It was the year I turned twelve, I remember that clear. The way things were was just plain bad. Mama had died the year before and rustlers had took Papas cattle and Papa was getting old and tired looking all the time.
Christmas was coming, but we were more worried about food and firewood than the thought of toys. All of us, that is, but Laura; Brett, Anna and me, Catherine, didnt believe in much of anything by that time, but Laura, our youngest, she believed in magic, just like she believed Mamas angel was watching over us all.
It was just one more thing in a load of burdens in our lives. I was twelve, but determined to do a mans job to help Papa. Even the little ones were trying hard to help Papa and to just survive.
So when Laura asked about Santa Claus, I was kind of short with her.
Darlin, Santa aint coming. We dont need toys and candy. We need food and clothing.
Laura gave me an owl-eyed look, Cant Santa bring them things?
Nope, iffin I get time, Ill make you something, Darlin', cause I love you more than any old Santa.
She frowned and I wondered if shed take on, but Laura is a trooper. She smiled at me and gave me a kiss.
I pretended to snatch it off my cheek and plant it in my heart, Better than any old Santa Claus, I said, More precious than silver and gold.
She smiled more and run off to gather kindling and I figured I'd done at least one thing right that day. But Laura didnt let go of the idea of Santa. Shes patient for a 5-yar-old, patient and stubborn as a mule.
Papa cant shoot very well, but it doesnt matter, because he cant track for nothing. For Thanksgiving we had biscuits and flour gravy on Mamas pretty plates on the table and were thankful for food and each other.
Papa was looking pretty grim. He had only five dollars for food for the winter, and that wasnt enough to last us till spring.
Finally, he gathered us together in front of the fireplace. Im going to have to go to Eagle Bend, he said, There's a cattleman there who promised me work breaking horses and we need a stake for this winter. Well go to Four Corners together. We'll buy such as we can, and that'll be enough to see you through until I get back. With some luck, I'll be back before the New Year. Youre in charge, Catherine.
We all nodded, even the little ones. Papa hitched up the wagon to Sneaky Tooth, the horse, and we went into town.
At the Mercantile, Papa purchased flour and beans for us, loaded them in the wagon and kissed us goodbye. He was going to ride a horse that had been rented from the livery in Eagle Bend back to the livery there for Yosemite. Hopefully, hed have money to rent a horse for the return journey. Yosemite was even paying him fifty cents for his trouble, which'd give Papa some money until he got paid.
We sat in the wagon and watched Papa leave, waving until he was out of sight. I was fearin' that the little ones would start to crying, and felt a few tears in my eyes as well, but we were saved that misery by the sights around us. We didnt get to go to town too often and it was a wonderment to us, all the people going to and fro, the ladies dressed up fancy, the cowboys and the townspeople. It was a feast for the eyes.
Finally, I gave a sigh and said, Best we be getting home. I turned my head to look at the others, and I realized Laura was gone.
Shucks, in charge for all of five minutes and Id already lost my sister.
Terrorized at what could happen to a small plucky girl among all those quick moving horses and wagons, we leapt down and started searching frantically, calling her name.
Vin Tanner was standing at the bar watching Ezra fleece some locals, which passed for him as local entertainment. While he didnt like being the center of attention, he did like to watch Ezra work his magic.
Movement caught his eye and he saw a little girl staring inside curiously from under the bat-winged doors. She looked at Ezra and gave a little gasp of delight and then ran into the saloon right up to where Ezra was playing. She grasped his elbow and said, questioningly, Santa?
Vin straightened up. The youngin thought that red jacket was Santas red coat. This should be good. How would their resident con man talk her out of this one?
One of the men playing with Ezra snorted loudly and said, Get out of here, Brat!
He was going to say more, but Ezras derringer was suddenly in his face before Vin could do more than brace himself for action.
Ill thank you to not insult the lady in my presence, gentlemen. Ez drawled this very pleasantly, except his green eyes were hard.
There was a long pause as the 'gentlemen' in question crossed their eyes, looking at the barrel of Ez's gun.
Ah find myself tiring of your company. I believe our game is completed.
The men all fled back home where they could abuse their girl babies without Ezra to bring them to task.
Ezra now turned to the baby who was looking up at him with great trusting eyes.
My dear, if I was the good saint, it would have to be quite secret, because he doesnt come out in public till Christmas Eve.
The little one stared at him uncomprehendingly for a moment, which Vin understood. He couldnt understand Ez half of the time either.
Then she nodded. Okay, Santa, she said in a sweet little trilling voice, but I had to tell you, that this year we dont need toys, just food. Mama died and Pas cattle got stole and we dont have enough to make it through the winter.
Is that so? said Ezra carefully, Well, if I were the good saint or perhaps one of his many helpers I would pass that information on.
The little girl smiled up at him. I love you, she said, and Vin watched Ezras face go all tender. He picked her up and sat her on his lap gently and pulled out a bag of the peppermints that Vin knew he kept for Chaucer. With a flourish he handed it to the girl. Ah am delighted to make your acquaintance, little lady."
She stared at him with big eyes, and Vin knew the gambler was lost. Ezra smiled. "Ah love you too, child. Now, run along. Young ladies should not frequent saloons.
She took the bag like it was a treasure and beamed up at Ezra happily. By that time, three other heads were looking under the bat-winged doors anxiously. The little one had been missed. Vin relaxed a bit, but his sharp eyes caught out-grown clothing and worn shoes on small feet.
Laura! hissed the biggest one, a girl of about twelve and the smaller girl hopped off Ezras lap obediently and danced over to her brethren. She was immediately grabbed and carried off, being scolded to a fare-thee-well all the while.
Ezra stared after them and Vin did too. Sounded to Vin like that family was going through a pretty rough stretch. He hadnt seen them before and knew everyone in town by sight. Hed check around and ask Miz Potter about them, or maybe J.D. Their gregarious young sheriff knew everyones business.
Ezra was staring out the doors with a sad almost hungry expression. Vin took a chance and sauntered over to his friend. Ezra looked up, distracted, but nodded at him.
Vin nodded back, hooked the chair out with a foot and sat down.
I dont reckon Ive seen those kids before. He said, passing up a glorious opportunity to tease Ezra and call him Santa Ez. However, what the little girl, Laura, had said about not having enough to get through the winter, worried him. And the expression on Ezras face when hed told the child he loved her was too damn personal to tease him about.
Ezra looked at him like he realized he was being let off the hook and was grateful.
I do not recall ever meeting them. I wonder if our dear Mrs. Potter knows them. Farmers and ranchers from all over visit her venerable institution. Perhaps she knows them.
Course you aint going to do anything for them youngins to help out, said Vin, who knew Ezra a lot better now. Ezra was possibly the biggest sucker ever born, so in the interest of keeping his money and hide, he pretended to be the nastiest, greediest, laziest man on earth. Vin knew different, but he left the man his pride. Men do that for each other, especially friends.
Ah believe I have explained previously that I am not a social worker, Mistah Tanner, Ezra said, shuffling his cards and pretending not to be worried over that little cute baby girl. It is merely my responsibility as peacekeeper of our pleasant little burg to know all the inhabitants in the locality.
Yup, said Vin. He knew right away that Ezra was making plans, but didnt think anything short of a gun up the snoot was going to pry his plans out of him.
Vin Tanner had never made old Saint Nicholas acquaintance, not in the orphanage, nor any place else for that matter. The injuns never celebrated Christmas either, although they took care of each other just fine.
And with that in mind, Vin Tanner decided he was going to do what he could to help that family.
I grabbed Laura, stuck her on the wagon and headed out of town, no longer interested in seeing the people. Once we were safely on the way back home and my heart wasnt pounding so badly, I turned to my youngest sister and said, Why did you go into that saloon? Dont you know that saloons are dangerous for little girls?
Laura smiled up at me and said, I saw Santa.
Oh Lord in Heaven, shed thought that man in the red coat was Saint Nick.
I stopped the wagon and gave her my full attention. This had to be nipped in the bud or shed be following men dressed in red forever.
That man was a fancy gambler, I said, He plays cards for a living. Papa says that kind is not to be trusted. He was not Santa and Im powerful surprised he didnt shoot you or try to steal the clothing on your back.
Lauras eyes narrowed and she glared at me. He gave me a present.
Oh Lord, I thought, the world is against me.
What? Brett asked and Anna looked at her curiously.
She triumphantly pulled out a paper bag.
