Upon the Midnight Clear


Summary: It was Christmas Eve, and Chris Larabee hated God.

Author's Note: Merry Christmas to all of you who gave me such a warm welcome to the M7 fandom and have been so supportive of my writing. This piece is unbeta'd so it could be delivered in time for Christmas. Any errors are all mine!

It was a beautiful night. Crisp, clear, the sky black velvet studded with diamonds. The full moon, a gleaming white disk, spilled light across glittering, snow-dusted rooftops. Chris leaned on the railing, the frosty plume of his breath interspersed with the glow of a cheroot. Below lay empty streets and darkened windows, even the saloon respectfully silent in honor of this holiest of nights.

It was Christmas Eve, and Chris Larabee hated God.

A breeze ruffled his hair, reddened his cheeks, and sent the new-fallen snow spiraling in swirls and eddies. Chris concentrated on the ever-changing patterns and pulling smoke into his lungs, anything to avoid thinking about the tragedy being played out behind the door at his back.

Vin was dying.

An icy chill shivered down his back, and Chris's fingers and toes felt like shards of ice, but he simply turned up his collar and stamped his feet. Better to face frostbite than the sound of Vin's delirious rambling and the sight of Nathan's dark, despairing eyes.

Gut shot--every man's worst fear. Nathan had done all he could, stitching together layers of delicate tissue, poring over medical books, and consulting long distance with a respected surgeon. He'd gone without food, without sleep... In the end, it hadn't mattered. Sepsis set in, and not even Nathan's determination could stop the infection that ravaged Vin's body.

For seven days Chris had watched, helpless, as his friend wasted away, eaten alive by pain and fever. Late this afternoon Tanner's temperature had risen so high he'd gone into convulsions and never really regained consciousness. His voice rough with grief and exhaustion, Nathan had quietly admitted he didn't expect Vin to survive the night.

"Peace on earth, goodwill toward men." Chris ground the words through his teeth as he glared heavenward. "What a joke. But then why should I expect you'd give a shit about us? You didn't even look out for your own son."

And why in hell was he wasting his breath talking to a God who had made it abundantly clear He wasn't listening?

Something thumped against the door at his back, rattling the knob. Chris turned, crushing the cheroot under his boot. As he stared, the door shuddered on its hinges and he heard a low groan.

Frowning, he crossed the landing in three quick strides, seized the knob, and yanked. A body lurched into him, driving the air from his lungs in a startled "Oof," before pure reflex prompted Chris to grab hold. Fever-bright blue eyes gazed into his own, a catalyst to ignite the grief and worry already simmering inside him.

"Vin? What the hell-- Are you out of your mind?"

He half-dragged, half-carried his friend inside, hooking the door shut with his foot. Pausing a moment, he searched the room, straining to see in the pale illumination of the single lamp. Josiah was cocooned in his bedroll and Nathan sprawled on the spare cot, both deeply asleep. With a low growl of disgust, Chris shuffled Vin back to his abandoned bed. His friend collapsed onto the mattress like a rag doll, but to Chris's irritation, immediately struggled to regain his feet.

"Sit down." A gentle shove was enough to thwart Vin's efforts. Chris handed him a cup of water, steadying it when Vin nearly spilled it down his front. After he'd managed a few swallows, Chris set it aside, crouching down so that he was at eye level with his friend's flushed face. "Where did you think you were going?"


Chris winced at the raspy croak. Outside? Vin was only half dressed--barefoot, his shirt unbuttoned, and pants falling off his too-slim hips.

"It's freezing, pard. You'd best stay here where it's nice and warm." He grasped Vin's shoulders, intending to help him lie down.

Vin fisted his shirt, and for the first time Chris realized his eyes were clear. "Not gonna stop me."

Chris shook his head, one corner of his mouth turning up. "I just did." He tried to remove Vin's hands, but his friend possessed amazing tenacity for someone so weak. "Damn it, Tanner, I--"

"Ain't gonna die in here."

The words hit Chris like a sucker punch, driving the air from his lungs. He wanted to deny them, to mouth false promises and empty reassurances, but he'd never lied to his friend and he didn't intend to start now. "Vin..."

"You gonna help me, or get outta my way?"

He was trying so damn hard to talk tough, but Chris saw a drop of sweat trickle down the side of his face and felt the fine tremors running through his body. "Stubborn, son of a bitch Texan," he griped around the lump in his throat. "I'll set up a chair on the landing."

