Author's Note: My undying gratitude to whomever it was who forwarded me the e-mail that included a description of a production much like this one, and which was the inspiration for this story. Thanks, to MOG, too, for giving us the ATF AU to play in!

December, 1998
The old church was abuzz with activity, men, women and children hurrying this way and that, all of them trying to get everything done before it was time for the Christmas pageant to begin.

St. Philip's was a large but modest Episcopal church in the heart of Purgatorio. The families who attended were often the same ones who had also lived at the church's shelter for homeless families, or at the church's group home for women and children fleeing domestic violence. The rest were poor but proud working people who did their best to make a better life for themselves and their children.

And to try and help, the staff and clergy ran a variety of programs to help keep the kids off the streets, out of gangs, and in school, but it was often an uphill battle, even on a good day. Their successes were always lavishly celebrated and the failures prayed over.

St. Philip's relied on its volunteers to help them keep everything running more or less smoothly. And seven volunteers in particular were considered true gifts from God. These particular helpers were ATF agents by day, and mentors, tutors, father figures and friends by evening and weekend. And the nice thing was – all of the men seemed to get as much out of it as the children they worked with did.

Buck Wilmington was the hands down favorite among the girls, 6 to 10, while Ezra Standish seemed to draw the boys in the 7- to 10-year-old range.

Chris Larabee, for all his supposed ferocity, was the most popular among the 4- to 7-year-olds, especially the little boys. And Josiah Sanchez, a huge bear of a man, was a magnet for the toddlers of both sexes, and the little girls who weren't quite up to competing with the boys for Mr. Larabee's attention.

Nathan Jackson was the man of choice for the "tweens" – boys and girls 11 to 13 – which, in the minds of the staff and the clergy, made him the closest thing to a saint they were likely to encounter.

And JD Dunne and Vin Tanner seemed to slip right into the hearts and confidences of the teenagers.

When the members of Team Seven were around, all of the children seemed to find the attention they needed most and, as a result, the staff at St. Phillip's had all been celebrating more successes and praying over fewer failures of late.

So, when it came time to begin planning the annual Christmas pageant, staff and clergy alike made sure to ask each one of the seven men individually to lend a hand. Prayers were said and numerous fingers were crossed as they had waited to hear if any of them might have other plans that would take them out of town, or keep them at home.

Luckily, God heard their prayers, and each of the men had agreed to help out.

Thus it was that, at 6:15 p.m., all seven ATF agents were scampering this way and that, trying to round up "their kids" in order to go over the last minute details, changes, and arrangements before the start of the service and pageant at 7 p.m.

JD, Vin and the teens had already built and erected all of the sets for the program, as well as decorating the church and the fellowship hall. They had also made fairly short work of the huge Christmas tree Vin and Chris had cut down at a Christmas tree farm, accompanied by eight of the teens, who had made the selection.

Vin and JD had also supervised while the teens had set up the life-sized nativity scene out in the front of the church. And they had already spent the morning and the afternoon cooking in the fellowship hall's kitchen, helping to prepare hot meals for all of the people who would be attending services this evening, as well as any homeless kids or adults who might wander in, lured by the wonderful smells.

A few of the teens had also been tasked with staffing the "nursery" and, under Inez's supervision, would be keeping the toddlers and babies occupied so their parents could enjoy the service and the pageant.

The "tweens," under the guidance of Nathan and his soon-to-be-wife, Raine, would be responsible for the musical portions of the pageant. Since this was the largest group of children in the church, this had seemed the most efficient way to keep them corralled in one place. But everyone who had heard the rehearsals had been surprised by the children's dedication, and by their talent. Nathan and Raine just knew the kids were going to make everyone proud of them tonight.

The younger children, those 11 to 14 who wouldn't sing or were too shy to participant in the pageant, had been turned into stage hands, lighting technicians, and wardrobe helpers. Others from the 7- to 10-year-old group had been made ushers. They were handing out programs to people as they arrived, escorting older people to the pews, and carefully carrying paper cups – one with punch and one with cookies – to the waiting audience members, all under the watchful supervision of Buck and Ezra.

