A Christmas Tale

by Nadine

I started this story a few years ago when Denver had been hit by a blizzard and never got around to finishing it till now. It's not much in the way of a plot, a lot of small story ideas put together. Many thanks to Mog for creating the ATF Universe. While this story can stand alone (It's part of the Brother's Keeper series), you will understand the references better if you are familiar with some of my other stories in that series.

Snow fell steadily from the sky, as it had been doing so increasingly each day for the last five. Denver lay under a deep blanket of the white substance. As far as the eye could see, nothing but the pristine snow. The city was closed for the Christmas holidays, not by any act of mankind but by nature herself. No one was going anywhere with the roads closed from the steady fall. The city's snowplows were unable to keep up with the frozen deluge. No one was allowed out on the streets, not that any one would want to. The populace was staying in their homes and watching the snow fall.

Ezra Standish sipped from his mug of hot chocolate as he watched the still falling snow from his kitchen widow and smiled. This was going to be his best Christmas ever.

Monday afternoon five days earlier. . ..

The men of Team Seven sat around their break-room's table with lists and newspaper ads fanned out before them, studying them as if their lives depended on the information on them. There was only a few days left before Christmas and some of these men hadn't finished their shopping. For once it wasn't because of procrastination. They just hadn't had the time, having just completed their last case. They had been too busy to go shopping. Now they only had five days to go before December twenty-fifth. All the paperwork on the case was done down to the last report file, with all the 'Ts' crossed and 'Is' dotted. The bad guys would be spending their Christmas in a jail cell this year. This explained why the seven men were able to sit around the table in the break room drinking coffee and eating Christmas' cookies, trying to figure out where to go and what to get for the last few people on their lists.

Chris Larabee, team leader of the Seven leaned back in his chair as he sipped from his mug and snagged another cookie from his paper plate. He had finished his shopping last night with a pair of sapphire and diamond earrings for Mary. They'd go well with the pendant he got her last year. He reached for another cookie and pulled his plate farther away from the man sitting next to him, a well-known sweet tooth addict.

Vin Tanner, the team's sharp shooter had finished his cookies and was trying to think of a way to talk Chris out of his last few. He had only one more gift to get, something for Ms. Nettie. He was torn between a practical pair of boots which she needed or a non-practical sweater, which was pretty. Why not buy both and let Ms Nettie fuss at him for spending too much. He could afford it and Ms. Nettie was worth it. Now how to get Chris's cookies.

Nathan Jackson, the team's tall dark-skinned forensic liaison, was keeping an eye on the rough housing of two members of the team. JD Dunne and Buck Wilmington were wrestling over the last cookie on JD's paper plate. Nathan moved closer to Josiah to keep from getting pulled into their foolishness. He too had only one more gift to buy for his wife, Rain. He just hadn't been able to find that perfect gift for the most important person in his life. Maybe Josiah could suggest something out of the ordinary he could get her this year.

Josiah Sanchez was happily running through his checklist. Thanks to an anonymous donation, all the needs at the shelter where he donated his time were already met. Josiah was a profiler and an excellent judge of character. He had a very good idea where the anonymous donation came from, and he smiled fondly at the young man in question. Thanks to that donation, the shelter was well stocked for the holidays and the winter months ahead. He had gotten his personal shopping done a few days ago.

Ezra Standish checked his list one more time, the team's undercover man found he had covered everyone on his list. Thanking all the deities for online shopping, he had been able to find something for everyone and still managed to keep his cover intact. He had been posing as a hacker, selling new ID's to a group of gunrunners wanting no paper or electronic trail back to their real identity. So, he had been expected to be found on the computer at all times. Shopping on line was an activity that any one looking over his shoulder wouldn't wonder about. This job would have normally gone to the team's own computer expert, JD Dunne. Unfortunately, while he was still a Boston street cop, he had arrested one of the members of the gang. They couldn't take the chance that he'd be recognized. So Ezra had spend the past two weeks undercover as a computer geek on call 24/7. He wasn't in JD's league, but he was a fairly good hacker. He accomplished the task successfully, with JD coaching him from the sidelines. Between them, they kept track of the gunrunner's operation, as well as to who got which IDs.

JD Dunne wrestled with his surrogate big brother. It was all in fun, as either would be willing give up the shirt off their backs for each other. Well maybe not the last cookie, knowing they would have to wait till they got together at Ezra's on the twenty-fourth for any more of the sweet treats. Still, the ruckus they were making might get Chris to let them go early, and JD still had a few more gifts to get before Christmas. He wasn't about to get Casey what Buck suggested, some sexy lingerie from Victoria's Secret. Ok, he might if he could give it to her in private.

Buck Wilmington was in a good mood. It was almost Christmas and he loved this time of year. The fun, the excitement, the parties, the food, the pretty ladies all dressed up in those tight ski outfits, and the running around for last minute presents. In his case, it was a need to get started. He hadn't bought the first one. This year it wasn't his fault, their last case had kept everyone busy. Buck had been a good cop and had become an even better ATF agent. There wasn't a job he couldn't take over if the need arose, and do so skillfully. Next to Chris he had the most experience as a soldier, a cop and a Federal agent. Buck's hold on JD slipped as the kid twisted in his arms in an attempt to get loose from the head lock Buck had him in.

+ + + + + + +

Chris sat watching his extended family, his brothers by choice. He planned to let them all go early knowing there was still shopping for some of them to do, as well as last minute things to get ready for the holiday. He watched his undercover agent going over a list for the umpteenth time as he drank his coffee. Ezra was hosting this year's Christmas get together at his new home. It was a large Victorian that had plenty of room for his six teammates and all their friends. Ezra had bought the Victorian after a felon blew up his townhouse with Ezra in it. The felon was still at large, believed to be out of the country. Ezra had survived the explosion but little of his personal property had.

Ezra looked up and saw Chris smiling at him. "Are you sure you don't want us at the ranch this year, Chris?" asked Ezra.

"Yep, its time someone else's insurance rates get to go sky high." Said Chris as he looked at his fellow ATF agents who sat round the break room table eating cookies and drinking coffee. Six grown men rough housing around had made for some interesting reading for his insurance agent over the years. He was glad to let one of the others take over hosting duties. "Besides they're predicting that the snow is going to keep coming down and I don't want all of us snowed in together out there. The ranch house isn't that big."

"Now Chris, are you saying we can't be in an enclosed space for days on end and not get on each others nerves?" asked Josiah good naturedly. He knew the answer to that question already. He moved his coffee cup out of the way of Buck and JD as they tussled for the last cookie, not realizing until too late, that the team's sniper had grabbed it for himself.

"Hey that was mine!" the pair said in unison when they realized the cookie was gone. JD looked mournfully at the plate and than saw that Ezra hadn't eaten all of his cookies. With his best puppy dog look, the electronics expert asked the Southerner "You going to eat those?"

Without looking up Ezra pushed his plate over to JD. Buck grabbed half before the plate got to JD. "You were going to share weren't you?" asked Buck.

"No, I wasn't." JD glared at his friend.

Nathan had noticed that the Southerner hadn't eaten much, the undercover agent still looked tired and he had lost weight. Ezra always seemed to lose weight when he went undercover. "Ezra, you alright with all of us coming over for Christmas?"

