STORM IN THE SOUL by The Neon Gang

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

"Now, squaw," the voice commanded. "Crawl on outta there, nice an' slow."

Vin knew his options were limited. He could stay where he was and get shot when they carried through with their threat, or he could try to escape out the far side of the boughs, but with his leg in the shape it was, he doubted he'd get too far before they shot him down. The last option seemed the only reasonable one – do what they wanted and hope he could find an opening for escape. As long as he was alive, there was hope.

Not the three best choices he'd ever had, but not the worst either.

Being as careful as he could with his injured leg, Vin moved out from under the boughs on his hands and knees, the two men snickering as he did.

"See, what'd I tell you, Daryl. There's our squaw now. He even knows when it's time to crawl, don't you, Tanner? Stand up, bounty hunter."

Guess that answers that one. Tanner fought his temper down and tried to stand, but the injury and the stiffness from a night spent on the ground made it impossible.

Hank stepped forward and grabbed Vin's jacket, jerking him upright.

Stifling a grunt of pain, Tanner planted his feet, but was unable to stop himself from swaying slightly as a bolt of molten agony shot up his calf.

"Looks like you were right, Hank," Daryl said. "You got 'im a couple times."

Hank nodded proudly. "Should've put that leg wound higher, would've made it easier t' track him down."

"You remember him, bounty hunter?" Daryl asked Vin.

Tanner met the man's question with an icy blue stare that prompted the bigger man to take an involuntary step back.

Hank noticed the look, too, but he was unwilling to turn back from the murder he had been planning since he'd spotted Tanner riding along the ridge. It was God's gift to him, and he planned to enjoy his revenge. Too many memories of pain and suffering at the hands of two Apache inmates at the State prison in Casa Grand, Arizona had blinded him to the dangerous nature of the man they had cornered.

"Come on, squaw," Hank sneered, using the same slur he'd been given while in prison and the "property" of the two Indians who had abused him. This was his chance to wipe those memories clean, and the ex-con wasn't going to squander it. The fact that he had ended up in prison after raping a fourteen-year-old Pima girl never crossed his mind.

Vin silently sized up the two men. The one called "Daryl" was a follower, and more than a little scared of Tanner and what he might do if given the chance. "Hank" was a different story. The hate burning in his eyes was greater than any Vin had seen since he had been nearly beaten to death by his foster father.

Hank was dangerous, and Tanner knew he'd have to wait for the right opportunity before he tried an escape or he would end up dead. He couldn't remember the man's last name, but he remembered the face, and the crime that had gone with it.

"That way," Hank said, jerking the gun to the north.

Vin hesitated for a second, his mind on the knife hidden at the waist of his jeans. If he could kill Hank, Daryl might be frightened enough to–

Hank stepped forward and shoved the end of his rife barrel into Vin's stomach. Tanner dropped to his knees, a wave of agony wrapping around his midsection as his injured ribs were squeezed under the constricting muscles. The ex-con flipped the rifle over in his hands, holding the weapon by the barrel, and slammed the stock into the center of the back of Tanner's wounded calf.

Vin couldn't stop the cry that tore free of his throat as he folded into a ball and dropped into the wet snow. The cold moisture soaked his jeans and jacket, and he fought from choking as chills and heaves struck at the same time.

"Get him on his feet," Hank snapped at Daryl, enjoying the spectacle of Tanner's pain. It didn't make up for the many times he had ended up on his hands and knees while in prison, but it was a start.

Daryl approached the fallen agent fearfully, finally reaching down to grab two handfuls of jacket, pulling Vin to his feet.

The look in Vin's eyes made the man jerk his hands away like he had been burned.

"Walk, squaw, or so help me, I'll gut shoot you right here," Hank growled.

Vin turned and hobbled off in the direction the man pointed out, waiting for the opportunity to use his knife. An' when I do, it'll be with pleasure, he thought grimly.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

The team found the tree where Vin had holed up for the night. Chris disappeared under the boughs, emerging a few moments later carrying Vin's backpack. He handed the pack to Nathan.

"The first aid kit's been used," the medic announced a few moments later.

"The radio's in here, too," JD added, having taken the pack from the medic and rummaged through it, "but it's just static."

"Over here," Josiah called.

They joined the big man on the other side of the tree where blood was splattered across the white snow and the signs of a struggle were clearly evident.

"Whoever shot him must've found him," Buck commented, studying the ground and wishing he could read it like a paragraph in a text. He thought it was two men, and Vin, but he wasn't sure.

"They can't be more than ten or fifteen minutes ahead of us," JD offered.

"Let's go," Larabee said, his stomach a solid knot of worry. Vin was in danger, serious danger, and he wasn't sure they were going to be able to reach the man in time.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

Vin was wheezing by the time he reached a small cabin, and lost in a swirl of disorienting pain. His entire leg felt like it was on fire, and his chest burned with almost the same intensity. But it was the pounding in his head that blocked out all the words Hank was shouting at him.

The ex-con was watching Tanner struggle to stay on his feet. The bounty hunter was a fighter, and Hank felt a tingle of triumph as he contemplated what it was going to feel like to destroy that will. Reaching out, he grabbed Vin's hair, forcing the man's head back. The move unbalanced the agent and Vin dropped to his knees in front of the man.

Growling, refusing to submit, Tanner fought to stand again, but he was too weak to overcome the gloating man.

"You're gonna die, squaw," Hank hissed. "You're gonna die real slow. I'm gonna take my huntin' knife and gut ya, squaw. You think you're tough? You're gonna beg me to shoot you before this is over."

Hank laughed and Daryl took a step away, not sure he wanted to be a part of the man's plans.

"Go get my knife," Hank snapped at him. "Now, damn it!"

Daryl stumbled back a few steps, then turned and retreated into the small cabin.

Vin's mind was racing. He had to act now, while one of them was gone. Hank solved his first problem – getting him back on his feet – when the man knotted his hands into Vin's jacket and yanked him up.

"Can't you talk, squaw?" he snapped. "You dumb or something?" He struck Tanner's face, once, twice, three times, determined to make the man speak.

Movement at the corner of his eye stalled the retort on Vin's tongue. It was Chris. He knew that with absolute certainty. But Larabee was still too far away to help him. He was on his own.

The reality of the situation slipped away, lost in the pain of the injuries and the confusing chaos of months' worth of working and living in the city, trying to make a place for himself with Larabee and the others, fighting his fears and memories.

And then Daryl was back, handing Hank a hunting knife, his face white with fear. The ex-con took the long blade, his lips curling off his teeth in a snarling smile. Jerking Vin's jacket open, he let his gaze drop to Tanner's midsection as his arms drew back to strike.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

The team moved steadily through the recent snowfall. In the distance an angry voice rolled through the trees. The words reached them, intact, on the still air, the contents chilling Larabee more than the cold.

"You're gonna die, squaw. You're gonna die real slow. I'm gonna take my huntin' knife and gut ya, squaw. You think you're tough? You're gonna beg me to shoot you before this is over…" A laugh rolled out after the words. "Go get my knife. Now, damn it!"

They pushed themselves to a run, pushing through the snow.

