That Which Matters Most

by Joy K

Notes: This is in response to Blackraptor's Favorite Episodes Challenge. It's loosely based on some Charles Emerson Winchester III scenes in an episode of M*A*S*H. The Episode was titled "Death Takes a Holiday" (Season 9, Episode 5, first aired: 12/15/1980)

Ezra had been too quiet since his return from Denver. The Gambler had been reluctantly excited about the trip. His mother had wired that she was ill and wanted him to come. When he had approached Chris about taking time off for the trip, Chris had questioned whether his mother was ill or making an excuse to get him there for some kind of con. Ezra had confessed that he wasn't certain, but needed to go to be with her to be sure. He was reluctant to go if she just wanted him for a scheme, but he was excited about going to the big city and having the opportunity to indulge in luxuries it offered.

In all, he had been gone nearly a month, including his travel time. It was long enough for his friends remaining in Four Corners to doubt whether he would come back. But he did return near the end of November, complaining about the snow in Denver, but not saying much else about his trip. His mother had really been ill, but she was on the mend and had headed back for warmer climates before Ezra had returned.

JD had been his normal self, badgering Ezra about the things he had seen and done, the young man always interested in Ezra's stories. Ezra had indulged him, but his stories didn't have his normal enthusiasm or flair.

When Vin broached the subject with Josiah, the preacher had suggested that perhaps Ezra had been confronted with his mother's mortality and was working it through. Vin had agreed that it was possible, but with Ezra's insistence that nothing was wrong, Vin could only watch his friend quietly from a distance.

About a week before Christmas, Ezra received a large package and everything changed. His smile came freely, and his walk seemed to be lighter. Whatever he had been brooding about disappeared with the arrival of the mysterious crate. In fact Ezra seemed to take great pleasure in teasing Buck and JD with it, refusing to reveal its contents.

A couple of days later the Hamilton family came into town. They had settled on a farm not too far south of town in mid-August. They had quickly become a part of the community. Vin smiled when most of the Hamilton's ten children flocked toward Ezra as they climbed off their wagon.

"Children, don't pester Mr. Standish," Mrs. Hamilton warned lightly. She shook her head as Ezra spun around with two of the smallest children hanging from his arms.

"Mornin', Ma'am," Vin greeted with a tip of the hat, helping her down as Mr. Hamilton tied the team to the hitching rail.

"Hiram, you and Lizzie keep an eye on the little ones while we go inside," Tom Hamilton said.

The two oldest children responded with 'yes sirs' and crossed the street to join the younger children with Ezra.

Vin nodded a greeting to Mr. Hamilton, who nodded back to him and ushered his wife inside Mrs. Potter's store. Vin watched them go and wondered if they'd be able to purchase enough food for their family. Tom and Elizabeth Hamilton had arrived too late in the season to plant and harvest a full crop. They had been delayed on the trail by sickness of several families in their wagon train. Elizabeth's sister and brother-in-law had been taken by the fever, leaving their 4 children as orphans. There had been no question about Tom and Elizabeth taking the children in to join the 6 of their own, but the delay in arriving had cost them dearly. In a normal year, the farm could provide enough to feed the family and some to sell, but the Hamilton's would be struggling the whole winter just to get by.

He crossed the street to join Ezra in entertaining the children. The gambler always told a good tale.


Three days before Christmas, Ezra made a late evening trek out to the Hamilton's. Carefully packed in his saddle bags were the precious treasures he had ordered while in Denver. They had caught his eye in the catalog and he could easily imagine a Christmas tree adorned with the precious treat filled ornaments. They would delight the eye, and also delight the children's tastes buds. When he had seen them, he knew that it was just the kind of thing that the Hamilton children needed to take their minds off of their losses and their troubles, even if just for a few moments.

He stopped his horse just adjacent to the barn. It had been his intention to approach the house without announcing himself and secretly leave the gifts for the children. It was a foolhardy and dangerous thing to do. If he should be heard...

"Who's there?"

Ezra cursed under his breath when Tom Hamilton stepped outside, reaching back inside the door for his rifle.

"Hello the house," he called out. "It's Ezra Standish."

"Mr. Standish," Tom said, lowering the rifle, "What are you doing out here this time of night?"

"Tom?" called his wife from the doorway.

"Go back inside, Elizabeth. Nothing to worry about," Tom answered. He stepped off the porch as Ezra dismounted.

"What can I do for you, Mr. Standish?" Tom asked.

