Disclaimer: I don't own them. I don't intend to infringe on any copyright, and I'm definitely not making a profit. I did have fun, though.

Notes: This story is a sequel to "Working Girls." I took the liberty of setting it at Christmas, even though there's no canonical evidence to suggest the episode is set during that time. Suspension of disbelief time here, folks. The three carols used in this story weren't written by me. Eventually, I'll find the disk where I have the info. on who wrote them, but until then, all I can say is that the authors have my respect. At least one is anachronistic. See suspension of disbelief comment above. Thanks to Carolyn for beta-ing and help with the carols.

\\ indicates singing. Rated: PG13 for language

Silent Gifts
by Katie

The night before Christmas Eve

The harsh rasp of the scraper on the window ledge was the only sound in the church. Josiah dug it in a little deeper than necessary, letting some of his tension work its way out through the hard, repetitive movements. His work was illuminated only by a couple of nearby lanterns and a few candles on the unfinished altar, lit as much in deference to the season as for the light they gave.

His breath formed a cloud in the cold air, a testament to how fast the temperature could drop on a winter night near the desert. It seemed like winter had sneaked up on him this year, hiding behind torrents of rain.. It had been a long time since he'd spent quiet, contemplative time out working on the mission. He'd been preoccupied lately with a more . . . active means of redemption.

He wasn't sure what--or perhaps Who?--had brought him to this pass. He couldn't deny, though, that he was needed. He had a purpose here in Four Corners that had to do with more than just the restoration of this church.

The church . . . he sighed, taking a long pull on the whiskey he'd been nursing all evening. The church was easy. He knew each step to take, what the consequences would be for each move he made. The wood had to be scraped and sanded before it could be painted, and he'd end up with sawdust everywhere that would have to be cleaned up before he could go on to the next project.

If only it was that easy in all the areas of his life. He didn't even know if his mission was only to protect the town or the souls of his friends, much less how to go about doing either one. If only he could look at the torment in Chris Larabee's eyes the same way he looked at the pews and know how to strip the layers away to find the original underneath, or show Ezra how to balance himself within the group the same way he could balance the candle sconces on the wall . . .

Josiah snorted as he dug the scraper into a particularly stubborn patch of paint. "Hell," he said conversationally to the candles, which flickered away unconcernedly as he talked, "I can't even see my way clear to bringing peace between Nathan and Ezra."

The candles popped agreeably, as if to say he'd tried, at least, and that's what counted.

"Easy for you to say. You don't have to live with the wrath of the righteous shining out of Nathan's eyes every time he sees Ezra or Ezra's high-falutin' digs at Nathan. They're making things downright unsociable."

The flames dimmed slightly in sympathy.

Josiah wiped away a bead of moisture from his forehead and took a swig of whiskey. Cool though it was, he was working up a sweat. At least it was a good, honest sweat, born from hard work building something. He'd spent too many years destroying things. Finally, piece by piece, he was putting his own soul back together. Why couldn't he do the same for his friends?

"I'da thought," he continued out loud, letting the sound of his voice keep him company in the quiet church, "of all of us to have a disagreement, it would've been Chris involved, not Nathan. Now, Ezra don't surprise me much. He's a good man, better than he'd have us think, but he don't exactly have much experience working with others.

"Nathan, though, Nathan's usually so levelheaded, I guess I forget he's got his demons, too." The candles danced questioningly, so Josiah continued, "That man's been through trials that'd make Job sit up and take notice. He carries a powerful load of anger in him . . . don't let people see it much, but it's there. You finally get his back up, you'd better be prepared for the wrath of God and all His angels, 'cause that's what's gonna descend on you.

"Nathan don't exactly see straight when it comes to people taking advantage of those who ain't got much. Hits too close to home, I suppose. He don't see how sometimes the advantage is on both sides."

Josiah shook the scraper admonishingly at the candles while taking another pull on the flask. "Mind you, I ain't saying Ezra was all right on this one. He was trying to make those girls into something they ain't, and there ain't no silk purse ever been created out of a sow's ear yet that was happy being a purse. There ain't nothing wrong with setting up a good marriage, though, 'specially if the girls are willing."

'Willing' was certainly a good way to describe them, too, he thought with a snort, but didn't say it out loud for fear of offending the candles' sensibilities. Another gulp of whiskey trailed a warm path down his throat as he went back to scraping the paint off the wall.

"Only prob'lm is, iss almost Chris'mas. Only two more," he paused, frowning, "one more?--one more day. Time'a peace an' joy . . ."

Josiah sighed and looked around at the unfinished sanctuary. "I was sorta hopin' t'have you done by then, so's the townfolk c'ld have a place to worsh'p, if they want." Sighing again mournfully, he squinted at a dancing patch of old paint and aimed the scraper at it. Damn, missed again.

"Guess there's gonna be lotsa things not put t'gether by Chris'mas." He glanced over at the candles to see what they had to contribute. Nodding solemnly, he stated in absolute agreement, "We're gonna need a miracle."

Nathan strolled down the quiet street, enjoying the fresh, cool air. It was hard to believe, knowing the wildness that took over the town most days, that Four Corners could be so peaceful at night. Once the cowpokes had gone to bed, anyway.

