TYPE OF FANFIC: Christmas story
MAIN CHARACTERS: the Seven
RATING OR WARNINGS: None
SYNOPSIS: A Christmas in Four Corners.
This story was previously hosted at another website and was moved to blackraptor in July 2011.
We are saints and we are sinners,
We are heroes, we are thieves,
We are all of us beginners on the road to Galilee. . .
"Come on, it's a good idea," JD wheedled, glancing around the table at the other peacekeepers.
Most tried to ignore the young man, either too busy with their breakfasts to comment, or too unsure what their leader might think to offer an opinion.
Not so, however, Buck Wilmington. He glanced over at his long-time friend, wondering what Chris was thinking. The gunslinger seemed to have put much of the pain over his wife's and son's deaths behind him once he'd learned the truth. But that didn't mean Larabee was ready to celebrate Christmas again.
"JD, folks might've made other plans," Buck said, hoping to end the conversation before it got any further.
"You do?" JD asked the assembled group.
"I'll be stayin' in town," Nathan offered casually. He liked the idea of them celebrating Christmas together. After all, they'd been together for more than a year now. He considered these men to be family, and Christmas ought to be spent with family. "What 'bout you, Josiah?"
The former preacher shrugged. "Well, the church is finally done; thought I'd hold a service Christmas morning so I'll be here."
JD flashed Buck a triumphant smile – three down, only four to go. "Vin, you gonna be here?"
The tracker glanced up, meeting JD's gaze for a moment before he looked across the table at Chris. If Larabee stayed, he would, but if the man needed some time alone, he'd need someone to watch his back. "Guess that depends," he replied in his soft Texas drawl. "Could be, maybe."
"Ezra?" JD asked, his hopes climbing even higher.
"Well, I had planned to meet Mother in San Francisco, but it appears she has made other plans. The woman makes it a veritable habit to miss sharing the holiday with her one and only child," the gambler replied. "She and her latest gentleman friend will be spending the holidays south of the border, in Santa Marta – a quaint little resort community along the coast, in case you'd like to know. The gentleman must be made of gold," he concluded a little sourly.
JD turned in his seat so he could meet Buck's slightly troubled gaze. "What about you, Buck? What're your plans?"
"Well now, JD, I don't see how that's any of your business," he replied.
"Still sparkin' Norah Carson?" Nathan asked, trying not to grin. There were times it was hard to tell which of the two men was actually younger.
Buck's chest puffed up slightly. "As a matter of fact, I am."
"Think y' might be spendin' the holiday with her?" Vin asked, exchanging a look with Nathan that told the healer Tanner knew who they really had to convince, and it wasn't Buck.
"Well, now, we'll just have to wait an' see 'bout that, won't we," Buck replied. "Could think of plenty worse ways t' pass the time."
"Yeah, but I know you'd rather be spending your time with the new widow woman who moved onto the Perkins land," JD teased. "But she don't want a thing to do with you." He laughed.
"Not true!" Buck argued. "She just said she couldn't speak t' me on the street 'cause we hadn't been 'properly introduced,' is all."
"Nothin' proper 'bout you, stud," Chris said softly, green eyes dancing with humor.
Buck grinned mightily in reply. "I just gotta find out how a man gets a proper introduction is all."
Ezra rolled his eyes and sighed loudly.
"Don't somebody gotta vouch for you?" JD asked, looking from Buck to Ezra and back again.
"Something like that," Josiah said, shaking his head.
"Guess that means y' better stick t' Norah Carson," Vin concluded, causing the others to laugh at Buck's answering pained expression.
JD took a deep breath and looked to the last member of their group. "What about you, Chris?" he asked, unable to keep the hopeful tone out of the question.
Larabee didn't look up as he asked, "How does this scheme of yours work?"
JD looked like he might explode with excitement as he sat up straighter. "Well, back home the staff would exchange names, and then buy a small gift for whoever they got. We'd have a big supper and open them – you know, to show 'em off and all. They didn't have to be fancy gifts or anything," he added hastily. "It was just a way to, I don't know. . ."
"Feel like you were among friends and family?" Josiah offered.
"Yeah," JD agreed, nodding. "It just made it feel . . . special."
