Chris slouched in the chair he'd pulled up between the two sofas where JD and Vin were sleeping. The day had gone uneventfully except for a stop in some small town where Josiah and Ezra had gone out to buy some food and refreshments, including a few bottles of whiskey, for the trip to Denver. They hadn't seen anybody they recognized from the gang that had shot Vin, and Chris had relaxed a little more.
Everyone was asleep, sprawled awkwardly in the chairs except for Ezra who was small enough to rest comfortably on the loveseat. Josiah's snores punctuated the smooth, monotonous clacking of the wheels on the tracks, and Buck mumbled in his sleep.
Chris turned his attention to the two wounded men, astonished anew at how young the they appeared. JD looked like an adolescent boy with his longish dark hair tossed across his forehead and his face smooth, without the wrinkles of age and hard living. He could only see one side of Vin's face with him lying on his stomach. His grizzled whiskers had grown out more than usual, but instead of making him look older, they added a strange vulnerability to his features.
Chris raised his gaze to the window. It was dark, but he could see snowflakes flung against the glass by the persistent north wind. The men had their own stove in the private car, and it chased away the chill, but the wind whistled in the cracks and crevices, sending cold air eddying through the narrow confines. They were traveling through the mountains during one of the worst times of the year. Blizzards dropping a few feet of snow weren't uncommon and with a driving wind, the train could be covered in a matter of minutes.
He chased the abysmal thoughts from his mind. No sense worrying about things until they happened. Chris only wished the unease gnawing at his gut would disappear.
Chris glanced down to see Vin looking at him and a slight smile curving his lips. Chris grinned in return. "Did you just call me a cow-boy?"
Vin chuckled quietly, then surveyed the dimly lit area as well as he could. "Night?"
"Yep. Everyone's asleep."
Chris shrugged, averting his eyes so Vin wouldn't see his worry. "Never could sleep on a train."
It was obvious Vin read the lie, but he refrained from commenting. The silence between them was interrupted only by the rattling of the wind and the mechanical rocking of the train.
"How ya feelin'?" Chris asked awkwardly.
Vin smiled. "That's a helluva question for someone who can't feel nothin' from his waist down."
Chris's face heated with embarrassment, an emotion he hadn't experienced in a long time. "I'm sorry, Vin, I - "
"Hell, don't worry about it, Chris," Vin said with familiar aplomb. "I ain't used to not bein' able to do for myself."
"Men like us ain't used to dependin' on others," Chris commented. "But maybe sometimes things like this happen to remind us why it's good to have a friend or two."
"Or six." Vin shifted, then stifled a groan.
Chris laid a hand on his shoulder. "Take it easy, Vin. You don't want that bullet movin' any closer to your backbone."
"Gets any closer I figure I won't be needin' my gun."
Chris leaned back in his chair as the gnawing ache in his belly grew. He raked his fingers through his hair.
"You havin' second thoughts about that promise you made?" Vin asked softly.
Chris scowled. "I gave you my word. Doesn't mean I have to like it."
Vin frowned. "You'd rather have me live less'n a man?"
"It ain't that, Vin." Chris leaned forward. "I don't make many friends, but those I do have I don't want to lose."
Vin lifted his hand and gazed at it as if seeing it for the first time. "A person don't realize how much they take for granted every day until something happens to make them open their eyes. Sittin' a horse, walkin' across the street, leanin' against a bar, bein' with a woman - things I never even thought about. And now I ain't able to stop thinkin' about 'em." He raised overly bright blue eyes to Chris. "Iffen it looks like I'm gonna live but never have the use of my legs again, I ain't gonna be the friend you remember."
"Sure you will," Chris argued. "It ain't changed who you are inside."
"If I can't ever get on my horse and go for a ride in the mountains, I'm gonna wither up and die inside. Who I am is all tied up in what I do, and if I can't do the things I used to, I ain't gonna be Vin Tanner no more."
"Damnit, Vin, that's crazy talk!" JD stirred and Chris pressed his lips together until the boy's breathing grew even once more. When Chris spoke again, it was in a lower voice but with no less intensity. "You still got your brains and your soul; them are the things that make you who you are."
Vin thought for a long moment, as much about Chris's words as the uncharacteristic passion in his voice. He knew that if he died either by his own hand or by the bullet already invading his body, Chris would bear the guilt for another death. But he couldn't live like this, helpless, not even able to relieve himself without help. No, he couldn't do it, not even for Chris. Besides, in the long run, it'd be better this way.
