A Tree in the Hand

Written for the 2005 Magnificent Seven Christmas Ficathon, specs provided by Phyllis

"I'm not sure you should be going up there on a day like this."

Casey looked up from where she was tugging on her second pair of socks. "Nothing wrong with today. Just a bit chilly." She gave the sock on her right foot one last tug, then grabbed her boot, pulling it on then standing up and stomping her feet on the floor, making sure everything was in place. Walking over to where her aunt Nettie was standing, she put an arm around her and hugged. "We're only going up to the ridge over Coyote Canyon. We'll be back before the storm hits."

Nettie looked down at her. "Looks like it's coming in faster than I'd like."

"We'll be back before then." She gave Nettie one last squeeze, then pulled on a second heavy flannel shirt. "And J.D.'s been wanting to do this all week. Can't wait much longer." A leather coat and wool scarf finished her outfit. "Now I've got to get the horse ready. He's going to be here any minute."

"All right," Nettie sighed, "but you be careful. I don't want to have to come after you."

"We will." She gave Nettie a quick peck on the cheek, grabbed up her gloves and hat and ran out to the barn.

It took her no time at all to tack up her bay gelding, but the chill in the air showed in the puffs of white from his nostrils and the bounce in his walk as he tried to warm up. She gave him a quick pop with the reins to get him to stand still while she mounted but he still walked off before she was settled in the saddle.

"Easy there, boy. We'll be out on the trail soon enough and you can run a bit," she chided her horse. Gathering the reins, she tugged her scarf tight around her ears and pushed her hat down on her head. She was ready, and, from the sound of it, J.D. was riding into the yard. Ducking down to get through the barn door, she rode out and waved a greeting.

J.D. was bundled up against the cold and even had a scarf tied around his bowler hat and ears. She almost laughed, but held it in, instead smiling back at the big grin on his face. Bad as the incoming weather looked to be, riding out to get that pine tree was more important if it got J.D. grinning like that.

"You ready to go?" she called out to him.

"Sure am," he called back, "got a hatchet and a rope to drag it back."

"Okay, then," she grinned as she rode close, "race you to the big oak!" She gave her horse a kick and yelled, and he jumped into a gallop. She heard J.D. give an answering shout and she glanced back to see him gaining on her. The cold wind tore the laugh out of her mouth as she leaned low over her horse's neck and watched the trail ahead of her. The big oak wasn't far and J.D. caught up with her before they reached it but pulled up to stay even. She laughed again, sitting up in the saddle and holding her horse in to gallop along with him.

As they passed the oak, the horses settled into an easy jog for the rest of the ride up to the ridge.

"So," J.D. started, "do you think I'm crazy, too?"

"What do you mean?"

"Aw, it's just that Buck and Vin been giving me a real bad time about this idea. They think it's only for kids."

Casey reached out a gloved hand and gave J.D.'s shoulder a gentle shove. "No, not just for kids. I really like the idea."

"Good." He nodded and smiled. "Good."

It took them another hour to get to the ridge trail, then a short climb up to the top where the trees were. The horses were blowing from the effort of the climb, but stood quietly while J.D. and Casey dismounted and walked among the small pines, looking for just the right one.

"This one," J.D. said emphatically, holding on to the branch of a tree about his own height. "The shape is right, not too tall." He grinned at Casey. "You hold up the bottom branches and I'll chop it down."

She knelt down by the tree and did as he asked, holding branches away from the trunk while J.D. swung the hatchet, cutting close to the ground. When the tree fell, J.D. stood up and whooped.

"All we need to make it perfect is snow."

Casey looked at the sky, darkening even more from the west. "Looks like you're going to get your wish, but I'd like to be home before it hits."

"Me too. I'll get the canvas and the rope." J.D. jogged back to his horse, leading it back to the fallen tree.

They rolled the tree onto the canvas, tied it around the branches to protect it as they dragged it back to town. The rope was lashed to the trunk just above the bottom branches and looped around J.D.'s saddle horn.

"That should do it. You ready to go?"

