Best of Times, Worst of Times - Ezra

by Sevenstars

Disclaiimer: This is an original amateur story based upon the characters and situations created in the TV series, The Magnificent Seven. No profit is being made from it and no infringement upon any copyrights held by any individual or organization is intended.

December 24, 2001

Author's Notes: This is in response to Tarlan's Best of Times, Worst of Times challenge for Christmas 2001 ("it must mention their Best of Times and their Worst of Times for a Christmas - and must try to avoid FANON and the obvious."). Spoilers for various segments, and references to my own fics.

It had been JD who had started the whole thing, of course. Ever since about the first of the month the kid had seemed hell-bent on recapturing not only his own childhood but that of everyone else around him. He and Josiah had been the Seven's two guiding (to say nothing of nagging) spirits with regard to the celebration of Christmas. Of course everyone could see Sanchez's point of view, being a preacher. But JD and his energy had really been the deciding factor.

Their first Christmas together they'd still been too new to one another, and to the town, to feel comfortable with any formal sort of observance. There'd been times when it seemed Nathan and Ezra could barely stand to be in the same room with each other. Chris was still recovering from his ordeal in Jericho, and in any case Christmas had lost its charm for him since the fire. Vin wasn't quite past the hurt of being mistrusted over the business with Chanu. Even Josiah had been reluctant to put himself forward as a leader of religious services, since he hadn't preached in years. They'd managed a quiet little dinner together at the restaurant--on Christmas Eve, because of course the place was closed for the holiday itself--and a few small presents, but there hadn't been much of a family feeling to it.

But this was their second holiday as a group, and a lot of things had changed. They'd lost their jobs once, and gotten them back after the new marshal's murder. They'd been through the tests of Eli Joe, the Nicholses, and Charlotte Richmond. Ezra had lost the saloon to his mother--and won it back again. Chris was becoming easier with Mary; Josiah was settling into his place as unofficial clergyman to the town; Nathan and Ezra had, for the most part, made their peace with each other; and JD, with almost two years separating him from his mother's tragic death, felt he could come out of his mourning and have some fun.

They'd all gone to the Christmas Eve celebration at the Grain Exchange, where the ladies of the town had set up a Christmas tree, decorated with candles, bright toys, real glass ornaments, and popcorn and cranberry chains. Flowers, evergreen, leafy wreaths, and appropriate texts in white and gold had decorated the big room. There had been carol singing, a reading of the Nativity story from the Bible (surprisingly not by Josiah; it had been Ezra's slow Southern drawl lining out the words as the children enacted the tableau), and at last a visit from Santa Claus. (Various citizens had tried to persuade Josiah to take the part, arguing that he had the build for it, but in the end it had been Buck, suitably costumed and padded, who half stole it from him; which, considering Buck's joie de vivre, had surprised none of his partners.) All the children in attendance had received oranges, candy, and small presents, and there'd been a dance and a supper of barbecued beef--a ranch-country custom--and a finale of carols in which everyone joined. Next day they'd all gone to service at the church, where Josiah had preached a simple but eloquent sermon, and afterward Mary had insisted that they all join her and Billy for Christmas dinner. Judge Travis and his wife had come too. Inez had been persuaded (mostly by Ezra) to attend, since she had no family to be with. Nettie and Casey had driven in from their ranch. Mrs. Potter and her kids had dropped by for coffee and pie and to watch as presents were exchanged.