Candy! she said in tones of extreme satisfaction.
She opened the bag and we could see it was full up with peppermints. We hadnt seen candy or even sweetenings in a long time, and my mouth watered, but I wasnt going to take my sisters only treat since Mama died.
Well, I reckon he was a very nice gambler, but he wasnt Santa. I said.
Then Laura offered the bag.
Lets share, she said, ignoring my words of wisdom, thats what Santa is about, sharing.
Well, I blinked mighty hard. If someone had given me a bag of candy, Id have had to think some about sharing, and here my little baby sister was offering it up to us with a smile.
We all took one piece solemnly and popped them in our mouths. It had been a long time since I had tasted anything so good. It melted on my tongue, filling my mouth and nose with its tingly taste. I opened my eyes to see Laura watching us, her face happy. Then she took one for herself and popped it in her mouth.
Her eyes widened, Good! she exclaimed.
But even though she had rediscovered how good candy is, she insisted on sharing more of the treats with each of us. We took two more apiece and then I said, Lets save the rest for later.
She nodded at me and Brett said, Laura, thank you. Then Anna said, Yes, thank you, Laura. You are the best little sister in the world.
I grinned at that. Shed left room for me to be the best big sister in the world.
Brett frowned, because he didnt have the same options, but then smiled. I reckon Ive got me a great bunch of sisters. He said.
I gave him a terse hug, so as not to encourage the girls to more sissy behavior and then grinned at them all.
Now, even if you see your gambler friend again, I said sternly, Dont you go to see him unless you take me with you, all right? I didnt want her getting stolen for some evil purpose by the man. If I was rich, Id be tempted to steal her because she was so pretty and had such beautiful eyes, so I made my warning and she nodded solemnly.
We sang all the way home, sugar on our tongues, peppermint on our breaths, no longer quite so sad at our plight, because we had each other.
I was tired all the time now from chores and worries, but Lauras giving us that candy when she could have had it all herself was so wonderful, I wanted to give her something for Christmas. I guess I was growing up. I didnt want anything for Christmas for myself but food to get us through the winter.
The kids had finished their chores and were all playing in the yard while it was sunny. I was cooking beans in the kitchen and sneakily sewing away on a rag doll for Laura. I had her body done now and I was working on a plain dress. Watching the beans boil, I sat and looked out the window. As I wished I could make Papa something too, perhaps draw him something pretty and write a note on it I noticed a horse in the distance and started up. Quickly I hid the doll in a cupboard, checked the beans and ran for Papas gun.
I checked it with trembling hands. It had looked so shiny and competent in Papas hands, but looked big and clumsy in mine. I ran out the door and hollered, Stranger coming.
They all knew the rule. Brett grabbed Anna and Anna grabbed Laura and came in the back door lickedy split.
Then I ran outside and stood with papas gun, waiting, my heart beating like a drum
The man on the horse was dressed all in brown and he looked like he was half-asleep, for all the attention he paid me and the gun. He pulled up at a respectful distance and then nodded to me.
Howdy, he said.
Howdy, Sir. You need water? I asked, trying to sound cool and collected.
Nope, he said, But thank you kindly for the thought.
He was looking at me and I realized he had startling blue eyes.
I ride patrol for the law in Four Corners, he said, Didnt realize you folks were out here. Ill add you to my patrol schedule. Brought you some game for the holidays, he said.
Then he slowly but casually dismounted and swung a small antelope off the back of horse, who snorted at him like he was relieved to be rid of that burden.
I stared at the antelope and my mouth watered. Meat. We hadnt eaten meat in ages. I had no idea how to skin and dress meat but I sure was hankering to give it a try.
Thank you, Sir, I said, remembering my manners and grateful too. I could feel small bodies behind me peeking out the door and Brett gasped.
My name is Vin, said the man in brown, Do you know how to skin an antelope?
Nope, I said, but Ive seen my Papa skin rabbits. I didnt mention that was the only thing Papa ever caught.
Well, it looks like you are in for a lesson, Maam, said Vin and I flushed. No one had ever called me Maam before.
He nodded to me pleasantly, like I was a real grownup and said, You want your brother there to help?
He might try to look like he was half-asleep but he had noticed all of the children right away.
All right, come on out, I called and could hear the small stampede behind me. Vin smiled at them.
He dragged the antelope out by the barn and hung it on a hook that swung out from the side. Wed never used it before seeing as how Papa hadnt ever shot anything worth hanging.
Patiently and quietly, he showed us how to take off the skin. He made one cut, then gave me his big old knife and let me do one leg. I didnt botch it up too much; I was too excited at the thought of meat on the table.
Then he gave Brett a turn. You could see Brett was feeling mighty proud of being allowed to hold a grownup knife.
I watched and then realized Id left the beans unattended and rushed inside. Fortunately they hadnt burned. Even with the glorious prospect of meat on the table, I wasnt about to waste any beans. Once I was sure they wouldnt burn, I ran back outside where Vin was giving talkin' about antelopes, how to hunt them, how to butcher them, how to cure the hides.
Brett was cutting away and I could see his technique was improving with each cut he made.
When Vin told us about tanning, Brett looked up, and stopped cutting. Papa used to buy hides and tan them. He would soak them in tannin from leaves.
Vin looked pleased, and told us how the Indians dont let any bit of the antelope go to waste and explained various glues that can be made by boiling the hooves, dishes you can make with the brains, heart and organs. When I was younger, Id have squealed at the thought of brains, but right now, it sounded really good. My mouth watered.
When Brett was finished skinning the antelope, Vin butchered it bit by bit and we used the skin to keep the meat out of the dirt. Then we carried it triumphantly to the house, while Brett buried the offal so it wouldnt attract coyotes.
Vin had cut several steaks for us to eat right away, and I was proud to put them in Mamas sadly under-used frying pan.
You should try to eat the liver and heart right away, he said, the tongue will be good eating too.
The meat began to splutter merrily. Anna clapped her hands together and did a little dance with Laura. I couldnt help but grin at them.
You watch the meat, Anna, I said and went to get a wet towel for Vin to wipe his hands on.
Then I fetched the big dipper of cool water and he smiled at me. I hadnt realized he was handsome till that moment.
Much obliged, Maam, he said, Skinning can be thirsty work.
Laura was staring up at him while I went back to watching the steaks. The smell was heaven and I wished for a moment that Papa was here to share. Anna said, Ill fetch some water for your horse, and rushed outside.
Mind, you, Peso is mean, said Vin warningly and she nodded to show shed take care.
Laura kept staring at Vin as he drank but he didnt seem to mind. As he handed me the dipper back, she smiled at him and said, Do you know Santa?
Vin flashed me a quick look and to my horror, nodded.
I thought so, she said thoughtfully. Then she smiled at him, May I give you a kiss?
Now Vin looked to me to be one of the hard competent men made of leather and barbed wire, laughing, dusty and mean as a mossy backed steer, but he blushed. And I realized again that he was handsome as any prince in a storybook under all that dust and leather and that he was a very good person.
Finally, he nodded, still blushing and knelt down. Laura solemnly kissed his cheek, and then impetuously threw her arms around his neck.
He blinked a bit and then bravely smiled at her.
I turned to watch the wonderful glorious steaks and to give him a bit of privacy.
Wed be mighty obliged to have you for supper, I said, but it must have been too much for him, because he stood up abruptly.
No, Maam, I thank you for your kindness, but I still got patrol, and I got friends waitin' on me in town. Thank you again for your hospitality.
He left then, although he did smiled at Anna who had managed his fractious horse quite well, and waved goodbye to us.
As soon as we had waved him out of sight, we lit into those steaks and the beans with a passion. I know some people hate wild meats because of the gamy taste, but we thought it was pure ambrosia from Olympus, just like Mama used to tell us about.
It had been a long time since we had felt so full.
We forgot grace, said Laura.
I clapped a hand over my mouth. I had been so eager that I had forgotten.
I sure did forget, I said, Laura, since you remembered, you say it for us.
We bowed our heads and folded our hands as Mama had taught us.
Thank you Lord for this good meal, and for Papa, and Mama in Heaven, and Vin and Santa, said Laura solemnly.
I winced. She was sure that Vin was one of Santas helpers. She had told me confidentially that the gambler man had explained that Santa had helpers but it was secret.
I could just shoot that gambler, but then he had given us that bag of candy, so I was obliged not to. And besides, I had that half done rag doll to give her, so old non-existent Santa didnt make my heart feel so sore as he had.
