Author's Note: Spoiler for the M7 ep "Penance"
Second story in the Christmas Wish series.
"What ya thinkin' about, J'siah?" asked Vin Tanner softly as the preacher riding next to him gave a deep sigh. Normally the tracker didn't intrude on the others' private thoughts if he wasn't invited, but this was the third or fourth exhalation from Sanchez in fifteen or so minutes.
Josiah startled almost as though he'd forgotten he wasn't riding this patrol alone.
"Sorry, Vin. I was thinking about Christmas," offered the deep voice quietly, the blue gaze still focused on the horn of the saddle he rode on instead of his slighter companion.
It was only ten days or so away from the holiday, and JD Dunne and Buck Wilmington were both excited enough about it for all of the seven peacekeepers, though even the boisterous duo had their wistful or melancholy moments as well.
Tanner sat silently, just nodding encouragement to his companion. He didn't have much experience with the special day, so wasn't in a position to offer much except an ear to listen to his friend. He did know that holidays were hard for many of the seven, so was curious as to what Josiah would have to say.
Sanchez gave yet another expulsion of air, causing his breath to cloud in front of him in the chilly afternoon breeze.
"I've been thinking about it all day, what with all the families we've stopped to check on cutting trees, putting up greenery, and making decorations and presents and all," murmured Josiah softly as he raised his head and swept his gaze out across the landscape now.
"I'm glad JD and Buck and most of the folks around are excited. Gotta admit, I'm mostly looking forward to it myself. Been a long while since I've had someone to celebrate with, much less a whole town," the deep voice trailed off.
"But?" prompted the sharpshooter. He understood what Josiah was talking about. He hadn't celebrated many special days since his ma died when he was five, so he had mixed emotions about the upcoming holiday himself, though he was looking forward to spending it with his six adopted 'brothers'.
"But, all these family preparations keep reminding me of my past. To my father, Christmas was all about church services and making sure his children didn't disgrace him at any parties or anything. I still love programs at church and such . . . " he added quickly, since the town had asked him to preside at the special service on Christmas morning. " . . . as long as they're about love and God's gift, not berating people for their sins like my father's sermons always were. But all the decorations and stuff remind me of my mother and Hannah. My mother always had me cut some evergreen branches wherever we were, and she made sure the house was fixed up really nice. We didn't always have a tree, but she had us hang up our stockings and there was always something in them on Christmas morning, whether my father approved or not. I knew momma did it, but Hannah always got so excited thinking St. Nicholas had visited us no matter where we were living."
The big form got quiet for a minute, lost in his memories. Just when Vin thought he was finished speaking, the baritone voice continued even more quietly.
"She enjoyed Christmas so much when she was younger. I just wish Hannah could experience that at least once again. That she could know that I'm there and recognize me . . . that I could have a family holiday at least once more . . . " The wistful tones trailed off again, a final sigh ending the monologue.
Vin nodded once in commiseration. In some ways it was probably harder on Josiah than it was on the rest of them at holidays. While most of the seven had lost family literally, Josiah's sister was still alive, just lost in her own mind. The former priest visited her when he could, and his time with her seemed to bring her comfort, but she never really knew it was him or acknowledged that he was her brother. The tracker thought that having his mom alive but not able to recognize him would be harder than having her gone and he felt deeply for Josiah, who mostly dealt with his trials by himself.
Riding back in silence, the slender figure spent some time in thought. He knew Sanchez was planning to visit Hannah in a few days. Maybe he'd see if the preacher minded if he tagged along. His presence would probably just make Hannah uncomfortable, but he could wait at the saloon in Vista City for Josiah, at least keep the man from dealing with his emotions alone when the visit was over . . .
+ + + + + + +
Somewhat to the sharpshooter's surprise, Josiah agreed when Vin offered to keep him company on his visit to Hannah. Chris discreetly made arrangements for a couple of the men from the town to help out with the guard duties, giving silent approval to the tracker's intentions. So two days after their patrol together, the duo mounted up just as the sun was rising and headed out.
The trip was mostly quiet, Josiah lost in his thoughts and Vin just appreciating the scenery and companionship as they took their time. They camped at night, Tanner listening as his friend softly shared more of his childhood memories as they ate roasted rabbit and drank their coffee.
When they arrived in Vista City, the two got rooms above one of the saloons. After a fortifying drink, Josiah headed for the convent where the nuns were taking care of his sister, Vin riding with him for moral support. The tracker planned to stay a half hour or so, then if all was well, he would head back to the saloon and find a low-stakes poker game or something to while away the time. He'd been to the convent and seen Hannah once before when he was trying to help clear Josiah of suspicion of murder, so he didn't intend to actually go into the troubled woman's room, knowing it would probably only upset her.
