Seventh story in the Christmas Wish series.
Chris Larabee sat and looked at the deed he held in his hand. He'd just won it playing poker with Ezra and some travelers who were spending the night before heading east the next morning.
Five hundred acres in Colorado, southwest of the newly burgeoning town of Denver. He vaguely knew of the area, and supposed it was the remoteness and the presence of numerous wild horses that had inspired him to accept the deed as collateral for a bet one of the visitors had made. He'd been considering starting a herd and raising horses again. It was something he enjoyed doing and was good at, and he couldn't make his living with his gun forever, though he hoped he never got to where he couldn't use the weapon for protection. He was too well known now for there not to be someone who thought they could take him.
The former trainer pushed away from the table to signify that he was done playing, a look of reverie on his face. He knew it would never be like it was when Sarah and Adam were alive, but he was learning to deal with their loss now. He had a new family, dysfunctional as it was sometimes, and he thought that he was ready to get a few horses and try ranching again. He'd intended to do that at his shack outside of town, but Colorado would be a good place to round up some wild horses and it would be cheaper than buying them. Since he couldn't have his wife and son back, he wished he could at least enjoy raising and training horses again. Maybe he'd invite Buck and Vin to join him. He hadn't gotten his most fervent prayer answered, but maybe some wishes could still come true . . .
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As Chris had rather expected, Buck and Vin both offered to go with him to Colorado when they were informed about the deed he'd won. Somewhat more surprising, Ezra volunteered to accompany him as well to handle his accounts and investments if he decided to start a ranch.
The matter was then dropped for a time, but was revisited on Christmas day as the others were informed of Larabee's property and invited to join the quartet if they decided to make a permanent move to Colorado. Chris planned to at least put up a cabin, and corrals to hold the wild horses he hoped to catch, even if he ultimately decided to ranch where he was. The discussion was lively as the seven of them chatted about the idea, Buck especially being pleased when the whole group voiced interest in staying together wherever they went.
Again the subject was tabled for a while, since it was too dangerous and uncomfortable for man and beast to travel in the high mountains in the winter. However, when spring came, the matter was again broached.
It was fairly quiet, the reputation of the Seven getting around so that even the dumbest of criminals now considered twice before trying anything in the area protected by the peacekeepers.
Chris spoke to the Judge, then made arrangements for Tiny and a few of the other men to help JD, Josiah, Ezra, and Nathan take care of the town while Larabee, Wilmington, and Tanner traveled to Colorado. The blond wanted to have his deed recorded and to take a look at the property.
A few of the townsfolk looked disappointed at the news that the Magnificent Seven, as they were now known, might one day leave. However others looked relieved.
Some of the newer settlers weren't used to gunmen guarding a town, and were distinctly uncomfortable around the imposing figures that currently kept the peace. It was somewhat amazing that people could be grateful for their protection, but at the same time not want to be near them. Chris supposed that was what was meant to happen though . . . if they did their duties well, they would eventually put themselves out of a job. And it would be good to have a plan for when that happened.
To that end, he and Buck and Vin said temporary goodbyes and headed north. There were stage lines to Denver, but the men would actually make better time and be more comfortable on their own horses. Besides, they wanted to be able to come and go as they pleased, not depend on someone else's timetable.
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The journey took them a while, but the trio finally arrived at their destination. Chris found the local land commissioner and had his deed duly recorded. Then, getting directions to the property he now held legal title to, the three of them set out to see Larabee's new holdings.
Five hundred acres wasn't as big as some ranches, but was more than enough to provide a good living if managed properly. And there was always the option to purchase more land if they decided to enlarge the place.
The spot was as it had been described. The area around was wild and sparsely settled, over half of Chris' acreage being located in a verdant valley with steep ranges on each side. Mule deer and elk were visible, and Vin pointed out the tracks of mountain goats and other animals as they explored. Unshod horse prints were abundant as well, all three men considering that a good sign.
Larabee was picking out the spot for the cabin he eventually wanted to build, discussing possible locations for the corrals and a barn when the trio heard a shrill whinny a short distance behind them.
