The citizens of Four Corners hustled and bustled about in the last minute rush typical of all who celebrated the holiday of Christmas with the exchanging of gifts and festive gatherings. Today was the 24th of December and all the little stores and shops along the main street would be closing their doors early, prompting a rush of last minute shopping.
Josiah Sanchez grinned as he watched the people dash around, smiling at each other and exchanging cordial greetings as they passed on the dusty boardwalks. Mrs. Potter, the general store owner, and Mrs. Winthrop, another hard working widow who had recently opened a combination candy shop and bakery in town, were doing a particularly booming business.
Josiah had spotted four of his fellow peacekeepers among the throng. JD Dunne had come out of Mrs. Potters with something bulging out from under his coat, his red face and massive grin both testifying to the fact that whatever he had bought was probably for his young love Casey Wells. Vin Tanner had sauntered into the gunsmith's shop a half hour ago, which would have seemed perfectly normal, had he not been trying so hard to look casual about it. Undoubtedly he was in there collecting a gift for one of his friends. Lastly, Buck Wilmington and Nathan Jackson had run into each other on the boardwalk as each hurried to enter Mrs. Winthrop's shop. They had
exchanged a few words and then laughed. Josiah suspected that they had caught each other in the act of purchasing some sweet token of affection for their ladyloves. In Nathan's case, that would undoubtedly be the half-Indian maiden, Rain, but with Buck one could only guess.
So far, Chris and Ezra had been absent from the day's festivities. Chris was out of town on an errand for the judge, but was expected to be back by evening. He had undoubtedly been grateful for an excuse to avoid most of the happy holiday tradition. And Ezra? Well, Josiah didn't know but he suspected that the gambler was probably over at the saloon plying his trade and taking
advantage of all the fools who were sure that the spirit of the season would bring them extra luck at the poker tables. It was a pity really, that Ezra had to be so cynical and coldly practical about the possibilities inherent in such a beautiful holiday.
As for himself, Josiah had all of his Christmas gifts wrapped and ready, having taken pleasure in buying and crafting six unique gifts to give to six very unique friends come tomorrow. The church was clean and festooned with festive greenery and candles in preparation for the sermon he had promised to give at midnight tonight in honor of the occasion. With all of his holiday preparations accomplished, Josiah had spent the afternoon sitting in one of the chairs in front of the jail, just people-watching and enjoying every minute of it. Checking his watch, the preacher decided to head home. It wouldnt hurt to check over the church again, just in case there might be something he had forgotten to do.
The interior of the church was dimly lit, the light from the single window above the altar the only source of light except for a single candle burning on the rail next to the pulpit. For a moment, Josiah frowned, wondering if he had forgotten to extinguish one of the candles on his way out earlier. Then he paused, deep set gray eyes widening in surprise as they adjusted to the dimness and he realized that the church had another occupant besides himself.
"I can leave if you've got some preparations to make for tonight." The offer floated back to him in a soft southern drawl, easily audible in the quiet church. From the front pew, Ezra Standish looked back over his shoulder, a question in his eyes. When Josiah shook his head and motioned
for him to stay where he was, Ezra merely nodded and resettled the folds of his favorite scarlet wool jacket, resuming his original position.
As Josiah stood at the back, wondering if he was interrupting a private moment and should leave, or stay and give Ezra a chance to talk about whatever had brought him here, the gambler spoke again. "The saloon is in a truly disturbing state this afternoon. Inez made up a very potent batch of eggnog in celebration of the season and a half dozen gentleman who'd had far too generous a sampling felt inspired to treat us to an atrociously off-key rendition of something I can only assume was meant to be a Christmas carol. They were giving me a headache, so I fled to your humble abode for sanctuary."
Josiah chuckled and moved forward to join his friend at the front of the church. "Folks around here do seem to have caught the holiday spirit this year, that's for sure."
Sharing his observations of the mornings shopping stampede, he was rewarded with a chuckle from Ezra. "Hard to imagine how Mr. Wilmington could afford to be seen buying a gift from the bakery. Nearly every woman in the community who sees him exit the premises with a package will assume the gift is for her. Buck will either have to spend a small fortune in gifts to keep them all satisfied or run the risk of a most unhappy and solitary New Year."
"I don't think Buck plans to leave anyone out," Josiah speculated with a smile, "but I do wonder how he can afford to keep up with his reputation."
Both men fell silent, content to just enjoy the quiet and the company for a moment. Then Josiah received another surprise when Ezra asked him, "Do you really believe in Christmas? In the traditional sense, I mean."