"And like no matter what your station was, there was folks who cared 'bout you," Nathan added.
The young man nodded eagerly. "Yeah, that's right."
"Sounds kinda nice," Vin said, his tone almost wistful.
Chris glanced over at the tracker, wondering if Vin had even celebrated a single Christmas since his mother had died. And it was the sparkle in the tracker's blue eyes that convinced him to go along. "I don't have any plans," he offered. "So, I guess I'll be here."
"Yes!" JD said, looking back to the tracker, but he already knew what the man would say. If Chris stayed, Vin would stay too. "Vin?"
Tanner dipped his head as he said, "Guess I'll stick 'round."
"So, you'll all do it, right?" JD asked, looking pointedly at Buck, but Wilmington was looking at Larabee, an amazed but honestly pleased expression on his face. "Yeah, all right, I'll do it," the ladies' man agreed.
The others all nodded, including Larabee, who was rather enjoying the surprised look on his long-time friend's face.
"And how do we draw these lots of yours, Mr. Dunne?" Ezra asked him.
JD thought for a moment, then said, "Well, I guess we can put all our names in a hat, and each one of us take one out."
"What if we pick ourselves?" Buck asked, deciding to have a little fun with the boy.
"Why are you makin' this so hard, Buck? You just put it back and pick another one," JD replied with a long-suffering look.
"What if I pick myself, and there's only one other name left?" Buck asked, trying to look and sound sincere. "If I put my name back, and take that last one, then that just leaves my name in the hat, and then I'll know who's givin' me something. Don't that defeat the whole purpose of this whatever-you-call-it?"
JD rolled his eyes. "Tell ya what, Buck. If that happens, then we can just start over!"
"All right, guess that sounds fair," Buck agreed, nodding and looking thoughtful. "But what if–?"
"Why don't we do this right now?" Nathan suggested. "Get it over with."
"An excellent suggestion, Mr. Jackson," Ezra put in. "Shall I create the–?"
"Already got 'em ready to go," JD interrupted, reaching into his pocket and pulling out seven pieces of paper that were all carefully folded into small squares.
"Just put 'em out here on the table, JD," Vin said. "We can take one that way just fine."
JD dumped the collection of names into the center of the table and each of the peacekeepers reached over and took one, then unfolded their pieces of paper and silently read the name they had chosen.
"Anybody get his own name?" Josiah asked, watching as the others all shook their heads. He looked at Buck, saying, "Guess you didn't need to worry after all."
JD sighed with relief.
"Tell me again, Mr. Dunne, what exactly are the rules for this exchange of gifts?" Ezra asked him.
"Ain't any rules, Ezra. You just think about who you got and try and get 'em something they'll appreciate. It don't have to even cost ya anything. I mean, you could make 'em something, or buy something, or find it, or anything."
"I see," the gambler replied, looking a little dubious.
JD sighed, worried that the others didn't seem to understand the spirit of the task. "Look, my mother told me she tried to find something that would touch the heart of the person she was choosing it for," he offered. "That help ya any?"
"Can't have a more noble guide than that," Josiah said, tucking his slip of paper into his pocket.
Buck glanced around the table, obviously trying to figure out who had drawn his name. "And we get these gifts on Christmas Eve?"
"Yep," JD replied. "We'll have a big, fancy supper, right here. You know, the kind where you have to get dressed up for it. I already asked Inez if she'd make it for us and she said she would."
Nathan frowned. "Shouldn't we be getting' her something too? Especially if she's gonna go to all that extra trouble?"
JD's eyes widened. "I hadn't thought about that!"
"Never fear, gentlemen, I shall reward the señorita with a holiday bonus," Ezra told them.
"A bonus? That's just money, Ezra," Nathan countered.
"'Just money'?" the gambler repeated. "Money is never 'just', Mr. Jackson."
"Maybe we could all pick something nice for her, and then split the cost seven ways?" JD suggested.
"Sounds like a reasonable idea," Chris said, ending the discussion. "We got more than a month to figure it all out."
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
The day of Christmas Eve arrived, gray and damp, but the general mood around town was festive and upbeat. Each of the peacekeepers had acquired their exchange gifts and none could deny the rising excitement he felt over the coming festivities that evening. Even Chris was enjoying the holiday for the first time in several years, and his good mood seemed to give the others permission to enjoy themselves fully as well.