Vin was shaking his head before Chris finished speaking. "Not out there. Out there." He tipped his chin up and his eyes lost focus, as if he were actually seeing the mountains through the clinic's walls.

Chris dropped his jaw, torn between anger and sorrow. "And just how did you think you'd manage that?"

"Have a horse, last I checked."

"How would you get that jughead saddled, let alone ride him? You can't even hold a cup of water!"

"Don't need a saddle," Vin said, his jaw set. "An' I don't need you."

Chris tightened his grip on the thin shoulders, tempted to shake some sense into the fool's head, when something flickered in Vin's eyes before he quickly looked away. Chris released him, stunned by what he'd read in that quicksilver gaze. Vin wasn't just being stubborn or temperamental. He was desperate.

"I guess I could take you on Pony. But only as far as Rock Creek."

The gratitude shining in Vin's eyes was short lived.

"The hell you will!" Nathan rolled off his cot and strode across the room, so furious he nearly trod on Josiah. "I know he's outta his head with fever, but what in God's name is your excuse?" He shouldered Chris out of the way, peering into Vin's eyes and checking his pulse.

Jerking his wrist from the healer's fingers, Vin sucked in a sharp breath and swayed dangerously. Nathan and Chris grabbed him before he could pitch onto the floor, Nathan swearing a blue streak as they eased him onto his back.

"Damn fools, every last one of ya. Don't know why I bother patchin' you up when ya do everything you can to ruin my hard work."

"What's all the fuss?" Now Josiah was awake--as if anyone could sleep through one of Nathan's tirades.

"Vin here thinks he's gonna take a ride to Rock Creek--an' Chris is all for helpin' him!"

"You don't know what you're talking about, Nathan." Chris said, his voice hard with repressed anger.

"Don't I? I got ears, Chris, an' eyes to see how sick he is. Takin' him out in that cold'll kill him, sure as if you'd used your gun."

"Now, Nate, I think maybe you're being a mite--"

"Better sooner 'n later."

Vin's soft rasp silenced them all. Even gaunt and hollow-eyed, he exuded a quiet strength that pierced Chris's heart.

"'Preciate all you done for me, Nathan. But a man should have final say as to where 'n how he breathes his last." Catching hold of Nathan's sleeve, he pinned the healer with his expressive gaze. "If I'm gonna die, it's gonna be with the wind in my face and the earth under my feet."

His mouth twisted with anguish, Nathan laid one large hand over Vin's. "I can't help ya do this."

"I can." Josiah pulled up his suspenders and reached for his boots. "You get him dressed," he told Chris quietly. "I'll take care of the transportation."

Vin was already struggling unsuccessfully to sit up. Chris gave Nathan's shoulder a squeeze, then moved around him and held out his hand. Vin stared at it, one corner of his mouth turning up, and then latched onto his forearm. It took the addition of Chris's free hand at his back, but they leveraged Vin upright.

Chris watched Vin fumble with his shirt for a moment before brushing his hands aside. He concentrated on sliding each button through its hole, ignoring the slight trembling of his own fingers and the terrible heat radiating from Vin's body.


There was too much subtext in that single word, feelings Chris didn't want to acknowledge. "If I'd waited for you, we'd be here all night," he said, working socks, then boots onto Vin's feet. "I'll get your coat. Stay put."

"'M dyin', not stupid."

"Could've fooled me a few minutes ago."

Chris went to the alcove where Nathan had hung Vin's buffalo hide coat. Lifting it from the hook, he stared at the dark stain that had remained despite Ezra's best efforts to remove it. He'd held his friend wrapped in that damn coat and willed him to live. Now... He pressed his forehead against the wall and closed his eyes.

"It ain't too late to stop this." Nathan at his shoulder, his voice little more than a whisper.

Chris glanced at Vin, reading agony in the lines and planes of his friend's back. "It's too late for a lot of things."


"In all the time you've known him, has he ever asked you for one damn thing?"

Nathan's eyes went wide, and he bit his lip. "No. Not one."

Chris gave him a curt nod and headed back to the cot. "Coat must weigh twenty pounds," he grumbled, raising his voice to normal volume.

"Maybe so. But I ain't gonna be the one freezin' his balls off."

Despite the piss and vinegar in his tone, Vin allowed Chris to work his arms through the sleeves with uncharacteristic passivity. Chris knew his friend had to be hurting, but Vin never once complained--not even when Chris inadvertently bumped his tender belly.

"God, Cowboy, I'm sorry," he said when Vin gasped and clamped a hand onto his arm, panting.

"'S okay. I'm fine."

