Christmas Presence image created by Pywacket

 

CHRISTMAS PRESENCEWinner of GAMBLERS AND GUNFIGHTERS' 2011 Silver Buckle Award

by Winnie

 

 

Winner of GAMBLERS AND GUNFIGHTERS' 2011 Silver Buckle Award

 

 

 

 

 

A/N: This is an old west Christmas story I'd like to share with everyone. Hope you enjoy...it's mostly Chris and Vin H/C with the rest of the seven to their rescue. Thanks Marti and Antoinette for the wonderful beta, and Pamela for the beautiful image.

 

  

 

Chris enjoyed the quiet ride as much as the man riding alongside him. It wasn't often they could just relax and enjoy the day. The sun had risen as they rode away from Providence, leaving behind the papers that would see a young couple free to begin their lives without the threat of losing their homes to a miserable cattle baron who thought he was above the law.

 

With Christmas only a couple of days away, it seemed like the fates had decided to give them a little peace and quiet. At this leisurely pace, it would take a little over half a day to reach the town of Four Corners and by then the town would be getting ready for the celebration. Up until a year ago, Chris dreaded this time of year, but he'd found himself looking forward to it and even managed to buy a few gifts.

 

Chris thought about Mary and Billy and how much they'd come to mean to him. Mary had invited him to spend Christmas with her and Billy and he'd accepted. He'd spent the last few weeks working on a gift for Billy and hoped the boy would like the horses and cows and other animals that would make up a full set of toys he could share with his friends. Mary's gift had taken a little longer, but he hoped she would like the desk he'd made her.

 

“What are ya thinkin' 'bout, Chris?” Tanner asked.

 

“Christmas,” Larabee answered simply.

 

“Ya spendin' Christmas with Mary and Billy?”

 

“I am...you going out to Nettie's?”

 

“Me and JD's gonna ride out Christmas Eve...spend the night.”

 

“Sounds good...you know there's only one thing that could make this Christmas perfect,” Larabee said.

 

“Snow,” Vin said with a grin.

 

“Back home the ground would be white by now. We'd probably be snowed in and Ma would be baking bread and pies for Christmas,” Larabee said.

 

“Nothin' like spendin' time with fam'ly,” Tanner observed, and frowned when he looked toward the east. “Ain't snow, but there's a storm headed this way.”

 

“Bad one?”

 

“Ain't sure, but we need ta find shelter. Follow me!”

 

Chris nodded and felt Pony react to the tension as Vin spurred Peso to a fast gallop that ate away at the ground beneath them. He glanced over his shoulder as the wind picked up and spotted something he'd seen only a couple of times. A swirling band of dark clouds seemed to coalesce into something that obliterated the horizon. He could see the twister, could hear the screaming winds, feel the electrically charged current of air, and silently prayed they'd find somewhere to hold up until it passed them.

 

Pony raced after Peso, the heels kicking up dust and dirt and sending sparks flying when their shoed hooves struck exposed rocks. The wind added to the urgency, pushing at their backs and sending debris across their path as they sought out a place to hold up and ride out the tempest brewing around them.

 

Chris glanced over his shoulder in time to see a fair sized tree uprooted and picked up by the swirling mass before it shot toward him as if fired from a canon. It landed directly in Vin's path, but Peso managed to clear it and continue on the hell-bent ride to escape the deadly winds. Pony easily evaded the larger branches and jumped, landing with a heavy thud that was drowned out by the howling winds.

 

Vin could no longer hear anything but the twister closing in behind them. He'd diverted Peso several times, but it seemed like the 'devil wind' was not going to let them escape that easily. He knew of a cave not far from their position, but right now it felt like it was out of their reach. He'd managed to evade the tree that came out of nowhere, but he'd felt Peso lurch as if injured, but still the horse continued at breakneck speed. He glanced over his shoulder, relieved to see Chris was still in control of Pony as the horse and rider seemed as one.

 

Vin turned back to the trail in time to see something roll by, and had time to think that it looked like an outhouse, but did not have time to react when something struck him full force and drove him from Peso. He hit the ground hard, expelling the air from his lungs as whatever had hit him landed across his body and pinned him to the ground.

 

Chris had seen the small outhouse, but had no time to warn the other man when something flew directly toward him. The storm had changed course and whatever was in its path had been lifted and carried with it. He had no idea what it was that struck the tracker, but he'd seen Peso continue his head on run even as Vin disappeared.

 

Larabee gave no thought to his own life as he slowed Pony and dismounted in one move. The storm seemed to have passed them as quickly as if they were no longer a concern. He looped the reins over a branch of a tree before racing toward the last place he'd seen the Texan.

 

“Vin...Tanner...talk to me!” Larabee called and hurried around what could only be part of a house or barn. He spotted two legs, and swallowed convulsively before walking slowly around the structure until he caught sight of Tanner's upper body. He knelt beside him and searched for signs that the man was alive, relieved when he heard a sharp curse escape with the exhaling air.

 

“...son...fa...bitch.”

 

“You can say that again,” Larabee readily agreed.

 

“Can't...too much ef...effort,” the Texan mumbled and opened his eyes, surprised to find the sun was shining down on them.

 

“Where are you hurt?”

 

“Easier ta ask what ain't hurt,” Tanner told him. “What the fuck h...hit me?”

 

“Looks like part of a barn,” Larabee told him as he looked around. “A big part.”

 

“No shit!”

 

“No, I think that was in the outhouse that flew by just before the broad side of the barn hit you,” Larabee teased, unable to keep the fear from his voice as he tried to make light of the situation. From the waist down, Vin's body was trapped by the structure, and Chris reached beneath, but stopped when he couldn't reach more than a few inches. Tanner was trapped and no matter how hard he tried there was no way in hell he could pull him out. “Can you move?”

 

“Don't think so,” Tanner answered.

 

“I'm going to see if I can move it. Stay put,” Larabee said.

 

“Ain't like I can go anywhere,” the Texan said and tried to move his legs, but they were held fast. He lifted his head and it dawned on his just how much trouble he was in. Larabee wasn't kidding when he said the broad side of a barn had hit him, but that wasn't the only thing. The storm must have ripped a tree from its roots and fate, in one of her fickle moods, decided the tree was just what was needed on top of the barn.

 

Vin knew he was lucky the barn hadn't crushed him when the tree landed on it, but there seemed to be something keeping the full weight of it off of him. The problem was it still kept him trapped and from the discomfort he felt, it wasn't quite keeping the bulk of the debris off his body. He closed his eyes, and listened as Larabee circled around the area, but he knew his friend would come to the same conclusion he had.

 

Chris walked around the area, searching for anything that might help him release the Texan. Pony whinnied nearby, but there was no sign of Peso. He knew he could tie a rope around the trunk of the tree and use Pony to pull it, but deep down he knew there was no way in hell the animal could do it on his own. What he needed was an axe, but he didn't have one and that meant he had to go for help. He moved back to Tanner and knelt on the ground beside him.

 

“Ain't gonna be able ta move it by yerself, Chris,” Tanner said.

 

“I know...damn tree has to be over a hundred years old. Pony won't be able to pull it off, Vin. I'm going to have to ride to Four Corners and get help,” Larabee explained and looked around. “Didn't you say something about a shortcut around here?”

 

“There's one, but it's dangerous.”

 

“I'll be careful. Tell me where to go,” Larabee ordered.

 

“Chris...”

 

“I'm not a kid, Vin, just tell me about the shortcut and I'll get help,” the blond ordered.

 

“Stubborn sonofabitch...”

 

“Takes one to know one, Tanner, now hurry up. The sun's going down and it gets a little cold out here,” Larabee said.

 

“Ride back 'bout half a mile and ya'll see a break in the trees on the right. Follow the trail through the canyon, but be careful 'cause I ain't been that way in a spell.” Tanner looked toward the sun as if he could keep it from dropping below the horizon. He knew the area Larabee would be going through was treacherous under normal circumstances and wished he hadn't said anything about it. “Ya'd best be careful, Larabee, ain't in the mood ta tell Billy and Mary why yer not at Christmas dinner.”

 

“I aim to be there...so you just make sure you're here when we get back,” Larabee said and looked around. “I'm going to get some wood and start a fire. It should keep the animals away...got your gun?”

 

“It's here somewhere,” Tanner said of the gun he'd started carrying. The mare's leg was in its scabbard wherever Peso was, and he worried that the animal may have been injured when he'd been thrown to the ground. He managed to pull the gun free, and tried to wiggle his lower body, but the debris kept him trapped as he stared into the worried green beacons staring down at him.

 

“Don't go anywhere,” Larabee warned.

 

 

“I ain't...though I wish that outhouse was handy right now,”

 

“Shit...”

 

“Chris...”

 

“Sorry,” Larabee said with a grin before moving in search of anything that might help Tanner while he went for help.

 

Vin watched as Larabee gathered wood and wished there was something he could do to convince him not to use the shortcut, but he knew Larabee was a stubborn cuss. The blond started a small fire close enough so that he could add wood when he needed to. He also brought a blanket and his flask from Pony and made sure he had everything he needed including both canteens.

 

“All right, Vin, that should hold you until we get back,” Larabee said.

 

“Be careful, Chris, the pass through that canyon can be dangerous,” Tanner warned.

 

“I hear you, Vin,” Larabee said and clasped the man's wrist in the familiar gesture that sent a promise through his touch. He turned and walked toward Pony, mounted up and spurred the horse toward the shortcut, silently praying Tanner was not badly injured. Once he reached Four Corners he'd be able to bring Nathan and the others back and they'd be able to free the Texan and have him home in plenty of time to enjoy his Christmas dinner at Nettie Wells' home. 

 

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7

 

The town of Four Corners was busy getting ready for the festive season, a time when family and friends came together to celebrate the birth of Baby Jesus. Two days from now there would be a potluck dinner held outside the church Josiah had restored and people from miles around would bring food and gifts and renew friendships.

 

JD leaned against the wall outside the jail, amazed that so far they'd been lucky and there'd been no rowdy brawls that usually ended with several men locked in the cells. Buck and Josiah had gone out to check on Chris' place, and would make a circuit of several farms before returning in the morning. Ezra was at the saloon, playing poker with two salesmen who would learn that a fool and his money were soon parted.

 

JD glanced toward the livery where Nathan Jackson had a small clinic at the top of the stairs. The town's healer was finally able to rest after a week long epidemic of injuries and illnesses that left him looking haggard and unwell. The last person to need his help had been released that morning and gone home with his parents with the promise that he would rest for a few more days before returning to work with his father in the fields.

 

Chris and Vin should be home sometime tonight or early in the morning after delivering a wonderful Christmas present to a young couple. Judge Travis had made sure the papers were properly signed and that no one could take the property away from the Parker family. Stuart James and several other big ranchers were always trying to push the homesteaders away, but they were learning real fast that it wasn't their decision who lived in the area.

 

JD smiled and tipped his hat as a couple of ladies passed by, but his eyes were drawn to the young woman who'd just came out of Potter's Store. Casey Wells looked right at him and smiled, and JD wasn't sure how he managed to stay on his feet. There was something about her that made him weak in the knees and he touched his fingers against the small box in his pocket. He'd ordered it several months ago and it had finally arrived the day before.

 

Casey wasn't one for fancy doodads, but he was pretty sure the locket he'd bought for her was something she would enjoy almost as much as the frog gigger he'd given her in the summer. They'd spent hours figuring out how to use it and he remembered the fun they had in spite of her pulling him into the water and mud.

 

“JD, what's gotten into you, Son?” Jackson asked.

 

“Oh, sorry, Nate, I didn't see you there,” Dunne answered, but kept his eyes on Casey Wells.

 

Ya looked like ya were lost in a world of yer own,” Jackson said and nodded toward the young woman. “Now I see why.”

 

“What's that supposed to mean?” the Bostonian asked.

 

“Your head's always in the clouds when Casey's in town,” the healer observed.

 

“Hell, Nate, ain't my fault I got eyes,” Dunne said.

 

“If you were smart ya'd sweep her off her feet before some other suitor decides he's got a chance.”

 

“Casey ain't like that.”

 

“Casey's a pretty young woman, Son, don't think you're the only one who's got eyes for her,” Jackson said.

 

“Who?”

 

“Is there an owl nearby?”

 

“Damnit, Nate, who's been eyeing my girl?”

 

“Ain't said I seen anyone eyeing her, but...”

 

“Good, 'cause I saw her first and I...”

 

“So you've staked out your claim. Does Casey know that?”

 

“Not yet, but once she sees what I got her for Christmas...”

 

“Not another frog gigger?”

 

“Not this time,” Dunne said and showed Jackson the gift he'd bought for Casey Wells.

 

“Nice,” Jackson told him.

 

“Think she'll like it?”

 

“I think so.”

 

“Is Rain coming to visit?”

 

“I got her a room at the hotel for Christmas Eve,” Jackson answered of the pretty Seminole woman he'd been seeing for several months now. He'd spoken with Josiah and just maybe, if Rain was willing, then they'd have a small ceremony in the church before the end of the year.

 

“You look like a man with something on his mind...or is that someone?”

 

“Been thinking about Rain a lot lately.”

 

“So I ain't the only love struck fool,” Dunne observed with a grin.

 

“Love struck...yeah, but I ain't no fool,” Jackson said.

 

“Me either,” Dunne told him and watched as Casey stopped to talk to two women who caught her eye. Yep, maybe it was time to make his move before someone else did.

 

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7  

 

Chris knew he had to be careful as he guided Pony through the narrow opening and finally out onto a narrow ledge that was just wide enough for Pony. He understood what Vin had meant about this being dangerous and briefly wondered if the trail had worsened since Vin had last been through the area. The moon shone down with just enough light for him to see the trail, and he glanced over his right shoulder to see if he could turn the horse around. The problem was it would be just as dangerous to try to turn back as it would be to forge ahead.

 

Chris rubbed Pony's neck, talking softly as he urged the animal forward. There seemed to be a deep crevice on either side of the narrow trail, and Pony reared his head several times, his hooves clicking against the stones and sending them over the edge.

 

“Easy, Boy, we're almost there,” Larabee said, swallowing several times as the horse traveled across the narrow trail. There was no margin for error and Chris felt as if time stood still when Pony neared the end and the trail widened.

 

The moon illuminated the opposite side and he felt a little more at ease as Pony stepped onto the wider ledge. He eased up slightly and breathed a sigh of relief that was short lived as something darted out in front of Pony. The horse reared up and pawed at the air, but Chris didn't have time to think about anything except grabbing for anything as the reins around Pony's neck snapped and he tumbled backward.

 

Chris reached out and tried to grip the edge of the narrow trail, but the dirt was loose near the edge and he felt himself sliding downward. He had no idea how deep the crevice was, but he knew he needed to find a handhold. Several times he gripped stones or roots, but each time he thought he'd stopped his downward spiral it was short lived.

 

Larabee felt as if the journey to the bottom would never end as roots, rocks, and small brush cut through his clothes and tore into his body. A sharp cry escaped his throat as the fall came to an abrupt end with the dust billowing up around his battered body.

 

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7

 

Buck and Josiah continued their circuit of the farms within riding distance of Four Corners. They'd stopped to speak with the Wilson's and wound up having dinner with them. Tom and Martha's boys, Joey and Timmy, took care of the horses and made sure they were fed and watered before Buck and Josiah bid them all good night.

 

They'd ridden at a leisurely pace for nearly an hour when both men saw the homestead that had been abandoned during the summer. The barn was missing most of its roof and one side and there was evidence that a major storm had blown through. They'd taken the time to make sure no one had moved in during the few months the homestead had been deserted, relieved that there was no sign of squatters. They rode away from the home, the moon giving enough light to ride by and followed the storm's path.

 

“Tom Wilson's a lucky man,” Wilmington said and patted his stomach in appreciation.

 

“That he is,” Josiah agreed. They'd been riding northwest, planning to be back in Four Corners in time for breakfast when Sanchez pulled his horse to a stop and cocked his head.

 

“Something wrong, Josiah?” Wilmington asked.

 

“Not sure...thought I heard something over there,” Sanchez answered, and heard the sound again.

 

“That sounds like a horse,” Wilmington observed. He headed toward the sound, avoiding the toppled trees and debris strewn around the area. His hand strayed to the gun at his hip, and hoped whoever the animal belonged to was friendly. He knew Josiah was right beside him as they moved into the jumble of boulders and tumbleweed, surprised when the animal's head came up and whinnied softly.

 

“Buck, I think that's Peso,” Sanchez said. He'd spotted the horse at the same time as Wilmington and recognized the saddle even as the horse sensed their presence.

 

“Easy, Boy,” Wilmington said when the horse's head came up. He rode closer and dismounted, talking to the animal in an effort to calm him. He reached for the reins, and realized they were caught in the branches of the tree. Peso lifted his hooves, but dropped them back to the ground as if he recognized Wilmington.

 

“He's skittish, Buck, so be careful,” Sanchez warned.

 

“I know,” Wilmington said and tugged the reins, relieved when they finally came free. He gently patted the animal's neck and searched for any sign of injury before leading him out of the brush. He could see Sanchez searching the area and silently prayed he'd find Vin safe and sound.

 

“There's no sign of them,” Sanchez observed as Wilmington used his hands to check the horse.

 

“Could be they're riding Pony double,” Wilmington offered hopefully.

 

“Maybe, but I don't think they'd just leave Peso out here,” Sanchez said.

 

“Unless he threw Vin and ran off,” the ladies' man said. “Chris! Vin!”

 

The only answer was the sound of a coyote in the distance and the wind rustling the brush around them. The eerie silence that followed sent shivers down their spine as they looked for any sign of their missing friends.

