Story: Gen, OW, X-over with The Little Match Girl by Hans Christian Andersen.
Main character: Chris
Note: Written for an X-over holiday challenge, in which one of the X-over universes had to be a Christmas movie or story. I chose The Little Match Girl by Andersen.
Disclaimer: I don't own these characters, just wanted to tell a little Christmas story. No money made.
It was terribly cold and nearly dark and the snow was falling fast. A poor little girl, with bare head and bare feet, roamed through the streets. She did have on a pair of slippers when she left home, but they hadn't been of much use. They had been too large, because they once belonged to her mother and the girl had lost them in running across the street to avoid the stage coach when it rolled into town at a terrible speed. One of the slippers she couldn't find, and a boy took the other and ran away with it.
By now her feet were red and blue with the cold. In an old apron she carried a number of matches and she had a bundle of them in her hands. No one had bought some from her the whole day, or even given her a dime. Shivering with cold and hunger she crept along, the snowflakes falling on her long, fair hair. Lights were shining from every window and there was a savory smell of roast turkey from some of the houses already, because this was Christmas Eve and tomorrow would be Christmas day with its Christmas dinners. Yes, she remembered that.
In a corner between two houses she sank down and huddled in on herself. She drew her feet underneath her, but she couldn't keep off the cold. She dared not go home, because she hadn't sold any matches and didn't have any money to bring back. Her father would certainly beat her and besides, it was almost as cold at home as here, with the leaking roof and the holes in the walls.
Her hands were so cold, they were almost frozen. It hurt. Perhaps a burning match might help. If she could draw it from the bundle and strike it against the wall she might warm her fingers. She drew one out and scratched it along the wall. It sputtered and then it burned, with a bright, warm light, like a little candle. She held one hand over it, savoring the feel of warmth coming from the small flame. It was a really wonderful light and it seemed to her that she was sitting beside a large, iron stove, a fire burning brightly within it. She stretched her cold feet out toward it when the flame of the match went out.
The stove was gone immediately. Quickly she took out another match and scratched it along the wall.
* * * * * * *
By the time Chris Larabee rode into the bustling town he was shivering and it wasn't just from the cold. The last thing he had wanted was find himself in a happy town filled with light and a festive cheer on Christmas Eve. He had planned to spend the night somewhere along the trail despite the cold, but the sudden heavy snow had put a stop to his plans of solitude.
He knew he was lucky there had been a town around for him to find shelter in, he just didn't feel that way. Why did it have to be a town that screamed Christmas to him from practically every home? With wreaths on almost every door and candles flickering in the windows?
He stopped Pony when he saw an honest to God real Christmas tree, complete with decorations, stand in front of a church bigger than Josiah's and in a lot better state too.
This town wasn't only at least ten times bigger than Four Corners, it was a lot richer as well. It wouldn't surprise him if there was a second church somewhere.
Sarah would have loved it all.
The laughter of a child made him look to his left. A man and a young boy were throwing snowballs at each other. The boy's dark hair fell over his eyes and he gave a triumphant shout when he hit the man square on the chest.
The boy looked to be around the age Adam would have been by now.
Damn, he needed a drink.
With an effort he ignored the cheerful people and especially the few children still running around at this late hour, as he looked for the seedier part every town had. The place where the saloons would stay open and serve strong liquor no matter what evening it was. He needed to get roaring drunk and he needed it right now.
* * * * * * *
The little girl wanted to cry when another match went out and left her in the dark. For a few seconds she had been sure she was in a room lighted with hundreds of candles. Even better had been the table in front of her, filled with food. The steaming turkey, stuffed with apples and dried plums had been the best of all and she had just reached out to take a little bit when her match went out and she was back in the snow, in the dark corner between the houses, feeling the familiar hunger pangs in her stomach.
Quickly she pulled out another match to see if this time she could get something from that table before it went out, but when the match flared up she saw something else. A beautiful Christmas tree, larger and even more beautifully decorated than the one she had seen through the window at the rich merchant's house. Colored pictures, like those she had seen in the show windows of some of the shops, looked down upon it all. She stretched her hand out towards it when the match went out.
The Christmas tree disappeared, but the lights went up in the sky, dancing higher and higher until they looked like the stars in the sky. She saw a star fall between them, leaving behind it a bright streak of fire. 'Someone is dying,' the little girl thought, because her grandmother, the only one who had ever loved her but who was now dead, had once told her that when a star falls, a soul was going up to God.
She rubbed another match against the wall. This time she saw her grandmother stand before her in the brightness, clear and as loving as she had ever been. "Grandmother," the girl gasped. "Oh, please, don't leave me again, please, take me with you!" She grabbed a whole bundle of matches and lit them all at once with the one already burning, desperate that her grandmother wouldn't disappear as all the other things had disappeared. The matches glowed with a light brighter than the noon-day and her grandmother had never appeared so large or so beautiful. She forgot about hunger and cold and stretched out her arms....
