"Little Britches" (ATF) Universe

“Looks like we will be getting a white Christmas, kids.”

“Dreat.” Nathan muttered as Rain reached over him and turned off the alarm. Bright eyes twinkled down at him.

“Dreat?” she repeated with a smile and handed him a tissue.

“M sict. My dose is all stuffed up and my head hurts,” he mumbled with a sorrowful sniff. “An I dot to do hep ‘Siah.” Heaving a woeful sigh worthy of the most macho of saints, Nathan pushed at the bedcovers.

With a sternness that he was almost certain was a bit exaggerated, Rain shook her finger at him. “You go from here to the bathroom and that’s it. Understand?”

Bottom lip stuck out, Nathan made a valiant effort, in the honor of the brotherhood of sick husbands. “I’m fine ….”

“Swallow.” Not knowing quite how, he found two cold tablets making their way down his throat.

“But Vin and JD expect….” he tried again.

“Bed and bathroom, I mean it.” Rain said, snapping the covers under his chin and tucking them in tight. “I’ll take care of the boys. Don’t worry, honey,” she said stroking his cheek, “I got it covered. You go back to sleep, hear?”

Dropping a kiss on his hot forehead, Rain bustled out of the room. “Sleep.”

His body already following his wife’s dictum, Nathan rolled over, pulling the covers up tighter around his aching shoulder. “Treats me like a baby.” he grumbled. “Thank God for bossy women.” And he dropped off to sleep knowing that he was in the best of hands. Rain loved the boys too, and nothing would disappoint those little guys today.


JD wiggled as Buck tightened the Velcro flaps of his jacket. “Think I have enough money?” the nearly mummified boy asked.

“You got enough for me.” Buck said.

“All’s I’m buying you is snowman poop.” JD yelled as he was slung over Buck’s shoulder.

Buck laughed as both Vin and Chris grimaced and held their ears.

Dangling the boy upside down, Buck pushed out the door. “You got plenty. Just don’t drink it all in hot chocolate.”

“Nah, it’ll be cookies.” Vin called after them, obediently holding up a paw so that Chris could put his glove on.

“You got everything?”

Vin nodded, patting the approximate location of his pocket where his delightfully fat wallet resided.

“Okay, lets go.”

Vin ran out to the truck, Chris following more slowly. As usual, he wasn’t altogether sure this was such a good idea. Christmas, well any holiday was still hard for him. There was no doubt that having Vin and JD went a long way to easing that ache; but it was still there. Then there was the whole church thing. Chris knew he was a bit dishonest in his anger. God wasn’t his exclusive genie, there only to deliver on what Chris Larabee wanted. He saw too much over his lifetime to disavow the existence of God. Even so it was hard though to reconcile a loving heavenly father with Sarah and Adam’s death. Anger was so much easier than dealing with his own guilt and a hell of a lot easier than making peace with their loss. Besides God was a nice big target and not likely to care one way or another what one man thought.

That problem settled, he lived quite happily in self-righteous indignation until one day while they were all at lunch…

“Hey Chris,” Josiah cleared his throat slightly, “Was wondering if Vin and JD can come with me to St. Tim’s on Sundays. They have a mighty fine children’s program.”


“I think it they should go.” Buck spoke up, drowning his sandwich with a swig of Coke. “My mama always saw to it that I went.”

Josiah sat back, a bit surprised and waited to see what Chris would say.

Looking sharply at his old friend Chris said, “Send JD then. Vin can stay home.”

Nathan spoke up, stabbing his salad fork in the air, “You need to present a united front to those boys. This could cause problems.”

“Buck has the right to his say about JD.” Chris said, not bothering to state that he held the same right over Vin.

“I’m not saying that…” Nathan began.

In typical team seven style the discussion grew heated as conflicting opinions were tossed out. Offense and defense waxed and waned until Ezra sliding his plate out of the way of a slap of Nathan’s hand, spoke up.

“Perhaps you gentlemen should inquire of Masters Dunne and Tanner? I imagine they will be able to assist you in reaching an agreement.”

