Sixth story in The Lost Boys series.
The holiday was coming up quick. The area had been blanketed in thick, heavy snow for the past two weeks. Tensions had been running high in the Travis household. Since his fall, Vin was timid about even trying to stand and walk. He tolerated the exercises that Mrs. Travis insisted in having him do but he refused to leave the wheelchair. He also rejected any additional help from the woman, not wanting the others to become jealous again. All of the other boys were growling and snarling at each other. Being cooped up together was taking a heavy toll on all of them.
Orin began to casually ask each of them how they celebrated Christmas on the island. Soon, he noticed that they were sneaking around and asking both him and Evie if they could have or use some of the myriad of items around the house and barn. Josiah and Nathan had each gotten a deer when they went hunting. Both of the boys skinned out the animals and stretched the hides on frames the way one of the new ranch hands was showing them. When Orin first met the young Indian, he had been a little leery of having him around the boys but Chanu had instantly connected with them in a way that was almost uncanny. He was teaching them how to live off of the land. The other boys were spending lots of time in their bedroom, working on something.
A few days before Christmas, they went out to get a tree. At first, Vin said that he didnt want to go. After a few minutes of pleading and begging from the other boys, he agreed. Evie made sure that they were all bundled warmly and stood on the porch, her heavy shawl draped around her arms as she waved to them.
From the back of the wagon, the boys surveyed the selection of trees. When Orin finally halted the horses, they were more than ready to make a choice. The man and the two older boys watched as the four younger boys ran in different directions, each announcing that they had found it. Vin sighed, painfully reminded of the fact that he couldnt run and play like the other boys any more. Josiah moved to pick the skinny boy up and swung him around to piggy back. Nathan watched to make sure that Vin wasnt in pain from the position before nodding and taking up both of the axes they had brought along.
It took most of a half hour to decide on the perfect tree. Orin hung back, wanting them to make the selection. Josiah and Nathan took turns chopping, until the tree toppled over. JD leapt up and down, clapping his hands and cheering. The boys each took hold of the tree, with little JD in the front holding the very top, and carried it back to the wagon. Vin was tucked back into a corner of the wagon, along with JD, and wrapped in the heavy blankets. The other boys knelt in the available spaces as Orin and Josiah climbed up into the seat.
Evie had a pan of milk heating on the stove for them when they got back. While the older boys helped her husband set up the tree, she made sure that the younger ones got warmed up. As soon as the tree was wedged in place in the big pot, they would start decorating. While they were gone, she had popped two big pans of popcorn. She also had a small basket of cranberries that Miss Nettie had given her specifically for the holiday. By nightfall, the tree was adorned with long strands of popcorn and bright red berries, along with a few hand carved ornaments and some carefully cherished glass balls that had been in the family for a couple of generations.
The thick snow kept them from going to the church services in Four Corners on Christmas Eve. To the considerable surprise of the adults, Josiah asked if he might tell the younger boys the nativity story before they went to bed. Gathered around the fireplace in the living room, the boys listened as the older teen laid out the scene for them. It was obvious to Orin and Evie that it was something Josiah remembered from his own childhood. Gently, reverently, Josiah set up the pieces of the hand carved wooden figures that had been given to Evie when she left home. JD wiggled with excitement as the three Magi, wise men, made their way across the floor toward the small stable. Vin sighed wistfully as they heard about how the young mother was turned away from so many places in the crowded town. Chris and Buck nodded knowingly when Josiah told about the shepherds watching over their flocks. Ezra leaned against Nathan, both watching as the scene came together. When he finished with telling the story, Josiah led them in singing Silent Night. The adults exchanged smiles as the boys voices mingled together so beautifully. From Josiahs deep bass to JDs high-pitched soprano, they sang with such reverence that it was obvious that the song was familiar to them.
After some jostling and a little whining, from JD, the boys made their way up the stairs to bed. Orin banked the fire for the night, indulging in a little nip of the brandy he kept for special occasions. When they were reasonably certain that the boys were asleep, he and Evie began to bring out the gifts they had kept hidden in Orins small office. Each of the boys had three gifts under the tree. It had been difficult, making the new shirts for the boys without them knowing, but Evie had managed. Orin had bought each of the younger boys a toy and the two older boys got a new pocketknife with their initials etched on them. They also got a book apiece. It was important to the adults that the boys understand the value of learning and the best way to do that was to read. When all of the packages were arranged under the tree, the couple retired to their bed for a few hours of shuteye. They fully expected the boys to waken at dawn to open their presents.
