+ + + + + + +
Back at the Victorian, Vin stood impatiently on the porch trying without much success to see through the snow-filled air, He could barely make out the house next door. The five men had made it back just as the winds started to pick up. They deposited their bundles and were waiting for their two missing brothers and Theresa to show. Ezra joined Vin as he kept watch.
" Ah shouldn't have suggested that Mrs. Randolph join us. If she, Josiah or Buck should come to harm. . ." Ezra let his words trail off, he was upset, blaming himself for their missing friends. He had tried to call Buck on his cell phone but hadn't gotten an answer. Nor was anyone answering at the Randolph house. There had been no communication from the three after the call saying they were on their way. That was fifteen minutes ago, even under these conditions the walk across the cul-de-sac shouldn't have taken that long.
"If Theresa had left with us when we first got there, she would be sitting inside with the boys in front of the fire. It's not your fault she decided to take everything but the kitchen sink."
Chris walked up beside the two men and asked "Any sign of them?"
"No, and I got a bad feeling." Vin started toward the steps.
"Hold on Vin, a person can get lost out there in this kind of weather. It's blizzard conditions and a white out is a real possibility. I can tell you from experience that being in a white out is like being inside a ping pong ball. Let's get the boys and more rope and we'll do this right."
It had only taken a few minutes to rope themselves together. By the time they were done, they had a man tied at intervals with several feet of rope between them. Ezra had gone through his ski equipment and had come up with enough goggles for each man to have a pair. The plan was to follow the ropes already tied; first from the Victorian's front porch then to the gate, then the rope that lead across the to the Randolph's gate. One man would stay at the gate of the Victorian and act as an anchor, while the rest followed the rope tied across the street till they ran out of line. If they didn't find their friends then the man tied to the end of the team's rope would take off in a ninety degree angle from the Randolph's going out into the cul-de-sac swinging around hoping someone would come across their missing friends as the rest of them followed the arc. Or their friends would find one of the ropes and follow it back to one of them. That was the plan, the anchor, would wait twenty minutes, than would start pulling his brothers in anyway. The idea was the next person would feel the pull and start back toward the anchor pulling the next man after that to him and so on getting everyone to safety. The danger lay in the cold. The cold did strange things to a person's thinking, slowing you down and making you forget whatever you're doing and want to stop. They knew that the threesome had started out and it was their hope that the snow had slowed them enough that they hadn't wandered too far from the rope. It was unlikely that they could of gotten any further than that.
It was bitterly cold and the visibility was almost zero. To a man they were glad for the heavy winter clothes Ms. Nettie had found and insisted they wear, though none of them would willingly admit it. They were itchy but warm. Quickly they made their way into the blowing snow. Nathan was the anchor, he tied his end of the rope to the fence pole and watched his brothers by choice disappear into the whiteness. Peeling back his glove he looked at his watch; hoping twenty minutes wouldn't be too long a time to be out here, it didn't sound like a lot of time but under these conditions it could be deadly. He pushed the pin that set the alarm so he wouldn't have to keep checking the time, then folded his glove back in place to keep his hand warm. For him the next twenty minutes would be an eternity.
+ + + + + + +
Buck had felt the loss of the tug on the back of his coat that meant Theresa was still holding on to him a split second before he heard her cry out. Turning he saw her start to fall only to be snatched up by Josiah before she could reach the ground. The big man had let go of the guide rope as he stepped forward and swung her up to his chest, cradling her there. Josiah had to take a few steps to regain his balance. Unfortunately the icy snow was just as slippery for him as it had been for the young mother and his feet started to slide. Buck was beside him in a instant steadying him and Theresa.
"Thanks Buck," Josiah said.
"You two alright?" Buck had to speak loudly to be heard over the wind
"I'm fine," Josiah told him. "Theresa?" he asked of the woman in his arms.
"Yes, I'm alright." Theresa looked at the two men taking care of her. They were rapidly becoming covered in snow. It hadn't been snowing that much when they and the others had first come over to get her and the boys. "I'm sorry guys, it's my fault that we're out here. If I had only listened to you when you wanted to leave earlier, we wouldn't be in the middle of this mess."
Buck tried to smile to cheer her up but the effect was marred by the snow covering his mustache. "Don't worry darling, old Buck and Josiah will see you through this. We'll soon be sitting before a roaring fire and drinking hot chocolate before you know it. You just turn your pretty face into Josiah's coat there to keep it out of the wind and let us carry you to Ezra's."
Theresa did as she was told and didn't see the worried look that passed between Buck and Josiah. They had let go of the guide rope and in the short time it took to get to each other the men had lost their sense of direction in the snow-filled wind. Which way should they go? They couldn't tell where they were standing on the cul-de-sac. Both knew that the others would soon be looking for them, but if they didn't keep moving they would start to freeze. Picking a direction, they started walking, pushing through the snow. slowly testing each footstep to ensure they wouldn't fall with their precious cargo.
+ + + + + + +
Chris had been hoping they would find the missing threesome before reaching the gate of the Randolph's home. No such luck. If for any reason Buck or Josiah had any problems before leaving the yard they'd have turned around and gone back into the house. They also would have called to let them know what was going on. For some reason they had let go of the guide rope and had lost their way. That left the others to find them before it was too late. Even as he was thinking this Chris had started moving out away from the gate into the street. The deep snow made walking difficult but he kept going, pushing his way through. He knew Vin was only a few yards behind him tied to the same rope he was. A few more yards behind him was Ezra and then JD. Hopefully they were spaced far enough apart that one of them would come across the threesome.
Vin knew Chris was ahead of him even if he couldn't see him, from the angle of the rope. As soon as the line became taught, Vin would start after him covering the ground between them. Hopefully, Buck and Josiah hadn't gone far, just walking enough to keep warm.
Ezra was freezing, he had never been able to adjust to the colder temperatures of Denver in the winter. He hadn't been kidding when he talked about the white stuff. Other than skiing he didn't spent that much time in the frozen precipitation. Now it was all around him and somewhere out there was an expectant mother and two of his friends. Why hadn't he kept his big mouth shut and let Mrs. Randolph stay in her own home?
