By Yolande

Special Thanks to Mitzi and NotTasha

Story moved to Blackraptor October 2009


The tides were turning and the change of season was well and truly on them.  Ezra Standish huddled deeper inside his thick woollen coat.  He sucked in a quick breath, wincing slightly as the brisk morning air warped inside his lungs.  He hugged the jacket around his chest more firmly, but couldn’t prevent the strangled cough that expelled the cold air.  The chill of the December morning was thick with moisture, and heavy clouds rolled along the horizon, stretching low down to touch the frozen ground.  

Ezra chanced a glance along the deserted street and came to the conclusion that the citizens of his chosen metropolis where ensconced inside their warm and welcoming abodes, where they indeed should be.  A tremor tingled down his spine, and a fine sheen of sweat broke out on his forehead.  It was too early for much movement through the small western town and Ezra quickly hopped off the boardwalk and strode briskly to the livery.  

Two days before Christmas – he couldn’t stay any longer.  Standish sighed despondently.  Everyone had plans for the day of festivity – that was, everyone except him.  Not that he needed or wanted any, he quickly amended.  When did he ever celebrate?  Certainly not with Maude, he grimaced bitterly.  His childhood lacked the stability of a normal home life, but for that same reason, he was better suited to the nomadic existence that he had adopted for his adult life.  There was nothing at all that interested him about the festivities, and he would do well to remember that. 

It didn’t bother him in the slightest that both Vin and JD had been invited to the Wells’ ranch for Christmas lunch or that Nathan had departed town two days ago to visit with Miss Rain at the Seminole village.  It would be nice for the couple to spend the day together, even though Rain didn’t exactly celebrate Christmas.  

Josiah had a sermon prepared and would take a service on Saturday evening - Christmas Eve.  The large preacher had thrown himself into the task of writing the sermon; outwardly one would assume his melancholy disposition was attributed to nervousness with standing court in the church and holding service, but it didn’t take a genesis to recognise the trepidation that burned within the preacher’s soul.  You only had to scratch beneath the surface a little to understand the troubled man’s erratic mood of late.  Sanchez would travel to Vista City on Christmas Day and spend the day with his sister, Hannah.  The preacher’s visits were not well received, or even enjoyed by the large man, but he felt it his duty to go.  Hannah was his only family and from everything the large man had disclosed, he truly loved his troubled sibling.  It would be a difficult night for the older man on his return.  Ezra shrugged his shoulders not bothering to hide his confusion about why Josiah would torture himself so. 

Larabee had been invited to spend the day with Mary and Billy Travis, a veritable family in the making, Ezra surmised.  At least they would enjoy the day.  And then there was Buck.  He had been feverishly juggling his schedule so he could spend the majority of his day in bed.  Not alone, of course. 

Now the gambler didn’t begrudge any of his friends their right to some enjoyment, but Ezra felt more an outcast in the diverse group than he usually did, for his lack of enthusiasm towards the special day. He didn’t want to burden them with his dour mood – so it was simply common sense that he made himself scarce.  Not even a simple affliction, such as a cold, would deter him.  It was nothing of concern, a mere nuisance, as Maude always referred to them.  And he’d never once been allowed the indulgence of idling away the day to recuperate, and he wouldn’t begin so now. 

Standish rubbed his hands together, generating some warmth.  The short stroll from the saloon to the livery was a brisk encounter and not particularly inviting, but his mind was on other thoughts so he barely noticed.   He desperately needed some time and space to himself, away from the celebrations and the joviality and the constant reminders that he was not a part of it all.  

His belly churned with all the good cheer, and at times he almost gagged from all the sentimental bullshit.  Whenever he turned around, there was a familiar face smiling up at him, beckoning him to join in the merriment that included everyone, even the destitute.  How they could manage to waste hard-earned money on frivolities that they could ill afford was beyond him.  People, who would have normally gone out of their way to avoid him, now stopped him on the street and offered a kind word in passing.  He couldn’t understand the two-faced attitude that generally encompassed the town, but it didn’t fool him. They didn’t want him in their precious town, or their homes just because it was Christmas.  Here, was no different to any other place he’d spent the typically festive season.  No one wanted to share that special day with the gambler. 

To the conman, the town had been transported to another realm.  Everyone seemed to lock away all their troubles, shelve their differences and come together.  It was all a façade, one that would be tossed aside as quickly as the mask was put into place.  It was not a comfortable feeling, watching the changes that came over the residents, including his friends.  After all, he was fairly certain that following the celebrations, they would all revert to their former selves. 

Ezra pulled his hat lower over his face and rubbed at his throat, swallowing painfully.  In his rush to reach the livery, he failed to notice the dark and brooding eyes that followed his path. 


Chris Larabee chewed on the end of the cheroot and blew smoke from the side of his mouth.  He stood, sheltered from the wintry air, watching the Southerner disappear inside the stables.  “What are you up to, Standish?”  Chris waited patiently, easily hidden if the gambler should quickly exit.  He had to take a second look when he first spied Standish step from the saloon, it was unusual to see the gambler up before noon on a good day, let alone a mere hour past dawn.  His mouth curled into a stern line and Larabee glanced at the sky and breathed in deeply, filling his lungs.   There was a fresh crispness to the air and, if Tanner's prediction was right, they were going to see snow early this season.   

