Chris awakened to the sound of low moans and sat up straight in the uncomfortable chair where he'd fallen asleep. He leaned close to Vin whose face was contorted with pain.
"Vin, wake up," Chris said, shaking his shoulder slightly, then realized the ex-bounty hunter wouldn't be able to feel it. "Vin, it's me, Chris. Wake up," he said a little louder.
Vin's eyes widened in terror and he opened his mouth as if to shout, but caught himself at the last moment. He seemed to have trouble focusing, but after a moment he became aware of his surroundings. "Chris?"
"I'm here, Vin," Chris reassured, taking hold of Vin's hand for his own comfort.
Vin's eyes narrowed, then a smile twitched his lips. "You tryin' to break my fingers?"
"Uh, sorry," Chris mumbled, and eased his grip. Suddenly, his eyes widened. "You felt that?"
Vin nodded. "My arms and hands are kinda tingly." He paused, his blue eyes glinting brightly. "I think the feelin's comin' back."
Chris grinned and his usually cool eyes sparkled with amazement. "Sonuvabitch, it's about time we got some good news!"
Vin laughed, relief ringing in the happy sound. "Consider it your Christmas present.."
"It's the second best one I ever got," Chris said, a catch in his voice, and Vin knew he was thinking about the news his wife had given him their last Christmas together.
"Hell, it's better'n a string tie," Vin said mischievously.
The two men shared a chuckle and Chris stared at Vin silently. "We still don't know if you'll be able to walk."
Vin nodded. "I know, but this is somethin'. If nothin' else, you won't have to keep your second promise."
Slowly, Vin moved each finger, then tried to lift his hand. He managed to raise it a couple inches.
"It's gettin' better every minute, ain't it?" Chris asked softly.
"I don't think I'm gonna be able to sleep until I find out if I got movement back in my arms."
"Then we'll tell each other some of JD's jokes and keep each other awake," Chris teased, feeling more jovial than he had in a long time.
Vin grimaced in mock terror. "Anything but the paw joke."
"How about the one about the man who walked into the bar?"
Vin groaned. "Don't start, Chris. I'm warnin' you."
Lightness filled Chris's chest as he grinned. Maybe this miracle was only prolonging the inevitable, but for now, Chris would accept whatever gifts were given. If only the recovery would continue....
Pealing church bells rang in Christmas morning and roused Chris from his slumber. He lay on his side and stared at Vin who lay sleeping in the other bed. Chris had finally left his chair and crawled into the extra bed after Vin had confirmed that he'd regained all movement from his waist up. Vin's legs, however, remained without feeling. But maybe that had changed while he slept.
With a muted groan, Chris sat up and swung his feet over the edge of the bed. He scrubbed a hand through his mussed hair and yawned widely. He'd removed his shirt and boots, but kept his pants on. He didn't trust the privacy in a hospital room.
A moment later, the door opened and a stout nurse entered, her manner abrupt and business-like. Spying Chris, she halted. "What are you doing in here?" she demanded.
"Ah, well, Dr. Latimer said I could have the extra bed." She continued to eye him speculatively, and he added, "he's my brother."
Her expression relaxed and she nodded curtly. "Well, it is Christmas and all, so I suppose I can overlook it this time." She motioned to Vin. "I'll check on him later when he's awake." The nurse bustled out.
"She's gone," Chris announced.
Vin opened his eyes. "How'd you know I was awake?"
"Hell, if she came charging in at this time of morning to poke and prod me, I'd play possum, too."
Vin chuckled. "Thanks."
Chris pulled on his boots, then hopped off the bed and grabbed his shirt from the chair. He tugged it on, and fastened the buttons. "How you doin'?"
Vin moved his arms and hands experimentally. "Well, they're still workin'. But not the legs."
"It might come yet, Vin. Maybe them nerves were hurt more so it'll take a little longer to heal."
Vin grinned wryly. "I reckon I'm willin' to give it a little more time."