"More than alright Nathan, in fact Ah look forward to it." Knowing what was really troubling the x-medic he added. "Ah promise to get more rest and eat well balanced meals everyday till then, mother."

Nathan threw his napkin at the Southerner. "I mean it Ezra, if you need help with anything we're here for you. We'll all be there before Christmas anyway so just ask, will you?"

"Yes Ah will, but Ah believe that everything is covered." Ezra checked the lists in front of him again. "All the necessary supplies are laid in, so there will be no need for last minute sprints to the store for anything."

Buck and JD suddenly got real interested in their coffee cups at that announcement. They had hosted Thanksgiving dinner a few weeks ago. The meal had been a great success, the only blemish on the affair was a lack of a certain kind of tissue for the most important room in the house. They had run out in the middle of the big football game. There hadn't been any kind of usable paper in the apartment; not even facial tissue. Buck and JD had to make a mad dash to the closest open store during half time. That had been an experience no one wanted to see repeated.

Josiah looked over at Ezra, "You didn't, Ezra, you promised me you wouldn't go back there without me."

It was Ezra's turn to become interested in the contents of his coffee cup not meeting the profiler's gaze. "Ah didn't see the harm, Ah only bought a few things so we wouldn't run out of necessities. And a few generic gifts in case someone unexpected dropped by."

JD and Vin snickered at the Southerner's discomfort. Nathan smiled but controlled his laughter. Chris and Buck didn't even try. They threw back their heads and laughed. Ezra was looking everywhere but at Josiah.

Chris stopped laughing and told them. "It's your own fault Josiah, yours and Nathan for taking him there in the first place."

Josiah kept his glare locked on Ezra. It was Nathan who answered for him.

"Who would of thought that a Sam's Club could become an addiction?"

+ + + + + + +

Ezra Standish had been born with the equivalent of a silver spoon in his mouth. He had never heard of buying in bulk, let alone a place that sold merchandise in such a manner. Not wanting to go through the embarrassment that Buck and JD had at Thanksgiving, Ezra realized he needed to take stock of his supplies. With three bathrooms to keep filled with necessities he realized it was time to buy some items in volume and store them. He had plenty of storage space in his basement. It was dry and the thick stone walls kept it an even temperature year round. The original owners had built storage areas, complete with shelves in the deep cellar. All Ezra needed to do was fill them up. But he had no idea where to go to do so. Ezra turned to Josiah who often bought such items for the shelter where he volunteered.

"Josiah, may I have a few minutes of your time?" asked Ezra the day they returned to work after the holiday.

"Of course son, what can I help you with?" After working so long to get Ezra to trust him and the others it filled Josiah with a kind of paternal pride when Ezra came to him for help. The lost lamb now fully felt that he was part of their little family and could come to them for assistance.

Ezra was a little embarrassed to confess to his ignorance. But he had learned it was safe to do so with Josiah. Josiah always took him seriously and never laughed at his lack of knowledge. Only after solving the problem did the big man occasionally poke genial fun of his dilemmas.

"After the Thanksgiving's adventures, Ah saw the need to stock up on certain essentials. But Ah find maself mystified as to a location to acquire said items in bulk quantity. As you procure comparable articles for the shelter, could you provide me with the location of such a business?"

"Sam's" spoke up Nathan from his desk. He had been listening in on their conversation.

"Sam's?" questioned the Southerner.

"Yeah, Sam's Club. It's a part of the Wal-Mart Corporation. Small businesses buy in bulk there, the Mom and Pop stores, restaurants and the like. The general public is welcome to shop there too, if they buy a membership or goes with someone who has one." Nathan explained.

Ezra knew Wal-Mart was a good investment, and he owned shares of the company's stock. But he had never shopped in one. Being dragged there by one of his teammates didn't count. Sam's Club was an establishment he had never heard of before.

"Is there one near here?"

Nathan and Josiah saw the puzzled look on Ezra's face. They knew Ezra had been well educated in the fancy boarding schools his parents had sent him to growing up. But he had the strangest gaps in his general knowledge.

"Yes, there is one near here; we can go after work. You can be my guest and see what it's like. And if you decide to stock up on supplies, you can fill the back of my truck." Josiah told him. Nathan asked to go along too. He wanted to see how Ezra would react to retail, up close and personal.

It turned out to be an experience neither man would forget for a long time.

+ + + + + + +

Ezra went along with his friends with no great expectations. He had never bought more than his immediate needs before, never needed or wanted to. Now that he had a family of six brothers, a cat and large house to care for, he found himself shopping more often. Because of his job, he wasn't always able to find time to do so without difficulty. He could never sure how long an undercover job might last or what he might need once he made it back home. The idea of always having a stocked lauder and other essentials at home appealed to him. The more he thought about it, the better Ezra liked the idea.

Josiah and Nathan escorted him through the doors and showed him around. The huge warehouse-like building was everything Ezra had hoped it would be. It had everything he had been thinking about stocking up on, and more. He bought his membership, grabbed a six-wheel cart and started to fill it. He worked his way through the aisles gathering basic essentials, enough to last him and his extended family through the holidays and into the New Year. He stopped abruptly in the paper goods aisle as he took in the sight before him. There were pallets of bathroom tissue that were stacked so high they seemed to tower over him. Mesmerized, he started to fulfill a need he didn't know he had. Josiah and Nathan had been following Ezra, watching him shop, making suggestions from time to time for what he might need . When they got to the paper goods aisle they watched in amazement as Ezra started stacking large bundles of toilet tissue on the cart, one after another, till the rising bundles threatened to tumble over. Catching his friends watching him, Ezra endeavored to justify his actions.

"It's the good kind; soft."

Josiah and Nathan looked at each other, was that supposed to make sense? All toilet paper was soft, wasn't it? Josiah and Nathan didn't understand. In awe, they watched him fill his cart to overflowing. This wasn't like the Southerner, he rarely indulged in grandiose spending and never without a reasonable explanation. They followed him back to the front of the store expecting to check out, only to watch Ezra stop an employee with a manager's nametag on his shirt. After a verbal exchange the man smiled and took the cart to the front.

Before Nathan and Josiah could stop him, Ezra grabbed another cart and started to fill that as well. He was still gathering basic supplies, but he seemed to be doing it on a grand scale now. They couldn't get him to leave, he wouldn't listen to reason, and Josiah wasn't about to undermine the trust he had built up with the man by physically forcing him out of the building. Ezra kept adding more things to his cart. Finally, Josiah managed to talk him into paying for what he already had and packing it into their vehicles in order to see what kind of space they had left to work with. While Josiah was doing this Nathan called in reinforcements.

Ezra had already bought enough merchandise to fill Josiah's truck. Even the Jag's small trunk and back seat were full. And he still wanted to buy more, only Chris and Buck blocking his path got his attention as he tried to reenter the store.

"Good evening gentlemen, have you come to stock your pantries as well?"

"No Ezra, we've come to get you and take you home." Chris told him.

"No, no, not just yet, there are a few other items Ah require." Ezra smiled and asked Chris. "Did you drive your Ram? It can hold the rest of what Ah wish to purchase." Ezra started to walk around the human roadblock in front of him. He didn't get far.

Chris and Buck grabbed his arms and escorted him back to Josiah's truck and pushed him in next to Josiah, Nathan got in behind him trapping him between them, but not before Chris fished out the keys to the jag from his pocket. Ignoring Ezra's demands to be allowed to continue his shopping, Chris and Buck watched as they drove away.

