Glancing around the sparsely populated saloon, Ezra Standish took a last long pull on his nearly spent cigar, held the smoke in for a moment and then blew it out in a long blue-white cloud, the action as indicative of his disgust as if he had made a speech proclaiming it. It was mid-afternoon and the normally bustling business was all but empty.
Folks seem to be a mite scarce today, Vin commented, frowning a bit as he checked his cards then put a nickel into the pot.
The gambler snorted, though whether this was acknowledgement of the observation or simply disdain for the piddling amount of Vins ante, it was difficult to say. He raised an eyebrow to Buck, deck of cards poised in his hands. Mr. Wilmington?
Two, he decided, pulling a couple of cards from his hand and tossing them away. The tall mans eyes lit up as he added the newest duo of pasteboards to those remaining in his hand, causing Ezra to roll his eyes and Chris to smirk as Buck tossed a quarter atop the small pile of coins and said, Ill see that five cents and raise you twenty!
Call, Chris grunted, also adding 25 cents but taking no cards, an action which drew interested and speculative glances from his fellow players. Responding to Vins comment of a moment ago, he added, Suppose most folks got better places to be than a saloon on Christmas Eve.
Nathan shrugged. Expect thats true, but this is as close to a family Christmas as Im likely to come this year, so I got nothing to complain about. He did not bother placing a bet, simply shaking his head and adding, Except these cards. I got about as much chance of winning this hand as I do of being elected President next year. I fold.
Need a Vice President? JD sighed, also tossing his cards aside.
Josiah scratched his chin thoughtfully. You know, Ive always enjoyed the story of the three wise men who presented gifts to the Christ child on Christmas day.
Was a right nice thing to do, Vin agreed warily. What made you think on that just now?
He shrugged one broad shoulder. Oh, I dont know. Something just put it in mind. He looked over his cards again and decided, I think Ill stick with these. With a smug smile, he added a silver dollar to the pot then leaned back in his chair to watch the others play.
Ezra replaced one card and matched his bet. Youre not fooling anyone, Mr. Sanchez. I predict that this game is going to come down to Mr. Larabee and myself. Unless Mr. Tanner has something unexpected hidden up his sleeve.
Vin laughed. Thats your territory, pard. I got nothin except a strong feeling were all gonna be meetin up with them three kings real soon. I fold.
Well, I dont! Buck declared, defiantly flinging a dollar bill onto the table and glaring at Josiah as the older man began to serenely hum the tune to We Three Kings. Hes bluffing. In fact, Im so sure hes bluffing that Ill raise another dollar!
He matched his deed to his words, shooting a challenging look at Chris, who merely shook his head. I doubt Josiah has anything, but you cant bluff worth a damn, so you must have some pretty good cards. He tossed in his own. Ezras been dealing me more shit than Id get from mucking the stalls for an hour.
I take no responsibility for your poor card management, Ezra shot back with a smirk. Though I must agree with your assessment of our fellow players.
Josiah clucked his tongue. Oh, ye of little faith, he quipped, matching Bucks bet and calmly raising with a third dollar.
Then again, I suppose it would be foolish to assume that our friend doesnt have the Almighty on his side at this particular time of this year, Ezra decided, casting a glance at the pile of money then giving a regretful shake of his head. I believe Chris has the right of it. I fold.
Buck smiled at Josiah. That leaves just you and me then, preacher-man. So, heres your three dollars, and two more on top of em!
He gave a so-there jerk of his chin, only to watch in dismay as Josiahs smile grew wider as he matched the hefty bet, then bumped it yet another dollar.
A small whimper came from Ezra, quickly turned into a cough when Nathan and Vin both chuckled at the sound. He rarely, if ever, saw such a generous level of betting from his fellow peacekeepers, and it was clear that Ezra was regretting his hasty exit from the action.
Whered you get all that money, Josiah? JD asked in awe. Thats almost two weeks pay you put in already!
Sometimes a crack of light shines in to illuminate the darkness and you know it would an absolute sin to ignore it and not walk through that door, he replied. At the confused expressions this brought, he said, Ive been saving for an opportune moment.
Buck twitched at that calm explanation. He reached for his dwindling pile of cash, drew his hand back, checked his cards again, made another false start toward the money, looked once more into Josiahs amused gray eyes, and abruptly gave up the fight. Aw, hell, take it!