JD moved restlessly as he waited for the rope to angle out, signaling him to start moving. If it hadn't been for Buck and the others being in danger, being out in a blizzard would have been kind of exciting. The heavy wooden coat, pants and long-johns were keeping him nice and warm even if he had an itch he couldn't scratch. Hell he had several itches and none of them were scratchable under the heavy clothing.
Nathan was getting impatient, his watch hadn't buzzed yet but it had to be more than twenty minutes by now, getting close to twenty. He knew all too well how fast a person could go into hypothermia in this kind of weather. Rain would have everything ready when they got back to the house just in case. Nathan had been moving back and forth as much as his tether would let him. That rope was his life line and that of the rest of his team. Nathan kept running his hand across it checking to be sure it was still intact, suddenly it pulled tight then went slack. Concerned he began to pull it in.
+ + + + + + +
Buck was worried, he had no idea where they were or how to get back to the house. He was in the lead, keeping them moving hopefully in the direction of safety. He really wasn't sure which way to go. To stop would mean freezing to death. Josiah had been following Buck blindly as he carried Theresa in his arms. Buck had taken off his long scarf from his neck and tied it to Josiah, allowing them to keep in contact with each other. It would be all too easy for them to get separated in the blinding snow. Something hit Josiah's back and pushed against him.
"Buck," he shouted to be heard over the wind. Buck stopped and put his head close to Josiah's to hear him. "There's something pushing against me."
Never losing contact with the big man he reached around him and felt what was there. Laughing in relief he grabbed the rope and tied his end of the scarf to it. "We've been found." he yelled to Josiah.
"Thank you Lord." whispered Josiah, knowing help was close by he gave thanks. Bracing his feet in the snow the best he could against the rope's movements as it pushed against him
Buck took a good hold on the rope and pulled. He wasn't sure but he thought he heard a curse come from the direction he pulled on. It took only a few minutes but to the lost it seen a lot longer. But soon from out of the gloom was a skinny figure that had to be Vin and the bigger one behind him must be Chris. As they grabbed hold of Buck and Josiah, Buck yelled at them.
"Can we get out of this now?"
Chris circled around Josiah and Buck and was back beside Vin putting the others inside the loop of rope between them. Vin suddenly slipped and would have gone down without Chris grabbing his arm.
"Damn it, why am I the one who's getting pulled off my feet?"
"Nathan must have started tugging on the rope to tell us it's time to head back," Chris told him. "Lets go."
Vin gathered up the rope as they walked so as not to trip over it. They soon caught up with Ezra. Ezra's eyes lit up when he saw the three extra people in tow between Vin and Chris. As much as he wanted to reassure himself by reaching out and touching his missing friends. he simply turned and started following the guide rope quickly back toward home and safety. JD and Nathan were waiting for them at the gate and the sooner they got inside the better.
Nathan wasted no time in getting everyone inside where the ladies took over caring for Theresa. While the men had been outside, Ms. Nettie and Casey had started the gas powered generator and had the furnace running. Rain and Mary took Theresa into the parlor, a room on the first floor and quickly removed her frozen clothing. Wrapping the expectant woman in warm blankets, they covered her from head to toes. They then sat her in a chair before the fireplace. She was in the first stages of hypothermia and far too cold for Rain's liking. A heating pad was laid on her chest and a warm compress around her neck to help get her temperature up without endangering her or the baby. Keeping her chest and abdomen warm as they slowly warmed up her limbs, cups of hot chocolate helped warm her insides and ward off shock.
The seven took care of their needs upstairs. While not out in the freezing temperatures for as long as Buck and Josiah everyone was thankful for the hot coffee Inez brought them. The men kept watch as Buck and Josiah, changed into dry clothing and worried over how cold their brothers had gotten. They escorted them back downstairs to sit in front of the fire in the living room. Nathan used heating pads placing one on each of Buck and Josiah's chest. Wanting to warm the men slowly from the chest area out first, thus warding off shock, he kept a watch on their body temperatures until they were back to normal. Hot showers would have to wait till they were sure the dangers from hypothermia was over.
Thanks to Ezra's foresight and a suggestion by JD to have more than one, Ezra had equipped the house in the latest in hot water heaters, having one on each floor. They were fast heating and would create large quantities of hot water quickly on demand. After lunch, if Rain said it was alright there would be enough hot water for everyone to shower and change into more comfortable clothing.
+ + + + + + +
The generator had been turned off to conserve the gas but not before a tasty meal had been prepared. By then everyone's body temperature was back to normal. While the men folk cleaned up the dirty dishes by hand washing them, Ms. Nettie was eyeing the wood burning cook stove in the corner of the kitchen. She asked Ezra if it was in working condition.
Ezra had kept the old cast iron stove for it's homespun feel and to have a place to warm his feet and hands when working in the kitchen in the winter. He hadn't wanted to heat the whole house when he was just using the one room. The kitchen had been through several remodels in it's history but the cast iron stove had remained. Though not used for cooking in an age of modern appliances and their ease of use, the antique Majestic range with it's nickel plated trim, engraved double doors and large six burner cooking surface did have a certain charm. The cost of hauling the large heavy stove off was probably another reason it still remained in the old house. Or like Ezra, his predecessors found having a fire in the cook stove relaxing as he worked or just sitting in front of it as he enjoyed a cup of coffee on a cold winter morning.
The stove worked, he made sure of it's safety before he placed the first piece of wood in it. He had the stove examined and turned down a substantial offer for the it by the expert he had hired to come out and give the cook stove a safety check and a good cleaning. So he wasn't hesitant to tell Ms. Nettie it worked. But he was astonished when she told him she wanted to cook with it.
"But Ms. Nettie we can turn the generator back on." Ezra told her.
"Nonsense, we might need the gas for later." Ms. Nettie nodded her head in the direction of the kitchen window where the blizzard still raged outside. "Besides there's no reason why we can't cook on that stove. I saw that you have a full set of cast iron pots and pans."
"Of course, some foods taste better when cooked in. . ." Ezra realized the older woman was getting him off the subject. "Ms. Nettie!"
