Friday, December 22.
Buck Wilmington was whistling a Christmas song when he entered the kitchen and encountered the forlorn figure. His brows furrowed in concern at the sight of his friend, whose pale face was lost in thought. Vin was at the table in Buck's immaculate kitchen, hovering over a large mug of tea. Buck spotted the untouched box of doughnuts nearby and frowned. He slipped past Vin and patted the downcast shoulder.
"You're up early." He proclaimed cheerfully, eyeing the seven o'clock hour approaching. He opened the refrigerator and took out ham, cheese, half a pepper and some eggs. "How 'bout I make you a Wilmington special?" He noted of his world famous omelet.
"No thanks, Bucklin." Vin's soft reply came.
"What's wrong, Vin?" Buck left the ingredients on the countertop and made his way back over to where the lost tracker sat. His hand instinctively reached for Vin's forehead. The younger man never moved. It was cool to the touch, which puzzled the mustached agent even more. Vin had been battling a high fever for several days. They'd been hoping it would leave him by today, so he could go with Chris to the ranch. "How's the throat today?"
"Okay..." Vin replied, sipping his tea.
"Hell, Son, you look like somebody just shot your dog." He teased, hoping for a smile which never came. "Vin?"
Buck sighed and took the seat next to the depressed soul. "I know you're feelin' the blues, Son. And you got every right to...it's been a bad week for you. But just remember you could have been home when them lowlifes busted in...it could have been a lot worse." He rested a large hand on the back of Vin's blue flannel shirt and rubbed it. "Hell, you could have been bunkin' with Ezra all week. Talk about scary..."
Vin knew Buck was trying to cheer him up, and he felt bad about that. Buck had taken good care of him all week, and he did feel better physically. But there was a pain inside that wouldn't go away. He couldn't get the image of his torn up apartment out of his head. The violation he first felt when he'd come home still lingered. What the ravages of the fever and infection hadn't taken from him, the robbery had. He took the double whammy as a sign. Maybe Christmas wasn't supposed to find him. He finished the tea and slipped from under Buck's hand. He paused in the doorway, trying to work up smile. Seeing Buck's worried blue eyes, only made his pain flare.
"I'm sorry, Buck. I ain't fit company today. Tell Chris I'll be ready." He said of his later departure and made his way back to the guestroom.
+ + + + + + +
Buck eased his six-foot plus frame out of his car and grabbed the bag beside him. He reflected on his houseguest, whom he'd left huddled at the kitchen table. Vin looked a lot better and the medicine and rest had eliminated some of the painful symptoms. The fever was gone, and the headache diminished. But along with it, so had Vin's Christmas spirit. He was still lost in thought, trying to find a way to rescue Vin's Holiday spirit, when he entered the ATF Office.
"Morning Buck..." J.D. looked up from his computer as his best friend walked by. He pushed his chair back and followed Buck into the cantina. Josiah and Nate were at the table, discussing how commercialized Christmas had become. "Allright..." He crowed, taking the bag from Buck. He pulled out doughnuts, cookies and bagels. "A hat trick...way to go!"
"Try to keep it down, Buck." Josiah quipped, eyeing the other man's solemn face.
"Jeez Buck, who died?" Nathan teased.
"Vin's Christmas spirit." Buck sighed, shaking his head. "I've never seen such a sad face. Damn shame. His fever broke, he's better physically, but them animals stole his soul too." He shook his head and left to hang his coat up.
"Buck." Chris nodded, passing the agent on his way to get coffee. He eyed the slow motions as Buck hung his coat up and remained at the coat rack. "What's up?"
"Vin sure ain't..."
"He seemed better last night." Chris mused, recalling his visit. He eyed Buck's worried eyes and long face. "Nice face..."
"Sorry, Boss." Buck managed a wane smile. "Three days of that long face of his has me all wore out. He's really down in the dumps." Buck picked up his empty coffee mug and paused, seeing the wheels in Chris's mind working. "You got an idea?"
"Maybe..." Chris pondered, "Why don't you pick him up at lunch and bring him here?" He offered, changing the original plan. Chris was supposed to pick Vin up at Buck's about two p.m. and head to the ranch. But maybe the younger man needed to have his friends rally around him, their teasing banter might cure what the medicine couldn't.
"It couldn't hurt." Buck agreed, and continued on his path.
