"Buck, wake up, c'mon! Hey, wake up!"
He jerked awake, head spinning. Damn, felt like he'd just laid down. Actually, he almost had, only a couple hours before. Morning, finally, although the sun itself had yet to show above the rooftops.
"Buck!" The door jumped under JD's pounding fist. "Come on! We gotta hurry!"
"All right, all right, I'm up. Sheesh." Damn, now he was the one being rousted from a warm bed. Yet he had promised, and so he rose.
Cold as HELL, now, colder even than when they had first gone out. Buck could not believe what he'd let himself be talked into. He could see his breath, as he clumped down the stairs, and as he opened the back door, his nose hairs froze together. The sky blazed a glorious blue, above the street, and the rising sun touched the snowy rooftops in dazzling gilt. However, there was about as much warmth in that, as in ten acres of frozen brass.
"C'mon, Buck." Vin Tanner stood out in the snow, clapping gloved hands together. "You said you'd help."
"Grblefrrbbnratzenfrizzle," growled Buck.
"Buck," said JD sternly. "Get out here. We got the stuff, and now you have to help."
Pulling his gloves on - and jamming one finger through a hole - Buck glanced at a small heap on the porch. Somehow, the boys had talked the landlady into lending them the necessary accouterments. He just hoped this didn't backfire, like his attempts at fun, last night. Besides that, he really wanted coffee. However, he was on the receiving end of matching scowls, so he sighed, and stepped off into the cold. The snow was even deeper than when they'd first come out, now about six inches, and it squeaked frigidly underfoot. Lord, but he was going to hate putting his hands in that stuff. Still, he had said he would help, and so they set to work.
Chris Larabee felt no hurry to get up. He knew what waited outside, saw the icy brilliance of sunlit snow and blue shadows across the rooftops, and glimpsed creamy clouds pulled back against the blue sky and distant mountains. Mornings like this, a man basked in the comforts of a warm bed, to make up for all the times when he had no such luxury. Finally, however, the craving for coffee and the habit of early rising drove him into motion. He could hear the others outside, Vin, Buck and JD making all sorts of merry racket in the yard, below, and pretty soon Nathan's rich laugh. Ezra of course would probably jam his pillow over his head, and refuse to move for at least three more hours. Josiah might be already having coffee at the saloon.
Chris pulled on his gloves and adjusted his sarape, as he descended the back stairs. Might as well see what the boys were up to, first. Sure were making enough noise. He pushed open the door, and saw JD's wide-eyed stare, saw the kid snap a quick glance at the others. They suddenly drew themselves up straight, all looking at him. Just like a bunch of kids caught tipping over an outhouse. He stopped in the doorway.
"Do I want to know?"
They shifted their feet, and Nathan slanted a glance to one side. Buck elbowed Vin, and JD bit his lip and edged back. Then Chris saw it.
Slowly, menacingly, he stepped onto the porch, walked in careful strides across it, and down the brief steps. All the while looking at that . . . thing that stood in the trampled yard. A snow man. Yes, but not like any snowman he had ever seen. Structurally, it was an ungainly, awkward-looking edifice, sculpted by singularly unskilled hands. A huge, fat snowball served as its base, then three smaller, lopsided balls teetered atop that, the head being particularly elongated. The effect was awfully gaunt for any self-respecting snowman, although it had the required stick arms and stones for eyes. But was the nose a . . . pickle? Yet it was the snowman's attire that was most remarkable.
A long black overcoat, a black hat, and a child's wooden gun on a string around its . . . well, what might have been a waist.
Nobody said a word, although Nathan kept ducking his head. Probably grinning. Buck and JD looked like deer caught in a bullseye lamp, while Vin had managed to sneak two steps back. Setting them up for use as cover, if need be. With deliberate care, Chris leaned down and scooped a handful of snow. Carefully, thoughtfully packing it between his gloved hands, he strolled slowly around the snowman. Just the fact of a snowman in the desert was itself a marvel. Then he stopped, looked over his shoulder at the guilty quartet - and spun with a war whoop, to paste his icy missile slam into Buck Wilmington's chest.
Then the wreck was on. Snowballs flew and splattered, men yelled, bodies fell, and people dodged and scrambled. Snow thudded on heads and backs, walls and posts, and the cries of the wounded rang in the streets. Yet the combatants rallied valiantly, each man for himself, and the damage to the formerly pristine whiteness was formidable. The carnage might have gone on until all parties were exterminated, but then an outside target presented itself. On the edge of the battlefield, or at least the porch, a slim, dapper figure appeared, wearing an elegant blue coat, brocade vest, fine insulated gloves, and an astonished look on his smooth face.
"Gentlemen!" exclaimed Ezra, in broad dismay. "What is the meaning of this - this hooliganism at this unholy hour?"
"Heck, Ezra!" JD cried happily, as he dug a snowdrift from one ear. "It's past seven already!"
"Boys," said Vin thoughtfully. "Do you see what I see?"
