The young woman took in a deep breath, but couldn’t maintain it. That steady inhalation led to an abrupt cough. She could already see in his eyes that he was not happy. “Don’t fret, my love,” Alice said. “There’s no blood. This is just a lingering side effect.”
Richard furrowed his brow anyway. “The carbuncle isn’t an easygoing ailment,” he assured. “So you’ll have to forgive me if I feel I can’t afford to be an easygoing caregiver. And you’re my wife, so I’ll be taking extra care.”
“And don’t forget, she’s also with child,” their guest added.
Alice narrowed her eyes and glowered at the friend. “Don’t give him any more reason to baby me, Maximus. In time, he’ll keep me from leaving the house at all.”
“Forgive me for being concerned,” Richard pressed.
Maximus took a sip from his glass at leisure. That cool tea tasted that much sweeter when he saw his neighbors bicker. As the volume increased, the husband looked to his friend for assistance, but the younger man could only shrug.
“I see,” Richard said. “You’ll instigate the fight, but you won’t see it to its end.”
“That’s right,” Maximus admitted. That matter-of-fact statement elicited chortles from the couple, and at once all that abrasiveness melted away.
“You know why I’m concerned, don’t you Alice?”
“Yes, my love. But I need to be able to breathe.”
“As long as you’re free of the carbuncle, you’ll be able to.”
“You know what I mean.”
Richard sighed. “We don’t have any more of the cure. I just worry I won’t be able to protect you. Women with child are especially vulnerable. And it gets riskier as they near their delivery.”
“Go ahead,” Alice teased. “Put my mind even more at ease.”
Clapping his hands together, Maximus finally silenced that playful argument. “So… how’s the other ornery member of your family?”
“Ornery?” Alice exclaimed with mock intent.
“Who, Lightning?” Richard wondered. “She’s fine, I suppose.”
Alice rolled her eyes and shook her head. “So narrow minded,” she muttered with a smile before she looked to Maximus. “She’s well. She’s definitely showing now—I can’t believe you realized before us. I’ve been around horses all my life, and I didn’t suspect a thing.”
“Well, let’s just say I have a personal interest in this,” Maximus said.
“We’ll make sure she carries to term,” the woman said. “I promise.”
“You worry about yourself first, then Lightning, alright?” He let out a weary sigh, and looked out the window. “I’m going to head home. Keep the arguing to a minimum, you two. Alright?”
“It’s getting dark,” Alice protested. “Why don’t you stay here for the night?”
“Don’t worry,” he said. “It’s a summer night. The light will linger long enough for me to find my way home.”
Richard rose and clapped his friend on the shoulder. “Let me walk you out. There’s something I wanted to talk about.”
“Watch out,” Alice teased.
“Is it my turn to be coddled?” Maximus added with a wink.
His friend gave him a light push then, nudging him toward the door. When they were alone, just outside the cottage, Maximus could feel the change in Richard’s attitude before he spoke.
“I hope you’re not mad at me,” he said. “It was just a little light-hearted ribbing.
“What?” Richard said. Once he understood Maximus’ concern, he waved his hand emphatically. “Nonsense. I’m a strange man who does stranger things. I’m worthy of some light mockery here and there. No, I didn’t want to talk about whatever prattle goes on between you and my wife. I wanted to talk about compensation.”
“Compensation?” Maximus echoed. “I haven’t drank that much tea, have I?”
“No. I mean, I’d like to compensate you. It’s been too long already, and I fear for your livelihood.” Before Maximus had a chance to protest, Richard raised his hand. “You did so much to save Alice’s life. You made an ultimate sacrifice. I want to buy you a new horse.”
His friend’s face contorted weirdly as too many emotions fought for prominence on his face. It settled into a visage of reluctant appreciation. “That’s not necessary.”
“Come now. It was our fault your horse collapsed.”
Maximus winced at that memory. “I don’t want to—”
“It’s only fair. Let us help you get back—”
“I don’t want another horse,” Maximus growled. “Charcoal wasn’t a beast or an animal to me. He wasn’t even a pet. He was my friend. I can’t just replace him.” He spun about, bracing himself on the porch railing. When he found himself staring at the end of the path, where his horse had succumbed to fatigue, he squared his jaw and shook his head.
“Well, what about your crops?” Richard asked.
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