When they turned, a magnificent white stallion stood staring calmly at them, one forefoot pawing the ground almost as if bowing. The horse was over fifteen hands high and had a long flowing mane and tail that looked silvery in the dappled shade of the copse of aspens he stood under.
Chris stopped what he was doing and took a cautious step toward the stud almost as if pulled. The stallion's conformation was excellent, and his coat was clean and shiny and there were no noticeable scars or markings on him.
The impressive animal let the blond get within a few feet, then threw his head up, whipping his mane around as if blown by the wind.
The lean form stopped and whispered softly to the horse, using his talents from before he became known as a gunman. The equine swiveled his ears forward and listened carefully. After a few minutes, he raised one hoof as if in acceptance and stretched his nose toward the dark figure's outstretched hand.
Moving forward slowly, Larabee got close enough to let the stallion sniff of his fingers. He gently brushed the velvety muzzle, letting the horse blow into his palm.
The animal made eye contact with him and nodded it's head as if in approval, then the shining form turned and trotted slowly back the way it had come. When it was some distance away, several other horses joined it, all of them pausing to look the three men over, then disappearing into some brush.
"Whooee! That was one fine example of horseflesh!" commented Buck with a wide grin.
"Rest of 'em weren't bad lookin' either," added Vin with an appraising eye on the disappearing animals.
Chris nodded. "The white stallion is the one I want to start my herd. Don't have time to try to catch him now, since we need to at least get a corral and shed built before we head back. But next time . . . "
The other two dipped their heads in agreement, then they got to work cutting logs and putting up a couple of rough structures, all the while glancing over their shoulders occasionally to see if they saw the elegant stud again.
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The three men had enough time to erect an unpeeled pole corral and a tiny building about the size of a line shack before they began the trek back south.
Once they returned, the other four immediately besieged them with questions about the land and surroundings. All seemed pleased with the answers, even Ezra accepting the probable climate vagaries as he mentally began calculating how many supplies it would take to build a ranch house big enough to house the seven of them and what would be needed in the way of comestibles, equipment, and so forth. They still weren't planning on moving in the near future, but subtle signs were already pointing to the town eventually wanting an official police force who weren't known gunmen who would attract those who wanted to call them out just to see how fast they were.
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In late summer, a man wanted in several robberies in their area was arrested in a small town in southern Colorado. Judge Travis contacted Larabee, asking him to send a couple of men to give statements about the local charges. Chris was privy to the fact that there was going to be a shipment of gold passing through town, so he felt compelled to stay since the bullion would be his responsibility while it was in the bank. When he asked for volunteers to go testify against the robber, Buck and Vin immediately said they'd go. The two men had been taking patrols and jail watches together occasionally, so Chris wasn't surprised that they offered to undertake the errand. JD was a bit disappointed that he couldn't go, but understood that as the only one who was considered 'official' among the peacekeepers, he needed to stay in town with Chris and the others.
Since no one including Travis knew how long it would take for the two men to dispatch their duties, as long as they sent him a telegram or two that everything was fine, Larabee didn't worry.
The pair showed up before any undue concern was expressed by the leader or healer, handing over copies of their statements and of the guilty verdict that the thief had been given. They casually mentioned that they had stopped by Chris' land just to be sure things were as they and the blond had left them earlier. The shack and corral were still in place and they reported that they had seen the white stallion again, as well as several mares.
Chris was pleased with the news, mentioning that the mares would be good breeding stock to go with the pale stud. The others nodded, and there was a bit of discussion over drinks in the Standish Tavern that night about possible plans to be implemented the next time any of them had a chance to go up there again. Ezra was prepared to hand over the running of the saloon to Inez or to sell her the business if/when they moved permanently. Buck still insisted that he was winning the pretty brunette over, but the others just grinned at the ladies' man.
The matter was then dropped, as they were still employed to guard the town for the time being.
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The Fall passed fairly quickly for the Seven, JD again getting the rest to agree to exchange presents. It wasn't nearly as hard this time, all of them pleased at the idea now since the previous year's gifts had been so perfectly attuned to each recipient. There was plotting and sneaking as they decided what to do this time and then went about procuring the presents they decided upon.