* * * * * * *
Chris still found himself in the respectable part of town, starting to feel hemmed in by it. He had seen some saloons, but he'd be damned if he was going to drink himself into a stupor surrounded by festive greens and - of all things - candle light. No way.
It looked like he would have to settle for purchasing some bottles and take his drinking to a hotel room. The appeal of that idea grew with each street he passed.
And yeah, there was a second church, this one without a tree before its double door, but it had greens surrounding each of its windows.
A sudden flare of light off to one side made him stop, but when he searched in the direction he thought it had come from he only saw dark corners. Just as he looked away there it was again.
Match? It looked like a match, but it was a bit low to the ground. No, it was gone.
He sighed, suddenly aware of how tired he was. He rolled his head in his neck, trying to get rid of some of the tension. This time the flash of light he saw was completely different, a falling star, one of the brightest he had ever seen.
Memories flashed through his mind, of nights with Sarah, on the porch of their now burned home, staring up at the stars. Her delighted laugh when they saw one fall. Her lovely voice, calling out for him to make a wish.
That time with Adam, camping without a tent, the air warm around them. His jubilant screams when they saw several falling stars shoot through the heavens. His arms around the small, bouncing body and him telling Adam to make a wish.
Wishes were all nonsense anyway. Nothing could bring him back the one thing he would wish for, his wife and his son. Death was all that was real. He looked away and gave Pony a soft nudge to get going, when again light flared up in that dark corner between two of the houses. This time there was no denying it and it was definitely more than one match. His breath caught when he saw what the light illuminated and he hurried Pony towards it.
He jumped off just as the light died down and the little girl became invisible again in the darkness, unless you knew she was there.
"Hey," he said softly, not wanting to frighten her. She didn't respond and suddenly frightened he grabbed for her. When he pulled her towards him, he saw her eyes were closed and she felt cold, as cold as....
No! With a curse he took of his duster and pulled it around her. He took her up in his arms, cursing again when he saw her feet were bare, bare in this weather! If he found the bastards who put her out in the cold like this, they would get a taste of his fists. No time for that now, she needed help fast.
Doctor, he had to find a doctor.
"Hey," he yelled at the people passing by, "where's a doctor in this town?" A few people looked up but hurried on, clearly frightened.
"Damn it," he yelled, stepping right into the street, "just tell me where I can find a doctor!" Screw them all. Chris pulled his gun and shot a bullet right before the feet of one of the fleeing men, the one with the most expensive and warmest looking coat. With a high squeak the man stopped and put his hands up. "Please, don't...."
Chris didn't let him finish. "The doctor, now," he growled. "You're gonna take us there, move!" He managed to grab Pony's rein without jostling the small body in his arms too much. "Lead on, fast."
Through it all the little girl hadn't moved once, which worried Chris, a lot. God, he hoped it wasn't too late.
* * * * * * *
"You saw that shooting star, Vin?" JD asked, still staring up at the sky from where he was sitting on the porch before the jail.
"Sure did, Kid." Vin stood beside his bench, leaning at ease with his thumbs in his belt loops. His face was almost invisible beneath the broad rim of his head.
"And, did you make a wish?"
"What is it? What'd you wish for?"
Vin snorted. "Y' don't really think I'm so dumb I'm gonna tell, do you? Everybody knows that when you tell your wish it won't come true no more."
"Aw, you're pulling my leg."
"Nope." Vin straightened and JD knew he was about to leave. He quickly asked the question that had been plaguing him all along.
"You think Chris'll be back tomorrow, for Christmas?"
Vin walked to the edge of the porch and looked out over the street. JD stood and followed him. Main street was almost empty by now. People had fled the cold winter and were huddled in their homes, candles lit, until it was time for Josiah's Christmas mass. Or they sat drinking in the Saloon and Digger's.
"Vin?" JD asked.
"Hell, I don't know, JD. Guess Buck's the one who'd know."
"He says he don't think so. He says Chris'll probably stay away until after all the holidays are over, even New Year, but I thought, well, I mean...."
"You'd hoped he'd be here for the Christmas dinner you and Josiah set up." Vin turned his head towards him and by the light of the watchfire JD finally could see his face, colored reddish by the flames.
"Yes," he said simply. He heard Vin sigh.
"We'll all be there. Why wouldn't he come?" he argued.
"We ain't his wife and son, Kid and we never will be. Since he can't celebrate Christmas and New Year with them no more, I reckon he don't wanna celebrate at all."
