The First Noel
‘A Season for Change’
By: Margarett Cassidy

************************************************
Disclaimer:   Well, we asked Santa to have them tied up in a red bow under our Christmas tree;
does that count?? The way I see it, they’re practically in the bag. I mean, we’ve been really,
really, good this year and (Maggs leans over to whisper in Cass’s ear, who quickly gets a little
red) Oh, I forgot about our trip to Vancouver, that did get a little out of hand. But besides that ,
we’ve been (Maggs leans over again) Oh yeah, the beach. There was that ‘little’ party but I don’t
think Old St. Nick's going to hold that against us. I mean the man apparently has no will power
either. Look at all those cookies he downs every year. Now if you don’t mind (Cass gives Maggs
a reprimanding glare) As I was saying, before I was so rudely interrupted, the Magnificent Seven
will probably belong to us after December 25th so why bother disclaiming when ( To Cassie’s
extreme irritation,  Maggie yet again gets her attention , leaning ever so close, so no one
else can possibly hear) I forgot about that one. (Cass gulps and grows a little pale as Maggs
continues)  O.k, O.k, I get the picture. The Magnificent Seven belong to CBS and The Mirisch
Co. We don’t own them, nor will we ever own them, well at least by means of good behavior
credit. So don’t sue, we promise to put them back when we’re done. And, by the way, if Santa is
reading this, I at least think I deserve those new aerobic shoes and that Winnie the Pooh sweater I
wanted. I mean, after all, it was Maggs who actually asked those guys to play strip poker.....

Warnings: Well, there’s hurt and comfort ahead, who would have guessed, huh? There’s also
smarm and some angst. This is even kind of a death story, BUT NOT TO ONE OF OUR
GUYS!! So don’t go running off yet.

*****************************************************************

Four Corners..........

Chris Larabee glanced around the quiet saloon once more before signaling Nick for a drink.

“What can I get for ya, Christopher?” The old bartender asked with a genial smile that lit his light
blue eyes. “You in the need of a little Christmas spirit?”

The gunslinger shot the older man a look of contempt that let him know he wasn’t in the mood
for any of Nick’s friendly conversation, or interrogations, as Vin liked to call them.

“Whiskey. Leave the bottle.”

Nick shook his head and rubbed at his long silvery beard, but turned and fetched what Chris had
requested. “I guess that’s one way to forget the past,” the big man mumbled, after sitting the
muddy-brown liquid down with some force.

“What’d you say?” Chris looked up, not quite sure of what he’d heard.

Nick quickly cleared his throat and smiled once more, “I said I wonder how long this cold spell
will last?”

Larabee eyed the chubby man for a moment before opening his bottle and filling the shot glass
before him. “Yeah.”

The bartender arched one brow disapprovingly, “Aren’t you going to go share that with your
friends over there?”

Larabee sighed and let his eyes trace the bartender’s line of sight. Vin , Buck, and Ezra were
deeply engrossed in a hand of seven card stud at a table near the far end of the saloon.

“They’re big boys.” Chris turned back around. “They can help themselves.”

Not only was the gunslinger not in a mood for this conversation, he really didn’t enjoy being told
what to do by a mere stranger. Nick had only been in town for about a week now, covering for
the regular bar keep , Hank, who was away visiting family for the
holidays.  Since coming to Four Corners, the annoying, jolly man had seemed bent on finding out
every detail of everybody’s business, especially that of the Seven’s. It was almost as if he were
keeping some kind of list.

“Even big boys need help sometimes,” Nick spoke again, interrupting Chris’s train of thought.
He picked up another piece of holly from the box he had sat down on the bar next to the
gunslinger.

Larabee ignored the comment and reached for the small glass vile of amber liquid, which would
supply all the help he needed for tonight.

“Take John Daniel over there, for instance,” Nick started up again before the drink could reach
the younger man’s lips. “I heard him ask you and the others to help him get a Christmas tree. You
all refused.”

The big man had turned his back to Chris now, busy hanging the green decoration he had
retrieved over the mantle, so he missed the deadly glare that his comment had provoked.

“It was a bad idea,” Larabee growled through clenched teeth.

The bartender whirled around on the heel of his shiny black boot.

“Bad for who? You or J.D?” he asked in a soft, curious tone. No hint of malice or accusation
flared in his twinkling eyes, and maybe that’s why Chris didn’t drag his pot-bellied butt over the
bar, but merely answered his question.

“Bad for all of us. We don’t have time for such nonsense.”

“No time for Christmas? Nick looked taken a back. “Nonsense, you call it?  Why, I remember
when it was all you could talk about from July on to......” His words trailed off as he was met
with a surprised, questioning glare. “I mean, all little boys love Christmas,” he explained
innocently. “And it wasn’t all that long ago that you, yourself, were that age.”

“Well, I ain’t a kid anymore.” Chris lifted the shot glass and downed it in one gulp, as if to prove
his point.

It was true he had once loved the holidays. His mother had made it so special when he was
growing up and he, in turn, had done the same thing with his family. But now they were dead and
so was his holiday spirit. Christmas held no joy for him, only painful memories of how things use
to be. How things could have been......

“And what of young J.D.?” Nick’s light-hearted voice brought the gunslinger from his bleak
reverie. “He’s still very much a boy in many ways.”

Chris sighed but looked behind him, to where the bartender pointed towards the far window. J.D.
Dunne sat a table by himself, his chin leaned on one propped elbow, staring out the frosty glass
pane.

Although long dark strands of his hair hid most of his youthful face, Chris could tell there was a
sadness there. A sadness he and the others had, in some part, helped create.

“He told me yesterday, when we were picking holly, that this is the first Christmas since his
mother passed away.” Larabee instantly returned his attention to the old man. “Must be hard for a
boy that age to lose his only family.”

Chris dropped his eyes from the older man’s knowing gaze and quickly filled his glass again.

“It’d be hard for anyone,” the gunslinger said softly, starting to pick up the shot.

A large hand on his stopped him. “I understand that. But some of us, have had time to adjust, to
find our way of dealing.”

The younger man pulled away, spilling part of his drink in the process, but said nothing.

Nick picked up the glass and wiped at the shimmering liquid now dotting the bar top, before
letting his piercing eyes rest on Chris once more.

“Don’t you remember your first Christmas without Sarah and Adam?”

The words hit Larabee like a hammer. He was too shocked to say anything. No one ever
mentioned his family to him, not even Buck. Especially when the gunslinger was in a bad mood.
Hell, no one even talked to him when he was in a bad mood. Nick was either very brave or very
stupid. Maybe both.

But before Chris could tell the bartender that , in a carefully chosen arrangement of four-letter
words, Nick had regained his mischievous smile and had picked up Chris’s still full bottle of
whiskey.

“I think I’ll put this back, since you’ve decided on a better way to spend your day.” The big man
laughed in a way that shook his bulging belly. “After all, it’s only a week ‘till Christmas day. We
need that tree right away.”

Larabee sat there, stunned for a moment, watching Nick take off towards the other end of the bar,
whistling ‘Jingle Bells’ between cordial hellos to the few other saloon patrons. The longer he sat
there, the more angry he became.

Of course he remembered his first Christmas without his wife and child. What kind of question
was that? It had been one of the most difficult times in his life. Definitely the most miserable.

The most miserable. The words echoed in his head and Chris turned to look at the lone figure
still perched at the far window.  J.D. looked so young, so wistful. Sometimes it was hard for
Larabee to remember that the kid ‘wasn’t’ a kid. But, at times, like yesterday, it was all to easy to
forget that their youngest partner wasn’t the hardened hand that most of them were.

Hell, even Buck , who practically coddled the teen, had dismissed his request with little more
than a smile and a teasing joke about finding coal in his stocking. Usually the biggest kid of them
all, Wilmington’s reaction had surprised Larabee for a moment, especially after J.D.’s best
‘puppy-dog’ look didn’t even work it’s magic. But then again, Buck’s life hadn’t been exactly
pleasant growing up, and it was more than likely his Christmases hadn’t been that great either.

In fact, none of his partners had seemed too accepting of J.D.’s suggestion. Men who usually
gave in to the sheriff’s every whim with minimal coaxing, held out like hardened pros. Vin, who
was usually the first to fall, after Buck that is, wouldn’t even budge.

If Chris had thought about it then, their reluctance  would have made since. Vin grew up in an
orphanage where there was probably little cheer to spare during the holidays, Nathan had grown
up a slave, and Ezra, well, Ezra grew up with Maude for a mother.
And although, the gunslinger liked Maude, the woman didn’t seem the type to actually buy into
the Christmas spirit. Traditional was definitely not a word one could use when describing the
feisty con-woman.