"I will be," she answered, "just have to get my horse."

She turned to go to her horse and only got a few steps before hearing a shout and crash and was knocked aside by the gelding, J.D. half in the saddle and the canvas-wrapped tree bouncing along behind him. The horse was snorting as he ran, tossing J.D. around as he tried to get his leg over the saddle. When the horse gave a big leap to the right, J.D. lost his grip on the saddle and fell, dragged by his foot in the stirrup. Casey shouted, but that only made the horse go faster, leaping from side to side as it looked back at the tree and man dragging behind it. On one leap, J.D.'s foot came free and he rolled to a stop against a boulder at the top of the ridge trail.

"J.D.!" Casey screamed, "Are you all right?" She ran to him, kneeling beside him, pulling at his coat to turn him on his back.

His eyes were closed, but he was breathing and his teeth were clenched in pain. "Think my leg's broken. What the blazes got into him?"

"He was scared of the tree."

"The tree?" J.D. opened his eyes. "What's so scary about a danged tree?"

"It was chasing him, all bouncy and making noise." She helped him sit up. "Can you get up? We can't stay here."

"I'll try." He pushed himself up against the rock, working to get onto his feet. Finally he was upright, and he tried putting weight onto his left leg. "Damn!" He leaned over and grabbed his leg, then looked up at Casey. "I can't walk. Can't get down the ridge."

Casey's stomach was tied in knots; the sky was getting darker by the minute, they only had one horse and J.D. was hurt. Think, she told herself, there must be something you can do. Of course! The horse! All she had to do was get J.D. on her horse and she could lead him down the ridge.

"Wait here," she told J.D., ignoring his look.

She ran to her horse, only to slow as the animal threw his head up and snorted loudly at her. The last thing she needed was to scare him into running, so she slowed down, tried to sound more soothing than she felt, but it worked, she got hold of his reins. Pulling him close, she rubbed his forehead and talked to him. "You can't be scared. We have to get J.D. back to town. You can do it." The horse relaxed his neck and leaned into her, and she took that as an affirmative.

Leading the horse over to J.D., she tried to figure the best way to get him in the saddle. He couldn't mount himself, his left leg was useless. She shook her head. They'd think of something.

In the end, it was a combination of struggling to push J.D. into the saddle while he pulled with everything he had and a very patient horse. He was in the saddle. White as a sheet from the effort with his leg hanging useless, but still in the saddle. The hardest part of the trip would be down the ridge and Casey took a deep breath and strong hold on the reins as she started leading the way down.

"What the--"

Something had disturbed all the horses tied to rails in the street. Whinnies and snorts and the sound of hitch rails creaking as they were pulled by scared animals had Buck and Vin throwing down their cards and bolting out the saloon doors to see what was going on.

In front of the livery, J.D.'s horse was standing, covered in sweat, head high, snorting as it stared at the canvas-wrapped pine still tied to the saddle.

"Aw, hell," was Buck's only comment as he slowly worked his way toward the terrified animal.

"Yeah," Vin agreed, moving just as carefully to cut off the horse's escape route.

As Buck got closer to the horse he took off his bandanna to use as a blindfold. Sometimes what they couldn't see wouldn't scare them. "Don't move, boy. You don't move, the tree won't move and it won't scare you no more," he crooned at the horse. Step by step he managed to get close enough to grab the bridle and pull the bandanna over the horse's eyes. Vin ran in and cut the rope holding the tree to the saddle, then pulled the tree into the alley where it couldn't be seen. Opening the livery door, Vin helped Buck lead the horse inside before removing the blindfold. "Gotta get you in your stall then figure out what happened to your master."

"He went and got that tree he wanted. Guess his horse never hauled anything like that before," Vin said.

"I never thought about that. Never had a horse that wouldn't pull brush or clear trees." Buck looked into Vin's eyes. "We better go find him."

"And fast. That storm's gonna hit real soon."

As they tacked their horses and rode out of the livery, Buck growled, "Can't imagine what he thought he was up to, stupid tree, stupid idea--"

"Gentlemen," Ezra interrupted him, "I believe I can shed some light on the situation."