It just after twelve when Buck and Vin arrived back. Vin shuffled into the office, past Nate and Josiah, whose desks were the closest to the door. They exchanged a wary look, spotting the same lost eyes that Buck alluded to. Ezra looked up briefly and winced. Someone had taken their elf and left this sad figure in his wake. J.D. came out from Chris's office and stopped in front of his quiet friend.
"VIN! How you feeling?" He boomed, gripping the worn flannel shirt.
"Hey y'all..." Vin rasped and continued trudging to his desk. He missed the worried exchanges behind him as he slipped his coat off and slid into his seat. He dropped his overnight bag on the empty desk behind him.
J.D. shrugged and his wide-eyed stare at the others invited initiating a plan. Buck had no answer, he'd been trying all week. Josiah clapped a hand on J.D.'s shoulder and made his way towards Vin.
"Hope you're hungry. We ordered a lot of pizza. Even got a white one with bacon..." He glanced down and saw Vin nervously peeling his post-it into a small pile of yellow paper. "It'll get better, Vin. Don't let it ruin your Christmas."
"Our wise friend makes a valid point." Ezra stood next to Josiah and hung a candy cane from Vin's breast pocket. "If you continue on this pointless mire in misery, you'll have given them an undeserved victory. All your work ," He motioned to the decorations in the office, "will have been for naught."
"We missed you Vin." J.D. tried, coming up to join the others, Nathan on his heels. "It hasn't been the same without you singing and the tree needs your touch. Ezra ate all the candy and cookies. He waits until we leave and then he raids the tree." The youth accused.
"I most certainly did not." Ezra replied sharply. "Confections of that nature are not to my liking."
"Bullshit." Nathan rejected the Southerner's plea and eyed Vin's face, hoping for a smile or sign of life.
"I suggest you undergo a change in attitude or you'll lose your place as the founder and keeper of the team's Holiday mirth." Ezra drilled.
"Excuse me..." Vin said quietly, rising with his empty mug. "I'm gonna make some tea."
"Aw come on, Vin." J.D. shook the solitary shoulder. "Where's your Christmas spirit?"
"I ain't meant to have Christmas..." He interjected, casting a sorrowful look to the younger man. "I was a fool to think it could change." He tossed the candy cane Ezra had given him into the trash and moving past them, seeking refuge in the cantina.
"You're absolutely correct, Mr. Tanner." Ezra's voice grew hostile and he followed the younger agent, "Why should it? After all, you alone are the determining factor. You control your fate. Why should you let brotherhood get in the way of your misery? Drown your sorrows...but don't expect us to follow. You're on you own."
He brushed past the others and returned to his desk, flipping on his computer. He was angry at Vin Tanner. Christmas was an excuse to take a ski trip to Switerland. Visit his college friends and endure their endlessly boring stories. His mother certainly never made an attempt to instill a sense of goodwill and peace into him. The prefunctionary Christmas morning phone call and an expensive gift, which he rarely used was the extent of their familial bonding. But this year, something changed. Vin's guileless aura and almost childlike wonder had touched him. He'd even suffered through the horrendous Christmas movies, twice a week at lunch in the conference room. Nathan and J.D. insisted on bringing them in, and Vin sat captivated, his blue eyes shining. He'd never admit it, but Vin Tanner's simple gift, giving himself to them, had given him hope. The jaded cynicism that he viewed the holiday, was wavering. He enjoyed Vin's face lighting up in the mall when a small child approached the Santa, that soft laugh when he'd watched the Grinch cartoon and the wistful wide, blue-eyed stare when seeing the story of the Little Drummer Boy.
"Damn you Vin Tanner..." he imparted, scanning his screen and pounding on the keys.
The others followed suit, leaving Vin to sulk in the cantina. They entered the conference room and sprawled around the table. Paper plates, napkins, potato chips, dip, soda and other munchies adorned the long table.
"We gotta do something." J.D. decided.
"I'm all ears." Nathan slumped.
"They catch the guys who did it?" the dark-haired youth asked Buck, who'd joined them. The tall agent shook his head no. "Guess it's up to Chris."
The collective groan spoke what words didn't. Chris had his own demons to battle and they doubted whether he'd be able to reach Vin. They were lost in thought, each seeking a solution to the problem, when Chris entered.
"Where's the funeral?" the blond inquired, setting the multiple boxes of steaming pizza on the table.
"In the cantina." Josiah replied, passing out paper plates and napkins. "The corpse is still breathing."
"That bad?" Chris tossed his coat on the black leather couch and eyed the rest.
"I've seen sad..." Nathan imparted, taking a piece of pizza loaded with peppers and mushrooms. "and Vin's done gone way past that."
