Even at four in the morning, the train depot in Denver was busy. Women with children and men dressed in suits scurried about. Freight wagons, both full and empty, abounded. Once they came to a stop, Chris sent Josiah and Ezra out to find a wagon they could use to transport Vin to the hospital.
An hour later, with Vin loaded in the back of a wagon and blankets piled under him for cushion, Chris steered the team of horses through the tangle of traffic while Buck, sitting next to him hollered at people to get the hell out of their way. If Chris wasn't so worried about Vin, he would've enjoyed Buck's little exhibition. Nathan, Josiah, Ezra, and JD sat in the back with Vin, who had awakened but felt very little pain now that the bullet had moved. In a way Chris was glad he was spared the agony, but another part of him knew that numbness only meant the chance of a successful operation had decreased dramatically.
They'd gotten directions to the hospital from someone at the depot, and Chris followed the given route, the traffic decreasing as they moved away from the train station. Soon, they were the only ones on the street and the clop of the horses' hooves on the paved road echoed loudly. They passed rows upon rows of houses, sitting so close you could visit with your neighbor through the window.
"God almighty, how can they live like that?" Buck asked.
"Just used to it," Chris replied shortly.
"I don't know how anyone could get used to that."
"Back where I come from, it was worse than this," JD said from the back. "There's these tall buildings, three and four stories high, divided into tiny rooms where whole families lived."
"I believe they are called apartment buildings," Ezra interjected. "They say they are the future, gentlemen."
Buck shuddered visibly. "It just ain't natural."
The hospital came into view, the largest structure they'd seen yet. Rising four stories high and covering a quarter of a city block, it seemed to dwarf the buildings around it.
"How do we get in this place?" Buck muttered.
"Let's try the front door," Chris replied.
Chris halted the wagon by a double door that read Entrance. "Buck, run in and see if we should bring him in here."
Buck hopped down from the seat and hurried inside. He returned a few minutes later with a couple men bearing a stretcher.
"They sent someone to get Dr. Latimer. He was expectin' us yesterday," Buck announced.
Vin was loaded on to the stretcher and the two men carried the litter inside. Chris and the six other men followed closely behind. The sickly smell of the hospital twitched Chris's nostrils, making his already queasy stomach roil even more.
"Excuse me, gentlemen, but where do you think you're going?" a nurse as wide as she was tall blocked their way.
"That's our friend, ma'am," Buck replied with one of his dazzling smiles.
It didn't appear his animal magnetism worked on her as she turned away without acknowledging him. "Any of you kin?" she asked.
"Only Chris here, he and Vin are brothers," Nathan spoke up before anyone else could.
The walking barrel eyed Chris suspiciously. "You don't look much like him."
"I take after Ma, he took after our pa," Chris lied without batting an eye.
"All right, come on then. The rest of you sit down in that room over there and make yourselves comfortable. It's going to be a long wait."
She led Chris down the depressing corridor, made a right turn, then a left into a room. Vin had already been stripped of his bandage and was lying on his stomach. A doctor was examining his back.
"Who're you?" the doctor demanded, perusing Chris's dusty and wrinkled black clothing with distaste.
"Chris Tanner, his brother."
Vin smiled slightly, and Chris was grateful for Nathan's fast thinking that allowed him to be with Vin. This might be the last time he'd see his friend with the customary twinkle in his blue eyes.
"How's he doin', Doc?" Chris asked.
"The bullet seems to be surrounded by nerves up against the spine," the man replied. "If any of those nerves are damaged while retrieving the bullet, I'm afraid your brother will be unable to walk again. And if the bullet stays in there, it'll migrate and eventually kill him."
"You Dr. Latimer?" Chris demanded.
"No, I'm his assistant, Dr. Shortnell."
"Then how do you know what'll happen?"
"Because I've seen more than a few of these types of cases."
"This 'type of case' happens to be my brother," Chris said, his voice flinty. He took a step closer to Vin. "And I don't want you touchin' him again until Doc Latimer gets here."
Dr. Shortnell took an involuntary step back. "Mr. Tanner, there's no reason to resort to threats. I'm a surgeon myself."
"Take it easy, Chris," Vin placated, taking mercy on the little doctor. "He's only doin' his job."