Then there was Josiah. He’d been sympathetic to J.D’s cause, even offered to help, that is if he
had time after fixing the hole in the Church’s roof.. That was unlikely.  It was a really big hole.

Almost as big as the let down evident on the young sheriff’s face when he had turned and walked
away. That same look was still present. And as one of the only one’s who could probably
understand what J.D. was so upset about, Chris decided that, whether he liked it or not, it was his
job to remedy it.

Damn you, Chris thought as he looked up to see Nick watching him with that irritating smile of
his. It was as if the man knew exactly what he was thinking and silently gave his approval.

Larabee pushed away from the bar with a huff and stalked over to the table where the teen was
still daydreaming. Without thinking, the gunslinger reached down and roughly dragged the kid to
his feet.

“Come on,” he growled.

Startled, J.D. turned frightened hazel eyes on the older man. “Chris? What’d I do?”

Chris didn’t say a word until he had pulled the boy all the way across the room to where their
other three partners were.

The men were already watching them, alerted by J.D.s surprised yelp.

“What’s going on , Chris? What’d the kid do?” Buck asked protectively.

“He wanted us to help him , remember?”

All three players at the table seemed confused, and J.D. looked to be straining to remember what
exactly he had asked to piss Chris off so badly.

“And that’s exactly what we’re going to do,” Chris supplied before anyone could reply. “Ezra,
you go get Nathan and Josiah, Vin and I will get the horses ready while Buck and the kid get
what other supplies we need.”

“And what justification for this little spontaneous venture am I suppose to supply them with,
pray-tell?”

Chris looked from the others and then back to J.D., a slight smile tugging at his mouth. “We’re
going to get a Christmas tree, what else?”

Nicholas watched as the five men left the bar and he sighed to himself. This wish was definitely
going to be a hard one to fulfill. It was a beginning though, a move in the right direction. And as
someone once said, even the longest journey must begin with one step.

He picked up some more holly and began to decorate the mantle again. Besides, Christmas was a
time for miracles. It was a good thing he had a few up his sleeve, because Nick had a sinking
feeling that the Seven men he’d come to help were really going to need one.

***********************************************************
And lo the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about
them:; and they were sore afraid.........

***********************************************************

“Would someone please expound to me once more the dire circumstances that have brought us to
this frozen void  on one of the coldest days of the season.” Ezra Standish spoke through
chattering teeth as he peered around the tree covered mountain range.

“Not this conversation, again,” Nathan Jackson groaned, cutting his weary eyes towards Josiah,
who had resigned himself to a vow of silence, after the first couple of miles. Ezra’s complaining
had begun to grate on every ones’ nerves, especially Buck’s.

“We’re here to view the pretty scenery,” Wilmington sighed irritably, sending little white clouds
of condensed breath into the afternoon air. “Worth the three hour ride , listening to
your whining all the way, don’t ya think?”

J.D. Dunne , who had now dismounted his horse Bailey, gave the older gunslinger a disappointed
glare. “Buck, we had to get to higher ground. That’s where all the good trees are.”

“There were trees in Four Corners, kid. I could have cut you one of those down in no time and
not have had to put up with Ezra.”

“But those weren’t ‘pine’ trees. These,” the sheriff made a wide sweeping motion with his arms,
“are real Christmas trees.”

“Now that you have cleared that up for us, Mr. Dunne, perhaps we could obtain one of these
genuine articles and return to our humble abode before the detrimental weather arrives.” The
gambler had now resorted to slight bouncing motion to keep  himself
warmer.

“It ain’t that easy,” Vin Tanner spoke up with a half-smile cast in J.D.’s direction. “We have to
find just the tree we’re looking for.”

The kid’s face lit up instantly. He had almost expected the bounty hunter to complain about the
situation like the others had, but once the seven had gotten under way, Vin had seemed almost as
excited as J.D. In fact,  he and Chris were the only ones that hadn’t groaned about the cold or the
terrain or the time that was being wasted on such a stupid task. Especially after it had started to
spit snow about half-way up the mountain.

“A tree’s a tree.” Buck scoffed, letting a scowl grace his usual smiling face. He loved the kid, but
damn it, he was cold. “They’re green, they have bark, they’ll suit our needs just
the same.”

“And I guess a woman’s a woman, huh, Buck?” J.D. was looking at his friend now,  “I mean they
all have legs, arms,  and a....”

“ I get the picture,” Wilmington groaned, quickly putting a hand over his friends mouth. “Could
you two just find the damn tree you want so we can go,” he added giving the sheriff a shove in
the smiling tracker’s direction.

J.D. nodded and took off down the other side of the incline they were on, slipping and sliding on
the lightly snow-dusted ground as he went.

“Come on Vin, I saw a big one down this way.”

“Why are you going down there, I thought you had to get  to higher ground for the better trees?”
Wilmington called after his two friends as he watched them make their way towards a small
cropping of pines at the foot of the hill. Then with a reluctant smile the gunslinger turned dark
eyes on the man responsible for this particular outing.

“And since when have you been the barer of Good Tidings? Did I miss something?”

Larabee shrugged his shoulders, “I just didn’t want to disappoint the kid.”

“Uh huh,” a knowing grin lit Buck’s mischievous eyes. “Which one?”

Chris followed his friend’s gaze to where Vin and J.D. had apparently picked out the biggest
sapling they could find.

“How do you think they expect to get that thing up here?” Nathan couldn’t keep the amusement
from his voice as he watched their two youngest partners.  Maybe it was the crisp mountain air,
or the picturesque flurry of snow around them, but J.D. and Vin’s
Christmas spirit seemed to be spreading.
 
“Hey Josiah!” J.D. called loudly from below, as if in reply to the doctor’s inquiry. “Could you
bring Bailey down here?” The kid paused as Vin said something to him and then he shouted once
more, “and your ax, too.”

The big roan horse standing near Buck whinnied and tossed her head once, excitement causing
her to stomp her feet against the frosty earth. “I guess that answers your question, Doc,”
Wilmington laughed in spite himself before going to retrieve a length of
rope from his own horse.

“Here you go, you’ll need this if the kid’s planning on having Bailey haul that monster up here,”
the gunslinger handed the coil to Josiah. “Looks like you’ll be playing Santa, the lumber jack.”

“The Lord’s work comes in all forms, Brother Wilmington,” the big man sighed, but didn’t look
as put out as he tried to sound. “I suppose I can do my bit to make our Season a little brighter.
Unless of course,” his eyes twinkled as he hefted the hatchet across his shoulder and faced the
gambler, still hunkered by his mount, “Ezra wants to partake in this particular ceremony.”

The gambler turned a miserable glare on his friend, “If I wasn’t so cold, and such a gentleman,
Brother, I would kindly tell you exactly where you could place that finely honed instrument of
yours.”

“I’d guess that’s a no,” Nathan observed with a quick wink to Josiah. “But I can give you all a
hand, especially if it means we can get home any faster.”

“Well, what are you all waiting for?” Buck asked, handing Bailey’s reins to Nathan. “The sooner
you all finish, the sooner I get back to Miss Emily.”

The healer rolled his eyes at their friend’s one track mind but took the lead rope and carefully
made his way down the hill side after Josiah. He couldn’t help but to chuckle as he heard
Wilmington ask Chris if he would help him look for some mistletoe to take back with them.

“Leave it to old Buck to turn Christmas into a means of seduction, huh, Bailey?” Nathan laughed
harder when the mare shook her head in agreement. *Maybe this horse was as smart as J.D. was
always claiming.*

Once underway, it didn’t take long for Josiah to accomplish the task at hand.  Inspired by the
ever hardening snow fall, the large preacher had the seven foot pine down in no time. Vin and
Nathan secured Buck’s rope around the trunk and J.D. had tied the other end to Bailey's saddle
horn.

It wasn’t a really bad climb and Bailey had worked much harder on the Estate where J.D. and his
mother had lived before the teen had come to Four Corners. So, the sheriff smiled at the thought
of making it back to the saloon before dark, just in time to have the others help him decorate their
first Christmas tree before Nick closed up for the night.

“You ready up there, J.D.?” Tanner’s voice brought the teen from his joyful reverie.

“We’re ready, Vin,” he called giving Bailey a pat on the neck. “Aren’t we, girl?”

The bounty hunter had removed his spy glass and  was now allowed a better view of the knoll.
“Stay to your left, J.D. The grade looks easier.”

The sheriff nodded and started Bailey moving with a slight nudge of his boot.

Josiah couldn’t keep from smiling at the proud look on the kid’s face as he too began his ascent
up the butte.

Nathan was a few steps behind him and Vin was further back, trailing a couple of feet back of the
tree. The trail was getting steeper and the preacher was wondering if the quickly accumulating
snow was to blame for his difficulty or perhaps just his age, when he heard it. A slight rumbling
sound.