"I'll talk to him." Chris sighed, rubbing his short blond hair. "Where's Ezra?"
"Taking out his frustrations on his keyboard." Josiah replied, taking a slice of white pizza with bacon. "Vin really affected him. I think he conned himself."
"He got caught up good in Vin's campaign." Nathan swallowed a large bite and reached for a soda. "He's hurtin' for Vin and don't know how to help him. He chewed him out..."
Chris saw the storm in the Southerner's eyes and patted his shoulder as he walked past. He paused in the doorway, eyeing his best friend carefully. He knew all too well how Vin felt. The sorrowful stare and sad eyes were distant, as if lost in time.
"Pizza's here..." He said quietly, knocking on the wall. Vin never even blinked.
"Suit yourself." Chris shrugged, "But you get a relapse and start bitchin' and moanin', I'm hauling you to Ezra's." He warned, but still no movement. He winced and left the room, passing by his office. That's when he got the idea. Smiling, he made his way to J.D.'s desk and picked up the footlong baseball bat the youth had resting on the top of his cabinet.
Ezra watched Chris's moves and crossed his eyes in confusion. He pushed his chair back as the determined blond sauntered by, swinging the small bat.
"Should I warn our astute EMT?" He asked, and saw the half smile and twinkle in the green eyes.
"Nah..." Chris disarmed as he walked by, the intrigued Ezra a few feet behind.
Vin heard Chris enter, but made no move from where he was hunkered down at the end of the table. Twice Chris went around the table, hunched in half, eyes skirting the floor and behind the appliances, bat poised. He got on his knees next to Vin and peered cautiously behind the microwave cart.
"Y'all huntin' sumthin'?" Vin puzzled.
"Yeah..." Chris replied, pushing upwards and resuming his thorough search, ignoring Vin.
"Is there a critter skitterin' about?" the recovering man asked, blue eyes now darting around the floor.
"Yeah..." Chris answered, still ignoring the curious sharpshooter.
"Well?" Vin demanded, after several silent minutes went by, with the blond still on the hunt and ignoring him.
"Huh..." Chris grunted, still eyeing the floor and corners.
"What is it yer lookin' fer?" Vin's scowled, patience thinning.
"Yellow Bellied Marmot..." Chris deadpanned, "Texan variety, rare in these parts."
Ezra nodded in appreciation at the blond maestro's masterful touch. A slow smile formed, as he stood in the doorway, watching the scenario unfold.
"That a fact?" Vin grumbled, eyes glaring at the interfering team leader.
"Mmmm..." Chris grumbled, taking a chair next to the sour-faced man.
"How ya fixin' on doin' 'im?" Vin wondered, eyeing the bat smacking Larabee's open palm. "Bash 'im?"
"Thought on it..." Chris admitted, staring at the table, "wouldn't work."
"Skull's too thick." Chris replied, "...end up bustin' the bat and J.D. would be pissed off."
Ezra saw the anger slowly leaving the smaller figure and watched him fight the grin that was forming.
"Hmmphh." Vin grunted, eyeing Chris's hoster under his charcol gray suit jacket. "Shoot 'im?"
"Thought on that too." Chris nodded, still avoiding Vin. "Wouldn't work."
"No." Chris said seriously. "Hide's too tough...bullet would bounce off and hit me in the balls."
Ezra had to bite back a laugh and watched Vin's face change. The Texan was struggling to maintain his morose stance. A smile formed twice, before being chased away. He watched Vin's mouth quirk a third time and saw the crack widening.
"Reckon that might hurt..." Vin added.
"Reckon it might." Chris agreed, rubbing his chin and feigning a look of deep concentration. "Could try drowning him...nah, can't to that either."
"How ya figure?"
"Lung capacity's too great." Chris deadpanned, looking crestfallen. "Comes from holding his breath, pouting, sulking, moping and generally being a goddamn pain in the ass."
"Too bad..." Vin boasted, watching Chris push the chair back. "Givin' up the hunt?"
Ezra heard the disappointment and saw how crestfallen Vin was. He'd enjoyed the game and had been preparing himself for Chris's lecture. He didn't realize how skilled the blond was, but Ezra did. Chris was luring Vin slowly. The bait had been taken and he was now reeling the unsuspecting ex-bounty hunter in.
