The voices rose together, blending in instinctive harmony in the small church.
"Joy to the world, the Lord is come..."
Vin wasn't listening or participating. He rarely graced a church, but this was Christmas and he owed it to Josiah. But right now, Vin's head was swiveling toward the door, searching for his son.
"Let earth receive her King...."
Chris leaned in and whispered, "He'll be here."
"Let every heart prepare Him room...."
"I hope so," Vin whispered back. "Where is he?"
"And heaven and nature sing...."
Chris squeezed Vin's arm. "He'll be here."
"Pa is going to kill me," Ezra hissed as Junior liberally poured whiskey over the pair of wounds before wrapping bandages around them.
Brian crouched in front of him. "Wasn't your fault. Nobody guessed he had a derringer."
Ezra glared at him. "Brian, I use a derringer. You use a derringer. Matt uses a derringer. We should have checked for a derringer!"
"Hey, whoa, calm down, don't shoot the messenger!" Matt said, dropping down to Ezra's other side. "How you doing?"
Ezra groaned. "What time is it?"
Matt glanced at his pocket watch. "Uhm... high side of 11."
"Oh, crap, I promised Pa I'd be at the church!" Ezra tried to struggle to his feet and groaned.
Junior settled him back down and helped him pull on his jacket. "There. We're only a half hour ride from town, if you can ride, you can go."
"I can ride," Ezra groaned as he finally made it to his feet. "I promised!"
Just as Josiah got up to begin his sermon, the door to the church opened. He smiled and boomed out, "Ah, and our seven prodigals have returned!"
The seven young people shot him rueful smiles and found seats. Vin grinned as Ezra set next to him, with Matt and Lizzie on Ezra's other side. As usual. "Thanks for coming," he whispered.
Ezra smiled back at him. "Of course," he whispered back. "I promised, didn't I?"
Vin patted his knee and turned his attention back to Josiah. The next time he glanced over, he noticed Ezra was a little pale.
The sermon droned on and when Josiah finally asked everyone to bow for the final prayer, Vin's nose wrinkled automatically at the smell that suddenly hit it.
"Father, we thank You for this beautiful Christmas Eve..."
He looked around, wondering why in the world he was smelling blood so strongly.
"We thank You for the blessings of family and of friends."
Vin frowned, seeing nothing wrong. He looked on his other side, and then he noticed Ezra was bone-white.
"We thank You that we are all together,and we thank You for the gift of Your Son..."
His eyes trailed down and he saw that Ezra's jacket sleeve was swiftly becoming saturated with blood.
"In the Name of the Father, and the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, we pray, A--"
It seemed like weeks passed before Nathan emerged from the clinic. “Well?” Vin demanded.
“It's a bullet wound,” Nathan informed them, his voice shaking. “Entry and exit. Clean shot – no major damage done.”
Vin gaped at him. “No maj-- Nathan, my boy's been shot!”
“And it went clean through! He'll be fine!”
Vin ran a hand over his face. “When can I see him?”
Nathan nodded. “Let him rest awhile. Then you can.”
“In the meanwhile,” Chris said, laying a hand on Vin's shoulder, “go walk.”
The hand tightened. “Ain't a suggestion, Cowboy. Go.”
Mumbling under his breath, Vin went.
Lizzie dismounted beside the river and sat down beside the lone figure there.
After a long moment, he turned to face her. “Lizzie.”
“Mister Vin,” she nodded. “Have you seen him yet?
“Nathan won't let me,” he grumbled. “Says he needs to rest.”
She nodded. “Susan says when blood's lost, it builds up again in sleep.”
Vin nodded. Susan Plimpton was the town's other medic, and if she said it was true, it was true. He trusted her as much as he trusted Nathan.
But still – that was his son laying there. Maybe it was time to pull him out....
“He'll be okay,” Lizzie said. She kept her gaze over the river, and her voice was calm. “But he won't be if you turn into my mother.”