"Mr. Hamilton, I would be most appreciative if you could help me with something..." Ezra hesitated.

Tom nodded for him to continue.

"When I was a child, one of my most precious memories of my father was at Christmas. We bought gifts and delivered them secretly to children less... fortunate than I. I would be honored if you would allow me to bestow my father's tradition on your family."

Tom smiled. "Come inside."

"Oh, no," Ezra said. "It must be anonymous. The children must never know who gave the gift." He looked Tom in the eyes. "It was my father's tradition."

"All right," Tom agreed.

"Thank you, Sir," Ezra said happily. He carefully removed a box from each saddlebag. Handing them to Tom, he said, "It would be most appropriate to put them out on Christmas Eve, to surprise the children in the morning."

"Thank you," Tom said with deep gratitude. They didn't have enough money to buy sugar along with the flour, let alone gifts for the children. "Do you want to come in for coffee?"

"No, I can't. But thank you. I must continue on my rounds," Ezra said, excusing himself. He mounted his horse. "Will we see you in town for Christmas Eve?"

"We'll be there. Ride safely," Tom said, watching as Ezra rode off into the darkness.


The town was bustling with preparations for Christmas. Josiah was holding a Christmas Eve service and the whole town was having a party following the service. Greenery adorned much of the town, and had even crept inside the saloon, where Ezra sat playing solitaire. Buck came in and stopped at the bar, showing Inez, the bartender an ornament he had purchased. Ezra took one look at the ornament and quickly made his way across the room.

"Where did you get that?" he asked, taking the small ornament out of Buck's hands.

"Hey, be careful with that!" Buck said grabbing it back. "You might break it."

"Where did you get it?" Ezra demanded knowing it was one of the items he had special ordered.

"Mrs. Potter's got about a dozen of 'em or so in her store," said Buck, admiring the ornament. "You know how much JD is looking forward to Christmas. I figured he'd like it."

Ezra reached for the ornament again, but Buck held it out of his reach. "Mrs. Potter gave me a discount because she wanted me to show it off to folks so they'll buy the rest," he said. "So go get your own."

The gambler turned and strode angrily out of the saloon, leaving a confused Buck in his wake.

Vin stepped out of the shadows in the back of the saloon, having observed the confrontation. He toyed with the bauble in his own hands. It was similar to the one Buck had purchased, except Buck's had a horse head, and Vin's was an angel, both topping a small cloth bag filled with candy. It was purchased on a whim and Nettie would probably scold him for wasting his money, but he figured it would look mighty fine on her Christmas tree. He carefully rewrapped it in the brown paper Mrs. Potter had given him and placed it inside the small box, slipping it into his coat pocket. He gave Buck a nod and followed Ezra outside.

The gambler was clearly agitated, pacing a short distance, stopping and pounding a fist against a support post. He started in the direction of Potter's store, but stopped and turned around. His shoulders drooped and he reached up with his right hand and rubbed the back of his neck. Something about the Christmas baubles was obviously bothering him.

Ezra turned toward the south end of town as the sound of happy children reached his ears. There was the Hamilton's wagon. They had come into town for the Christmas service and celebration. Vin followed, concerned when Ezra strode with determination toward the wagon.

Tom saw him coming. "Honey, take the children inside. I'll be with you in a few minutes."

Elizabeth didn't question her husband. "Come along children. Let's find a place to sit." The children scrambled out of the wagon bed, the oldest helping the youngest, some of them waving at Ezra as he approached.

"Now, Mr. Standish," Tom started as Ezra stormed up to him. "I know you meant it as a gift for the children."

"How could you?" Ezra said angrily.

"I'm sorry," Tom said. "I didn't mean to break your father's tradition. Givin' gifts secretly to those in need is a noble thing. But I took one look at those ornaments and I knew they were costly, and all I could think was maybe Mrs. Potter would take them in trade on our account, and I'd be able to feed my family for the whole winter." He paused and looked at Ezra. "We've got enough beans, flour, and sugar to tide us over until spring." He hesitated again. "The ornaments and candy would have given the children pleasure for a day, but now it can feed them for the winter... I'm sorry."

Ezra's anger disapated when Tom's words sank in. He shook his head. "On the contrary Mr. Hamilton, it is I who should be sorry. It is sadly inappropriate to offer dessert to a child who has had no meal." He tipped his hat to Tom and turned, quickly making his way across the street to the safety of the saloon.