Reaching the edge of a clearing where a small cabin sat, they froze, watching in horror as a large blond man handed a hunting knife to his companion. The second man was holding Vin on his feet. Tanner's face was bruised and bloody, his body swaying unsteadily. The stranger yanked Vin's jacket open and his arm drew back, making it clear he intended to carry through on his threat.

Chris was about to yell when Vin's voice slashed across the landscape – a war cry, as sharp as ice breaking.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

Vin saw the blade change hands. With a cry, he lifted his injured leg, driving his foot into Hank's abdomen like he was trying to ram it right out the other side.

Hank fell back, knife flying into the snow.

The team charged.

Daryl took a hesitant step toward Vin, not sure what to do.

Tanner, spinning on unsteady legs, growled as his eyes fixed on the other man's. Hands snapping out, he trapped the man's face with one, his elbow colliding with the opposite temple. Daryl dropped, Vin collapsing into the snow beside him with a grunt. Only the agent's weakened condition saved both ex-cons from being killed in the attack.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

The team quickly had the two men under their weapons, Nathan dropping down next to Vin.

"He's alive," the medic announced.

"Thank God," Chris said with the breath he'd been holding.

Buck pulled out the radio he was carrying, contacting Carmell in the chopper, then nodded to JD.

Dunne removed a flare gun from a holster on his web belt and fired off a shot. It soared into the cloudy sky and exploded, sending out a spray of red above them.

Josiah and Ezra, with Chris's help, lifted Vin to a seated position, the medic checking Tanner's pulse before starting an examination.

Five minutes later JD reloaded the flare gun and fired off a second round. This time the distant sound of an approaching chopper filled the air.

"JD, Ezra, you stay with these two," Chris said, getting nods from the two men. Then, with Josiah's help, he lifted the unconscious man. Together they carried him to the center of the open terrain, holding him between them while they waited for the chopper to arrive.

As the Huey moved over to hover above them, the blast of the rotor blades lifted the snow up and sent it flying like a sudden blizzard. One of the Search and Rescue medics accompanied an aluminum litter to the ground. He waited while Chris and Josiah maneuvered Vin inside the conveyance. Nathan stepped up and hooked on a harness, riding up with Vin and the other medic.

Once they were in the chopper, the other crewman tossed out ropes and Chris, Josiah, and Buck stepped up and secured themselves in order to be winched up.

Chris stared at the underside of the helicopter on the ride, willing Vin to live. Then hands were grabbing his arms and dragging him inside. He crawled across the floor of the chopper, joining Nathan, who was trying, without success, to keep Tanner lying down in the litter.

Vin's eyes were wide but unseeing, arms up in a defensive position, and teeth showing in a feral snarl of anger or pain.

Larabee reached out and grabbed one of Tanner's arms. How the man had even managed to sit up was a complete mystery to the blond. "Vin," he snapped, afraid Tanner might injure himself further, or one of them, in his confusion. "Vin, look at me!"

It took a moment for the words to penetrate, but then the shaggy head turned and blue eyes locked on green. Confusion and fight were replaced by recognition. "Chris," he rasped.

"Vin, lie down," Larabee said. "You're safe now. Let Nate do his work."

The blue eyes went unfocused and Vin blinked, his brow wrinkling. "Chris? What 'n hell are y' doin' here?" he slurred.

"We were looking for you," Chris replied, getting hold of the man's shoulders, and trying to press him back into the litter, unsure if Vin could even hear him over the noise. Feeling the man's strength beginning to ebb even as he resisted lying down, Chris scooted closer, letting Vin's shoulder lean against his own. A violent shiver passed through the smaller man's body and his teeth began to chatter noisily.

Buck joined them, holding out a wool blanket. Chris leaned Vin forward and started to wrap the cloth around his shoulders only to be stopped by Nathan.

"No," Jackson said, "his clothes are too wet."

"What?" Chris asked the medic.

Buck maneuvered in behind Chris, speaking in his ear to overcome the noise. "Nate says he's too wet."

"We have to get those clothes off him, get him warmed up before he goes hypothermic!" Nathan said loudly.

The Search and Rescue medic nodded. "We'll be in Rollinsville in twenty minutes, but this won't wait!"

Larabee nodded his understanding, and he and Buck went to work, removing Vin's jacket, flannel shirt, and thermal undershirt while Nathan used the knife he found on Tanner's belt to cut the man's wet jeans off.

Vin tried to help them, but he was shaking too much to coordinate his movements and finally gave up, allowing the others to do the work for him. Watching Chris through slitted eyes, he noted the concern on the man's face and wished he had the energy to tell him not to worry.

Buck gasped when he saw the large purple bruise on Vin's ribcage. "Damn, Junior, that had to hurt!" The various scars that were also revealed made them all acutely aware of the man's past profession.

Nathan grunted, saying, "Looks like you might have cracked a few ribs there, Vin." The sound of chattering teeth was his only reply.

With his wet clothes off, Vin's shivering increased as they wrapped the wool blanket tightly around him. Buck and Chris stripped off their parkas, draping them over Vin's chest and his back, then Larabee moved in behind Tanner, pulling the shaking man back against his chest, and wrapping his arms around him, careful not to put too much pressure on the injured ribs.

Josiah and Nathan busied themselves rubbing down Vin's legs beneath the blankets, Buck working on the man's arms, all of them using friction to warm his extremities. Vin gasped and yelped when one of them got too close to the bullet wound.

"Hang in there," Chris said into Tanner's ear. "We've come too far to lose you now, you hear me? Besides, we're just getting used to having you around."

Tanner grunted in reply. He could hear the fear in Larabee's voice and understood all too well what the man wasn't saying.

"How does he do it?" Nathan asked, shaking his head, although only Buck, who was kneeling next to him, was able to hear.


"Where does he find the strength?"

Buck smiled. "Hell, Nate, when you've walked through hell as many times as he has, there isn't much left that'll kill a man."

Nathan looked at Vin, realizing that he had walked through a few hells of his own. He nodded. "Sometimes I forget he's older than he looks."

Buck reached out and squeezed Jackson's shoulder. "Don't worry, it's just a little exposure, a few cracked ribs, and a bullet in his leg. He'll be back to work by the time the holidays are over. You watch."

Nathan nodded and silently prayed the ladies' man was right as he watched Vin slip back into unconsciousness.

A short while later

A chopper landing near the sheriff's station in Rollinsville caused quite a stir in the small community. People came out of the stores and their homes, lining the street as Josiah and Chris jumped out first.

While Josiah arranged for the pilot to return to pick up the two men and Ezra and JD, Chris concentrated on finding the sheriff. He flashed his ID and gave the man a hasty explanation for their unconventional landing site.

Nathan and Buck carried the litter off with the Search and Rescue crew's help, Vin remaining unconscious. Jackson demanded the location of the hospital.

The sheriff blinked, not knowing who to respond to first. ATF agents? Murderers? Hospitals?

Buck saved him the trouble, grabbing a deputy and piling back into the chopper, Carmell lifting off before the sheriff could order his man to go along.

Chris reached out and grabbed the lawman's arm. "He asked you where the hospital was!"

"We don't have a hospital, too small," he replied, still shaken by the sudden invasion of his peace and quiet.

"What about a doctor?" Nathan asked, his fear climbing.