Josiahs grin lit up the room as he raked in the pot. Thank you, my friends. I assure you, the money will be well spent.
So, does that mean you really had em? JD asked, staring expectantly at Josiahs down-facing cards. Three of a kind, all kings?
Well now, Buck didnt actually call, so Im under no obligation to answer that question.
Ezra sighed regretfully. He, too, wanted to know. Hes right, son. Well never know if he doesnt choose to enlighten us.
So? Chris grunted, giving Josiah a penetrating stare. Enlighten us.
Josiah tucked his winnings inside the pocket of his tan trousers and straightened his coat over the top. He considered the demand for a moment, then reached over and flipped his cards upright.
Deuces! Nathan blurted, eyes bulging with astonishment. All you had was a pair of deuces?
You bluffed me out of more than a weeks pay with a lousy pair of twos? Buck squeaked, face turning red with embarrassment.
JD, Vin, and even Chris didnt seem to know whether they wanted to laugh or protest. Ezra, on the other hand, looked like he just might just bow down at Josiahs feet in a show of reverent admiration. Well played, sir, the gambler breathed, his green eyes shining. Well played, indeed!
Josiah chuckled. Coming from you, Ezra, I take that as a real compliment.
You should, Chris said, recovering his voice as one of his rare but infectious grins broke free.
In spite of his loss, Buck had to laugh. Hell of a game, Josiah. Reckon you should buy us a round to celebrate now that youve won all our money.
There were murmurs of agreement all around but Josiah shook his head. Not this time, boys. Ive got plans for this. He gave his bulging pocket a pat.
Those plans wouldnt have anything to do with the orphans home over in Sweetbriar, would they? Nathan asked with a smile.
Josiah smiled back. They just might. Id imagine a good meal and a few trinkets of the season wouldnt go amiss over that way.
Hey, thats a great idea! Can I come with you? JD asked, his young face lighting up with eagerness. Me and Casey been making some little whistles and corn-cob dolls to take to the kids.
Im sure theyll appreciate any donations they get, and Id sure appreciate the company on that long ride, Josiah agreed, pleased by the offer.
Chris pursed his lips. They might as well have my latest batch of whittling, too, since were going, he decided, inviting himself along but shrugging the gift off as an afterthought as he continued, Couple of the horses came out pretty well this time. Might as well give em to someone instead of tossing them in the stove like Id planned.
The others smothered smiles, not fooled a bit. The carving Chris worked on in his spare time had come a long way with time and practice from the rough, barely-recognizable animals that young Billy Travis had been so enamored of on his first visit home. There was not a child in Four Corners who didnt have some small Larabee creation in his or her home.
Bought a site more candy than I could eat last time I went to Potters store, Vin said simply. Reckon I might as well take it along so the kids can have a little treat.
Everyone knew what a sacrifice this was from the notoriously sweet-toothed tracker, but they all pretended not to be impressed.
Dont have any toys handy and, thanks to Josiah, no money to buy em, but most younguns appreciate hearing a good story or two, Buck suggested, perking up at the thought of a captivated young audience for his tall tales.
Uh, thats very . . . generous of you, Buck, but Im not sure . . .
Its fine, Chris interrupted Josiahs fumbling refusal.
Taking Chriss word as a father who had once allowed Buck to tell stories to his own innocent young son, Josiah smiled. Be glad to have you along then.
Not much of a story-teller, but I know some old songs from the plantation that they might like, Nathan suggested, glancing about with a nervous air, as if unsure whether his suggestion would be greeted with disdain or enthusiasm.
Josiah was beaming by this time. Im sure theyd love to hear them, brother. Turning to the final member of their group, he waited hopefully. Ezra?
Ezra squirmed. Surely you dont need everyone to join this philanthropic venture. It sounds as though you have considerable supplies and entertainment planned already. Im sure theres nothing I could contribute that would be half as welcome.
Aw, come on, Ezra. Come with us, JD coaxed. The kids would love to see you. You could do some card tricks or tell a few stories, like Buck. Itll be just like youre a little boy again yourself.
He grimaced. Why on earth would I wish for that?
Well, yknow, to have fun? JD tried again. Its easy. Just think about Christmases when you were little and try to make it like that for the orphans.
