~ CHAPTER 1 ~
On the outskirts of Four Corners was a sprawling ranch that had become known as St. Nicholas Orphan Ranch. It was named by its former proprietress, who had since passed on. She named it for St. Nicholas, the protector of children, with hopes he would always guard over them.
On this particular day, Vin was sitting in the back of a room listening to Buck and JD read the children a Christmas story - A Dickens' Christmas Carol. The children seemed to be enjoying it as much as Vin.
Moments after Buck closed the book, Josiah ran into the room.
"Buck, JD, Vin, get the children out! Fire!"
The four men quickly rushed the children outside. Buck pumped water from the well. He gave the buckets to JD and Vin, both of which attempted to extinguish the fire. Their efforts failed. The orphanage was gone. The wood frame house was reduced to ashes in a matter of minutes.
"Where are the children going to stay now?" JD asked.
"For now, the church, I suppose," Josiah answered.
They loaded the children on the wagons and headed into town. Mary met them.
"What's going on?" Mary asked.
"Orphanage burned down," Vin responded.
"Oh my," she answered.
Mary helped get the children into the church. She then approached Josiah.
"Josiah, what about all the gifts for Christmas?"
"Gone. Everything's gone."
"We'll never be able to get enough money to rebuild the orphanage and replace the gifts."
A small boy approached Josiah and Mary.
"Mr. Sanchez, does this mean we won't be having Christmas?"
"No, Tim, we'll do what we can. As far as I'm concerned, this may just be one of the best Christmases."
Little Tim darted off to play after Josiah reassured him that Christmas was still on.
"Josiah, why did you get his hopes up? I just told you "
"I know what you said, Mary; we'll have to think of something," Josiah interrupted.
Josiah met Buck, JD, Ezra, Nathan, Vin and Chris in the Standish Tavern.
"I don't know what we're going to do for the children for Christmas," Josiah thought aloud.
"Can we take up a collection?" JD asked.
"Mary's already started one, but she's not having much luck. Everyone's low on money this time of year. They're having problems putting food on their own tables, let alone gifts beneath their own trees," Chris told them.
"I wish we could do something," Vin added.
"Ezra, didn't you just swindle some folks passing through town out of some cash?" Nathan asked.
"Perhaps," Ezra responded.
"Ezra, you wouldn't mind parting with some of it would you?" Josiah asked.
"I regret that I may not assist in your noble efforts; yet, I do appreciate their situation, for I, myself, celebrated innumerous Christmas Days deprived of presents," Ezra responded.
"I take it thats a 'no'?" Nathan asked sarcastically.
"I stated, I regretted it," Ezra said attempting to defend himself.
"Nathan, forget it," Josiah said and left in disgust.
One by one, each of the others also left. By the night's end, Ezra was sitting by himself. The tavern long since emptied. He muttered to himself as he closed up and went up to bed. Ezra ascended the stairs up to his room. He undressed and began to go to bed. He passed the window where he could see the church. Light still emitted from the little church. Ezra figured Josiah was getting the children off to sleep. He wondered where they'd all sleep. Then, he thought of the pews. Ezra walked over to his bed, turned down the covers and laid down. He'd figured he'd better get a lot of rest because tomorrow was Christmas Eve and the others were not about to let up on him. It was early yet, and he couldn't sleep. He tossed and turned for hours. He couldn't get the children out of his mind. He kept telling himself he didn't care. No one cared about him not getting presents for Christmas. There were times his own mother didn't even show up for Christmas. He was just as much an orphan as these children. Ezra told himself it would make them stronger like it did him. They wouldn't expect much out of people. He didn't. He earned everything he got even if it meant swindling folks out of their money and possessions. He still had to work at being believable. Some folks can't even do that. Besides, who were they to criticize him? They have no idea what he's been through. Deep down, though, Ezra still wanted a present for Christmas of his own - to be accepted. He wanted people to appreciate him, to care about him. He didn't understand that to receive that gift, he would first have to give the same gift to others.
He slowly drifted off to sleep as these thoughts raced through his head.
~ CHAPTER 2 ~
The mantle clock Ezra had rested on the top of his dresser struck midnight. At that precise moment, the window blew open with the coldest of breezes. Ezra awoke and pulled the covers over his head.