But Chris got the distinct impression Vin was struggling to convince himself. By the time he'd gotten the coat on and buttoned, his friend was pale as milk, his hair damp with sweat. Still crouched on the floor, Chris rested a hand on Vin's knee.

"You ready to ride?"

Vin's head thudded onto his shoulder, as if it were too heavy to hold up any longer. "Hell, yeah. Just...just ain't sure I can." His voice trembled. "I'm so tired, Chris."

His chest painfully tight, Chris cupped the back of Vin's neck. "Then you lean on me, pard. We'll get there together."


A cup appeared and Chris looked into Nathan's face.

"Laudanum," the healer said tersely. "Mixed it with some water."

"No." Vin lifted his head. "I drink that 'n I won't care where I am."

Nathan huffed impatiently. "Look, I might not approve of this, but I can see your mind's set. You're gonna be in a world of hurt by the time you get where you're goin'. This is just enough to take off the edge, not put ya out."

Vin looked at Chris, holding out a hand when he gave a slight nod of approval. He steadied the cup while Vin drained the contents, grimacing. "Never understood why medicine's gotta taste like shit."

With what was probably a great show of restraint, Nathan said nothing.

They heard the clunk of booted feet on the stairs, and a moment later Josiah blew into the clinic on a gust of cold air. He smiled down at Vin. "Looks like you're ready."

"Might need some help getting him in the saddle," Chris said, slipping into his duster and settling his had firmly on his head.

"I'll help you get him downstairs," Josiah replied, taking Vin by the elbow and sliding a supporting arm around his waist. "But there's no saddle."

"He's right here," Vin said testily, but leaned gratefully into Josiah's bulk.

"What do mean, 'no saddle'?" Chris mirrored Josiah on the opposite side.

"I stopped by to wish the Potters a Merry Christmas. Gloria was kind enough to offer the use of her wagon."

Chris raised an eyebrow. "She did. That's quite a coincidence."

"I may have mentioned our brother's desire to take a ride."

"Don't want nobody's pity," Vin muttered through gritted teeth as they eased him through the door.

"Gloria Potter has thought the sun rises and sets on you ever since you stood against her husband's killer," Josiah said gently. "There was no pity involved."

Getting Vin down the narrow staircase wound up being a nightmare. Insisting he could make it with only Josiah's help, he managed four steps before exhaustion, weakness, and pure agony destroyed the little bit of pride he had left. Josiah grabbed him under the arms, Chris scooped up his legs, and they carried him to the wagon. Nathan followed, a silent shadow.

Chris was pleased to see that Josiah had padded the wagon bed with an old mattress and some quilts. Though white-lipped and barely hanging onto consciousness, Vin gazed up at the starry sky with an expression of peace. Josiah, Nathan, and Chris looked silently at one another for a long moment, then Chris climbed onto the wagon and gathered up the reins.

Nathan leaned over the side, fiddling with the blankets. "Take care of yourself," he told Vin, his voice thick. "Stay put and keep tucked up in them quilts. It's too damn cold for skinny-assed Texans."

Vin caught hold of his hand. "You done everything in your power, Nathan. No man could ask for more."

His eyes welling with tears, Nathan ducked his head and turned away. Josiah gave his shoulder a squeeze and smiled at Vin.

"Looks like you're ready to go," he said, and Chris wondered if he intended the double meaning behind his words.

Vin nodded, his eyes luminous in the moonlight.

"You want me to fetch the others? I'm sure they'd like to see you off."

"Nah. Let 'em sleep. Done said all there is to say." One corner of Vin's mouth turned up in a lopsided smile. "Sorry I'll miss hearin' ya tell the Christmas story, Preacher."

"That's alright, brother. You've got your own star to follow." Josiah smiled and laid a hand on his cheek. "God be with you, Vin."

"Bye, 'siah."

Josiah stepped back and looked up at Chris. "And God be with you, my friend."

Chris curled his lip. "God hasn't been with me for a long time, Preacher. I don't expect he'll start now." He chirped to the horses and drove off without waiting for a reply.

When he took a final look over his shoulder, Nathan and Josiah were still standing side by side in the middle of the street. He was glad he could no longer see their faces.

A journey that should have taken 30 minutes lasted well over an hour. The fresh snowfall concealed every rut and pothole, so that even at a snail's pace, Vin was bumped and jolted unmercifully. By the time they reached the small, sheltered grove that butted up to Rock Creek, Chris's jaw ached with tension and Vin was breathing in short, harsh gulps of air.