JD, believe me, they would not appreciate a gift such as that, Ezra said, his tone grim. The Christmases in my past were rarely festooned with baubles, trifles or overenthusiastic declarations of yuletide cheer.
Buck made a face. Not even when you were a kid? Hard to think of Christmases spent with a woman like Maude as bein dull.
He snorted. Dull? Yes, I suppose I must be charitable and admit that they were rarely dull. However, not every Christmas was spent in the company of my mother, and those that were typically required me to spend the entire day playing a part in some elaborate charade. Merry-making had little to do with the affair.
Wait, you dont mean . . . you and your mom conned people at Christmas? JD squeaked, both looking and sounding horrified.
Noting the disapproving expressions turned his way, Ezra drew himself up with a dignified air. Seasonal sentiment has little power over a hungry belly, and as you six have just so ably demonstrated, people will give quite generously to strangers whom they believe to be in need at this time of year.
Dont mean you had to like it, Vin observed, his understanding tone drawing a flush to the gamblers cheeks. Was it like that every year?
Ezra stood. All but one. Let us just say that one year I decided I was no longer in favor of spending the holiday as my mothers cute little trained monkey, and left her to her own devices while I enjoyed a few hours of solitude. Putting on his hat, he tugged the brim. Now if youll excuse me, gentlemen, I believe its my turn to take a trip around the town and check that all is well with our fair citizenry.
They watched him leave, glancing at one another in the sudden silence. After a moment, JD mused, If a day all alone is what Ezra thinks back on as his best Christmas, maybe he really dont know what hes missing.
Josiah stroked his bulging pocket again, looking uncomfortable. Seeing the gesture, Nathan patted him on the shoulder. It wasnt your fault. Hes probably just feeling grumpy because you bluffed him.
Hell come around, Buck agreed. Then he smirked. And if he dont, we can always kidnap him.
I was just thinking the same thing, Chris said, his eyes narrowed as he stared at the lightly swinging saloon doors. A mans friends shouldnt let him spend Christmas all alone.
Buck looked surprised and then pleased when Chris flashed a reluctant smile in his direction. Sounds like we got a plan! But not too early. Hate to have him shoot one of us before we get a chance to explain ourselves.
Agreed, Josiah chuckled. Everyone gather your gifts for the kids and bring them over to the church. Ill go see Gloria and buy the items I had in mind, then get everything all packed up and ready to go for morning.
Nathan made a face. I suppose that means you want us to take care of the kidnapping part?
The preachers long face broke into a coaxing smile. Itll be five to one, how hard can that be?
I think fours enough, Vin said, rising from his seat. Reckon Id rather go find Ezra and see if I cant convince him to come along quietly.
Dont count on that, muttered Nathan.
Buck and JD exchanged a grimace, looking as if they were already contemplating whether or not to bring reinforcements.
Ezra walked quickly along the quiet boardwalks of Four Corners, ostensibly checking to ensure that all was well within the town but in fact paying no attention to the world around him. His thoughts were still caught up in the conversation he had left back in the saloon. Why on earth had he told them such a thing? Why had he practically invited them to feel sorry for him, when he could have simply made up a valid excuse as to why he would not be able to join them? It would have been simple enough to claim that he had already made other plans. They might even have believed it. But no, he had to go and blurt out one of the most shameful truths in his entire misbegotten past; that his mother had never cared enough to provide the kind of Christmas that would later make warm and shining memories for her only child. She viewed Christmas as nothing more than a lucrative business opportunity, always had and always would, and believed his own ill-concealed desire for the traditions of selfless giving and genuine sentiment to be a baffling character flaw.
Reaching the end of one street, Ezra gave up his pretense of patrolling, helping himself to a handy packing crate and tucking it back into the shadows of the alley so he could sit and think where no one would bother him.
He rarely dwelled on all of those frantic but empty holidays from his boyhood. It was easier to live in the moment, working so hard to convince others that hed enjoyed a happy and carefree past that sometimes he could almost believe it himself. He was unsure why he had not used that well-practiced fabrication with his fellow peacekeepers. It was almost as if he had wanted them know about those years spent working the streets, out in the cold and damp playing a beggar-boy, a poor lost waif, or when he was a bit older, a street hustler coaxing passerby into a game of shells or cards on the promise that Christmas would bring extra good fortune to anyone willing to try their luck.
