11 a.m. Cabin
Josiah jumped down from the wagon and hailed loudly. He leaned over the side of the laden vehicle and heard the door open. Nathan and Dan both appeared. Nathan looked exhausted and the younger Larabee looked worried.
"How's he doing?" The preacher asked.
"Holdin' his own, still burning up." Nate took the large box from Josiah and handed it to Dan. He grabbed a stack of blankets and went back inside.
After several more trips, food, medicine, a large box of bandages and a bolt of cotton fabric were stacked inside. "Who thought of this?" Nathan asked, feeling the edge of the fabric.
"Mrs. Potter donated it. Her idea to round up all the soup too." Josiah added, nodding to the box with a dozen-sealed tins. J.D. and Mrs. Potter had gone to the hotel, boarding house, Saloon and several homes as well. All Nate had to do was reheat them. There was ham, turkey, biscuits, side dishes, pies and bread in three large baskets. "We figured we might be here awhile."
"Where's Buck and J.D.?" Nate asked.
"J.D. went up to the Rosebud, Caesar and Diablo are tied up over there. Buck's headed to Chris's old place." He stated, tossing his coat on the floor and walking over where Dan sat by Chris. He laid a large hand on the young blond's shoulder and the other on Chris's wet head. He bowed his own head and began to pray.
+ + + + + + +
Ezra pulled out his watch and saw the hands reach the hour of noon. He eyed the swaying body in front of him and wondered how much further Vin could remain upright. Finally, the bandaged hand raised and Ezra stopped, sliding off and getting to Vin's side as he fell off the horse.
"Easy..." Ezra advised, settling Vin on a rock. "Anywhere specific?" he eyed the terrain.
"Over there..." Vin rasped and began to cough again. He ducked as Ezra's hand wormed into his blurry vision, touching his forehead. "I'm fine..."
"If you continue to pursue that ridiculous stance I shall be forced to take corrective action." Ezra squatted down and examined the swollen blue eyes. "How are your eyes?"
"Things is gettin' a little less foggy." Vin stated, "Ain't burnin' as much. Wonder if..." He paused, cocking his head.
"He put sumthin' in 'em." Vin recalled the drops. "I couldn't see at all...he needed me to see shapes so's I could shoot Chris." He flinched and felt Ezra's hand grip his shoulder.
"Let's deposit the trash first," Ezra suggested, and followed Vin's pointing arm. "Very well." He trudged forward and saw the large ditch with a box inside. He grimaced and turned away, seeing the head of the body that was back in Four Corners. He made his way back to the horse and pulled the body off. He grabbed the hair and pulled it along, rolling it into the box. He slid down and replaced the lid. He saw the discarded shovel nearby, used to make the hole. He set about covering it up.
"He put Chris in there." Vin's quiet voice wavered and Ezra froze, realizing the horrible fate of the blond gunslinger. He wondered if Vin knew about the head. "I heard him thumping, dug 'im out. He's pretty shook up."
"I don't wonder." Ezra agreed, "The vermin is sealed in securely." He strode over to where Vin sat, and shook his head at the bloody, torn clothes. He walked over to the horse that Vin had been using and rummaged around the saddlebags. Among the other objects, he found a dark green bottle with rubber top. Pulling it off, revealed an elongated eye dropper. The bottle was nearly full. "You were unable to see this bottle, did Mr. Larabee see it?"
"Dunno." Vin shrugged, "Reckon so..."
"Well, perhaps it would be better if we waited. We'll take it with us. Can you ride?"
Vin held an arm up for a boost up and nodded. Ezra got him back on the horse and put the bottle in his own saddlebag. "Drink more of that water." He ordered.
"s'empty." Vin answered, doubling over and coughing. Ezra grabbed him as he swayed dangerously and nearly toppled off.
"Perhaps I should assist you in the journey back." He inquired, handing Vin his canteen.
"Perhaps ya shouldn't..." Vin answered, taking a long drink and coughing. Once again, Ezra's jacket was the unlucky recipient.
"If you continue to shower me with phlegm..."
"Shut up, Ezra..." Vin wheezed, blinking rapidly. "I ain't feelin' so hot and yer yappin' is hurtin' m'head." He snapped, shoving the hand of assistance away.
Vin didn't see the grin that was tugging at Ezra's lips. The scowling face and crusty retort were signs that the old Vin Tanner was trying to resurface. He patted the Vin's good leg and made his way back to Deuce.
"Very well, Mr. Tanner." He said slipping into the saddle. "Let's ride."
+ + + + + + +
Buck saw the two horses approaching in the distance. He sat up in the saddle and craned his neck. One was slumped over, and he recognized the brown coat. "Vin..." He breathed deeply in relief. He cast his handsome face skyward. "Thanks, Pard..." He nodded and urged his horse onward.
By the time Buck followed his bellowed greeting and arrived, Ezra had dismounted and was at Vin's side. Buck's face fell when he saw the bloody bandaged leg and face covered in fresh blood.
"What the hell happened?" He cried out, as Vin's head lifted weakly, hearing the new voice.