Chris sighed deeply and his face was somber. "Got a mess to clean up in the conference room. Broken hearts all over the place. Damn marmot tore them to pieces." He drilled, leveling a high intensity glare right into Vin's muddled blue eyes. "They're selfish that way." He paused and then answered the accusatory glance he got. "I ought to know..." He stood and moved behind Vin to get by. He tucked the bat in his waistband and placed both hands on the soft-flanneled shoulders. He massaged them lightly as his voice thickened. "I lived there, Vin...for three years, pushing everyone who tried to care, away. It's a cold place, dark and distant. I'd be there still...if a yellow bellied Marmot didn't haul my ungrateful ass out of there."
Ezra backed away, feeling like an intruder, and more than a little envious. He saw Vin's head turn halfway and the pain in the wide blue eyes. He watched the younger man's Adams Apple bobbing and his lips finally part.
"Texan variety?" Vin choked raising his head backwards to find Chris's eyes.
"Yeah..." Chris smiled softly at the upside-down emotive blue eyes. "You do me a favor. You see that sorry-assed, pizza-guzzling varmit and you herd him up to the conference room. Okay?"
"I'll keep an eye out..." Vin hushed, shivering slightly when the firm hands left his frame.
"Thanks, Cowboy." Chris quieted, as he turned to leave.
"Chris..." Vin said thickly, hoping the other would turn.
"Your welcome." Chris answered, not needing to see the blue eyes to know what they held.
Chris moved past Ezra and heard the small acknowledgement. "Well done, Mr. Larabee, and here I thought I was the conman in this group."
Five minutes later they looked up as Vin entered. He didn't say anything, but scanned the table, eyeing the remnants of pizza, soda, chips, and other party food. He ducked and read the panels on the boxes, and flipped open the one he sought.
"Aw, hell..." He complained, face folding, "Who ate my pizza?" His accusing eyes found Josiah's plate and a small section of white pizza with bacon. "Dammit preacher..."
"Price you pay when you come to the table late, Son." Josiah offered, popping the last piece in his mouth and wiggling his eyebrows. "Santo's does make a fine white pie..." He twisted the knife, enjoying the return of the scowl they all loved.
"Y'all is demented." Vin slapped the large man's back. "Pickin' on the sick. I'm barely off my deathbed and..."
"Deathbed?" Ezra doubted, sliding a piece of pie onto a paper plate and waving it under the Texan's wrinkled nose. "Exaggerating a bit, aren't we Mr. Tanner. Here, fill your cavity and take a seat. You're trying my patience."
"Ya know Ezra," Vin pushed the intrusive plate away, "Y'all ain't got as much sense as a stick o' wood. Ruinin' a perfectly good pizza by loadin' it with little, bitty fishes and fungus." He made a disgusted face at the slice before him loaded with anchovies and mushrooms. "Y'all better move that or I'll add some of my own toppin's." He warned, rubbing his stomach.
"Point taken." Ezra backed off, taking the offensive food with him.
"Here Vin." J.D. took a slice from a box, with pepperoni. He placed it on a plate and poured a tall coke for the snapping tracker.
"Thanks, Kid." Vin supplied, trying to worm past Josiah's chair to get around the table. "Aw, hell..." He frowned as Buck came into the room carrying a trash bag and a broad smile.
"Well, I heard a rumor..." Buck boomed, eyes dancing as he approached the apprehensive sharpshooter, now looking like a cornered marmot.
"Get away from me." Vin growled, trying to duck as the bigger man wrapped him in a bearhug from behind, pinning his arms. "Put me down, Buck...I ain't kiddin'"
"Guess who just got back today? That wild-eyed boy that had been away..." Buck crooned, mimicking the Thin Lizzy song. "They were asking if you were around. How you were...Where your sour face could be found. I told 'em you were livin' with me downtown. Driving this Ladies man crazy." Buck's smile split his face as the struggling Texan got angrier, his face screwed up and red from exertion and embarrassment. Buck laughed and continued singing, loudly, using a few fingers to tickle his irate, shaggy haired friend. "The Elf is back in town...The Elf is back in town..." He paused to imitate the backup band. "Da...na...na...na..nah...Da...na...na...na..."
"Leave me be..." Vin protested weakly, trying hard to remain angry. "Cut that out..." he stammered, trying not to laugh as Buck tickled him. The rest of his friends were no help, laughing and clapping at his misfortune.
"The nights are getting colder, it won't be long." Buck sang on, ducking deftly as Vin worked an arm free and swung at him. "It won't be long till Christmas comes. Now that the Elf is here again ...driving the rest of us crazy..." Buck finished, grabbing Vin's face, screwed up in a red-flushed scowl. "There it is...the face we've all come to love."