Ezra wondered what his new comrades would say if they knew that his only holiday tradition had been turning that hard-earned cash over to his mother, who would praise him with a kiss on the cheek, a meal and a glass of hot cider from some tavern, and a coin or two with which to buy himself some trinket on her behalf. They hadnt been much, but he had cherished those hasty dinners and cheap gifts as the closest thing to a family Christmas that he was ever likely to know.
Chris glanced up from the drink he was sharing with Nathan as Vin slid quietly inside the saloon and into an unoccupied chair. Thought you were going to look for Ezra.
Found him, Vin said bluntly. He was sittin in the shadows thinkin some real hard thoughts. Didnt look like the kind of ponderin that would welcome company, so I headed on back.
Fully understanding that kind of mood, Chris nodded his approval. You figure we should leave him be tomorrow morning?
Dunno. Help if I knew for sure what the trouble was.
Dont matter. We aint gonna let him be, Nathan said firmly, drawing questioning looks from the other two. I dont know what hes got stuck in his craw, but Ezras the kind wholl brood himself into a real case of the misery if he has too much time alone to think. No reason he has to participate tomorrow if he dont want to, but it wouldnt be right to leave him here all alone on Christmas day. At the very least he can have a nice ride and a good hot meal with the rest of us.
A bit surprised to hear such charitable sentiment toward their southern con-artist friend from Nathan, the other men smiled and raised a silent toast.
All the remainder of Christmas Eve, Ezra avoided his fellow lawmen. It would be all too easy for them to persuade him to join them in their mission of mercy, and the more he thought about it the less he wanted to go. The past seemed to be assaulting him today, mocking him and throwing his own empty memories back in his face a little harder with every warm happy scene he observed from the townspeople. All he wanted to do was hole up in his room and let the rest of the holiday mercifully pass him by.
Unfortunately, this was not to be. Ezra had no sooner risen from a restless sleep on Christmas Day than the door to his room burst open. Instinctively dropping, rolling and going for the gun strapped to the bottom of his box-spring, Ezra raised the cocked weapon and then froze, confusion flickering over his features as he realized that he was pointing it at Buck, JD, Nathan and Chris. The four men were equally frozen, eyes wide with alarm as they, in turn, realized how close Ezra had come to shooting them.
What is the meaning of this intrusion? he asked finally, the tension in his muscles relaxing as he registered the lack of any real threat.
The men breathed a collective sigh of relief when Ezra lowered the gun. Uh, kidnapping you? Buck admitted with a feeble grin.
We thought it might be fun, JD told him sheepishly.
Sagging into a seated position on the cold floorboards, Ezra pinched his nose between thumb and forefinger. Fun, he repeated.
Youre coming along to Sweetbriar with us, Chris explained, a small smile breaking free as observed the disheveled gambler sitting there on the floor in his nightshirt, looking as if he could use a strong drink.
We know you dont want to go, but we aint gonna leave you all alone on Christmas Day, Nathan chimed in with a scolding tone. Figured you wouldnt come willingly, so . . .
Ezra waved his hand in a shushing gesture. Yes, yes, I understand. Levering himself up off the floor with a grunt, he scrubbed at his wildly tumbled locks. Im not altogether certain I approve of the gesture, but I suppose the sentiment is appreciated.
So, youll come? JD blurted excitedly. Not waiting for an answer, he moved into full salesmanship mode. Its a real nice day outside. Cold, but clear and perfect for a long ride. Josiah managed to get all kind of things for the orphans! I guess folks pitched in pretty generously when word got out what he was doing at the store last night, and since were the ones playing Santa Claus they also got up a big breakfast for us. Its waiting downstairs. Coffee, biscuits, eggs, sausages, hot cakes, you name it! Aint that worth a couple hours of philosophy?
Ezra sat down on his bed, not quite awake enough to deal with the enthusiastic wall of words but he did frown at the final one. You mean philanthropy?
Sure, he agreed, not really taking in the correction at all. Vins already saddled the horses, theyre waiting outside and he and Josiah are almost done loading them up. We can get underway just as soon as breakfast is over. We better hurry, or itll get cold. See you down there!
And with that, the young whirlwind blew out the door, leaving Ezra a bit stunned in the wake of sudden silence.
Buck grinned at his baffled expression. You catch any of that?