He went for walks most nights, after the rest of the town had gone to bed. It gave him time to think, to settle the day in his mind and get ready for the next one. Lately, he'd taken to passing a few words with Chris or Vin as one or the other took one last look around before heading to his room.

Tonight, he didn't much want to meet up with anyone. Things had been tense since he'd had words with Ezra in the church. Thing was, it wasn't just Ezra things were tense with. He could've lived with that. It wasn't the first time they'd not seen eye to eye, and mostly likely, wouldn't be the last.

He didn't like the feeling of uneasiness between him and the other men, though. It wasn't that they'd said anything, but most of them had been either there when he'd lit into Ezra, or heard about it from one of the ones who had been. It was hard, now, looking them in the eye and knowing they'd seen the anger that was in him. Most times, he kept that anger pushed way down inside him, where it couldn't hurt him or anyone else. He'd seen too many people eaten up with rage, and he wasn't about to waste his own life that way.

Taking a deep breath, enjoying the crisp bite in the air, Nathan tried to shove it all back down again as he made his easy way down the street. It was almost Christmas. When he was a child, it'd been a time of happiness, a time when his mama was always singing. She'd loved music of any sort. The simple melodies of the carols she'd sung haunted their little cabin every year almost from the moment the folks in the big house had started decorating their trees and going to Christmas balls. That sound, more than anything else, had always meant Christmas to Nathan.

There had always been something special about Christmas. The master and missus had been more kindly, less likely to scream for the big bullwhip when they were upset about something. They'd even called for his mama to come up to the big house and sing.

It was the best memory of his mama he had, peeking through the window at her standing in that brightly lit room next to a tree covered in candles and ribbons. He'd heard her sweet, rich voice even through the glass, singing one of her favorite carols. \\ Sweet little Jesus Boy, they made You be born in a manger. Sweet little Holy child, didn't know who You was.\\

He'd been old enough even then to know why she didn't sing the last bit of the song, even though it was the part that tugged at his heart when she sang it at home. \\The world treat You mean, Lord, treat me mean too. But please, Sir, forgive us Lord, we didn't know 'twas You.\\

The song made him picture the little baby Jesus, lost and alone on a cold night, with no home to rest in. He had known that feeling himself, running through dark, cold woods, ears straining for the sounds of dogs on his trail, only the North Star to guide him to a place where he might not find a welcome.

He'd finally found a place, though . . . a long time after he'd run, but Four Corners was his. He'd thought he'd found a place where what he could do was more important than who he'd been. A home.

Until Ezra had reminded him just how alone he was out here. His friends might be good men, but none of them knew where he'd come from. None of them understood what it was like to be owned, to have no say in your own life.

With a disgusted snort, he shook his head. He needed to quit moping. Get himself distracted with something that made his back ache and left him with no time to think about much of anything.

Josiah'd said something about wanting to get the church ready for the townsfolk by Christmas. Nathan was willing to bet that he hadn't had time to do as much work on it as he'd wanted, what with having to stop and take on Wickes right in the middle of things. He'd most likely welcome some help, and Josiah . . . he might not know exactly what Nathan's life had been like, but he did know what it was to have demons haunting him. He had a gift for knowing when not to push a man who wanted to be left in peace to sort things out.

Nathan suddenly found himself looking forward to the company. Quickening his step, he headed down the street toward the church.

As he came closer to the saloon, he could hear the sounds of laughter and clinking glass drifting over the batwing doors.  Might oughta stop in and get a bottle, he thought, 'cept I don't much feel like running into Ezra tonight. His mood was lifting, and he didn't want to ruin it by seeing the gambler right now.

His luck seemed against him, though. Approaching the saloon, he saw a lone figure leaning against a wooden pillar just outside the doors. The light from indoors lit him from behind, illuminating the distinctive outline of a riverboat-style hat and coat.

Nathan paused, almost ready to turn and go around the long way. Ezra'd obviously already seen him, though, so the healer kept walking forward as if nothing was wrong.

"Mr. Jackson." The gambler's soft drawl broke the silence, and he inclined his head with frosty courtesy.

Nathan nodded back. "Ezra."

He continued on down the street, his shoulderblades tightening as he felt Ezra's gaze bore into them. He was half expecting Ezra to say something else, something clever and cutting, but there was nothing but silence behind him until he was out of earshot.

Shoving the encounter out of his mind, Nathan walked up the steps to the church and opened the door cautiously. Josiah didn't take well to having anyone sneak up on him, as Nathan had discovered the hard way a time or two. Still, there wasn't any noise coming from the sanctuary, so Nathan went on in to see if the preacher was in his little room in the back.

There were a few candles burning low on the altar, and a couple of lanterns lit here and there for additional light. From what Nathan could see, the sanctuary was still a long way from being done. If nothing else, it still needed half the walls scraped and sanded, and all of them wanted painting. With tomorrow being Christmas Eve, Nathan didn't see any way Josiah would be finished by Christmas, even with his help. Still, no point in giving up before they got started.

He headed down the aisle toward the back of the church. Suddenly, a low sound disturbed the silence. Looking around cautiously, he finally spotted the source of the odd noise.  Josiah lay on his back on one of the pews, a whiskey bottle clutched loosely in one dangling hand, fast asleep. As Nathan watched, the preacher let out another soft snore.

