Notes/Comments: I am trying to write an entirely different story. However, recently I went to the grocery store, where they were playing Christmas music, and I wound up with "I'll Be Home For Christmas" stuck on REPEAT in my head! To compound matters, when I got home, my Muses seized me by the lapels, threw me into my desk chair, and simply refused to let up until I wrote THIS story ..... *SIGHHHH* ...... Okay, so Merry Christmas, Happy Chanukah, Happy Kwanzaa, and if I omitted your particular holiday, a happy and blessed one of those, too! :-)
P.S. For the purposes of this story, I am going with my hunch that both Josiah and JD originally came from Catholic backgrounds. Any errors in interpretation are purely on account of my own ignorance, and not intended as slight or injury.
Buck Wilmington loved Christmas. After all, what was not to love? Oh, maybe it didn't mean what it once did, with goodies and Santa Claus and a fancy tree in the parlor. But Christmas was something special, no matter that folks got a little older and more gloomy, during the rest of the year. It was the one day when it seemed, simply enough, as if the world had real hope. The one time when a man could stand out on a clear, cold night, and look at that big ol' net of stars up there, and almost feel a million other folks at just that same moment, looking up and wishing for all the best things there ever was. With that many pure, good wishes going up at once . . . yeah, the Boss had to hear, and that had to mean that an ugly, nasty ol' world had hope, after all.
Now here it was again, Christmas just around the corner, and folks all over town were getting in the holiday spirit. Mrs. Potter had greenery strung all across her front store windows, brightened with red and green bows that her kids had tied. The hardware store window boasted a heckuva fancy wrought iron Christmas tree that Yosemite the blacksmith had fashioned, all a-dangle with colored glass ornaments. Bucklin's Grocery had got in a two or three bushels of cranberries and Mexican oranges, and a whole pile of pecans, molasses, and whatever else the folks needed to make pies and sweets. A few doors down, the Standish Tavern had a sign boasting that they served eggnog and hot buttered rum. And last week, the hotel had sent a couple fellows up to the mountains to fetch a real tree, which the local kids had fixed up with strings of popcorn and cranberries, and other dainty pretties. It was worth stepping into that lobby, just to breathe both lungs full of the rich fragrance of pine. Folks smiled brighter, said howdy sooner, and stood to talk just a little bit longer. Yep, Buck loved Christmas.
Not that he expected a lot, himself. Maybe it was just the idea of the thing. Last year, he and the boys had cobbled together a nice enough little Christmas, a sit-down dinner together at the boarding house, a few little gifts. That was plenty, given the men they were, and the thoughts he knew went behind such simple trappings. He reckoned they'd do something like that again this year, nothing fancy, just being grateful for what they had.
Buck simply couldn't help smiling and tipping his hat to folks he met along the street. He even popped into Mrs. Potter's store for a peppermint stick, and strolled back outside with all that aromatic sweetness making his mouth happy. Oh, and just look at the day, smiling blue sky and a snap to the crisp air - Yup, likely ol' Saint Nick was combin' and curryin' his reindeer, right now.
A familiar form in a bowler hat caught his eye, and Buck lengthened his stride. JD didn't see him coming, and Buck grinned, slunk into a half-crouch, and slid up behind the kid. He poised two stiff fingers just behind JD's ribs and -.
"BUCK!" JD dropped back to earth about four feet away, his eyes huge - and angry. "Dammit, Buck, what're you tryin' to do to me? You nearly stopped my heart!"
"Aw, I did not." Buck stuck his hands in his belt, cocked his head, and grinned his best grin. "Besides, you knew I was there."
Shaking his head in exasperation, JD said, "I did NOT."
"Well, then you shouldn't be sleepin' on your feet." He slapped the kid's shoulder. "C'mon, I'll buy you an eggnog."
"Damn right you will." JD gave him one last scowl, then fell in beside him.
"So, you about ready for Christmas?"
"What's to get ready for?"
