Christmas Eve:
ATF Style

by Cheryl W.

ATF Universe

Disclaimer: I don't own Magnificent Seven nor is any copyright infringement intended. I have the greatest respect and jealous for those who do own them. (Couldn't they just loan me Chris for awhile?!)

Comments: This is the first time I'm submitting fan fiction so please give me feedback but BE KIND! (Life is harsh enough without your hobbies being trashed!) Thanks for MOG for the ATF idea and thanks to all the great MAG7 fan fiction authors!

"Chris you'll be there tomorrow, right?" Vin demanded of his boss and best friend.

Looking up from the paperwork on his desk, Chris smiled at the man leaning in his office doorway. "Yes, Vin, I promise I'll be there. High Noon?"

Vin nodded, "Yup, that's when Nettie's gonna ring the dinner bell." The man then fell silent as his eyes met Chris's with worry. "You sure you don't want to join the rest of us for dinner tonight?" his tone almost yearning.

"No. Thanks anyway," Chris replied and looked down at his paperwork again.

Vin didn't slink away at the dismissal Chris had just delivered but instead, stepped into Chris's office and claimed a chair. Chris looked up with surprise and some annoyance. His tone was slightly biting as he questioned, "Got something to say Vin?"

Vin ignored the tone, he had heard worse from Larabee. Instead, he leaned back lazily in the chair and studied Chris with intensity. With an easy casual tone, he responded, "You plan on spending tonight drowning in a bottle of whiskey?"

Chris's eyes darkened with anger, how dare the man speak so frankly!! To him of all people!! Truth was Chris had already made a pact with himself to steer clear of his usual Christmas tradition this year. But it rankled him to be judged by Vin and he shot back, "It doesn't seem that's any of your damn business!"

The only reaction Vin had to the retort was to sit up straighter in the chair but he made no move to cower out of the office. Instead, his look became more intense and worry began to show. "Hiding in a bottle every Christmas isn't going to change the past Chris. But if you face Christmas sober, with six friends who would do anything just to see you happy, then you might change the future."

Vin's words rocketed through Chris. The logic was sound, the sentiments were real and strong but still Chris felt stung by them. "Yeah well, Vin, it's my past and it's my future, how 'bout you just deal with your own past and future and leave me the hell alone."

Those words cut through Vin's barriers and he couldn't hide the hurt they caused. He stood abruptly and headed for the door but stopped at the doorway and turned to face his best friend. His anger was apparent but so was his desperation as he spoke, "Damn it Chris! I can't 'leave you the hell alone'! I care, alright!! I care if you get stinking drunk, I care that you have nightmares. I care that you choose to clean your guns every Christmas Eve when you're drunk and depressed! I care and so does the rest of the team along with Mary, Billy, Nettie and Casey! What you do, how you feel affects us, Chris! Remember that tonight when you're on your third bottle." And with that Vin stormed out of the office, snatched his coat from his chair and turned out the lights in the office.

Chris sat in his office, his office light harsh now that darkness surrounded him. He looked down again at the paperwork but swore in frustration. Vin's words were like some damn song he couldn't get out of his head. I care if you get stinking drunk, I care that you have nightmares, I care that you choose to clean your guns every Christmas Eve when you're drunk and depressed! I care and so does the rest of the team along with Mary, Billy, Nettie and Casey!

"Then you're a fool, Vin Tanner!!" Chris growled aloud. "And they're fools!!" He surged to his feet and looked out the window. Snow was falling and people were emerging from the office building across the street like someone had just pulled the fire alarm. "Christmas, just what I need right now" he cursed.

It was funny, Vin's pep talk was making him wish to resort back to his usual Christmas tradition. The numbness associated with a few bottles of whiskey, the dark, quietness of his ranch, the feel of the metal of his guns in his hands. That was the meaning of Christmas for him, or it had been since his family had been killed. What had made him decide against that path this year? He couldn't verbalize went deeper than words. Could he call it an increasing sense of peace with the past? Maybe a dash of hope for the future? And a whole truckload of care from his team and other people he had let get close to him.

Care?! It seemed a weak word when he used it like "yeah I guess I'd notice if you weren't around". But having Vin say cut into Chris. They CARED, like "I don't know what I'd do without you" kinda of thing. Chris knew they cared, they had huddled around his hospital bed when he had been hurt, had given him a surprise birthday party, showed up at his ranch unannounced just to spend time with him. But telling yourself they cared and them telling you they cared is a world of difference. A world Vin had bridged tonight in an effort to keep Chris from his self destructive Christmas tradition.