"Yup," said Chris.
"Uh-huh," Nathan agreed.
"Yeah," echoed JD.
"Sure do," Buck replied.
"Oh, no." Green eyes went wide with horror, and Ezra began backing away, hands raised in futile supplication. "Oh, no. You can't -. HALP!"
Five snowballs whipped in a volley few could have withstood, and Ezra took three of them in the vitals. Yet let the gallantry of the Southern man never be doubted or scorned. With the high yell that drove Armistead to the stone wall at Gettysburg, and pressed on the grey lines at Antietam, Ezra Standish leaped boldly into the fray.
Buck's hat soon became a soggy pancake, while Nathan used his own for an ammunition pouch. JD threw his bowler onto the porch, when it appeared to draw especially vigorous fire, and Chris entrusted his lid to the care of the snowman, who really needed a better hat, anyhow. Ezra's comrades soon came to wonder how a dandy of a Southern gambler learned to throw with such unerring aim. Vin likewise proved that his aim with snowballs was every bit as deadly as with a gun, and so he finally became the special target of a five-pronged attack. Seldom had the town seen such a heroic battle, and the citizenry watched in reverent awe.
Exhaustion, and a diminishing supply of un-flung snow, finally dictated a slackening in the fight. Battered bodies began to lurch towards sanctuary on the porch, snowballs now arced in less than heartfelt focus, and cheeks and noses gleamed red as new apples. The sun's bright, cold eye peered into the wooden canyons of the town, and surely winced at the evidence of mayhem, below.
There was but one among the Seven, who remained untouched, removed far from the scene of such sloppy, frozen gore, as befitted a man of his wisdom and years. Yet Fate has a way of lowering even the wise and mighty. Thus he came, all unawares, a stolid, sturdy form marching up the snowy street. Broad and tall, he seemed framed in grim majesty, impervious, impassive, awesome as Moses on the Mount. Would any of them be so rash, as to tempt such a formidable adversary?
One would. JD Dunne, young and cocksure and occasionally unthinking in his impetuosity, scooped up a handful of the trampled snow. Carefully his hands shaped it, while his comrades watched in breathless wonder. On the mighty foe advanced, unseeing of his danger, or perhaps, with confidence in his uncontested strength, contemptuous of it. It was, perhaps, the most perfectly formed snowball ever thrown. Nor did it wobble in its deadly course, guided by the keen eye and sure hand of one of the fastest gunslingers the Territory ever knew. All watched, as the snowball spun in a flawless trajectory towards its unsuspecting target - and slapped Josiah Sanchez right under his granite chin.
JD froze in sheer panic, at what he had done. He watched, as the deep-set eyes came up, as thunder rumbled in their depths, and power swelled in the big man's great limbs. JD was dead, he was gonna die any second, he was - struck in the side of the head by a huge, sloppy snowball. With a jolly roar, the conflict resumed.
+ + + + + + +
The wood stove in the saloon all but glowed with industry, as chairs full of wet coats and assorted items of manly apparel steamed nearby. Meanwhile, seven sodden peacekeepers ate heartily of a well-earned breakfast, although occasionally hands reached to test damply-clinging clothes or hidden bruises. Inez made sure to keep their coffee cups full, and kindly brought JD a bar towel, when she noticed he was dripping down the back of his shirt. Seeing this, Buck briefly pondered the wisdom of letting his own hair grow long. On second thought, however, he decided that Inez would just have to learn to love him, as he was.
Outside, the sun beamed, the dribble of melting snow splattered everywhere, and the streets ran with long ribbons of brown water. By noon, the snow would be gone completely, leaving only broad puddles and muddy boots behind. Only the higher peaks would remain clad in distant mantles of white, and probably the brilliant sky meant the mercury would take a sharp plunge, tonight. Still, it was enough.
Buck leaned back with his coffee, grinning at the sight of all of them, even fastidious Ezra, sitting around in just their shirt sleeves. Wet shirt sleeves, at that. Laughter rippled around the table, and their talk came quick and light, and lit by many smiles. Frivolous, that was the word he looked for. One of Ezra's forty dollar words, but it fit. Just for once, they all had a chance to be frivolous. To laugh and have fun, with no thought at all but the joy of doing it. All of them. Something touched Buck's shoulder, and he realized JD had laid an arm on the back of Buck's chair, not looking at him, laughing at something Vin had said, but the touch remained. Chris was laughing, too, really laughing, until he caught Buck's eye.
"You still with us, there, cowboy?" he asked with a smile.
"Yup." Buck grinned in reply. "I'm just thinkin' we shoulda found a cheroot see-gar for that snowman."
"Next time -." Chris aimed a warning fork across the table. "It might be you."
"Or we could do a Vin snowman!" JD exclaimed. "We could get an old string mop for the hair and - hey!"
A potato slice thumped JD in the chest, then the talk turned to what it would take, to make snowmen to resemble each of the Seven. All agreed that a Buck snowman would also require a snow-woman, but opinions on how that feminine figure should be depicted varied wildly.