"Ezra," a familiar voice called out.
"Mother?" Ezra questioned the voice.
"Ezra," the voice said quickly, flinging the covers off him disregarding Ezra's question.
Ezra lay shivering both from the cold and from fear.
"Mother, what pray tell, are you doing here?" It is midnight!" he questioned as he strained to read the clock.
"Yes, yes, get on with it!"
Ezra, dear, I have been a foolish woman. I should have been there for you. Instead, I thought of myself. Look at you. My baby. I thought I could raise you to survive. Unfortunately, I failed you."
"No, Mother. I can survive. I've been surviving quite extraordinarily, I might add. I have overcome every obstacle you have placed in my path."
"No, Ezra, dear, I have taught you to lie, steal, cheat and to think of no one before yourself. I have bestowed upon you a heart of stone and icy water to flow through your veins. You can change, though, Ezra, dear. You will be visited by three other spirits tonight. Each will visit you on the hour beginning in one hour. You shall be visited by the Ghosts of Christmases Past, Present and those yet to come. I must go now. Ezra, dear, please heed their warnings."
When she finished speaking, the windows again rattled and the wind blew hard. Ezra covered his eyes to shield them from the dust that blew about. When the wind died down, the vision of Maude, his mother, was gone. The ticking of the mantle clock on the dresser was the only sound in the room, that is, other than Ezra's own heavy breathing. Ezra decided to go back to bed. He figured, if he was going to get three more visitors, he had better get some rest. Ezra was quite familiar with the Dickens tale of Ebenezer Scrooge and the Christmas Eve ghostly visits. This, however, was not Christmas Eve, but the eve of Christmas Eve.
Just as Ezra dozed off again, the little mantle clock struck 1 A.M. With it, the windows again blew open, and Ezra once again covered his head with his blanket. He knew who would be there before him, and he was afraid to look. Curiosity captured his imagination. He peeked from beneath the covers.
"Vin?" he asked.
"No, I am the Ghost of Christmas Past. Come on; we haven't much time."
The apparition, which closely resembled Vin, grabbed Ezra by the hand and leapt from the window.
"Aaaaaaaaahhhhhhhhhhhh," Ezra screamed fearing he would surely fall.
When Ezra opened his eyes and stopped screaming, he saw a house before him. A house he recognized. He then looked at the man beside him.
"Christmas Past, huh?"
"This is your childhood. See that boy there?"
"It is me I was seven. Mother promised to spend Christmas. She wrote me a letter. She promised. She was to bring with her the most exquisite gift."
"Then, why do you look so sad?"
"She never arrived," Ezra wiped the tears from his cheeks. "I waited ever so patiently."
"What are they doing? Who are they?"
"That man he is Uncle Charles - an absolutely, detestable, curmudgeon. I despised every breath he inhaled. They are celebrating Christmas without me."
"Why ain't you with them? He is your uncle. I would say those are your cousins?"
"Yes, that they are. I was forbidden to mingle with them. They did not consider me of their status. I was not allowed to feast with them. You see that - bread and water. I was more of a slave to them than a nephew. After I learned to read, I read every book I could attain. I attempted to make myself as educated as possible. I actually thought people would accept me if I appeared educated."
"Is it safe to say you were not happy here?"
"Happy? I have yet to determine if I know that emotion, even now. Happy no."
"They didn't care about you, then?"
"Ha! Care? The only moments in my life they cared were when little Ezra did not complete each and every task expected of him."
"And this was your childhood?"
"I did not have a childhood. I simply was born to this world. I grew from an infant to a man without experiencing the joys of childhood."
Ezra bowed his head, as he could not bear to watch himself as a seven-year-old taunted by his cousins as they showed him their Christmas presents and laughed at his mother's lack of being present. He could not bear to watch as they sang their made-up song of how they each got at least one gift; yet, he got none. Ezra continued to wipe the tears from his cheeks.
When Ezra finally opened his eyes, the Ghost of Christmas Past was gone. He was once again in his room and his own bed. He glanced over at the clock; it was barely 1:07 A.M. How could a lifetime of memories take only seven minutes, he began to think. Soon, though, he began to get sleepy. He once again allowed himself the luxury of falling asleep knowing full well what awaited him at 2 A.M.