The sheriff pointed to a small building on the opposite corner. "That's the clinic, but Dr. Gables is in Nederland. He won't be back until later today, maybe tomorrow, depending on the weather."

"What do you do if someone gets hurt?" Nathan stormed, unwilling to believe they might lose Vin due to lack of medical aid.

The sheriff turned to his deputy. "Carl, go get Mrs. Spender and bring her to the clinic. I'll go open it up." He turned back to the others. "Come on, let's get your man inside. Nancy's a nurse; a good one. She'll help you. Maybe we can get Dr. Gables back for you, too."

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

Once inside the clinic, Nathan took over. Having put himself through school as an emergency medical technician, his expertise was the closest thing to a doctor they had for the moment. Jackson waited while Josiah rubbed the examination table down with alcohol, then draped it with a sterile sheet from the supply cabinet. After stripping the wool blanket off, he and Chris settled Vin on the table, covering him with fresh blankets that Josiah pulled off the four beds in the small clinic ward.

Nathan was taking Vin's blood pressure when the door swung open to admit an older woman. She gave the collection of worried faces a once over as she walked to the exam table. Looking down at Tanner, she frowned at the man's ashen complexion.

"Who's who?" she asked, glancing around at the others.

"Nathan Jackson," the medic introduced himself. "Chris Larabee, and Josiah Sanchez. We're ATF out of Denver."

She looked down at Vin, asking, "Friend or foe?"

"Friend," Nathan replied. "He's one of our team."

Removing a set of keys from her pocket, Emma fumbled for one in particular, and then handed it to Josiah. "There's a storage closet in the back with a couple of space heaters. Go bring them in here."

Josiah nodded and disappeared.

"What's his B.P.?" she asked the medic.

"95 over 60," Nathan said. "Pulse is 110 and thready. Respiration's 20 and shallow."

The woman nodded, absently tucking a wayward strand of sliver hair behind her ear. Chris couldn't help but smile thinly. She looked like the archetype for gingerbread-baking, sweet-tempered grandmothers.

Reaching under the blankets, she found Vin's arm and pulled out his hand to check his nail beds. With a satisfied nod she returned his arm to the warmth under the blankets.

Josiah arrived with the heaters and she directed him to set the taller one at the foot of the table, and to slide the long, low model under it. He did, and turned them on.

Vin's shivering dropped off quickly, but he continued to tremble occasionally under the blankets, although as the heaters continued to warm the air, that too finally subsided.

With a short series of directions, the old nurse had Nathan establish a double IV. That done, she nodded to the medic to help her as she checked the graze on Tanner's head, then folded back the blankets to start at the man's neck and begin a thorough examination from the top down. When she finished she headed for one of the cabinets.

"First we get the easy ones cleaned up, then we tackle the hard ones," she announced.

"What can we do?" Chris asked softly, hating the feeling that he was merely in the way.

The older woman looked over her shoulder. "Why don't one of you go across the street to Marylee's and get us all some coffee."

Josiah looked at Larabee. "You stay."

Chris nodded and the big man headed out of the clinic.

"And you two can help me," she concluded, speaking to Nathan and Chris. "My arthritis won't let me work like I used to, but it can't take the knowledge away, so I'll tell you what to do, and you'll do it – deal?"

The two agents nodded and Chris reevaluated his first impression of the woman. She might look like a kindly grandmother, but she acted and sounded more like a DI and he wondered if she had served.

Removing a bottle of antiseptic, she handed it to Chris. "You clean that scalp wound, then we'll wrap it up. He might have a mild concussion, so go grab another pillow and stick it under his head to get it elevated a little more."

She leveled her gaze on Nathan, her green eyes softening slightly. "You can move the portable x-ray machine over here for me so we can take a look at his skull and those ribs, make sure nothing's broken…"

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

"Well, that's a piece of good news," the old woman said, smiling at the developed x-rays. "No skull fractures and just two cracked ribs, no breaks there either – lucky man."

"Uh, excuse me, Mrs. Spender, is it?" Larabee asked her.

"Yes, but why don't you call me Nan."

Chris smiled. "All right, Nan. I'm done here."

She walked over to Vin and helped Chris as he covered the graze and wrapped more than enough gauze around it to keep the dressing in place.

Josiah knocked on the door, then stepped inside to drop off the coffee, explaining that he was going to go see the sheriff and wait for Buck, Ezra, and JD to get back.

Nancy accepted one of the cups and took a long sip. "Ah, that hits the spot. Now, on to the rest of this, gentlemen."

Returning to the unconscious man, she directed Nathan to lift the blankets off his legs. She probed the swollen ankle first. "Nathan, dear, bring the x-ray over and get a picture of the ankle as it is now. I'm almost sure it's just a nasty sprain, but there's no use taking any chances. Young man, I'll need your help back here," she told Larabee.

Chris smiled at the description.

While Jackson set up and took the x-ray, Mrs. Spender led Chris to the back room. She pointed to a surgical bundle on one shelf in the opened closet. "Take that, and wheel that cart out while you're at it."

"Yes, ma'am," he said.

The old woman chuckled. "I haven't heard that in a few years."

"Excuse me, what's that, Mrs. Spender? Uh, Nan?"

"'Ma'am.' I was an Army nurse, started back during Vietnam, when I was too young to know better, and just stuck with it."

Larabee smiled. "I have to admit, I was wondering if you were ex-military."


"Most of us were in the service at one time or another. Let's just say that the way you took control reminded me a little of a few DIs I've met. A lot, actually."

She smiled, returning to the grandmother image. "I see. Well, I'll take that as a compliment," she said as they walked the equipment back to the treatment room.

"It was meant as one," Chris replied. "Really."

She smiled, then her face wrinkled as she tried to capture a fleeting memory.

"Sounds like you've had an impressive career," Larabee said as they rejoined Nathan, who was developing the ankle x-ray.

"Yes, I guess I did. I retired a full colonel several years ago, married an old high school sweetheart who was a widower, and we've had ourselves a quiet retirement here… until now."

"Well, we certainly would've preferred not to interrupt your holidays like this," Chris told her.

"The ankle looks good," Nathan announced, holding up the film.

"No interruption, Mr. Larabee." She looked at the x-ray. "True enough, Nathan. We'll immobilize it, and then there's just one more thing left to do."

"The bullet," the medic agreed, nodding.

"It has to come out, and we need to irrigate that wound to reduce the infection. My fingers aren't up to that kind of work, I'm afraid." She looked Nathan squarely in the eye. "Are you up to it, son?"

He nodded. "I'm not a doctor, but I've patched these guys up enough times to stay in pretty good practice."

Nancy rested a hand on Jackson's shoulder. "Why did I think you might say that?"

Nathan grinned back at her.

Handing the medic a cup of coffee, she motioned to him to drink it. "I know this won't be easy. It never is when it's someone we care about, but you'll do just fine. So, drink up, get warm, and then we'll get that leg cleaned up. We don't want the infection to get too far ahead of us."

"Yes, ma'am."

Emma smiled and patted his shoulder again. "Mr. Larabee, we'll need your help as well."

