A Magnificent Seven Christmas story
Disclaimer: Don't own 'em. Ah, hell, wouldn't if I could. Ya' just can't keep two good men down. No money being made, blah, blah, blah. You guys know the drill.
Notes: Um...let's see...nope can't think of any. Oh, wait. I think Chris and Vin are miracles for each other, and I do believe in miracles.
Neither of the two men had particularly cared to spend Christmas in town anyway. It was going to be more than the gunslinger could bear to be around all the gaiety and singing, although the drinking he could get by with. But he preferred to do his drinking alone...especially on Christmas. It wasn't that he wasn't grateful for his new life or his new friends, but Christmas was just another reason to remember the pain of realizing what he had lost. He always remembered Adam's squeals of joy when he tore into his presents on Christmas morning. He always remembered the happiness in Sarah's eyes when she would open the presents he had given her. Chris Larabee always remembered...but Christmas brought the memories back with a vengeance and he simply wasn't ready to forget and move on. His new life had eased the pain back some, he couldn't deny that. His six new friends, Mary, Billy...the townsfolk...they had all given him a reason to push forward. But Christmas was a private thing.
He knew Vin Tanner felt his own loss as well. Last year he had gone out into the hills, ignoring the pleas from the town and the other five men, Larabee excluded, to stay in town and come 'mingle and jingle' with the rest of them. It wasn't Tanner's way. Christmas under the stars, amidst the quiet of nature, this was his way of celebrating. Last year, though, Chris had sought him out in the hills and Tanner had paid no mind to the gunslinger's intrusion. Chris was different. Chris understood. The two had camped out and shared their losses in silence. Some fishing had given the two men an opportunity to connect during that holiday. No wishes for a 'Merry Christmas', no 'Happy Holidays', none of the clichés that just didn't fit these two men. No...the only words spoken regarding the holiday were Vin's. "Glad you're here, cowboy," had been all that needed to be said. Chris had smiled and nodded once.
This year, though, Judge Orin Travis had needed a prisoner taken to Rock Ridge to await a stage for transfer. Chris had been assigned and Vin had volunteered to go with him. Chris had accepted, knowing it would be a good excuse for the two of them to leave the festivities and escape the day, to lose themselves in a task that would help them to forget...at least for awhile.
On their way back from Rock Ridge, Chris figured it to be Christmas Eve and the two would make it back to Four Corners by nightfall. "Ain't really in any hurry to get back, Chris," Vin said, as the two rode side by side across the desert plain.
Chris knew what was going through the tracker's mind. "Me either. Want to hold up a spell?"
"May as well set up camp here as any other place. Plenty of dried wood fer a fire."
"I'll set up camp, then. You scout around for some food."
Before they could ride to a nice area off to the side, the shot came out of nowhere.
Chris had no time to react as shock settled in. He watched in horror as Vin was pushed off his horse and landed on the ground in a crumpled heap. Another shot and the bullet hit the ground at his horse's feet, sending the animal scurrying off at a gallop.
Chris pulled his gun and judged the direction the shots came from. He saw a glint of sunlight reflecting off a barrel of a rifle and he fired. About twenty yards away he saw a man react as if being hit and the figure slumped to the side of the rock. Chris took one look at his unmoving friend and feared the worst. He couldn't take a chance others were with the gunman and so he rode towards the attacker's slumped over form. When he dismounted he kept his gun aimed and turned in a cautious circle as he tried to catch any glimpse of other assailants. Then he saw the gunman and the piece of paper in the man's belt. Squatting next to the man he kept his gun ready as he pulled the paper from the belt. He unfolded it and instantly recognized the wanted poster for Vin Tanner. Chris cursed and ripped the paper to shreds. He saw his bullet had hit the man in the head. He kicked the dead man in the side. "No damn bounty for you, you son of a bitch!" he seethed, trying to keep his emotions in check. If Vin was still alive he would have to be calm and thinking. He kicked the gunman in the ribs again and holstered his gun. "Damn you!" he cursed as he mounted his horse again. Turning the black's head he kicked it in the sides and galloped back to where his friend lied. 'Dear God, Vin, don't be dead.'
+ + + + + + +
Vin was on his side, the pain of the bullet searing through his chest. "Chris?" he whispered, unable to move. "Where...are ya'?"