"What the heck got into him?" asked Buck. "It's not like Ezra ever went without stuff."

"I wouldn't be sure of that Buck. Something has turned him into a shop-aholic all of a sudden." Chris replied as he unlocked Ezra's jag. "We won't get any answers here, I'm heading out to Ezra's, you get to bring the Ram."

"Ok," Buck suddenly realized that Chris was getting into the sleek sports car. "Hey, how come ya get to drive the jag?" demanded Buck.

"Because I thought of it first." chuckled Chris, as he slid behind the wheel and started the Jaguar up.

+ + + + + + +

Chris parked behind Josiah's truck where it sat behind the old house. He got out and helped unload the vehicles. Buck pulled up a few minutes later and lent a hand as well. Soon, they had the provisions inside and stored in the basement. Once done, they sat around the big kitchen table while Ezra made coffee. Josiah went to the freezer and got out a container of chili and heated it up in the microwave.

Nathan had found Chris and Buck still at the office. They had stayed late going over information with the leader of Team Five who would be involved in their next operation. Neither man had eaten before answering Nathan's call. Before long they were having a late supper of chili and crackers as they waited for their brother to explain what had gotten into him. Finally Nathan asked.

"Well Ezra aren't you going to say anything?"

The four men waited patiently, knowing better than to push this brother or he'd get mulish. Experience had taught them to let Ezra explain in his own time. Usually, after the guilt for worrying them set in.

"Do Ah have to?" he asked hopefully. Having brothers was something Ezra was still getting used to. The concern they showed for his well being was comforting. But it also meant explaining his actions if he did anything out of the ordinary. They would worry about him, were worrying about him, would worry for him, worry, worry. . ...aw hell, better to get it over with.

"It was the bathroom tissue." Said Ezra looking down at the table not wanting to make eye contact with the others.

No one said a word as they waited for him to go on.

"It was all those stacks of tissue. Ah could take them home and never be without again." It was a half truth, would they go for it? Ezra sneaked a peek at Josiah, and realized it wasn't going to work. The man just sat there looking at him. Damn, why did he ever let these men learn to read him so well? The truth was embarrassing. Damn, Damn, Damn. . ...

"As you know Ah went to boarding schools for most ma education. They were excellent schools for learning. No expense was spared for the teaching side of the business. However, the students' comfort was not taken into consideration or wasted money on. Ah was thirteen before I learned bathroom tissue could be soft and one didn't need to watch out for splinters when using it." Ezra's discourse stopped while Buck was thumped on the back to stop his choking.

"Sorry Ez, please go on." Buck told him once he got his breath back. Buck had suddenly got a mental picture of a young Ezra taking a pair of tweezers and a mirror to the bathroom at the same time he was swallowing a spoon full of chili.

"Ma great Aunt Hildegard came into ma life that year. Ah went to live with her and her husband Jonathan till Ah turned seventeen. That's when Mother and the trustees of ma trust fund insisted that Ah go to a prep school before college, it was also a boarding school of course. Ma Aunt sent me care packages while Ah was there. One of the items she sent was soft tissue." A smiled graced his face as Ezra spoke of his Aunt. "I had to keep it locked up as it was in excessive demand." Ezra now looked embarrassed, "When Ah saw those bundles, Ah must have flashed back to all those years of coarse tissue, forgetting Ah didn't need to horde it any more. Ah apologize for ma behavior this evening gentlemen." Ezra got up, walking over to the dishwasher and placing his dishes inside.

He didn't see the looks pass between his brothers as they realized that their childhoods had been a lot happier than their little brother's. Money hadn't bought Ezra a happy or a secured childhood. But that was the past this was now. Josiah spoke up.

"Ezra do you think it might happen again? A need to buy that much at one time?"

"Ah don't think so. Ah'd never been to an establishment like that previous to this experience. It may have been the uniqueness that triggered the reaction."

"Lets not take chances, promise me that you won't go back there by yourself. It will make me feel better."

"All right Josiah, Ah promise not to go back there by maself. Happy now?" asked an embarrassed Ezra wanting to move past all this. But knew the teasing had yet to get started.

"Well I know where I'm going if there's a disaster." Buck announce, "Ezra's got everything from bottled water to soda pop down in the basement. As well as food stuff and cleaning supplies. And Ez, think you got enough firewood in that side room. Ya got enough for the next two winters."

"You are not mistaken Buck, that was once the storage room for the coal that was burned in the old furnace. I had it completely fill with wood. Ah didn't want to have to go all the way out to the stable for more firewood and Ah am partial to the warmth of a good fire. Speaking of which, ma next door neighbor Mrs. Cooper has warned me that we are on the bottom of the list for getting the electricity back on line. So Ah also had a gasoline generator installed for when the electricity goes out. It's exhaust will go out through the old coal furnace flue. The manufacturer and the installer both insured me that chimney system could handle the exhaust for the machine

"Looks like you covered all the what ifs that could come up." Chris said and chuckled at the face Ezra made when he added. "We'll make a boy scout out of you yet."

The four men decided to let Ezra off the hook tonight and tease him later. For tomorrow was another day.

+ + + + + + +

Seven men sat around the break-room table discussing getting ready for Christmas.

Josiah looked at the young man he thought of almost like a son with disappointment. "Ezra you promised me." They had gone back to Sam's a few times and Josiah got the impression that Ezra was itching to buy more of the soft bathroom tissue. Only Josiah's presence and the fact the Jag's trunk was too small to carry many of the huge bundles of paper kept Ezra from buying out the store.

"Josiah I promised Ah wouldn't go alone and Ah didn't. Vin went with me." Ezra looked over to the sharpshooter for help.

Vin smiled and came to his friend's defense "Yep we got a few more strings of lights and decorations. That tree Ezra bought is kinda big."

Josiah was a big man in more than one way, he didn't hesitate to admit he was wrong " Ezra I apologize for jumping to the wrong conclusion. Or for thinking you broke a promise to me. I'm just worried about this little difficulty of yours. I should have known better than to think you wouldn't be able to deal with it."

Chris, who had been keeping an eye on the clock, got up and threw his trash away. "If we're done here, I'm letting you off early. Go finish your shopping. I don't want to listen to anyone belly aching that they hadn't got it done on the twenty-fourth. Buck, Nathan, JD that also means having your tuxes ready for Thursday night. Travis and Ms. Evie will be expecting our ladies and us at the charity supper early. We'll all meet at Ezra's by five-thirty. If it's still snowing we'll need to double up in the four-wheel drive vehicles."

The men tossed their trash and filed out the door happy to get off early. Chris stopped Ezra before he left.

"Thanks for sitting Billy Thursday night Ezra. There aren't many people Mary feels safe leaving her son with. Even less Billy likes to watch him."

"Young Master Billy is always welcome. He has better manners than most grownups Ah know." Ezra told him. "We will have Ms. Nettie with us as well as Vin and Ah believe Josiah will be stopping by for supper after checking on the shelter."

"Sounds like you're going to have a party yourself. I knew Vin was going to help you and Billy decorate the tree, but how did Ms. Nettie get invited?"