The soft, hoarse cry cut right through Buck's heart. A bloody, bandaged hand rose out and Buck grabbed it.
"Yeah, Son." He managed, swallowing hard. "You look like shit, Vin."
"Shut...shut...the...f...f...f...fuck up...B...B...Buck." Vin slurred, falling sideways into Buck's waiting arms. Vin's familiar response gave his friend a short smile.
The tall man knelt down, cradling his fallen friend. His dark blue eyes sought Erza's worried face, seeking answers.
"I found him at the graves." He paused, "Then we were accosted by Beaumont."
"Beaumont?" Buck frowned, taking the dampened cloth Ezra handed him and gently wiping Vin's fevered face.
"Rest assured, he is now buried forever. We found the missing part of that body you uncovered and left him with it. Apparently, he entombed Mr. Larabee in a large coffin underground with the head, which in the dark, with long hair..."
"Jesus..." Buck hissed, pulling Vin protectively against his chest and stoking his back.
Ezra saw the rage and pain on Buck's face and clapped his back. "Can you handle him?"
"To hell and back." Buck replied, lifting Vin and handing him to Ezra, whose knees buckled. "Hold on...till I get up." He said jumping into his saddle. Once Vin was safely in his arms, they headed for the cabin.
2 p.m. at the Cabin
The coffin he was trapped in seemed to be getting smaller. He clawed desperately against the lid, until his fingers bled. He banged against the side of the box flinched as the lid was lifted. "Vin..." He whispered hopefully. Charles Beaumont's leering face grinned down at him. In his hand was Vin Tanner's severed head. The eyes were wide and staring at him with hurt and accusation. Beaumont laughed and tossed the head at him. It landed against his neck.
"NO! VIN!! VIN!!!"
"Here we go again." Nathan said as he and Josiah sprang up from their seats by the hearth to help a weary Dan Larabee combat his brother's flailing arms.
"I'm gonna rip your heart out you son-of-a-bitch." Chris screamed, his unseeing eyes wide with hate.
"Chris, cut that out now." Nathan chastised, grabbing his injured side, before he damaged the bandaged shoulder.
"Chris, you're safe now...Beaumont's dead...Chris..." Dan dropped back at Chris's fist hit him square in the mouth and bloodied his lip.
"You alright?" Nathan asked, as Josiah sat on the bed and forced Chris back. The large man held firm until Chris's tension dissolved and with a soft grunt, he fell into a troubled slumber.
"Yeah..." Dan nodded, pressing a wet cloth against his lip.
Josiah saw the fear on the younger Larabee's features and rubbed his shoulder. "I've seen him come back from worse. He's as strong as a bull."
"Shame Vin ain't here..." J.D. offered, bringing a fresh bowl of water and sitting on the edge of the bed. "Chris hears him even when he's in a coma." He added, wiping the fevered face.
"Dan, you haven't eaten all day. It might be a long night and I'm gonna need you." Nate ordered. "Here," He said putting a platter on the small table near the window. "Eat some lunch."
Dan ate without tasting the food. His eyes took in the care and concern these men had for his brother. To have such friends was indeed a privilege. He wondered again about the depths of emotion his older brother had for Vin Tanner. It was obvious the older Larabee would ride to the bowels of hell for this man and kill any bastard who got in his way. He took the empty plate outside and washed it off. He eyed the bright afternoon sun and wondered where Vin Tanner was and prayed he was still alive. Returned to the cabin, he saw Chris's head moving. He smiled down at the fevered man who was talking to J.D.
"Hungry?" He asked and saw the head dip slightly.
He took a mug of broth from Nathan and sat on Chris's bedside. The first several sips went down easy. He saw Chris looking at him hard.
"...who hit you..."
"Some hard head named Larabee." Dan grinned, wincing as his lip split.
"Sorry." Chris sighed, "Feel like shit."
"Finish this, you need to get some strength back." He tried, but got a slight head shake. The green eyes were distant again. "They'll find him...don't lose faith." He added and saw Chris flinch and the eyes sliding shut. "Come on, Chris...just a little more." Dan Larabee coached, holding the cup of beef broth past his fevered brother's lips. The green eyes opened and Chris turned his head away. Dan slumped back and cast another frustrated scowl. It was the same motion his brother had been making all day. He'd take a little nourishment and then scan the room, searching for his missing friend. The fever dreams were worse, when his voice, full of pain, rage and fury would lash out, sometimes with a fist following it. "How are you going to help him, if you won't eat?"
"Get me up..." Chris hissed.
"Nowhere for you to go, Boss." Josiah grinned, leaning over Dan's shoulder. "Not that you don't cut a fine figure naked."
"J.D., get me a blanket." Josiah said, moving behind Chris. "Dan get his other side." Between the two men, the raised their sick friend and propped him, so his back was to the wall. Josiah wrapped another blanket around him and handed him a full cup of broth. "Drink that. I even slipped some noodles in that one."
