Soft murmurs and whispers invaded his silent repose. The thick, black velvet shroud he was cloaked in began to unfurl. He fought against it; as with the disconnected voices came pain. The dull pounding in his head increased in intensity. He clutched his head, moaned and rolled onto his side. He felt a hand on his back and made a face, trying to hear the words. The gentle rubbing motion eased his discomfort and he heard another voice.
Nate? He made the connection and a picture of a kind, dark-skinned face appeared. He managed to peel his eyes open. A bright light assaulted him and he cried out, burying his face. His fumbling fingers found a blanket and he pulled it over his head.
"Close the curtains!" Nate issued sternly, moving in front of the sad figure in the bed. He kept a hand on Vin's back and continued his gentle massage. Once the room was darkened, he bent lower, tugging the blanket back. "It's okay, Vin...Come on, wake up now."
Was that his voice? It was a hushed croak and barely audible. He squinted through the fingers that covered his eyes and blinked. The bright light was gone and he relaxed, the tension crept off his shoulders and slid to the floor. He was gasping and felt the hand on his back again. Something brushed against his parched lips.
"Got some water for you."
Chris? His head jerked and he latched on, sucking greedily. The straw was taken away as the reprimand came. "Slow down...you're gonna get sick again."
Again? He reached back into the dark recesses in his mind and recalled...a road...two thieves...a ravine. He laid alone...how long? They didn't come for him. They didn't care. Christmas was over and he'd missed it. A pain was born in his chest, sprung for the cold hours he'd waited in that ditch, but nobody came. What the hell was Chris talking about? He hadn't been sick.
"...throwed up?" He whispered aloud, confused.
"All over Ezra..."
A deep voice, a man with a mustache and smile. Buck Wilmington. "Buck..."
"Last time I checked."
A hand, large and reassuring, gripped his shoulder. He peeled his eyes back open and adjusted to the darkness. The last time he'd seen Buck, the older man was waving his drawers from a window. The people on the street laughed...Buck laughed...the girls with him laughed. He'd stalked away angrily...Chris hollered at him...a horse...a road...strangers with guns. Fragmented images appeared. He pushed Buck's hand away. "Gimme my drawers, Buck." He hissed, sitting up with great difficulty. The room began to fly around at a record rate. He toppled forward and hit a broad chest.
"Drawers?" the deep voice said as the large hands pressed against his shoulders and stopped his flight.
"...m'underwear. Y'all stole 'em. " Vin hissed, weakly struggling in vain against the broad chest. The deep laughter rumbled and it only made him madder. "Reckon, y'all thought that was funny. Waggin' my drawers from the winda in yer room. Naked as a jaybird, with all them women hangin' on ya." Vin gasped....his breath spent. The cacophony of laughter in the room only made his anger grow.
"It would appear your virility has invaded Mr. Tanner's subconscious with a vengence." Ezra remarked, from Buck's shoulder.
"Jealous, Ez..." The taller man elbowed the Southerner, who was smiling at the injured teammember's scowling face.
"When pigs fly..." Standish replied. "Mr. Tanner, have you decided to stay with us this time?"
"Now ya wanna talk?" Vin raised his head, but grabbed Buck's arm to keep his balance. He glared at where the Gambler stood in the shadows. "It's yer fault I'm in this fix...iffen y'all had loaned me some money..." Vin paused to take a breath. "...fer the presents...I'd still have my Buffalo coat."
"Buffalo coat?" Nate's voice held a tinge of mirth.
"Aw, hell, don't play like ya don't know what I mean." Vin grumbled. "I sold it...to a peddler with a wagon...to buy y'alls gifts. But he's no good...had a partner...left m'guard down...they jumped me outside town. Left me in a ditch." The motion was ceasing, but the volcano-like activity in his stomach increased. He stood on unsure legs and was surrounded by arms and protesting voices.
"Get back in that bed." Nathan scolded.
"Goddammit Vin" Chris barked, skirting the bed and grabbing an arm.