After breakfast – where curious and expectant glances were the order of the day – they headed out to their usual chores over the course of the day, making sure the holiday passed peacefully for the residents of the community.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
On his way back to Four Corners, Vin took a moment to stop by Nettie Well's homestead, wishing her a Merry Christmas and dropping off the gift he'd made for her – a new pair of leather riding gloves. The older woman smiled with delight when she saw them, then handed the tracker a small gift of his own as well.
Vin's eyes rounded with surprise. "Ain't no need fer this, Nettie," he said, handing it back to her.
"Never you mind," Nettie replied, refusing to take it. "Just open it."
Vin hesitated, then untied the ribbon that held the corners of the handkerchief closed to find a chunk of homemade fudge inside. "What is it?" he asked her.
"Fudge, son. Well, go on," she encouraged him. "Try it."
The tracker pinched a piece off and put it in his mouth. A moment later he moaned softly and closed his eyes. "Tastes like it come straight from heaven," he said, his expression rapturous.
Mrs. Wells chuckled softly. "I'm glad ya like it, son."
"I do. Thank y', Nettie," Vin said, leaning over to kiss the older woman on the cheek.
Nettie giggled. "Now, go on and get on outta here. I know you've got more t' do than keep an old woman company on Christmas Eve. And if you see Casey in town, tell her to be sure she's home before dark."
"I'll be sure to do that," Vin replied, taking his treasure and leaving.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
In town, JD checked each of the stores and homes, making sure that those whose owners were away visiting friends or family were still safe and secure. When he finished his rounds, he walked back to the jail to check on his only prisoner, Marcus Wagner, a not-so-bright horse thief who was awaiting trial. The man pointedly ignored JD, who shook his head and walked over to sit down behind his desk. A moment later he looked up when the door opened.
"Howdy, JD," the young girl said, smiling.
"What're you doing here?" he asked her. "I thought you and Nettie were going to visit your kin?"
"Changed our minds," the girl said as she walked over to the desk and set down a handkerchief tied closed with a ribbon. "That's for you. Merry Christmas, JD."
The young sheriff stared at the gift for a moment, then looked up at Casey and smiled. "For me?"
"No," she replied, her brows pinching in frustration, "I brought it for the prisoner."
JD's smile faded. "Oh."
"JD!" she cried. "Of course it's for you!"
His smile returned. "What is it?"
"Well, open it and find out, silly!"
JD reached out and untied the ribbon. Inside was another chunk of fudge.
"Aunt Nettie made it," she told him. "Try a bite."
JD picked up the block of candy and took a good-sized bite. "Oh . . . mmm . . . this is good! Really good!"
"Want a bite?" he offered.
She shook her head. "Got a piece waitin' for me at home."
JD nodded, took another bite, then opened the top drawer of his desk and pulled out a small box that was tied shut with a bow. He handed it to her.
Casey's eyes danced. "You got me somethin', JD?"
"Course I did," he replied, trying to sound hurt, but his excitement got in the way. "Open it!"
The girl pulled the bow off and opened the lid. Her eyes rounded with surprise. "JD! It's . . . beautiful," she breathed, reaching in to take the necklace out. Hanging from a delicate silver chain was a small red rose, carefully painted and very lifelike. "Put it on me?" she asked, turning her back to him and handing him the necklace over her shoulder.
JD grinned as he opened the clasp, then waited as she lifted her hair. He slipped it around her neck and fastened it.
She spun back around, reaching up to touch it. "It really is beautiful," she said, then, before he could reply, she leaned forward and kissed him hard on the lips. A moment later she was gone, the door banging closed behind her.
JD smiled and reached for the rest of his fudge.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
"Mary," Chris called before the woman could board the private stagecoach that would take her to the Judge's home for the holidays.
The pretty blonde woman turned and waited for the gunslinger to reach her. "Something I can do for you, Mr. Larabee?"
Chris handed her the thin but long package he was carrying. "It's for Billy," he explained a little self-consciously.