"She has a meeting that afternoon with her civic group. Neither Vin nor Casey wanted her driving by herself in this weather we have been having. So Ah invited her for supper, JD and Casey can drive back with her after the charity event."

+ + + + + + +

Thursday rolled around with the sky still weeping big wet snowflakes. They covered the already white ground even more deeply. The day passed quietly, when what work needed to get done was taken care of. Chris let them all go home early, as there was nothing left to do. With his extra time, Ezra wrapped his gifts and played fetch with his young cat, Col. John Singleton Mosby, better known by the moniker 'Gray Ghost' (lately it had been shortened to Ghost). The feline helped with the wrapping. He was in turn affectionate and playful, getting in the middle of whatever Ezra tried to do that afternoon. Ghost followed Ezra around the house not letting his person out of his sight, demanding Ezra's full attention when he could get away with it. Playing fetch was a game he had been taught before leaving his mother to live next door with Ezra. Ghost's mother Molly owned Mrs. Cooper and family.

Periodically, one of the other six would stop by and drop off presents so not to be bothered hauling them over on Christmas eve. It was also a great way to keep them out of sight of the one getting them, though Ezra did have to give his word that he wouldn't go up into the tower room till after Christmas. With everyone coming over Christmas day it made sense for them to leave the gifts they'd be exchanging there.

As the hour got later, Ezra checked on the roast he had cooking for supper. He was cooking a sizeable portion of beef so there would be enough for tonight as well as for a quick meal for his brothers who would be dropping in tomorrow after work. They would be dropping off more presents or spending Christmas Eve with him. Then the first of his expected guests showed up by his back door. Ms. Nettie was standing on the porch stomping the snow off her boots. Vin had let her off at the steps, then drove his jeep into the stable now transformed into a garage where Ezra kept his Jag.

Ezra opened the back door and ushered the older lady inside. "Ms. Nettie please come in and thaw out. You must be frozen after traveling in that ancient contraption." He told her as he took her wet coat and hung it up on a garment rack he put up in back of the kitchen for that purpose.

"Not quite, but I wouldn't say no to coffee if you've got it already made."

"By all means dear lady. Ah also have hot chocolate on the ready if you prefer."

"Well 'tis the season. . ." smiled Ms. Nettie as she settled into a chair.

Ezra brought her a mug of hot chocolate with miniature marshmallows floating on top, and had another readily to hand to Vin as he entered the kitchen. Vin took the mug and warmed his hands on the out side of the hot container before taking a sip.

"Thanks Ez, its cold out there." Vin said between sips. "No sight it's going to stop any time soon either, wind blowing to hard. Thanks for letting me put the jeep in the stable with the jag. Don't rightly think the top would hold up under the weight of a couple of feet of snow on it." Vin made himself comfortable after hanging up his coat. He liked Ezra's kitchen, it was big but cozy, plenty of places to sit down and relax. Besides it smelled good. If Ezra wasn't making something then Josiah was. Ezra had given Vin and Josiah the run of the place when he first bought the grand old lady. Next to Chris' ranch Vin liked it here best.

Ezra placed a chip and dip plate on the table. It had several types of cheeses and crackers along with a side of veggies and a dip, something to snack on till supper. The others would be showing up soon with their dates. Chris and Mary where dropping off Billy for the evening. It wouldn't hurt to have a few munchies out for them to eat as they waited for everyone to show up. Ms. Nettie asked Ezra a question as she helped herself to a snack.

"I know why Vin and Josiah aren't going tonight but how come you aren't going to this shindig?"

"Too many cameras and the press." Ezra told her. "Ah didn't want to find ma name and face on the social page tomorrow. In the future Ah may have to investigate someone who was at this function and do not wish to be remembered as part of Travis's ATF team."

Just then the back door opened and Buck and Inez walked in along with JD and Casey. They too had needed to shake a layer of snow off their coats before coming in.

"Buck, please stop apologizing for driving your truck. I feel much safer in it than I would have in a vehicle without four wheel drive." Inez told the tall dark haired man who took her wet coat and hung it up on the garment rack. Inez took a seat next to Ms. Nettie and wished the older lady a good evening adding. "The weather isn't cooperating this evening, I hope it doesn't get any worse."

The new group settled around the table, each taking something from the chip and dip plate on the table as they talked. Ezra and Vin handed out cups of hot chocolate to warm them up.

Ms. Nettie patted Inez hand and asked. "Inez, you finally took pity on this rascal and agreed to a date?"

"It's for charity," Inez answered, "And Buck can be quite charming when he isn't trying so hard. Besides he promised to be a gentleman tonight."

Buck just looked at his lovely lady and smiled, then turned to Vin and JD as they snickered behind their mugs. "I can be as genteel as the next guy. I even know which fork to use with which course."

Ms. Nettie got up to get herself more hot chocolate, gesturing Vin and Ezra to stay put as they tried to get up and do it for her, patting Buck's shoulder as she passed his chair. "Of course you are Buck, you are the soul of gentility." Refilling her mug she added. "If you acted that way more often they wouldn't be so shocked when you do."

Before Buck could think up an answer to that the back door opened again and Rain and Nathan walked in with Mary, Chris and Billy behind them. Chris had Billy in his arms in an attempt to keep the boy out of the snow. Mary brought up the end of the procession with Billy's backpack in hand. It held his pj's as well as a change of clothes. They wouldn't be getting back till late and if Billy was in his pj's he wouldn't have to be awakened to change when they got him to his own bed. The change of clothes was for just in case. As little boys (like certain big boys) had a tendency to get dirty easily. Mary had learned to be prepared.

As the others got back into their coats Vin took Chris aside. " The weather don't look good. Maybe you all should stay in tonight."

"Can't, Evie is counting on us to be there." Chris told him. "She and the girls put a lot of work into this supper. Don't want to disappoint them. The weather service said the next front wouldn't arrive till tomorrow morning."

"I hope he's right for once." said Vin but didn't think he would be. It felt like more snow was on the way tonight. "Why don't ya all pile into the Ram and Buck's truck. They got the best chance of getting to the country club and back."

"We'll do that."

+ + + + + + +

The drive to the country club was slow going, with people out doing last minute shopping. But they had given themselves plenty of time to get there. The ladies went off to find Miss Evie, as the men took care of their wraps. Everything was progressing well as they made their way to the dining room. Midway through the first course an announcement was made.

"Ladies and gentleman, The weather service has up dated their last report on the cold front, it's heading our way faster than expected. It will be here in a matter of hours. You'll need to leave immediately to beat the snow storm home."

The sound of chairs being moved back filled the room as people got up to leave. Chris and Mary went to find Orin and Evie. They found them talking to a couple of old friends who lived near by. They offered the DA and his wife a place to spend the night. After making sure that Orin and Evie would be all right, Chris and Mary joined the others in the vehicles.

The drive back to the Victorian was difficult and nerve-racking. Strong winds picked up the snow and blinded them on more than one occasion rocking the vehicles. The wipers tried to keep the windshield clear of the ever-increasing snow, but they were losing the battle. Chris held on to the steering wheel with a death grip as he navigated through the escalating storm. Years of Denver driving gave Chris and Buck the skills to make it back to Rebel Lane. As they turned into the cul-de-sac they saw that the Victorian had all its lights shining to help lead them home.