"You're all heart..." Chris rasped, dodging Nathan's hand. "Goddammit Nathan..."
"Quit sassin' me," Nate scowled, "You need to get that fever down. Here, you gotta finish this." Nathan ordered, tipping the mug of herbal tea. "I put honey in it..."
"...whiskey..." Chris balked, eyes glaring.
"No." Nathan admonished. "Look, Chris. I don't know how bad off Vin's gonna be when he gets here. So I need you to cooperate now. You almost got this fever beat." He added and saw the eyes darting as the wheels in his head turned. "Vin's gonna need you, Chris."
"The magic words..." J.D. shook his head and stepped outside, after Chris downed the tea, then the broth and fell into a restless sleep. "Some Christmas this turned out to be..." He said outloud to nobody in particular.
"Day ain't out yet, Son." Josiah offered, from the porch. "Vin's comes back alive and I'd say it's a damn fine gift. Can't think of one better."
"He was so excited, though." J.D. recalled. "About the service last night, the party, dinner at the hotel tonight. He didn't know I was watching, but you should have seen his face when he overheard Buck and Nathan talking about what to buy him. I don't think he's ever had a Christmas gift."
"Here we go again..." Josiah said, following J.D. into the cabin.
"Buck?" Ezra called out, seeing Vin's head dip sideways.
"I'm okay." The reply came back. Buck bore the weight stoically. Vin was in front of him, his head resting on Buck's shoulder. The battered tracker was wrapped in Buck's bedroll. He hadn't moved, moaned or even fluttered an eye since they'd ridden out. Buck's trained eye didn't miss the rising color and heavy breathing had the mustached man a little worried. He didn't need to be fighting a sickness on top of his injuries. Try as he might, he couldn't get the image of the huddled figure last night in the cabin from his mind. "I'm sorry, Vin..." he whispered, wiping the damp face with his kerchief. A burst of coughing emerged and Buck intensified his grip. "Easy now...cough it up...that's a boy." He said and saw smoke from the cabin. "Thank God..."
"I'll ride ahead and prepare them." Ezra said as Deuce flashed by.
"Rider coming..." J.D. said, looking out the window. "It's Ezra...he's alone."
"Damn..." Nathan slumped.
"Come on Brother..." Josiah edged, seeing the downcast brown eyes.
"Don't pacify me, Preacher." The Healer said bitterly. "You weren't here...I'm as guilty as Cain."
"Gentlemen...prepare a litter by the hearth." Ezra said, arriving through the door. "How's Chris?"
"Fever's finally coming down." Josiah said, "Vin?"
"Buck has him. He's behind me. You'll need bandages, soap and water and lots of Carbolic. He's a mess."
Josiah was out the door and waiting when Buck rode in. He took the precious cargo from the grief-stricken gunslinger. He paused and drilled the sad, dark blue eyes with his own healing ones. "Thank you, Buck...for bringing him back into the fold."
"Put 'im here..." Nathan pointed to the thick blankets J.D. laid by the fire. "Get them clothes off. J.D. get a bowl of hot water and some soap..." Nathan paused, 'He's burning up..."
"He's been coughing up crud all the way back." Buck said.
"...and before." Ezra agreed, "His breathing is labored, through his mouth. It would appear he has acquired a bad cold."
Nathan growled and continued his work. Dan moved from Chris's side to look at this man who'd become his brother's lifeline. He was young, younger even than himself. He had fine features and a lean body. As if sensing a change, Chris stopped tossing. Dan looked down perplexed and saw the chest rising and falling. The hands were stilled, not thrashing.
"What happened to his leg?" Nathan demanded, pouring warm water over the blood-encrusted bandages and peeling them off.
"Like Phoenix," Ezra stated, pulling off Vin's pants and wincing at the soft cry from the injured tracker as Nathan peeled off the bandages. "the monster who inflicted the injuries returned. Suffice to say, he is now supping with Satan."
Nathan, Ezra and J.D. ministered to their fallen friend with great care. The leg, head and hand were stitched. The muddy, bloody body was tenderly bathed and wrapped in soft cotton blankets and then a quilt. Nathan kept checking his eyes.
"Mr. Tanner recalled that the demon used this," Ezra produced the bottle, "After he was blinded. It relieved the pain and restored partial vision, which was necessary to complete his evil mission. He said Chris would recognize it."
Nathan laid a cool towel over the tracker's closed eyes and pressed slightly. His dark eyes slid over to where Chris lay sleeping.
"Not a good idea, Nate." J.D. seemed to read the healer's mind. "He gets wind of Vin over here..."
"The Kid's right." Buck agreed, taking a platter of food from Josiah and sitting at the table. "He'll bust some of them stitches tryin' to get at 'im. He needs his rest, he's lost a lot of blood." He noted of his oldest friend.
"It was the only bottle in his saddlebag." Ezra stated, holding out his wrist. "Here..."
Nathan took the rubber stopped out and let two drops slid onto the tender skin on the underside of the Gambler's wrist. "Cool...cold even..." Ezra decided, "His vision had improved when I washed his eyes out at the gravesite. He's resting now, perhaps it would be better to wait until he rouses."