Of course, I had a perfectly good brother and another sister who deserved something nice to celebrate the birth of Christ. I had already decided to give Brett the hunting knife that had been given to me by my Uncle years ago before we came west. Id kept it as a treasure, but never used it. Id seen the gleam in Bretts eyes when hed skinned that antelope, so the knife was going to him. As for Anna, I decided to cut down one of Mamas old dresses for her. It would be like giving her a memory of our Mama, and would be a good practical gift. It meant more sneaking around and staying up late, but they were worth it.
After that glorious supper, Brett and Anna washed up. Laura wiped down the kitchen table and I made plans for the rest of that antelope.
Now Papa couldnt shoot much, but he could take care of cattle and he knew a lot about leather. Papa saw things better close up. I reckoned that maybe Brett could tan that hide and wed use it to make something nice for Papa. Papa had made fancy boots and leather belts and the like in the past as a hobby, before we came out West.
Do you think youd like to tan the hide, Brett? I asked and he whipped around so fast he nearly knocked Anna down.
I sure would! he exclaimed.
Things were looking up.
Vin Tanner watched Ezra Standish and wondered what the man had up his sleeve. Sure wasnt cards, that was the Lords own truth. The man was slick and sly as a fox, but he was no cheater. Still, Vin was sure hed be finding a way to help those youngins so he watched, sly-like himself.
He knew that Ezra had been conniving when Nathan Jackson came up to him and said, I hear theres a ranch out between here and Eagle Bend thats looking at a hard winter. Its on your patrol.
Yup, said Vin.
Well, can I go out with you on your next patrol? I figure I could show them a few healing herbs, check up on them to make sure they're healthy and show them some of the plants they can forage. Nathan frowned, Oh yes, and Ezra said he wanted me to bring along a setting chicken for them. He doesnt think they have chickens, and it doesnt take much to keep chickens going.
Vin smiled, Yup, sounds like a good idea.
So on their trip, they had three fine setting hens and one plump rooster tied up and miserable in a bag with them. Nathan was always good company, and he and Vin made a game of what kind of potential forage they could see. Vin shot another antelope and Nathans knife took down a big old hare.
Mighty fine throwing, said Vin.
Yup, said Nathan, I figure I gotta compete with that nice antelope.
So this time, the oldest one, Catherine, put down her gun when she recognized Vin and smiled at the two men.
The other three came charging out of the house, and the boy gave a yell of sheer glee.
Were having roast for supper, would you eat with us? he asked before he even had a chance to be introduced to Nathan.
Vin glanced over at his fellow peacekeeper and could see that Nathan was pleased. Some people are scared of black men and many have been taught to fear and hate them. Obviously these children only saw potential friends.
Nathan looked solemn when the girl came up and held up a hand to shake with him.
Im Catherine, and were eating the last of the antelope that Vin brought us before. Seems only right that we share it.
Nathan gave her his big-hearted grin and Vin could see that the children liked him already.
He dismounted and then handed her the big old hare. Vin and I did a little hunting on patrol and I thought you might enjoy a bit of rabbit.
They all lit up. Vin dismounted and took down his antelope. And I notice you got an old stump rigged up for smoking hams. You might try smoking some antelope for winter, he suggested.
They all smiled brightly.
Then Nathan took the bag and handed it to Catherine. A friend of mine in town wanted me to give these to you. Theyre setting hens. If you let them keep a few eggs, pretty soon youll have yourself a flock of chickens. Theyre good layers too.
Catherines mouth fell open and so did the other children.
Then the youngest asked, Does your friend wear a fancy red coat.
Nathan smiled at her, Why yes, he does. Ezra is partial to pretty colors.
She gave the other children a look that said shed won some kind of bet or gotten the better of them and smiled.
Vin and Nathan helped them fix up a place in an outbuilding that had been used to store feed for cattle once. A bag of feed was still there, not fit for humans, but it would do for horses and even chickens. They nailed together some boxes, filled them with clean straw and let the chickens loose. They made quite a fuss once they were free of the bag, but decided that the old shed was an excellent place to hide from those no-good kidnapping varmints whod stolen them, and were soon settled in. The lone rooster started strutting as soon as his body fell out of the bag, claiming his territory.
Vin and Brett set to skinning the antelope and Catherine hung up the hare.
Come on in to supper, she said, smoothing her braid back and smiling at the two men and Vin was pleased with her generosity. Shed make a good injun.
They all trooped in, Nathan coming last, but the little girl, Laura, grabbed his hand and made him sit at the head of the table opposite Vin.
The meal was roast, biscuits and beans. Vin remembered that theyd had beans before too and thought about Mrs. Potters mention that their father had purchased flour and beans before leaving town.
Would you say the grace? said Catherine to Nathan and Vin was privately delighted at not having to say public grace and at the honor it did his friend.
Nathan bowed his head and said, For what we are about to receive, Lord, make us truly thankful.
Then he grinned and they all ate. They didnt have much, but it tasted good.
Nathans kind eyes were carefully observing each child. They were skinny, but they looked healthy.
Im a healer in Four Corners, he said softly, Iffin any of you feel sick, you can come to me or send for me and Ill come.
Catherine, the oldest, looked up and nodded at him. Vin could see shed been worried about that.
Now because I do healing, Im always looking out for herbs and plants to help, continued Nathan, So I wondered if we could do some trading.
All those eyes lit on his face in curiosity. Vin leaned in a bit. He was curious too and wondered if Ezra had given Nathan this idea too.
I notice your land has a lot of plants I use on it. If you could gather extra of them for me, Id trade them for store goods or money.
The look of excitement suddenly turned into equal look of disappointment.
We dont know anything about herbs, said Catherine sadly, We dont even know how to plant.
Nathan smiled at them, Well, that aint no problem. If you have the time, we can go out and Ill show you what I saw and how to gather and dry them. Then next time me or Vin are in the neighborhood, well stop by.
They all looked excited again and Vin mentally congratulated his friend. He knew herbs too and could point out eating greens and other plants that made some fine teas.
So after hastily washing up the dishes, and Catherine insisted the two men sit at the table because they were guest, they all took off. True to his word, Nathan showed them herbs that he used and also explained their use. The children clung to every word with wide-eyed interest. Of course, they were thinking of trade goods or cash money, but still, Nathan was pleased.
Then Vin showed them some wild onions, which really caught their attention. The men ended up spending two good hours showing them herbs, gathering samples, making notes on their care and preparation, as well as showing the children Mormon tea plants for tea. They gathered a big bunch of comfrey root and Nathan went wild over stinging nettles, which he advised the children not to gather.
I dont gather stinging nettle unless Im wearing heavy leather gloves and have a good sharp knife to cut them with. Stinging nettle hurts something terrible, but once you harvest it, it makes a tea that is good for hay fever, and colds, for people whove lost a bunch of blood and for ladies with babies.
Vin scowled at the herb, recognizing himself as a frequent loser of quantities of blood, but judiciously didnt mention that any tea from the plant probably tasted like horse pee.
Vin pointed out certain cactii, which could be harvested and cooked as a green. He knew the youngins had been hungry when they looked with grave interest at the plants. He explained that the leaves had to be cut carefully and rolled in the dirt to get the tiny prickers out before attempting the larger needles. He demonstrated and filled a whole bag with the things as well as onions they found on the way back. The children were excited.
We can cook up the liver tomorrow with some of the onions! Catherine said excitedly. Vin pointed out some sage plants and told her that it made a medicinal tea as well as a fragrant ingredient in dressings.
But dont be eating on those chickens yet, he advised, Theyll reward you with eggs and more chickens till you have a nice flock going. Then youll have eggs for breakfast and baking and chicken for Sundays.
All three children sighed as though that were the promise of heaven. He and Nathan gave each other the eye.
When they returned to the house, Nathan pulled out his coin bag but Catherine was having none of it.
You brought us a fine rabbit, an antelope, those wonderful chickens and gave us a lesson on foraging for wild foods, said the girl firmly, Well gather things for you and talk about trading then, but today, everything is yours to thank you for your kindness.
Nathan frowned, Are you sure? he started, but these children had pride too.
Im positive, said the girl, Papas not due back from Eagle Bend till after New Year's and we were turning into beans instead of kids. Youve been more than neighborly and if we can do anything to help you out, you need only ask. Also, you can come and gather here anytime.