"Easy there Pard...them legs of yours are wobbling" Buck's iron-like grip intensified.
"Vin...you don't look so good." J.D. eyed the greenish face in the dim light.
"What the hell would y'all care?" He hissed, shoving an arm at J.D. "Them bastards were fixin' on ridin' into town." He gasped, recalling the leering bandits bragging as they stripped him. "With m'coat...clothes...hell they even took m'boots. Some fuckin' sheriff y'all are..."
"SHERIFF?" J.D. laughed.
"Mr. Dunne...the authoritative voice?" Ezra amazed.
"Sheriff Dunne." Buck laughed, "Now that's funny."
The laughter again. How could they see humor in this? They were as guilty as bastards that robbed him. They didn't even come to find him. The pain in his chest grew again. "Ya didn't even look fer me. I's alone in that damn ditch...tied up and freezin' my ass off." His voice wavered and cracked slightly. "I waited...kept hopin'...but nobody came. Y'all really didn't want me around no more..." Vin choked, pushing them all away. He closed his eyes, blinking back the moisture and took a sharp breath as his stomach began to rebel.
The laughter died and the room grew silent. Chris didn't have to see Vin's face to know how upset he was. Whatever nightmare Vin had suffered, he was still lost in it. He moved to the bedside to turn the light up, just as the smaller man clutched his abdomen and cried out.
"Move!" Chris barked, grabbing Vin and propelling him towards the door.
He didn't bother to turn the light on, Vin was already beginning to retch. He guided him forcefully onto his knees and held the errant hair in place. The soft cries that mingled with the desperate coughing sounds caused him to wince. It was mostly painful dry heaves, the little bit of water he'd swallowed had been tossed back already.
Vin coughed and grunted as the painful heaving continued. He felt Chris's hands and heard the comforting tone, but rejected it. He pushed against the chest with his back.
"Leave me be..." He coughed. "Y'all wanted me out of town...told me to go. I laid in that ditch and waited fer ya, Chris. Ya never came...I...I..." He coughed and struggled for to breathe as the pain returned. Being alone in that hole...nobody cared. "I...missed it...only thing I wanted was a real Christmas...it's too late now."
Chris reeled back, stunned by the agony hanging on every word the seemingly grieving man displayed. He rested a free hand on the heaving back, but it was repelled. He put together Vin's disjointed words and an image was born. This realistic dream Vin had suffered took place in the old west...somewhere. Ezra rejected Vin's request for money...Buck laughed at him...He'd yelled at the younger man. Vin left the dream town and sold his coat to get them presents. Then was robbed and left in ditch. He swallowed painfully, realizing how alone his friend must have felt. Lying in a ditch...all night apparently...and nobody came for him.
"Vin, listen to me...you had a bad dream." Chris said gently, over the coughing. "It was just a dream...I'd never leave you...Vin?" He paused, shaking the slumped shoulders. Vin was sitting on the floor, trying to catch his breath. Chris filled up a dixie cup and handed to the confused soul. A hand snaked out and grabbed it, sipping the contents, eyes closed.
Vin drank the cool water and tried to control the roar in his head. He turned and grabbed, bracing himself for the potential rejection by his delicate stomach, but none came. His fingers gripped the ceremic bowl...ceramic? He ran his trembling hands over the smooth porcelain. He raised his eyes and saw a glint of chrome...a toilet. His eyes adjusted to the darkened room and he saw a mirror and sink. He felt the strong hands massaging his shoulders and from the corner of his eye, he saw a watch.
"Ya got a watch?"
"Huh?" Chris chuckled, "Yeah...comes in handy on those cloudy days when I can't read the sun."
"Outhouse?" A voice bellowed from the doorway.
"No, Vin." Chris replied, glaring angrily at J.D. "It's a bathroom, in a hospital. You took a header in my den. Some fool decided to hang decorations on a rickety ladder in bunny slippers."
