Winter arrived like a lamb leaving only a smattering of snow on the small outlying towns above Denver. Roads normally closed at the beginning of December were still open, ski resorts were cranking out man-made snow by the ton and everyone was nervous about not seeing a white Christmas.
Everyone but Vin Tanner. Nothing would ruin this Christmas: His first with his new ATF family.
In four days it would be Christmas Eve and all the guys were going to spend the night at Chris' ranch. So far he had picked up all their gifts, carefully selected for each of his friends, wrapped and hidden in the closet of the room he used when he spent the weekends at Chris'. Now he had the final, most important gift sitting on the counter before him.
He couldn't believe how things had fallen into place.
It started last month with an unexpected day off in the middle of a hectic week and he jumped at the chance to leave the chaos of the Christmas rush behind for the day. He hopped on his Harley and started riding with no destination in mind.
Three hours later he found himself in a small town that seemed lost in time with its clapboard buildings and wooden boardwalks. He nodded at the old wooden signs hanging from the porch in front of Cornerstone's General Store, Hardware Store and Bakery. It was so easy to imagine what this town looked like a hundred years ago.
Next to the bakery was a small building with ‘Days Long Past Antiques' stenciled on the front door.
Curious, he parked his bike and stepped up onto the boardwalk. In the front window of the antique store he saw an old saddle on display. It would be the perfect gift for Chris if the saddle was in good condition and the price was right.
A bell rang above the door as he walked in. Hardly an inch of the rustic walls weren't covered by antique merchandise. Wooden wheel barrels with Studebaker painted on their sides and sleds hung from the ceiling. Pots and pans blackened from use sat on dusty shelves next to hurricane lamps and branding irons.
Vin breathed in the scent of antiques. He could spend hours just looking and touching the past.
He checked the saddle and fingered the dry worn leather. It was almost what he was looking for, but not quite.
"Saddle to yer likin', Son?" asked the old man standing behind the counter, his back stooped from age. He was ninety if he was a day, with wisps of fine white hair dotting his bald head. He squinted through a pair of horn rimmed glasses as he looked Vin up and down.
Vin shook his head as he carefully checked the saddle. "Need something that'll last longer than a week."
The old man studied him for a minute then motioned him to come up to the counter. Vin watched him pull a binder from beneath the counter and flipped through it until he found the page he wanted turning it around for Vin to see.
A smile teased the sharpshooter's lips as he saw several pictures of a saddle and traced the image with his finger. "It's perfect."
"I just got it on consignment yesterday. Don't usually do business that way, but he was a friend of Cecile's. Cecile owns the auto shop down the street. I'll sell it to ya fer a fair price, if'n ya wants it."
He saw the price at the bottom of the page and nodded. "I want it."
"Good. Give me, let's see, a hundred bucks fer the deposit and I'll call ya when it comes in."
Vin smiled, remembering the two hundred dollars in cash Buck gave him yesterday to pay back a loan and handed five twenties to the old man. "Before Christmas?"
The old man nodded. "Before Christmas."
Finally the call came a week before Christmas and it wasn't until this morning that he could get away. He couldn't tell Chris why he wanted time off without tipping his hand, so he had waited…and waited.
Now he was driving his battered '92 Cherokee up the narrow, winding road that led to Cornerstone in the first snowstorm of the season. With the ground so cold the snow was piling up quickly.
He couldn't stop the smile that grew on is face as he entered town. The Christmas spirit was evident in every store window and street corner decorated with green garland, red bows and tiny white flickering lights. Vin could only imagine how it would look when night fell.
A huge pine tree decorated with more lights and silver and gold globes stood at the end of the street, the snow beginning to cling to the huge branches.
This was the kind of Christmas Vin always dreamed of, but never had, never thought he was entitled. Until now.
"Started thinkin' ya weren't gonna make it in time," the old man said as Vin stepped into the warm, musty smelling store, the scent mingling with pinecones and a Douglas Fir Christmas tree. Vin felt something tug at his heart when he saw the decorated handmade ornaments, each one signed by a child with their name and age. He noticed their clothes seemed out of date and all the same. He'd spent enough time in orphanages not to recognize all the signs.
An old fashioned Santa sat on the counter, its once bright red suit faded with time. A sleigh and eight reindeer, looking as if they were ready to fly, were delicately carved from walnut. There were no price tags and Vin knew it was the old man's own treasure never to be parted with.
The aged proprietor hefted the saddle onto the counter with surprising strength.
"Busy week," Vin said, running his hand across the seat of the saddle feeling the soft leather and tracing the simple tooling down the fenders. There was no doubt that the saddle had been used, and used hard. But it had also been well cared for. A thin deep, gouge was its only imperfection and Vin recognized the groove of a bullet. He was touching a piece of history.
His heart skipped a beat when he saw the initials burnt in the fender; C.L.
"It's perfect." Vin traced his fingers over the letters. "Perfect."
The old man looked up at Vin, arching one eyebrow. "Ya believe in fate, boy? I mean, do ya believe things is supposed to happen a certain way?"
"Maybe." Vin believed more than maybe. Too many things happened when he lived with the People not to believe there were things that mere man was never meant to understand.
"Ya work this job long enough ya see the way of things. Like you fer instance. Ya just happen to walk into my store the same day I put the picture in my binder."
Vin continued to study the saddle.
"When I knew you were interested I did some lookin' – made sure it was authentic. Lookie here." The old man lifted the fender and showed him the saddle maker's name. "Fred Muller, he made some of the finest saddles in his day. I called the owner and told him I had a buyer. Told ‘im ya weren't just a collector, that the saddle would be put ta good use. That made ‘im happy. "
Vin's smile faded as he studied the saddle and knew he could never afford it. "I know the price you quoted me, but this saddle is worth twice that. You can't sell it to me for what you're asking. I'd be stealing it from you."
The old man straightened his crooked back and stood as tall as he could. "I get lot's a folks comin' ta buy somethin' expensive so theys can say it's old. Makes ‘em feel important somehow. I don't pay no mind to ‘em. The past don't mean nothing to ‘em. But you…I saw the look on yer face when ya seen this saddle. I knew whoever you was planin' on givin' it to is gonna appreciate it. But whoever gets it ain't gonna feel half as good as yer gonna feel when ya gives it to ‘im."
Vin's throat tightened up. How did he know how good this was going to feel when he gave it to Chris?
"'sides, ya already put a deposit on it when ya was in here last month. Ta me that means ya gave yer word ya was gonna buy it. Cain't say ya couldn't a blowed me over with a feather when I called ya to tell ya the saddle was in and I finds out I was calling the ATF. Then ta find out yer a agent. Well, I knew right there and then that ya would never go back on yer word. "
Vin wasn't sure what to say. He had put the deposit on the saddle and it was the perfect gift for Chris.
"Ya best get on yer way." The old man nodded his head toward the window looking out onto the street. Snowflakes were beginning to fall harder.
"Weatherman predicted light snow until tomorrow night," Vin said, eyeing the snow and hoping he could at least get close to home before it got too heavy.
The old man snorted. "I trust my joints more'n I trust them weathermen. It's gonna give us a good wallop, and a lot sooner than tomorrow night. Ya best be on yer way."
Vin wrote out a check and reached his hand over the counter and shook the old knurled hand. "Thank you. I'm not sure what else to say."
"Words ain't important, it's what's here." He patted Vin's chest. "Merry Christmas, Son."
"Merry Christmas." Vin grinned.
In the two hours Vin spent in the antique shop, the streets had accumulated an inch more of new fallen snow. It looked like there would be no worries about a white Christmas after all.
With Chris' saddle slung over his shoulder, he opened the driver's door to pull the latch for the temperamental back hatch when he heard someone shout, "Look out!"
It took only a split second for Vin to spot the black Ford 450 barreling down on him with an elderly woman holding the steering wheel in a death grip. He knew he couldn't move out of the way in time with his jeep parked nose first to the boardwalk and the driver's door open blocking him from jumping to safety. A panel truck parked to his left cut off any hope of escape.
The truck continued to speed up and Vin knew the confused woman had her foot on the gas instead of the brake.
His only chance was to dive into the Cherokee and hope the jeep would give him some protection from the runaway truck. Loath to lose the precious saddle, he threw it into the front passenger seat, and dove in after it, sprawling across the two front seats glad he had removed the center console.
He felt the impact of the truck slamming into the jeep's rear end. The screeching sound of metal tearing and glass shattering filled his world as the truck crumbled the smaller Cherokee like an accordion.
The air rushed out of his lungs as the back half of the roof buckled behind him. His legs whipped around the saddle and under the dash and he felt a horrible crushing pain as the dashboard and steering wheel collapsed on him, pinning his legs.
The last thought he had as darkness claimed him was how disappointed he was that he wouldn't see Chris' face when he gave him his new saddle.
Jerry Clark picked up the last Christmas present at Henderson's General Store and hurried toward his car. He knew he was running out of time to get out of Cornerstone before the snow made the roads impassable, and he still had to finish packing.
He was looking forward to spending the holiday with an old friend in California. He hadn't seen Stan in twelve years. Since then his friend had married and had two boys.
Clutching the box wrapped with bright Christmas paper, Jerry wasn't sure what a five year old boy would like, but he figured he couldn't go wrong with a Batman set. For the ten year old he had picked up a dinosaur erector set.
A shiver went down his spine when someone shouted, "Look Out!"
He looked up to see old Maggie Stewart gripping the steering wheel of her grandson's Ford 450. He could see the terror on her face even through the falling snow.
Everything seemed to move in slow motion when he saw the trajectory of the two-ton truck: A faded blue '92 Cherokee parked in front of Sally's Bakery with the driver's side door open and the driver hefting a saddle over his shoulder.
Jerry watched the man's eyes looking in every direction for any way to escape the careening truck but he was hemmed in between the jeep's open door and Caleb Brock's plumbing truck parked to his left.
Decision made, the driver threw the saddle into the front seat and dove in after it a second before the truck crashed into the Cherokee, crumbling the rear of the jeep like it was made of aluminum. The front end rammed into the boardwalk, slamming the driver's side door shut.
The world stopped for a moment, the only sound the hissing of hot steam from the radiator hitting the cold snow. Then a woman screamed and he dropped his packages and raced toward the crash.
He reached the truck and yanked the crumbled passenger side door open far enough to squeeze his head and arm inside.
The victim was sprawled across the saddle, his left arm draped over his head. Both driver and passenger seats were shoved forward and would have crushed the driver if not for the saddle. Carefully he lifted the limp arm, noting a possible broken wrist, and pressed two fingers against the man's carotid artery praying for a pulse.
The owner of the bakery rushed out trying to see through the shattered windshield.
"My God…is he…?"
Jerry ignored the question and ripped his gloves off and started his assessment of the victim. His legs were pinned under the collapsed dashboard, with the mangled steering wheel pressing into his right thigh.
The roof had miraculously stopped collapsing just inches from the man's head. They would need the Saws-All to cut the roof open and the Jaws of Life to pull the dashboard and steering wheel free of his legs.
Carefully he pulled his arm and head back out of the car and ran around to the driver's side to open the door only to find it wedged shut. Looking through cracked window he could see blood soaking the victim's left pant leg just above his knee. "Shit." He couldn't break the window without endangering the man even more from the shattered glass.
