It was a cold and nippy evening in the desert near Four Corners. Vin Tanner rode his cantankerous mule of a horse Peso down a trail he knew better than the back of his hand. In the distance, he saw the lights of the Spencer's farm and grinned. Fastened to his saddle was a large sack in which he had been entrusted with enough toys and candy to spoil every child in a 50-mile radius and probably rot their teeth out to boot.
It had started out last year when he and Ez had played Santa for an adorable bunch of kids down on their luck over the winter season. The youngest girl, Laura, was convinced that Ezra was old Saint Nick, and that Vin was his helper.
Aside from nearly getting their heads blown off putting presents under the tree, they'd had a hell of a good time. Ezra had mentioned that it would be an excellent exercise in drumming up support for the 7 peacemakers guarding the town (which Vin knew damn well meant Ez wanted an excuse to have more fun), so Vin was making night deliveries.
It wasn't Christmas yet. He'd learned that Saint Nick's day was actually sooner in the month, and since this year the whole town was having a joint Christmas potluck at the church, Ezra decided to get his Santa Ez routine over on Saint Nick's day. That way their presents wouldn't compete with their parents' on Christmas Day.
Peso snorted and by the moonlight he could see the beast's breath. It was cold tonight but Vin was mighty warm inside
Now apparently there was a custom in the old country that good old Saint Nick did his rounds and put presents in the shoes of good children, who left them outside the house on the windowsills for his expected visit.
Vin thought this was an excellent way to lose good shoes, but a lot of the local children had decided it was worth trying, so Vin was sneaking about visiting ranches
Peso became silent as they drew near the ranch house, sensing as usual his master's need to stealth.
The lights were out, but you could see a wreath of smoke rising from the chimney and there on the front porch were a whole passel of shoes.
Ezra had made individual candy bags out of mosquito netting, so every one of the shoes would have a bag of candy present. He noted that most of the youngin's had polished their shoes, but some had something in them. He touched it gingerly and realized that the children had stuffed straw in their shoes.
"Looks like you got yourself a treat Peso," he said in a hushed voice.
In the cool moonlight he began to rapidly take candy bags out and put one in each left shoe.
The straw he gave to Peso, who didn't question the largesse, but started chomping quickly.
One hopeful youngin' had put a big old carrot in there. Peso was really delighted.
The straw and carrot he quickly gave to Peso, who didn't question the largesse, but started chomping quickly.
Now Ez's horse, Chaucer, would probably scorn the whole lot and hold out for apples and peppermints
Come to think of it, Vin mused, Ezra always had a bag of peppermints with him to give the horse.
He eyed Peso and wondered if Peso would take kindly to a peppermint, but didn't experiment. With his luck, the durned critter would knock him over and eat all the candy in the sack once he got his first taste.
He squinted down at the right shoes. Here his knowledge of each family and their shoe sizes came in handy. He had 4 different separate groups of presents right now, gifts for small girls, then small boys, then larger girls and larger boys. He stared down and recognized that this shoe belonged to a little girl, and grabbed one of the bags from the tiny girl sack and put it in. Name tags would have been nice, but too hard to read by moon light
Each present for an age group had different gifts too, so each were appropriate to the age and sex, but not all the same. He and Ez had spent weeks setting up the bags.
He'd never worked and schemed so hard in his life. They'd kept all their loot in Ezra's room and gotten drunk a time or two just gloating over their largesse.
They had composed a list of children, their ages, and interests, and in a few cases, ones where he and Ezra saw special needs, they had specific presents tied up in their pockets. He had gotten Rain to make some beaded bags for a few of the boys, as having a real injun made bag for things would interest any boy he knew of.
Then he heard a click in front of him and the door opened.
Jacob Spencer peered out at him
Vin held his breath and hoped he wasn't going to get shot
"Howdy Santa, heard you might be coming." said the man softly. He looked around covertly and then handed Vin a small paper bag. "Children wanted to make sure Santa had some nice cookies iffen he did show up. Reckon Santa's helper should get some too."
"Mighty nice of 'em," he said
The older man winked at him and nodded. Vin nodded and tipped his hat and took a sniff of something smelling delightfully of cinnamon, and vanilla.