"Go suck tongue with some unlucky woman under that mistletoe ya planted outside the ladie's room." Vin growled, ducking away from Buck's hand.
"That was you?" J.D. muffled, swallowing his pizza. "I thought Ezra did that."
"I beg your pardon." The Southerner bristled, green eyes frowning. "As if I would ever stoop to such means..."
"That's okay, Ez...I'll toss you a few." Buck winked, "I got plenty, all shapes, colors and sizes."
"How fortunate for me." Ezra dry-quipped, rolling his green eyes.
"Bucklin, If y'all don't let go of me, I'm gonna cough on yer soda when ya ain't lookin'" Vin warned, face scowling.
"Damn Vin." Buck complained, finally releasing the irate man. "That's hittin' below the belt."
"Nothin' fer ya to worry on..." Vin challenged, "Y'all don't got nuthin' hangin' below yer belt."
He nodded satisfied at the laughter and cheers, and slid into a vacant chair next to J.D.
"I bow at your feet." Ezra whispered to Chris in admiration, who sat next to him, smiling at Buck's antics.
Buck took a seat at the end of the table. In the time that passed, the pizza was digested and the ribald jokes that followed about Buck's anatomy were tossed freely. Amidst the clamor of the room, Buck's laughing eyes met Vin's serious ones. For a brief moment, the Rogue was privied to what Chris and Vin shared. He felt every bit of Vin's emotional gratitude oozing freely from the emotive blue pools. He used his best Wilmington smile and returned the compliment.
"Right back at you, Junior." He mouthed, feeling the warmth in the room invade him.
Sunday Morning, Dec. 24 - Chris's ranch.
"NO!" The bellow echoed off every wall in the rustic den of the mountain retreat.
"Aw, come on Chris. I feel a lot better." Vin protested, trailing behind the stern blond like a eager puppy.
"You have five more days left to finish that medicine. Until then, you stay put. You get a relapse and I'm the one who has to live with your miserable ass." Chris dictated, pulling his spruce green parka on.
"Miserable?" Vin chirped, his face furrowing. "Y'all got balls makin' that claim. Talk about callin' the kettle black. I ain't hardly miserable..." He was interrupted by the cacophony of laughter that burst from behind him.
"You? Miserable?" Ezra asked straight-faced, "I find that hard to believe."
"Yeah, imagine Vin being grumpy and orny" Nathan teased, squeezing Vin's neck.
"It boggles the mind." Buck theorized, putting his gloves on and eyeing Vin's fuzzy footwear. "Nice slippers, Pard..." He teased of the furry racoons, a get well gift from Billy Travis.
"Shut the hell up, all o' y'all." Vin complained, slumping against the kitchen counter, about five feet from the door.
"Vin, I told you Strep throat is serious business." Nathan warned. "You get sick again and you could end up in the hospital."
"Bailed out on Josiah..." Vin mumbled of his morning that was supposed to be with the ex-minister at a Veteran's Nursing Home. "...can't help with the tree. Might was well not even be here."
"Quit crying in your beer." Chris smacked Vin's arm as he went by. "There's plenty for you to do here. Put that lasagne in at noon at 350, get the rest of the red and green boxes up," he dictated of the decorations. "and untangle the lights."
"That ought to hold you until we get back." Nathan offered the "J.D. and Josiah will be here soon. "You get to feelin' poorly, Vin. You lie down for awhile."
"Might be a good idea." Chris agreed, eyeing the irate face. "I got a surprise for you later. Don't want you worn out."
"What kind of surprise?" Vin hedged, narrowing his eyes.
"Wouldn't be much of a surprise, if I told you." Chris pulled his gloves on. "You'll find out after your nap."
"I'll be real quiet and stay in the truck." Vin's weak plea fell on deaf ears.
"NO!" Nathan and Chris said in unison
"Besides," Buck tossed, "Ezra's taking your place."
"Hmmph..." Vin scoffed, raising his head. "Talk about insultin'...Ezra ain't never seen the blister side of a shovel."
"Mr. Tanner, you wound me." Erza clutched the chest of his cashmere coat and opened the door. "I shall try my best to live up to your standards."
"Don't push it, Ezra." Buck shoved him outside. "Your job is to stand and point. We don't need any trips to the Emergency Room on Christmas Eve."