 

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7

 

Vin's frustration mounted as he struggled to get out from under the debris, but there was no give and he was forced to lie back on the hard-packed ground. He added a couple of pieces of wood to the fire and rubbed his arms in an effort to get warm. On several occasions he'd heard the sound of a coyote, but so far the fire was keeping the critters at bay. If anything larger than a rabbit decided to brave the light surrounding him, then his gun was within easy reach of his right hand.

 

The moon was high overhead, shining down on him and the debris that had him trapped. He thought he heard a horse in the distance and wondered if Chris was coming back or if Peso had decided to return to his owner's side. He listened, but the sound was not repeated as he returned his attention to trying to get free. 

 

Vin could feel the cold seeping into his bones and added more wood to the fire before grabbing his gun when he heard a growl from his right. He stared, waiting for his eyes to adjust to the soft moonlight just beyond the fire's glow. A dark shape seemed to be circling around him and he turned his head, shifting his upper body in an effort to keep the animal in his sights.

 

The growl came again, but this time it was on the opposite side, and Vin realized there were two coyotes and they seemed to be closing in on him. Vin fired at the one nearest him, and heard the animal yelp, but it didn't back off.

 

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7

 

Buck's head snapped up at the sound of gunfire and knew Josiah had also heard it. He looped Peso's reins around his saddle horn and mounted up as a second shot echoed through the surrounding hillside. Josiah rode slightly ahead and to the right of him, and he hoped the gunshots didn't spell trouble for his friends.

 

Josiah rode quickly as another shot sounded and spotted a small fire even as a fourth shot rang out. He spotted the reason and quickly pulled his own gun, firing rapidly at the snarling animal even as Wilmington did the same. They reached the downed man, and dismounted, Sanchez quickly kneeling beside the trapped man.

 

“Is he all right, Josiah?” Wilmington asked.

 

“No, but I will be if'n ya brought an axe,” Tanner said.

 

“Sorry, it's not something we carry on patrol,” Sanchez said and looked around. “Where's Chris?”

 

“What'cha mean where's Chris? Ain't he with ya?” the Texan asked worriedly.

 

“He's supposed to be with you. What the hell happened?” Wilmington asked as he and Josiah tried to lift the large piece of debris off the trapped man.

 

“We was on our way back when it hit...”

 

“Tornado?” Sanchez asked.

 

“A big one...moved fast and picked up a lot of shit.”

 

“Looks like it dropped most of it on top of you,” Sanchez observed. “Is anything hurting more than it should be?”

 

“No, jest can't get clear,” Tanner answered, yet he knew once the debris was removed he'd probably hurt a hell of a lot more. 

 

“Vin, you didn't say what happened to Chris,” Wilmington said.

 

“He left ta get help...stubborn cuss wouldn't listen,” Tanner answered.

 

“What do you mean?” Sanchez asked.

 

“I told him not to take the shortcut, but he wouldn't listen.”

 

“That old trail?” Sanchez asked worry evident in his tone.

 

“What old trail?” Wilmington asked.

 

“It cuts the distance between here and town by a couple of hours,” Sanchez answered.

 

“That's good...he should be on his way back with Nathan and the others,” the ladies' man observed.

 

“Maybe, guess we'll have to wait and see,” Sanchez said.

 

“Josiah, how bad is that trail?” Wilmington asked as they continued to check just how badly Tanner was trapped.

 

“Bad enough during the day, but if Chris got there anytime after dark he could be in serious trouble. Chanu was there a few months ago and said the ledge across was less than three feet wide,” Sanchez answered. “Buck, why don't you ride on back to the Wilson place and ask Tom for his axe and saw. Maybe get a couple of his horses to help pull that tree off?”

 

“What about Chris?”

 

“He might already be in four Corners or maybe he saw how bad the ledge was and took the long way around,” Sanchez suggested, but neither man believed it as Buck moved to his horse.

 

Wilmington removed Peso's reins from his saddle horn and looped them around a branch of the tree before mounting up and heading for Wilson's farm. He knew Vin needed help now, and that there was no point in worrying about Chris until they helped free the Texan.

 

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7

 

Chris took a deep breath, and cried out as he felt the pain he knew signaled damaged ribs. He shifted his body, and tried to figure out where he hurt the most. His right side bore the brunt of his trip over the ledge and he lifted his right hand to touch against the right side of his head. It was dark, but he knew the sticky substance was his blood and wondered how bad the cut below his hairline was.

 

'Okay, first things first...what moves and what doesn't or shouldn't,' he thought and slowly took stock of his injuries. Cut on the right side of his head...stopped bleeding so that was a good thing. Then again, maybe not because it meant he'd been out cold for some time. What felt like cracked or broken ribs on his right side. His left arm and shoulder hurt, but he could move them if he really needed to, and right now he didn't think moving them was a priority. His biggest worry was the throbbing pain in his left leg. He didn't think it was broken, but the stinging pain he felt there told him he'd probably ripped more than a few pieces of skin from the limb.

 

Chris slowed his breathing and held his left arm tight against his side as he tried to stand up, but his left leg wouldn't hold him and he sank back to the ground with a sharp cry of pain. He closed his eyes and tried to ride out the waves of agonizing pain that shot through his upper body. He leaned back against the wall of the crevice and kept his eyes closed for several minutes. When he opened them again he looked up, not surprised when his vision seemed to blur and made it impossible for him to focus on anything.

 

Chris licked at dry lips and felt his body sliding to the left, but didn't feel the ground as consciousness left him.

 

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7

 

Josiah had done everything he could to make Vin comfortable, including grabbing his blanket and using it as a pillow for the trapped man. He glanced toward the horizon as the sun's glorious rays drove back the darkness. It had been three hours since Buck left and Josiah knew he should be back soon and then they'd get Vin loose and find out what happened to Chris. There was still hope that Larabee had made it through the pass, but until they knew for sure, Josiah would continue to pray for a miracle.

 

“Rider's comin' in,” Tanner's voice was raspy as he opened his eyes. He'd slept fitfully, uncomfortable with being unable to move his lower body.

 

“Thought you were sleeping?”

 

“Ain't exactly Ezra's mattress,” Tanner said of the hard ground.

 

“No, but I'm sure he'd give it up for you. Looks like Buck and Tom,” Sanchez said of the two riders headed his way. They dismounted next to the horses and ground tied their own mounts before moving toward the spot where Tanner was trapped.

 

“Vin, you all right?” Wilson asked.

 

“Think so, Tom, least I will be once this shit is off me,” Tanner answered.

 

“Well, we brought a couple of axes and a saw. Joey's on his way with the wagon and Martha and Timmy are headed for town to get Nathan,” Wilson explained.

 

“Good...get this thing off me,” Tanner snapped. Since Chris left he'd had the uncanny feeling that something was wrong and as the sun rose above the horizon a sense of urgency had instilled itself in him. He closed his eyes and sought out that familiar touch that would have made the others laugh if they knew he believed in it. He'd known there was something special happening when he'd looked across the street that fateful day and looked into the intense green eyes. Without a word he'd fallen into step with the gunfighter and taken the place by his side to help save Nathan from a drunken lynch mob. 

 

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7

 

There were some sounds that Nathan hated to hear and one of them was a horse coming into town at breakneck speed. He moved to the open door and stepped out on the landing just as Joey Wilson pulled to a stop at the bottom of the stairs. Nathan placed his empty coffee cup on the wooden crate he sometimes used as a table or a place to rest an injured leg depending on the occasion.

 

“Mr. Jackson! Mr. Jackson?” the boy's long limbs carried him up the stairs two at a time.

 

“Easy, Son, catch your breath before ya pass out on me,” Jackson warned and hurried to get the boy a cup of water. He waited for him to drink the water and asked. “Something happen at your place?”

 

“No...everyone's fine...”

 

“Then why were ya ridin' like...”

 

“Pa told me ta come get ya. Buck came to the farm and told us Vin's trapped and he might be hurt and...”

 

“Easy son...”

 

“Nathan, is everything all right?” Dunne asked from the bottom of the stairs.”

 

“Vin's trapped. I'm gonna get my things. Ya go and tell Ezra.”

 

“You want us to ride with you?” Dunne asked.

 

“No, ya'd best stay here and keep an eye on things, but go tell Yosemite ta saddle my horse and a fresh mount for Joey,” Jackson answered.

 

“All right,” Dunne said and hurried into the livery.

 

“Joey, ya sit a spell while I get my things,” Jackson ordered. He went back into the clinic and grabbed the saddle bag he always kept filled in case of trouble.

 

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7

 

Chris wasn't sure what he was hearing, but it sounded like someone was talking softly to him. The voice was oddly familiar, but he couldn't quite place it, nor could he ignore it. He opened his eyes, slamming them shut again when the pain threatened to send him back into the darkness. A hand touched against his forehead and the pain eased enough for him to open his eyes.

 

“Better?”

 

“A little...thanks...who are you?”

 

“It doesn't matter who I am, but you need to stay awake when they get here or they'll pass you by.”

 

“Who gets here?” Larabee asked tiredly and looked around. There was no way anyone could have ridden a horse in here and when he looked up it was a good thirty to forty foot drop to where he lay. He stared at the young man...boy who knelt before him and licked at dry lips. “What did you say?”

 

“The others...your friends...Buck...they're coming to help you, but it will take time. You need to wait for them.”

 

“How did you get down here?” Larabee asked and frowned as he stared into eyes that were both familiar and strange at the same time.

 

“It doesn't matter...I'm here to help you.”

 

“Get me up,” Larabee ordered.

 

“You can't get up without help.”

 

“You just said you're here to help so help me up.”

 

“I can't.”

 

“I'm not asking!” Larabee growled low in his throat and tried to climb to his feet, but pain slammed through his leg and his eyes closed as the darkness closed in around him. He didn't feel the hand that touched his cheek or see the tears shining in the green eyes.

 

 

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7

 

Vin lay on his back, listening to the three men as they hacked at the branches of the tree that was keeping him trapped. He knew it would take time, yet he could not stop thinking about Larabee. The man should have made it to town and back by now, but so far there was no sign of him and Vin kept thinking about what Josiah had said about the trail.

 

If Chris decided to go across it in the dark, he might not see how dangerous it was. God, he hoped and prayed the blond was in Four Corners enjoying a shot of whiskey, but he knew that was not the case. Larabee would never sit down for a drink when he knew someone was in trouble.

 

“Vin, you need anything?” Wilmington asked.

 

“Water,” the Texan answered, relieved when the ladies' man held a canteen out to him. He drank his fill and gasped when something shifted and it felt like whatever was holding the considerable bulk off his body had moved.

 

“Josiah, stop whatever it is you're doing!” Wilmington shouted when he saw the distress in Tanner's eyes. “Tell me what's happening, Vin.”

 

“Don't know...just felt it slide...it's like the whole damn thing is gettin' ready ta crush me,” Tanner explained.

 

“Josiah, we need to shore up the area around Vin before we try anything else,” Wilmington said when Sanchez and Wilson joined him at Tanner's side.

 

“There's some good sized rocks over there. If we can roll them over here and lift this thing enough to get it underneath,” Wilson said.

 

“We need to be careful,” Wilmington observed and looked at the Texan. “Vin, what happened when it shifted? Did you feel anything?”

 

“Think something stuck in my leg...feels like it's bleeding,” Tanner answered and tried to move his legs, but they were held fast.

 

“All right, just sit tight and we'll get you out of there,” Wilmington ordered.

 

“Buck, ya need ta go find Chris,” Tanner said.

 

“I will...as soon as we get you out of here,” the rogue vowed.

 

“He might be hurt...”

 

“He might be, but you are and that's the difference right now, Vin, so just sit still and let us do what we gotta do,” Wilmington told him. He patted the man's shoulder before going to help Wilson and Sanchez.

 

“Here come Martha and Timmy,” Tom said when he stood up a few minutes later to stretch the kinks from his back. He moved to meet his wife and son and accepted the sandwich she held out to him.

 

“Josiah, Buck, I brought sandwiches,” Martha said and moved toward the trapped man. “How are you doing, Vin?”

 

“I'd be a lot better if'n this thing was off me,” Tanner answered.

 

“I'm sure you would. Are you hungry?”

 

“I could eat,” Tanner told her and smiled when she handed him a sandwich. “Thanks.”

 

“You're welcome, now let's see what we can do about getting you out from under this mess,” Martha ordered.

 

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7

 

His first thought when he tried to open his eyes was that he was going to shoot whoever he'd been drinking with and Buck was the first name that came to mind.

 

“You weren't drinking.”

 

There was that voice again, the one that was both familiar and strange and he finally managed to open his eyes. “You still here?”

 

“I have no where else to be right now. Tell me about your life.”

 

“My life's been hell,” Larabee answered softly.

 

“Has it really?”

 

Chris frowned when he detected a note of disappointment in the young man's words. He leaned his head back against the wall of the crevice and closed his eyes. He thought about his life and the loss of his family and nodded his head, setting off the pain in his skull before looking into the sorrow filled eyes. He felt a shiver run through him, and wasn't sure if it was because he was cold or if this young man was doing something to his mind.

 

“Why is your life hell when you had so much love.”

 

Chris tried to pull away, but a hand touched against his forehead and it was like being transported through his life, back to a time when he was happier than he'd ever been in his life.

 

“Sarah,” he whispered and picked himself up off the ground to race toward the familiar homestead.

 

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7

 

Nathan rode alongside Joey Wilson, amazed at how much he'd sprouted up in the last year. Tom and Martha had done a wonderful job with their sons and there was no doubt in his mind that the couple should be proud of them.

 

“If Buck gave us the right directions it should be just over the next hill,” Joey explained and wasn't surprised when they picked up the pace. They topped the rise and looked down into a narrow valley. The damage wrought by the storm the day before was easily visible as they moved toward the men working to free Vin Tanner.

 

Nathan spurred his horse forward and quickly dismounted once he reached the others and handed his reins to Timmy Wilson. He moved to kneel next to the Texan as Tom, Buck, and Josiah worked to shore up the area around him. “Is anything hurtin' fierce right now, Vin?”

 

“My left leg...think something stabbed inta it when the damn thing shifted,” Tanner answered.

 

“I'm gonna see if I can reach under it and see how bad things are,” Jackson said and used the tracker's leg as a guide. There wasn't much room, but he was able to reach the point where something protruded from Tanner's leg. He felt blood seeping around his fingers and hoped the sluggish flow wouldn't turn deadly before they were able to shift the debris off of him.

 

“Nate, we're ready to try getting the tree off him,” Sanchez said and motioned to the spot where Tom had tied two horses to the trees massive trunk. “Once the tree is gone me and Buck are gonna try to lift the wall while you pull Vin out.”

 

“I can help,” Timmy said.

 

“Timmy, you help me with the horses,” Tom Wilson ordered and turned to his other son. “Joey, you git in there and help Buck and Josiah.”

 

“Sure, Pa,” Joey said and smiled as he passed his mother.

 

“Nathan, I got his right arm...you take his left,” Martha ordered as her husband slowly began moving the horses.

 

“Joey, get ready to push that rock under the wood when we lift it,” Sanchez told the boy and nodded to Wilmington that he was ready to lift.

 

“Vin, ya let me know if it gets to be too much fer ya,” Jackson said as Tom and Timmy began to tug the horse's reins. Nathan moved to help the boy with the rock, but kept watching the Texan's face as the horses struggled with their burden. The blue eyes were closed, but there was no mistaking the lines of pain that creased Tanner's forehead as the horses caused the debris to shift. “Vin, are you...”

 

“I'm okay, Nathan. Just get it done,” Tanner ordered without opening his eyes.

 

“Tom, get that damn tree off,” Martha ordered, smiling at the shocked look on Jackson's face. She rarely used bad language, but there were times when it had its uses.

 

“I'm doing my best,” Wilson said. The horses were fighting to move the tree and as he answered his wife he felt what was left of the tree suddenly shift and roll toward them. He reacted quickly, jumping out of the way even as his son did the same and the animals they'd been leading reared up and moved out of the way as well.

 

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7 

 

Chris' heart filled with joy at the sight before him and he raced down the hill toward the house he'd built for his wife. Sarah stood on the porch, rocking gently in the swing as she watched him. Her hand rested on her belly and he knew she carried his son inside her. He knew in his heart this couldn't be real, but who was he to argue with this gift. “Sarah!”

 

“Chris, I wasn't expecting you back until tonight,” Sarah said, smiling as her husband lifted her into his arms.

 

“I needed to see you...I missed you so much,” Larabee told her.

 

“It's only been a couple of hours, Chris.”

 

“For you...for me it's been years...a lifetime,” he said and kissed her lips with an urgency that belied description.

 

“Did Buck come back with you?”

 

“No...I don't know...I don't think so.”

 

“Chris, what's gotten into you? I've never seen you like this,” Sarah said and tilted her head back to look into her husband's eyes.

 

“I just needed to see you, Sarah, needed to be with you,” Larabee told her and continued to hold her, smiling when he felt the baby kick.

 

“Well, your son is happy to see you.”

 

“But you're not?”

 

“I'm always happy to see you, Love, but what about the turkey? You and Buck were supposed to get one for Christmas Dinner,” Sarah lightly scolded.

 

“We could just eat your apple pies and I'd be a happy man,” Larabee told her.

 

“Apple pies indeed,” Sarah said with a laugh as her husband gently placed his hand on her stomach.

 

“I wish we could stay like this forever,” Larabee said.

 

Something touched his face and Chris was jolted back to reality with such force that he was sure his head would explode. “No...God damn you. No!”

 

“I'm sorry, but you need to know they are gone from you.”

 

“Oh, God,” Larabee whispered and turned away as the contents of his stomach were expelled with enough force that he was sure his insides were torn apart.

 

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7 

 

Vin swallowed convulsively as the debris shifted again, but tried not to let the others know just how much pain he was in. He could hear Wilson speaking to the horses and the undeniable sound of the animals fighting to do what he was asking of them. He bit his bottom lip, teeth clenched tightly, and eyes squeezed shut as Buck and Josiah lifted the 'barn'.

