ornamentTwas the Night Before Christmas

by Linda Borchers

Main Characters: Vin, Chris

Vin Tanner was dead tired, and the only thing he really wanted to do was stop by the saloon for a plate of Inez’s spicy enchiladas washed down by some of Ezra’s good whiskey he kept behind the bar.

But he’d promised Mary Travis that he would stop by her house for dinner. Reluctantly he had agreed when Chris Larabee had strongly suggested that he show up.

It had been one of those days he would sooner forget, Vin sighed, as he knocked lightly on Mrs.Travis’ front door.

After spending the night on patrol, he’d stopped by Ian McLaren’s on his way back to town, to find the old man trying to pull a half dozen dumb cows out of a mud hole by himself. By the time he had left McLaren’s ranch he had not only pulled the cows of out the bog, he’d also cleared the stream feeding the lower pastures dammed by a family of beavers and repaired the corral gate.

The smell of cookies, cakes and cinnamon treats wrapped around him like a warm blanket as the door opened. Was this what Christmas was supposed to be like? He felt a pang of regret for all the Christmases he had missed since his Mama died when he was five.

But he wasn’t five anymore, and he had six friends who were as close as family, and townsfolk who trusted him to keep them safe.

No matter what happed in the future, he knew he was making holiday memories he would keep for a lifetime. He smiled at the thought of Inez decorating the saloon with Piñatas and paper flowers and Mrs. Potter hanging pine branches over the doorway with silver bells jingling when anyone entered the store.

The best was listening to Josiah reading every night from a book called Oliver Twist. He was both surprised and a little angry the way J.D and Mary acted when Josiah got to the part where Oliver Twist was asking for more, Sir. You’d think they never heard of a kid forced to work for watery gruel. He’d seen it plenty a times. Hell, he’d lived it.

Josiah hadn’t finished the book and Vin had no idea if it had a happy ending. He hoped so. The kid deserved a break. Maybe…

Before he could follow that thought, Billy came running through the office, sucking on a candy cane.

“Vin! Ya gotta see!”

“See what, Pard?”

“Come on,” the boy yelled, grabbing Vin’s hand and dragging him past the printing presses to the small house Billy and his Mom shared behind the newspaper office.

The sound of Mary humming a Christmas song and the crackle and pop of logs burning in the fireplace left Vin without a hint of what he was about to walk into.

“Chris…?” Vin blinked to make sure he was seeing what he thought he was seeing.

Chris stood on the coffee table while Mary hemmed the bottom of a red and white striped night shirt.

Chris whirled, the white ball at the end of the oversized red and white striped stocking hat bopping him in the nose.

“You got a big date tonight, Cowboy?” Vin grinned.

Green eyes glared at the tracker. “It’s the costume for the play tomorrow night. And if ya don’t stop grinning like a damn jackass, I’ll shoot ya where ya stand.””

“Ya best be careful not ta freeze off what God gave ya out there in the cold.”

“Vin!” Mary yelped, pricking her finger with a pin.

“Vin….” The warning voice came from Josiah sitting in an overstuffed chair next to the fireplace, nodding his head toward Billy.

“I’ll be warm enough,” Chris snapped. “Wearing my long johns and a jacket.”

Vin lowered his head trying to keep from busting out laughing. “Ya know how silly ya look?”

“Be nice, Brother Vin.” Josiah chuckled. “Give Brother Chris credit for swallowing his pride for one night for the benefit of the town and its children.”

“Hey! I spent three days workin’ on that fake house a yours in the middle of the street. Damn, never saw a house without front walls before.”

“And you did a fine job, Vin,” Mary beamed. “It’s going to be such a wonderful night. Buck and J.D. finished painting the scenery before they went on patrol. Who would have thought that Buck was so artistic?”

“I still don’t see how ya got Buck ta pick up a paint brush for more than whitewashing the side of a barn.”

“A little pillow talk goes a long way.” Mary giggled.

“Mary…” Josiah looked stunned.

Chris pulled off the stocking hat and threw it at Vin. “Make yourself useful and help me read over my lines again.”

“Ain’t ya remembered ‘em yet? We’ve been going over ‘em every day for a week. I think I know ‘em as well as you do!”

“It’s tomorrow night. I just want to make sure I’m ready.”

