From the darkness, a fresh wind slapped his cheek and stabbed chill fingers down the back of his neck. Buck tightened his shoulders and flipped his collar up, made sure his top coat button was buttoned. Damn, where had this come from? The thud of footsteps on the boardwalk turned his head, and he saw a familiar lean form walked towards him, the fringes of a sarape flipping in the cold breeze. Nope, he absolutely would NOT ask Chris Larabee any questions about Christmas.
"Buck," said Chris in greeting. "Where you headed?"
"Just gettin' some air," Buck replied, then stamped both feet. "Whoo, gettin' a mite nippy. Where you been all night?"
Chris stopped beside him, and a rueful grin creased his cheeks. "Oh, got talked into helpin' Mary and Mrs. Potter put up a tree in the newspaper office."
Once upon a time, Christmas trees and Chris Larabee might have fit comfortably in the same thought, but right now, Buck's mind boggled. "A tree at the Clarion? What for?"
"Well, there's so few kids in town . . ." One shoulder lifted in a slight shrug. "Reckon the ladies figured they might as well throw a little Christmas Eve party for 'em. Newspaper office has enough room."
"Yeah? Sounds right nice."
Buck hesitated, trying to gauge his old friend's mood, in the dim light of distant lanterns. Having this conve rsation with a man whose memories began and ended with the charred bodies of his own wife and child gave Buck the sense of testing a badly cracked window. The least wrong touch, and the whole thing might crash in on him. Leather scraped rough wood, as Chris shifted his feet and gave a rueful sigh.
"Forgot what it was like, tryin' to wrestle a tree indoors."
Unbidden, an image flashed to Buck's mind from another lifetime. His arms and face full of scratchy, sticky, oversized pine tree, stumbling up wooden steps, and Chris's voice somewhere on the other end. "Buck, dammit, just walk backwards, the only way this tree will fit is if we go through the door, stump-first." Behind that rose the silvery laughter of a woman and child, and the rich perfume of evergreen. Oh, God, Chris, how can you stand it, when it still takes the air right out of me? Buck could feel the cold clamping brittle claws through the thin canvas of his trousers.
"Passed JD on the way over," said Chris suddenly. "What's eatin' him?"
With a growl, Buck said, "Aw, nothin', just my big mouth. I'll be glad when all this Christmas crap is over."
"You?" Buck was startled to see a grin facing him in the shadows. "Hell, Buck, I thought you were the Sugarplum Fairy in a Stetson hat."
"Not much. So far I've pissed off half my friends, and made the rest feel bad."
"All in one night? Aw, don't worry about. This time of year is hard on folks, is all."
Chris knew more than most how hard it was, and so Buck frowned unhappily into the dark street and said nothing, for fear of saying the wrong thing. He'd already done enough of that, for one night.
"Got to remember," Chris added quietly. "The boy's lost a lot. No kin, and his mama gone not a year before he came here. Way he was raised, likely Christmas was pretty special."
Damn, sometimes that came like a kick under the ol' heart. Echoes of the old Chris, understanding and sagacity, all layered in a way that told a man he saw clearer than most. The same way he once had, whenever Buck came blowing in with the tumbleweeds, sporting new lumps and a hangover that only some of Sarah's good chile colorado could cure. When Christmas was more than a pretty holiday that he and Chris could only stand outside and watch.
"I wish I knew how to bring that back," Buck said, and his voice barely squeezed past the tightness in his chest. "For all of us."
"Can't, pard," Chris said quietly. "Just got to do the best we can, with the present."
"Yeah, well, I'm doin' pretty damn poor, tonight."
Self-anger burned sharply enough to straighten Buck's spine, and he jammed both hands in his pockets. Now he could see his breath, just for an instant before the breeze whipped it away.
"I don't see that," Chris replied.