Mary smiled, knowing it was the new fishing pole from the store window that her son had been visiting each day so he could stand and pine over the gift she'd told him was too expensive.
"For me, Chris?" Billy asked, leaning out of the coach window.
"What is it?" the boy asked, looking very excited.
"You'll just have to wait for Christmas morning to find out," Mary told him. Then she looked back to the gunslinger and asked, "Thank you, but you really didn't have to."
She nodded her understanding. "What will you be doing for the holidays, Mr. Larabee?"
"We'll be celebrating this evening," he told her.
She nodded, looking a little surprised. "I hope you have an enjoyable time."
"Here, let me help you up," he said, taking her arm as she climbed in to the private coach and sat down next to her son. She handed him the package.
"Thanks, Chris!" Billy said, then set the gift aside and climbed over his mother's lap to give Larabee a quick hug through the open window.
"You're welcome, Billy," Larabee said. "Now, you have a good trip. And watch out for your mother."
"I will," the boy promised.
Chris stepped back and the coach pulled out, rolling off down the dusty street.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Their chores completed, the peacekeepers each paid a visit to the bathhouse, then dressed in clean clothes and returned to the saloon to pass the remainder of the afternoon playing cards. They laid the gifts they'd picked out on the corner of the bar, the small pile a constant reminder of the festivities to come.
The patrons dwindled away quickly as sunset approached, and as soon as it was dark, Ezra chased the remainder out and closed the doors even as Inez began carrying out trays of food for their supper feast.
When she finished setting the table, she stopped, looking down at the large meal, proud of her accomplishment.
"Looks positively divine, Miss Inez," Josiah commented, looking handsome in his mail order suit from San Francisco.
"Yep," Nathan agreed, also dressed in his best, and wearing a tie.
"Smells darn good, too," Vin added, looking downright uncomfortable in one of Ezra's less ostentatious suits.
Inez smiled at the tracker's obvious unease. "I hope you all enjoy it, y tenga una Feliz Navidad, mis amigos."
"Y usted hace a misma, Inez
"I'm sure we will," Chris replied as well, trying not to grin when Tanner reached up to try and loosen his fancy tie. The gunslinger was wearing a handsome black suit and tie, but he had opted for a blue shirt.
JD and Buck hurried in, each man dressed in almost matching Eastern suits – although Buck had steadfastly refused to wear the Bowler that had come with his.
"Now that's what I'd call a sartorial disaster," Ezra commented under his breath as he took in the two men. "Wherever did you find those . . . garments?" he asked them.
"Mrs. Hinkel over at the store ordered 'em for us," JD said proudly, adding, "They come all the way from New York City."
"Ah," the gambler replied – that explained everything. He himself was dressed in one of his finest red velvet jackets, and the silk shirt he wore under it was arrayed with ruffles at the chest and cuffs.
"You're looking very . . . boisterous yourself tonight," Buck replied, exchanging sympathetic glances with Vin; he would really rather be in his usual clothes as well. How had he let JD talk him into this? And how had anyone talked Vin into putting that getup on?
"Don't let it get cold," Inez warned them, then turned to go.
"One moment, Señorita," Ezra said, walking over to the bar and picking up one of the packages that lay there. He carried it back to the pretty young woman and handed it to her. "For you, my dear, with all of our compliments."
"Me?" she asked, accepting the gift and looking around at the men who were watching her, smiles on their faces, hopeful expressions in their eyes.
"We hope you enjoy it," Josiah said, bowing slightly.
"Yeah," JD agreed. "Took us almost three weeks to agree on something t' get you."
Inez grinned at that, then carefully tore open the plain paper. She gasped, her hand flying to her throat for a moment, then pulled the delicate lace shawl out and held it up. "It is magnificent," she whispered, smiling widely as she drew it around her shoulders. "Where did you find such a thing here?"
"Didn't come from here. Vin picked it up down in Ol' Mexico," JD told her.
She looked to the tracker, who was blushing over the revelation of his role in the clandestine surprise. "It is truly the most beautiful thing I've seen," she told him.
"Glad y' like it, ma'am," he replied, working to loosen his tie again. Larabee lightly slapped his hand and Vin shot the man a disgusted glare.