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

It took a half-hour to prepare and twenty minutes to complete the procedure, and Chris was thrilled when the surgery was over. While Nathan had been able to focus on the task at hand, detaching his work from the body he was doing it on, Larabee hadn't been so lucky. He had been put to use holding Vin still while Nathan worked, Mrs. Spender helping Jackson by keeping the area free of blood and delivering calm, straightforward instructions each step of the way.

Only two sounds filled the room while they worked – Tanner's breathing and the old woman's steady voice. Vin awoke almost as soon as Nathan had begun, but was able to hold himself still for the most part, thanks to a local anesthetic that deadened the pain, but natural reflexes gave Chris plenty to do, and he exerted a great deal of energy to keep Vin as immobile as the old nurse demanded.

When they were finished, Nancy wiped the sweat from Vin's face and waited for Nathan to tell her the man's new vital signs.

"B.P. is 110 over 90, pulse 100, but stronger, and respiration's 24." He looked down at Vin, who had opened his eyes. "You hang in there. You're going to be just fine." Then he looked over at Chris and said, "If you don't mind, I'd like to grab a bite to eat. I hate to admit it, but I'm feeling a little shaky."

"Go ahead," Chris told him with a grateful, if thin, smile.

Vin reached up, catching the medic's arm before Nathan could turn away, but his attention was focused on the old woman. "Thanks, Nate," he breathed airily.

Jackson grinned down at him. Vin was going to be fine, thank God. "You're welcome, but just wait 'til you see how I stitched my initials into your leg. It's a real work of art. The others are going to be jealous."

Vin finally blinked and rolled his head to the side, looking up at Nathan. "Aw hell, Nate, why'd y' go an' do somethin' like that?"

"It's a reminder," Nathan said sternly, but the twinkle in his eyes gave his real feelings away, "so you'll stay out of trouble the next time."

Nancy nodded at him when Vin turned back to study her face. "Antibiotics will fight the infection now, and the electrolytes will help you feel better. I'll have the Sheriff contact Dr. Gables so he can bring some more blood back from Nederland. The rest is up to you, son," she told him. She looked over at Chris, adding, "I don't think this will slow him down too much." Then she smiled and laughed softly. "Ah, now I remember…"

"What?" Chris asked her as Nathan stepped outside, closing the door behind him.

A spark of recognition flared in Vin's eyes as well when she looked back down at him.

"You do too, don't you, Sergeant Tanner?" Nancy asked softly.

Vin nodded, a small, crooked smile lifting the pain off his face for a moment.

She reached out and patted his cheek. "Get some rest, dear."

Vin's eyes closed and within seconds he was sleeping.

"Do you know Vin?" Chris asked her, surprised.

Nancy nodded. "I met him several years ago, not long before I retired. He was in the Army then, not the ATF."

"Airborne Rangers," Chris said, watching as Nathan crossed the street to get something to eat. He was hungry, too, but he didn't want to leave Vin just yet.

"Yes," the old woman nodded. "He was a young sergeant, just back from a covert operation in a place I can't mention…" Her voice dropped as she became caught up in the memories. "It was close to Christmas as I recall, and we'd been seeing a lot of activity. Casualties were high, even if they were never mentioned on the evening news…" She walked over to the only chair in the room and sat down, taking a sip of her now-cold coffee.

Chris slid down to sit on the floor, his back pressed up against the cabinets.

"Our field hospital had been going straight for close to twenty-four hours. We managed to save most of them, but thanks to budget cutbacks and retention issues, there weren't enough nurses to sit with the dying and work on the ones we could save."

She set the cup aside and gave Chris a shaky smile. "For a few hours it felt like I was back in Vietnam again. That was the worst… But I was going to tell you about a particular young sergeant I met, wasn't I?"

Larabee nodded. "If you don't mind." He glanced over at the sleeping man. "Vin doesn't talk much about his past. I get the impression it wasn't very good, and he'd rather put as much of it behind him as he can."

"Well, we got word that two squads had been caught in an ambush and they were bringing them to us. By the time they arrived, four were already dead. We looked the others over and two went in to wait for the next available surgeon; the rest waited for a nurse since they were ambulatory. But there were two others past our ability to help… and then there was one last young man. I asked him if he was hurt and he shook his head. He was trying so hard to be brave, but I could see the fear in his eyes."

"Vin?" Chris asked softly, glancing from the old woman to the sleeping man.

She nodded. "He followed me straight into the triage tent. I tried to throw him out, but he said he had to see one of the men from his unit. He knew why those last two hadn't been take in and, to be honest, I was just too tired to argue with him.

"He went over to his squad members and sat with them, talking to them, until they were gone. He held their hands, listened to what they wanted him to write to their parents or wives, and I believe he carried out those requests."

"I'm sure he did," Chris said softly. Vin was as loyal as they came, once he let someone into his heart. It was getting inside that seemed to be the trick. How he'd managed it so easily, he wasn't sure, but he knew he had.

"After they died, he stayed. We were getting another wave of wounded in and everyone was dead on their feet, but he never faltered. When I didn't have the energy to stand any longer, he helped me to a chair and found me some coffee, somehow.

"He was so young, so very, very young… a child, really, and I remember watching him, wanting to cry because no one that young should have to do or see the kinds of things he was, but I couldn't, I just couldn't. It was selfish, I know, but I was so relieved that I wasn't alone at that moment I just couldn't cry. That's when I knew it was time to start thinking about retirement."

Nancy pushed a single tear off her daintily-wrinkled cheek. "When it was over, I found out he'd taken a piece of shrapnel to the lower back, just above his hip. He must have been in agony, but he never said a word, never made any move that gave away his injury. We never would've known about it at all if he hadn't passed out in the mess tent."

Chris shook his head and grinned. "That sounds like Vin all right. I can see why you remembered him," he added, his tone affectionate. "A man like that would be hard to forget."

Nancy smiled. "Oh, but you've only heard half the story…"

She fell silent when a knock sounded on the door and Josiah leaned in, announcing, "Sorry to interrupt, but I thought you could use some fresh coffee." He handed over the two cups and said to Chris, "The others are back with the bastards who did this. Carmell had to take off; there's a front coming in."

"Thanks," Chris said. When he saw the older man look worriedly at Vin he added, "He's doing fine. Tell the others he'll be fine. Nathan's getting a bite to eat; why don't the rest of you do the same."

Josiah nodded and left.

"What happened next?" Chris asked her when they were alone again.

"Well, he had a two-day stay with us that first time, and then returned to his unit. I never expected to see that young sergeant again, but I did, just about a year later.

"We had plenty of wounded crossing our surgical tables that year as well. We received word that a Ranger unit had gotten pinned down coming back from a mission. They were taking fire and others were going in to pull them out.

"We didn't know exactly what to expect, so we did what we always did and prepared for the worst. My people were ready when they arrived. None of us could believe our eyes when I saw those boys climbing off the choppers under their own power. We were watching a miracle, and the soldiers looked as shocked as we were. I kept hearing: 'The sergeant did it,' or 'He got us out, just like he said he would.'

"You have to understand, it really was a miracle. Oh, they had injuries, but they were ambulatory. I counted seventeen, which left three unaccounted for. At first I thought they must be KIAs still in the chopper, but then two of our medics pulled out a man, laid him on a gurney, and rolled him to the surgery. That left two. And that's when I saw my scrappy little sergeant again."

