A Reason to Celebrate

by Vin's Trio ~ Tannertexaslady, Wendymypooh, and Jan

Disclaimer: We don't own 'em, and this story is for entertainment only.

Characters: Vin and the rest of the Seven.

Story: since his experience with celebrating the holidays is next to none, Vin has plans to skip Christmas in Four Corners. Chris decides the Texan needs a lesson about the true meaning of Christmas traditions and family.

Our thanks go to Bountyhunter'slady for the cool collage accompanying this story.

Chapter One
Chris Larabee and Vin Tanner had been riding hard for the past three days, in order to get back to Four Corners by the 15th. The two peacekeepers had escorted a notorious criminal, by the name of Jeb Marshall, to Fort Gaines. It had been a long, tedious, eight day ride in chilling weather that had them clutching at their coats with one hand, and holding the reins of their horses with gloved hands, which were still nearly frozen, despite the warm cloth that covered them. The fact that they had to deal with a cantankerous, foul mouth man like Marshall didn't help either.

With relief the two men had deposited their prisoner to the proper authorities in Fort Gaines, took in a hot meal, slept a few hours, and then started back toward Four Corners as soon as it was light enough to see the trail.

"All the boys should be back in Four Corners by now." Chris commented as he and Vin stopped near a stream to let their mounts drink.

"Should be," The Texan agreed quietly.

Silence settled between the two as they each thought about the five other men that had become like brothers to them over the months that they had been in Four Corners. Buck Wilmington, their resident ladies man, and Ezra Standish, con man, had left the same day they had left town. Where Tanner and Larabee had left town on business, Buck and Ezra had done so for pleasure. There was a poker tournament being held in the town of Eagle Pass that the card shark had entered. Ezra had asked Buck to go with him as his guard, and naturally Buck had readily agreed to go, having been feeling a bit caged in since the cold weather had set in.

Nathan Jackson, the town's resident doctor, had planned on leaving the very next morning to go spend a few days with his lady love, Rain, in the Seminole Village, where she lived, but had promised to be back in Four Corners by the time Larabee and Tanner arrived back. That had left the eldest peacekeeper, Josiah Sanchez, and the youngest, JD Dunne, in charge of overseeing the protection of the town's citizens for the past week. During the holidays, it seemed that most cowboys did not need any encouragement to overly indulge in their celebrations, and the jail had been a busy place even before he and Vin had left town.

"We should make Four Corners by mid-afternoon." Larabee stated as he and Tanner filled their canteens in the stream.

"You should, Chris." Vin said softly, choosing his words carefully. "A few miles up the road, I'll be taking a different direction."

"What are you talking about, Vin?" Larabee gave the Texas a sharp look. "The boys are expecting us both back in town."

Tanner sighed. He had given it a lot of thought, and he kept coming to the same conclusion. Spending Christmas in Four Corners was not something he was looking forward to. The last Christmas he remembered celebrating was before his mother had died and he was not yet five years old. Since then there had not been many opportunities to celebrate any holidays. Vin had missed the experience of special holiday traditions and having a family to share them with, and the sharpshooter did not want his new family of brothers to know that being alone on Christmas day was the only tradition he knew.

"I know they are, but they'll have to settle for just you instead. I know I should have said somethin' sooner to you about my plans, but 'm tellin' you now. I always spend a couple of weeks in the mountains this time of the year." Vin did not look at Chris. "That's how I keep myself balanced with nature."

Chris contemplated the words his chosen brother said, and accurately interpreted the ones he was not saying. He had noticed before they had left town that every time the conversation turned to Christmas, Vin had either made himself scarce or attempted to changed the subject. JD was especially excited about celebrating this year, and had been making plans for weeks. Larabee knew JD had asked Tanner at least a dozen times to help him find the perfect Christmas tree when they returned. Vin had been evasive with his answers and had not committed himself to the task that JD wanted him to partake in.

Initially Larabee had not been thrilled about a Christmas celebration either. Ever since he had lost his wife and son, holidays had been an especially hard time for him. The other peacekeepers' excitement had become infectious and for the first time in years, he found himself looking forward to spending Christmas with his new family, including Vin. Despite whatever the young Texan was thinking, Chris made up his mind that Tanner would be with all of them come Christmas morning.

"You'll have to postpone your wilderness trip, Vin. I need you in town." Larabee stated while he checked to see if the cinch on Pony's saddle was tight enough. "JD and Josiah deserve some time off after holding things down while we were gone. Besides, I think a certain young brother of ours is expecting your help to find us a Christmas tree." Chris watched Vin's reaction and while it was barely noticeable he saw Tanner tense when Christmas was mentioned.

Vin knew that unless he was willing to admit his true reasons for avoiding town, he would have to go along with Chris, at least for now. He would help JD find a tree, and then silently slip off until after Christmas was over. He mounted his horse and rode over next to where Larabee was waiting for him.

"We gonna stay here all day or get goin'." Tanner snapped and proceeded to ride ahead of Larabee.

Chris grinned and mounted his horse. Vin was through talking, but at least he was headed toward Four Corners. As soon as they reached town, Larabee planned to have a word with each of his brothers. Keeping Vin in town would be Larabee's job, giving him a reason to celebrate he would leave to them.

Chapter Two

Vin felt chilled to the bone by the time he and Chris made it back to town. All he wanted to do was take a hot bath but he knew that would have to wait until he had taken care of Peso. His horse had faithfully carried him on more than one perilous journey, and in return, Vin had rewarded the loyalty by always making sure his horse was cared for before he was.

JD was in the barn tending to his own horse's needs, when they rode up to it. "I'll take care of them for you.” JD offered reaching out to take Pony and Peso's reins. "You, two, look like you need to warm up some."

Chris readily handed over Pony's reins to the youngest member of the peacekeepers, after he had dismounted. He waited for Vin to do the same with Peso's. Their unofficial leader worried that his pressuring Vin about staying in town had been the wrong thing to do, when the Texan snapped at JD, "I already decided to help you get your tree, JD, you don't need to take care of Peso to make me agree to go."

As soon as the words were out of his mouth, Vin instantly regretted them, especially after seeing the crushed look that appeared on JD's face.

"I wasn't offering to tend to your horses, expecting anything in return.” JD protested.

"Aw hell, I'm sorry JD I ain't got any right to take out being tired and cold on you," Vin told his young friend contritely.

"You can make it up to me by letting me take care of Peso for you. You go warm up and get some rest," JD replied with a warm smile telling Vin that he held no hard feelings.