Grabbing his cell phone from the pocket of his heavy parka, he pressed speed dial for Cornerstone Clinic as he ran back to the passenger side squeezing in as far as he could to reach the man's knee to put pressure on it.
Dr. Samantha Patterson looked out the window of the small clinic she and her husband ran. Though they were fifty miles from the busiest ski runs, they still had their share of climbers who thought they could beat the mountain. Sometimes the mountain beat them.
"Hey, a penny for your thoughts." Paul Patterson laid his chin on his wife's shoulder looking at the snow through the window.
"Looks like Riley was a day off on his prediction. We'll never get home for Christmas now. The roads will be blocked for days."
"I know. But," he turned her around to kiss her gently, "all our patients are home safe and sound and we can make our own Christmas here. Look, we have a tree all decked out and your favorite CD of Christmas Music." He backed them both up until they were standing in front of the fireplace.
"Hmmm…" Sam sighed, feeling the heat from the crackling fire.
"And…" he grinned. " I leaned my lessons well when I was a Boy Scout. Always be prepared." He disappeared into the break room and returned holding a carton of eggnog.
"We will celebrate in style. And the presents under the tree will still be there when we get home."
"I knew there was a reason I married you, Mr. Patterson."
"My charm and good looks?"
"And charisma and…"
The phone at the nurse's station rang and Sam sighed. "Put that thought on hold," she said answering the call. "Cornerstone Clinic…"
"This is Jerry. I have a major trauma here."
"Go ahead, Jerry, you're on speaker phone."
"A male, early twenties, trapped in his jeep. We are working to extricate him now. His legs are trapped beneath the collapsed dashboard and steering wheel."
"Negative. No reaction to pain stimuli."
"What is your ETA?"
"Don't know. Several people called 911 so help will be here any minute. But it's gonna take a lot of work to get him free."
"Start a large bore IV with wringers lactate and 90 percent O2 when you can."
"What happened?" Paul asked.
"Old Maggie decided to take Kirk's truck on a joyride again and lost control. She must of been doing fifty when she hit the poor guy."
"All right," Sam said, "bring him in and we'll stabilize him then have Life Flight fly him down to Denver General."
Paul shook his head, "Life Flight will be grounded before he can get him here. This weather is going to hell in a hand basket fast."
Sam and Paul nodded to each other. "We'll do what we can, Jerry. Let us know when you're ready to transport."
"Right. We'll be sending Maggie in, but she seems okay."
"OK. We'll be ready for you." And Paul ended the call. "Looks like our Christmas is about to get lively. I'll get things ready in back and call Denver and tell them what's going on."
Sam nodded. "You'd better check the generator too…if the wind picks up much more we could lose power. We better call Libby in. We'll need her to do the lab work and X-rays."
"She won't be happy."
"Bribe her with double overtime. We need her."
Looking at each other for a long moment, they both knew what they had to do to try to save a man's life.
J.J Slidell fought to see through the heavy snow as he pulled up to the crash site, his heart beating so fast he feared it would explode. This was his first call as an EMT and the first time he drove the unit in near blizzard conditions. Ten years working as a trauma nurse in a busy Atlanta hospital didn't prepare him for this.
He shivered despite the warmth of the heater, fearing there was nothing they could do to save the victim. God, he didn't think he could do this. He was used to treating victims in the ER after the EMTs brought them in. Now he was the EMT.
A squad car slid to a stop inches from the two-ton truck. Old Maggie was already sitting on the tailgate looking around confused. Two men fought to hold a flapping tarp to protect her from the freezing wind and snow.
Cornerstone's only fire truck pulled to a stop behind him, the red and blue strobe lights combining with the other emergency vehicles to cast an eerie light through the wind-driven snow. The fire chief ran past his unit banging on his door. "Get a move on!"
Swallowing his fear he grabbed the two jump kits, one bag with medical equipment and the other with O2 cylinders and respiration supplies and raced toward the wreck.
He found Jerry had shoved himself inside the passenger door as far as the mangled steel would allow.
"His legs are trapped under the dashboard. I need a pressure bandage for a deep laceration on his left knee," Jerry yelled. "Weak pulse, rapid and thready. Diminished breath sounds on the right side. Get a set of vitals and start a large-bore IV with ringer's lacate and get him on O2."
J.J. ran around the Cherokee looking for a way to get to the victim. Finding the only access through the shattered windshield he jumped on the crumbled hood tearing away the windshield thankful for the safety glass.
"Hand me the blue bag," he yelled to a waiting firefighter. Grabbing the stethoscope and blood pressure cuff he squeezed under the collapsed roof, careful not to add extra weight to the dashboard.
The smell of blood, leaking fuel and hot radiator fluid filled the cabin taking his breath away. He looked at Jerry helplessly. The victim's legs were pinned under the dash. Blood matted his long hair from a gash in his hairline. More blood seeped from scratches and gashes on his arms and back. This was more than he could handle.
"Vital signs," Jerry urged.
Taking a deep breath through his mouth to avoid the smell he and pushed through his fear, pulling his gloves off he began doing what he used to do daily in Chicago. Only in Chicago he wasn't turning his body into a pretzel to reach the patient. "BP 65 over 40."
"Start that IV and hand me a cervical collar and a splint for his left wrist."
Two of the firefighters were listening to Jerry's orders and quickly handed J.J. the IV set-up, cervical collar and wrist splint.
Stretching as far as he could, he reached for the victim's right hand draped over the saddle and started the I.V.
They worked feverishly to stabilize the victim before hypothermia set in. The firefighters draped a heavy fire retardant tarp over the three men to protect them from the sparks and started cutting away the crushed roof with the saws-all.
"BP," Jerry barked over the screeching sound of the saw.
"Still falling," J.J. shouted.
"Damn it, we've got a bleeder somewhere. Push the fluids."
The roof was ripped off and the tarp unfolded to cover Tanner's head and chest from the falling snow.
The Cherokee's shell groaned in protest as the Jaws of Life pulled the dashboard and wheel away from the victim. Moving quickly, Jerry and J.J. strapped the injured man to a short backboard taking time to immobilize his head and neck with heavy foam blocks and straps of nylon and Velcro.
Carefully they pulled him out of the wreckage and eased him on a full length backboard immobilizing his knee with more foam blocks.
The firefighters helped settle the victim on the stretcher and strapped him in. Jerry quickly covered him with an insulated blanket and helped carry him to the waiting ambulance trudging through the deepening snow.
J.J. tapped the two-way radio clamped to his collar. "Sam, the victim is free. ETA fifteen minutes with this snow."
"We'll be ready for you," Sam replied. "Watch those roads; I don't want any more patients today."
J.J. jumped behind the wheel and waited for the three knocks to tell him the back door was closed and he could move out.
Libby Mackenzie pushed the front door open, shoved into the warm clinic by a strong gust of wind. "Jesus, Mary and Joseph, I haven't seen a storm brew up like this in decades."
Sam looked up on her way to the exam room. "Sorry for calling you out in this, Libby, but we need the extra help."
"Land sakes, Samantha, I would'a been here anyway. Half the town knows about the accident. I figured if that poor young man survived you'd be needing an extra hand."
"Jerry and J.J are on their way in now. Should be here any minute. We'll be on our own, Life Flight is grounded until this storm dies down."
Libby squeezed her shoulder as she walked by on her way to the back to scrub up and put on her smock. "Between you and Paul he'll be in good hands."
The sound of the ambulance's siren alerted the clinic staff that their patient was almost there. By the time the rescue vehicle reached the emergency bay everything was in place.
Paul ran to the emergency doors, fighting against the powerful wind that sent snow swirling into the hallway.
J.J. opened the ambulance doors grabbing one end of the stretcher.
"Bp 60/40," Jerry yelled as they rushed into the warm clinic relaying more of the victim's vital signs and what they had done for him already.
Paul ran ahead and opened the door to the exam room.
Sam waited at the exam table and helped Paul and the EMTs lift their patient from the gurney onto the bed. Jerry and J.J. attached the clinic's monitors and leads while Libby quickly exchanged the regular mask for a rebreather then attached the Pulse oximetry to his finger. "Oxygen saturation at 80%," she reported.
"Increase the oxygen to 100%," Sam ordered. "Libby, type and cross match for two units. I want CBC, head, chest, cervical and pelvic x-rays and start a urinary catheter."
J.J automatically jumped in doing what he had done for years as a nurse. "BP is still falling," he reported, "59 over 35. Heart rate is 130, 30 breaths per minute. Pupils equal but sluggish. Temperature 95.6."
"Start another large-bore IV with warmed ringer's lacate and one vial Norepinephrine." Paul ordered.
Jerry pulled Vin's boots and socks off and began cutting away his jeans, being careful when he reached the pressure bandage covering the deep laceration above his knee. He found a wallet in the back pocket and found a driver's license. "Vin Tanner, age 24" he read. "No medical alerts."
Libby pushed in a portable X-ray machine and everyone moved out of the room. "I'll have the results as fast I can. Poor boy, this is no way to spend Christmas."
Fifteen minutes later Paul and Sam were looking at the results of the X-rays and blood tests. "His knee's a mess," Sam sighed. Paul nodded. "The laceration goes all the way to the bone. It looks like we have some bone chips there. We'll debris and suture it then stabilize the knee so he can't move it."
Sam put the next X-ray on the lighted frame. "Three cracked and one broken rib on his right side. Paul was right about the collapsed lung. We can try aspiration first. I don't want to insert a chest tube if we can help it."
Paul studied the next set of X-rays. "Looks like a bruised kidney is causing the blood in his urine. We'll wait to see if it heals on its own."
"He has a moderate concussion we'll need to keep a close eye on it. Libby, we'll reduce the wrist fracture and you can put a soft cast on until the swelling goes down."
Libby smiled. "I'll give him a nice holiday color."
"He's got some deep bruising on his right thigh from the steering wheel that will hurt like hell when he wakes up.
Sam looked over the results of the blood work. "Not much of a surprise here. Libby, repeat the CBC in an hour. Hopefully by then his blood gases will be better."
Exhausted, Sam finally joined Paul and the two EMTs in the break room. Libby stayed with Vin checking vitals and waiting for him to regain consciousness.
J.J handed her a mug of steaming coffee and she sighed. "I'm sorry you two got stuck here with Christmas right around the corner."
Jerry lifted his mug in a salute, "it's all part of the job. ‘sides, I'd rather my first visit to California be in the summer."
J.J. nodded, "I was scheduled at the station for the week. There's better company here."
They all heard Old Maggie calling for her grandson. "I was hoping she'd sleep a little longer," Sam sighed again, pushing herself away from the table. "I'll see if I can calm her down, if not I'll give her a mild sedative. We don't need her walking the halls."
Thoughts of a saddle, snow and Chris' name floating in the air made no sense to Vin as he struggled up through the layers of consciousness. His legs hurt like hell when he tried to move them and he his chest hurt with every breath. He heard someone moan and realized it came from himself.
The disembodied voice sounded far away.
"Mr. Tanner. It's time to wake up."
Like a pesky fly the voice kept dipping and bobbing around him, urging him to open his eyes.