Vins eyes popped open and he squinted in the grey light of early dawn. Chris lay on his back, his pillow having fallen off of the bed during the night. Propping himself up on one elbow, Vin looked to see if any of the others were awake. Ezra and JD were blanket-covered mounds on the bed beyond Nathan, neither of them liking to be the slightest bit cold. Buck and Josiah were facing away from him, so he couldnt tell if they were awake or not. The gifts he had made for the others were hidden in an old flour barrel in the kitchen and he needed help to get them under the tree. Mrs. Travis had helped him with the projects, keeping them hidden from the others and Mr. Travis had helped him to finish them and wrap them.
You need to get up? Chris whispered. He always kept tuned to the other boy in case he needed help during the night.
I need to get my gifts and put them under the tree, Vin whispered back. A sigh from one of the other beds told him that the others were awake too. Except for JD, all of the boys dressed silently and crept from the room, Josiah carrying Vin down and helping him retrieve his packages. Nathan pulled on his boots and coat and slipped out of the house to bring in the things he and Chris had hidden in the barn. Buck and Ezra each went to the hiding places they had been using and soon, all six of the boys were stacking their own gifts under the tree. Chris snuck back up the stairs to see if JD had awakened while the others started breakfast. Nathan had been to the henhouse and brought in enough eggs for all of them to have two each. From the cold box build into the floor, Josiah pulled up a slab of bacon and Chris began slicing it while Buck built up the fire in the stove. Vin was keeping JD from pawing through the gifts in the living room, not an easy task, while the others worked on the meal. Ezra was carefully putting the dishes on the table as Josiah handed them down from the cabinets.
It was the smell of baking bread and coffee that finally roused the adults. Orin groped across the nightstand for his pocket watch, surprised to find that it was later than he expected. His wife rolled over and snuggled up against his warmth before mumbling softly.
What time is it?
Nearly seven. The boys are awake.
I know, I smell it too, she said, around a yawn.
But when do we get to open them? JD asked for the umpteenth time in as many minutes. Evie smiled as she came down the steps and the youngest boy ran to her with the question.
Let me see what the other boys are doing, she told him before going over to brush her hand over the top of Vins head. The others were standing in the doorway as she looked up.
Merry Christmas, Ezra called.
We made breakfast for you, Buck added.
The horses have been fed, Nathan announced.
You seem to have thought of everything, Orin said as he looked to the crackling fire.
It took only a few minutes to make the eggs for everyone before they all sat down to eat. The bread was warm and the butter melted into every pore, adding its own delicious flavor. Orin sipped at the scalding coffee while the boys had milk. As soon as the meal was finished, the boys looked eagerly toward their guardian, waiting to be released from the table.
Well, lets get the dishes soaking and then we can see whats in all of those packages in the other room, Orin said. Immediately, the chairs scraped across the floor and the boys rushed to clear the table. Evie shook with silent laughter at the speed with which the boys worked.
As they assembled in the living room, there was a knock at the door. The adults exchanged puzzled expressions as Orin stood and looked out the window. Its Steven and Mary! he said as he opened the door. His daughter-in-law came in first, followed by his son, who was laden down with packages. Evie leapt up to greet them, happily hugging the blonde woman and pulling her to sit on the couch near the fireplace. As Orin took the packages from Steven, he noticed that the boisterous sounds from the boys had stopped. Turning to them, he realized that the boys had scooted closer together and that Vin was carefully shielded behind the older boys.
Steven realized that he was the cause of the sudden tension in the room. He took off his coat and scarf and hung them both on the hook next to the door, carefully rehearsing what he had planned to say to these children. When he turned around, he saw that they were still staring at him like rabbits looking up at a hungry wolf. His eyes darted nervously to his wife and she gave him a smile of support.
Merry Christmas boys ah I know youre all surprised to see us here-
You are always welcome here, son, Orin interrupted.
I know, Dad, but I have something that I need to say to them and Id appreciate if youd just let me say my peace. Turning to the boys again, he continued, I know that I havent been at all kind or welcoming to you since you arrived here. It took me a while, and a long talk with my aunt, for me to realize that you are what I was to my cousins a long time ago. You see, when my momma died, my aunt took me to live with her until my Dad was able to take care of me. I was just a baby at the time, so I didnt realize what was going on around me the way you did when you got here. My cousins were jealous of me. They were afraid that I would take their place in the hearts of their parents. I was lucky, my aunt and uncle had it worked out before I was old enough to understand. What Im trying to say is Im sorry for the awful way I behaved toward you and Im ashamed of the things I did and said especially to you, Nathan, and to Ezra. I know now that there is room in my family for more children. I just hope you boys can see your way to forgive me for my ignorance and that youll welcome our baby with more grace than I welcomed all of you.