"Go get Vin to help you bring up some more firewood, while I get the pans out." Ms. Nettie told him as she waved him off toward the cellar. Her mind was made up. She had learned to cook on an old wood burner on her grandparents ranch growing up and saw no reason not to use this one. They had plenty of wood but only a limited supply of gas. Better safe than sorry, her old grandma always said. Besides this one was a lot fancier than the one she had learned to cook on. But she wasn't surprised by that. O'Brien would have bought the best and newest for his family when he had the house built. They'd be able to cook both birds in the double oven and keep the kitchen nice and warm as they worked. She'd get one of the boys to fill the water hopper in the stove too, so there would be plenty of hot water for washing up as well. She was already making plans as she pulled out the pots and pans.
Ezra knew when he was dealt a no win hand and folded his cards gracefully. Ms. Nettie was in a take charge frame of mind and he knew better than to argue with her. He would get Vin and JD to help, between the three of them they would keep the wood box full. He wasn't worried about the food, Chris had dropped off two good size free range turkeys on his way to work yesterday. There was also a large ham already cooked, as well as a multitude of mixings for side dishes. Besides if he left Ms. Nettie in charge of the kitchen he'd get to set up his train set. With a smile he left Chris, Buck, and Nathan with the rest of the dishes to finish as he and Vin escaped to the basement.
+ + + + + + +
Ms. Nettie smiled as she stood in the doorway looking out into the living room. Boys will be boys she thought, as she watched the men she fondly thought of as family crawl about on the floor with Billy, Zeb and Grayson. The three boys under eight had helped the older men put together the huge evergreen tree and they all helped to decorate it. They had been promised they could stay up and see the lights on after dinner tonight. The plan was to run the generator just long enough for every one to wash up so why not turn on the lights on the tree. Right now Billy and Zeb were helping put together Ezra's train set. Where had the man found one with so much track? They had already circled the tree and were outlining the room, running it under the taller furnishings. Nettie wouldn't be surprised if they extended the railroad out into the hallway and back.
Nettie looked over at Theresa and Rain sitting by the fireplace. Rain had the young mother's feet up on an ottoman. She was keeping a close eye on Theresa as she kept her company. Both were watching the boys help the men, laughing at the older boys actions as much as the younger ones. After the holidays Nettie was going to have a long talk with Theresa. Her wanting to stay in her new home for Christmas had been understandable but delaying her departure had almost cost them a terrible price. She must have known she and the children couldn't stay in the house without heat. But she let her pride get in the way of asking for help. Accepting Ezra's offer of staying here had been a good move if only she hadn't put off leaving her new house for so long. She almost got herself and two good men froze to death. Yes, after the holidays she and Theresa were going to have a long visit. At least the young woman had the good grace to apologize to Ezra, taking all the blame for her actions. She made him understand that getting lost in the blizzard wasn't in any way his fault. Ms. Nettie wasn't sure that the Southerner had let go of all his guilt over the incident yet but it was a start. Right now the dapper man was on the floor with Nathan discussing the best way to lay the rest of the track. Once the electricity was back on it was a sure bet that the train would get at least one run around the tracks.
Ms. Nettie watched as Chris and Buck eased their way out of the room, so their exit wouldn't be noticed. Mary had told her they were fixing up a present for Billy. Josiah had gotten comfortable in one of the big recliners and little Grayson had climbed into his lap to be read to. Ms. Nettie was betting that the red nosed reindeer wouldn't make his way to the island of misfit toys before both were napping. JD and Cassy came in with the child size table and chairs set from the attic, along with several board games. Billy and Zeb had abandoned the railroad to see what they had. Bless those two, they were going to keep the little boys busy and out of mischief.
Thinking of mischievous little boys made her look around for Vin. There he was sitting behind the tree eating cookies again. He had discovered where Ezra had hidden them and kept taking a few every time he thought no one was looking. She had only caught him at it once, although how he got past her in the kitchen and into the pantry was beyond her. But if he didn't stop eating those sweets he would ruin his supper.
Ms. Nettie was glad to see every thing under control out here. She best be getting back to the kitchen. Mary and Inez had taken to using the old stove like ducks to water. Inez said it wasn't too much different than her gas stove at the saloon. Mary admitted she didn't do much cooking and would be happy to learn anything they were willing to teach her. The stove certainly kept the kitchen warm. That was a blessing, so was the fact that everyone was safe and warm inside. The old stone house held the heat well. The short time they had run the furnace had warmed up the house nicely and fireplaces were keeping it comfortable. They were all wearing sweaters but they were in no danger of freezing. Ms. Nettie had a lot to be thankful for, she had her family and friends around her and all were safe. Better get supper on the table and the children washed up and put to bed. It had been a long day and Christmas was only a few hours away.
+ + + + + + +
The lights on the Christmas tree twinkled and oohs and aahhs rewarded the tree's decorators. Everyone agreed it was a beautiful tree. Dessert was being eaten in the living room as everyone admired the tree. Ms. Nettie chuckled as Ezra and Nathan each took a turn running the train over the tracks. It went around the tree, skirted the edges of room, out to the hallway and back. Thankfully there were only a few places were one had to watch your step to avoid tripping on the tracks. Once the trial runs were over, Ezra and Nathan covered those places with throw rugs.
Under the careful watch of their mothers, the boys were allowed to eat in the living room. None of them dropped or spilled any of their cake and milk on the floor. Ezra had come up with three old socks for the boys to hang on the fireplace mantle, each with their names written on it with a magic marker. As soon as they had eaten, they were taken off to their baths, which were taken in record time and the boys were dressed in their PJ's and robes sitting in front of Mr. Josiah in great expectation. He was going to read The Night Before Christmas. If they were lucky and their mothers took enough time with their own washing up; they'd get How the Grinch Stole Christmas, too.
Josiah sat in his chair before the fireplace with only a small book light clipped on top of his book in order to help him see what he was reading. The rest of the room was full of shadows with only the light from the fireplace and a few oil hurricane lamps for illumination. His main audience sat on the floor waiting patiently for him to start. That is not to say the rest of the grownups weren't going to be listening as well as they sat round the room. To ensure that the boys got both stories he started off with the Grinch and was just finishing it when Mary and Theresa joined them. Smiling, they found seats, Theresa in a chair next to her boys and Mary cuddled next to Chris on one of the couches.