~ CHAPTER 3 ~
The mantle clock on Ezra's dresser struck 2 A.M. Ezra heard the click of the hand move; yet, the windows did not fly open as before. Did he dare peek out from the covers? He felt a chill, but couldn't resist stealing a glance around the room. Ezra slowly drew back the covers. He was stunned, yet relieved, to see Chris leaning against the dresser holding the mantle clock.
"It's 2 A.M., Ezra," the Chris-like being spoke.
"Yes, I am aware of that, Chris."
"No, I am the Ghost of Christmas Present. It is time to go."
"Are you sure?"
The ghost took Ezra to the church. A Christmas tree has been erected and decorated, but there are no presents. Buck was tending to the children while Josiah was rocking little Tim, trying to calm him. Tim was sobbing.
"Why does he cry?" Ezra asked.
"His mother died last Christmas Eve; therefore, he had a miserable Christmas. Josiah promised him a good Christmas this year, but the orphanage burned down. All the gifts burned with it," the Ghost of Christmas Present explained.
"He shall learn not to expect such things," Ezra said.
"They had a chance to have a good Christmas."
"What became of their chance?"
"You were their chance. You could not find it within your heart to allow them that chance."
"They shall become strong because of it. They should thank me from preventing me from becoming dependant upon a myth that someone will always be present to protect them and provide for them."
"No, Ezra, you showed them now to be uncaring, cold-hearted and numb to the feelings of others."
"I never received what you desire me to give to them. No one showered me with gifts; no one cared to fulfill my dreams. Yet, you wish for me to do this for them."
"Sometimes, Ezra, you have to give to receive. In order to get the gift you want, you have to be willing to give it to someone else, first."
"That is not fair."
The ghost took Ezra to another part of town. JD and Mary were inside the offices of The Clarion.
"Mary, why do you suppose Ezra won't help the orphans," JD asked.
"He's a selfish man," Mary responded.
"Well, I just figured after all we've been through; he'd "
"JD, he's a swindler. He's in the business of taking money, not giving it!"
"That's not true!" Ezra snapped at the ghost.
"It doesn't surprise you?" the conversation continued, as JD questioned Mary.
"Surprise me? No! I should've known he'd never part with money that's not rightfully his. Apparently, he has learned very well at his mother's knee."
"She is incorrect, Christmas Present," Ezra said as he turned to the spirit.
"She is right," the apparition confided.
"No, Mother taught me nothing of the sort."
"You would be surprised what each person you meet teaches you, but most of all what you teach each person that you meet."
"Would we happen to be finished here?"
The Ghost of Christmas Present turned and walked away.
"Hey! Hey! You cannot desert me! Hey!"
His yelling made him rise up in bed. He took a deep breath and checked the clock - 2:07 A.M. Again, seven minutes. Ezra was relieved to be back in bed. Two down and one to go, he thought. He laid back down and covered his head. He felt himself get drowsy. He was so tired. He quickly fell asleep this time.
At precisely 3 A.M., the mantle clock chimed and the wind rattled and howled through the windows of Ezra's room. With a sudden gust, they blew open, taking Ezra's covers with them. Ezra lay huddled in a corner frightened as he watched the black man he knew as Nathan came closer to him.
"I suppose you are the Ghost of Christmases Yet to Come?"
The dark shadow said nothing. The ghost held out his hand to Ezra inviting him to join. Ezra nervously took the spirit hand. As soon as he did, they were standing in front of the Standish Tavern. Workers were busy taking the sign down.
"Why are they dismantling my establishment?" Ezra asked.
The ghost said nothing, but placed his fingers to his lips to hush Ezra. Ezra watched as the workers set a new sign in place - St. Nicholas Orphanage.
"Hey, I will not permit you to destroy my place of business!" Ezra hollered at the workers.
The workers paid him no mind as they continued their work.
"It's a shame Ezra never realized," Ezra heard Mary say to Chris.
"Realize what?" Ezra asked.
The spirit again hushed him.
"I do not understand our purpose here. What am I to learn from the transformation of my enterprise?" Ezra questioned the ghost.