They piled out and left the quiet sharpshooter in the kitchen. He padded to the window, his face crossed and angry at himself. He saw them heading towards Buck's Jimmy and Chris's truck. Suddenly, in his line of vision, was the carved figure of the Yellow Bellied Marmot. A small piece of paper was taped to the back of it with an arrow. Above the arrow was his name.
"That ain't funny, Chris." He hollered at grinning blond, whose face appeared. Chris's face then furrowed in a imitation of his own cranky features. It worked. The grin that Vin formed turned into a smile, of which was born a laugh. He nodded, indicating to the older man that he was alright and watched Chris slip the figure into his pocket and head for the truck.
+ + + + + + +
Vin eyed the ceiling, wondering why Chris didn't tell him about the box of crystalike snowflakes. They glistened, creaing a rainbow of color on the walls, as the late morning sun touched them. It was a beautiful transition, the other unmarked boxes he'd found and carted up, created a warm, holdiay mood. A nativity set stood on the table in the corner. Garland and bows were strung from the railing of the staircase and along the mantle. A ceramic Dickens village was set up on the deep window sill overlooking the woods. A small train set ran on an oval track through a snowy mountain tunnel near the fireplace. Snow fell outside, only adding to the charm. The lasagne was making him hungry and he hoped that his friends would be back soon. J.D. called to say they were on their way, the slick roads slowing them down. The Christmas CD ended, and Vin frowned. He was in the corner of the room, finishing his job.
"Well Sam," He said to Chris's large black Lab who was sleeping on a rug in front of the fireplace. "How 'bout I sing fer ya?" He shook his head at the animal's groan. "Everybody's a critic. I think y'all know this one."
"I'll get the door." Ezra volunteered, hopping out of Buck's RV.
"Don't strain yourself, Ez..." Buck teased, of the laconic conman who hadn't even worked up a sweat. Buck slid out of his seat and helped Chris and Nathan with the tree. The trio made their way up the back stairs.
"Prop it against the side of the house," Chris called ahead to Buck who was leading. "Let's scope the den out first." After depositing the tree, they entered the house quietly.
"Damn that smells good." Nathan said of their lunch, bubbling in the oven.
"Shhh!" Ezra warned, cocking his head.
"Hey, I know that song..." Buck whispered, following Ezra toward the den. "It's Rudolph...right?"
"Y'all like that?" Vin asked the panting dog. "Like to hear it again?"Ezra the cheatin' gambler
Had some very fancy clothes
And if ya ever seen 'im
Ye would even say he glows
All of the other agents
Used to laugh and call him names
They never let poor Ezra
Join in any high-stake games
Then one foggy Christmas Eve
Bucklin came to say
'Ez..ra with yer gun so bright...
Won't y'all shoot my boss tonight?'
Then how the agents loved him
And they shouted out with glee
'Ezra the cheatin' gambler...
Y'all will go down in Hiss...torr...eee'
The loud burst of applause, whistling and cheers startled the would-be singer. He jerked his head around, just as the smile dissolved from Chris's face. The team leader saw the rickety, old stepstool Vin was perched on, in slippers no less, with no traction. His alarmed green eyes met Vin's stunned blue ones, just as the small ladder collapsed.
"VIN!" he screamed.
The voices penetrated his aching head first. One was far away...one much closer. The closer voice was a deep one. He pried one eye open and saw gold and red stars doing a brazen dance. He covered his face and groaned, just as a hand rubbed his arm.
"You okay, Vin?"
He pried an eye open and saw a mustache and white teeth. "Buck?"
"At your service." The deep voice replied, "Need a hand up?"
"No..." Vin croaked, closing his eyes again.
Something was wrong. Something was very wrong. He was on his back and rolled to his side. His fumbling fingers felt wood. Wood? His foggy brain tried to send an answer to his muddled questions. He remembered ....what? Eating breakfast at the ranch with Chris. Then nothing. Wait...there was something else. A surprise. Chris said after he woke up, he'd get a surprise.
Buck again. Vin sighed and opened both eyes. The first thing he saw was a silver spur. He furrowed his brows and rubbed his eyes. No, it was still there.
"Spurs..." His eyes painfully moved upwards. Buck was crouched next to him. The smile was gone and the dark blue eyes were full of concern. "Buck...ya got spurs..." He hissed and saw the holster. "...gun...ya got a gun?"
"Yeah..." Buck chuckled, eyeing the confused blue eyes. "Let's get you off the ground."
Vin swallowed and licked his lips, as Buck pulled him into a sitting position. The mustached face began to spin. "Hold it...y'all is flyin' around." He gasped, grabbing Buck's arm.