Vin smiled. He liked these children more and more.
Well, he drawled, Wed best finish up patrol or Chris will start thinking about shooting us. Thank you for the supper, Maam, it was mighty fine.
He rode off with Nathan. Once they were off the ranch land and headed home, Nathan said, Whooee. Those youngins have sand.
Yup, said Vin.
I notice you went hunting for them before, observed the dark healer, grinning.
Yup, said Vin, It was a good idea to teach them about foraging too. Now theyll know to come to you if they get sick, and theyll be eating better too. Where did you get those chickens?
Nathan grinned at him, Our greedy gambler paid top dollar for those hens from the Spencers. Those are their blue-ribbon winning, prize hens and I think he spent a good twenty dollars on them. Of course, he thinks I dont know that, but Mrs. Spencer was feeling poorly and told me all about it when I came out to see how she was doing.
Yup, said Vin, Ezra is an evil, conniving man with a heart as big as Texas, but dont tell him or hell shoot us both.
They laughed and picked up the pace a bit. Chris really might decide to shoot them if they was late.
Well, I stopped being put out with Saint Nicholas after that visit. They were the finest chickens Id ever seen and since we had food for once, I let them keep all their eggs for a few weeks. We gathered wild onion and Mormon tea, nopales and other foods in earnest. We also smoked several antelope haunches so wed keep the meat good for winter. Anna suggested trying mesquite wood, since it smelled so nice, and we liked the results a lot.
Brett now had two skins to work on and he was doing an excellent job tanning. He even condescended to let us mere girls help out. Anna worked on the hare hide by herself, although the two of them would often discuss techniques together in the evenings like old ladies sitting on the porch of an evening.
Now that the weather was colder, we also were gathering lots of wood, and I didnt let any of them nearby while I hefted Papas axe. We werent going to starve and we werent going to freeze this winter, not if I could help it. I took great care to stack the wood right and felt sort of proud of all the work Id done.
I had more energy now, we all did. It was that good meat, and I think the kindness of these strangely dissimilar men who had been so thoughtful.
Nathan came by again and took us on another forage trip. We gathered late berries and nuts and he explained how the Indians used acorns to make a kind of flour. It meant leaving a bag to soak in the flow of a creek to get all the bitter taste out, but the end result would stretch our flour supply.
Vin had promised to show us how to plant corn and beans next year, so we could have a kitchen garden.
Mr. Phineas Philpot Oregano entered the town of Four Corners with his nose in the air. He was planning on foreclosing on a mortgage for a pathetic ranch located outside of town. What would be really fun was that the previous owner had sold the land, without informing the new owner of the existence of the mortgage. Therefore, the mortgage was in arrears.
Before looking around to find out what he could about the new so-called owner, he stepped into the saloon. There an exquisitely well-accoutered gentlemen was sipping whiskey and playing solitaire.
Good fellow, he said, aware of his high social position and the positive superiority of his own place of business, Care to share a drink and a game?
The man in the red jacket smiled at him with the debonair sophistication that he remembered fondly from back in more civilized climes.
Certainly, Sir, come sit and share a whiskey.
Vin decided that he wanted old Saint Nick to visit the youngins. When Thanksgiving came, he just happened to shoot three fine turkeys nearby, one for the youngins, one for Miz. Nettie and one for Mrs. Potter, who had decided she was having the whole lot of the seven and Inez too over for supper that day. They were all big birds, but not a bite would be wasted.
Catherine gave him a look when he showed up with the birds, and then showed him how well the hens and chicks were coming along. They had a small flock going and she proudly gave Vin a big jar filled with eggs, packed in clean straw.
As Christmas came closer and closer, Vin began to make careful purchases. He purchased the boy boots and pretty bolts of cloth to make dresses for the girls. He noticed Nathan purchasing a 50-pound bag of flour and got suspicious since Nathan got all his food served to him at the hotel as part of his pay.
He found a toy top and a whistle that he would have loved when he was younger. He also purchased several bandanas in various colors 'cause, heck; every one can use a bandana.
Mrs. Potter viewed all the gifts with equality until he brought the two bolts of cloth. You going into business, Mr. Tanner?
Vin blushed and said, No, Maam, Im sort of working part time for old Saint Nicholas.
Mrs. Potter smiled at him, In that case, you should purchase braiding and buttons.
That would be right thoughtful, Maam, replied Vin, Could you pick out something pretty for me?
Sure youre not sparking some young lady? asked Mrs. Potter again.
Lord no! said Vin and blushed again as Mrs. Potter chuckled. Sometimes making simple purchases were enough to drive a man to drink.
As soon as hed hidden his loot away in his wagon, Vin went to the Saloon. Ezra was in his usual table and Josiah was playing a hand with him.
You reckon the Lord is going to help you win? ask Vin, before he took a well-deserved slug of whiskey.
Josiah gave him a look that would curl the hair on a grizzly bear. However, Vin had lived through a Larabee glare, so it didnt bother him none.
Ezra wont come to my Christmas Eve service, so Im playing a hand against him. If he wins, I have to do some errand for him. If I win, he goes to Christmas Eve services.
Vin grinned at Ezra. Reckon youd better figure on doing errands, Preacher.
Ezra grinned right back, but kept his eyes on the cards. Chris Larabee, Buck and J.D. came in and stood next to the bar with Vin. Chris said softly, You know, I think Ez is up to something.
Vin laughed quietly, Ez is always up to something, Cowboy. Do you figure hes going to sell us out? he asked somewhat pointedly.
Hell no! said Larabee tersely.
Then its none of your business, said the tracker and leaned back against the bar chugging down his whiskey. Whiskey sure was good for what ailed a man.
Vin had a terrible time wrapping his presents, but was proud to be able to write each childs name on a card, and sign it 'St. Nick'.
Later that evening he loaded up Peso, who instead of being fractious realized something was up and headed out to the small ranch where the children lived.
It was a long cold ride, but Vin was unexpectedly cheerful. He hoped the children liked the gifts hed brought.
Once there, he noted they had the lights off. The little ones were likely already in bed and Laura was probably hoping for a visit from Old Saint Nick.
Grinning evilly, he tied up a mildly protesting Peso just out of hearing range and snuck into the barn. Silently, he picked up his huge sack and then heard a noise that twernt Old Sneaky Tooth, their nag of a horse.
He turned and drew his mares leg. Someone had come out of the storeroom. He could see the light on the Remington and said softly, Ez?
Dammit, Mr. Tanner, we should coordinate these things. We could have blown each other to hell and ruined a perfectly good surprise, said an extremely perturbed gambler.
Vin grinned in the dark, Hell Ezra, I hope we didnt get the same gifts.
He could see by the way Ez went still that the gambler hadnt considered that.
Lets see, I purchased a 50 lb. bag of chicken feed which I have just laboriously carried in my own two hands from Chaucer, who will never, ever forgive me, and placed in here for them to find. Those excellent chickens need better food to better provide for the children. I have also laboriously carried another 100 lb. bag of fine flour, an excellent book on gardening and an almanac. Then I have a sack filled to the brim with enough candy to rot all their poor innocent teeth right out.
Vin grinned more. Those were really good ideas. He should have considered foodstuff and seeds.
Lets see, continued the gambler in aggravated tones, Ah also purchased a doll house for Laura, which is still with that ungrateful horse. If he hasnt kicked it to pieces, I shall retrieve that. Oh, and I provided nuts, sewing thread, bright yarns, several really lovely handkerchiefs, puzzles, books and some gardening seed. Oh and a keg of molasses. Just to finish off the job the candy starts
Lordy! said Vin, Chaucer is going to kill you.
Yes, responded Ezra rather ruefully, He has made that abundantly clear while making me walk. Im beginning to think he may be a tad spoiled.
This was too much for Vin. He sat down next to his bag and chortled furiously till he got it out of his system. Normally, Ez might shoot him, but he wouldnt want to disturb the youngins so Vin figured he was probably safe.
Finally, he wiped his eyes and stood up, Come on, Santa, we gotta break into a ranch. Watch Catherine, I aint seen her shoot, but I wouldnt bet against her.
This said, both men carried their loot to the house. Ezra got him to carry the bag of flour, but since Ez was loaded down with damn near everything else in the world, Vin didnt mind.
At the back door, Ezra put down his burdens silently as a cat and jimmied the lock professionally. Vin decided to keep that in mind for future pranks and acts of mayhem.