Chris smiled back as he tucked his shirttails into his black jeans.
The door opened again and Vin quickly closed his eyes. Nathan, followed by the other four men, trooped into the small room.
"He still asleep?" Buck asked in a loud whisper.
"How can anyone sleep with you fellahs makin' so much racket," Vin complained.
"Uh, sorry, Vin," Buck said with boyish chagrin.
Vin's eyes twinkled as he raised his hand with a nonchalant wave. "Forget it."
"Hey, you can move your arm," JD said excitedly.
"Yeah, I can," Vin said with a wide smile.
"Your legs, too?" Nathan asked.
Vin's smile faded. "Not yet."
"You will," Josiah said confidently.
The door swung open for the third time, and the thick-set nurse re-entered. She blinked and stared at the six men. "Is Buffalo Bill's Wild West show in town?"
"Uh, n-no, ma'am," JD stuttered. "We just came to see our friend."
"You've seen him, now leave." She sent Chris a quelling glare. "And you, too, Mr. Tanner. Your brother needs a sponge bath."
Buck's cough sounded suspiciously like a laugh, and Nathan covered his mouth with his hand. JD's eyes widened in horror, while Josiah's twinkled with mirth. Ezra's controlled expression slipped for a moment and, being the closest to the door, he didn't waste any time escaping. Everyone but Chris followed closely.
Chris picked up his jacket and hat from the chair, stopped by Vin and leaned close to his ear. "You've faced murderers and thieves. You'll make it through this, too."
Vin shot him a half amused, half terrified look and Chris found himself chuckling as he left the room to join the others.
The men strolled down the snow-littered street, enjoying the crisp air and clear blue sky. Walking past a church, they paused and listened to a choir sing "Angels We Have Heard on High". Something long dormant stirred in Chris as he listened to the chorus, and he could see Sarah and Adam as if they were standing next to him. Instead of sorrow, however, Chris felt their presence as a gift.
As the last note of the song drifted away on the light breeze, a strange peace fell over Chris. Maybe Sarah and Adam were no longer with him physically, but their spirits would never stray far. Had they been the givers of Vin's miracle? 'Thank you,' he said silently. 'Merry Christmas.'
"You say somethin', Chris?" Buck asked.
Chris shook his head. "Not a thing, Buck. Not a thing."
Fifteen minutes later, they found a café that was open this Christmas morning and joined the few other customers.
As the men ate their meals, Chris's gaze passed over each of them. They were his family now, not joined by blood but something equally as binding. They risked their lives for each other without thought of recompense, even Ezra whose transformation was little less than miraculous. Nobody had even considered staying back in Four Corners rather than traveling with their wounded companion to Denver.
He studied the youngest member of the group. Maybe JD was right. Maybe Christmases were made for people like them - men who had traveled alone and knew the ache of loneliness. This gift of friendship had never been pursued, but had been given freely to one another.
He frowned, remembering the vow he'd made to himself. No matter what happened with Vin, Chris was leaving Four Corners to find the man who'd hired Cletus Fowler, as well as the dozen men who'd ridden into town and left Vin with a bullet in the back. He'd track down the bastards and force them to give him a name.
Leaving these men who'd become his friends would be hard, but Chris didn't have a choice. No matter what Josiah or Vin said, he couldn't endanger their lives for his own personal vendetta. Not anymore.
"Any idea when we can head back to Four Corners?" Buck asked.
"I'm sure the doctor will want to keep Vin in the hospital for a few days to make sure everything's healin' good," Nathan said.
"Of course, our independent friend will probably insist on departing this fair city as soon as possible to return to the uncivilized frontier," Ezra said with a smile.
"Can't say as I blame him," Josiah said. "City livin' has never been my idea of heaven on earth."
"Mine neither." JD shivered. "Had enough of cities back East."
"Seems to me there'd be a lot more ladies to meet in the city," Buck said with a devilish wink.