And that was that. No doubt Ezra was mostly considering the state of his impending indigestion, but the suggestion was well received by everyone and that night Chris and Buck sat the boys down and asked.

They eagerly wanted to go. Vin smiled in his sweet way and told them how his momma used to take him to the tall church on the corner and that he’d liked the music and the kind lady who told them stories about big fish and hunters and walls falling down. So Chris acquiesced, more or less gracefully, and for most of the past year Vin and JD went off to St. Timothy’s with Josiah.

Inevitably, the Larabee-Wilmington household found themselves drawn into the life of the church. All sorts of activities began to appear on their calendars: picnics, swimming, softball, the walk-a-thon to raise money for one of the member’s whose little boy had cystic fibrosis, collecting small personal toiletries for the women’s shelter. (Uncle Ezra proved a major contributor on that project. Amazing what an undercover agent can accumulate from various hostelries over time. )

But as Vin and JD embraced and were embraced by the community at St. Tim’s, Chris discovered that his self-righteous indignation wasn’t quite as righteous or indignant as he thought. That didn’t sit well with him at all.

“Josiah says that we can pick out and wrap our presents all by ourselves.” JD said. “We can even make stuff. Isn’t that cool?” he asked, plunging on without respite. “Nathan says that the bazaar is good for kids, ‘cause we get to learn the privilege of giving and the parents can have some peace and quiet. I think it sounds like they’re getting rid of us. Whaddya think, Buck? What you guys gonna do? I bet your gonna shop, right huh?

“You’re comin’ back for the program, aren’t you?” Vin asked, quietly cutting off JD’s prattle.

Buck grinned in the mirror. “We sure are. ‘Sides I’m looking forward to all the spaghetti I can eat.”

Reaching back, Chris patted Vin’s knee.

Vin was excited about today’s annual Children’s Christmas Bazaar at St. Timothy’s. All of the children from the church and the surrounding neighborhood were invited for food, crafts and shopping. Parents could sign their children safely into the care of the adult and teen volunteers manning the fair and get a whole day to themselves. Gifts at the bazaar were inexpensive, practical and of good quality or handmade by the children in one of the craft booths. A child would be able to buy a warm hand knit sweater for Mom or a gently used Barbie doll, even a used Gameboy complete with games or slippers for Dad.

Vin thought it sounded like a lot of fun. He looked forward to picking out presents for his family, all by himself and paying for them out of the money Chris paid him for doing chores around the ranch. He liked art and crafts, too and Josiah had assured him that he could make anything he wanted. He wasn’t too keen on his role in the little program they were putting on for the families this evening, although it helped to know Chris and Buck would be there.

He grinned at Chris as they pulled into the parking lot behind the fellowship hall.

“Look,” JD yelled, “There’s Uncle Ezra. Is he going with you guys?” JD fumbled with his seat belt, while trying to wind down the window and holler at Ezra at the same time. Vin reached over and released the catch on the seat so he could scramble out after Chris leaving Buck to untangle JD from his booster.

Leaning casually up against Chris, Vin smiled up at Ezra.

“Good morning, Mr. Tanner and how are you this fine day?”

Vin giggled. He and JD thought it was too funny the way Uncle Ezra talked to them like they were like really old, nineteen or twenty or something.

“’M good. Me and JD are goin’ to the Bazaar. They’ve got all you can eat pancakes this mornin’ and spaghetti tonight.”


“Yep, and Nathan’s comin’ and gonna tell stories and sing and do crafts and ever’thing.” Vin added, neatly sidestepping JD who came barreling over to jump on Ezra.

Buck shook his head as Ezra caught the little boy easily and grabbing hold of his ears pretended to lift him up. JD shrieked and held on tight. Carefully depositing JD on the ground, Ezra peered at the two boys.

“Well, I’m sorry to say but our dear Mr. Jackson will not be able to join you. He’s got a dold in his dose.” Ezra mimicked, gently tweaking JD’s little neb.