"Yeah, well, you weren't just in there!" Buck jabbed a long arm towards the saloon. "Me and my damn fool notions -. All right, what about Ezra and Christmas - can you picture Maude home makin' turkey and sweet potato pie? Hell, no, she likely dragged him out in the cold as bait, to con some poor fools into givin' 'em Christmas donations! Then I got Inez lonesome for a pretty church service, Nathan tellin' me how he and his folks got cold leftovers for Christmas, JD is wishin' for snow and missin' his ma, and Josiah is ready to bust my fool back. Oh, yeah, and Vin never had a Christmas in his whole life, so he gets to sit and listen to me run my big bazoo about it."
Buck swept off his hat and slapped his leg with it, hating himself quite thoroughly, now. However, Chris merely stood there with his arms warmly tucked under his sarape, as calm as a bronze figurine.
"Way I see it, Buck, you just do what you do best, and the rest 'll take care of itself."
"Yeah? And what the hell is that? Rile folks until I get a black eye? Hell, they're free, get two!"
"Nope. Just listen to what's here." The sarape stirred, and Chris's knuckles thumped the coat across Buck's chest. "Kept you straight so far. Well, unless there's a female involved."
Again came that flicker of a grin, and Buck faked an insincere smile back at him. Then Chris stepped away.
"I'm goin' for a night cap. Care to join me?"
A drink didn't sound like a bad idea, but the thought of walking back into that saloon, and facing those boys again, set Buck's teeth on edge.
"Nah, think I'll go see if I can get bit by somebody's dog. I'll see ya in the mornin'."
"Suit y' self."
With a nod, Chris continued on his way, leaving Buck to take a deep breath of icy air, and stare up at the night sky. Not too many stars, right now, and the cold now seemed to be prying through every seam and gap in his clothes.
Go with what, his heart? Look where that had got him, already. Sugarplum fairy, hell, more like a bigmouthed damn fool. With a bitter snort, Buck turned and started walking back towards the boarding house. By now, he had stewed himself into such a perfect misery, he didn't even dare to call on one of his lady friends. Howdy, darlin', I'm pitiful and I aggravate people - how can I ruin your evening? A lantern still shone behind the window of the Clarion office, not enough light to see anything from the street, but it made him think. Chris and a Christmas tree. He wished he could have seen that. Billy would have been there, of course, trying to help, and Mary laughing - Buck slammed the lid on that line of thought, fast. He'd already been there once tonight. No sense in tripping over the past again, although it did please him that Chris seemed to have weathered it in good spirits. Wouldn't that just be a hoot, if Larabee had the best Christmas of all of them? He deserved it, anyhow. Hell, they all did.
Buck stepped off the board walk, tired of hearing his own hollow footsteps, and walked along the edge of the silent street. It was just a few days to Christmas, but what did it really matter? A lot, to some people, but maybe JD had a point, and it was for other folks than themselves. There was not a man among them who could look at this holiday with anything like the spirit it was supposed to have. Each one of them had come here packing a weighty load of his own sorrows. They were solitary men who lived hard and fought hard, and wasted no pity on those who wore ol' Satan's brand. Decent folks were glad of them, as they'd be glad of dogs who kept the wolves away. But nobody asked a wolfhound in by their fireside, once they had seen him with blood on his fangs.
He stopped, and looked up at the cold, black sky. A few stars glittered, up there, but it seemed like a hazy sort of night, a black gauze curtain drawn across the window of Heaven. God must have the night off. Or else the Almighty just wasn't receiving callers. Buck's throat jammed tight, and he saw them for an instant, just as clearly as if they were standing there. JD, with a look on his young face, like he was about to fall down a hundred-foot well of black loneliness. Nathan, reaching past a world of unimaginable woe that Buck didn't even want to know, to cherish a memory cast in cold poverty. Josiah, ah, Josiah with his big heart locked tight behind the chains of other men's beliefs, and Buck too blind to avoid yanking them. Ezra, who had been taught since he was knee-high that charity was a weakness, and certainly nothing he could expect for himself. Vin, ghosting around the edges of all the fine things he wanted, touching them with his fingers but never quite able to lay hold. And Chris, who woke up each day with the ashes of his world still in his hands - although he at least had the guts to stand up to a measly Christmas tree. What good was a so-called Christmas spirit, if it was only allowed for a certain class of people?
