Winter's Grip
by Mary Ann

Main Character: Ezra

**Talking between Chris & Vin**

Alternate Universe In The Year

Ezra walked out of his restaurant-saloon hotel and looked up and down the road. It was quiet but cold, windblown snow swirled around the buildings and he pulled his coat tighter about him. With a sigh he headed down the walk and then into the jail where JD was holding down the office for another few minutes. He didn’t see another person anywhere on his short trip to the jail.

JD grinned as Ezra walked in the door, bundled up so much he could hardly tell who it was. “Hey Ezra, glad you made it, looks like the snow is coming down harder. Got hot coffee on and it is warm in here for once. I fixed the heater. The wood stove is ready too, in case it’s needed.”

“Good Mr. Dunne. At least I am assured of a good, hot cup of coffee and a warm stay. Any word when Misters Larabee, Tanner and Sanchez will be back?”

“Yes, Chris called an hour ago and they should be here in about 45 minutes. Said their trip was worthwhile.”

“Excellent,” Ezra said as he poured himself a large cup of coffee and took JD’s place behind the hefty desk. “I hope they had a good return trip, with this weather it would be hell out there. What are you going to do with the rest of your day?”

“Going to go wrap, and then pack the last of my Christmas gifts, so I’ll be ready for the Christmas celebration at Chris’.”

“Ahh yes, in two days.”

“Are you ready Ezra?”

“I do believe so Mr. Dunne.”

“Well I’m headed out. Buck said he’d drop in later to check and see if there’s anything you need. I’ll see you after while.” JD wrapped his woolen scarf around his neck and buttoned his coat as he hurried out the door.

Ezra watched the youngster run across the empty street, and then almost fall when he hit the frozen boardwalk; righting himself JD continued to run towards the boarding house. Ezra shook his head before turning to the pile of messages and mail on the desk. As he looked through the posters from people looking for someone or wanting property, and the few wanted flyers, he thought of the upcoming Christmas festivity.

He’d never celebrated Christmas very much, it was just another day to his mother and Maude was always on the move, never in the same place for a holiday. He did receive a few gifts for Christmas but never anything that he really longed for. He remembered asking for a cat or dog for several years when he was young, but Maude would look down her nose at him and tell him they had no time for ungrateful, filthy animals, which included all cats, dogs and horses. He finally gave up and secretly saved his money so he could buy a horse and leave when he was 18.

This would be the first year that he celebrated Christmas with someone, he paused, some six, he corrected, who he liked and respected. He had a feeling that Vin had never had much of a Christmas either, if any at all, though he knew Mrs. Wells doted on the young man. ‘Well it should be an interesting Christmas this year,’ he thought.

The wind suddenly increased and the windows began to shake from its power. He hoped that they would be able to get out to Larabee’s ranch when the time came, the trail up and over the ridge would be treacherous. He stood and looked out the cool window, the businesses had lights on and a couple brave people hurried from store to store. He shivered and started to turn away when a flicker of movement showed thru the snow.

He gazed at where he thought he’d seen something then smiled, as two big black horned horses and a deep red one came cantering down the street. It was hard to tell what the riders looked like they were so covered in ice and snow, and the horses had ice on their muzzles and in their forelocks, manes and tails. Their large heads turned this way and that as if looking for any trouble. The trio cantered past, heading for the large livery stable up the street. He watched the horses turn towards the building and noticed that there were large packs behind the mens saddles. When they all disappeared into the building he turned back to the heat, and poured more coffee for himself, then with a glance at the door, prepared three more cups.

Five minutes later three snow covered men, carrying packs walked into the jail followed by a rush of snow and cold. Vin quickly shut the door, dropped his pack and moved to the heater all in one smooth move. Ezra smiled, Tanner seemed to be just a bony teen, and always cold, this weather he figured, had Vin freezing all the time.

“How was your trip?” Ezra inquired, filling the coffee cups.

“Better than we thought it would be. We delivered the supplies and the prisoner and got a little shopping done and made it back here in less time than we thought,” Josiah answered as the three men began to pull off coats and hats.

“Bit cold out there?”

“Could say that Ez... Damn cold out there,” Vin answered.

Ezra glanced at Vin and shook his head. Vin had been wrapped up to his eyes, and was just unwrapping the long scarf from around his face, head and neck. Thick gloves were already laid on a chair, and as Ezra watched, Vin dropped the scarf, and went to work on his coat. Ezra hid his smile once the coat came off; by the looks of the kid he had every shirt he owned on and maybe three pairs of pants and who knew how many sets of long johns. He figured Vin probably weighed 40 pounds more.