The ghost took Ezra by the hand and again led him, this time, to a gathering in an out of the way place. Before him, stood Chris, Buck, JD, Vin, Josiah and Nathan.
"I still don't see why we had to come here on Christmas?" JD pondered.
"Yeah, what'd he ever do for anyone?" Buck added.
"Look, he may have thought only of himself, but we are the only ones that could be considered his friends and visit his grave. No one should die alone like that." Vin told them.
Ezra's gaze never left Vin as he whispered to the spirit, "Mr. Tanner is a good man."
"Well, he had his chance to do something about it; he blew it!" the conversation continued with Nathan commenting his thoughts.
"True. I just hope he realizes his errs now," Josiah sighed.
"To whom are they referring anyway, and why am I not present?" Ezra addressed the spirit, again.
As he spoke, the six men began to leave revealing an overgrown, unkempt grave. Ezra stared at the name on the stone - EZRA STANDISH.
Ezra could not believe his eyes. They were speaking of him.
"All I ever wanted was to be somebody. Have somebody care about me! Please, Ghost of Christmases Yet to Come, help me back to my bed; so, I may change this horrible fate for which you have been so kind as to show me," Ezra pleaded.
To his astonishment, he felt someone nudging him. Ezra opened his eyes to see Buck and Vin standing over him.
"Ezra, are you OK?" Buck asked.
"You were screamin'. We figgered you were having a nightmare," Vin told him.
"Nightmare?" Ezra nervously questioned in a higher pitch than usual.
"Yeah," Buck answered.
"Buck, why don't you go let the others know he's OK? It was just a nightmare," Vin asked.
"Sure; see ya later," Buck said as he left.
"Vin, are you familiar with Dickens' Christmas Carol?" Ezra queried.
"Yeah, Buck and JD were readin' it to the kids just before the orphanage burnt down; why?"
"My 'nightmare'. I do believe I just had a similar experience," Ezra said as he stared at the open window.
"You gonna be OK?"
"I do not suppose you believe me nor would you help me change the outcome of the nightmare; would you?"
"Ezra, if you say it happened, who am I to argue? I suppose you are afraid everyone will hate you and not go to your funeral and grave? Ezra, I will make sure everyone goes to your funeral and grave."
"I know, Mr. Tanner, I know. All I ever wished for at Christmastime was Mother to return and emancipate me from the hell my Uncle Charles kept me in. I just desired someone to show appreciation of me care for me. Do you understand?"
"Ezra, sometimes you have to be willing to give the gift you are asking for to others before you can receive it. When you give that gift to others first, they will shower you with their gratitude. You will be cared for and appreciated for a long time because of the gift you give. Trust me."
~ CHAPTER 4 ~
Christmas Eve arrived. Ezra sought out Vin's help to redeem himself.
"Vin, what should I do?"
"Well, for starters, the children need a new home."
"Splendid; we shall begin building immediately."
"Ezra, there's also the issue of gifts for the children."
"Where shall we get gifts on Christmas Eve?"
Vin and Ezra took their horses and began searching various nearby towns. Vin, before meeting up with Ezra this day, asked the children what each of them wanted for Christmas if they could have one tangible gift. He had a list that Josiah wrote down for him. He told no one of his plans to help Ezra.
"Ezra, I think you need one of these," Vin said to him as they were shopping for the gifts on Vin's list.
"A Santa Clause suit?"
"Yeah, you can play Santa and hand out the gifts directly to the kids."
"Mr. Claus does not deliver personally, Vin."
"Maybe this time he can. He can make a special trip for the kids."
"I suppose," Ezra agreed as he saw the twinkle in Vin's eye.
Vin looked at Santa Ezra, as he tried on the suit, as if he were a child looking directly into Santa's eyes.
"What?" Ezra asked feeling awkward.
"You look good!"
"I look ridiculous!"
"Naw, buy it."
Ezra purchased the suit and the two headed back to Four Corners. It had already gotten dark. The children were already sleeping awaiting a visit from Santa Clause; St. Nicholas was surely looking over them this Christmas.
Early Christmas morning, Vin got Ezra up.