The sound of horse hooves hitting the ground drew nearer. "I'm here, Vin," Chris responded almost as if he had heard the weakened voice. In an instant Vin felt the comforting presence and Chris' body formed a shadow against the onslaught of the sun. Gentle hands, which could kill with the slightest provocation, rested on the upturned shoulder. He gently removed Vin's hat and set it aside. "Vin?" He eased the wounded man slowly over onto his back.
"Chris, don't move...me," the tracker spoke with a hitch to his breath. "Don't move me," he said again.
"I just need to take a look at ya', Pard." Chris slowly reached under the tracker's buckskin jacket and pulled the left suspender down just enough to clear a way to see the wound. He unbuttoned Vin's shirt and pulled the fabric away and what he saw made him cringe. The bullet had entered over the heart. Vin's back had been to him when he rode up and he had not seen an exit wound. Still he reached his hand gently under Vin's back and felt the area under the shoulder blade. No blood, no tear in the cloth. The bullet was still inside him. Chris slowly removed his hand and put it to Vin's pale cheek. "Vin? It looks bad."
Vin smiled up at him, but it was a weak attempt. "It...is bad, Chris. I can feel it. Bullet's inside my heart."
Chris froze at these words. He gazed down at Vin; all color draining from his face. "Vin?"
"Don't move me, Chris. I...need to stay here...till...I go." Vin slowly reached up a hand and placed it to Chris' face. "Did...ya' get 'im?"
"Got him, Vin. Bounty hunter."
Vin tried to laugh but found it too painful. "Better than hangin', I reckon."
Chris reached up and clutched Vin's hand in his own as the tears filled his eyes. "Ain't going anywhere, Pard. I swear. I'll stay right here."
Vin looked off into the uncommonly bright sky, his eyes taking on a peaceful stare. "Don't know why I'm still alive. Should be dead. Bullet's in my heart. Should be dead."
"Vin, maybe it's not. Maybe if I try to get the bullet out of ya..."
Vin shook his head. "Don't do that to yourself. If ya' tried to dig the bullet out...you'd kill me fer certain. This way at least...I have some time. Just let it happen, Chris."
Chris placed Vin's hand to his stomach and patted it. "I'm gonna make you comfortable, Vin. Just hold on."
The blond man walked up to his horse and pulled the bedroll from the back of the saddle. He undid it and laid it over Vin, to keep him warm. "I'm gonna start a fire and then I'll..."
"Chris," Vin reached up and took his arm. Chris gazed at him expectantly. "I'm here, Pard," he whispered, gripping Vin's arm in return.
"Don't...go...too far, cowboy. Don't want to die...alone."
Chris' hold tightened. "I ain't goin' anywhere, Vin. Just to look for some firewood. I want it to be..." he choked as he couldn't finish what he was saying, but Vin smiled up at him with understanding. "Easy," he finished for him.
Chris nodded once and Vin released his grip, letting the blond man rise to his feet. He watched Chris move around the area picking up dead twigs and branches and he could see his friend was shaking, even under the physical movements attempting to hide that fact. "Not now, God. Don't let me die now...not on Christmas. Chris don't need no more bad memories." Vin muttered the small prayer, hoping Chris wouldn't hear him, and also hoping God would. Then a thought hit Vin and he pondered it like it was a lifeline of some kind. When Chris came back with the wood and started making the fire, Vin just stared at him as he worked.
Feeling the eyes on him, Chris looked up as he fought to get the fire lit. "You all right, Vin?"
"Ain't sure," the tracker replied. "Somethin'...somethin's been gnawing at me."
Finally the flames erupted and Chris set more branches on top of them, stirring the fire to give it more oxygen. He went to Vin's other side and wrapped the blanket more securely around him. "You'll be warm in a few minutes."
"Chris...need to say something to ya'. I know how ya' are and I needs to know you're gonna be all right."
"Don't talk, Vin, save your strength."
"Fer what? Fer dyin'?"
Chris looked down at him and their eyes locked. He shut his eyes at the acceptance in Vin's look and turned away. "I don't want to hear this, Vin."
"Well, seein' as how I'm the one dyin' here, ya' gots ta' listen. Wouldn't deny me my last words, would ya'?"
"For someone who's got a bullet in his heart, Tanner, you talk too damn much."