In a short time all were sitting in chairs with mugs of hot coffee in their hands and were talking about their trip. Ezra found out that Chris and Vin were heading out to the ranch as soon as they got warmed up; they wanted to check on their horses and make sure everything was ready for the Christmas party. A few minutes later Buck and Nathan hurried in and over cups of coffee, listened to a short version on how their trip had gone, and checked to see if any plans had been changed. Asked where JD was, they were told he was busy wrapping presents, not wanting to wait until the last day.

An hour later Chris and Vin were packing things on their horses and a pack horse, for the trip to the ranch. Vin giggled now and then as he squirmed a bit and touched his heavily covered chest with his free hand.

“Vin, are you alright?”

“Yeah Chris, just can’t wait to see some faces at the party.”

Chris smiled; it was going to be an interesting Christmas.

3 Days later

Vin met the rest of the peacekeepers at the door of the big ranch house. The five were loaded down with supplies and packages. The weather had moderated; it was cold but the sun had managed to come out just in time.

Ezra carried his gifts into the house, savoring the wonderful smells, and stopped dead; the tree that he saw across the room took up half the wall, and had all sorts of gifts under it. He shook his head at the size and the decorations on it as he placed his gifts under the tree. He noticed a large box wrapped in shiny red paper sitting to one side, and wondered for a moment who was getting the package.

A while later, saddle bags in their rooms, and horned horses stabled in the large warm barn, everyone settled in at the large dining table that was loaded with their Christmas Eve dinner. With filled plates of food in front of them, Josiah said a prayer and they all began eating.

When darkness fell lights were lit in the big front room and on the tree. Josiah was pressed into telling the Christmas Story and then JD and Vin were assigned to pass out the gifts.

Within a short time everyone had several gifts piled around them when Vin picked up the large red box and placed it in front of Ezra.

“Open this one first Ez, it’s from Chris and me,” Vin told him as he backed away.

With surprise reflected on his face, he looked around the room to see expressions of wonder on the faces of his friends, Ezra began to unwrap the box. Something rattled inside it and he stopped a moment before continuing on as everyone encouraged him.

Lifting the top of the box, he looked inside and gasped. Two colorful heads looked up at him, one blinking bright yellow eyes the other bright green ones. The yellow eyed one stood up, stretched and its two paws reached up and leaned against the box side, “Meow?” The dark black, brown and tan kitten said. The green eyed one swatted at its sibling and not to be outdone placed its paws beside the first one. Almost the same color except for the markings and placing of the colors it also asked, “Meow?”

Stunned Ezra could only stare at the two kittens. Finally the green eyed one hooked her claws into the edge of the box and scrambled up and over the edge barely making it to the shocked man’s lap. Once there it kneaded his leg a minute and then curled up and buried its nose under her tail and promptly went to sleep. Moments later the yellow eyed kitten had done the same thing.

Ezra stared at the little bundles, one slightly fuzzier than the other, and then looked up at the six smiling men. He swallowed then said quietly, “How’d you know? Thank you. This is the best gift I’ve ever gotten. Thank You!”

“Well, something you said awhile back, stuck in my head Ezra, and when we seen these the other day, well here they are,” Chris said.

“Merry Christmas Ez,” Vin said, then the others joined in.

Ezra blinked the tears out of his eyes and quickly looked at the little bundles in his lap, one of his Christmas wishes had come true thanks to these men, to his friends. It was the greatest Christmas ever.

+ + + + + + +

The seven men sitting around the large, warm living room took turns opening gifts that were given to them before Ezra had opened his first gift. Smiles were on their faces as they watched the young man open one gift, a big box of cat food. Ezra wondered if there was a theme now since the two kittens were given to him.

Awhile later they had all finished opening their gifts. Ezra was pleased that he had not only gotten some new things for the kittens, but also for himself. He looked around the room as everyone began picking up wrapping paper and carefully placing them in the oversized fireplace, burned them slowly. Outside it had started to snow again and the wind picked up. Darkness had totally settled over the valley, the light on the barn could barely be seen through the blowing snow.