"We each contributed to the cause," Ezra explained. "And once we had the gift chosen, we left it to Mr. Tanner to, um, track it down for us."
"I can't thank all of you enough," she said, moving around the room to give each man a kiss on the cheek. When she finished she said, "Now, sit. Eat!" on her way to the door.
The seven men moved to the table and took their usual seats, Ezra carrying over a bottle of his private whiskey. They helped themselves to the food, piling their plates high while the gambler filled their glasses. "A toast, gentlemen," he said when they were ready to eat. "To good luck . . . in all things."
"And good friends," Nathan added quickly.
They drank the toast, then turned their attention to their feast, enjoying Inez's culinary talents.
When they had finished their meal and were waiting for Ezra to bring out the dessert Inez had left for them, Buck leaned over, rubbing his hands together, and whispered to JD, "Just when do we open up those presents over there?"
The young sheriff grinned. "We usually did it with dessert, so I guess now is as good 'a time as any."
"We do them all at the same time, or one at a time?" Buck asked him, frowning.
JD rolled his eyes. "One at a time, Buck, so we can all celebrate each one."
Wilmington sighed, sounding a little disappointed when he said, "Oh, all right."
"Go get one," Vin told JD, who nodded and walked over to the stack. He closed his eyes and reached out, picking one at random.
Picking it up, he called, "Hey, this one is heavy!" He carried it back to the table. Then, checking the name on the paper, he handed it to Nathan, saying, "Looks like it's yours, Nate."
"Hey, JD, do we get to find out who got us our present?" Buck asked the young sheriff when he sat down again.
"Nope," the younger man replied.
"No? Why the hell not? What if I don't like what I get?"
JD rolled his eyes. "Then you have to pretend like you do!"
Vin frowned, looking a little worried. His fingers strayed to the tie again, but a sharp look from Larabee stopped him in mid-tug. "Don't rightly know if I can do that, JD."
Chris grinned behind his glass, amused by the man's open honesty, and the hasty retreat of his hand.
"It's supposed to be a secret," JD explained. "But you can usually figure out who got you your gift – if you're smart."
"You sayin' I ain't smart, son?" Buck demanded, his eyes narrowing in mock anger.
"If the shoe–" JD started to say, but Ezra interrupted him as he walked back in with their dessert.
"Perhaps you should consider the question from the other side, Mr. Wilmington."
"Come again?" Buck said.
"Do you want the recipient of your endowment to know that you are the benefactor?" Ezra asked him, handing out the cake and taking his seat again when he was done.
Buck thought for a moment, clearly unsettled. "Well, it might be kinda obvious, but I can see what you're sayin'. Guess it's all right if I don't know . . . less o' course the man wants t' confess."
"Don't look at me!" JD told him. "I didn't get your name."
Buck looked surprised. "You didn't?"
"Then why've you been stringin' me along all this time, droppin' hints and–" Buck glowered at the younger man. "You are an evil man, JD Dunne."
The young sheriff smiled. "Maybe, but you have to admit, Buck, you were pretty easy to tease."
"I'll show you easy," Wilmington growled, starting to stand.
JD stood quickly.
"Uh, boys," Nathan interrupted them, "if y'all don't mind, I'd like to open this gift before the bloodshed starts."
Both Buck and JD looked properly chagrined as they sat back down and traded friendly punches to each other's shoulders.
Nathan unwrapped his gift and then stared at it for a long moment. He swallowed hard. It was a book – a medical book. He carefully opened the cover and turned several of the pages like he was touching an ancient treasure. When he looked up, his eyes were shining. "This is. . ." He shook his head. "Been thinkin' 'bout getting one of these, but all my spare money's been going for supplies. . ."
He glanced around the table and saw Ezra dip his head so he wouldn't have to meet the healer's eyes. "I appreciate this. I truly do," he said earnestly. "Might mean I can help more people now. It's real thoughtful."
"Perhaps you should go choose another gift, Mr. Dunne," the gambler suggested, then cleared his throat and reached for his drink, tossing it down.
The other peacekeepers grinned, trying not to look at the gambler, whose cheeks were almost as red as his fancy jacket.
JD hurried over and picked another package, then brought it back to the table. "Says this one's for Vin."