"We all don't need to be here." Josiah decided. "J.D. and me will ride back to Four Corners and update the town and the Judge. One of us will be out tomorrow to check on you. You need anything?"
"Yeah..." Nate took a mental survey and wrote down a list, handing it to the Preacher. "Thanks."
"Vin sure looks worn out." J.D. said, reluctantly leaving the young man's bedside.
"That's his biggest problem." Nate agreed, eyeing the battered face. "Dammit Vin...when you gonna learn to speak up."
"It's done Nate." Josiah said, seeing Buck's guilty face. "You get some sleep..." He ordered and saw Buck smile.
"You won't get an argument from me. I'm beat." Buck said, taking his bedroll to the far side of the room and bunking down. "Nate...if you need me to..."
"I need you to get some sleep," Nate advised. "We should work in shifts. Ezra, you too. You and Buck can relieve us later."
It was dark when Chris opened his eyes. He was warm...and wet. He pushed the heavy blanket back and eyed the cabin. Buck and Ezra were sleeping on the floor. Ezra on the floor? He rubbed his eyes and the strange vision remained. He turned his aching head sideways and saw Nathan writing in a small ledger. He kept his eyes glued to the young blond man by the door.
Dan turned and saw the green eyes bearing in on him. But something was different. They were clear and lucid. He smiled and made his way to his older brother's bedside.
"How you feeling?" He said, placing a hand on Chris's face.
"Wet..." Chris croaked, "Water?"
"Yeah...Nate..." Dan hushed, causing the healer to look over. He brought a basin of water and a mug of cold cider. "Here." Dan said, helping Chris to sit up against the pillows. "Better?" He asked of the semi-erect position.
"Yeah...ribs don't hurt as much...easier to breathe." He replied, draining the cup. He fingered the amount of bandages on his chest and head and the shoulder, protected by the arm being in a sling. "You been playin' doctor?" He wheezed, and didn't flinch when the dark hand was placed on his head.
"Fever's broke." Nate sighed, relieved. "Let's get you cleaned up and into some dry bedding." He felt a gentle squeeze on his shoulder and looked down into the serious Larabee face.
"Thanks, Nate." Chris nodded and turned took the cold cloth his brother offered and wiped his face off. The corner of his eye caught an image of a body by the fire. He tossed the cloth and swiveled his head. "Vin..."
"Whoa..." Nate's hand came down on the chest, near the sling. He could feel the anxious heart pounding and saw the fear in the green eyes. "He's gonna be fine...got a concussion and a whole lot of bruises. Gonna be sore and stiff for awhile and he's got a pretty deep wound in his thigh. Mostly, he's just wore out and he's got a cold. Sleep's the best thing for him."
Chris didn't answer; he was dodging his head and craning to see Vin. The tracker's face was turned away. Dan saw the disquieted concern on his brother's face. He walked across the room and knelt by the fevered Texan. There was a bowl of water and a cloth next to Vin's head and Dan wiped the flushed face and neck. He raised the sweat soaked head and left the cloth wrapped around his throat. His touch caused the face to move, the eyes darted under the lids and the lips moved. "Chris...Chris..."
"I'm here, Cowboy...I'm fine." Chris said, hearing the weak distress call.
Dan saw the two blue slits appear and raised his head. "Here...you need to drink something." He tilted the mug against the parted, parched lips and managed to get a good half mug into the ill man. The blue eyes never left his face. "Chris...sorry..." the rasp came as the eyes slid shut. Dan fluffed up the pillow and moved the young man's face towards his best friend. He saw a flash of anger in Chris's eyes and his good fist clench.
"His eyes, Nate?" Chris asked, keeping his eyes trained on the battered Tanner face.
"Buck and Ezra brung him in. Ezra said Vin told him he was seein' better." Nate answered. "Chris, you remember Beaumont puttin' something in Vin's eyes...coolin' them off?"
"...glass bottle with a rubber top." Chris said and turned to Nate's tap. "Yeah, that's it." He nodded, seeing the bottle.
Nathan moved and knelt by Vin's side. He peeled each eye open and dropped several drops in each. He dabbed the excess moisture and felt the hot skin. He pulled the blankets back and used the cold water to sooth the hot skin.
Dan took a plate of food over and placed it on his brother's lap. He used a stern face and pointed to it. "Eat...you need to get some of that strength back, Scout."
"Scout?" a chorus of voices asked.
"Goddammit Dan..." Chris snapped, eyeing Bucks' grinning face from his bedroll. "Shut up Buck or I'll shoot you."
"Well from where I'm sitting, Scout," Buck emphasized, stretching and crossing the room. "You're out of ammunition." He winked and squeezed the extended hand.
"...and without a weapon. Not to fear, Mr. Larabee." Ezra appeared at the now crowded bedside. "For a modest fee, I shall see to it that no one else need know of your...moniker." The gold tooth glinted as the shrewd smile appeared.