Chris tied off the reins and climbed into the wagon bed, careful not to jostle Vin, who had a white-knuckled grip on the quilt. He touched a hot cheek with the backs of his fingers, then brushed a damp lock of hair from his friend's eyes. "You look terrible."

Vin narrowed his eyes. "You're a real sweet talker. Larabee. No wonder you're such a hit with the ladies."

Chris chuckled, but to his horror it caught in his throat and tears stung his eyes. He stared up at the moon, willing away the traitorous moisture.

"Never understood why folks are so set on changin' the land," Vin said, after drawing in a deep breath and letting it out slowly. "Always tryin' to tame it, make it somethin' it's not 'stead of appreciatin' what it is." He shivered, burrowing further into the quilt.

Chris propped his back against the side of the wagon. "Maybe it's just human nature to fear what you don't know. To fight against it."

There was a long pause before Vin's soft reply. "Don't think I've got much fight left." He shivered again.

Chris's stomach churned. "You're the one who dragged us out in the middle of nowhere. Least you can do is stick around awhile."

"G-grouchy b-b-bastard." Vin's teeth clicked with the force of his trembling.

"Here." Chris gingerly slipped between Vin and the wagon, pulling his friend between his legs to rest against his chest and tucking the quilts around them both. "Warned you it was cold."

"Sure is pretty." Vin said, watching the moonlight sparkle on the ice-covered water and the distant mountain peaks. "No wonder the angels came to the shepherds when they was in the fields, tendin' the sheep. God just feels closer out here."

Chris snorted, pressing his lips into a thin line.

Vin tried to see his face, giving in with a sigh when his weakened body refused to cooperate. "What?"


"Right. That's why you're sittin' like you got a pole up your ass."

"Shouldn't you be savin' your breath?" But Chris forced his rigid muscles to relax.

"Don't want you usin' me in that vendetta you got goin' against God, Chris." Vin's voice was wispy, his head a solid weight on Chris's shoulder. "Had a good run. Got no complaints."

Chris felt his face heat with anger. "How can you say that? Way I see it, God's done nothing but screw you over your entire life."

"When I's just a little feller, my ma made me promise never to forget two things. That I was a Tanner. An' that God puts each of us on this earth for a reason. She said it'd be my job to figure out what that reason was."

"And you think this is it? Trading your life for a few thousand dollars?"

"That money was the hopes 'n dreams of half the folk in town. The Watkins can barely keep food in the bellies of all their kids. They been pinchin' pennies, hopin' to expand that little bitty farm of theirs. An' Ginny Peterson's savin' up to send her oldest boy, Carl, to a fancy school back east. He wants to be a doctor.

Nobody--'specially not a bunch of lowlife, murderin' bastards--has the right to steal those dreams." Vin was panting by the end of his speech, his body tight with pain.

"Take it easy. Here." Chris uncapped his canteen and held it to Vin's lips. His friend managed a few sloppy swallows.

"I'm not saying you haven't lived up to your end of the deal," Chris said, pulling the quilt up to Vin's chin. "Hell, Nathan wouldn't be here if it weren't for you."

"'N you."

Chris shook his head. "I never would've stepped in if you hadn't made the first move."

"But you did. Hell, Chris, I ain't no choirboy. I done lots of things in this life I ain't proud of. Shit, I'm gonna die a wanted man."

"And you wonder why I hold a grudge against God?" Chris said through clenched teeth. "Seems to me He's doing a pretty piss poor job when an innocent man dies..." His voice caught and he blinked hard. "While the crazy bitch responsible for killing my family continues to draw breath. You think He's got some grand purpose? I don't believe He gives a shit. I mean, tell me, Vin. What's God ever done for you?"

Vin was silent for a moment, and when he spoke his voice was wistful. "He gave me a ma with eyes as blue as the sky an' arms never too full to hold me. A chance to travel a land with beauty that just keeps unfoldin' like a flower. An' the family I always wished for an' never thought I'd have."

He tilted his head so Chris could see his smile. "See, when I's little, I only ever wanted one thing for Christmas."

"What's that?"

"A brother," Vin laughed softly. 'Course, ol' Santa, he never delivered one." He sucked in a shaky breath. "But God? He gave me six."

The breeze kicked up, swirling a flurry of snowflakes. Vin turned his hot face into Chris's neck, shivering. "He took a lot away from me, Chris. An' there's times I was sure he'd turned his back. But that just makes the good times sweeter.

"Ya say God's dealt me nothin' but a crappy hand in this life. Well, maybe it all depends on where you look."