Ezra finally exited the livery riding astride the Chestnut gelding.  Chris had been beginning to wonder when the Southerner was going to emerge and was astounded when he exited on the back of his horse.  Chaucer danced under the weight of the Southerner, stretching his long legs and snorting thickly, producing a cloud of smoke as the air crystallized.  There were packs on either side of the saddle and probably an extra blanket wrapped inside the bedroll by the size; Ezra never did like the cold.  So he wasn’t just planning a short ride in the hills, Larabee weighed up thoughtfully.  

The gunslinger smirked, following the path the gambler tracked from the livery. Standish rode the horse as if he was born in the saddle – he sat ramrod straight, only using the minimalist hand movements to control the horse – and the damn horse responded to every command without hesitation.  His posture and self-assurance in the saddle were so natural, yet too regimented to have been acquired from only experience, but discovering Standish had taken an active role in the military was not a comforting thought. Many of Chris’ friends had died in battle, fighting the Confederate army, and it was something he had relegated to the inner recesses of his mind, not wanting to be reminded of the bloodied fields and death cries of the haunted past.  And the more Chris learned about the younger man, the less he understood.  

Standish was a contradiction unto himself.  Larabee figured it was simpler not to question Ezra’s motives.   But there were times, he admitted ruefully, when he enjoyed watching the culmination of the gambler’s trickery.  The conman was always scheming.  Whether it was outwitting Buck in a contest of wills or manipulating a deck of cards to his favour, there was always plenty to keep Standish thirsty for more.  Larabee considered whether the conman was in the midst of some scam at the moment.  Or perhaps he was responding to a wager offered.  That would explain the early morning departure. 

Larabee reflected on where the gambler would be now, if Ezra hadn’t joined them on their escapade to the Seminole Village. Larabee knew, that under normal circumstances he and the gambler would not have crossed paths.  Unless it was facing each other on the opposite ends of a loaded gun in some overcrowded saloon.  He grinned.  And a man of Larabee’s reputation, coupled with his violence, definitely wouldn’t have given Standish the opportunity to join his group had they not been desperate for extra guns when they faced down Anderson.  Nor would he have given Ezra a second chance to redeem himself if Chris hadn’t seen something worthwhile in the gambler.  But Ezra could certainly handle himself around a pistol and a rifle, and Standish had proved his worth, if one could excuse his initial running out on them.  It did take guts to turn back and face the wrath of his new associates and also the unknown danger he was returning to, to help save them.  That alone was what made Chris see beyond the façade and the poker face that hid the better man buried beneath the surface. 

Chris wondered at Standish’s most immediate departure and the demons that chased him out of town.  It didn’t even occur to the gunslinger that Ezra wouldn’t be returning.  He glanced again at the foreboding sky, a frown forming and lines creased from the corners of his eyes.  Maybe Standish hadn’t noticed the looming clouds.  Chris twisted the cheroot, throwing it to the ground and squishing it under the heel of his boot. Chris hung back in the grips of the shadows, waiting as the conman passed him by.  He stayed sheltered in the shadows until Standish had disappeared from view. 


Chris was at a loss for something to do.  The town was quiet, anticipating the coming storm; folks were reluctant to leave their homes and the streets were deserted.  Along rims of the horizon he could already see the storm’s ferocity pummelling down, dark fierce clouds bunched thickly together.  There was an eerie expectation hovering over the western town.  At present only a mild breeze played seductively along the tired and worn path through town, but soon the winds would move the blizzard closer, blanketing and cutting off any escape.  He wandered inside the saloon and was instantly warmed by the inner sanctum.  The temperature outside had dropped in degrees with each passing hour, and instead of warming as the day grew, it dripped into a solemn haze.  He scanned the near empty room, taking note of the strangers who occupied each table.  His spurs jingling on the boarded floor as he traversed the room.  Larabee selected a table and settled in; he could watch the doors from this point and have the solitude afforded by the dim corner.  

The sombre gunslinger wondered for the umpteenth time why he hadn’t ridden out to his cabin; it was an option that grew more enticing with each passing hour.   Chris had promised Mary and her son he would be delighted to share the day with them, but with each approaching day he grew more uncertain.  The young widow had requested his company during a moment’s weakness, and it didn’t help matters that Mary had asked when Buck was present.  The gregarious rogue had all but goaded him into accepting and he’d feel a heel to renege on the commitment at this late date.  The flare of delight shone from the blond-headed boy’s eyes every time Billy talked with the gunslinger.  Initially it amused him, but lately the child’s actions so mimicked Adam’s that Chris only felt immense pain being in the same room with the energetic child. 