 

“Hurry, Nate, we can't hold it much longer,” Sanchez said, his voice strained with the effort it took to keep the board from crashing back down.

 

“Just need ta check his leg,” Jackson said and quickly felt beneath it, relieved to find that whatever had been in Tanner's leg was out. He moved to Tanner's back and grabbed him under the arms. He pulled, feeling a slight resistance that resulted in a sharp gasp from the Texan, but he couldn't let that stop him. He felt Joey Wilson lend his help and between them they finally managed to pull the man free just as Buck and Josiah released their hold on the debris.

 

“Josiah, get my saddlebags,” Jackson ordered.

 

“What can I do to help, Nathan,” Martha Wilson asked.

 

“I need ta see how bad his leg is,” Jackson said and knew the woman was far from shy. She'd helped them before and would not turn away from them now as she helped ease Tanner's pants down his hips.

 

“I can...”

 

“I've seen it all before, Vin Tanner, so just lay there and let Nathan take a look at you,” Martha ordered with a mischievous smile as she watched Jackson tear the man's long johns away from the wound. It looked nasty and was still bleeding as Buck and Josiah brought the saddlebags and canteens.

 

“How bad?” Wilmington asked.

 

“It's deep, but I don't think it broke anything and the blood's not gushing,” Jackson observed. He knew he had to stop the bleeding before he could check the Texan for more damage and wasn't surprised when Sanchez handed him a strip of cloth. “Buck, I need you to mix some of the carbolic with water.”

 

“Already done,” Wilmington said and placed the basin on the ground. “Looks like Martha brought more than just the wagon.”

 

“I'm not just another pretty face, Buck,” the woman said.

 

“No, you're beautiful,” Wilmington observed.

 

“Better watch yourself or Tom will give you a whuppin',” Martha mock scolded.

 

“Buck, you tryin' ta court my wife again?” Wilson asked.

 

“No, Sir, Tom, but that's just because she's spoken for,” Wilmington answered.

 

“Buck,” Tanner called.

 

“Right here, Vin, you look better without the wooden blanket,” the ladies' man told him.

 

“Feels better...ya need...shit,” he cursed as Jackson put pressure on the wound.

 

“Easy, Vin, I just need ta stop the bleedin',” Jackson said. “Martha, could you keep pressure on this?”

 

“Of course,” the woman said and checked on her boys as she continued to help the healer. Timmy and Joey were busy taking care of the horses and she felt proud of the way they held up under pressure. They were so much like their father and every day they worked alongside him and still made time for studies in the evening.

 

“Buck, ya need ta go find Chris,” Tanner said.

 

“I will as soon as we get you in the wagon,” Wilmington told him.

 

“Buck, as soon as I finish checking Vin over, you and Josiah can help me get him in the wagon,” Jackson ordered. “Once we get him in there you and Josiah can head out before it gets too dark to see anything.”

 

“You know Chris could be in town right now,” the rogue said, but his voice betrayed the fact that he didn't really believe that for a minute.

 

“If he is he deserves a good kick in the butt,” Martha said.

 

“And you'd be just the woman to give it to him,” Wilmington said of the woman's concern for Chris Larabee. She'd helped nurse Larabee back to health on a couple of occasions and doubted this time would be any different.

 

Vin closed his eyes and fought the darkness reaching for him. He didn't want to pass out without knowing whether Chris was found and yet the hours spent trapped beneath the debris coupled with the injuries threatened to pull him under and he could no longer fight as Jackson gently probed the area around his injured leg.

 

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7 

 

Chris had no idea how he ended up lying on his side in the dirt, but he didn't have the strength to sit up. He tried to take a deep breath, but succeeded only in setting off the pain that signaled injured ribs. He had no idea how long he'd been out, but his mouth was dry and he looked around as he tried to sit up, but he just couldn't move as he struggled to breathe.

 

Chris felt hands lift him forward and half expected to find one of his men with him, but when he opened his eyes he stood beside the corral watching as Buck lifted a small boy into his arms.

 

“Hey, Chris, Adam's getting to be a big boy now. When are you and Sarah gonna get him a horse?”

 

“He's just started walking, Buck,” Larabee said and chuckled softly when his son reached for him. He took the boy into his arms and kissed the top of his head before looking into the green eyes so like his own. That's where the resemblance ended because the toddler took after his mother in every other sense of the word.

 

“Maybe Santa will bring him one,” Wilmington said.

 

“Santa already knows what to bring him,” Larabee said.

 

“Pa...horsey... Pa...horsey,” Adam's small voice was filled with awe as he looked at the animal's in the corral.

 

“Come on, Chris, even Adam knows what he wants. Santa could change his mind,” Wilmington said.

 

“Change his mind about what, Buck?”

 

“Oh, hi, Sarah, when are you gonna leave this fool and be with a real man?”

 

“I guess that depends on whether I find a real man,” Sarah teased and hugged her husband. “Besides I have everything I want right here.”

 

Chris kissed his wife and felt Buck take Adam from his arms. He reached for him, but found nothing, but emptiness when he opened his eyes and reality slammed home along with the renewed agony in his chest.

 

“No...please...not again,” he whispered, but relaxed as someone eased him to a sitting position and he leaned back against a strong chest. “Please...let me see them again.”

 

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7

 

“Nathan, we've got the wagon ready for him,” Sanchez said.

 

“Okay, just give me a couple of minutes to tie this off,” Jackson said of the bandage he'd placed over the wound. He'd cleaned it as best he could, but didn't want to stitch it out here until he was sure he'd done everything to stop an infection from forming. Once Vin was in his clinic he'd be able to douse it good and then stitch it together and put fresh bandages over it. He'd checked the Texan for other injuries, but aside from a lot of bruising, the wound seemed to be the worst of it.

 

“Tom, I'm going to go into town with Nathan. Why don't you and the boys go back to the farm and pick up the gifts under the tree and don't forget the pies.”

 

“All right, Woman,” Wilson said.

 

“Now don't you go cutting into them just because I'm not there to stop you,” Martha warned.

 

“Hell...”

 

“It will be if those pies are not whole,” Martha told him. She moved back so the others could move in to help move the unconscious man from the ground to the wagon. They'd managed to put him on a blanket and Buck, Josiah, Nathan, and her husband took a corner each. They carefully lifted him into the wagon and gently placed him on the floor.

 

Nathan checked the injured man, relieved to find he was sleeping, and hoped he would stay that way during the trip into town. He could see Buck getting his horse ready and looked toward Josiah who was standing beside the wagon. “Be careful, Josiah, I already got one patient and Chris might be in need of help so don't go doin' anything that could fill up my clinic this close ta Christmas.”

 

“I hear you, Brother, take it slow and easy and we'll see you in town as soon as we can,” Sanchez told him and moved toward Buck who held out his reins to him.

 

“Do you know where the short cut is, Josiah?”

 

“I do,” Sanchez answered and mounted his horse as Wilmington did the same. He took one last look at the wagon before turning and riding off in the opposite direction.

 

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7 

 

Chris watched Sarah's face as she opened the gift wrapped in cloth. He knew it was something she'd consider frivolous, but the minute he'd seen it in the mercantile, he'd started doing odd jobs whenever he could to save the money for it. He'd hidden it beneath the tree once she'd fallen asleep and now, with the fire glowing brightly and Adam sitting between them he knew it was money well spent.

 

His wife's face was bathed in the glow from the fire and Chris felt the warmth of her gaze when she looked at him. He'd known she'd wanted a locket since the day Adam was born and it was something he'd vowed he would get for her. There was so much love in her eyes that he felt like the richest man in the world and wished he could give her everything she wanted, but Hank Connolly had disowned them from the start. The fool had sworn she would never be welcome in his home as long as she stayed with her husband.

 

“Chris, you shouldn't have.”

 

“Why not? You deserve that and more, Sarah, and if I had it I would give you the world on a silver platter.”

 

“You are my world, Chris Larabee. You and Adam are everything I ever dreamed of...”

 

“You're really something, Sarah Connolly Larabee,” Chris said and kissed her. “Not only do you put up with me, but you let Buck stay here when any other woman would have kicked him out long ago.”

 

“I love Buck...”

 

“I'll shoot him!”

 

“No, you won't, Chris.”

 

“Why won't I?”

 

“Because he's your best friend and I love him...”

 

“There you go again with...”

 

“Let me finish...I love him like a big brother...a goofy one at times, but still a big brother,” Sarah assured her husband as she heard a sound outside their door.

 

“It sounds like your big brother is home,” Larabee said and moved to the door as it opened and Buck stood smiling at him.

 

“Merry Christmas, Chris,” Wilmington said with a devilish grin.

 

“Where have you been, Buck?”

 

“A man doesn't tell his friend everything, Chris, but remember me asking you about Santa bringing Adam a Pony,” Wilmington said and tugged on the reins in his hand.

 

“Buck Wilmington don't you bring that animal in here!” Sarah warned, carefully easing the sleeping boy onto the pallet on the floor.

 

“Come on, Sarah, it's his Christmas present and it's supposed to be underneath the tree,” Wilmington said.

 

“Buck, I'd advise you to stop. She's got that look in her eyes and I'm not going to be the one who gets hit with that fiery temper of hers,” Larabee said and blocked the man before he could drag the small pony into the house.

 

“It's just a little thing...a little Pony for the little tyke,” Wilmington observed.

 

“The little tyke is only three, Buck,” Larabee told him. “Put the pony...”

 

“Pony...my pony, Pa...Adam's pony,” the child said as he stood up and strode toward the door with a look of stubborn determination.

 

“He looks just like his pa, Pard,” Wilmington said with a grin. “See what Uncle Buck bought you, Adam. A nice little Pony.”

 

“Pony...for me...Pony...come here Pony.”

 

“Look at that, Chris, he's already named him,” Wilmington said.

 

“Adam calls all horses pony, Buck,” Larabee offered.

 

“No, Pony...horsey named Pony,” Adam said and looked up at his father.

 

“Sounds like he has a name....can't make me take him back now, Chris,” Wilmington said.

 

“No, but I'll make sure you miss Christmas dinner if you don't get that animal out of my house,” Sarah warned, arms folded across her chest as she stared at the man.

 

“Hell...”

 

“Hell,” Adam repeated.

 

“Buck, so help me I'll...”

 

“Hell,” Adam said and clapped his hands as he danced around the room while his mother tried in vain to get him to stop.

 

“Uncle Buck say hell...Adam say hell!”

 

“I'm sorry, Sarah,” Wilmington said.

 

“Buck, go now!” Larabee warned and plucked his son off the floor. “Adam, that's not a nice word...”

 

“But you and Uncle Buck say it...”

 

“Chris!” Sarah snapped, her accent coming through as her hands went to her hips.

 

“And Ma does too...I heared her,” Adam said and looked at his pa and uncle when they both laughed.

 

“Adam...God, Adam, I'm so sorry,” Chris whispered as awareness returned and he knew what he'd been seeing had happened a long time ago.

 

“Sh, it's okay...he knows.”

 

“Who are you?” Larabee asked and turned to look at the young man who held him. “I feel like I should know you, but I don't...do I?”

 

“Rest...close your eyes. Buck will be here soon and they'll get you out of here.”

 

Chris let the young man's voice soothe away the pain and allowed himself to sleep.

 

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7 

 

Vin opened his eyes as the steady throb of pain in his leg drew him back to consciousness. He tried to sit up, but a soft, yet stern voice stopped him.

 

“Be still, Vin, Nathan doesn't want you moving around until he's had a chance to stitch up that leg,” Martha warned.

 

“Where are we?” the Texan asked, relieved when she placed a canteen to his lips and helped him drink.

 

“We should be in town in less than an hour,” Martha told him.

 

“How long was I out?”

 

“A couple of hours,” the woman answered. “How do you feel?”

 

“Sore,” Tanner answered.

 

“I bet,” Martha told him. “Nathan said you could have some laudanum if you need it.”

 

“No, I'm just sore,” the Texan lied.

 

“Who are you trying to fool, Vin?” Martha lightly scolded.

 

“Could never fool you, Ma'am,” Tanner said with a weak smile as she fixed the blanket under his head.

 

“Tell that to Tom and the boys because they still think they're fooling me,” Martha told him and placed her fingers against his forehead, pleased when it felt cool to the touch. “Why don't you try to sleep until we reach Nathan's clinic?”

 

“Good idea...ain't gonna get much sleep once he starts on my leg.”

 

“No, you're not,” Martha said and watched the eyes close. She knew the young man wasn't sleeping and probably wouldn't until they found Chris Larabee. There was something about the two men, a friendship that had changed and grown stronger since that first glance across the dusty street.

 

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7

 

Josiah spotted the marker for the shortcut and hoped they would find the trail wasn't as bad as Chanu had told him. The young man had been through the area a couple of months ago and had said the ledge was all but impassable. One side was a sheer drop off into a deep gorge layered with splintered boulders and fallen trees and brush. The other side wasn't quite the steep drop off, but it ended in a crevice, so deep if Chris had fallen he could have survived, but it would take nothing short of a miracle to get him out. Then again it was the season of miracles and maybe Chris was already back in town.

 

“Josiah, that looks like fresh tracks,” Wilmington said and pointed to an area of the ground that looked freshly scuffed.

 

“Didn't Chris say Pony needed a new shoe?”

 

“Yeah, he was gonna take care of it when he got back,” Wilmington said and looked around. “The tracks go that way.”

 

“I see that.”

 

“Is that the shortcut you and Vin were talking about?”

 

“Yes, come on. The faster we get to the ledge the better. Daylight's wasting and I don't want to be caught in there once the sun goes down,” Sanchez said and took the lead.

 

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7

 

“She's gonna have our hides for being gone so long,” Chris said as they neared the end of the long ride.

 

“She'll be so happy to see you she'll probably want to kiss you, but me...she'll skin me like that brace of rabbits you brought home last week,” Wilmington said.

 

“True,” Larabee agreed and leaned toward the other man. “I'll see if I can keep her from skinning you alive as long as you keep Adam occupied. You owe me for keeping you from getting your ass filled with lead last night.”

 

“I'm sure I can do something with Adam...maybe we can catch dinner down at the creek,” Wilmington said as they topped the hill. He knew instantly something was wrong and saw the horror on his friend's face just before Larabee spurred his horse and took off down the hill. “Oh, God...please, no...don't do this to him.”

 

Chris rode as if the hounds of hell were hot on his heels. The smoldering ruins of his home, of his life cut through his heart like a sharp knife. He heard the horses in the corral, the sound of a cow in the barn, and knew instinctively that his family was no longer part of his world. He dismounted and raced toward the shell of his house.

 

“Sarah! Adam! Where are you?” he screamed and shoved aside the blackened remains of what had once been the door to his home. “Sarah! Answer me...God, Please...no...no...no...no...no...you...”

 

“Chris,” Wilmington said, cringing when he saw what could only be two bodies covered in blackened, splintered wood. “Chris, don't...they're gone!”

 

“No, Damn you! They're not gone! Sarah! Adam...Adam, answer Pa, Adam, or...oh God,” his heart beat so fast he thought it would break through his chest when he saw what Buck had already seen.

 

“No...no...no,” Chris whispered and jerked upright, crying out as pain erupted through his body. He felt arms wrap around him and shuddered uncontrollably as he tried to come to terms with the memory of his loss. It was all so real and felt like it had just happened, yet he knew a lot of years had passed since he'd lost his heart and soul to a vicious woman's jealousy.

 

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7  

 

Nathan pulled the wagon to a stop in front of the livery and wasn't surprised when JD and Ezra hurried toward him. Gloria Potter stepped out of her store, while Mary Travis walked toward them from the direction of her newspaper office. He hopped down and moved to the back of the wagon as the others arrived.

 

“Nathan, how is he?” Dunne asked.

 

“He's bruised and got a wound in his leg, but he should be okay once I get it cleaned and stitched up,” Jackson answered. “I take it Chris ain't back.”

 

“No, he isn't,” Mary said worriedly.

 

“Josiah and Buck went to look for him,” Jackson said as Mary and Gloria moved to stand beside Martha Wilson. “JD, you and Ezra give me a hand with Vin.”

 

“Sure, Nate,” Dunne said and moved to the back of the wagon.

 

“Nathan, have you eaten?” Mary asked, fighting to keep her emotions in check.

 

“No, they haven't,” Martha answered.

 

“I've got some stew left from dinner,” Gloria offered.

 

“I'll see if Inez has any of the biscuits she made with supper,” Mary offered, lifting her skirts and hurrying toward the saloon.

 

“Vin, don't put any weight on that leg,” Jackson ordered as Standish and Dunne helped him out of the back of the wagon. He grabbed his saddlebags as Yosemite exited the livery.

 

“I'll take care of the horses and the wagon,” the big man said.

 

“Thanks, Yosemite,” Jackson said and hurried up the stairs, not at all surprised to find Martha had started a fire in the stove and that she'd sent JD for fresh water.

 

“Mr. Jackson, is there anything else you need?” Standish asked.

 

“I might need more bandages if...when Chris gets here,” Jackson said and moved to the bed. “Vin, I'm going to give you a little laudanum before I start on that leg.”

 

“I don't...”

 

“Don't say it, Vin Tanner,” Martha scolded and took the bucket of water from JD when he entered the clinic.

 

“Yes, Ma'am,” Tanner said.

 

“Martha, has anyone ever told you you're an angel?” Jackson asked and smiled as the Texan swallowed the small dose of laudanum. “Ain't ever seen anyone make these boys listen like you do.”

 

“Well then, I guess I'd best stick around until they learn their lesson,” Martha said as she mixed a little carbolic with the water she'd poured into a basin.