Chris didn't relinquish his protective stance.
"Dr. Latimer should be here shortly. He lives only a few blocks from the hospital," the doctor said stiffly. "I'll come back later."
"Make sure Dr. Latimer's with you," Chris said to the man's back.
Shortnell's shoulders stiffened, but he didn't stop on his way out of the room.
Vin chuckled weakly. "You sure got a way with people, Chris."
"I don't like him."
"I reckon he feels the same way. Now."
Chris hunkered down so he was on eye level with Vin. He noticed Vin's pallor and his muscles clenched in despair. "Anything I can get you?"
Vin shook his head awkwardly, and his eyes lost their twinkle, becoming somber and a little fearful. "I'm scared, Chris."
The blonde man placed one hand on his shoulder, and the other gripped Vin's hand. The answering squeeze of his fingers brought Chris little comfort. "Hell, I'd be worried if you weren't."
A man breezed into the room, his steps purposeful and sure, and his expression both professional and compassionate. He held his hand out to Chris. "I'm Dr. Latimer. You must be the patient's brother."
Chris straightened and stared into the doctor's warm brown eyes for a moment, reading the man. What he saw, he liked. He removed his hand from Vin's shoulder and accepted Dr. Latimer's overture. Then the doctor turned away from Chris and gave his attention to Vin's wound.
"How pervading is the paralysis?" the doctor asked.
"I can't feel anything below my neck but my fingers," Vin replied.
Dr. Latimer's brows drew together in consternation. "The bullet must've migrated during your trip here."
"The train ran into a snowdrift, stopped us cold. It was after that that Vin couldn't move his arms," Chris explained.
"Good thing you made it at all. It's going to be touch- and-go."
"That mean he's goin' to get the feelin' back?"
Dr. Latimer brought his attention back to Chris and shook his head. "I can't tell you that, Mr. Tanner. This is one of those instances where I just don't know. All I can say is I'll do my damnedest to ensure the operation is successful."
"That's all a man can do," Chris finally said.
Dr. Latimer took a step toward Chris. "Go on and join your friends in the waiting room. You all did your job, now let us do ours."
Chris took a deep shaky breath then squatted down one more time beside Vin. He leaned close and spoke with a husky voice, "I'll see you when it's over."
"One way or another," Vin said hoarsely.
Chris nodded shortly, then stood and strode out of the room.
"Your brother cares for you a great deal," Dr. Latimer commented.
"More than he wants to," Vin said, his throat tight. "That other doctor fellah said that if the bullet stayed in, it would move and end up killing me."
"That's right," Latimer said hesitantly.
"If it looks like you're gonna do too much damage gettin' the bullet out and I won't ever walk again, I want you to close me back up and leave the bullet in."
Dr. Latimer blinked in shock. "Mr. Tanner, I don't know if I can do that. I'd be sentencing you to death."
Vin's insides clenched. "Please, doc, you got to promise me. 'Cause if you don't, you're gonna end up killin' two men instead of just one."
"I don't understand--"
"Give me your word!"
"All right, Mr. Tanner. But it will be an educated guess. Even if I think I did a neat job getting the bullet out, you could still end up paralyzed."
Vin's eyes closed for a moment. "All right, I'll have to trust your judgment. But remember what I said."
"I don't think I'll be able to forget it. Now, if you'll excuse me, I have to get the surgery room prepared. A couple nurses will be in to get you ready." Dr. Latimer moved to the door, then paused, and spoke sympathetically, "Don't you think it'll kill your brother anyhow if we leave that bullet in?"
He slipped out of the room, leaving his last words echoing in Vin's head. Maybe he was right, Vin thought, but at least it would spare Chris the guilt of pulling the trigger. Under these circumstances, it was the best Christmas present he could offer his friend.
"How much longer's it gonna be?" Buck exploded.
JD had known Buck would be the first to lose patience, and his outburst didn't surprise him. It was Chris who had surprised JD by leaving the hospital. He'd come down to tell them the operation had begun, then he said he'd be back later. Josiah had tried to talk to him, but Chris had shaken off his hand and his face had gone cold and distant. And when Buck got up to go with him, Chris had told him in no uncertain terms that his company wasn't welcome.