Before he even looked up, Josiah knew they had all made a grave mistake. How could they have
missed that outcropping of rocks at the top of the hill. The very collection of small boulders that
now, loosened by the weight of the snow, tumbled their way directly into Bailey and J.D.'s path.

The big man barely had time to shout a warning before he watched the small barrage do it’s
damage. The scene seemed to play out in heart-breaking slow motion as Bailey stumbled when
the first assault hit them. The large mare whinnied her surprise and tried to keep her footing. But
, weighted down by the extra load she was pulling, horse and rider tumbled backwards in a tangle
of limbs, rocks, and snow.

And Vin, who had stopped to return his spy-glass to it’s pouch, never saw what hit him.
 
**************************************************************
...And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you tidings of great joy, which
shall be to all people...

**************************************************************
 
“You know Chris, I could let you borrow some of this mistletoe when we get back to town,”
Buck said smiling mischievously ,as he and the other gunslinger stepped back into the clearing
where they’d left Ezra and the horses. “Miss Travis just might be over come with the Christmas
spirit.”

Larabee shot his friend a side-long glance and started to tell him exactly what he could do with
the prickly little green plant when an alarming shout pierced the peaceful afternoon air.

Josiah’s fear-filled call to J.D. sent icy tentacles of alarm dancing down Buck’s back. Something
was wrong. Very wrong.

Chris apparently felt the same terrible dread because his usually
impassive face had turned as white as the silent snow falling about them. Both men took off in a
pace born of sheer adrenaline and fright. Ezra was already at the edge of the hill, peering down
on the scene he was powerless to prevent.

“What happened?!” Buck demanded skidding to a halt beside the gambler. There was no need for
the other to answer. Wilmington’s gaze had already drifted to the alarming sight below them and
the events became painfully obvious.

J.D. and Bailey lay near the bottom of the hill in a twisted heap. Josiah had almost reached them
and Nathan was scurrying further down the hill to where the large tree had come to rest. Buck’s
mind wondered for an instant what the doctor was doing and why in the hell he wasn’t going to
help the kid, when he realized one of the Seven was unaccounted for. Vin!

Buck heard the slight intake of breath beside him at almost the same instant he caught sight of
the tracker’s hat lying not far from the fullest part of the huge pine.

Chris brushed past him in a blur and it took a moment to realize he was now alone on the peak.
Quickly gaining control of the fear that had momentarily paralyzed him, Buck made his way
down the gorge and sloshed through the deepening snow until he reached J.D.'s still form.

“He’s alive,” Josiah’s husky voice quickly assured him.

Still, the gunslinger felt the overwhelming need to make sure for
himself. He lay a shaky hand on the kid’s chest and let out a sigh of relief when he felt the
rhythmic rise and fall. His dark eyes scanned the sheriff’s body for any sign of visible injuries.
He quickly noted the unnatural angle that J.D.’s arm was twisted in and the dark purplish bruise
already forming on his forehead.

“Bailey was half on top of him, but I managed to get her to the side.”

Buck looked up from his ministrations and held the preacher’s stare, “Couldn’t you get her up?”

As if in reply the horse in question snorted softly , sending a small flurry of snow up from where
her head was lying.  “Her right front leg is shattered.” Josiah’s soft eyes held a hint of
hopelessness the other gunslinger had not seen there in a great while.

“Damn it!”  Buck swore. “This shouldn’t have happened.”

“No use in cursing the past, Brother,” Josiah said calmly as he undid his coat and draped it across
the unconscious boy. “Just wasting energy we may need for things yet to come.”

Wilmington took a deep breath and let it out slowly. He knew his
friend was right. Hindsight was always twenty-twenty and he needed to focus on what lay ahead.
He needed to concentrate on J.D and Vin. At the thought of the bounty hunter, Buck quickly
glanced from his friend's inert form to where he could see Chris leaning over their other fallen
partner. His firm voice gave Wilmington reason to send up a quick 'thank you'.

“Just lie still like Nathan told you,” the gunslinger was saying , to a none-too-happy Vin Tanner.

“I’m alright, Chris,” the younger man assured weakly, but couldn’t hold back the sharp intake of
breath that escaped when Nathan’s light touch pressed against his side.

“Sounds like it,” Larabee replied grimly, tightening his hold on the tracker’s shoulder.

It had taken a few agonizing minutes for Ezra, Chris and the
healer to remove the pine from across the bounty hunter, but getting Vin to take that first breath
had about sent Larabee into a fit of panic.

The sudden impact of the heavy load had not only knocked the breath out of it’s victim, but
apparently busted some ribs in the process.

“You would be wise to listen to Chris and our surrogate doctor , Mr. Tanner.” Ezra was now
kneeling on the other side of the tracker. “Nathan can get quite riled when his orders are taken
lightly.”

“This from the man who is almost a bad as patient as J.D.,” Nathan sighed, casting the gambler
an amused look before continuing his examination.

“J.D.?” Vin’s eyes widened and he pushed at the hands holding him
down. He wasn't quite sure of what was going on, but something told him that his young friend
was right in the thick of it.

“Just take it easy,” Chris said. “Buck’s with the kid.”

“Is he okay?”

“I’m sure our young sheriff will be fine.” Ezra let his drawl ring with confidence. “And the
doctor can see to that as soon as he is quite certain that you are out of immediate peril. Which he
could attend to if you would cease moving about so much.”

That seemed to do the trick because the tracker settled back but kept a watchful eye on Chris,
“What the hell happened, anyway?”

Larabee shook his head, “I’m not sure.”

It was Nathan who answered. “Some rocks came loose from the edge up yonder." The healer
nodded towards the ridge, “They tripped Bailey up and her and J.D. came back on top of you.”

“But they’re alright?” Vin strained to see around Chris, who was
sitting in his line of sight to where the sheriff and his horse lay.

“J.D.’s unconscious,” Buck now appeared, standing behind Larabee. “I think he must have hit his
head and his arm looks broke,” he grimly told the others.  The gunslinger looked anxiously at
Nathan who was quickly finishing up with Vin. “How’s ‘he’ doing?
 

“I’m fine,” the tracker answered, more determined this time. “Nathan should check on the kid.”

“You’re not fine, and I will check on J.D.,” the doctor's voice
remained calm as he examined both of Vin’s legs for breaks. “You have at least three broken ribs
and I’m not sure about your collar bone. It could be just bruised from the impact.”

Chris stood and looked over Buck’s shoulder to where Josiah still sat with their youngest partner,
“Bailey?”

The other man’s eyes met Larabee’s and he shook his head sadly, “I’m going to have to put her
down.”

“No!” Vin insisted and tried to sit up but was stopped by the
excruciating  wave of pain the movement brought. “Oh, God,” he
breathed, falling back to the ground and hugging both arms tightly around his midsection.

“Damn it, Vin.” Chris was back at the tracker’s side in an instant.

The younger man squeezed his eyes shut and clenched his teeth,
fighting to keep from surrendering to the blackness pulling at him so fiercely, “That was stupid,”
he gasped.

“Definitely not your brightest move,” Larabee agreed softly, laying his hand on the bounty
hunter’s forehead. He didn’t know what else to do to ease his friend’s suffering, short of trading
places with him. And if that had been a viable option, he would have jumped at it.

“Try to relax, Vin,” Nathan’s soft voice comforted, as he pried his patients arms away from his
body. “Take shallow breaths now.”

Tanner seemed to relax some as the pain diminished and blue eyes
opened to look pleadingly at Chris and then up at Buck, “You can’t kill Bailey. The kid loves that
horse.”

“Don’t you think I know that?” Wilmington sighed wearily and rubbed at his eyes before
kneeling next to the tracker. “Her leg is messed up bad, Vin.  Even if she survived, she’d be
lame.”

“J.D. wouldn’t want that,” Chris assured, hoping to not only convince Vin, but maybe lighten
Buck’s load also.

“Mr. Larabee’s right,” Ezra’s tone held none of its usual musical
fluidity. “ A creature like that would not be whole without the
freedom it’s spirit afforded it. ”

Vin knew the others were right. He didn’t want to see Bailey suffer anymore than the rest of his
friends. The fiery mare had a zest for life and as much enthusiasm as J.D. himself. Maybe that
was why it was so hard to let her go. That, and knowing how much it was going to hurt the
youngest of their entourage. He was about to suggest letting Nathan have a look at her when
Josiah’s loud voice pierced the silence that had descended upon them.

“Buck!  Nathan.  He’s waking up.”

Wilmington quickly pushed himself to his feet and made his way back to J.D., the previous
conversation all but forgotten.

Nathan gave Vin a reprimanding glare, “You stay put,” he said in a tone that left no room for
reproach, before turning and following after Buck.