With a faint grin, Nathan went over to rescue the bottle. Guess there won't be much work done tonight, though I don't think Josiah's likely to wake up even if the Angel Gabriel blows his trumpet tonight. Glancing around, he spotted one of the old quilts Josiah had found somewhere to use as a drop cloth when he painted. Grabbing it, he spread it over the preacher, and put out the candles and turned down the lanterns before he left.

"Full house, gentlemen," Ezra drawled, spreading his cards in a smooth, practiced motion. An unthinking scan of his opponents' expressions showed that they were all taking their losses with relative equanimity, so he again allowed his attention to wander.

Chris Larabee was sitting alone at a table at the back of the saloon, the glower on his face enough, apparently, to intimidate even Buck and Vin. They had found a safer refuge at the bar and were sipping their whiskeys absently, watching Ezra's poker game without much interest.

Ezra hadn't invited them over when they'd come in earlier. He was still a little discomfitted--as little as he liked to admit it--from his disagreement with Nathan a few days before, and even more so after that brief encounter in the street when he'd stepped out to get a breath of fresh air earlier in the evening. He'd been avoiding his colleagues as much as he could without making it obvious, not particularly wanting to know which of them shared the healer's views on his foray into the world of marriage-brokering.

Even the memory of that encounter, of the look of near-hatred in Nathan's eyes, set him on edge more than any amount of teasing about his chanteuse performance conceivably could. It wasn't the first time he'd donned a dress, even if the other times had been in defense of his own life, rather than someone else's. A good con man could play any number of roles without blinking, and with no residual embarrassment once the performance was over.

A good con man should be able to blow off the scorn of a "good citizen" just as easily. The dear Lord knew, Ezra had heard such sermons enough times before, when some well-to-do, law-abiding gentleman found it necessary to lecture him on the mores and morality of society.

For some reason, Nathan's words stuck with Ezra, though, and he no more knew why than he knew how to make himself forget them. The opinion of one semi-educated ex-slave shouldn't mean anything to him . . . and yet Ezra found himself unable to speak to the man, or to meet his eyes when their attempts to avoid one another were unsuccessful.

The entire situation was getting on Ezra's nerves. He didn't like having his concentration spoiled by the overly sanctimonious opinions of a man with whom, until a few weeks ago, Ezra would never have considered associating. Yet every time he attempted to sit down to a quiet game of poker, he heard that angry voice in his mind, attacking him for "making profit off the back of another human being."

Mr. Jackson, he thought irritably, can just go to hell. What does he know of the chances of an unmarried woman with a less than stellar past? Those ladies would have benefitted as much from the respectability of marriage as I would have from the admittedly lucrative broker's fee. It's hardly as if I were forcing them into bondage. Each of the prospective husbands were decent, respectable men. If our self-righteous healer is incapable of perceiving that, then he can just . . .

"Are you going to deal, Mr. Standish?"

Ezra blinked, unceremoniously yanked out of his thoughts by the salesmen's polite inquiry. He covered his confusion by scooping up the cards and beginning a quick shuffle. He sighed. He was horribly off his game tonight.

"Gentlemen, with your permission, I believe I will call it a night," he said finally. At the rate he was going, he was going to start losing to these amateurs.

"Are you sure, Mr. Standish?" the man who had spoken before asked. "I'd like a chance to win back some of my money."

Ezra smiled politely as he stood. "Perhaps tomorrow night, if you're still in town. Gentlemen."

He nodded briefly and left the table before anyone else could protest, carefully tucking away his money in the pocket that was sewn into the inner lining of his coat. He gave another nod to Vin and Buck as he walked past, but didn't pause to converse with them. Perhaps an early night would allow him to get his thoughts straightened out so that he could play more effectively tomorrow night.

Vin took a slow sip of his gutwarmer, sighing softly as it spread its warmth down his throat and into his belly. It'd finally gotten cold enough, during the nights at least, to feel like winter, and there was nothing more comforting on a winter night than a warm fire and a shot of good whiskey. Eyeing the lanterns that lit the saloon a bit wryly, he thought that one out of two wasn't that bad.

He'd been watching Ezra play a surprisingly slow game of poker, his mind drifting off lazily as he listened with half an ear to whatever it was Buck was nattering on about. It had occurred to Vin that the gambler looked mighty distracted. Whatever was eating at Ezra's insides to give the gambler that sour look as he walked past on his way to his room upstairs, though, Vin figured wasn't any of his business. If Ezra wanted to talk to him, then he'd belly up to the bar and talk.

Suddenly realizing that Buck was looking at him expectantly, Vin turned back to the bar and the gunslinger who was sharing it with him. "What?"

Buck frowned at him. "You gettin' hard of hearin', pard? I asked, did you have anything special planned for Christmas?"

Vin frowned. He couldn't remember the last time he'd done anything at all, special or not, for Christmas. He was normally out on the range somewhere, and most times didn't even know it was the holiday season until it'd already passed.

"Hadn't thought much about it. Don't set much store by holidays, anyway," he answered finally. Somehow, even though it was the plain truth, the answer left a strangely hollow place in his belly that another shot of whiskey didn't even begin to fill.

Buck was trying hard to distract himself from staring at the back corner of the saloon where one of his oldest friends in the world was drinking his life away. Unfortunately, he was trying to distract himself by talking to Vin, instead of grabbing one of the lovely ladies who were lounging around the saloon like a sensible man would. Vin wasn't much for conversation at any time, and his disinterested attitude about Christmas was downright depressing.

