Author: Joan Curtin
Rating: PG (it is Christmas, after all)
Disclaimer: They aren't mine, not even at Christmas (sob)! They still belong to those Alphabet folks.
Author's Note: Merry Christmas to you all! This story is for Sue N., a wonderful beta-reader and fabulous friend, who is an inspiration every day. Thank you so much.
Star of Wonder
The storm swept down the plains outside Four Corners like a wolf; claws and teeth of ice, a howling breath, savage cold. Vin Tanner had been tracking the signs for several days; first the faint milky blue of the sky, then the ring of ice around the moon. His bones had told him the rest; Old wounds aching, and a sharp, nagging pain in the small of his back where his spine curved. He was a young man, but his life had left him with scars, and when the weather turned he swore he felt as aged as a grandpa. He was not unprepared for the onslaught of the bad weather, though if he hadn't been as familiar with the lay of the land he might have been blindsided with no place of refuge.
He and Peso had taken shelter in a cave he had discovered several months back. He'd made it his bolt-hole when things in town got too close, or, as had happened several days ago, when Chris had warned him that a bounty hunter was in town. Vin couldn't take any chances that he'd be recognized, so he had lit out, planning to return to town for Christmas at Nettie's place. As he squinted out into the blinding white ice-storm, he felt a tug of regret that he might not make it back in time.
He had stored up kindling during the autumn and kept his lucifers dry against his skin so he was able to build a small fire that didn't make too much smoke, and lit the miner's lantern he kept there. He melted snow for water, had stored some pemmican and jerky, and enough ground coffee beans to make a small pot. He figured what more could he want? He sat in that circle of light, feeling the cold more than he wanted to admit, but knowing he was in no danger of freezing. After he'd eaten and bedded Peso down for the night, he sat gazing into the fire and dreaming of the impossible.
He sighed. It wouldn't be the first Christmas he'd spent alone. But part of him, the part he tried to deny, had hoped that it would be the last. Stupid to think that a man like him with a price on his head and no kin should want something like that. But there it was, glimmering like a candle shining through the storm.
If he closed his eyes, he could imagine what Christmas at Nettie's would be like. She'd cook up a real nice dinner; chicken maybe, or a roast of beef and potatoes with rich brown gravy. And biscuits. Lord, but Nettie made biscuits as light as a feather, and rich with butter. And she'd serve 'em with honey, because she knew that's what he liked. Josiah would say a few words over the meal. He'd keep them simple, so Vin could understand them, but he'd say somethin' worth listening to. Casey would be there, fussin' over JD, but fightin' with him too, just so his head wouldn't get swelled up. And Buck, slouched in his chair with his hands clasped over his belly and a shit-eatin' grin spread all over his face, would encourage the tomfoolery. He imagined Nathan would be sittin' by the fire, smiling and laughing, and Ezra with his ever-present deck of cards, shuffling them with an ease like falling water, waiting for Buck and the others to get up enough ambition to play a friendly game. That's how it would be.
The only blank space in the canvas Vin's imagination painted in his mind was left by a shadow. Would Chris be there? Would he join them at the table, or would he hug the darkness? Maybe he'd just sit outside the light and smoke a cheroot, watching the others with that cool, ironic gaze of his, as if he was beyond the fantasy of hearth and home they had created for that one day. More likely, he'd go to his cabin and isolate himself there. But Vin hoped the gunslinger would at least show up at Nettie's to eat, even if he didn't stay the night.
A piece of kindling snapped in the fire, sending up sparks and startling Vin from his reverie. He stood up slowly, grimacing at the stiffness in his back and went to look outside. The ice was turning to snow; maybe he would be able to get out tomorrow and back to town if it tapered off towards dawn. There wasn't any way to tell. He went back into the depths of the cave, stoked up his fire for the night and laid out his bedroll. It was tooth-rattling cold and he felt the chill strike clear through his blankets. No stranger to discomfort, he curled up tighter around the warm core of his middle, closed his eyes, and tried to sleep.