The tracker looked up, cake crumbs on his lips. He quickly licked them away, savoring the dessert, then reached out to accept the proffered package.
Nathan cleared his own throat and said, "Guess you need to know that's from me," he said. "Since it ain't quite done yet."
Vin opened the package and pulled out a small leather bag hanging from a leather thong. He looked up quickly, surprised. "Medicine bundle?" he asked the healer, feeling like a missing part of his heart had been returned.
Nathan nodded. "Know you lost yours when them kin of Eli Joe's tried to kill you. Had it made out on the reservation. Chanu said they've got a Kiowa holy man livin' with 'em now, ya take that on back out there and he'll bless it with your proper Indian name."
Vin smiled and pulled the bag over his head, letting it rest on his chest, but he rubbed the soft leather with his thumb. "Thank y', Nathan," he said, smiling. "Felt like I was walkin' 'round half-naked since I lost mine."
The healer nodded. "I noticed ya kept reachin' up for it, but it was gone."
"You have an Indian name?" JD asked Tanner.
"Got a few of 'em," Vin admitted.
"A few?" the younger man asked, confused but curious.
"Ones I got from the tribes I lived with, an' a secret one I got from a Kiowa holy man when he thought I's old 'nough t' hunt with the other men."
"What are they?" JD asked him.
"Ain't our business," Chris interjected, cutting a look at JD and at Vin.
"Sorry," JD apologized, then grabbed another bite of his cake before hurrying back to the bar for another gift.
Vin looked across the table to Nathan, smiling. "Means a lot t' me," he said.
"A'ho, Vin," the healer replied.
"K'ta," was the tracker's reply.
"This one's for Josiah," JD said, handing the former preacher a sealed envelope. "Looks like a letter," he said, grinning with confusion.
Josiah accepted the gift, looking curious and confused, then broke the wax seal and pulled out a letter that was several pages thick. His eyebrows rose, but he unfolded the pages, reading the first few paragraphs before he stopped suddenly and folded the pages back over and returned them to the envelope. He sniffed and looked up, tears shining in his eyes.
"I'll, uh, read this later," he said, his voice thick with emotion as he met Tanner's eyes. He grinned, adding, "When I can bawl like a baby and not have an audience. Thank you, Vin."
The tracker nodded, humbled by the man's reaction. "Hope it brings y' some peace, J'siah."
The older man nodded.
Buck looked confused. "Who is it from?" he asked the pair.
"Someone I haven't heard from in a very long time," was all the former preacher would say, smiling as the tears ran over his cheeks. "Bless you, son."
Vin nodded again, looking more than a little embarrassed.
Still smiling, Josiah sighed heavily, pressing the letter to his breast; the lines he had already read were burned into his memory:
My Dearest Brother, Josiah,
As you know, my mind is most often not my own, but the Sisters here care for me diligently. I am forever grateful that you found me a haven that is so peaceful, among souls who know only love.
But today my mind is clear, and Sister Mary Peter told me that a friend of yours has asked me to write to you. I do so with a clear mind and a glad heart today, brother.
I have missed you. . .
JD broke the silence that had fallen in the saloon, walking over to choose another of the two remaining gifts. He frowned, wondering where the last one was. Picking what looked like another letter, he carried it back to the table and held it out for Buck.
"I'm getting a letter, too?" he asked, looking totally confused.
Josiah opened his eyes, then reached for his drink and tossed it back in one gulp. "Nope, that's not a letter," he stated.
Buck turned the envelope over his hands, a grin spreading across his face. Then he tore it open and pulled out a single sheet of paper, quickly reading what was written there, then he looked up, meeting Josiah's amused gaze. He whooped as loud as a banshee.
"You'd do this for me?" he asked the preacher, looking exceedingly grateful.
"Only if you promise not to lead the poor woman into sin," was Josiah's dry reply.
Buck grinned like a madman. "All right, Josiah, I'll promise ya that, but what if she decides t' come along with me all on her own?"
Josiah shook his head and offered a long-suffering sigh. "Lord, I do hope you'll forgive me," he muttered. "God knows she's not going to."
"She?" JD asked, looking back and forth between Buck and Josiah.