Buck loved any holiday, but Christmas had always been his favorite. It was the holiday his mother had always had free, the one which all the women in the brothel where he'd grown up made an effort to celebrate. They'd cook a fancy dinner and give each other a little bit of something--a ribbon, or a new hair comb, or a pair of stockings. They'd made it an exciting, wonder-filled occasion for a little boy who loved presents, laughter, and good food.

When he'd finally grown enough to leave home, Buck still found some way to celebrate the holiday. There'd been several years that he'd spent it with Chris, both before and after the older man's marriage. Some of Buck's favorite Christmases, in fact, had taken place in front of Chris's fireplace, usually with little Adam on his lap, demonstrating the best way to make his new wooden horse gallop or running his new train up and down Buck's legs.

After Sarah and Adam were killed, though, Chris hadn't had any interest in life, let alone celebrating a holiday. Buck could surely understand that, but. . . it'd been three years. As much as it hurt, it was time to start living again. Buck wanted nothing more for Christmas this year than to see the spark of life, rather than the glint of unholy hell, return to Chris's eyes.

The way Chris had been drinking the past two days, it wasn't going to happen this year. Chris could be downright rude when he got his spurs in a tangle, but he'd been breaking his own records for tearing people up with a few cold words lately. Hell, even Vin was avoiding him, and Vin usually had the patience of a saint when it came to other people's bad temper.

With a sigh, Buck turned away from Vin, who'd gone back to his quiet musings anyway, and tried not to stare at the back corner as he filled his shot glass again.  The worst thing was, Chris's mood seemed to be affecting everyone. Of course, Nathan and Ezra hadn't exactly been on speaking terms anyway, but now Josiah was holed up in his church, not speaking to much of anyone. JD was nearly as morose as Chris. He barely responded to anything Buck said to him, no matter how outrageous or annoying.

Damn it, Buck wanted Christmas cheer. He wanted his friends to be happy, to feel the same joy that he always felt when he was a kid and his mother woke him up on Christmas morning. He wanted to feel like he had years ago, when he was innocent enough to believe that stories had happy endings, even if he could only feel that for one day out of the year.

His eyes settled again on that dark corner, and he swallowed heavily and poured himself another drink.

Damn it, he was doing it again.

Chris could feel Buck's eyes on him, worried eyes that wanted him to stop drinking and smile and say everything was going to be okay.

Like hell it was.

If Chris could have done that, could have given Buck the reassurance that the younger man wanted, he probably would have, just to get Buck to quit looking at him like that--like a child who'd just been told there wasn't a Santa Claus.

Chris had quit using a glass several hours before. He simply grabbed the bottle and took a long pull. He knew exactly how much he could drink to keep this pleasantly distant feeling without falling flat on his face, and he was maintaining that feeling with the precision of an expert. The only way he was going to make it through this season without his family--the third time he'd had to do it, and it only got harder each year--was to get himself so far removed from feeling that nothing mattered at all.

Now, if he could just get everyone to leave him the hell alone, not talk to him or expect anything of him or, God help him, look at him, he'd be fine.

He'd briefly thought about going to his room to get drunk to escape the concerned gazes of his friends, but the whiskey bottles were all here in the saloon, and it would have been to much trouble to come back every time he ran out. So he stayed, and scared off anyone who tried to approach him, and ignored everyone else. Finally, it seemed even the most persistent of his friends had gotten the message. Neither Buck nor Vin had tried to talk to him all night, and even JD, whose hero worship often blinded him to Chris's moods, had gotten the message and was avoiding him.

Of course, Chris thought with the slow clarity of the truly drunk, the kid seemed to be avoiding everyone at the moment, but that just showed that he had more sense than Chris had given him credit for. People were trouble, always running off and getting themselves killed on you, and anyone with any intelligence at all stayed away from them.

With a mental salute to the kid, wherever he might be hiding himself, Chris finished off the last of his bottle.

JD rolled over onto his back and stared up at the dark ceiling sightlessly, his eyes dry and burning from too little sleep. Seemed like every time he shut his eyes lately, he saw the same picture, and it was tearing at his heart until it was all he could do not to bawl like a baby.

"Oh, Mama," he whispered, turned again to curl into a tight ball on his side, pulling his quilt around his shoulders as tight as he could. "I miss you so much."

The night before Christmas

JD's eyes still burned the next night as he walked out of the crisp air into the saloon. His mind was almost numb from exhaustion, but if he'd had to sit in that silent room alone for one more second, he would have gone stark raving mad.

The saloon had seemed like a safe enough place to go. On Christmas Eve, there surely wouldn't be more than a few people there, people like Chris Larabee--like himself--who didn't have anywhere else to be. That suited JD just fine. He didn't want to talk to anyone, especially not someone who was all aglow with the spirit of the season. He wanted to get drunk, falling down, stinking drunk, so he wouldn't have to remember anything tonight and would be too sick tomorrow to feel so bad.

Sure enough, only a handful of people were scattered about the saloon tonight. Chris was a dim shadow in his usual corner, but none of JD's other friends were to be seen.

JD breathed a sigh of relief. He'd been half afraid he'd run into Buck or Nathan, either of whom could be trusted to make sure he didn't go through with his plan. On top of that, Buck would insist on trying to cheer him up, and if he had to listen to one more joke about coals in his stocking, he might just have to shoot the man.