He drifted, too uncomfortable to find a deeper slumber. Confused, half-remembered scenes from his past came to haunt him: His mother, pale as a wraith in his memory, but smiling as she held a muffler she had knitted for him in her hands. She had wrapped it around his neck and pulled him close for a kiss. Funny he should remember that and so little else. His grandpa, stern but gentle, watching him open the box that held his harmonica. It was one of the few store-brought gifts he recalled receiving, and cherished, not because of where it had come from, but because it was given with love.
There were other things he remembered and wished he didn't.
The orphanage in St. Louis where he was sent after his grandpa died. There were too many recollections of hard hands and angry voices, of being called ugly and stupid, of brutal use and pain. Memories of the two Christmases during the war -- one spent huddled in a nest of rocks, alone, listening to the echoes of Christmas carols being sung by the enemy pickets as they stood watch, just as he was. The other lost in a fever-dream, wounded and delirious in a foul prison, thinking he was going to die, and wishing for it, really. Wanting only to see his mama again, whimpering like a baby. No one had come.
Afterwards, with the Lakota, there were no Christmases. Just winter days and nights, and the harsh realities of surviving the cold. But even then, huddled in buffalo robes or sitting around the fires, he had known that it was Christmas, and a yearning to find his place, somewhere, had swept through him like the scythe of a sword through his heart.
The last two years he'd been bounty huntin', didn't make no difference what day of the year it was. Christmas was just a day when you might be more likely to catch a man unawares, maybe even risking visiting his family, because the lonesome burn of being on the run was unbearable to even the hardest criminal. It didn't matter to Vin. He'd taken those memories of his and buried them so deep that he could look a bounty in the eye and drag him off without blinking any day of the year. Wasn't something he was proud of, but it was something he knew he could do better than anybody else.
He shivered again, this time from the cold inside his heart as he thought on what he had become; cold, distant, alone. Driven to solitude by the circumstances of his life. Lurking in the night like a wolf eyeing a fire from the shadows.
*It don't have to be that way.*
Vin's eyes flew open and he sat up quickly. "Mama?" His whisper echoed off the walls of the cave, and the only answer was the whistle of the wind. Must've drifted off, he told himself, and lay back down, huddling under the blankets. The words remained in the sigh of the wind through the rocks. *It don't have to be that way.*
He thought back to the vision he had conjured up earlier: Nettie's place, his friends sharing food, laughter, and warmth. Maybe even looking for him, wondering where he was, how he was. Suddenly, all that was lonely in him, all the pain he'd been carrying through the years, all the yearning and desire that he had denied, roiled up in him so strong that he thought he would die from it. The wolf in him would have howled it out, lonely, cold, and wild, but the man in him was silent.
*It don't have to be that way.*
Vin uncoiled from his bedroll, every muscle aching. Wrapping his coat close to his body, he went to the entrance and looked out. The icy precipitation had ceased; replaced by a flurry of snow. The clouds overhead were shredding into gauzy veils. Vin turned his face to the stars. One star, brighter than all the others was suspended like a diamond overhead. Seemed to be shining right over Four Corners. Seemed to be calling him home.
His decision made, Vin returned to the depths of the cave. He wrapped up his bedroll and packed up his kit. Peso watched him warily, as if he knew his stay in the shelter of the cave was over. Whistling softly through his teeth, half to soothe the big gelding, half because he was at peace with his decision, Vin saddled Peso and led him to the front of the cave. He extinguished the lantern and kicked his fire out.
Vin pulled his hat low, put up the collar of his coat. Lord, he hated the cold. He swung into the saddle and turned his face to the snow. Peso snorted his discontent at being taken from the cave into the weather. He tossed his head, danced around, not liking the uncertain footing beneath his hooves. Vin shortened up on the reins. "It's you n'me, mule, and we're gonna git t'Larabee's place as quick as we can. So b'have yerself, y'understand?" Might sound crazy, a man talking to his horse, but he Peso had come to an understanding a long time ago. He kneed the reluctant horse forward, negotiating the slippery rocks and treacherous trail, leaving the cave behind him. With luck, he'd make Chris's in time for breakfast.
Chris Larabee listened to the wind whistle mournfully through the ill-fitting windows of his cabin. He had patched most of the chinks in the walls over the summer and had repaired the warped frames around the windows, but this wind seemed to be intent on poking icy fingers through every available gap. He was grateful for the warmth of the fire, for the heavy wool poncho Josiah had given him, and for the gut-warming, whiskey-strengthened coffee in his mug.