"Go away, Ezra..." Chris grumbled, stabbing a piece of ham. "It's not that funny." He admonished to the chortling trio.
"Yeah it is..." Dan chuckled. "You should see your hair, sticking up over that bandage..."
Chris sent his younger brother a crooked smile. How long had he waited to hear Dan's infectious laugh? How many years did he waste? He lingered on the face before moving on to Buck's emotional stare. He nodded and returned it in full. The tall gunslinger moved away to get some coffee and sat down by Vin's side. Chris watched as between sips, Buck spoke softly to the restless tracker, rubbing the blanketed shoulder and instantly soothing his fears. Satisfied that Vin was being taken care of, he finished his plate and Dan reached down to take it. Chris's good hand gripped the back of his brother's neck.
"Thanks, Runt..." He choked, and got his reward when the blue eyes filled up.
"Anytime, Scout. Get some sleep. We got a lot of catching up to do."
Dawn, the next morning
Chris sat up gingerly and threw the constricting blanket off with his good hand. He took a shuddering breath and waited for the room to stop spinning. The weak blond bit back a wave of pain as it rolled through his chest and shoulder. The room was moving around and he closed his eyes until the dizzy pace stopped. He felt extremely lightheaded. Buck, Dan and Ezra were sleeping on the floor. His blinking eyes were riveted to where Vin slept near the hearth. He frowned in displeasure. His young friend hadn't moved in over twelve hours now. Nathan looked awful. He doubted if the hard working healer had more than a few hours sleep. He was stirring something that smelled like soup of some kind in a pot.
"Get him off the floor."
Nathan replaced the ladle. The determined whisper caused him to turned and see Chris's pained eyes looking at him. He poured a mugful of the rich broth and carried it over to the patient.
"Best place for him. He's near the fire, and that pile of quilts he's on is better than the matresses at the hotel. He's been taking in water and broth..."
"But..." Chris heard the pause
"He's coughing an awful lot."
"Let's go home." Chris said. "What?" He frowned, seeing the argument on Nate's face. "He needs the clinic, the town...I want him off the floor." Chris scowled. "He can sleep at home as easy as here. He needs Christmas."
"...and he'll get it. Soon as you're both better."
"Why can't we go? Plenty of room in the wagon...got enough blankets...could make a tent over the back." Chris argued.
"It's too cold now...I want to get more soup in him. If the sun comes out strong...and I think he's up to it, we'll head out around noon. Meantime, you're far from out of the woods. Here." He gave Chris a drink of water first, then a hot mug of soup.
Chris sipped the broth and sighed. "Tastes better when you're sick..."
"That's cause I made it with love..." Nathan grinned and saw Chris's small smile, which didn't reach his eyes. "Finish that up and get back to sleep. You'll wish you had this time back when he's cussin', fussin' and being cranky."
"No I won't..." Chris said softly, handing the mug back and slipping back under the quilt. He kept his face turned toward Vin and drifted off to sleep.
4 p.m. Four Corners
Nathan still couldn't believe it. He eyed the large floor of his new clinic. Against the far-left wall, from the front door, was a row of six hospital beds, with bedstands and chairs between them. On the right side, was an office, shelves with journals and a glass cabinet with instruments, medicine and herbs. A kitchen and bedroom were in the back. There was even a curtained area beyond the office for surgery. When they pulled up a short while ago, Josiah and J.D were standing in front of the property at the end of the street. A large red bow was on the door.
"Merry Christmas, Nate." J.D. said, handing him the keys. "It's from the whole town, even the Judge kicked in."
Nathan was speechless and didn't hide the tears that rolled down his face. He glanced at the expense involved and saw J.D. unconsciously eye Ezra who was shifting uncomfortably. He suspected the Southerner footed a large part of the bill. When he approached the Conman later, he'd scoffed about it, but both men knew the truth. Nathan was thankful and let Ezra know it. Ezra looked at Vin and Chris sleeping, in proper beds with proper equipment and said simply, 'Now the tools match the man who bears them.'
He was alone in the clinic, expecting Buck and Ezra any minute. J.D. and Josiah were repairing the window of the Clarion, which was broken during the storm. Dan was readying for the arrival of his family, which he was intending on surprising Chris with in the morning. He glanced down at Vin, whose fever hadn't abated. Unlike Chris, who fought hard during the fever and was vocal and thrashing, Vin hadn't moved. If awakened during a coughing fit, they'd get broth and water into him, before he slipped away. A weak series of wet coughs drew him forward. He placed a cloth near Vin's mouth and caught the overflow. The body tension left with the last cough and two blue eyes opened halfway. He watched the lips silently form his name.
"Yeah...it's me. Here." He held the damp head up and got the thirsty man to drink
"No, Vin." Nate smiled gently and wiped the fevered face, whose blue eyes were as lethal as his deadly aim. "I was wrong and I'm sorry. Okay?" He saw the head nod and felt a tug on his hand as the eyes closed. A while later, he was lost in thought when a voice broke through.
"Change of shifts..."
"How's our boys?"