Vin reached up and grabbed Chris' arm. "Don't run from it, cowboy. Don't do that to me."
Chris looked down at him and in the brightness of the sun Vin saw the unshed tears. He gripped Chris' arm tighter. "I figure we got a friendship not a lot of people get to have," the tracker said. "Ya' ever figure as to why we was thrown into each other's path, Chris?"
Chris just stared at him, unable to speak for fear of his emotion overpowering him. But he didn't have to say anything. Vin read it in his eyes. He smiled up at his friend. "Reckon 'cause we needed each other," the tracker continued in that soft voice that only belonged to him. "I probably don't have the answers as to why your family was killed, Chris, why God took them from ya'. I just know if He hadn't, ya' would never have been in that town that day. I don't know why I was framed for murder and forced to live on the run, ceptin' if'n I hadn't been, I wouldn't have been in that town that day."
Chris looked at Vin, drinking in the words, knowing his friend was leading to something...something that needed to be said. He wanted to hear it, but how he wanted it to be under different circumstances. He didn't want these words to be the last ones Vin spoke.
Vin went on. "It ain't easy treadin' the path the Almighty gives us. We curse Him to His face when things go wrong. We rebel, get angry, like a child throwin' a tantrum. We don't understand it when it happens. Fer a long time I couldn't understand why I was facin' a noose, forced to look over my shoulder in every town, forced to sleep with one eye open. I was alone, Chris. Then...I met ya' that day and I reckon now...now I do understand. I ain't no religious man, Chris, but I can't deny someone is watchin' out fer us. If it's Josiah's God then so be it, I just know...our paths crossed because of the darkness we've suffered. I figure God knew I needed ya' and you needed me."
Then Vin saw it, the streak of a tear tracing down Chris' cheek. He felt Chris' hand tighten on his arm. "He's taking you now," he choked.
Vin smiled and shook his head. "Not yet, Chris. I don't know how...or why...I just know...whatever happens...I ain't leavin' ya. I'll always ride with ya', Chris, even in death. I'll be there. I reckon God's just gonna have to live with that. I ain't gonna take 'no' for an answer."
Chris let go Vin's arm and stood, putting one hand to his hip and with the other he ripped off his hat and gazed up at the sky. "You have a right to rest, Vin. Don't go givin that up because of me."
"I'll rest better, knowin' you're gonna be all right," Vin said.
Chris began to shake uncontrollably. "I'll manage, Tanner. I won't..." he broke on the last word and took a seat next to Vin again. He rested a hand on the tracker's shoulder and squeezed it. He couldn't speak any more. Vin could see his friend's jaw working, his throat swallowing back the tears. Vin put his left hand to Chris' wrist and clutched it tightly. "I ain't gonna leave ya', Chris. I swear it."
"Don't talk," Chris whispered, his voice thick with the tears caught in his throat.
Vin shut his eyes against the sting of his own tears. "Why the hell am I still breathin'?" he asked in a voice full of wonder. "I oughta be dead. Heart hurts."
Chris turned to look at him and saw the pain the tracker's face. "How can I help, Vin?"
Vin shook his head. "Ain't no way to help me, Chris, ceptin' what you're doin' right now." He squeezed Chris' wrist harder indicating what he meant.
Chris gazed at him, the tears slowly trailing down his face. He leaned down closer to Vin's ear. "Just let it happen, Vin. Don't fight it. You've searched all your life for peace. Don't hang on because of me. Let go. Please."
"Want to hold on, Chris. Can't die on ya'. Not on Christmas."
"Ain't no Christmas, Vin. Not anymore. Not for me."
Vin shook his head with sorrow. "Can't live like that, Pard. Wouldn't want ya' to stop looking fer that silver linin'. It's got to be there somewheres. Even fer you."
Chris sat back and put his other hand to Vin's face. He brushed the mangled hair from the tracker's sweating forehead. "I did find it, Vin. Once. You showed it to me."
Vin smiled up at him, his face turning calm, his eyes reflecting peace. "Then reckon ya' can find it again, cowboy. Ya' just gotta keep lookin'."
Vin closed his eyes as he gripped Chris' wrist tighter once more. "Heart hurts, Chris."