JD, Ezra and Vin turned confused looks to Josiah and Nathan and the older boys whispered to them so that they could understand. In spite of the apology and the long explanation, they were still apprehensive about the man who had been so mean to them.
After the boys mumbled congratulations to the young couple, Orin and Evie turned their attention to handing out the gifts for the boys. When each of them had a package in their hands, they began to open them. While the older boys carefully untied the string that held the paper together, JD tore into his with reckless abandon. Although they were thrilled with the new shirts, the boys remained in a huddle on the floor, unwilling to get any closer to Steven. They expressed sincere thanks for the gifts from where they sat. The next round of gifts brought exclamations of surprise and awe as they looked at the books. Nathan ran his hands lovingly over the cover of the book that was about plants and healing. Josiah was thrilled with the copy of Homers Odyssey. Buck and Chris were already making plans to read their books and then trade with each other. JD opened his book and excitedly began to read aloud. Vin looked at the cover and blanched a little. Ezra shifted to see the title and then opened the book to show him that it was filled with a lot of drawings. Immediately, Vins attention was focused solely on the pages as he slowly turned from one to the next. Ezra looked at his book and set it on top of his new shirt, it was one of his favorites but he didnt want the adults to know, thinking it would hurt their feelings if they knew he had already read the story.
Before Orin could pass out the last of the gifts he and Evie had gotten the boys, Josiah reached out and began to distribute the boys gifts to each other. His gift to them was a pouch on a leather string that they could wear around their waists. Chanu had shown them how very practical the pouches were for storing the things they picked up when they were out in the woods. Nathan went next, giving them each a pair of gloves made from the chamois of the deer he had taken. JD was especially delighted with his and immediately put them on. Bucks gift was unique, he had taken hair from the tails of the horses and braided it into cords. With Orins help, he had cut cross sections of a tree limb and had sanded them until they were smooth. Using natural colors from plants, he had made designs on each one, depicting a crude representation of the island as he had seen it from the deck of the ship for the last time. The wooden pendants were carefully drilled and threaded onto the horsehair cords.
There was a moment of sadness as the boys remembered the island where they had lived for three long years. They compared their gifts, noticing that each one was a little different. Chris handed out his gifts, giving each of them a bone whistle. Josiah and Nathan had wondered what the boy was going to do with the bones when he had asked for them after the deer was butchered. Chanu had shown him how to hollow out the bone and drill the holes so that each one had a different tone. Vin and Ezra both wanted to go next and Ezra volunteered to wait after helping Vin to hand out his gifts. Since he had returned from St. Louis, Vin had spent a lot of time in the house. Now the others could see what he had been doing with his time. Evie had given him a piece of light-colored paper that had come inside of one of the boxes from the dry goods store. Vin had carefully cut the paper into squares. On each one, he had drawn a picture showing some aspect of their life on the island. Josiahs showed the tree house, Bucks showed the hammock they had slung between two trees outside of the cave, and Chriss had some kind of bird on it. Nathan opened his and grinned at the depiction of the small garden theyd had on the island. Ezra got a drawing of two boys building a sand castle, although it lacked definition, it almost had to be him and JD because of the dark hair. When JD opened his gift, he sucked in his breath and trembled all over. Vin blushed as he saw the happy expression on the youngest boys face as he looked at the picture of the dolphin leaping out of the water.