He felt his shoulder nudged gently and the veil of drugged sleep began to part allowing the pain to resurface.
Images floated around him teasing his memories; an old saddle, snow a winding road, but nothing made sense.
His knee hurt like hell and he gasped when he tried to move it.
"I know it hurts." That voice again: A woman's voice. "But try not to move."
As the fog continued to fade, he felt more pain. His head pounded and his chest hurt. It felt like an elephant was sitting on it. In fact there wasn't an inch of his body that didn't hurt.
He wasn't ready for this. He sought the safety of sleep, but that voice was there again.
"Oh, no, we can't have that."
"Go away," he groaned.
"Sorry, can't do that. Now, open those pretty blues for me. My goodness, you must have to fend the ladies off with a stick."
Slowly he pried his eyes open, slamming them shut against the bright light.
"There you go, you're almost there. Try again."
"Go ta hell…"
The woman laughed. "I'm sure I'll get there eventually, but not today. Now let's try it again. I've closed the shades."
Vin opened his eyes again waiting for the stabbing pain that didn't come.
"There you go. My name is Libby Mackenzie." She smiled, straightening the blanket covering him. "I'll be your nurse while you're here."
He looked around confused.
"Don't worry; it will all come back to you."
"You're in the Cornerstone Clinic. You were in an accident this morning, but you're going to be fine."
He looked up at the woman. She looked to be in her early fifties, though it was hard to tell with her greying hair cut short and the deep lines in her face that could only come from being out in the weather most of her life. But her eyes were soft and warm and he felt safe in her presence.
She wore a smock with red and white candy canes and green wreaths. Behind her he saw a Christmas tree sitting in the corner and suddenly remembered Chris' saddle, his trip up the mountain, the antique store and looking forward to Christmas Eve at the ranch.
He fought to gather more of his disjointed thoughts. He remembered the last bust with his team, everyone anxious to close it before Christmas. The hours spent writing his report, his dyslexia slowing him as usual. Waiting for Chris to give him a day off and the joy he felt as he drove up the mountain to Cornerstone… and then nothing.
"Don't worry, Sweetie," she said, patting his shoulder. "It will all come back in time. You just have to be patient. Land sakes, you just woke up."
Did he already miss Christmas? He had to fight to keep the tears at bay at the thought.
"What… what day is it?"
"Thursday the 21st."
Vin sighed silently. He still had time to get home before Christmas Eve.
Sam stood in the doorway watching Libby doing her magic before walking into the room.
She knew she didn't look like your average doctor with her hair pulled back into a long ponytail, worn jeans and comfortable sweatshirt. One of many reasons she liked working in a small clinic in a small town.
She studied the monitors noting Vin's blood pressure and pulse were rising. "Mr. Tanner, are you in pain?"
He nodded and she saw his already pale face turn grey and knew he was going to be sick.
"It's all right, Sweetie." Libby had an emesis bowl ready and turned his head as his stomach erupted.
"Libby, let's give him one vial Zofran and a bolus of Tordal."
Libby patted Vin's shoulder again knowing how important physical contact was to a patient. "We'll have you feeling better in a jiffy."
Sam gently wiped his face with a cool rag. "I'm Dr. Samantha Patterson and I run this clinic with my husband, Paul. You were in an auto accident this morning, but you are going to be fine."
Libby returned with the medications and injected them into Vin's IV.
"Libby gave you Zorphan for the nausea and Tordal for the pain. It won't take long to take effect."
Vin felt himself relax as the pain eased.
Sam nodded and began to check the dressing on his knee. She noted the increasing redness and noted it on his chart. She would see how it looked tonight and change antibiotics if it didn't look better. "You have a deep laceration just above your knee. We debrided it and sutured it closed. You'll still need surgery when you get back to Denver. You have tendon and ligament damage we aren't equipped to fix here. Unfortunately that won't be for a few days with this storm."
Vin reached for the nasal cannula.
"Leave it be," Libby warned.
"You have a collapsed lung," Sam explained. "We removed the extra air with a syringe, but if that doesn't work we'll have to insert a chest tube."
"How long?" he asked.
"How long for what?"
"Till I kin go home."
She checked the drainage bag from the catheter noting the tint of blood in it. "Besides your knee and lung you have a bruised kidney and until your urine is blood free you're confined to bed."
"Shit." Vin's face turned an embarrassed red.
Sam knew the look when her patient suddenly felt the warm tubing taped to his thigh.
"I know. No fun. But you need it. Now I want you to try to get some sleep."
She saw his eyes grow heavy but he fought it.
"Gotta call Chris…"
As his eyes closed she heard a partial name as he drifted off. "Lar…"
Sam checked the monitors again before going to find Paul. With luck they could track down this Chris.
Staring out the window Chris saw the snow covered sidewalks. It started falling a few hours ago and promised to give everyone a white Christmas.
Looking into the bullpen he chuckled to see the inflatable Santa sitting in Vin's desk chair. Everyone knew how much the young sharpshooter was looking forward to Christmas. He never spoke much about his childhood but what he did let slip didn't invoke happy memories of the Holidays.
The rest of the team teased the sharpshooter mercilessly, but Vin took it in the spirit it was given and Chris knew he was enjoying every minute of it.
And his enthusiasm was catching. For the first time since he lost Sarah and Adam, Chris decorated the ranch. Christmas lights adorned the outside, outlining the roof and stables. More lights and garland decorated the living room and kitchen.
It was bitter sweet as he'd brought down the boxes of ornaments and figurines from the attic. They had not seen the light of day for far too long.
One very special box sat on the table next to the undecorated eight foot Christmas tree. His team would be spending Christmas Eve and they would all decorate the tree together with Vin helping him hang Sarah's special ornaments.
He told everyone to bring a special ornament to add to the tree, something that meant something to them and the team.
Chris needed a cup of coffee and smiled even wider at all the decorations in the bullpen. If there was a contest in their building Team7 would win hands down.
He was half way out the door when the phone rang. He thought of ignoring it but turned around. Duty always won out.
"Larabee," he answered.
"Chris Larabee?" a male voice asked.
"Dr. Paul Patterson at the Cornerstone Clinic. Do you know a Vin Tanner?"
Chris' stomach dropped. This was the kind of call he dreaded receiving. "Yes."
"Mr. Tanner was injured in an auto accident this morning. He was rear-ended while he was parked."
Chris gripped the phone praying the news wasn't devastating. "How bad?"
"His condition is serious but not critical. His legs were pinned under the collapsed dashboard and steering wheel. He has a deep laceration to his left knee. We found bone fragments which we removed and he will require additional surgery by an orthopedic surgeon."
"He also has a moderate concussion along with deep bruising over most of his body. He has a broken right wrist and three cracked ribs. One rib fractured and pierced his lung. We are trying to inflate it without inserting a chest tube. He also has a bruised kidney that we are going to wait to see if it heals by itself.
"Mr. Larabee, I know it sounds bad, but with the proper care and time he should be fine."
Chris felt his heart pounding in his chest. Why now with Christmas only a few days away? "Where the hell is Cornerstone? Never heard of it."
The doctor chuckled. "Most people haven't. It's about three hours East of Denver."
"OK, tell Vin we we'll be there as soon as we can."
"I don't know what the weather is like down there, but up here we are in the middle of a blizzard: A complete whiteout. They don't expect the roads to be open for four to five days and all air traffic in and out has been suspended."
"Shit! When can I talk to him?"
"He woke up in considerable pain and the medications we gave him for the pain and nausea put him out again."
Chris found it hard to carry on the conversation. Vin would need him, need them all when he regained consciousness.
"I will call you when he wakes up. He's been asking for you."
The thought of Vin hurt and missing them gnawed at his heart. "You tell him I called," Chris ordered, not meaning to sound so gruff.
"I'll keep you updated on his condition and also let you know if there is a break in the weather. But to be honest, I don't think it will clear before Christmas."
"We'll be ready if it does."
"Try not to worry, Mr. Larabee, he is in good hands here. And we'll do all we can to give Mr. Tanner the best Christmas we can."
Chris held the phone so tight his knuckles were white. Vin shouldn't be celebrating Christmas with anyone but them. "Thanks. I'll have my team medic give you a call."
"That will be fine, Mr. Larabee. Take care."
Chris slammed the phone back down on the cradle. "Damn it!" He looked out at the decorations and wanted to tear them all down. It was so unfair. Vin had a chance to spend his first Christmas with his team, with his family. Now fate stepped in and blew everything to hell.
He felt like punching the walls but he knew that would not get him closer to Vin.
He charged out of his office noticing all his agents looking up.
"Conference room, now!"
No one questioned his order and within minutes everyone was seated around the table.
"What's up, Boss?" Buck asked, seeing the worry and anger in his boss' face.
"I just got a call from a doctor in Cornerstone. Vin was involved in a rear-end collision."
Everyone started talking at once and Chris held up his hand for silence.
"The doctor said Vin's condition is serious, but not critical."
"What happened?" J.D. asked.
"Not sure of all the details, but his legs were trapped when the wheel and dashboard collapsed."
"What are his injuries?" Nathan asked, going into medic mode.
"He has one broken and three cracked ribs and a collapsed lung that they are trying re-inflate without using a chest tube.
The doctor said the worst was his knee. He'll need surgery when he gets home."
"Damn, Junior doesn't do anything half assed." Buck said.
"There's more," Chris continued. "A bruised kidney, broken left wrist and moderate concussion and deep bruising everywhere."
"I'll call the doctor and get all the particulars," the medic said.
"I'll arrange for transportation," Ezra said.
Chris shook his head in disgust. "They have a blizzard up there. All the roads are closed and no air travel."
"Shit!" Buck cursed.
"But Vin can't spend Christmas alone!" J.D. exclaimed.
"Damn it, Kid," Buck barked, "Don't you think we know that?"
"Calm down, Brother Buck," Josiah said. "We will find a way to spend the holiday with Brother Vin."
"How?" Chris demanded. He felt like he had a knife twisting in his gut. He wanted, no needed, to do something, but right now he had to just sit and try to stay calm. Blowing up wouldn't help Vin.
"We'll find a way," Josiah promised.
Everyone nodded and sat silently around the table, each one thinking about their missing friend. Christmas meant so much to him. He made everyone see the holiday through new eyes. It was impossible to think of celebrating the holiday without Vin Tanner.
"All right, Nathan you call the doctor. Ezra, see if there is any way to get up there. I don't care if we have to ride a snow plow all the way. Buck you contact the police, see if you can find out exactly what happened. J.D. take care of communications."
J.D. nodded. "I'll see if I can set-up a two-way video link so we can see Vin and he can see us."
Chris nodded. "Do it."
Josiah seemed lost in thought.
"Josiah?" Chris prompted.
"Just thinking, Brother." He suddenly stood up and headed out the door.
"Keep in touch," Chris called knowing not to interfere when the ex-preacher was on a mission.
Silence filled the room for a long moment before the team moved as one well-oiled machine.
The rest of the day went by agonizingly slow.
The doctors at the Cornerstone Clinic had been right: there was one hell of a storm at that altitude. No one, save Santa, would get anywhere near the small town until after Christmas. And that meant Vin Tanner would be spending the holiday without them.