Chris and Buck pulled up behind the house next to Josiah's old truck. Quickly as possible, every one rushed to get indoors. Still they were covered in snow before they made it inside. Ezra and Josiah were waiting with towels and blankets in hand. Wet coats were shed and warm blankets were draped over shoulders. Ms. Nettie handed out hot cups of coffee or hot chocolate, as was their pleasure. No one was going any farther tonight.

"Orin called to let us know you were coming." Nettie told them as they sat around the kitchen table. She handed Mary the phone. "Evie asked that you call when you got here."

Buck came back from helping Vin hang the coats up to dry. "Hey Ez, you got anything to eat around here. We didn't get to eat that dinner at the club." Buck had been heading toward the refrigerator. He stopped as Ezra replied.

"Unfortunately there's zilch to consume in the entirety of this domicile." Buck came to a stand still as he processed what Ezra said. JD's face fell in disappointment as his hopes of eating tonight vanished too. That look and Buck's puzzled expression was more than Vin and Ezra could take as they started laughing. The rest joined in.

"Now wait a cotton picking minute here. I helped carry in the supplies you put in the basement and I also know that you and Chris went in together and bought a steer to split between your freezers. How can you not have something to feed us? " Asked Buck.

"Buck, some detective you are, haven't you smelled what's been cooking since we walked in?" Asked Chris.

Buck threw back his head and sniffed like an old hound dog then smiled. "Ooooh that smells good. How soon do we eat?"

"As soon as we can get the table set." Ms Nettie told him. "So stop your complaining and help."

The group rose and started to help with setting the table and getting the food served. Dr. Rain Jackson paused by the kitchen window and looked out. Thinking of her job at the hospital she asked.

"Do you think it will stop by tomorrow?"

Josiah who had been monitoring the weather channel said "Can't say for sure, the front's a big one and if it stalls over Denver we'll be in for a long cold storm."

+ + + + + + +

Ms Nettie woke early as was her habit after a lifetime of rising before the sun to start her day. At Ezra's insistence, she, Casey and Inez had shared the master bedroom with its king size feather bed. She paused at the window to look out. The wind had died down but it was still snowing. Not as hard as it had been the night before but it was still coming down, they wouldn't be going home today. Making her way down stairs she found Ezra and Josiah in the kitchen setting out breakfast fixings.

"Well what do you two think you are doing?" Ms. Nettie asked them.

"Getting ready to start breakfast." Ezra told her not understanding her question.

"There are five women in this house and none of us need to be waited on. The least we can do to repay your hospitality is fix a few meals. It will give us something to do and make us feel useful." Ms. Nettie told them.

Ezra started to object to Ms Nettie doing anything. He was about to tell her, as a guest, she didn't have to lift a finger while she was here. But before he could, Josiah gently stepped on his foot. Josiah realized that a woman of Ms Nettie's character didn't like to be waited on. Nor would she accept the notion of sitting around while others worked. Ezra got the message and changed what he was about to say to:

"Yes ma'am, will you let us help you get started till the other ladies come down? Ah for one would enjoy eating one of your excellent meals."

Ms Nettie agreed. "As long as we do it together."

One by one the others followed their noses downstairs to the kitchen. Coffee was hot and so were the pancakes. Bacon was crisp as were the hash browns. There were biscuits and gravy, toast and jams, eggs cooked every way there was to fix the golden yokes. Everyone was stuffed by the time the last fork was set down. Only Vin was still buttering a biscuit and looking for more peach jam to add on top.

"Vin you can't still be hungry." Buck told the sharp shooter.

"Its too good to let go to waste." Vin said in his defense as he sank his teeth into the flaky bread.

Ezra sat down his cup and looked around his table. The evening attire of the night before was gone, replaced by clothes borrowed from their dates. Spare clothing was kept at the Victorian in case of misadventures. Not the usual dress for these lovely ladies. Ezra thought he might have a solution to that difficulty.

"Ladies there is a dilemma that you could assist me with today if you will." Ezra's announcement had their attention as well as his teammates. "In the attic of this great lady are receptacles of clothing in which are the belonging of several generations of O'Brian's. Ah have not had the opportunity to go through these containers and Ah confess a reluctance to go through the belongings of Miss Eleanor or her sister. Somehow it doesn't seem proper for a gentleman to go through a lady's personal belongings. Be that as it may, there should be something more to your liking and more comfortable than what you're wearing now."

The ladies smiled, if anything Ezra Standish was a gentleman, a Southern gentleman at that. They understood and approved of his sensibilities.

Mary spoke for them. "We'd be happy to go through those things for you Ezra. We might even come up with something for the rest of your guests to wear as it appears we'll be here for a while." indicating the rest of Team Seven sitting at the table.

The radio that had been playing Christmas carols softly in the background chose that time for a weather report. All of them turned to look out the kitchen's windows and watch the wind blow the snow around. It still showed no signs of stopping. They listened to the DJ's report.

"The cold front has stalled over the Denver area. Police are telling everyone to stay at home. Only emergency personnel are allowed out, anyone else will be arrested." The DJ came back on and started to joke. The radio station's crew were also snowed in and couldn't leave the building . "Look at it this way folks if you haven't already got it you don't need it. And on the brighter side of things we've got a white Christmas." With that the Irving Berlin classic started playing.

Chris looked down as he felt a tug at his shirt. Billy sat between him and Mary on a stack of books. He still believed in Santa, but was at the age where he was beginning to question the legend. Chris bent toward the boy to give him his full attention.

"Chris, how will we get home before Christmas? It's Christmas Eve."

"I don't know Billy it's snowing pretty hard. If we don't, we'll all have Christmas here with Ezra, you were planning on coming over for dinner that day remember."

"Yeah, but will Santa be able to find me here?"

"Even if he doesn't, I'm sure he'll leave your presents under your tree at home. It will be like having two Christmases."

+ + + + + + +

While the kitchen was being cleaned up, Vin and Ezra went up stairs to the attic. On their return the kitchen sparkled under Ms. Nettie's supervision.

"Ladies, Vin and Ah have put heaters in the attic to warm up the space for your use. There are several generations of clothing up there. Hopefully you'll be able to find something for your use today and change into tomorrow."

"What will you boys be doing while we're upstairs?" Asked Mary wondering if she needed to take Billy up stairs with her. Chris answered her question.

"Thought we could put up Ezra's tree for him, as he didn't get the chance to last night."

Ezra added, "There's also a train set to assemble and Ah was hoping Billy would be allowed to assist in both endeavors."

Billy was afraid to breathe as he watched his mother make up her mind. He really wanted to stay down stairs with the guys, especially Chris.

Mary smiled at the other males in the room waiting for her answer. Billy wasn't the only little boy in the room. "Billy you mind Chris and Ezra, do what they tell you to."

"Yes ma'am." Answered Billy as he hurried out of the kitchen before she could change her mind.

While the ladies made their way to the attic, Ezra took the time to check on his neighbors.

+ + + + + + +

In the living room six of the seven, one small boy and a curious cat were examining the contents of an oversized shipping container. Nathan was studying the instruction sheet.

"How big is this. . .. this tree?" Asked Buck holding out one limb that was a good three feet long.

"Ez bought the biggest one they had listed." JD told him. "Found the train set on E-Bay, got extra tracks for it too."