 

“It'd make things a mite easier,” Jackson said and pulled the chair closer to the bed. He'd laid out the things he'd need on a small table and gently removed the soiled bandage from the Texan's leg.

 

Vin closed his eyes as the dose of laudanum kicked in and felt Jackson's hand on his leg. He felt him tug gently, and then use water to soak the dried blood from the wound. It wasn't long before he realized how glad he was Jackson had given him the laudanum as the bite of the needle told him it would have been pure misery without it.

 

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7

 

“Buck, the ledge is just through that narrow pass,” Sanchez explained when he pulled his horse to a stop beside the ladies' man.

 

“It'll be dark soon,” Wilmington said.

 

“I know. Why don't we leave the horses here and go through on foot. If we don't find Chris we can set up camp here and go across in the morning,” the ex-preacher observed.

 

“I can't explain it, Josiah, but I think Chris needs us fast,” Wilmington told him as they dismounted.

 

“We'll find him, Buck, but we have to do it right,” Sanchez said and looped the reins over a thick branch of deadwood. “Buck, I've been through here a couple of times so let me take the lead.”

 

“All right,” the ladies man agreed and followed the other man, silently praying that Chris was safely back in town.

 

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7

 

“You're not to blame for what happened.”

 

“Yes, I am...I should have been there,” Chris said, shaking as the heat of the day was leeched from the land with the advancing darkness.

 

“You would have died too.”

 

“I should have died with them.”

 

“It wasn't your time. You were needed here...you still are.”

 

“I don't...don't want to be here,” Larabee said, and shifted away from the warmth provided by the other man's body. He felt like hell, and could no longer move his left arm without sending shards of pain through his shoulder. He looked up toward the ledge and tried to stand, but again his leg refused to hold him. 

 

“You should rest.”

 

“No, I need to get out of here. Vin needs help.”

 

“Vin's safe.”

 

“How do you know that? Who are you?” Larabee snarled and fought to stand up, but cried out as he fell to his knees. A hand rested on his lower back and Chris lifted his head to stare into sorrow filled eyes. “How old are you?”

 

“My age doesn't matter. Help will be here. Buck...”

 

“How do you know Buck?” Larabee asked, anger evident in the set of his jaw as he looked at the young man, but he couldn't seem to stay that way when the hands reached out and held him.

 

“It doesn't matter how I know him.”

 

“Yes, it does,” Chris whispered, but lost consciousness as the cold seeped through his body and mind.

 

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7

 

“Damn,” Sanchez cursed softly when he reached the end of the narrow path and looked at the dangerous ledge.

 

“What's wrong, Josiah?”

 

“Chanu wasn't kidding when he said this was no longer safe to cross,” Sanchez answered when Buck joined him. He saw Buck's eyes were drawn to the same thing that had caught his eyes when he first stepped through. The sun was just about gone, and with darkness advancing on them it wasn't possible to go for help. If Chris had gone over the edge, they'd have to make do with what they had and go for help come morning. He was ready to move forward, but Buck shifted past him and stepped out on the ledge. “Buck, be careful.”

 

“We need to know if he's down there,” Wilmington said as he slowly made his way to the area about halfway across and knelt down. The crevice was covered by dark shadows and it was hard to see anything. “Chris, you down there?”

 

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7 

 

“You need to wake up now and show them you're here.”

 

Chris felt the arms release him and force him to sit up, but he didn't quite make it as a soft moan escaped his dry throat.

 

“Buck's here...but you need to let him know you're down here or he'll go away.”

 

“Buck...here.”

 

“Yes he's up top, but it's getting dark and he'll have to go back soon. You need to do something...”

 

“You could call him.”

 

“No, I'm sorry. I can't.”

 

“Get my gun...shoot it,” Larabee ordered weakly.

 

“I can't.”

 

“Why are you here then?”

 

“I'm here because you needed a Christmas Presence.”

 

“I don't need any presents,” the blond said and struggled to get his gun drawn. His whole body felt weighted down as he fought to make sense of where he was, but couldn't quite figure it out as his body was wracked with a tremor that left him weak and unable to move.

 

“You need to get your gun...you need to let them know you're here before they leave.”

 

“Tired.”

 

“I know you are and I promise you'll be able to rest as soon as you shoot your gun.”

 

“Shoot my gun?”

 

“Yes, can you hear him calling?”

 

“Chris! Come on, Pard, if you're down there you need to let us know 'cause it's gettin' dark and it'll get real cold soon.”

 

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7 

 

“Chris, Me and Josiah are here, but it's dangerous. We need to know if you're down there!”

 

“Buck, you need to come back. We'll try again in the morning.”

 

“No, Josiah, just give me a few more minutes.” Wilmington said and returned his attention to the crevice. “Chris! Answer me damn it!”

 

“Buck, we don't even know if he's down there.”

 

“Yes, I do, Josiah. I don't know how I know, but I feel his presence and I need to get to him before it's too late.” Wilmington leaned over the edge and shouted. “Chris! Come on, Pard, it's almost Christmas and we need to get back to town. Blossom's gonna be real nice to me under her tree!”

 

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7

 

JD knew Nathan had all the help he needed with Martha Wilson, Mary Travis, and Gloria Potter in the clinic so he made a quick circuit of the town before making his way back to the jail. He knew Vin was going to be all right, but he was worried about Chris Larabee. The man had been his mentor from the moment he'd stepped off the stage and had been told to go home. He'd been angry at the time, but he now understood what Larabee had tried to do. Hell of it was he'd tried to do the same not long ago, but his words went unheeded and the young man had been killed when he'd attempted to rob the bank.

 

Dunne frowned when he saw movement near the edge of town and waited to see if the animal would come closer. The head came up and JD recognized the horse and slowly made his way toward it.

 

“Easy, Boy, it's okay,” Dunne said as he closed the distance. Pony looked like he'd been in a race for his life, and JD wondered where Larabee was as he slowly reached for Pony's reins.

 

“JD, is that Pony?” Nathan asked from the landing above him.

 

“Yeah, he looks like he's been rode hard,” Dunne answered.

 

“Any sign of Chris?”

 

“No, he's alone. I'm going to take the saddle off and give him a good rubdown and some feed,” Dunne said. “How's Vin?”

 

“He's sleeping,” Jackson answered. “Martha said Tom and the boys would be here tonight so when you're done with Pony let them know at the hotel.”

 

“I will, Nathan. Did you have time for supper?”

 

“Ezra brought it,” Jackson assured him.

 

“It'll be dark soon,” Dunne observed. “I'll take a ride out to the Wells' place tomorrow and let Casey and Miss Nettie know what's happened.”

 

“Tell 'em they're welcome ta come ta town ta celebrate,” Jackson said.

 

“When's Rain comin'?”

 

“She should be here tomorrow,” Jackson said and finished what was left of his coffee. “Best take care of Pony and get the street fires goin'. I got a feelin' it's gonna be a long night.”

 

JD led Pony into the livery and hoped the horse's owner was in better shape than Pony. “Did you throw him, Boy? Is he walking home now? I sure hope that's all it is.”

 

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7 

 

Chris' numb fingers finally managed to pull the gun from its holster and felt the young man's touch as he used his right hand to hold the weapon away from his body. He fumbled with the grip, and cursed when he dropped it.

 

“Buck is leaving.”

 

“Maybe he should...maybe I'm supposed to die out here...alone.”

 

“No, you're not. You have family.”

 

“My family is dead...murdered and it was my fault!”

 

“No, it wasn't. They understand it wasn't your fault and it's time you stopped blaming yourself and moved on. They'll be waiting for you when your time comes, but for now you have family and friends  who care about you.”

 

“Shouldn't...I just get people killed,” Chris whispered and reached for the gun, surprised when his fingers wrapped around the handle.

 

 

“No, you don't, Pa, you're my hero.”

 

“What did you say?” Chris asked as he pulled the trigger and the shot reverberated around them, but there was no mistaking the relief in the voice he heard above him.

 

“Chris, thank God. Look, Josiah's here with me and we're gonna get you out of there. Are you hurt?”

 

Chris turned to look at the young man trapped with him and wondered why his face seemed bathed in white light that took his breath away. Again he was struck by the familiar features and the devastatingly beautiful smile that seemed to brighten the world around him.

 

“I have to leave.”

 

“Do I...do I know you?”

 

“Yes, search your heart and your memories and honor the love you shared.”

 

“Buck's gonna get us out of here...you'll like him.”

 

“I already do.”

 

Chris' eyes closed, but they snapped open again when he heard the fear in Wilmington's voice.

 

“Chris, are you hurt?”

 

“A little,” Larabee answered. “We're okay...wait...wait until morning.”

 

“Not a chance, Pard. Josiah's here and I'm coming down.

 

“Too dangerous. We'll be okay until sunup,” Larabee warned.

 

“Sorry, Pard, but I aim to sleep in Blossom's bed tonight and I know I won't enjoy myself while you're out here alone.”

 

“Not alone...he's here...where...where'd the kid go?”

 

“He didn't come with us,” Wilmington answered with a frown as Sanchez helped tie the rope around his waist.

 

“He sounds confused, so be careful, Brother,” Sanchez suggested and readied himself to help lower the ladies' man.

 

“He won't hurt me,” Wilmington said and nodded that he was ready once he'd secured the canteen and saddlebags.

 

“Just go easy and keep talking to him,” Sanchez ordered.

 

“I will,” Buck assured the older man and began the slow trek down into the crevice. “Hey, Chris, I'll be there in a minute.”

 

“Stubborn fo...fool,” Larabee mumbled.

 

“Takes one to know one,” Wilmington said hoping that his friend wasn't hurt too badly and they'd be able to get him out tonight. He looked up toward Sanchez before turning his gaze toward the darkening shadows below him and wondered how Larabee had managed to survive the fall. The crevice wasn't that wide, and he hoped it wasn't as deep as it looked from above.

 

Buck lost track of time as Josiah eased him toward the bottom, but he kept talking to Chris the whole time. “So, Stud, what did you get me for Christmas?”

 

“Same as last year, but bigger,” Larabee answered tiredly.

 

“Damn, and here I thought I was a good boy this year,” Wilmington chuckled as he remembered unwrapping the lump of coal from his long time friend. It was the perfect gift and he knew Chris didn't mean it as an insult, but as a reminder of Sarah. The woman had shocked him when she gave him his gift on the Christmas morning before Ella Gaines had torn their lives apart. The lump of coal was nestled in a small black velvet case in his saddlebag and was always a reminder of her presence.

 

“Buck, are you all right?” Sanchez called when the man seemed to have stopped.

 

“I'm good, Josiah,” Wilmington answered and started down again. “Chris, ya still with me?”

 

“Think so,” Larabee told him and struggled to stay conscious as he shifted slightly and tried to stand, only to have his legs buckle beneath him. He cried out and didn't answer Buck until the man was kneeling beside him.

 

“Chris, come on, Chris, I'm here now. You just take it easy and tell me where you're hurt?”

 

“Think Vin said it right.”

 

“Vin said what right?”

 

“Easier to tell you what don't hurt,” Larabee said.

 

“Imagine it is...”

 

“Vin's okay...you find him?”

 

“Yeah, he told us you were going for help. Seems like you're the one needs help.”

 

“He okay?”

 

“We got im out and Nate's lookin' after him. They're probably in town enjoying themselves while we freeze our asses off out here,” Wilmington told him.

 

“Buck, is everything okay?” Sanchez called.

 

“Hold on a minute, Josiah,” Wilmington answered and looked at his friend. “Anything broken?”

 

“Couple of ribs...left shoulder and leg hurt, but I don't think they're broken,” Larabee said.

 

“That's gonna make it a mite uncomfortable on you, but I expect it's better'n spendin' the night down here.”

 

“Help me get up...hey, where's the kid?”

 

“I told you JD didn't come with us,” Wilmington answered with a frown.

 

“Not JD...kid...we need to help him get out too. Kid, where are you? No time to be playing games...we need to go now,” Larabee said.

 

“Chris, there ain't no one here, but you and me,” Wilmington said and placed his hand on his friend's shoulder.

 

“No...he was here...need to...to find him,” the injured blond whispered and looked around. There was nothing but dark shadows against an even darker backdrop of rock and debris and Chris realized he was alone with his friend.

 

“Come on, Ol' Son, let's get out of here,” Wilmington said.

 

“Buck, you and Chris okay?” Sanchez asked from above.

 

“Yeah, we're good. I'm just gonna get Chris ready. Make it a slow and steady trip 'cause he's banged up pretty good,” Wilmington ordered as he took the rope from around his waist and tied it around Larabee. “This is gonna hurt some, Chris, so if you were plannin' on passin' out now'd be a good time.”

 

“You could always cold-cock me,” Larabee said.

 

“Think you're banged up enough without that,” Wilmington offered and steadied his friend as the second rope hit the ground at his feet.

 

“What 'bout you?” the blond asked.

 

“You and me go up together,” Wilmington said and tied the second rope around his waist. “Josiah, you ready?”

 

“I'm ready. I managed to get your horse through the pass so we'll be pulling you both up,” Sanchez said and slowly began leading the horse back through the pass.

 

“You okay, Chris?”

 

“No,” Larabee answered honestly.

 

“Won't be long now and we'll be up top,” Wilmington assured his friend and steadied him as the blond swayed and struck the side of the crevice with a grunt. “Easy, I got ya.”

 

“...k...” was the weak answer. Chris lost track of time as they were pulled toward the top and wondered just how deep the crevice was. The rope around his body was a constant reminder of the injuries he'd received during his trip down and he tried to keep from showing just how hard this was on him.

 

“Almost there, Chris,” Wilmington said, surprised when a hand reached out and pulled Larabee over the edge before coming back to help him. “Thanks, Josiah.”

 

“Any time,” Sanchez said and moved to where he'd left Larabee as Wilmington removed the rope and joined him. “Chris, we're going to move back through the pass and start a fire.”

 

“Help me up,” Larabee managed weakly.

 

“Just hold on,” Wilmington ordered and waited for Sanchez to get on Larabee's other side. They took him by the arms and pulled them over their shoulders, ignoring the sharp gasp of pain in their effort to get him to safety.

 

Chris tried to ignore the agony along the left side of his body, but could not suppress the cry of pain as the two men pulled his arms over their shoulders and began the trek back through the pass. He could hear them talking, but could not find the strength to say anything until they settled him on the ground and placed a blanket beneath his head.

 

“Buck, get a fire going,” Sanchez ordered. He knew they needed to get Larabee back to town, but they had to find out if he was well enough to ride a horse back or would if one of them would need to go for a wagon.

 

Chris could feel Josiah's hands on his left shoulder and drew in a sharp breath as he moved it slightly. He still didn't think anything there was broken, but it sure as hell was banged up.

 

“Sorry, Chris, I don't think it's broken, but it might be dislocated.”

 

“Don't think so, just bruised I think.”

 

“Could be, but Nate will be able to tell more. It feels like maybe a couple of cracked ribs and you've got a nasty cut on the right side of your head. Anything else?”

 

“Left leg...throbbing...might be cut,” Larabee answered.

 

“I'll check it out, but first I think you could use some of this,” Sanchez said and offered the gunman a flask. He helped Larabee take several long drinks before laying him back on the ground and turning his attention to the left leg. “Chris, I'm going to have to get your pants off...”

 

“Hell, Josiah, it's getting cold. Wait until we're back home.”

 

“Wish I could, but I'm afraid you were right about your leg bleeding...and I think you need to ask Santa for a new pair of britches,” the ex-preacher said.

 

“Damn, they were finally wore in so they were com...fortable,” Larabee said and closed his eyes while Sanchez continued checking his leg.

 

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7 

 

Vin kept his eyes closed, listening as the others updated Jackson as to what was happening in town. He knew there'd been no word from Buck and Josiah, then again he didn't really expect one yet. It was Nathan telling Ezra about JD finding Pony that made him sit up and take notice.

 

“Vin, you should be resting,” Jackson said.

 

“I was...where's Pony? Is he okay?”

 

“Yosemite is taking care of him...he's okay, but he needs a good rubdown,” Jackson explained.

 

“Chris?”

 

“There was no sign of him, Vin,” the healer answered worriedly.

 

“Buck and Josiah will find him, Nate,” Tanner told him, and felt that certainty in his heart as he closed his eyes and sought out the reason for it. Whatever had brought them together that fateful day was still there and he knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that Chris Larabee was alive. He wasn't in good shape, but at least he was alive and with any luck, Buck and Josiah had already found him and would bring him back home.

 

“Vin, did you hear me?”

 

“Sorry, Nathan, was jest thinkin' on somethin',” Tanner answered.

 

“I was askin' if ya were hungry?”

 

“I could eat...'specially if'n it's somethin' Miss Inez fixed,” the Texan told him.

 

“She said to tell you they ain't as spicy as usual,” Jackson said and placed a tray containing an omelet and biscuits across the tracker's legs.

 

“Looks good,” Tanner observed and lifted the fork. The eggs still had a bit of a kick to them and he smiled appreciatively before digging into the meal.

 

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7 

 

Buck started the fire and moved to help Sanchez with the injured blond. Josiah had spread a blanket on the ground and made their friend as comfortable as possible. Even with the meager light from the fire, Buck could see the bruise on the right side of Larabee's head.

 

“Buck, I don't think he'll be able to ride...”

 

“Get me on a horse,” Larabee ordered.

 

“Ain't happening, Chris. Now just lie there and let me and Josiah come up with a plan that doesn't include you fallin' on that pretty face of yours and banging up the other side,” Wilmington said. “One of us could ride into town.”

 

“It'll take a long time to get there and back. Might be easier if we build a travois,” Sanchez observed. “I saw a couple of long sticks near the entrance to the pass and there's plenty of sturdy branches we can use.”