Vin turned to stare up at the overcast sky. Nathan had promised to help Vin with his plans for Chris. He promised, thought Vin sadly racking it up beside the other pledges not kept. This ain’t Nathan’s fault, he reminded himself resolutely straightening his shoulders. He’d just have to do what he always did and handle it himself.

“Vin?” Ezra’s soft drawl broke into his dreary thoughts. “I was wondering if you and Mr. Dunne would object to my assistance at the holiday fete. Missus Rain telephoned this morning and implored me to stand in as a substitute for Mr. Jackson. I’m certain that I could not fill his shoes, but I will endeavor to do my utmost.”

“Cool!” shouted JD, “Come on, Ezra. Hurry up, sign me in.” JD clamored, grabbing Buck’s hand and tugging him towards the door.

Vin slipped his hand into Ezra’s while surreptitiously trying to imagine Nathan’s huge shoes on Ezra’s rather diminutive feet. “It’ll be fun,” he said.


A few hours later, while a bit worn out from his job as main gift consultant, Ezra inclined to agree. This is fun, he thought as he helped JD smear mustard on his hot dog. He was astonished at how much food those two kids could put away. He was still full from the light and fluffy pancakes they’d eaten that morning, so he was content to sip on a cup of coffee while Vin and JD downed a couple of hot dogs and split a can of Sierra Mist.

Vin’s wiggling ketchup stained fingers and the unpleasant sight of JD’s partially eaten hot dog as he began to call out alerted him to Josiah’s approach. Quelling JD with a raised eyebrow, he stood to shake his coworker’s hand.

“Mr. Sanchez, won’t you join us.” Ezra gestured to a folding chair. “I suggest you sit delicately” he added with deference to the chair’s obvious antiquity as Josiah gratefully sank into the spot.

“Thanks, Ez. So boys,” Josiah said, waving to the bulging bags on either side of Vin and JD, “Looks like you’ve been shopping till you drop.”

Mindful of that eyebrow, JD swallowed carefully before answering. “Yup, just got a couple more things to get.” Turning his head he tossed his bangs at Vin and Ezra and winked meaningfully at Josiah. The effect was somewhat spoiled by the fact that he had yet to master the art of a single wink and so compensated by screwing up both eyes, wrinkling his nose and poking out his tongue on the side of his proposed wink. Only years of undercover work kept Ezra from howling. Josiah was taken by a sudden fit of coughing that turned into a full-fledged choke when Vin innocently asked if he was catching Nathan’s cold.

“No, Vin I’m fine. Just went down the wrong pipe,” Josiah assured him. “So what do you two have planned for this afternoon?”

“I got to finish shoppin’” JD said, “And then I want to go to the Christmas card booth.”

Vin wiped his hands off slowly on the napkin Ezra insisted reside in his lap. “Okay.” he said.

Josiah and Ezra exchanged a glance. “Vin, perhaps you’d like to do something else?” Ezra asked, knowing that sitting down and writing cards was not likely to be high on Vin’s list of fun things to do. Aware of their reluctance to be separated, especially in a crowd, Ezra added, “As you can see this is a very safe place for you to wander about on your own and we’re all right here in the same room. Plus you know most of the folks here.”

Vin nodded. He did know almost all the kids and most of the grown-ups too. Ezra was even more strict about going off by himself than Chris was. He didn’t want to make cards. The drawing part was okay, but he didn’t want to have to do all that writing. But still…

“I don’t know,” Vin shrugged, “Were else ‘m gonna get any? They’s expensive.”

“They are expensive.” Ezra said, “But I have just the solution. If you’d like, I’d be glad to help you make cards on my computer. JD too, if you want,” he hastened to add.

“Really?” Vin asked, grinning happily when Ezra nodded. “JD?”

JD was torn. Uncle Ezra had a really neat computer. “That’s okay, Vin, they’ve got glitter.”

The men laughed as Josiah stood up and held out his hand. “Come along, JD, and I’ll get you settled with Anne Marie and the glitter. Then when you’re done, just come get me and we’ll shop a bit. Sound good?”