"It's his right, JD," Vin said. JD opened his mouth to argue, but Vin was already walking away, straight to the Saloon. With a sigh of his own, JD followed.
It would have been so great if they had all been together for Christmas, all seven of them. He still couldn't quite believe that Chris had ridden out on all of them to avoid being there, with them. They were supposed to be friends.
He hurried up to Vin and a thought occurred to him. "If you don't want to tell what you whished for, does that mean you believe in wishing on a shooting star?"
Vin only smiled in answer.
* * * * * * *
The doctor lived a few streets away in one of the bigger houses. Figured, Chris thought sourly as he stared at it. A huge Christmas wraith hung on the door, underneath a bright lamp, and candles flickered in the windows. Chris threw Pony's rein over a nearby post, feeling bad for the tired horse. But the girl came first.
"He... you can't go there now. It's Christmas Eve," the man in front of him whined.
"Doctors gotta do their duty no matter what. Come on you, git."
"Git. Move off." Chris briskly shouldered the man aside when he kept standing there like some overstuffed fool and banged on the door. Behind him he heard the man finally move away, his feet sloshing through the snow fast. "I'm going to tell the sheriff," the man yelled, but Chris wasn't interested. He banged the door again. Worried, he moved his duster aside so he could see the girl's face in the golden light of the lamp.
She was smiling, the look on her face utterly happy. He shifted her in one arm so he could put a hand on her forehead. So cold, so very, very cold. So... lifeless, except for her radiant smile.
The door finally opened in front of him. "What?" a short, portly man said, sounding annoyed. "I don't give and there's a law in this town against beggars."
It brought all of Chris' anger back. "You're supposed to be a doctor, right?" He held out the little girl. "So, do your job."
The doctor looked at the small body in his arms and his frown disappeared, replaced by a look of profound sorrow. "I don't think... but come in, come in. I'll make sure."
Chris was back on the street in less than a quarter hour. Too late, he had seen her too late. He put his hands in the small of his back and stretched, feeling stiff all over. To his right Pony gave a soft wicker. Without a backward glance at the house where he had left the small body and enough money for a decent funeral, he grabbed Pony's rein and started walking.
"Let's get you to a livery and me some whiskey, and tomorrow we'll get the hell away from this godforsaken town," he told his horse.
But even after a whole bottle he still couldn't get the little girl's face out of his head, and her utterly happy smile. She hadn't looked as if she felt forsaken by God at all. Or alone. She had died alone, as alone as he was right now, but her smile had told a different story altogether.
In the small, cold bedroom of the hotel he had found, staring at the stains on the ceiling, he had the profound feeling that right now he felt more alone that she had.
The irony was that he didn't need to feel this way. Sure, they weren't his family, but he did have friends, sort of. Even a kind of home, he reckoned, a place where, if he put his mind to it, he could help keep atrocities like the death of this little girl from happening.
* * * * * * *
Christmas Day had been quiet and peaceful. So far the evening had been just as peaceful and six of the seven peacekeepers of Four Corners were already halfway through their Christmas meal, when the door of Four Corner's only restaurant clanged open and a dark figure strode in. Vin was already pulling a chair up with his foot and Buck was hollering for the harried waitress before the figure was halfway.
JD couldn't help it, he was grinning from ear to ear and he knew it. Chris was here. He looked worn out, his eyes a bit red, but he was here, wishing them a merry Christmas even, before he fell in the chair Vin had pulled up.
"You know, Stud, you still got it, that being fashionable late thing," Buck said as he filled his shot glass and slid it over the table towards the new occupant.
Chris merely raised his brow before tossing the whiskey to the back of his throat. The waitress came up with a plate filled to overflowing. "Thanks," Chris told her with a soft smile and her whole face lit up in a smile of her own.
"You're welcome, Mister Larabee."
"Oh, yes. They're in the kitchen, stuffing themselves. We hung up some greens and they have their new toys with them."
"Before you ask, everything's fine, everybody's okay, nothing bad happened here, dullest days of the year in fact, so just enjoy your meal," Buck said, refilling what was now Chris' glass.
No one asked where he had been or what he had done. JD didn't either, he simply felt happy. Even if Chris didn't eat much, he at least smiled with the rest of them and had his say.
When the dinner was done and they moved the party to the saloon, Ezra already shuffling his cards, he couldn't help but stare up at the stars.
"'Member what y' asked me yesterday?" Vin asked softly from behind him, making him almost jump out of his skin with his sudden appearance.
"I... I...." JD was trying to get his heart rate under control and couldn't for the life of him understand what Vin was talking about.
"If I believe in whishin' on a star? I do, kid, I do." Vin's eyes were on the group of five men in front of them. Five men, not four.
JD nodded, happy, feeling complete. "Me too," he said.