Vin blinked, his long eyelashes brushing his pale cheeks. "Maybe you're right, but I don't aim to be a burden to anyone and if I can't take care of myself, I'd rather be dead."
Chris's head pounded. He didn't want to understand. But he did, because he'd make the same decision himself.
"Let's wait and see what that specialist can do. Maybe everything'll work out fine," Chris said, injecting a note of optimism he didn't feel.
Vin grinned wryly. "Yeah, and maybe Santa'll bring us all a passel of presents for bein' good boys."
Chris thought of his stuffed saddlebags and smiled crookedly. "Maybe he will. You want something to drink or eat?"
"Water sounds pretty good."
The ex-gunman poured some water from a canteen into a cup, then handed it to Vin. "Got it?"
Vin nodded and swallowed until the cup was empty, and Chris refilled it. Vin took a sip from it, then rested the cup on the floor within reach.
"If things don't work out with the doc, you got to promise me somethin', Chris," Vin said softly.
Chris tensed. Vin had already exacted one promise from him, and yet Chris knew he couldn't deny another. "What is it?"
"You don't go after those fellers alone."
"Josiah's already beat you to that one," Chris said wryly.
Vin seemed to relax. "Good. Josiah, Nathan, Buck, Ezra, JD - each one of 'em will stand beside you." He took a deep breath, grimaced, and lifted his gaze to the window where white snowflakes whipped across the dark screen. "You believe in God, Chris?"
Startled, Chris leaned back in his chair and crossed his arms over his chest. "I used to, don't know if I do anymore. Seems to me if there was one, He wouldn't make innocent people suffer."
"Sufferin's as much a part of life as anythin' else," Vin said with characteristic acceptance. "Ma died when I was real little, but I remember goin' to church with her on Christmas eve. I remember lookin' at the baby Jesus in this made-up stable, and Ma tellin' me that baby would grow up to suffer and die for us." He smiled wryly. "I was just a little shaver and didn't really understand what she meant. So later that night after she thought I was asleep, I snuck over to church and took Jesus and hid him where no one could find him."
Chris smiled, envisioning Vin as a boy pulling a stunt like that. "You ever give him back?"
Vin sobered, and a faraway glint came to his eyes. "A few months later when Ma was dying, I told her what I done. She told me that it wouldn't do no good, 'cause a person can't hide from death. It'll find you no matter where you go. So I took Jesus back and left him in the church where the preacher would find him. I ain't never been to a Christmas service since." He took a deep breath. "I always figured a man made his own destiny, and that when death came, I'd be ready for it."
Chris swallowed past the tightness in his throat. "It ain't like that, is it?"
"Not by a long shot, pard, but I ain't gonna try'n hide from it neither." Vin's eyes glowed like blue fire.
The two men lapsed into a momentary silence.
"To me Christmas was a time when me and my sisters were forced to dress up and sit quiet in church for two hours," Chris began. " Lizzie and Ellie, and even little Abby didn't mind the dressin' up part." His expression darkened with the memory of his youngest sister, and he shook aside the sadness. "Me, all I wanted to do was get back home and open our presents, then eat the meal I knew Ma would make. It was later, after I married Sarah and we had Adam, that I truly came to understand what Christmas meant. We'd have Buck over for Christmas and I don't know who enjoyed opening presents more, him or Adam."
Vin smiled, but remained quiet, sensing his friend had left him for a few moments, journeying back to another time and place.
Chris allowed the memory's warmth to wash through him as he pictured Sarah's smile, Adam's face wreathed with giggles, and Buck's boyish enthusiasm. He could almost smell the goose, overflowing with stuffing, baking in the oven, gravy bubbling on the stove, pumpkin pies cooling on the pie rack, and cinnamon. Sarah always carried the faint scent of cinnamon about her, and even now when he smelled it, he half-expected to see her standing beside him. And when he turned to look and she wasn't there, he always died a little bit more inside.
"The last Christmas together, she told me we would be having another child." Chris felt the sting of moisture in his eyes, and he quickly averted his gaze. "Ever since they died, Christmas is worse than just another day. It's a reminder of what all I had, then lost." He gathered his composure and turned back to peer intently at Vin. "So you see I got enough Christmas ghosts to haunt me. I don't want yours, too."
