One Christmas "In The Year" AU
by Mary Ann

Thanks to Beta - Melissa

Characters: Seven, Rain

In The Year - AU

Ezra gazed out the front window of his business, 'The Hotel/Restaurant and Saloon' in 4C. His large pet cats, two tortoiseshell colored calico cats, Flower and Heather, sisters, whose heads, when they were sitting down reached several inches above his knee's, sat one on each side of him. They were all watching the snow silently drifting down and the activity of the town preparing for a snowy Christmas. He wondered how much of a Christmas it was going to be if the snow continued at the rate it was right then. It had been a busy, hectic two weeks; the hotel was packed but he knew many would be leaving on the next bus that came through town. He was looking forward to some peace and quiet, or things to fall back to their normally slow, uncomplicated days. Ezra smiled, when was a week slow and uncomplicated he asked himself.

A faint noise outside alerted the watchers to someone running past the windows. The two cats rose to their feet and moved closer to the casement, their tails moving slowly back and forth. Ezra smiled, knowing it was someone they knew hurrying by. A bundled up figure went by, slowing long enough to wave at them. Ezra grinned as he watched JD rush down the boardwalk, always in a hurry he thought. Through the snowfall he spotted Vin crossing to this side of the road and thought JD was going to intercept him. A call from the other room drew him away from the window; the two cats kept looking after their friend JD as Ezra swiftly moved to see what new problem had arisen.

"Hey Vin! I need to go to 6C and Buck doesn't want me to go alone. Can you go with me?" JD Dunne asked as he jogged through the lightly falling snow to catch up with his friend and fellow peacekeeper.

Vin stepped up onto the covered boardwalk and looked at JD.

"6C? In this weather?"

"Yeah, I know. But it's not icy or bad right now. We'd be back before dark if we leave now."

"What's in 6C?"

"Buck's Christmas present. It was suppose to come on the bus. Calvin at 6C radioed that he missed the pickup time. If I want to give it to Buck on Christmas, I need to get it today. Everyone is busy, I can't ask Buck as it's his. Nathan and Rain are busy at the clinic and Josiah is helping them. Ezra is swamped with people waiting for the next bus. And Chris … he's at the jail today," JD answered in a rush. Then added, "Sorry, you're the only one free and I like riding with you."

A slow grin crossed Vin's face. He knew JD's words were true. For a moment he gazed out at the lightly falling snow. It was a three hour ride on a good day to 6C, in this weather it'd take at least another hour or more. It was barely eight in the morning. It wouldn't be dark until around five, they'd have time. He nodded his head.

"Okay. Let Buck know. I'll tell Chris and get the horses ready. Wear your warmest clothes. Do we need a pack horse for the trip?"

"No, just my saddlebags. Thanks Vin! I'll get changed. It should fit in one side of them, my bags are deep. I'll meet you at the livery in a few minutes. I'll tell Buck and Ezra."

"Go! Meet you there shortly," Vin turned and stepped off the rock walk and headed to the jail a half block away on the other side of the road. JD jogged to Ezra's hotel to change and let the two men know where he was going.

Vin opened the jail door and slipped inside the warm space, the big stove was throwing off waves of heat. Chris was coming through the door to the cells and pulled it closed behind him.

"What's going on?" Chris asked.

"JD and I are heading to 6C. JD needs to pick up Buck's Christmas gift. Calvin missed getting it on the bus for him."

"In this weather?"

"Guess so, because Christmas is day after tomorrow, and the bus won't be through there again 'til after New Years. Today's bus from 6C should be here in a couple of hours."

For a moment Chris stared at his soul brother, who barely spoke ten words at a time. With a smirk and a shake of his head he grabbed his coat and hat.

"You have a radio? Though not sure it'll work too well if the snow gets heavier," Chris asked. At

Vin's nod he said, "Let's get your horses saddled Pard. Do you have enough layers of clothes to keep you warm on this trip? It's going to be colder than hell."