Mary leaned forward, eager to see what JD had gotten that caused such a reaction, seeing the womans curiosity, JD leapt up and carefully extended his gift to her. Orin had helped Vin to make frames for the drawings from sticks that had been carefully flattened on one side and notched at the corners. Each one had a string to hang it from a nail or peg. When Steven timidly asked if he might see, JD carried the picture over and showed him. Seeming to signal that it was all right, the other boys also got up to show off their gifts. After allowing each of the adults to admire the gifts, the boys went back to their seats to see what Ezra had for them. Only Orin knew what was in the small packages because he had picked them up for him. Of all of the children, Ezra was the one who worried the most over what to give his brothers. He didnt feel that he could make something like the others had, that wasnt the way he remembered the holiday. His mother would never have accepted something made by hand, feeling that it was beneath her. She had taught her son that the depth of his love for her was shown in the value of the gifts he could buy. He had saved every penny he earned so he could buy gifts for the others. He had noticed the small wooden horses in the store when they went to collect Vin from the train. It had taken every cent he had but he had gotten one for each of the others, spending long hours agonizing over which one to give each of them because they were all different. It was obvious that it was the thought that counted as each of the boys responded with appropriate awe over the store bought gifts. JD handed out his gifts next. For each of them he had made a string with an assortment of small items tied on it. He explained that the light colored rock was for Josiah and the dark colored one was for Nathan. Each of the others was represented by a different rock or bead or button. Each of the boys praised JD for his gift, tucking them into the pouches Josiah had given them for safe keeping, along with Ezras little horses.
Orin handed out the last gift he and Evie had gotten for the boys. They were thrilled with the small toys and the older boys were stunned to receive the knives. They nodded in agreement that they were definitely not toys and that they were to be handled with respect.
We brought something for each of you, too, Steven announced. He saw the wary look in their eyes and tried not to let it hurt his feelings. From the stack he had carried in, he handed one to each of the boys. Only JD tore into his gift right away, the others waited to see what he had gotten.
The wooden top had a string to wrap around the post and a handle to hold the top until the string was pulled, sending it spinning and wobbling across the floor. Seeing that JD had gotten something nice, the others opened their gifts. Chris and Buck each got a pouch of marbles, complete with a shooter. Ezra got a puzzle with a picture of a horse and Vin got one of a man with a hunting dog. Nathan and Josiah got pocket watches. Each of the boys enthusiastically thanked the young couple. Finally, it was time for the boys to give their gifts to their guardians. With great ceremony, JD was allowed to carry a gift to Evie. He climbed up on the couch at her side to watch as she untied the string and unfolded the paper.
Oh boys its too much! Evie exclaimed of the string of pearls that slid into her hand. Both she and Orin knew that the boys had some treasures that they had brought from the island but they never asked about them, feeling that they belonged to the boys. Ezra surprised Mary when he handed her a small gift. After tucking her hair behind her ears, she untied the string and opened the paper to reveal a dainty gold chain with a locket on it.
Theres sand inside, from the island, JD explained, We all got some.
Boys, I dont know what to say. This is beautiful! Mary exclaimed as she held up the necklace and watched the way the firelight reflected off of it.
Chris gathered up a package and carried it to Orin. There was an odd mix of emotions scrolling across the boys eyes as he waited for the man to take the gift from him. Chris had held himself back from Orin, not showing affection the way he did with Evie. Both of them suspected that it had to do with the circumstances surrounding his fathers death but they never pushed him. Orin took the gift, gesturing for Chris to sit beside him as he opened it. The gift inside reflected all of the childrens handiwork. The chamois pouch held a wrapped packet of deer meat pemmican and another of the herbs that Nathan had shown them helped to relieve pain and fever. The flap of the pouch had been drawn on with a sharp, hot stick, leaving a picture of the farmhouse and barn. Another of Chriss bone whistles was tucked into a pocket on the inside and hanging from each side were leather and horsehair strings with beads and stones on them. A larger circle of wood, with a crude representation of a map completed the contents.
With tears in his eyes, Orin ran his hand lovingly over the pouch before looking at each of the boys. He knew that they had put a lot of time and thought into the gift and he was proud to receive it. He was still admiring the drawing on the flap when Nathan knelt to offer a gift to Steven. The young man stared at the package for a long moment before he took it and set it in his lap. The silence in the room was deafening as he loosened the string and slipped it out of the way, folding the paper back to reveal a pair of gloves. Unlike the ones the boys had gotten, these were lined with rabbit fur. Like the pouch Orin had gotten, the gloves were covered with a picture of the farmhouse. Swallowing the lump in his throat, Steven thanked the boys for the gift.
In their stockings, each of the boys got an orange, a peppermint stick and some marbles, although they were not as fancy as the ones Steven had given the other boys. Orin knew that there would be some trading going on very soon.
The boys carried their gifts to their room while the women began to prepare lunch. Orin stepped outside to smoke his pipe, something he never did in the house. A warm feeling of satisfaction filled him as he replayed the morning in his mind. The boys had given so much, to him and to Evie, and expected so little in return. Hearing the door, he turned to see Steven coming out to join him. He was pulling on his new gloves.