JD gathered his bag and stopped. “What about Vin?”

“Can, can I go with you, Uncle Ezra?” Vin bit his lip, studying the tabletop. He didn’t want them to think he was afraid to be by himself but he really did want to go over to the story and craft booth. He felt their eyes on him and slumped in the chair.

“I’ll do that too,” JD offered.

“Vin can come with us.” Josiah began.

“I don’t believe that’s necessary. Vin’s more than welcome, as long as that’s what he really wants to do?” Ezra waited till the sandy brown head nodded. “JD you run along with Josiah. Come over to the story and craft station when you’re done and meet us there, then we’ll go over and get your things wrapped.”

“It’s a plan.” JD said, sounding remarkably like Larabee concluding a case meeting. With a wave, JD and Josiah went off in search of glitter.

Vin and Ezra cleared off the table and made their way over to the story and craft book where Nathan usually held court. The space was blocked off in one corner of the hall. An couple of worn, but clean quilts made a cozy spot for the children to sit while they listened to the story. A rocker, purloined from the pastor’s office sat against the wall, just waiting for a storyteller. A couple of teens were setting out small wooden pieces and paints. They had a few minutes until the booth opened at one, so Vin and Ezra went to examine the pieces more closely.

“Uncle Ezra, look it’s a puzzle,” Vin said, deftly fitting two sheep, a cow, a donkey, a camel, a standing figure, a kneeling figure, a manger and baby and a star into the recessed space in the frame.

“How’d you do that so fast?” one of the teens asked. “Took me four or five tries to get it right.”

Vin shrugged, “Just seemed to fit.” Sliding the pieces out of the frame, he sat it on the long side and neatly arranged the figures into a traditional crèche, topping the slightly peaked roof with the star. “This is really neat, don’t ya think?”

Ezra nodded, running his agile fingers over the smoothly planed wood. “Beautiful.”

As more children were making their way over, they went over to the story area. In a few minutes, about a dozen and half boys and girls were gathered.

Leaning back in his chair with the book held tight to his chest so only the dark blue cover was visible, Ezra made friends with the children. Soon they were interested and quiet. Smiling down into their wide eyes and chocolate-chip stained faces, Ezra began.

“One Wintry Night. Written by Ruth Bell Graham and illustrated by Richard Jesse Watson.” He gently turned the smooth creamy pages of the luminously and exquisitely designed book. “Chapter 1. Caught in the storm. The boy hunkered down and yanked his cap further over his ears as the wind rose to a roar across the ridge. Low, dark clouds….”

As Ezra’s strong tenor rose and fell the children found them lost in the panoramic story within a story of Zeb Morris’s adventures on the mountain during a frightful storm. From creation to the flood, Moses, Samson and Samuel down to ‘His name will be called Wonderful, Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace’ (Isaiah 9:6).

Holding up a picture of a huge glowing lion, Ezra read, “How much longer would God’s children have to wait for that first Christmas morning? Even the angels didn’t know.”

He closed the book and let it rest on his lap. Not a sound was heard as the children looked at him anxiously. Vin frowned, that couldn’t be all. Finally, a little girl about six or seven raised her hand.

“Yes, Allyson?” Ezra asked, reading her name from the tag pinned to her shirt.

“Aren’t you going to finish the story?”

Rubbing his thumb over his lip, he shook his head soberly, “But don’t you know the rest?”

“We want to hear it, please.” The other children joined in with her pleas. A few got up on their knees but none of them stood, afraid that he would stop.

“An we don’t know what happened to Zeb.” Vin spoke up, ducking his head in pleasure when the other children agreed.

“Well, I certainly can’t have you disappointed,” Ezra said and opened the book again and the children followed more closely than ever.

“One bright star was twinkling in the sky. It was dawn.” Ezra finished and held up the book so they could all see the picture of Zeb and the cat looking into a new day.