"Yep, got some more clothes in my saddlebags. Will put them on," Vin said with a grin as he went out the door, thinking that Chris was sounding like a mother hen with a chick.

The two men walked quickly through the snow to the huge rock and timber livery stable. It didn't take them long to tack up Vin's black, Peso and JD's chestnut pinto, Milagro The two horned horse shook their heads and pawed the ground, grumbling a little at the men, knowing they would be out in the cold.

Vin pulled his thick fur lined pants and another heavy wool shirt from his saddlebags and quickly added them to what he was already wearing. He had several layers on his slender frame and hoped they'd be enough for the ride.

Chris asked Yosemite for two blankets and handed one to Vin, laying the other over JD's saddle. The two young men would wrap them around their hips, legs and feet for extra warmth. He knew as cold as it was, and with legs dangling down the horses sides, it would be hard to keep their legs warm.

JD ran into the stable and thanked Chris for tacking his mare for him. Once mounted, Chris helped him tuck the blanket across his lap and around his hips and legs. Vin was already in his saddle and had his blanket covering him.

Chris opened the stable door and let the two riders out, closing the door partway behind them.

"See ya before dark," Vin said as Chris closed the door. Chris watched through a narrow space a moment as Vin and JD disappeared into the whiteness.

The ride to 6C was cold, snow was falling turning everything white, and landmarks and trails disappeared under the silent blanket of snow. They were several miles from 4C when they heard the rumble of the diesel engine of the bus that was in route to 4C, that was the cause of why JD and Vin were out in the storm. They moved off the road and waited until it passed, spraying them with snow. The driver didn't stop, just waved as he drove past. Once by, they resumed their journey. The wind roared to life, throwing freezing ice pellets that stung their faces.

They pulled their wool scarves up over their faces to keep them from the freezing snow, leaving only their eyes bare. The wool was wrapped around their heads then their hats were pulled tightly down over it and the ends were tucked under their coat front collars to keep their necks warm. Their coat collars were pulled up and the gloved hands that were holding their reins were switched often, one in a pocket to warm it up.

Peso and Milagro grumbled as they moved steadily in the snow, neither horse was happy to be out the storm. They wanted to be home, but they were alert, their heads were turning as they watched for danger and scented the wind. When they stopped for a couple of minutes to rest they never let their guard down.

It was a little after noon when Vin and JD entered 6C and rode straight to the livery stable. Vin dismounted and opened the large door. JD enter first and Vin followed pulling the door shut behind him and Peso.

"Hey boys, what are you doing out in this storm?" Ferrell Neman asked coming from the stall he'd been cleaning.

"Have to pick up something. Can we leave our horses here for a while to warm up?" JD asked.

"Sure, just finished cleaning this stall, it's ready. That's the only open one I have right now."

"Thanks that will do," Vin said as he brushed snow off himself. He then led Peso into the stall; JD and Milagro followed.

"Here, brush your horses off and throw these over them. I'll get some grain," Ferrell said handing JD two brushes and laying two heavy blankets over the stall door.

Twenty minutes later the two young men were at the small café drinking cups of hot coffee while the owner went to get them bowls of the day's hearty soup. Calvin's shop was closed for lunch, the sign on his door said he'd return at 12:30.

They were paying for their meal when a man hurried in and called out, "Carrie, get your windows shut down. There's a pack of wolves around. Might be headed this way."

The older woman waved her hand at the man. "Will do Doug."

Everyone knew about the wolves; they usually came out of the snow choked mountains this time of the year looking for food, though they could be found any time of the year. Anything that moved or

breathed was food for the huge beasts. Most adult wolves stood close to four feet tall at the shoulder, mouths full of large, long sharp teeth; colors varied from brown to red, to grey to black and most dark variegated colors. They would turn on their own if wounded. To protect themselves and their animals people lived in rock houses, or if two story's the lower story was always rock, all with metal covers that dropped over windows and doors to detour the vicious animals.

JD and Vin exchanged looks before JD asked, "Sir, do you know where they are?"