How was he going to spend Christmas Day with Mary Travis and her son, when all he would be remembering was Sarah and Adam, and how they’d spent their last holiday together?  It had been a special time he’d shared with his wife and son – decorating the tree, Sarah cooking up a storm and Adam opening his gifts.  OH GOD! he cried wistfully – it was so hard to imagine replacing them and delegating them to the far corners of his mind, only to dredge up when he was in a drunken stupor.   How many holidays had he lost, unable to celebrate with his former family?  His eyes shuttered, drawing from his memories the images of past Christmases.  A faint smile curled around the corners of his lips.  How Adam loved the snow.  He thought it was part and parcel with the passing of the night – to wake up Christmas morning to a field of white.  Sarah would wrap him up in a cocoon of thick and woollen jackets and pants, the child barely able to walk in the trappings, but somehow he managed.  A thin tear wet the corner of his eye, and Larabee quickly rubbed the wet spot on the back of his hand.  How had he forgotten the simple joy his son had displayed?  

The muscles around his jaw tightened, and his brooding eyes showed a depth of emotion not normally attributed to the man in black.  The shot glass clinked where the rim touched the neck of the whiskey bottle; the deep amber liquid spilled forth, filling the glass to the top.  The drink was downed in one gulp, the owner not bothering to savour the taste before it sloshed in his belly.  He automatically refilled the glass to the brim.  If there was something he instinctively knew how to do, it was how to deaden the angst that riddled his mind.  He swirled the liquor in the bottle, contemplating how long it would take this time, to dampen the turmoil. 

What now?  Chris glared at the intruder that shifted nervously in the doorway, the swinging doors held open by thin and arthritic fingers.  Larabee tipped the glass to the ceiling, watching, through the bottom of his glass the balding man swallow anxiously while scanning the saloon’s patrons.  A wad of paper was clutched in his hand.  Finally, with certain trepidation, he settled his gaze on the gunslinger.  Larabee curled his lips, and with a loud thump, dropped the shot glass heavily on the tabletop.  His eyebrows joined over the bridge of his nose; how dare this man interrupt his solitude.  Without looking up, Chris growled; “What’d you want?” 

“Mister Larabee, sir?”  The clerk considered aborting his mission after the look the gunslinger past over him.  “I’ve got a wire for Mister Standish, and I’ve looked all over town for him…you wouldn’t happen to know where…?” 

“He’s not here.” 

The clerk stood unmoved.  “Er…do you know when he’ll be returning?” 

“Give it to me,” Larabee demanded.  “I’ll see he gets it.” 

The man hesitated.  “It’s kind of important…” 

“I said he’d get it!” Chris barked, snatching the slip of paper from the telegraph operator’s hand.   He pocketed the note and stood to leave, the clerk already scrambling hurriedly out the swinging doors. 


“Where you headed, pard?” Vin Tanner jogged up and lengthened his stride to match Larabee’s determined steps. 


“You ain’t going out in this storm, are you?” Tanner waved his arm in the air.  It hadn’t started yet, but it would soon. 

“Got a while before it hits.”  Larabee didn’t pause his steady steps as he entered the livery. 

“Depends,” he hedged.  “Which way you going?  Ya could be headin’ straight into it.”  

“Standish took off this morning.” 

“Yep.  I seen him leave.  Was kinda surprised to see him up so early.” 

“He got an urgent wire.  Reckon I’ll be doing him a favour by gettin’ it to him.” 

Vin resisted the urge to snort.  “Since when did you give two hoots about Ezra getting his messages?"  Had to be an excuse, so Larabee didn’t have to spend Christmas Day and the trimmings with Mary and Billy.  Chris had been getting edgy and fidgety lately and Vin could only suppose it had something to do with the holiday.  “Josiah is real nervous about the service Saturday night, figurin’ he’d want as many of us as possible there for support.”  Maybe Vin could work on guilt. 

“Mind your damn business,” Chris barked.  “Sanchez will do just fine…and I ain’t gonna be gone that long,” he growled.  Josiah was planning on holding the service Christmas Eve, and there was plenty of time to return before then.  That was the start of the Christmas festivities Larabee was supposed to share with Mary and Billy. 

“Why don’t cha let me take it…I’ll be able to track Ezra better’n you.”  


Vin moved into his stall and started saddling Peso.  “Then I’ll come with you.”  Can at least make sure you get back to town in time. 

“Just stay out of it,” the irate gunslinger hissed, climbing into his saddle.  “I don’t need your company, I know which way Standish went.”  Chris clicked his tongue and raced his mount from the stables, not giving a backwards glance. 

Vin returned his tack to the wall and slowly followed Larabee’s exit.  “Yeah, and I’ll just bet you get snowed in at your cabin and can’t make it back to town in time to share it with two special people,” he mumbled, wandering along the barren road to the boardwalk.  “Damn it, Larabee!” 