 

“Be faster if you got me on a horse,” Larabee told them, but was totally ignored by the two men. Deep down he knew if they did listen and got him on the horse he'd probably fall flat on his face before they went 50 feet. He closed his eyes, and gave in to the darkness waiting for him.

 

“You ever built one of these before?” Wilmington asked.

 

“A time or two,” Sanchez answered and glanced at the spot beside the fire, relieved to see Larabee had succumbed to sleep.

 

“Looks like he's out,” Wilmington observed.

 

“Good, now let's get this thing together and get him back to town.”

 

Between them the two peacekeepers set up the travois and made sure the bindings would not come apart during the trip back to Four Corners. The next part would be the hardest as they set the travois down beside the injured gunman.

 

“Best we do this like Nathan showed us,” Sanchez said. “I'll roll him on his right side and you slide that under him,” Sanchez ordered.

 

“Hell,” Wilmington said, knowing how hard this would be on the blond. He nodded that he was ready and ignored the sharp cry of pain as Larabee came fully awake. “Sorry, Stud...”

 

“Buck, just do it!” Sanchez ordered. He felt the lean body trembling as Wilmington slid the contraption beneath him and he eased Larabee onto it. “Easy, Brother, we're almost done.”

 

“God,” Larabee cried out, as every part of him seemed to have awakened with the move. His body shook as the two men secured him to the travois and something was placed at his mouth. He drank greedily of the whiskey and nodded gratefully when Sanchez took it away. “Thanks.”

 

“Anytime,” Sanchez said and helped Wilmington attach the travois to his horse. They would change horses during the trip and take things slowly and hopefully be in town somewhere around mid afternoon if they were lucky. He quickly threw sand into the fire and made sure it was out before returning to the two men.

 

“You ready for this, Pard?” Wilmington asked, his hand resting on Larabee's right shoulder.

 

“Do I ha...have a choice?” the blond asked.

 

“Wish you did, but I'm afraid it's the only way,” the rogue said and moved to the side of the horse and mounted up.

 

“You need us to stop just let me know,” Sanchez ordered and moved to his horse. He got into the saddle and waited for Buck to start forward. He would ride directly behind Larabee and watch for any sign that the man needed help.

 

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7 

 

JD knew Nettie and Casey would be disappointed that Vin wouldn't be able to make it for Christmas dinner, but he knew they'd understand once he explained what had happened. He knew they'd both be worried if he didn't show up by the afternoon and had decided to come out early and let them know. He wished he could give them good news where Chris Larabee was concerned, but there was no word so far.

 

He crested the hill and looked down at the house with the smoke coming from the chimney and knew he'd probably arrive just in time for dinner. He spurred his horse forward and raced down the hill just as Casey opened the door.

 

“JD, you're early...where's Vin?” Casey asked as Dunne dismounted and looped the reins over the hitching post.

 

“Afternoon, JD,” Nettie greeted from the open doorway.

 

“Afternoon, Miss Nettie,” Dunne said.

 

“Where's Vin?” the elderly woman asked.

 

“That's why I'm here. Vin was hurt yesterday...”

 

“My stars...how bad?”

 

“There was a bad storm through the area south of town. He and Chris were comin' back from droppin' off some papers and got caught in it. Vin was trapped beneath some rubble.”

 

“How bad was he hurt?” Nettie repeated.

 

“He hurt his leg, but mostly it's just bruises. Nate says he'll be sore for a spell. That's why I came out to let you know he wouldn't be able to make it,” Dunne explained.

 

“Aunt Nettie, if Vin can't make it to Christmas dinner...maybe we could bring it to him,” Casey suggested.

 

“The town's gettin' ready for the celebration and well, Vin just loves your pies, Miss Wells,” Dunne said.

 

“Oh, and you don't, JD,” Casey teased.

 

“Well...”

 

“We were just sittin' down for dinner, JD, would you like to join us?” Nettie asked.

 

“Wouldn't mind,” Dunne said.

 

“You said Mr. Larabee was with Vin...is he all right?” Nettie asked when they were sitting at the table.

 

“Don't know. Buck and Josiah went lookin' for him after they got Vin out.”

 

“I thought he was with Vin?” Casey observed.

 

“He was, but he couldn't get Vin out so he went for help only he never got back to town,” Dunne answered.

 

“But he never made it?” Nettie asked.

 

“No, Ma'am, he was takin' a short cut through a pass. Chanu told Josiah it was dangerous a couple of weeks ago, but you know Chris when it comes to Vin being hurt,” the Bostonian offered.

 

“So you don't know where Mr. Larabee is?” Nettie asked.

 

“No, Ma'am, but I'm hoping he'll be back in town by the time we get there,” Dunne answered.

 

“Casey, help me get things ready. JD as soon's yer done there, go hitch up my wagon,” Nettie ordered. She admired the seven peacekeepers who kept the law in town and wanted to help if she was needed. Nathan would have his hands full and then some if Chris Larabee and Vin Tanner were under his care.

 

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7 

 

Nathan stood on the landing overlooking the town amazed at how many people had stopped by to check on Vin and ask for news on Chris Larabee. Gloria Potter and several other ladies had brought food and fresh linens and offered him anything else he might need to care for the injured man.

 

Jackson turned and looked at the man seated in the chair next to him. Aside from the wound to his left thigh, Vin's main complaint seemed to be stiff muscles and bruises that covered much of his lower body. The Texan had stubbornly refused to stay in bed, and Nathan couldn't think of a reason to keep him tied down.

 

“Vin, I'm going to warm up some stew and biscuits. You stay put.”

 

“Ain't like I can go anywhere,” Tanner groused.

 

“Ain't like ya wouldn't try anyways,” Jackson grumbled and headed back inside the clinic. With the door open he could watch the Texan while fixing dinner.

 

Vin stayed where he was, rubbing his injured leg as he thought about Chris Larabee. The man was alive, of that he was sure, but whether Buck and Josiah found him in time was another matter. His whole body ached or he would have found a way to get on a horse and ride out to meet them.

 

Vin spotted Ezra talking to Conklin and smiled when the older man raised his hands as if frustrated with whatever the gambler was telling him. He knew Conklin could be a pain in the ass, and was often vocal when it came to his dislike of the men Travis had hired to protect the town. Vin was glad the man didn't seem to have many people who agreed with him.

 

“Vin, you want coffee?” Jackson called.

 

“Yeah,” Tanner answered and kept his eyes on the town he called home.

 

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7

 

Josiah knew they should have stopped, but he was as anxious as Buck to get back to town. Several times through the night they'd stopped to check Larabee, and knew he was hurting in spite of his attempts to assure them he was 'fine'. The sun had risen several hours ago and with it came the fever that spoke of infection and Sanchez had taken the time to check the wound in his left leg.

 

Between him and Buck they'd cleaned it as best they could, but the area was swollen and raw looking when he bandaged it. Nathan was the only man he knew who could help Larabee now, and if that meant riding straight through, then that's what they'd do.

 

“Josiah, there are riders headed this way.”

 

“Friendly?” Sanchez asked. Life in the west had taught them all to be cautious, especially when they had an injured man with them. They'd been riding toward town, but had to make several detours because of the need for an easier ride for Larabee on the travois.

 

“Think so...looks like they got a wagon with them” Wilmington answered as Sanchez rode up to him.

 

“Looks like JD...Nettie Wells and Casey in the wagon,” Sanchez said. “Wait here and I'll get them.”

 

“All right, Josiah,” Wilmington said and dismounted. He made his way back to the travois and knelt beside his friend. “Hey, Pard, you hear that? Looks like we're gonna make you a little more comfortable.”

 

“Don't know if...if that's e...even possible,” Larabee mumbled and tried to move, but it felt like every part of him had stiffened up. His body was a mass of pain that set his nerves on edge and he tried to breathe past the nausea churning through his gut.

 

“Easy, Pard, just lie still. Won't be long now,” Wilmington assured him.

 

“Any whiskey left?”

 

“Wish there was...got some water,” the rogue offered and reached for the canteen when the blond nodded once. He helped Larabee sit up a little and drink as much as he wanted before easing him back down as JD came riding toward them.

 

“How is he?” Dunne asked and dismounted so he could get closer to the injured blond. He'd left Josiah with Nettie and Casey Wells, but it wouldn't take long for the trio long to reach them.

 

“Hey, Kid,” Larabee managed.

 

“Hey, Chris, you look like hell.”

 

“Thanks, JD, just wh...what I wanted to he...hear,” the blond said with a hint of surprise.

 

“No, I didn't mean it like that...”

 

“I know you didn't, JD,” Larabee managed. “You got any whiskey?”

 

“Sorry...wish I did,” Dunne said.

 

“Listen, JD, I want you to ride into town and let Nathan know we should be there in an hour...two at the most,” Wilmington ordered. “Tell him Chris is in rough shape, but there's no point in him riding out to meet us.”

 

“All right, Buck,” Dunne said and looked at Larabee. “See ya in town, Chris.”

 

Larabee nodded and watched as the Bostonian rode off in the direction of Four Corners. He closed his eyes, but opened them a few minutes later when he heard voices nearby. It took a few seconds to focus his vision and he smiled at the elderly woman who placed her hand against his forehead. “Hello, Nettie.”

 

“Hello, Chris, how do you feel?” the woman said. They'd gone past formality when he'd helped save

her ranch and she would be forever in his debt for what he and the rest of the seven had done for her.

 

“Probably as bad as I look,” he answered honestly.

 

“You don't look that bad,” Nettie lied and heard a soft laugh as Sanchez joined them.

 

“Chris, we're going to get you into the wagon. Should make for an easier ride, but it'll be a mite uncomfortable for a few minutes,” Sanchez explained as Buck helped him release the ropes holding Larabee to the travois.

 

“I'll go help Casey make sure the blankets are ready for him,” Nettie told them as they pulled back the blanket.

 

“All right, Chris, just relax and let us do the work,” Wilmington ordered.

 

“Don't seem to have much choice,” Larabee said and gritted his teeth as they helped him stand. The blanket dropped to the ground and he looked toward the wagon, relieved to see that Casey and her aunt were turned away from them. He limped between the two men; biting his bottom lip as he tried to keep from showing just how much pain he was in.

 

“Almost there, Pard,” Wilmington said when Larabee groaned softly and closed his eyes. They maneuvered the injured man so that he could lean against the wagon and then Josiah jumped into the back. Between the two men they got Larabee inside and laid him down on the pallet of blankets. Buck took another one and covered his friend while Josiah used another as a makeshift pillow.

 

“Chris, I'll try not to hit too many rough spots,” Nettie told him as she took control of the reins and Casey sat beside her.

 

Buck tied his horse to the back of the wagon and got in beside his friend. “You just let me know if you need anything, Pard, I'll be right here.”

 

“Thanks, Buck,” Larabee said and relaxed knowing his friend was watching out for him.

 

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7

 

Vin sat forward at the sound of a horse and rider coming in fast. He managed to stand, but pain shot through his upper leg and forced him to grab the railing.

 

“Vin...”

 

“Rider comin' in fast, Nathan,” Tanner snapped and heard Jackson hurry across the short distance. “Looks like JD.”

 

“You stay here!” Jackson ordered and hurried down the stairs. He reached the bottom just as Dunne drew his horse to a stop in front of the livery.

 

“Na...Nathan...”

 

“Easy, JD, catch your breath,” Jackson ordered.

 

“Need to tell you...”

 

“JD...”

 

“Buck and Josiah found Chris. They're bringing him in now,” Dunne explained once he caught his breath.

 

“How bad is it?” Jackson asked.

 

“I'm not sure, but he's got a cut on his head and hurt his leg and ribs. Casey and Miss Nettie were with me when we met up with Buck and Josiah. They were carrying Chris on a travois, but we had the wagon so he's in that now. They should be here in about an hour.” Dunne explained.

 

“JD, what's wrong? Did you find Chris?” Mary Travis asked. She'd seen the young man riding in and listened as Nathan relayed the information Dunne had given him. “What do you need, Nathan?”

 

“Gonna need some supplies...probably bandages and ice and maybe some whiskey. I got some laudanum, but see if Chang has any more just in case,” Jackson ordered.

 

“I'll go round up what you need, Nathan,” Mary said and hurried away before they could see the fear in her eyes.

 

“JD, I'm gonna need water.”

 

“I'll get as much as you need,” Dunne said as Yosemite took the horse's reins.

 

“I'll take care of him, JD,” the liveryman said.

 

“Thanks,” Dunne said and raced upstairs to get Jackson's buckets. “Hey, Vin...”

 

“Take it easy, Kid, Nate's gonna have enough ta do without ya breakin' yer head,” Tanner advised. He took a deep breath and eased himself back on the chair as Jackson came up the stairs.

 

“You heard?”

 

“Yeah, think Ezra's comin' this way,” the Texan said, not surprised to see the gambler rush up the stairs.

 

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7 

 

Buck had never been so glad to see the buildings that represented his home and looked down at his friend. Chris had been awake during most of the trip, and even now his eyes were fluttering.

 

“Stubborn sonofabitch,” Wilmington whispered as Larabee opened his eyes and looked up at him.

 

“Where a...are we?” the blond managed.

 

“About ten minutes out,” Wilmington answered. “Ya know ya should be sleepin'?”

 

Larabee nodded and tried to sit up, but Wilmington easily held him down. “Help me up, Buck.”

 

“What for? You're not going anywhere,” Wilmington said.

 

“Back hurts...hard to breathe laying down,” the blond told him, relieved when his friend lifted him up and then slid in behind him.

 

“Better?”

 

“Yeah,” Larabee answered, biting his bottom lip as the wagon hit a deep rut that bounced him against his friend's chest. He kept his eyes closed against the glare of the sun as they continued toward town and was surprised when the wagon stopped and someone hopped into the back.

 

“How's he doin', Buck?” Jackson asked worriedly.

 

“I'm fine, Nate,” Larabee said with a weak smile as Ezra and JD joined them around the wagon.

 

“Sure ya are,” Jackson said and started giving orders to the others.

 

Chris looked up and spotted the Texan above him; relieved to see the man didn't look badly injured. He felt the blanket pulled back and shook his head, grabbing the edge with his left hand when he heard Mary Travis' voice.

 

“Mary, would you and the other ladies mind coming back after we got Chris settled upstairs?” Jackson asked.

 

“Of course,” Mary said and looked into Larabee's eyes before turning and walking away with Nettie and Casey Wells.

 

“All right, Chris, we're going to get you upstairs in a few minutes, but first i want to give you a dose of laudanum and give it a chance to work,” Jackson explained. Josiah had told him about the gash in Larabee's right leg and he didn't want him putting any weight on it. The second problem was going to be the left shoulder; because there was no way in hell they could support him that way.

 

Chris watched as the healer measured out the laudanum and gratefully accepted it. He knew the trip up those stairs would be hell, but at least with the drug in his system he had a chance of doing it without crying out. Why that was so important he didn't know, but he soon felt hands lifting him from the wagon and he gritted his teeth as they started up.

 

“Vin, stay back,” Jackson ordered once he reached the top. Josiah and Buck were carrying the injured man between them, and there was no mistaking the pain evident on Larabee's face in spite of the laudanum. “Put him on my bed.”

 

Chris soon felt himself being lowered onto Jackson's bed and pillows placed behind his head to ease the discomfort of breathing. He nodded gratefully and closed his eyes as consciousness left him.

 

“All right, let's get this done while he's out. Buck, bring me a basin of water...and put some carbolic in it,” Jackson ordered. He'd already steeped willow bark tea and several other herbs to make a poultice and hoped the infection in the wound wasn't bad. “Ezra, ride herd on Vin and make sure he stays off that leg.”

 

“I shall endeavor to keep him sitting on his best asset,” Standish said with a grin and blocked the doorway when the Texan limped toward him.

 

“Move, Ez!” Tanner ordered.

 

“I'm afraid Mr. Jackson was explicit in his orders, Mr. Tanner, and right now I fear him more than I do you,” Tanner said and stood his ground, but he could tell the Texan wasn't going to back down. “Please, Vin, Nathan needs to care for him and he can't do that if he's worried about you.”

 

“Damn it,” Tanner said and limped back to the chair.

 

Ezra knew he'd said the right thing when Vin turned and walked back to his seat. He glanced into the clinic as Nathan pulled a chair close to the bed and sat down. One look at Vin told him that was where he was needed and he reached into his jacket for the silver flask he kept there. “Mr. Tanner, would you care for a little libation?”

 

“No, but if'n that's whiskey in yer flask I'll take it,” Tanner said and reached for the offered flask. He could see into the clinic, but could not see what Jackson was doing to Chris Larabee, yet he trusted him more than any doctor with a paper on the wall. 

 

Inside the clinic, Nathan was easing back the bandage covering Larabee's left calf. They'd had to soak the material in order to release it from the wound. The gash was around four inches long and deep, and Nathan knew they'd have to clean out the infection, and apply the poultice to keep it from festering even more. It would mean he'd have to delay putting in the stitches, and that too could be dangerous as well. 

 

“How bad is it, Nate?” Wilmington asked.

 

“Bad enough,” Jackson observed and watched as the rogue moved to the opposite side of the bed and grabbed the injured limb while Josiah took control of Larabee's upper body. JD moved to hold the blond's right leg and Nathan could see the worry on each face as he lifted the cloth and began to work on the wound itself.

 

Chris' dreams were filled with memories of his life before tragedy struck and took away his heart and soul. He felt Sarah's arms around him, her face nestled against his shoulder while the baby lay quietly in her arms. “Adam,” he whispered, just loud enough for those around him to hear. He cried out as something pulled him away from his dreams. Fire burned in his leg and he fought to pull away from the torment, but someone held him down.

 

“Hold him still!” Jackson ordered when the blond tried to pull away from them. The discharge from the wound was a mixture of blood and pus, and smell putrid. He pressed the edges of the wound again and again, ignoring the weak cries from the injured man until blood ran clear and Larabee lay shaking and quiet on the bed. “Josiah, bring me the poultice.”