"They ain't no damn bunnies..." Vin growled, flashing to the image. "they's racoons...Chris..." He turned, wide blue eyes finding the other's warm green ones. The low light Chris turned on revealed a modern bathroom. "...home?" He sighed, as the room began to spin.
"Yeah, Cowboy...where you belong." Chris eased, grabbing the slumping body. "J.D..." He called behind him.
The two teammates got their injured friend back into bed. For a few moments, the six surrounded the bed, forming a protective wall around the troubled sleeper. Chris moved first, sitting on the side of the bed and brushing the tangled hair off the pale face.
"Damn Chris." Nathan chastized the control freak, "You can't control his dreams. Don't even go there." He warned, spotting the guilty sea eyes.
"Must have been some dream." Josiah noted, putting together that fragmented pieces. "Sounds like the boy had quite a time in the Old West."
"He thought we deserted him...left him alone to die in a ditch...he was waiting..." Chris stopped. "He thinks he missed Christmas..."
"We heard the troubling testimony." Ezra relayed.
"The words were hard enough." Buck sighed, "but those pauses...they hurt." His voice was dejected as he looked at the sleeping body. He thought of Vin lying in a ditch...hurt and alone...looking for his friends...who never came.
"Cut it out, now." Nathen ordered, "Get your chins off the ground. It was a dream. He didn't miss Christmas."
"No...and he's not going to." Chris said, rising and facing the group. Buck caught his eyes and nodded slowly, a smile replacing his worry lines.
"That mall east of town open?" He asked Chris.
"Until eleven p.m.," Chris imparted, "Christmas Eve is one of their biggest sales days."
"They got a toystore there?" Buck asked the smiling Larabee.
"They do...a big one." Chris's smile grew wider.
"Hah!" Buck rubbed his hands together.
"What?" J.D. asked, spotting the look the two old friends were sharing.
"Let's go Sheriff Dunne..." Buck clapped the youth's shoulder and laughed. "Sheriff Dunne...damn that's funny."
"What's so funny about that idea?" J.D. retorted, hazel eyes flashing.
"Aw, come on, Kid," Buck boomed, handing the young man his coat. "You...a sheriff...of a whole town...it's hilarious."
"Not as hilarious as you naked with three women." J.D. tossed back, "unless they were blind."
"Quit yakking and put a wiggle on it." Buck ordered, eyeing the approaching four p.m. hour. "We're losing daylight."
"What are we going to do?" J.D. asked.
"We're going give that boy a Christmas he'll never forget." Buck decided.
"Cool!" J.D. agreed.
"Come on Ezra." Josiah tossed the cashmere coat at the nodding Southerner. "We'll get more food and spirits." The ex-minister relayed to Chris and pulled his wool bomber jacket on.
"Am I to assume once again I am left to procure?" Ezra complained, pulling his scarf on. "My dwindling funds..."
"Your dwindling funds my ass." Josiah grumbled. "I think your real name is Ebeneezer Standish." He concluded, propelling the sputtering Conman towards the door.
"Hey Guys..." Chris said, waiting for the four bodies to turn and face him. He eyed Vin's face then turned back. "Thanks."
"Aw, hell. Chris." Buck frowned. "Don't go turnin' into a sentimental fool."
"Quite." Ezra agreed, "Why would I want to relax in the Alps in a chateau for a few days? When I could be 'throwed up on' here in the freezing rain."
"You're a fraud, Ezra." Chris grinned.
"We'll see you back at the ranch." Buck nodded. "When they letting him out of here?" He nodded at the rousing sharpshooter, whose confused blue eyes were blinking unfocused at the chuckling Nathan Jackson.
"Nate?" Chris turned.
"I'll check with that E.R. doctor." He recalled of the attending physician. "It shouldn't be too long. No later than six."
"Happy trails..." Chris called out, as the quartet left.
"Chris..." a croak beckoned.
"Right here, Vin." Chris slipped back onto the side of the bed.
"I wanna go home." Vin whispered, drilling Chris with hopeful eyes.
