First story in the Christmas Wish series.
"Man, it's colder than a well-digger's ass out there!"
Buck Wilmington, one of the town's seven peacekeepers pushed in through the doors of the saloon and stomped his booted feet to get some circulation back in them. Pulling off his gloves, he hurried over to the pot-bellied stove in one corner of the room and stood over it toasting his frozen fingers.
"Mr. Wilmington, there is a lady present," admonished Ezra Standish, nodding toward where Inez stood behind the bar wiping down glasses.
The lanky ladies' man had the grace to blush a bit. "Sorry, Inez."
The dark-haired woman shrugged. "I have heard much worse, Señor Buck. Often from you!" She gave the handsome form an arch look, then continued, "Besides, it is not unusual for men to forget the bartender is present when they speak." She again lifted slender shoulders negligently.
"Now Inez, darlin' . . . you know I could never forget you!"
The pretty Mexican rolled her eyes. "Until any other woman walks in and captures your attention . . . " she answered drolly.
Wilmington put one still chilly hand over his heart and started to protest, when Chris Larabee walked in. The blond shook his head as he strode to the table nearest the stove.
"Save it, Buck. Inez knows you too well to fall for any of your excuses, so you might as well just come and sit down."
At Inez's arched brow and tiny grin of agreement, the tall brunet gave in and moved over to settle into a chair at the table Larabee had stopped at. The lean leader of the group slipped off his ebony leather gloves and tucked them into the pocket of his matching duster. Sliding his hat off his head, he let it hang by the stampede string as he sat down in the wooden chair to the left of the ladies' man, facing the door. He wasn't taking the long coat off until he warmed up some, so he tucked it out of the way as he got comfortable. Motioning to Inez for two cups of coffee, he pulled out his flask to add a bit of extra warmth to his.
Buck had just accepted the offer of a splash of whiskey in his as well when Vin Tanner literally seemed to blow through the doors, a gust of cold wind propelling the slender tracker in with a push to his back. Shivering, the sandy-haired form moved with more speed than usual toward the table his friends sat at and the heat of the stove.
"Damn, it's cold out there! Feel like m' bones are frozen, much less the rest of me," grumbled the sharpshooter with a more pronounced rasp than normal.
Nathan Jackson came up behind Tanner. Gloved hands rubbed at his arms over the plaid coat he wore. "Ain't that the truth? You'd think bein' so far south, that it wouldn't get this cold, but no . . . .it ain't like Georgia or Alabama where it don't hardly ever even get below freezin'."
Motioning to the bartender for a couple more cups of the hot brew, the two men settled at the table with Wilmington and Larabee. They were soon joined by Ezra Standish, who was huddled in his sheepskin-lined tan jacket, for once unconcerned with his appearance and more interested in holding on to what heat he could.
"Good Lord! Remind me again what I am doin' here in this God-forsaken place where it can burn you one minute and freeze you to death the next." Signaling Inez for another coffee, he followed Chris' example and poured in a generous shot of bourbon, sighing in pleasure as he took a sip.
"Keepin' the peace, Ez. Ya know . . . helpin' folks out," offered Vin with a grin.
"Bah humbug!" mumbled the gambler as a shiver shook his frame.
Just then the door opened to admit another blast of cold air and the two final members of the peacekeeping force. JD Dunne and Josiah Sanchez headed toward the table at a fast clip, the easterner almost tripping over his own feet in his eagerness to get to the warmth of the stove.
Settling in the remaining pair of chairs, Josiah rubbed his hands together with a grimace.
"Mother Nature sure is in a foul mood today," he opined as he stopped trying to get feeling back in his fingers long enough to take the hot mug Inez held out to him. Nodding at Standish's offer of a shot from his flask, the former priest took a sip with an audible 'ahhh' of appreciation.
JD accepted the other cup the barkeeper handed him. "Thanks Inez!" He slapped his bowler onto the table with his free hand, then tucked it around the warm mug.
"I sure wish if it was gonna be this cold, that it'd at least snow," he commented wistfully. "It was freezing and windy a lot back east, but seemed like it wasn't so bad when it snowed. Everything was covered in a white blanket and looked all new and pretty, at least for a while. Made everything better, somehow."
Buck reached out a now warm hand to slap at the back of the younger man's head. "Now Kid, ya know it don't snow down here. Yeah, further north in the mountains, but there ain't been snow here in years the old timers say."
JD ducked the long arm with practiced ease. "I know, Buck. I'm just saying that I miss it. At least the snow kinda makes it worth being this cold. It's just depressing like this."
"I'll drink to that sentiment, Mr. Dunne." Ezra suited actions to words and poured another dose of bourbon in his cup as Inez refilled it from the pot that was keeping warm on the top of the stove.
Deciding to try to change the subject, Buck turned to JD. "So whatcha want for Christmas Kid? It's only a week away, ya know."
Refusing to be distracted, Dunne looked outside with another wistful sigh. "Snow. It never mattered if there weren't any gifts under the tree, as long as it snowed for Christmas. Not that it was ever totally bare," he hastened to add. "Momma always managed to get something for me, even if it was just an orange or apple she talked the cook at the mansion into lettin' her have. But when it snowed, she'd take me to the park and let me skate on the duck pond with the other kids, or make a snowman in the little yard at the back of the boarding house we lived in . . . stuff like that. It always made Christmas seem special, no matter how little we had."
Giving a sigh of his own, Buck shook his head slightly. The seven had agreed to exchange small gifts on Christmas, and Inez had told them that they could put up a tree in the corner of the saloon. The tavern was normally closed on that one day, but the generous bartender offered to open it up for them and even to make a Christmas dinner if Vin could get her something to cook. Wilmington had thought that would make his adopted 'little brother' happy, and he knew that JD would enjoy it. But it seemed that the other men wouldn't be able to give the kid what he wanted most for the holiday. A day's ride from the Mexican border, it just didn't snow hardly ever. Looking over, Buck caught Josiah's eye.