"HEY!" Buck yelled, at the unheeding night sky, and his voice raked through him like raw whiskey. "How about a little help, here, huh? All I wanted to do is help 'em have a happy damned CHRISTMAS!"
But of course the sky replied not, and finally his boots thumped a muted beat up the back stairs of the boarding house. He heard muffled voices, saw light under a couple doors, and as he neared the end of the hall, he saw a light under JD's door. Softening his step, he eased up to the varnished frame, and listened. Nothing. Maybe the kid wasn't actually there. Maybe he was off in some cold place, already chin-deep in the lonesome that Buck had helped heap onto him.
"I'm reading, Buck," announced a stern young voice, within. "And then I'm goin' to sleep. Good night."
Which translated as, Get Lost. With a silent grimace of embarrassment, Buck turned and slunk away. Damn, was he that obvious? Right, might as well go to sleep yourself, Bucklin. Can't hurt nobody's feelin's, if you're unconscious and flat on your backside.
For a long time, the tall cowboy lay sleepless, staring at the black ceiling above, hearing when the others finally turned in for the night. If only Buck could fix everything with a few brightly-wrapped presents, he would gladly spend every dime he had, to make his six friends happy. But how can a man buy away lifetimes of loneliness or deprivation? Fact was, it could not be done. Maybe the hope of Christmas really was for other folks, and all the Seven were supposed to do was carve out a safe spot for those people to enjoy it in. He finally fell asleep, to the fragmented dream image of a lean shepherd dog, alone and alert on a cold hill of wind and stars. Its eyes seemed to change colors, brown to hazel to green to shades of blue, and back again, but always longing . . .
+ + + + + + +
Stillness. Quiet. Quiet so profound that it bellowed, and Buck woke up slowly, mind fumbling for what was missing. Everything. The town was simply never this quiet. The ceiling above seemed to be washed in dull gray, the window glowed dully, and that seemed odd. Could it be morning already? The drowsy heaviness of his body disagreed. He leaned from his warm blankets, shivering, and dipped his watch from his vest pocket on the chair. Nope, only 4:10. Daylight was still about two hours away. He lay there a moment, staring at the peculiar grey light, then groaned and swung his feet to the icy floor. Hop-stepped them onto the throw rug. Damned cold, even for a man in his long underwear. In quick strides he was at the window, and parted the curtains to look out.
It was snowing. Not just a little, either. The street lay in a smooth, thick trough of white, and the black silhouettes of buildings seemed capped in heavy white quilts. The few lamps still lit along the street shone as mere dots of gold, as if veiled in heavy cotton. Shortening his field of vision, Buck saw the greyish fluttering of more snow, falling steadily in fat flakes.
A tapping sound startled him, so quiet he was not sure he heard it. He looked at his door, and it came again.
"Ssst, Buck! Wake up!"
Vin's whispered voice. What on earth? Buck grabbed his pants off the chair, and held them in front of his baggy long-johns, as he opened the door with a frown.
Vin stood in the light of the single hall lamp, fully dressed but unarmed, and grinning. He raised a quick finger to his lips, still whispering. "Shh. Nothin's wrong. Get yer britches on. We gotta get JD up."
"Get - what for?"
"It's snowin'!" As if that were the obvious answer. "Hurry up!"
Sleep still fogged his head, but for reasons he could not name, Buck did just that, scrambling into his clothes, grabbing his coat, ignoring his gun belt. By the time he got out in the hall, he felt himself grinning. Felt a lightness in him that bubbled up and almost made him want to giggle like a girl.
"JD!" He rattled his knuckled lightly against the kid's door. "JD, wake up!"
Beside him Vin added his hushed hail. "C'mon kid, rise and shine."