He might consider himself comfortable if it weren't for that itch in the pit of his stomach, a nagging worry about Vin Tanner that refused to subside, due to that bounty hunter who'd ridden through town two days earlier. He'd stopped in at the jail and asked Chris if he could take a look through the wanted posters. JD had caught the look in Chris's eye that sent him out of the jail and over to Vin's wagon with a warning. Tanner had ridden out quickly, taking only a few essential items with him, and leaving word that he would try to make it to Nettie's in time for Christmas dinner.
Chris knew Vin's word was good; he also knew that Tanner could take care of himself out in the wild. But that itch refused to go away, nagging and making him wonder if that bond between them that had been forged in dust and danger was a warning of pending disaster.
Maybe he'd ride out in the morning if the weather let up. Damn, Vin was probably holed up in some bolt-hole he'd discovered, safe and sound, and when Chris found him ... if he found him, he'd never hear the end of it from the tracker.
He drank his coffee, did some chores, tried to seal up some of the worst cracks around the windows with rags. The wind died down around midnight, and he went out to the barn to check on the horses. As he paced quickly across the corral, he glanced up at the night sky. There was an icy ring around the moon and the constellations were obscured by high clouds, all save one star that shone bright as a diamond on black velvet.
It was as beautiful a night as Vin had ever seen despite the merciless cold. The stars, the faint dusting of snow on the ground, the small, icy flakes that glittered like bits of starlight sifting from the heavens. The footing beneath Peso's hooves was precarious enough that he couldn't push the pace of his ride even though he was cold enough to shiver and shake in the saddle, and his fingers were growing stiff inside his gloves. He tried to envision what would be waiting for him at Chris's; a warm fire, hot coffee, whiskey. And one hell of a surprised Larabee.
Vin laughed softly at that. They'd both go over to Nettie's and the old woman would be mighty startled to see the two lone wolves of the seven peacekeepers on her doorstep. Be good for Larabee to get outta that shack of his and away from the darkness that haunted his soul. Vin knew about that darkness, knew that it lived in his own heart, too. He'd seen it reflected in Larabee's eyes on that morning they'd saved Nathan Jackson from being lynched. A clear recognition that neither of them particularly cared if they lived or died, as long as they went down fighting for something. That morning, it had been Nathan.
And all the times after that, it had been something to believe in, or something to rally against. No matter what, Chris and the others had been there. five men who were his friends, his family. And Chris. His brother, his other half. His heart and his soul.
Vin kneed Peso forward, following the star overhead.
Oddly, it was the silence that brought Chris awake; the absence of the small noises that had lulled him to sleep. The wind had died to stillness, and the house which usually had its share of creaks and groans was as quiet as if it were wrapped in cotton wool. He sat up, reaching for his gun belt strung over the bedpost. He threw off his covers and, shivering, shoved his stocking feet into his chilly boots. He'd gone to bed fully dressed for warmth as well as caution, and he moved slowly towards the dim reddish light of his banked fire. He moved aside the canvas he'd tacked up as a curtain, more to block the wind than as a privacy guard and looked outside.
Nothing moved. Snow was falling in place of the sleet and ice that had blown in earlier; thick and slow as feathers drifting from the clouds. It was rare enough in this part of the country for Chris to stare at it , surprised. He'd grown up in Indiana and was no stranger to long, cold, snowy winters. It had been a long time since he'd seen a snowfall like this one. It was beautiful, and it made him look back to a time when life had been simpler -- not happier -- just ... simpler.
He should go back to bed. There was nothing out there to alarm, to bring keep him awake. But he *was* awake, and something about the snowfall was compelling him to go out in it; to feel the light touch of the flakes on his skin and breathe in the cold air. He let the canvas fall back over the window and went to his fireplace to stir the coals back into life. He added more wood, set a pot of coffee on to boil. As it brewed up, he pulled out a thick wool shirt and a knit scarf from the chest at the foot of his bed. He poured coffee into a mug, and blew over the surface. When it had cooled slightly, he drank it down, letting the heat settle in his stomach. When he had finished, he pulled his poncho over his head, then his black wool coat, scarf, and gloves. Then he went outside.