"Whoa-ho, now." Buck pivoted and braced his fingers on his friend's chest, stopping them both. "This ain't you bein' mad 'cause I spooked ya, is it?"
"I ain't mad at nobody," said JD irritably.
"Uh-huh. And I'm Santa's trail boss. What's wrong?"
"NOTHIN's -." JD propped his hands on his gun belt and looked away. "- wrong."
"I tell you I tacked new shoes on Donner and Blitzen last night, too?"
"I just . . ." Now JD looked back at his friend, with those clear brown eyes that never held a secret between them. "It just don't feel like Christmas to me, Buck. I just can't get in the mood, I guess. I mean, I'll get Casey something, and we'll probably have a nice dinner and all, like last year, but it's just not . . . it's not Christmas. Maybe I'm just finally outgrowin' it, is all. It's great for kids and families, but not . . . not me."
"Why not you? Hell, JD, you deserve Christmas as much as anybody."
"It ain't something people DESERVE, Buck. It's . . ." His dark brows pinched together as he fumbled for the words. "It's something you're supposed to FEEL, something you - you share with other people. A special thing, like family. Us, well, we're kinda like the dogs left guardin' the flock, while the shepherds go eat turkey and plum pudding."
"Now, son, that ain't all there is. I mean, we don't got family, really, but we got friends, and I reckon that's just family you get to chose on purpose. You got Casey to do nice things for, too." Buck bent his knees just enough, so that he was grinning at the kid, eye-to-eye. "And you got me."
That startled a chuckle from ol' Gloomy Gus. "Oh, and I'm supposed to count that as a blessing?"
But the kid was smiling, and Buck rocked back on his heels, contented with that little stroke. "C'mon, son, I'll ask Inez to jiggle a little extra brandy in your eggnog. You look like you need some holiday spirits, if you know what I mean."
"Yeah," retorted JD with a grin. "The wrong kind of spirits."
+ + + + + + +
"Christmas," Ezra Standish announced, to the brandy in his upheld glass. "Is that time of year when merchants and stock market speculators have the chance to recoup a year's worth of bad or mediocre investments, in a single stroke." He lowered his glass and favored his companions with a cynical smile. "I would wager that more money is made during the weeks prior to Christmas, than in any other fiscal quarter of the entire year. And the poor fools of this country leap to spend funds that they can ill-afford to squander, all in the name of a mythical holiday spirit."
"Damn, Ezra!" Buck glared across the table at the dapper gambler. "That's cuttin' it pretty cold, don't you think?"
"Not at all." Ezra raised his eyebrows in mild reproach. "After all, why must people engage in a mad scramble to do good for one day, when they are too damned selfish to lift a single charitable finger, the rest of the year?"
Shaking his head, Buck said firmly, "You're wrong, Ez. That ain't what Christmas is about."
"He's got a point." Heads turned to regard their quiet tracker, who shrugged across the rim of his glass. "Folks ought not to be kindly just once a year. Should be year-round."
"Truly spoken, Brother Vin," Josiah gently applauded.
"I ain't gonna argue that," said Buck. "But Christmas is SUPPOSED to be special, that's what it's for!"
With a languid shrug, Vin said, "Never paid it much mind, myself."
Unwilling to concede defeat, but feeling out-gunned, Buck sat back with a frustrated scowl. Hell, Vin had probably never even seen a real Christmas. Somehow it didn't seem a favorite holiday for Comanches and bounty hunters. Then Buck felt mean for having had that thought.
A light scent of sage and the cool whisk of skirts turned their heads, and their Latina bartender leaned over the table, a tray in hand. Inez's dark eyes smiled as she lifted two white mugs and set them down.
"There you go, JD. And for you, Josiah."
"Gracias," rumbled the stoic preacher.
"No nutmeg, JD, as you asked," she said, in that velvety Mexican accent that always turned Buck's knees to water. "But Senor Ezra says it's a crime to drink eggnog, without it."