“Go with them, Chris,” the tracker insisted, hoarsely.

Larabee shook his head, “Buck can handle it.” He wasn’t sure if it was more a reluctance to leave
his bestfriend or an unwillingness to see the look on the kid’s face when he learned about
Bailey’s condition, but the gunslinger found himself determined not to move.

Vin closed his eyes for a moment and took a short breath, “Not this one..he can't. He’s too close.”
Blue eyes opened once more with a look born of part determination and part sympathy. “You
have to do it.”

“Do what? Kill Bailey!?” Chris kept his voice lowered, but the shock and reluctance were not
masked.

“I believe Mr. Tanner is suggesting that perhaps your actions would be more readily accepted by
J.D.” Ezra not only understood the bounty hunter’s reasoning but agreed with it.

“J.D.’s not going to ‘readily’ accept anyone shooting that mare.”
Larabee countered, unwilling to acknowledge the responsibility his partners were laying on him.

“But he looks up to you,”  Vin coughed weakly, wincing with the
unwelcome movement. “He trusts you.”

Chris still looked unconvinced as to why that should elect him the one to break the kid’s heart.

“If Chris Larabee could not save Bailey, then no one could have
possibly done anything to the contrary,” the gambler explained with a tilt of his head, his
expression softening some. “It’s never easy for those with the ability to walk on water, my
friend.”

“Damn it,” Larabee swore, hating to admit the truth in the gambler's statement, but knowing he
couldn't deny it.  “Stay with him,” he barked at Ezra before standing and going to do what only
he could do... Take what little J.D. had left of his past and make him believe he was doing it for
his own good.
 
“Kid....” Buck reached out and pushed a few long strands of hair away from the ever-darkening
abrasion on the sheriff’s forehead. “Can you hear me?”

Long eyelashes fluttered, “Buck?”

Wilmington looked up at Nathan and Josiah and smiled, “Yeah, it’s me, J.D.”

“What happened?” Hazel eyes blinked open to stare beseechingly at
Buck. “I feel terrible.”

“You took a little spill, but you’re going to be fine.”

“Can you tell me where it hurts, J.D.?” Nathan asked, carefully
prodding at the small cut on J.D.’s head.

The teen winced and shied away from the healer, moving closer to
Wilmington. “Everywhere. Especially there.”

“You got banged up pretty good .” Josiah, who had momentarily moved out of Nathan's way now
moved back into the sheriff's view and winked down at him. “I guess we should thank the good
Lord for that thick skull of yours."

J.D. relaxed a little and even attempted a smile, “I’m going to
remember you said that.” The teen shifted a little and a panicked look came over his  young
features. “I can’t move my arm!”

“Easy there, Pard,” Buck laid a hand on the younger man’s shoulder and shot Nathan a worried
glance. “Let the doc have a look at it before you go gettin’ yourself all worked up, O.k.?”

The sheriff nodded and bit his lip as Nathan gingerly lifted the limb in question and started to
examine it. He’d moved it barely an inch or so when the kid let out a yelp and tried to pull free.

“Easy, J.D.,” Buck breathed, trying to keep the fear out of his voice.

To make matters worse, Bailey had apparently heard her owners cry and chose that moment to
voice her own displeasure. The mournful call, although heartbreaking, was nothing compared to
the gutwrenching realization that dawned on the sheriff’s face. He remembered exactly what had
led him to this predicament.

“Bailey!” The kid struggled fiercely to get up, nearly knocking Nathan and Josiah over in the
process. He got shakily to his feet and would have made it to his horse’s side too, if Buck hadn’t
still had a hold of his good arm and one Chris Larabee hadn’t firmly planted himself between
J.D. and his intended destination.

With a gentle touch, rarely used, Larabee reached out and steadied the wobbly sheriff. “I don’t
think you’re quite ready to be up and about yet.”

J.D. merely looked past the gunslinger to where Bailey lay in a pile of crimson-stained snow. Her
flank was towards him, but even from a few yards away the boy could see the tremors racking the
sleek muscular frame.

“Wh...what’s wrong with her?” he stuttered, turning a glassy stare back to Chris.

“She fractured her leg,” the gunslinger paused a moment, holding the younger man’s disbelieving
gaze, letting the truth sink in. “There’s nothing we can do, except put her out of her misery.”

The teen shook his head and stepped back fearfully from the man he respected the most. He
backed away until he found himself against Buck. No more room to run, no other place to turn.
“No,” he said softly at first. “No!” This time the word was practically a shout and J.D. whirled to
face the one person he knew could put a stop to this insanity.

“Tell him, Buck. Bailey will be fine. She’s tough, just like me, right?”

Wilmington opened his mouth to say something, anything, but no sound came out.

J.D. just looked at him, tears welling up in the impossibly huge
hazel eyes, appearing even younger than usual, and Buck was sure he could feel his heart
crumble.

“Buck, don’t let him kill my horse. Please.”

Bailey whinnied and Chris reached out and pulled the sheriff around to face him. It didn’t even
matter that the gunslinger had used the kid’s broken arm to do so. J.D. had gone numb.

“She’s sufferin’ J.D. There’s nothing Buck or any of the rest of us can do to change that. God
knows if we could, we would.  I know you love her, but that’s exactly why you have to let her
go.”

The teen shivered slightly as the wind around them seemed to pick up and snow began falling
harder. He took a deep breath and closed his eyes shut, hoping against hope that when he opened
them this would all be just one terrible dream. Unfortunately, that wasn’t to be.

So, with a quick nod of understanding and a silent good bye, J.D.
Dunne turned his back on  the past and let go of one more piece
of his heart he couldn’t save.

Buck caught him when he wavered and held him as close as possible when the deathening
gunshot echoed from the pristine snow-capped mountain tops around them.

The kid still jumped at the sound and cradled his hurt arm against his chest, “God, it hurts,
Buck,” he whispered, burying his face in the other man’s shoulder, unwilling to watch the scene
before him.

The older gunslinger wasn’t sure if his friend was referring to his physical injuries or the loss
he’d just suffered. But in his heart he knew that the kid’s  emotional scars would be the wounds
that would haunt them. “I know, kid.  I know.”
 
*********************************************************************
 
For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord.

*********************************************************************

Chris Larabee sat watching the dancing flames of the fire before him. The flickering waves of
amber and crimson lulling him into a mesmerized state instead of the deep sleep the others
seemed to be enjoying. Some of the others, at least.

The seven had come across the abandoned farm a couple of miles down the mountain and
although the house had been burnt to the ground, they were quite lucky to find the barn in
relatively good shape. The snow hadn’t really been bad enough to warrant not heading on to Four
Corners but the two injured men had gave them more than enough cause to stop. So, using the
storm as an excuse, Chris had suggested they spend the night in the sparse shelter, where they
had all bedded down for a long winter’s nap.

Larabee yawned and stretched his stiff and aching arms carefully, not wanting to disturb the
sleeping bounty hunter near him. Vin had finally fell into a fitful slumber and Chris was
determined not to interrupt his friend’s much needed rest. The tracker had down-played his
injuries and insisted he was fit for travel, although the older gunslinger knew better. But it was
like his friend to be stubborn and to put another’s welfare before his own. Another...

The gunslinger’s eyes traveled the distance of the small stall and fell upon the two huddled forms
on the other side of the fire.  Buck had fallen asleep with his back to the far wall, hat pulled low
over his eyes, and legs extended towards the radiating heat while their young sheriff had curled
himself near the older man, his head resting on Wilmington’s bundled jacket. With his arm fixed
in the make-shift splint Nathan had rigged up and the firelight casting a faint glow on his bruised
face, J.D. look even younger than usual.  Young and defenseless.

Chris sighed and relived the scene from earlier today.  The kid wouldn’t even look at him as he
and Josiah had dug the grave and buried Bailey. He had barely said two words since then and
those were to Buck. ‘I’m fine.’

“Fine. Right.” Larabee hadn’t realized he’d said the words out loud until the body near him
stirred.

“Chris?” Vin Tanner’s voice was much softer than usual. “Somethin’ wrong?”

“Nothin’. Go back to sleep.”

“Can’t,” the tracker replied. “Too hard to breathe.”

Chris quickly shifted so he could get a better look at his friend, “Are you all right? Should I wake
Nathan?”

The bounty hunter shook his head no, “Just help me sit up some.”

So, with an ease born of parenthood, Larabee helped the injured man into a half-sitting position,
hoping to help take some of the stress off of his ribs. After a long pause and several excruciating
breaths, the tracker finally attempted to talk again.

“You want to tell me what you were saying earlier?” Tanner gave his friend a look that let him
know that he wasn’t going to give up until he got the answer that he wanted.

Chris shifted his body once more toward the fire, trying to avoid the imploring blue eyes he knew
as well as his own.

