Rated: G (okay, there is one single "cuss" word)
Chris and Vin - minor angst
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Disclaimer and acknowledgements: All th' reg'lar stuff that ever'one else puts here. I ain't got a claim on 'm. Well, not unless Santa gets m' letter an' I wake up an' find Vin in m' stocking in a few weeks...I can dream can't I? As always my thanks to my Muse, Chris to my Vin, who betas, posts and makes my stories generally look great! May you wake up to find Mr. Larabee in your stocking my cyster! Finally, many thanks (posthumously) to one of the world's greatest writers - Mr. Charles Dickens - for A Christmas Carol.
Chris Larabee was hiding. Not from the criminal element or even angry townsfolk. He was hiding from a day. More specifically he was avoiding the excitement, the joy and goodwill being spread by the good citizens of Four Corners as they prepared for Christmas.
He had managed to hold out until two days ago. Then, sitting with the other men in the saloon, he had found himself feeling suffocated. Buck and JD had been arguing, as usual. The Kid had made the mistake of mentioning the fact that he had been thinking of buying Casey a new bridle for Christmas. Buck had started laughing; telling Dunne that he had a lot to learn about women if he thought he was going to make the girl happy with such a gift. It had escalated into a shouting match as they discussed the pros and cons of bridles versus cologne or jewelry.
Pushing himself out of the chair, Chris leaned over JDs shoulder, said quietly "get her the bridle Kid," and left the room. He heard the quiet that descended over the room, but ignored it. Instead he strode to the livery and readied Pony, walking him down the dusty street to the other saloon. He didn't want the other men to know what he intended to pick up in his bid to survive the next few days. Exiting the saloon a few minutes later, he carried half a dozen bottles of red eye that he carefully stored in his saddlebags. Climbing into the saddle, he turned the black gelding away from the building, the town, and his friends. He needed to be alone right now, some place that would allow him to breath, let him sort out his feelings. Ever since JD and Buck had begun arguing he heard other voices. His and Sarah's. They had spent weeks debating the gifts they would bestow on their one and only son for his fourth Christmas. Chris had been excited about the holiday; the first one That Adam would be truly able to enjoy the festivities. But then every holiday had been exciting while he had been a family man...
Riding hard as he tried to shake the memories, the man in black disappeared from town, going to his little shack in the hills to be alone. For two days he had sought solace, but found little. The alcohol did nothing to quiet the memories or still the voices. Not that it ever did, really. He simply thought that if this were truly the season for miracles, perhaps this once he would find a little peace at the bottom of the bottle.
"Miracles," he said with a sarcastic grunt. There were no miracles, if there were he would not be a widower mourning his wife and son.
The sun was near its zenith when he shuffled out of the little house and slouched into one of the straight-back chairs on the porch. Tilting the half-empty bottle up, he took a healthy swallow and stared out across the countryside. After a time he realized that he was watching someone riding toward the house.
"Shit," he said softly as he recognized the even stride of the big blaze-faced black. He had half-expected to see Buck or perhaps Josiah before now, but not Vin. He thought the tracker would respect his need for privacy. He considered going back inside and closing the door but realized that it would do no good. If he had seen Vin, Vin had seen him. He sat in the chair and watched the horse and rider approach.
As he came abreast of the porch, Tanner touched the brim of his hat. "Hey, Cowboy," he said with a soft grin.
"Got a reason for coming out here?"
"Yep," the tracker said, his expression sobering. "Wanted t' let y' know th' town's still in once piece, an' I'm headin' out for a couple a days."
"Something going on?" Chris thought perhaps the Judge had sent Tanner on an assignment.
"Nope, just thought I'd go up t' th' hills for a spell." He reached behind him and pulled something out of his saddlebag. "Here, brought y' somethin'." He handed a bottle down to the blond. Tipping his hat, he started off.
Larabee wasn't certain why, but he called out to the younger man. "Want to help me break it in?"
