Chris always came "home" for Christmas. It was a personal tradition of his own.
Someone had been here, he noticed, poking among the ruins. It bothered him a little but Chris was somewhat resigned to it. It had been over three years, so there was really nothing left to take. Just some pieces of wood and ashes maybe.
He stood quietly by the two graves, lost in old memories and old pain. Then he tenderly laid an evergreen wreath over each grave marker and stepped back for a last look before heading home.
"Merry Christmas," he whispered softly, as if in a trance.
Each Christmas seemed only slightly better than the one before, but that wasn't saying much. It was usually just the two of them: him and Mr. Whiskey. Or maybe Mr. Tequila.
As he neared his shack, he reined his horse abruptly. There was smoke coming from the chimney.
He dismounted and approached carefully. As he drew nearer, something else touched his senses. A smell. Food??
Chris was now a few yards from the building and could hear two familiar voices, apparently having a rather loud conversation. He holstered his gun and walked inside.
"Buck? JD? What the hell you doin'?"
They were standing by the small stove. There were food scraps and what-not all over the table.
"Merry Christmas, Chris," grinned JD.
"We came to see ya," explained Buck. He looked at the mess and grinned sheepishly. "While we was waitin', we got to talkin' about Christmas dinners we've had and…well… you're just in time to settle this. Which of us cooks better?"
Before Chris could form a suitable reply, the door swung open. A fir tree seemed to be fighting its way in.
"What in the-?"
"This is not my fault," said Ezra. "Blame Nathan here. He insists this tree will be too small for the church celebration. To avoid embarrassment, we'll get another. But I refuse to haul this one any further."
"We were goin' by here anyway and we knew you didn't have one, so…" Nathan shrugged.
Buck grinned at Nathan. "Good thing you're here. Way too much food here now for just the three of us."
Chris shook his head as the room became very busy. And very crowded.
"So where's Josiah? And Vin?"
"Right here," said Josiah as he came through the door.
"Such timing you guys have," Chris observed sardonically.
"Looks like we overestimated the number of gifts we'd require for the needy in town. Hate to see 'em go to waste."
Chris just knew Vin would arrive. And he did.
"I brought ya somethin'," said Vin. "Hope ya don't mind. There was a little bit of useful wood left at your old place. And Mary sent over a pie, too. "
Chris looked at the carving, turning it over in his hands. It was a hand-carved nativity scene. It was crudely rendered but…he studied the familiar figures of a man, woman, and child. His throat tightened and his eyes burned slightly.
He looked around him. He should have thrown them all out. He had intended to spend Christmas alone, as usual.
But how could he? They had obviously gone to a lot of trouble to invent all these lame excuses for bringing Christmas to him.
He sighed. It would ruin everyone's Christmas now if he told them to go.
Chris watched as Buck and JD filled plates of food. Ezra and Nathan were setting up the tree and debating how they would decorate it. And Josiah and Vin were sorting out the small, wrapped packages.
With an effort, Chris set his memories aside for now. He swallowed and forced a smile. He really had come home for Christmas after all.