“I was just thinking about J.D. He’s taking this really hard.”

“And you're afraid he blames you for what happened.” Vin raised a hand to stop the explanation
that he knew was coming. “But before you launch into telling me that this 'is' your fault and you
wouldn’t blame him if he never spoke to you again, why don’t you stop and think about maybe
its not you he’s blaming.”

Larabee raised an eyebrow, “And just who else would he have to blame?”

“Himself.” Tanner waited a few seconds for the meaning to sink in. “J.D. might think that if he
were more like us and thought about Christmas as a day to ignore, his horse wouldn’t be dead, I
wouldn’t be hurt, and his hero wouldn’t be suffering for putting down a beautiful animal.” The
bounty hunter started to say something else, but had to stop as a wave of pain rushed over him.

“Vin?” Chris moved quickly to the younger man’s side, berating himself for letting his friend
move about so much. “You need to rest. You don’t talk this much normally, so you sure don’t
need to be running off at the mouth with those broke ribs.”

Tanner slit his eyes open enough to look at the gunslinger. “I’d say enjoy it while you can.” He
started to say more, when a coughing fit seized him.

Larabee took hold of his shoulders’ trying to keep the tracker as still as possible. Unfortunately,
the torturous heaving that had gripped the tracker’s lean frame didn’t seem to want to let go.

“Nathan.” Chris’s shout, not only awoke their surrogate doctor, but roused everyone in the barn.
“Get over here quick.”

The healer had been sleeping diagonal of the two men and so was at their side in no time,
diagnosing the problem right away. “Take it easy, Vin. Slow, even breaths.”

“Can’t,” the bounty hunter managed.

“Yes, you can. Just do as Nathan tells ya.” Chris stared intently into the pain-filled eyes, trying to
impart some of his strength to Vin.

“It feels...........like..............a horse.................is ..........sitting...............on my chest.” Tanner
gasped, gripping Larabee’s upper arm as another wave of pain tried to steal his breath.

“Calm down, Vin. Panicking ain’t helping.” Jackson moved to the tracker’s side allowing Chris
more room to help the bounty hunter.

“He’s right, pard. You just need to try and relax.” The gunslinger pulled his friend into a light
embrace.

“Easy.. for.. you.. to say,” Tanner bit out, between ragged gulps of air.

“It’ll be alright in a minute, trust me.”

The tracker sighed heavily, hoping Chris was right. He’d been hurt before, but never had he felt
so helpless. Besides, this was more than physical. He could feel the tension radiating from his
best friend and he also knew the guilt J.D. was suffering. What was worse, was he knew he was
partly the cause for both, and that there wasn’t anything he could do about it, except lay there.

Lay there and try to will his lungs to work, despite the immense agony each inhale brought. He
was beginning to understand all to well what a fish out of water must have felt like when the dark
spots started to dance before his eyes.

“Vin?” Tanner heard the soft voice, but it sounded far away now. “Vin, you alright?” Very far
away.

*Nathan.* The tracker tried to raise his head from Chris’s shoulder, but his body wasn’t
cooperating. He felt himself drifting, unable to pull himself away from the darkness beckoning to
him, so gave up any hopes of answering the healer.

“I think he’s asleep, Chris. You want me to help you lay him down?” Jackson was still kneeling
beside the two men.

“No, you go on back to sleep, Nate. I’ll take care of him.” Larabee gave the black man a small
smile and unconsciously tightened his grip on Vin.

He watched patiently as the others settled down and then slowly, leaned back against the stall
wall, easing the tracker to a more comfortable position touching his shoulder.

“Rest easy, cowboy. Your safe.” Larabee patted the younger man’s arm sighing at their
predicament. Why, after all these years did he have a family again, even though he had fought
tooth and nail to avoid it.

“Damn.” The gunslinger swore softly letting his eyes slide shut. “Why me?”

******************************************************

“Is Vin alright, Buck?” J.D’s soft voice brought the gunslinger’s gaze back from his friends
across the fire.

Tanner seemed to be doing better now, so Wilmington forced a smile for the younger man’s
benefit. “I’m sure he’ll be fine.”

J.D. nodded, but quickly averted his friends gaze as he settled back to a reclining position.  “No
thanks to me.”

The older man barely heard the remark and cursed himself for not seeing this sooner. “J.D., you
ain’t thinkin’ this mess is your fault, are you?”

The teen didn’t answer, but merely curled tighter into himself.

“Kid,” Buck tried again. “Talk to me.”

J.D. carefully shifted, favoring his broke arm as he rolled over on his back to face the other man.
“It is my fault. I wanted that stupid tree so bad, that I didn’t think about anything else.”

The dazed look in his friend’s eyes made it obvious to Wilmington that his young friend was still
feeling the effects of the laudanum Nathan had given him to ease his pain; but he was still
inclined to make it clear to J.D. that he wasn’t to blame.

“You just wanted a normal Christmas, kid. There’s nothing wrong with that.”

Wilmington reached out and gently touched the dark bruise marring nearly the entire right side of
J.D.’s face.

“Lord knows your life hasn’t been very normal this last year.”

J.D. sighed and let his eyes flutter close. “Everything’s been great, Buck. I just didn’t want it to
change. I didn’t want you all to leave.”

The older man was confused at the comment. “What do you mean leave ?”

Sleepy hazel eyes opened once moor to peer up at Buck.  “I heard what you all were meeting
about a couple of weeks ago.” J.D.’s brow furrowed and he had to take a deep breath before
continuing. “How you all wanted to get away. Vin said the town was too small and Josiah said he
and Chris would be leaving out before Christmas Eve.”

Wilmington was puzzled and beginning to worry about the head injury J.D. had suffered, when
something in the far reaches of his mind called to him.

*A meeting.*

Damn. The meeting, that the kid must have overheard, was the one he and the others had planned
to talk about J.D.’s Christmas present, from them.

“I heard what you said , too.” J.D.’s voice was growing softer now, as the arms of sleep called to
him once more. “’Bout how I was always underfoot and in your way.”

“J.D.,” Buck interrupted. “It’s not what you think.”

“I thought if we all had the perfect Christmas,” J.D. yawned. “Then you’d all see that we were a
family. “ The young man paused, forcing heaving eyelids open to look up at his friend once
more. “And families don’t leave, Buck.”

“I know , kid.” Wilmington laid his hand on the teen’s forehead. “You were trying to do a good
thing.”

“But it didn’t work.” J.D. closed his eyes again. “I got Bailey killed-and Vin  hurt. Not to
mention Chris probably hates me.”

“J.D.,” Wilmington breathed softly. “Vin’s going to be okay. There’s no way Chris could ever
hate you and Bailey; well, I’d do just about anything to change what happened to her. But some
things can’t be fixed.”

Buck looked down to see if his words were having any effect on the teen, only to find the kid had
drifted off to an unconscious bliss once more.

The older man sighed and pulled the blanket up around J.D.’s shoulders before leaning back
against the wall  of the stable stall.

“You don’t understand, kid,” he mumbled into the quiet darkness. “We were trying to make this
Christmas good for you.”

Wilmington rubbed a hand over his eyes. J.D. must have only hung around long enough to pick
up bits and pieces of the six’s conversation that he mentioned. Buck remembered Vin’s comment
about the town being 'too small' was concerning how fast a secret could get out. They were
worried about old man Hatter  at the telegraph office letting their private order slip and someone
sharing it with J.D. And Chris and Josiah. Well, they ‘were’ leaving town alright. They were
going to get J.D.’s present , not to mention some gifts that the Judge had arranged for Mary and
Billy Travis.

And Bucks words...

Well , those had been voiced in a moment of frustration. The gunslinger had been trying to sneak
away to place the telegraph for what they needed, when J.D. had chosen that particular day to
shadow the older man.

So now their surprise was ruined and the kid had only been hurt by their good intentions.  Not to
even mention the fact that the ‘perfect’ gift they had picked out for J.D. was now obsolete.  The
teen didn’t even have a horse anymore, so he sure as hell didn't need a saddle.

Even a saddle hand-crafted by one of the finest leather workers in the territory.

Buck closed his eyes and wished he could some how live the last twenty-four hours over again.
Unfortunately he doubted if any ghosts of the Past, Present , or Future were going to be affording
him that opportunity this night. And that was a real shame,  too. Because it was looking more and
more like this Christmas was really going to need a miracle to save it.

*******************************************************

And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a
manger.

*******************************************************

The ride back to Four Corners had been a long and silent one. At least the snow had stopped
some time during the night and the sun seemed to be fighting a valiant battle to regain it’s
position in the wintry sky.

The seven had made fairly decent time and  after getting Vin settled at the clinic and convincing
J.D. to turn in for some of the much needed rest he’d missed during their adventurous night;
Buck , Ezra, and Chris had headed to the saloon.