Buck was startled by Ezra's sudden appearance, looking up to see him holding the bedraggled tree upright. "So, shed away."

"You know J.D.'s been talking about a tree for weeks." Buck nodded impatiently. "He's also been attempting to inveigle Inez into letting him place the tree in the saloon."

"You saying she went for it?" Buck wanted to get moving, not stay and talk, but Ezra would give up his information in his own time.

"I'm saying," Ezra continued, "that with a little outside persuasion, she was convinced it was a good idea." Ezra's gaze slipped from Buck to Vin and back. "I'm also saying that you two only fueled his desire for the tree by making fun of the idea."

That much Buck had already figured out. "Yeah. Thanks." He looked at Vin. "We better see if we can find him." He reined his horse over and started out of town the direction J.D.'s horse had come in.

He didn't miss hearing Ezra call after them. "J.D. talked about the ridge over Coyote Canyon."

Vin looked at him. "Coyote Canyon ain't too far, but the climb to the ridge could be bad if the storm hits."

"Then we better make some speed." Buck urged his horse into a ground covering lope, Vin alongside him.

The trail made by J.D.'s terrified horse was easy to follow. Hoof prints and scratches in the earth from the dragging tree led them straight to Coyote Canyon, but as easy as the trail was, it was still nearly an hour before they got to the bottom of the ridge trail.

Buck was about to start the climb up when Vin stopped him. "Wait, look, there's somebody coming down." Vin pulled out his glass to get a better view, looked up the trail for a moment, then smiled at Buck. "It's J.D. and Casey. J.D.'s on the horse, Casey's leading him down. They're most of the way to the bottom, we'd best wait here for them."

"I should have known he'd bring her along." Buck looked up the trail, watching them pick their way carefully down. "And if she's leading the horse, that means J.D.'s hurt." He stepped off his horse and handed Vin the reins. "Stay here. I'm gonna go up and help them."

The ridge trail was narrow, but not too hard a climb on foot. When he could see Casey clearly, he called out. She looked up in surprise and then waved down to him. Redoubling his effort, he climbed the trail as fast as he could, meeting them at the last switchback.

Casey's face was red with cold, but her grin told him she was fine. J.D., on the other hand, looked white and his teeth were clenched in pain. He put a hand on J.D.'s knee but pulled it away immediately at the hiss of pain. Looking from one to the other, he had to know. "What happened?"

"Stupid horse," came from between J.D.'s clenched teeth.

"It was the tree," Casey elaborated. "The horse spooked from dragging it and J.D. wasn't mounted and got dragged by his foot." She looked up at Buck and he could see guilt in her eyes. "His leg's broke."

"Okay," Buck answered, "okay. Could be a lot worse. Vin's down at the bottom, so we got three horses between us. We'll get back to town and get you looked after."

"How'd you know where to come?" J.D. gritted out.

"Knew there was something bad when your horse came running in like he had a cougar on his tail. 'Course, most cougars aren't green and prickly." That drew a small smile from J.D. "And Ezra said you'd been talking about the ridge up here."

"It really was a stupid idea."

"No, J.D., it wasn't," Buck said firmly. "Accidents happen. Now let's get out of here and we can argue back in town."

Leading the way back down the trail was easy now that Buck knew J.D. was okay. Mostly okay. Casey's big gelding seemed to know his passenger wasn't in great shape and put every foot carefully, never slipping or stumbling. Vin met them at the bottom of the trail, the question clearly on his face.

"J.D.'s hurt his leg," Buck told him. "Casey can ride up with me and we'll lead her horse back." J.D. started to object, but Buck cut him off. "Ain't taking any guff from you. You just sit tight on that saddle and Casey can sit behind me. Trip back'll take a bit longer, but we'll get there in one piece."

Vin took position on one side of J.D., Buck on the other, Casey close behind Buck, sitting on his bedroll, arms loosely around his waist. Yeah, it would take them a couple of hours to make it back to town, and he'd spend some of the ride trying to talk himself out of the guilt of making fun of J.D. wanting a tree. Maybe all the ride.