Ms. Nettie sat in one of the tall wing backed chairs relaxing to the sound of Josiah's deep mellow voice as he read The Night Before Christmas. Ghost had climbed into the chair with her and was getting his ears rubbed by an expert ear rubber and was purring his thanks, being sure not to sink his claws too deep as he kneaded against her leg. The big gray cat had been careful of his claws all day as he played with the younger members of his person's guests. When the children got too excited and started to play too rough, Ghost disappeared for a while and reappeared later. For now he was content, his eyes glowed from the light of the fireplace as he surveyed his domain, most importantly his person and than his person's friends.
Ezra was sitting in the other high back chair with a mug of coffee, enjoying Josiah reading the stories as much as the children were, as he too relaxed and watched his friends who were sitting with their ladies. Nathan and Rain were sitting on the loveseat near the Christmas tree. Nathan wasn't above stealing a kiss from his wife every chance he got as they cuddled. The team had turned the two couches when the tree went up and now they were sort of facing each other and the fireplace. Buck and Inez were sitting on one with JD and Casey. Buck and Inez were not exactly cuddling but were sitting very close together. Maybe there was hope for that relationship after all. Inez seemed to like the quiet and calm Buck over the boisterous one. Casey and JD were half asleep leaning against each other. JD had his arm around Casey and she was resting her head on his shoulder. They had brought down board games from the attic and played with the children keeping them entertained all afternoon. When the time came (somewhere in the future) they would make wonderful parents.
Chris and Mary were sitting on the other couch. Mary leaned against Chris and he had his arms wrapped around her holding her close to him. They were obviously comfortable in each other's space. Ezra let his eyes wander around the room. Where was Vin? He had been sitting on the other end of their couch. If he didn't stop eating cookies and candies he was going to burst just as Ms. Nettie told him he would. Ezra kept looking around the room till he saw him returning from the kitchen. What did he have behind his back?
Vin entered the living room from the way of the kitchen with something hidden behind his back. In the darken room few noticed him as he made his way over to the couch where Chris was sitting with Mary. Taking a seat on the back of the divan he passed off what he had been carrying to Chris, the object still hidden behind the couch. When Josiah finished the story Chris cleared his throat and said.
"Some Christmas music would go good right about now don't you think Buck?"
"Huh?" Buck looked at his oldest friend in puzzlement.
Chris pulled out what he had been hiding and handed a guitar with a red ribbon tied around it's neck out to Buck. "If you can forgive an old fool for being a jack. . . stupid." Chris remembered in time there where children present and changed his wording. "When this got busted I said some things to you I'm sorry for, heck. . . I said a lot of things I shouldn't have to you and I want to apologize for that. Starting off by giving you back this. I had it fixed up and hopefully it still plays the same. Want to give it a try, I remember you and Sarah being kinda good at Christmas carols."
Buck took the guitar with none too steady hands. Sarah had taken up the guitar and had talked Buck into teaching her much to Chris' amusement as there always seemed to be one of Sarah's female friends dropping by the house when Buck was there. Buck had gotten in the habit of leaving his instrument at the ranch. The last time he had seen the guitar was just after Sarah and Adam's funerals. On one of his trips to check up on Chris he found his friend drunk, swearing at the world and him, smashing everything in sight with Sarah's guitar. That included his own instrument with a broken neck and the strings pulled out. That was many years ago and Buck hadn't seen the old guitar since that night. He had assumed it had been thrown out with the trash. But here it was all fixed up and Chris wanted him to play it, asking for forgiveness, being alright with the memories that would come with the songs.
"I think I might remember one or two of them." Buck said as he strummed the strings, tuning each string till it was just right. With a smile he began Silent Night, playing it through with only a few flawed notes. He started playing the same melody again this time with Chris softly singing the words, the others joining him singing the carol.
Inez laid her hand on Buck's arm saying. "That was lovely Buck, you're a man of many talents"
For once Buck didn't say anything. He let his eyes speak for him and Inez seemed to understand as she smiled at him. "Will you play us another?" she asked. Buck played, letting the songs and his friends replace old memories with new ones for both him and Chris. There weren't a great many carols that a guitar could accompany well but Buck happily played their requests as best he could. With laughter and good spirits they sang as many as they could remember.
Grayson had fallen asleep and Billy and Zeb were fighting yawns when they finally stopped. "Time for us to go to bed boys." their Mother told them. "Mr. Ezra has made up the back parlor for us, it's right across from the bathroom." Seeing Zeb about to protest, Theresa added. "The morning will come faster if you go to sleep."
"But will Santa be able to find us here?" Zeb wanted to know, so did Billy.
Theresa wasn't sure how to answer them, when Josiah came to her rescue. "Well boys, Santa more than likely will drop most of your presents off at your own homes. Knowing how hard it would be for your mother's to get all your presents home through the snow. But I'm sure there will be something for each of you under that tree in the morning. Santa's a wise man and he has been doing this for many, many Christmases. So trust him to do what's right."
Two set of eyes seemed to think this over and decided they would trust Josiah to trust Santa. Mary managed to keep a straight face as she collected Billy and herded him along with Theresa and the boys.
"Billy, you're going to sleep with Zed and Grayson and Mrs. Randolph in the parlor tonight, remember the bathroom is right across the hall."
"Why not upstairs with you and Chris and everybody?"
"So Santa can be sure all three of you are asleep at one time."
"Oh. . . ok. . .when are you going to bed?"
"Later, I'm going to help Ms. Nettie for a while." Mary was trying to side step the question of just where she was going to be sleeping tonight.
"Mom?" Billy tried to start in again asking questions as they reached the parlor. The fire had been banked and the room was nice and warm. Theresa was going to be sleeping on the sofa and the boys had sleeping bags on the floor. Flashlights were beside each bag along with a small bottle of water. The flashlights distracted each boy enough that Billy forgot to ask his mother any more questions. After making sure everyone was tucked in and Theresa was comfortable Mary wished them all a good night. Theresa smiled as their little boys were already asleep before Mary got to the door. Yawning herself Theresa was ready for a long nap too, happy to let someone else take care of the matter of Santa.