Nancy stood and walked over to Vin. She felt his cheek for fever, but his skin was still cool. She smiled down at the sleeping man, then returned to her seat, took a sip of the fresh coffee, and continued. "He was holding a boy who was no more than eighteen. He and the medics maneuvered the boy onto a second gurney, but Sergeant Tanner didn't move away. I didn't think much of it at first. They headed for the surgery and I yelled at him to get out of the way so my people could work.

"The look in his eyes is something I've never forgotten. That injured boy was just like the ones he'd sat with while they'd died – same age, same innocence and potential lost to death. In the attack, a mortar had torn this boy's throat open and severed the vein. Sergeant Tanner had reached in and was holding the vein closed, which was all that had kept the boy from bleeding to death. If he'd let go when I'd yelled at him, that child would've died on the gurney.

"He was sure I was going to classify the corporal as 'no-hope,' and the pain in his eyes shook me like an earthquake. So, we went into surgery – me, the corporal, and Sergeant Tanner… When they got a clamp on the vein I took him back out, where he thanked me for giving him a chance." She laughed sadly, shaking her head. "He gave that boy a chance, but, sadly, it wasn't enough. There was brain damage and Corporal Adam Silverstein died on the table, but it wasn't because he'd bled to death."

"How did Vin take the news?" Chris asked her, already knowing the answer.

"I found him in our little makeshift chapel. I think he knew Corporal Silverstein was going to die. He told me Adam was Jewish and asked me if his God would mind if he said a prayer for him. I said no, that I didn't think God minded, and that seemed to satisfy him. He said his prayer, then saluted my eagles and walked out. That was the last time I saw him, until today. It looks like he's done well for himself."

Chris nodded. "He's found his place."

"Good," the old woman replied, "we all need a place to belong, especially this time of year, especially someone with a heart as dear as that."

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

Dr. Gables still looked slightly green from the chopper ride as he checked the drip on Vin's IV, and then stepped out of the treatment room to talk to the people waiting for him.

"It looks like he's going to be fine. I knew Nancy would be able to handle this, and I really didn't want to leave Mrs. Johnson's newborn until I was sure he wasn't going to have any respiratory problems. He was underweight and–"

"When can we take him home?" Chris asked anxiously, cutting the man off.

"Oh, tomorrow, I'd say. He should see his own doctor as soon as possible, and he'll need to stay on antibiotics for another ten days."

Buck smiled and clapped Larabee on the back. "See, he'll be home for Christmas, didn't I tell you?"

"Best medicine in the world," Mrs. Spender said. "You boys take good care of him, or I'll come down there and give you what for."

"Don't worry, ma'am, we will," Nathan assured her. "Whether or not he appreciates it."

"Oh, and he wanted to see someone named Chris?" the doctor added.

Larabee stepped forward. "That's me."

"Keep it to ten minutes if you would. I'd like him to get as much rest as possible before he leaves."

Larabee nodded and slipped into the room. Emerging a few minutes later he wore a half-suppressed smile on his face.

"What is it?" Buck asked him.

"Vin just asked me for a favor."

"A favor?" JD questioned.

"Yeah, go find a bagful of pine cones."

The agents burst into laughter.

Five days later, Christmas Eve

Vin sat in the office, his leg elevated on a small stool JD had managed to locate somewhere in the building. He had finished his report on the incident for Travis, and was trying, without much luck, to concentrate on the backlog of paperwork that had somehow built up on his desk until it was time to leave for Larabee's.

A soft knock on the corner of his desktop interrupted his latest battle with the computer. "Yeah. What?" he snapped, wishing he didn't feel so damned tired, or snappish.

JD was standing next to him.

His voice immediately softened. "Sorry, kid. What c'n I do for ya?"

"It's almost time to go," Dunne started, obviously trying to work up to something more important.

Vin nodded, completely confused. "Yeah, okay," he said, looking back at the computer, beginning to log out and shut it down.

JD chewed his lip for a moment before he asked, "Vin, are you mad at us?"

Tanner sat back, startled by the question.

Buck, on his way out of the cantina to drive Vin and JD out to Chris's for dinner – giving Larabee time to pick up one of the sharpshooter's last gifts – stopped short of the door when he heard JD's question.

"JD, what the hell're y' talkin' about?" came Vin's troubled reply.

Dunne sank down in the chair across the desk from Tanner.

Buck weighed his ethical duty to leave the pair to speak in private against the need to understand better what had been bothering Vin since they'd brought him home from Rollinsville. He stayed put and listened.

"Why would y' think 'm mad at ya?" Tanner asked gently.

"Not at me, not exactly," JD replied, his pent-up frustration already spent. Now he was a little frightened. "Not just at me, anyway, all of us."

"I don't understand," Tanner said flatly.

Dunne sighed. "Ever since you got back, you've been… quiet, withdrawn, even when you were out at Chris's ranch, working on the tree and stuff…"

Vin looked taken aback. "Uh, I've been thinkin'," he explained, but it sounded lame, even to his own ears. He sighed heavily. "Aw hell, JD, this time 'a year has always been tough for me… Guess I've been lettin' it get t' me more 'n usual an' I've been tryin' t' think it all through."

"That's it? You've just been thinking?"

Vin cleared his throat. It was obvious he was holding something back and Buck wondered if he'd open up and tell JD what it was.

"Yep. It's easier for me t' sort things out when 'm alone, so I guess that's why I ain't been good company. But I ain't mad at any 'a ya."

Okay, that was an honest answer, but it still didn't tell him anything. Press him, JD, Buck encouraged and crossed his fingers.

"What've you been thinkin' about?" Dunne questioned and Buck silently cheered youthful curiosity.

Vin paused, clearly debating how much he wanted say to the agent. "This time of year… what happened up on that mountain… I guess it all kinda brought back a lot 'a memories…" He stopped, searching for the right words. "It made me do a lot 'a thinkin' 'bout the past, 'bout who I am, an' if 'm the right man for the job here."

Buck almost gave himself away with a sharp intake of breath, but was saved by JD's near shout. "What? Vin, you're the best sniper I've ever seen!"

Wilmington heard Vin rise and knew the sharpshooter had taken up a position leaning back against the edge of his desk, looking down at JD, his arms probably folded over his chest.

"Don't worry, 'm not leavin', kid."

Thank God for that, Buck said silently. Why had it even crossed Vin's mind at all? I'm definitely going to have to talk to him about this.

"Y' see," Vin said softly, using what the ladies' man had come to think of as the man's storyteller's voice, "while I was up on that mountain, waitin' for y' t' come get me… I saw this sign."

"Sign?" JD echoed.

Good, JD, keep it up, Buck silently instructed the younger man.

"Yeah, uh, I know it sounds kinda weird, but the Indians believe that ever' animal carries in its spirit a certain kind 'a power. They call it their medicine. I was visited by Deer."

"A real deer?"

Exactly my question.

"Yeah, a doe," Vin replied. "I think she gave my position away."

"What kind of, uh, medicine does a deer have?" Dunne asked, the confusion in his voice echoing that in Wilmington's mind.

"Gentleness… an' unconditional love."

JD shifted, grappling with the still confusing information. "And that sign made what you were thinking about… harder?"