Vin's head snapped around, his eyes huge as he stared at Lizzie.
She turned and met his eyes. “You've the same horrified shock and fear about you that my mother had just before she sent me away.”
“Mister Vin,” she said evenly, “you need to know something. Out of the seven of us? Not one of us went into this with our eyes closed. Not one of us. We all knew the risks. We all knew the dangers. We all chose this, knowing full well what the cost might be.”
“Ezra is sixteen,” Chris said, walking up to sit on Vin's other side. “Time to let him go, Cowboy.”
Vin turned to face him. “If that was Adam layin' in that bed with a shot-up arm, would you be lettin' him go?”
Chris's lips thinned, but he met Vin's eyes and held them. “I'll never have that chance, Vin. Your Ezra is now something my Adam will never, ever be.” He squeezed Vin's shoulder. “Your little boy's a man now.”
“Baptised in blood,” Vin whispered.
Chris nodded solemnly. “He's your pride and joy. He always will be. Now's the time to make sure the pride don't overtake the joy.”
“Mister Vin,” Lizzie said as she stood up, “please don't make the mistake my mother did.”
Chris stood as well. “Think about it, Cowboy. Just think about it.”
And they left him by the river, alone with his whirling thoughts.
Ezra's first impression on waking was pain. His next was Nathan's voice. “Drink this – it'll help.”
“Noooooo,” Ezra protested. “Taste....bad....”
“Not this one,” Nathan promised. “I put peppermint in it.”
Ezra took a tentative sip. He found Nathan's statement true, and drank sips until the willow bark tea was gone. He also woke up fully.
Nathan smiled at him. “Better?”
A small smile was Ezra's reply as he managed a nod.
“Good!” Nathan checked the wounds. “No infection. No fever. I do believe you're gonna pull through!”
Ezra nodded. “More...drink?”
“Thirsty?” Nathan filled a cup with water and held it as Ezra drained it. When there seemed to be no indication that it would reappear, Nathan nodded in satisfaction. “Y'got someone real anxious t'see you.”
“Help me...sit.” Nathan propped him up to semi-reclining, and Ezra sighed. “Ready.”
Ezra's grin on seeing Matt walk in lit his whole body. “Hey...”
“Hey,” Matt replied, sitting on the bed. “Bout time you woke up! I know you like your sleep, but that was ridiculous!”
Ezra found himself chuckling. His best friend could make any situation humourous.
Matt went on, “Well, at least we learned two things out of this.”
“Two?” Ezra asked.
“Two.” Matt held up fingers as he counted them off. “One, always check for derringers. And two?” He pointed at Ezra. “You, Tanner, need to learn how to duck!”
“Like you don't, Potter,” Ezra shot back, though he was grinning. “Who got their skinny behind....” he took a breath against the pain in his arm, “....handed to him by a girl?”
“As I recall, a river had something to do with that,” Matt smiled.
A knock sounded, and Vin looked around the door. “Mind if I come in?”
Matt stood up. “I'll be back, Ez.” As he passed Vin, he gripped the buckskin sleeve and said for his ears only, “He's Ours, too, Mister Vin.”
Looking into the cold cobalt eyes, Vin realised the implicit threat in the words. If they'd nearly shot him when Lizzie's mother had been trying to separate them....
Vin met those eyes, unafraid. “He's my son,” he whispered back. “But I understand.”
Satisfied, Matt nodded and released him. Nodding again, at Ezra, Matt left the room.
Vin sat down beside the bed. “How're you doin'?”
“I'll make it,” Ezra replied. He seemed to be bracing himself for a fight.
Vin met his eyes. “Did you stop him?”
“We did,” Ezra nodded. “He didn't hurt anyone else.”
“Good job,” Vin smiled. Then he sobered. “There is one thing, though.”
Vin leaned in conspiratorially. “If you're going to live this life? I need to teach you how to duck!”
And that was the moment that Ezra knew it was all going to be all right.
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