"J.D. Get Nathan." Buck ordered.
"J.D. here?" Vin managed, resting his head against the wall. "Thought they was held up in traffic."
"Huh?" Buck frowned.
"On the interstate. Roads was icy..."
Buck turned back to where Chris stood, leaning against the hitching post. The stone face was unreadable. Buck motioned with his head, indicating Vin's odd speech. Chris blinked once and took a draw on his cheroot. Vin's voice drew Buck back.
Vin took several deep breaths, keeping his eyes shut until the dizziness left. He noticed several things. It was noisy...very noisy. What was that clopping sound? And that smell....he wrinkled his nose and peeled an eye open.
"Horse shit..." He defined, "Buck, y'all been messin' around in Chris's barn? Ya stepped in horse shit."
"Chris's barn?" Buck laughed. "Now that is funny. That shack of Chris's is barely big enough for a dog. A barn..." His voice trailed off as he noticed the panic-stricken face eyeing the dusty streets.
Both eyes were open now and the sight that greeted him, took his breath away. He felt his heart hammering and a low roar in his ears. Buck was kneeling next to him. His eyes left the antique holster and gun and travelled around. Hitching posts...a general store...a freight office...a sherriff's office...a sheriff's office? He closed his eyes and shook his head.
"It's just a dream..." he whispered. "It ain't real..."
"What ain't real?" Buck frowned. Vin was sitting forward, head touching his chest, eyes closed. Buck felt around the shaggy hair until he found an egg sized lump.
"OUCH!" Vin yelped, slapping the intrusive hand. "Dammit Buck, that hurt. Leave me be."
"He sounds fine to me."
Chris? Vin peeled his eyes open again. They widened at the sight of his best friend. Chris was dressed from head to toe in black. Jeans, shirt, boots even the holster and hat were black. He eyed Buck's clothes, equally confusing. Before he could comment, a trio of horses rode by with cowboys riding them. Vin's mouth dropped open and he stood up, swaying slightly.
"Easy Vin...Let Nate get a look at ya." Buck remained behind the smaller man, who seemed transfixed.
Vin licked his lips again and slowly took in the terrain. Old buildings...unfamiliar faces of passersby...horses...lots of horses...old clothes...the wild west? He blinked again and took a hesitant step. A gun shot sent him to his knees, and he reached for his hip, fingers fumbling when he encountered a bulky sawed off shotgun. Another antique. Buck stopped him.
"No call for that. It's just Bull Dunston lettin' off some steam." Buck relayed. "J.D., get on the roof and get Bull down here before he hurts somebody."
"You get him down, I went last time." J.D. hollered, following Nathan up the street.
"I went last time?" Buck parroted. "It's your damn job, Sheriff Dunne...Go on now, he's all liquored up."
"Sheriff Dunne..." Vin repeated and backed up, spotting the silver star on J.D.'s chest. "What the hell's going on?" He kept going until his back hit the wall. He looked down at the strange animal skin coat he wore. His light jeans and boots were also unfamiliar. He put his hands up defensively at Buck. His hostile look caused Nathan to frown. He was now about three feet from the startled tracker. He looked again at Chris, eyes drilling into the older man.
"Chair's got four legs for a reason." Chris imparted, raising a sandy eyebrow.
"He's right Vin." Nathan stepped closer. "Y'all been temptin' fate for months now. Balanacin' on two legs...askin' for trouble. This was bound to happen. You seein' double...anything blurry?"
"No...I..." Vin stopped, eyeing Nathan, Buck and Chris. He scratched his chin and took a deep breath. Chris's words came back...his surprise after he woke up. But how...how could he have slept through a trip to...where?
"This ain't funny, Chris. Where the hell did y'all drag me to? What kind of fucked up masquerade party is this?"
"What?" Chris laughed, eyeing Vin's angry stance.
"Don't look at me like that. Ya said....ya said..." Vin clenched his fists and tried to remember what exactly Chris told him...this morning? "...ya had a surprise... after I woke up."
"Vin, come on over to the clinic." Nathan was now beside the heaving chest and saw the lump. "That's a nasty lookin' egg ya got. We'll put some ice on it."
"I ain't going nowhere until somebody tells me where the hell I am." Vin seethed, his eyes darting at the faces before him.
"Four Corners, Vin. You live here...remember?" Buck prodded, watching Vin's eyes moving at a record rate.