Mary quickly pulled her flashlight out of her pocket, not wanting to run into anything before getting back to the others. She made her way through the back of the house to the kitchen where the rest of the group was supposed to be, only to find Ms. Nettie there setting things out to fix tomorrow's breakfast.
"In the dining room." Ms. Nettie directed her.
Mary turned around and was surprised at the amount of light coming from the room. She had forgotten that the interior wall of the room, the one that separated the dining room from the living room was covered mid way down the wall with mirrors. Ezra had placed the hurricane lamps on the sideboard under those mirrors enhancing their brightness. On the table was wrapping paper and toys, they must have taken every male oriented toy out of the cabinet and brought it downstairs. There were a few toys she didn't remember seeing there. Where had they come from?
Chris came towards her with a sweater in his hands and helped her put it on.
"Its colder in here because of the windows." Indicating the windows that made up the back wall. "They let a lot of light in during the day but at night it's another story."
You couldn't see out into the darkness through the windows but as the wind blew against the pains they rattled, letting everyone know that the storm wasn't over. All but Ezra and Josiah were at the table divvying the toys up into piles, one for each boy. Some of the toys like the Hot Wheels were taken out of their old packets and wrapped individually to go in to socks along with candies, quarters and oranges. All of the toys and games were carefully looked over to be sure they were all there and safe for young hands. Hopefully they would look like they came from Santa's workshop.
Mary placed a dime in the dog's mouth of the cast iron bank and watched as it shot the coin through the hoop the boy was holding into the bank. It would be her gift to Billy from her. Chris was going to let her give the Game-Boy he had bought Billy but Mary wouldn't let him. Billy would be disappointed if his hero didn't had a special gift for him. Chris never forgot Billy's birthday or any other special day and she wasn't going to let this be a first. Mothers could disappoint but father figures couldn't. If Mary was honest with herself, Chris had become that to Billy and to herself he was more than a friend.
Glancing up she saw Chris looking at her with a smile on his lips. She couldn't help but return that look with a warm gaze of her own. Only Rain
asking a question kept her from saying something foolish.
"Where did the rest of these toys come from, I don't remember seeing them before?" For some reason this brought laughter from the men at the table. The women looked puzzled at their reaction.
It was Vin who answered her, after giving his team mates a dirty look.. "Ezra bought them the last time he went to Sam's, for just in case someone dropped by unexpected with kids."
"Well, I for one am glad he did, or there would be three disappointed little boys in the morning." said Mary. The others agreed with her as they finished wrapping the last of the toys and putting on name tags. "Where is he and Josiah?"
"Said they had something to take care of and disappeared." Casey told her. "JD do you know what they're up too."
JD shook his head, "Only that it's got to do with the boys and Santa." He covered his mouth just as he yawned. "Sorry, the little guys tired me out more than I thought."
"Let's get these gifts under the tree and get to bed." Chris ordered. "Those boys will be up before sunup and I'd liked to get a little sleep." He didn't add that the men all had presents stashed around the house that they needed to get under the tree as well. Ezra had allowed them all to drop off their gifts over the weeks so they wouldn't have to fool with them at the last minute, a good thing considering how the weather turned out. Hopefully after that he could get a few hours of sleep. Catching Mary looking at him again all warm and. . ... Well he could get a nap tomorrow.
+ + + + + + +
Snow was still falling silently from the night sky. The winds had died down around two am, but no one was going anywhere soon. If there had been enough light a person would see nothing but pristine snow. Ezra stood in his dark kitchen, sipping from his mug of hot chocolate as he watched the still falling snow from his kitchen widow and smiled. By moonlight he could just make out the cars in the back yard. They were large mounds of white. This was going to be his best Christmas ever. For the first time in a very long time Ezra was going to enjoy Christmas. He had a home of his own and the people he considered family were around him. The rest of the world could keep to itself, he had everything he ever wanted right here.
+ + + + + + +
The sun was just coming up but under the heavy clouds, little light was making it's way through the overcast skies. Ms. Nettie had prepared the turkeys before going to bed the night before. All that was needed was to slide them into a hot oven to start them cooking. Ms. Nettie had been up and moving about for a while, so had Vin and Ezra who had brought up more wood for her to use. It wasn't long till the oven was hot enough and she slipped the birds in to cook. Knowing the rest would be up soon, she started getting breakfast ready.
As if on cue the loud yells of 'he came' filled the air. Slowly the rest of the adults started making their way into the living room, summoned by the sound of the children's enthusiasm. Ms. Nettie chuckled at the sleepy faces as she handed out cups of coffee. The boys with remarkable patience waited for their mothers to get seated. Their patience didn't go further than standing by the tree trying to see what lie under it and whose name was on which package.
"Mom?" asked an eager voice, asking for permission to dive in.
"Ask Mr. Ezra, his house, his rules." Theresa told Zeb, smiling as she watched her son hop from one foot to the other in his excitement. Three pairs of eyes turned to the man in question standing by the fireplace. Ezra was a little startled by the intensity of those stares. But years of training kept any hint of it off his face as he smiled and made a suggestion.
"Why not examine the contents of your socks first? The rest of us require a tad more time to awaken before opening presents." Whatever Ezra said after socks was lost on the boys as they rushed over to the fireplace. Fortunately no one had stirred up the coals and rekindled the fire. The boys safely got their socks down and went to sit at the feet of their parents. Tied to each sock with a big red ribbon was a rolled up paper with each child's name on it in elegant script. Billy unrolled his first and looked at it hurriedly.
"Hey, it's from Santa." he exclaimed. The other two boys stopped opening the little packets and took a look at their own scrolls. The paper was headed from the workshop of Kris Kringle, North Pole. Each was addressed to each individual child using their full given name. Master William Steven Travis, Master Zebulon Wayne Randolph and Grayson Andrew Randolph.
"Well what does Santa say Billy?" asked Buck.