“You boys look like you could use something to warm your bones?” Nick spoke up cordially,
from behind the bar. *And your hearts.*

“You don’t know the half of it, Nick,” Wilmington sighed, leaning against the bar wearily.

“I take it your tree hunting did not go well?” The older man gave Chris a curious glance before
sitting a bottle of whiskey on the counter.

“That would most assuredly be somewhat of an understatement, my friend,” Ezra replied opening
the bottle and filling the three glasses Nick had just sat in front of them.

“Young, John Daniel, couldn’t decide on just the right pine, huh?”

Chris shot the man a frosty look, “ ‘J.D.’ was too busy burying his horse to worry about any
tree.”

“Oh my.” Nick looked taken aback as he absently stroked his long white beard. “Is he alright?”

Larabee was busy refilling his glass and seemed unwilling to comment further, so Buck
answered. “He and Vin are over at the clinic. The kid broke an arm but Vin cracked a few ribs. It
could have been a lot worse. ”

“Mr. Jackson has assured us that they will both be up and about by Christmas day,” Ezra added,
seeing the bartender’s sincere concern.

“Like that makes a difference,” Chris smirked, sourly, downing his second glass of the brown
liquid. “Christmas is what got us into this mess in the first place.”

“Of course you are not blaming your friend’s injuries on the upcoming holiday?” Nick asked,
retrieving the bottle from in front of Larabee and putting it back on the shelf. * Or yourself?*

Chris gave him a glare for his trouble. “Of course not,” he growled. “How about I just blame
you?”

“Chris,” Buck warned, surprised at the anger in his friend’s voice.

“I mean, it was you who put this whole Christmas tree idea in the kid’s head and ‘you’ were the
one who pushed for me to drag us all out in this weather to make him feel better.”

“Chris!” Buck interrupted his friend’s tirade, only to have Nick motion that it was alright.

“Chris is allowed his anger, Mr. Wilmington.  It’s a terrible thing when people you care about are
hurt and you are powerless to prevent it.”

The bartender’s words only seemed to make Larabee even more angry. “But I could have
prevented it. I didn’t have to go, damn’it. Not to hunt for the tree and not ...” Chris stopped and
swallowed the lump that had suddenly formed in his throat, making it hard to breathe.

“But you did.” Nick had moved down the bar and was looking the gunslinger square in the eye
now.  “You can’t change what’s already been written.”

Chris looked like he wanted to say something,  maybe wanted to scream at the older man; but
instead he turned and left the saloon without another word muttered.

Buck started to follow when Nick caught his sleeve, “He needs time to stew, son. Let him be.
Things will look better to him tomorrow.”

Wilmington didn’t like it, but he knew the old bartender was right. It was best to leave Chris
alone when he was like this, but it still didn’t make it any easier.

“Come back and finish your drink, son.” Nick put a hand on the younger man’s arm.

Buck turned, catching the worried look Ezra was giving him, but did as the other suggested.
Maybe they’d all feel better if Christmas would just hurry up and come and go.

*******************************************************

And come it did.

Days flew by and soon it was only another night’s sleep before the fateful day would arrive; but
not much had changed in Four Corners. Physical wounds were healing, yes, but it was the
emotional scrapes that were proving much trickier.

Buck Wilmington couldn’t help but to let the events of the last week play through his mind as he
walked towards the saloon. He was hoping a drink may offer him the much needed Christmas
spirit he was lacking, but upon entering, another sight lightened his mood.

“I see you escaped your watchdog.” Buck Wilmington sauntered into the saloon and noticed Vin
occupying his usual table. It was the first time he'd seen the younger man outside the clinic since
the accident.

The tracker rolled his eyes at the gunslinger’s attempt at humor. “Don’t go there. After four days
of Josiah’s constant mothering, I’m lucky I can still walk for myself.”

The seven had been back in Four Corners for only a day when Chris left on business. But before
his departure, he left strict orders for the preacher not to let the bounty hunter out of his sight.

“So, how did you manage to get away?” Buck had retrieved a beer from the bar and seated
himself opposite Vin.

“Luckily, Nathan came to my rescue. He convinced Josiah I wasn’t going nowhere, and took him
to the reservation to help him with blankets and food.” Tanner stopped suddenly as he noticed the
slight figure entering the tavern. Wilmington followed his gaze and sighed heavily.

“The kid still ain’t talking much.”

Vin nodded, he had realized since their return, J.D. had blocked them out. Especially, after Chris
gone.

“He still think we’re all leaving?” Tanner asked, watching the youth walk to a table on the other
side of the room before looking back toward Buck.

The gunslinger shook his head sadly, “Yeah, now more than ever.” Wilmington glanced to the
distraught boy. “Even after I’ve told him a hundred times, he still won’t believe me.”

“Maybe as soon as Chris gets back, he’ll see we ain’t high tailing it out of here.” Vin raised his
coffee cup and returned his gaze to the teen.

“I sure hope so, pard.” Buck said heavily. “I sure hope so.”

“Chris say anything about what he’s gonna do about the kid’s present?”

“Nope. I tried to tell him to sell it, but he just gave me that stone look and said, ‘I’ll take care of
it, Buck.’”

The tracker chuckled softly at the man’s impersonation of their friend. “Well, if he wants to
make it back from Eagle Bend before Christmas tomorrow, he best be hurrying.”

“Yeah. I don’t know what could be taking him so long. The judge already had the gifts ready for
pickup. You don’t think he’s run into trouble do you?” The older man turned a concerned look to
the bounty hunter.

“Naw, we’d a heard something by now.” Buck nodded, realizing the tracker was right.

“Yeah, but I wish that ‘ole’ war dog would speed it up. I’m afraid the kid’s gonna do something
stupid, like leave town.”

Tanner thought about what the man said, then shook his head. “No, he won’t go anywhere as
long as he has so many guards.” The tracker let a slow grin cross his face as he tilted his head
toward the bar.

Wilmington glanced over his shoulder and couldn’t hide the grin he felt. “Looks like we ain’t the
only ones worried.” Ezra Standish stood at the end of the counter facing J.D.’s table pretending
to shuffle his cards with deep concentration, but one look at the gambler’s eyes and you saw they
were riveted on the troubled teen.

“Besides, as soon as Josiah gets back, we’ll sic him on the kid. That man takes ‘be thy brothers’
keeper’ a little too far.”

Both men laughed, as the picture of the preacher hounding the younger member entered their
minds.

J.D. raised his eyes at the laughter and felt his heart break a little more. * I guess their just as
happy without me, as they are with me.* The teen sighed wearily and returned his vigil out the
window. He was hoping for a little snow for Christmas at least, but from the sunny day glowing
outside, even that wish wasn’t going to come true.

A silent tear trailed its way down the lonely cheek and dropped to the wooden table. J.D. absently
brushed away the wet remains and didn’t notice the audience his actions gathered.

The three seasoned warriors knew the movement and what the purpose for it was and breathed
sadly. A miracle was needed quick or another soul would be destroyed by the wrath of cynicism.

“Hurry up Chris. We’re losing him.” Buck closed his eyes to the heart-wrenching scene before
him and prayed the black-clad gunslinger was listening wherever he might be.

*********************************************************

‘And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God , and
saying, Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace and good will toward men.’

**********************************************************

Chris Larabee wafted through one of the many busy shops in the quaint little town of Bethel. The
gunslinger couldn’t help but to marvel at the eclectic shop he’d wondered into and all the perfect
treasures he’d found there. He’d  never even heard of Bethel until Buck had come up with the
idea for J.D.’s Christmas present.

As it turned out, Nathan had heard stories of a man who made custom saddles and with a little
help from Mary they had tracked Joseph Conner down. Right to Bethel.

It seemed destiny herself had stepped in when the leather worker had just happened to have a
shop in the small town right outside of Eagle’s Bend. So, now, here Chris was, wondering around
with all the last minute Christmas shoppers, looking at items he had no intention of buying, and
trying to come up with a way to explain to Mr. Conners that the saddle they had agreed to pay a
bundle for,  not to mention a bonus for having it finished before Christmas, was no longer
needed.

He sighed out loud ,putting down yet another ‘perfect’ gift, and was just about to step out of the
general store when he nearly ran smack dab into a burly man in a bright red coat.

“Christopher?” Nick greeted, with his usual enthusiasm. “Fancy meeting you here.”

“Nick?” Larabee took a step back and looked disbelievingly at the jolly, silver-haired man in
front of him. “What the hell are you doing? Following me?”

“Following you?” The old man stuck his thumbs under his suspenders and rocked back on his
heels with a chuckle, that caused his bulging belly to jiggle like a bowl full of Miss Nettie’s
strawberry jelly. “I have much more important things to do on Christmas Eve than to follow you
around, squirt.”