Next time. Hope. Laughter and joy. The stuff Christmas was made of. And tomorrow was Christmas Eve. Buck had some shopping to do, just little things, and it was down to the last minute, but now he knew he could choose the right gifts. After all, it would not be the items themselves, so much as the thought behind them. They already had what mattered most. It sat right here in this room, which smelled of wet wool and bacon and coffee, and rang with laughter and the talk of friends. Nor would Buck let any one of them walk into that cold dark alone, when the specters of lost Christmases clutched at their hearts. However, he didn't think it would be hard to prevent that. After all, he had a lot of help, sitting right here with him.
Behind the bar, Inez had placed candles in tall glasses, their soft glow reflected in the mirror. Now she carefully arranged sprigs of pine branches between them. At one end of the bar, he noticed two large bowls, one full of something white, the other dark red, and beside them a big spool of string.
"Inez," he called. "What you got over there?"
"Cranberries and popcorn," she replied, with a girlish smile. "I thought I would make strings of them to hang up there."
She motioned to the carved lintel of the back bar, and an idea came to Buck. With a long arm, he gestured expansively.
"Bring them fixin's over there, darlin'," he boomed. "We'll build those for ya."
"You got extra needles for the thread?" JD chimed in.
She found some, and soon the breakfast dishes made way for heaps of cranberries and popcorn. JD had his garland begun before anyone else got a needle threaded, but Vin showed surprising dexterity at such delicate work. To no one's surprise, Nathan's nimble healer's fingers immediately produced the finest workmanship. Even Josiah, however, settled back with the relaxed calm of a woman with her knitting kit. Meanwhile, though, Chris grumbled over the brittleness of cold popcorn. Since it was his idea, Buck honestly tried, but after sticking himself for the fifth time, when the needle kept sliding off the hard berries, Ezra impatiently plucked everything from his hands.
"You, sir, could wreck an iron bar. Allow me, if you please."
As deftly as if by a tailor's hands, a garland began to take shape. A moment later, Ezra looked up from his work, feeling the eyes upon him. "What?"
Chris chuckled, and dropped the shattered remains of his latest popcorn failure. "Must be in the hands, Ez."
"Indeed it is, sir." His gold tooth flashed, and Ezra neatly speared another cranberry.
Or in the heart, Buck thought. Even in men whose lines of work had little apparent use for hearts. Maybe, though, they needed hearts more than most. Maybe they knew from cruel experience, even JD, how fleeting and precious the gentler moments of life were. They dare not walk as other men, open to the world and thus also to the dangers that clung to their elbows. When joy came, when happiness visited, they must cherish it, yet guard ever against its seemingly certain loss. Which meant a man had to grab fast, when the precious chance came, and Buck felt it now, like great, gentle wings that hovered close around them.
"Josiah?" he said quietly, and waited until the big man looked back at him from under his brows. "Could you tell us the Christmas story, Mary and Jesus and all? You know -." He shrugged sheepishly. "Just tell the story. Been so long, I can't rightly remember how it goes."
Josiah did not move, save for the shift of his deep eyes, looking from one of them to the others. Buck held his breath, feeling as if all eyes were on him, hoping like hell Josiah wouldn't squash him like a bug.
The preacher returned to his scrutiny of cranberries and popcorn. "Any you other boys want to hear it?"
"Oh, you bet!" JD blurted, grinning ear to ear, and was echoed by Nathan's, "I sure would."
"Be real nice," said Chris quietly.
"I'd admire to hear it," Vin replied.
"A retelling of Man's greatest story is always in order," Ezra stated. "And I fear it's been far to long for me, as well."
They waited, wondering, as Josiah picked up a piece of popcorn, threaded it after its brothers. Carefully, he picked up another cranberry, and pierced the needle into it. Then in his deep, calm voice, he began to speak.
"Long, long ago, in the land of Judea, there lived a simple man by the name of Joseph, who took a young wife, named Mary. However, he had not lain with her, in the way of man and woman, before she was seen to be with child. Naturally, Joseph was greatly troubled, and Mary was filled with worry, for Joseph thought of putting her aside. Yet one night, an Angel of the Lord appeared, and said to him, 'Take unto thee Mary thy wife, for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Ghost,' and to Mary said, 'Fear not.' And so it was that Caesar Augustus sent out word that all the world should be taxed, and Joseph and Mary went to Bethlehem, the city of David. But when they got there, there were no rooms at the inn, and Mary's time had come. The only place they could find was in the warm stillness of a stable, and there she brought forth a son, and called his name Jesus . . ."
~ ~ FINIS ~ ~
|Behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all
For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.
And this shall be a sign to you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.
And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying,
Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.
St. Luke 2 : 10-14
|For those of faiths other than Christian, I wish no fewer blessings,
nor any less joy, and hope that peace and plenty will grace your homes, this
Sincerely, G. M. Atwater & Family
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