Chris and Josiah disappeared into the kitchen then reappeared with hot buttered rums for everyone, and announced that dessert would be served shortly. As the men relaxed the kittens woke up and looked around and before he could do anything they were off Ezra’s lap and racing around the room. They’d stop long enough to bat at each other or one of the men, then take off with their game of chase, or hide and seek. The men laughed at the kittens antics.

“You got a name for them yet Ezra?” JD asked as he watched the kittens playing.

“Well Mr. Dunne, I haven’t really had time to think of a name for them. Do you have a suggestion?”

“Ummm well maybe Christmas and New Year’s?”

Buck almost choked on his drink as he tried to laugh and swallow at the same time. JD jumped up and banged him on the back, a little harder then he needed to. When the coughing was done, Buck grabbed the younger man and pulled him down to the floor and tickled him. The kittens watched for a moment then pounced on the two men, one going for the laughing JD the other attacked Buck. Both men yelled when little teeth and claws sunk into their arm or leg. The wrestling stopped and they scooped up the kittens and regained their seats. Buck looked at the kitten he was holding and shook his head.

“Feisty little bugger here, maybe call it Feisty,” he laughed as the kitten hissed at him. He sat it on the floor and it stood in front of him and hissed then with a flick of her tail walked away.

Everyone laughed, and JD pet the one he was holding before he sat her on the floor too. “Your animal maggotism doesn’t work on these two Buck,” JD laughed, then said, “Feisty One and Feisty Two maybe?”

“No I don’t think so. Need to think of something better for them.”

“What about Gambler and Winner?” Nathan said with a big smile.

“Feisty and Gambler?” Buck threw in.

“Pro and Con?” Josiah added.

Vin and Chris exchanged a smile and kept out of the names that were tossed around the room, they’d had the kittens for several days, and had just called them ‘Kitty’ and they’d come running for their food or treats.

The kittens tired of their games and walked around the men, before making a decision. They suddenly jumped up on the couch beside Ezra and settled in beside him. A pile of colorful dark fur was all the men could see now as the kittens curled into balls and went to sleep. Ezra’s hand came down and stroked the soft warm fur for a moment before he realized he was being watched and snatched his hand away.

Before Ezra could say anything, Chris said, “Let’s go get some dessert before it gets any later. Ezra can come up with his own names for his new pets when he wants to.” Chris’ words cut off the names being tossed at Ezra again for the kittens, as they got more imagnative.

The men entered the kitchen and before long they were eating desserts that were laid out for them. When they went back to the large living room they noticed that the two cats had moved and were now curled up in front of the fireplace on the hearth rug.

More visiting went on and finally everyone decided it had been a good long day and it was time to call it a night. As everyone moved towards their bedrooms, Ezra paused and looked at Chris, “Should I take them with me to my room or are they alright here?”

Chris smiled, “There’s a litter box set up in the corner of your room so you can take them in there with you. They were fed before you came so they should be good for the night.”

Looking at Chris then at Vin who’d been turning out some of the lights, Ezra said, “Thank you both for this wonderful gift again. I will always appreciate your thoughtfulness on my behalf. I do like them very much.” With that he stepped to the fireplace and picked up the bundles of fur and headed to his room, shutting the door firmly behind him.

Chris and Vin shared a smile as they made their way to their rooms.

The next morning everyone met in the large kitchen with the exception of Ezra, and went about preparing breakfast. While Chris, Vin, Buck and JD hurried to go do chores Josiah and Nathan put the finishing touches on their meal and by the time the four returned it was finished. Just as the six men sat down to the hardy breakfast, Ezra walked into the room, a kitten under each arm.

“Moring Ez, how’d you sleep?” Vin asked.

Putting the kittens down, Ezra poured himself a large cup of coffee and sat down at the table, “I am not use to having anything in my room at night. Those two decided in the middle of the night to engage in recreation and some games. And I was in the middle of everything as they ran over the bed and tried to get under the blankets and … I did not get much sleep.”

Chris smiled, “Sorry Ezra we should have told you, they like to play at night. But I think once you get them home and into their own space they won’t be bothering you as much. Right now you are something new to them.”

“I realize that Mr. Larabee. I have just the place for them when I go home, and I shall get my sleep and they can play all they want.”

“You’re not letting them go outside are you Ezra?” Vin asked, eyes wide.

“No Mr. Tanner, they will be inside. I do not want wolves or a dog to kill them. They will be well protected, rest assured.”

“Good. Name them yet?”