The older man scratched his chin as he paused to think the question over. "I believe that Christ's birth really happened and that it was a miracle," he said finally. "But to me the miracle was in the way millions of people have rallied around that story over the centuries and taken time out of their own concerns to be good to one another. To be generous and kind and giving, even if it's only at this time of year, in remembrance of that day. It's a miracle that keeps on happening, every single year."
Ezra nodded, apparently accepting that answer. "And the more secular parts of it? Eating enormous feasts, telling children to be on the alert for a fat man with reindeer who provides gifts, filling your living space with flora better suited to remain in the wild where it grew?" He gestured flippantly toward the carefully hung greenery decorating the walls around them. "What does all this have to do with miracles?"
"Just another way to enjoy the gift of family and friends, and celebrate the fact that that long ago miracle has brought us all together to celebrate," Josiah told him simply. "What's behind all these questions anyway? It's not like you to spend your time speculating about holiday tradition."
"Actually, it is," he said with a shrug, smiling a little at the confused expression on Josiah's face. "I've spent more holidays, more Christmases specifically, on my own with no particular celebration involved than I care to think about. During my youth there was little time or money to waste on sugarplums and Christmas stockings, and I had little patience for church services droning on about a spirit of kindness and generosity that I had rarely experienced. In my adulthood, I have come to accept that these things are indeed real for some, and perhaps worth celebrating, but I have had little cause to embrace any of it. So I've spent more time than you realize thinking about the whys and wherefores of holiday tradition, Josiah."
Josiah hardly knew what to say. Ezra only rarely came to the church, and had hardly done so at all since he and Josiah had shared a rather nasty confrontation here a few months back over a satchel full of money. So this sudden visit and the self-revelation that came with it was shocking, to say the least. Part of Josiah wanted to ask questions about what Ezra had revealed, but part of him was reluctant to hear the answers, so instead he asked, "Are you going to come to the service tonight? It probably won't be too much different from the ones you attended as a boy, but I'll do my best not to drone too badly."
Ezra smiled at the joke but did not reply. Rising from his seat, he donned his black hat and paused a moment in front of the candle he had lit, studying the flickering flame with a peculiar expression. Then, not turning to look at Josiah, he spoke again. "Inez has been invited to spend
the holiday with the Potter family and she has accepted. She will be joining them for Christmas Eve dinner tonight and will stay through the holiday. The saloon will be closed for the day tomorrow, but I've been granted permission to use the cook stove in back to provide a holiday meal for the seven of us tomorrow morning, if anyone is interested."
Recognizing the tentative hope in that hesitant invitation, Josiah told him, "I'd be honored to attend. Should I bring anything?"
Ezra shrugged one shoulder. "If you have any sort of celebratory token to pass along to one of our cohorts, you may wish to bring it along. I have taken the liberty of purchasing a few small items myself, just in case anyone feels inclined to drop by."
A smile bloomed slowly across Josiah's weathered face. Ezra threw out the suggestion as though it made no difference to him whether anyone joined him, or brought a gift to exchange, but his nonchalant attitude told Josiah exactly how much it did mean to him. Ezra Standish was putting aside the lessons and experience of a lifetime and reaching out to embrace the spirit of the season; a spirit that had seemingly been denied to him all his life.
"As a matter of fact I do have a few things I'd been meaning to pass out whenever I ran into you boys tomorrow. Don't see why I can't bring them along to breakfast."
Pleasure and a hint of surprise showed in Ezra's face as he finally turned around to look at Josiah. He had probably been afraid to hope that anyone might have wanted to get him a Christmas gift. Glancing down and fidgeting his cuffs into order, he said, "I believe I will go see whether Nathan and Buck are still choosing their baked goods, and inform them of our planned get-together. I feel certain that the promise of free food will at least guarantee the presence of Mr. Wilmington.
He and Josiah shared a grin as Josiah added, "That should get Vin and JD there without any trouble as well."
"Indeed," Ezra agreed. "I wonder where they are now, so I can insure that they know of the possibility."
"Why don't you wait awhile? Chris will be back in a few hours and the others have all agreed to show up here tonight and give me some moral support," he suggested, hinting again at his desire for Ezra's presence.
Ezra hesitated for a moment, then tipped his hat. "As you have accepted my invitation, it would be churlish of me to deny yours. I'll see you tonight, Mr. Sanchez."
Josiah watched him go, then, when he was almost to the door called out, "Merry Christmas, Ezra!"
There was no verbal reply, but as Ezra turned to look back over his shoulder, the smile on his face was answer enough.
Yes, indeed, thought Josiah, Christmas miracles still happen every year.
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