Doug paused an instant to look the strangers over before he answered. "Spotted south of 5C, they could be anywhere."

"Thanks." JD turned to Vin, "We have to get home. If they attack town, we'll be needed"

"I know," Vin replied wrapping his scarf around his neck.

They quickly strode two doors down and found that the shop was open. Calvin apologized to JD for not getting his purchase on the north bound bus that morning.

With the package under his arm, JD thanked Calvin and the two rushed to the livery, paid for the care of their horses and saddled up. JD stored the bulky gift in one side of his saddlebags. He made sure the flap was tightly closed and buckled down, then mounted. He wrapped the blanket around himself and followed Ferrell to the doors.

"Safe trip boys," Ferrell called to them as they headed out of the stable.

With waves of their arms, Vin and JD trotted their horned horses to the end of the short street before urging them into a canter. Both young men had checked their weapons before they left town. Once beyond the buildings Vin tried to reach 4C on the radio. Nothing but a burst of static resonated through the wind and snow.

It was hard to see through the snow but the two horned horses could see better than their riders and stayed on high alert. They'd picked up the urgency and worry from their riders. This time the wind was at their backs, and they knew the way home, letting the wind push them.

An hour and a half into the ride the wind began to ease; the snow was still coming down but not flying so hard as to sting. Riding beside each other, their horses at a walk to rest them, Vin reached out and ran his hand over JD's white back, dislodging the snow that was sticking there. JD's eyes crinkled in appreciation and he did the same for Vin. With the cold snow that had crusted on their backs gone, they hoped to feel warmer.

Vin uncovered his mouth and asked, "You warm enough?"

JD pulled the wool scarf down off his mouth and answered, "Yes, that really helps. Glad the wind is dying. Think we can reach 4C now?" he asked before covering his mouth and nose again.

Reaching for the radio hanging on his saddle Vin removed its protective case and tried to reach the town. The blast of static caused both young men to jump and the horses to growl in discomfort.

Vin shrugged and put it away, his hand patted Peso's neck as he soothed the growling black. They continued their trip, letting the horses canter then trot for awhile. The cold sapped the animal's strength if they had to continue for too long at a fast gait in the freezing conditions, so they made sure to take a breather often. They knew the horses would go for hours without complaint, the horses would stop on their own accord when they got tired, but Vin and JD didn't know if they'd have to to make a run for it. Once or twice JD and Vin dismounted and stomped around in the snow, then brushed snow off the horses before mounting and bundling up again as they set off.

Thirty minutes from 4C they halted for the last time. Vin tried the radio and was able to pick up a voice, he thought it was Buck. But the static was still bad and he couldn't hear much. He told the other man they were a half hour away before a burst of static cut them off.

JD shook his head, "I'm going to check the radio in the office when I get home, it should be able to get through this snow a lot better than it is now."

Mounting, Vin adjusted his blanket and looked at JD, who was once more covered with snow, both of them had just brushed each other off minutes ago. He could see the frown on JD's face as the younger man pulled his scarf into place. The snow had picked up as the wind died. The grey day was beginning to darken; it was going to be dark early today.

"Let's get home," Vin said covering his mouth and nose with his scarf.

With a nod JD nudged Milagro into her mile eating canter once more. Vin and Peso were beside them.

Less than a mile from the outskirts of the town the wind once more picked up and the snow began to fall heavier. It was blowing hard enough to limit their view making the horses grumble with unease.

Abruptly the horse's horned heads went higher and began to swing back and forth as keen eyes tried to penetrate the churning whiteness. Nostrils wide both horses growled then roared out loud challenges.

Both young men grabbed their weapons as their eyes began searching for what the horses were confronting.

All of a sudden huge dark shapes materialized out of the snow in a rush, charging at them. Wide jaws full of lethal teeth were open, ready to grab anything.

Peso and Milagro roared and instantly attacked as Vin and JD began firing at the beasts. For several minutes the large wolves attacked head on and eight died. Three wounded animals fell back and then howled when pack members turned on them.