Ezra kept Chaucer at a steady gait – a heavy weight leaving his shoulders as the distance between him and the town lengthened.  The gambler allowed the chestnut gelding to set the pace as he had no destination in mind - he just wanted to leave.  All the activity and preparations had been wearisome and a little too unsettling, but he didn’t want to dwell on the subject.  He leaned forward in the saddle and patted his horse affectionately.  “Good boy,” he rasped, wincing as the words tore from his throat.  “Shall we find a lucrative town, willing to share its wealth?” he coughed.  “Never fear, old friend…we shall return in a few days hence…much richer.”  

It was noon when the snow began to fall, sheeting the ground in a white blanket.  “Marvellous,” Ezra rasped.   Chaucer danced under him while he agonized over his position.  Did he return to Four Corners, or continue his journey?  He’d not spoken with any of the seven about his departure - it had been a spur of the moment decision when he left, although he’d had the good presence of mind to fill his saddlebags and add another blanket to his equipment.  So no one knew where he was going, and for that reason alone, Ezra turned his mount off the snow-covered trail and circled around.  It was time to weigh the risks against getting lost and being caught out in the cold, or worse – he decided to go home.  “Sorry, ole boy…” Standish sniffed, wiping the moisture from his nose and huddling inside his stiffened coat seeking the warmth that had diminished over the course of the day.  “It has been a hard day on you.”  He rubbed his chest, hoping to bring some measure of warmth to his aching body.  “Home,” he hoarsely whispered. 


Chris flipped the collar of his coat high on his neck.  It was hellishly cold and he had a good mind to turn the black gelding towards his cabin in the hills.  Larabee patted the thick paper inside his pocket, only now giving it the slightest pause.  He hadn’t read the missive, and it wasn’t even part of his plan to hightail it out of Four Corners.  It had been a means to an end, and it served a purpose.  If he had to eat the gambler’s dust all the way to Jericho, then it would be worth the bother.  

The miles gathered quickly under his belt and the gelding was showing signs of tiring.  The soft fall of snowflakes littered the rutted trail and he allowed his mind to drift over the reasons he bolted from town.  Tanner knew him better than he’d suspected.  The wily Texan was up to speed on where his thoughts were going.  It wasn’t that he didn’t want to spend time with Mary; it was just that they reminded him of everything he was missing with his own family.  He wondered if she wasn’t using him in some way to keep Stephan’s memory alive also.  He needed some time alone, to reminisce and contemplate.  

Buck hadn’t given him a moment’s peace this week, every time he turned around the rogue had been in his face.  The cheerful ladies’ man tried to keep him from the bottle and found a mountain of innocuous things to do that involved them both; like painting fences and repairing rotting walls. Then there was Vin.  Tanner made up for time where Wilmington was off chasing the ladies.  Chris grimaced; he wouldn’t be surprised to find out they had arranged a timetable to account for all his waking hours.  They were smart though, he’d give them credit; they had kept his activities well outside the celebrations and hoopla surrounding Christmas.  He hadn’t partaken in decorating the church or even been herded under any mistletoe.  

Larabee pulled firmly on the reins, stalling his mount and examining the trail.  He cast a thoughtful gaze off to the right; if he left the road here and cut across country, it would take him directly to his cabin.  He stared at the trail for a full minute, and then along the route Standish had evidently taken.  Any signs the Southerner had left behind were well covered by now; they were out of sight beneath the snow.  Chris stared impatiently at the ground.  In theory, he couldn’t possibly know which path the gambler had taken.  It appeared as though he was travelling to Jericho, but one could never be certain.  Larabee studied the looming sky, struggling to make a decision. 

“Aw, hell.”  What did it matter?  Tanner would never know that he didn’t keep on the trail following Standish. And neither would the gambler. Chris kicked his spurs against the whithers and whirled the gelding up and off the track.  At least he’d be out of the storm when he reached his cabin.    


The wind picked up, and the fine flakes of snow became hard pellets, hitting the unprotected Southerner from all angles.  The road disappeared in the roaring haze and what he could determine of his surroundings was layered with a mist of white and one section looked like the next.  Ezra groaned aloud, knowing he’d made an awful mistake.  The best he could do was to find a sanctuary to wait out the storm.    

Ezra ground his teeth together, biting his inner cheek.  Lord what a predicament he’d landed in!  He was a fool to leave town as he did.  It was not well thought out and he was paying the price for his escape. The blistering winds tugged at his clothing and he hunkered lower in the saddle.  His face burned with numbness and his legs and arms were cramped.  He muttered a calming monologue to his horse, hoping to sooth the panic while he searched for shelter - his voice a harsh croak and unrecognisable as his own, but he kept up the one-sided conversation. 

The storm whipped and burned, freezing in its tenacity.  He could hardly see three feet ahead and when he chanced a look behind, the trail was lost in the blizzard.  The ground became thick with fallen snow and with each step the journey became more hazardous to traverse.   With a shrug of misgivings, he grimly admitted that he was hopelessly lost.  Ezra slipped from his saddle, looping the reins over the gelding’s head and continuing on foot.  He wouldn’t force his steed to carry him any further over the treacherous ground without knowing, or seeing, the slope and fall of the ground hidden below the deep drifts. It was heavy work trudging through the icy slush and every now and then his boots would slip and he’d have to quickly readjust his steps.  It seemed to take all his energy to pull each leg through the snow; the effort tiring to his already depleted system.