Meanwhile, the same storm walloping Cornerstone had traveled down the mountain hitting Denver with almost equal force. A weather alert was issued warning everyone to go home and stay off the streets.
Knowing his team would be veritable prisoners in their office, Chris decided to gather at his ranch.
With laptops and Chris' home computer they could do everything they could do at the office, and possibly more with the programs J.D. had installed.
A somber group gathered at Chris' later that day.
The festive decorations throughout the house saddened everyone knowing Vin could not share it with them. The one person who would enjoy it the most… who needed it most.
The undecorated Christmas Tree standing in the corner was a constant reminder how unfair life could be at times. This was to be the perfect Christmas. Everyone knew Vin Tanner's enthusiasm had rubbed off on them, sending them out to buy presents for each other and spending extra time to pick out the special ornament Chris had requested for the Christmas tree. They sat unopened on an end table next to the tree. There would be no decorating until their team mate returned.
Chris looked around the great room and kitchen. His men were huddled over their laptops or talking on their cell phones. From his home office he could hear J.D. typing commands on his computer. The young communications expert could get any computer to sit up and do tricks like a trained dog.
"Damn it to hell!" Buck slammed his cell phone down on the coffee table in front of him. He had gathered information from the local Sheriff's department and the more he leaned the madder he got. The pictures of Vin's totaled ATV made Buck sick. It was a miracle that their friend had survived.
Knowing Chris didn't need to see the totaled Cherokee, Buck simply reported what he had found – sans pictures.
But the photos were in Buck's head now and he was worried about what they would find when they finally reached the Texan.
"That was the sheriff from Cornerstone. Some old lady with dementia found her grandson's keys and ‘borrowed' his Ford 450 for a joyride. She lost control in the snow and plowed into Vin's car while he was still parked. The sheriff said Vin's car was totaled. The fire department had to cut him out with the Jaws of Life. The sheriff was pretty shook up. Says it's a miracle the kid survived."
"Shit," Chris growled. "What the hell was Vin doing in Cornerstone, wherever the hell that it is!"
Buck knew Vin had gone up to the small town to buy a saddle for Chris' Christmas present, but knew his friend would blame himself if he knew that was why Vin was there. He wouldn't put that onto Larabee's already burdened shoulders.
"The old lady came away without a scratch. Sheriff wants to know if we want to press charges."
Chris looked out the window at the near whiteout. He knew Vin wouldn't want the old woman charged. The goodhearted Texan had a soft spot when it came to old people and kids.
"He said it wasn't the first time the old woman got her hands on her grandson's keys. The kid's lucky she hasn't killed someone yet. The Sheriff thinks it would be a good idea to charge the grandson for negligence. He's gotta learn a lesson sometime."
Chris nodded. Vin was almost killed and someone had to take responsibility. "Do it," he ordered.
Nathan was sitting at the kitchen table jotting down notes as he talked quietly on his cell phone. Chris caught a medical term here and there and decided to wait for the medic's full report.
Ezra was pacing between the kitchen and great room calling in every favor he could think of to beg, borrow or steal a way to reach Vin. But the weather proved to be a more formidable opponent than even Ezra P. Standish could beat.
Nathan finished his call and sat at the table looking over his notes before calling
"Nathan?" Chris urged.
Buck and Ezra hurried over to the table to hear Nathan's report.
"It's a miracle he survived," the medic sighed.
"Spit it out," Chris ordered.
"It took the rescue workers over an hour to cut Vin out of the Cherokee. Besides his other injuries they had to treat him for hypothermia.
So far he is responding to treatment, except for his collapsed lung. They are worried that they will have to insert a breathing tube, something they are trying to avoid.
So far they have kept him sedated to keep him from shifting his leg. They have his knee braced but any movement will be extremely painful."
Everyone knew how bad a patient Vin Tanner could be.
"He also has a bruised kidney which requires a catheter."
"Shit, Junior ain't gonna like that," Buck said.
"But necessary. They are also monitoring him for a moderate concussion. Considering the severity of the crash, it could have been much worse."
"What about the physicians?" Ezra asked. "Is Mr. Tanner in capable hands?"
Nathan nodded. "I ran a full background check on Dr. Samantha Duggan, now Samantha Patterson, and Dr. Paul Patterson. Checked their credentials. They are a husband and wife team. They opened the clinic together after working in a Chicago hospital for twenty years respectively. I dug further and found they both left with clean records, passing all their performance evaluations. It doesn't take long to weed out the incompetent doctors in a busy hospital like that. I also found that an anonymous benefactor donated a sizeable amount of money to update their equipment. They are as state of the art as a small mountain clinic could be."
"He still needs us!" Chris growled.
Ezra uncharacteristically laid a manicured hand on Chris' shoulder. "And we will do our best to see that Mr. Tanner will be surrounded by family this holiday. I have still not given up hope that we will find a way to join him. So if you will excuse me, I will return to my groveling."
J.D. couldn't hide the grin as he rushed into the great room. "I've got a video link set up between us and the clinic. Sam said she would call us as soon as soon as Vin is awake."
Buck wiggled his eyebrows. "Sam? You're on a first name basis already? The ladies' married, Kid."
J.D. glared at his insufferable roommate. "Been talking to her for the past hour. She's not exactly a computer genius."
The moment of levity eased everyone's nerves.
It was almost two hours before the communications expert called them into Chris' office.
Buck rushed in, both anxious and nervous. "Are we ready?" Behind him the rest of the team crowded in. Nathan took a seat to the right of Chris and J.D. to the left to monitor Vin and alert him if the young Texan looked like he was tiring. Buck and Ezra leaned over their shoulders anxiously awaiting the connection to open.
This would be their only connection…an electronic lifeline between friends.
The screen blinked on and the team got their first look at Vin sleeping in the semi- reclined hospital bed. It was hard to accept that the pale and fragile man they were looking at on the monitor was the sharpshooter they knew so well. A soft red cast, from his hand to past his bicep stabilized his broken right wrist. His left leg was immobilized between firm foam blocks and elevated on a pile of pillows. A white sheet covered him, leaving his left leg exposed.
Above the sound of the heart monitor beeping and the measured hiss of oxygen leading to the mask covering Vin's nose and mouth, they could hear the fury of the storm outside.
The young sharpshooter was beginning to regain consciousness, groaning softly as he fought to climb up through the minutia of confusion the drug induced.
A woman's voice directed someone to bring the laptop closer until Vin's head and shoulders were all they saw.
"Mr. Larabee?" The camera was turned and a woman dressed in blue jeans and sweatshirt smiled back at them.
"Dr. Samantha Patterson. I thought we could talk a little before Mr. Tanner regains consciousness."
"Thank you. This is our team medic, Nathan," he said nodding toward his medical expert. "J.D. to my right and Buck and Ezra behind me."
"I feel like I already know all of you." She chuckled. "Mr. Tanner has spoken of you. But you are missing a member…"
"Josiah. He was snowed in before he could get out of Denver."
The camera was turned back and they watched as a nurse in a holiday smock replaced the oxygen mask for a cannula.
"Vin's lung isn't responding?" Nate asked.
"We've tried to avoid inserting a chest tube, but I'm afraid we may not have a choice. I was hoping if there was a break in the weather we could transfer him down the mountain. But he won't be going anywhere once that chest tube is in place."
The camera was turned again and a tall man with thick brown hair and a full beard smiled into the laptop lens. "Paul Patterson. I'm the second half of the dynamic duo." Behind him Chris could see the fury of the storm raging outside the window. As bad as it was here, it was far worse up the mountain.
Buck leaned over Chris' shoulder. "How's Junior doing?"
"He's a fighter," Paul answered." Most people wouldn't have survived a crash like that. Our biggest problem will be keeping his spirits up once he's fully conscious."
Sam moved into the frame. "I'm afraid we are fairly computer illiterate. We can access patient files search for medical information. But that's about it. Thanks to J.D., Mr. Tanner won't feel so isolated. As I'm sure Nathan will agree, a good mental attitude is so important."
Nathan nodded. "In Vin's case it's very important. He didn't have an easy life growing up. This was to be his first ‘real' Christmas since he was a kid."
"Nathan," Chris warned. Vin would not appreciate his personal life paraded in front of strangers.
"I think Vin's doctors need to know his emotional state, especially since we can't be there with him."
"Mr. Larabee, this will go no further than the three of us here," she assured him. "And it won't be recorded on his chart."
"Just make sure it doesn't."
The laptop was turned back and Chris watched Vin continue to wake up from the strong pain medication.
Pain awaited Vin again as he began to wake up. He couldn't remember a time when he wasn't in pain. And when he did wake up, the sounds and smells of a hospital ratcheted up the nausea.
This time he seemed to climb higher through the tunnel that led to consciousness. Even though the pain was rising, he didn't feel the surge of warmth going through his veins from another dose of the strong medication.
That was Libby. He knew her voice and her gentle touch.
"Someone would like to speak to you," she said, and Vin wondered idly who it might be.
Then he heard a voice he thought he would never hear again.
Vin's heart skipped a beat. Chris?
"Hey, Junior." Buck…
"Mr. Tanner, it is most delightful to see you." Ezra…
"Vin!" No one had the innocent enthusiasm that J.D. never seemed to lose, thank God.
"How ya feeling, Vin?" Nathan…
"Chris…?" Vin whispered, his lungs fighting for more air.
His eyes fluttered open trying to bring the room into focus, expecting to see Chris and the team huddled around his bed.
"Take your time, Mr. Tanner." Dr. Sam said, adjusting the I.V. drip.
Finally his eyes were open and focused and he nearly cried. It was just a dream. The only ones standing around his bed were the two doctors and Libby. Chris and the rest of the team were still in Denver. His eyes misted over.
Libby saw his reaction and tapped his shoulder gently, pointing to the over the bed hospital table sitting beside him and he gasped in surprise.
"Hey, Cowboy." Chris grinned. "How ya doin'?"
"Hey, Junior." Buck smiled. "Leave it to you to end up in the worst snowstorm in a half a century."
"I fear Mr. Wilmington's bedside manner is sorely lacking," Ezra lamented. "I on the other hand wish you a speedy recovery."
"We're waiting until you get back to celebrate Christmas," J.D. assured him.
Hanging on Chris' home office wall behind his team Vin could see Christmas garland and tiny blinking red lights weaved through the branches. He felt a surge of melancholy so strong it took his breath away. He wasn't going to spend Christmas Eve with the team after all.
The pain started to rise and his breathing became ragged as his eyes brimmed with tears. He didn't have the strength physically or emotionally to stop the tears from rolling down his cheeks.
Paul nodded to Libby and she drew a syringe from her pocket injecting it into the I.V. port taped to the back of Vin's hand.
"It's time you rested," he said, replacing the cannula with the mask. "Maybe we can try this again tomorrow when you are a little stronger."
Chris watched Vin's eyelids slide closed.
It hadn't been since the first Christmas after Sarah and Adam had died that he hated Christmas so much. Suddenly the room closed in around him and he slammed his fist on the desk before racing out of the room, the front door closing with a solid bang.
Buck jumped to his feet to follow but Ezra, of all people, reached out and stopped him. "I believe Mr. Larabee needs a moment to compose his emotions."