"That explains the other box." said Josiah indicating another large box in the corner of the room. He was holding the tree stand and the base for the tree with the first section of the trunk, having just finished putting it together. Nathan looked over at Buck.

"The instruction says it's a noble pine that can be made into three sizes, four feet, eight feet or twelve feet. It's going to take up a lot of space."

"How about over in front of the windows?" suggested JD. "We can move the couch back and use all twelve feet of it."

It didn't take long to rearrange the furniture, leaving a clear space by the entertainment center in front of the tall windows. The tree was half way assembled when Ezra returned.

"Gentlemen, if Ah could have your attention." Said Ezra as he came into the living-room. "Ah've just been apprised on the condition of ma neighbors Mrs. Cooper and Mrs. Randolph both of whom are by themselves while their husbands are out of town. Mrs. Cooper has lived through many a Denver winter and is prepared for being snowed in, she and her children are safe and sound. Ah fear that Mrs. Randolph in her delicate condition and with two young boys, may be in the need of assistance. While she has declared that they are doing fine on their own, Ah'm uncomfortable with leaving her and the boys alone over there. Though Ah may be over reacting because of the snow, this southern boy's not used to this much white stuff."

What he didn't say and didn't need to remind them of, was that this was the wife of a fellow ATF agent. Bill Randolph was the leader of Team 6 and a good friend to all of them. She was also five months pregnant and had just moved into their house a few months before. The Randolphs had purchased their home for back taxes the same way Ezra had bought his Victorian. Both teams had been helping the family to restore the old residence but there still was a ways to go. The house had not been in as good of shape as Ezra's when bought but was more than livable when the Randolphs had moved in. Bill was out of town on a job but had hoped to get back before Christmas to be with his family. With the airport snowed in there was little chance of that now.

"Ah have invited Mrs. Randolph and the boys to spent Christmas here with us, explaining there was ample room and playmates for the boys over here. As well there are Nathan and his lovely wife Rain in case there was any medical need that may come up. The seven of us would find a way to get her and the boys over safely through the snow. She said she'd think about it" Ezra smile and raised an eyebrow when he added. "Ah also reminded her that her husband asked Mr. Larabee to check on their welfare while he was gone. But he wouldn't be able to tell him that she and the boys were safe unless she was where Mr. Larabee could keep an eye on them."

Ezra handed Chris the phone. "Ah know Mr. Randolph gave you his cell phone number, you wouldn't want to make a liar out of me."

Chris smiled, "Good thinking Ezra, I'll call Bill and ask him the best way to talk Theresa in to coming over."

"Don't need to do that cowboy, at least not till after Theresa and the boys are over here." Vin got off the floor where he and Billy had been sorting tree branches of same size into piles. "Have Mary call over and talk to her. Mary's good at getting people to do what she wants them to do." Vin smiled after saying that, catching Chris' eye. Chris didn't like to go dancing but Mary did. Whenever Chris had to break a date with his lady they always ended up somewhere they could dance the next time they went out. It was something the others teased him about, though Vin knew for a fact that Chris didn't mind as much as he let on.

Chris took the phone and headed for the stairs, but stopped just outside the living-room doors when he overheard what Vin said to JD.

"I've got my climbing stuff stored up in the tower. There ought to be enough rope to run a line between Ez's fence and the Randolph's front porch just in case the snow storm picks up again. More than enough, come on you can help me carry it down."

"Ezra allows you to store stuff here?" Asked Buck.

"Only the stuff I don't want Chris to know about." Answered Vin with a grin. He knew Chris was listening in. Chris did an about face and walked back into the room.

"What else have you got hidden up there?" demanded Chris.

"Now cowboy, there's ladies and a child in the house." Vin told him with a smirk, "Iffen I told you, you'd be using language that would get ya coal in your stocking for sure." Vin grabbed JD and they high tailed it to the tower that graced one side of the old Vic. When Ezra had given Vin the run of his new home Vin had claimed the room at the top of the tall tower as his own, whenever he stayed over. It was tall enough for him to see over the roof tops of all the surrounding houses giving him a sense of freedom his small apartment in Purgatorio didn't.

Chris raised his hand as if to stop the pair but stopped himself from going after them. That longhaired Texan was just trying to get his goat and he wasn't about to let him. He turned around and headed once more for the staircase without another word. The sounds of laughter followed him and he smiled as he climbed the stairs. This was his family, they weren't traditional but they were his.

+ + + + + + +

Upstairs the attic was warm and cozy, the snow-glazed windows let in light, but not a lot. The ladies were thankful for the modular lighting system JD had installed. At Ezra's request, JD had looked at the plans the electrician he had hired had drawn up for replacing the outdated and dangerous old wiring in the house. After looking them over JD had threatened to arrest the man. JD had worked as an electrician's apprentice in college to help pay the bills and gained his electrician's license along with his degrees. What the electrician wanted to use to replace the old wiring wasn't worth what he was asking nor was it strong enough to carry the load for a house this size. JD took over the job himself, with the others as his helpers. Ezra's one stipulation had been that JD had to take the money he was going to pay the electrician to do the same job.

When Ezra first moved into the Vic, the attic had been given a superficial cleaning that had removed most of the dust and spider webs. While not as neat and tidy as the downstairs, the loft wasn't dirty and the ladies weren't unhappy with what they found. Each generation of the O'Brien family had an area in the attic with stacks of containers all neatly labeled with names on them for each family member. Old furniture covered with sheets gave the room a spooky feeling till Ms Nettie started pulling them off and folding them, revealing chairs, chevals, mirrors, trunks, chests, armoires, dressers and the like. Each woman pulled up a chair, after selecting a stack of boxes and trunks to examine.

Mary and Ms. Nettie sat down beside the last stack near the stairs. The trunks had belonged to the O'Brien's sisters and their families. Everything was neatly organized and labeled; there was even a trunk with Ms. Eleanor's name on it, the last descendant of the original owners. On top sat a cardboard box with loose clothing and personal possessions, the only unorganized box up there.

Mary picked up the box and looked inside. "Chris said that her personal stuff was still in the room she was using when she died. The boys boxed it up and put it up here with the rest of her belongings."

"She must have packed everything else up and brought it up after Harriet died." Ms Nettie mused.

Mary looked at the older woman and asked. "You didn't know them did you?"

"No, I'm not that old. . . the O'Brien sisters were the generation before mine. I did grow up reading about them. They were an old Denver family and high society, when they got arrested it made the papers."

"What did they get arrested for?" asked Casey, she was holding up a man's dress shirt that should fit JD or herself for that matter. The trunk held men's shirts in different sizes. There was another trunk beside that one with men's pants, jeans, dress and casual slacks.

"Civil disobedience, they were protesting the war before it was fashionable." Ms. Nettie told her niece.

"Which one?" her niece, asked. The talking around the young woman stopped. Casey looked up from the trunk she was going through when the talking stopped, the other women were looking at her. "Well we've been through a lot of them." She defended herself.

Mary looked thoughtful, "There might be a story in Casey's statement. What today's young adults know or think of the wars fought in the last fifty years. Before wars got so mechanized, like, like video games. ."

"Look through Harriet's and Eleanor's things. You might find something to use as a center point to your story. I think Eleanor and Harriet would like that. They both lost children in the Vietnam war."