"Come on, get dressed!" Vin prompted.
"I am dressing as quickly as possible," Ezra informed.
He stood looking into his mirror at his red suited image. Vin placed the Santa hat atop his head and smiled.
"Say 'ho, ho, ho," Vin prompted.
"Ho, ho, ho," Ezra muttered.
"No, with more jolliness, more enthusiasm HO, HO, HO," Vin imitated Santa.
"HO! HO! HO!" Ezra copied.
"Good, let's go."
The two headed over to the church where the children were still sleeping. Ezra quietly opened the door. He entered and did his best ho, ho, ho. The children awoke in disbelief. Josiah, too, awoke in disbelief. Vin, however, was nowhere to be found.
Santa found a place to sit by the Christmas tree and invited children up to visit with him. He handed each child a wrapped package with his or her name on the tag. Each child thanked him and found a spot in the church to open his or her Christmas present.
"Don't worry about the orphanage," Santa told Josiah.
Josiah smiled as the children happily enjoyed the gifts they received.
After the gifts were all distributed, Santa left the church. Ezra appeared among the townsfolk in his normal attire.
"Where the hell were you?" Chris scolded.
"I I " Ezra attempted to explain.
"He was busy," Vin offered Ezra his help explaining his absence.
"You missed Santa and the point of Christmas. Had you been here you would have realized what Christmas was all about!" Nathan snapped.
Vin winked at Ezra and smiled at the gambler. He knew where he was the entire time Santa was distributing gifts. Chris caught the wink and the smile between the two friends.
"Merry Christmas, Santa Ezra," Chris leaned over and whispered to Ezra.
"I am obliged to inform all of you that I I " Ezra began.
"What he's tryin' to say is he's gonna rebuild the orphanage," Vin finished what Ezra started.
"Ezra, is this true?" Chris asked.
"Yes, sir, it is," Ezra answered.
"Merry Christmas, Ezra," Chris said to him, this time aloud as he patted him on the back and walked off with Mary.
Later that day, Ezra got a surprise of his own. He and Vin passed the stage as it pulled away from the stage depot. They were headed to their horses; so, they may join everyone out at Nettie Wells' homestead for Christmas Dinner. From the group that stepped off the stage, both Ezra and Vin heard a familiar voice.
Ezra and Vin welcomed Maude to town.
"Mother, what are you doing here?"
"Well, I had this uncanny urge to visit you today. It was the strangest thing. I had a dream I visited you in a dream. It was very reminiscent of Dickens' Christmas Carol. Actually, I also had a visitor. I was in New Orleans a couple weeks ago when I was visited by an older gentleman."
"Really?" Vin asked.
"Mr. Tanner, do you not have something you should be attending to?" Ezra questioned.
"As a matter of fact, I don't." Vin smiled with a mischievous grin.
"That would be my luck," Ezra smiled back at him.
"So, about this gentleman you met," Vin asked.
"Yes, he was a sweet old man. He had white hair, a white beard and was quite hefty. He was quite jovial; I guess you could say his belly jiggled like a bowl full of jelly when he laughed, which he did a lot of. He had the cutest twinkle in his eye and cheeks so full and rosy. The strangest thing, too; he was all dressed in red."
Both Vin and Ezra were silent for a moment. They exchanged glances and quickly changed the subject.
"Ma'am, would you like to join us for Christmas Dinner at Nettie's?" Vin asked.
"Vin, that would be most delightful."
"Mother, is that the only reason you are here?"
"No, dear, I felt um he felt that I should spend this Christmas with you. He reminded me that I promised you many times when you were a young child that I would come and visit with you for Christmas. He was right. I did not keep my promise several times. I would like to apologize. I was wrong. I hope that you will forgive me."
"He does," Vin spoke for Ezra.
"I do?" Ezra asked.
"You do. Trust me, Ezra."
Ezra and Vin picked up Maude's baggage as she left them for the hotel.
"Ezra, sometimes you have to give before you can receive; remember? You have given a great gift to those kids. Now, you are beginning to see the rewards of that gift. Merry Christmas, Ezra!"
"Thanks, Vin. Merry Christmas!"
Tale Two: It's a Wonderful Life in Four Corners
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