Scratching his be-stubbled cheek, Ezra asked Chris, Did I hear the word coffee somewhere in there?
Yep, but whether you get any depends on if youre coming or not.
For a long moment, he mulled the choice. All Im required to do is go along for the ride?
Nathan quickly said, Whole thing shouldnt take more than a couple of hours, and then we can head back again. A trace of sarcasm crept into his tone as he added, You dont have to lift one soft lily-white finger to help out.
Releasing a sigh that seemed to come all the way from the tips of his bare toes, Ezra nodded. Fine.
Well give you ten minutes to dress and come downstairs for breakfast, or were coming back up to hurry you along, said Chris.
You could at least grant me half an hour, Ezra complained, plucking at his rumpled nightshirt. Ten minutes isnt nearly enough time to wash up, shave, dress and prepare myself for a long ride in the bitter cold.
Nathan and Buck exchanged a knowing look and chorused, See you in twenty.
A smug expression covered Ezras face as he watched them depart, one that quickly faded as he realized that he had been cornered into doing exactly what he had been trying so hard to avoid.
The ride to Sweetbriar took about 90 minutes and Ezra was not insensible to the fact that his six comrades deliberately kept him hemmed inside the middle of the pack for the entire ride. He tested this theory a few times, pulling Chaucer back a bit and reining him to one side in an attempt to change position. The others simply moved with him, like trained soldiers on parade, distracting him with a question or a joke until he was once more securely surrounded. Ezra wasnt quite sure if he should find the performance amusing or irritating.
Im not going to run away, you know, he said finally. I came this far, I have every intention of completing the journey.
Just didnt want you feeling left out, Buck told him. What you said about Christmas last night sort of sounded like you been in that fix about once too often.
Ezra grimaced. I should apologize for ruining the mood the way that I did. This is a kind and very thoughtful gesture youre making, and very much in keeping with the traditional spirit of giving associated with this time of the year. It was not my intention to belittle the gift, or to make you feel sorry for me.
But you didnt want to come, Josiah finished, cocking his head in an inquisitive invitation.
No, he admitted. Im afraid I have a rather negative emotional association with orphanages at Christmastime.
The tracker looked surprised. You spend some time in one? I thought Is the only one.
Ezra was not the only one who was startled by this revelation. Not orphanages precisely, thought I certainly spent enough time in the homes of relatives who were complete strangers to me to give the average young fosterling competition.
I didnt know youd been in an orphanage, JD said, looking wide eyed at Vin. I thought you went to live in an Indian village after your ma died.
Did, but that was later, he said calmly. After I run away for the third or fourth time. I spent a stretch of five years in the county Home. Werent terrible, just overcrowded and never enough of everything to go round. Christmas was different. Even when we didnt have nobody to do for us like were doing for these younguns, it was still Christmas.
Nathan gave a little hum of understanding. Slave quarters were a lot like that, too. Christmas wasnt about presents or what you got to eat, though the big house usually sent down a pretty impressive supper; just that everything about the day felt special.
Vin nodded. Thats right. It made me feel good and I want these kids to look back on Christmas that way too, no matter what the rest of their year has been like. Doin this kind of makes me feel as if Im paying back a kindness.
Thats a fine way of looking at it, Josiah said with a smile. The people who run this orphanage are good souls who do their best, but Sweetbriar is a small town and a poor one. I know theyll be glad of any help they can get. Seems more children come to them all the time from outlying communities. They struggle enough to keep everyone clothed and fed. They just dont have the resources for many extras.
Well, every kid is gonna get something this Christmas, Buck said firmly, even if its just a little corncob doll or a wooden horse or a funny story or a song.
Reckon sometimes a little special attention is all a kid really wants, said Chris, shooting Ezra a penetrating look that made him squirm in his saddle.
Fortunately for the gambler, JD interrupted just then with a shout of, Hey, there it is!
The large brick building stood on the outskirts of the town, part of the town yet somehow separate from it. The approach of seven horsemen immediately got the attention of the dozen or so children playing out in the trampled grayish snow of the courtyard.
Hiya, kids! Buck bellowed, standing up in his stirrups and waving his hat jovially in the air. Merry Christmas to ya!
The children grinned and waved back, prompting greetings from the other men, slightly more subdued than their friends but just as sincere.