"Thanks JD," Vin said softly as he handed Peso's reins over. "We'll head out in the mornin' to get that tree you been wantin'."

"I'll meet you here after breakfast, and don't worry, I'll see to it that Pony and Peso get an extra helping of grain tonight," JD said as he began to unsaddle Pony.

The next morning Vin was still regretting his agreeing to help JD locate a tree. The young man was driving the wagon in which they were going to haul back the tree, and had been talking non-stop about what he was looking for in one. Vin was riding alongside the wagon, strongly tempted to take Peso and ride ahead to find the tree and end his duty to JD once and for all. Knowing how important it was to JD that he be a part of the actual choosing of the tree, was the only thing holding the Texan back.

JD gave Vin a few minutes of silence before he started singing, "Dashing through the snow, in a one-horse open sleigh, o'er the hills we go, laughing all the way…"

"JD there ain't no snow, and that's a wagon, not a sleigh," Vin grumbled.

JD just laughed, "I know it's the song." Picking up where he left off JD continued, "Bells on bobtail ring, making spirits bright; oh what sport to ride and sing sleighing songs tonight." Smiling brightly JD encouraged, "C'mon, Vin, join me for the chorus."

"I don't know the words JD," Vin growled.

"Everybody knows the words to Jingle Bells. C'mon sing with me. Jingle bells, jingle bells, jingle all the way; oh! what joy it is to ride in a one-horse open sleigh."

"I'm gonna look ahead for a spot," Vin said as he rode off trying to put some space between him and JD. *Everybody knows the stupid song but me* Vin thought surprised by how upset it was making him.

Vin was lost in his thoughts when Peso came to a stop by a grove of smaller pine trees. A long buried memory worked its way to the surface of his mind. Inside his head, Vin could see his ma rolling out pie crusts. A cheery fire burned in the fireplace, keeping their small home warm and cozy. Vin's ma was singing a song as she worked at her baking and was smiling down at him. She moved closer to him and swept Vin up in her arms as she began to dance around the room, "Jingle bells, jingle bells, jingle all the way…"

Vin's eyes closed as his smile spread remembering that day as clear as if it was yesterday. The sounds of the wagon approaching snapped Vin out of his daydreams. Turning to look at JD he was prepared for questions but not the warm greeting, "You found a great place for us to look."

"Yeah," Vin mumbled, dismounting and tying Peso's reins to a nearby bush.

JD jumped down from the wagon, grapping the ax from the back, and started to look for the tree of his dreams. "You know my ma and I always wanted to cut down our own tree. Living in the city we never did get a chance to do it. This year I'm doing it for both me and my ma," JD confessed to Vin.

"Since it's for your ma too we need to find a special tree," Vin replied his eyes showing his sincerity.

"Thanks Vin, it means a lot to me that you're helping," JD said smiling at his friend.

"Let's look over there," Vin suggested. The two men spent the next hour searching for the perfect tree. When they found it, JD asked if he could cut it down himself. Vin offered to go get the tarp they had brought with them to cart the tree back to the wagon, while JD got started.

Walking back to the wagon, Vin remembered another time years ago when he and his ma had found the perfect tree. The look on JD's face when they found the tree today was the same one his ma had worn. Vin found himself whistling Jingle Bells when he brought the tarp back to JD, thinking he needed to thank JD for letting him come along.

Everything was going so smoothly, at first. Vin got the tarp positioned in just the right place for JD to drop the tree onto it. They got the tree back to the wagon and were able to load it without too much difficulty.

It was when they were getting ready to leave, that disaster struck. While Vin was finishing tying down the tree, JD started to bring Peso over to the wagon, when a loud roar shattered the nearby silence around them. A moment later, a hungry mountain lion jumped at Peso, causing the stallion to rear up onto his hind legs. His reins flew out of JD's hand, and as soon as the frightened animal knew he was free, he took off running. Vin managed to get a shot off to scare the mountain lion away, but it was too late to keep Peso from spooking.

They had to waste a couple of moments of valuable time, in quieting down the team of horses pulling the wagon, and making sure that they were secured to nearby trees, before they could look for Peso.

"We'll have better luck finding Peso, if we split up.” Vin told JD. “Make sure you keep an eye out for that cat."

Vin found his wayward mount standing on the edge of a cliff. Unfortunately for Vin, a huge bush forced him to approach Peso from the cliff side. Talking softly and reassuringly to the stallion, Vin worked his way to Peso's side, reaching out for the reins when JD emerged out of the bushes.

The already spooked horse shied away from JD and into Vin, knocking him over the cliff and sending him tumbling down the hill. Vin tried to slow his momentum down by digging in his heels, and flinging out his hands to try and grab hold of something to stop himself, but recent rains had made the hillside muddy so he couldn't get any traction. JD cringed reflexively when he saw Vin slam into the base of a large tree at the bottom of the hill. The Texan lay so still that the Bostonian felt his heart clench with fear, but he didn't give into what he was feeling. JD grabbed Peso's reins as he spotted a way to get to Vin, and he started down the muddy hillside, slipping and sliding as he went, until he finally reached the bottom.

The impact into the base of the tree had momentarily taken his breath away. He worked through the head pounding; lung deprived couple of moments wondering if this was it, when he was finally able to suck in a breath, and was flooded with a pain so intense that the Texan almost wished it had been.

Gritting his teeth against the pain, the Texan tried to remember exactly what had happened to him. He had been at the top of the cliff reaching for Peso's reins, when JD had appeared and the skittish horse had moved, causing him to fall forward. Everything after that was a bit fuzzy, until he had hit the tree. It was then that he remembered the sickening crack that he had heard when his leg hit the tree. Tanner didn't even have to look at it to know that the leg was broken. The agonizing pain shooting through it told him all he needed to know. *Damn, how was he going to get out of town with a broken leg, this Christmas was getting worse all the time,* Vin thought.

"Vin," JD yelled as he ran up. "Hang on I'll get you to Nathan and he'll fix you right up."

Vin saw that JD had brought Peso with him and said, "I can't get on a horse, JD. You'll have to leave me here and go get help."

"No," JD insisted, "I can't leave you here hurt with a mountain lion in the area."

"JD," Vin ground out, "I don't think I can make it up the hill."

"That's why I brought the tarp and Peso. All we have to do is get you on the tarp and Peso and I will pull you up the hill."

Both men were grunting and breathing hard by the time Vin was in the back of the wagon with JD's tree. "Are you sure you don't want me to leave the tree here?" JD asked.

"No, we aren't going back empty handed," Vin insisted.