The snow feathered chilly fingers on his skin, left cold kisses on his lips. Their touch was an ache, an echo of loss, and suddenly he regretted his impulse. What the hell was he doing out here? He looked up, aware that the snowfall was slowing, the clouds shredding. The star Chris had seen earlier blazed out in the heavens, clear and bright.
He was alone. He had been alone for a long time, but for the first time in years, he had a choice. Chris headed towards the barn. He fumbled in the dark for the lucifers to light the lantern, turned up the flame, and heard Pony stir and whicker in response to his presence. Whispering to reassure him, Chris saddled the gelding and headed out, without any real clear idea of where he was going. He looked up, and followed the star.
The sudden snow squall had taken Vin by surprise. One minute he was riding through a cold, clear night, the next he was surrounded by a swirl of white; blinded, lost. Caught in a silence so deep that he couldn't even hear Peso's hooves on the ground. Disoriented. He who was never lost, always certain of where his path lay. He drew in Peso's reins, bringing him to a halt.
It as if he were suspended between heaven and earth. Cold, high, and lonesome as an eagle's flight. The slight wind caught the flakes of snow, and they whirled about him like smoke drifting in the wind. That wind was nearly soundless as it brushed through his hair, touched his face. Despite his disorientation, he felt no fear, just awe at the power and beauty of the world around him.
As quickly as the squall had come up, it departed. He could see it leaving, the edge of it thinning and fading as the starlight strengthened. He sighed, looked up, and saw his star. He softly clucked his tongue against the roof of his mouth and kneed Peso forward.
He wasn't any less cold, but he leaned forward in the saddle, eager for the sight of familiar landmarks. What he didn't expect, was the dark shadow on the horizon; man and horse, the flat-brimmed black hat unmistakable. Larabee. Peso, sensing the approach of a familiar horse, tossed his head and neighed, eager to break into a faster gait. Vin kept his reins tight and his knees firm against the gelding's sides. No sense in risking breaking bones, not on Christmas Eve. But his grin widened as the distance narrowed.
Then he was close enough to see Chris's answering grin, and reach out in the familiar forearm clasp. "Ain't the best night fer a casual ride, pard," Vin drawled.
"Could say the same thing about you, Tanner."
Vin snorted softly. "You come lookin' fer me?"
"Maybe. Found ya, didn't I?"
"Maybe I's the one findin' you."
Chris just laughed softly and shook his head. "Pretty damn sure of yourself."
"Reckon so." He waited for Chris to turn Pony, then aligned Peso to ride alongside him. "So, how'd ya find me?" he asked.
Chris tilted his head up to the sky, his features awash in pale light, his eyes silvered and bright. "I just followed that star."
"The same one I's followin'." Vin said quietly. "Think it'll lead back home?"
Chris gave him a slow, easy smile and a nod. "Yeah. I think it will." He urged Pony forward, cast a look back at Vin when he didn't move right along with him. "Got a fire laid on the hearth and a pot of coffee brewed," he called over his shoulder. "'Less you aim to stay out here freezing to death?"
Green eyes, concerned and inquisitive met Vin's. He nodded, a warmth growing in his heart that not even the shivering of his body could suppress. Seemed his mama was right. Fighting both a smile and the hot rise of tears in his eyes, he kneed Peso into a lope and took his place next to Chris.
Later that day, clean-shaven and wearing his best blue shirt, his hungry stomach filled with turkey, dressing, and apple and raisin pie, warmed by the fire and friendship, Vin sat in Nettie Wells' rocking chair, and tried not to look as happy and trembling on the outside as he felt inside.
It was all he had imagined, and more. His gaze drifted around the room, trying to fix in his mind how it was, how Christmas should be, in case he never had another like it. He figured he could store it all up and take it out and think on it whenever things got bad. He accepted that eventuality with a stoic heart, not believing that those times were gone. Afraid to hope that they were.
JD was as brushed and shiny as he'd ever seen him; glossy black hair slicked into obedience, his Eastern suit cleaned up, and making him stand stiffly because it had grown too tight across the shoulders. He could scarcely take his eyes off Casey, pretty and awkward in a new dress, but not afraid to toss back JD's teasing remarks with a quick wit of her own.