Silence within, until a board creaked. Buck glanced at Vin and motioned them both back. Then the knob rattled and the door opened about six inches, to reveal a black Colt's Lightning and one very tousled, very crabby-looking young man.
"What's going on?" Dark brows scowled suspiciously, upon seeing the two who were awaiting him in the hall. Both wore serious expressions, but something about them -.
"Got somethin' important do to." Buck shoved the door open, and gently but firmly pushed JD backwards into his room. Schooling his voice to sternness, he said, "C'mon, get dressed."
"Important? What are -?"
Vin grabbed JD's trousers off the foot of his bed and tossed them into his face. "C'mon, kid, you're burnin' daylight."
"What daylight? It's the middle of the night!"
"No, it ain't. Hell, some folks are already doin' chores. Get dressed."
Scowling, but unsure as to what they might need him for, JD fumbled into his clothes. Lord, it was hard for the other two to keep a straight face, especially with the kid as sleep-fuddled as this. Buck made a note, have to remember to go easy on the brandy in his eggnog, after this. JD grumbled as he tried to put his boots on the wrong feet, then stood up to have his coat thrust at him by Buck.
"Let's go, kid."
"Where? You still haven't said -."
Buck intercepted his reach for his guns. "Oh, you won't need those. C'mon, let's go."
"Won't need -. Vin, what are you two doing?"
Yet they propelled him out the door, hushing his complaints about the cold and the insane hour with noisy hisses for silence. Down the back stairs they went, then Vin reached past JD to open the back door.
Stepping onto the porch, the tracker said, with a dimly-seen grin, "There ya go, kid."
JD stopped so fast Buck ran into him. "Whoa."
"Yeah." The grin on Buck's face reached all the way down to his belly. Gently he nudged the kid forward. "Go on, son. See it before the town wakes up and makes a mess of it."
As if sleepwalking, JD moved onto the porch, to its outside edge. He stared with his mouth open, and Buck propped his shoulder on the door frame to watch. Watch the wide-eyed wonder that spilled into that kid's face, the light that kindled there, the slow smile that crept out, shining, like the scrap of silver moon that now just barely glowed through the clouds.
"Yeah, kid. Won't last long, once the sun comes up, so we figured you'd want to see it."
After a long pause, JD stepped off the porch, ankle deep in heavy whiteness and his face upturned to the soft, silver sky. He'd forgotten his hat, and white swiftly dotted his dark head, drifted a feather touch upon his shoulders. Funny, Buck could not recall ever seeing the kid outside without his guns. He looked slimmer without them, younger. JD simply walked, for a moment, a slow little circuit in front of the porch, scuffing the wet fluff before him and wearing a smile that glowed in the dark. Buck glanced at Vin, who stood beside him with thumbs in his waistband, savoring a matching smile. Vin . . . who knew so little of Christmas. Maybe he knew more than all the rest of them, together.
Movement by the kid recaptured Buck's attention, JD putting both arms straight out. He tipped his head all the way back, and Buck realized suddenly that he was trying to catch snowflakes on his tongue. Snowflakes, for God's sake! A very young but grown man, with a boy's spirit, turning carefully, now, arms wide to embrace the cold, delicate touch of winter. Pirouetting as if in a slow dance, snow spangling his hair and the dark wool of his coat, bathed in silver light and suspended in time. Round and slowly round, silent as if seen in a distant, precious dream of innocense long lost. Alone in his celebration of memory, yet surrounded by a magical stillness that hinted of dear and beloved ghosts, drifting close enough to touch.
Buck could hardly breathe, felt a deep pang in his chest and sharp prickling in his eyes. Words had failed him badly, before, and so now he chose to do without. Instead, he reached for the tracker's shoulder, felt buckskin and a curl of long hair under his hand. Squeezed tight, just so Vin might read the things in his heart, as the man so easily read tracks on the land. He saw that Vin did, saw the closed-mouthed smile, and was content. Then they turned back to watching a young gunslinger silently playing in the snow.
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