The Travis quarters behind the newspaper office fairly overflowed with the holiday spirit. A six-foot spruce (Buck and JD had gone up to the hills to get it) stood in the corner of the sitting room, gay with gold and silver balls, plaster-of-Paris angels painted gilt and bronze and incandescent green, round sparkling ropes of tinsel, garlands of glittering beads, gingerbread and cookie figures, and red and yellow and gilt candles. A cluster of fir sprigs, tied with a red ribbon bow, hung on the door, with a branch of holly suspended underneath. Twisted red and green paper streamers were tacked at intervals all around the molding and drawn together in the middle of the ceiling, from which hung an enormous ball of honeycombed red tissue-paper; to everyone's astonishment it had been Chris who insisted on doing this part of the job, pointing out that Mary's skirts and a stepladder might prove to be mutually exclusive. There were red paper bows perched on all the picture frames, and a garland of fir draped over the mantel. The Southwestern climate wasn't right for mistletoe, but Buck had improvised a "kissing bough" from evergreen and apples and had been trying his best to catch Inez under it all afternoon. A small but hefty Yule log crackled in the Franklin stove, adding cheer to the picture and the pungent fragrance of cedar wood to the air. All the Seven had scrubbed and dressed in the best they had, although Ezra had had to let them use his private tub, and now they lounged wherever they could find space to sit, replete with turkey, beef, pork, and game, plum pudding and mince pie, sipping the traditional Tom and Jerry (which the Judge had proved surprisingly skilled at blending) and looking bemusedly on their gifts. Mary had a new dress especially ordered for the occasion, a lace-topped red velvet ribboned softly at the cuffs, and Buck, who was always keen to notice what a lady was wearing, was positive he'd never seen the comb of silver and cameos that decked the high bun of her pale hair, from which it cascaded down in rich coils. Was it possible Chris had gotten in a little shopping the rest of them hadn't noticed?

Inez had a new gown too, a green satin, with a bright-colored China crepe shawl that Ezra had given her, and a silver and turquoise necklace from Vin. Evie Travis was splendid in plum-colored taffeta. Nettie had donned her Sunday-best black alpaca in honor of the day, and Casey had done her hair up in a braided coil high atop her head and fashioned herself a simple, long-sleeved, demure calico in a soft blue sprigged with yellow, which looked very fresh and suited her spirited character well; JD had whispered to Buck, in some astonishment, that she actually looked like a girl. Even Billy had been persuaded to get dressed up, in a gray tweed suit which Ezra assured him would be favorably remarked upon in St. Louis, or even New York or London.

Then JD began coaxing all of them to tell the stories of the best Christmases they'd ever experienced. At first several of his partners were reluctant, but Mary and her in-laws got the ball rolling, followed by JD himself, Buck, Inez, Josiah, Mrs. Potter, Casey, Nathan, and Nettie. No one was particularly eager to try to persuade Chris or Vin to take part, so the rotation fell next on Ezra. "Come on, Ez," JD wheedled. "You told us about goin' to Europe with your ma when you were a kid, and all those years travellin' around, on the riverboats and in New York and New Orleans and everyplace--you must'a had some really fine Christmases."

"Strange as it seems, Mr. Dunne," the Southerner replied, "none of those instances is the one I would characterize as my best. To be sure it was intriguin' to observe the customs that are followed in Europe, but the other years you mention I was for the most part quite alone, and--as we here are discoverin'--Christmas is not a time to languish in solitude, but rather a season for conviviality and togetherness."

"But you hadta had a best, hoss," urged Buck, who'd told of his twelfth holiday, spent with his mother and the ladies in the Kansas City bordello (his worst had been during the War, in '64, when he'd been in the hospital). "C'mon, tell us about it. Ain't one of us can spin a story like you can."