"That ain't fair, Chris," Vin said softly, without rancor.
"Maybe not. But I won't go back on my word. It's your decision to make, my friend."
"I told you, I seen two of 'em, the fancy gambler fellah, and the big man. They bought some supplies at the store and filled up a bunch of canteens, then got back on the train."
Florentine Chavez, better known as Indian Charlie, glared at one of the so-called gunmen he'd hired. "But did you see Larabee?"
Pike Hansen shook his head. "No, but I got talkin' to the conductor. He was tellin' me seven men had rented the fancy train car and one of the men was hurt pretty bad. He knew 'cause he saw them carry the man on."
Charlie fingered one of his revolver's pearl handles like a favorite lover as he considered the information. The man who'd hired him wanted Chris Larabee dead and Charlie couldn't get the rest of his money until he brought proof of Larabee's death. "How many was there that shot us up in that town?"
"And Chris Larabee makes seven. The wounded fellah could be the one I shot in the back." Charlie smiled, thinking how satisfying it'd been to shoot the man - he'd been standing there lying to them about Chris Larabee the whole time. Charlie didn't like liars. "Round up the others. We're goin' after them."
Pike's eyes widened. "We can't catch up to a train."
Charlie grabbed Pike's shirt front and jerked him forward. "A train stops in towns. We'll catch up to 'em and we'll finish what we started."
Pike licked his dry lips. "It's startin' to snow."
"Then you'd better get movin' so we can get started right away."
Pike nodded, and Charlie released him. The outlaw scurried away. Charlie poured himself another shot of whiskey and downed it. If any of the men decided they didn't want to go after Larabee because of a little snow, Charlie would shoot him as an example to the others.
That decision brought almost as much satisfaction as the thought of taking Larabee's head back to the man who'd hired him.
Chris awakened to a touch on his shoulder and blinked Buck's face into focus.
"You want somethin' to eat?" Buck asked quietly. "Josiah made some breakfast."
Chris straightened in his chair, and woke completely when he saw Vin on the sofa. "He sleeping?"
Buck nodded. "Woke up about half an hour ago, had somethin' to eat and fell back asleep. He didn't want to wake you. Said you two talked some over night."
"We did." He glanced at the empty sofa where JD had been. "JD?"
"Feelin' a lot better so he got up to eat with the rest of us."
Chris stood and turned to see the other men gathered around with plates and cups of coffee. Josiah stood in front of the stove stirring something in a frying pan. The smell of whatever he was cooking made Chris's stomach growl in anticipation.
As he walked unsteadily across the moving train car's floor, he glanced outside. Although it was morning, he could see nothing but driving snow, and he moved to the window.
"The train's slowed quite a bit," Buck said.
Now that Buck mentioned it, Chris could feel a difference in the clacking rhythm. His sharp gaze caught the momentary vista of a snowy valley below them. "We're in the mountains."
"Yep. I reckon almost halfway to Denver."
Chris narrowed his gaze. If the snow didn't let up, they'd be trapped someplace up here for God knew how long.
After they'd eaten, Nathan went to check on Vin while Ezra started up a half-hearted poker game with Buck, JD, and Josiah. Restlessness crowded Chris and he paced the length of the car until the other men's glares forced him to stop.
The locomotive slowed even more, and seemed to move at a snail's pace. To try to still his impatience, Chris sat down beside Vin who continued to sleep restlessly. The poker game continued, and it appeared Ezra was winning most of the pots. No surprise there.
Suddenly, the train's brakes squealed and the locomotive stopped abruptly. Chris nearly tumbled from his chair and as he struggled for balance, he saw Vin roll off the sofa. Chris fell to his knees, but couldn't catch him before he hit the floor. Vin cried out, a sound reminiscent of a wounded cougar. The inhuman scream sliced through Chris like a razor-sharp knife. With his arms around Vin's shoulders, Chris kept his wounded back from touching the floor and watched in horror as a dark stain grew on the carpet beneath him.
"Nathan!" Chris shouted, recognizing the panic in his voice and not giving a damn.
The healer was beside him in less than a moment to check on Vin's wound, and his concerned expression did nothing to allay Chris's dread.
"What?" Chris demanded.
Nathan shook his head. "I don't know yet. The bullet might've moved."