"Certain y' don't mind?"
"Wouldn't offer if I did," he said honestly. "Got some beans on the stove, too, if you're interested."
His smile bright and easy now, Vin nodded. "Never could pass up your beans, pard." He swung down and ground reined Peso, letting the horse graze at will, and followed the gunslinger into the house. He stood near the stove, enjoying the warmth after the chilly ride from town. Chris set the table haphazardly for the two of them, sitting one of the bottles in the middle along with two glasses. Picking the kettle up from the stove he placed it on the table as well. The two men took seats and ate in silence, just as they often did. Just as they often did many things. In silence.
They had each started on second bowls before Chris said quietly, "JD make up his mind on a gift for Casey?"
Smiling around a mouthful of beans, Tanner nodded. "Bridle."
Smiling in return, Chris said, "he's learning. That's one young lady that ain't impressed by frills and folderol."
"Yep, Buck's about fit t' be tied 'bout it. Swears th' Kid's gonna ruin everything. Reckon he don't remember that it was all that advice JD got b'fore just about drove both them young'uns crazy."
Chris laughed at the memory. It felt good to laugh, he hadn't done much of it recently. "Buck can't help it. He's been a hopeless romantic since I met him. Figures he's got all the answers when it comes to women...or anything else."
"Does tend t' take it as his personal respons'bility to run th' Kid's life."
"Always did like to meddle in people's lives...we had a few go-rounds about that when we first started riding together."
Tanner chuckled until he realized that Chris seemed to go somewhere else. He became quiet, waiting patiently for his friend to work through whatever it was on his mind. He had a good idea of course. They had all realized quickly what was behind Larabee's quick departure from town, and respected his need for privacy. Vin had truly meant to do nothing more than to leave the bottle with Chris and move on in search of his own peace and quiet. The man in black wasn't the only one who needed a break from the goings on in town.
"Buck never did know when to let well enough alone. He came close to ruining things between...between me and Sarah a couple of times. Always sticking his nose where it didn't belong."
Vin nodded, but said nothing. What could he say? Instead he continued eating and waited. If Chris wanted to say more, he would. If not, then it really wasn't his business anyway. Sopping the last of the juice out of his bowl with a chunk of cornbread, Tanner sighed contentedly. He always said that when he died, if he was given a choice of going to heaven or hell, he'd only need to know where he could get a good bowl of beans.
Smiling at the tracker's look of contentment, Chris said, "there's more in the kettle if you've a mind."
"Thought you'd never offer." The lean young man filled his bowl the third time.
Chris sat back, watching the beans disappear as Vin sat hunched over the bowl as if guarding it. He had noticed that before. Tanner always ate quickly, hardly stopping long enough to enjoy the food as he shoveled it into his mouth. And he usually ate hunched over the plate as if he needed to keep the others away from it. Larabee frowned at the thought. He knew a little of what Vin's life had been before fate had brought them together, but realized that he didn't know many of the details.
On the other side of the small table the young tracker leaned back in the chair, drawing a sleeve across his mouth. Winking, he said, "mighty fine food Chris. Thanks. Reckon I'll be goin' now." He pushed himself out of the chair.
Making a decision, Chris said, "why don't you stay for awhile?
Have a drink or two before you head into the hills. You know it's going to be cold up there by nightfall."
Seeing something in the older man's face, Vin said simply, "reckon you're right. Could use a bit a fortification 'ginst th' cold."
Chris nodded and poured both glasses full. They sat across from one another as they drank. Finally, Larabee said, "take it you ain't fond of Christmas, either."
Shrugging the bounty hunter said, "just ain't fond of all the fussin' 'round and ballyhoo. Too many folks in one place, makes it hard t' breathe after a time. Prefer t' do my celebratin' under th' stars. Reckon it makes it a mite easier t' 'member why we're s'posed t' be celebratin'."
Chris grinned, "reckon you got that right, pard. Seems to me too many folks in town are more interested in parties and caroling and such as that. Makes a man's skin crawl from time to time."