"Calm down, Buck," Nathan said. "These kind of things take time." He glanced at JD. "How you holdin' up?"
"It hardly hurts at all," JD replied.
"That doesn't surprise me,' Ezra began. He had been in the examination room with JD and had the cut on his forehead sewn up. "They appeared to have given him morphine."
The men once again lapsed into silence, though Buck renewed his pacing. JD took a deep breath and stifled a yawn. He'd gotten little sleep last night and they'd been in this stuffy room, waiting now for five hours. Josiah had dozed off now and again, while Ezra's nimble fingers kept moving, shuffling the cards and withdrawing the ace of spades every so often. Nathan had taken a tour of the hospital earlier, and he'd returned excited by all the new things he'd seen. But now he looked as bone-weary as the rest of them.
Even though he'd memorized everything in the waiting area, JD found his gaze straying to the two foot tree decorated with strung popcorn and wrinkled cranberries that sat in a corner. A tiny nativity scene was laid out below it, a reminder of what tomorrow represented. To JD, it was only a reminder of the bleakness of this holiday. Not that he didn't want to be here for Vin, but it just seemed a cruel twist of fate to have his first Christmas without his mother marred by tragedy.
Josiah stood and stretched, his bones popping loudly in the heavy silence. "I'm going to take a walk."
Feeling the eyes of his companions on his back, Josiah left the room and stopped a nurse who bustled down the corridor. "Excuse me, ma'am, but could you tell me where the chapel is?"
"Third floor, take two rights and it's at the end of the hallway," she replied. "You're the second man to ask me that today."
"Well, it is the day before Jesus Christ's birth," Josiah said with a faint smile.
He climbed the stairs to the third floor, then walked down the corridor. Though he had lost much of his Christian faith in the intervening years, there was a part of him that still craved the reverent silence of a church. Maybe that was why he was so obsessed with fixing up the church in Four Corners. It was the only place he truly felt at home, both his body and soul.
He spotted a door with the word Chapel painted on it. Opening the door, he was met with the dim glow of candles and the faint scent of incense. Four rows of six foot long pews were set up with the back one nearly hidden in the dark shadows. He shut the door behind him and slipped into a middle seat. Kneeling, he folded his hands together and rested his forehead against them. Closing his eyes, he absorbed the solace and peace of one of the Lord's homes, and prayed silently.
//I know I haven't been a very good disciple, Lord, but I'm tryin' to mend my ways. You sent six good men to me, to show me a path back to you, and now I'm askin' you to spare one of those men. Vin Tanner may not be a church-going man, but he lives your words in his own quiet way. I know you have a plan, Lord, but please give us a Christmas miracle and let us keep Vin with us a little longer.//
Josiah sensed another presence in the room and he opened his eyes, half expecting to see the angel Gabriel. But only wispy shadows created by the flickering candles danced on the walls, choreographed by the slight breeze wafting through the room.
The hair at the back of Josiah's neck prickled, and he turned in his seat to see a shadowy figure kneeling in the darkest corner. The man's neck was bowed, his face hidden. But the glow of candle flames on blond hair told Josiah that maybe a Christmas miracle had already occurred.
Chris raised his head and his glistening gaze caught Josiah. For a long moment, the two men merely stared at one another, assessing the other. Finally, Chris stood and moved into the pew to sit by Josiah. He leaned forward on the hard plank seat and rested his forearms on the backrest in front of him.
Josiah could smell stale whiskey and knew Chris hadn't been in the chapel the whole time. Yet he'd ended up here, and that in itself was remarkable. He remained silent, respecting Chris's privacy, though sensing he wanted to talk. Josiah would let the pain- and guilt-ridden man speak when he chose to.
"Y'know what Vin asked me?" Chris asked, his voice roughened by liquor and emotion. "He asked me if I believed in God."
"And what did you tell him?" Josiah questioned softly.
"Told him that if there was, He was doing a rotten job." Chris stared at the simple altar at the front of the chapel. "And He ain't gettin' any better."
"Because of what happened to Vin?"
"Because the whole world is screwed up. Because people that ain't worth shit keep on livin' and people like Vin are shot in the back by goddamned cowards who make a livin' off of other folks' misery." His eyes were bright with unshed tears. "Because if Vin don't get the feelin' back in his legs, I'm goin' to have to kill him."