"Chris is still napping. The trip back wore him out. He won't be up for hours. Vin's the same. Get some soup into him if he wakes at all."
"Go on and get some sleep, Nathan," Buck pulled the chair back over in the window, where the warmth of the sun was playing on Chris's face. He rested his booted feet on the bottom of the bed and flipped the paper open.
"Ezra, rustle up some soup in case the boy wakes up." The large man commanded.
"Excuse me?" Ezra raised an eyebrow and stood by Vin, resting a hand on his face. "Did some malady befall your legs?"
"No...it's purely a scientific choice." Buck corrected, winking at the departing healer.
"Really..." Ezra drolled, placing a cold cloth on Vin's head.
"Women's work...cooking that is...and you've got soft hands." He grinned, disappearing behind the paper.
Ezra set the steaming mug next to Vin on a bedside table and took a seat. He began writing in his journal. Buck finished his paper and slumped back, covering his face with his hat and began to nap. The quiet of the late afternoon was suddenly disrupted.
"Jesus." Buck choked, nearly falling off the chair.
"Good Lord." Ezra jumped up, "The man remains corpselike for over a day and unleashes a cry that would wake the dead." He dropped on the bed as Vin sat up, his blue eyes wild and wide.
"No..." Buck commanded, placing both hands on Chris, whose green eyes shot wide open at the call. He had one leg over the side and Buck had to warn him again. "You got one wing in a sling now. You aimin' on a matched pair? Ezra's got it covered."
"Nobody lays a hand on Chris Larabee...nobody." Vin unleashed in a vile voice and gripped Ezra's throat.
"Ezra's turning purple." Chris argued, causing Buck to spin and act.
"Vin, cut that out." Buck tried to pry the hands free. "Ezra didn't do anything to piss you off." He paused, "...not yet anyhow. Vin..."
"Settle down Vin." Chris commanded. "Leave Ezra alone...I'll let you know when it's time to take him out."
Vin's confused eyes blinked hard and his hands dropped off the Southerner's throat. "Charming sentiment..." Ezra coughed, rubbing his throat.
"You okay, Vin? Vin?" Buck sat by his side and eased him back onto the pillows. He rested a hand on the unresponsive face. "Hey...your fever finally broke. Ezra, get some clean sheets and another nightshirt...he's soaked. Here..." Buck handed him a mug of cold water.
Vin sipped carefully and eyed the room. His frown caused Buck to address it. "It's the new place...the one we all gave Nate..."
"Looks different from this end." Vin whispered painfully, "How long..." He paused as he saw Chris smiling at him. "CHRIS!"
"Hey Cowboy...you almost missed dinner." He supplied, sending his heart through his green gaze.
Vin suddenly realized how clear everything was ...no blurred vision...no pain in his eyes. Everything else hurt, including a weight in his chest, but his eyes were fine. "Buck," He said turning to where the grinning man sat, holding a steaming mug of soup for him to drink. "You look like shit..." He cocked his shaggy head and saw the smile born.
"Fuck you, Vin..." He laughed, realizing the clear eyes could see him. "You best eat that soup. Nathan's already pissed off at you for wandering off. Why the hell didn't you tell us Vin?"
"Don't look at me." Chris said sharply, as the large blue eyes gazed at him sorrowfully. "It was a stupid thing to do. You could have been killed."
Vin swallowed the rich broth and his large, emotive eyes sought Chris, "I's shamed."
"Of what?" Chris growled, anger building. "Wasn't your fault you couldn't see."
"No...not that...no fire to keep ya warm, no water...I almost killed ya." Vin supplied sorrowfully.
"Dammit to hell, Vin..." Chris complained, banging his fist weakly. "Of all the stupid things to say. You got me out of that well when I nearly drowned, and got me out of that fuckin' box...got me on a horse...got us to that cabin. You saved both our lives." He drilled, watching the blue eyes shifting. "Don't piss me off Vin...get rid of that long face...NOW!"
"You were nearly blind, had a head injury and numerous cuts and bruises." Ezra added.
"If anybody should be ashamed it's me and Nate." Buck added, "We should have checked you better, been more aware. I'm sorry Vin..."
"Buck, you don't..." He started and saw the pain radiating from Buck's eyes. Deep-seeded and laced with guilt. He realized Buck needed to hear it. "s'okay Bucklin...I'm sorry." He whispered, yawning.
"Get some sleep," Buck patted his leg and stood. "You too, Scout."
"You're asking for trouble Buck." Chris warned, watching Vin's antenna come up.
"Scout?" Vin yawned, with a short smile. He sipped the soup, relishing the warmth on his hands emanating from the hot mug.
"Dan's nickname for him." Buck supplied. "From when he was just a little cuss with a baby green glare. Took to the hills, thinking he was an explorer."
"Get your affairs in order, Buck." Chris shot, trying to control the smile fighting for birth.
"He got here!" Vin's eyes opened and he saw Buck nod and urge the mug closer. "I can't git to it any faster, it's too hot. Leave me be..." Vin's eyes crossed. "Sumthin' funny?" He demanded, seeing Buck and Ezra chuckling.