Chris was in what had become the "green room," helping the youngest children to get into their costumes while Josiah rehearsed their lines with them.

From assorted bathrobes, dishtowels and cardboard boxes, a living nativity was about to take center stage in front of the altar.

After finishing with "Mary" and "Joseph," Josiah turned to four-year-old Ben, a small African-American child with enormous brown eyes and an infectious smile. "Do you remember your line, Ben?" he asked the boy.

"Uh-huh," Ben replied, vigorously nodding his head, which had been trimmed so closely he almost looked bald.

"Well, do you want to say it for me?" the big man asked patiently.

Ben shook his head, equally vigorously.

Josiah shot Chris a look, the blond trying hard not to laugh.

"Hey, Ben," Chris called, "what part do you have?"

"'M the angel Goliath," he said.

"Goliath?" Josiah questioned, completely confounded as to where the boy had come up with the name.

"Um-hmm," Ben said, nodding again. He grabbed a plastic sword and started swinging it, saying, "I gets t' come down from heaven 'n' mow down all them shepherds sleepin' with their sheeps at night."

Both men had to run that through the old cerebral cortexes a couple of times before they made sense of it.

"Naw-huh," Maripaz, the wise (wo)man, said before they could respond. "Shepherds are good, an' angels are good. They don't fight."

"Yessir," Ben countered, shooting her a glare.

"No, they don't!" Maripaz insisted. "They'd hurt the sheep!"

"They cuts the sheep up an' barbeques 'em," Ben insisted.

That got the rest of the children involved in the argument, and it took both adults to finally put an end to it, and then only after sending Kenya out to bring everyone a cookie.

Josiah took Ben aside and, over the boy's objections, changed his character to "Gabriel." Then they rehearsed his line.

"Unto you…" Josiah prompted.

"…is bone…"

"…this day…" Josiah waited, and then added, "A… what?"

"I d'know, Mr. Josiah."

"A savior… who is…?"

"Who is he, Mr. Josiah?"

The older man smiled. "No, that's your line, remember? Unto you… this day… is born a savior… who is…?"

"Who?" Ben pleaded.

Josiah smiled again. "Why don't you say it with me, okay?"

"Okay," Ben agreed.

"Unto you…"

"Unto you…"

"…this day…"

"…dis day…"

"…is born a savior…"

"…born savior…"

"…who is Christ the Lord."

"…who's Chris d'Lord." Ben blinked, his big brown eyes looking up at Josiah. "Don't ya know who Christ d'Lord is, Mr. Josiah?"

"Yes, I know who He is," Josiah said.

"That's good. He's the one who listens t' yo' prayers under yo' pillow."

Josiah nodded like he already knew that but, in truth, it was news to him.

Before they knew it, Father Andy was knocking on the door, leaning in and asking, "Is everybody ready?"

"As we'll ever be," Josiah said with an amused grin on his face.

The two men gathered up the children, arranging them in a line in the order they would go out onto the stage. As the lights were set, the shepherds and their "sheep" went out and took their places while the children sang "Oh Little Town of Bethlehem."

When the song was over it was time for Ben's big line to open the play.

In deadly earnest, "Gabriel" marched out onto the "stage" and announced to the assembled congregation, "Unto you is bone dis day a children who is twice d'load!"

At the side of the church, Ezra leaned over and said softly to Nathan, "It's difficult to know if the boy is announcing the arrival of the Christ-child, or very large twins…"

Nathan snorted and cupped his hand over his mouth to keep from laughing out loud. Raine slapped his arm – hard.

The play continued, "Mary" and "Joseph," going out next. They were greeted by a short burst of laughter.

"Joseph" was pulling a large stuffed Eeyore that had been mounted to a wooden frame, with wheels attached (some of Vin's handiwork).