Josiah's breath caught in his throat, but he forced himself to wait.
"And if there was a merciful God, He would've taken me instead of makin' me put a gun to Vin's head to put him out of his misery." Moisture rolled down Chris's cheek, but he didn't seem to notice. "And that, Josiah, is why I can't ever believe in God again."
Josiah thought for a moment, then laid a consoling hand against Chris's bent back. "Then why are you in here?"
Chris remained motionless for a full minute. "To ask for forgiveness," he finally answered with a rasping voice. "And redemption for my soul."
"He'll forgive you, Chris, because He knows us better'n we know ourselves. And He knows each one of us is only human, doing the best we can by sticking to the only things that have any meaning in our lives - things like friendship, loyalty, love, justice."
"Maybe," Chris said doubtfully. His fingers curled into fists, then uncurled. "It don't matter. Murder is murder."
"Have faith, Chris. Faith that Vin will regain the use of his legs and be good as new."
"My faith is gone, Josiah."
Josiah shook his head and his lips curved upward gently. "No, if your faith was gone, you wouldn't have sought this place. It might be buried pretty deep, but a spark is still there. And sometimes a spark is all that's needed to light the fire of hope, my friend."
The two men sat in deferential silence as Josiah prayed an impassioned plea.
Please let them both live, Lord.
A few minutes later, as if with unspoken agreement, they stood and walked to the door. After the soothing dimness of the chapel, the light in the corridor blinded them for a moment. Then they walked down the hallway to join their companions.
JD glanced up to see Josiah and Chris step into the waiting room.
"Where have you been?" Buck demanded of Chris.
Chris glanced at Josiah. "Lookin' for something I lost."
"Did you find it?" Ezra asked curiously, but with a look that told JD he was missing something.
Dr. Latimer entered the room behind them, his clothing damp and his expression weary.
"Mr. Tanner," he said.
Chris blinked and realized he was talking to him. "How is he?"
The doctor sighed. "He's alive for now."
"Did you get the bullet out?" Nathan asked.
A flicker of something dark passed through Dr. Latimer's eyes and he nodded. "It's out, but I'm not so sure I did the right thing."
"What do you mean?" Chris demanded.
Dr. Latimer sighed. "Your brother asked me to leave the bullet in if it looked like the nerve damage was too extensive."
"Then he woulda died," Nathan said in alarm.
"I think that's what he wanted," the doctor said in a low voice. "I think he wanted to spare all of you, but especially his brother."
"Spare us from what?" Buck interjected, stepping in front of the man.
"Caring for him if he's not able to walk again. Vin Tanner is one of the most independent men I've ever had the opportunity to operate on. Fought the chloroform the whole time. Had a scare when he seemed to wake up during the surgery." Dr. Latimer scrubbed a hand through his graying hair.
Chris's jaw muscle tensed. "Can we see him?"
"In a couple hours. Why don't you all go get something to eat down in the kitchen? You're all suffering from exhaustion and hunger. And you won't do your friend any good if you make yourselves sick worrying about him. There's spare beds on the fourth floor. Just tell the nurse I said you could use them." He looked at Chris. "Your brother has an extra bed in his room if you'd like to stay close to him."
"Thanks, I appreciate it."
"Now go downstairs to the kitchen. I think they actually made something edible today," the doctor said kindly. "If there's any change in Vin's condition, I'll send someone down for you."
"Thanks, Dr. Latimer," Nathan said. "I did the best I could for him, but I'm not a doctor."
Dr. Latimer blinked in surprise. "You're Nathan Jackson?"
"I'm sorry, I guess I didn't expect-" he broke off, embarrassed. "-a colored man."
Nathan smiled. "That's all right, Doctor. I learned some healin' during the War and I've read a lot to try'n learn more."
"You did a good job. I don't think Vin would've survived the trip here otherwise."
"Thank you, sir. That means a lot coming from someone like you."
Dr. Latimer extended his hand to Nathan and they shook. "If you're ever looking for a job, you give me a holler."
The doctor turned and left the men.
"He's right. We all need something to eat then to rest up," Josiah said, his gaze on Chris.