"And there are more opportunities for high stakes ventures," Ezra added with an arched eyebrow.
JD grimaced. "All I know is that we should find someplace else to spend the night - I didn't care much for that hospital bed."
"You have a point there," Josiah agreed, then looked at Chris. "What about you?"
"I'll stay with Vin," he replied.
"You don't think those sons-of-bitches followed us here, do ya?" Buck asked.
Chris shrugged, and said with a shadow of a smile, "I doubt it, but you can't tell about sons-of-bitches."
Buck chuckled. "Ain't that the truth."
"We gonna have that Christmas dinner like you said, Buck?" JD asked. "Where we sneak the food into Vin's room while someone distracts the nurses."
"That someone is me," Buck began. "And hell yes, we're gonna do that. What d'ya boys say? Later today we buy us a Christmas dinner and a bottle or two of whiskey?"
"Chardonnay," Ezra interrupted.
"Sharda - who?"
A smile played at the corners of Ezra's lips. "It's a French wine."
Buck grinned widely. "Damn, I bet them Frenchies make a good one, huh?"
"Actually they make more than one, Mr. Wilmington, but I believe a Chardonnay will be about all you can assimilate in one day."
"Whatever you said, it sounds good," Buck said. "All right, Ezra, you're in charge of getting the shardanay. Josiah, you get the whiskey. Me, JD, and Nathan'll get the food."
"I guess that leaves Chris to distract the nurses," Josiah said with a wink at JD.
Buck nearly sputtered in protest. "I thought you wanted the best man for the job."
Chris narrowed his eyes in mock warning. "You sayin' I ain't any good with the ladies?"
Buck raised his arms. "Now, pard, you wouldn't want me to try'n answer that, would you?"
With a smile and shake of his head, Chris stood and retrieved his hat from the back of his chair. "I'm goin' to head back to the hospital and make sure Vin survived his sponge bath." His eyes twinkled. "That nurse was one of them women I'm scared of."
Laughter tumbled around the table, warming Chris with the sound. These men had gone through a helluva lot together, some good, but too often bad, yet they remained loyal to one another. That kind of allegiance was a rare thing in this life.
Chris set his hat on his head and tightened the latigo strap beneath his chin. "Merry Christmas, boys." And with that strode out of the restaurant, his duster whirling about his long legs.
The walk back to the hospital was pleasant in the sun-drenched air. He could see the snow-capped mountain peaks in the distance against the azure sky and wondered what lay behind them. Chris had spent most of his time in the southwestern part of the country. Maybe after he took care of his unfinished business, he'd head further west, to California. Vin would probably enjoy the trek across the mountains to wild, unexplored areas where hawks and eagles soared. Of course, Vin would want to travel to Tascosa first and clear his name. Chris nodded to himself - he'd accompany him and give him a hand, then they could head west together.
Chris's daydreams stumbled to a halt. If Vin didn't regain the feeling in his legs, the only place he'd be going was his final resting place. The sobering thought marred the pleasant day and Chris was tempted to find a saloon and sit in a corner the rest of the day with his old friend - whiskey. Just as he'd spent the last three Christmases.
He passed the church again and families were spilling out of the double doors. Chris paused to watch children dressed in brand new outfits toss snow at one another as their parents visited, shaking hands and wishing one another a happy holiday. It was a scene that had become as alien to him as his attire was foreign to these people. A few folks glanced his way, then looked again. A man drew away from the crowd and approached Chris.
"Merry Christmas," the older man greeted in a friendly voice.
Suddenly uncomfortable, Chris nodded curtly. "Merry Christmas."
"I didn't see you at the service."
"I wasn't there. I was just passin' by."
The man's gaze swept across Chris. "You're not from around here, are you?"
Chris smiled. "Not exactly. A friend of mine was hurt bad - had to bring him here for a specialist to operate."
The man's blue eyes revealed sympathy. "I'm sorry. Do you have a place to stay while in our city?"