 

Sanchez released his hold on Larabee and brought over the mixture of herbs that would be bound to the leg wound. He handed it to Jackson and watched as he used a strip of cloth to hold the poultice in place. Josiah watched Larabee's face, noting the beads of sweat that formed on his forehead.

 

Nathan turned his attention to the wound on Larabee's head, relieved to see it wasn't as deep as he at first thought He cleaned it with fresh water and carbolic before completing his examination of his friend. “He should be fine...done all I could, but we'll need ta keep an eye on his leg.”

 

“Nathan, ya done good,” Wilmington said softly and placed his hand on the healer's arm.

 

“We'll see,” Jackson said and stood up. “Ezra, tell Vin he can come in now so's I can check his leg.”

 

Vin limped inside, keeping as much weight off his leg as he could before sitting down on the chair. Buck and Josiah left the clinic while Nathan tended his leg and handed him a cup of willow bark tea.

 

“It ain't much, but it'll help with the pain some,” Jackson said.

 

“Thanks, Nate,” Tanner said.

 

“Ya can thank me by finishin' that and gettin' some rest,” the healer ordered as Josiah and Buck returned carrying a mattress and extra blankets. They fixed it up at the end of the bed and knew Nathan would need them all to keep the two men down.  “Vin, I know there's no point in tellin ya ta leave so as soon as that's done yer bed's ready fer ya. As fer the rest of ya...go get somethin' ta eat 'cause I ain't the only one gonna be takin' care of these two.”

 

“Mr. Jackson, your lovely paramour has arrived,” Standish said.

 

“What?” the healer asked.

 

“Miss Rain's here. She's talking to Mary Travis and Miss Nettie,” Dunne said from the top of the stairs.

 

“Go, Brother, Buck and I can handle things here,” Sanchez offered.

 

“Ya sure?” Jackson asked, but he was already out the door before Josiah answered.

 

“Think he needs to ask that woman to marry him before someone else decides to make a move,” Wilmington said.

 

“You'd have as much chance with her as you do with Inez,” Sanchez said.

 

“Nunca,” Dunne added from the doorway and took off running when a pillow was thrown at him.

 

Josiah shook his head and laughed as Buck tried to look angry, but there were very few things that could bring out that emotion in the man standing near the bed. Buck would always stand up for women, family, and his friends and damn anyone who tried to hurt any of them. It was a trait they all shared, but could hold in, whereas Wilmington always wore his heart on his sleeve and right now it was showing just how much pain he felt when he looked at the injured blond.

 

'Lord, guide us with a gentle hand so that we can all share in the joy of your son's birth,' Sanchez thought and moved to make a fresh pot of coffee.

 

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7

 

Nathan took the stairs two at a time and hurried across the street just as Rain turned to look in his direction. He felt his heart beat a little faster as he reached out to hug her and smiled as Nettie Wells and Mary Travis watched them.

 

“Nettie, would you care to join me for a cup of tea?” Mary asked.

 

“I believe tea is just what I need,” the elderly woman answered and chuckled softly when Nathan and Rain seemed oblivious to everything, but themselves.

 

“I missed you, Nathan,” Rain whispered.

 

“I missed you too,” Jackson said and took her by the arm. He led her toward the saloon and glanced toward the clinic as Rain spoke.

 

“How are your friends?”

 

“Vin's up and around already, but he's got a nasty wound in his thigh,” Jackson answered.

 

“And Chris?”

 

“He took a bad fall. Got some busted ribs and a bunch of bruises and scrapes, but the worst of it is his leg. He tore it up pretty good and I needed to drain it. Put a poultice on it and maybe stitch it up tomorrow,” Jackson said.

 

“Will he be all right?”

 

“I think so,” Jackson said as they entered the saloon and took a seat toward the back. Nathan ordered the special for both of them and reached to take Rain's hand. “You know, Rain, I've been thinkin' about you a lot lately...”

 

“Lately?” Rain asked with an innocent smile.

 

“All the time,” Jackson corrected. “I know this is sudden, Rain, but I was hoping...I mean I was wondering...”

 

“What, Nathan?” Rain asked and leaned in close.

 

“Would you...would you marry me?”

 

“Yes,” Rain answered quickly. She knew her father would approve if he'd lived through the attack on the Seminole village and hoped her 'uncle' would understand.

 

“Yes! You said yes?”

 

“I did,” Rain answered and smiled when he stood, picked her up and spun her around.

 

“Is everything all right?” Inez asked when she brought their food.

 

“Everything's fine...better than fine,” Jackson told her. “Rain said yes.”

 

“She did?” Inez asked and knew instinctively what she'd said yes to.

 

“Yes, I did,” Rain said and hugged the other woman.

 

“When?” Inez asked.

 

“Just now,” Jackson answered.

 

“No, when is the happy day?”

 

“Oh, I'd marry her right now.”

 

“No, you can not do that,” Inez said. “We have to get her a dress and...oh, I am sorry, Rain, I should not speak out like that.”

 

“I would like to marry Nathan right now, but I would like to have my people here to witness our joining,” Rain told them.

 

“I'll have Yosemite ride out or do you want to get married in your village?” Jackson asked.

 

“No, I will marry the way your people do, Nathan, but my people should be present,” Rain told him.

 

“I want them here too,” Jackson said. “We need to ask Josiah if he will do the ceremony.”

 

“Tomorrow is Christmas Eve. He will be busy with his sermon, ” Rain said and then frowned. “We must wait until your friends are able to be there.”

 

“Vin is already up and around. Chris should be all right in a couple of days as long as the poultice takes care of the infection,” Jackson told her. “Why don't we ask Josiah if he will marry us the day after Christmas?”

 

“That sounds perfect,” Rain said.

 

“Let's go talk to Josiah,” Jackson said and smiled when Rain linked her arm through his. This was what he wanted for so long and the woman beside him was as beautiful as the sunset after a glorious day.

 

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7 

 

Josiah looked up, surprised when Nathan entered the clinic, but smiled when Rain came in behind him. He looked at Buck who was seated next to the bed, a silent sentry watching over two fallen comrades and knew Chris and Vin were in good hands.

 

“Josiah, could we talk ta you fer a minute?” Jackson asked.

 

“Sure, Brother,” Sanchez said and followed the couple outside. “Something tells me there's good news for a change.”

 

“Josiah, we been friends a long time.”

 

“That we have, Nathan, and I can tell you've finally come to your senses,” Sanchez offered with a smile as he reached for Rain and hugged her. There was something about the look of pure rapture on her face that told him Jackson had finally come to his senses where she was concerned.

 

“Josiah, that's my woman you're holding,” Jackson said with a smile.

 

“Not yet, but I have a feeling I know what's coming and I understand if Rain wants a ceremony with her people,” Sanchez said.

 

“I do, Josiah, but I want them to come here,” Rain told him and smiled when he looked at her. “Nathan and I would like to have you perform the ceremony, if you would...”

 

“I would be honored,” Sanchez said and shook hands with his friend before pulling him into a fierce bear hug. “Have you decided on a date?”

 

“Day after Christmas,” Jackson answered.

 

“As long as Chris and Vin are well enough to attend,” Rain told them.

 

“Did I hear someone finally proposed?” Wilmington said and lifted the pretty Seminole woman in the air before shaking Jackson's hand.

 

“You did,” Jackson said.

 

“Now if we could only knock some sense into JD's head maybe Josiah could do a double ceremony,” Wilmington supplied.

 

“Don't rush the kid, Buck, he's got time,” Sanchez observed.

 

“Not when Casey's bloomin' into such a beauty that she's turning other young fella's heads,” the rogue told them.

 

“I doubt Casey even notices anyone else since JD gave her that frog gigger,” Sanchez offered.

 

“True, I wouldn't have believed it myself, but it sure suited Casey,” Wilmington said. “Congratulations, Nate, you're a lucky man.”

 

“That I am,” Jackson said as the rogue returned to his sentry duties. He looked at his future bride and felt like the luckiest man on earth when she stepped into his embrace.

 

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7 

 

“Ezra, did you hear the news?” Dunne asked as Standish rode back in from a short patrol.

 

“What news do you have to impart, Mr. Dunne?” the gambler asked.

 

“Seems Nate and Rain are gettin' hitched,” the Bostonian answered with a grin.

 

“It appears Mr. Jackson is not blind to her beauty after all. Unlike others,” Standish observed.

 

“What's that mean?”

 

“I believe you've been smitten with the lovely Miss Wells...”

 

“She's just a girl.”

 

“Then you are not as smart as I believed. Perhaps I should endeavor to woo Miss Wells.”

 

“You go near her and I won't be responsible for what I do!” Dunne warned.

 

“Well said, and since we are friends I shall keep my distance, but there are several young men who have been...”

 

“Who?” Dunne snapped.

 

“Well, if I were to tell you then I would have to explain how they came to bodily harm. Perhaps it is time you spoke with Mrs. Wells about courting her niece...”

 

“Casey's just a girl.”

 

“I believe you already said that. Please tell me you are not that naive,” Standish said.

 

“What's naive?”

 

“Never mind...but please heed my warning and give thought to what I said,” Standish told him. “I am going to speak with Mr. Jackson about his upcoming nuptials...”

 

“His what?”

 

“His wedding,” Standish said and headed for the clinic. 

 

“JD...JD.”

 

Dunne turned to see Casey Wells hurrying toward him. There were two young men watching her and he felt the anger rise in his gut at the way they seemed to be staring at her.

 

“JD, what's wrong with you?”

 

“Nothing, Casey, who are those two?”

 

“I don't know. They came in on the stage this morning. I think they're kin to the Martin family who live out near Guy Royal's place. Why?”

 

“They're looking at you like they own you,” Dunne observed.

 

“Are you jealous?” Casey asked incredulously.

 

“Course I ain't...I'm just saying...”

 

“What are you saying, JD?” the young woman asked with her hands on her hips, unaware that Buck and Josiah were watching from the clinic above.

 

“Casey...”

 

“I have to go help Aunt Nettie and maybe I'll go talk to those two while I'm at it.” Casey lifted her skirt and hurried away.

 

“Wait, Casey!” Dunne called exasperated when the young woman ignored him.

 

“You'd best keep your eye on her, Kid,” Wilmington said.

 

“I ain't a kid!” Dunne snapped and slapped his hat against his leg before hurrying after the young woman.

 

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7

 

“You're not real.”

 

“Yes, I am, or I would have been had things been different.”

 

“Who are you?”

 

“Search your heart and you'll find out.”

 

“So damn tired.”

 

“I know you are. Just rest now and let your friends take care of you. Mary and Billy are waiting for you.”

 

“Billy's a good kid...deserves a good father.”

 

“Yes, he does and he will be lucky to have you...as I was.”

 

“What did you say?”

 

“I said sleep and dream...we will be with you always.”

 

“With me always,” Larabee whispered, unaware of the worried men watching over him.

 

 

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7

 

Vin shifted on the cot and sat up, wincing when he dropped both legs over the bed. He looked at the man in Jackson's bed and stood up, limping to the chair as Sanchez brought him a cup of something hot. He wrinkled his nose at the smell, but took a small sip before speaking. “How's he doin'?”

 

“He's got a fever, but Nathan says that's to be expected with the infection he had in his leg,” Sanchez answered.

 

“Has he been awake?”

 

“Not yet, but he will, Vin,” Sanchez said.

 

“He better, he damn near got hisself killed 'cause he's goin' fer help fer me,” Tanner snapped.

 

“Would you have done anything different?” the ex-preacher asked.

 

“Guess not,” Tanner answered.

 

“You hungry?”

 

“Could eat somethin,” the Texan told him.

 

“Good, it's on the table,” Sanchez said and watched as the younger man stood and limped to the table.

 

“Vin, how's the leg feel?” Jackson asked upon entering the clinic while the Texan was eating.

 

“It's good, Nate,” Tanner answered.

 

“I'll have a look at it after you eat,” the healer said and moved to the bed.

 

Vin watched as Jackson pushed the blanket off Larabee's lower body and took off the poultice and reached for a cloth to wash the area around the wound. Vin knew the former slave was worried about infection and was glad the man had a knack for healing. He drank what was left in his cup while Nathan and Josiah tended the injured blond.

 

“It looks better, Josiah. I'm gonna do one more poultice and if it stays the same I'll put in the stitches tomorrow morning,” Jackson said and took the items from Sanchez before placing it on Larabee's leg and covering it with a blanket. 

 

Vin felt relieved at the news that his friend was getting better and wished he' wake up, but Larabee seemed totally oblivious to everything going on around him. He finished his meal and returned to his vigil over his friend while Josiah and Nathan sat at the table talking.

 

“Josiah, thanks for agreeing to marry me and Rain,” Jackson said.

 

“About time,” came a mumbled sound from the bed.

 

“Chris, ya awake?” Tanner asked.

 

“Yeah, been awake since Nate decided to play doctor again,” Larabee said as Jackson and Sanchez joined them.

 

“How do you feel, Chris?” Jackson asked.

 

“I'm...”

 

“Fine,” the three men said as one.

 

“Real funny,” Larabee spat as the trio erupted in relieved laughter. He shifted on the bed and tried to sit up even as Nathan and Josiah moved to help him and placed pillows behind his back. His shoulder throbbed and he unconsciously rubbed it. “Thanks.”

 

“You're welcome,” Jackson said. “Are you hungry?”

 

“Thirsty,” Larabee answered.

 

“I'll get you some water and willow bark tea....”

 

“Rather have...”

 

“No,” Jackson said.

 

“I was going to say coffee,” Larabee lied.

 

“Sure ya were, Cowboy,” Tanner said as Jackson returned with a tray that held the tea and a bowl of chicken soup.

 

“When?” Larabee asked and looked pointedly at the former slave.

 

“When what?” Jackson asked.

 

“When's the happy day?”

 

“Day after Christmas,” Jackson said and saw the weak smile form on Larabee's face.

 

“I'll be there,” Larabee said.

 

“Glad to hear it. Now eat up and go back to sleep,” the healer ordered as Larabee picked up the spoon. He knew Larabee was in pain and would give him some laudanum as soon as he finished eating.

 

“Yer a lucky man, Nate,” Tanner said and shook hands with the other man.

 

“That I am,” Jackson said. 

 

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7 

 

Chris woke to the sound of snoring and looked at the man seated in the chair beside his bed. In spite of their differences over the years, Buck Wilmington was more than a friend. The man had been there during the best years of his life and had seen him at his darkest right after Sarah and Adam were murdered.

 

Chris shifted and sat up, biting back a moan as he was reminded of the injuries he'd sustained in the fall. He looked toward the end of the bed and spotted Vin Tanner sleeping there and wondered what time of the night it was. It didn't really matter because right now there was a more pressing matter and he slid his legs toward the edge of the bed.

 

“Not a good idea, Stud.”

 

“Thought you were sleeping,” Larabee groused.

 

“I was, but your grunting and groaning would wake the dead.”

 

“I wasn't...”

 

“Yeah, ya were,” Tanner said and sat up.

 

“Might as well lay back, Chris,” Wilmington said.

 

“I need to take care of something...”

 

“I'll get the...”

 

“Buck, I can...”

 

“Yes, you can, but you're not the one who was threatened with great bodily harm to his nether regions if you start that leg bleeding before Nate puts in the stitches,” Wilmington said and got the chamber pot.

 

Chris silently cursed as he glared at the two men. He knew there was nothing he could say or do that would make them see things his way and did his best to take care if things while they turned away. The truth was, he was glad he hadn't needed to get out of bed because right now he felt like hell.

 

“Chris, Nate said to make sure you drink this,” Wilmington said and held out the cup to his friend.

 

“Horse...”

 

“Piss,” Tanner finished for him and the three men laughed, but stopped when there was a knock on the door and Mary Travis entered. “Hey, Buck, want to help me outside...I could use a little air.”

 

“Sure,” Wilmington said and supported the Texan out the door before closing it behind him.

 

“Chris,” Mary said and sat on the edge of the bed as he reached for her hand.

 

“I'm okay, Mary,” Larabee told her and swallowed several times as she stared into his eyes.

 

“I was so worried when they said you were missing. I couldn't help thinking I'd never have a chance to tell you how I feel,” Mary told him.

 

“How you feel?” the blond asked softly as he stared into her eyes.

 

“I've been a fool too long, Chris.”

 

“You're many things, Mary, but a fool isn't one of them.”

 

“I've printed so many stories to keep this town safe, Chris, and I don't regret what did.”

 

“I don't...”

 

“Let me finish. I do regret putting you on the same page as the bad element. You're not...”

 

“I was...”

 

“No, you were a man who lost the most important thing in his life and not due to God's choice. I know what Ella Gaines did to them and I...”

 

“That's why I can't let you close, Mary,” Larabee said.

 

“I wish it was that easy, but it's not. It's too late, Chris, it's been too late for a long time now.”

 

“Mary, please don't say that. I can't...I won't put you and Billy in danger.”

 

“You're not, not as long as we watch for her. She'll make a mistake and when she does she'll pay for what she did. We can't live our lives worrying about Ella Gaines because if we do then she wins and I don't want that.”

 

“Mary, I can't ask you...”

 

“You're not. I'm asking you to give us a chance, Chris,” Mary told him. “I can't go on living a lie...I love you.”

 

“God, Mary,” Chris said and held her. “I love you too, and I promise as soon as Nathan lets me out of here I'll make things right.”

 

“Nathan and Rain are getting married day after tomorrow,” Mary said.

 

“I know...I told him I'd be there.”

 

“They'll be happy together.”

 

“Yes, they will,” Chris told her and smiled when she leaned in close, wincing when she pressed against his battered body.