JD tied Peso to the back of the wagon and started the team toward town. He tried to keep the ride as smooth as possible, but it was hard to do. Every time he heard Vin let out and agonizing grunt or moan, JD felt as if his heart was being ripped out.

It was a toss up who was the most relieved to see Four Corners in the distance early that afternoon. "Hang on just a little longer Vin, we're almost home."

Chris was coming out of the saloon as JD drove the wagon carefully through town. Seeing Peso tied to the rear of the wagon, riderless, and the anxious look on JD's face, told Chris enough to get him hollering, "Nathan," as he rushed over to JD.

"What happened JD," Chris growled when JD pulled the wagon to a stop in front of Nathan's clinic.

"It was an accident Cowboy. JD did good getting me back here after I broke my leg," Vin moaned from the wagon bed.

Nathan, Josiah, Buck, and Ezra had all responded to Chris' yell. "Good job JD," Nathan said. "If we each grab a corner of the tarp we can carry Vin upstairs without hurting him too much."

The extra hands made it much easier to get Vin out of the wagon and up the stairs. JD's face was pale when the door to the clinic closed. Ezra reached out to JD saying, "Let's get Peso, the team, and your tree taken care off."

"I'll help with the horses, but the tree can rot for all I care," JD said his voice full of the guilt he felt for Vin getting hurt.

"Mr Dunne, JD, listen to me. Our Mr Tanner may not know it but he needs this Christmas and it up to us to help him celebrate," Ezra replied.

"We'll make it the best Christmas ever, for Vin," JD said finding a purpose again.

Chapter Three

The next afternoon Vin was still trapped in Nathan's clinic, afraid to ask when he could get out because the last time the Texan had done so, the healer had told him if he asked that question one more time Nathan would keep him an extra week out of spite. Vin knew Nathan would do it too.

JD had stopped by the clinic several times to get Vin to help him with the decorations for 'their Christmas tree'. Along with the Bostonian, the other peacekeepers all seemed so happy about the upcoming celebration Vin didn't know how much longer he would be able to keep pretending he was happy too.

In desperation Vin had pretended to be asleep the last time JD showed up with his paper chain and the pine cones to make fancy decorations with ribbons.

Nathan was in the process of checking Vin's leg when Chris came in. "How's it looking?" Chris asked.

"Good," Nathan replied. "If we can keep Vin off of it until it heals it'll be fine."

Vin was relieved to hear that. He'd met some people whose bones didn't heal right, and he didn't want that to happen to him.

"I got good news too Vin," Chris said with a smile. "Mrs. Hanson is fixing up a downstairs room for you to stay in until your leg is healed."

Vin felt some excitement at the idea of having some privacy again, only to have it dashed by Nathan. "Didn't you hear me, Chris? Vin needs to say off that leg. He ain't leaving here until it heals."

Both Chris and Nathan saw Vin's hope die at those words. "Mrs. Potter told me she has a pair of crutches that Vin can use," Chris tried to convince Nathan.

"Chris," Nathan started to defend his position.

"Never mind Chris, Nathan don't trust me to do what he says," Vin said his voice flat and hopeless as he cut off Nathan.

"Vin, I'm just trying to do the best I can for you. It ain't about trust," Nathan tried.

Vin rolled onto his side turning away from Nathan and Chris, "Don't go on the worry, Nate. It ain't like I got anything to be out of here for. Think I'll get some sleep now."

Chris signaled to Nathan to walk outside with him. Once they closed the door Nathan said, "I'm not doing anything I wouldn't do for anyone else, I trust Vin."

"I know Nate, but Vin isn't like anyone else. He needs to know he has a choice, and you're taking that away from him. Didn't you hear it in his voice? The hurt and sadness?"

"Let me keep him here a little longer and see how he gets around and then we can decide. If you get the crutches from Miz Potter we can have him practice," Nathan offered a compromise but Chris could tell that the healer felt the best place for Vin was in the clinic.

Nathan paid close attention to his patient the rest of that day. Chris had gotten the crutches and the two of them helped Vin practice on them. Physically Vin was healing fine, but Nathan saw Chris was right. Vin's soul was dying right in front of him. The only time Vin seemed even remotely happy was when he was using the crutches to walk around the room.

The next day Nathan and Josiah carried a large log into the clinic and put it on a table next to Vin's bed. "Thanks Josiah, Vin and I can get it from here," Nathan said shaking Josiah's hand.

Josiah nodded to Vin before leaving the room. Vin studied the log while Nathan got some supplies and brought them back to the table.

"I was hoping I could get you to help me with the yule log," Nathan told Vin looking hopeful that Vin would agree.

Vin thought it over, knowing he owed Nathan for taking care of him the Texan answered, "Ain't like I got anything else to do."

"I used to watch the Master's family prepare and burn their yule log. Always wanted one myself, but there didn't seem much point in doing it before when I was alone. This year I have you and the boys to celebrate Christmas with so I got Josiah to help me find a log to use," Nathan explained.

"Some just burn a large log but the Master's family used to decorate it first, that's what I would like to do if you don't mind," Nathan said softly waiting for Vin to say something.

"Decorating is fine," Vin replied trying hard to hold in his emotions. First JD, and now Nathan, were sharing with him something they had always wanted to do, but had never gotten to. Maybe staying in town wasn't so bad after all. If he would have left when he wanted, he would have missed out of sharing these special firsts with his friends.

Putting some sprigs of pine needles on the log. Vin remembered a time long ago when he helped his Ma decorate their own. He thought about her placing some candles along with the greenery, and saying they could enjoy the decorated log and the candles as they burned.

Vin's memory was fresh in his mind when he told Nathan, "We need to put some candles on it."

"That's a good idea, Vin. It'll look right nice burning with a candle lit too," Nathan agreed.

Nathan found some candles, and after handing a couple to Vin they placed them carefully on the log. "That's a mighty fine yule log Nathan," Vin said as they finished decorating.

"Sure is, Vin. Thanks for your help. I'm looking forward to seeing it burning on Christmas eve," Nathan commented smiling at the thought.

"Wish I was gonna be able to see it," Vin whispered under his breath.

Nathan knew he wasn't supposed to hear, but he had. It was then he realized that keeping Vin in the clinic was keeping him away from Christmas. Maybe some Christmas spirit could heal Vin's wounded soul.

"Vin, I was thinking over Chris' suggestion about the room Miz Hanson has waiting for you."

"Yeah," Vin said not able to hide the hope in his voice.