Yeah, Vin, help us out here and answer that one, would ya?

Tanner chuckled softly, the warm, rich sound startling the ladies' man; he heard it so rarely.

"No. I've just been tryin' t' decide what she was tryin' t' teach me."

"And did you figure it out?"

"Don't know, I think so…" He trailed off.

Buck decided it was time to interrupt before any of the others arrived, wondering why it was taking him so long to bring Tanner down to the garage and head out for dinner. He did not want to get caught eavesdropping. But then Tanner started speaking again.

"All m' life, the people I've cared 'bout most have… been taken away from me – m' mother, grandfather… the guys in m' Ranger unit… I think I was gettin' scared that I was startin' t' care too much fer y'all, so I's gonna loose ya… Guess it comes down t' bein' scared."

JD nodded. "I know what you mean. I mean, I feel like that too sometimes, but I haven't lost as many people as you have. But sometimes it scares me when I think about someone on the team getting hurt or killed, but I think the friendship we have right now is better than being alone, don't you?"

"Yeah, kid, I do. Just took a mountain comin' down on me t' see it."

Me, too, Buck thought, then, taking a deep breath, he stepped into the room, stopped, and stretched. "Man, I can't believe I fell asleep in there," he complained.

"You're lucky you woke up," JD said. "We're gonna be late as it is."

Buck checked his watch. "Oh, damn." He glanced at Vin. "You're comin' with us to Chris's, right?"

JD was already up, handing Vin the cane he was supposed to use while his leg healed. "Yep," he replied, turning and laying the cane on his desk and hobbling off toward the door.

"Good," Buck said, taking a couple of steps to catch up. He reached out, resting his hand on Vin's back as kept walking. "It's Christmas Eve and a family should be together."

Vin offered him a thin smile and nodded. "Yep."

Later that evening

Dinner was Josiah's special lamb recipe, cooked in beer, and it was a huge success. When he had first arrived, Vin had been quiet and withdrawn, but as the meal wore on he seemed to relax – more than he had in several weeks – as if he'd found some inner peace at last.

Chris watched the man carefully as they rose from the table, each carrying a cup of coffee. They retired to the elaborately decorated living room. Vin was still limping, but it wasn't as bad as it had been the last few days.

Light from the blaze burning in the fireplace and the decorated Christmas tree cast the only illumination in the large room. Vin took a seat on the floor in front of the fireplace, resting his injured leg where the heat could help ease away some of the stiffness.

Chris took a seat in the recliner closest to the man, while JD and Buck flopped down at the ends of one couch, Josiah and Nathan doing the same with the second sofa. Ezra took the other recliner, immediately leaning back and lifting the foot rest so he could stretch out.

"That was an absolutely wonderful feast, Mr. Sanchez," Ezra complimented.

"That's for sure," Nathan agreed, patting his belly.

"Thank you, thank you," Josiah said, smiling benevolently at the group with his best fatherly expression. He bent over and picked up an old, well-worn case he had left at the end of the couch. From it he took an autoharp. Everyone, including Vin, leaned forward slightly.

"I thought it might be nice if we sang a few Christmas carols before handing out an Eve present. Then we can all go off to our beds and wait for ol' Saint Nick to pay us a visit."

"Awesome," JD enthused, causing the others to laugh. "What?" he asked, unsure if he should be mad or not.

"Nothing, kid," Buck said, giving his leg a slap. "We just enjoy remembering when we were that excited about Christmas."

"That's right," Nathan agreed. "It was like magic."

"Still is, if you have any spirit," Dunne defended himself.

Chris saw the fleeting pain cross Vin's face and knew that Tanner's memories might not be so magical. But he had every intention of making this Christmas one to remember. "What did you have in mind, Josiah?" he asked the big man.

Sanchez leaned back and began strumming the instrument softly.

"Noel, right?" Buck guessed correctly, grinning proudly.

Josiah nodded and began to play in earnest, the others' voices rising to join his as they worked their way through the twelve days of Christmas, blessed the merry gentlemen, followed the three kings, recited the first noel and jingled bells for over an hour. After the first few songs, they each found their voice and the music grew rich and well textured.

Vin remained silent, but listened with a smile in his eyes. It was informative and he discovered that Nathan and Chris were both mid-range baritones, and that Ezra's clear tenor added an occasional ad-libbed note. Buck and JD paralleled each other in clear tenor tones, and Josiah, no surprise, was a baritone.

A myriad of suggestions flew from the group and never stumped Josiah's fingers, the older man moving smoothly from one song to the next.

Ezra grinned broadly as he suggested, "Deck the Halls if you would, Mr. Sanchez."

The former priest nodded, but before he could begin, Vin pushed himself to his feet, saying, "'Scuse me." They watched him go, the room falling into a tight silence.

"What do you think's wrong?" JD whispered.

"He'll be back," Chris said, hoping his words sounded more sure than he actually felt.

Josiah strummed the strings of the instrument and they began the song, although it wasn't nearly as full of gusto as the others had been.

Chris sang along, unsure if he was mad or worried, but both emotions faded when the song ended and Vin stepped back into the living room carrying a well-worn guitar case. Larabee smiled. He had completely forgotten about the instrument. Vin had brought it over one night not long after he had started with Team Seven, explaining that he didn't feel comfortable leaving it at his apartment, which was in a less than stellar section of town. Chris had invited him to store it in the guest room closet and it had stayed there ever since. He hadn't even been sure Vin knew how to play the thing.

No one spoke as Vin hobbled back to the fireplace, sat down and then added a log to the dying fire. Then he opened the case and pulled the instrument into his lap.

"You play the guitar?" JD asked, his voice full of surprise.

"Ain't done it much in a while, so y'all will have t' bear with me."

"Well, well, well," Buck said softly, catching Chris's gaze. He winked.

Larabee grinned back at the ladies' man. Their sharpshooter was full of surprises. "What do you want to try?" Chris asked him.

Vin looked up at Josiah. "D' y' know I Will Lead You Home?" he asked the older man.

Josiah thought for a moment, his forehead wrinkling, then he flashed a toothy smile and started to strum the autoharp. The deeper tones of the guitar joined in and, after a few stumbles, smoothed out into a steady river of sound.

The older man began to sing, the others listening to unfamiliar words that they found resonated deep within them.
Are you far away from home, this dark and lonely night
Tell me what best would help, to ease your mind
Someone to give direction for this unfamiliar road
Or one who says, "Follow me and I will lead you home."
How beautiful, how precious
The Savior of old
To love so completely the loneliest soul
How gently, how tenderly
He says to one and all
"Child you can follow me and
I will lead you home.
Trust Me and follow Me
And I will lead you home."

When they finished, Vin smiled. "You do it real nice, J'siah."

"That was quite lovely," Ezra agreed softly, afraid to break the mood that had settled over them like spun glass.

"Yeah, really nice," JD agreed, nodding.

"Where'd you learn that, Vin?" Nathan asked the man.

The sniper cleared his throat, a blush climbing up to his cheeks from under his shirt. "Picked up a couple of CDs after Halloween and it was on one of 'em is all."

"Something else you'd like to do?" Josiah asked the sharpshooter.