Ignoring the bartender's look of surprise when he asked for a bottle of whiskey, JD staked out his own isolated corner of the saloon and got as comfortable as he could in the rickety wooden chair. He uncorked the bottle and tilted back his head to take a deep pull the way Chris did, and nearly choked as liquid fire exploded down his throat. Lord, the stuff was worse than he remembered.

Resolutely, he pushed away the image of his mother's disapproval if she could see how he was acting. Yeah, well, if you were here, Mama, I wouldn't have to be acting this way. We'd be at home, probably getting ready to go to church to hear the singing. You'd've been baking all day, and we'd have candles lit in the windows to show Mary and Joseph where they could rest if they were out looking, and you'd be telling me about Christmases when you were a little girl in Eire . . .

He took another long drink, grimacing slightly as he hoped forgetfulness came soon.

The one flaw in Chris's plan to spend Christmas as near to unconscious as he could make himself was that his body apparently had other ideas. He'd made it until almost midnight two nights before the holiday, but then his body had rebelled, and he'd found himself out back of the saloon puking his guts up.

It'd left him depressingly weak and almost sober. He'd felt a moment of regret for all the wasted effort and whiskey, but he'd lived inside the bottle long enough to know his limits. When he hit the point where the whiskey wouldn't stay in him anymore, he just had to lay off for a while until he could stomach the stuff again.

Still, just because he had to spend Christmas sober didn't mean he had to spend it making merry. He'd finally convinced everyone to leave him in peace, and he didn't intend to lose that luxury. As long as he sat at his usual table in the saloon with a bottle in front of him, no one would question what he was doing or notice that he hadn't made any headway on emptying the bottle.

Chris had watched with a sort of dark amusement as JD had meandered into the saloon earlier that night. The kid had grabbed a bottle of whiskey and slouched down at a table on the other side of the room, looking like he had the weight of the world on his shoulders. He was going to have to learn to swallow the whiskey without making such terrible faces, though, if he ever wanted to be taken seriously.

A few hours later, JD was still drinking, and Chris's conscience was beginning to nag at him. It was unusual for the kid to drink at all, and unheard of for him to go at it with the deliberate intensity that he was showing tonight.

Not my problem. He's a big boy, if he wants to get drunk, who am I to stop him? Chris shook his head. Talk about the pot calling the kettle. . .

Frowning, Chris picked up the bottle in front of him and turned it absently, trying to ignore the churning in his stomach at the faint smell of alcohol that hovered around it. Whatever was bothering the kid, he'd work through it eventually. If not, Buck or Josiah would give him a talking to. He didn't need Chris's misery added to his own.

Unbidden, Chris's eyes drifted back across the saloon. Damn.

With a long-suffering sigh, Chris stood and walked over to JD's table. The kid looked awful, his face unshaven and his eyes red and glazed as he stared at something in his hand. He didn't look up at Chris as he took a swig from his bottle.

"Mind if I join you?" Chris asked.

"I don't much feel like company tonight," JD said softly.

"Ain't good for a man to drink alone," Chris answered. He recognized the irony of that statement almost before he finished saying it, but apparently JD missed it completely.

Still without raising his eyes, JD shoved the bottle in Chris's direction. Taking that as assent, Chris hooked a chair leg with his boot and pulled it out. As he sat down, he tried to think of something to say to the kid that didn't sound like he wanted JD to unburden himself to him.

"Quiet night, tonight," he said finally. JD looked up at him, his face expressionless, but the look in his eyes left Chris feeling like he'd been kicked in the gut. The gunslinger knew that look, that feeling of utter, unending loneliness--but how could someone as young and high-spirited as JD feel like that?

The silence stretched between them for a long moment, then broke as JD looked back down at the object in his hand.

"What're you looking at?"

JD didn't answer, but he also didn't protest when Chris reached over and took the thing out of his hand. It was a small, framed photograph of a young, dark-haired woman. For a second, Chris was confused, then he noticed the eyes. Big, dark, with a touch of humor and excitement to them, they were very familiar.

Chris swallowed, looking over at JD guiltily. He'd completely forgotten about the kid's mother.  This was most likely JD's first Christmas without her. Chris knew damn well how hard that was, how much every cheerful wish or lovingly celebrated tradition drove a spike in your gut as you were forced to remember what you'd never, ever be doing again. Seemed like the other men had probably forgotten, too, or else they would have said something to the kid . .. at least made sure he wasn't drinking alone on Christmas Eve.

Watching JD indecisively, Chris pulled out a cheroot and lit it, sucking in the smoke gratefully. Not only was it a halfway decent substitute for whiskey, at least for a short time, but it also gave him something to do while he figured out what to say to JD. He didn't want to get himself tangled up in the kid's problems, but he couldn't just leave him sitting here, miserable and alone. Besides, he might well be the only one of the seven who truly understood how JD was feeling right now.

"Tough night, huh, kid?" he said finally. "Hard thinking about people you're missing when everyone else is celebrating something."

JD nodded and took another drink.

Chris winced as his stomach lurched sympathetically.  "That ain't gonna help, you know. You're still gonna miss her in the morning."

JD met his eyes with a bravado born, no doubt, from the bottle of rotgut he still held. "You ain't exactly one to talk, Chris."