A man in a dark suit and a woman in a long apron emerged from the building, drawn out by two of the smaller children who chattered excitedly and pointed at the approaching visitors. The man was beaming as he recognized the lead rider. Mr. Sanchez! Welcome back to Sweetbriar. A Merry Christmas to you!
And to you, Mr. Preston, Miss Walcott, Josiah replied with a huge happy grin. My friends and I come bearing gifts for you all on this fine and festive day.
A little girl heard his declaration and shouted, Presents! Soon all the children were pressing close against the gate separating them from the new arrivals, clamoring for a peek.
Children, children, the woman scolded with a laugh. Where are your manners? We must invite these gentlemen inside and let them warm up a bit before making any demands of them. Theyve ridden a long way.
Disappointed but determined to make a good impression as theyd been taught, a few of the boys offered to help put the horses up in their stable, while some of the girls shyly escorted their visitors inside.
In spite of his intention to remain aloof, Ezra was quickly surrounded by a half dozen children who seemed as drawn to his cherry red coat, dimpled smile and warm southern drawl as moths would be drawn to a bright flame. He laughed with them as they listened to Bucks funny stories, sang along with a couple of Nathans plantation hymns, much to the healers surprise, and held toddlers securely in his lap out of the way when Josiah and Vin demonstrated the fine art of taffy-pulling for the older children using a few of the supplies Josiah had bought. Chriss wooden horses and JDs whistles were a big hit with the boys and Ezra soon found himself cutting paper dolls, playing cats-cradle and fashioning little dresses for the girls new corncob playmates.
Finally, the children were called away from the main room to go tend to their afternoon chores, leaving their visitors a few minutes in which to rest and recover.
Feeling suddenly restless, Ezra stood. If youll excuse me for a few minutes, I feel the need for a brief constitutional before lunch.
That mean youre headin for the outhouse? JD said curiously.
The gambler shot him a withering look. No. It means Im going to take a walk.
Mind if I tag along? I could use a little air myself.
Vin stood as well. Could stand to stretch mlegs, he decided.
Suit yourselves, Ezra said, flashing a smile in an attempt to counter the rather ungracious tone of his reply.
The three friends walked in near silence for several minutes, each one lost in his own thoughts. Unsurprisingly, it was JD who finally spoke. Something about being around all those kids on Christmas really makes me miss my mother. She loved Christmas, always said it was the day we could feel free to let the child in our hearts shine through to the world. Never hesitated to join me in a snowball fight or building a snowman or a fort.
Reckon you could always count on a snowy Christmas back east, Vin mused, kicking disgustedly at a clump of snow-dappled frozen mud. Out here its feast or famine. Either snow falls so heavy and often that you cant hardly do a thing for weeks on end, or else you go the whole winter with barely a flake.
Whether we had snow for Christmas depended largely on where we were spending it that year. It was rarely the same location twice, Ezra told them. I quite honestly preferred the dry years, since I spent the majority of the time outdoors.
JD shook his head. Still hard to believe you cheated people out of money at Christmas.
Boys gonna do what his mama tells him, JD, Vin scolded mildly, putting a light touch on Ezras arm that brought a look of surprise to his green eyes. And if they was hungry and in need of necessities, whos to say it was a cheat?
Suddenly irritated by this excusing of his past, Ezra jerked his arm free. Depends on your definition of necessities, I suppose. For my part, I would have been quite content with warm dry lodgings and something filling to eat, so long as I had my mothers company, but such was not to be. She had grander desires and less charitable ideals to meet, and what was I but a means to that end?
What happened? JD asked, his disapproval giving way to curiosity.
Ezra debated whether to tell them the truth or keep his past to himself. Lets go check on the horses, he said abruptly, turning on his heel and walking away with long determined strides. If he was going to delve into an uncomfortable memory, he was going to do it somewhere warm.
JD and Vin looked at each other, shrugged, and broke into a light jog that brought them back to their friends side. Ezra smiled slightly when he noticed that he had once again been flanked.
When they reached the stable, all three men looked about in interest. It was a large building, well insulated and heated with stoves at either end. There was a buckboard and a large prairie wagon housed within the center and stalls enough for twenty horses, though it currently housed eleven. There was a full hayloft up above and the feed bins were well stocked. Ezra, Vin and JD nodded approval at finding their horses snoozing in comfort with warm blanket thrown over their backs and feed and water within easy reach.