"Mmm" mumbled Billy around a candy came he had in his mouth as he read his document carefully. Looking up at his Mom and Chris he gave them a abbreviated reading of the text. "It says he was glad to find me safe and out of the cold snow, and that my presents are at home. He had a few extra and thought I might enjoy playing with them till I get home. He knows I will understand with time limitations why he couldn't go back and get my toys and bring them here. He has a long trip ahead of him getting to all the children in the world and hopes I will be a good boy so he can stop and leave me toys next year."
The scroll was signed; Kris Kringle; AKA: Santa Claus; AKA: St. Nicolas.
Billy handed the scroll up to his mother for safe keeping and dug into his sock for more presents and more candy. Mary read the paper before rolling it back up. In more detail and with a more elegant phrasing the scroll did indeed say what Billy had recited. Having Ezra baby-sit Billy had enlarged his vocabulary and his understanding of the English language. Josiah and Ezra must have spent half the night writing out these scrolls only to have them read and discarded in the boys rush to get to the rest of the presents. But they did save her and Theresa the problem of trying to explain why Santa hadn't brought all their presents here. She would have to thank them both for being so thoughtful later.
By this time all the adults were downstairs and each had a cup of coffee in their hands. The boys had finished going through their socks which now resided next to their Mother's feet. Their eyes were back on Ezra waiting for his next proclamation. When would he get to the business of the presents? Ezra decided to put them out of their misery.
"All right gentlemen, do you want to play Santa or have someone else hand out the gifts?"
Billy and Zeb looked at each other and thinking they could do it faster than any grownup said, "We'll be Santa."
"Then gentlemen, begin."
With a whoop, the boys started grabbing boxes and handing them to the addressees. They seemed to be having so much fun handing out the gifts, that no one had the heart to tell them they were supposed to stop and let the person open his or her gift before going on to the next one. Soon everyone had a pile of presents next to them. Surprisingly, the boys made few mistakes with to whom the gifts went to. When the last present had been delivered Billy and Zeb dropped down next to their own pile and each picked up a box. Looking up they realized no one had opened anything. Looking at Ezra, Zeb asked mournfully:
"Is there something else we gotta do?"
Laughing Ezra answered them. "No gentlemen, open at will."
Shouting in joy, wrapping paper started flying!
+ + + + + + +
Ezra leaned against the doorframe that led into his living room, watching his family. There were ribbons and brightly colored wrapping paper everywhere. Ghost was hunting through the mounds of wrapping paper for one of his new catnip mice, pouncing on imaginary prey sending paper flying. Nathan and Rain were cuddling in the love seat enjoying each other's company. JD and Casey were giggling on the couch over the gift JD bought Casey, the one they wouldn't show anyone. Buck and Josiah were both reading books they had gotten for Christmas.
The boys couldn't go outside but were happy playing with the toy cars Ezra had bought, just in case the need for extra gifts arose. The inexpensive toys were a big hit. Vin gave him an I-told-you-so-look when the boys opened the boxes and they stopped to play with them before going on to the next gift. It was Vin who had talked Ezra into buying the toys, giving him the trust-me-I- know-what-kids-like speech. He was down on the floor himself playing with the remote control car Chris had given him and munching on candy canes from the tree. Mrs. Randolph happily watched the children from one of the high back chairs by the fireplace, her feet up on the ottoman.
Ms. Nettie, Mary and Inez were in the kitchen. The turkeys were cooking nicely in the oven and the ham was warming on top of the stove. Chris was keeping them company. The house smelled very good. The large amounts of cookies and candies consumed since breakfast left no one wanting lunch. Ms Nettie appeared at Ezra's side and handed him one of the cups of coffee she was carrying.
"How about helping a lady get to the couch through that mine field of paper?" she asked him. Ezra gallantly offered his arm and escorted her to her seat. JD and Casey saw them coming and got up to give them room to sit. Casey started picking up discarded wrapping paper then stopped.
"JD we need something to put this stuff in."
"I'll get some trash bags."
JD came back a few minutes later with the bags on top of a bulky box. "Hey Vin, Santa forgot to put this one under the tree. It's got your name on it."
Ezra jumped up and grabbed the box from JD but was stopped from leaving the room by the puzzled looks on JD's and Vin's faces. "Aw heck here." he handed Vin the box."
Chris, Mary and Inez had followed JD back into the living room, curious about the box Ezra had hidden in the pantry closet. The box was making the usual smooth talking undercover man uncomfortable, a fact that didn't go unnoticed by the rest of the seven.
Vin held the box in his hands. "Its heavy, why'd ya go buy me another present Ez?"
"Ahwasgoingtogiveittoyouinprivate,buttherehasn'tbeenanyprivate. . . private time that is. It'snotreallyaChristmaspresentandyoumaynotlikeit. Or what Ah did, sorry." Ezra was stumbling over his words, something the Southerner never did, which made his friends even more curious.
"Well boy, open it up before we burst from curiosity." Ms. Nettie told Vin.
Vin walked over to the coffee table and sat the box down, everyone but Ezra crowded around. Ms. Nettie stood by Ezra's side only her hand on his arm kept him from bolting.
Vin tore off the paper, exposing a plain box with no writing or other advertising on it. There were two dozen leather bound books inside. He picked one up and his eyes grew large as he read the title and author's name. "Ez you didn't?"
Ezra paled. Vin didn't like what he had done, "Vin let me explain."
"Ezra." Vin turned his eyes toward his friend. "No one ever did anything like this for me, it's great!"
Ezra let out a breath he wasn't aware he had been holding. "You're not furious that Ah took the liberty?"
"Yeah. . .no, I mean it's just a surprise to see my name on the cover."
Ms. Nettie had been trying to see the title of the book in Vin's hands. Now that she was sure Ezra wasn't going to run she let go of his arm. She held out the same hand to Vin. "Well?" she questioned.
Shyly, he handed over the tome to his surrogate mother. Now with the book in her hands she studied it. "Oh my" she said as she read the title and author's name. Stamped in gold on the leather cover, 'Words of an Untamed Soul' by Vin Tanner. "How?. . .Why didn't you tell me?" she asked.
"You tell her Ez, I'd like to know that myself." Vin told the Southerner.