Chris rolled his eyes at the other mans annoying and boisterous ways, but bit back the angry
retort he wanted to let rip.

“If you’re so busy, you won’t mind if I don’t take the time to chat.”

The younger man started around the obstacle blocking him from the door, only to have the
make-shift bartender side-step directly into his intended path.

“I’m never too busy for an old friend,” Nick quickly stated. “By the way, how’s young John
Daniel?”

Chris’s gut clinched at the mention of the younger man’s name and that old familiar anger started
to return. “How do you expect him to be?”

“I’d suppose he was feeling mighty low right about now.” Nick sighed sadly, scratching at his
long white beard. “It’s a shame with tomorrow being Christmas and all.”

“I think we’ve decided to treat tomorrow as just another day,” Chris answered with a touch of
venom in his voice. “We’d all been better off if that's what we’d done from the beginning."

“Are you sure about that ?” Nick raised one bushy eyebrow.

“I’m sure,” Chris growled. “Now if you’ll excuse me..”

“Is that why you’re trying to find some way to avoid seeing Mr. Conner. If you were so certain
about canceling Christmas , then why didn’t you just wire the man.”

Larabee’s blue eyes reflected his surprise. “How do you know about that?”

Nick shrugged innocently. “Miss Travis must have mentioned the reason for your sudden
departure.”

“Do you make it a habit of worming your way into other people’s lives? I’m surprised you don’t
break into their houses while they’re asleep, just to snoop through their things.”

“I never snoop.” Nick looked taken aback at the suggestion.

Chris sighed. What had he ever done to deserve such torture. “Could I just go, please?”

“Are you going to see, Joseph?’ Nick queried, his usual grin returning.

“Among other things,” Chris replied, finally pushing past the older man.

Nick let him go this time and slapped his hands together as a sudden thought occurred to him.
Turning on one foot , he looked back to the counter where he had accrued a large assortment of
items. “Morty,” he called to the storekeep. “Wrap my things to go, I’ve got to see a man about a
horse.”

*******************************************************

Chris Larabee berated himself for the hundredth time since leaving Joseph Conner’s place. He
had finally made it there with every intention to offer up his apologies for the saddle fiasco and to
ask if the man could perhaps sell it to someone else; but instead found
himself saying yes to things he had never planned on.

Not only had Joseph talked him into taking the saddle and a matching bridle he’d whipped up on
a whim, the man’s wife had convinced him of another ‘small’ purchase.

The gunslinger looked back over his shoulder at his unexpected surprise and sighed. It was
beautiful. And a part of him was glad with his decision and he even found himself regretting the
purchases he ‘didn’t’ make at the general store. But another part, the part that was screaming for
him to march right back into Bethel and insist Conner's give him his money back, was still
echoing around in his head. Unfortunately, his heart seemed to be in charge at the moment.
*What was it about Christmas that turned everyone into such a sucker*

*******************************************************

Christmas morning came to Four Corners without delay and brought with it a white glistening
scenery. The snow had miraculously started just after midnight and hadn’t stopped until a few
minutes till dawn.

Most of the townsfolk were all snuggled inside their houses, while the children began to
bustle with excitement toward the presents under the trees.

Well, almost all of them. One ‘kid’ still lay quietly in his room, staring at the ceiling. He had all
but decided the night before not to exit his dwelling until Christmas was officially over. Little did
J.D. Dunne know; others had plans for him.

*******************************************************

As the morning's light broke through the saloon windows, it fell on a very curious sight.
 
Five men occupied it's space in a way quite unlike any other patrons, who might have pulled an
all-nighter there, would have.

Vin Tanner was asleep at one of the center tables, with his head propped awkwardly on his arms
and covered with, what looked to be, popcorn. The white morsels had even attached themselves
to the tracker’s long locks, making him look like he'd been caught in a snowstorm of his own.

But the scene didn’t stop there. On the floor near the wood stove, lay Buck Wilmington and
Josiah Sanchez, snoozing rather loudly. Both men were draped with tinsel and multi-colored
strings of ribbon, which had been intended for the tree, they'd spent most of the evening cutting
down and getting into the saloon.

Above them, stretched across the bar, was Ezra Standish, curled on a bed of holly and candy
canes with a look of pure innocence etched on his face.

The last of the five elves’ was found hunched in a chair, arms crossed, with gingerbread cookies
crushed against his muscular frame. Nathan Jackson would definitely regret his uncomfortable
position upon awakening.

And this was what greeted Chris Larabee as he stepped through the batwing doors, expecting to
find the place empty. He stopped suddenly at the sight that befell him, quickly grabbing at the
box he was carrying, as it began to totter out of his arms.

Cautiously side-stepping two of his sleeping partners’, the gunslinger deposited the gift under a
large, extraordinarily decorated Christmas tree. Several other packages aligned the floor
underneath the pine, but what struck Chris’s curiosity was that they all were wrapped similarly to
his, which Joshua's wife had insisted on wrapping for him. They were the same, right down to the
ribbon that the woman had used. He was about to lift one of the tags when a startled gasp
surprised him.

Turning quickly, Larabee found a stunned J.D. Dunne standing in the entrance to the saloon.
With hazel eyes as big as saucers and mouth agape with wonder, the boy carefully made his way
to stand in front of the tree.

“Merry Christmas, kid.” It was the only words that came to the older man’s mind.

“How?” J.D. stuttered. “Why?”

Before the gunslinger could reply, other creatures began to stir.

“Would you please get your foot out of my back,” Josiah grumbled, rolling to a half sitting
position.

Buck growled an incoherent response, whilst also pushing himself up from the pile of tinsel he
had been residing in.

“What ungodly hour have you miscreants chosen to wake me from my, ‘albeit uncomfortable’,
but much needed, slumber?” Ezra groaned and nearly fell from atop the bar.

“I told you not to have that last glass of Nick’s special egg-nog last night.” Nathan chided,
sweeping gingerbread cookie crumbs’ from his attire.

“Help,” a soft voice mumbled, still in the confines of sleep. “Theres a demented ‘kernel’ after
me.”

Chris quirked an eyebrow at his partners’ before his eyes’ drifted to the popcorn and string
covered form that was his best friend. “I thought you boys’ were suppose to keep an eye on
him?”

The four men under scrutiny looked at one another and then burst out laughing. Larabee quickly
made his way to Vin’s side and laid a hand on the younger man’s shoulder.

A startled Tanner arose with a clatter, causing a flurry of white stuff to ascend around him. He
instinctively reached for his sidearm, only to find himself armed with a candy cane, which he
held pointed at Chris’s chest.

The black-clad gunslinger couldn’t suppress the huge grin threatening to overtake him. “Easy
there, cowboy. That thing might be loaded.”

“Chris?”

This only caused the others’ to increase their folly.

“I have to be dreaming. Thats got to be it.” J.D. marveled from his spot still near the tree.

“Kid!” Buck noticed his friend and quickly pulled himself together. “We wanted to surprise
you.”

“Oh, I’m surprised,” the teen said softly. “And a little worried.” Concerned hazel eyes surveyed
the bedraggled men around him. “Are you guys alright?”

“We are merely enjoying the holiday spirit," Ezra drawled, hopping down from the bar.

“You mean ‘spirits’?” Nathan queried with a sly look.

“That too, my friend,” the gambler smiled mischievously.

“You plan on using that, or just holding me hostage?” Chris asked a still confused Tanner.

“Ha, Ha,” the tracker smirked, blinking a couple of times before returning the candy cane to his
holster. “Now I know why Nathan says laudanum and whisky don’t mix.” He mumbled, shaking
a few remaining pieces of popcorn from his hair. “What the hell did Nick
put in that egg-nog?”

“Nick was here?” Chris asked with a puzzled look. He’d just left the man in Bethel yesterday
afternoon.

“He was here alright,” Josiah replied, eyeing the finished tree in the center of the saloon. “And by
the looks of it, he was busy.”

“We hadn’t even started decorating when he brought out the libations.” Ezra added.

“Did he bring the presents too?” J.D. asked, quickly scanning the boxes before him.

“Presents?” Buck turned curious eyes to his old friend.

“They’re from Chris,” the lad replied, holding up a long, narrow gift and giving the gunslinger an
exuberant look.

“Well, actually......” Larabee started, but was unable to finish his thoughts before Nick bounded
through the doors, with his face all a glow.

“Well, actually,  I believe that big one is from all of your friends’, John Daniel. The others are
from Chris,” the old man chuckled, giving Larabee a knowing smile.

“Really?” J.D. tossed the gift he was holding over his shoulder to Vin and turned his
attention to the biggest present under the tree. “That one has you name on it, Vin,” he called
in explanation, as he started the difficult task of one-handedly ripping open the box before him.