Josiah said this place was poor but its clear that they care enough to provide excellent care for the animals, Ezra commented. I can only assume that the children must be equally well looked after. Perhaps they get more donations than we thought.
JD frowned at the large surrounding space. I dont think so. The house and barn were both built with a large staff and a lot of animals in mind. I havent seen anybody except Mr. Prescott and the matron, Miss Walcott. The boys looked after our horses when we got here and this place must be mighty empty when its only got four horses. And what about cows or sheep or chickens? With all those kids to feed, youd expect a lot more animals.
Hes right, Vin agreed. They got a lot of space to kick around in, but I bet theyre goin hungry a good bit of the time. Hate to say so, but thats pretty much the way it goes with orphanages.
Dropping to a seat on a handy bench, Ezra removed his hat and slapped it down upon his thigh. I suppose thats part of the reason I wanted to avoid this place. It makes me feel enormously guilty to provide one happy day for these poor children, knowing that tomorrow they must face their hard reality once again.
What happened to you? Vin said, sitting down next to him and fixing that penetrating blue gaze upon his face. You said somethin earlier about orphanages and Christmas when you were a kid.
JD leaned against an empty stall and looked at him with interested eyes.
Ezra sighed. Remember last night when I said that one Christmas I left my mother to complete her plans alone while I chose to enjoy a few hours of solitude? They nodded. Well, I made that sound like a mature and well considered choice, but in truth it was nothing of the kind.
You run away? Vin guessed, a knowing grin on his face.
Reluctantly, the gambler nodded.
How old were you? JD asked him.
I was ten. Mother had discovered that there was a small orphanage on the outskirts of the town in which we had stopped. She was gloating over how easy it would be for me to pretend that I lived in that place and was out collecting donations for my fellow orphans. Much to her surprise, I was very much against what I viewed as stealing from the mouths of fellow children. I had witnessed a few of those urchins playing in the street the previous day and the state of them, thin as stick-figures and blue to the tips of their fingers with the cold, had horrified me. For the first time in my life I openly rebelled against my mothers wishes.
A small smile flickered over Ezras handsome features, remembering the look on Maudes beautiful face when he had thrown the tin of stove-blacking she had bought to dirty his face and clothing back at her, staining her best dress. After a small altercation, I turned and ran away as fast as I could go. I had little thought for where I was going. I simply ran until I finally fell completely out of breath. He shook his head with a rueful expression. Ironically, my energy gave out in the alley behind the very orphanage I had defended.
Did they see you? JD wondered, coming to take a seat on the bench.
No. He remembered looking into the window of that imposing gray building and seeing a dozen or so little children laughing and chattering excitedly around a scrawny fir tree, admiring the candles and ribbons tied crookedly to its branches. There had been no gifts visible in those branches, nor were there any stockings or packages to be seen, but the children had clearly been delighted with their tree. A man in a shabby suit and a lady in a mob-cap and full-length apron, on reflection looking very much like the couple he had met today, had come in to usher the ragged moppets away to their breakfast, smiling benevolently upon them. I peeked in the window at their festivities. There werent any to speak of, really, but I remember a little boy about my age excitedly passing out hugs and shouts of Merry Christmas to anyone who stood still long enough to receive them. He was so very happy in spite of his circumstances, just because it was Christmas.
Ezra drew a deep breath, not wanting to tell his friends that he could still feel echoes of the painful jealousy he had experienced at that tender scene. At seeing this poor parentless child who was so much happier, so much more certain of his guardians love, so much more filled with the joy of the season than he had ever been that it had stabbed Ezra like a knife through the heart.
You hated him for being happier than you were, Vin said shrewdly, drawing a shocked gasp from the gambler. I been there, Ezra. You think I never looked at folks who had plenty to eat and store bought clothes, little boys and girls walking down a street hand in hand with their mamas and pas, and hated em for havin for what I didnt?
I think everybody feels that way sometimes, JD agreed, gaining himself a surprised look in turn when he added, I hated you a little when we first met Maude. I was jealous of you for being the only one of us who still had a mother.
Raising a curious eyebrow, Ezra asked him, You dont still feel that way?
To his amusement, the young man blushed scarlet. I sort of know you both a whole lot better now and I, uh . . . well, not so much. No offense.