Chris blew out a mouthful of smoke. "At least I know what I'm talking about, son. Your mama, she don't look like the type that'd approve of you sitting in a saloon working your way to the bottom of a bottle on a night like tonight."

JD looked back down at the picture and sighed. "She ain't." Reverently, he took the photograph from Chris's hands and ran his thumb along the edge of the frame. "She'd expect me to be in church or something." He tightened his hand into a fist around the photograph. "But there ain't no church here, and she ain't here, so I don't see what it matters to anyone." His voice was less angry than his words, the whiskey making him sound more like a sleepy child than a grown man.

Chris reached over and grabbed the bottle from JD and set it at the other end of the table. "Just 'cause she ain't here doesn't mean you shouldn't act how she taught you to."

Standing, he hooked a hand under JD's arm and pulled him up. JD frowned at him, but Chris got him moving before he could get his thoughts together to protest--and before Chris could remind himself how much he didn't want to take care of JD tonight. "Come on, let's go for a little walk and get your head cleared."

JD tugged on the arm Chris had captured. "Don't wanna walk. Leave me alone."

"Don't be stupid, son. This ain't the night to be doing things you ain't gonna be proud of in the morning." As he said it, Chris realized--with a feeling of complete surprise--that he meant it. Christmas Eve might not be the night of joy that everyone said it was, but there was still something special about it. It wasn't a night to ruin by doing something that'd make you ashamed when you looked back on it, and that was surely how JD'd feel if he got himself falling-down drunk tonight.

It was also how Chris would feel if he left the kid drunk and alone tonight. With a resigned sigh, Chris steered JD out the door and down into the street. "So, if you were back east, what would you be doing tonight?"

JD looked at him blearily. "Wha's it matter t'you?"

Chris dropped his cheroot and ground it under one boot. Just his luck, JD was a fiesty drunk. "Just curious, kid. I never seen Boston at Christmas."

"Oh." JD thought for a moment as Chris steered him out the doors and down the steps. "Prob'ly go t'chursh. Mama liked th' singin'. . . "

His voice trailed off miserably as he rubbed a hand across his eyes. Chris patted his shoulder and hoped fervently that he wouldn't start bawling.

"It ain't a bad thing to miss her, son," he said gently. "Don't make you less of a man. It just means you honor her memory."

The look in JD's eyes--like Chris was offering him a rope when he was drowning--did something to Chris's stomach that was stronger even than the whiskey. It was the first time in a long time Chris could remember someone needing to hear something he had to say . . . although Chris would admit he might have been too drunk to notice if anyone had needed him. It felt strange, he thought as he guided JD toward the boarding house, but it also felt damn good.

Buck stared at the bottle of brandy he'd set on his stomach after flopping down on his bed. The light from the lamp glinted off the dark glass enticingly, but he hadn't even pulled the cork yet.

He should be down in the saloon--or better yet, in one of the rooms above the saloon--celebrating the season. Somehow, though, he couldn't get himself in the mood. Every year, he'd made it a habit to find himself a bottle of something special, and most years, he'd shared that bottle with Chris.

This was the first Christmas they'd been in the same town in three years, and Buck wanted more than anything to sit down with Chris and spend the evening like they had for so many years. Problem was, the last thing Chris needed was more alcohol, even if he let Buck anywhere near him.

Sighing, Buck sat up and swung his legs down to the floor. He couldn't believe he was lonely on Christmas Eve, but he wasn't just going to sit around and mope. If Chris didn't want to spend Christmas with him, that was Chris's loss.

He set his hat determinedly on his head and tucked the brandy bottle into the pocket of his coat, then headed out the door.  Stepping into the hall, he stopped abruptly when he saw Chris coming out of the door next to his. A sudden uneasy feeling clenched his stomach. What was Chris doing in JD's room?

"Chris? What's going on? Is the kid okay?"

Chris looked at him, his green eyes surprisingly clear. "He's had a rough night, but he's gonna be fine. First Christmas without his mother, you know."

Buck frowned. It hadn't even occurred to him that the kid might be missing his mama--although it made sense, given how the kid was acting lately. He looked at the closed door to JD's room, wondering if he should check on the boy.

Glancing back at Chris, something else struck him. The cold glint Chris got when he was drunk and angry was gone from his eyes. He looked . . . not quite like he had before Sarah and Adam's deaths; he hadn't lost the pain or the anger that had taken residence in his eyes when that happened. But it was tempered with . . . contentment, as if Chris had found a measure of peace, at least for a little while.

Carefully, not sure if he was going to get his head snapped off, Buck asked, "You been talking to him?"

Chris shrugged one shoulder. "I made sure he got home all right. He'll be fine come morning."

There were a lot of things Buck wanted to say, but he was afraid of shattering this calm that Chris had found. He was seeing hints of that spark of life he'd missed, and he didn't want to scare it away. Feeling more hesitant--and hopeful--than he let his voice show, he said, "I got a bottle of halfway decent brandy. Feel like sharing a drink?"

An odd look crossed Chris's face, and he shook his head quickly. Buck swallowed and looked away. He hadn't really expected Chris to agree anyway; it didn't make any difference to him.

"I was thinking of turning in early," Chris said, breaking the sudden silence between them. "I ain't feeling the need of a drink much tonight. Seems like I had enough to last till tomorrow, at least."

