The Nautilus

by Farad
Written for the WEC impromptu New Year's challenge. Thanks to the wonderful betas at WEC!!!

He woke to the sound of rain. Not a downpour but a steady patter of drops on the roof of the cabin. He lay there, letting awareness come to him slowly, letting himself drift in and out of sleep for as long as he could.

But when his bladder finally applied enough pressure, he reluctantly pulled himself into wakefulness and tossed back the blankets. The chill air was startling, but it did the rest of the job, encouraging his stiff body to move.

He stumbled into his boots and threw on his coat, dreading the walk to the outhouse. He still needed to replace the chamberpot he'd broken several months ago, when he'd tripped over it in the dark and knocked it into the wall. Fortunately, it hadn't been used in a while so he'd only had to sweep up the broken ceramic the next morning, but he hadn't yet gotten around to replacing it. Dammit.

He hesitated as he pulled the door open and stared out into the gray morning. Rain drizzled, cold and wet, and he drew a deep breath before stepping out onto the porch. The rain wasn't hard but it was steady, creating a thin curtain between him and the outhouse. He ignored the chiding feminine voices in his head and turned to piss off the corner of the porch, adding his water to that already coming down.

But as he put himself back together, he looked across to the barn, hearing the stamping of horse feet and the murmurs of horse talk. He'd delayed the inevitable, but he couldn't put it off. He went on to tend the horses, letting them out into the corral but leaving the barn doors open - horses might not want to stand in the rain any more than he did.

Back inside, he stoked up the fire and put on a pot of coffee. He started to look for dry clothes, but he needed to wash clothes and probably the bedding - it was starting to smell. He glanced out one window, watching as the rain picked up; today was as good a day as any, better, maybe, what with all the water coming down. He could hang things over a rope and let the rain do the rinsing for him.

He looked longingly back at the stove, but the coffee wasn't boiling yet, which meant it still had a while before it was ready. With a sigh, he turned back to the bed and stripped it of the sheets.

The wash tub in the yard was full of water, most of it fresh as he'd left it turned up after he'd emptied it a couple of days ago, when he'd first started feeling like it might rain. He dumped the sheets and his clothes in it then added soap shavings, sloshing the water around. He spent a while just moving the fabrics around, letting the water mix with the soap which didn't want to dissolve. He scrubbed at a few places here and there, stains and sticky places, rubbing soap over them when he could get hold of it. One day, he'd have to get a washboard, he told himself - just as he'd been telling himself for months now.

The rain was coming down harder now, and he was about as drenched as the things in the tub, so he stripped off his undershirt and added it in before sluicing the tub's water over his head, hair, and upper body. He'd left his boots off, so it wasn't a problem to stand there, shivering, as the rain rinsed him clean.

He left the things to soak while he stretched the drying line to a rusty hook on the outhouse, yards away. It took a while to get things hung, and he reminded himself to pay attention for a wind that would blow them off and into the mud.

The coffee was almost scorched by the time he had everything hung up to rinse, but he was used to that. He rarely ever got his own coffee poured before it was overdone. The cabin was warmer, though, the fire taking the chill out of the air, and after burning his tongue on the first sip, he set the coffee mug down while he changed into dry and relatively clean clothes. He'd put almost everything he normally wore into the wash tub, so he pulled on a pair of old blue denim pants and a faded flannel shirt worn so smooth that it felt slick against his skin. But it was warm and as he rolled the cuffs once to hold them in place, he caught a whiff of sage.

Vin's medicine bag, he thought, smiling. Vin had given it to him last week, for Christmas, a woven bag of herbs and plants that he had gathered over the year, letting them dry in the autumn air before wrapping them in smaller pieces of cloth and putting them in a drawstring bag. Willow bark for pain, thistle for burns, coneflower for insect bites and other skin rashes, sage for almost any other complaint one could have. It wasn't a true medicine bag - nothing for making nice with the spirits, just stuff he could use for himself. Vin had said that twice, making sure Chris knew he wasn't getting anything 'mystical'.

The bag had gotten mixed in with his clothes when he'd cleaned out his saddle bags two days back.

His coffee was cool enough to drink now, and he did so, gulping down about half the mug to warm himself more. Then he recalled another present, and with minimal rooting through his almost-empty clothes chest, he found the pair of thick socks Buck had given him. His feet were very happy with the gift, his toes tingling.

Presents. He looked out the side window, watching the rain fall against the clothes he'd washed, thinking about Christmas. He'd dreaded it this year, as he had every year since Sarah and Adam died. But unlike last year and the two years before that, he'd not ridden out to Purgatorio. Not that he hadn't thought about it; he'd been saddled up and ready, on his way. But he'd stopped in town to pick up cigars at Mrs. Potter's and to let the others know he was leaving, and his plans had changed. Not that he was aware of it at the time; it had started out slowly enough, with Josiah asking him to hold a couple of boards that he needed to hammer into place. The former priest was trying to get the church ready for Christmas Eve and it was taking longer than he'd expected.