Buck was watching the two of them with a twinkle in his eye and pride in his heart. Like he was a proud older brother. He was relaxed and genial; making Nettie blush like a schoolgirl even as she laughed at his praises, handing out extravagant compliments to Casey which reduced her to giggles, and only too happy to keep paying them out from his endless supply of charming palaver.
Ezra played right along with Buck, and even if Vin couldn't understand half of what he was saying, the duel of words was as entertaining as any music hall act he'd ever heard.
Josiah and Nathan were seated on opposite sides of a chessboard, taking advantage of a carefree holiday, finding pleasure in a game that wasn't about life and death for a change. Their two deep voices and occasional laughter were pure music to Vin's ears.
He closed his eyes and sighed happily. The scent of Chris's cheroot drifted in the air, and Vin's feeling of contentment deepened. Larabee hadn't said much over the course of the day, but his presence was unmistakable; strong and silent as an eagle circling overhead.
Without seeing him, Vin was conscious that Chris had moved away, felt the brush of cold air as the door opened, then closed quickly. He waited a few minutes, leaving Chris to his peace, then slipped from the room as quietly as Larabee had left it.
The tall gunslinger was just a dark shadow in the deep twilight but for the hardening ash on the end of his cheroot as he drew in smoke. He exhaled, smoke and the fog of his breath glimmering in the cool light. He turned, leaning against the porch support and tilted his head, showing a smile that was very different than the usual grim coil of his mouth.
"You glad you came back?" he asked.
"Yeah, this was real nice. I never had nuthin' like this before. Even when I's jist a little feller, it was jist me and my mama, n'later, my grandpa." The weight of the past ached in his heart for a moment. He gave Chris a sidelong look. "Thanks fer findin' me."
"I thought you found me," Chris smiled.
"Reckon we found each other."
Green eyes and blue met in perfect comprehension; both seeing regrets and past griefs but willing to accept what they had been given in the present. They stood side by side and watched the stars peek through the clouds. Vin frowned. "Chris, remember that star last night?"
"Yeah. What about it?"
"Cain't see it tonight." Vin's voice held a slight awe. He knew as well as any man who'd spent countless nights under the stars that they shifted and wheeled in the sky; that some were bright and constant, while others waned and waxed, but it was still a marvel to him.
Chris saw the wonder reflected in his eyes, and was touched by the yearning innocence Vin revealed in that unguarded moment. He felt old, painfully jaded, but oddly hopeful that peace, if not innocence, might be still be possible on this night.
"Chris! Vin! You boys come on in out of the cold!" Nettie stood in the doorway. "I've got some fine brandy left by my husband, and I'm fixin' to open it."
Chris arched a brow at Vin. "Can't keep a lady waiting."
Vin straightened from his lean against the porch rail, and followed Chris inside. Warmth, light and laughter greeted him. The others had gathered around the fireplace. Casey carried around a tray of crystal glasses, each holding an inch of dark amber liquor. When everyone was served, Nettie stood before them and raised her glass. "Reverend Sanchez, will you do the honors?"
Josiah stood next to Nettie. His blue gaze swept over the small gathering, and he smiled benevolently. "Merry Christmas, and God's peaceful blessing on us all," he said.
"Amen." Nettie responded.
Vin listened to the soft chime of crystal touching crystal. It seemed as lovely as any bell, and as solemn as any pledge. Then JD was tapping his glass and wishing him Merry Christmas, followed by Casey with a bright smile and a blush. Buck was making his rounds, and Ezra with a look as if he understood what Vin was feeling and maybe felt a bit of it himself. Nettie came to give him a hug, and Josiah and Nathan, two big men with bigger hearts, wishing him well.
Chris just stood aside and waited until the tumult had died down and the others were savoring the taste and aroma of the fine spirits. He drifted to Vin's side, reached over his shoulder, and tapped the rim of his glass. "To stars," he said.
Vin felt like a knot had tied and released inside him. Wordless, but knowing Chris understood, he raised his glass in a salute to hope, and friends, and stars that led them home.