"I'm staying at the hospital."
"If you'd like to get out of there for a time, why don't you come by the rectory. My wife and I would enjoy having you for dinner," the reverend invited.
Although touched by the man's offer, Chris found he couldn't quite trust him. Long held instincts were hard to lose. "Thanks, but I'm not much of a churchgoing man."
The minister smiled warmly. "I didn't say you had to attend service."
Chris returned the smile. "I don't know if you'd want a man like me in your home, Reverend."
"A man who cares enough for his friend to bring him to a strange city and stay with him throughout the ordeal over Christmas can't be all bad, Mr.-- "
"Larabee. Chris Larabee."
"Reverend Daniel Stockton." The minister stuck out his hand and the two men shook.
Baffled but appreciative of the reverend's friendly overtures, Chris began to move away. "I'd best get back to the hospital."
"What's your friend's name?"
"Would you mind if I stopped by to see him some time? A couple of my parishioners are in the hospital and I planned on visiting tomorrow. I'd like to meet your friend."
"He ain't much of a churchgoing man either."
The minister shrugged. "Then I won't talk about church."
Chris studied him a moment, then demanded, "What's your angle, Reverend?"
Friendly tolerance graced the man's features. "No angle, Mr. Larabee. I saw you standing here by yourself, looking as if you were searching for somebody. Or something."
Chris shifted his weight from one booted foot to the other, a different kind of unease washing through him. The unease that a person got when a stranger saw too much. "Everyone's lookin' for something, Reverend."
"And some don't know what they're looking for."
Chris forced himself not to squirm under the minister's perceptive, but benevolent gaze. "I know what I'm looking for, but you wouldn't approve."
"You might be surprised, Mr. Larabee." Reverend Stockton's eyes narrowed, becoming far too keen. "You remind me of someone I used to know."
Chris merely touched the brim of his hat in farewell and strode away, conscious of the minister's curious gaze on his back.
He arrived at the hospital five minutes later and went directly to Vin's room. Dr. Latimer was in there with the other doctor, examining Vin's back. Chris tried to ignore the scars on Vin's back that made him clench his teeth in empathy. Giving his attention to the fresh wound, he was surprised by how neat the cut was where they'd gone in to get the bullet.
"How does it look?" Chris asked.
Dr. Latimer smiled. "It's already beginning to heal quite nicely. Your brother has a strong constitution."
Chris exchanged an amused glance with Vin, then looked back at the doctor. "If you're sayin' he's made out of dried leather and is as stubborn as a mule, I'd say you were right."
Dr. Latimer chuckled, while Dr. Shortnell scowled, eyeing Chris like he was kin to the devil.
"What about his legs? He gonna walk again?" Chris asked.
Dr. Latimer sobered. "Only time will tell. He regained the feeling in his upper torso fairly quickly which is a good sign."
The two doctors replaced the dressing and covered Vin with the sheet.
"Can I sit up yet?" Vin asked.
"It's much too early after such a delicate operation," Dr. Shortnell said.
"For a normal person, but Vin appears to be doing much better than expected. If you're willing to put up with a little discomfort, you can try it," Dr. Latimer overruled.
With Chris on one side and Dr. Latimer on the other, they helped Vin to lie on his back. Vin's face paled slightly and he hissed once in pain, then seemed to relax and managed a smile.
"Does that hurt much?" Dr. Latimer asked.
"Some, but I've had worse," Vin replied.
"Those scars on your back-" Dr. Shortnell began.
"Ain't any of your concern," Vin finished curtly.
"Why don't you go check on Mrs. Johnson? I'll be along shortly," Dr. Latimer suggested to the other doctor.
With a huff, Dr. Shortnell left.
"I hope you can forgive his prying. He's not accustomed to patients like you," Dr. Latimer said with a half shrug. "If your back starts hurting, call a nurse and she'll find me."
"As long as it ain't that battle axe who was in here this morning," Vin muttered.