"Mary" rode along, looking a little too happy for someone who was about to give birth. And "Mary" – or, in this case, Jill Carter – had a keen appreciation for the reproductive process, being the oldest of five children at the tender age of seven. So, without having told either Josiah or Chris, she had stuffed the biggest doll she could find into the front of her costume to make Mary a little more believable.

Chris spotted the oddly-shaped, lumpy protrusion first and elbowed Josiah. "What's that?" he asked the older man.

The big man's brow wrinkled as he studied the situation, the children rattling off their lines on stage. "I'm not sure," he finally said, "but it looks like she might be giving birth to a reindeer."

"Joseph" went to the Inn, only to be turned away: "We's full up t'night."

Coming back out, he gave "Mary," now dismounted from her donkey, the distressing news.

Now Josiah and Chris both knew that "Mary" was supposed to valiantly place her plight into the capable hands of the Almighty. It was supposed to have been a moving scene, and it probably would have been, if "Joseph" hadn't finally noticed that his "wife" was apparently pregnant with a reindeer and burst out laughing.

"Mary" didn't take too kindly to that particular reaction to her delicate condition, so she whacked her "husband" upside the head.

He stumbled back into the stuffed donkey, which promptly rolled over and played dead.

That struck "Mary" as pretty funny, and she dissolved into giggles, which promptly sent her into spontaneous labor right there on the stage, producing a fully clothed baby Jesus for all to see, dressed in a pretty pink dress, and with bright blonde hair.

The audience roared with laughter.

Josiah and Chris exchanged looks, shaking their heads. They had tried, really they had, but with children it was often necessary to (ab)use a great deal of dramatic license.

Despite the early labor, "Mary" and "Joseph" moved on to the "stable," so the two wise men and one wise woman could drop by for a visit. They gave baby Jesus gifts of "Frank's sense," (we can only hope Frank had good sense), and "Murray" (we're not sure who he was, but he smelled good).

Josiah slipped away to get into his Santa suit while the choir took up the baton, and the children took their bows. They were given a standing ovation.

Then Santa arrived with the "hugest bag o' presents" Ben had ever seen.

Josiah handed out the gifts and everyone moved into the fellowship hall to enjoy the food.

The seven men gathered at the back of the hall, watching the children playing with their new toys, and the adults, enjoying the children, and what they were sharing, together – those who had little and those who had nothing but, at that moment, they had each other, and the innocence of their children, who, hopefully, did not understand just yet that they weren't like many other children that Christmas Eve.

"Well, I'd say that was a damn fine Christmas pageant," Buck said, grinning.

"I have to agree," Josiah replied.

Vin and JD nodded.

Chris smiled, asking, "So, you all up for a little drive?"

The others looked a little confused, but they nodded, thinking that maybe he'd gotten a cell phone call from Travis.

Then Chris smiled and added, "I have a little Christmas cheer for everyone out at the ranch. You sure you're up for it? Might just last 'til Christmas morning."

They all grinned and nodded.

And so a tradition was born – a selfless Christmas Eve, followed by an indulgent Christmas morning, both filled with joy and friendship and plenty of laughter – a fellowship of seven men who had become friends, then brothers, and then something more.

The End


Author's Second Note: This story first appeared in the Mag 7 zine, Let's Ride #8, published by Neon RainBow Press, Cinda Gillilan and Jody Norman, editors. When we all decided to post the stories that have appeared in the issues of Let's Ride that are more than two years old, we opted to use a generic pen name because, while Michelle Furtado is the primary author of this story, she had so much help from the other folks writing for the press that it just made sense to consider the story to be written by the Neon RainBow Press Collective! Resistance was futile. So, thanks to the whole Neon Gang – Dori Adams, Sierra Chaves, Dana Ely, Michelle Fortado, Patricia Grace, Deyna Greywolf, Erica Michaels, Nina Talbot, Kasey Tucker, Rebecca Wright, and Lorin and Mary Fallon Zane. Story lasted edited 10-6-2006. Art by Shiloh (shigal13@excite.com)