A smiled eased unto Chris's features. So much for his plans to camp out under the stars - just him, his horse, Valor, and a thermos of hot coffee. The team was having dinner in half an hour at Belanardo's and their party number was about to increase to seven. Shoving the paperwork into a pile and stowing it in a file cabinet, Chris grabbed his coat, and stood up and headed out of the office, hitting the light switch as he went. Total darkness descended on him. "Damn it Vin," he cursed. He knew the solution was turn his office light back on, go turn on the outer office light, come back turn his office light off then head out clicking the lights as he exited.

"Too much effort," Chris mumbled and forged ahead in the dark only to trip over the files JD insisted were organized right there on the floor. Stumbling, Chris's thigh connected solidly with Buck's desk and he groaned. "I'm gonna strangle that kid," he growled as he proceeded with more caution and made it to the lighted hallway without further incident.

+ + + + + + +

Ezra looked over at Vin as he drove to the restaurant through the rain and felt the man's tension. Guessing at the source, the southern drawled, "By your scowl I can determine Chris's reply to the repeated invitation to partake of a repast with us." Vin shot him a deadly look but remained silent as he resumed his concentration on the road. "I guess Chris isn't ready to get over the tragedy that has befallen him yet," Ezra continued his tone soft with a hint of sorrow. He didn't expect Vin to reply at all and certainly not as venomously as he did.

"Well he should get over it! They are dead, he ain't! No matter how hard he tries to be otherwise," his tone bitter. Ezra let silence be his reply. Soon Vin continued, "We care about him, Mary, Billy, Nettie, Casey they care about him! But that's not enough for him... he keeps thinking he's not worth anything! What the hell does he want from us!!?!" and he spared a frustrated glance to Ezra.

With a gentle tone Ezra gave a reply, "I don't think it's what he wants from us. I think it's what he wants from God. A promise to protect the people he dares to care for, a guarantee that his affection for someone does not automatically doom them. He's trying to protect us by keeping his distance."

"Protect us?!? He's not some disease!! Having that man as your friend, standing by your side is the best protection I've ever had!!" Vin exclaimed, even as he relived in his mind, Chris taking a bullet that was meant for him.

Ezra shivered as he too remembered a bullet that was destined to end his life but Larabee had changed history by stepping in the bullet's path. "I wholeheartedly agree with those sentiments Mr. Tanner, wholeheartedly."

Shocked at the emotion he heard in the usual non-emotional man, Vin tossed a smile to Ezra. "Guess we'll have to explain this to Mr. Larabee. Might take a while for the idea to sink in but if we pound hard enough and often enough it shouldn't take more than four months."

Ezra laughed and shook his head in amusement. The bunch of men he had been teamed with were extraordinary, strange, deadly and the best friends a man could ask for out of life. They drove in silence but the traffic slowed to a stop on the four-lane highway.

"What now? We're only five miles from the restaurant and now we run into traffic!," Vin groused.

Ezra craned to see past the cars ahead of them, "I see the merry lights of police cars. Looks like a holiday fender bender has ruined someone's cheer." An ambulance streaked by them and Ezra amended his surmise, "Seems like it's a little more of an affair if the speed of that ambulance is any indication."

"Well, we're moving," Vin announced as he put the truck in gear and merged left with the rest of the traffic and began to creep forward. "Now everyone's gotta rubber neck it," he stated with annoyance.

"Including us," Ezra replied as he practically smashed his face up against the window to see the obstruction that dared impede them to a fine meal. Vin kept his eyes on the car in front of him, not wanting to be the cause of another fender bender. Ezra was nice enough to do the reporting for him, "Looks like a three car pile up, no wait there's a car in the ravine, that makes four..." but his voice had suddenly dropped off. Then an strangled "Good Lord, No!"

Vin faced Ezra with panic, "What is it!?"

"Pull over!! Pull over!!" was Ezra's desperate demand.

Vin cut over to the right hand lane as soon as they had passed the emergency vehicles and put the truck in park. Ezra was struggling to release his seat belt when Vin clamped unto his arm and Ezra's eyes met Vin's. "What is it Ezra?" Vin's voice full of dread and the terrified look in Ezra's eyes didn't alleviate any of it.

"I think it's Chris's truck in the ravine," Ezra croaked out and tried to get out of the truck but Vin wouldn't relinquish his hold, a hold that was becoming painful.

"Chris isn't coming tonight Ezra, it can't be his truck," Vin shouted back, wanting, no needing to dispel Ezra's belief.

Ezra voice was scared and sharp as he broke from Vin's grasp, "I know, damn it, but I gotta check it out," He jumped from the truck, slammed the door and ran back to the accident.

Vin watched Ezra go, tracked him in his mirror but he just sat there, his heart pounding. Chris wasn't coming tonight, had practically punched him for re-asking him to come. And Chris liked to get drunk in the privacy of his own home, he wouldn't go this way for any reason tonight. Vin turned off the engine, he would just sit here patiently while Ezra calmed his fears and they would have a story to tell the boys at dinner tonight.