Buck looked back at him, startled. There was a faint, wry grin, more in Chris's eyes than on his lips, but it made him look more like the Chris Larabee that Sarah had married than the one Buck had been avoiding for the last few days.

Grinning back for no good reason, Buck clapped a hand to Chris's shoulder. "Sounds like a plan, pard. I'm gonna head over to the saloon. I'll be seeing you tomorrow."

Chris slapped Buck's arm and walked past him down the stairs. Buck started to follow him, then glanced at JD's door again. Shaking his head at himself, he went over and opened it silently, sticking his head in to check on the kid.

JD was curled on the bed, a quilt pulled up over him and his boots sitting neatly at the foot of his bed. The lamp on his nightstand was turned down low, giving just enough light for Buck to see that he was asleep, his breath coming in a soft, steady rhythm.

Buck walked into the room as quietly as riding boots on a wood floor would allow and crouched beside the bed, noting the faint tracks of tears on the kid's cheeks. Gently, he tucked a long strand of JD's hair back out of his face. He should have paid more attention, seen that the kid was hurting--at least, kept him from turning to the whiskey Buck could smell on him.

A sleepy hazel eye opened and focused--more or less--on Buck.

"Hey, kid, you doing all right?" Buck asked softly.

JD thought about it for a moment, then answered groggily, "'M all right now, I guess."

"Good." Buck smiled down at him and manfully resisted the urge to tuck him in, reminding himself that this was very nearly a grown man, not the little boy he looked like at the moment. "Go on back to sleep now."

"'Kay." JD yawned, his eye sliding shut. "Buck?"


"Mer' Chri'mas."

Smiling faintly, Buck stood up and left for the saloon.

As he entered, he saw Vin slouched down at a table nearer to the door. The ex-bounty hunter was sitting alone, his gaze far away. Remembering Vin's comment about not doing anything special, Buck patted the bottle in his coat and went over to sit with the younger man.

"Hey, pard," Buck said cheerfully. "Seeing as how you don't have any other plans, I was thinking you might want to help me drink some of this Christmas brandy I picked up."

Vin brought his stare back from whatever distance it had been focused on. A slow, crooked smile lit his face as he drawled quietly, "That sounds mighty fine, Buck."

Buck grinned back. "Merry Christmas, Vin."

The saloon was nearly empty. Buck had gone upstairs more than an hour before to "pay his respects" to one of the working girls whose name Vin didn't catch, leaving behind the half full bottle of brandy for Vin's enjoyment. Ezra had come in a few minutes later, but hadn't made any effort to start up a game with the few patrons left in the room. He was sitting by himself, slowly shuffling a deck of cards from one hand to the other.

Vin shook his head slightly as he looked at the brandy bottle. Trust Buck to find some way to celebrate anything that needed celebrating. A faint smile tugged at his mouth. He didn't set the same kind of store by Christmas that Buck did. Hell, it usually didn't matter one way or the other to him if he even gave it a passing thought. It'd been nice though, tonight, sharing a drink and a bit of cheer with Buck.

His eyes wandered around the saloon, stopping on the table where Ezra sat by himself. The gambler had been awful quiet lately, sticking to his own company and barely saying two words to any of his fellow peacekeepers. Vin had left him alone, figuring that Ezra knew what he wanted and could come find company when and if that was what he desired.

Tonight, though, that didn't seem right. Abruptly making up his mind, Vin grabbed the bottle off the table and strolled over to the bar to get a couple of clean glasses, then went on to Ezra's table. He sat down without waiting to be invited and filled both glasses with the brandy. Meeting Ezra's questioning gaze with a quiet smile, he set one of the glasses in front of the gambler and raised the other in a semi-serious salute.

"Man shouldn't drink alone on Christmas, leastwise not when he's got friends around to drink with him."

Ezra raised an eyebrow, then smiled faintly in response and took a sip of the brandy.

Ezra watched Vin head down the street away from the saloon, content to wait until his eyes had adjusted to the dark before he started his own walk home. A tranquility had settled over him as he'd sat with Vin, neither of them saying anything, sipping from time to time from their glasses of brandy and watching the other patrons in the saloon. He was loathe to disturb it, but wasn't quite ready to retire for the night, either.

A short walk around the town seemed like a pleasant way to end the evening. Out of habit, he stepped down into the street where the impact of his boots on the dirt wouldn't echo the way it did on the wooden walkways.

Odd though he would admit it was, he had enjoyed being in the ex-bounty hunter's company. Vin Tanner was hardly the erudite and sophisticated fellowship Ezra normally sought out, but there was something oddly soothing about his ability to be totally silent for such long periods of time.

In fact, Ezra thought, unconsciously scanning the walks and alleys for potential danger as he walked, he found most of his colleagues startlingly good company under most circumstances. Buck and Chris had, each in their own ways, histories and views of life that Ezra found intriguing. JD, young though he was, was not unintelligent. Josiah was surprisingly well-educated and could carry on many a fascinating discussion when he was so inclined. Nathan . . .

His thoughts coming to an abrupt halt, Ezra sighed as he felt the calmness leave him. No matter what he did, he couldn't escape the healer. The memory of their disagreement seemed determined to haunt him, not giving him any rest until he found some way to resolve it.

Damn the man, he thought irritably. Why does he have to be so self-righteous about this? What did those girls mean to him, anyway?