Dr. Latimer chuckled.
"When can I get outta here and go home?" Vin asked.
"I'd hoped to keep you here for a week, but I have a feeling I'll be lucky if you stay a few days."
"You got that right, doc. No offense, but hospitals and me don't get along."
"I don't blame you. If everything continues healing as well, you can leave day after tomorrow." Dr. Latimer moved to the door. "I'll stop by later before I head home."
After the doctor had left, Chris tossed his hat and jacket on the spare bed and dropped into the chair. "I see you survived your sponge bath."
Vin grimaced. "I don't ever want to talk about it."
Chris chuckled. "Don't blame you."
"You and the boys find someplace to eat?"
Chris nodded. "They're organizin' a surprise for you."
Vin's eyebrows notched upward and humor glinted in his eyes. "Do I want to know what it is?"
"I'll give you a hint: Buck came up with the idea."
"Now you're really scarin' me."
They sat in companionable silence for a time.
"You don't have to sit around here. No reason both of us got to be bored," Vin said.
Chris shrugged. "I ain't got anything better to do. You sure you'll be ready to travel in a couple days?"
"I'm ready right now." His gaze skipped about the enclosed room, and he shivered visibly. "Can't stand small places like this. Got to have me some fresh air and space to move."
"Yeah, I know what you mean. I'll have Ezra get us train tickets for Thursday morning - two days from now."
"I still don't know how you got him to part with his precious money."
"Didn't have to try too hard. I got the impression he was glad he could help."
"You reckon we'll ever figger him out?" Vin asked with a crooked smile.
"I figger we're in trouble if we do," Chris replied, a twinkle in his eyes. He glanced around the room and took a deep breath.
Vin studied his friend a moment. "What's botherin' you?"
"How do you know anything is?"
"You got that twitch in your jaw. Dead giveaway."
Chris smiled slightly. "Gotta work on that."
Vin remained silent, waiting patiently.
Chris stood and moved to the window. Most of the snow had melted under the sun's onslaught, leaving brown grass and naked trees. He laid his arm against the window frame and stared out at the distant mountains. "I'm going to get the men who did this to you, Vin. As soon as we get back to Four Corners, I'm heading out after them."
Vin crossed his arms over his chest, a simple movement that meant more to him today than ever before. "I thought you weren't going to go after them by yourself."
Chris turned to face Vin, and the regret in his expression made Vin's gut muscles tighten. "I can't take the chance of anyone else gettin' hurt 'cause of me. I know you and the other boys would go with, without any questions, but every time someone's hurt or killed 'cause of me, all I want to do is crawl in a bottle and not come out. That's what happened when Sarah and Adam were killed." Chris paused to glance down and the sunlight streaming in behind him gilded his blond hair. For a moment, he looked like one of them fallen angels Vin's ma had told him about. "I don't have much recollection of the first year, except for a few bloody gunfights." He took a deep breath, and dragged a shaking hand through his hair. "And beatin' up Buck one night after too much whiskey. That's when he and I split up."
"Whiskey'll do that to a man," Vin said quietly.
"Guess it will. Next time I seen Buck was when he rolled out of Blossom's room and landed at my feet." He shook his head. "He acted like nothin' had happened between us, like I hadn't cracked a couple of his ribs and turned his face into a mass of cuts and bruises."
"Buck ain't like you and me, Chris. He's a man who don't hold grudges, would rather trust folks than not. Sometimes I think it might be a gift. Other times it's damned annoying."
Chris chuckled. "I reckon you got Buck pegged right. If he'd beat me up, I don't think I'd be forgetting so fast."
"I don't think Buck forgot. He just don't want to remember you that way." Vin raised his chin. "I'll bet he volunteered to go with you to search for them men, too."
"Yep. He's gonna be mad as a skinned rattler, but he'll get over it."
"Not if you're killed. He's gonna always wonder if he coulda saved you." Vin paused, and added in a low voice. "And he ain't gonna be the only one."