 

“I'm sorry...are your lips okay?”

 

“Yes,” Larabee answered and kissed her, enjoying the scent of her as he allowed himself to feel the love that had started weeks before Ella had tried to kill his friends. He knew now that he'd gone with her because he was afraid of what he was feeling. He'd never loved Ella, never would, and had used her as a way to douse the fire brewing between him and Mary.

 

“Please, give us a chance, Chris,” Mary whispered.

 

“Are you sure, Mary?”

 

“Yes,” the newspaperwoman said.

 

“Will you marry me, Mary Travis?”

 

“Yes,” the blonde answered and kissed him again.

 

“When?”

 

“Orin and Evie are supposed to be here on the next stage. I'd like them to be there,” Mary told him.

 

“The next stage is due on New Year's Day,” Larabee said.

 

“I know. We could get married then,” Mary suggested.

 

“Sounds like a good way to bring in the New Year,” Larabee told her and shook his head when Buck opened the door.

 

“It's about time you two came to your senses,” Wilmington said.

 

“Thanks, Buck, but keep it to yourself for now will you?” Larabee said as Vin limped into the room.

 

“Might be hard to do with that glow on Mary's face,” Wilmington said. “Congratulations, Mary.”

 

“Thank you, Buck,” the woman said. “I'll see you tomorrow, Chris.”

 

“I'll be here, Mary,” Larabee smiled as she walked out of the room.

 

“Congratulations, Cowboy,” Tanner said and sat on the chair next to the bed.

 

“Thanks, Vin,” Larabee said and lay back against the pillows. He thought about Ella Gaines and knew the woman was dangerous, but Sarah had taught him about love. She'd told him that to love someone was to put your trust in them and hang on for the ride of your life. He'd done just that with Sarah and knew what real love meant. He had a chance to feel that again and would make damn sure Ella Gaines didn't do anything to Mary and Billy. He looked at Buck and saw the same promise in his eyes.

 

“We'll make damn sure she doesn't get anywhere near Mary and Billy,” Wilmington vowed.

 

“I know and there's one way to make sure of that, Buck.”

 

“How?”

 

“I know she's still watching me, Buck, and I know damn well she's closer than we think. I won't marry Mary while she's still around...”

 

“But...”

 

“Hear me out,” Larabee said. “I want you to send word to Eagle Bend and Culpepper Mines and every other town within a three day ride of here.”

 

“Word about what?” Wilmington asked.

 

“Tell them Mary and I are getting married at Ella's old ranch.”

 

“Hell, Chris, that'd be like spitting in Ella's face,” Tanner said.

 

“Exactly and she'll show up there.”

 

“You can't be serious,” Wilmington said.

 

“I'm deadly...”

 

“No, you're dead and so are Mary and Billy if you send out that kind of invitation,” Wilmington snapped.

 

“Not if they ain't there, Buck,” Tanner interrupted. “What'cha plannin, Cowboy?”

 

“A little trap for the bitch,” Larabee said. “We put out word that the happy day is the 28th and set up at the ranch. We make sure she knows the time and date and we set the trap.”

 

“Using Mary as bait?” Wilmington asked incredulously.

 

“No, using me as bait. I'll be at the ranch alone the day before...”

 

“No way in hell you're there alone,” the ladies man spat.

 

“I won't be, but she won't know that. For this to work we need to set up the trap in our favor. Make her think she's got the upper hand,” Larabee said. “Nathan and Rain are getting married and I don't want them involved, but I need the rest of you to make this work.”

 

“Tell us what ya need,” the Texan said.

 

“I need to get out of this bed and...”

 

“Not until Nathan says you can,” Wilmington said. “You need to let him put the stitches in and then see what he says. You'll stay in that bed until he says otherwise or I'll knock you on your ass myself.”

 

“I'll stay here until Nate and Rain are married, then I'm going to move out to Ella's ranch,” Larabee said.

 

“I'm going with you,” Wilmington vowed.

 

“I'm counting on it, Buck, but you'll be hiding out where she can't see you,” the blond said.

 

“Damn, in the barn again,” Wilmington said with disgust.

 

“Looks like Ezra will have a chance ta look fer his diamond again,” Tanner said. They talked about the plans to catch Ella Gaines, and hoped they would get the woman before she did any more damage to Chris Larabee.

 

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7

 

Christmas day dawned bright and clear as the town came to life and children discovered the gifts left by Santa while they were sleeping. The adults were busy preparing for the celebration that would take place later in the day. The morning would be spent in their homes with their families, but as the day wore on tables would be set up in the streets and people would contribute what they could to the evening meal.

 

Vin sat on the landing watching as JD and Casey made their way to the hotel where they would enjoy breakfast with Nettie Wells. The woman had come by to see how he and Chris were doing before slipping him a package containing several freshly baked muffins. He'd eaten two and saved two for Chris, but the blond was still sleeping after Nathan had dosed him with laudanum before putting stitches in his leg wound.

 

The Texan waved at several people and smiled when Martha Wilson came up the stairs carrying a basket. “Mornin', Ma'am.”

 

“Merry Christmas, Vin, how are you feeling?” the woman asked.

 

“I'm good. How're Tom and the boys?”

 

“They're excited. Lord knows my Tom is like a kid when it comes to Christmas,” Martha said and placed the basket on the crate Vin had been using for a table. “I thought you might enjoy a few treats this morning. It's not much, but seein' as how you and Chris are stuck up here.”

 

“Thanks, Ma'am, always enjoy yer treats. Chris is still sleepin', but I'm sure he'll like 'em too?”

 

“I hope so...I made some gingerbread just for him, but there's plenty for you both,” Martha said and moved to the door. She looked in, surprised to find the injured man trying to get out of bed. “Now, Chris, not that I mind the view, but I'm pretty sure Nathan said you were to stay in bed until this afternoon's festivities.”

 

“I'm tired of being laid up,” Larabee said.

 

“I'm sure you are, but do you want to be stuck in that bed even longer because that's what's goin' to happen if you mess up them stitches,” Martha warned and sat next to him on the bed. “I know you're a man of action, Chris, but sometimes even you need to take it easy. You behave yourself and just maybe Santa will sneak you a little Christmas cheer when Nathan's not looking.”

 

“You're a woman after my own heart, Martha.”

 

“Tom might have somethin' ta say about that.”

 

“He's a lucky man,” Larabee said.

 

“You hungry?”

 

“Depends on if it's real food or that mush Nathan likes to force on us when we can't fight back,” Larabee said.

 

“Miss Nettie sent some muffins,” Tanner said and hopped into the room.

 

“My stars, but you men are a stubborn lot. I'm sure Nathan told you to stay off that leg too,” Martha scolded.

 

“I ain't on it...I'm hoppin',” the Texan offered with a smile.

 

“Sit your ass down, Vin, I'm not the only one who'll get in trouble for popping stitches,” Larabee said and watched as Tanner moved to the table and sat down.

 

“Now, Chris, about breakfast,” Nettie said.

 

“I'll take the muffins,” Larabee told her.

 

“And here I thought you were the meat and potatoes kind of man...”

 

“Meat and potatoes,” Chris and Vin said as one.

 

“Well, I stopped by the hotel and the special was ham, eggs, and potatoes so I asked for two to go,” Martha told them and retrieved the basket. She placed a covered plate on the table in front of Vin and then took the tray over to Chris. She waited for him to get comfortable and then place a plate and utensils on the tray. Next she poured two cups of coffee and gave one to each man.

 

“Thanks, Martha,” Larabee said and picked up the fork.

 

“Now then, if you two are settled I'll go see what I can do to help with the upcoming celebration,” the woman told them.

 

“We're good,” Tanner said and popped a forkful of potatoes into his mouth.

 

“Then I'll leave you to it,” Martha said and left the room.

 

“Tom's a lucky man,” Larabee said softly.

 

“That she is...bet he's lost a lot of arguments with her.”

 

“Wouldn't doubt it...I lost my share with Sarah,” the blond said wistfully. 

 

“Bet she was strong.”

 

“And strong willed,” Larabee said with a grin. “She decked Buck once because he came in late and woke Adam. He was only a couple of months old and she'd finally gotten him to sleep. Buck came in singing and tried to get her to dance with him, but the only music they made was the sound of his head hitting the floor when he fell.”

 

“That would have been somethin' ta see.”

 

“It was,” Larabee said. “Buck had one hell of a shiner the next day and couldn't remember how he got it or why he was sleeping on the floor of the barn. He still doesn't believe Sarah hit him...said it was me because he sucker punched me a couple of times before I met Sarah. Mary kind of reminds me of Sarah. They're both strong and not afraid to stand up for what's right.”

 

“Mary showed a lot of guts facin' down them trail hands,” Tanner observed.

 

“Damn woman stood up to me too,” Larabee said.

 

“That she did...called you 'The Bad Element'...or made it like ya were one of 'em.”

 

“I was, Vin...I told Mary I was the bad element because of that article and still she didn't back down.”

 

“Yer a lucky man, Chris.”

 

“That I am,” Larabee said. They grew quiet and turned their attention to the meal before them and enjoyed the silence they both craved.

 

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7 

 

Chris leaned heavily on his long time friend as they started across the landing to the stairs. Vin was already seated at a table that had been set up in front of the saloon. JD, Ezra, Josiah, and Tom were also present while Nettie, Casey, Martha, Mary, and Gloria were helping set up the tables with foods that were making his mouth water.

 

Billy and the Potter children were playing with Timmy and Joey Wilson while several other children seemed happily engaged in a game of Hide and Seek. Chris knew he should pay attention to what he was doing, but the scene just looked so normal, like something he wanted. He smiled when Mary lifted her head and looked toward him and knew he had to end the threat from Ella Gaines if he wanted to make her happy and be the kind of husband and father he wanted to be.

 

“Let's take it slow, Pard,” Wilmington said.

 

“Slow is about the only speed I can handle right now,” Larabee said and was glad for the other man's strength once they started down. It took some doing and a lot of muffled curses before Larabee and Wilmington made it to the bottom. It wasn't long before Sanchez moved to lend a hand and Chris found himself sandwiched between the two men until they settled him onto the chair next to the Texan.

 

“Chris, would you like some punch?” Mary asked and handed him a glass of the fruity drink before moving away as Billy brushed past her.

 

“Chris, I gotted a new fishin' pole from Santa!”

 

“That's great, Billy, maybe you and I can go to that special fishin' hole we found,” Larabee suggested,

 

“Can we go now?”

 

“Billy, Chris needs to rest his leg...”

 

“Ah, Mom, Chris ain't hurt that bad...”

 

“Chris has stitches in his leg,” Mary answered.

 

“Can I see 'em?” the boy asked. 

 

“No, you can't,” Mary chastised her son and told him to go play with the other children. “Why are boys so interested in seeing stitches and cuts?”

 

“It's the nature of the beast,” Martha said and placed a platter of turkey on the table before moving to help Inez.

 

The woman had made several of her favorite Mexican dishes and Vin rubbed his stomach appreciatively. H knew he could probably eat the whole tray, but there were others who appreciated them almost as much as he did.

 

Chris looked around at the people gathered to celebrate the birth of the baby Jesus and was shocked to see Conklin talking in civil tones with Buck and Josiah. The man never seemed to have a good word for anyone and was even worse where the seven peacekeepers were concerned. When Buck smiled, Chris wondered if the Christmas Spirit had touched Conklin.

 

“What's got you lookin' like yer drawers are too tight?” Tanner asked.

 

“Look at Conklin.”

 

“Rather not.”

 

“Me either, but the man actually cracked a smile at something Buck said.”

 

“Maybe Buck told him we're all leavin' town and it now belongs ta him,” the Texan said.

 

“Damn, looks like he's coming this way,” Larabee said, relieved when Tom Wilson intervened.

 

“Chris would you like me to make you a plate?” Mary asked.

 

“Thanks, Mary,” Larabee said.

 

“What would you like?”

 

“Turkey, stuffing, potatoes...some of everything,” Larabee said as Inez offered to do the same for the injured Texan. Chris knew he had yet to give Billy and Mary their gifts, but had asked Buck to bring the toys to him while Josiah and Ezra had taken care of the desk. They'd assured him it was in her home and would be the first thing she saw when she entered her office. They had also disposed of the old desk that was well past its prime.

 

“Chris, I know we said we wouldn't get each other anything,” Mary said as she placed a plate of food on the table in front of the blond. She reached into her pocket and pulled out a box that she placed next to his plate. “I wanted you to have this.”

 

“What is it?” Larabee asked.

 

“Why don't you open it and see?” Tanner suggested with a grin.

 

Chris reached for the box and undid the bow before lifting the lid off. Nestled inside was a gold pocket watch attached to a length of chain. “Mary, I can't...”

 

“Yes, you can. It belonged to my father and Steven already had one so he never needed it.”

 

“Billy...”

 

“Will have Steven's and that would mean this one would gather dust and that is a waste. Please, Chris, I want you to have it,” Mary said.

 

“She just wants ta make sure yer on time, Cowboy,” Tanner teased.

 

“Please, Chris, it means a lot to me if you take it,” Mary told him.

 

“It's a good timepiece,” Wilson said. “Conklin's gone to annoy Guy Royal and Stuart James.”

 

“I didn't know they were here.”

 

“They're not, but I told him they'd asked for him to join them at Royal's spread,” Wilson explained.

 

“You lied to him,” Larabee said with a grin.

 

“Not really. Royal did want to see him, but that was a few months ago,” the homesteader said.

 

“Tom Wilson, you know you're not supposed to lie even when it's to that man,” his wife scolded.

 

“Now, Love, you know if there was another way I would have done it, but he was on his way over to bother Chris and I thought the Good Lord wouldn't mind if I sent him in another direction,” Tom said and hugged his wife.

 

“My stars, Tom, you always were a smooth talker, now let's go eat with the boys before they get up to some devilment,” Martha said and walked away with her husband's arm around her.

 

“Chris...”

 

“Thank you, Mary,” Larabee said and smiled at the pretty woman as Nathan and Rain joined them. “Have you told everyone yet, Nathan?”

 

“Not yet, we'll tell everyone after Josiah says grace,” Jackson answered.

 

“I was about to do just that,” Sanchez said and tapped on the table to get everyone's attention. Before long everyone was standing with their heads bowed and hands clasped. “Lord, we thank you for the gift of your son and the bounty you've seen fit to place before us. At times like this we realize just how lucky we are, not because of material gifts, but because of the gift of friends and family. Amen.” 

 

A chorus of 'Amens' sounded through the gathered crowd and Nathan and Rain stood.

 

“Rain and I want to invite you all to the church tomorrow...because, well, she's decided to make me the luckiest man in the world,” Jackson said.

 

“You're gettin' hitched?” Yosemite called and everyone laughed as they congratulated the happy couple.

Mary smiled at Chris and sat next to him as Billy joined them.

 

“Ma,” the boy asked.

 

“Yes, Billy?”

 

“How come you and Chris ain't gettin' hitched?”

 

“Billy!”

 

“Easy, Mary,” Larabee said and looked at the boy. “Maybe we can talk about this later...man to man.”

 

“Okay” the boy said and reached for a biscuit.

 

“Buck, did you bring me what I asked you for,” Larabee asked.

 

“Sure did, here you go,” Wilmington said and passed Larabee the gift he had made for Billy.

 

“Here, Billy, these are for you,” Larabee said and passed the boy the package. He watched as Billy opened the box and excitedly reached inside for the collection of animal figures.

 

“Billy, what do you say?” Mary asked.

 

“Thanks, Chris, can I show them to Timmy and Joey?”

 

“Sure, go ahead,” Larabee told him and settled back with his friends; yet, he knew that Ella Gaines was somewhere close by and would have to be dealt with before he could live the life he now wanted with Mary and Billy Travis.

 

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7

 

Ezra Standish had never been more surprised than when Nathan Jackson had asked him to stand up for him at his wedding to Rain. He'd stumbled over his words until he was finally able to speak and said yes. Now he stood beside Nathan who wore a suit Ezra had gladly loaned him for his nuptials. Ezra wore his best shirt and red jacket and held himself erect as Rain walked down the aisle on Tastanagi's arm.

 

The bride looked lovely in a simple dress and holding a bouquet of dessert wildflowers. The smile on her face brought out the radiant beauty while a spray of flowers encircled her hair. “You're a lucky man, Nathan.”

 

“I sure am,” Jackson said as Tastanagi handed Rain off to him. He stared into her eyes and leaned toward her, but Josiah's baritone voice brought him back to reality.

 

“Kissing the bride usually happens after I pronounce you man and wife, Brother,” Sanchez said and heard the others chuckle. The small church was full and several rows of chairs had been set up outside for the overflow. Chris and Vin sat in the front row with Buck, JD, and Tastanagi. Behind them were other members of Rain's family and on the opposite side were members of the town who held Nathan in high regard.

 

Chris listened as Josiah began speaking and turned his head to the right just as Mary turned her head in his direction. Her eyes were filled with tears, but he knew they were happy ones and hoped to see the joy on her face again in the New Year. Buck had sent out several wires and also sent word through ranchers and homesteaders. If Ella Gaines was as close as he thought, she would get word that he was staying at her house and planned to get married.

 

“I now pronounce you man and wife...Nathan, now's the time to kiss your bride,” Sanchez said and watched as his friend did just that before the happy couple turned toward the congregation. They proceeded outside as rice was thrown and were soon surrounded by happy well wishers.

 

“Nathan, as owner of the hotel I give you and your lovely bride a gift. The women have prepared the best suite for you and your friends ordered a bottle of champagne for you to toast your new life together,” Heidegger told him in broken English.

 

“Thank you,” Rain said as she took the bottle of champagne. The townspeople and her people had been more than generous and she knew the gifts had already been placed in Nathan's home.

 

“What about Chris and Vin...”