For a few moments all was quiet except for a small sigh here and there and then they were up and gathered around Ezra asking to see their favorite pictures. After almost literally showing the whole book again, Ezra and his teen helpers got the children settled around the craft tables. Everyone got one of the wonderful manger puzzles to paint as they wanted. Walking around to help with a stubborn paint lid or tend to an errant spill, Ezra enjoyed the lively and busy conversations. Pausing at the end of a table, he overheard little Allyson grilling Vin.

“You really got your own horse?”

“Yup, we all do.”

“And Mr. Ezra is really your Uncle?”


“Wow, you are lucky.”

With a critical squint at the star he just finished painting, Vin grinned over at the little girl. “I am. I got the best family in the whole world.”

As he moved away to salvage another minor artistic disaster, Ezra couldn’t stop smiling. It might sound mean, but he was sure glad Nathan was sick today.

Turning off the ignition, Chris nudged Buck. “Wake up sleeping beauty.”

Buck yawned, wishing he could grab another twenty minutes. Who would imagine shopping could be so tiring? At least they were done. Everything was bought and all the gifts for the boys were safely wrapped and locked in the attic.

“Don’t suppose Josiah would consider breaking into the communion wine.” Buck joked, sniffing the air with appreciation. “Smells good.” he said, lengthening his stride.

It was good, Chris thought, mopping up the rest of his sauce with the last bit of garlic bread. To judge from the amount on Vin’s face and the napkin tucked under his chin, he thought so too.

Josiah’s voice on the PA system broke into his thoughts. “Everybody, we’re going to start our program in about ten minutes. Performers can start making their way backstage now. And if we could get some folks to help move in the extra chairs?”

Controlled chaos reigned for the next fifteen minutes as hands and faces were washed, hair combed, hugs liberally distributed and seats located. Settling beside Ezra, Chris gave one of his trademark grins.

“How you holding up?”

“Marvelous, Mr. Larabee. I take it that your endeavors today were successful.”

Chris nodded. “Those boys give you any trouble?”


“Where’d you disappear to during dinner?”

Ezra was spared an answer as the curtains opened and the performance began. There were wee little ones singing a boisterous “Go Tell It on the Mountain” and a lovely rendition of “What Child is This?” played by a well-pierced teen on his acoustic guitar. Some of the older kids reenacted O’Henry’s short story “The Gift”. At last, it was JD and Vin’s turn.

Chris sat up a little straighter as the boys filed on stage with eleven other children. Each carried a large red or green placard and stretched their ragged line across the apron of the small stage. Bright, perky music filled the auditorium and JD stepped up, proudly holding his large C over his head as they sang ‘C is for caring’. On the H, the little girl next in line stepped forward, H high over her head as they sang ‘H is for happy’ and each child in turn as they progressed down the line spelling out Christmas Love. All went well until they reached Vin. Unbeknownst to the little guy, when he lifted up his M it was upside down so that it looked like a W.

The first time he held it up a snicker broke out here and there, but as they reached the chorus

with its repeated letter by letter ‘C-H-R-I-S-T-M-A-S-L-O-V-E’ even the adults were chortling. Thankfully, Vin was unaware that he was responsible for the laughter and continued to lift his topsy-turvey M right on time throughout the song. Chris sat in painful stillness knowing that there was absolutely nothing he could do. Vin would be utterly mortified. Unable to watch his boy’s humiliation Chris dropped his head to study his white knuckles. Couldn’t you give the kid a break? he spat in his heart at this travesty of Christmas love.

As the song ended, thunderous applause broke out in the hall and people rose to their feet. Ezra shook his head slightly as Buck put his fingers in his mouth and blew a raucous whistle. Surprised, he looked around to see Chris still slumped into his chair and clenching his fists. Reaching down he grabbed Larabee’s elbow, hauling him to his feet, and firmly wrapped his arm around his shoulders, hissing in his ear.


Chris looked up at the proud and happy children standing on the stage, their letters lifted high. Now that they were all displayed together, he could read the message.

Ezra felt the tension leave the hunched body as Chris realized that everything worked out just fine. With a firm squeeze and a pat to the back, Ezra left Buck and Chris competing for the loudest whistle. Personally, he thought rubbing his ear with his finger, Mr. Larabee won.