"Comin' from yourself, Mr. Wilmington, I consider that a compliment of the first water," the gambler told him. He settled back a bit in his chair, swirling his drink around in the cup, gazing at the liquid as if he might see words there. "I think," he began slowly, "that the best Christmas in my experience must have been the one I spent in the Valley of Virginia. The year was 1857, and I was eleven years old. I was livin' then with Mother's third cousin once removed, Tom Ainslie, and his family at Ainslie's Delight, in the foothills south of Lexin'ton. I had been there since August, and was just beginnin' to truly settle in and understand that I had discovered a place where I was accepted and wanted. I had been astonished when my cousins, Guy and Rob Roy, showed themselves willin' to stand at my side and meet the challenges of the bullies at the Academy we all attended, three miles up the turnpike. I had been intrigued and gratified by my Great-Aunt Helen's stories of the various skeletons rattlin' in the family closet--my Cousin Tom's great-grandfather, who sued his wife for divorce after thirty years of wedded bliss; my kinfolk who indulged too enthusiastically in the grape; my cousin's sister, who married an Italian count and was deserted by him. Perhaps the Valley's early tolerance, a holdover from Colonial days when the Valley was bein' settled by assorted creeds and nationalities, had rubbed off on them, or perhaps they had absorbed some of the cosmopolitanism of the Tidewater younger sons who came up, as my cousin's grandfather had done, to make fortunes of their own on the frontier. Whatever the cause, they took me to their hearts and gave me more of a home than any of my other relatives had ever troubled to do--even my father's sister in Louisiana, who had been the most sympathetic theretofore."

Ezra had seen enough Christmases pass, in the course of his peripatetic childhood, that he expected very little of the day. But his cousins seemed resolved to treat him as genuinely one of the family. They all had their pocket-money, a quarter each week, and Guy and Philip had been urging him since November to put aside some portion of it to buy presents and firecrackers. Cousin Tom's wife had three brothers living in the neighborhood; one of them, Cousin Raymond Seaton, was unwed, and took it as his mission in life to serve as elder brother to all the children in the family, and it was he who led them on expeditions to the woods to select the greenery--holly, laurel, mistletoe, cedar, pine boughs, arbor-vitae. Ezra's cousins Selene and Diana--they were twenty and eighteen then--took charge of the decorating, and all the younger children lent a hand as size and deftness allowed. There was a spray of holly secured to the front door, every candlestick, sconce, and chandelier had a sprig of it or of mistletoe, sprays of both swung from the hall ceiling, portraits were surmounted by garlands, balustrades were entwined with festoons of laurel and running cedar, and holly wreaths were suspended above doors. Long garlands of smilax, decorated at intervals with red bows, festooned the windows and fireplaces. Huge bouquets of magnolia leaves, red-berried pyracantha branches, and clusters of nandina, and silver bowls of winter camellias and paper-thin white Christmas narcissus, graced the tables and sideboards. A great clump of mistletoe hung under the parlor chandelier. A cedar served as a Christmas tree--a custom introduced to America as early as the Revolution by the German immigrants, although in England it hadn't begun to appear until sixteen years ago, when the Prince-Consort brought it from his native land.

Anglican influence was strong in that neighborhood, and Christmas had been celebrated in traditional fashion from the very first days of settlement. Beginning in early December there were frolics in all the greater houses--dances, taffy pulls, parlor games. People entertained constantly, the Ainslies among the rest--egg-nog parties, tea parties, dinners, oyster roasts, and just plain calls. Quarter races were held every week. There were tournaments too, for the medievalist movement had begun spreading from Maryland into Virginia, the Carolinas, and Kentucky in the '40's, and as scattered relatives and friends began converging for the holiday season, there was naturally a sentiment for entertainments where young folks could mingle and flirt and the young men could show off their prowess on horseback. Costumed in bright silks and riding their finest mounts, they entered the competition as "the Knight of this or that"--Snowden, Marmion, Ivanhoe, Hiawatha, Glen Arvon, the Black Lance, the Everglades, the Rappahannock--and rode at the ring, spearing bracelet-size rings at a dead run, which called for fine horsemanship and a steady hand. The one who carried off the most rings was privileged to crown his best girl "the Queen of Love and Beauty." They also struck with lance or sword at a post or dummy as they galloped by it, and afterward there was a coronation ceremony and ball, generally finished off, in honor of the season, with the shooting off of skyrockets, traditional in the pre-War South for Christmas and New Year's as well as the Fourth of July. And of course there were fox-hunts, for in Virginia the season stretched from mid-October to late spring, with usually two gatherings a week somehow crammed in between all the other festivities. Eighteen-year-old Diana Ainslie, mounted on her mare Grace, took the breakneck barriers with as much daring and aplomb as the men, and her sister Cynthia, though thirty years old and married, still accompanied her brothers on shooting expeditions into the woods just as she had in girlhood, for she handled firearms with great accuracy and skill.