Josiah led the way downstairs, and when the six men arrived in the kitchen, one of the women cried out in alarm. JD glanced around at his companions and realized that though gunbelts were fairly common in Four Corners, wearing weapons in cities like Denver wasn't a familiar sight. All six of them still wore their guns and holsters around their hips, and in their dusty, wrinkled clothing, they probably looked like bandits out of a dime novel.
"It's all right," JD reassured the kitchen workers who gathered around them, gawking.. "Dr. Latimer sent us down to get something to eat."
"Our friend just got out of surgery," Buck added.
Finally, after numerous reassurances, the men were given plates filled with steak, potatoes, runny gravy, yellow carrots, and biscuits. Armed with cups of coffee, Chris and the others sat down to eat. Although he wasn't hungry Chris knew he had to eat - he felt lightheaded and the whiskey he'd consumed was burning from his belly all the way up his throat. He ate quickly, hardly tasting the food he gulped down.
Torn between wanting to get up to Vin's room, and running as fast and as far as he could in the opposite direction, Chris wished he'd had the foresight to smuggle a bottle of whiskey into the hospital. Now that he'd eaten and sobriety had found him again, the phantoms of death had returned to haunt him.
"I want to go see Vin," JD announced.
"I doubt the doctor will look kindly upon six men obtruding upon Mr. Tanner's room," Ezra said.
"I don't aim to obtrude, just get in there to see him," JD said with a puzzled frown.
Ezra's green eyes lit with humor. "I believe that's what I said."
Nathan stood. "I'm with JD. I want to see Vin for myself."
All the men but Chris stood, and they gazed down at him as he sipped his strong coffee.
"Ain't you comin'?" Buck asked.
"I'll be along in a minute," Chris replied, keeping his tone even.
They left without argument, and once they were gone, Chris planted his elbows on the table and buried his face in his hands. He couldn't put if off forever. Either the operation was a success or it wasn't. Either Vin would walk again or he wouldn't.
Either Vin lived or he died at Chris's hand.
He remained motionless for a few minutes, rallying the courage to join the others and learn Vin's fate. And his own.
Familiar voices drifted in and out of his consciousness, sometimes the words made sense, but most of the time they didn't. The tones, however, were calming, washing across his mind like a summer rain across his skin. Something told him he should open his eyes, to join these voices. These friends.
The sounds began to form cohesive sentences that he understood and he instinctively pictured each man the voice belonged to as he spoke.
"Be quiet, Buck, you're gonna wake him up." JD
"Hell, ain't that what we want!" Buck
"Would you both kindly restrain your vociferous asseverations." Ezra "The doctor did say it could be some time before he awakened."
"It's been almost two hours." Nathan
"He'll come around in his own time." Josiah
There was one missing. Puzzlement made him move upward through the security of the darkness, to the light that beckoned. He opened his eyes, blinked, focused on the pillow his cheek lay on.
"Hey, he's awake," JD said.
"Take it easy, Vin," Nathan soothed gently.
"Maybe we should get the doctor," Buck suggested.
Vin could see Nathan and Buck in his limited field of vision. "Operation?" he asked hoarsely.
"It's all over," Nathan said. "How're you feeling?"
"Like hell." Vin's mouth felt as dry as a sandstorm in the desert.
Josiah moved into his view. "Here, have some water." The large man was amazingly gentle as he held the glass to Vin's lips. Vin drank greedily, then gasped slightly after he'd emptied the cup.
"I think that's enough for now," Nathan said. "Better?"
"Yeah." He tried to look around but lying on his belly he was restricted from seeing too much. "Chris here?"
Buck and Josiah exchanged looks that made Vin frown.
"Where is he?" Vin demanded.
"He's gettin' something to eat," Buck replied, then asked hesitantly. "Can you move?"
Vin blinked. He hadn't even thought to check his limbs. His mind willed his legs to move, and nothing happened. Panic rose in his throat, but he choked it back. Next he tried his arms. Nothing. Finally, he ordered his fingers to close - they remained motionless. His heart pounded and he began to breathe in short gasps. "Get the doctor."
For a moment, no one moved, then Vin saw Ezra hurry out the door.
"What is it, Vin?" Nathan asked softly.