Mary put down the box after she had gone through it and opened another one of the trunks. This one belonged to one of the sisters. It was full of a woman's personal items: jewelry boxes, pictures, scrapbooks full of news clippings. Leaving the rest for the moment, she looked through the clippings. They were about the war and the sisters' part in the protest of that war. Along with each clipping were papers on their arrests and on their court appearances. Mary smiled. The ladies hadn't been shy about stating their minds and their society standing made them good copy. The next box had letters and books, she'd wait till she talked to Ezra and get his permission before going through them. As she started to close the lid an old fashioned diary fell from the lid where it had been hidden in the fabric there. Mary opened the tome and looked inside. "I think someone agrees with you Nettie, this is Ms. Eleanor's diary of that time. I'm going to ask Ezra if he would mind me reading it and the letters in here."

"Oh my," Inez explained and the others turned to look at her as she held up a deep red velvet skirt. "This Armoire has party clothes in it." On the inside door of the wardrobe was a list with who wore what, to which party and the year. The cedar lining of the Armoire had kept the clothing free of insects and dust. Padded hangers had helped the decorated fashion ware keep their shapes.

Ms Nettie smiled at the younger women as they examined the fancy blouses, skirts, and dresses, helping each other as they tried some of them on. They even got her into some holiday clothes. They all looked beautiful in the fancy dress. Hopefully the O'Briens kept the men's party clothes as well, there were several Armoires up here. The girls had already found everyday wear for themselves and the men. The O'Briens had been sensible people and hadn't packed anything away dirty. Everything the ladies had found was clean and almost ready to wear, after a good airing. But then Nettie reminded herself, the first O'Brien had been dirt poor before hitting a silver strike and his descendents had lived through the Great Depression with most of the family wealth intact. They hadn't been people to discard things just because they couldn't use them, someone might need the items later on. Of course it was hard to let go of anything belonging to family, especially if it was all you had left of them.

Ms. Nettie open another large trunk, well she thought to herself, if we have to go out we'll be warm. There were snow parkas and sub zero pants. There were also heavy woolen underwear, scratchy but warm. There was a sound on the stairs. Now who was coming up?

Chris tried to make some noise as he started up the last flight of stairs to the attic. He didn't want to see anything he shouldn't if the ladies were trying on clothes.

"Is everyone dressed up there? He called out and waited before letting his head clear the floor. He would wait for an answer before going any further.

Mary laughed as she looked over the rail down at her personal hero. The blond man looked back up at her with a grin, he was waiting for an all clear before coming up. Chris Larabee was a good man, even if they did butt heads occasionally, she was glad he was in her life.

"It's safe, come on up." She told him.

Chris smiled back, it was good to see Mary so relaxed. Her job at a local television station had her often in what Chris thought of as disgusting locations, unsafe situations, talking to dangerous people all in the name of getting the story. If she hadn't already been snowed in he was sure she would have been out in the middle of the blizzard with her crew showing her audience why they should stay safe at home. Part of Mary's job was coming up with projects for the news teams to do stories on as well. It often left her tired and worn out. It was good to see her enjoying herself with friends.

Chris went the rest of the way up and whistled. The smell of cedar was strong but that wasn't what he'd whistled at. The ladies were decked out in holiday clothes, they all looked as if they had walked out of a Christmas special, even Ms. Nettie. "You all look beautiful and you each belong on a Christmas card."

"Why thank you kind sir." Mary told him with a cheeky smile and dropped a curtsy in grand style. Mary was in a good humor, she felt like a Victorian lady in the long full skirt "We've found more than enough clothes for each of us to have something to wear and a change of clothes too. Even our men folk don't have to go around in dirty garments."

Ms. Nettie added. "Some of it needs to be aired out but it's clean and most of it can go into the dryer to fluff out. Found heavy coats and pants if anyone needs to go outside." Ms Nettie got up from where she been sitting. "There is even fancy dress for the men, to go with the party clothes the girls found. Christmas dinner will be a swanky affair."

Chris frowned, he didn't like the sound of that. His eyebrows came together as he tried to come up with a reason why he and the boys didn't need to dress up for Christmas dinner. Ms Nettie beat him to it.

"The ladies would be disappointed if they didn't have dates as well dressed as themselves. You wouldn't want that would you?"

"Chris there are some wonderful period pieces here. Besides the formal suits aren't that much different from what you wear now." Mary told him.

Chris had one last argument, one condition. "You got a lot of different sizes to fit and if we all don't dress up then none of us can dress up. It wouldn't be fair." Chris grinned. He had them, the O'Briens hadn't been big men. There couldn't be anything here to fit Josiah or Buck.

Ms. Nettie smiled. She knew what Chris was up to but he hadn't been through the attic. "Son-in-laws Chris, and each generation was taller than the last. We can fit Josiah and JD without problems."

Chris knew when he had lost and he tried accepting it gracefully. "Yes madam but you get to talk Vin into a suit." If anyone could get Vin Tanner into a suit when someone wasn't getting married or buried, it would be Ms. Nettie.

The younger members of the group had listened in on the conversation with no doubt in their minds that Chris would end up doing what Mary and Ms. Nettie wanted him to do. He wouldn't hurt Ms. Nettie's feelings for the world and he was in love with Mary even if he wouldn't admit it to himself or to Mary for that matter. It was only a matter of time before the widow and widower got over their fears and settled down.

Rain had caught sight of something moving from the corner of her eye. Looking around she spotted a draped cabinet near the back of the attic behind some wooden boxes. The drape had slipped off and the movement had caught her attention. She made her way over to it. There was a child's table and matching chairs next to it. Moving the boxes aside she pulled the sheet the rest of the way off the cabinet, freeing the doors and opened then. What she saw had her calling to her friend.


Mary turned her attention from her conversation with Chris to the younger woman. "What is it Rain?"

"Come look at this."

Mary and Chris went to join her as she pulled the cabinet doors further apart. The storage cabinet was full of toys. Some of them must have dated back to the nineteenth century. There were newer better known ones as well, like Monopoly, Sorry and Risk. On the top shelf there was a zoo of wooden animals looking down at them, a cast iron toy bank beside them and lonely looking baby dolls. In contrast on the next shelf was a stack of hot wheels still in their original packaging, a Barbie doll in a bright pink box and other unopened boxes. Some of the toys had never been played with while others had obviously been well loved. All of them had been packed away for years waiting for someone to come and get them. The O'Brien sisters must have collected them to give away at Christmas, storing them in their family's toy cabinet along with the toys belonging to past generations.

"Oh Rain this will. . ." Mary turned to Chris. "Do you think Ezra would . . .for Billy?" Mary almost pleaded, she had been concerned about not having anything for Billy on Christmas morning. Even if it quit snowing there was no way they could get home through the snow clogged streets. Her baby was growing up so fast and this would be another reason for Billy not to believe in Santa.

"Mary, there isn't anything Ezra wouldn't do for Billy. He would have suggested it himself if he'd known these were up here." Chris picked up one of the hot-wheels, than eyed the cast iron bank tapping it with the package in his hand. "Bet Billy would enjoy playing with that too, if it works." The bank was of a dog and boy, put a coin in the dog's mouth and the dog shot it through a hoop the boy was holding depositing the coin in the bank. If it didn't work maybe he and Buck could figure it out and fix it, a simple weight and spring mechanism if Chris remembered right.