Chris stared into Vin's agonized face, almost not recognizing his friend's usually laconic features. Nathan carefully removed Vin's bandages, which were soaked with fresh blood, and Chris's breath hissed in his throat - pale scars crisscrossed Vin's back. His wide eyes met Nathan's poignant gaze.
"I seen 'em the first time I took care of him," Nathan said softly. "I didn't ask and he didn't bother to tell me. Figgered it was his business."
Chris nodded absently, appalled by the extent of the scars and wondering why he'd been whipped.
"We need to get him back on the sofa," Nathan said.
Chris, Josiah, and Nathan worked together to lift Vin's body back on to the couch. Chris felt the younger man's taut muscles, could almost feel the pulsing pain that ripped through him. Chris's palms dampened and sweat pearled on his brow. Please, Lord, don't let him die.
"Gotta get that bleeding stopped," Nathan announced after they had Vin lying facedown on the sofa again. "I won't know if the bullet moved until he wakes up."
"What do you mean?"
"If the bullet moved, he'd know."
Chris pressed a fist against his lips, and glanced up to see Buck, JD, Ezra, and Josiah ringing him and Nathan. Ezra had a handkerchief pressed against his brow, and scarlet blood stained the white cloth.
"What happened, Ezra?" Chris asked.
"Merely an unfortunate accident. Don't worry, I shall live," Ezra replied.
Nathan glanced at the gambler in concern. "As soon as I'm done here, I'll look at it."
Chris's attention drifted to JD who was half-supported by Buck.
"He'll be all right. Hurt his arm some when he fell off his chair," Buck answered the unspoken question, then leaned over to lower JD to the cushions the boy had slept on earlier.
The men remained around their fallen companion in a silent vigil.
"Chris, hold this down on Vin's back while I wrap it up," Nathan said, placing Chris's hand on the thick cloth covering the bleeding wound. A few minutes later, Nathan tied the bandage off. "There. He'll probably be unconscious for a little while after a shock like that."
Chris straightened and flexed his trembling fingers. "I'm goin' out to see what the hell happened."
"I'll go with you," Buck said.
Buttoning their heavy coats, the two men stepped out between their car and the one ahead of it. The wind tore the breath from their lungs and icy snowflakes pelted their faces, stinging painfully. They turned their backs to the bracing air as they struggled to gulp in oxygen.
"Maybe we should go back in," Buck shouted above the wind's roar.
Chris shook his head, and reached for the adjoining car's door handle. The wind shoved him inside, with Buck close on his heels. The huddled passengers looked up, startled and frightened, at the their appearance.
"It's okay, folks. We're in the car behind you," Buck called out to ease their fear.
"You know why we stopped?" a man with his wife and three kids called out.
"Not yet, but we're going to find out," Buck replied.
Chris strode down the narrow aisle and went through the door, to enter the next car. Five cars later, Chris and Buck arrived at the fire box..
"Why'd we stop?" Chris demanded of the engineer without preamble.
"Twelve foot snow drift. Couldn't see it until we were on top of it,' the man replied. "You two shouldn't be up here."
Chris ignored the admonition. "So how long until we can keep goin'?"
"Depends on how much snow is on the tracks ahead. We can dig ourselves out of this one, but if there's another right around the corner, we'll have the same problem."
Chris swore. "We got a man back there who needs to get to a doctor in Denver."
The engineer appeared sympathetic. "I'm sorry about that, mister, but we can't control the snow."
Buck took hold of his rigid arm. "C'mon, Chris, there's nothin' we can do here."
"You need men to help dig?" Chris asked.
"Not unless you want to use your hands to move the snow. There's six men out there now with all the shovels we got," the engineer said. "Go on back to your car and stay with your friend. I've seen blizzards like this a-plenty. Sometimes you go around the bend and it's clear as day. You just never know in the mountains."
Buck gave Chris's arm a slight tug, and Chris reluctantly allowed Buck to pull him away. Their trip back through the cars was slower as Buck made a point to inform everyone of what was going on. Finally, they stumbled back into the parlor car. Chris's gaze immediately went to rest on Vin, then he looked questioningly at Nathan who sat in the chair Chris had occupied all night.
"He hasn't woke up yet," Nathan said.
Chris nodded tersely. "Where's a bottle of that whiskey?"
The five men exchanged concerned looks, but Ezra handed Chris a bottle from one of the boxes of supplies.
"What's going on with the train?" JD asked.