“No Mr. Tanner. I have to know them a bit longer before I can do that. Though after last night I can think of some names, but I won’t call them that.”

“Well, let’s get finished here. I have to be back in town this afternoon,” Nathan said. “Got a patient that thinks they just have to see me after Christmas every year. Always same thing, overeating.”

Josiah smiled, “I have to get back also, so I’ll ride with you. Anyone else?”

“Yeah, me too. Casey and her Aunt are coming in today and we’re having dinner together. So I have to go too,” JD said.

“Well it’s been a great Christmas this year. I think we all got just about what we all wanted; though some got a little surprise. I am looking forward to next year already,” Chris smiled as Ezra rolled his eyes.

“It was great Chris, thank you for this Christmas together.”

“Thanks Chris.”

“Great time.”

“Thanks everyone…”

“Meow.” “Meow.”

“Dang feeding time…”

+ + + + + + +


Winter still had a tight hold on the countryside. The howl of the wind could be heard as it buffeted the building causing the structure to creak and groan while the windows rattled. However, the noise was all but forgotten as Vin Tanner studied the cards in his hands. He knew the others were watching and awaiting his next move.

Sighing he tossed in a coin, saying, “I call,” and laid down his cards.

Groans were heard from the six others, seeing three aces lying with a set of kings. Smiling Vin raked in the pot of coins and counting them, he stuck the three dollars into his pocket as he stood up.

“Thanks guys. I needed a couple dollars; this’ll come in handy. Callin’ it a night. Got patrol after while, want a little rest before I head out. See ya in the morning,” he said with a grin and turned towards the tightly closed doors, listening to the grumbling of his friends as the card game broke up.

“Wait up Pard, I’ll walk out with you,” Chris called from behind him.

Together the two men pulled their coats tighter around them as they pulled the door securely closed behind them. Vin hurried across the street and entered the big livery, pulling the large door closed behind them.

“What’s up in here?” Chris asked curiously as he followed along as Vin made his way through the huge building. Vin didn’t answer but Chris heard him as if he spoke, **checkin’ on Cream,** and stopped in front of a large box stall.

Inside the outsized box stall with its upper front part covered with a heavy wire mesh, a light cream colored horned horse, with a dark head, mane and tail stood eyeing the two men through the wire of her stall. With a shake of her horned head the mare stepped towards them, her dark brown legs shuffling through the deep straw. Her bulging almost white sides seemed to be moving in the semi-darkness.

**She’s due to foal shortly. Wanta make sure there’s no problems.** Chris heard as Vin patted the nose that pressed against the mesh.

**Could be anytime,** Chris agreed.

**Couple days yet I think. She’s doing alright. I’m heading to bed.** Vin turned towards the large door and Chris moved to his side.

Together they walked down the boardwalk towards the hotel/restaurant that Ezra owned and most of them had rooms in when in town. The saloon in Ezra’s building was undergoing some renovations and Ezra closed it for a week; they were glad there was another saloon in town. Entering the warm foyer they stomped the snow off their boots and brushed it off their coats. Two pairs of eyes watched them from the stairs, one golden the other green. As the men went up the stairs they spotted the watchers and smiled, knowing what was going to happen next they braced themselves.

Two dark calico colored cats attacked their boots. One slapped at Vin’s and then raced up the stairs and away, the other tackled one of Chris’ boots, growling and hissing, an instant later it disappeared after its sister. Both men laughed at the cats’ way of greeting them, knowing they never caused any damage to them, but unwanted intruders were surprised.

“I swear those two have gained five pounds since I seen them three days ago,” Vin commented.

“They have really grown in the last two months. I didn’t think they’d get this big,” Chris said as they walked to their room door, glancing at the two cats sitting by Ezra’s suite door watching them.

Both cats stood over 18 inches tall at the top of their heads, and weighed twelve pounds each, and what one didn’t think of the other one did. With a flick of their tails they trotted to the two men to get a pat on their heads that they expected from their friends.

“Hey Flower, Heather, have you been good lately?” Vin said as he patted one then the other as they curled around his legs. The green-eyed Heather moved to the black clad man and demanded her pat. Yellow-eyed Flower followed. When both men had pet them and praised them the two cats moved back to Ezra’s door and with a last look at the men ducked through the pet door Ezra had installed for them.

Going into their room Chris said, “Ezra has them well trained, well as well as you can a cat. I think they are still growing, remember their mother? She must have been almost two and a half feet tall when she sat down.”