Vin swallowed hard, tried to slow his panicked breathing. "I can't move, Nathan. Nothin' from the neck down, not even my fingers."
Nathan's hand came to rest on his shoulder but Vin couldn't feel his comforting touch.
"Sonuvabitch," Buck swore. "I'll get Chris."
Right after Buck left, Dr. Latimer bustled in, followed by a worried-looking Ezra.
Nathan stepped away from Vin to allow the doctor to examine him.
"What the hell happened?" Vin demanded. "Did you take the bullet out?"
Dr. Latimer, bent over his back and studying the wound, nodded. "It appeared that there was no permanent damage to the nerves of the spinal column."
"It appeared wrong! You shoulda left the damn thing in."
The doctor re-covered the incision and shook his head. "In my professional opinion, there seemed to be every reason to believe you would have a full recovery."
"Damn your professional opinion!" Vin turned his head away from Dr. Latimer and his gaze collided with JD's anguish-filled eyes. Vin closed his own eyes, unable to bear the kid's sympathy. "Get out of here, all of you! Send Chris in. By himself!"
Confused and hurting for their friend, Nathan, Josiah, Ezra and JD stood by helplessly.
"Get the hell out!" Vin shouted.
"You heard Vin," Dr. Latimer said in an even calm voice. "He wants to be alone with his brother."
The four men shuffled out, and Dr. Latimer moved around the bed so he was facing Vin. "This doesn't mean that you're permanently paralyzed."
Vin's eyes flashed open. "What else do you call it when you can't move?" he asked with biting sarcasm.
"It might be a temporary condition. Perhaps some nerves were damaged, but they could heal and you would get the feeling back."
"Another one of your 'professional' opinions?" Frustration made his sarcasm even more caustic.
The door burst open and Chris strode in. He stopped a few feet from Vin's bed and stared down at his friend who looked frantic, an expression Chris never thought he'd see on the ex-bounty hunter's face. "Buck told me," he managed to say.
"Get out of here, doc," Vin commanded with uncharacteristic anger.
"Mr. Larabee, your brother is paralyzed now, but that doesn't mean it's permanent. Talk to him; convince him he can't give up," Dr. Latimer said to Chris, then looked at Vin one more time and left the room.
Vin's fury fled, replaced by desperation. "I can't even move my fingers this time, Chris." He took a shaky breath. "You promised."
Chris stepped closer and leaned over Vin. He laid a trembling hand on his friend's arm. "You heard the doctor. It could only be temporary."
"Yeah, and cows could sprout wings and fly to the moon, too. But it ain't very likely."
"Damnit, Vin, you don't know that. Maybe this is fairly normal with these kinds of wounds," Chris argued.
Vin turned his head awkwardly so he could meet Chris's gaze. The fear and despair in his usually sparkling blue eyes hit Chris like a sucker punch. "I don't want you to feel guilty about this, Chris. You said it was MY choice and I'm givin' you my decision. Do like you promised."
Chris throat seemed to close and his knees threatened to buckle. "What if the doctor's right? Give it another day, Vin. It isn't going to hurt."
Vin's jaw muscle clenched and he closed his eyes, laying his cheek back on the pillow. "You don't understand."
"Tell me, damnit!" Chris demanded, his eyes snapping with frustration. "Tell me what I don't understand."
Vin remained silent, then he opened haunted eyes and stared ahead unseeingly. "When I was in the war, a friend of mine had both his legs blown off. There was so much blood everywhere, but I managed to wrap tourniquets around what was left of each one. The stretcher bearers who hauled him away said I saved his life. I seen that friend a year or so after the war. He'd changed, Chris, gotten mean and drank all the time. He hated me for savin' his life. We'd been friends, and now he cursed me for the life I gave him. Said I shoulda let him die; he woulda been better off. A few days later, I heard he was killed - run over by a wagon. Folks who saw it happen swore he pushed himself out of his chair to fall in the path of the team of horses." He paused, bitterness twisting his lips. "I don't want to end up like him, Chris. I want to die while I still got a shred of dignity."
For a moment, Chris couldn't speak past the knot in his throat. "That won't happen to you, I promise. Give it another day, that's all I'm asking."
Vin's face seemed to relax slightly, and he finally nodded. "One more day, but that's all. I ain't gonna wait any longer than that."