The applause died down and the children took a final bow and snaked off with waves and grins. As the audience settled back into their seats commenting on how wonderful the Christmas love group was, Chris took a quiet moment. “Reckon I’m sorry for thinkin’ the worst of you and thank you for not letting my boy get hurt.”

“Sorry, pard. What’d you say?” Buck leaned over knowing Chris had just muttered something.

“Boys did good.”

“Yeah, they did. Where’d Ezra go?”

Chris just pointed. There on the stage, behind a well-used grand piano sat their undercover agent, surrounded by the performers.

Soft notes broke out as Ezra began to play and the kids started to sing.

Come and gather round the table
In the spirit of family and friends
And we’ll all join hands and remember this moment
‘Til the season comes round again

Josiah appeared on the edge of the stage as they began the next verse, digital camera in hand. It fit so well that it worked wonders in eliciting smiles all around.

Let’s all try to smile for the picture
And we’ll hold it as long as we can
May it carry us through should we ever get lonely
‘Til the season comes round again

As flash bulbs from around the hall sparked, Ezra sang the bridge alone.

One night holy and bright
Shining with love from our hearts
By a warm fire let’s lift our hands high
And be thankful we’re here, ‘til this time next year

May the new year be blessed with good tidings
‘Til the next time I see you again
If we must say goodbye, let the spirit go with you
‘Til the season comes round again

Shaking hands and waving the performers took their bows to the piano interlude and exited off the stage in all directions, headed for their families. Everyone joined in as the bridge was repeated.

One night holy and bright
Shining with love from our hearts
By a warm fire let’s lift our hands high
And be thankful we’re here, ‘til this time next year

Everywhere around the hall, hands were joined in a surprisingly sentimental moment that didn’t even earn the scorn of the most adolescent of teens in the room. Chris and Buck’s fingers were grasped by two warm hands as they all sang the final verse.

May the new year be blessed with good tidings
‘Til the next time I see you again
And we’ll all join hands and remember this moment
And we’ll love and we’ll laugh in the time that we have
‘Til the season comes round again

Lights dimmed and Ezra sang the ending softly.

If we must say goodbye, let the spirit go with you
‘Til the season comes round again

As the last notes died away, all the children shouted, “Merry Christmas.”

Families gathered children and belongings and began making their way home. Chris zipped an already dozing Vin into his parka with long practice. Even JD seemed to have wound down and stood leaning against Buck, pausing every now and then for a jaw cracking yawn.

“Let me give you a hand,” Ezra said, pulling on a leather glove. Chris scooped up Vin and plopped him into Ezra’s arms.

“Thanks,” he said, burying his wide grin when he turn to grab the bags full of brightly if not too expertly wrapped gifts.

Acting as though he was carrying fragile glass, Ezra trailed them out to the truck. He couldn’t help chuckling as Buck used his long legs to corral JD in the right direction. Once they reached the car, Buck held JD up so he could get his goodnight kiss from Uncle Ezra. Tucking the packages into the locker, Chris pulled the seat forward so Ezra could settle Vin into the back.

The image of Ezra’s face as he tenderly dropped a kiss on Vin’s forehead was one he would never forget. No matter what differences they might ever have, Chris knew without a shadow of a doubt that he could trust his most precious possession with the man.

Feeling better about the season then he had in a long time, Chris grabbed Ezra and pulled him into a quick hug.

“Thanks for being there for them, Ez. It really meant a lot to all of us.” Stepping back he was treated to that rare look of pure delight in those dancing green eyes. “Expect you Christmas Eve,” he added gruffly, “Don’t be late.”

“I wouldn’t dream of it, Chris. In the words of a right jolly old elf, Merry Christmas to all and to all a good night.” And with his trademark salute, Ezra walked to his car singing softly, “In the spirit of family and friends, and we’ll all join hands and remember this moment ‘til the season comes round again.”


Christmas 2002

Comments: Tess