But as another second passed, Vin could hardly draw a breath. It couldn't be Chris's truck and yet his instincts were screaming that his best friend was at the bottom of the ravine not two hundred feet away. With an anguished cry, Vin scrambled out of the truck and ran for the ravine. He practically collided with a stretcher carrying a body bag that was zipped up to give the deceased dignity.

"Who is it?!" he demanded of the coroner workers. They looked at the man who had materialized out of thin air with stupor. At their hesitation, Vin shoved them aside and unzipped the bag even as they protested. Vin gulped in air, it wasn't Chris, it was some sixty- year old man whose body still reeked of the booze he had consumed.

Before whole thoughts could form, Vin was running again for the ravine. He came to a halt by another body bag being zipped up and saw a bloodied young woman lying in it. Moving on to the ambulance stretcher, he could see this too contained a woman. Out of 4 cars, three drivers were accounted for. Now without taking a breath he rounded the trees that had bared his view of the ravine and stopped in his tracks.

The truck that was flipped over and edging into the river looked like Chris's and with terror, Vin read the license plate. "Chris?!" was his anguished cry as he scrambled down the embankment, half sliding, half falling but never lessening the pace. He came to a halt behind Ezra who was kneeling in the muddy bank of the river and leaning into the driver's side window.

Ezra pulled his head back as he felt someone sink to the ground behind him and met Vin's terrified look with his own. "Well, Chris, it looks like more of the Cavalry has arrived," Ezra drawled as if it were a card game instead of a life threatening situation.

Vin could just hear the faint gravely voice reply from the truck, "I think I'm gonna need the coast guard in another couple of minutes." Ezra moved further in the river to allow Vin space to peer into the truck.

At the sight of Chris's pale blood covered face, his body trapped in his seat which left him sitting upside down, his head aimed toward the upside down ceiling. And to top it off water was pooling at the ceiling and rising closer to Chris's head as he watched, Vin heart jolted to a stop. "Damn it Chris!! Why'd you change your mind?!" Vin choked out with anguish.

Chris gave one of his trademark tight smiles, "Thought it was safer than my usual Christmas Eve ritual."

Ezra and Vin couldn't even attempt to appreciate Chris's sense of humor at the moment. They were too terrified. Vin turned to Ezra, "Where are the paramedics, the rescue team!??"

"Chris said they had checked on him but left to treat the more seriously injured before returning to aid him," Ezra spat, his anger at their abandonment of Chris making his voice rough and his eyes dark. "Well they can get their butts down here now!"

Vin turned back to Chris and spoke gently, "I take it you're not staying in the truck so you won't get wet," he quipped lightly.

"Nope. No flies on you. My legs are caught." Chris replied even as his voice got weaker and pain more prevalent. The water level was now touching Chris hair.

Vin looked to Ezra as he added, "Metal's all twisted at his feet, a section is embedded into his calf. And what can be moved without hurting Chris, isn't budging." His tone frustrated but he was keeping the terror that was in his eyes from being in his voice.

"I have a crow bar in the truck..." Vin began and immediately Ezra crawled to his feet and said, "I'll get it" even as he ran to climb up the embankment. Vin turned back to meet Chris's eyes and wished he didn't see the pain in them. "I'm gonna inch in there and take a look Chris," he gently explained even as he slid into the window on his back.

When he had gone far enough to get a look under the dashboard where Chris's legs were trapped, he arched up to look at the metal's arrangement. "It's too dark! I'm just going to feel my way around."

"Be careful, the metal's sharp," Chris warned even as Vin yanked his hand back with a curse, but before even inspecting the injured hand, Vin had put it back to work.

"I think I'm going to use your leg as a guide down," Vin said as his hands touched Chris's knees and then skimmed down toward his feet. The metal that pressed against Chris's left leg was not budging, as Ezra had declared. As for Chris right leg, Vin's fingers met up with the shaft of steel that had buried itself in Chris's leg and he maneuvered his hand down the length of metal to see how big a section it was and how much of it was in Chris's leg. He wanted to curse and cry. The length of metal in Chris's leg seemed to be 5 or 6 inches and by the amount of blood he could feel oozing out of the wound, the metal was in deep.

Knowing there was nothing he could do in the truck, Vin scooted out and again sank down to his knees and met Chris's upside down stare. He knew what Chris wanted without him speaking a word, "Metal in your leg is maybe 5..6 inches long and in there pretty deep." Vin noticed in growing alarm that the water level was now covering the top of Chris's head and would soon obscure his forehead.

Vin gently eased Chris's head and shoulders forward, getting Chris away from the freezing water. Vin wasn't even aware of the water that surrounded his own knees as the river began to claim it's banks.