Ezra and the other young boys--Quentin, sixteen; Rob Roy, twelve and a half; Guy, eleven; and Philip, nine--had a long holiday from the Academy and plenty of freedom. They broke colts and shot field-larks by day, went possum-hunting or listened to Negro ghost stories by night. There were obligations, of course. Every morning the girls would sit on hassocks beside their mother's chair, hemming napkins and handkerchiefs. Every day they and their brothers were required to learn a verse from the Bible. On Sundays they had the ponderous questions and answers of the Shorter Catechism. Sometimes the girls would sing the old ballads, like "Barbara Allen" and "Lord Lovel," or read favorite romances aloud while their mother and the black seamstress cut out and sewed clothes for the farm's small contingent of servants to wear. When the weather was bad the old house with its many dark closets, irregular rooms, assorted levels, and the garret stretching its whole length, was a fine old place to play hide-and-seek in; and when that palled, they wandered from room to room, eating cakes and apples, or buttered bread and strawberry jam, and at last settled in Great-Aunt Helen's chamber and held a hank of yarn till their arms ached. But there was little occasion for boredom with company swarming everywhere, neighbors having the Ainslies in and the Ainslies returning the favor, and above all house guests by the score--the number of featherbeds, straw beds, shuck beds, pallets, and shakedowns the old house could produce was literally incredible. Cousins from the Ainslie side of the family brought crowds of young friends from college. There were people sleeping on sofas all over the house, amusing themselves with billiards, piquet, and loo, riding about the grounds in the morning, shooting larks and partridges, breaking colts with the sons of the house, and discussing dogs, horses, guns, and duels. Horseracing and horse-breeding were constant themes of conversation, while the serious talk of the older men often dealt with law and agriculture, the virtues of the different kinds of plows, and the raising of Indian corn--and especially politics, the affairs of the county, the state, and the nation.

The children helped make ginger cakes, cutting out the shapes after the kitchen girls had rolled it thin and smooth. There were sleigh-rides and skating parties, unbelievable breakfasts after which a horseback ride (ending with a flying gallop) was demanded by all the laws of digestion, dances at night, and the house so full that the older boys were sent out to the "office" in the yard to sleep; but precious little sleeping they did, between playing euchre, drinking whiskey punch or apple toddy, and gabbling about horses, dogs, guns, duels, "old Soc," "old Gess," "Schele," "Math," getting "pitched," and a dozen things else. Ezra, by no means forgetful of his mother's lessons and already keenly alert to the main chance, would sneak down there at night and con them all into playing red dog or poker with him. He usually won, too. The big boys were first astonished, then a little angry, and at last admiring; they predicted great things for him in college. And when Cousin Tom found out what he'd been up to, he didn't get out a strap, as Ezra half expected him to do. He only asked, mildly, "Did you play honestly?" "Yes, sir," Ezra agreed. "Well, then," said Cousin Tom, "the boys have to learn how to lose from someone--better it should be kin."

On Christmas Eve Cousin Betty Ann sat down at the piano and played dance tunes while all the young folks--from the college crowd to the schoolchildren--danced on the veranda, after which the older ones mounted their horses and rode away to pay visits in the neighborhood, promising to return in time to hang up their stockings. Hardly had they departed when the Seatons, Cousin Betty Ann's brothers, fetched their families over from Valley View and Seaton Hundred. Great wood fires blazed on every hearth, piled with big logs of oak and hickory, fat pine-knots, and cedar to add a spicy fragrance. After supper they all sang holiday songs, and Cousin Electra, who was fourteen, read "A Visit From St. Nicholas" to an audience of rapt youngsters.