The Southerner was unaccustomed to the wild elements, spending most of his upbringing inside the influence of a saloon. Some would say that his was a pampered lifestyle, but there were many a drama that unfolded within the hallowed walls of a drinking establishment.  And although he was satisfied with that aspect of his life, even he had not escaped learning some basic survival skills required for being on the road.  Especially since, before settling in Four Corners, he found himself chased out of towns on a regular basis.  So he learned, but only the essentials, and nothing that prepared him for journeying through a blizzard.  This was not his domain and he should have paid more attention to the weather before his departure.  Another aspect of his life he rarely paid any particular interest in. Be it rain, hail or shine, he could always find a game of chance.  At least he could have consulted with Vin he ruminated, before settling out.  Tanner always seemed to be watching the sky.

The drifts grew deeper and his sure-footed friend was starting to kick about testily.    Chaucer pulled up hard on the reins, stopping, almost hauling Standish over backwards.  “What is it, boy?” Standish asked.  The horse shook its mane, snorting thickly from his nostrils.  Ezra dug beneath the snow, checking each of the horse’s four legs, fearing the mount had caused itself an injury.  “Everything appears normal,” he puffed.  When the gambler attempted to continue the gelding stubbornly held its ground.  Standish tugged on the lead rope, but the horse remained unmoved.  “Now is not the time for such antics, Chaucer!”  Ezra sighed, patting the long nose gently.  “I’ll have you out of this despicable weather, soon.  I promise.” 

The gambler took a step forward, but the chestnut gelding pushed him roughly in the back.  “Now that’s…quite enough,” Standish reprimanded, spinning around and wagging his finger in annoyance.  In the same moment, the winds of the blizzard drew breath; drawing clarity to the clearing in which they were standing.  Standish grinned, shaking his head in amusement.  There, not a dozen or so feet away, stood a ramshackle cabin.  He chuckled, a dry hollow mirth.  He could have easily missed the snow-covered structure if not for Chaucer’s histrionics. “You’re a gem, ole boy,” the gambler croaked.  The building quickly disappeared from sight, but Ezra had a general direction in which to set off.  He finally reached the temporary shelter, and after tethering his horse in the small lean-to at the back, Ezra sought his own comforts.  

The cabin had not been used in many years and the door was wide open, the hinges only holding at the very top, and the bottom set was completely broken off.  The door stood agape at a strangely awkward angle.  Standish stepped over the mound of frozen snow, dropped his saddlebags and bedroll on the dirt floor and set about how to dispose of the heaped snow in the doorway so he could close the door.  He glanced around the walls, hoping for a shovel or some implement to accomplish the deed.  His green emerald eyes fell on the small bundle, shaking in the far corner. 

Ezra’s hand went to the Remington at his side, but reconsidered his options as his sluggish mind discounted the form as threatening.  It was too small to be a man under the heavy winter coat and shivering too much to be an animal.  Just the same, the Southerner cautiously approached, not wanting to frighten, whoever hid under the covers.  “Hello,” he whispered huskily.  

Ezra continued his slow advance, bewildered by what he was going to find.  He crouched to the same height, and drew off a portion of the jacket. He smiled grimly at the youthful head that peeped from under the coverings.  Dulled brown eyes stared mutely at him, an impassioned plea irresistible in the frightened expression.  “Good Lord.”  The small child was shivering uncontrollably.  Ezra smiled weakly, attempting to reassure the boy.  “I’m not going to hurt you,” he spoke softly, worried as the child flinched away at his touch.  “What are you doing out in this storm?  And where are your parents?”  The blond-headed child continued to stare at the gambler.  “You must be near frozen…” I know I am, he mused, and his throat burned raw from the one-sided conversation.  Ezra picked up his bedroll and unwrapped it.  He smiled at the boy, holding the blanket out, and then added it to the child’s collection.  He would add his own coat, just as soon as he had the cabin warmed inside.   


Ezra nodded contently at the improved status of the shack.  The door was secured in place, and although he was no handyman and would never claim such, he was satisfied that it would keep out the worst of the tempest.  The mound of snow was swept from the floor and a damp and muddy patch was all that remained; a healthy fire glowed in the grate and he settled on his haunches in front to thaw out his hands. 

He glanced at his young companion and a wistful smile formed on his lips.  The child had not spoken a word during the time Ezra spent straightening the cabin, but the boy watched his every movement intently with bright fearful eyes.  The Southerner had initially kept up some inane chatter hoping to draw out the child, but after a while Ezra’s voice became raspier and he finished his labours without choking over words.  He kept smiling at the quiet child and eventually the boy succumbed, and fell asleep.  Ezra felt some measure of relief that the boy trusted him enough to watch over him while he slept.   But the gambler couldn’t help wondering why the youngster was wandering around, alone. He chewed his bottom lip, wondering if someone was out in the blizzard searching for the lost child. 