“Think she was part bobcat,” Vin laughed. “Ezra has done good with them. Did you see the pen he has outside for them? Well a run or something he calls it. It’s a fenced area 3o foot long and 15 wide. Nothing can get in an’ they can’t get out. He said he’s goin’ ta plant some fast growing trees in it and brush too. They get out there thru a little door he made in the stock room.”

“Stock room? Not what I’d call a good place for cats,” Chris said as he got ready for bed.

“Said they spend some time in there, making sure there’s no rats or other … varmints. When they’re not guardin’ the lobby and watching who comes and goes in here.”

“No wonder, he said old man James won’t come here anymore. Those two take a disliking to someone, they won’t let them back in, whether its hotel, restaurant or saloon. Good. What I can’t figure out is why he named them Flower and Heather? Sure doesn’t seem to fit them,” Chris commented as he crawled into his bed.

Vin turned out the light and climbed into his own bed before answering. “Josiah told me he was goin’ ta name one Maude and the other Mary but then decided he didn’t want to be mad at them all the time ‘cause of their names. Josiah suggested some flower names that ain’t around anymore… Next thing he hears its Flower and Heather, and the cat’s seemed ta like them names.”

“Yeah, Josiah mentioned that Ezra had tried all kinds of names on them since he got them, but they didn’t like them. Guess they’re smarter than anyone thinks, and now with proper names they are really showing their personalities. “

“Think Ez has his hands full with those two. But they seem ta be good for him.” Vin’s voice got quieter.

“Night Vin,” Chris smiled at the mumble that came from the other bed.

When Chris went down to breakfast the next morning Flower and Heather were sitting by the doorway into the restaurant, as if waiting for him. Outside the wind was still blowing hard, seemed to be howling, and he could feel the cold seeping through the front doors. Spotting Ezra sitting at a corner table near the fireplace he made his way there after greeting the cats. A cup of coffee was poured and waiting for him. Taking the cup Chris sipped the hot brew and settled into one of the chairs where he could feel the heat from the crackling fire.

“Mr. Tanner should return anytime I believe. No one needs to be out in this weather.”

“He’ll be cold.” Chris said glancing out the window; no one had ventured outside yet as far as he could see, not with the snow blowing sideways.

As if their thoughts drew him, they saw Vin hurry past the windows and heard the lobby door open. The cats both let out loud ‘Meows’ as the cold blew in. While Vin stomped his feet and brushed snow off his coat the cats watched him, then both attacked his boots in greeting. Vin reached down, patted the felines and scratched their ears before heading into the restaurant for something hot.

Flower and Heather exchanged glances then followed him into the other room, when Vin sat down at the table with his friends they sat on each side of him, their bodies pressed against his cold legs.

“Hey Ez, you feed the girls yet? I’m not sharing my breakfast with them,” Vin stated as he picked up the hot cup of coffee Chris poured for him after adding sugar to it.

Chris grinned as Ezra blushed and glanced below the table. “Ladies, you know you are not to bother anyone in here, and your food is in the kitchen. Leave Mr. Tanner alone and go eat.”

As if understanding, the two sisters rose, walked to Ezra, butted their heads against his thigh then turned and left the room. Chris and Vin shared a smile as the cats left.

“You have sure trained them well, Ezra.” Chris said.

“They seem to have a great capacity to learn. I’m amazed almost daily how they seem to know what I’m saying. They’re very smart and clever for cats.”

“Don’t think I want’a see anyone they don’t like though,” Vin said as plates of food were placed in front of them.

“No, I assure you Mr. Tanner, you do not want to see someone they take a disliking to,” Ezra smiled wolfishly. “Mr. Stewart James found out how they can be when someone does something to one too; I didn’t have to throw him out, they did a fine job of convincing him to leave instantaneously.”

Chris laughed, and turned to Vin who was busily eating, “Anything going on?”

“No. Quiet. Nothing likes to be out in this weather, didn’t see anything of wolves either. Just the snow an’ wind. I’m goin’a lay down a bit and get warm. Was a long cold night.”

A short time later Vin made his way to their room and entering found two cats laying on his bed as if waiting for him. He didn’t think of how they’d gotten in there. Taking his guns off, he pulled the blanket back when the cats rose and stepped to the side of his bed. Laying down he pulled the blanket over him and snuggled into its warmth. Two warm bodies pressed against his sides and he went to sleep with the sound of purring.


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