At the sprawling building, Tanner dismounted and let a nun lead him to an open courtyard with a bench where he could wait. The sun was out and the walls protected him from the wind, so it was pleasant enough for the short time he planned to stay. The sister brought him some spiced apple cider, so the slim figure settled in until he was sure everything was alright and Sanchez was going to stay.
He'd just settled with his back leaning against a tree and his legs stretched out in front of him when he heard Josiah give a surprised exclamation from the other side of the wall. Seeing a gateway nearby, the tracker sat his cup down and hurried to the opening, one hand pulling his mare's leg as he ran through.
Instead of trouble like he expected however, the slender form found his friend standing in the entrance to Hannah's room with a wide smile of amazement on his face. The slim figure of his sister was facing him, a look of cautious recognition on her face.
"Josiah? That's you, isn't it? Josiah?"
Tears filled the bright blue eyes in front of her. "Yes, Hannah. It's me . . . Josiah. Your brother."
Vin stood in the background, his own gaze full of surprise, as the woman slowly walked toward Sanchez's outstretched arms. The preacher carefully enfolded her in his embrace, smiling even more when she returned the gesture hesitantly. Hannah then took his big hand and pulled him further into the room.
Taking him to the wall, she proudly showed him a picture she'd drawn.
"Look Josiah. It's us . . . me, you, and momma. We're checking our stockings on Christmas morning. It is almost Christmas, isn't it Josiah?" She pointed to the two woolen pieces of hosiery had been nailed to the wall near her cot.
Gaze glittering, the large figure nodded. "Yes, Hannah. It's almost Christmas."
The smaller form nodded. "I thought so. I knew you'd be here." She looked up at him with eyes similar to his own. "It's like a Christmas miracle. Do you still believe in miracles, Josiah?"
"I do, Hannah. I do," rumbled the former priest comfortingly. He took in the neat calico dress she wore and the combed hair and clean face and look of recognition in her expression. Wrapping one arm around the slim shoulders, he gave her another little squeeze. "You're my Christmas miracle, my sister."
She gave a tiny, girlish giggle. "You always say that, Jo."
She then caught sight of Vin, who was standing outside, transfixed. Stepping to where she was partially behind her brother, she tugged on Josiah's sleeve.
"Who's that? Is he with you?" she asked timidly.
Josiah nodded and carefully held out his arm to gesture to Tanner.
"That's my friend Vin, Hannah. He came with me so I wouldn't have to ride alone."
"He's your friend? You like him?" Her face peered gingerly around at the sharpshooter from behind Josiah's back.
"Yes, I do. He's a good man . . . a good friend."
She didn't move, but one hand made a tiny waving motion to the bemused tracker.
"Hi, friend Vin. If Jo likes you, then you must be good."
Vin blinked to bring himself out of his shocked stupor. He put his gun away and waved in return, but stayed where he was.
"Hey, Hannah. Thank you," answered the soft, slightly raspy voice.
She gave another giggle and looked up at Josiah.
"I like his voice. It's nice. He's pretty, too."
The taller figure gave a chuckle while Tanner blushed slightly.
A smile that showed what she'd been like before curved her lips. "What, Josiah?" she asked innocently. "He is pretty!"
"Girls aren't supposed to say things like that," admonished her brother with a grin.
"I'm not like other girls!" she stated proudly, drawing herself up to her full height, which was nowhere near equal to the elder Sanchez's.
Josiah gave a deep laugh. "No you're not, Hannah! No, you're not."
Determining that everything was more than fine, Vin quietly told Josiah that he'd meet him at the saloon whenever he was done. The preacher nodded and the tracker silently withdrew, allowing brother and sister to enjoy their Christmas miracle alone.
+ + + + + + +
Happy for his friend and still amazed at the miraculous change in Hannah, Tanner rode back to the saloon thoughtfully. He was surprised again when he recognized five familiar horses tied to the hitching rails outside the drinking establishment.
Looping Peso's reins around one of the posts as well, the slender form ambled into the bar. Chris raised his head and made eye contact, tilting his head just a fraction in invitation. Vin strolled to the table where Larabee, Wilmington, Dunne, Standish, and Jackson sat. Buck pushed one of the two empty chairs out with his foot and Chris poured a shot of whiskey from the bottle in front of him and slid it to the tracker.
Ezra looked over at Vin and saluted him with his own glass.
"So how are Mr. Sanchez and his sister?" asked the southern tones softly. They all knew how the visits usually effected the former priest.
"Y'all won't believe it!" answered Tanner with a grin. He then proceeded to tell the others what he'd seen at the convent.
"Wow, that is so great!" said JD with excitement. "I'm glad she's better now."
The others looked at Dunne with neutral expressions. Nathan was the one to explain gently.
"JD . . . she's probably not 'better' for good. The mind can do funny things. It could be permanent, but it could just be a one-time thing, too. I hope Josiah don't get his hopes up . . . "
Vin shook his head as he took a sip of his whiskey. "I think he knows she probably won't stay this way. But he was wantin' to have one more Christmas with the Hannah he remembers, so it's nice that he's gettin' that."