Vin scooped Billy up in his arms instead. “Why don’t ya have Josiah here practice with ya? Me and Billy are gonna work on his Christmas present fer his Mama.”

“Sorry, Vin,” Mary said as she motioned Chris to turn slowly so she could check the hem. “Dinner is almost ready, then Billy has to go to bed early. He promised Josiah to help with the last minute preparations for the stage.”

“Ah…” Billy whined dejectedly.

VIN turned until Billy was facing Josiah. “Sounds like a pretty important job there. Sides, we got plenty a time before Christmas, Pal. And I think my belly is kissing my back I’s so hungry.”

“OK, Vin. But ya promise we’ll get it done by Christmas Eve.”

“I give ya my promise. Man ta man.”

Billy grinned and slithered his way out of Vin’s hold and went running for the dining room.

+ + + + + + +  

The morning dawned cold and crisp. Vin snuggled deeper beneath his blankets and thought about the play tonight and Chris in his nightshirt. The memory of his best friend in that red and white striped nightshirt and matching stocking hat brought Vin nearly to tears. How was he gonna keep from bursting out laughing when he saw the hardened gunfighter in that ridiculous getup? And how had Chris convinced the old biddies from the sewing circle that there was nothing wrong with him and Abigail Worth huddling under the blankets for everyone to see? He guessed it helped that Abigail was about as pretty as a swayback mule.

He pulled up his braces and slipped his buckskin coat on against the chilly morning and climbed down from his old covered wagon and made his way toward the saloon where he saw Mary walking back and forth in front of the paper.

He rushed across the street and found her in tears.

“Mary, what’s wrong? Is Billy all right?”

She flung herself into his arms as he reached the boardwalk. “It’s all ruined,” she wept. “All of it.”

“What’s ruined?”

Chris stepped out of the door, a towel wrapped around his throat.

“Me,” he croaked. “I can’t talk.”

Josiah handed Chris a cup of something steaming hot. “Hot lemon and honey.”

Vin couldn’t believe it. He actually felt disappointed. All the work they had done. The house, the scenery, Santa’s sleigh and the eight reindeer made of sawhorses. And all the time Chris spent practicing.

“Maybe ya can do it next week,” Vin tried.

“No…” Mary belted out a howl of misery that nearly shook the windows behind her. “The children have been practicing all month for this. And it’s not just Four Corners. People are coming from all over. They are already filling up the hotel. They’re all here. And they’ll all be disappointed.”

“I’m sorry, Mary,” Chris croaked.

“I know you are. It’s not your fault, Chris. It’s just…”

Chris suddenly grabbed Vin’s shoulder and pulled him into the office. “Vin knows all the lines.”

Vin sent Chris a look that could have frozen the gunslinger to death instantly.

“Well, you do,” Chris squeaked. “You’ve been saying ‘em with me all week.”

“Oh, no. No. Ya ain’t getting me in that getup in front of all them people.”

“But Vin…” Now Mary was looking up at him, her tears drying up. He could almost see her brain working.

Vin took a step back. “Ain’t no way! What about Josiah?”

“I’m playing Santa, remember? Ho, ho, ho!”

“No. I can’t do it. I’d rather stand in front of a firing squad.”

Josiah slowly closed the front door barring Vin’s escape. “It’s only one night, and it won’t be fatal.”

“Only to my reputation. No!”

“Oh, Vin, please,” Mary pleaded. “Think of all the kids at the orphanage.”

“Think of Dolly McGuire.” Chris croaked.

Vin looked at Chris. “Dolly?”

The blonde nodded. “Abigail Wroth got a case of the nerves and backed out two days ago. It’s Dolly who’ll be nestled in that bed.”

“In a nightgown? How come Buck didn’t know about that?”

“Because, Brother Vin, this is a family play if you get my meaning.”

“She’ll have enough clothes on to keep an Eskimo warm,” Mary tisked. “But she’ll still be close enough to kiss and that would be too much of a temptation for Mr. Wilmington.”

Vin had his share of kissing the ladies, but not in front of a whole town …and her father too.

“Ya know I don’t do good with crowds. And…”

“Oh, Vin, please!” Mary grabbed Vin’s arm. “Everyone has worked so hard. And you are the only one who knows the story as well as Chris. It would mean so much to me.”