They drank more of the whiskey with only a word here and there to break the comfortable silence. Chris knew, of course, the reason behind the occasional glance from those soul-reading blue eyes. Finally he said in a quiet tone, "reckon everyone's figured why I slithered away out here."
"Don't think anyone looks at it as slitherin', " Vin responded honestly. "No one looks on your pain as a small thing Chris. As for us," he nodded in the direction of the town, indicating the absent other peacekeepers, "reckon we'd just like t' be able t' take a bit a th' pain away."
Larabee's head bowed, hiding the tears that suddenly welled up in the pained hazel eyes. When he could trust his voice, he said only "thanks pard."
A gentle nod was the only answer, and once more silence took over the conversation. The sun was nudging the western horizon before any more was said.
"Vin, you ever celebrate Christmas...when your mama was alive or anything?"
"We did some things I reckon. I's so little when she died, ain't much I can recall with any detail. Kind'a recall wakin' up t' find a tree in th' cabin, and havin' sweet'nin' on m' flapjacks at breakfast. Thing I 'member best is Mama readin' me a story. She read it on an' Off all day. I's too little t' kin most a what she was sayin', but I liked what I understood."
"The Bible story...Christ's birth?" Larabee guessed.
The tracker looked thoughtful, but said, "reckon she read me that, too, but this was somethin' differ'nt. Can't recall a lot of it, just somethin' 'bout ghosts 'n a sick kid."
The gunman grinned. "A Christmas Carol. Charles Dickens."
"Don't 'member Mama singin' no song, but she sure did seem t' get het up about it. Said this old guy hadn't found no love as a kid, an' ended up takin' it out on all sorts a good folk. Said if his mama'd been alive, maybe thing's could'a been differ'nt for 'm."
Chris wondered for a minute what Vin would have been like if he had chosen another path as he became a man. What would have happened if Vin Tanner had become a younger version of Ebeneezer Scrooge? Deciding not to pursue that thought, or to correct Vin's misunderstanding about the title just then, the man in black said, "it's been a real popular story for a lot a years. Read it a time or two myself." Vin didn't miss the softening tone in Larabee's voice. "Sarah enjoyed it, too. Hadn't introduced Adam to it yet."
Nodding, the tracker said, "reckon he'd a enjoyed it...later on."
With a painfully sad smile, Chris said, "reckon."
Sighing, Tanner spoke softly. "Don't think folks expect traditions t' hurt when they start 'm."
With a short bark of a laugh, the gunslinger said, "wouldn't ever start them if they did I imagine." Then he looked across the table at his friend. His best friend...the man who with a single look had given him back some hope that life was worth living again. This simple, caring man with the soul of a poet and heart of a lion, had shown him the way out of the dark abyss that had been his home for so long.
Vin held the deep, hazel gaze of the man who had become his best friend. The man who had shown him that it was all right to open himself to another person. This tortured, angry man had given him some hope that he could come to rely on others, to trust someone to watch his back. This complex, haunted man whose heart and soul had been taken in a fire by a perverse fate, had given him a reason to become part of the wide, often cold, world once more.
And suddenly both men knew that they were in the middle of something that neither had expected...they were standing at the beginning of a tradition.
Chris stepped over to the old trunk at the foot of his bed. Pulling open the lid, he rifled through it for a few minutes. Finally finding what he sought, he carried the small object back to the table. Lighting the lamp in the already darkened room, he opened the slim Volume he had kept through the years. Settling back in the chair, he began reading aloud...
"Marley was dead to begin with. There can be no doubt whatsoever about that..."
Across the table Vin smiled wistfully. Somewhere in the corner of his memory he could here another voice, comforting and familiar, saying those words. He could hear a little boy giggling joyfully. He settled back in his own chair and took in the words Chris had chosen to share with him.
"Scrooge knew he was dead? Of course he did..."