"Twelve foot drift. They're diggin' out now, but we could be runnin' into more," Buck replied. He leaned close to JD. "You're still lookin' pretty white there, JD."
"I'm okay, Buck," JD reassured.
Buck smiled in understanding. "Not exactly what you expected to be doin' two days before Christmas, is it?"
JD stared at his derby hat that he held in his uninjured hand. "Reckon it could've been better," he admitted.
"Don't you worry, JD. After we get to Denver and the doc fixes Vin right up, we'll find us some Christmas fixin's and sneak them into the hospital where we can all celebrate together. Maybe we can even get some spirits past the nurses." Buck winked.
"And I am certain you will provide the distraction for said nurses," Ezra said dryly.
"Well, you do want the most experienced man for the job, don't you?" Buck asked innocently.
"What would we do without your charm and witty repartee, Mr. Wilmington?"
"Danged if I know, Ezra."
Chris sat back by the table in the corner of the car, and tugged the cork out of the bottle with his teeth. He took a long swig of the fiery whiskey. Listening to Buck and his quips might've made him smile if he weren't so damned pissed at the snow, the men who shot Vin, and himself. For all of his faults, Buck had a way of brightening everybody up. He was always the one to see a whiskey bottle half full, instead of half empty.
From his vantage point, Chris could see Vin lying motionless on the sofa. Would he wake up again? Or would the bullet kill him as Chris sat there watching? Chris took another healthy pull of the liquor to kill the thought before it expanded and chewed away the remnants of his soul.
He hadn't told anyone else about the unborn babe who had died with Sarah, not even Buck. Maybe it was because that pain went deeper than mere words. The child hadn't even had time to be introduced to the world. A world where bastards like Cletus Fowler were allowed to live with decent folks.
More whiskey flowed down his throat to douse the gaping wound inside him, but the liquor only seemed to fan the flames of hatred hotter. The man who hired Cletus Fowler had also hired the men who'd shot down Vin - Chris knew it with a certainty. If Fowler hadn't killed himself, Vin wouldn't be lying there now.
Chris looked at his whiskey bottle - half empty. What the hell was he thinking when he accepted the judge's offer six months ago? What the hell was he thinking when he bought Christmas presents for each of his friends?
Hell, he wasn't thinking.
He smiled, a caricature of self-loathing. Chris had let down his guard far too many times since he'd shown up in Four Corners. He'd gotten sloppy, and had come to rely on the six men as much as he relied on himself. Those days were over. When they returned from Denver - with or without Vin - Chris would be leaving. He would find the hired killers who shot down Vin, and he'd make the bastards tell him who wanted him dead. He wasn't going to let another opportunity burn before his eyes.
The train began to move slowly. It wasn't much, but at least they weren't at a standstill anymore.
Indian Charlie strode away from the railroad office, a fat cigar between his thick lips. Snow crunched underfoot, and he cursed the damned stuff that had stopped him from his reward. He and the idiots he'd hired had traveled as far as they could before they'd run into five foot drifts. The horses would kill themselves before they reached the train. Not that Charlie cared about the animals, but with them dead, they'd have no chance of reaching their goal.
The train's destination had been Denver, and Charlie had put two and two together. A badly wounded man and a journey to Denver. He was a little surprised that the six other men would go through so much trouble for their injured companion. Charlie himself would've let him die, but then he wasn't weak like his quarry.
He paused on the boardwalk, his malevolent gaze following the train tracks until they disappeared in a curtain of white. "We'll see you soon, Larabee. I've got a Christmas present to deliver personally."
The train chugged slowly through the mountains, stopping every so often to dig out of another drift of snow. By late evening, they were moving down off the pass in a steady clacking rhythm. Vin hadn't awakened and everyone had steered clear of Chris as he nursed a second bottle of whiskey.
JD stood and stretched his muscles. He moved over to a window and leaned against it. The snow had stopped completely, leaving a clear sky glittering with stars. He wondered which was the one that had led the wise men to the stable so many years ago. Picturing his mother as she'd looked last Christmas brought a stab of loneliness so piercing it almost made JD sick. He missed her more than he thought possible. She'd tried so hard to give him an education, scrimping and saving her meager wages, going without while she gave everything she had to her only child. And it hadn't been nearly enough for even one year of school.