Vin looked at the new tears forming in Mary’s eyes and knew he was a doomed man. He dipped his head. It wasn’t fair. It just wasn’t fair. Nobody told him this side of having family and friends.

Finally he nodded, just once, just ever so slightly.

“Oh thank you, Vin!” Mary wrapped her arms around him. “You won’t regret it.”

“Well, that’s settled,” Josiah sighed, slapping Vin on the shoulder. “I have lines of my own to rehearse. Let’s see…On Dancer, On Prancer… Ho, ho, ho…” As he passed Vin he leaned down and whispered in the tracker’s ear. “I’m proud of you, Son. And believe me, you won’t regret it.”

Vin had a feeling he would for a very long time, and moaned when Mary pushed him through the office and pointed to the coffee table as she picked up the red and white striped nightshirt. “I’ll have to take the hem up just a bit. I wouldn’t want you tripping on your way to the window.”

He sank into a nearby chair and thought: “What have I done?”

+ + + + + + +

It seemed that breakfast was barely over when Mary set lunch in front of Vin, but he was too nervous to eat.

Ezra had arrived in town just before noon and was stunned to hear what they had talked Vin into doing.

Chris walked the tracker through all the scenes, writing down notes when his voice was at its weakest. Ezra sat down at the table and added suggestions here and there.

“Ez, you’ve been in plays before. Why can’t you…” Vin’s Texas drawl was growing stronger as he grew more nervous.

“Because, Mr. Tanner, even for an accomplished thespian like myself…it takes time to learn lines. I would do the play an injustice.”

“No more’n me.”

Ezra reached over, placing his hand atop Vin’s shaking ones. “It is normal to be nervous before going on stage. But I have every confidence that you will bring Clement Clarke Moore’s words to life. Vin, I have heard you tell stories about The People. I have been transfixed by your storytelling. Just think of this as another story to be shared.”

Vin smiled. “Thanks, Ez.”

“It’s Ezra. E Z R A.”

“I know. Thanks, Ez.”

“What’s the use?” Ezra muttered. “I get more respect from a drunken saddle tramps than my so called friends.”

Vin snorted then suddenly looked up at everyone around the table.

“Hey, wait a minute. I just thought of somethin’.”

“What?” Chris croaked.

“Ain’t Santa supposed to be this little guy sliding down the chimney? How’s Josiah…?”

“Basil Stephanopoulos is playing Santa. Josiah will be hiding behind the house reading his lines.  Basil is perfect for Santa, but I don’t think Santa speaks with a Greek accent.”

It made perfect sense. Basil was barely five feet tall, and it was a shock to everyone the first time they saw him walk from behind the counter at the telegraph office to find that he had been standing on a two foot platform.

“Anybody left ya didn’t trick inta being in yer play?” Vin asked.

“Tricked?” Chris croaked, though his voice seemed louder than it had a few hours ago. “We didn’t trick anybody. We just asked for volunteers.”

Vin arched an eyebrow. “There’s all sorts a volunteerin’…”

Ezra stood up, clearing his throat. “Believe me, Vin, you won’t regret this. Now let’s get going, we don’t want to be late for your debut.”

“My what?”

Chris laughed. “Come on, I’ll tell you later.”

+ + + + + + +

All too soon they were at the church. Costumes and props took over most of the vestibule and general chaos abounded. The Prendergast twins, Eleanor and Thomas were dressed in warm pajamas and ready to hop into bed.

Outside the children were singing Christmas songs, the sound lighter than air. Mary was fiddling with Vin’s stocking cap and he had to push her away. He was nervous enough.

“Five minutes!” someone yelled and Mary yelped in excitement.

“I know you will do fine, Vin.  I love you!” She pecked him on the cheek. “We all love you.”

Dolly appeared out of nowhere wearing a white nightgown and kerchief. She slipped her arm around Vin’s and grinned up at him. “Shall we, husband?”

It took every ounce of courage Vin Tanner possessed to squeeze Dolly’s arm and walk into the Christmas house.


The night was bright and clear. The scent of hot apple cider hung warmly in the crisp air.