Ezra sank down beside Vin with a crow bar in hand along with a flashlight and a blanket. "Seems our rescue truck is detained due to another accident they came upon enroute to this one." His tone furious and then he leaned into the truck and smiled, "This weather is ruining my suit. Let's reconvene this reunion in a more hospitable locate, OK?" as he waved the crow bar around like a key.

Chris's responses were becoming more a hardship to hear and more a test of the man's willpower and strength to be able to utter them, "Sounds like a fine idea, Ezra."

"Excuse me, Mr. Tanner," Ezra said as he slithered into the truck, around Vin's supporting hands and Chris's trapped body. Trying desperately not to injury Chris any further, Ezra tried to pry the metal from his left leg as Vin held the flashlight. "Metal's weak enough to crumble and trap you but too damn strong to beat with a crow bar," he groused as he grunted with the effort. It gave a little but not enough to free Chris's leg. A string of curses escaped the usually unflappable agent. After more than five minutes struggles, Ezra had gotten no further movement from the metal and slithered out of the truck.

With Ezra clear of the truck, Vin positioned himself in a sitting position under Chris so the trapped man's shoulders rested on Vin's shoulders, keeping Chris out of the water. Vin turned to Ezra, "Take the truck. Keys are in the ignition. Go to a hardware store and buy a saw or jackhammer or whatever the hell we can use to get him outta here."

Ezra's eyes shot to Chris in alarm, he didn't want to leave him. Chris must have sensed Ezra's dilemma because he softly reassured, "I'm not going anywhere Ezra. I'll be here when you get back." A smile played on Ezra's worried features. He nodded to his boss and again headed up the embankment.

Vin's voice was choked with emotions as he broke the silence that had ensued at Ezra's departure, "Of all the times for you to decide to listen to my advice.."

"Don't start claiming guilt, Vin. The moron who swerved into the wrong lane is the only guilty party around here," Chris words were firm though his voice was weak.

"He was a damn drunk, could smell it on his corpse like bad cologne!" Vin spit out in rage.

But Chris responded not with rancor but with reflection, "Drunk like I've been for the past couple of Christmases."

Vin closed his eyes in pain, "I didn't mean that as a jab at you..."

"If the shoe fits..."

His voice firm, he defended Chris, "You might have been a drunk in past Christmases but you never drove, never took a chance with another life."

"No I did that when I married Sarah... had Adam."

"Chris their deaths weren't your fault!! You did nothing to put them in danger and you had no way of knowing the truck was wired!"

"My job put them in danger."

"Your job made you be the person they loved. If you had quit your job for them a part of you would have been destroyed, a part they would have missed. Bad things happen in life, Chris. God only knows why. But you didn't get your family killed any more than I made my mom get sick and die."

Silence fell between the two men and Vin peered forward to see Chris's face. "You OK, cowboy?"

"OK?! No. Last Christmas Eve is looking like a really great time compared to this year's."

Vin's gut clenched in fear and anger at himself. Chris was here because of him, because of his shoving. Why couldn't he have just walked out of the office and not said anything to Chris about his plans for the evening. For the same reason I told Chris I couldn't leave him the hell alone...I care. Vin's voice was soft when he spoke, "Well, at least you'll remember what you did this year, won't be passed out on your floor with a whiskey bottle in your hands by Christmas morning."

"I didn't invite you over last Christmas at 7am, I didn't ask for you to be my personal counselor," Chris voice was tingled with anger.

"Kinda goes along with being your friend, Chris."

Silence fell again and Vin wanted to curse 'til he couldn't draw another breath. The rain wasn't letting up and the river was crawling up the bank, pouring through the broken windshield and working it's way up to Vin's chin. The pain of the freezing water on his own body was the least of his concern. He could just crawl out of the truck when the water got over his head, but Chris... Vin swallowed hard trying to get a grip on his gut wrenching fear. Chris didn't need some hysterical friend right now, he needed Vin nothing-makes-me-sweat Tanner.

Suddenly a paramedic peered into the passenger side window and he grimaced. "I've got nothing in the ambulance to cut the metal trapping his legs and all the other emergency vehicles are at other accidents. We are running short on crews because of the holiday," he offered as a lame excuse.

Vin couldn't see the paramedic over Chris but he responded angrily back. "Short Crews!??? Where the hell have you been!! You've got two DOAs up there and one injured lady and it takes you this damn long to come check on him and now you're giving me excuses!! You get someone here to help or so help me God, I'm going to kill you!"

The paramedic went white, nodded his head numbly and disappeared. Chris's weak voice held mirth, "Very diplomatic, Vin. Don't think Ezra could have managed that better."

Vin cursed aloud. So much for not showing Chris how terrified he was. He was trying to think what to say to show he wasn't as terrified as he had sounded when a face peered in the doorway. "Buck?!" Vin exclaimed in shock and disbelief.