It hadn't taken long, just a couple of hours, but as Chris had made his way back to his horse, he'd seen Nathan standing on the boardwalk, frowning, his hands in his pockets and his eyes staring out toward the far side of town.

Nathan wouldn't ask, so Chris did. Several hours later, Nathan had nodded, thanked Chris, and gone off to pack up his own saddle bags for a trip out to the Seminole village to see Raine. He'd taken along the lavender oil and several cans of peaches Chris had suggested as gifts, and leaving Chris with a tin of arnica for his shoulder. When Nathan come back days later, he hadn't brought Raine with him, but Chris suspected it was just a matter of time.

After that, the day had gotten away from him, and he'd spent the rest of it in the saloon, playing cards with Ezra and Buck. When he'd gotten up the next morning, intending to head out, he'd found Vin in the livery, saddling up to go after a couple of wolves that had been haunting some of the local farms. He hadn't asked Chris to come along, but Chris had offered, and Vin hadn't turned him down.

By the time they got back, there were two fewer wolves in the area and it was Christmas Eve. Inez had put out food in the saloon, Buck was holding court and telling tales, and Ezra was playing cards with a full table of men who, like them, were celebrating on their lonesome.

None of them left for the church service, but after it was over, Josiah and JD joined them in the saloon, toasting the holiday with as much vigor as the rest of them.

Christmas Day itself had been calm and easy, Josiah hosting a couple of services and most of the businesses closed, but Inez's was open and most of the boys hovered around it, relaxed and content and at least a little hungover.

He hadn't missed his trip to Purgatorio.

He pushed off the bed and walked the few steps back to his clothes chest. It didn't take long to tidy it up, and it took even less time to put to rights the rest of the small cabin. He spent more time sweeping the floor, working extra hard at the corners where dust and dirt gathered and which he usually ignored, but today, today felt like a day for putting things to rights.

When he finished up, the place was tidy and organized. He brought in more wood, stoked up the fire, and poured himself another cup of coffee before rubbing some of the arnica salve on his shoulder, warding off the ache. Outside, the rain had slowed back to its steady drizzle, and he stood at the window, chewing on a piece of sweet bread Casey had given each of them for Christmas. He'd ride into town later, if the rain slowed, make sure that things hadn't gotten out of hand last night.

But he knew they hadn't; he'd have had Vin or Josiah sitting on his doorstep this morning if that were the case, and so far, no one had arrived. Rain had probably helped keep things quiet - hard to get out and cause mischief when the weather was like this.

New Year's morning. He stopped chewing, the words forming in his head. He'd awakened in his own bed. Awakened sober and not hungover in his own bed.

He looked around the cabin, thinking about the past seven days.

The day after Christmas, he and Vin had headed back out, checking on the farms to see if there had been any more wolves. There hadn't been, but they'd checked again the next day, just to be sure. They'd ridden as far as the reservation, seeing KoJay and his people, staying for a meal and talking about the wolves and other things.

Then they'd all spent a day working on the fences at the Milspar place; Fred Milspar had taken a bad fall around Thanksgiving and while his wife and boys were keeping up with the animals, one of the bulls had taken out a section of fence. They'd managed to get all the cows back, but the fence needed repairing so they could put the herd back in the largest section of pasture until help arrived.

New Year's Eve had seen them taking turns watching town, waiting for trouble. Most of the ranch hands were out celebrating, but at nine last night, they'd not seen nearly as much trouble as they'd expected, rain hanging in the air on the chill wind. He'd mentioned wanting to sleep in his own bed, and no one had argued with him.

Midnight had found him sitting in his chair by the fire, the lamp at his shoulder as he read Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, a gift from Josiah, while sipping on a very nice glass of bourbon, a gift from Ezra.

Not drunk and raising hell, not lost in his grief and anger.

He put the last of the sweet bread into his mouth and wiped his fingers on his pants before reaching down to pick up the book. It wasn't new, but it was in good shape, and right now, it sported a blue burlap cover that protected the binding. That had been a gift from JD, a book cover that would 'fit most books and even had a bookmark built into it, so you never lost it'.

Chris smiled, stroking over the heavy cloth. He'd cleaned his house today, washing clothes, sweeping, putting things to rights. His ma had always said that was what New Year's was for, setting things to rights. Sarah had believed the same thing.

He glanced out the window. The rain was still coming down, the patter of it steady and soothing on the roof. He put another log in the stove and refilled his coffee mug, flavoring it with just a touch of the fine bourbon.

Then sat down, picking up the book and turning to the book-marked page as he stretched his socked feet toward the heat and let the scent of sage settle into his bones as the arnica settled into his shoulder, along with the warmth of home.