It was clear for a moment and Vin yelled at JD. "Go, head for home."

JD forced Milagro around and buried his heels into her sides and they were off at a run as Peso slashed and killed the wolf that jumped at his rider.

Vin pulled the blanket back over his legs as Peso whirled in a fast tight circle then leaped into a run after Milagro. Leaning low over the black's neck Vin watched for another attack but the remaining wolves stayed out of the range of his gun.

Peso roared at something only he could see in the dense snow ahead of them. An answering roar

sounded and the sound of a blaster reached Vin. Peso surged forward and seconds later Vin saw JD shooting at several wolves who were closing in on him and Milagro.

With a wild roar Peso attacked the closest one with his iron clad hooves and razor sharp horns. The wolf died before Vin could shoot it and he turned his gun to the wolf that swerved towards them, then a second one while JD's blaster shots and fighting horse took out the last two wolves.

They raced away, the horses growling as they ran through the snow side by side. The town appeared in front of them and with a sigh of relief they ran past several empty buildings before closed stores and businesses emerged.

Vin fired his mare's leg into the air twice, signaling that riders were coming in fast, and in danger. 'Vin coming in' he sent to Chris through their unique connection. They slowed the running horses as they passed the jail. Down the road the livery doors were swinging open. Two men with blasters in their hands held the doors against the wind as Peso and Milagro were brought down to a trot when they reached the open doors. Entering the stables the doors were instantly closed. Outside they heard gunshots as the wolves came into the town.

Vin was off Peso and sprinting up the loft ladder before Peso had completely stopped. JD was a bit slower but following. Vin reached the upper deck and ran to the loft door where Chris was firing at the wolves in the street below. The deep throated sound of the mare's leg firing filled the air as gunshots and blaster bolts began to take down the huge beasts that were invading the town.

Buck and Yosemite, who had opened the stable doors for the riders, came up the ladder behind JD. Once in the loft the three spread out, Buck and JD rushing to the windows that overlooked the street. Yosemite went to the back window of his stable to watch over that part of the building. The noise from their weapons was lost in the howls of the wolves and the roars from the stabled horned horses that were ready to attack.

"Glad you made it back okay," Chris said to Vin as he reloaded the rifle he was using.

"Got attacked outside a town, was close." Vin nodded to a tear in the outer layer of his pants.

Chris' gaze took in the six-inch slash that went through two layers of heavy pants to the red long johns Vin was wearing. He didn't see any blood and was relieved.

Another wave of wolves swept into the town and began to attack their dead. The large, ugly beasts were hungry and laid into everything that they could eat. Chris went back to shooting muttering out loud, "Eat this you bastards," as his deadly accurate firing found bodies.

Another ten minutes passed before the last of the wolves finally gave up and raced out of town, their number cut down to barely a handful. Almost forty wolves lay dead in the street. Townspeople began to warily come out of their businesses and homes, men with sharp knives descended on the dead animals.

Wolf hides were used for many things from blankets to bridles to ropes. The hides, if worked correctly were soft and pliable. Depending on the age of the wolf, its meat, mostly shoulder and haunches, could be used as food for families.

In the livery stable, the five men in the hay loft, once assured the wolves were gone for good, headed down the ladder. Vin and JD took care of their mounts, who were standing in the aisle facing the doors, still on alert. Now that the wolves were gone, the other horned horses began to calm with just a few still grumbling.

Chris and Buck helped their young friends settle Peso and Milagro into their stalls before they left. Yosemite checked over the stabled horses before he headed into his office. Wet blankets had been hung to dry, Vin and JD had their saddle bags over their arms, JD gripping his saddle bag tightly as they left.

Darkness had fallen but the snow was still coming down. The wind had changed directions and was sending snow swirling around the street and the figures of men working over the wolves. The four headed for Ezra's restaurant, hotel and saloon. As they hurried past the warm glowing windows that were now uncovered, they spotted Flower and Heather pacing from window to window, their fur still upraised and teeth showing.