He checked all the shoes one more time, and then lit out. He had a long ride ahead of him and 5 more ranches to visit. He and Ez and already hit town and left gifts, and then split, taking 6 homes apiece to do their deliveries. They were going to meet at Nettie Well's house when they were done
On the other side of Four Corners , Ezra Standish was carefully breaking into a home where tradition stated that the Good Saint left presents in stockings near the fire.
He understood the next family expected the Christ Child himself to visit on Christmas Day, but he didn't think he met any of the requirements, although from the information he'd been given on his own conception, he'd say Mother had tried to pull off a virgin birth at one time.
He snuck across the family abode, eyes constantly moving in solemn commemoration of nearly getting his hair parted last year, and found the stockings
The littlest stocking was too small to hold all his presents, so he put that underneath the stocking with a hastily scribbled note from St. Nick and finished off by putting a candy cane in each stocking.
Then he snuck out and hoped he wouldn't get shot in the derriere either. It would make the rest of the night's ride near impossible.
The remainder of his rounds was remarkably quiet. Some of the children left straw for Chaucer who condescended to eat it only when bribed with peppermints.
Finally he turned to the Wells Ranch. She had promised to have hot coffee waiting for them and Ezra found himself looking forward to it and the older woman's company. She obviously had adopted Vin Tanner, and apparently he was in her present good graces as well.
As he drew near the appointed rendezvous, Ezra heard the bark of a coyote, which put him on alert. That had to be Vin alerting him of something. Warned, he surveyed the perimeter with all the care of a housebreaker casing a potential job, and found his way safely to Vin Tanner who grinned at him in the moonlight.
"Rustlers" said the tracker in his raspy voice, "a stealing Miz Nettie's cattle."
Ezra frowned. That poor old woman lived on a pittance. That just was plain wrong.
Ezra calmly took out his Remington and made sure of his readiness for action.
"How many?" he asked softly
"Three and they're taking 5 head to the canyon to brand over Nettie's brand."
"Ah knew the evening was going too well," sighed the gambler, "But while i was looking forward to Miz Well's excellent coffee, I believe that they should be taken to task, Mr. Tanner."
Vin grinned, a feral baring of teeth that indicated his companion's approval of his thought.
Vin lead the way, with Ezra following, guns ready. It was simply appalling to have these ne'er-do-wells steal from Miz. Wells.
What turned out to be even more appalling, though convenient, was what a careless lot of rustlers they were. Vin and Ezra easily got the drop of them with the hard evidence of a hot fire and a branding iron in hand that would have cover Miz Nettie's brand up just fine
They were about to set the brand in place on a protesting cow, when the sounds of the mares leg readying for action got their attention
The men were tied up, the cows released, and their new prisoners set on horseback.
"You have spoiled saint Nicholas' feast day, gentlemen (and i use the word lightly)", said Ezra freezingly to them, "I expect you to celebrate Christmas in Yuma this year. I hear the accommodations are miserable".
"Christmas is for old woman and children," spat one of their captives contemptuously.
"Yeah," said another, "Ain't no Saint Nicholas either".
Well," said Ezra, thoughtfully, "Aren't we filled with holiday cheer."
"Is too a saint nick," said Vin with a hint of asperity and evil humor, "Me and Ez been working for him for a year now. And you are definitely going on the naughty list"
Ezra rolled his eyes, sensing that Vin was going to take amusement from this situation at the rustlers' disadvantage.
"I'll have you know," he drawled, "that this is the feast day of the Good Saint. Hopefully you'll get another 2 or 3 years for blasphemy as well as poor taste in apparel."
Vin grinned at him. "Let's go to Netties and report in." said the tracker.
Ezra smiled, getting an idea of Vin's plans. "Yes, we promised to meet with Miz. Well's tonight."
Never had the Well's Ranch looked so inviting. Nettie had sat a lamp in the window for them, and the smell of fresh coffee and baking filled the air.
The rustlers sniffed, "Smells like Christmas," one muttered rather plaintively
"Not for rustlers and naughty boys," said Ezra sternly.
The door opened
Nettie wells stepped out with her Spencer in hand and cast an ill- favored eye on their prisoners
"They don't look like Santa's helpers," she said pointedly.