Chris bowed his head in fervent thanksgiving.
In the hallway, JD paced while the other four men leaned against the corridor walls outside Vin's room. Unable to take the tension a moment longer, JD came to a stop and stared at the door. "What's takin' them so long?"
Buck shook his head. "Hard to say, kid. Maybe Vin wants to go home right away."
"Chris is probably tryin' to calm him down," Nathan said.
"If anybody can, surely Mr. Larabee can," Ezra commented, his green eyes anxious.
Josiah suddenly straightened. "Or he's keeping a promise." With a curse, Josiah pulled open the door and rushed in, followed closely by the others. Seeing Chris standing close to Vin, he went to his side but saw Chris's revolver still rested in its holster. He breathed a silent amen.
"You boys lookin' for something?" Vin asked laconically.
"I think Josiah was," Nathan replied with a puzzled glance at the ex-preacher.
Josiah stared into Chris's eyes and recognized the tempered relief there. Something had happened between the two men, but Josiah was damned if he knew what it was. "I figured Vin could probably use some sleep, so thought I'd drag Chris out of here to give him some peace and quiet."
"I am tired," Vin said, barely restraining a yawn.
Josiah began to draw Chris out of the room. "You sleep good now, Vin. We'll come visit you later after you're rested."
Buck, JD, Ezra, and Nathan said their farewells and joined Josiah and Chris in the hall.
"You wanna tell us what that was about?" Buck asked Josiah.
Josiah donned an innocent expression. "Like I said, I thought Vin could use some rest."
"Like hell," Buck muttered, and he narrowed his eyes, watching the two men closely.
"If Josiah hadn't done it, I would've," Nathan added. "After an operation like that, it'll take Vin some time to get his strength back."
"And the feeling in his legs and arms," JD said.
"We hope," Chris murmured.
A nurse approached, gave them a wary look and made a wide loop around them as she passed.
"I believe we are frightening the personnel. Perhaps we should retire to someplace less conspicuous," Ezra said.
"Why don't we go find a saloon and have a drink," Buck suggested.
"It's Christmas eve," JD said. "You think anything'll be open?"
Josiah smiled sadly. "There's always a haven for lost souls."
Ezra led the way down the corridor, and Josiah waited to bring up the rear. Chris paused a moment, staring at Vin's door and Josiah laid a hand on his shoulder. "Have faith, Chris. It's the season of miracles."
"I gave up on miracles over three years ago." Chris spun on his heel and followed in the wake of the other men.
Outside the hospital, the six men paused as light snowflakes drifted down from the overcast sky. Chris figured it was only around five o'clock in the afternoon, but it was hard to judge with the dark clouds.
Buck took the lead and headed down the street. A couple blocks later, they found a bar open and entered. The smell of food and liquor told them they'd come to the right place.
After sitting down around a table, a woman wearing a surprisingly conservative dress approached them.
She smiled. "Evening, gentlemen. What can I get you?"
An hour later, they pushed back their empty plates. Chris poured himself a shot of whiskey from the bottle sitting in the middle of the table.
"You want to tell us what's goin' on between you and Vin?" Buck asked, his dark blue eyes steady on Chris.
Expectant silence rose around the table. The ex-shootist ignored the wary quiet and downed the liquor in one gulp, then grimaced. He scowled - the whiskey wasn't tasting any good tonight and, worse, it wasn't doing anything to improve his mood either.
He finally pinned Buck with a sharp gaze. "What do ya mean?"
"C'mon, Chris, we ain't stupid. Vin don't want to live, does he?" Buck asked flatly.
Chris continued to study his old friend, hoping he hid his surprise behind a bland mask. "Would you?"
"We ain't talkin' about me, we're talkin' about Vin."
Chris contemplated lying, then thought better of it. These men were Vin's friends. Maybe not as close, but they cared for him, too. He slowly nodded. "He wanted me to -- " Chris found the words stuck in his craw, and he cleared his throat. "He doesn't want to live if he can't walk."
"But how - ?" JD began, and the horrified expression on his young face told Chris he answered his own question. "You can't do that! It'd be murder."
"It's what Vin wants," Chris stated firmly. "And what I promised him I'd do if he couldn't."