Ezra had been getting into the spirit of the season with a facility that surprised even himself, and was pleased and even a little embarrassed when Cousin Julia Seaton (that was Cousin Betty Ann's oldest brother's wife) praised his fine, true boy-alto. He wasn't always quite sure of the words, but he followed the tune where he didn't know them, and was astonished at the warm, pleasant feeling that seemed to settle around his heart as he sat with the other children, aware of their crowding bodies and apparent (if incomprehensible) complete willingness to associate with him. He even found that he wasn't too disturbed when Maude didn't put in an appearance; every other Christmas he could remember he'd yearned to have her with him, and often enough she'd promised to be there, only to renege in the end.

Two of the farm's black men came in with fiddles, and there was dancing till no one could dance another step. Then Cousin Tom ordered, "Get your stockings, every man-Jack of you, and every lady too." And there was a general rush to obey, with even the grown folks producing their long gay hose.

"Don't you have a stocking, Ezra?" Cousin Betty Ann inquired, seeing the boy lingering in a corner.

"No, I don't," he lied. How was he going to explain that he'd never been made to feel he was welcome to hang it with the stockings of his relatives?

"Can't have that," cried Cousin Wilfred, who had overheard; he was the second oldest of the boys, twenty-seven and newly married. "Here, Cousin Ezra, have mine."

"I can't--" Ezra began.

"Take it, boy, or I'll be obliged to call you out," Wilfred insisted with a smile. "I've got two feet, don't I? I'll just use the extra one."

All the younger children wanted their stockings right on the mantel so Santa Claus would see them the minute he got down the chimney. Cousin Tom knew just what to do, and soon a piece of clothesline swung above the wide fireplace, with the stockings fastened to it by clothespins, looking like a one-legged family's washing. The older people hung theirs wherever they could find a spot--chairposts, sofas, even the chandelier arms and the sconces. Ezra had to admit it did look gay, though he found himself doubting that Santa, or anyone else, would bother their heads with presents for him. Then everyone under the age of twelve was sent off to bed, Ezra in the iron-framed brass bedstead he'd been using since his arrival, up in a large room on the top of the old house, with his cousins in the other beds and a bunch of young company on pallets on the floor.

There was no card-playing that night, and Ezra was awakened at daybreak when his Cousin Philip, the first to wake, crept out of bed, slipped across the hall to the girls' room, and yelled at the top of his lungs: "Christmas Gif', 'Lectra! Christmas Gif'! Christmas Gif', everybody in the house!" as he raced down the stairs. Immediately the whole house erupted in laughter and shouting as everyone, white and black, tried to catch all the others before being caught themselves. Ezra didn't quite get the thrust of it until he'd been caught about ten times, and he ended up quite the cow's tail, though he was so used to being scorned that it didn't bother him half as much as it might have done one of the others.

Finally Cousin Betty Ann put a stop to it with: "If you children don't get dressed in a hurry you can't have your stockings till after breakfast!" And there was a general rush back to the bedrooms, after which the excited crowd swept down to the sitting room, where the fire was already lit and blazing and everywhere hung fat nobby stockings, with the packages Santa had found too big to fit piled on the floor underneath. Digging for treasure began in a hurry, but lasted a long time, for everyone had to be shown what everyone else had gotten.