Chris shut his eyes, the ache in his own heart growing. 'Why are you doing this to me, God? Why are you making him suffer in front of me? Just take him and be done with it! Don't keep him in pain anymore!'
He felt Vin's fingers on his face and he opened his eyes, looking down at the smile his friend was giving him. "I'm gonna sleep now, Chris. Just be sure I'm dead before ya' take me back to Tascosa."
Chris shook his head violently. "Ain't takin' you back, Tanner. Fuck the bounty. Don't want it. Never did."
"No!" Chris spoke out defiantly. "You're worth more than five hundred dollars to me, Vin. I'd rather have you alive!"
"Well," Vin spoke with a slight chuckle. "Doesn't look like that's gonna happen."
Chris stood up and walked away. "Shut up, Vin! Just shut the hell up!"
Vin turned to gaze at him, unable to speak louder as the pain ripped through his heart. "Don't...let your final words to me be angry ones, Chris."
Chris stormed back up to him and knelt beside him. "I..." he shook his head. "I can't...lose you, too." He rasped.
Vin reached up and Chris clutched his hand. "You are gonna lose me, Chris. Don't know anyone who survived a bullet to the heart before."
Chris fought to hold back the tears, but he couldn't. "Damn you, Vin! Damn it all to hell!"
"Don't, Chris..." Vin pled, his voice going softer. "Don't do this. Not now. I need ya' to do something fer me."
Chris brushed a hand over his eyes and took in a deep breath. "Anything," he whispered.
"If'n ya' don't want the money, then use it fer the town. Help Mary build that schoolhouse she's always wanted to build. Put the money to some good use, Chris. This is why ya' gotta take me back fer the bounty. It's my last wish. Don't deny me, Pard."
Chris lowered his head and covered his eyes with his hand. "I...I promise, Vin. I'll take care of it."
"Good. Now...I need to close my eyes. Just know...I'll always be there, cowboy. Always." Vin's hold on Chris' hand loosened and his eyes closed. Chris stared down at him in fear. He had gone too quiet, too quickly. He put his hand to Vin's chest and felt the rise and fall and saw the misty breath leave his nose in the cold winter air.
+ + + + + + +
Chris put the blanket up closer to Vin's chin and couldn't help brushing back the hair from the tracker's forehead. After a few minutes, he stood and walked off, gazing into the darkening sky. Had it gotten dark so soon? Or was the deathwatch always a thief of time? Finally he fell to his knees and lowered his head. "I'm pissed as hell at you, God, but you probably all ready know that. Don't need to tell you what you all ready know. Is this what his life boils down to? To die because of a lie? He didn't ask to be framed! He didn't ask to be a fugitive! He didn't murder that man and now you're gonna take him like some hunted buck! All because of greed! People still need him! You gave him talents that he's used for the good of the people! If you're gonna take him then take him now! Don't let him suffer like this! He's too good for that! But you gotta know...I don't want him to go. People need him. I...I need him. It's the season for miracles, or so people keep telling me. Can't say I believe in much anymore. But I believe in Vin. And I know...if anyone can save him...it's you." Chris looked up at the stars in the sky. "I need him, God. Only you know how much."
After a few more minutes of silence, of gazing into the sky, Chris suddenly saw a light he had not noticed before. A star brighter than the others peeked out from the black curtain of space and it shone like silver. Through the tears that blurred his vision, Chris saw the shape of a cross in the stars bright light. He'd noticed such reflections in the moon when it was full. Always seeing the shape of a cross in the nights heavenly bodies. But as he focused on this one, he could see it clearly and understood its meaning. And a question filled his mind, one he had not thought of. It had come to him out of nowhere. 'Do you believe?'
Chris shut his eyes. 'Yes,' he thought back.
'Do you fear?'
Chris thought about this one. He was afraid. 'I fear,' he replied.
'In the midst of death...will you stand?'
Chris turned to look at Vin's sleeping form. He studied the sight for a long moment. Vin dying would cause his soul to shatter, but Vin had said he wanted Chris to be all right. In a way the tracker was asking Chris to honor his memory. To put aside his sorrow and continue to live. The gunslinger turned back to the star and closed his eyes, forcing new trails of tears to stream down his cheeks. 'I'll stand,' he replied. And in that moment Chris felt his strength wane and he fell, prostrate on the ground. 'I can't stand alone, though. I can't do it alone...not anymore.'