"I'd like you to stay here tonight, but you're doing good with the crutches. If you promise to take it easy, and stay off that leg, you should be able to move to Miz Hanson's room tomorrow morning."

Vin's face lit up with joy letting Nathan know he made the right choice. "Don't worry Nate, I'll follow your orders."

"I know you will, Vin. I trust you to be careful."

The next morning Chris, Josiah, and Buck came by to help move Vin over to Mrs. Hanson's. Outside of getting him down the stairs the others just had to carry Vin's belongings over to the boarding house since the Texan was able to get around on his own with the aide of his crutches. After they got Vin's things moved in, the others left the Texan alone. Tanner thanked Mrs. Hanson for letting him stay at the boarding house, and then Vin went to Potter's store to thank Mrs. Potter for the crutches. With those duties taken care, of Vin settled down next to Chris on the bench outside the saloon. Nathan and Buck got Tanner's leg up on another chair, before they left the two friends to enjoy the sights and sounds of town.

Chapter Four

It was still early when Vin made his way down the wooden sidewalk toward the church. He had a lot of pondering to do, and he couldn't think of a more peaceful place to do it in, than at the church. The past few days had been ones filled with bittersweet memories as he had listened to first JD, and then Nathan, shared with him things that they had done for past Christmases or had wished they had been able to do. The Texan understood that they were trying to include him in making new memories, and he appreciated the gestures, but if circumstances had been different, he and Peso would have been long gone from Four Corners.

With a broken leg, he knew that leaving was virtually impossible, since he was finding it hard enough to get along in walking with the aid of the crutches that Mrs. Potter had provided for him; riding would be far worse, even when you had a trusted mount such as he had.

As he reached the church at last, and struggled up the porch steps, Vin could hear Josiah's rich baritone voice reciting some Bible verses. Tanner hesitated outside the closed double doors, wondering if he would be imposing upon the older man if he went inside. The Texan shook his head at his foolishness. Josiah expected people to interrupt or impose upon him since the older man had self-appointed himself as the spiritual leader in the growing community.

Vin opened the doors and maneuvered himself inside and stood for a couple of awkward moments in the doorway as he listened to Josiah. “…And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judea, unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem. To be taxed with Mary his espoused wife, being great with child. And so it was, that, while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered. And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn. And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round them; and they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, Fear not; behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.”

Josiah stopped in the middle of his recitation and jotted down a few notes onto a piece of paper, it was only then that he became aware that he had an audience. “Morning, Vin. Was there something that you wanted to talk to me about?”

“Morning, Josiah.” Vin replied, hobbling forward to settle himself into the first pew. “To answer your question, no, I wasn't plannin' on talkin' to you about anythin'. Was just lookin' for a place to do some ponderin'.”

“Church is about the best place I know of to do pondering.” Josiah replied, accepting Vin's explanation. “If you want to be alone, I can always finish my sermon preparations later.”

“No, you go on and continue working on your sermon. I can do my ponderin' around it.” Tanner told him.

“All right,” Josiah agreed.

Vin found himself listening more intently to the words of the Bible verses that Josiah was reciting aloud, than to his own turbulent thoughts. It had been a long time since he had heard the verses describing the birth of the Christ child. His mama had had a torn up old Bible that she used to read stories to him from time to time, the story about Jesus Christ's birth, having been one of her favorites. Her cherished Bible was one of the few things of hers that he had managed to hang onto over the years. Having it close at times when he missed her most, had always made him feel a little bit better, even if he hadn't been able to read the words written within it until recently.

He could almost hear the sound of her sweet voice reciting the familiar words along with Josiah, and the thought brought a lump of emotion into his throat and moisture to his eyes. Vin hastily ducked his head and blinked back the tears that threatened to fall, before Josiah could see them.

“You alright, Vin?” Josiah asked.

“I'm fine.” Vin growled hoarsely.

A soft smile played across Josiah's face at the usual response from Tanner, and wasn't put off by it. He moved to settle himself onto the pew beside the Texan.

“If you want to talk, I'll listen.”

“I know you would Josiah.” Vin raised his head and met the other man's compassionate blue eyes. “I just don't know how much good it would do to rehash things that can never be changed.”

“Sometimes, talking is the only thing we can do when we are faced with things from our past that we can't change. I know for a fact that my burden about Hannah has become easier to bare, because you were so willing to listen to me unload it. I'd like very much to do the same for you, if I can?”

Tanner sighed. “Everyone is so excited about Christmas time...”

“That they are. It's a special time of year for most people. A time to celebrate life and family and to renew ties with loved ones.” Josiah said thoughtfully.

“It's hard to do that when you ain't got any.” Vin blurted out, immediately regretting that he had said anything.

Josiah measured Vin's words. “What is it you think you don't have?”

“Family traditions,” Tanner's weary eyes met Sanchez's. “I ain't had family to celebrate with since my Ma died, and since then…well, mostly I've spent Christmas alone…out there.” He indicated the mountains in the distance.

“That's where you are wrong, son.” Josiah corrected him. “Family isn't just the folks that you are born to and grown up with. Family is made up of people who you've allowed to share your life with...learned to trust, have fought side to side with, shared blood, laughter, and tears with…..like you've done with me and the other boys.” He laid his hand on Vin's shoulder. “As far as tradition is concerned, you made your own, son. Just like Mary and Joseph in that stable, you've spent Christmas' out there, under the same blanket of stars that guided them to Nazareth. You slept in the open, the same as the shepherds that watched over their flocks and came to view baby Jesus. You were no more alone than they were.”

“I never thought on it that way.” Vin admitted. Tanner was quiet for several moments, as he tried to take in all that Josiah had said. He hadn't been giving much thought to what the others were thinking or feeling in the past couple of days. He had only been thinking of himself and the bittersweet memories that were surfacing as he listened to his fellow peacekeepers talk about the upcoming holiday, and the things that each of them wanted to do to celebrate it.

Josiah knew that Vin would figure it out on his own time, and decided to say no more about it. “Since you're here, I could use your help planning the live Nativity scene we're doing for Christmas Eve. I also need a steady hand to paint some of the wood carvings that Chris has already finished for the children.”

“I'd like that.” Vin agreed.

The next few hours passed by quickly. Vin knew he needed to head back to the boarding house while he could still walk. “Guess, I'll be headin' back over to the boardin' house now, Josiah.” Vin said after a couple of moments. He got awkwardly to his feet and started down the aisle of pews toward the doors at the end. “Thanks for….just thanks, Josiah.”