"A sure indicator of criminally uneducated tastes," Ezra stated firmly. "Positively felonious."
"Well, then I guess I'll just have to arrest myself." JD grinned and lifted his mug in toast.
Evening had fallen like a downy blanket filled with tiny thorns of ice, and people drew close to warm stoves and fireplaces. For the seven peace keepers of the town, comfort most often meant the cozy confides of their favorite saloon. Five of them now gathered for drinks near the big pot-bellied stove, although only Ezra chose to take his brandy sans eggnog.
"Say, Inez." Buck turned in his chair to look up at her. "What do you like about Christmas? Or if you miss something, what do you miss most about it?"
"Oh . . . I would like to go to Christmas Mass. I miss that." She gave a wistful half-shrug. "The church was always so nice, so many lights, and all the singing."
"I know what you mean," JD said with a slow nod. "I used to go with Mama, and even though I couldn't understand all that Latin the choir sang, it just felt . . . holy, or something."
His smile suddenly turned self-conscious, but Inez laid gentle fingers on his shoulder. "Maybe that's because it was, JD," she said softly.
Buck would have cheerfully hammered both his thumbs, if that could put him on the receiving end of her smile. However, JD of course merely gave her hand a brotherly squeeze, and let her walk away. Silently but deeply, Buck sighed at the injustice of the world. It sure was a good thing JD had no real clue about women.
"So, Josiah!" Buck said brightly. "What's Christmas to you? Gotta be something better than ol' Scrooge Standish, over there."
"At your service," Ezra said with a smile.
"Time for reflection," Josiah said. "Time for thanks. God gave his son into the world to die for our sins."
"Oh, ouch." Buck screwed his face into lines of discomfort. "How about something a little more cheerful? You know, Christmas carols, sleigh rides, stuff like that? Hey, Josiah, can't you do one of them Mass things?"
"Why not? You know how to talk a pretty speech, and I bet folks would come from all over to hear ya."
"Aw, c'mon, Josiah. You could -."
Wood screeched on wood as the preacher swept to his feet. His empty chair teetered an instant on two legs, then toppled with a crash, as Josiah strode around the table and out the door.
"Josiah - what -?" Buck swung a pointing finger towards the emptily-flapping doors, then back again. "What did I say?"
"Buck," said JD quietly. The seriousness in the kid's face and tone caught the tall cowboy off-guard. "He can't celebrate Mass."
Baffled, Buck threw out both hands to embrace his confusion. "Why not?"
"He ain't a priest any more, Buck. That means he doesn't have the authority to do the things a priest can."
"That's a lot of horse crap!"
"I know, but that's just how it is. He can't celebrate Mass, can't administer last rites, things like that." JD sighed and cast a sympathetic glance after their departed friend. "Probably feels like he's had his hands cut off, sometimes."
"Aw, hell." Slumping back in his chair, Buck wished very much that Josiah would come back in, and just kick him in the pants as hard as he could. Hell, he'd even stand up to offer a clear shot.
"Good evening, Mr. Jackson."
Buck peered over his shoulder, and saw their healer walking towards them. "Howdy, Nathan. Say, do you hate Christmas, too? Because if you do, I'm gonna go out and throw myself off a bridge."
"Nah, I don't hate Christmas!" Nathan's dark features creased in puzzlement, as he reached for Josiah's vacated chair. "Why would anybody hate Christmas?"
"Don't ask," growled Buck.
"Buck's takin' a census," JD announced cheerfully. "He's tryin' to find out what everybody thinks about it. So far, he's got as many Scrooges lined up as he does Tiny Tims, and Vin's abstaining his vote."
Vin's teeth shone white in a silent chuckle, and Ezra said, "Scrooge was a very prudent man. Philanthropy should be tempered with a cool and rational mind."
"I like it just fine," Nathan said. "One of the best times of the year."
"Well, then what do you like most?" Buck asked. "Christmas trees, presents, stuff like that?"