"Let's make tracks, Pard." Chris grinned, and helped him sit up. Nathan approached with Vin's sweatshirt.
"I'll get the doctor." the EMT supplied, "What are we gonna do about his feet?"
"Shit..." Chris frowned, they loaded him in a blanket into the truck...barefoot...when he'd fallen. "He can wear my socks. He'll be in a wheelchair and I'll pull up curbside."
"Yer socks!" Vin hissed, eyeing his wiggling toes under the dark sweatpants. "I ain't stickin' m'feet in them. Y'all might have a disease..."
"Shut up Vin!" Both men ordered, then laughed. Nate patted the scowling body and left.
"Vin..." Chris said, taking the paper gown off and slipping the sweatshirt over the mangled hair.
"Much as I'd be tempted, sometimes, to leave yer sorry ass in a ditch..." Chris paused, resting a hand on the younger man's shoulder. He saw the blue eyes crinkle in mirth and the small grin tugging at the Texan's lips. "I'd always find you."
"I know..." Vin smiled softly. "Reckon yer stuck with me."
"Reckon I am." Chris said, shucking off his shoes and peeling his socks off. He turned them inside out and tossed them over to the bed.
"Aw, hell...I ain't wearin'..."
"Don't piss me off, Vin." Chris warned, pulling his boots back on. "There's plenty of ditches on the way back to the ranch." He heard the Vin's distinctive laugher and couldn't help joining him.
Larabee's ranch. 8 p.m.
"This okay?" J.D. asked, placing a Native American Indian Angel on top of the large tree.
"That'll do 'er." Buck nodded, standing back to admire their hard work. The decorations for the tree were in blend of american southwest and country. Sarah Larabee had packed each delicate ornament away with love, which is just how the team used them. White lights and lace adorned the tree, tiny pale turquoise and coral bows were scattered about the dozens of pretty ornaments.
"That's what I call a tree." Josiah marveled.
"Beautiful." Ezra agreed, carrying a tray of spiked cider. "Gentlemen, shall we?"
"Vin ain't up yet." Nathan said, hand hovering over the bowl of nacho's on the ex-bounty hunter's chest.
"Good thing." Josiah eyed the munchies and dips littering the slumbering man's body. "It would upset the balance."
"Besides, Chris ain't back yet." Buck noted of the absent blond, who went to town for a case of coke, for the patient. He had his nacho laden hand in the spinach dip when the thunder started.
"He's baaaccck." J.D. sang.
"Hey Chris!" Buck boomed, "Tree looks good huh? Can't wait to see Junior's eyes..." He paused seeing the irate green glare bearing down on him. "Aw, hell, Chris, he didn't mind." He offered weakly, of their use of Vin's chest and legs to hold bowls of chips, pretzels and containers of dip.
"Oh allright..." He moved closer and began lifting off the bowls. "Uh-Oh..." He frowned spotting a large glop of spinach dip in Vin's crotch. "J.D. get a rag and wipe that up."
"Yeah, right." J.D. scoffed, eyeing the delicate position of the mess. "Vin'll come up shooting."
"He ain't packin' anything other than a headache." Nathan issued, "Go on and get a wet towel."
"He wake up at all?" Chris asked, hanging his coat up.
"Nope." Josiah added, "Been sleeping like a baby since you laid him there."
"Here." J.D. handed Buck the cloth. "You made that mess, you clean it up."
The voices were back, laughing this time. But whereas before he'd felt cold and unsure, now he felt safe and secure. The warm laughter soothed him like a soft quilt. He licked his lips and images formed. Buck's face...spurs...guns...horses..."
"Spurs...ya got spurs, Buck...guns...spurs..." He whispered, turning his head and blinking up at the smiling, mustached face.
"The Texan was nestled all snug in his bed," Ezra recanted the famous Christmas poem. "While visions of guns and spurs danced in his head." He eyed the confused blue stare and smiled.