I wonder where your family is? Ezra mused, shouldering out of his woollen overcoat and gently tucking it around the fragile form.  Surely someone is looking for you?   Especially at a time like this.  His parents must be out of their mind with worry.  Ezra refused to celebrate the yuletide season’s holiday, but he was well aware that the majority of folks did so.  In fact, the whole damn town of Four Corners seemed to be hell bent on idling away the day and eating monstrous feasts.  Not to mention the presentation of gifts.  Standish shook his head, remembering JD’s change in demeanour over the last few weeks.  First there had been the Church - and decorating it had taken several days, then Dunne procured a tree and set it up in the saloon they frequented.  Then there was the hanging of decorations on the tree and around the building.  He’d pestered each of them until they’d all shared a mug of eggnog at the same table.  And the young gunslinger had almost worked himself into a fervour, doing extra chores, anything to earn another dollar to add to his meagre savings to buy gifts for his paramour and her aunt.  Standish wouldn’t be surprised if Dunne had bought presents for Buck and perhaps the others also.  He never imagined the carefree youth would ever spend money on something for him. 

Ezra hugged his arms around his thin shirt and squatted in front of the fire.  He’d found a stash of dry firewood stacked neatly inside the lean-to where his horse sheltered from the weather and collected a moderately large pile for the hearth, but it would eventually run low and he would need to replenish the woodpile at some point.  He shuddered uncontrollably, not relishing the mission.  It was far too cold outside and he desperately wanted to rest.  He removed his deck of cards from his saddlebags and began to manipulate them through his fingers – the well-practised moves brought more dexterity to his numbed digits.  The blizzard continued to rage outside and the gambler’s anxieties grew while he considered his options. 


Ezra’s head nodded, his chin resting on his chest and the cards spilled from his hands lying abandoned on the floor.  A crash from outside startled the gambler awake, and his sleep weary eyes roved about the shack to ascertain what had caused the noise. 

The door caved in and a dark bundled giant stood in the doorway.  Ezra flew from his cross-legged position in front of the fire and drew a bead on the intruder.  The weapon wavered in his hand.  “Mr. Larabee?”  Why was Chris Larabee standing in the doorway of the abandoned cabin?  For that matter, why wasn’t he still in town?  Had Chris followed him through the storm?  But that made no sense; Tanner couldn’t even track in this blizzard. 

Chris shook the snow from his shoulders.  “Standish.”  How in hell had the gambler found this retreat?  It was well off the travelled path; Standish must have been lost to stumble across the shack.  Hell, he’d been damn lucky, considering the ferocity of the blizzard outside, and he knew of the shack’s existence.  It had been quite a while since Larabee had cause to visit the small building, and he had been beginning to doubt its whereabouts when the wooden structure loomed before him.  He licked his bottom lip and pointed his chin at the bundle in the corner.  “What have you got under that?” 

Ezra quickly intercepted the gunslinger, placing himself between the child and Larabee.  “A child.” 

Chris met the Southerner’s hooded expression.  “What the hell are you doing?  And who is he?”  What game was the conman up to this time?  What the hell was he doing involving a child in his schemes?  And why was he croaking like a frog?  Was Standish really sick or was he playing games? 

“He was here when I arrived…” Standish paused to draw breath.  “He has been… sleeping since.” 

Chris stared at the green eyes, trying to find the truth in the words the gambler had spoken.  “Looks like he’s awake now…” Perhaps we’ll get some answers, now. 

Ezra dropped the gun into his holster, and smiled genuinely at the boy.  “Hi, there.”  The young child cowered under the blankets, his eyes wide with alarm.  “Mr. Larabee, could you please stop… glowering.  And close the door.” 

Chris pursed his lips, but eventually capitulated.  “He have a name?” 

“That is what I am attempting…to ascertain,” Standish replied curtly. He scowled askew at Larabee, the stern features falling from his face as he was wracked by a bout of coughing. 

“Don’t seem to be getting too many answers,” Larabee sneered and stalked toward the pair.  “Maybe he doesn’t like you.” 

Ezra speared the gunslinger with a menacing glare and waved a hand, suggesting the gunman to have a go. 

Chris shrugged and squatted.  He winced inwardly as the child crawled backwards, cringing with fright. “Ain’t gonna hurt you.” 

Standish picked up his water canteen and poured a portion into the metal cup, carrying it to the child.  As he joined the pair, a loud crack echoed through the shack.  Ezra startled, sloshing the water over the brim and onto his hand.  He noticed a similar reaction to the noise by Larabee.  The child hadn’t even lifted his eyes, seeking the source of the sound.  “He didn’t hear it,” Standish mused out loud.  Larabee nodded. 

“He’s deaf?” 

Ezra touched his ears and then did similar to the child, frowning the unspoken question. 

The boy shook his head, and lowered his eyes.  A sad expression flushed his face.  

“Great!” Chris groaned, rising to stand.  