"It don't make any difference, Vin. My mind's made up."
The ex-bounty hunter didn't like it, but he knew when Chris was done talking. Vin glared down at his useless legs and helplessness threatened to choke him. If he wasn't laid up, he'd follow Chris himself whether the man wanted him to or not. Of course, maybe by the time Chris went after them, Vin would be able to walk again.
Careful, Tanner, you're gettin' your hopes up and that ain't gonna help if it don't happen.
"You want me to get you anything?" Chris asked as he picked up his coat and hat.
"You goin' someplace?"
Chris shrugged a little guiltily. "Thought I'd stretch my legs."
Vin knew where he was headed, and disappointment teemed him, but he kept his face neutral. "Nope, but I'd be obliged if you got me my harmonica before you left."
Chris stepped over to Vin's coat which hung on a hook and dug in the pocket. His fingers scraped the smooth metal and he withdrew the harmonica. He handed it to him.
"Thanks," Vin said and gazed at it a moment. "Never thought I'd play this thing again."
Chris's lips quirked upward. "What do you mean - you never could play it."
Vin grinned. "I thought you were leavin'."
The blond man raised his hand in farewell, then slipped out. Vin took a deep breath and shook his head, his smile fading.
"Don't try to drink the town dry, my friend," he said softly, then lifted the harmonica to his lips and brought the sound of the mountains into his room.
Ezra was the first to arrive at Vin's room later that day. He was surprised and delighted to find Vin sitting up on his own.
"Whatcha got there, Ezra?" Vin asked, motioning to the sack.
"Some libations which I thought would brighten your day." He pulled out two bottles of Chardonnay wine.
Vin's brow furrowed. "That don't look like whiskey."
Ezra rolled his eyes. "Mr. Tanner, these are wines made from grapes grown in southern France."
Vin appeared suitably impressed. "Damn, those must be some grapes."
Ezra was saved from answering that comment as Josiah entered, also bearing a bag.
"You got wine made from French grapes, too?" Vin asked curiously.
"Nope." He withdrew two brown bottles. "Rye whiskey, a spiritual drink."
"Yes, one sees spirits if they drink too much of it," Ezra added dryly.
"Isn't that the idea?" Josiah asked with mock innocence.
A moment later, JD and Nathan hurried inside, their arms laden with boxes.
"Quick, close the door," JD hissed.
Ezra swung it shut.
"What's goin' on?" Vin asked. "Where's Buck?"
"He's distractin' the nurse so we could slip past her," Nathan replied.
Vin's eyes twinkled. "It ain't the nurse from this mornin', is it?"
JD shook his head in disgust. "This one's pretty with blond hair and big blue eyes. I swear Buck has more luck than a man with a handful of four leaf clovers."
"It's too bad she wasn't the one working this morning. I have a feeling you wouldn't have minded that sponge bath nearly as much," Josiah teased Vin.
The ex-bounty hunter's face reddened as he chuckled.
The door opened again, and Buck joined them. "Hey, Vin, you ready to celebrate with a nice Christmas dinner?"
"Is that what all this is about?" Vin asked.
"Yep. We couldn't very well have a Christmas dinner without you now, could we?" He glanced around. "Where's Chris?"
"He left about five hours ago. Haven't seen him since," Vin replied, then added, "You know him - he'll be along. So, what'd you bring?"
The next few minutes were filled with chaos as the men tried to organize a seven course meal in the small room without making too much noise - a 'damn near impossibility' as Buck so succinctly put it. But they managed to devour the turkey and all the trimmings along with most of the alcohol, except for some food Nathan squirreled away for Chris, without anyone coming to check up on them.
Buck and JD sat on the spare bed side by side, sipping wine from tin cups. JD stared into his, then brought his bleary gaze to Ezra. "Hey, how come this ain't red?"
"Chardonnay grapes are white," Ezra replied with even more elocution than usual. Vin suspected the gambler had had more than his share of the fancy wine.