"Ah'd rather explain in private Vin." Ezra was thinking of Vin not wanting the others knowing about him working toward his college degree, or that he needed Ezra to tutor him; not wanting to be overwhelmed by the rest of the team wanting to help.
"It's ok Ez, most of the folks here know anyway, they've been real good about not interfering." Vin had come to the realization that the rest of Team Seven had figured out why he and Ezra spent so much time together off the clock. While Vin had gotten his GED in the Army, he hadn't gone any further with his education. Ezra was a terrific teacher and with Vin's lack of a formal education he needed all the help he could get. He just hadn't wanted everyone trying to help him at once or testing him about it, therefore he had kept his going to college a secret.
"Well you boys do work with a room full of detectives." Buck ended the sentence with a wink.
"It didn't take a lot to figure out what was going on." said JD.
"Not with the two of you disappearing every time the end of a semester rolled around and Chris not saying a word about it." Nathan added.
"As much as we all wanted to help, we also knew that we would be too much of a crowd." Josiah smiled showing there was no hard feelings over being left out.
Vin was relieved, they understood why he hadn't included them. Now, how did his poems end up in a book?
"Ez, when and how did you do it?"
"It was after your poetry class with Prof. James and he asked if he could include your work in the campus newspaper poetry section. You declined saying your words were too personal to allow just anyone to read them. Ah got the impression that you might enjoy seeing your creations in print."
"Yeah, I did kinda, but the paper was too public. Anyone could have seen them there."
"There are commercial businesses that will print private compositions for a small fee. All Ah did was to find one in Denver that would bond them as well to ma specifications of course." Ezra was relieved that Vin wasn't outraged with him over the liberty he had taken with his poetry.
Everyone crowed around wanting to see the books and read some of the poems. Vin was a little unnerved by all the attention.
"Relax Vin." Ms Nettie told him. "This is not just anyone, they're your family."
With that reassurance, Vin handed out the books.
+ + + + + + +
The snow had finally stopped falling and the sun was trying to come out. Under the clearing skies Vin, Buck and JD went out and cleared off the front porch and shoveled the walk in front of Ezra's and the Randolph's houses, taking down the guide rope they had left out the day before. The Cooper kids were out working on clearing their walks of snow as well. The three men went over and helped them finish. Nathan and Josiah broke a path from the back porch to the vehicles in back, removing as much snow as they could off the tops of the trucks and cars. They made sure the weight of the snow hadn't done any damage to them. Rain and Casey helped Teresa keep an eye on the boys, their new toys distracting them enough that they didn't ask to go outside. Ms. Nettie, Mary and Inez worked in the kitchen as they kept an eye on supper. Ezra was going through the men's clothing in the attic putting together suits for his team mates to wear, in order to match their ladies style of dress. Chris took a nap.
When supper was almost ready, the children helped with setting the tables. First the big one in the fancy dining room then the small one Rain had found in the attic. Ezra had been surprised when the boys hadn't wanted to sit with the grown-ups. When asked, Billy tried to explained as he, Zeb and Grayson set the smaller table.
"If we sit in there," Billy gestured toward the big table in the fancy dining room off the kitchen, "We've got to be on our bestest behavior. . .Not that we won't be out here." he was quick to add.
Zeb jumped to help. "It's just that with our moms watching everything we do it kinda hard to. . .well. . .to. . ."
"Ah understand Master Zeb," Ezra smiled down at the boy. "It's difficult to enjoy yourselves with your mothers making you self-conscious."
"Yeah," the boys agreed. They weren't sure what it meant to be self-conscious but if it meant that they could eat without their mom watching their every move, they'd be self-conscious.
Ezra laughed. He understood the boys all too well, after being reminded what it was like. He had spent too many dinners as a child being so afraid of making a mistake in front of the guests that he couldn't eat. The child sized table and chairs were just the right size for the three boys. Chris had set them up in the kitchen, out of the way of foot traffic but within clear view of the dining room doors: doors that would remain open throughout the meal.
"Well gentlemen if we have concluded our duties here shall we asked Ms Nettie if there is anything else we can assist her with before retiring to change our attire."
Billy, who had spent more time with the southerner than his friends understood most of what Ezra said and translated for the Randolph brothers. "If Ms. Nettie doesn't need us for anything else, we've got to go change our clothes."
Given the go head to change Ezra herded the youngsters upstairs and helped them get into the clothes that had been laid out for them. (The O'Briens had kept the children's formal clothes as well.) Chris was already in a dark brown suit with a western cut and took them back downstairs so Ezra could dress.
Soon everyone was ready and filed into the living room dressed in their formal wear. Not even Vin objected too loudly at the suit he was wearing. The ladies looked beautiful in the long colorful skirts and holiday dresses. The men folks were in dark suits but their shirts were in seasonal colors of green, burgundy, crimson, silver and gold. Even the boys were done up in satin pants and jackets, much to their exasperation. The frills on the shirts didn't make them any happier but their mothers loved it. Mary got down on the floor and hugged Billy, saying.
"You're so adorable, I wish I had a camera to take your picture with so I could see you like this forever." Hugging her son again. "It would be wonderful if we could take pictures of all of us to remember this Christmas." Mary gazed up at Ezra with a hopeful expression.
Ezra glanced over at Chris, he would take his cue from him but only got a look that said it was his call. Reluctantly, he gave in to not only to Mary's hopeful expression but to Theresa's as well. He could see that the other ladies liked the idea as well. Surrendering to the inevitable he got up and said "Ah'll go and get ma digital camera."
While he was gone, the ladies planned out how they were going to pose everyone. Chris got down on his knees and drew the boys to him. Speaking softly to them he said. "Boys. . . I promise you, right after supper you can get out of these clothes. But until then, we're going to keep our women folk happy and wear then without complaining. . ." He looked them in the eyes and asked. "Agreed?"
Three reluctant yeses answered him. At that point, Ezra came back with his camera and handed it to Mary. The next half hour was given over to picture taking; individually and as couples. Ezra set the timer and took several of them as a group crowded around the tree. At last they were done and everyone helped in setting out the food.