Ezra retreated to a quiet corner back of the tree, following instincts long honed, and gazed at his stoutly stuffed stocking with something of the feeling of a man who discovers a waterhole in the desert and fears to kneel down to it for fear it will turn out to be a mirage. Like all the other stockings it had a gaily-colored Roman candle sticking out the top, flanked by a red pack of firecrackers, and Lord knew what treasure beneath. It took him all of fifteen minutes to nerve himself to the task of emptying it, sure in his heart he'd discover switches and ashes and a lump of coal. To be sure, in the upper leg there was an assortment of useful presents of dull purpose, things that were probably due him anyway and would have come in the fullness of time--handkerchiefs, mittens, a red cap, and a Testament wrapped in tissue paper. But in the darker recesses there were nuts and raisins, a fine new pocketknife, a bag of marbles, a baseball, a compass, a watch with a thick nickel case that would stand up to a boy's daily life, and down at the toe a shining red apple and a golden orange. And the packages yielded up still greater bounty: a set of chessmen all his own, a fox horn, a kite, a kaleidoscope, a set of skates, books, a big model man-o'-war with a sword-waving officer on the quarterdeck, a shinny stick. There was even a box from his mother. Last year he hadn't even gotten that much, because one of her cons had gone sour on her and she hadn't had enough money. Clearly this season her luck had been better. She had sent two suits--a fine yellow nankeen one of button-down-the-front, wide-collared, tunic-length jacket and above-the-knee pants, and a gray-green one of "railroad breeches" with buttoned front panel and blouse with a white collar and small double-breasted front panel--as well as a big red bow cravat, a cap with a visor and stiff band, a pair of black boots with red linings, striped pull straps, and decorative natural-leather tops, a silken dressing-gown with a crimson-tasselled silk belt, more books (Prescott's histories, a complete Shakespeare, The Three Musketeers), and a new Gaspar de Sola violin with full ebony trim, a Brazil-wood bow with a pearl eye and slide, and a fine wood case. He'd seen such instruments in Lexington with a price tag of thirty dollars.

To Virginians, breakfast was always a serious meal, but today it was a feast indeed. There was broiled chicken, mutton chops, smothered steak, creamed beef, fresh and pickled fish, crisp-fried mullet roe, fried pork chops, lamb's kidneys, hickory-cured bacon and ham with red-eye gravy; grits baked in a casserole with orange honey; eggs done in a dozen different styles, fried potatoes, waffles and batter cakes, rice, cornmeal mush with gravy, hot biscuits, hot cornbread, homemade butter, Louisiana cane syrup, peach and strawberry preserves, damson jam, golden figs with thick yellow cream, apple pie, chocolate for the children and coffee for the grown folks. That was intended to hold them until the real banquet, which was to be served at four-thirty--and a challenge it was, for the children spent the day at charades and games and shooting off their firecrackers in the yard, so that by the time the butler announced, "Dinner is served," they were all ravenous again.

Each female, from the youngest up, was escorted to her chair by one of the males, with great propriety, Ezra fulfilling this duty for his Cousin Sally, who was Cousin Cynthia's oldest. The table had been extended with every leaf in the house, so that it stretched the full length of the dining room, and the cloth was almost invisible for the platters and dishes laid out on it. At Cousin Betty Ann's end of the table were two baked hams (one brown and hot and all stuck with cloves, the other cold and stuffed); at Cousin Tom's, the biggest, brownest turkey gobbler anyone could ever hope to see; and in between roast ducks, fried chickens, a roast pigling, a huge chicken pie, lamb, partridge, pheasant, guinea fowl, mutton chops, sweetbreads, a roast goose with stuffing, a boiled fish surrounded by slices of hard-boiled egg and a hedge of parsley, and a platter of cold jellied beef. Then there were dishes of white potatoes, candied sweet potatoes, boiled rice, hominy, beets, butter beans, garden peas, pickled Jerusalem artichokes, delicate golden corn pudding, scalloped tomatoes baked with brown sugar, pureed squash with bacon, and eggs with greens; bowls of potato and chicken salad; a side dish of scalloped oysters; celery in tall cut-glass holders; pickles and preserves of every kind, cheese straws, chutneys and gravy, and hot breads of various sorts. In the center of the table was a huge silver tray holding a bowl of charlotte russe and tall goblets of syllabub.

Everyone bowed heads for the blessing, which was of course said by Cousin Tom. There was no official Thanksgiving feast in Virginia in those days, and Christmas was often the occasion taken instead for the offering of gratitude for the year's good things. Ezra let most of it wash over his head--he'd heard it before--until something, he didn't know what, caught his attention just in time to hear the man say: "...and we especially thank You, Lord, for the young kinsman You sent into our midst this summer, our Cousin Ezra Standish, and the pleasure it has been to get to know him."