JD snorted. "Whoever heard of white grapes! C'mon, Ezra, stop pullin' our leg."
"I swear on the grave of my sainted mo-"
"She's still alive," JD, Josiah, and Buck said in unison.
Vin glanced at Nathan, and the two men shared a smile. They'd drank the least and remained sober, while it was doubtful if the other four would even make it to their hotel that night.
As Ezra attempted to wriggle out of that one, Nathan leaned close to Vin. "Where was Chris headed when he left?"
Vin raked his fingers through his long hair and sighed. "More'n likely a saloon. He was gettin' into one of his moods again."
Nathan frowned. "Ain't them ghosts ever gonna leave him be?"
"Not 'til he's joined them, which I aim to make sure is a long time yet."
Nathan glanced down at Vin's legs, then looked into Vin's eyes self-consciously. The ex-tracker merely smiled in his usual easy-going way. "I know it may not happen, but this time I ain't so ready to give up."
Nathan's relief was almost palpable. "I'm glad, Vin. We were real worried about you. Doctor said it could take a little while for your legs to come back."
"I know, and I reckon I'll give it a good week, and see what happens."
He noticed Nathan didn't ask him what he would do if he couldn't walk by then.
The singing voices of Josiah, JD, and Buck interrupted them.
"'It came upon a midnight clear, that glorious song of old.'"
Vin was surprised at how well they sang together in spite of their inebriated condition. Ezra had taken the part of director as he stood in front of the three men. They didn't stop until all the verses had been sung.
"Nathan, sing 'Silent Night'," JD called out.
"I don't think -- " Nathan began.
"C'mon, Nathan, we know you can sing. We heard you once whilst you was takin' a bath," Buck said and frowned in concentration. "Let's see, what was that song - somethin' about a woman with eyes of brown and hair like silk. I think there was somethin' about her bosom like -"
"All right, all right," Nathan interrupted, clearly embarrassed by Buck's recollection.
"Why Brother Nate, I didn't know," Josiah remarked in mock surprise.
Nathan glared at Josiah, and Vin looked down to hide his grin. Then Nathan began to sing in a rich, clear voice that sent a shiver down Vin's spine.
"'Silent night, holy night. All is calm, all is bright.'"
As Nathan sang, the five men sat in rapt silence, listening and remembering Christmases past. JD's last one with his mother; the year Buck got a hunting knife; Ezra's one and only Christmas when he'd attended service and heard the true meaning of the season; Josiah sitting through three hours of his father's hellfire and brimstone sermon; Vin stealing the baby Jesus to keep him safe.
"'Sleep in heavenly peace,'" Nathan concluded, the notes dying away slowly as if lifted into the air to circle about each man in the room.
JD drew his arm across his eyes. "Thanks, Nathan."
Nathan laid a hand on JD's uninjured shoulder and smiled, his dark eyes warm and compassionate. "You're welcome."
Buck glanced at JD, and smiled. He was glad the kid was doing better - he'd hoped this little Christmas celebration would brighten him up. He picked up the nearly empty wine bottle and poured the remaining into JD's cup.
"Merry Christmas, kid," he said softly, with more than a hint of fondness.
Chris entered the hospital the same way he'd left: stone cold sober. He hadn't planned it that way. Not at all. In fact, when he'd left Vin's room, he had decided to get falling down drunk. He wanted to drown out the concerned voices of his friends that clamored in his mind, demanding that he not leave them to pursue a path that would lead to his death.
Chris had found a nice quiet corner in a nice quiet saloon and had bought a bottle of whiskey. He'd drank one shot without pause, then filled his glass again and set it down in the center of the table, beside the bottle. Then he'd stared at them, watched the light play through the amber liquid like dust motes dancing in the sun's rays.