With grins the men entered the building. The two large cats ran joyfully to their sides, weaving around their legs, heads butting against thighs.

Heather curled around Vin's legs, then she sniffed at the tear in his pant leg and growled. Her hair came upright on her back again. Flower hurried over to her sister's side and shoved her nose against Vin' leg also. Her growl joined Heather's.

"Hey girls, it's alright. The wolves are dead, I'm fine," Vin told them.

The colorful cats sat back on their haunches and stared at Vin as if not believing him. Green and yellow eyes gazed unerringly up at him. Vin looked at his friends who were trying not to laugh before turning his gaze back to the two cats. His hands went to his hips and he looked down at the sisters.

"I am fine; the wolf that did this is dead. Nothing's injured."

Snickers and huffs could be heard as his friends watched in amusement as Vin tried to calm the two cats and get past them. None of them saw Ezra come out of the door leading to the restaurant's kitchen, bypassing the nicely decorated tall Christmas tree that Chris and Vin had brought in from the ranch three days ago.

Ezra stopped when he spotted his pets confronting Vin. For a long moment he tried to figure out what was going on. Flower and Heather loved Vin and the other men he considered brothers, and were always happy to see them. The looks the two felines were giving Vin was as if he had betrayed them. He watched as Vin talked to them, then threw his hands in the air in frustration. The sisters just stared at him. Vin finally reached into his coat pocket and held something out to the two.

With a grin Ezra saw it was a couple of cookies, the kind his pets liked. He wondered what they would do, accept the offering or not.

Vin held out the cookies to the two cats. "These are for you; see I brought them just for you two. I'm not feeding 'em to a wolf."

For a moment the two cats gazed at Vin, then as one turned their heads and looked at each other. After a second Flower rose and moved to take the cookie from Vin, Heather followed a step behind her. They accepted the cookies and Vin rubbed their heads in relief. He knew if the sisters didn't like someone they would run them off, as they had done to several rancher's, and even a few of Ezra's customers. With purrs the sisters ate the cookies then wove themselves around the man's legs.

"I think they have your number Junior. Act like they aren't going to let you in, and when you give them the treat all is forgiven," Buck laughed and slapped the slight youngster on his back almost knocking him over. "Let's get something hot to eat."

Buck turned to Ezra who came forward. "Can we get a meal?"

"Where's all the people?" JD asked at the same time, looking around the empty room.

Ezra nodded his head towards the dining room. "Dinner will be ready in about ten minutes. The customers who were here departed on this afternoon's bus; it was fairly crowded today. Things are about back to their normal tranquility and quietness in our little municipality," he smiled as Vin moved towards the dining room door with his two cats pressed against the younger man's legs.

Seeing where Ezra's gaze was, Chris said, "They have him under their … umm paws."

"He is an easy mark for them," Ezra laughed as Vin rolled his eyes as they moved to their usual table. The two cats nearly tripping him as he walked, they were so close to him.

Nathan and Josiah joined the others several minutes later. Nathan was happy to be free of the clinic for an hour. Rain, his wife had encouraged Josiah and Nathan to go get dinner while she cared for the last patients.

When their meal arrived the men ate hungrily. Vin and JD, still cold from their journey, relished the hot meal; meatloaf, potatoes, gravy, vegetables and hot rolls just out of the oven. The others watched in amusement as their food quickly disappeared, then another helping of everything followed. They finished the meal with hot apple dumplings and coffee.

Josiah looked at Chris and asked, "Are we having Christmas here in town or out at the ranch?"

Before Chris could answer, Ezra spoke up, "You are all welcome to stay here in the rooms allotted to you. The Christmas festivities have been curtailed, as the visitors to our fair municipality have decided to abscond to a superior metropolis for the holidays. I find we have an abundance of foods and vacant rooms. The townspeople have other plans." Ezra told the men seated around him.