Mary was hugging Rain in thanks, when JD popped up the stairs. "Hey Chris, Vin wants to know if we should go ahead and run the ropes between the houses yet?"

"What's that boy up too?" demanded Ms. Nettie of JD.

"We're going to run a rope from Ezra's gate to the Randolph's front porch." He told her as he looked over at Chris.

Chris sighed, he hadn't gotten around to talking to Mary yet. Just then the lights flickered and went out leaving the large attic in shadows. The only light came in from the windows.

JD called out. "Don't move, I'll get some flashlights." He disappeared only to return a few minutes later with hand held illuminations, which he handed out to the group. It was Ms. Nettie who took charge-giving orders like a drill sergeant.

"Ladies gather up the clothes next to you, we can come back up later; or we'll send the boys back up for the rest." Turning to Chris and JD she told them. "Pick up that pile of heavy coats and pants, if Vin's got plans to go out he and the rest of you better be dressed for it."

Heavily loaded, the group made it's way carefully downstairs to the kitchen where they laid their bundles down on the kitchen table, to be met there by Ezra. Thankfully the lighting was much better downstairs, thanks to larger windows. Somewhere Ezra had come up with more garment racks to hang some of the clothes on.

"Alright, now could someone explain to me why Vin and JD want to run a rope over to Bill's and Theresa's?" asked Ms. Nettie, who hadn't forgotten her question. But it was Mary who answered her by asking a question of her own.

"Bill hasn't made it back and Theresa and the boys are alone over there."

"Yes," Ezra told her. "Ah called a while ago to inquire on her and the boys well being. She seemed averse to discuss how they were doing. Ah invited her and the boys to spent Christmas here, but she seemed reluctant to come."

Chris handed Mary the phone. "Thought you might talk her into it." he asked hopefully. "I kind of promised Bill I'd keep a eye on them if he was late getting back. Be a lot easier if they were over here."

"Theresa's got a lot of pride, she won't like anyone thinking she's not capable of taking care of herself or the boys." Mary commented. "But I'll try."

"Mary..." Ms. Nettie said. Mary turned to the older woman. "May I?" she held out her hand for the phone. "She might respond better to someone closer to her mother's age than her own."

Mary handed over the phone, Ms. Nettie pushed the recall button. "Theresa dear this is Nettie, I'm over here at Ezra's. . ... Yes we got snowed in. . .. . .. No it's not crowded at all this is a big house with plenty of room. . .. . .. The reason I'm calling is we're all worried sick about you and the boys. Especially now that the electricity is off, . . .. . .. frankly my dear I know you're more than capable of taking care of everything over there but you know how men are, they worry about every little thing. . . .. . . It would make us all feel better if you let the boys come over and bring you, Zeb and Grayson over here." . . .. . ... "Of course its not a bother, it will give the boys an excuse to go out and play in the snow." Nettie chuckled, "No they never outgrow wanting to play in water, no matter if it's frozen or not, same goes for dirt. . . .. . .. I'll tell them they can go over and bring you back. Goodbye dear."

Ms. Nettie handed back the phone and seemed surprised at the looks the men were giving her. "Yes gentlemen?"

"Ah for one do not like to play in the dirt." Ezra said indignitly.

"I'm not that fond of snow either." Remarked Chris.

JD for his part didn't comment on the water or the dirt, he did ask about the one thing that bothered him. "You sounded like a politician, not like yourself at all."

Ms. Nettie raised an eyebrow as she looked at JD. "Didn't think I had it in me did you? Just a plain spoken old woman who doesn't have a diplomatic bone in her old body."

"Well yeah." JD said. Casey poked him in the ribs with her elbow. "I mean no. . . you aren't that old. Casey stop that," as Casey poked him again. "Heck you know what I mean." he said, rubbing his side. Casey was stronger than she looked.

"Indeed Ms. Nettie you've been perpetually celebrated for your practical, down-to-earth approach of life that's reflected in your speech. Ah find ma self alarmed that you could change your matter of argument so. . . so effortlessly. " Ezra commented.

Ms. Nettie laughed. "Glad I could surprise you boys. After spending thirty years dealing with the bureaucrats in children services, I've learned a thing or two."

Josiah came in to the kitchen. "Vin's chomping at the bit. If you're going to the Randolphs, you better do it soon. The winds have died down but Vin's thinking it won't be long before it gets bad again."

"That boy's got the best weather sense I've ever encountered, you best get moving." Ms. Nettie said. "The ropes are a good idea, if the wind picks up again and creates a white out. Too many people have frozen to death in this kind of weather. It's too easy to lose your way when you can't see. You can be within a few feet from safety and never know it. "

It didn't take long for the men to run a rope line from Ezra's front porch over to the gate, then to the Randolph's house across the cul-de-sac, making sure that when the rope was tied, they would be walking on the side that lead to the other houses on the cul-de-sac and not out to the main boulevard. They broke a trail through the snow, stomping it down as best they could, creating a path of sorts to make walking easier. Zeb and Grayson were happy to get out of the house and get a chance to play in the snow, even if only for the time it took for them to walk to Mister Ezra's house. Both had been escorted by JD and Ezra who kept the boys moving even when they wanted to stop and make snowballs. The boys soon found themselves in the kitchen with Billy, eating cookies under the watchful eyes of Ms. Nettie and Billy's Mom. They listened to an interesting story about how the boy's mother couldn't keep the fire in the fireplace going like their Daddy did. It kept going out when she added more wood to it. They had to stay in the living room under blankets to keep warm since the house was so cold. And she wouldn't allow them to go out and play in the snow or anything.

It was their Mother who was slower getting things together. First she needed clothes for herself and the boys. Then there was the problem of whether or not to bring the boys Christmas presents. In the end it was decided to bring only the gifts from her and Bill and leave the ones from Santa at home. She also decided to bring some of the Christmas food she had already made. More than one trip was made to get everything she wanted to take with her over to Ezra's, and still Mrs. Randolph was putting off leaving her new home.

As Vin had feared, the winds started picking up and it was snowing again. All but Buck and Josiah had gone on ahead, carrying the last of what Theresa wanted to take with her. Once the children were out of the house Buck and Josiah helped her get the gifts from Santa and put them under the tree. Just before starting out, Buck remembered to call Chris and let him know they were on their way. Buck turned off his phone and put it in his shirt pocket, but Theresa had one more thing she had to do. By the time she got out of the bathroom and they were finally on their way, the winds were blowing even harder than before. The wind was picking up the fresh snow from the ground and adding it to the already heavy down fall.

They started out with Buck in front, Theresa in the middle and Josiah bringing up the rear. As they walked, the flying snow became so thick it was hard to see. It was slow going, each of them had one hand on the rope and one hand holding on to the person in front of them. It wasn't that far across the cul-de-sac, a few hundred yards. But to the three in the flying snow it seen a lot farther. They walked with their heads down to keep the snow from blinding them as they maneuvered their way over the ice and snow covered path. Suddenly, Theresa slipped and started to fall. Josiah let go of the rope, catching her and swinging her up into his arms, cradling the young woman to his chest. In doing so, he had to turn and take a few steps as he tried to regain his balance as he stumbled in the snow. But even as he moved he felt his feet start to slide out from under him.


Please send all comments to nsscbs1978@aol.com