 

“We got them covered, Nathan,” Wilmington said.

 

“And who's got you covered?” Jackson said.

 

“Martha and I are going to make sure they behave themselves,” Nettie Wells said.

 

“Rain, you need to throw the bouquet,” her sister told her.

 

“All single ladies front and center,” Wilmington said smiling as Inez, Casey and Mary joined several other women. “Miss Nettie, you should be...”

 

“I'm too old for such...”

 

“You're a single woman and all single women are supposed to take part...maybe I'm in the mood to come courtin',” Wilmington teased.

 

“I'd be too much woman for you, Buck Wilmington,” Nettie whispered and smiled as she joined the other woman.

 

“I believe the throwing of the bouquet should commence on the count of three,” Standish said. “One...two...three...”

 

Rain tossed the flowers over her shoulder and turned to watch as the women scrambled for them. When they all stood up the flowers were clutched in Mary Travis' hands and the available females once more surrounded her. 

 

“Looks like fate has spoken, Stud,” Wilmington whispered as Larabee leaned against him.

 

“Guess that depends on how the next few days go,” Larabee said as the group moved to the buffet set up outside the hotel. “I want to head out to Ella's place first thing in the morning.”

 

“Did you talk to Nathan about it?” the ladies' man asked.

 

“I don't want to bother him right now, Buck.”

 

“You mean you don't want him to stop you?”

 

“I need to stop Ella from interfering in my life again, Buck. I want to make sure Mary and Billy are safe from that bitch,” Larabee said.

 

“I understand, Chris, but I'm not leaving you there alone.”

 

“Knew I could count on you,” the blond said as Mary came toward them. “You look beautiful, Mary.”

 

“Thank you, Chris,” Mary said. “How are you feeling?”

 

“I'm good, Mary,” Larabee said.

 

“Would you like something to eat?” the newspaperwoman asked.

 

“Wouldn't mind,” the injured blond said and accepted Wilmington's help. It wasn't long before he was seated at a long table with Mary on his right and Billy on his left as the happy couple was toasted by their friends and family. Chris smiled when he thought of Mary's reaction to the gift he'd made her and  knew she would make good use of it. She'd been shocked at the workmanship involved and he knew he'd given her something that would last a lifetime.

 

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7

 

The sun rose above the horizon as Chris Larabee limped out of the house. The place gave him the creeps and he avoided going to the closet where Ella had erected a shrine in his honor. He knew Buck and the others had already cleared it out and returned the items they knew he would want before disposing of the rest.

 

Two days had passed since Buck had driven him out here, two days of watching and waiting for Ella to make her move. So far the only people he'd seen were Nathan and Josiah, and he'd barely survived Jackson's visit. Buck had made himself scarce while Nathan was around, and Chris couldn't blame him for that. Josiah had convince Nathan to go home to his bride with the promise that he would stay close by and keep an eye on things. If he thought Chris was in any kind of trouble he'd hogtie him and bring him back to town across his horse.

 

Chris smiled at the picture that conjured up and realized Josiah could probably do just that. Vin had been angry at him for not allowing him to stay at the house, but right now, he needed to make Ella believe he was alone while he contemplated his future with Mary Travis. The only way he'd been able to convince Vin to stay in town was by telling him he needed someone to watch Mary and Billy while he was away.

 

Mary had been upset that he was leaving, but he'd convinced her he'd be back before the year ended. He hadn't told her what he was planning, because if he did she would have done everything she could to prevent it. He needed to end things where Ella Gaines was concerned and the only way to get to her was to have her think he was alone. If she thought she could get to him she would; and so far Buck and Josiah were doing a good job of staying out of sight.

 

Chris turned back to the house and leaned heavily on the cane Standish had given him before he left town. His right arm ached, but at least he could move it a little and he wanted the cup of coffee he'd left inside. It took him several long minutes to retrieve it and his cheroot, but he managed and was finally sitting on the chair near the front door. 

 

Larabee stretched his long legs out in front of him, careful not to jar the injured limb as he lit a cheroot. He blew the smoke skyward and listened to the sounds around, immediately going on the alert as the sounds disappeared except for the wind rustling through the nearby trees and bushes. He took a deep draw of the cheroot and blew the smoke out slowly as he watched for movement. His holster was draped across the back of the chair and he reached for it when he heard movement from the side of the house.

 

Nothing moved, even the breeze seemed to have stopped as he stared at the corner of the house and drew his gun. He leaned on the railing and began to make his way toward the east side of Ella's home. He glanced toward the barn and wondered if Buck and Josiah were aware of what was happening, but there was no movement from that area.

 

Instincts born of years of being careful kicked in as he neared the corner and stood still with his gun held in his left hand. There was still no sound, yet he couldn't shake the feeling that he was no longer alone.

 

“Hello, Lover.”

 

The voice came from behind him and he turned slowly to face his worst nightmare holding a gun pointed at him. “Ella.”

 

“I heard you were getting married, Chris, but I never received my proposal,” the woman said. “Now, why don't you drop your gun and we can discuss wedding arrangements.”

 

“Go to hell!” Larabee spat.

 

“Is that any way to speak to your betrothed?”

 

“I'm not speaking to my betrothed...I'm speaking to the devil's bitch!”

 

“I see living with those uncivilized people has had an effect on you, but no matter. Once we allow Josiah to marry us...”

 

“I won't marry you!”

 

“Then Buck will die now,” Ella said and smiled as Wilmington and Sanchez were forced from the barn.

 

Chris looked at the two men who were shoved to the ground and realized they'd put up a fight before being overpowered. Four men held their guns on Buck and Josiah as Chris watched helplessly. He realized they must have gotten the drop on his friend while he was inside getting his coffee.

 

“Now, Lover, put down your weapon...”

 

“Don't do it, Chris!” Wilmington ordered and received a blow to his lower back for his trouble.

 

The next time it will be a bullet, Chris,” Ella promised and smiled as Larabee lowered his gun and let it drop to the ground. “Now, since I don't need a maid of honor and since Buck can certainly be your best man, it's time you and I were married so we can start our life together.”

 

“That won't happen, Ella,” Larabee snarled.

 

“Shoot Wilmington in the knee...”

 

“No!” Larabee shouted, relieved when Ella motioned for the man to stop.

 

“Last warning, Chris, you do as I say or Buck will never walk again,” Ella warned and sauntered toward him. “I'm sure once we are married you'll realize you love me.”

 

“I will never love you, Ella! I hate you for what you did to my family and no matter what it takes I'm going to make sure you pay for their lives.”

 

“There's a very fine line between love and hate, Chris.”

 

“Maybe there is, but you'll never cross that line,” Larabee said as she neared him.

 

“Then I'll just have to love enough for both of us. There are drugs I can use...”

 

“It won't change how I feel.”

 

“Maybe not, but you'll be with me and I will own you.”

 

“No one owns me, Ella, you should know that by now,” Larabee said with a hint of a smile as he spotted movement in the nearby trees. Several shots rang out sending Buck and Josiah to the ground, but Chris had no time to think about what that meant. He dove toward Ella, ignoring the sharp pain in his leg as he landed on it and struggled for the gun held between them. For the first time since he'd known her, he saw real fear in her eyes as he slowly turned the gun between their bodies.

 

“Chris, I love you.”

 

“I don't love you...never have,” he said and felt the gun fire without hearing it. “Never will.”

 

“Chris,” Ella whispered as a second bullet entered her body. She gasped and choked as she released the gun and tried to wrap her arms around him, but he shoved her away.

 

“Burn in hell where you belong, Ella!” Larabee said, stumbling when his leg gave out from under him, surprised to find Ezra Standish supporting him as Ella struggled for each breath while blood spilled from her open mouth.

 

“I believe you have disposed of the spawn of Satan,” the gambler said.

 

“Thank God,” Larabee said and watched for any sign that the woman was still alive. He held his breath as Nathan appeared and touched his fingers against her neck.

 

“She's dead, Chris,” Jackson said and moved to check the injured blond. “Let me take a look at you.”

 

“How...where did you come from?” Larabee asked and saw something out of the corner of his eyes, a young man whose smile left no doubt in his mind who he was seeing. 'Adam,' he thought and heard the voice in his head.

 

“Thank you, Pa, she's gone for good this time.” Chris smiled as the boy disappeared and realized he hadn't heard what Ezra had said. “Sorry, Ez, what did you say?”

 

“I asked did you really believe we would stay away while you baited the trap?” Standish asked.

 

“Guess not,” Larabee said, cursing when Nathan touched the wound on his leg. He had no idea how they'd managed to get his pants down, but something told him Jackson was not a happy man. “Where's Vin?”

 

“He's up in that tree yonder,” Jackson said. “Damn fool climbed up there before dawn and probably can't get back down without help.”

 

“JD, go help Vin,” Larabee ordered.

 

“Tell him ta git his scrawny ass over here!” Jackson ordered.

 

“How does it look, Mr. Jackson?” Standish asked.

 

“Busted a few stitches, but considerin'...Chris, that blood...it ain't yours is it?”

 

Larabee looked down at his chest and shook his head. “No, it's hers,” he answered, weary relief evident in his voice.

 

“We should get you inside so I can take care of that leg. Gonna have ta put them stitches back in,” Jackson said.

 

“Sonofabitch, I was afraid of that,” the blond said as the others gathered round.

 

“Ya done good, Pard,” Wilmington said and placed his hand on Larabee's shoulder.

 

“You look like crap, Buck,” Larabee said as Standish and Dunne moved to help him up. He looked at the woman, and gave a silent prayer of thanks that she would never again hurt anyone he cared about. He felt no sorrow at her death, just a sense of relief that he could now move on with his life and sat on the sofa as Nathan went to gather his things. Buck sat beside him as the others moved to take up places around the room.

 

“You okay, Chris?” Wilmington asked.

 

“I am now, Buck,” Larabee said and looked at his friend. “Do you remember what I said after you found me?”

 

“About the kid?” the rogue asked.

 

“Yeah, I know you don't believe he was there, but he was and I now know who he was.”

 

“Who?” Wilmington asked.

 

“Adam...he told me some things then and I know Sarah and Adam wouldn't want me to spend the rest of my life alone,” Larabee told them.

 

“So, you and Mary are really getting hitched?” Dunne asked.

 

“As long as she still wants me,” Larabee said.

 

“Wonder who'll catch the bouquet this time, Kid?” Wilmington asked as Jackson moved to take care of Larabee's wound.

 

“Ah, hell, now she'll be expectin' it,” Dunne said.

 

“Don't tell me you're not ready to marry that woman, Son,” Sanchez said.

 

“I'm ready, just not gonna rush things with her. Maybe I'll asked her after Chris and Mary get hitched,” Dunne said.

 

“Take your time, JD, you and Casey are still young,” Larabee said and accepted the flask Ezra offered him as Jackson began replacing the stitches

 

“Chris, I know you probably don't want to think about this, but we need to do something about the bodies,” Sanchez said.

 

“You can leave her to the animals as far as I'm concerned,” the blond spat and took a long drink of the strong whiskey.

 

“There's an old mine not far from here. Could dump her body down there,” Tanner said.

 

“That'd put her closer to hell where she belongs,” Wilmington said and looked at Larabee.

 

“Do it,” the blond said, closing his eyes as he thought about a future that now looked brighter than it had in a long time. He thought he heard Sarah's voice in his head telling him to be happy and knew she would understand that he was moving on, but that his love for her and Adam would always be a part of who he was.

 

“Ezra, Buck, JD, what do you say we get rid of the garbage,” Sanchez said.

 

“Sounds like a wonderful undertaking,” Standish said and realized what he said when the others laughed. “Sorry, poor excuse for words.”

 

“Actually, it was funny,” Dunne said.

 

“We'll see you boys back in town,” Larabee said.

 

“Chris, riding a horse is out of the question,” Jackson warned.

 

“Good thing the buggy is still out front,” the blond said as Jackson bandaged his leg.

 

“You and Vin can ride in it together,” Jackson told them.

 

Chris knew Buck and the others would take care of the bodies before disposing of Ella Gaines. He didn't feel any pity toward the woman, her heart was as cold and dark as the mine she would spend eternity in. He looked at Vin and wondered how he was going to choose his best man when both Buck and Vin deserved to stand at his side.

 

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7 

 

The stage pulled in to Four Corners on New Year's Day as the town geared up for the marriage of Chris Larabee and Mary Travis. Orin and Evie exited the stage as soon as the door was opened and were greeted by their excited grandson.

 

“Ma's gettin' married!”

 

“She's what?” Evie asked.

 

“She's gettin' married to Chris! Ain't that...”

 

“Isn't that,” Evie corrected.

 

“Isn't that great?”

 

“It's about time those two stopped pussyfooting around each other,” Orin said with a grin as Larabee walked toward them.

 

“Judge, Mrs. Travis,” Larabee said and shifted the cane so he could shake the older man's hand.

 

“What happened to you, Mr. Larabee?” the older woman asked.

 

“Long story, Ma'am...”

 

“Chris fell over a cliff and he got stitches and I'm going to be his bestest man,” Billy said proudly.

 

Chris smiled as they walked toward the hotel where the Travis' would be staying. He thought about the day Ella died and the return trip to town. Mary had been there when they rode in and she'd cried when he told her why he left and that their lives were no longer in danger because Ella was dead. He'd leaned on her as they made their way toward the small restaurant and Billy ran up to them. It was later that evening, while he was sitting outside the saloon with his injured leg resting on a crate that Buck and Vin joined him with a bottle of the finest whiskey, and three glasses in their hands. Buck had poured three shots and toasted to his future with Mary and Billy Travis. Then he and Vin smiled and told Chris that neither one of them could be his best man when it was obvious that right belonged to Billy Travis.

 

“Where's Mary?” Evie asked.

 

“She's at home. We were hoping once you and Orin arrived we could gather everyone at the church for the ceremony,” Larabee told them.

 

“Josiah's going to marry you?” Orin asked.

 

“Yes,” the blond answered.

 

“Orin, I'm going to go help Mary. I'll see you at the church for the ceremony,” Evie told them. It had taken a long time for Evie Travis to come around to the fact that Chris Larabee was a man she could respect and trust. He'd saved her grandson's life on more than one occasion and forgiven her for what she'd said that day.

 

“So, Billy, you're going to be the best man.”

 

“Sure am, Grandpa,” the boy said excitedly. “Chris bought me new britches and a shirt...it ain't...”

 

“Isn't,” Orin corrected.

 

“Isn't very comfortable and I gots...I have to wear a tie.”

 

“So do I,” Larabee said and ruffled the child's hair. “Now why don't you go make sure everything's ready at the church,” Chris said.

 

“Sure, Chris,” the boy said and ran off.

 

“I wish I had that much energy,” Orin said.

 

“Wish we could bottle it up,” Larabee observed and sighed as he leaned against the hitching post outside the hotel. “Ella's dead.”

 

“Are you sure?” Travis asked hopefully.

 

“I saw to it myself. Set up a trap and she fell into it. She had a gun...we struggled and I shot her. She won't hurt Billy or Mary.”

 

“That's good news, Son. Are you all right with this?”

 

“She got what she deserved, Orin. I don't regret what I did,” the blond said.

 

“Well you shouldn't,” Orin told him. “I'm happy for you and Mary, Chris. Billy needs a man around and he already looks up to you. I can't think of a better man to raise Steven's son.”

 

“Thanks, Orin, I'll do the best I can and I want you to know that you and Mrs. Travis are always welcome in our home,” Larabee said and shook hands with the older man as Nathan and Rain hurried toward them. “Nathan and Rain were married earlier this week.”

 

“Welcome back to Four Corners, Judge,” Jackson said.

 

“Thanks you, Dr. Jackson, I hear congratulations are in order,” Travis said and shook the man's hand before taking Rain's and kissing it before releasing it again. “I hope you are as happy as Evie and I have been.”

 

“Thank you, Judge Travis,” Rain said and turned to her husband. “I need to go help Mary get ready.”

 

“Go ahead. I'll see you in church,” Jackson reluctantly released his wife and watched as she lifted her skirts and ran across the street.

 

“You're a lucky man, Nathan,” Chris said.

 

“So are you, Chris,” Jackson said. “You best keep usin' that cane or you'll fall flat on your face before Mary even gets to the church.”

 

“Come on, Chris, I'll buy you a drink and toast to your future,” Travis said. “You might as well join us, Dr. Jackson, since I owe you a drink as well.”

 

Chris and Nathan started down the street with the judge and were soon joined by the other members of what Jock Steele called 'The Magnificent Seven'. A new life lay ahead of them, and for Chris Larabee that life now held the promise of hope and happiness he hadn't felt in far too long.

 

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7 

 

Chris lay in the bed thinking about the day and how things had gone. Mary was asleep beside him, her head resting on his arm, her golden hair spread out across the pillow as her soft breath touched against his skin. They'd made love several times since being escorted to the suite Nathan and Rain had used on their wedding night.

 

Billy was staying with his grandparents in Mary's house while he and Mary enjoyed a night in the hotel thanks to their friends. Orin and Evie had sent up a bottle of champagne, dinner, and dessert, but Chris thought his new wife was the sweetest dessert a man could have. He smiled as he felt her move against him and her left hand pulled him into a kiss.

 

“I thought you were sleeping,” Larabee said.

 

“Hard to sleep when all I can think of is you,” Mary told him and climbed on top of him, careful to keep her full weight off his healing body. “But if you want me to...”

 

“I want you,” Larabee said and turned so that she was beneath him. “I want you now and every day for the rest of our lives.”

 

“I love you, Mr. Larabee.”

 

“I love you too, Mrs. Larabee,” Chris said and felt his body react to the beautiful woman who was now his wife. He smiled and knew the years ahead would hold good times as well as bad, but as long as they were together the good times would far outweigh the bad.

 

The End

 

 

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