Chris and Vin looked at each other for a long moment, before Vin's eyebrow rose and he slightly nodded his head. Chris turned to the others.

"We'll have to check the ranch tomorrow, but that sounds like a plan. Tomorrow is Christmas Eve, it'll be nice not to have to cook our own dinner," Chris sent a teasing look at Vin who smiled and shook his head.

"Can we open our gifts tomorrow evening?" JD asked in a rush.

"After dinner," Buck and Nathan said at the same time. Laughter broke out for a few minutes over the exchange.

Vin stretched and smiled down at the colorful cats heads resting on his thighs, one on each side, bodies leaning against his legs. Scratching their heads he barely covered the yawn that caught him.

"I think I'm heading off to my bed, all that fresh air, I'm tired," Vin said and got up. Flower and Heather rose with him and stood beside him, tails flicking in the air. "I'm going upstairs girls, you can stay here. See ya all in the morning. Early Chris?"

"Daybreak will work," Chris answered.

With a tired wave Vin headed out of the room. For a moment the two felines watched him, when he disappeared around the corner they took off as if shot from a gun. They raced up the stairs and were sitting in front of Vin's bedroom door when he got there. Vin shook his head and opened the door. "Ya can come in for a couple minutes then ya got to get. I don't need bed warmers tonight," he told them. They prowled around the room and when Vin was ready to fall into bed he let them out, for a few seconds they gazed up at him before they left and he heard them running down the hall. Closing his door he went to bed he knew the next two days were going to be a little busy, but fun.

Dawn was just breaking when Chris and Vin finished breakfast. Vin was surprised when Buck had joined them, saying he decided to help them so they could get back faster. An hour later they were at the ranch. With the three working together, they quickly had stalls cleaned, horses out into the snow covered pastures with enough feed for several days. There were enough trees in the pastures to shelter them. The cliff's at one end of the pasture the snow had been swept clean of the snow by the wind. The horses would be able to get out of the wind if the weather got bad and their thick coats would be enough to protect them for a couple of days along with the wind breaks. Before leaving the pastures, they made sure the creek wasn't totally frozen so the horned horses had plenty water available.

Finishing the chores they stopped at the house. Chris and Vin changed clothes then picked up their gifts before beginning the trip back to town. All of their saddlebags were filled when they left just before noon.

At the hotel, Ezra was placing gifts under the tree, and noticed that there was already several there. He smiled as he glanced at the tags, noting they were from Nathan and Josiah. Once his joined the others he stepped away to look over the tree. Heather and Flower sat down beside him and their heads cocked this way and that as if they were checking it out also. With a grin he reached down and scratched their heads. He agreed with them, it was a fine tree. Just then JD came hurrying in, stomping the snow off his boots, his arms full of gifts.

"Hey Ezra. I got my gifts done. Is there enough room under there for them?" JD said as he stopped beside the tree.

"Mr. Dunne, there is plenty of room. This is a large tree."

"Thanks Ezra." JD carefully deposited his gifts then stood beside Ezra and looked at the decorated tree. "This sure is a nice tree. Is there any hot cocoa?"

"Miss Inez left a pot of it for you and Mr. Tanner. Come on and I'll get you some." Ezra headed for the kitchen with JD behind him.

When they returned from the kitchen Buck, Chris and Vin were coming in the door, arms filled with gifts. JD's eyes lit up and he moved to help them. Josiah and Nathan entered as the last of the gifts were placed under the tree.

For several hours talking, laughter and teasing rang throughout the room before the men moved

towards the kitchen to see to the meal that had been prepared earlier. Inez had left hours before telling them to help themselves when they got hungry.

Later that evening the men sat in a half circle around the tree as Rain passed gifts out. The two large cats lay by the tree watching everything that was going on around them. When balls of wrap paper came their way they'd bat them across the floor in play, but never left their places for more than a few seconds, they didn't want to miss anything.

Finally there was only one gift left and JD told how he and Vin had made the trip to 6C to pick it up, and to arrive home with hungry wolves after them.