“Any time Vin.” Sanchez replied, as he caught up to the Texan at the doors. He pulled one open and held it. “Here brother, let me help you.”

After maneuvering himself out onto the porch, Vin wearily accepted Josiah's assistance down the steps to the street below. The older man watched Tanner hobble away for a few moments, before turning around and going back into the church to his work.

Chapter Five

As he started across the street toward the direction of the boardinghouse, Vin was conscious of the pair of eyes on his back, and knew that Josiah was concerned about him. Instead of feeling put out by it, the Texan felt warmed by the older man's concern. His discussion with Josiah had brought a lot of feelings and emotions to the surface of his mind, and Vin felt weighted down by them. By the time he reached the wooden sidewalk, he was weary, emotionally and physically. He couldn't wait to return to his temporary room at Mrs. Hanson's, and stretch out for a spell to do some pondering.

Tanner really did appreciate everyone's willingness to help him out, as well as to include him their preparations for Christmas, but he was still not comfortable about staying in town for the upcoming holiday. He believed it would have been better if he had not listened to Chris, and had just kept on riding instead of coming back to town.

Don't, Tanner. It had meant something to JD for you to help him with obtaining that tree, and no one could have predicted that a mountain lion would tag along.

Buck had been watching the Texan hobble along the boardwalk from across the street. Deciding that Vin might be in need of some assistance, he walked over to join Tanner. "Mind if I walk with you?"

"I don't need no babysitter, Buck!" Vin snapped at the ladies man.

Wilmington was not deterred by the other man's response to his question. "No, I reckon you don't, but I thought maybe you could use a friend."

Guilt flooded over Vin for the way he was acting. Buck was just being… well, Buck, and here he was growling at him like an old grizzly bear. Sighing deeply, Tanner attempted to apologize. "Sorry Buck, guess 'm a little touchy."

A wide grin formed on Wilmington's face. "Nah, you're gentle as a lamb. Now, if it were Chris on those crutches, he would have already shot someone."

As the two men reached the boarding house, Buck opened the door and held it so that Tanner could enter it. Vin's room was located on the ground floor, close to the kitchen, making it easily accessible for Vin with the crutches. By the time they made it to Vin's room, the tracker was worn out and his leg was hurting.

"Thanks for the assistance Buck, but I'm good from here." What Vin wanted to do most was stretch out on his bed, give his leg a rest, and work through the thoughts roiling around inside of his head.

"At least let me get that boot off for you." Buck told him, and waited until Vin sat down on the bed. He propped up pillows on the bed for the Texan to rest his leg on, before pouring some water into a glass and taking a packet of the pain medicine that Nathan had supplied from the top of the dresser, and carrying both back over to Tanner.

Vin shook his head as he took the glass and packet from Wilmington's outstretched hands. "You're as much of a mother hen as Nathan is." He told the other man as he reluctantly allowed Buck to remove his boot.

Once Buck was satisfied that Tanner was comfortable he started to leave. "Is there anything else that you need? I could bring you something to eat or…"

"I'm fine," Vin interrupted him.

"Okay then. Guess I'll get out of here and let you rest a bit." Vin watched as Wilmington moved over to the door and reached for the knob and hesitantly called out to him.

"Buck." Tanner waited for his friend to turn around. "Do you remember…?" Suddenly Vin was unsure about asking his question.

"Do I remember what Vin?"

"I just wondered if you remembered havin' Christmas with your Ma."

Wilmington walked back toward the bed and sat down in the chair next to it. "Christmas with my mom was a special time for us." Buck leaned back in the chair as a wistful look came into his eyes. "You already know it was just me and my mama when I was growing up. She …worked a lot, but she always found some time for us to spend together. I remember every year she managed for us to have a special time on Christmas Eve, and when nighttime fell, she would tuck me into bed with a story." Buck sighed. "It was the same story every year, but I can still hear her beautiful voice as she spoke. 'Twas the night before Christmas and all through the house…."

Vin listened as Buck recited the words that his Ma had always told to him, noticing the way Wilmington's voice deepened with emotion as he recited the story from memory. His own memories stirred and he could hear his own Mama's voice in the back of his mind. Now, Dasher! Now, Dancer! Now, Prancer and Vixen! On, Comet! On Cupid! On Donder and Blitzen! To the top of the porch! To the top of the wall! Now dash away! Dash away! Dash away all! As dry leaves that before the wild hurricane fly, when they meet with an obstacle, mount to the sky. So up to the house-top the coursers they flew. With the sleigh full of toys, and St. Nicholas too. Tanner smiled and closed his eyes, remembering how she'd laugh and pretend to hear the reindeer on the roof. How could he have forgotten? Exhaustion took over and sleep finally claimed the Texan. He dreamed of a beautiful woman that always found a way to make her young son feel loved.

"Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night," Buck finished his recitation and returned to the present from a place he had not been in many years. He grinned when he looked over to see that Vin had fallen asleep. Quietly he stood up and retrieved the comforter from the end of the bed. He covered his young friend and made a silent exit from the room.

Chapter Six

It was a couple of days later when JD, Buck, Ezra, and Vin were sitting together in the saloon enjoying the meal Inez had prepared for them. Ezra watched with a disapproving look upon his face as JD finished gobbling down his meal, knowing that the young man was going to start talking about Christmas again. Hoping to cut him off before he could launch into another enthusiastic diatribe, the con man asked, "Aren't you scheduled to relieve Mr. Larabee from his duty at the jail, JD?"

"Oh yeah," JD said gulping down the rest of his milk. "See you guys later."

Watching as JD slipped on some mud going out of the door, Buck laughed. Reaching out Buck tapped Vin's shoulder. "You do better with those crutches than some people do just walking."

Vin shook his head in response, as he lifted his mug of coffee to his lips, and took a long sip of the dark brew. Wilmington was the next to finish his meal. He rose from the table and told Vin and Ezra, "I think I'll go find Inez and compliment her on that tasty meal."

Vin and Ezra shared a laugh as they watched Buck head off in the direction of the kitchen. "It's good to see you up and around my friend," Ezra said holding up his coffee cup in a salute.

"It's good to be up and around," Vin agreed saluting back with his own.

Both men thanked Inez for the meal when she came to clear the table. Buck appeared at Inez's side, and took the tray she carried from her. "Here, darlin', let me help you with that heavy ol' tray." The ladies man offered.

Inez shook her head at Wilmington's antics, and then headed back toward the kitchen. She was followed closely by Buck carrying the tray. Ezra laughed saying, "Buck is nothing, if not persistent."