Didnt reckon that Santa could pick locks, he muttered. Ezra snorted, but soon gently opened the door.
They snuck in as slick as Indians. The sitting room area had a little tree set up by the window with homemade ornaments glistening in the starlight.
Vin sat the flour down on the kitchen table next to Ezs keg of molasses, and they carefully carried everything in and began to take it all out of the sacks and put under the little tree.
Ezra gently grabbed his shoulder and motioned that he must get the dollhouse. Vin motioned back that he would help and they both slipped out. Chaucer had spared the dollhouse, probably because he was planning something more destructive later. Even by starlight the dollhouse looked wonderful.
They slipped into the house and lovingly sat the dollhouse next to the tree. Vin could see that Catherine had let them put up stockings with tiny bulges inside. That girl was a wonder.
He was just congratulating himself that they were going to clean get away, when he heard the distinctive sound of a rifle cocking. Next to him he could feel Ezra freezing with dismay.
Dont shoot! he cried.
Then a much younger voice yelled, DONT SHOOT SANTA!
There was a scuffling sound and the gun went off, shooting the top of the tree right off.
Good Lawd! said Ezra in the darkness.
Miz. Catherine, dont shoot. Its me, Vin, said Vin, anxious not to share the trees fate.
A candle was finally lit and a very stern looking Catherine surveyed her captives. Laura was clutching her nightgown desperately, while Brett and Anna were peering down the stairs at them.
Well, at least it's a definite surprise, muttered Ezra.
Catherine came down the steps, looking damn dangerous for a twelve-year old and then realized that the tree was surrounded by loot.
OH! she said.
SANTA! said Laura and without permission dove for Ezra. It would have taken an army to peel her off his legs.
Oh Santa! gushed Laura, shining like a Christmas star by candlelight. I knew youd help, I knew it!
Ezra gave Vin an absolutely dire look, which meant he blamed Vin for them getting caught, and then smiled down at Laura and tenderly patted her on the head.
Merry Christmas, said the Gambler.
The old clock over the cold fireplace chimed midnight.
Catherine must have found a way to get her mouth closed by this time. She shook her head and grinned at both men. Come on, lets open our gifts. At least I can light a fire without Laura worrying Ill burn Santas britches up.
No, that wouldnt happen, said Ezra, Instead youd send him to glory.
The fire was lit and soon the room was warm and bright. The lamp was lit and the children stared at the newly birthed boxes and bags under their little tree.
While Lauras eyes were shining, the rest werent far behind for wonder. Vin knew what a parent felt like providing for their youngins and felt a stab of desire. He looked at Ez and saw that same heart hunger in those green cunning eyes.
Can we open our presents? asked Brett, eyeing everything avidly.
First you must check your stockings. Those are the most valuable gifts, said Ezra.
The three youngest ran for the fireplace. Brett crowed when he found a good first hunting knife. He looked at Catherine lovingly and said, Uncles knife, oh Sister!
She blushed and smiled at him.
Then Anna opened her stocking, which was the bulkiest, and pulled out a blue dress.
A dress, a dress made out of Mamas clothes! She squealed, Oh Catherine. It will be like Mamas holding me in her arms!
Then Laura pulled down her stocking and retrieved a beautiful rag doll. A doll! she gasped in full wonder, My own doll!
Reckon they didnt need us none at all, Ez, said Vin and Ezra punched him in the arm.
Ah said they were the most valuable gifts, he hissed.
They both turned and smiled at the children.
Those are mighty fine presents, said Vin. I dont suppose youd like to see whats under the tree too?
Laura suddenly dashed into the kitchen. Ezra watched this with one of his secretive smiles.
She rushed out. Oh Catherine, theres a whole keg of molasses and a bag of flour thats bigger than me. We can make cookies!
Ezra looked incredibly smug.
Vin decided he couldnt wait and handed a tied up parcel to Brett. The boy tried really hard to open it patiently, but ended up tearing it to pieces.
Boots! Brett was obviously ecstatic. When he put them, they fit perfectly and Vin was terribly pleased both that Brett liked them and that they fit so well.
The dress goods and sewing notions were received with gasps of sheer feminine glee.
Laura blew on the whistle and nearly took Ezras hair right off. She grinned and then spun the top.
Each child put their bandana around their neck over their flannels and grinned at Vin, as though they knew he was the one that wrote St. Nick on their packages.
The children all looked madly happy and Vin figured that even if Ezra hadnt had the same idea as he had, it would have been a Christmas to do a man proud.
Ezra watched all this with pleasure.
Josiah and Chris couldnt find hide nor hair of their resident conman or their tracker. Recalling that Nathan had been spending a lot of time with Vin lately, they banged on his door.
Nathan grinned at them when they explained their problem.
Well, I bet they took presents over to those children out at the old Stokes Ranch. Their Pa lost all their cattle to rustlers and their Ma passed on. The Pa is in Eagle Bend breaking horses to raise a stake to get through the winter. Vins been bringing them game and Ezra sent me over with some chickens."
Josiah looked very pleased. Ezra made a bet with me that I was to do some errands for him. I bet he planned on me helping out those children.
Chris said, As long as they aint playing with dynamite, sounds like they wont get in too much trouble.
Josiah gave him a jaundiced glance. This is Vin and Ezra together, Chris. Theyve probably been captured by Renegades and set fire to Eagle Bend by this time.
Nathan grinned at them. Actually, I got some provisions for the kids I was going to take over to them tomorrow. Might as well make it a party.
Josiah lit up. Ive got a bunch of toys left over from our Christmas Eve service and party. I was going to send them over to an orphanage, but we could bring them for the children.
Chris grinned, You know, someone gave me a bottle of red eye and a big old ham. I have no idea what to do with that ham, we could give it to the youngins. It would be good eating for them all.
Quickly, all the desired items were obtained. Chris insisted on bringing the red eye, but promised not to get drunk and scare the kids.
Nathan slung a 50-lb bag of flour over his horses back. Josiah came up with a bag of wrapped presents and Chris stuck the ham in front of him and had a shot of red eye. Lets ride boys! he said in what passed as remarkable cheer for Chris Larabee. Anyone else might have thought he was planning to shoot someone, but Nathan and Josiah knew he was having a good time.
J.D. was with Miz Nettie and Casey, and Buck was off consoling the entire un-attached (and perhaps attached) female population, so they took off.
As they neared the ranch, they thought they heard a muffled shot. Chris looked worried. I bet they got themselves killed, the damn fools. Come on.
When they arrived, the house was lit up and from the sounds of merriment; the boys werent shot up too much.
Chris walked up to the door, took one last fond swig of red eye and knocked. Merry Christmas! he called
Laura was dancing around her dollhouse and clapping her hands in glee when they heard the knock at the door.
Ill get it! she cried, and before anyone could stand up, had thrown the door open. There, to her horror stood a man dressed all in black.
Laura had a good imagination. She shrieked, Santa, its the devil. Ive been good, dont let him get me.
Then a very large man in a bristling fur coat shoved the demon aside and said, Dont worry little one, our brother here wont hurt you.
Brett, who was sitting next to a box of nuts said, Is that a grizzly bear?
Laura wasnt reassured at all. Shrieking louder than her new whistle, she turned and ran for Ezra who snatched her up and held her comfortingly in his arms.
Never fear, my dear, you are safe. Indeed, you are safer than Santa Claus in this instance.
Vin knew he shouldnt make fun, but he sat down and laughed his ass off. Nathan made huffing noises, shouldered the two men aside and came in with a big bag of flour.
Dont mind these two fools, said the healer, They wanted to get in on the fun with Saint Nicholas.
Laura eyed them doubtfully, Are you friends of Santa?
Yes, little sister, said Josiah.
Chris was silent and Laura remained skeptical. What about him? she asked pointing at the black clad gunman.
Chris took in the situation and frowned. Laura clutched Ezra tighter. Catherine started to edge toward her rifle while Brett and Anna hid behind Vin.
The gunman flinched. He didnt like frightening children. Dont worry, little one, I only shoot no good gamblers.
Laura look reassured. Ezra glared at him.
We were just opening presents, Gentlemen, he said, with a sarcastic emphasis on the word gentlemen. Would you care to join in the festivities?
Why, son, that would be delightful, said Josiah.
Ezra scowled at him, Ah am not your son. He pointed out.
He handed a package to Catherine that contained the gardening book and almanac. Her eyes lit up. Look, she said excitedly, We can start planning a garden now.