"What are you trying to say?"

"What happened to Sarah an' Adam was a terrible thing--harshest blow a man could be dealt. But there comes a time when you gotta look past it or you'll never see the good in your life."

"And this?" Chris choked past the tears in his throat. "You call this good?"

"'S been the best," Vin said, the words slurred with weariness. "Don't want to leave you, Chris. But when the time comes...you'll need to look past this, too." His eyelids drooped. "Sorry. Think I gotta...sleep...now." His eyes slid shut and his body grew boneless and heavy in Chris's arms.

"Go head, Cowboy. I got your back."

Chris stared across the plain, for the first time acknowledging the beauty in the glittering river and delicate, snow-frosted tree branches. He thought about Mary Travis--as smart and independent as she was beautiful, able to inspire his admiration one moment and frustration the next. About Billy's trusting dark eyes and eager smile, and the fishing trips that filled a little of the gaping hole Adam had left behind. He thought about the small cabin he'd been slowly turning into a place that felt like home and not just somewhere to lay his head.

And he thought about the six men who'd come to be so much more than friends: J.D. with his youthful enthusiasm. Ezra's sly wit. Nathan's deep compassion. Josiah's sage wisdom. Buck's joyful exuberance. And Vin... Quiet. Unassuming. But with a poet's gift for seeing truth.

Vin was right. He'd been so focused on all he'd lost, he'd failed to appreciate all he'd found.

Until he was about to lose it

God? Are you listening?

I can't say I'll ever forgive you for what you did. I've always thought you a cold-hearted son of a bitch when it comes to running things down here, and I haven't seen anything yet to change my mind.

I swore I wouldn't ask you for anything ever again, and I never break a promise, but...I'm asking for him. If I could choose any man to be my brother, Lord, it'd be Vin Tanner. He's got what Sarah would call a "good soul," and...he makes me want to be a better man. He doesn't deserve to die--not when all he tried to do was help other folks.

And...I need him, God.

So if you've got any ideas about reforming me, you'll let him live.

Please...let him live.


Brilliant sunlight and the distant crunch of hooves on snow pulled Chris out of a deep sleep. He cracked open his eyes, quickly tugging down the brim of his hat when the glare off the snow cut through his head like a knife. In the distance he could just make out five figures on horseback, headed his way.

Chris stretched stiff muscles, frowning. He must have fallen asleep just before dawn; he remembered holding Vin as the first pale threads lightened the eastern sky.


His friend had slipped from his arms to lie curled on his side. Chris's mouth felt desert dry and his heart hammered wildly in his chest. Vin was utterly still, a tumble of dark hair hiding all but the waxen curve of his cheek.

Closing his eyes against the burn of tears, Chris curled his hands into fists. He didn't want to touch that pale skin, cold and lifeless. Didn't want proof that Vin had slipped away, silent as a wraith, while Chris slept on, oblivious.

"Chris!" Buck was the first to reach the wagon, slipping easily from his big gray. "Merry Christmas, old dog." His wide smile evaporated when he saw Chris's face, his eyes darting to Vin's huddled form. "Oh no."

By now the others had arrived, their banter quickly stilled by Chris's blank mask and Buck's open grief.

"Chris?" Nathan slid from the saddle, approaching as if the gunslinger were a wounded animal.

"He's gone, Nathan."

"Gone?" J.D. choked, looking bewildered. "But..."

"I am the resurrection and the life: he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live," Josiah said quietly.

Ezra simply bowed his head.

Buck placed a warm hand on Chris's shoulder. "Take my horse, Chris. I'll drive the wagon back."

Inexplicably irritated, Chris shrugged him off. "I brought him out here. I'll be the one to take him home."

"You sure?"

"I'm fine, Buck, don't--"

Nathan's gasp snapped Chris's head around. The healer had circled to the far side of the wagon and stood frozen, one hand on Vin's throat. He licked his lips, an expression of stunned joy spreading across his face.

"He ain't dead, Chris."

"What?" Chris couldn't seem to make more than a breathy croak. His fingers and toes tingled and his head felt as if it might float away. "What did you say?"

Nathan was grinning now, even as tears welled up in his eyes. "Vin ain't dead," he repeated as Buck let out a war whoop of triumph. "He's just sleepin'."

"Not anymore." Vin rolled onto his back with a grunt and scowled up at them. "Ain't y'all got any consideration for a dyin' man?"

"Fever's broke. Must've been sitting in the cold all night that done it." Nathan shook his head in disbelief. "An' I thought bringin' him out here'd kill him."