Soon, it was December and Inez again offered to cook a holiday dinner for the men. Once again Vin provided a wild turkey for the main course, and he and Buck went out to cut evergreen boughs and a tree to put in the saloon.
The sight of Chris Larabee sitting with the other six and stringing colorful berries and popcorn and laughing out loud was a bit amazing to the few residents who happened to come in and witness the spectacle a couple of days before Christmas as the men told stories and reminisced about the previous answers to wishes that had been part of their holiday a year ago.
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Around eleven on the day itself, the seven peacekeepers ambled over to the tavern and Inez let them in with a smile. It was a bit warmer this holiday than it had been on the last, but they still shed coats as they settled in around 'their' table to partake of the excellent meal the lovely Mexican had made for them.
It was warm inside and the scents of roast meat and spices mingled with that of the evergreens in a welcoming aroma. The tree seemed splendid to the men as it stood in the corner clad in its garlands of white popcorn and red cranberries, blue juniper berries, pinecones, and nuts wrapped in bits of fabric, red bows, and candle ends. It didn't snow this time, but JD was alright with that since he was with the men he thought of as family and they were all having an enjoyable afternoon.
After they ate, Buck again played St. Nick and passed out the presents. Once again, all were well thought out and appropriate to the recipient, causing smiles and genuine thanks to be shared around.
When all the packages wrapped in bright paper or colorful calico had been opened, Buck tilted his head to Vin and at the tracker's nod, turned to Chris.
"Hey Stud . . . we've got one more for ya."
The blond looked up in surprise. "Another gift?" The green gaze glanced at the bare floor under the tree. "Where?"
Vin gave a big grin and his patented eyebrow bobble.
"It's outside, Cowboy."
Larabee's brows tilted up, but he obligingly rose and pulled on his ebony duster as the rest donned their coats as well.
Vin led them out the front door, then down to the livery. They went to the back, and there in the corral behind the building stood the white stallion from Colorado. The magnificent creature raised his head as the men approached, then he put out one forefoot and made a graceful bow in Chris' direction, silver mane floating elegantly at the motion.
The lean figure looked first at the horse, then at Wilmington and Tanner.
"When . . . how . . . ?"
The others laughed at the unusual sight of a thoroughly bemused Chris Larabee.
Understanding then dawned in the hazel orbs.
"You had time to round him up when you went to testify?"
Nodding, Vin and Buck gave big, proud grins.
"Yep, didn't take but a day to give our statements at the trial, so we figured we'd see if we could at least find him," answered Buck with a happy twitch of his luxurious mustache.
"Turns out I didn't have to track 'im far. He was just a ways back from the new corral, almost like he was waitin' for us," added Vin.
Chris took in the stallion's excellent lines.
"How hard was he to catch?"
Buck shook his head in wonderment.
"That was the amazin' thing . . . not hard at all. It's like he wanted to come with us. Just walked right up and stuck out his head to check us out."
Vin took up the story. "Yep. Didn't have to actually chase him at all. Talked to him a little like you always do, and fed him some grain. Then he just followed us to the corral and walked in. Let us brush 'im and put a halter on him like he was born to it."
"Perhaps he was once domesticated . . . " suggested Ezra as he ran a keen gaze over the gorgeous form.
"Thought 'a that," answered Tanner. "No sign he's ever been shod, though. And no brand or any other markings that would say someone ever claimed him."
The gambler nodded in understanding, but Chris was obviously only listening to them with half of his attention as he climbed the rails and started moving slowly toward the steed.
The stallion's ears pricked forward and the intelligent dark eyes followed the blond's movement, but he didn't appear to be concerned by the gunman's presence at all, even the trademark sound of Larabee's spurs not bothering him.
Cooing and talking softly the whole time, the former horse trainer held out his hand as he got within touching distance. The soft nose reached to nuzzle at the outstretched palm which held a few grains of corn that the blond had brought from the stable. Velvety lips gently picked up the kernels, strong teeth chewing contentedly on the morsels as Chris lightly stroked the animal's muzzle and forehead.