"Mighty helpful, too," Vin agreed joining Ezra in his laughter.

The two friends were enjoying each other's company when a boy from the freight office approached them, carrying a package. Clearing his throat the boy squeaked out, "I have a package for you Mr. Standish, it's marked important."

Ezra took the package and tipped the boy, who quickly returned to his duties. "Who's it from Ezra?" Vin asked, watching his friend study the package.

"It appears to be a Christmas gift from Maude," Ezra said lifting the package as if to test the weight.

"Why don't you go ahead and open it?" Vin suggested. "'Less you want to wait for Christmas."

"I… normally, I would open this in the privacy of my room. However, I find that curiosity has me captured in its snare," Ezra replied before looking around the room to find no one was paying attention to the two of them. Turning back to look at Vin, Ezra added, "I have your word this is just between us."

Vin made sure he was looking Ezra in the eye when he said, "I won't say a word to anyone."

Carefully Ezra opened the package to find two bottles of Napoleon brandy. He lifted each of the intricate glass bottles out of the box and placed them on the table. He pulled out the note that accompanied the brandy and read it to Vin. "Merry Christmas my darling boy, Maude"

Vin picked up one of the bottles, and let out a low whistle. "I may not know much about the finer things in life, but I know this is the good stuff."

"Yes, Mother always did feel an expensive gift would make up for her absence."

Vin wasn't sure what to say in response to the quiet bitterness he heard in Ezra's voice. He didn't want to upset the Southerner anymore than he already was. It wasn't in the Texan's nature to let a friend suffer if he could prevent it.

He was still trying to come up with the right words, when Ezra said sadly, "For as long as I can remember, Mother has always sent an expensive gift. I would have preferred to have her spend some time with me, as to receiving any of the elaborate gifts she gave me. Sometimes I envy you, Vin."

"Envy me?" Vin questioned, surprise blossoming on his face. "Why?"

"Your mother fought to stay with you. If she had had a choice she would not have left you." Vin had never considered it that way. He had always thought that he was the one who had missed out on so much because he didn't have a parent for most of his life. He nodded his understanding and waited for Ezra to continue. "My own dear Mother has left me at every opportunity that she could, especially when there was much money to be made from a new con she had concocted. An expensive gift is a poor substitute for a mother's love."

Vin pulled his beloved harmonica out of his pocket and placed it on the table. "This was my last Christmas gift from my Ma. She promised to teach me how to play it. She got sick before I had the chance to learn too much."

Ezra swallowed hard, remembering all the rude comments he had made about Vin's battered harmonica. Now he understood more fully the sentimental value that the musical instrument held for the sharpshooter.

"Just holding it or playing it, makes me feel like my Ma is still with me." Vin's fingers ran down one of the bottles of brandy. "Maybe your Ma is thinking her gift will do the same."

Ezra scoffed at the idea, "More likely the gift is her half-hearted attempt to live up to her parental responsibilities."

"Maybe, but I think she does care," Vin insisted. "Think about it Ez, she came all the way out here. Why, because she came to see you, her son. ”

"It's more likely she was hiding out from some con she pulled," Ezra argued stubbornly.

Vin could be just as stubborn. "You mean to tell me she came all the way from St Louis just to hide? She ain't got some place closer she could have gone."

"Looking for a mark then," Ezra countered. Vin's raised eyebrow told him, that Tanner wasn't buying that one either.

"Way I see it, your Ma would rather die than come out and tell you she loves you." Vin smiled and shook his head. "A lady like Maude, she doesn't do anything without a reason. Coming to this little backwater town, just 'cause you're here. That's love my friend."

"I suppose you think pawning me off on any relative she could was love, too?" Ezra retorted still hurting from Maude leaving him all those years ago.

"I ain't saying she done right by you, Ezra. Some people, they just ain't good at taking care of anyone, not even themselves.”

Ezra couldn't stop the snort that he let out at Vin's comment.

"Judging by the man in front of me, she didn't do too badly of a job," Vin stated calmly in the tone that told Ezra he believe it.

"I could say the same about you, Vin. Your Mother would be proud of the man her little boy became."

"She was a good woman," Vin admitted his voice cracking with emotion. "I don't think I'll ever stop missing her."

Ezra picked up Vin's harmonica and handed it back to him. "Gifts from the heart should be treasured."

The Texan caressed the harmonica before putting it back in his pocket nodding his gratitude to the Southerner.

Ezra picked up one of the bottles of brandy. "They should also be shared with good friends. I think I'll bring these to our Christmas celebration."

Vin smiled, "That's a right nice idea, I'm sure the boys will appreciate it."

"No, they won't," Ezra said his own smile forming. "But they will drink it."

Vin laughed feeling that the tension Maude's gift had brought had been lifted.

"I know I don't say it enough, but thank you Mr. Tanner for helping me see things a little clearer."

"Anytime, Pard," Vin replied.

"I'd like to return the favor." Ezra looked at Vin hoping his offer wouldn't be taken wrong. "I get the feeling you aren't looking forward to our upcoming Christmas festivities as much as some of our brothers in arms."

It was Vin's turn to swallow hard as he nodded for Ezra to continue.

"I would like to offer my services to you."

"Services, what do you mean?" Vin asked confused.

"I'm suggesting we need to establish a signal. If the festivities get to be too much for you, send me the signal and I will intervene to give you a break."

"What's in it for you," Vin said softly.

"My only goal is for my friend to have a Christmas he can enjoy." Ezra looked over at the bar where Buck was flirting with one of the saloon girls. "Some of our compatriots' can get overwhelming at times."

"That they do." Vin replied, his smile returning. He realized Ezra could be subtle enough to pull this off without hurting the other's feelings. "What 'cha got in mind?"

Ezra smiled and leaned forward, and the two men began to come up with a plan that would allow Vin an opportunity to celebrate with his friends without feeling trapped.

Chapter Seven
December 23

The sun was just rising into the morning sky, when Vin made his way out of the boarding house and started down the wooden sidewalk in the direction of the saloon. As he drew closer to it, Tanner saw that Chris had beat him outside to the pair of chairs that the two men had claimed as theirs in the mornings. He was only a couple of feet away from the saloon, when he saw that the blond gunfighter was leaning forward in his chair working on a carving of some kind, and it made him hesitate for a moment.

He had taken to heart the different Christmas experiences that his fellow peacekeepers had shared with him. Tanner still wasn't so sure that he had anything to contribute to the rest of the holiday celebrations that were planned, but he had made the decision to become involved in them in some way.