"What are you saying, Nathan?" Chris demanded. "Is he going to be all right?"

"He's got a long road ahead. But yeah," Nathan smiled down at his patient, "I think he's gonna be okay."

"He's gonna pull his gun if y'all keep talkin' over him like he's not here," Vin snarled, but the corners of his mouth twitched.

"Well, I say let's get the boy back to town. We got cause to celebrate!" Buck said, swinging into his saddle and ruffling J.D.'s hair just to annoy him.

"'S if you need one, Bucklin," Vin rasped. "Reckon you'd use your own funeral as an excuse to throw a party."

"Indulge him, Mr. Tanner," Ezra said. "I must confess even I find myself in the mood for a bit of revelry."

"Hey, Ez! Maybe while you're at it you'll be in the mood to share that bottle of fine sippin' whiskey your mama sent you last week."

"I never cast pearls before swine, Mr. Wilmington."

"Wait a minute--does he mean us?" J. D. asked Buck.

"Pulse is a little fast but your lungs sound good," Nathan said, tucking the quilt around Vin's shoulders. "You hurtin' much?"

"No more 'n usual," Vin said, watching the others' antics with an air of bemusement.

"I can give you somethin' 'fore we go back."

"Nah. Pain ain't always such a bad thing." He smiled at Chris. "Means you're alive."

"The rest of us will ride on ahead," Nathan told Chris. "Coffee'll be waiting by the time you get back."

"Don't suppose you're talkin' to me."

"Sorry, Vin. 'Fraid you ain't gonna be drinkin' coffee anytime soon. Best I can offer is broth and a soft bed."

"Damn sick of that bed." But Vin already looked halfway toward sleep.

Nathan rounded the others up and they galloped off in a flurry of crunching hooves and boisterous laughter. Chris blew out a long breath, drinking in the silence. "Suppose they'd notice if we headed the other direction?"

"Hell, it's Christmas. If I'm not gonna get my turkey dinner, then I want that cup of broth." He gazed out at the sparkling landscape and drew in a deep breath. "But maybe we could wait a few minutes."

"Fair enough." Chris settled himself beside his friend and passed him the canteen. "Drink."

Vin rolled his eyes but did as he was told. They sat in silence, Vin with peace shining through his expressive eyes, and Chris with a fierce joy warming his insides in a way he'd not felt in a very long time.

"Don't know what to say." Vin looked at him, and Chris couldn't help thinking that even hollow-eyed and thin as a rail, Vin's smile was as breathtaking as the landscape. "Thank you don't seem nearly enough."

"It'll do."

Vin shook his head. "Askin' you to bring me here, to be with me when... I know what that cost you, Chris." He scrubbed a frail hand along his stubbled cheek. "Don't even got a Christmas present for you."

Chris leaned forward to look directly into his friend's eyes. "You already gave me my present, pard."

They clasped forearms, everything felt but never spoken in their shared gaze. Chris pulled away first, adjusting the rumpled quilt snugly around his friend.

"Best head back before Nathan hunts us down," he said, his voice rough.

"He's probably too busy brewin' up more horse piss," Vin grumbled, but there wasn't really any venom in his words. "Let's ride."

Chris gathered the reins, turning up his collar against the early morning chill. By the time they were back on the road, Vin was sleeping soundly, only the tip of his nose and a few dark curls protruding from the heavy quilt.

At the outskirts of Four Corners Chris heard the first strains of Christmas music, sung by a tiny band of carolers as they made their way through the awakening town. For the first time since Sarah and Adam died, the sound brought a smile to his lips.

It came upon the midnight clear, that glorious song of old,
From angels bending near the earth to touch their harps of gold.
"Peace on the earth, good will to men, from heaven's gracious king."
The world in solemn stillness lay to hear the angels sing.

As he drew closer to the clinic, five men spilled out the door and down the stairs, their faces lit with welcoming grins. Chris checked the still peacefully sleeping man at his back, feeling a nugget of ice that had resided deep in his heart begin to thaw.

Suppose you're waiting for me to thank you. Well, I am grateful. More than I can say.

I still think you could do a better job taking care of things down here, but... You gave him a second chance. Guess I owe you the same.

Chris pulled the wagon to a halt just in time to be surrounded by his own motley group of Christmas angels. He turned to find Vin grinning up at him as if he'd heard his thoughts, their extraordinary connection unbroken.

"Welcome home, Cowboy."

"Merry Christmas, Vin."