Shaking his head wearily, Ezra tried to push the problem out of his mind, focusing instead on his surroundings. He'd reached the end of town without noting where he was going and now stood outside Josiah's church. There was a faint light coming from inside. Apparently, Josiah was still awake. On impulse, Ezra walked to the door and glanced in, thinking to wish the preacher the joy of the season if he was available.

A low sound reached his ears before he was able to spot anyone in the dim light. Scanning the room, he finally found the source of the noise. It wasn't Josiah, though, it was Nathan, sanding one of the window ledges.

Ezra started to turn away, but a new sound stopped him and made him look back.

\\Silent night, holy night,\\ Nathan's deep voice rose just above the scrape of the sander, his rich tones sending a shiver down Ezra's back. \\all is calm, all is bright, 'round yon virgin, Mother and Child.\\

Calm, Ezra thought sardonically. Only until you pulled your 'holier-than-thou' act, Mr. Jackson.

The singing trailed off for a moment as Nathan bent to pick something up off the floor. As he did, his shirt slid up, and Ezra's stomach did a sudden roll. Dear Lord.

Turning abruptly, Ezra walked away from the door of the church. He paused in the street, looking up at the clear night sky and taking a deep breath to settle his stomach. He'd been born and bred in the south, and knew as well as anyone the atrocious conditions under which many slaves had lived. It'd never occurred to him, though, that Nathan might . . .

Shuddering away from the image of the huge, dark scars that marred Nathan's back, Ezra ran a hand over his face tiredly. Nathan's words were ringing through his head again, the healer's angry eyes boring into his memory.  . . . About making profit off the back of another human being? Hell, yeah, I got a lot to say . . .

Ezra had taken the words for the same sanctimonious sermon he'd heard so many times before from a "good citizen" with a firm belief that right and wrong could only be judged by the narrow dictates of his society. He'd known Nathan saw his marriage brokering as being perilously close to slave trading, which, even now, Ezra thought was patently ridiculous. Somehow, though, Ezra just hadn't understood exactly what that meant to the healer.

And I pride myself in being able to read people, Ezra thought tiredly. This town is corrupting me. Mother would be mortified if she saw how poorly I was handling these people.

All feelings of tranquility gone, he started back to his room above the saloon. As he drew near to the church door again, he heard Nathan's voice again.

\\Sleep in heavenly peace, sleep in heavenly peace . . . \\

Ezra paused, then squared his shoulders and started walking toward the door of the church.

Nathan hummed under his breath as he dug at a particularly tough spot of paint. He'd been right, a little hard work and Josiah's stories about the strange ways folks celebrated the holidays in other parts of the world had lifted his spirits.

He'd finally decided, somewhere in the middle of Josiah's tale of kids filling wooden shoes, of all things, with fruit and nuts, to make his peace with Ezra. It didn't seem likely the gambler would ever understand what he'd done wrong, and if Nathan didn't want to destroy the partnership all seven men had formed, he was going to have to be the one to back down. Ezra was too proud to make the first move . . . assuming that it mattered to him at all, which Nathan wasn't all that sure of to begin with.

Still, if there was any time of year when it was right to put aside differences, Christmas had to be it. In the morning, Nathan would hunt the gambler down and make things right between them.

Once he'd made that decision, the healer had felt as if a weight had come off him. He'd found himself singing some of the Christmas songs his mother had sang for him as a child, enjoying the memories they brought with them.

Giving the last dots of paint a final scrape, he set the scraper down and picked up the sander again. He heard a faint sound behind him and turned, expecting to see Josiah returning from his mission to find an extra bottle of whiskey to keep them going.

When he saw Ezra instead, he froze. The gambler looked strangely uncomfortable, standing near the door as if he hadn't decided if he was coming in or not. When he realized Nathan had seen him, he gave the healer a polite nod.

"You're making admirable progress, Mr. Jackson."

Nathan glanced around the church. "Well, it ain't gonna be done by Christmas like Josiah wanted, but . . . " He shrugged. "It's coming along."

Ezra nodded again. Silence stretched between them for an uneasy moment, then Ezra asked, "Might I offer my assistance?"

Without waiting for an answer, he removed his coat, folding it carefully and laying it across one of the pews. Unbuttoning his cuffs, he rolled up his sleeves and picked up Josiah's abandoned scraper.

Belatedly, Nathan nodded. "That'd be right nice of you, Ezra."

The gambler gave him an enigmatic smile and started to work on the window ledge across the room from Nathan's. Shaking his head slightly, Nathan turned back to his own window.

A few minutes later, he paused, not daring to turn around, as he heard a light, clear tenor coming from across the room.

\\O, holy night, the stars are brightly shining . . .\\

Grinning, Nathan shook his head again. Maybe Ezra could make the first move, after all.

Josiah paused in the back room of the church, not wanting to break the spell in the sanctuary. The tenor and baritone voices were in surprisingly perfect harmony, given that Josiah knew good and well they'd never sang together before.

Moving as quietly as he knew how, Josiah went to the door that led into the sanctuary and peeked in. The flickering light from the candles on the altar danced over the two men gently, illuminating the peaceful expression on each of their faces that Josiah had missed over the past few days.

Glancing at the candles, Josiah whispered conspiratorially, "Looks like we got our miracle."