"You can't be serious," Ezra said, his face blanched.
Chris shifted his attention to the gambler, allowing his cold gaze to tell Ezra how serious he was.
"A man has a right to make his own decisions," Buck offered. "But how can you live with that, Chris? You already got enough ghosts haunting you."
Sometimes Buck's insights were as eerie as Vin's.
"I can't believe Vin made you promise him that," Nathan added softly.
Chris shook his head. "He didn't. In Four Corners, before he lost the feeling in his arms, he just wanted me to give him his gun if it looked like he wouldn't walk again. But after the accident on the train when he could only move his fingers, he wanted me to let him do it then. I wouldn't." Chris clenched his teeth a moment before he could continue. "I promised him I would do it for him if the operation didn't work."
"And it don't look like it worked," Buck finished in a low voice.
"We don't know that for certain," Nathan argued. "What if it takes a few days? And if you do carry out your promise, how you gonna live with knowing he might've regained his feelin'?"
Chris thumped his fist on the table, startling the men. "Damnit, Nathan," he began in a low, savage voice. "Do you think I want to do this? Do you think I want to squeeze the trigger and kill my friend?" He paused and his eyes became haunted. "Vin wanted me to do it this afternoon. I convinced him to wait twenty-four hours."
"And what if it takes forty-eight hours?" Nathan pressed.
Chris swallowed hard and shook his head. "I don't know."
JD stood so quickly, his chair tumbled to the floor behind him. "I can't believe you're all talkin' this way. Geezus, it's Christmas eve and you're talkin' about killin' Vin like you would a horse that got a broke leg!" His eyes flashed, and the despair and shock in his face burned a hole in Chris's chest. "Damnit, he's our friend!"
He ran out the door and into the dark night. Buck pressed his lips together tightly and rose.
Chris grabbed his arm. "I'll go talk to him."
"You think that's a good idea?" Buck demanded.
Chris rubbed his brow. "Maybe not, but I owe him."
Buck lowered himself back into his chair and Chris followed JD. He found him about ten feet down the boardwalk, leaning against a post and gazing up at the stars. Chris slowly walked over to him and leaned on the opposite side of the wood post. He tugged at his hat brim nervously, uncertain how to begin.
"It ain't right," JD said with a husky voice.
Chris glanced at the boy's face and saw two moonlight-glistened tracks down his cheeks. His belly clenched at JD's abject anguish and his fingers curled into powerless fists. "No, it's not," Chris began in a soft, emotion-laden voice. "But it's what Vin wants."
"He ain't thinkin' straight," JD fired back. "He's hurtin' and this is his way of dealin' with it."
"He knows what he wants, JD. I doubt he's many years older'n you, but in experience Vin has lived more than most of us. He's seen things and knows about life and death. He lived his life the way he wanted; now he wants to die the way he wants. Can you tell me that's wrong?"
The boy scrubbed his eyes with a hand. "I don't want to lose him, Chris, 'specially now at Christmas."
"There's not a one of us who wants to lose him. Especially me. I admire and respect him." And I care for him like a brother. Chris paused for a moment. "And that's why I have to give him this last request."
JD straightened and turned to gaze at Chris. "I still don't understand givin' up hope like he's doin'."
"That's because you're not Vin. He's got his reasons."
JD remained silent, but Chris could see the battle that waged inside him. The boy was still so young, so certain everything would work out for the best. "Life isn't like a story book, JD," Chris said gently. "Most choices a man has to make aren't black and white, and most of the time we don't get happily ever afters."
"Then what's the use?" JD demanded.
"Because every once in a while, things work out and they give us the strength to move on." Chris wrapped an arm around the younger man's shoulders, surprising JD as much as himself. "We have another day. Maybe we'll get one of Josiah's miracles."
JD scrubbed a hand across his cheeks, then nodded, and the two men rejoined their companions.
An hour later, the men returned to the hospital. They climbed the stairs wearily and paused on the second floor.
"See you in the morning," Chris said as he began to move down the hallway toward Vin's room.
"Chris," JD called out.
Chris paused and turned.
"If it comes down to the end, let us say good-bye," JD managed to say in an even voice.
The blond man nodded somberly, then continued on as the five men went up to the fourth floor to claim their beds.