The others clustered around her and touched the books with reverent hands.
Nathan Jackson sat down on the floor injun style and grinned, thats a mighty thoughtful present, Santa.
Chris Larabee grinned evilly and Ezra knew that hed be teased horribly for the rest of his natural life. He glared at both men and began to plot, then remembered his current social obligation.
Ahem, ah believe that this package is for you all, he said, handing over a large box, that appeared to really hold samples of all the candy in the known universe.
Laura clapped her hands and said, Candy!!! Apparently this was particularly pleasing. Catherine generously offered everyone a piece and they all accepted one. Vin grabbed a large candy cane and licked it without shame. Ez sure had good taste.
Nathan shook his head put that didnt keep him from eating his piece of candy.
The next present with a large box filled with an assortment of shelled nuts. Then another box filled with a selection of childrens books was greeted with avid interest. Josiah snuck some of the nuts and Laura finally warmed to the large grizzly-bear man.
I like nuts, she said softly.
Larabee grinned at her, Well, you like Vin and Ez, so that must be true. He remarked.
Laura obviously didnt understand the logic there, but she gave Larabee a doubtful look.
Chris suddenly realized he was standing around holding a large ham. Say, he said to Catherine, I hope you all like ham. I thought you might like a taste of some. Its smoked too.
The children were quite properly impressed.
Then a box containing carefully labeled seeds was opened and the children got incredibly excited. We can grow all these things! said Catherine.
She had obviously held herself back up to this time, but the seeds represented a chance at surviving another year here. She rushed the Gambler and gave him a crushing hug, Oh thank you, Sir, this is so wonderful! These are all things we need and more than we ever dreamed of.
Ezra Standish, who was world wise, and sophisticated, blushed red and began to blink quite rapidly.
As I explained previously, Ah am only an agent for good Saint Nicholas, and am therefore not to be considered the recipient of gratitude.
Chris snorted at this, but Vin and the others commenced a grinning. It was too hard to resist.
Nathan laughed and said, Where do you want this sack of flour I found? Wouldnt want it to go to waste.
Laura rushed to take his hand and took him into the kitchen. He viewed the table groaning under its current load with delight. Catherine brought in the ham and stared.
The rest of the presents were duly opened and gasped over. Nathan brought out a gift that turned out to be a bunch of clearly labeled bottles with lots of spices and herbs, guaranteeing future successful culinary efforts. Josiah brought out the toys and everyone took turns opening them, including the men. Vin opened a tin soldier and laughed at it and started to make it march over to Ezra, who had opened a game of checkers.
Josiah had a small Noahs ark with carved animals, which attacked Vins soldier, while Chris Larabee was the recipient of a slingshot.
Nathan opened a girls doll, who immediately went over to rescue Vins soldier. One of the sheep from Noahs ark was mysteriously catapulted at the new couple. Catherine opened a rubber ball and jacks and hit Chris right between the eyes with the ball.
He gave her a surprised look, and sat down. Laura opened a book of pictures and shared it with the devil man in hopes that it would placate him.
Chris sat her on his lap and started to go over the book with her. She gave him a doubtful glance, but then they both grew interested in the book. Anna came over and joined Laura, so Larabee had a lap full. Ezra began to play jacks with Catherine while Brett went over and played with Vin, Nathan and Josiah.
Catherine commented, I never thought a grownup would be so good at jacks, and Vin fell over on his back and lay there laughing. Dont win all her jacks, Ez! he chortled and Ezra frowned at him.
Laura grinned up at the black man and softly, Youre nice. Will you be my friend? Anna snuggled up against him and smiled. Chris Larabee smiled down at the two girls and said, Yup, very softly back.
Then Brett appeared from upstairs. He walked shyly over to where Vin was still quivering in mirth and said, I made you and Mr. Nate and Mr. Ez some presents. I was going to give them to you the next time you came over, but Id like to give them to you now.
Vin sat up and hit his head against Nathans. Nathan rubbed his head and then said, Id be mighty proud to see it. Vin scowled at Nathan and nodded at Brett. Ezra returned his winnings to Catherine and crawled over to where his co-peacekeepers were gathered.
Brett pulled out three packages of paper and handed them to each man. Vin looked over and said, I reckon Ez should open his first, being as hes working for Santa and all.
Ezra gave him a quick glare that would burn paint off wood, but then smiled at Brett. Ahm honored at your thoughtfulness.
He carefully untied the string and unwrapped the plain brown paper. Paper and string were not to be wasted, but had many uses. Then he stared. Lying in his hands was the most beautiful leather wallet hed ever seen. The leather was beautifully tanned and a rich brown color. But what was most beautiful about it was that the leather had been worked with a design of mountains and fir trees. He opened the wallet, silently, and stared at the back, which was an entire picture of the mountains behind this ranch. He stared some more. Then he looked up and his eyes were wet. This is absolutely the most beautiful wallet I have ever seen in all my years. You made this yourself, Brett?
Brett, who had been watching Ezra in terror because he hadnt smiled, gave a sigh of relief.
Yup, he said, Pa taught me how to work leather. It was something he used to do before we came west. Me and all the girls tanned the leather from that antelope and I did the rest.
Ezras gold-tooth suddenly revealed itself as he gifted them all with a huge smile of pleasure.
This is a treasure, a veritable work of art! he said and drew Brett into a huge hug of delight.
Then he sat back and examined the wallet gleefully. There were tiny buttoned sacks on both sides that would hold coins, and a long partition for holding greenbacks. Ezra ran sensitive fingers over it and said, Why there is a secret compartment here. How very clever!
Nathan nodded to Vin, Why dont you open yours next? he suggested, grinning. Vin grinned back. Seeing Ezra this open and excited over a present was good entertainment.
Vin opened his package to find another wallet. This wallet however had been tooled with a scene of antelope by a stream. One was grazing and the other was looking about on sentry duty. In the distance, there was the beginning of woodlands and tooled clouds overhead. Even the grass that one antelope was cropping at was there.
Vin was astounded, I swear this is the prettiest thing Ive ever seen. Im going to be mighty proud to buy supplies from Miz. Potter with such fancy wallet.
Ezra looked up sharply at that and a strange gleam came to his eyes. Vin figured old Ez had come up with another plan.
Brett was blushing with pleasure by now.
Now Nathans gift was in a bigger package. He nodded to everyone, opened it and gasped. This was not a wallet; it was a gathering pouch for someone who often harvested herbs in quantity. It was big enough to hold much, and had compartments to keep different herbs and barks separate, but what made it stand out was that the leather had been tooled with faithful reproductions of all the herbs he had shown the children on their land. His hands wonderingly traced at a stinging nettle done in exact detail. Next to it were violets, which Nathan had told the children could be used to make a wonderful cough syrup. And on and on, covering the pouch were more beautiful herbs. Why this is practically a lesson book for gathering herbs! he exclaimed, and looked at the boy with excited gratitude, Thank you, Brett, this is a wonderful gift. Ill be proud to use it.
While Josiah and Chris hadnt gotten any gifts, they were pleased and excited for their friends and enjoying themselves immensely. Laura pulled Chris ear down and said, I helped with the leather, and Chris grinned. Mighty fine leather, he said back and Laura and Anna grinned at him.
Then Laura gave a yawn that practically split her head in two.
Catherine jumped up. We best get back to bed, she said. Its too late and too cold to ride all the way back to town. Why dont you all sleep here tonight?
Brett jumped up now and said, Ill bring Pas mattress down and the extra blankets. Laura and Anna raced after him up the stairs and the sound of a small spirited battle over who got to carry what could be heard distinctly.
The men went outside, watered all the horses and then settled them down in the barn. Each man carried his saddle and blankets in for sleeping on. They put their saddles near the fire and prepared to sleep.
Today must have been the most exciting day in my life, except for when my brother and sisters were born. Ive never seen so many wonderful presents in my life and the seed and food! Lordy, Laura was right on the button, that fancy gambler man was St. Nicholas. We had lots of food for the winter, and I was unafraid of the cold months to come.
It was now early morning and the men had promised to stay the night. Each one of them was so different and yet even I could tell they had a special bond. I was proud enough to bust over the gifts that Brett had laboriously made. The men had taken on about them like they were something really special. It felt good to know they were so pleased.
Once we were sure they had all the blankets theyd need to be warm and comfortable, I said, Good night, gentlemen, Merry Christmas, and blew out the lantern.