Buck's eyes rested on Chris and his face registered his fear. But he tried valiantly to keep it out of his voice, "Chris, I think you turned too soon, the restaurant's up the street a ways,"

A smiled eased onto Chris's face, "Smart Aleck"

JD peered over Buck's shoulder and gasped in shock at the desperate situation Chris was in. Buck ignored the kid and leaned into the truck while saying, "Guess your legs are stuck," and he snatched the flashlight Vin held and looked up at Chris's trapped legs. When he pulled back he met Chris's eyes head on and knew Chris had no delusions about the seriousness of his situation. Buck stated as fact, "We'll get you out of here, Chris. I promise," and he gave Chris hair a rub like he was a wayward kid, then climbed out of the truck.

Vin and Chris could hear other voices right outside the truck, but neither one was in a position to see the other speakers who sounded like Josiah and Nathan. Well, the whole crew's together again, Chris mused and a smile played on his lips. He loved these men, they were always there for him, even when he didn't want them to be. Especially when he didn't want them to be... like Vin was at the office tonight.

"Chris, I gotta move positions," Vin said as he lifted Chris up further and settled down on his knees. The water was almost up to Vin's mouth. Chris groaned with the movement. "Chris I'm sorry!" Vin apologized, his friend's groan ripping at his heart.

"Not your fault," Chris breathed as he clenched his teeth against the pain.

Buck squatted down by the door again and looked to Chris, "We're going to try and pull the truck out of the water since that's the immediate problem."

"How?" Vin questioned.

Buck gave his devilish smile, "I borrowed some telephone wire awhile back and it's still in my truck. I'll use it to tow Chris's truck," then he stood and walked away.

A new face replaced Buck's. Nathan looked to Chris with his medic eyes and wasn't pleased with what he saw. But when he spoke, his tone was concerned but joking "Chris you're giving me gray hairs. Had I known you were going to be such a medical mess every month, I would have taken night classes to get my paramedic license."

Chris quirked back, "Least my medical deductible's been met for the year."

Vin chimed in "And then some," his tone mock reprimanding.

Suddenly, Josiah's face appeared and he gave Chris a concerned look, "It seems we can't leave you out of our sight for a minute. Get ready, Buck's ready to give you a tow. Vin, you staying in?"

Chris said "No" even as Vin said "Yes."

Vin met Josiah's eyes unflinchingly "I'm staying. Get us out of the river Josiah."

"Hold on tight," he ordered and then he and Nathan stepped back.

Vin held onto Chris tightly as he tried to brace them both for the movement. Gradually the truck seemed to move an inch then stop then move another inch. At each movement the water rocked back and forth covering both men and they both gasped for air only to swallow more water. After a few more inches backward the truck seemed to lilt to the left and then the progress seemed to stop.

Before either man could catch his breath enough to wonder aloud, the truck did a nosedive into the river and then jerked to a halt. But the whole interior was now under water.

NOOOO!! Vin screamed in his mind. This can't be happening!!! I'm not going to stand by and let Chris die!!!! But Vin didn't know what to do to undo the horror of the situation. He looked to Chris in terror but Chris met his look steadfastly. He could accept dying and he didn't hold Vin or anyone else responsible.

Using what strength he had left, Chris gave Vin a shove toward the open door and used a divers signal to order Vin to get out of the water. He was Ok with dying but he didn't want to take Vin along with him. At Vin's shocked expression, Chris more forcefully gave the signal. For a moment Vin could only stare at Chris with abject hopelessness and then he gave Chris a signal of "Be right back" and headed to the surface.

As Vin broke the surface, he found Nathan in the water and he yelled to him. "I'm going to give Chris mouth to mouth! Do something!" And taking a deep breath, Vin dove down into the water again. As he approached the truck, Chris was struggling to get his legs free but with no luck. He sensed Vin's approach and Vin signaled his intentions. Vin gave him mouth to mouth then disappeared to the surface.

When Vin broke the surface again, major panic had descended on the men. Their options were limited and their time was non existent. Vin didn't bother communicating to them but, instead, drew a deep breath into his lungs and repeated his task. Over and Over and Over.

By the tenth time, Vin broke from the water and a sob escaped. They couldn't keep this up, not even if all of the other men took a turn. Chris's body demanded real air at real intervals and Chris was already signaling Vin to give up. "Not 'til I breathed my last, Cowboy," he answered aloud and took in a breath and dove under again.

Vin came up after the 15th time feeling light headed. He was still drawing in a breath when a hand grabbed his arm and he noticed the world around him for the first time since the truck had gone under.

"I've got one scuba tank and underwater welding tools!" Ezra was saying loudly as he bobbed in the water by Vin. "I'll have him out in a minute or two." Then Ezra disappeared under the water and Vin seemed ready to dive under again but Josiah snatched unto his arm.