Chris and Mary made their way through the throng of people. Men, women and children, with theirs face’s aglow, milled around looking for seats. Who would have thought that a simple Christmas play would attract so many people? Rows of chairs brought from homes and business, and even a few sofas and easy chairs, lined the street in front of the stage.

The sounds of Christmas carols and the hum of anticipation filled the air. Mary had printed playbills, and to Chris' amazement, he felt disappointed when he saw his name scratched out in black ink and Vin's written in as lead actor and narrator. It was now Vin's night. He hoped he had not asked too much of his friend. 

He found Nathan and Rain sitting in the front row alongside Chanu. Word of the play had made it all the way to the reservation. Buck and J.D. had ridden into town just in time to get a good seat, and Buck was still complaining about nobody telling him that Dolly McGuire was playing Mamma. He certainly would have made a better Papa. JD expected to feel terribly homesick for the snow and the festive holiday spirit of Boston. But he had to admit that nothing could rival this.

Chris and Mary sat beside Nathan and Rain. Yosemite sat behind them. "Don't rightly know how you got Tanner ta do this." The old stable hand laughed, slapping his knee in delight. "But I sure cain't wait to see how it goes."

"That boy will do just fine," Josiah said as he walked down the aisle toward the stage. "Ya just mark my words."

Mrs. Potter leaned forward from a chair someone brought over from the hotel lobby. "He'll do just fine. I know we have you, Mary and Josiah to thank for this wonderful night, Chris. And I was sorry to hear that you lost your voice. But I can't think of anyone else other than Vin who could replace you."

Yes, and it made it all the more remarkable that Vin had agreed. Maybe it was Christmas. Maybe it was being part of a family that brought his friend the courage to step before an audience that had swelled way beyond one hundred people. Or maybe it was just Vin: The man who never had the chance to share something so special. 

And it was special. Chris had to marvel at the set he saw before him. It may not have been as lavish as some of the plays Ezra talked about seeing in New York, but it held its own special magic. Three rooms sat on a three-foot-high platform so everyone in the audience could see the actors. Yards of red material draped the front of the stage. He remembered the time it had taken to figure out where the holes had to be cut in the floorboards so the light from dozens of oil lamps could illuminate the stage. Lamps were also hidden behind pictures on the walls and vases in the corners where holes were cut so Ned Bolger and his two sons could light the lamps from outside as the play moved from room to room. 

As the children finished their final song, the audience grew quiet. Chris felt Mary reach for his hand and he held it snuggly between both of his….and they both waited.

From the darkness of the house a voice rang out clear and strong. Chris's breath caught in his throat as he heard the slight Texas drawl in Vin's voice. If there was another moment in his life when he was more proud, he could not think of one.

"‘Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house, not a creature was stirrin’, not even a mouse."

The fireplace came to life in the middle room. The audience gasped as lamplight spilled up through the openings in the floor and lit the room. One log burned brightly on the hearth floor.

"The stockings were hung by the chimney with care, in hopes that St. Nicholas soon would be there." 

The lights softened then died, leaving only the soft red glow of the log, and a moment later the room to the left came to life. 

Vin's voce rang out, strong yet casual as if he were telling a story to a small group of friends.

"The Children were nestled all snug in their beds, while visions of sugar-plums danced in their heads."

Colorful balls of candy bobbed over their heads on nearly invisible strings as the Prendergast twins smiled in delight, their eyes squeezed shut as they pretended to sleep.

The room dimmed until only the silhouette of the children remained and the room to the far right came to life. A brass bed with a heavy patchwork quilt covered Vin and Dolly to the waist. Without hesitation, Vin continued his narrative.

"And Mamma in her kerchief, and I in my cap, had just settled down to a long winter's nap."

Vin leaned over and kissed Dolly gently on the cheek. Chuckles and giggles came from the audience. A cat call was followed by a loud thud that could have only come from Old Mrs. Crumple's cane hitting Ned Crumple's head.

Vin suddenly sat up straight and threw the comforter aside. "When out on the lawn there arose such a clatter, I sprang from my bed to see what was the matter."

Now everyone saw Vin in his red and white striped nightshirt and they all laughed with delight. 

"Away to the window I flew like a flash, tore open the shutters and threw up the sash."