“What do you think?” Chris's voice broke through Vin's reverie, holding out the round top for Tanner's inspection.

“You did a good job.” The Texan told Larabee, handing the wooden toy back to the gunfighter, before he maneuvered himself around the man and settled himself in the other chair.

“Hope you came prepared to work.” Chris told the sharpshooter, “I've only got a couple more toys to carve before I have enough for all of the children, but I still have several of them that need to be painted before they will be ready. I could use your steady hand.”

“I was hoping that you would ask.” Vin told him honestly. “I know I haven't been a barrel of fun to be around the past couple of days.”

“There were some things that you needed to work through.” Chris acknowledged. “We've all been there…”

The Texan couldn't help smiling in response to Chris's easy acceptance of his apology. Larabee glanced over when Vin put the buckskin bag he had worn strapped across his torso onto the table between them. Pride rose in Larabee's heart, the sharpshooter was reaching out to offer something of his to their celebration.

As the gunfighter watched, Tanner began pulling tins out of the bag that Larabee recognized as Indian paints that the sharpshooter had obtained from their friends in the at the Seminole village. A few of the tins were empty, but most were filled with dried powders of different colors. Vin used the blade of his knife to take a bit of the powder from each one of the filled tins, and place it into the empty ones. Then the Texan popped the cork of a vial and added a bit of the clear liquid into each of the second set of tins, until rich colors appeared.

“What herb makes what color?” Larabee asked with interest.

“Brown is made from hemlock or black walnut, yellow from goldenrod or hickory, red from pokeberry, blue from elderberry, and green from horsetails.” Tanner explained as he picked up a train in one hand and a small paintbrush in the others and began to paint.

The two men worked in companionable silence for the next couple of hours. Although not many words were exchanged those who knew the friends were aware the lines of communication between the two wasn't always verbal.

Chris handed the bear he had just finished carving to Vin to paint. It seemed to Vin that long forgotten, but cherished, memories were flowing out of him freely since JD had opened the flood gates with that Jingle Bells song of his. The bear lying in the palm of his hand brought back another memory to the surface of his mind, only he wasn't a child anymore, but a man.

A wistful smile formed on Vin's lips as he thought of another bear that he had had carved and given to the youngest son of the Kiowa family who had taken him to raise as their own. He saw again the look of pure joy that shone in the boy's dark eyes as he had accepted the unexpected gift from him, and remembered again the love that had filled his heart that day.

He had expected nothing in return for the small token. His gift had been accepted in the spirit it had been given in. Drawing back from the memory, Vin looked ahead to seeing the enjoyment on the faces of the towns' children as they received the gifts that he and Chris were making.

Christmas was a time for gift giving, a time for love, happiness, and family of all kinds, of memories treasured and new ones made. Looking over at their leader, Vin had finally figured it out. Chris wasn't trying to keep him from the freedom the Texan craved when he made him stay; he was giving him the gift of a Christmas celebration. It was a gift from the heart, just like the harmonica his Ma had given him so long ago. It was another one that should be treasured.

Chapter Eight
Christmas Eve

The saloon was decked out in festive ribbons, fragrant wreaths, and candles. The tree that JD and Vin had chosen stood in one corner of the saloon, bedecked with strings of popcorn, chains of colored bits of paper, and tiny wooden ornaments. Assortments of wrapped packages were tucked underneath to be given out to the children.

Upon the bar rested the Yule log that Nathan had decorated, and it was surrounded by pine cones other candles. Inez had insisted they wait until there was more people before Nathan put the Yule log in the pot belly stove to burn. The area in front of the pot belly stove was left clear so the doors could be open letting anyone who wanted watch the symbolic burning of the log. Once it was in the stove the candles on top would be lit, giving the entire log a warm glow from the flames.

All of the tables in the center of the room had been pushed back to make room for folks to dance, while others remained to offer cozy seating areas for whomever wanted to sit down. Two long tables made of planks of wood and tree stumps had been covered with tablecloths and held a variety of desserts including cookies, pies, cakes, and candy. Coffee and hot cider stayed warm in large silver urns, next to trays of different kinds of sandwiches, and bowls of popcorn.

One by one the seven peacekeepers had arrived at the saloon early, each one wanting to assure themselves that their special contributions to the evening's festivities were completed. Nathan immediately sought out Vin, and insisted that the Texan get off his leg and sit down. Josiah was going over the sermon he had prepared for that evening, while JD was sampling some of the refreshments that the towns' women folk had prepared. Buck had already picked out a dancing partner and was whirling the pretty young woman around the floor along with other couples in time to the lively music that the trio of farmers was making with their instruments. Chris and Ezra sat together at a table close to the Texan, watching the merrymaking going on.

Vin sat near the bar watching the Yule log burn and Nathan joined him. "The candles were a good idea, Vin. We make a good team." Nathan smiled at the Texan, pleased to see that Tanner seemed to be getting as much enjoyment out of sitting and watching the Yule log burn as he was.

"You did a good job, Nathan, I didn't do so much." Vin responded.

The healer thought about pushing the issue on how much the Texan's involvement in making the Yule Log meant to him, but didn't want to drive the Texan from their midst by becoming too sentimental. Nathan reached out a hand and placed it on Tanner's shoulder, giving it a brotherly squeeze and said, "You helped a friend out, and that means a lot to me."

Vin watched Nathan walk over to the bar to visit with Inez. Behind him he heard Casey complimenting JD on the Christmas tree. Tanner was surprised to hear JD say, "I couldn't have found the tree without Vin's help."

The saloon was packed to overflowing with celebration attendees, and that pleased Chris. Some of the women in town had protested that the saloon wasn't a proper place to hold a Christmas party with children, but their protests had fallen on deaf ears. Next to the lobby at the hotel, the main room of the saloon was the largest place to hold a party that would accommodate all the townsfolk. Larabee had come to Mary Travis's aid and told the women who were doing the protesting that if there was going to be a Christmas party at all, it was going to be held in the saloon, or not at all. There were no further complaints made.

As soon as it appeared that everyone who was coming to the party had arrived, Mary excused herself from the group of people that she had been talking too, and walked over to the staircase that led to the second floor of the saloon. She went up a couple of steps, and called for everyone's attention. "The other ladies and I would like to thank you all for coming to the party tonight. Firstly, I'd like to thank Chris Larabee and the rest of the seven for their contributions to making this night such a special occasion for all. Secondly, if you all would be seated, Josiah Sanchez is ready to give us his sermon.”