"Shit! Would ya look at that!" murmured Tiny, who had walked up behind the Seven, and had been caring for the horse since Vin brought it in the night before.
"He lets me in the corral to put out food and water, but won't let me near him. Dances away and paws the ground every time I try to touch him."
As the rest looked on, Chris ran his hands over the elegantly arched neck, finger-combing the silky mane into neat strands. The action was apparently to the stallion's approval as a soft nicker was the equine's only response.
"Wow! Wonder if he can ride him right now?" murmured Dunne with awe as he watched Larabee lightly continue down the shining coat to examine the horse's legs and withers.
The former rancher did hear that, and leaning in he whispered something in the stallion's ear. The large form turned and looked at him, then pushed at the dark blue-covered shoulder gently, almost as if urging the otherwise ebony-garbed figure to climb aboard.
Chris ran his palms over the broad back, then lithely levered his belly across. The pale form showed no objection to the weight, head still turned as the bright eyes watched in interest.
Those observing held their breath as the blond got a handful of mane and then swung his leg over the horse's rump, settling upright, body at ease.
If the spectators expected the stallion to erupt in a frenzy of bucking and sunfishing, they were disappointed as the animal just shivered slightly to get his mane back in place and then stood placidly. Even Larabee looked a little surprised.
Tightening his legs, Chris clucked to the form and gently touched him with the rowels of his spurs, not enough to hurt, just enough to let the animal know what he wanted.
Obligingly, the gleaming figure moved forward carefully, as if getting a feel for the man on his back. Once both were comfortable with the situation, the horse picked up his pace a bit, striding confidently around the circumference of the corral. At another soft nudge from Larabee's spurs and pressure from his knees, the horse turned and then began a light trot that even as well-built as the stallion was had to be a little uncomfortable for Chris' posterior.
The others leaned on the top rails of the enclosure, watching and chatting quietly in amazement as the pair made a few more circuits of the space. The gunman then brought the horse to a smooth stop and gracefully slid off the left side. One talented hand gave the sleek neck a stroke of approval, then the lithe figure started for the fence, the white stallion following behind with his chin almost on the dark form's shoulder.
"Man, Chris! I can't believe that!" exclaimed Dunne excitedly.
"He must have been ridden before," opined Josiah thoughtfully.
JD prepared to climb over the rails. "Can I try, Chris?"
Giving a tiny quirk to one corner of his mouth, Larabee nodded. The tall figure stayed inside the corral however as the smaller form scrambled down next to him.
"Be careful, Kid," advised Wilmington. "Just 'cause he acted tame with Chris, don't mean he is."
"Yeah, JD," agreed Tanner. "I know he didn't seem like he was wild, but I still don't think he's been trained. It's almost like he knows he's supposed to be with Chris. Not sure he'll be that gentle with anybody else."
"It'll be alright. I can ride," assured the younger man confidently.
Larabee kept one hand on the horse's head as Dunne jumped lightly up on its back. Chris then turned loose and stepped out of the way.
JD settled himself and the stallion turned to look at the different figure who dared to try to ride him. The white shoulders and flanks shivered just a bit, and then without further warning the shining form jumped stiff-legged, sending the kid into the dirt with no further ado.
The dark eyes looked down at the sprawled figure next to him, then the horse ambled back over to Larabee and gently nuzzled his hand looking for more grain.
Giving a genuine grin, the blond patted 'his' stud's cheek and then went to give Dunne a hand up.
Vin gave a grin at the chagrined look on JD's face as Chris helped him rise.
"Told ya he knows he's supposed t' be with Cowboy."
Buck chortled at the kid's disgusted expression, and the rest snickered a bit as well.
Chris just turned to the horse and again whispered in the attentive ear that was cocked toward him.
"You and me are meant to be, boy."
The stallion nodded his head up and down in apparent agreement, as if knowing he was the answer to Larabee's wish and the beginning of the Wild Horse Ranch.
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