Buck shot Chris a panicked look. Surely, he didn’t bring home the saddle, after what had
happened to Bailey.

However, Chris was more confused by how his name got on the gifts Nick was now distributing
to the others.

“A leather medical bag?” Nathan’s face was a mask of wonderment. “I don’t know what to say.”

Neither did Larabee.

Of course he had instantly thought of the healer when he’d seen the satchel, but had refrained
from buying it. Just like he hadn’t bought the snake skin boots for Buck. The gold cufflinks for
Ezra. The Bible case for Josiah, or the new, solid silver, engraved spy glass Vin now held in his
trembling hand.

Chris looked down at the obviously surprised tracker and said the only thing he could. “I know
you broke the other one in the fall with Bailey.”

Vin didn’t or couldn’t reply, so Nick leaned over his shoulder to read the inscription.

“May you always see your way home.”

“Wise words.” The burly man looked up at Larabee’s stuptified face. “Quite the poet you are,
squirt.” He smiled and then winked at Vin. “Yet another thing you two have in common.”

Before either man could reply, the bartender had turned and hurried to J.D.’s side where the boy
had almost managed to unwrap the gift. Buck was, of course, hovering nearby, his new boots
forgotten in his worry for their young friend.

“Look, kid,” he attempted, only to have Nick stop him with a glance.

“Don’t interrupt the young man’s work. Opening packages is a grueling task.”

“Especially when it’s wrapped up like a mummy?” J.D. muttered, shooting an annoyed glance at
Chris, who couldn’t keep from smiling. He use to do the same thing to Adam.

The youth stopped once the box was open and stared silently at its contents. Each man waited
with bated breath.

“We ordered it before the accident with Bailey,” Buck rushed to explain, kneeling beside a very
quiet J.D. “It seemed like a good idea at the time.”

“A gesture of love is never wrong,” Nick offered, lifting the exquisite saddle and bridle out of the
crate. “I’ve never seen such workmanship.”

J.D. couldn’t take his eyes from the gift. He reached out his good arm and let a trembling hand
travel along his initials burned into the tanned leather. “It’s beautiful,” he said around the
growing lump in his throat.  “Thanks, you all. It’s the best present I ever got.”

“I wouldn’t speak too soon, young man.” Nick turned and looked at Chris. “I believe Mr. Larabee
has another gift for you outside. Isn’t that right, Christopher?”

The gunslinger looked at the old man in amazement, wondering once again how he’d managed to
find him out. “Yeah, I guess I do.”

“Really?” Buck and J.D. asked simultaneously, before looking at one another with matching
smiles. “More presents.”

Chris led the way onto the porch of the saloon and instructed the others to wait there.

Vin and Buck exchanged puzzled glances when the other man went into the alley beside the
building.

“What is it?” J.D. was nearly bouncing on his toes beside Ezra, who was more engrossed in
admiring how the sun reflected on his new cufflinks, than he was what the kid was saying.

“Patience is a virtue, son.” Josiah spoke up, around an amused smile.

Nathan winked at the holy man, “Yeah, J.D., good things come to those who wait, you know.”

The let out an exasperated sigh and would have bounded off the porch to have a peek if Buck
hadn’t had a hold of him. “Easy kid, he’ll be along and I ...” Wilmington’s words died in his
throat as Chris Larabee came around the corner, leading one of the most beautiful Paint horses the
gunslinger had ever seen.

The gelding stood at least  16 hands high, with a coat of black and white patches, topped off by a
flowing tail and mane of ebony.

The horse snorted and threw its head up, as if in greeting, when Larabee brought it to a halt in
front of the group. “He’s a little young and skittish, still.,” Chris explained, noting the paleness of
J.D.’s face. “But I think he’ll make a great mount if we all work with him.”

The animal whinnied and Buck laughed. “Seems he’s taken offense to you calling him ‘green’,
Chris.”

“Perhaps he finds himself already more than capable of such duty.” Ezra shot an amused look at
J.D.

“Un huh,” Nathan agreed, caught up in the fun. “Sort of reminds me of someone.”

“Indeed, brother.” Josiah scratched at his chin. “I do recognize that high-spiritedness from
somewhere.”

Buck grinned wider, noting that his young protégé’ had been rendered speechless twice in one
day. “What do you think, J.D.?”

“He’s mine?” is all the kid could manage, as he took a cautious step off the porch and towards
the breathtaking animal.

“Only if you want him,” Chris replied offering the reigns to the younger man. “I know Bailey’s
only been gone a little while, but you can’t exactly ride with the Seven if you don’t have a
horse.”

J.D. smiled widely and took the lead his hero was offering him. “Seven,” he said proudly,
reaching out to stroke the white blaze streaking the right side of the gelding’s face. “I’ll call him
Seven.”

Buck stepped off the porch and threw an arm across J.D.’s shoulder. “How ‘bout I help you get
him set up in the stable. Introduce him to the rest of the family.”

J.D.’s grin widened. “Sounds good. Do you think Aphrodite will like him?”

The older man laughed. “I doubt it. He’s young, arrogant, and thinks he’s a lot smarter than he is.
But she’ll probably put up with him.” Wilmington shrugged his shoulders. “After all , I have set a
good example for her. Just look what I’ve done with you.”

“Funny, Buck.” The teen rolled his eyes and followed the older man toward the livery, treating
the others to a much-missed grumbling session as he went.

“Gentlemen, perhaps we should go attempt to discern the essentials needed for our Christmas
cuisine?” Ezra turned expectantly towards Nathan and Josiah.

“We?” Jackson raised an eyebrow and looked at Sanchez. “That means you and me, doesn’t it.”

“Fraid so, brother Nate.” Josiah grinned and jumped from the steps. “Anything to keep Ezra from
trying his grandmother’s pumpkin pie recipe again.”

“I am so unappreciated in this establishment,” Standish drolled , giving Chris’s shoulder a quick
squeeze as he passed by.

“You’re not going with them?” Larabee turned to eye the one occupant left on the porch.

Vin looked contemplative and when he didn’t answer right away, the other gunslinger got
worried. “You alright, cowboy?” Chris asked, concern evident on his face as he stepped back up
on the porch. “Are your ribs bothering you?”

“Yeah,” Tanner replied and then shook his head. “I mean  no, my ribs are fine, but yes, I’m
okay.”

“Okay,” Chris grinned. “But you don’t look alright.”

“Ah hell,” Vin run one hand through his hair, while handing the other man a wrapped parcel with
the other.  “Here.”

“What’s this?” Chris asked, taking a step forward to retrieve the gift.

“Somethin’ I thought you might like. I mean I liked it, and well I know you like to read and all
and I just thought. Well, I thought... Just open it.” Vin waved a hand at his friend and eased
himself down into one of the chairs on the porch.

Chris raised an amused eyebrow at the usually unflappable tracker before tearing into the
present, with an enthusiasm matching that of J.D.’s.

“It’s a book of poetry,” Vin explained, when he began to worry at the silence. “My mother use to
read poems to me when I was a kid, and I never forgot them.” A momentary look of sadness
crossed the tracker’s face , but he quickly covered it with a crooked grin. “Anyway, Nick
helped me pick it out. I hope its alright.”

“I had one just like it...once,” Larabee whispered, letting his eyes travel up to meet the other
man’s pensive gaze. “It was destroyed in the fire.”

“I’m sorry,” Vin started to apologize. The last thing he wanted was to bring bad memories to his
bestfriend, especially at Christmas. “If I’d known...”

“If you’d known,” Chris cut the other man off. “It wouldn’t mean half as much. I love it.”

The two shared a moment of silence , needing no words to convey their feelings.

“Merry Christmas, Chris.”

“Merry Christmas, Vin.”

Both men started to laugh.

“Are we getting soft or what?” Tanner was the first to speak again.

“Oh yeah,” Chris pulled his hat off, and run a hand through his hair. “I think Nick has been
slipping something in our drinks these last few weeks.”

“Speaking of Nick?” The tracker turned and looked around them. “Where’d he go?”

Chris stepped through the batwing doors and cast a quick glance around the saloon, but found no
trace of the man in question.

“Damned if I know,” he muttered stepping back outside. “The man’s quicker than lightning.”

Vin looked up at the sky, which had begun to dump more large flakes of snow all around them
and in the distance he was sure he could hear something akin to sleigh bells ringing. “I have a
feeling we’ll be seeing him again.”

Blue eyes twinkled as Chris gazed at the other man. “Yeah, like around next Christmas.”

*******************************************************

The End. .
(Cassie refrains from saying in her best Tiny Tim voice, 'God bless us one and all'.)

PS:We promise we'll be back to our old Evil selves come the first installment of The Great
Divide.