The big man nodded and then turned his eyes upward. "Dear Lord, if you still listen to me at all, please let it snow. Even a few flakes will do, just to make him feel at home . . . " he whispered silently.
+ + + + + + +
The men repeated various versions of the prayer for the next week, all apparently to no avail. The wind kept whistling down the street and pushing open doors that weren't tightly fastened and the nights were well below freezing, but nothing white appeared in the sky except for some low, gray-tinged clouds that just added to the gloomy feeling.
Vin shot a wild turkey for Inez to roast, and he and Wilmington went out and cut a small juniper tree to put in the saloon. The seven men gathered on Christmas eve to decorate it, stringing popcorn and cranberries, and hanging pinecones and nuts wrapped in colorful bits of calico on the branches. Inez set out candles on the bar, since there were no other patrons, and Josiah recited the story of the Christ child as they worked. Even Chris participated, though he was quiet most of the time. Of course, for the man Vin said only used three words a day, that wasn't unusual.
JD helped with the decorations, even bringing the gilt star that his mom had used as a topper for their tree when he was young. But his eyes kept straying to the windows with the same wistful look he'd worn off and on since their conversation the week before.
The other six just looked at each other and shrugged helplessly. Hopefully the meal and exchanging the gifts the next day would cheer their youngest member up.
+ + + + + + +
Gathered in the warm saloon the next noon, the seven peacekeepers pulled up chairs to partake of the excellent meal Inez had made for them. The tree stood to one side, the homemade ornaments looking festive in the candle and lamplight. Greenery adorned the bannister of the stairs to the upper rooms and the front of the bar, red bows resting every three or four feet where the pieces joined. Buck had managed to find some mistletoe and a sprig of it hung in the middle of the ceiling from a red ribbon. A collection of paper and cloth wrapped packages sat under the tree, waiting for the men to finish their meal.
Dunne was chatting excitedly, but his dark eyes still kept straying to the window occasionally, though they now wore more of a resigned expression than before.
Inez was just clearing the table, having enjoyed her own meal at the bar as she listened and smiled at the men who were telling tales of Christmases past, when JD suddenly jumped up from his seat and went flying to the window.
"Guys, guys! It's snowing!"
"What?" "Sure you're not imaginin' it, Kid?" and other forms of disbelief met his gleeful statement.
"No, it's real! Come take a look!"
The other six men pushed back their chairs and moved to gather behind the young sheriff. The glass panes were steamed from the heat inside and the cold outside, but it did indeed appear that a few white flakes were falling.
Grabbing their coats and gloves, the seven hurried outside, Inez taking their place at the window.
Sure enough, light bits of snow were falling softly from the overcast sky. It was cold enough that they were settling in abandon on the frozen dirt of the street. Dunne stood with his head tilted back, tongue stuck out as he tried to catch flakes, lips spread wide in a smile.
Lining the boardwalk, the rest watched for a few minutes with grins on their own faces, then as the fluffy pieces kept coming down, they moved out into the road with the brunet. Josiah looked upward and gave a smile of thanks, while Vin joined JD in turning around with arms widespread to take in the rapidly whitening surroundings.
Gradually other people came out to observe the wondrous spectacle. Long-time residents chatted about how long it had been since the occurrence had happened. Kids imitated JD and ran around trying to catch the frozen flakes on their tongues. The shoulders of Chris' ebony duster turned white, but the gunman stood with a somewhat reminiscent smile on his face as he watched the children . . . and Vin and JD . . . enjoy the snow.
When there was enough on the ground to cover it, Buck laid down on his back and showed the kids how to make snow angels. Vin and JD happily joined him, and Nathan and Josiah got a bucket and gathered up enough to pack into cups and pour syrup onto to make ices like they had at fancy parties back east. Even Ezra was marveling at the change the white blanket made to the little town. It now appeared like a scene from a Christmas card, needing only strolling carolers to give it the feel of a Dickens story.
Suddenly inspired by something he was rather unfamiliar with, the gambler softly started Hark, the Harold Angels Sing. Chris stepped up next to the gambler and added his clear tenor, drawing the attention of the rest of the seven and the townspeople nearby.
Josiah put down his bucket, and walked over to add his resonant baritone, closely followed by Nathan.
Buck got up from the ground and held out a gloved hand to help JD, while Vin scrambled up beside them. The three strolled over to join the chorus, even Vin remembering most of the words from when he was a kid.
Slowly the townsfolk joined in, Gloria Potter hurrying in to bring out the spiced cider she had warming on the stove in the mercantile.
Handing out cups of the hot liquid, she added her voice to the rest as they moved on to God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen, and a couple of other songs.
When they were all hoarse from singing in the cold, the cheerful group went to wishing their neighbors 'Merry Christmas', throwing snow at each other, and assorted other amusements. Even Larabee retaliated when Tanner dumped a double handful of wet snow on his back, chasing the tracker a few feet, then hitting the smaller figure squarely in the chest with his own wet ammunition.
+ + + + + + +
A couple of hours later, the now damp and snow-covered peacekeepers trouped back into the saloon to warm up and exchange their gifts.
JD beamed happily as they all shed their coats and gloves and moved to the table by the stove, cheeks red with exposure and lips curved in teasing grins.
"You ready to open presents now, Kid?" asked Buck as he took a steaming mug from Inez.
"Yeah, Buck. But it doesn't matter what's under the tree . . . now it feels like home."
The other six nodded in agreement, and then six pairs of eyes looked upward and six hearts gave thanks for JD's Christmas wish.
Next story: Josiah
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