The boy held his hands in his lap, his fingers moving in apparently nervous gestures, but as Ezra watched the boy, a curious smile forming over his mouth.  “He’s signing!” he announced jubilantly.  Lifting the boy’s chin to make eye contact, Ezra saluted him and grinned widely as the boy jumped excitedly to his knees and responded with the same sign. 

Chris watched the gambler and the child, wondering about the sudden change in the child’s behaviour.  Was Standish really ‘talking’ to the boy? 

Ezra formed the letters of his name and touched his chest, then pointed at Chris and spelled out the gunslinger’s name.  “What’s you name?” he signed, hoping the boy understood enough of the language to be able to communicate with them. 

The boy opened his mouth, but no sound came out.  He patted his chest and manipulated his fingers. 

“What are you telling him?” 

“Our names,” Ezra replied without losing eye contact with the boy’s hands.  “His name is Toby Merrill,” Ezra grinned at Larabee. 

“Merrill?  They moved into the Sullivan’s ranch about six weeks ago.  Got a hoard of kids.”  Chris frowned as Ezra turned his back and spoke with Toby.  “Find out how he got here? And should we be searching for anyone else?”  The frown increased as Standish flicked an impatient hand in the air, dismissing the queries. 

“All in good time,” he muttered. 


Chris Larabee tucked his thumbs under the edge of his gunbelt.  Standish and the Merrill boy were talking up a storm, if watching their hands was any true indication.  Beyond the bare facts Standish deemed essential, the gambler had not spoken to Chris in over two hours.  He shifted his weight from one leg to the other, watching intently as Toby quickly responded to the Southerner.  The blizzard roared beyond the small shack, and the inner walls shuddered weakly, protesting the violent winds that hounded the simple structure.  By now, there would be a deep drift of snow stacked against the outer walls, and sometime tomorrow they would have to dig themselves clear.  Chris deepened his frown, as he watched the common ground bridged between his companions. 

He shook his head, and long blond hair fell over his forehead. Of all the ridiculous notions. Chris should have been comfortable in his small dwelling, but no, he had to go and keep looking for the damn Southerner.  He had been close to his abode, when he circled the black gelding about and returned to his original course.  Hell if he knew why he changed his mind.  Obviously his guilt far outweighed his good sense.  By then the blizzard was fairly whipping about and it had taken all his efforts to hone in on the abandoned building they now shared.  The simple shelter at least protected them from the elements; it would have been impossible to confront the chilly conditions without the modest refuge.  Look at them! he screamed inwardly.  Chris stoked a cigar to life, puffing small circles to the ceiling.  Ignore me, will they?  Chris didn’t need either of them.  Let them have each other. 

“Mr. Larabee,” Standish rasped.  “The smoke bother’s Toby…” he left the sentence hang, unfinished. 

Chris dropped the cigar to the floor and stamped it out under his boot.  “Sorry,” he smiled apologetically at the boy.  When Toby tugged Ezra’s sleeve Standish nodded and returned his attention where it was wanted.  Chris slid down the timber wall, frustrated, yet intrigued, by the game Ezra and Toby were enjoying.  The gambler turned over the playing card and set it on the floor between them, then signed some message to the boy.   Toby clapped his hands, his eyes sparkling with intense pleasure.  Larabee fought to control his own emotions, but the stirring bout of jealousy was tugging at his nerves.  Standish, initially spoke the words and questions as he signed, which at least helped Chris understand what they were talking about, but Chris could tell by the fading strength of Ezra’s voice that he was losing it and therefore was talking more with his hands than vocally.  Of all the times to lose his voice – why couldn’t it have happened for the others to witness?  Instead, Chris was left in a world of silence, sharing a room with a pair that couldn’t shut-up, yet he couldn’t hear a word of what they said. 


Ezra stretched on his side, uncomfortable with the lack of furniture, he’d had to make do with a borrowed blanket from Larabee, and lay on the dirt floor.  He imagined at one time the cabin had boasted a table and chairs, even a simple cot, but after its abandonment, the fittings had become good fodder for the fire.  Ezra rubbed at his tender throat, wincing as he did so.  How much longer was this malady going to afflict him?  He swallowed, wincing again at the raw and painful scratch that burned inside.  God he wished he had not finished all the scotch in his flask; he could do with some now.   He lay awake, awaiting sleep as his young friend and Chris Larabee had greeted. 

The gambler sighed deeply, lifting his head off his bent arm and studied the shack in the dimmed glow of the hearth.  Larabee lay closest to the door, almost as though he were the sentinel, watching out for the pair of them.  Ezra knew that was fanciful thinking on his part, but he couldn’t help conceiving Chris in this role.  Ezra smirked at the bizarre ramblings of his mind.  He had been utterly stunned by the appearance of the gunslinger when Chris had thrown open the door.  Larabee hadn’t explained his presence and hadn’t asked Ezra to explain why he’d left town.  Some things were better left unsaid.  Although, it was running circles in his head, reflecting on the reasons that found them together in this ramshackle cabin sheltering together from the blizzard.  Perhaps in the morning, when the storm relented, he would get some idea what had provoked Chris’ venture.  He wondered if the peaceable atmosphere would have been the same without the presence of Toby Merrill to act as a buffer between the two very different and volatile men. 