"Buck's going under to help out," Josiah explained as he pulled Vin toward the river bank, but Vin couldn't tear his eyes off the area where Buck had dove. Chris was still in that water, still trapped. Josiah pulled Vin from the water and eased him to a sitting position on the ground but still Vin didn't avert his gaze.

Buck broke the surface, startling Vin, but just as quickly, Buck took a deep breath and reemerged. A few seconds later Ezra came up and took a breath before returning to his rescue mission.

Under the water, Chris breathed heavily from the scuba tank, his lungs starved for a steady feeding of oxygen. He watched Ezra and Buck in awe. They worked together like two surgeons born to compliment each other. Buck held the flashlight while Ezra's torch cut into the metal like it was mere balsa wood. They took turns emerging to the surface to get air but they seemed to stay down in the depths of the water forever before pulling away. Finally the metal trapping Chris's left leg was tossed out of the truck and the torch began to slice into the metal piece that was still embedded in Chris's leg.

Chris kept his leg still, though each movement of the metal practically brought a scream to his lips. He was about at his breaking point when the torched sawed completely through the metal and he was free. Buck began to pull Chris from the truck as Ezra helped to safely clear Chris legs from the wreckage.

When all three heads broke the surface of the water, the four remaining men all jumped in the water and pulled them onto the bank. They gently laid Chris down on his back and JD and Josiah scrambled up the embankment after the ambulance stretcher.

Chris weakly pulled off the scuba mask and drew in an honest to goodness breath of Colorado air. He lungs ached agonizingly and he was choking on water but he could see the sky again.

Buck leaned over Chris, his breath coming in gasps. "There for a second, I thought I wasn't gonna keep that promise I made you!" his anguish mixed with his relief.

Chris focused on Buck, his voice weak but his words strong, "But you did, Buck, you did."

A smile covered Buck's face, "This promising each other things is getting out of hand," he sallied back.

"Yeah," Chris replied "we should break the habit starting now," a smile easing onto his pale, bloodied face.

Four voices replied in a firm unison, "NO!" and Chris's smile became wider as he met the concerned eyes of 4 of his men. Promises between the team had kept every one of them alive against the worst odds. When strength and health had deserted them, when fate had dealt them a losing hand, a promise had been the only thing that had saved them.

Vin leaned over Chris with a smile, "Besides you have a promise to fulfil yet. Nettie's. High Noon. Remember?"

Before Chris could reply Ezra chimed in, "Yes, I do believe Mrs. Nettie is making your favorite dessert" and here Ezra smiled deviously down at Chris, "Death By Chocolate."

There were collective groans at Erza's bad pun. It wasn't the first bad pun directed at Chris after his poisoned chocolate episode and it was a safe bet it wouldn't be the last. Chris gave Erza the most deadly glare he could muster and said, "Guess I'll be taking your Christmas present back, Erza."

Laughter erupted at that and Josiah and JD came into Chris's line of sight. They laid the stretcher down beside Chris and Josiah said, "Chris your chariot awaits you."

"Lead on," Chris replied.

Josiah grabbed Chris's feet while Nathan picked up Chris's shoulders and they gently laid him onto the stretcher. As the two men picked up the stretcher, the four other men huddled around their injured friend, making sure the man came to no more harm.

Vin looked to Josiah, "How come the paramedic isn't down here?"

But it was JD who answered with boyhood enthusiasm, "They were going to but Josiah threatened to rip their arms off and said he was only letting them tend to Chris at all because they were the only ambulance within ten miles."

"Bravo, Josiah!" Ezra agreed as the men and the stretcher inched their way up the embankment.

When Josiah and Nathan wobbled under the uneven ground, the stretcher tilted a little to the right and Vin put his hand immediately on Chris's shoulder to steady him. Chris and Vin's eyes met and held. The terror that had been in Vin's eyes in the water was abating slowly. Chris managed a smile and Vin found himself returning it wholeheartedly. Chris had cheated death yet again.

+ + + + + + +

Josiah and Nathan loaded Chris in the ambulance just as the rescue truck arrived.

Erza grumbled, "Impeccable timing!" as the vehicle came to a stop in front of the men. To the exiting team he called, "Guess this falls under the heading of 'Better Late Than Never'?!" This brought a chagrined look to the three paramedics but the one man who was so old, Erza thought he was a patient, strode up to Erza with purpose.

"Looks like you've been swimming. Jump in the truck before pneumonia kills you all," he ordered and Ezra turned to his friends.

+ + + + + + +

With Chris in the ambulance, Josiah and Nathan had stepped clear and Vin hopped in without a word to any of them. The two paramedics gave a look to Josiah, who nodded his OK, and then they jumped in to do their duty, one driving and the other back with Chris. The ambulance pulled away and the old paramedic still stood looking at the five wet men.