Once everything was on the table aprons were taken off and suit jackets were put back on. Each gentleman held out his arm and escorted his lady to her seat, then took the chair next to her. Just as Josiah was about to say grace the sound of a loud horn shattered the quiet. The horn kept on booming till everyone came out of the houses on the cul-de-sac to see what was going on. After hastily grabbing their coats, they went outside to investigate the noise. The sound was coming from a motor vehicle usually found a great deal further north. It was a snow-cat and it was making wide circles round and around the cul-de-sac packing down the snow.
"Ah believe Mr. Cooper has made it back home in time for Christmas dinner with his family." said Ezra
"Wonder where he got the snow-cat?" asked Vin.
But why was he stopping between the Victorian and his own home and not in front of it? Mr. Cooper opened the door to the cab and hopped down. Another figure appeared behind him. As he got out he looked up and both Randolph boys yelled.
"Daddy!" and took off running.
Bill Randolph, leader of Team 6 gathered up his sons in a huge hug and swung them around. Theresa had stayed on the porch only because Rain had held her back from trying the steps. With a son under each arm Bill made it up the porch steps, where he carefully set the boys down next to their mother. He took her in his arms and kissed her passionately, much to their son's disgust. The pair separated only when the snickering got too loud.
Ms. Nettie had stayed next to the door. Seeing no one moving and since it was freezing cold out there, even on the sheltered porch, she spoke up.
"Bill you can tell us how you met up with Mr. Cooper over supper, which is on the table and getting cold as we speak. Inside everyone, now."
Obediently, they all followed her into the house.
+ + + + + + +
The hour was late as Ezra walked through his darkened, strangely silent house after an afternoon and evening of merriment. He was checking to make sure all the doors were locked and the fires banked for the night. He knew it was unlikely anyone would be out in this weather but precautions like these had saved his life before and he wasn't going to take any chances with those under his roof. The Randolphs and Nathan and Rain were in two of the spare bedrooms that had fireplaces. Ms. Nettie, Casey and Inez were in the master suite. Mary had opted for the small parlor downstairs for her and Billy leaving the third bedroom for two of the men to share. Buck and JD were in all probability already asleep in that room. Vin's plans of sleeping in the tower room had been vetoed by Chris, as there was no heat up there. He would be joining Chris, Josiah and himself in sleeping downstairs tonight. There were plenty of comfortable couches and recliners for them to choose from.
Ezra paused in the spotless kitchen, it had taken all his powers of persuasion to talk Ms. Nettie into letting the men clean up the kitchen for her. He checked the wood stove to be sure the fire was banked for the night and that the water hopper was full. The ash covered wood would burn slowly till someone stirred them up in the morning and added more wood.
Supper had been a grand affair, everyone had eaten too much and had enjoyed every bite. Over dessert Ezra convinced Bill to stay the night, since it was too late that evening to get his house warm enough for Theresa and the boys to spend the night over there. In the morning hopefully the electricity would be back on and they could get the furnace working. If not, fires in the fireplaces would warm the house. If that wasn't enough to keep them warm, Ezra had extended his hospitality to the family to stay at the Victorian till the electricity was restored to the area.
Ezra continued his tour as he checked the living room fireplace. Ghost, who had been keeping him company, rubbed against his legs earning a head rub. The gray cat jumped to the back of the loveseat by the Christmas tree as Ezra stopped there next. Ezra looked out the window next to the tree. The snow had stopped falling hours ago but it was still bitterly cold outside. JD had found a battery operated radio on one of his trips to the attic. The weather report informed them that the storm had passed but it would be some time before electricity was restored to all areas of Denver. Snowplows would be out at first light clearing the main highways before clearing secondary roads.
Ezra picked up his cat and completed his tour where he had begun it; at the library. Inside, the fire burned brightly in the fireplace, the only illumination in the room. Chris and Josiah were sitting in chairs on either side of the fireplace enjoying his best brandy. Vin was sprawled on the couch looking slightly green. Ezra put Ghost down next to Vin and crossed the room and picked up the brandy bottle, pouring himself a few fingers worth of the brown liquid in to a glass. Looking over at Vin he asked.
"Do I need to disturb Rain?"
Chris chuckled. "No, she gave him something before she and Nathan went to bed. The human garbage disposal over there is waiting for it to take effect."
Josiah added, "The boy's going to explode, just not the way Ms. Nettie thought he would."
Even Vin laughed at that. "Be thankful that Ez has city water and it's still flowing or we would be in a world of stink."
Ezra took a seat on the end of the couch Vin was laying on, making him move his feet out of his way. Ghost, seeing his human was going to stay in one place for a while, climbed into his lap and settled in for a nap. As Ezra stroked the soft fur he said. "Ah'm grateful for that and a great many other things tonight."
Chris took in his friend's relaxed and contented attitude, smiling he told the Southerner. "It's been a great Christmas Ezra, thank you for having us ."
"I'll add my thanks to that as well." said Josiah "It has been a Christmas full of joy and miracles. I never saw two happier boys than Zeb and Grayson when their Father climbed out of that snow-cat."
Vin was sitting up now and rubbing his stomach which grumbled in protest at the movement. "Yep, what are the odds that Bill would run into Jack Cooper at that truck stop. Or that the owner of that snow-cat would want it in town for the car show bad enough to tell Jack to drive it into Denver when the highway patrol closed the road to normal traffic."
"Astronomical Ah'm sure," said Ezra taking another sip from his glass as he leaned back into the cushions, closing his eyes and relaxing in blissful contentment.
Vin moaned and got to his feet. "Think I need to go.." He headed toward the doors.
'Vin.." Ezra called his name stopping Vin just as he had his hand on the doorknob. "There's more of those sugar cookies in the kitchen iffen ya want some or perhaps more of the peanut butter fudge Theresa brought over and there might even be a candy cane or two you missed earlier still on the tree."
With a whimper Vin threw open the doors and disappeared.
The three men laughed, Chris got up and topped off Josiah's and Ezra's glasses with the brandy, touching their glasses in a silent toast before sitting back down. It was Josiah who expressed for all of them what they were feeling as he held his glass up in the firelight and spoke.
"It has been a great Christmas my friends, for each and everyone of us. Merry Christmas to one and all and to all a good night."
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