Ezra had never been described in such terms before. It was almost more of a wonder than the pile of gifts he'd received.

Then, of course, there was the food, with the fine wafer-thin plates piled sky-high and everyone laughing and chattering as they ate their fill. For dessert there was a blazing plum pudding, hot mince pie, half a dozen kinds of cake, tarts, ice cream with fruit conserves spooned over it, peaches in brandy, macaroons and Savoy biscuits, and last of all figs, raisins, almonds and pecans, candied violets and crystallized ginger. There was red and white wine and steaming coffee from a silver urn, and toasts to Christmas, to the President and the Old Dominion (for the Ainslies had no truck with nullification and the growing talk of secession), to "old times and absent friends," and to the happy future.

"Honestly," said Cousin Sally, "I don't believe I'll ever eat another bite as long as I live." And the others felt the same way, even Ezra, who was reminded of Dickens's young Cratchits, "steeped in sage and onion to the eyebrows."

But they weren't left alone for long, as Cousin Tom shouted, "Come along, everyone, we've got to play this dinner down!" And so they did, with hide and seek, skip to my Lou, drop-the-handkerchief, blind man's buff, and finally a great tug-o'-war, with Cousin Tom and his oldest brother-in-law, Cousin James Seaton, choosing up the sides. Cousin James's side won, and Ezra quite expected to be the rotten egg, but instead it turned out to be Cousin Philip, who took it in good humor.

Then there were skyrockets set off by the men, and at last the Seatons began clambering into their carriages and mounting their horses for the trip home. The Ainslies and their guests saw them off and trooped inside, and there was time to really look at their presents, with a reading of A Christmas Carol by Cousin Betty Ann, and at last Cousin Tom prevailed upon Ezra to give them some music on "that fine new fiddle." The boy had learned long since that it was wisest not to draw attention to himself, and although he had begun to see over the last four months that there were alternatives, he was still a little shy of making a show. It took several of the girls adding their voices to the coaxing before he finally consented. He began with minstrel songs--"Virginia Rosebud," "Way Down South," "Dearest Mae," "Listen to the Mockingbird"--and went on to "Come Into the Garden, Maud," "Lorena," "Hard Times Come Again No More," "The Monastery Bells," and the "Poet and Peasant Overture." Then he finished off with "Carry Me Back to Old Virginny," and flushed red as applause greeted his graceful bow.

"And that, you see," he finished, "is why I was not unamenable to Mr. Dunne's persuasion, havin' learned that consent can often bring unexpected gratification." But a shadow crossed his face momentarily as he thought about the same holiday ten years later. He'd heard something of the ruination that had been visited on the Valley during the War, though he hadn't felt any desire to go there and see for himself whether the stories were true. As long as he didn't know for sure what had befallen the Ainslies and their farm, he could comfort himself with the possibility that they'd all come through alive and safe and were still making a decent living from the land they'd lived on for four generations.

He and Maude had been in Natchez, in what later turned out to be the last year of their partnership, as Ezra got a polishing in the arts of gambling and con-gaming from the greatest expert he knew of at both. He almost didn't recognize Cousin Wilfred when they met. At twenty-seven he'd been a gay and handsome beau whose marriage broke hearts all over the Valley. At thirty-seven he was terribly changed. Dressed in a tattered gray Confederate officer's tunic, with a long seamed scar running across his face and crossing a patched eye socket, and his left sleeve neatly pinned up, he was sitting in the bar slowly and methodically getting himself drunk. Ezra hadn't really wanted to acknowledge him, but Wilfred was just sober enough to recognize him, and just maudlin enough not to be refused. He talked ramblingly of his brothers Quentin and Guy, both killed serving the Confederacy, the latter barely seventeen at the time, and his sister Cynthia's husband, who had lost both legs at Gettysburg; of Rob Roy, who'd elected to follow the Union and was now forever estranged from the family; and of his own wife and two little daughters, who had died of smallpox while refugeed to Richmond to stay with his in-laws. It was the discovery of their fate that had set him wandering aimlessly about the South, seeking only enough money to keep himself in bourbon whiskey and keep the ghosts at bay. Ezra hadn't dared to ask whether the farm had survived. Depressed beyond measure, he'd gone out and gotten drunk himself--something he'd never done in his life before--and gotten an earful from Maude the next morning for his unprofessional and ungentlemanly behavior. She'd barely finished expressing her opinion when they were approached by a bartender who had remembered Ezra as the only person who'd approached Cousin Wilfred at the bar in several weeks. He told them that Wilfred had been found dead in the street. He'd apparently taken a tumble off a balcony and broken his neck. At least he is beyond the pain, young Ezra remembered thinking.