With a grin Vin told JD, "Just give it to him and let's see what it was we went after."

Buck shoved Vin hard enough to knock him off his chair, "You had no idea what you were going after Junior?" He blurted then laughed as the two cats launched a playful attack on the young man.

For a couple minutes the men and Rain laughed watching the two cats pounce and play with Vin who was giggling from the wet tongues that washed his face. When JD gave the package, he had in his hands, to Buck, Flower attacked his leg; tripping him. JD tried to catch himself but another hit from the big cat had him falling to the floor where she instantly leaped on his chest and began to lick his face. Within seconds he too was giggling and trying to push her off him.

Heather, from her position on Vin's chest, jumped off him and bound over to JD and Flower, where she promptly began licking his face also. Vin made his escape, rolling over and jumping off the floor. Standing he reached out and playfully smacked Buck across his head. Buck ducked the blow and bumped into Rain who punched him in the arm.

"OW!" Buck exclaimed loudly and looked at Nathan's pretty wife not seeing the two cats turn their gazes on him.

Before he knew what hit him the two cats were up into Buck's face, paws on his thighs and rough tongues were washing his features for him, teeth pulled at his mustache as if wanting to pull it off. He was laughing and trying to push them away with one hand.

Ezra finally called a halt to the cat's fun, "Girls! That's enough for now!" he called out. Both cats dropped their feet to the floor and with affronted looks moved to their places by the tree. Lying down they watched the men as Buck wiped his face dry then turned to the package in his hands.

Opening the wrapping, Buck stared at the leather in his lap.

"What is it?" Chris asked.

"Saddlebags. Really nice saddlebags," Buck replied and his eyes went to JD as he lifted them up for everyone to see. "They are just what I needed, thanks Kid."

"It's got your name on one side and initials on the other," JD said excitedly. "They're made out of cowhide and lined inside with wolf hide, should last you the rest of your life."

"That's many years Kid," Buck replied still looking over the well made saddlebags. "How'd you know I needed another set?" He passed them to Vin who looked them over before passing them off to Chris.

"Geeze Buck, I've got eyes! Your other set must be a hundred years old and you can't really use them anymore."

Amid laughter the saddlebags made the rounds from one to the other. They all thought they were the best made ones they'd ever seen and questioned JD as to who made them, thinking they might order some for themselves. He happily told them about Calvin in 6C who was a master leather craftsman who could make almost anything with leather.

Once the saddlebags were back in Buck's hands, the men rose and began to pick up the discarded paper and cleaning up the area. Rain went to the kitchen to bring out snacks and coffee while they cleaned up, and before long everyone was sitting around a table eating and drinking. Each man thanked the others for their gifts. Rain moved around the table kissing each man on the cheek as a thank you her gift each man had given her. Buck grabbed her, pulling her onto his lap and gave her a big sloppy kiss back, under the watchful eye of her husband as they all laughed. She smacked him on his shoulder as she jumped up with a laugh.

As the hour drew late they finally decided to call it a day. Christmas Day was coming quickly and they wanted to be ready for it. Josiah was holding a Christmas service at the church at nine, after the men met over an early breakfast. In mid-afternoon there was to be a large meal put on by several townswomen for townsfolk for anyone wanting to attend. The seven men were going to help with serving the meal.

The men bid each other good night and Rain smiled at each of the men, thanked them once more, and holding her gifts she walked out with Nathan and Josiah as they headed off to their lodgings. The others headed for their rooms as Ezra locked up and shut off lights. At the foot of the stairs he paused and looked around, Flower and Heather stood on each side of him waiting for him to go upstairs.

Looking at the decorated tree Ezra smiled, he was blessed with six great friends, more like brothers to him and he felt ten feet tall with their friendship. This had been a wonderful evening and he knew the next day was going to be even better with the good food, wonderful neighbors and the men he claimed as brothers. He started up the stairs; yes it was for sure a very Merry Christmas.


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