"Git in! Git in!" he ordered and the men with shrugs climbed into the back of the rescue truck followed by the old paramedic. Once the door was shut the truck took off, siren wailing. Settling his look on the men, the old paramedic whose nametag read, "Hank" ordered, "Strip gentlemen," and threw blankets at each of them. At their hesitation, he barked, "NOW!"

The men jumped to do his bidding. Ezra grumbled even as he unbuttoned his favorite shirt, "Since knowing you gentlemen my wardrobe is always in serious danger."

+ + + + + + +

Vin had been given the same order as the other men in the rescue truck and now sat huddled in a blanket. Chris had been disrobed and examined and now two thermal blankets were wrapped tightly around him but his teeth still chattered. The medic had said nothing as he looked at Chris's leg and had made no move to remove the metal. His silence and inaction didn't settle well with Vin.

"Well aren't you going to tell him what's going on, why you aren't removing the metal, "Vin voice was full of anger.

The medic that Vin had threatened to kill by the truck looked silently at Vin's angry face. Then he looked to Chris and began to speak in a gentle tone. "I'm not going to remove the metal because right now it's stopping the bleeding. At the ER they'll remove it and be able to assess the damage. You've got some cracked ribs and a cut on your forehead that looks pretty deep. Pneumonia could set in but at least the water was above freezing, so there is no frostbite signs." Chris simply nodded and the medic looked to Vin for approval

Vin said with mock sweetness, "Thanks," and leaned over to be inches from Chris's face, "So what did you get me for Christmas?"

"Coal," Chris replied with a smile.

+ + + + + + +

Hank was enjoying his captive audience, "Yep, been doing this for forty years. Seen a lot in that time. Saw same thing that happened to your friend, happen to a family last year on Christmas Eve, 'cept things didn't turn out good at all."

This statement got all eyes riveted to his in fear. "Yeah minivan flipped over down in an embankment like your friend's truck. Dad, Mom, two small kids, no one was trapped in the van though they just didn't see the danger of the river."

Here the damn man stopped and Buck demanded, "Well, what happened?!"

Hank sighed sadly, "Well, the temperature was a few degrees below what it is tonight. It was 30 degrees to be exact and instead of just rain it was rain that quickly turned to snow. This river don't take kindly to those temperatures nor snow. The river rose a couple inches every minute. While the parents were crawling to the back of the van to help their kids, the river swept the van into its current. Couldn't save none of them."

Hank's audience was paler then any snow he had ever seen. He felt a need to ease their fears, "Course, you got your friend clear and the water was above freezing..."

This didn't seem to lighten the mood, so Hank began to think of another story, "Then there was the accident on Thanksgiving this year."

Josiah almost shouted, "NO!" then he took a steadying breath, knowing he himself couldn't handle another story by this man. His voice softer he continued, "I don't think we need another story right now Hank. The last one gave us enough to think on."

Ezra quickly joined in, "Yes, much too much to think on. You ever write for Reader's Digest, Hank? Your stories would earn you a nice income...."

+ + + + + + +

At the hospital, Chris was swept into an exam room and Vin was left staring at the swinging door. If he had things his way, he'd be in the exam room now, holding Chris's hand. Instead, Chris had been snatched away from his side and now he stood alone.

His head snapped up as he realized a nurse was talking to him.

"I really need you to come into an exam room and let me check you over for signs of pneumonia and to see to that hand," she was saying.

"Hand?" Vin repeated in confusion. The nurse gave him a surprised look then gently lifted his right hand for him to see. Blood was seeping from a nice sized gash on his palm and Vin vaguely remembered he had cut his hand on the metal that had been at Chris's legs. "I'm alright," he answered as he pulled his hand free and took another step closer to the exam room Chris was in.

But the nurse had gently grabbed his left arm and insisted, "It won't take long and I promise to let you know the second there is news about your friend," and she gave his arm a tug.

Vin pulled his gaze from the door and refocused on the nurse. "I'm not leaving him."

"You aren't leaving him, you're just going to make sure you'll be well enough that they'll let you see him later today," the nurse tried another tactic. She knew her words had sunk in when his eyes registered surprise and a hint of panic. This man desperately wanted to see the man he had come in with and would not allow anything to stand in his way. He nodded and followed her as he gave the door one more glance.

+ + + + + + +

The 5 other ATF agents arrived at the ER and immediately questioned Chris's condition only to be told the doctors were with him now.

Buck countered, "With him now?! What's that mean!? And where's Vin?

The nurse that had tackled Vin into an exam room, descended on the five other wet men. "Gentlemen, I believe I know where the rest of your party's at. Mr. Larabee is being seen to and Mr. Tanner is getting checked over. I suggest you men follow me and get checked over as well." She could read the refusal on their faces and threw in the same tactics. "I'm not sure the doctor will allow you men to see Mr. Larabee if he feels your own health isn't well." Suddenly there were grumbled agreements to her suggestion and she led the men to exam rooms.