Laura flew to where Mr. Standish was laying propped up against his saddle and covered up with blankets.
Good night, Santa, she said and hugged him, I love you.
He coughed and then said shyly, Ah love you too, little one. Now off to bed with you.
But Laura wasnt going to leave anyone out and she kissed Mr. Vin and Mr. Nathan and those two new fellows, Mr. Larabee and Brother Josiah. Then she raced up the stairs and we could hear her dive into bed with Anna, who shrieked over getting kneed in the tummy.
I shook my head.
Good Night, Maam, said Mr. Vin, Merry Christmas.
They all echoed him, and I went upstairs to sleep too. I slept and dreamed of a kitchen garden that had enough food in it to keep us well fed through the winter. I dreamed of leather boots, and the dresses I would make from the dress goods, and the beautiful ready-made dresses that Ezra had picked out. I dreamed of all those wonderful books, the sacks of flour and the molasses.
I woke up with the dawn and dressed quickly. I snuck down the stairs. There they all lay, sleeping peacefully. Brother Josiah was snoring just like a grizzle bear. I put some wood on the fire and then tiptoed in the kitchen started in on breakfast. I made a mess of pancake batter that we could sweeten with the molasses. I also sliced up some of the ham, saving the rest for supper with the roast. I mixed up biscuits and rolled them out. Soon there was a little shadow at my shoulder and Brett grinned at me. He made signs to me that hed fetch some eggs for breakfast, and I nodded to him.
He left on tiptoe and I continued rolling out my biscuits. Now there was another shadow, a much bigger one.
I reckon, said a voice very softly, That Ill go out and see to the horses and fetch some coffee from my saddle bags. Then Vin Tanner slipped out quietly into the dawn.
Brett came back with a basket filled with eggs. Breakfast was going to be a regular feast.
I grinned at my brother. I was so proud of him and all the work he had done, and then making those beautiful leather goods for our friends.
Then I heard a voice I knew and loved outside saying, What are you doing here?
Papa! I gasped. Hed been gone for nearly two months and his voice sounded so sick and tired.
I rushed outside; worried that Papa would yell at Vin or maybe even try to shoot him, which would probably result in shooting out the windows or killing one of the hens.
But instead Papa seemed to be staggering and Vin grabbed him as Papa collapsed. Papa had an arm in a sling.
Catherine? he said, like he couldnt see me.
Im here, Papa, I cried and we carried him in the house. His eyes were closed but I could see the pulse in his throat.
All the others were fully awake now and moving to help Vin.
Hes all in, said Vin to Nathan and Nathan Jackson who had taught us so much about finding forage on our land suddenly took charge. I had thought that Larabee was the leader but apparently Nathan was in charge of all injuries. Before I knew it, we had Papa in bed with warm bricks and hot tea. The bandage around Papas arm had dried blood on it, and Nathan set Brett to boil water. Soon he had the bandage off. Oh! I gasped at the sight and put my hands over Lauras eyes. Anna gasped and hid her head against me.
Whoever set this break was a fool and didnt clean it proper. Vin fetch my saddle bags, I need the carbolic.
He looked at me, this kind-hearted dark skinned man and said, I gotta reset his arm." Looks like he got thrown off a horse and they didnt set it to mend proper.
Anna and Laura were by Papas side now staring at Nathan with big eyes.
Papa! said Laura, and Papas eyes opened.
He looked confused. Who are all these men? he asked me.
Friends, Papa; theyre peacekeepers from Four Corners.
Santa sent them for Christmas, said Laura and Papa smiled.
Thats mighty nice of them and of Santa. Ive missed you all something terrible.
Nathan now got his attention, Sir, whoever set your arm didnt do a good job. I gotta clean it proper and then break it to reset it. I got carbolic and laudanum that will clean it and help with the pain.
Papa looked at him and then nodded. I hear you got healing hands. Thank you for your kindness.
Nathan nodded, pleased. Vin came in with his saddle bags.
Papa looked at them and then said, I got pay in my wallet. Give it to Catherine. I didnt get as much as I hoped for before I got hurt, but it should help us scrap through till spring comes.
Ezra went to his coat and drew out Papas old homemade wallet, which was decorated with bison from the plains. He stared at it for a moment and then handed me the wallet silently and I put it in my apron pocket.
We watched Papa drink the laudanum down and get drowsy, while Nathan Jackson prepared to do surgery. I rushed for the boiling hot water that Brett had got going. Anna and Laura ran for clean clothes.
Josiah seemed to tower over us. Do you need help holding the arm steady?
Yup, said Nathan absently, his eyes and concentration were all on Papa. I was scared inside, but that concentration gave me hope. I could tell that Nathan was good at healing, that it burned in him like a fire. Like the fire I felt inside about taking care of my family.
Without an arm, Papa wouldnt be able to raise any more cattle, if we ever got enough of a stake together to buy anything. However, I had learned an important thing from Lauras friend Ezra Standish and that was die-verse-if-ah-cation. Vin had actually been the one who explained it once on one of his blessed visits. He had explained that if you have more than one iron in the fire, if one failed, the others would help make up the difference.
He had said in that soft voice, If you plant only corn and it fails, you are in a spot of trouble, but if you have a big kitchen garden, you still can put grub on the table. If you raise beef and they get stolen, you can still hunt for meat. Ez says that he does that with investments. He gambles a lot, but hes started buying property in town. He purchased an old icehouse and got J.D. and Buck to go up with him in the mountains and cut ice off a lake. They covered it up with sawdust from the mill that he got for nothing and then filled up that old icehouse. He got Josiah to patch the walls good, and next summer, Ezra will sell ice when its hot. But hes not depending on it. He says hes merely 'diversifying his investments'.
So while Papa might lose the use of his arm, we still needed him, and now we had more knowledge about living off the land. Id plant a garden, we knew foraging and we had the chickens. There was a lot of hope now, and I was going to work at it.
Papa gave a moan. Then Nathan turned to me. I dont think the little ones should see this. I looked down at my two little sisters and prepared for a fight but Mr. Larabee stepped in and took their hands. Come on down to the kitchen with me. Everyone will need some food when Nathan is finished.
And they followed him, looking back at Papa, but not complaining.
I can help. I said when theyd gone down the stairs. Brett swallowed hard and said, Me too.
Nathan looked at us. Miz Catherine, theres going to be blood, he warned.
I nodded and felt my stomach clench, but I set my jaw. I wont go yellow, I said tightly, And if Im in the way, say so and Ill skedaddle.
Brett nodded again, Me too.
So Josiah held Papas arm steady and we were ready with hot water, clean cloth and anything else that Nathan Jackson required.
Papa woke up when Nathan re-broke the bone. His eyes widened and he looked at us then he clenched his jaw and didnt holler once. He sweated a lot, but didnt even moan. And there was blood, but what really bothered me was the sound of his bone breaking. But I stayed alert and helped as much as I could.
When Nathan finished, he gave Papa more laudanum and said, Go to sleep now. Your arm is set just right, and with these fine children watching over you, youll be better in no time.
Papa smiled at him and whispered through dry lips, thank you, and then smiled at us. Then he fell asleep, just like a baby.
We all crept down stairs after tucking Papa in. Josiah moved liked a cat and I think I made more noise on the stairs.
Ezra and Vin were playing with Anna and Laura. Ezra was doing card tricks and Vin was holding them on his lap and tickling them. Next to me, Nathan nodded and both men relaxed. It made me feel closer to them, knowing theyd been worried like that for my Papa. These were good men.
Mans got sand, said Josiah in a deep voice that sounded like it should be coming out of the clouds on a mountain. Didnt make a noise.
Bones set perfect, said Nathan and he looked pleased. With care and feeding up, hell heal just fine.
And now that I knew he would be all right, I started to shake. Nathan put his arm around my shoulder so gentle and respectful like, You dont worry, Miz Catherine. Well all take good care of him.
Then Ezra was there on my other side, Have no fear, Miz Catherine, I shall make plans to deliver fresh milk and cheese to help strengthen those bones.
Nathan looked surprised and grinned, Why Ez, I suspect you listen to me once in awhile.
Ezra gave him a quick glare and then smiled at me. Hes terribly bossy, but a wonderful healer. He commented meaningfully and I giggled. Already they were making me feel better.
I should give you the money Papa earned, youve more than spent that on helping us out.