Halfway to town Vin looked up at the sky. "Gonna snow. Soon." As if his words were a command, big fluffy flakes started to swirl down.

"Great," Buck grumbled. "Couldn't have waited till we were home and warm?"

"Won't be bad," Vin answered, "no wind, no ice. Just snow."

And it wasn't. By the time they got to town, there were several inches on the ground, just enough to give the town a look of frosting on a cake. Ezra and Nathan met them at the livery, took one look at J.D. and carried him up to Nathan's clinic. Casey insisted on going with them and Buck went with her. Nathan, bless him, had his wood stove going and his room was toasty warm. He had J.D. on the cot, his boot pulled off and was poking around his leg.

"Well?" Buck asked.

"Don't appear to be the leg," Nathan said without looking up, "I think the ankle's sprained, not broken. We wrap it tight and you stay off it, should be okay in a week or so."

At this pronouncement, Buck felt the tension in his gut ease. "That's great." He grinned at J.D. "I'll go let the boys know. You come down to the saloon when you're ready."

"Whyn't you take Casey along, that way I can get these clothes off J.D. and take care of that leg proper," Nathan suggested.

A quick look at Casey and Buck grinned at her blush. "Come on." He held out his hand. "We'll get a spot by the stove and warm up." She stood and ignored his hand, but smiled up at him as they left the clinic.

As good as his word, Buck got them the table closest to the stove and after a few minutes Casey peeled back her heavy coat, the warmth starting to seep in.

"Anybody besides Ezra know where you two were going today?" Buck asked.

"Just Aunt Nettie," Casey said, then jumped up in alarm. "Aunt Nettie! She's got to be worried! We should have been back hours ago!" She started to put her coat on again. "I've got to let her know."

"Hold on there," Buck said. "Josiah's ahead of you." Casey looked at him in confusion. "He got up and left the minute you said her name. He's gone after her. You just sit down and relax." She hesitated, then took her coat off and sat down.

It was the waiting that was the worst. Buck knew he'd been a bit hard on J.D. about the tree, and wanted nothing more than to see his friend back on his feet. Foot. How long did it take Nathan to wrap an ankle anyway?

Longer than he thought it should, but the next time the door opened, there was Nathan supporting J.D. on his one foot. The kid looked warmer and happier, and this was the moment Buck had waited for since he got into the saloon and saw what had been done while they were gone.

J.D.'s mouth opened, but no words came out. His eyes glistened as he looked around, taking in the transformation. His tree was by the front window of the saloon, bedecked in ribbons and candles, a wooden star at the top. The rest of the saloon was alight with lanterns and candles, the mirror behind the bar hanging with tin ornaments.

"How? Who?" J.D. stammered.

"Well, kid," said Buck, "seems some folks listened to what you said and didn't make fun, and for that, I'm right sorry." He stood up and gestured at the tree. "The ribbons came from Mrs. Potter, Mary had the candle holders and I suspect Chris carved the star." A quick glance to the corner where Chris sat confirmed his suspicion. "I hear Inez has got some Mexican hot chocolate for us, too."

"This ... this is perfect," J.D. whispered.

Buck smiled. Perfect would have been if he'd known. He spied Ezra leaning against the bar and eased his way over to lean next to him. "How'd you know?"

"Well, sir," Ezra said, "I listened between the words. The way our young friend talked about Christmas led me to suspect that it was the one time of year that the household he and his mother served in was uniformly happy. It's a sentiment I can understand."

Buck looked at Ezra and saw the truth in his eyes. "I ... yeah. Thanks." It was all he could say. He turned his back to the bar and leaned on his elbows, watching the smiles and laughs as Inez passed around steaming cups of chocolate. Yeah, this was good. When a cup appeared in front of him, he looked at it and realized it was Ezra handing it to him. He sniffed at it, then grinned. Leave it to Ezra to spike it with some good bourbon. "To Christmas," he said as he touched his cup to Ezra's.