Sighing heavily, Buck sat back down and listened as Nathan continued to talk to the doctors, but his mind was on his best friend. He hoped he could hold it together for Vin's sake. But history told him that Chris Larabee would disappear into a bottle.
Nathan said his final goodbye to the doctors and sat silently absorbing all the information he'd gathered from Cornerstone. Considering the accident, Vin's condition was satisfactory. It was his emotional state that worried him most.
He couldn't remember ever feeling so helpless. There was no way to get up the mountain and he feared the young sharpshooter would simply give up. History appeared to be repeating itself… once again when Vin was on solid ground the rug was pulled out from under him.
A somber pall fell over the clinic. What Sam had hoped would lift Vin's spirits seemed to have the opposite effect. Nathan Jackson had alluded to a very difficult childhood for the young man and she could see the loss mirrored in his eyes.
She couldn't imagine feeling so lost.
Looking around the lunch room she saw the decorations Libby had lovingly adorned around the clinic except for the patient's room. After the video call she was more uncertain what they could, or should do to help the melancholy man.
When she and Paul had first come across the clinic on a skiing weekend five years ago, they found Libby in a panic, surrounded by boxes of medical supplies, ranging from band aids to sophisticated imaging equipment.
With a cup of hot coffee and a minute to catch her breath, Libby explained how the clinic had received a large donation to upgrade the facility while Dr. Hammer ran the clinic. Between the time the old doctor had made the purchases and the delivery date he had a stroke and passed away.
Amidst the shock and mourning, no one remembered the purchases until the delivery truck pulled up to the door.
That same day Sam and Paul decided to buy the clinic. It turned out to be the right decision for both doctors and patients.
For the thirty years Libby had worked in the Cornerstone Clinic, she had collected Christmas decorations and stored them in the attic after the holiday. Most years she put up only enough to make the holiday festive. But this year she had dragged everything down and before anyone could blink the clinic looked like Macy's storefront window.
Sam only wished there was a way to cheer Vin Tanner up.
The sound of the wind howling through the back door sent her racing down the hall. Jack and J.J. got to the door before her and it took both of them to shove the door closed against the gale force winds and swirling snow.
"Land's sake!" Libby exclaimed at the sight of the two paramedics covered in snow. "What happened?"
"Wind blew the door open," J.J. said. "Don't know how, but the storm seems to be getting stronger."
"It's a whopper," Libby agreed.
Paul poked his head out of his office, cell phone to his ear.
"Just the door," Sam reassured him. "Thank God we have that generator. The power…"
Right on cue, the lights blinked and came back to life as the sound of the generator kicked in.
"We'll be alright here," Paul reassured everyone, "I'm more worried about the people out there who don't have back-up."
Everyone stood silently, aware how lucky they were to be safe, sound and warm.
Chris and the team spoke two more times to Vin and saw no improvement in his condition. In fact he looked weaker every time. The doctors said they had to insert the chest tube and Vin was breathing a little easier. But his emotional state hadn't improved.
No one slept very much that night.
Except for the sound of the storm raging outside, the steady beep of the heart monitor and soft whoosh of the oxygen, the clinic was quiet. The soft over-the- bed light and the small Christmas tree in the corner were the only lights in the room.
This is where J.J felt most comfortable, in the controlled environment of a hospital, not in the middle of a blizzard racing to pry a man out of a metal coffin before he died of his injuries or hypothermia.
Jack said he did a good job, and he was proud that he had kept it together, but he hoped to never go through another call like that again.
J.J. checked Vin' vitals again, noting a slightly elevated fever. He studied the young man sleeping comfortably and had a hard time seeing him as an ATF agent. He seemed too young with his checks flushed from fever and his long hair spread out over the pillow.
He wondered if he sat behind a desk or worked in the field. He gently opened Vin's right hand and ran his finger over the calluses. He grew up with guns all his life and recognized the pattern of toughened skin.
He heard a faint moan and watched as Vin struggled awake, blinking to bring his eyes into focus.
It was hard for Vin to tell what time it was with the storm raging outside.
The constant pain was dampened by the pain medication and when he was awake he usually found someone hovering over him, but this time he found himself alone. And as much as he hated to admit it, he felt lonely without their constant presence.
When had he let his guard down? When had he let six men inter his life and with them an extended family? Nettie, Rain, Inez and Cassie. Even Assistant Director Orrin Travis and his wife were part of his life. When had being alone changed to feeling alone? He had spent so many years not needing anyone. His mantra had been: If you don't let them in, they can't hurt you.
But that all changed when he chased a bounty into a warehouse and met the six men who changed his life.
Surprised his mind had wondered, Vin looked up to see the man he vaguely remembered when he'd opened his eyes checking monitors and the IV flow before making eye contact.
"Yeah," Vin answered, surprised at how weak his voice sounded.
"Do you want anything?"
Vin looked away. No one here could give him what he truly wanted.
"Sucks, doesn't it?"
Vin looked up, surprised.
"I mean, stuck here at Christmas."
Vin nodded. "Yeah, it sucks big time."
"No one saw this storm coming. We all expected some snow, but nothing like this. My partner, Jack, he was supposed to be on a plane to sunny California…except I heard they've got flooding there. I was going home to Kentucky. Sam and Paul were looking forward to a quiet holiday, if you get my drift. And Libby… I haven't known all of them that long, but I think Libby would be happy anywhere as long as she was needed."
Vin turned his head to look at the Christmas tree in the corner and J.J. saw the sadness come over his face.
"Missing your family?" he asked.
Vin turned his head back and nodded.
"Wife… kids?" J.J. didn't see a ring on his finger nor the tell-tale line a ring left.
Vin shook his head.
Again Vin shook his head. "Ma died when I was five. Pa died in the army before I was born."
"Sorry to hear that."
"Didn't have anyone for a long time ‘til I joined Team7. They're my family now." The words came so easily and it felt so right.
J.J. grabbed a chair and sat next to Vin's bed." Mind if I sit and talk for a while?"
Vin shook his head. He didn't want to be alone… even if it was a stranger sitting beside him.
"I'm from Kentucky. My Ma and Pa live in the same house my Pa was born in."
"Brothers or sisters?"
"Six brothers. We're all spread across the country. We try to get together at Christmas but this year I won't make it. Craig and Mat can't make it either."
"Sorry," Vin said softly.
"Don't be. We've had plenty of good Christmas' together. Ma said we'd have turkey and all the fixin's next month."
"We were gonna spend Christmas Eve at Chris' ranch."
"Chris Larabee. He's my boss. The rest of the team will be there too."
J.J. heard the longing in Vin's voice.
"I heard you came up here to get a saddle."
Vin blinked his eyes to stay awake a little longer. "Saw it last month at the antique store and knew it was just the right gift for Chris. He owns a ranch outside of Denver and we all stable our horses there and ride every chance we get."
J.J. chuckled. "Thought ya looked like a cowboy."
Vin agreed with a smile.
"So how does a cowboy become an ATF Agent?"
"How does a Kentucky boy become an EMT?"
"Touché." J.J. laughed.
"I was a sharpshooter for Special Ops. When I got out I didn't know much except handling a gun. Joined the US Marshalls then did a stint as a bounty hunter. I was pretty messed up when Chris and the guys took me under their wings and…"
"You did a lot for being so young. Four years in the army…"
"I got an honorable discharge after two years. Sharpshooters behind the lines burn out fast."
Vin blinked his eyes to try to stay awake just a little longer.
"What made you want to be a nurse?"
"Wanted to be a doctor at first, then I was a patient for a few weeks. I saw how much nurses did and how important their jobs were. I've never regretted the decision."
Vin was losing the fight to stay awake.
"Looks like you're pretty sleepy there. Why don't you just close your eyes and we can talk again later if you want."
"I'd like that," Vin answered as his eyes slid shut.
Vin saw something big and black appear out of the swirling snow. He tried to back up but his back was already pressed up against a solid wall.
"No…" he gasped.
The snow covered his feet banking up around his ankles and crawling up his thighs. He began to panic. He was trapped. The black monster took shape and Vin saw a half ton truck barreling toward him. The truck's headlights came to life, blinding him with their hot lights.
"NO!" he screamed, fighting desperately to free himself from his frozen prison. His face was on fire from the glaring light, sweat dripping into his eyes while his legs were freezing.
J.J. and Jack heard Vin's cry and rushed into his room. They found him thrashing in bed, trying to kick his leg free from the blocks bracing his knee.
"Get Sam or Paul!" J.J., the seasoned nurse ordered. He found him burning up with one hell of a fever.
He tried to wake Vin from his nightmare with no success.
Both Sam and Paul rushed in to find J.J. trying to keep Vin from moving his left leg while Paul held his shoulders down against the mattress, talking softly to calm him down.
"Mr. Tanner…Mister Tanner… Calm down. It's just a dream."
Sam quickly took his temperature. "Damn, 104.1. Let's give him 650 mgs Tylenol by suppository every four hours. I want a CBC and Chem 7 stat. Let's find out where this fever is coming from. Libby, we need a cooling blanket."
Libby grabbed Jack by the arm pulling him after her. "I'll show you where the cooling blanket is while I draw blood for those tests. That poor boy, this is not the way to spend Christmas."
Chris sat at the kitchen table picking at a grilled cheese sandwich and a mug of hot tomato soup. Ezra had made the soup from scratch and Chris knew it would be delicious. But he wasn't hungry.
Nathan insisted that he eat three meals a day no matter how he felt, so he continued to pick.
The snow continued to fall outside the window, the wind whipping it into swirling eddies.
The slow tick tock of the clock above the sink mocked him. Each minute seemed like an hour.
Slapping the tabletop with his open hands he started to rise when he saw something traveling through the deep pile of snow covering his long driveway.
"What the hell? Hey, Boys! It looks like we've got company."
Everyone rushed into the kitchen to watch the unusual looking truck approaching.
"I don't believe it," Nathan said in awe. "It's a SUSV – Small Unit Support Vehicle. I've read about them. But never saw one."
They watched the two square-shaped articulated cabins travel effortlessly over the deep snow on continuous treads that allowed it to move over almost any terrain.
They raced into the great room and waited at the window until the vehicle came to a stop at the front door. Their jaws dropped when they saw Josiah climb out of the front cab.
"Merry Christmas!" he shouted as he struggled against the heavy snow and gale force winds.
"Well, I'll be dammed." Buck grinned.
They waited until the profiler reached the front door and opened it slowly, struggling to keep it from flying out of their hands.
"It's good to see you, my brothers." Josiah said, flashing a wide toothed grin.
"How…where...?" J.D. stuttered.
"God works in mysterious ways," Josiah beamed, taking off his heavy coat and shucking his snow boots. "I received a Christmas card from Dusty Collins, an old army buddy. I hadn't heard or thought of him in years. He saw an article on the mission and remembered my name and checked to see if I was the same Josiah Sanchez who served with him in Nam."
I did some checking myself and found out that he was the head restorer for the Denver Military Museum. I don't know why, but I gave him a call this morning, and somehow we got around to Vin.
Two hours later he was standing in the Mission with the same cocky grin I remembered and handed me a set of keys.
A SUSV came into the museum last month in working condition but needing some cosmetic work. Dusty said it would be six months or more before they got around to it. And if I promised to get it back in one piece I could use it."
