I didn’t watch my feet.”

Ben looked perplexed and interrupted his uncle. “So you fell?”

Ethan exchanged a glance with Amelia, confirming the continuance of the tale. “Not quite. You see, I stepped right into a big old bear trap.”

Claire released a small gasp and two sets of young eyes grew wide. “A b..b..Bear trap?” Exclaimed Ben in awe.

“Sure ‘nuf. It was hiding under some leaves.” Ethan said dejectedly.

“Well that’s ok Uncle Ethan.” George smiled. “You were worried about Claire.”

Ethan tossed his youngest nephew a wan smile. “Thanks, George.” As he spoke, Claire reached over and grasped his hand.

“Thanks for coming for me, Uncle Ethan.” Amelia watched her eyes grow sad. “I know I never should have gone with him.” Claire choked back tears as the memory reared up. Amelia knew It had to have been nice to have a boy pay her attention. “It’s all my fault. It’ll never happen again.” With that, Claire seemed to withdraw, even though she still sat next to Amelia.

Despite his circumstances, Ethan could read the guilt and sadness in his niece’s face. “You couldn’t have known, Claire. It’s not your fault.” Amelia noted that his words weren’t really enough, she willed him to say more. He paused to think of more he could offer. “There’s nothing wrong with wanting to spend some time with someone your own age.” He looked at Amelia to see how he had done and she smiled.

Claire began to tell the rest of the story from her perspective. She told the group how Uncle Ethan had crashed through the window to save Joseph and then about the battle with the large trapper and finally how Joseph had shot the blade from Briggs’ hand and saved their uncle.

While Claire held the boys spellbound, Amelia continued to clean and wrap Ethan’s ankle. She didn’t like the look of the puncture wounds from the trap and despite several layers of bandage, she could see the blush of blood beginning to bleed through.

“That’s that.” She smiled at the children. “Let’s help your uncle inside to wait for John Taylor.” Claire, Ben and George lurched immediately to help their uncle up. He accepted their help with grace, even though it was fairly apparent the younger two couldn’t really help him much.

They started to direct him to his small bedroom in the back of the cabin, but he insisted on resting on the simple, wooden settee near the fireplace. “It’s be nice and warm there.” He smiled at the children and thanked them.

“What can we do for you, Uncle Ethan?” George stood nearly nose to nose with his uncle, eager to be of help.

“Um,” Ethan thought, “how about a glass of water? That would be nice. I’m feelin’ kinda parched.”

George jumped away to get the drink. Ben settled in on the floor next to his uncle. He tentatively reached out to touch his uncle’s hand. Ethan smiled at him, “I’m fine, Ben. You all are just making a big fuss.” At the return of a smile, Ethan let his head rest against the furniture arm and closed his eyes. He quickly fell asleep.

George charged through the door with a pitcher. “I got nice fwesh water fwom the well.” He stopped abruptly and nearly spilled the water as Amelia reached out to him and with her other hand, held a finger in front of her mouth, quieting him.

No one knew exactly how long Joseph had been gone, but eventually he appeared in the threshold with the tall, grey felt, stovepipe hat of their friend, the hermit Indian, John Taylor, behind him. He was the closest thing to a doctor that was available in Paradise and he was also a member of their family.

“Well, what have we got here?” He moved to the end of the settee near Ethan’s wounded ankle and gently tapped him awake. “Ethan?” Getting no response from the injured man, John Taylor calmly checked his pulse and breathing. Finding Ethan deeply sleeping, he decided to begin examining the wounds. He unwrapped the bandages and still Ethan did not stir. With the lower half of his leg exposed to the air and the less gentle prodding from John Taylor, Ethan woke.

“I’m sorry they bothered you John Taylor.” He murmured.

The old Indian’s eyes glittered, “no bother my friend. It’s good for me to practice the touch.” He winked at Ben, who was still close. He went on, “These aren’t the holes I usually find in you. At least I don’t have to go poking for any bullets. That’s a change.”

The medicine man leaned back and checked the faces of the family gathered. Then he looked back to Ethan. “The way I see it, you have two choices.” He paused for Ethan to react, receiving none, he went on. “If you can keep yourself in bed, I can just wrap it up and Joseph, here,” he gestured to the young man, “can change the dressings for you.”

“How long?” Ethan asked.

“A week or so, I suspect.”

Ethan frowned, “and my second choice is?” He almost asked if John Taylor was going to cut his foot off, but he decided not to alarm the children, even in jest.

“I can put a few stitches in to help speed the healing.” He waited for Ethan’s response, although he had known the gunfighter long enough to know what his answer would be.

Ethan shook his head. “Stitch it up if you gotta.”

With Joseph watching closely and John Taylor offering an occasional comment, teaching him, Ethan’s ankle was soon stitched and bandaged. Ethan let out a sigh and settled into the seat, closing his eyes to rest. “Thanks.”

John Taylor nodded and looked to Joseph. “Now, Joseph, will you help your uncle to his bed…”

Ethan shot up as much as he could. “You said if you sewed me up…”. He was silenced by the expression of mirth on the old man’s face. He looked to Amelia for support and found none.

“I said nothing. You still need to rest this ankle.” He looked at Ben and George. “You two are in charge of keeping your uncle in bed for a few days.” The boys bounced with excitement at the opportunity to not only help, but spend time with their uncle.

“That’s not…”.

Ethan was again silenced, this time by Amelia. “Ethan, don’t be ridiculous. You’re very lucky you didn’t break your leg. There is nothing wrong with a few days rest in order to heal.”

Ethan opened his mouth to protest, but words failed him. There was silence in the room. He chewed his lip briefly and then said, “There’s work to be done around here. I can’t lay around in bed. It’s not fair to the children!”

Amelia smiled at his attempt to negotiate with the children as a bargaining chip.

John Taylor washed and wiped his hands. “You can do what you want, Ethan. It doesn’t matter if your leg goes bad. I’ve never cut a leg off before.” He looked almost hopeful. He turned to Joseph, “Don’t forget to clean and bandage that ankle every evening.”

Joseph nodded in understanding. “I will.”

“Good Night, Children, Amelia.” And with that, John Taylor disappeared through the door into the early evening.

Amelia watched the children work together to help their uncle to his bed. She smiled. She suspected, or rather hoped, this one time, Ethan would let his niece and nephews care for him. It would be good for them all.