+ + + + + + +

Twenty minutes later, the six ATF agents sat outside Chris's exam room, still sporting blankets but now dry and treated for any injuries or ailments. Buck was about to surge from his chair in exasperation when the doors swung open and a doctor emerged. All six men stood as the doctor approached, none of them missing the blood that was on the doctor's uniform, blood they prayed wasn't Chris'.

"You gentlemen friends of Mr. Larabee?" the doctor greeted and got answers to the affirmative before continuing. "I'm Dr. Ross and I treated your friend. We removed the metal from his leg and it did minor muscle damage but will heal. He has three cracked ribs and a cut on his forehead, which we stitched. My real concern is the chance of pneumonia setting in. I gave him some medication to ward it off but I'd like to keep him in overnight to keep tabs on his condition."

There seemed to be heartfelt relief surge through the men. Pneumonia!? Hell that was a piece of cake for Chris to ward off. Especially after the odds he had beat that night.

Vin questioned, "Can we see him?"

"We are going to get him in his room for the night and then you may visit for awhile," the doctor responded and turned to leave, but Josiah grabbed onto his arm.

Dr. Ross faced Josiah, who sincerely said, "Thank you Doctor," and Josiah shook the doctor's hand. Soon, Ross' hand was claimed by the other men with similar words of thanks. He smiled and moved away from the grateful men, thinking "This Larabee must be one hell of a guy."

As if on cue, Chris was wheeled out of the exam room and being pushed down the hallway. All five men made a trail behind when a nurse called to them "Gentlemen, your clothing is dry." With longing looks toward Chris's disappearing form, the men stopped and turned to see the same nurse as before holding their clothing. With regret they walked to her and retrieved their clothing.

Ezra eyed the nurse and lightly accused, "I think we've just been conned." The nurse only smiled.

+ + + + + + +

Dressed in their dry clothing, the six men headed to Chris's room like they were on a commando mission. Vin was the first through the door and as his eyes found Chris's battered yet breathing form. He drew in a breath he felt he had been holding since first seeing Chris's truck in the river. Chris opened his eyes as he heard footsteps and looked up to see Vin smiling down at him.

His voice soft and concerned, Vin greeted "Hey pard, how are you doing?"

Chris managed a smile, "I'm alive."

Buck spoke from Chris's other side. "Amen and Praise the Lord!" and his smile was infectious as all six ATF agents took up positions about Chris and were staring down at him with relief and concern.

Making eye contact with all six men, Chris solemnly continued, "Thanks for saving my life guys."

Each man got an "ah shucks it weren't nuthin'" look on their faces and Chris's smile grew at seeing it.

Ezra was the first to voice his response, "Just returning the service you've already given me... more than once." And he smiled.

Josiah joined in "Yeah, I think we all owed you the same favor. Think you're still twenty up on us all."

"At least," JD put in.

The group laughed and the tension seemed to disappear and everyone began to claim a position in the room to settle for the night. Chris saw what was happening and tried to instill as much strength in his voice as he could. "Forget it guys! You all go enjoy the evening, eat out like you were going to before I ruined it for you."

"Ruined it?" Vin drawled as he hunkered down in the chair by Chris's bed. "This has been one memorable Christmas Eve. More exciting then eating at some restaurant, hey boys?" and he turned mischievous eyes to the other men.

Buck quickly joined in from his position in the chair by Chris's left side, "Oh yeah! Original plans for tonight woulda bored me to tears."

Ezra sallied from a chair at Chris's feet, "Now Atlanta, that's the best place to be on Christmas Eve! No snow or freezing water there, you know."

From his sitting position on the floor, his back against the wall, JD called, "Well Boston's already got a foot of snow down."

Nathan smiled at the other men's remarks before throwing his own in from his position by JD. "Best place to be for the holiday is with family, doesn't matter if it's in a restaurant or in the river."

"Yup," Josiah began from his chair at the foot of Chris's bed, "There are no coincidences with God. I say it was a miracle we all passed by the accident, knew it was Chris's truck, were all together to bring about the best miracle of the night – Chris's survival."

The room fell silent as the men sobered at the thought of what they had almost lost. Who they had almost lost. For each man had been gripped with hopelessness that night. And a helplessness that their determination, their love didn't seem able to combat. And when each man was gripped with total despair, the miracle had occurred.

Chris broke the silence, his voice tired but full of good humor, "Don't go getting teary eyed on me, I've been wet enough for one night."

Chris's six friends laughed, even as each tried inconspicuously to wipe the tears away. A Christmas Miracle wasn't something to take lightly. And this miracle they'd each spend quality time thanking God for, for years to come.


Continued in Christmas: ATF Style

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