"Hey Vin." Buck boomed, watching Vin's confused eyes following his hand. The Texan frowned, staring at the position of the agents hand, on his crouch. "Uh...it ain't what you think. I was just cleaning up some spinach dip..." He paused, seeing the pale eyes narrow and more confused rain down. "Nevermind..." He gently eased the blinking man upwards, into a sitting position.
"Vin," Nathan knelt in front of him and flicked a penlight in his eyes, checking his pupils. He then took the recovering man's pulse and respiration. "You know where you're at?"
Vin blinked and stared back at the dark eyes. "Chris's ranch. I'm Vin Tanner, it's December and Clinton's the president."
"Good boy..." Nathan patted his leg, "You seein' double...or blurry?"
"Good. Here." Nathan handed him his pills and a glass of water. "Open up and let me see your throat."
"Aw, hell, Nathan." Vin pushed the hand away.
"Vin...." Chris's voice was on low and lethel and Vin scowled as he opened his mouth. The satisfied EMT patted Vin's leg and stood up. "Welcome Home." Chris smiled, eyeing the disgruntled face warmly. "Here..." He placed a quart sized cup loaded with ice and coke on the table in front of Vin. They all chuckled when the hand snaked out and grabbed it, taking a long gulp. The loud belch added a vocal exclamation point.
"He's home..." Ezra wrinkled his nose at the expulsion of gas.
It was then they saw it...the scowl departed and a mystical look settled on Vin's face. The blue eyes were wide in wonderment as they drank in the sight of the tree. Buck took one look at that face and felt a warmth spread inside. He grinned broadly from his seat on the coffee table, across from the ex-bounty hunter. The wide-eyed stare and slack jawed face made the world class sharpshooter seem much younger. For a moment, Buck was taken back in time. He remembered all to well, as a boy, coming down on Christmas morning and seeing the tree. That tingling feeling returned now to him, as he saw Vin the child locked in muted awe. "Merry Christmas, Son." He said quietly, feeling Vin's deathgrip on his shoulder. "Go on over and look...it won't bite."
"I didn't miss it?" Vin whispered, turning slowly towards Buck, wide-eyed.
"No..." Buck managed, totally undone by the emotional eyes. "...and neither did we, thanks to you."
Vin walked slowly over to the majestic tree. He took in every laden branch and decoration. The lights...bows...lace...and the smell. He inhaled deeply, closed his eyes and smiled. "Damn...that's good."
"Yeah...nothing like it." Chris said, joining his best friend. "I'd forgotten just how wonderful that smell is...and the feeling that goes with it." He said huskily, tenderly fingering a porcelain figure of a Victorian couple with "Our First Christmas" written in gold script at the base.
Vin tore his eyes away from the wonderous sight and saw the longing in Chris's eyes. But there was no pain or anger. He nodded, gripping his friend's shoulder. "Merry Christmas, Cowboy. Ya got no idea how much this means to me."
"Yeah, I do..." Chris replied, "You've got that light in your eyes...Sarah had it. I've missed it..." He paused reflecting as he picked up a wooden cradle with a sleeping Indian infant bearing the name 'Adam'. "Thanks to you, Vin...that light is right here." he tapped his heart.
"Ya fixin' on keepin' it?" Vin hedged, enjoying the emotional green gaze. Chris opened his mouth to reply but the words got stuck. He nodded and sighed deeply instead. "Good...it suits ya." Vin decided, then eyed the mantle clock nearby. "Dammit Cowboy, ya let me sleep through dinner?" He smacked Chris playfully. "I'm starved...any grub left?"
"I have some on my cashmere sweater." Ezra baited, recalling Vin's violent explosion in the ER.
"Aw, hell..." Vin muttered, face flushing. "I'm sorry, Ez..." He dropped his head and missed the five angry stares the Southerner got.
"That's alright, Mr. Tanner. Rest assured when I encounter a stomach virus, I'll return the favor." He offered, but the head remained dropped. "As a matter of fact, I made some soup. Shall we?"