"A proper introduction!" the ladies' man boasted. "I'm gonna get a proper, formal introduction to Mrs. Laura Ann Trace."
JD's eyes rounded and he looked to Josiah and asked, "The widow Trace?"
Josiah nodded sadly, looking like he already regretted his decision.
"I'm gonna sweep her right off her feet!"
Vin and Chris exchanged amused glances while Ezra and Nathan laughed out loud.
"Better go get another one," Vin told JD, "'fore ol' Buck decides t' go courtin' tonight."
JD grinned and returned to the bar for the last gift. He checked the name on it: Chris. He frowned. Where was his gift? He returned to the table a little more slowly this time and handed over the package to the gunslinger.
Buck sobered immediately. "Uh, pard, you might want t' open that later," he cautioned.
Chris looked over at the man. "From you?"
Wilmington nodded, his expression turning serious. That look was all it took; Chris knew the gift had something to do with Sarah and Adam. Buck only got that particular look when he was thinking about them, and it made Larabee's palms begin to sweat.
"You remember, couple weeks back, we stopped by that broth– uh, hotel over in Bent Copper?" Buck asked him.
Chris nodded. "Ain't that where you ran into that gal, what was her name?"
"Nellie," Buck supplied with a fond smile, but it quickly faded away. "She used to work–" He took a deep breath and puffed it out. "After–" He stopped again, not sure how to explain. "Look, maybe my idea wasn't such a good one," he said.
"Go ahead, pard," Chris said, "tell me."
Wilmington sank back against his chair and glanced at the others, sure they were going to be mad at him for ruining the happy atmosphere. He sighed once more, then said, "After Sarah and Adam were killed, I went out lookin' for you," he told Chris. "I was seeing Nellie pretty regular back then, and I asked her to look after some of my things. Forgot all about them. . ."
Chris nodded, knowing how easy that must have been given that his friend had his hands full, trying to keep the gunslinger from getting himself killed.
"When I saw her, well, she told me she'd kept it all, for all these years, can you imagine that? Anyway, that was in with–" He stopped, waving his hand to prompt Chris to open the gift. "I just thought you might like t' have it now, given how ya lost everything in that fire."
Larabee drew a deep breath and carefully unwrapped the package. Inside were two small photographs, both slightly yellowed with age. One was of Sarah and Adam alone, the other Chris and Buck were also in the picture with the beautiful woman and grinning little boy. They had been framed side by side.
Chris stared at the images for a while, letting the familiar pain fill his heart, but it no longer ached as it once had. He looked up, meeting Wilmington's worried gaze. "Thanks, old son," he said softly.
Buck nodded and dipped his head.
"She was a beautiful woman," Josiah rumbled quietly.
"Yes, she was," Chris said, letting the photographs be passed around the table.
"I do appreciate it," Chris told Buck when it got back to him. "Was ready to see 'em this year."
"I'm glad, Chris," was his friend's reply. "I really am."
"So, can I offer you gentlemen another drink?" Ezra asked in the silence that fell at the table.
Chris nodded and smiled at Buck, letting him and the others relax.
The gambler poured the drinks and they turned to JD, who looked half-confused and half-sad. "That's, uh, that's all there was."
"We appear to be lacking two gifts," Ezra said as he sat down, looking more than a little concerned.
"Nope," Chris said, standing and walking over to the closed doors of the saloon. He opened them and stepped outside, the others following him, all looking curious except for Vin.
When JD stepped outside he saw Larabee standing next to a small buckskin mare that was tied to the hitching post outside the saloon.
"She might not be much to look at," Chris said, "but she's got heart, and stamina to spare. Sweet gait, too."
JD glanced around at the other peacekeepers, the reality of what was happening finally settling in. "She's mine?" he gasped.
"That old bay's getting a little long in the tooth," Larabee replied. "Figured the sheriff ought to have a horse he can depend on."
JD's mouth fell open a little, but he was speechless. He walked over to the mare, which sniffed his arm, then lipped at his hand. The young sheriff looked up at the gunslinger. "But where'd she come from?"
"Caught her running wild out on my old place . . . Took a little work to break her, too. Didn't want to give up her freedom, but she came around."
"You broke her? For me?"