None taken, he chuckled. I fully understand and Im grateful to both of you for your reassurance.
Shaking his head, Ezra felt a moments shame, realizing that he had underestimated his friends. Continuing his story, he said, I left the orphanage after a few minutes and found a quiet place to think. All that Christmas Day, I stayed out in the cold and pondered those happy orphans, baffled by my strange envy of them. I was hungry and lonely and chilled to the bone when I finally gave up my contemplation and went back to find Mother. I offered an apology for my rude behavior, but Im afraid that particular Christmas ended in a spanking whose memory still smarts to this day.
Mustve really scared her to have you run off like that, JD said wisely. Even if she didnt want to say so. She was probably worried about you and overreacted when she found out you were safe.
Ezra heaved a wistful sigh. I would very much like to believe that was the reason. At any rate, I have avoided orphanages with great determination ever since that day. I never consciously recognized the reason, but I suppose I was afraid of feeling that same emptiness again.
Well, you been at this one all morning, Vin said reasonably. How do you feel?
He thought it over and finally smiled. Surprisingly, not bad at all.
Good! Then what do you say we head on back and have some of that fine Christmas lunch the matron was cookin? After we eat, you can take a turn at tellin a story to the kids, Vin suggested, slapping him on the shoulder as he stood and straightened his hide coat in preparation for facing the cold once again.
JD smiled and offered Ezra a hand up. I heard Josiah telling Mr. Prescott that he has a few ideas for ways to raise money for this place. Maybe you should get in on that. Youre pretty good at raising quick cash.
Ezra snorted. And ruin the entire basis of my relationship with Mr. Jackson? He would surely believe that I have fallen afoul of some cursed brain-fever if I allow your fine example to transform me into a philanthropic do-gooder.
Maybe hell think it was a Christmas miracle, Vin laughed. But we dont have to tell him if you dont want us to.
Already pondering several methods by which cheap livestock and other supplies might be procured, Ezra smiled. I believe that would be for the best. Now, we had best hurry before all of the pies our good ladies sent along are consumed without us. I saw Mr. Wilmington eyeing that cherry pie from Miss Casey with particular avarice.
He better not eat it all! JD declared, making a beeline for the barn door and taking off at a run.
Vin and Ezra grinned at one another and followed at a more sedate pace. Im glad you came with us today, Ezra, Vin told him sincerely. It wouldnt have been a proper Christmas without ya.
Thank you, Mr. Tanner, he said warmly. I share that sentiment. Ive never been so pleased to be the victim of a kidnapping.
Tanner laughed. Maybe next year we wont have to go that far, huh?
Perhaps. Lifting his head, Ezra sniffed as he caught a strong waft of roasted turkey on the cold winter air. Smacking Vin on the chest, he said, Last one inside gets nothing but the gizzard! and broke into a hard run.
Vin whooped joyfully and took off in full pursuit. They two laughing men soon overtook JD, who grinned and redoubled his efforts, all of them in a hurry to get back to the festivities going on inside the building.
JD managed to beat the others by a whisker but in the spirit of Christmas they all breathlessly declared the race a tie.
There you three are! Buck called out, grinning at their red faces and shining eyes. We were about to send out a search party. Lunch is ready!
Three of the children hurried over to help them out of their coats and hats, clinging to their hands with joyful little faces as they led them into the dining room and over to the seats that had been reserved next to their own. Each child was clearly delighted to have their own special guest and handled their duties with amusing dignity.
Shall we all join hands and bow our heads? Josiah said when everyone was seated.
His request was obeyed without a grumble. Ezra found himself holding his little hostesss small hand on one side and Nathan Jacksons large callused one on the other. As Josiahs prayer of thankfulness went on (and on) Ezra pondered this curiously wonderful Christmas day. He had not asked for it, had not wanted it, but he was deeply grateful that his six new friends had insisted that he have it. Apparently it was never too late to find family tradition, even if the family itself was anything but traditional.
As if hearing his thoughts, Josiah concluded with, And thank you Lord for the family that surrounds us, created not by blood but by the fellowship of love and caring. May we remember this blessed feeling and carry it with us through all the days to come. Amen.
Feeling it more than he had ever expected to, Ezra gave the hands to either side a squeeze as he whispered, Amen.