"Well, I never was much around trees and presents." Nathan favored them with a wistful smile. "When I was a kid, we'd just make do with what we could. My daddy carved these little wooden people, was supposed to be Mary and Joseph and Baby Jesus. Us kids painted 'em, and at Christmas we'd get 'em out and put evergreens around 'em. When Mama was alive, she'd save up the fixin's to make us a little cake, and they'd send down leftovers from the Big House. That first place, the Mistress would give new shirts or dresses for all us kids. We'd all sing about Baby Jesus, and after dark, Mama and Daddy would take us out and show us where His star was." The healer chuckled gently. "Same star I followed North, too. Reckon me and them three Wise Men had the same idea."
That was a cruel thought for Buck to choke down, Christmas with nothing more than leftovers and roughly carved Nativity figures. The way Nathan nodded and smiled, it was a fond and friendly memory. However, Buck kept getting stuck on the image of little kids in clothes given by the very people who held them in bondage, looking at a cold, distant star for a Christmas present. Damn, Wilmington, why don't you just pick open every sore spot these boys got? Go ask Chris about Christmas, maybe he'll give you a black eye for your trouble.
"I'll tell ya what I miss," JD suddenly said, and the others looked at him. "Snow. I really miss snow."
"Bite your tongue, Mr. Dunne." Ezra stared at him in mock horror, and Vin and Nathan chuckled.
"Well, I do!" JD's earnest gaze swept the table. "I mean, it didn't snow every Christmas, but when it did, it was like - like magic. Everything so clean and white, and everybody would come out in their new clothes, and we'd sled and go skate on the pond. Well, some would skate, I mostly fell down a lot. And I used to like makin' snow angels." He snorted a quick chuckle of embarrassment. "Pretty dumb, huh?"
"Oh, hell, no!" Buck leaped into the breach, anxious to make up for his bungle with Josiah. "I used to do that. Lay there on my back in the snow and just thrash away, until I was soaked and half froze."
"Me, too," Vin unexpectedly said, and smiled in spite of their surprise. "I wasn't happy until I was wet to the bone. I remember my ma had a big, warm towel for afterwards."
Casting them a quick, grateful glance, JD said, "Mama always told me I was gonna catch my death, doin' that, but she'd be laughin', too. She'd help me get up, and when she dusted the snow off me, she'd smack my pants just hard enough, so's I'd know she really wanted me to be careful. " He smiled softly at distant memory. "And then she'd let me run off and do it again."
"I think my mother would collapse in a fit of apoplexy, if I ever did such a thing." Ezra paused and turned his glass in his hand. "Come to think of it, that might be somethin' worth rememberin' for future use."
Nathan snorted and grinned. "Hell, Ezra, I can't even picture you makin' a snowball, let along snow angels. You'd have to git wet, or even muddy!"
Vin's eyes twinkled as he added, "Don't reckon it's very gentlemanly."
"Indeed, gentlemen." His gold tooth flashed, as Ezra saluted their perceptiveness. "As Mother is ever so fond of sayin', appearances are everything."
Buck's chuckle lasted only until he noticed JD, and saw a face that would bring an iron statue to tears. He slid his hand across the table, nudged the kid's elbow.
"Huh? Oh, sorry. Just thinkin'."
"About what? You look like your dog died."
"Nothin'." The kid lifted his mug and drained it in a gulp too fast for enjoyment. Thump, he set it down again. "Damn, I'd give anything to see snow, again."
Then he was up and sweeping his coat from his chair, and Buck turned, only to have JD stride out of reach, and out the door. Not as fast as Josiah had left, but he was just as gone. The tall cowboy grimaced and faced the table - and the puzzled looks of his three remaining companions.
"He, ah -." Buck gestured lamely over his shoulder. "A little too much brandy in the eggnog, there. 'Scuse me."
Without waiting for their response, he fled, before he pissed off everybody. Or before he started hating Christmas, himself.
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