The five men stood speechless.
"I dropped him off at his place and here I am. Now, I figure if we get going within the hour we should reach Vin by morning. We'll all be together for Christmas."
Buck slapped Chris on the back so hard he nearly knocked the blonde off his feet. "I told ya we'd reach Junior by Christmas."
J.D. was nearly jumping up and down. "I knew it! I knew it!"
Nathan raced out of the room calling behind him. "Gather every pillow and blanket you can find. Buck, put together all the non-perishable goods.
Sam and Paul worked throughout the day to bring Vin's fever down. Lab reports showed an infection somewhere. The only thing they could do was try to keep him cool and wait for the new antibiotics to kick in.
Libby found herself teamed with J.J. most of the day. He was a kind and caring nurse with skills she could only wish she had.
Paul checked Vin's knee and was not happy with the increased inflammation. Thrashing around that morning had definitely exacerbated his condition. Thankfully he hadn't ripped the chest tube out.
Libby glanced at the time on the wall. It was just a few minutes past five, yet it was dark as midnight outside.
Jerry came running in, looking shaken. "The generator at the Emergency Center just went down. There's no way they can get a back-up. They have over fifty men, women and children staying there. Hank said they have enough wood to last twelve hours max."
"We can't get to them from here, they are all the way on the other side of town," Sam said as she rushed into the room. "Can't anyone closer help?"
"Not in this weather," Jack growled. "We can't go five feet in this damn snow."
"There must be something we can do." Sam grabbed Jack's arm. "Come on. You call the station to see if they can do anything and I'll make some calls." The sound of determined footsteps echoed down the hall.
Paul turned to check on Vin when the clinic was suddenly plunged into complete blackness.
Stunned, no one moved.
"Is everyone all right?" Sam called from the break room, her voice shaky. This is what they feared most…no power, no heat, save for the fireplace which would keep one room partially warm, and a patient who still needed oxygen.
The storm slashed at the windows like an angry beast trying to break through the glass, reminding them how inadequate man was against nature.
"We're alright," Paul called back. "See if you can get to the supply closet. There's a halogen flashlight in there."
"There's also candles and matches in the utility drawer in the kitchen," Libby called.
"On it," Sam called back.
Vin awoke in total blackness. No voices, no monitors beeping: Just the sound of the storm raging outside. Panic set in. Where was he? What was happening?
He must have made a sound because he heard someone shuffling in the darkness toward him.
"It's okay," J.J. said as he reached the bed and sidled along the mattress until he found Vin's hand clutching the blankets in fear. "The generator just had a little hiccup."
"More like it went belly up," Vin rasped, his voice thick from sleep.
"We expected it to last at least one more season," Paul said from the darkness. "But we didn't expect a storm like this. It's the worst in fifty years."
Libby arrived at the door with several strands of twinkling Christmas lights draped over her shoulders. "Battery powered," she said triumphantly. From her pocket she also pulled out two flashlights.
Jack grabbed one and rushed out of the room, returning with his and J.J.'s jackets. "We'll check the generator," he said as he threw J.J's to him.
"You'll need a rope to anchor yourselves to the building and to tie each other off," Vin said. "You get lost out there and ya won't make it back."
Vin watched J.J. follow Jack out and collapsed back against his pillows…exhausted. His legs and ribs were beginning to ache, but he tried not to let on. He didn't know if they knew what a deadly situation they faced if they had no power or heat throughout night. They might need his experience.
It took the team less than an hour to collect everything they needed and packed in the second cab.
"OK." Chris smiled for the first time since this nightmare began. "Let's get this show on the road. We have a long-haired Texan who needs his family on Christmas Day."
"Well let's get going!" Buck grinned.
Chris' cell phone ran in his pocket and he drew it out recognizing the number from the Cornerstone Clinic. Somehow he knew he would not like this call.
Chris flipped the phone open. "Larabee."
"Mr. Larabee. Paul Paterson."
"Hang on," Chris said and motioned everyone back in the house out of the snow.
"You're on speaker phone doctor."
"Our generator went down," Paul said, the sound of the storm raging clearly heard on the phone. "We can make it through the night, but I'm not sure how long after that. And we have another problem…the generator at the Emergency Shelter is down too. Fifty men women and children are without power or heat. Vin…"
Suddenly the connection dropped.
Chris looked at the dead phone in disbelief.
"Shit!" Buck roared, slamming his hand against the door.
"It appears we must somehow obtain two generators," Ezra said.
"But how? The city is buttoned up tighter than Fort Knox," Buck growled.
"We're under a State of Emergency, aren't we?" J.D. asked.
Chris stated at the young computer expert then grinned as he hit speed dial for Orrin Travis. "You're a genius, Kid."
Half an hour later a DPD officer opened the doors to Wal-Mart and Team7, minus one, gathered more food, blankets and two generators.
Silence filled the cabin in the SUSV as Josiah droved the tracked vehicle slowly through the raging storm.
Jack fed the fire sparingly, waiting for one log to burn down to embers before adding another one.
Everyone was gathered in the one room with extra blankets covering the windows and doorway leading into the rest of the clinic.
Vin heard the sound of a tree limb striking the window outside and sought out Jack's attention. "Someone's gonna have ta board off that window before it breaks."
Jack nodded and went in search of something to block the window.
With J.J.'s help, Libby had moved the Christmas tree from Vin's room to stand beside the larger one, stringing the battery powered Christmas lights around the boughs. The twinkling bulbs and the fire were the only light in the room. Flashlights were saved for emergencies.
Sam quickly checked Vin's vitals. "Your blood pressure is a bit high. How's the pain?" She noticed his slightly labored breathing and the sweat on his brow.
Despite his unstable blood pressure, she used the hand crank to raise the head of the bed to make it easier for him to breathe. "There," she said, adding another blanket, "this and the fire should keep you warm."
Sam winked at him. "You're welcome. Now try to get some rest."
Vin looked around skeptically.
"I know. But try."
Satisfied she'd done everything she could for the moment; Sam turned her attention to Maggie.
"Thank you, Dear." Maggie patted Sam's hand. "But I won't need this." She pointed toward Vin lying in bed near the fireplace. "That nice young man over there said he would take me home."
"I'm afraid Mr. Tanner isn't feeling very good right now. Why don't you just relax and I'll make you a nice cup of hot tea. Then I'll call Kirk when this storm eases up. Will that be all right?"
"No…no, the young man promised." Maggie threw the blanket off and rushed past Sam with unexpected speed. Before she could stop the confused old woman she reached Vin and started shaking his shoulder.
"Young man, young man," she pleaded. "You promised to take me home."
Vin hissed in pain when his shoulder was roughly shaken and he opened his eyes to see the old woman standing over him again. "Please, Young Man, you promised," she begged.
Libby rushed into the break room carrying a box filled with bags of saline for Vin's IV and bottles of medication that couldn't stand the freezing cold in the rest of the clinic.
"Maggie!" She dropped the boxes on a table and ran across the room to help Sam.
"Libby, let's give Maggie something to calm her down a bit."
Libby quickly filled a syringe with a sedative and injected it into Maggie's arm. The old woman didn't seem to notice the injection and Sam gently directed her back to her recliner. "You have to stay here, Maggie. Kirk will be here as soon as he can."
"No buts…you have to stay here."
Vin looked around the small break room. The light from the flicking fire and twinkling Christmas lights danced across the ceiling. The sound of the storm raging outside and the plaintive cries from the confused old woman worsened his melancholy and reminded him that this was Christmas Eve. The tears he fought so hard to fight back spilled from his eyes.
"Chris, I need you," he whispered softly. "I need you and the guys."
Sam heard the hushed plea and felt her own eyes misting over.
Josiah couldn't see anything beyond the solid white beyond the windshield.
The only sound came from the scrapping of the windshield wipers on the frozen glass and the raging storm outside buffeting the heavy SUSV like a toy.
The pinging of the snow depth meter, installed by the military, was the only thing keeping the profiler from driving off the narrow mountain road.
They had been on the road for over two hours and covered less than ten miles, the ride jaw-breakingly rough on the continuous treads. At this pace they would be lucky if they reached the clinic by mid-afternoon tomorrow. Half of Christmas Day would be gone.
The tension inside the cabin was palpable as the six men tried to think of anything but Vin Tanner waiting for them at the snowbound clinic.
"How long can they last without power?" J.D. broke the silence. He was not claustrophobic, but he felt trapped in the cabin with the snow and ice building up on the windows.
"Depends on how many people they have there and how much wood they have. They'll have jackets and blankets…" Buck answered.
"But Vin will be too weak to fight off the cold." Nathan worried. "And the doctors won't have oxygen to supplement his breathing."
Chris balled his fingers into painful fists. "What are his chances?"
The silence from the medic scared everyone.
"Nathan!" Chris' sharp voice filled the cabin.
"I can't tell you, Chris. I can only give you an educated guess. When it comes to a man's life… Vin's life… I can't and won't guess."
"All right," Chris conceded, turning forward again staring out the window at the wall of white. "Hang on, Cowboy," he whispered.
Vin silently watched as Libby coaxed J.J. and Jerry into rearranging the decorations around the break room. They hung green and gold garland around the door and formed a huge red bow to hang in the center of the blanket covering the window.
Small reindeer hung from the ceiling on strings leading Santa's sleigh.
Libby started humming Christmas songs and her helpers joined in.
Libby grinned as she tied a red bow around the bag of his IV and hung a throw blanket decorated with gold and green wreaths at the end of his bed.
He was stunned by these strangers who were going out of their way to try to rescue Christmas for him.
Sam smiled at Libby's antics and began to sing The Twelve Days of Christmas. Soon the song was going around the room with everyone picking up a day.
Vin had heard the song before but didn't know the words. The Twelfth Day came to him and he looked around frantically to remember the last gift, but he needn't have been worried. Everyone surrounded his bed and started singing his part and he felt his heart swell.
Libby leaned down and kissed him lightly on the cheek. "Mary Christmas, Sweetie," she said.
Vin's throat closed off and he couldn't answer.
"That's okay," she said gently, pulling the covers up higher. "That smile is all the thanks we need. Now, why don't you try to take a little nap, don't want you to overtire yourself."
Sam saw the emotions overwhelm Vin and walked around his bed and injected a sedative into his IV without him knowing.
"Merry Christmas," she said softly as his eyes slid closed.
The hours crawled by, the momentous wall of snow pressing in closer around them all.
Josiah relinquished the driver's seat after the first four hours. Chris was about to hand over the wheel when the pinging of the depth meter started pinging faster.
Chris slowed the SUSV to a complete stop.
Sleepy voices grumbled as they woke up. "We there?" J.D. asked anxiously.
"Don't think so, Kid," Buck answered, trying to see out the windows and saw nothing but a wall of snow.
Josiah crawled to his knees from the floor of the cabin where he had been sleeping, his huge frame not comfortable in the small straight backed seats.
"What's going on?" he asked, turning down the strident sound of the snow meter.
Instead of the graph showing deeper snow on the shoulders, it showed a solid line across the road ahead.
"Eight feet deep," Chris cursed.
"Can we make it?" Nathan asked.