"Chris, thank you," he managed, not sure what to do next. He looked back at the mare, who rubbed her face against his new suit.
JD laughed. "She's beautiful," he said patting her, then walking around her to get a good look at her lines. She was short and compact, but he knew horses, and the mare was built for bursts of speed and endurance. With a wide forehead and large, intelligent brown eyes, he knew she was smart, too. And her attention told him she was also affectionate. She was the kind of mount a man could grow to depend on, a friend he could count on.
"I don't know what to say," JD said.
"Well, how 'bout startin' with 'thank you'?" Buck suggested.
The young sheriff shot the man a withering glare. "I already said that, Buck!" He looked back to Chris. "But she's–"
"Yours," Chris said. "Besides, it felt good to catch her and turn her into something to be proud of. You just be sure to take good care of her."
"Lady like that deserves to be pampered," Buck agreed.
JD grinned excitedly and reached up to scratch the mustang between her ears. "Oh, I'll take care of her all right. What's her name?"
"Up to you," Chris told him with a shrug.
JD thought of a moment, then said, "Lady. I'm gonna call her Lady."
The sound of a coach approaching in the darkness stilled their conversations.
"Good heavens, who would be out at this ungodly time of night?" Ezra asked, peering into the darkness.
"Uh, I think that might be your present," JD said, looking more than a little relieved. "For a while there I wasn't sure it was gonna get here in time."
"My present?" Ezra looked from the young sheriff to the street. A moment later a private coach pulled up and stopped.
The door opened and Maude leaned out, calling, "Ezra, darlin', come help your mother down."
"Mother?" the gambler echoed, looking like he'd just been pole-axed. Stepping up, he helped the woman from the coach.
Maude gave him a hug and a kiss on the cheek, then looked over at the other peacekeepers and smiled. "My, aren't you all looking particularly handsome tonight." But before any of them could comment, she turned back to Ezra and said, "I wanted to stop by on my way to Santa Marta – to wish you a Merry Christmas, and to give you this." She reached into her purse and pulled out a piece of paper, which she handed to her son.
"The deed to the saloon?" he asked after stepping back into the light coming though the open doors to read it.
"It seems you and Inez have done even better than I'd hoped. So, I've taken my investment and the establishment now belongs to the two of you. I do hope you'll continue to work together. She's such a lovely girl," she added with a knowing look at her son.
"Mother," Ezra replied, "I– I don't know what to say."
"Tell me Merry Christmas, darlin', and then help me back into my coach. Mr. Anthony and I still have several miles left to travel tonight."
"Merry Christmas, Mother," he repeated dutifully, then took her arm and escorted her back to the coach and helped her inside. "And thank you," he added softly.
"I do love you, Ezra, never forget that," Maude replied, then leaned through the window and kissed his cheek. "Be happy, darlin'."
And with that the coach was off, disappearing again into the darkness.
Ezra stepped back up onto the boardwalk, his gaze sweeping over the peacekeepers and finally coming to rest on JD, who still stood, stroking Lady's neck and not looking at him.
"And I suppose I have you to thank for that– that– grand entrance and exit?"
"That woman does know how to make an entrance," Josiah agreed, staring out into the night, his expression moony.
JD nodded, looking up at the gambler. "You're not mad, are ya?"
"Mad? Why no, no of course not, my dear boy. I– However did you ever find her anyway?"
JD smiled proudly. "Well, you said she was in Saint Louis, so I sent a telegram to the newspaper office and asked if they could help me locate her, and they did. Interviewed her, too – Business Woman Travels West, Looking for New Opportunities. Turns out Mr. Anthony's the name of the man who owns the paper."
Ezra shook his head, chuckling softly to himself. "Well, I'd say you were able to achieve a miracle," he told JD. "I do believe that was the first completely unselfish gift she has ever given anyone."
"Tonight is the night for miracles," Josiah said, reaching up to touch the pocket where his letter waited.
"Amen, Mr. Sanchez," the gambler agreed, clutching the deed and reining in the urge to whoop.
The men filed back into the saloon, sharing another drink before they toasted each other, wished each other a Merry Christmas, and then headed off for their beds, each a little richer than he had been the day before.