The rest nodded. Tanner then looked around in curiosity.
"What are y'all doin' here, anyway?"
Chris gave a small smile.
"I had Tiny and a couple of the other men taking some of the patrols while you were gone anyway, and things were quiet, so I figured maybe Josiah could use a little extra company . . . and you could use a little extra help in keepin' him out of trouble if things didn't go well . . . "
They all grinned a bit wryly, then Buck leaned over and slapped the tracker on the shoulder.
"Besides . . . it's just a week till Christmas. Didn't want you boys gettin' lost and missing it or anything," the ladies' man bobbed his eyebrows in amusement.
JD piped up, "Yeah. If something happened and you didn't make it back in time, we figured we could still all be together for the holiday."
Vin let a smile curve his own mobile mouth. Though he had mixed feelings about special days, he had to admit he was looking forward to spending this one with the six men he thought of as brothers. And while they knew that only a snowstorm or something, which was rare in the desert he thought with a secret laugh, would keep him from finding his way back, it was nice to know that they all wanted to be together. And Sanchez had been suspected in a string of grisly murders the last time he'd visited Hannah, so it was a valid concern that something could happen before the week was up.
Aloud, he simply said "Thanks, fellas," and raised his glass. The other five lifted theirs as well, and they drank to 'family'. Ezra then rubbed his hands together in anticipation.
"Alright gentlemen . . . who's interested in a game of chance while we wait on Mr. Sanchez?"
Grumbling good-naturedly, the rest pulled out money for the ante and then they all settled in to play some poker.
+ + + + + + +
Josiah joined them several hours later. He looked a bit surprised to see the whole group, but gave a large smile of welcome as he took the final empty chair and grabbed the full glass Chris pushed toward him.
Tanner gave a grin and saluted the older man with his drink.
JD couldn't contain his curiosity.
"How was your visit, Josiah? Vin said Hannah knew you this time!"
Sanchez nodded as he took a sip of his whiskey.
"Indeed she did, JD. We had a really nice talk, mostly about Christmases from when we were kids. She showed me several drawings she'd made recently of past holidays she remembered. It was like having the old Hannah with me."
Nathan gave a smile, happy for his old friend.
"Do they know why she suddenly recognized you?"
Josiah shook his head.
"No. The doctor came by while I was there. He said it occasionally happens, that patients with mental disorders will have moments of lucidity. He told me not to get my hopes up that it would be permanent, just to enjoy it while it lasts. And I intend to do exactly that."
"You going by again tomorrow?" asked Chris quietly.
"Yeah. I'll stop by in the morning, see how she's doing. Then we can start home after lunch, if that's alright."
The blond nodded in approval.
"That's fine, Josiah. Or if you want to stay longer, we can cover your patrols. The jail's empty, so we don't need shifts there right now," answered Larabee with a slight tilt to his head as he met the preacher's gaze.
"Thanks Chris, but that's alright. I think I'll be ready to go by tomorrow afternoon. Hannah's got a routine here with the nuns, and while I'm grateful that she knows me this time, I don't want to ruin the progress she's made."
They put up the cards and headed out to find something to eat, chatting easily as they did so.
+ + + + + + +
The next morning, the other six settled in at one of the saloon tables again while Josiah went to see Hannah one more time. The ex-priest was back in just an hour or so, a bittersweet smile on his face.
"What happened, Josiah?" asked Nathan quietly.
Sanchez took a seat and motioned to Buck for a glass of the whiskey the ladies' man was pouring.
"Hannah's back like she was before. There was a disturbance with a man visiting his daughter last night, and when Hannah heard him yelling, the sisters said she just retreated back into herself. I guess it reminded her too much of our father," answered the big form sadly. He reached into his pocket and pulled out a folded piece of paper.
"They gave me this, though. She drew it last night before she reverted with the art supplies I brought her for Christmas."
The large hands opened the picture and after a look at it, showed it around to the group.
On the top of the page were two forms holding stockings, and below was a Christmas tree with seven figures gathered around it, gifts at their feet. In a firm, feminine hand was written 'Jo and his new family. A Christmas miracle. I love you, Hannah.'
All seven wiped quickly at their eyes, suddenly taking swallows of their whiskey to keep from reacting further.
"That's right sweet, Josiah," said Buck with a slightly husky note to his voice.
"Yeah, it is," agreed JD and Nathan together.
Chris and Ezra simply nodded and lifted their drinks in salute.
Vin looked up and caught his friend's gaze.
"Reckon she's right too. It is a miracle," offered the soft tones, dual meaning in the words.
Josiah nodded in agreement and held out his glass.
"Yep. God saw fit to grant my wish in two ways . . . Christmas with the old Hannah, and with my new brothers. To Christmas miracles and family . . . "
Next story: Nathan
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