Josiah changed seats with Buck in the front passenger seat and banged on the dashboard. "This baby could climb Mount Kilimanjaro."
Ezra grinned. "Nothing as insignificant as one of the highest mountains in the world will keep us away from our mission of mercy."
Chris returned the grin and started inching the vehicle forward. To Larabee's surprise the SUSV climbed over the mound of snow effortlessly.
"Damn, we owe Dusty a case of the best bourbon when we get back." Nathan laughed.
Chris checked his illuminated wristwatch: 4 am. "Hang on, Cowboy," he whispered again.
Jack looked worriedly at the stack of wood next to the fireplace. He knew it wouldn't be long before they ran out of logs and the frigid cold would creep into the break room.
Sam patted Jerry's shoulders as they both watched the fire. "Six am," she said softly, knowing time really didn't exist for them. Their only reality was the raging blizzard outside and the encroaching cold.
He looked toward the bed that had been moved closer to the fireplace. "Will he make it?"
Sam shook her head. "I don't know. We're keeping his fever under control, but without oxygen he's really struggling."
Libby heard them talking and drew the heavy blanket over her shoulders as she stood up, silently thanking whoever had thrown it over her while she slept.
The high spirits that filled the break room earlier had disappeared with the relentless pounding of the storm and the bleak outlook for their future.
She wasn't a quitter: Never had been. But she was close to it now.
Noticing Vin blinking his eyes as he regained consciousness, she grabbed a cup of tepid water sitting near the fire to take the chill off and she raised his head to let him sip at it slowly but steadily.
"There you go, Sweetie."
"Thank you," he replied, his breathing labored. He felt like shit, and the constant struggle to breath was wearing on him.
"My pleasure. Now how are you feeling?" she asked wrapping the blood pressure cuff around his bicep. "A little high. How's the pain?"
"Tolerable, huh?" Sam laughed as she approached the bed. "On a scale of one to ten, how is the pain? And I want an honest answer. God, you must give Nathan a run for his money."
She had no idea. "About an eight, I guess," Vin admitted.
Sam nodded. "Thought so. But I can only give you a small dose of Toradol without supplemental oxygen. Sorry."
"I'll be fine," Vin said, reassuring everyone who had gathered around his bed. He hated being the center of attention, and being bedridden made it ten times worse, but these people were surrounding him with their love and care.
He felt the pain medication notch the pain down just enough for him to get a grip on it.
"What time is it?"
"A little after six in the morning." J.J. grabbed Vin's hand and shook it. "Merry Christmas, Vin."
Vin nodded, "Merry Christmas." But there was nothing merry about this day. He was missing his team with all his heart.
"I know we aren't your family," J.J. said, "but I kind a hope we can make this day a bit easier."
Vin felt his eyes misting, and for once it wasn't for his missing team, but these people who were offering him so much.
"You have," he answered, his voice rough with emotion.
Paul felt someone tap him on the back and he looked behind him to see Maggie trying to slip in closer to Vin's bed.
He hesitated letting the old woman near Vin, but her eyes looked startling coherent and he guided her up the bed.
"Merry Christmas, my dear," she said.
Vin reached out a shaky hand. "Merry Christmas, Maggie," he said squeezing her frail hand gently.
Sam felt her own eyes mist over and leaned in to hug the old woman's shoulders. "Merry Christmas, Maggie."
Vin fought to keep his eyes open not wanting to miss this moment, but his body demanded sleep. As he drifted off he listened to the voices of these new found friends and though of his family waiting for him in Denver. "Merry Christmas," he whispered to his team so many miles away.
Exhausted from worry and the long hours traveling in the SUSV, J.D. suddenly shouted, "Cornerstone! We're in Cornerstone!"
"Hot Damn!" Buck yelled.
"How much further?" Nathan asked, anxious to see Vin. Without any contact for nearly twenty-four hours, he feared what he would find when they reached the sharpshooter.
Everyone sat ridged, trying to see through the wall of snow, listening to J.D. call out directions to Josiah.
"Two miles!" J.D. shouted watching their progress on the GPS on his laptop.
"We are almost with you, my friend." Ezra said softly.
"Damn it," Chris cursed, "never saw a storm this bad."
Now that they were in town they had to slow down to a crawl to avoid running into buildings or trees. They were within inches of the obstacles before they saw a shadow in the whiteness and Josiah corrected.
"One mile!" J.D, shouted again. "Turn fifteen degrees East on my mark."
Josiah nodded, his hands gripping the wheel in concentration.
"Now." J.D. directed.
Josiah steered the vehicle carefully.
"Twenty degrees North East on my mark." J.D. kept shouting out directions.
Chris sat ridged in his seat. "Hang on, partner," he whispered. "Hang on. We're right around the corner."
Jack had reluctantly put the last log on the fire and hour ago. Even with jackets and gloves everyone was beginning to shiver. Sam and Paul hovered over Vin. They worried that he seemed to be growing weaker. They both knew that the young man's state of mind had a lot to do with it.
"Vin, you have to fight this," Paul encouraged. "I want to be able to tell your friends that you are all right when we get in touch with them again. Don't make me tell Mr. Larabee what he doesn't want to hear."
"Left," J.D. called excitedly. "There it is!"
"Thank you Heavenly Father," Josiah said.
Everyone grabbed their heavy parkas and gloves. They climbed out of the SUSV stiff after so many hours sitting inside. The icy snow blasted their faces making them hunch forward to drive their way through the gale force winds.
They reached the double doors to the emergency bay and found it unlocked. It was either exceedingly good luck or a harbinger of what might be inside.
Instinct took over and the six agents drew their guns out from beneath their parkas.
They walked down the long hallway and their hearts sank as they felt the cold air biting their faces. No one could survive this cold all night.
Chris signaled his men to start opening doors. A negative shake came from each agent as they found the rooms cold and vacant.
That left the last door in front of Chris. Saying a silent prayer he turned the doorknob and found a blanket covering the opening.
Everyone in the break room spun around, fear and hope registering on their faces as a gloved hand swept the blanket aside. Fear that someone was breaking in who would do them harm, or hope that a rescue party had reached them. Six men wearing heavy parkas crowded in.
"Chris," Vin gasped weakly and tried to sit up, but Paul held his shoulders against the mattress.
"Hey, Cowboy," Chis answered, his voice rough with emotion.
"Hey, Junior. Did you think we were going to let you celebrate Christmas without us?"
Nathan pushed past the rest of him men and ripped his glove off to shake hands with the woman he had spoken to so often.
"You must be Nathan." She grinned, pumping his hand.
"How is he?" the ex-medic asked studying the man lying in the bed. His stomach lurched as he saw Vin's flushed face and labored breathing.
Chris quickly shucked his gloves and unbuttoned his parka as he made his way across the room to stand next to Vin's bed.
He reached out for his Vin's hand squeezing it gently. There were no words needed as the two communicated in their own special way.
"Ezra Standish," Ezra held out his hand to Libby. "Thank you, dear lady. I fear our team of compatriots would never recover from the loss if we were to lose Mr. Tanner. He is indeed the soul that drives Team7."
"Land's sake." Libby blushed. "That young man had all our hearts the minute he arrived."
"That's our Junior," Buck grinned.
Sam recognized J.D. and made her way over to him. "J.D., it's so good to meet you in person. I don't know if Vin would still be with us without your video link. You gave him something to hang onto."
J.D. shifted uncomfortably.
Buck made his rounds before snagging Ezra and Josiah and calling out to the rest of the team. "We best get unloaded. We have blankets, food, firewood and two new generators."
"Oh my God," Sam nearly screamed. "A generator!"
"We used our last log," Jack said, grabbing his coat and gloves. "You couldn't have timed it more perfectly."
"Did I hear you say you brought two generators?" Paul asked hopefully.
Buck nodded. "We lost your signal just after you said the generator was down at your Emergency Center."
"Thank the Lord."
"Amen to that," Josiah agreed.
Buck slapped Chris on the shoulder and leaned over to run his hand through Vin's long hair. "You got no idea how good it is to see you." He had a hard time talking with the lump in his throat.
"Good to see you guys too."
Standing up straight he took over as second in command, knowing that Vin needed Chris. "We'll get that generator set up right away, then Josiah and J.D. can deliver the other one to the Emergency Center while Chris stays here with Vin."
Chris shot him an appreciative smile. It would take an act of God to get him to leave Vin's side now that they finally reached him.
Three hours later the clinic was once again warm and J.D. and Josiah returned with smiles a mile wide. Never had they been thanked so much. The very old and the very young were suffering the most, but everyone was close to freezing to death.
With the power returned Vin was doing better with the supplemental oxygen. He tried to refuse the pain medications, he didn't want to sleep after just be reunited with his team, but Nathan stepped in and Vin knew it was useless to try to fight the ex-medic.
Chris staid at Vin's side until he was finally coaxed away by Sam and he sat at the break table drinking a cup of strong hot coffee.
Libby woke Maggie, who had slept through the team's arrival, and looked around at the new men when she suddenly spied J.D. and cried out. "Kirk! I knew you would come." She rushed for the young communications expert and clamped onto his arm. "Can we go home now, Kirk? Please…I want to go home."
J.D. looked around helplessly.
"That's Maggie," Vin offered, a wide smile on his face.
Buck did a double take recognizing the name. "She's not the one that…"
"Leave it," Vin warned the normally gregarious ladies' man.
"She's the one?" Chris mouthed the question.
Vin nodded, watching J.D.'s face turning a bright red. "She's just an old lady that got turned around. She don't remember anything and it's gonna stay that way."
Vin looked passed Chris' shoulder at the uncovered window and saw the storm still raging. "How the hell did you guys get here in this weather? Santa's sleigh?"
Larabee chuckled. "Almost. A friend of Josiah's loaned us a SUSV that came into the military museum where he works."
Chris' green eyes twinkled. "If you're a good boy you can hitch a ride with us when we head back down to Denver. That…" cautioned Chris, "is only after Nathan and your doctors think you're ready to travel."
"Listen to your boss, he's a smart man," Sam chuckled. "And I bet he knows just about every trick you have up your sleeve. Now it's time for you to get some rest."
"Don't want ta miss any part of Christmas."
"Just a few hours," Sam coaxed, straightening the blankets on his bed. "Now if you don't close your eyes and try to sleep I'll have to give you a sedative that will put you out most of the night. Your choice."
Vin reluctantly closed his eyes loathe to miss even a minute of Christmas, but he couldn't deny that he was growing too tired to hold his eyes open.
He felt Chris' hand lay gently on his shoulder and for the first time he felt like he was home, even if Denver was miles away.
"Is he asleep?" Buck whispered. He still couldn't believe they'd finally made it. Vin had needed them all, especially Chris. He could see it written all over his face when they arrived. It scared him knowing that the young sharp shooter was so close to giving up. Without his family he didn't have the strength to fight.
"We almost lost him," he choked out.
"I know." Chris took another look at his best friend. His face was still flushed from fever and his breathing was still a little labored, but Paul said he was responding to the antibiotics and his knee was beginning to lose the angry redness. Time was what Vin needed now: Time to heal both physically and emotionally.
"All right," Nathan clapped his hands, "let's get this show on the road."