Vin frowned. He wanted to follow Mr. Hamilton and find out exactly what had happened, but he knew enough to realize Ezra had probably sent for those baubles for the Hamilton children, and Mr. Hamilton had sold them for supplies. What he didn't know was why it bothered Ezra so much. He blew out a sigh. He'd have to hurry to get to Potter's store before it closed.


Ezra sat in the relative darkness of his room. The oil lamp was turned down to conserve fuel - and to match his mood. He had bypassed the few men in the saloon who were interested in a game of chance, choosing to be alone with his thoughts. The price of the ornaments could feed a family for the winter... an entire family for the entire winter! How could he think something so frivolous was more important than their most basic of needs?

He refilled his glass and took another sip of the whiskey.


Vin stood at the back of the church during the Christmas Eve service. It was full, something he was sure delighted Josiah. Chris stood next to him. JD was sitting with the Wells, and Buck and Nathan were standing in the back on the other side of the aisle. Ezra was nowhere to be seen, but after what Vin had witnessed earlier, he hadn't expected him to appear. Tom Hamilton had given him a lot to consider about gift giving.

When the service concluded, the townspeople headed to the grange for a Christmas party. Vin ducked out of the crowd and went in search of his friend.


A knock at his door brought Ezra out of his contemplation. He sighed. He didn't want to talk to anyone. Perhaps if he just stayed quiet they would go away.

"I know you're in there, Ezra," Vin said.

So much for going away. Ezra stood and moved to the door, opening it for the Texan.

"You alright?" Vin asked.

"Why wouldn't I be?" Ezra countered.

"I don't know," said Vin. "I think I'd do a bit of reckoning if I'd given a gift and someone did somethin' other than I expected with it."

Ezra glared at him.

"Tom didn't say nothin'," said Vin. "I overheard you and figured it out."

"How could I be so foolish?" Ezra said.

"Nothin' foolish about wanting to give someone a present," Vin countered.

"They're hungry and I gave them trinkets and candy!" Ezra said, angry at himself.

"No," Vin said. "You gave Tom Hamilton a way to feed his family without takin' charity. You saw somethin' that caught your eye and you thought about how much pleasure it would give some young 'uns who've had a bad stretch. Nothin' wrong with that." Vin grinned sheepishly. "In fact, I did the same thing myself. I bought one a them baubles for Miss Nettie."

Ezra looked up and snorted, a smile coming to his face. "They are intriguing aren't they?"

Vin laughed and nodded in agreement. "Where did ya find them?"

"I saw them in a catalog when I was in Denver. They came all the way from Germany," Ezra said. "I don't know what possessed me. There was a father and son in the store. The little boy wanted a trinket and..."

Vin watched his friend fall deep in thought. He waited a few moments. "Was it the baubles the boy wanted?"

"No," Ezra answered, shaking off the wool gathering. "It reminded me of one of my few memories of my father." Ezra met Vin's eyes. "I remember going with my father to leave gifts anonymously for those less fortunate. Seeing that boy with his father - It spurred the idea and I thought of the Hamiltons," Ezra said. "You came here for a reason," he added abruptly changing the direction of the conversation.

Vin realized Ezra was done saying anything about his father or the reason for the gifts. "I come to ask your help on somethin'," he said.

Ezra nodded for him to continue.

"I think that Saint Nick ought a pay them little ones a visit," Vin said.

"I agree, but Mrs. Potter has closed the store until the day after Christmas," Ezra pointed out.

"Not before I got there," Vin said with a grin. "I traded back that bauble I's going to give to Miss Nettie." He shrugged. "She would been chawin' on me anyway about wastin' my money on something so..." he waved his hand trying to think of a word.

"Frivolous," Ezra suggested.

Vin nodded. "Sure was pretty though. Ms. Potter had someone in the store right then who wanted it, so I barely had it outta my pocket before she sold it. I asked her quiet-like what the Hamilton's bought, and she told me a couple 'a things they had put back since they didn't have enough to cover 'em. Bought me some peaches and coffee, and enough penny candy to fill one a them paper cones for each of them young 'uns."

"Everyone's at the party," Vin continued. "I reckon I've got enough time to sneak out to Hamilton's and play Saint Nicholas for them, but I need help."

Ezra grinned. He had learned a lesson this day about meeting practical needs - that which matters most. Now it looked like he'd be able to help give something 'frivolous' as well. He could just imagine the children's faces when they arrived home tonight.

"And this involves me how?" he asked with a big smile.

Vin looked at him and chuckled. "You're the only fella I know with a red coat."