"Four Corners?" Vin repeated, wrinkling his brows. "I ain't never heard of such a place. How did y'all do this? I couldn't have slept through it all. Where did get these clothes? How far from Denver are we?"
"Denver?" Nathan's voice rose. "Vin we ain't nowheres near Denver. That's way up in Colorado."
"This ain't funny no more." Vin declared, eyes hot. "I wanna go home. Aw, hell...I ain't got no home. Them bastards busted it up and stole my stuff."
"Rest assured Mr. Tanner, you're so-called abode is safe and sound. As if anyone would get so desperate."
"Ezra?" Vin croaked, eyeing the red coat. "What the hell kind of rig is that?"
"Insults aside, if you'll turn to the left, you'll see your...home" Ezra said with difficulty and pointed.
Vin took a quick look and saw only an old covered wagon. "Ain't nuthin' over there 'cept an old wagon." He proclaimed, blinking as the wagon and the faces became blurry. One hand groped until somebody grabbed him.
"Enough. Go with Nathan." Chris dictated, a little unsettled at Vin's strange behavior.
Vin ignored the blond and heard the bat wing doors slap as someone exited...a saloon. He laughed low...of course there would be a saloon here. "I need a drink." He shoved Nathan's hand away and used his right hand to guide him along the wall.
"First sensible thing out of your mouth in the last half hour." Chris commented, eyeing the unstable steps the tracker was taking.
Vin eyed the smoke filled saloon, taking in the tables, chairs and bodies in them. They glanced up at him and then resumed their business. Several scantilly clad girls, with breasts threatening to spill at any second, waved at him. He saw the beefy bartender and made a beeline for the end of the bar.
"Y'all got Coors lite?"
"Alright, Miller then..."
"What are you talking about Vin?" The bartender scowled.
"Aw, hell..." Vin wiped his face and sighed. "What do y'all got on tap?"
"Two beers." Chris said, ending the confusing debate and standing next to Vin. "Drink fast, then you're going to Nathan's."
"Last time I checked, I's growed." Vin's hackles were up. "I'm gettin' a beer and then I'm gettin' the hell outta here. Y'all have one fucked-up sense of humor. Some surprise. I should have stayed in town, instead of lettin' y'all drag me out to the ranch."
"What ranch?" J.D. asked, bounding over as Vin took a long sip of his beer. The dark haired youth made the mistake of standing next to the sour-faced sharpshooter, as he spit the beer out...all over J.D.
"Jesus, Vin..." J.D. protested, backing up. "What'd you do that for?"
"This's warmer than horse piss...tastes like it too..." Vin complained. "That's the worst swill I ever drank. That ain't beer." Vin pushed the glass back, wiping his tongue on his sleeve. "I'll have a coke with lots of ice." He ordered, rubbing his pounding head. "Damn..."
"Take it easy, Tiny." Chris's voice caused Vin's eyes to open. The black shirt had moved in front of him. He squirmed trying to see around the broad back. "Vin hit his head...he don't what he's saying."
"The hell I don't" Vin moved away, spotting the large club the insulted bartender held. "Y'all are the crazy ones...Gimme my coke and I'll get outta yer way."
"Your what?" J.D. asked, feeling like he was talking to a stranger.
"Coke...Y'all know it's my favorite. Aw, hell. I bet that's warmer than piss too." Vin complained. "I'll take a six-pack to go. Reckon I can get my own ice."
"I reckon you can take your ungrateful ass out of my bar." Tiny raised himself to his full six-foot six inch frame, beefy arms on the bar. "Now!"
"Let's go Vin." Chris pulled the struggling Texan toward the door.
"Dammit Chris let go of me." Vin pulled free and shot out the door and into the street.
Before he could react, someone or something hit him hard on the back, flattening him to the ground. The force took all the air out of his lungs. He gasped and choked, clawing for air, as he swallowed a mouthful of dust. The red and gold stars returned. He blinked through them at Chris's angry face. Two black-clothed arms were gripping him, pulling him up and shaking him hard.
"What the fuck's the matter with you?" Chris shouted, "You could have been killed. That stagecoach driver never saw you."
"Stagecoach?" Vin croaked, knees buckling.
"Get him to Nathan's" Chris seethed, fed up with the tracker's antics. He held onto the staggering body until J.D. and Buck appeared. Once Vin was securely between them, he went back into the bar.
"Come on Pard..." Buck said as Vin collasped. "J.D., grab a hold."
"I sure hope when he wakes up he's himself again." The dark haired sheriff imparted, picking up the unconscious man's feet.
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