He swallowed the sob before it made it to his lips, before he embarrassed himself in front of these men who he looked up to and was proud to call friends. He glanced at Chris sitting alone, the man's eyes haunted. JD had awakened last night while Vin and Chris had been talking. He'd tried not to eavesdrop, but he'd overheard most of their conversation. JD wondered if Chris was thinking about the child he'd never known.
JD licked his lips. Maybe he'd go sit by Chris, apologize for listening in last night, and let him know that he understood the sadness of losing someone you loved. JD's stomach rolled. He'd always stayed away from Chris while he was in one of his foul moods, but this was the Christmas season. A time to share, whether it be gifts or burdens. That's what family and friends were for.
Forcing himself to stroll over to the table, he felt the puzzled gazes of the other men. They probably thought he was crazy. Maybe he was, but something in him propelled him forward.
"Mind if I sit down?" JD asked, proud that his voice didn't shake.
Chris stared at him a moment with those cold pale eyes he got after he'd been drinking, then nodded. "Suit yourself."
"Mind if I have a drink?'
Chris passed him the bottle, and JD took a swig. When he'd drank whiskey the first time in the Seminole village, JD had nearly puked from the strong taste. Now an occasional shot didn't bother him, but he preferred something less powerful.
"Thanks," JD said.
Chris didn't bother to reply. He stared across the room at Vin who remained unconscious.
JD swallowed, and spoke quietly. "I heard you and Vin talkin' last night."
Chris's frigid gaze pinned JD, but he remained mute.
"I didn't mean to, but I woke up." He swept his dark bangs back from his forehead with a nervous hand. "I'm sorry about your family, Chris. All of them."
"That was a private conversation," Chris stated, his voice low enough to give JD doubts as to his intelligence in making a confession.
"I didn't plan on listenin'."
Chris simply stared at him.
JD wanted to bolt, to escape the frigid ice in Chris's eyes, but he had come this far. He leaned forward. "I know it ain't the same, but I lost my ma less'n a year ago. And I miss her, Chris. 'Specially now, at this time of the year."
Chris's eyes seemed to thaw slightly. "Christmases weren't made for people like us, JD."
"Maybe it was made 'specially for people like us," JD countered. "Men who don't have nobody but their friends, and who make their own family." He took a deep breath, wondering if he should tell his secret, and decided he had nothing to lose. "Me and Casey and her aunt Nettie were plannin' a big surprise Christmas party for all of us. They ain't got no kin left neither. Me and Casey went out and got a tree the day before -- " he glanced over his shoulder at Vin. "Before those men came. I was supposed to go over there to help decorate it, but..."
"That's why you wanted me back in time for Christmas," Chris said softly.
Embarrassed, JD nodded. "I figured Christmas would be toughest on you, after havin' family and all, and I wanted to help a little."
The harsh lines drained from Chris's face, and his light green eyes became almost warm. "Thank you, JD, but sometimes a pain goes so deep it don't ever go away."
The change in Chris gave JD the courage to continue. "Maybe not, but ask yourself this, what would your wife have wanted you to do at Christmas - see how drunk you could get or be with your friends who care about you?" JD pushed back his chair and stood, then paused. "Don't worry, I won't be tellin' anyone what I heard last night."
Chris nodded once in gratitude, then watched the boy join the others. JD had been the only person brave enough to approach him. Or maybe it was foolhardiness. Whatever it was, the boy was growing into a man. A man anyone would be proud to call a friend.
Chris set the whiskey bottle in the center of the table and stared at it - was it half empty or half full?
Five hours later, Chris removed the watch from his pocket and held it close to see the face in the dim light. Half past midnight - the day before Christmas. They should've been in Denver ten hours ago, but the snow had delayed them. They'd probably arrive in the city in the early morning hours and with any luck, by the end of the day, Vin would have the feeling back in his legs.
Vin began to shake his head and mutter aloud. It was the first movement they'd seen from him since he'd lapsed into unconsciousness. Everyone else was asleep, leaving Chris to soothe his restless motions. He knelt down beside him. "Take it easy, Vin," he said softly. "Relax, you're safe."
His voice must have slipped into Vin's consciousness because the younger man quieted and his eyes flickered open.
Chris grinned. "Welcome back."
Vin blinked in confusion, then comprehension replaced his bewilderment. "We ain't in Denver yet?"
"Almost. A few more hours."
Vin's expression suddenly froze, and his eyes widened slightly.