Vin strummed the first few chords for a song, then began to sing, his voice a slightly hesitant top-range baritone. A short while later, Josiah joined him.

The garment of life be it tattered or torn,
The cloak of a soldier is weathered and worn,
But what child was this that was poverty born,
The peace of Christmas day.
The branch that bears the bright holly,
The dove that rests in yonder tree,
The light that shines for all to see,
The peace of Christmas day.
A hope that has slumbered for two thousand years,
A promise that silenced a thousand fears,
A faith that has trammeled an ocean of tears,
The peace of Christmas day.
The branch that bears the bright holly,
The dove that rests in yonder tree,
The light that shines for all to see,
The peace of Christmas day.
Add all the grief a people may bear,
The total of strife, and the trouble and care,
Then put them in columns and leave them right there,
The peace of Christmas day.
The branch that bears the bright holly,
The dove that rests in yonder tree,
The light that shines for all to see,
The peace of Christmas day.

"That on one of those CDs, too?" JD asked Vin.

"Uh, no, not 'xactly."

"I don't recognize that one," Nathan said. "But it was real pretty."

"Yes, it was. Where is it from?" Ezra asked Tanner.

"Think I'll take the Fifth on that."

"Aw, come on, Vin, it can't be that bad," Buck cajoled.

"He's right," Chris added. "Let us in on the secret."

Vin sighed heavily. He had known he was going to be in for this when he went for the guitar. "All right, I'll tell y', but on one condition."

"And what's that?" Buck asked, winking at JD.

"That y' never mention it again." When all the heads had nodded, he explained, "The last Christmas I had with m' grandpa, we went t' visit a friend 'a his an' she had three grandkids 'bout m' age. They had this new Christmas album, an' was playin' it over and over again. That song was one of the ones on it. I play guitar by ear so I guess I just kinda picked it up," he concluded with a shrug.

"What album was it?" JD asked him. "Maybe we can get a CD copy to play at the office. Be nice to have some new songs."

Vin cringed and sighed again, louder, his blush getting darker. "We don't need a copy 'a this one, kid."

"Which one was it?" Buck asked, getting a little frustrated.

"John Denver and the Muppets," Vin muttered.

"The what? The Muppets?" Nathan asked, breaking into a huge smile.

"No comments, r'member?" Tanner countered, glaring at the medic.

The others all laughed, but they didn't tease him any further. They'd have plenty of chances for that later on – after they found a copy of the CD.

JD launched them into a rousing rendition of Rudolph, and when they finished, Vin cleared his throat to catch their attention. Six pairs of eyes turned to stare affectionately at him and he blushed slightly.

"Have another song I'd like t' do. Don't know if any 'a y' know it… I heard when I was in the Army, but I heard it first on that Muppet record," he added softly.

The others all smiled.

"What is it called?" Josiah asked him.

"When the River Meets the Sea."

"I think that's a spiritual actually, not a carol," Josiah told him. "But go ahead, brother," he encouraged softly, seeing the younger man hesitate.

After the first few words, the hesitancy dropped away and Vin entered the song, voice and guitar growing stronger.

When the Mountain touches the valley,
All the clouds are taught t' fly,
As our souls will leave this land most peacefully.
Though our minds be filled with questions,
In our hearts we'll understand,
When the river meets the sea.
Like a flower that has blossomed,
In the dry an' barren sand,
We are born an' born again most gracefully.
Thus the winds a' time will take us,
With a sure an' steady hand,
Where the river meets the sea.
Patience, m' brothers, an' patience, m' friends.
In that sweet an' final hour
Truth an' justice will be done.
Like a baby when it is sleepin',
In its lovin' mother's arms,
What a newborn baby dreams is a mystery.
But his life will find a purpose,
An' in time he'll understand
When the river meets the sea,
When the river meets, the almighty sea.

When he finished, he let the last chord die away before looking up again. Chris leaned forward, patting him on the shoulder. "Thank you."

Vin smiled and nodded, dipping his head. "Ain't nothin'."

Josiah picked up with Silent Night and this time Vin joined in with the rest of them.

Later, when their voices were rough from overuse, Josiah set the autoharp back into its case, then stood and walked over to the tree. Bending down, he pulled out a bright red bag full of individually-wrapped gifts and walked back to the others. He handed out one present to each of his friends.

The men tore into their gifts, finding small but meaningful things that they had all desired sometime over the course of the past year. They all thanked the former priest, and then the guests stood, said their good-nights and headed home, knowing that they would be meeting back at the ranch again in the morning to watch the football games, open more presents, enjoy more good food, and each others' company. Rain, Nettie and Casey would also be joining them, and Mary, Billy, and Orin planned to drop by as well.

Chris, Josiah, and Vin were the only ones left when Tanner finally looked up from the small box he held, blue eyes swimming with tears. "J'siah," he breathed, "how'd–"

The big man nodded to Larabee, letting him know the gift had really come from Chris, then left, flashing a grin back at Larabee.

Vin was on his feet again when the blond got back to the living room. "Hey, you're not going anywhere," he reminded the sharpshooter.

"Chris, this necklace–"

"Just enjoy it, Vin," the blond said softly. "I'll tell you how I got it tomorrow, but you look exhausted. Go get some sleep."

Vin nodded numbly and limped off to the guest room, the gift clutched tightly in his fist. Chris watched him go, humbled by the depth of the gratitude he'd seen in the man's expressive blue eyes.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

Larabee sighed, rolled over, and looked at the digital clock. He shook his head. It was just after midnight. He lay there for a moment, wondering if he'd really heard sleigh bells outside, then shook his head and snorted at his imagination. The only sound that reached him now was that of someone moving around in the living room.

Rising, Chris pulled on his sweats before going down to see why Vin was also having trouble sleeping.

He found the man seated on the sofa, his gaze searching the dying orange embers, his fist still curled tightly shut. "You know, Santa won't stop if he sees you're still up," he said softly.

Vin's head turned. "Gave up on Santa Claus long time ago…" He paused a moment, then added softly. "He wouldn't bring m' mama back."

The honest, open reply caught Larabee unprepared. "How old were you, Vin, when she died?"

"Just turned five couple a few months before, but that was a long, long time ago. Hard t' r'member what she looked like now, but I c'n still r'member what her voice sounded like. She had a pretty singin' voice."

"What happened after she died?" Chris asked him, dropping down on the other corner of the couch.

"Went t' live with m' grandpa; her daddy."

"But he died too?"

"Yep, just b'fore Christmas when I was eleven… Both of 'em, right b'fore Christmas."

"Damn, that had to be hard," Chris said. "But you have family again now, you do know that, don't you?" he asked, turning the conversation back to what he hoped was something safe.

"Yeah, I know." Vin looked down at his hand, his fingers uncurling. He stared at the gift and then carefully held up the small, gold heart locket, letting it dangle from its thin gold chain. The locket was open, and inside was a tiny picture of a smiling, toothless infant on one side, and a small boy with the same smile on the other. "Chris, how'd you get this?" he whispered, his throat too tight to speak any louder.

Larabee arched an eyebrow at the man. "What makes you–?"

"Chris, please."

The blond sighed and nodded. This wasn't something to be joked about. "You remember that trip I made to Amarillo a couple of months ago, to talk to Kevin Reynolds?"