"Welcome Back, Mr. Tanner." Ezra said, winking at Chris, who was also enjoying the return of Vin's feisty self. "Since the temperature of your soup is too high to consume." He tempted, placing a basin of warm, soapy water bedside. "Mr. Wilmington..."
"I'll get the rinse water and some clean bedding." He winked, his eyebrows dancing.
"Rinse water..." Vin scowled, then recognized the evil intent in his friend's eyes. "Git the hell 'way from me, both of y'all." Vin cowered, pulling his blanket up, only to have Ezra overpower him. "...don't need no damn bath...Chris git m'gun...Chris..." He eyed his best friend desperately.
"You stink Vin...trust me..." The blond was grinning broadly and waving.
"Yer gonna be sorry...I ain't gonna ferget this..." He warned as his blanket was taken away. "Damn it Ezra...why don't ice yer hands up a little more and stop m'heart altogether. Aw, hell..." He hissed defeated as Buck gently washed his matted head.
8 p.m. that night
Nathan, Ezra and Josiah were having dinner with Mary and the Judge at the hotel. The others were sitting around the clinic. Chris was sitting up in bed, drinking a cup of coffee and eating Christmas cookies. He was in he bed next to Vin, several feet away. He eyed the area around Vin's bed and smiled. The younger man had been sleeping for hours now, his mouth open and snoring slightly. J.D. made it his personal campaign to restore the Christmas Vin missed. He placed a small tree on a table at the foot of Vin's bed, so it would be the first thing he saw when he woke up. It had cookies and bows all over it. Over Vin's head was a red sock, laden with Vin's favorite treat, chocolate. The empty bed next to him had a stack of gifts, waiting to be opened. He yawned and leaned his aching head back, dozing while his friends played poker nearby.
Vin's dream as interrupted by a wonderful aroma. He turned his head and his nose twitched. Chocolate...he peeled on eye open and caught a flash of red over his head. He turned his pounding head enough to see a red sock. The light in the room made his headache worse, and he closed his eyes. He waited several minutes and opened his eye again, this time craning his neck to see the sock. His eyes slid shut again and he snaked a hand upwards.
"Psst..." J.D. nudged Buck and pointed. The poker players stopped their game and chuckled at the sight of their seemingly sleeping friend. His hand went up the iron headboard and tugged at the stocking. Frustrated, the face scowled and the hand retracted. J.D. rose to help and Buck shook his head, clamping a hand on the errant sheriff. Vin waited a moment and tried again. The hand smacked at the sock, spilling several chocolate drops onto his chest. A satisfied smile appeared before the deft fingers found every piece. One popped into the waiting mouth and the smile broadened. Two more disappeared before the hand began it's journey again.
J.D. moved beside the bed and lifted the stuffed sock off the top of the bed and raised it higher. He grinned as Vin's fingers began to grope frantically. The eyes remained closed, but creased in concentration.
"Ya best gimme that or I'll tell Casey how friendly ya were with Carrie Porter behind her barn." the voice leveled, without opening an eye.
"How'd he do that?" J.D. astonished, dropping the stocking onto the bed and watching the hand disappear inside. His friends shook with laughter and Chris's eyes opened. Dan left the game and joined his brother. They talked quietly, about the past and future. Vin fell asleep and Dan hung his stocking back up. Nathan arrived a few minutes later, bearing a tray with a fried chicken dinner.
"He up yet?"
"Nope." Chris said, keeping a straight face.
Nathan put the tray down on the table next to Vin and bent down to put his eye drops in. He paused and scowled, lowering his face over Vin's open mouth. "Chocolate?" He hissed, wheeling his face to Chris and Dan then over to the others. "Where'd he get chocolate? He ain't allowed to have that. Who gave him chocolate?" The irate healer asked, glancing at the closed hand resting on Vin's chest. He turned and opened it, housing a melted chocolate drop. "Dammit..." He issued, grabbing a wet cloth and cleaning the sticky hand.
"Ow..." Vin cried out, eyes shooting open. "...don't need no more cleanin'. Buck and Ezra liked to scrub the skin right offa me 'afore. Leave me be..."
"I hope you enjoyed your little feast." Nathan sassed right back, grabbing the stocking. "'cause it's all you're getting for awhile. You ain't gonna get better eating this crap. I got supper for you."
"Gimme that!" Vin rebelled, rolling, sitting up and reaching for his prize. The weak man got a dizzy spell and nearly fell off the bed. Dan moved quickly, grabbing him and pulling him into a sitting position. He eased him back against a bank of pillows and grinned.
"I don't think Mary and Mrs. Travis would appreciate your ...better assets." Dan advised of Vin's exposed naked body, the nightshirt tangled above his waist. Mary and the two senior Travis's were in the doorway.
"Aw, hell..." Vin muttered, pulling the sheet up. He glared at Dan, and then at Chris. "...as if one Larabee weren't bad enuf..." His voice froze and his eyes widened when he saw the tree. "Hey...look at that...a Christmas tree."