'Never alone. Never alone.'
The words hit his heart and he understood it all, and the peace filled him. In the presence of death...Chris Larabee no longer feared. He fell asleep.
+ + + + + + +
The cool breeze washed over him and he awoke to the feeling of early morning on his skin. The dew set a dampness in his bones and he raised himself to his hands and knees. He took a moment to remember what had happened the night before. Had he prostrated himself on the ground before God? Had he submitted to the will of the Almighty? Had he sacrificed his own will in order to adhere to the will of a God he had so long been rebelling against? Vin! He turned to the tracker and crawled over to his friend. "Vin?" he asked.
Vin did not move. Chris stopped just inches away and fearfully gazed down at the motionless form. "Vin." He saw the pale skin and the look of death covering his friend's face and limbs. With a shaking hand he put his fingers to Vin's neck. 'Dear God!' he thought. 'A pulse? He still has a pulse?' He put his ear to Vin's chest and heard the heartbeat. "Vin," he whispered. "Why the hell are you still alive, Pard?" he asked, not expecting an answer.
At that moment Vin stirred and moaned. Chris lifted his head and put his hands to Vin's face. "Vin? Pard? Wake up, now."
Vin's eyes slowly opened and he looked up at Chris' searching eyes. "Hey, cowboy," he spoke out weakly.
"Still here, I reckon," Vin smiled up at him. Then he reached out and grabbed Chris' shoulder as he gasped. "Ah! What...what the hell's happenin'?"
Chris put his hand to Vin's chest. "What's wrong?"
"Somethin'..." Vin gasped again. "Somethin' feels strange, Chris. It feels...strange. Something's happenin'!"
Chris opened Vin's shirt again and gazed down at the wound. "What is it, Vin?"
"Does it hurt? Like it did last night?"
"No. No pain. No more pain. Not that." He gripped Chris' shoulder again. "What the hell is goin' on, Chris? Damn! It feels weird!"
Chris put his hand to the wound and covered it, unsure what he could do, but reaching out just the same. He stared at Vin's twisting facial expressions. "Vin!" he spoke out in worry. What could he do? Vin was in discomfort and there was nothing he could do to ease it.
That's when he felt it...something hard under his palm. He removed his hand and his eyes widened as the image registered in his mind. "Vin! Dear God! Vin!" What he was looking at could not be real. It simply could not be, but he was seeing it just the same.
Vin looked up at him. "What is it, Chris?"
Chris didn't know how to explain it. "It's the bullet, Vin. Damn if it ain't comin' to the surface!"
Vin's eyes widened. "No shit?" he asked in disbelief. "Chris, are ya' sure?"
Chris carefully put his forefinger and thumb to the wound and grasped the round metal as it neared the wound's opening. He gently tugged and the bullet came out. He held it up to show Vin who gazed at it with a mixture of wonder and disbelief. "How sure do you want to be, Tanner?" Chris said, unable to hide the smile that stretched across his face.
Vin could say nothing. He just stared at the bullet in between Chris' fingers. "Guess God don't want you after all, Tanner. Not yet at least."
"Hell," Vin said with amazement. "Nathan sure as shootin' ain't gonna believe this one."
He reached up and took the bullet then took Chris' hand, placing the small object in his palm. He closed Chris' fingers around it. "Merry Christmas, Pard."
Chris clutched the bullet tightly. In the early dawn the gunslinger looked up to the sky and watched as the brightest star disappeared behind the light of the coming sun. 'I won't ever forget this day,' he thought as he took another look at the bullet in his hand, still stained with Vin's hearts blood. He looked down at the wound to see the puncture closing. He gently traced a finger over the wound. "It's closing from the inside out," he said.
Vin looked down at Chris' finger tracing the wound. "Thought meetin' y'all that day was like a miracle, Chris. Never had one like this before. What do ya' make of it?"
Chris removed his finger and looked down once again at the bullet in his hand. He shook his head. Miracles are miracles because they can't be explained. He had no idea how to answer Vin's question. All he knew was that they had a Christmas tale to tell when they got back home. And suddenly the cliché took on a whole new meaning to the gunslinger. He locked eyes with his best friend. "Merry Christmas, Vin," he replied.
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