"We caught them rustling your cattle and planning on giving em fresh brands, Miz Nettie," said Vin
"Scalawags!" said Miz Nettie and proceeded to launch into one of the most blistering diatribes Ezra ever had the pleasure of hearing. The rustlers wilted in the saddle as she assessed their characters, personal habits, lack of intelligence, hygiene and orneriness with a clipped tongue that gave it near literary merit, and yet not one unladylike word. Ezra particularly liked the line about them living off the honest sweat of widows and orphans and letting the poor go hungry while they drank their way to perdition.
It had a certain lyrical property that he'd try to use himself at a later date.
Vin grinned and tied up their horses to the front porch
"Don't you want to tie them up in the barn?" asked Nettie
"Nah," said vin, I want to drink that fine coffee of yours on the porch and eat some of your cookies and let them smell all that goodness they ain't ever going to have."
Nettie shook her head, but came out with a tray filled with coffee mugs and cookies that made Ezra's heart melt and his tongue water.
Vin and Ezra each took a rocking chair and sat and visited with Nettie while the rustlers drooled and grew surly. Vin made sure he held each cookie up so that the suffering rustlers could see what they were missing. Then he would eat it with all signs of epicurean gusto and the rustlers would groan.
Ezra complimented Miz Wells and then drew out a small wrapped parcel.
"This is a late offering for the Feast of Saint Nicholas, Miz. Wells," said Ezra, "It was intended for you and young Casey and I hope you enjoy it."
Vin's eyes lit up.
Nettie looked surprised, but took the parcel.
"Maybe i should save this for Christmas," she said
"Oh no," protested Ezra, actually upset at the thought of not watching her open his little gift. "This is a Saint Nicholas feast day offering, Ma'am. It's meant to make the holiday season more pleasant for you."
Nettie smiled at him, and carefully opened the parcel. Inside were two baskets. One had a signature tag for Casey and one was made out for Miz Nettie. It was filled with a glory of imported soaps and bath salts. Miz Nettie's old eyes lit up and she sniffed them pleasurably.
"Lordy, I don't know when I've ever gotten something so fancy," she said.
She smiled at Ezra, a truly pleased expression on her face, and his heart gave a little ping of unexpected pleasure.
One of the Rustlers opened his mouth to cast aspersions and Vin's mules leg gave an ominous click.
"You just settle down and fly right or I'll part your hair," the tracker said menacingly.
They settled down considerably.
Casey had quite properly not made an appearance, since young girls didn't appear before outlaws if they were wise. But Ezra knew the girl was awake and would also be interested in the contents of the basket.
Nettie got up and said, "let me fix you both up some bags of cookies to take with you. Then she paused at looked out at the darkness of the cold early morning hours. "Would you like to stay the night?" Miz Nettie said.
"I'm making pancakes and sausages tomorrow morning."
The youngest rustler groaned in misery
"You can tie them in the barn for tonight."
Vin and Ezra exchanged glances
"We don't have a patrol today, so i don't see why we can't accept the ladies considerable hospitality" said Ezra
Vin glared at their prisoners, "We can tie 'em up and put 'em in the barn
How about the smoke house, ain't no way they'll get out of that, its built like a fort suggested ezra
Vin smiled, "mighty fine idea, Ez. We won't have to stand guard then."
The miserable rustler were stripped of anything they could use to asphyxiate themselves or use to escape, allowed to relieve themselves, fed leftover stew from Nettie's kitchen (far too good for the reprobates) tied up and hustled in the smoke house.
They were so downcast by this time, that ezra would have bet one they 'd whine all night
"Pity Josiah ain't here to preach the good word to them," said Vin threateningly, "and whack them with the good book"
"Couldn't we have given them crusts of bread?' asked Ezra but Nettie scowled at him.
Vin piped up - Nettie's crusts are too good for em too
Ezra immediately pulled off his hat and bowed to Miz Well, "Kitchen scraps from your hands are veritable ambrosia Ma'am. Forgive me.
Saddles, blankets and comforters made for an elegant repose in the kitchen and Casey's squeals over the soaps made Ezra and Vin smile.
Breakfast in the morning consisted of fat sausages, flapjacks, and scrambled eggs and cookies
After a veritable feast Nettie sent them out with plates filled with scrambled eggs that had been cooked in sausage grease for their prisoners who ate it with appreciation.
They returned to town, already missing Nettie's cooking but most of all the warmth of her regard. Their prisoners were silent and depressed. Vin regaled them with horror stories about JD's cooking at the jail.