Buck nearly jumped with excitement. "Come on guys, Santa's helpers have got work to do."
Sam and Paul watched the six men rush out of the break room, the howl of the wind racing down the hallway when they opened the front door.
"What in the world?" Sam asked.
A few minutes later the men returned loaded down with brightly wrapped Christmas presents.
"Land's sake?" Libby cried.
"Since Vin couldn't be with us at Christmas we thought we'd bring Christmas to him."
"I can't believe it!" Suddenly Sam was giggling like a little girl. "Well, what are you waiting for? He'll be awake soon."
Everyone delved in, placing presents around the tree, the battery operated lights still twinkling along with the other Christmas lights. Even Maggie joined in to set a present under the tree. Soon there was not a square inch of space on the floor beneath the tree.
"Shall we wake him up?" J.D. barely contained his excitement.
Paul suddenly jumped to his feet. "Wait!" He ran over to the small fridge and pulled out a carton of eggnog. "We'll do this in style. Sorry, we have nothing to give it a little kick."
Ezra cleared his throat and grabbed a present from the mound under the tree. "Mr. Larabee, this was to be yours alone, but I'm sure you would enjoy it more if you shared it and this most auspicious night."
Chris accepted the present and tore opened the wrapping finding an expensive bottle of Woodford Bourbon.
Chris looked at the expensive liquor. "Thank you, Ezra."
"I believe you will find it is the perfect blend to compliment an eggnog or two."
With glasses filled, and only a splash of Chris' present in the doctor's nog, Libby gently nudged Vin awake and raised the head of his bed until he was sitting up.
Everyone waited for Libby to hand him a small glass of his own.
"While this doesn't really fall under your light liquid diet, I think we can turn a blind eye just this once."
Glasses were raised with a heartfelt toast. "Merry Christmas everyone!"
Vin's grin brightened the already festive room.
The sharp shooter took a sip and raised a surprised eyebrow.
"Just a splash of Mr. Larabee's Christmas present." Ezra beamed.
"And only this one time," Paul cautioned, but couldn't keep the smile off his face.
Vin raised his glass. "To family," he said. "To both my families."
"To families," everyone agreed.
Vin then realized that his team was standing in front of the Christmas tree with dumb looks on their faces.
The six men raised their glasses to Vin once again. "Merry Christmas, Vin." They all called at once.
Confused, Vin watched the men part and his eyes nearly leapt out of his head when he saw the mound of brightly wrapped Christmas presents sitting beneath the tree.
"Since you couldn't join us for Christmas, we decided to bring Christmas to you." Chris grinned.
Vin lost his breath for a moment and J.J. rushed over to him and grabbed his hand. "Take it easy, breathe slowly."
"You all right, Cowboy?" Chris asked worriedly.
"He'll be fine," J.J. said. "He was just caught off guard."
Vin nodded. "I'm fine," he reassured everyone.
The team waited for an okay from the doctors. With their okay Buck clapped his hands and reached for a gift. "Then let's get this show on the road."
He handed J.D. a package and Vin was startled, recognizing his own wrapping.
"We brought the presents you hid in your bedroom closet at Chris' ranch." J.D. beamed.
"I don't believe it!" Vin watched as presents were sorted and Team7 started ripping into their packages.
Half an hour later the floor was littered with crumpled wrappings and empty boxes. Colorful paper covered Vin's bed, presents stacked around him.
Vin felt overwhelmed: Stunned by the generosity of these men, these friends who had come so far to spend Christmas with him.
All these years he had heard the phrase; Holiday Spirit, but never knew the true meaning until now. And not just his team...He looked around the room at all the smiling faces.
Sam and Paul standing near the tree with arms entwined, J.J and Jack standing on either side of Libby, her eyes bright with happy tears. Even Maggie joined them, green garland wrapped around her shoulders.
The last present was a shoebox sized gift. Buck handed it to Chris who held it in his hands.
"It won't open itself," Vin prodded.
Chris unwrapped it carefully and opened a box pulling out six small silver wrapped boxes.
"Open them please, Mr. Larabee," Ezra urged. "You requested this of us, and we humbly followed your request."
Chris opened the first package and found an ornament inside. He held up a small computer shaped ornament.
"You said to pick out something that represented us," J.D. blushed. "I thought…"
"It's perfect, J.D."
Chris hung it from the tree and opened the next box. A young Mrs. Claus dressed in a tight fitting red dress with collar and cuffs made of white fur.
"Buck, you old dog. You just can't help yourself," Chris chuckled as he added Buck's ornament to the tree.
A royal flush inside a glass globe and a miniature medical bag came next.
Chris placed two more of the treasured ornaments on the tree. "Ezra, Nathan…thank you."
A cross came next and Chris nodded his head toward Josiah. "Perfect."
The last box felt heavier than the rest and Chris looked at Vin. The young sharpshooter shrugged. He had no idea what was inside.
He carefully opened the box and drew out an intricately carved saddle.
Vin looked at his five friends, confused.
"We found it on your kitchen counter hidden under a red cloth. We figured you were working on it for your special ornament." Josiah explained. "We simply attached the ribbon."
Vin felt the tears welling up in his eyes thanking each of the men with a nod.
"Thanks, Cowboy, was the only thing Chris could find to say is he hung the special ornament on the tree."
Vin lowered is head thinking about the real saddle he had found. It was probably in the junkyard along with his Cherokee.
All the caregivers stood silently, knowing this was a special moment for the seven friends.
All the presents were opened and Vin looked around at all the gifts. Everyone loved their presents. He remembered how excited he was when he first found the saddle. Now he was suddenly coming down from the high of the moment and his spirits were sinking fast.
Chris took a step toward the sharpshooter but Josiah held out his big hand. "Give him a moment, Brother. He's just overwhelmed."
Buck and J.D. began picking up the scattered paper and boxes when J.D. yelled. "Hey! There's one more back here."
Buck squeezed behind the Christmas tree and checked the name tag on the large present. "Hey, boss, you got one more here from Junior."
Vin's heart skipped a beat at the shape of the gift. It couldn't be.
"For me?" Chris asked. He was sure it was not with the presents they had brought up from the ranch.
"Open it, Brother Chris," Josiah urge.
"You'll never know what is inside until you open it," Nathan agreed.
"Yes, please, Mr. Larabee, we are all excited to see what lies beneath the wrapping."
Vin watched Chris lift the heavy present and carried it out to the center of the room. The paper looked old, so thin in places you could see through it. Everyone waited as he studied the shape then delved into it like a kid.
Chris ripped the paper away stunned to see the most perfect saddle he had ever seen.
Vin was equally stunned. How…
Chris ran his hand over the saddle stopping when he saw the initials branded into the fender.
The old man's voice came back to him…"I knew whoever you was plannin' on giving it to is gonna appreciate it. But whoever gets it ani't gonna feel half as good as yer gonna feel when ya gives it to ‘im."
"It's beautiful, Vin. I don't know what to say."
"Sometimes words aren't necessary," Josiah said with a wide toothed grin.
"Where did you find it?"
"At an old antique store in town. That's why I was here. Spotted it last month and put a deposit down on it."
"What antique store?" Libby asked.
"Days long past. I just picked up the saddle before the accident."
"Days Long Past?" Sam looked at Cornerstone's residents. "You ever heard of that store?"
Everyone but Libby shook their heads. "Days Long Past was closed over thirty years ago when Old Mr. Dobbins died of a heart attack."
"I don't understand." Vin looked from Chris to the saddle, his face paling even more.
Chris reached Vin's bedside at the same time Paul did. The doctor hurriedly checked his vitals.
"Vin, are you all right?" Chris asked worriedly.
"Let's give him time to rest for a few minutes," Paul suggested.
"No… no, I'm all right. I just…" Vin couldn't understand what was going on. Was it all just a dream? But where had the saddle come from? "I… I ordered that saddle last month."
"Honey." Libby ran her fingers through his hair. "That store has been gone for years. You've been very sick. You probably just dreamed it up in your delirium."
"No… it wasn't a dream," Vin insisted. He closed his eyes remembering every detail. "There was a bell above the door that rang when ya opened and closed it. There were all these old wooden wheel barrels hanging from the ceiling with Studebaker written on the sides. The walls were covered with all sorts of old sleds and brandin' irons."
Libby stared at him.
No one else spoke waiting for Vin to continue.
"The old man showed me a picture of the saddle in a binder. It was just what I wanted. Even had Chris' initials branded in the fender. He said Cecil put him in contact with the owner. Cecile owns the auto shop down the road."
Libby felt a shiver run down her spine. "Cecil Duncan. He owned the auto shop for years. A car dropped on him while he was working under it in 1983. I remember going to the shop with Dr. Hammer." She nodded toward J.J. and Jack. "There were no EMT's back then."
She turned back to Vin. "Honey, Cecile was dead by the time we got there."
"No…" Vin couldn't believe what was happening.
"What did he look like, Vin?" Sam asked.
"Old. Really old. He was bald ‘cept for a few patches of white hair. Came about to my shoulders, all stooped over ya know. He had a scar on the back of his right hand, went from his ring finger to his wrist. Said he got it in the Korean War.
And he had one of them old fashioned Santas sitting on the counter. But this one was really old. The clothes looked faded like he'd had it for a long time. And there were reindeer carved out of walnut. It was beautiful work."
"How could you know that?" Libby asked, stunned.
"Cause I was there…" Vin said simply.
"Perhaps we are not meant to understand, Brother Vin. Perhaps God recognized the special friendship you and Brother Chris share."
Chris squeezed Vin's shoulder and looked at his new saddle. "I don't know how you got it, Cowboy, but it is the perfect gift. I can't wait to take it for a ride."
However it happened, Vin's heart swelled with pride. He closed his eyes and sent a prayer to the old man. "Thank you," he whispered. "You were right."
His first Christmas with Family turned into something so special that there were no words to express all the feelings he held in his heart.
He'd made new friends, saw the courage in the staff here at the clinic and felt the love they offered him.
He watched his friends, old and new, overcome by the special moment. They had all been touched by something very special.
"Merry Christmas," he said to Chris in their own special connection.
Chris squeezed his hand. "Merry Christmas, Vin."
A bell chimed softly and Vin smiled.
He might never find the answer to where the old man had come from, but he didn't need one. It was enough that he was surrounded by his family, that he had given the man he considered a brother in every way but blood, a gift that would forever bond them together.
His families surrounded his bed, each one touched by the miracle that happened here today.
Josiah bowed his head and everyone followed.
"Lord, we thank you for shining your holy light upon your humble servants on this most holiest of days. We thank you for keeping our Brother Vin safe in your arms while he recovers. For surrounding him with the love and care of our new friends. And for guiding us unerringly through the storm to be by his side.
And thank-you for sending Mr. Dobbins to us. We may never know how, but we know why."
In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost, Amen."
Outside the storm raged, but everyone was warm and safe within the walls of the clinic and the love that surrounded them all.
Vin's eyes slid closed, falling into a peaceful sleep.
"Merry Christmas," Chris said softly, pulling the covers up around his neck. "Merry Christmas."
And a Merry Christmas to everyone,
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*** Before John Studebaker, co-founded the Studebaker Motor Corporation, manufactured cars he made wheelbarrows.