He recalled the feel of Sarah's soft body against him at night, the sound of Adam's childish voice, and the warm friendship in Buck's eyes as they'd worked the horses together. Then he thought of his fists striking his best friend, the endless line of smoky bars and nameless whores, and the unseeing eyes of the men he'd gunned down in his reckless pursuit of death.
And Chris had thrown the bottle at the bar, smashing the glass into a hundred pieces. Then he turned the shot glass over, dumping the whiskey on to the table. As he watched the liquor meander across the wood surface like a lazy river, Chris Larabee had come to a startling conclusion: he wanted to live. For the first time since he'd found Sarah and Adam's blackened remains in the smoking ruins, Chris had more to live for than die for.
He climbed the stairs of the hospital to the second floor. Opening Vin's door, he was met by a mess of dirty dishes and empty bottles, as well as the drunken smiles of everyone but Vin and Nathan.
Arching an eyebrow, his gaze met Vin's. "Looks like I missed a good one."
"I saved you some food," Nathan said, then smiled self-consciously. "Couldn't save any of the whiskey or wine, though."
"That's all right. Don't feel much like any anyhow."
Buck hopped off the spare bed and stumbled against Vin's bed. Chris caught his arm to steady him. "Whoa there, Buck. Looks like you got into the Christmas spirit."
JD blinked bleary eyes and laughed loudly. "Christmas spirit, that's funny. Did you hear the one about the bear that walked --" He broke off, frowned in concentration. "Wasn't a bear - what was it?"
Vin sighed and met Chris's eyes. "Now look what you done."
"Maybe you boys should get on to the hotel before you can't," Chris suggested.
"Ah, hell, Chris, this ain't nothin'. Remember the time in Abilene? Them two gals didn't think we could do nothin' neither, but we showed them. They didn't do any more complainin' that night." Buck winked.
Chris tugged at his hat brim, a half smile twitching his lips. "How would you know - I seem to recall you fell asleep before--"
Buck wrapped an arm around Chris's shoulders and leaned close. "Now don't you go tellin' any secrets, pard."
"I'll get them back to the hotel in one piece," Nathan reassured with a smile.
"I can assure you, I am perfectly capable of relaying myself back to our accommodations," Ezra said. He picked up his green coat and attempted to put his arm through a sleeve, but missed. Trying again, he succeeded. A triumphant grin lit his face. He endeavored to slip his other arm in the next sleeve, however, it continued to elude him until Nathan held the jacket for him. "Thank you, Mr. Jackson. Perhaps I have had a bit more of the wine than I'm accustomed to."
"Perhaps," Nathan muttered.
After a few more minutes of cajoling, the men were herded out of Vin's room by Nathan as Buck and JD drunkenly sang Christmas carols. Vin and Chris listened to their voices fade away down the hallway.
Chris sat down in the chair, the leftover food in his lap. He picked up a piece of meat and took a bite.
Vin studied him quietly, noticing his steady hands and the lack of an alcohol-flushed face. "Where you been?"
"Saloon." Chris set a cleaned-off goose bone aside, and sent Vin a crooked grin. "Planned on getting drunk, but ended up just staring at the bottle." His eyes grew distant. "And rememberin'."
"Find myself doin' a lot of that lately, too." Vin sighed, then cast Chris a smile. "You missed a helluva party."
"Everyone's been worried about you. This was their way to celebrate some."
A blush touched Vin's cheeks. "Ain't nobody worried about me since my ma died."
Chris stared into Vin's eyes. "They know what's goin' to happen if you don't walk again."
"Figgered as much."
Chris glanced down. "JD took it pretty hard."
Pain flickered across Vin's face. "He's a good kid, Chris."
"I know. Reminds me of someone else I knew a long time ago."
"And he turned out pretty well,' Vin said softly.
"We'll see about that, pard." Chris stood. "You'd best get some sleep. I'll get this mess cleaned up."
"Thanks." Vin settled in the bed, but gazed at his friend for a moment. "Merry Christmas, Chris."
The blond man nodded back. "Merry Christmas, Vin."