Chris could have sworn he saw Vin open a pair of shutters and lift the widow. The audience was spellbound. All around him, Chris saw children's faces glowing with wonderment. Parents, whose worries were forgotten for this special time, drank in every moment. This was what Christmas was about. This was the gift Vin was giving them.

"The moon on the breast of the new-fallen snow, gave a luster of mid-day to objects below. When, what to my wondering eyes should appear, but a miniature sleigh and eight tiny reindeer. With a little old driver, so lively and quick, I knew in a moment it must be St. Nick."

A black drape to the side of the house suddenly floated to the ground revealing Basil Stephanopoulos decked out in his Santa costume and white beard, with eight sawhorses somehow turned into perfect reindeer leading a white snow covered sleigh.

"More rapid than eagles his courses they came, and he whistled, and shouted, and called them by name."

Josiah's rich baritone voice filled the air. "Now, Dasher! Now, Dancer! Now, Prancer and Vixen! On Comet! On Cupid! On, Donner and Blitzen! To the top of the porch to the top of the wall! Now dash away, dash away! Dash away all!"

Vin leaned out the imaginary window, the white ball at the end of his stocking cap swinging as he talked. "As dry leaves that before the wild hurricane fly, when they meet with an obstacle mount to the sky. So up to the house-top the coursers they flew, with the sleigh full of toys, and St. Nicholas too."

Santa's sleigh drifted back into darkness and Vin looked up toward the ceiling. "And then, in a twinkling, I heard on the roof, the prancing and pawing of each little hoof."

Vin put his finger to his lips telling his wife to stay quiet, and to Chris's delight, Vin looked at the audience and shushed them quiet too. He tiptoed into the front room, and slowly opened an imaginary door as the lights came up to show the fireplace. The hearth was clean except for a layer of ash.

"As I drew in my head, and was turning around, down the chimney St. Nicholas came with a bound. He was dressed all in fur, from his head to his foot, and his clothes were all tarnished with ashes and soot."

Basil slipped down the chimney, and landed on his rear. The audience roared with laughter as he crawled headfirst out of the hearth, dragging his sack behind him. But the laughter died quickly as Vin began speaking again.

"A bundle of toys he had flung on his back, and he looked like a peddler just opening his pack.

His eyes -- how they twinkled! His dimples how merry! His cheeks were like roses, his nose like a cherry!

His droll little mouth was drawn up like a bow, and the beard of his chin was as white as the snow.

The stump of a pipe he held tight in his teeth, and the smoke it encircled his head like a wreath."

Basil blew a plume of white smoke around his face and the children in the audience laughed and clapped.

"He had a broad face and a little round belly, that shook when he laughed like a bowlful of jelly.

He was chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf, and I laughed when I saw him, in spite of myself. A wink of his eye and a twist of his head, soon gave me to know I had nothing to dread. He spoke not a word, but went straight to his work, and filled all the stockings; then turned with a jerk, and laying his finger aside of his nose, and giving a nod, up the chimney he rose."

Basil slipped back into the fireplace and the lamps dimmed until the hearth was in deep shadow. Vin walked toward the edge of the stage, looking toward the sky.

"He sprang to his sleigh, to his team gave a whistle, and away they all flew like the down of a thistle.

But I heard him exclaim, ere he drove out of sight…"

Josiah's voice rang out. "Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good-night."

Vin stood looking at the stockings now sagging under the weight of all the goodies Santa had left. Mamma and the children slowly walked into the room and Vin gathered them in a warm embrace. And looking out over the audience, his voice filled with more love than he could ever remember he called out to everyone, "Merry Christmas to all…and to all a good night."

For a long moment no one moved. Josiah and Basil walked on stage, and so did Ned Bolger and his two sons. And then the applause began. Everyone took a step forward, but when Vin stepped forward there was an explosion of clapping and laughing as everyone jumped to their feet. 

For all the people of Four Corners and all the towns around the valley, for all the hearts that were lifted by the spirit of Christmas…no heart was more filled with joy and peace then Vin Tanner's.

Merry Christmas everyone – and to everyone a good night.

The End

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Clement Clarke Moore (1779 - 1863) wrote the poem Twas the night before Christmas also called A Visit from St. Nicholas in 1822.

I rewrote this story from a story I wrote in another fandom.