"What is it?" Chris demanded.
"My arms, I can't move them." Hysteria edged his words, and Chris instinctively put a hand on Vin's left shoulder. Beneath his palm he could feel the rapid fire beat of his heart. "I can't feel where you're touchin' me." Unfamiliar terror clouded his eyes, obliterating the usual twinkle.
"Shhh, take it easy, Vin. Maybe it's just temporary," Chris reassured, his palms growing damp with his own fear. "Can you move your fingers?" Chris stared down at Vin's long slender fingers which opened and closed. Relief filtered into him. "You can still move your hands."
"But I can't lift them," Vin argued. "Geezus, Chris, next time I go to sleep, I'll probably wake up and have lost that, too."
"No, you won't," Chris said sternly. "The bullet must've shifted when you fell of the couch, but that doesn't mean the doctor can't get it out."
"Who the hell are you tryin' to fool, Chris? You got to let me have my gun now before I can't do what I got to."
Chris was shocked to see hopeless rage in Vin's features. The ex-bounty hunter had always been so accepting, so easy-going. It was that steadfastness and ability to look at the world with a wry sense of humor that had drawn Chris to him. As well as the recognition of something on an instinctual level, some shared experience where words were insignificant.
"You have to wait until the doctor operates," Chris argued.
"Wait until I can't do nothin' for myself?" Sweat beaded Vin's forehead and rolled down the side of his face into his whiskers. "If I do that, nobody's gonna pull the trigger for me."
"But what if the operation works?"
"Do you really think it will?" Vin asked, his blue eyes boring into Chris.
"Do you think it will?" Vin reiterated sharply.
Chris closed his eyes, unable to face Vin as he shook his head. "I don't know."
"Then give me my gun. You gave your word."
"You're willin' to give up, just like that when there's still a chance?" Chris demanded. "What would your ma think? Are you makin' the Tanner name proud?"
Vin's eyes glittered with moisture. "Sonuvabitch. Let me do this, Chris. Let me die on my own terms." His voice was low, filled with raw emotion, and his fingers curved into fists which pressed into his sides.
"Not yet, Vin. I can't let you go until I know for certain," Chris said hoarsely, feeling as if he'd been kicked in the belly by a mule. His own eyes stung and he blinked to hold the cramping grief at bay.
Vin turned his head toward the sofa back, hiding his weakness from his best friend. A tear trickled down his cheek to dampen the sofa that held his useless body. Humiliation added to his helplessness. He hadn't cried since he was five years old, when his ma had died.
He felt a hand come to rest gently on his head and another curve around his fisted hand.
"Vin, we'll get through this together, no matter what," Chris spoke with vehemence. "Go through with the surgery. If it doesn't work and you can't hold the gun yourself, I'll do it for you. You have my word."
Chris's voice cracked and Vin recognized the cost of his offer. The man who had lost a wife, son, and unborn child would kill his best friend if Vin asked him to. Could Vin ask for that ultimate sacrifice, knowing his friend would be forever wracked with guilt for doing it?
He shifted his head and found Chris's face only a foot from his. There was no way Vin could hide the single tear track, but Vin saw no condemnation in Chris's eyes. Only a deep, abiding sorrow of the knowledge of what would probably come to pass.
"No," Vin said. "I can't let you do that."
"It's not your decision."
Chris's stubbornness had dug in and no matter what Vin said, Chris would hold to his word.
"Anyone ever tell you you're worse than a jackass when you got your mind set?" Vin commented, a fraction of the twinkle back in his eyes.
Chris nodded. "Seems to me there's been more than one."
Vin smiled slightly and he was able to grip Chris's hand tightly in his. "Thanks, pard."
Chris merely nodded, then stood and moved away. He returned a moment later and helped Vin awkwardly drink from the cup Chris held to his lips. After Vin drank most of the water, Chris grabbed a cloth and dipped it in the water. Chris dabbed Vin's sweat-soaked forehead and wiped away the moisture from his cheek. The cool dampness felt good against Vin's fevered skin, though it was odd to have Chris care for him.
"Get some sleep, Vin. It won't be long until we're in Denver and I figure you'll need your strength for the operation," Chris said.
Vin nodded. He was tired, lethargic, as if his eyelids had been weighted down. He closed his eyes and his last memory was the feel of Chris's hand wrapped comfortingly around his own.