Josiah's rich baritone filled the room as the oldest member of the seven delivered his own version of the Christmas story that he had been practicing, the day Vin had gone to the church to do some pondering. Tanner was swallowing hard by the time Josiah was done. Damn, that man was a silver tongue devil, the Sharpshooter thought.

"Ho, ho, ho," filled the air as Santa Claus showed up to hand out the gifts to the children.

Vin almost choked on his beer when he realized Buck was playing Santa. Chris had moved over to sit next to his best friend during Josiah's sermon. He smiled at Tanner's reaction to Wilmington playing Santa Claus, and whispered softly to the Texan, "He used to love to play Santa for Adam."

Vin looked closely at Chris for signs of sadness invoked by the gunfighter's revealing to him that this wasn't the first time Wilmington had played Santa Claus for a child, but read only anticipation in Larabee as he watched the delighted faces of the children as the gifts were handed out.

The joy on the children's faces was everything both men thought it would be. Buck was in his glory as he handed out the gifts to each of the children. He called each of them by name, and it was clear to both the sharpshooter and gunfighter that the children were in awe of the ladies man.

Once all the gifts had been handed out, the children played with their toys while the adults danced and visited. Vin was in the middle of eating a plate of goodies that Mrs. Potter had brought to him when Buck sat down beside the tracker with his own plate of food. "You did good, pard," Tanner told him.

"I do have a way about me, don't I," Buck crowed, making Vin laugh.

Billy Travis ran up to Josiah yelling, "Josiah, you gotta read 'Twas the night before Christmas. It wouldn't be Christmas without it."

Vin and Buck shared a knowing smile as they both listened to Josiah's rich baritone voice recite the Christmas poem.

Soon it was time for the parents to take their tired children home and tuck them safely into their bed for the night. Several of the townspeople stayed to help clean up, surprising a grateful Inez with their generosity. Chris asked the dark eyed beauty if he and the others could stay awhile longer, promising Inez that they would lock up the building when they left.

"Of course you may." Inez smiled at all of them and offered her own wish for them. "Feliz Navidad." They all wished her a merry Christmas in return as she left.

Once it was just the Seven, Ezra stood announcing, "This week I received a treasured gift from Maude. I would be honored it you would share it with me in a toast among good friends." Ezra looked directly at Vin when he said the last part. Pulling out the two bottles of Napoleon brandy, Ezra poured each of his fellow peacekeepers a glass. All seven lifted their drinks high and in unison said, "To friends."

Vin was nervous when he cleared his throat saying, "I have somethin' I'd like to share with y'all." Reaching into the pockets of his buckskin coat, he pulled out six small items that he had carefully wrapped and handed one to each of his friends. Tanner nodded for them to open them while he explained, "The Kiowa believe in animal protectors. It seems that I had some free time this week." The others laughed knowing it was hard on him to be stuck in one place for long. "I made you each your own animal protector."

"Oh man," JD exclaimed with delight, "A wolf, thanks Vin."

JD's words brought Vin's bowed head up to gaze around the table into each of the other six peacekeepers smiling faces, and found his own lips creasing in a return smile. Each animal was different: for Buck he had made a running horse, Josiah an owl, Ezra an eagle, Nathan a turtle. At the questioning look that the healer sent his direction, Vin explained, “It means long life," Nathan smiled and nodded his head in understanding.

Vin turned to Chris last, seeing him admiring the bear Vin had carved for him. There was a grin on Chris's face as he said, "Means protector right?"

"Right," Vin said relieved that Chris understood his message.

The others started pulling out their own gifts that they had made or purchased for their friends. Buck gave each man a new bandana. Nathan gave them a small packet of bandages for their saddlebags. Josiah and JD gave each man a fishing lure with a promise of a well deserved fishing trip when the weather turned nice. Ezra handed each of them a handkerchief that he had had Mrs. Potter embroider with their individual initials saying, "A proper gentlemen would never be found with one."

Chris went last, handing his gifts out one at a time. Ezra, JD, and Buck received a bag of peppermint candies. Nathan and Josiah received books. Saving Vin's for last, the blond handed Tanner a small carving of the Madonna and child, softly saying, "That way your Ma can always be with you."

Vin felt his eyes fill with unshed tears and feeling a bit overwhelmed by his emotions, he quickly signaled Ezra with their prearranged cue. Ezra stood saying, "I can't believe I forgot, Mr. Tanner, you promised to look at Chaucer's hoof for me and I must insist you look tonight. If you gentlemen will excuse us for a few minutes, we shall return post haste.”

Ezra handed Tanner his crutches and amid complaints from the other men, he followed the Texan out of the saloon.

Buck rose from his chair, intent on going after the other two men. "I ain't letting him ruin tonight for Vin."

Chris seemed to sense that there was more going on than what they knew and trusted Ezra to handle the situation with the Texan. "Sit down Buck, they won't be long." He told the ladies man firmly.

Outside Vin took in a deep breath of fresh air, and attempted to get control of his emotions. Ezra waited a few minutes for the sharpshooter to gain his bearings again before speaking. "Vin, you rightly pointed out to me only a few days ago that each one of us does what we are capable of in our own way. You my friend, may have been tied to town due to your broken leg, but if I am not mistaken you have still managed to make a long journey."

"I feel like it." Vin agreed. “Two weeks ago I was ready to take off to the mountains and disappear for a while. I didn't think I had anything to offer toward a Christmas celebration." Tanner took another deep breath. "I reckon maybe I was wrong. Y'all gave me back memories I had forgotten and I realize now I'm a lot richer that I thought."

Ezra questioned, "Richer in what way, Vin?"

"I may not have had lots of family celebrations over the years, but I was never as alone as I figured I was. It was all there, just buried in my mind in a place that I haven't been to in a while. My Ma, my Indian family, even when I was out there, Josiah made me remember how close I really was to all that's really important."

Ezra understood exactly what Vin was talking about. He, too, now viewed his life a bit differently. He owed it not to where he was, but who was here with him. He found what he never had known he was missing in his life. Vin had found it also.

"I think we both have made a few discoveries this holiday, my friend."

“I reckon we have Ezra, I think we found a reason to celebrate." Vin smiled as he fingered the wood carving Chris had given him. "Let's go back inside."

Vin looked much calmer when they returned than he had when Ezra asked him to leave. Chris made eye contact with Ezra, a dip of his hat in a salute brought a smile to Ezra's face.

Buck pulled out his pocket watch telling the others, "You do realize it's after midnight, it's now officially Christmas."

Seven voices combined as one to say, "Merry Christmas."

The End