"Y'all did?" Vin's voice rose in surprise. "Fer me?"
"I was temporarily overcome with a bout of Christmas spirit." Ezra drolled, keeping in step with Vin's slow gait.
"What's in it?" Vin wrinkled his nose at the large pot.
"Rest assured, my young connoisueur," Ezra reassured his doubting teammate, "There is nothing green in here." He bespoke of the Texan's distrust of green food...and most vegtables. "A tomato-beef broth base with noodles and ..."
"Hey..." Vin cried, "look at them bitty meatballs..."
"...bitty meatballs." Ezra concluded. "Is there a reason you are attached to my hip?"
"Sorry...I's hungry..." Vin said, shuffling to the table. He was halfway through the soup, accented by some warm bread and his coke, when he stopped. The presents...he didn't have his gifts. He eyed Ezra sipping coffee next to him, and his mind conjured up visions of the broken wine rack.
"Is there something wrong with your soup?" Ezra asked, seeing the blank face.
"No...it's good, Ez...real good." He picked the spoon up and his hand wavered. "Y'all go in and enjoy the tree, I'm fine."
"Very well..." Ezra nodded and departed after refilling his mug.
A few minutes later, Chris appeared, having been tipped by Ezra. He eyed Vin staring out the window and was satisfied at the empty dish. "You want some more?"
"No. Maybe tomorrow." Vin replied, pushing the bowl away.
Chris took the bowl to the sink and rinsed it, he turned and saw the worry in Vin's eyes. Sighing, he made his way to the table and tapped the slumped shoulder.
"Huh?" Vin blinked.
"What's going on?" Chris cross-examined.
Vin moved his head to make sure the others were out of earshot. "I ain't go m'gifts with me, Chris..."
"Ye of little faith..." Chris patted the arm, "Come on...Miracle on 34th Street is on. If I have to suffer through it, so do you."
"Chris, they didn't bring nuthin', did they?" the blue-eyes worried, then scowled at the blond continued to smile. "I'm serious, Chris.. I can't...'
"I have it under very good authority that Santa's on the job." Chris drilled, but the eyes didn't change. "Trust me, Vin." He stated.
"Y'all took care of 'em?" Vin's voice rose with his hopes.
"Not me," Chris shook his head. "The other Kris...with a K...think he's last name is Kringle."
"Thanks..." Vin sighed, "Reckon I'll have another bowl of soup." He crowed, craning to see the pot. "...and melt some mozzella cheese on top."
"You said you were full." Chris grunted, "I just cleaned the damn bowl up."
"Tsk..tsk..." Vin clicked his tongue. "Y'all watch your mouth...Jesus is bein' born..." He settled back, satisfied as the disgruntled blond moved across the kitchen. "...don't ferget the cheese..."
"Watch your mouth," Chris grinned, from the stove. "Jesus is being born, remember..."
"Why can't I have cheese?" Vin demanded.
"Because of your throat...something to do with dairy products...Nate warned us."
Vin almost made it to the end of the movie. Twice he jerked his head hard to stay awake, giving J.D. a good laugh.
"You're gonna get whiplash..." The youth chuckled.
"Best get them feet movin' Junior." Buck advised, from where he was sprawled on the floor, with Sam's dark head on his chest. "You know Santa won't come until you get to sleep."
"Very funny." Vin stated, yawning as he rose. "I am tired." He got to the door and turned, eyeing each face carefully. "Listen...I know y'all had other plans...Ya didn't have to bust up..."
"Don't go make any sappy speeches, Vin." Chris warned, a few feet behind his tired friend. "Suffering through this movie is enough."
"You're welcome, Son." Josiah offered, saving the suffering Texan, who was still groping for words.
"I'm grateful." Vin's head bobbed and he eyed each face carefully. "'night."
"Goodnight, Crash." Buck joked, watching the weary, headache plagued man shuffle painfully to the stairs.
Comments to: DeeShamrock@cs.com