Ezra stood up and puffed out his chest like an indignant rooster, Ah have explained previously, that I am only working as an assistant to the Good Saint. No one ever pays Santa for presents. Its just not done.
Dont argue with him none, Miz. Catherine. Hes worse than wrestling with a porcupine. Nathan Jackson grinned at me and I sighed. These good men were as stubborn as I can be.
Laura and Anna ran to me and Brett, Papas going to get better? they asked in chorus.
Yup, I said, Mr. Jackson set his arm right and now Papa is sleeping.
Then I smelled ham and pancakes. Chris Larabee walked out of the kitchen with a plate filled high with fluffy pancakes and an old apron around his waist. Breakfast is served, he said. Vin grinned and started to open his mouth to comment but then Mr. Larabee gave him just the worst glare Ive ever seen. Dont say it or you dont get none.
Vin snapped his mouth shut and nodded agreement.
Breakfast was hot pancakes with molasses, slices of ham, scrambled eggs, biscuits and coffee that Vin Tanner had brought in from his saddlebags. Mr. Larabee made tea for us kids. They all, Ezra and Vin in particular, acted like I was the grown-up lady of the house and Brett a full-grown man. They asked us our opinions, complimented my cooking (although Vin did sort of grin at Chris Larabee when that was brought up), and Ezra asked casually if he and Papa had ever done any of our tooling work on saddles.
Brett grinned, still proud of their making so much over his gifts, and said yup, we still had Mamas old saddle out in the barn.
After they all helped do the dishes (without breaking even one), they followed Brett out to the barn like baby chicks follow their Mama and made of Mamas saddle that Papa had made as a wedding gift years ago. Papa had tooled in roses and vines and it definitely is a beautiful saddle, but you would have thought it was made of gold the way Ezra Standish stared at it.
Brett showed him a belt that Papa had made for Sunday best and then showed him all Papas old unused tools for working leather. Ezra looked mighty interested.
I went to feed the chickens and found the new bag of food. I was getting to the point where Id not be surprised if a milk cow wandered in with a big bow and a tag from Saint Nicholas.
Then Chris Larabee came up and said, Wed best get back to town before Buck and J.D. get into trouble. It sure was a nice Christmas.
Nathan Jackson grinned and then gave me a hug, Dont worry about your Daddy, Miz Catherine. Hes a good man and tough as leather. Ill come over tomorrow and see how hes healing. Dont let him try to work.
Vin Tanner shyly tipped his hat to us, and Ezra saluted us merrily. Josiah put his great hand on Annas head and said, Thank you, little sister, and all of you for a wonderful Christmas.
They turned to leave, but Laura ran to Ezra and demanded kisses. Ezra blushed, but kissed her and then blushed again. Then she eyed Nathan and Vin. Vin looked only slightly terrorized, but Nathan grinned and held his arms open.
Vin glared at Chris Larabee while Nathan was hugging and kissing Laura, but he smiled and picked Laura up and kissed her cheek. Merry Christmas, Miz. Laura, this sure has been a wonderful day.
They rode off toward Four Corners, mildly joshing each other as they went, and waving back at us. We all waved till they were out of sight, then ran back into the house. I put everything away. I had a big stuffed roast of antelope going in the stove; it would slow cook all day and be done for a fine supper.
I picked up all the scattered toys and put them under the tree with the rest of our wonderful presents. I hadnt had new clothing since before Mama died, and now I had a mighty pretty ready-made dress and cloth for a dress as well. Id worried about boots for Brett, but now he had fine new boots with a little room for growing without chafing his feet.
Laura grinned at her dollhouse, put her new doll inside and then looked at me.
Can we go check on Papa? she asked.
Only if we are silent as mice, I said softly. Then we all turned and tip toed up the stairs and softly opened Papas bedroom door.
He was sound asleep. Laura looked at him and then to my dismay, crawled into bed next to him and fell asleep. He didnt even move.
Anna looked rebellious and then she too snuck onto Papas other side and fell asleep.
Brett shrugged his shoulders and crawled in next to Laura. I stood there and pretended I was Mr. Chris Larabee and glared at them. There was no more room for me. Then I smiled and crawled on the foot of the bed at Papas feet. I stuck out my tongue at my dear brother and sisters and fell asleep. Papa was home and safe. Everything was right in my world, and I was thankful for everything.
Two Days Later
He woke up and realized that the children had left his side. Hed woken up in pain several times and his eldest, Catherine, had dosed him with willow tea and some other foul hair-growing concoction that made him sleep again. Each time one or more of his children were nestled beside him, watching over him.
He carefully made his way out of bed, deciding to visit the outhouse. The children had fed him up and hed been hesitant to eat anything until he realized that they already had plenty of wonderful provisions for winter. Tonight they were having their first chicken, from a flock that had been brooding eggs. They were all fine hens, and now had several roosters, the noisiest of whom had been chosen for supper. Apparently the men from Four Corners had brought over flour, chicken feed, provisions, presents for Christmas, the starter flock of chickens, and had shot a passel of good tasting critters. The girls were learning to smoke the meat and make sausages and he was pleased with the results. None of the peacekeepers appeared to feel this was anything special or that theyd kept his children from going hungry.
His stingy employer in Eagle Bend hadnt fed him enough to keep a bird going, and the good food was a blessing.
He walked down the stairs. The house was silent, although he could hear chickens fussing in the yard and Lauras high-pitched squeal in the distance. He looked over. The tree was still up, and the room was so cheerful. His eyes burned. He had failed his children miserably with his lack of experience. Yet those good men had made up the difference for him and he would be beholding forever.
An envelope was sitting on the mantel above the fireplace. Curious he saw his name on it and picked it up. It was thick with something. He opened it and found the deed to his land, paid off.
He sat down in Mamas old rocker and stared at the paper in his hands. He knew none of the names giving him complete ownership of the land and house, except that of Judge Travis. He trembled and had to close his eyes. He had found out in Eagle Bend that there was an unknown mortgage on the land and that the seller had hoodwinked him. Hed been waiting for some stuffy bank manager to show up and demand payments; sure hed end up on the streets.
A little piece of notepaper fell out of the beribboned deed. He picked it up, minding his arm, and found a small card.
Merry Christmas from Saint Nicholas. Youve been a wonderful father to those precious children and the Bank Manager from Eagle Bend cant play poker to save his life.
He clasped it to his heart and allowed himself the rare luxury of the first tears hed shed since his wifes funeral.
The land was saved, and theyd make it through the winter. The children had been given a wealth of seeds and books on planting and planned a garden that should help them through the next year too.
He hid the document, went out to the outhouse, and then back to bed, his heart healed of a savage wound.
One Month Later
Well, Papa and Brett appear to be having the time of their lives. Mr. Ezra Standish, who might really be Saint Nicholas now, Im not as sure as I used to be, staked them on a leather working shop and theyve both been making money and a reputation for their beautiful tooled leather crafts. The most famous, of course, is the magnificent saddle they custom made for Mr. Standish.
Its not even finished yet, and people keep stopping by just too look at it and the tasteful little ace of spades that are worked into the leaves and curlicues decorating the piece.
Buck Wilmington, who is one of the Seven that we didnt get to have over for Christmas, has put in an order for next Christmas for a saddle for our Sheriff, J.D. Dunne. Its supposed to have stars all over it, like the stars used by the Texas Rangers for their badges. Papa and Brett have drawn several ideas for designs and Buck is as excited about it as Laura gets about Santa.
Bretts wallets go faster than he can make them and so do the fancy belts that are built to last but are things of beauty.
Meanwhile, me and the girls are busy too, preparing the land for our new garden. Ive learned to shoot and hunt, and not only do I keep us in fresh meat, but good leather for Papa and Brett to make their crafts with.
Mary Travis has asked her father-in-law, a federal judge, don't ya know, to see Papas work and when he visits, shes sure hell put in an order as well. Weve never had so much cash money.
The other day, Joshua Potter told Laura that there wasnt so any Santa Claus, that he was just for little kids. Laura grabbed him by the ear and drug him to the saloon, and pointed out Ezra Standish at his table playing cards. She then sat Joshua down and explained that Santa works secretly but you could often spot him or his numerous helpers by their attire. Weve got to work with Laura on that. Im worried some day shell grow up and run off with some gambling man with good taste in clothing without determining hes got a heart of pure gold like our Gambler here.
Cause even though he says that Saint Nicholas has lots of helpers all over, I personally think that he and his friends are pretty special and rare.