"Lord," said Josiah, "I feel as if I'd added another five pounds just listening to you talk of that feast, brother."

"Didn't know you played the fiddle, Ez," Vin observed.

"Not the 'fiddle,' Mr. Tanner," the Southerner corrected gently, "the violin. Oh, I assure you, I do possess talents you may not have expected. I also have some facility at flute and piano."

"You must play something for us, Ezra," Mary urged. "I know my melodeon's probably not what you're accustomed to, but the principle's the same, isn't it?"

"I dare say it is," Ezra agreed, "although it has been some time since I sat down at a keyboard."

"Give it your best, Ezra," said Chris unexpectedly. "Nobody's gonna laugh at you, unless they want to get shot."

The Southerner hesitated and protested a little longer, letting Inez and Evie Travis and Mrs. Potter take their turns at persuasion, and finally, with a smug look of satisfaction, settled himself on the little parlor organ's stool, flipping his coattails back with a flourish. He played an assortment of cheerful minstrel and bar tunes, then segued into a succession of quiet ballads--"Go 'Way From My Window," "Come All Ye Fair and Tender Ladies," "The Colorado Trail," "Spanish is a Lovin' Tongue" ("This is for you, Mr. Wilmington")--and several classical pieces that no one except perhaps the Travises recognized. At last he turned to carols--"Wassail, Wassail, All Over the Town," "Joy to the World," "Lo, How a Rose E'er Blooming," "Good Christian Men, Rejoice," "I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day," "It Came Upon a Midnight Clear," "Silent Night." He wasn't surprised that Mary and Billy, Evie and the Judge, Inez and the Potters and the Wellses, should all begin singing along, and he wasn't particularly astonished to hear Josiah's deep rumble join in, quickly followed by Buck's slightly off-key hum (the big gunslinger knew better than to try to sing) and JD's wavery tenor. Then Nathan's velvety baritone fell into line, Vin pulled out his mouth organ and began laying down a soft trace of support, and Chris stood and came up to stand behind him, a silent hand on his shoulder, as if somehow sensing that not all the story had been told and that Ezra, like himself, carried holiday memories better left asleep.

Once again Ezra thought of the warmth of acceptance that he'd found so briefly among the Ainslies, the way his cousins had stood beside him in schoolyard imbroglios, the genuine praise he had earned for gifts other than the ones Maude most admired, and how pleased and surprised he had been to realize that there actually seemed to be people in the world who liked him and wanted to have him in their midst. I never believed I would find its like again, he told himself, and least of all with so peculiar an assemblage of men. A gunfighter with a slowly healin' heart, a fugitive bounty hunter, a boy searchin' for adventure, a rangeland Lothario, a defrocked priest, and a former slave with a healin' touch, to say nothin' of a Mexican barmaid, two businesswomen, a rancher's widow, a tomboy, a jurist and his wife, and three children.

He remembered something he'd once heard Buck say: "You can't pick your relations or your neighbors, but you can dang sure pick your friends, and you better do a good job of it."

No, he mused, I think perhaps you were mistaken, Mr. Wilmington. It is possible, on occasion, to choose one's family, or perhaps to be chosen by it. As I was. As we all have been.

No, after all, that Christmas at Ainslie's Delight was not my best ever. Only my second best.

This is the best.


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