"Not just any tree," Chris said. "Your very own. Merry Christmas Cowboy."
"Hey Thanks..." Vin said, his face so full of a lost boy's wonderment, it made Mary cringe.
"Vin..." J.D. nodded to the bed next to him. Vin's head turned and his mouth dropped open when he saw the pile of gifts.
"Fer me?" He rasped, eyes filling rapidly.
"Not until you eat." Nathan ordered, placing the tray in front of him and lifting the red gingham cloth.
"Quit plyin' me with food." Vin complained, "It'd take me two days to git through all of that...I don't need that much..."
"You'll eat it and then take your medicine."
"No." Vin screwed his face up defiantly. "It's my party and I ain't drinking none of that cat piss...'scuse me Mary...Miz Travis." He eyed the women and nodded.
"Aw, come on Nate...have a heart." Buck pleaded. "The boy's been good all day."
"Yeah, Nate...let him open some of his presents. Some of them might need air."
"Air?" Vin sat up grinning. "Is there a critter in there..."
"There better not be..." Nathan warned, "Okay, you eat, then you open gifts and then you take your medicine.
The party lasted long after the guest of honor fell asleep. He managed to eat about half his dinner, opened his gifts with wide-eyed wonder. His boyish delight and heartfelt comments gave every one of them a Christmas they'd never forget. Josiah and Buck both used their strong voices to sing Christmas hymns. Vin drifted to sleep, wearing a peaceful smile.
9 a.m. the next morning
"Huh?" Chris blinked, flinching at a child's large blue eyes, just inches from his face. He pulled his head back and eyed the blond haired child carefully. One name formed, that matched the features he knew all too well.
"Danny?" He muttered, still half asleep.
"No. I'm Jack, Uncle Chris."
"Uncle..." Chris was suddenly awake and sitting upright. The boy was about five, a handsome lad with sun-kissed hair and cornflower eyes. He was the image of Dan as a boy. He eyed the small hand waiting for his shake. He took the hand and grasped it.
"John Christopher." Dan's warm voice filled in, from the other side or Chris's bed. "He's named for my two heroes," the younger Larabee said of this father and brother.
"My God..." Chris whispered, hand gripping his brothers. "What an honor...Dan...I...." He choked up, unable to finish.
"This is my wife Beth." Dan said, nodding to a beautiful young woman with wavy dark and brown eyes. She stepped forward and sat a baby about a year old on Chris's lap. The fair hair was wavy, with fat pink cheeks. But it was the eyes that caused his own to widen. "This is Adam Daniel," Dan said of his green-eyed son, who smiled a toothless grin that melted his uncle's heart.
The week flew by, Chris spent every waking hour of the day with his family. He drank up every story the very animated Jack Larabee told him. He grinned proudly at the defiant tiny green-eyed glare his nephew Adam gave him. He promised to visit and have them come back in the summer, to stay for a few weeks for fishing and hunting. All too soon it was time for the Larabee clan to depart for their new home. Dan was tired of his weeks of travel that took him away from his family. His father-in-law was a General at the base in San Francisco. Dan had taken a job there, which would keep him home. Chris promised to visit them in the spring.
Nate bundled both men up and with Josiah's help, got the two patients outside in the sun for the departure of the Stagecoach. They left the two friends wrapped in blankets and went to have lunch.
"I was dying, Vin." Chris finally spoke, his eyes on the coach. "...on that horse Christmas Eve. I felt it...an awful coldness...indescribable. But your story, about the first Christmas, and your faith, that saved me." He said simply, stunning his friend. "I want to thank you Vin for your gift."
"Gift...Chris, I didn't give ya yer Christmas..."
"You opened my eyes, Vin." Chris interrupted, eyeing his family leaving and swallowing hard, green eyes full of emotion. "...only one gift I ever got that was finer." He said thickly, turning and penetrating the soulful blue eyes. "...and I'm looking at him."
Vin grinned and their forearms snapped together in the familiar grasp of brotherhood. Later that morning, Buck and J.D. were coming from the saloon when the sight brought them across the street. Vin and Chris were sound asleep, side by side. Buck sat on the edge of the boardwalk in front of Chris; J.D. took a seat next to him. Ezra floated by, leaning against the post to Vin's right. Josiah and Nathan appeared completing the circle.
Vin's blanket fell away, and Ezra moved in to pull it up. He tucked the edges carefully and saw a wary blue eye peel open.
Vin glanced lazily at the others surrounding him. His familiar scowl appeared, giving them a grin. "Quit swaddlin' me...I'm fine." He muttered, before the medicine Nathan snuck in the hot chocolate he drank earlier kicked in and his heavy blue eyes slid shut.
"Did he say swaddling?" Erza amused, eyes crinkling.
"I believe he did," Josiah nodded, "Nice to see the boy improving his vocabulary. Good fit."
"Indeed." Ezra agreed.
The five formed a circle, protecting the two recovering peacekeepers, until the seven rode again.
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