"Yeah, right before Halloween."

Chris nodded. "While I was there, I rented a car and drove over to Clayton, New Mexico."

Tanner's blue eyes rounded with surprise. "Why?" he asked. "Why'd y' go t' the little town where I was raised?"

Larabee leaned back and stared into the flames. "I don't know," he said honestly. "I guess I just wanted to see where you came from. Your file didn't tell me much, and you never talk about your past…"

"Hell, Chris, I don't even r'member the place. I was born in Dalhart, Texas, but then we moved to Clayton somewhere along the way. After Mama died I went up to Bosie City, in Oklahoma, to live with Grandpa, but he took me back t' Dalhart. I ended up down in Amarillo after he died. But that still don't tell me how y' got this."

"I was walking around Clayton, just getting the feel of the place, and there was a pawn shop… I saw some old coins in the window and I went in to see what else they might have. The old man who owns the place was real friendly. He was cleaning some jewelry while we were talking about the coins and it caught my eye because Sarah had one similar to it. She kept Adam's baby pictures in it. I opened it and saw the pictures, and I knew it was you."

"Y' couldn't know this was me. Don't look nothin' like me."

"Same smile."

"Come on, Chris, how'd y' know it was my mother's?"

"I'm telling you the truth. I saw the pictures and knew it was you. And who else would be carrying around your baby pictures in a gold heart locket?"

Vin snorted and dipped his head. "Good point."

"I thought she'd want you to have it, so I bought it. I think she'd want you to have these, too." Chris pushed to his feet and walked over to the mantle where an envelope sat. He handed it to Vin.

"What's this?" he asked Chris.

"Open it."


"Just do it."

Vin slipped his finger under the corner of the flap and pulled it open. Inside he found three small black and white pictures of his mother when she was younger, probably no more than fifteen or sixteen. "How–?" he rasped, his fingers running lightly over the images like he was touching her for the first time in years.

"The pawn shop owner went to school with your mother," he explained. "After I explained why I wanted the necklace, who I thought it had belonged to, he disappeared into the back and came back with those pictures; said he'd had a terrible crush on her when they were in school, but then she'd dropped out and disappeared. The next time he saw her, she had a young son and she needed money…"

"She pawned the necklace?" Vin asked, surprised and a little hurt.

Chris nodded. "He told me it wasn't really worth anything, but he took it anyway because he knew she needed the money… to take her son to the doctor, and to give him a little Christmas."

Vin bowed his head. "We were both real sick that last Christmas… Doctor thought it might be pneumonia. Mine was, but her's wasn't. I r'member she bought me a little plastic horse, a bay, with a cowboy that fit on its back… We had ham for supper… Best meal I c'n r'member eatin'."

"I'll bet," Larabee said softly.

Vin lifted his head, meeting Larabee's eyes. "Thank you, Chris. This means more t' me than I c'n say."

"You don't have to say anything, Vin. I'm just glad I was there to see it."

Vin nodded. "My grandpa told me once that ever' mountain has a lesson t' teach us, if we're willing t' listen. I listened up there, Chris. I listened, an' I learned."

"And what was the lesson?" Larabee asked him.

"Acceptance… healin'…" His voice dropped. "I do have a family again, an' I can't run from that, can't be so afraid of losin' it, that I don't let m' self have it. That make any sense?"

"Yeah," Chris said respectfully, aware of the rare vulnerability Vin was showing.

"Ya lost so much… I can't imagine…" he replied softly. "Sometimes the only way t' chase the fear off is t' accept an' love that part that's fearful."

"You're afraid?"

"Ain't we all?"

"That's not what I meant."

"Let's just say I had some things I needed t' face, t' remember… like r'memberin' the good times, the love an' friendship, an' not just the loss."

"It's a damn hard lesson to learn," Chris said quietly, nodding. "And now?"

"Now? Hell, now I think you're asking too damn many questions for this time 'a night."

Chris smiled. It was a start. There was still too much about this man he didn't know but, little by little, Vin was opening up to him, to all of them. Maybe, just maybe, one day they would be able to help each other over their nightmares. He hoped they could, knew in some part of his soul that they eventually would.

"You're a remarkable man, Vin Tanner."

The sniper shook his head. "Just a man."

"Not just a man." Larabee stood, offering his hand to Vin, who grabbed his forearm instead, allowing Chris to help him to his feet. "You're my friend."

Tanner nodded once, his grip tightening for a moment. Then he let go and took a step back, looking down at the pictures in his hand. "Wish y' could've met her… Wish I could've met Sarah and Adam, too."

"Me, too," Chris replied. "On both counts."

And together they headed for their beds.

"Merry Christmas, Vin."

"Merry Christmas, Cowboy."

In the hallway they parted, each heading to his own room when the faint sound of sleigh bells echoed in the night. They turned in unison, staring at each other in the dim light.

"Did y' hear that?" Vin whispered, his expression like that of a small boy.

"Hear what?" Chris asked, trying to hide his smile.

The man's expression returned to its usual stoic mask, but there was still a touch of magic twinkling in the blue eyes. "Never mind, must be more tired 'n I realized. G'night."

"Goodnight, Vin. Sleep well." Chris watched the man limp off with a smile on his lips.

Returning to his own bedroom, Larabee lay down again, wondering just how long Vin would remain awake, listening for eight tiny reindeer landing on the roof and knew it would probably be as long as he did himself. And then he realized he was actually looking forward to Christmas morning for the first time since he had lost his family and knew it was because he'd inherited another.

And it was good.


(1) "Christmas Lullaby (I Will Lead You Home)" written by Amy Grant and Chris Eaton, performed by Amy Grant on her Christmas album A Christmas to Remember.
(2) "The Peace Carol" arranged by Bob Beers, performed by John Denver on John Denver and the Muppets: A Christmas Together.
(3) "Where the River Meets the Sea" arranged by Bob Beers, performed by John Denver on John Denver and the Muppets: A Christmas Together.

Author's Note: This story was originally published in Let's Ride #5, by Neon RainBow Press, Cinda Gillilan and Jody Norman, editors. This is all Erica Michael's fault, for two reasons. First, the incident where Vin was hurt near Thanksgiving, what's haunting him in his dream, is from a story by Erica, "Target of Opportunity," in Ouch! #16. And second, we both agreed to trade Vin-gets-lost-in-the-snow stories, but it's taken me a little longer to get this finished than I hoped. In fact, this was the very first Mag7 story I started. Sorry for the wait, Erica! I owed you this one! And thank you for your inspiration, comments, and support. Now, where' is MY story, hmm? Thanks, too, to my sister, Michelle Fortado. When we all decided to post the stories that have appeared in the issues of Let's Ride that are more than two years old, we opted to use a generic pen name because, while Patricia Grace is the primary author of this story, she had so much help from the other folks writing for the press that it just made sense to consider the story to be written by the Neon RainBow Press Collective! Resistance was futile. So, thanks to the whole Neon Gang – Sierra Chaves, Michelle Fortado, Patricia Grace, Erica Michaels, Nina Talbot, Kasey Tucker, and Lorin and Mary Fallon Zane. Story lasted edited 8-8-2005. Art by Shiloh (