All in all, they were a most dejected group of men when they were locked soundly in the jail under Mr. Dunne's scornful but careful care. "So, you figured you would rob a nice old lady," said the young sheriff angrily, "You better count yourself lucky that she didn't hang the lot of you. We had two witnesses right there, and we hang thieves in this part of the country."
The youngest rustler said, "they locked us up in the smokehouse all night, and made us watch them eat cookies."
JD frowned, "Hey Vin, I guess we better go over and scrub out the smoke house for Miz Nettie.
Ezra was abashed, "Mr. Dunne, I hadn't considered the potential malodorous effects on the smoked goods Miz Nettie prepares. I shall be pleased to assist. Miz Nettie's sausages alone have the gustatory value of pure ambrosia of the Greek Gods."
JD looked blankly at Ezra and Vin smiled. "Yeah, what he said. We'll clean the smoke house."
They repaired to their respective rooms. Vin was rooming above the saloon near Ezra's room, now that the weather was colder.
They walked up the stairs companionably. It had been a pleasant night in many respects. Neither of them had been shot, and they had saved Miz Nettie's cattle, and the children of the community were no doubt playing happily today.
Eager for sleep,Ezra took out a key and opened the door to his room and stopped in the doorway.
There on his bed, were little pieces of paper, laid out in a pretty row.
He walked forward and examined them and found each one was a handmade card, made by the children who had so recently received his treats. "Dear Mr. Ezra," said one written by one of the Spencer crew, "Thank you for being our friend. You're nice. Thank you for the presents and for helping out Saint Nicholas."
He sat in his rocker and read each little missive, written with pencils, illustrated, some with ribbons or scraps of lace attached (from the little girls' hands). His eyes closed. There was a tap on his door, and at his soft "enter" Vin Tanner came in, his hands filled with similar handmade thanks you's.
Vin sat down on the end of Ezra's feather bed. "I reckon they made these up for us and had Inez sneak 'em in our rooms," rasped the tracker.
"It seems quite likely," nodded Ezra, and his hands continued to touch each crude but honest little card. He stood and took his largesse over to his bureau and sat all the cards up proudly, his fingers lingering over lace and ribbons.
He turned to Vin who looked just as pleased.
"I figure we should do this next year too," said Vin. "I ain't never had this much fun."
"I agree my friend," said Ezra, "I never had such joy as a child, and I find this as satisfying, no even more satisfying than a good rousing game of poker. Although I will deny it if you tell anyone."
The two men smiled at each other, knowingly.
Then from downstairs in the saloon they heard a familiar bellow,
"TANNER, STANDISH, haul your asses down here - Stagecoach came in with a load of WHISKEY."
This bellow was punctuated with hoots and hollers that they recognized as coming from the rest of the peacekeepers that watched over Four Corners.
"Ah the joys of the holiday," quipped Ezra, and grabbed his hat. Vin Tanner was already half way down the stairs.
There in the saloon, he could see Josiah Sanchez toasting a beaming Nathan Jackson, Buck Wilmington chasing their erstwhile sheriff, JD around the room, and Chris Larabee standing at the bar holding a gleaming bottle of real whiskey as opposed to the miserable redeye they made due with the rest of the year.
Inez Recillos, the beautiful saloon keeper was bringing out a platter loaded down with steaming tamales, Buck had caught JD and had him in a headlock, and Nathan Jackson started singing in a deep beautiful tenor that was warm as the fire burning in the little stove that heated the saloon.
Ezra rushed to the small kitchen where Inez performed culinary miracles, and found the ham he had sent for from Virginia, carefully smoked in hickory and worth every penny. He put it on another serving platter and began to hurriedly carve generous slices.
He placed the platter next to the tamales and grinned at Inez. "Allow me to make a small contribution, Miz Recillos," he said, beaming with pleasure.
Whisky was poured and they toasted one another, "Long may we ride together, Brothers," said Josiah Sanchez. They all nodded and drank, "To Saint Nicholas," said Vin, "To beautiful Women," said Buck with a leer at Inez, "To excellent whiskey," said Chris Larabee, "to all of us in peace and health," said Nathan Jackson, "To us" said Ezra Standish, with peace and pleasure in his heart.