Theyre really great kids, Dad, Steven admitted as he brushed off a step to sit down. I never expected to get a gift from them.
I hope that youll take the time to get to know them.
It was Marys idea to come this morning.
I know, Orin said as he shifted to look at his son, Ive spoken to Mary several times in town. Just because you were acting like a horses ass was no reason for me to take it out on her.
They settled into a comfortable silence as Orin finished the pinch of tobacco in his pipe and tamped the ashes into the snow. He tucked the pipe into his coat pocket and headed for the barn. He and Steven checked the horses, moving in tandem down both rows of stalls. The older Travis checked on the honey-colored mare, the swell of her sides showing the healthy growth of the foal inside. She had come in season late and had been covered by the coal black stallion that Orin kept for stud. He was hoping to get a filly out of her for breeding stock. After checking all of the animals, the men made their way back to the house.
A plethora of wonderful smells greeted the men as they stepped into the kitchen. JD and Vin were at the table, carefully grating cinnamon sticks for the pies as Buck and Chris peeled the sweet potatoes. Ezra, covered in one of Evies aprons, was carefully stirring the batter for a cake. Nathan and Josiah had put the turkey in the oven when they awoke and had been basting it faithfully. Evie turned the bread dough out on the counter and kneaded it one last time before dividing it into balls and arranging them in a baking pan for dinner rolls. Mary had already opened several jars of vegetables and poured them into pans. Smiling at the controlled chaos, Orin made his way to the living room to find the two older boys playing chess near the fireplace. When Josiah finally conceded defeat, Steven asked if he might challenge the winner.
Nathan looked uneasy at the prospect of playing against his guardians son. When Steven slipped into the chair Josiah had only recently left, he swallowed his apprehension and began setting up the pieces on his side of the board.
It took most of an hour for Nathan to make the mistake that caused him to lose the game. Steven offered his hand to congratulate the teen for a good game. He had a new respect for the fact that the boy hadnt been intimidated by him and had played to win.
Its about time I found someone who gives me a run for my money, Steven joked. Ever since Dad taught me to play hes been losing to me.
I let you win, Orin argued.
The table was crowded with the addition of two extra people and all of the food that had been prepared. Orin blessed the table, thanking God for the coming of a grandchild and for the boys who had come to mean so much to him and to Evie. Everyone dug in and the next little while was filled with only the sounds of food being consumed. Even JD, who was never quiet, found little to say as he devoured the contents of his plate. When he had made a significant dent in the food, he belched, loud.
JD! all of the boys exclaimed.
scuse me, he said. May I have some pie?
You havent even finished your meal, Evie said.
But I like pie!
When none of them could possibly swallow another bite, the dishes were cleared and washed. Mary watched as the boys washed the dishes and dried them before putting them away. Even Vin and JD helped, both of them using flour sack towels to dry the plates before handing them to one of the taller boys to put on the shelf.
How did you get them to do the dishes? she asked of Evie.
I dont think Ive touched a dish since they got here. Theyve always been willing to help out. She smiled at the boys as she poured coffee into cups and carried them into the living room. Steven had goaded Orin into a game of chess and she wanted to watch them play.
Finally, at the end of a long and happy day, Steven and Mary said their goodbyes as they bundled up for the drive home. Josiah, Chris and Buck had gone to the barn to hitch up their team while the adults talked. Evie had pressed some of the leftovers into Stevens arms, declaring that it would save Mary having to cook a meal after so long and strenuous a day.
In the quiet hour before bedtime, the boys gathered in the floor around the fireplace to play with their new marbles. Nathan had folded a quilt for Vin so he could lie on the floor on his stomach to shoot. There was a minor disagreement about a shot and Orin held back from offering his opinion. He was relieved to see them work it out. After the game, Nathan and Vin stayed there while the others put their things away so that the teen could help the younger child with his exercises. Evie excused herself from the room because she felt that Nathan was too hard on Vin sometimes and she didnt want to watch. Since he had taken over the exercises though, Vin was having less and less pain in his back and hip. They hoped that he would be able to walk again by the time the winter break was over.
Orin pulled his nightshirt on and slipped between the sheets, rolling immediately toward the warmth of his sleeping wife. As his mind and body relaxed, he thought over the eventful day. Having Stevens acceptance of the boys made him all the more eager to move forward with the adoptions as soon as possible.