Ezra rolled his tired eyes around the walls, until they sought the form of Toby Merrill.  He was bundled in front of the fire; Ezra’s own bedroll and jacket covering the small child.  The gambler couldn’t begin to compare this boy to the solemn creature he’d first discovered in the corner.   He was an outstanding child.  His comprehension and execution of signing was astounding.  Ezra hadn’t used the coded language in quite a while, and he was delighted at being given the opportunity to practise this rusty skill.  The child seemed to be starved of information and pressed Ezra to tell him story after story, recite songs, and even Christmas carols long thought forgotten.  Toby teased him when he misspelled a word using wrong hand signs, and he responded by rolling his eyes, bringing tears of laughter from the silent child.  What a hell of a world to live in. 

Ezra rested on his elbow, drawn to the small figure.  His head tilted to the side, listening to the sounds inside by excluding the howling gale that roared outside.  He threw off the thin blanket and knelt by the lad.  

“What’s wrong?” 

He jumped, swearing inwardly at Larabee’s concerned words.  Why hadn’t he known the blond-headed man was awake?   Taking in a deep breath, he forced his racing heartbeat to slow.  Standish shrugged.  Ezra shook off the hounding look of Chris watching him, and lightly tapped Toby’s shoulder.  His tear streaked face turned upwards, fear clear in the red swollen eyes.  The boy’s shoulder’s trembled beneath his hand. 

“Ezra?” Larabee demanded irritably.  

Ezra sat on the floor and hugged the eight-year-old to his chest.  He felt the child relax in his hold.   Again, Chris impatiently queried the conman.  Standish sighed, swallowing first before attempting to choke out the words, but they came out in a gruff whisper.  “He’s scared.” 

Larabee nodded.  Standish had everything under control.  He dropped back to his bedroll, keeping an eye on them both as Ezra settled Toby in an embrace in front of him.  A curious smile tugged his lips, as they fell asleep; Toby holding Ezra’s hand in a tight grip. 


Chris bolted upright, swivelling his legs under his body and drawing his gun from the holster, where he’d left it at his head.  “Damn!”  Chris dropped the weapon.  “Sorry, kid,” he spoke apologetically to Toby.  The deaf boy had shaken the gunslinger awake, and Chris reacted automatically. 

Toby retreated quickly, eyes wide and staring at the Colt in Chris’ hand.  He gulped. 

“I said I was sorry,” Chris tried again.  When Toby continued staring mutely at him, Chris looked past him to the still figure of the Southerner.  “EZRA!”  Damn him…he can sleep anytime, but right now Chris needed Standish to answer the kid’s questions.  Larabee smiled crookedly; damn he was never one for playing twenty questions.  “Something wrong, kid?” 

Toby shuffled nervously in the dirt.  He looked back at the sleeping gambler and turned back to face the gunslinger.  Ezra had said his name was Chris, but the older man scared the begeibeses out of him.  

Larabee crawled up on his knees.  “You need to take a pee?”  Toby frowned, not understanding the words.  Toby slowly signed, but Chris couldn’t read the message and shook his head in frustration.  “STANDISH!” 

Toby shook his head, seeing the look of disdain Chris passed over Ezra.  He took an enormous step toward the dark-clothed man and tugged nervously on his sleeve. 

“Look, I don’t know what you want,” he said to Toby, but hissed over the boy’s head; “STANDISH GET YOUR LAZY BUTT UP, NOW!” 

Toby shook his head and pulled harder on Chris’ sleeve.  

This time the gunman stood to follow.  The boy dragged him over to Standish, and Chris stood above the conman for a pause, waiting to see what Toby wanted him to do next.  He felt the small hand slip inside his own and brought it down towards Ezra.  He placed Chris’ hand on Ezra’s forehead.  “Aw, hell!”  Chris pressed his palm down on the fevered brow.  “You done good, Toby.”  He knew the boy didn’t hear him, but Larabee had no other way of communicating with the deaf child.  “This is all we needed,” he groused unhappily. 


This wasn’t right, or even fair, the gunslinger groaned.  Chris shook his head in annoyance and squeezed the cloth out and replaced it over the gambler’s brow.  Ezra thrashed about on the floor and Larabee attempted to control the sick man’s futile actions by guiding his limbs.  Chris was no doctor; and he’d leave that claim to Jackson.  But if he had to hazard a guess, he’d assume Ezra wasn’t too badly off.  The conman had woken with glazed eyes and hooded confusion several times during the night, but drifted back into a restless doze almost as quickly as he’d awakened. 

Chris eyed the curious lump that slept by the fire.  Toby Merrill was a remarkable little boy.  If the lad hadn’t woken him up then Standish would have had to fend for himself until light; or more accurately, until Larabee bothered to check his ailing friend.  As it was, Chris doubted he was doing the gambler any good.  “Easy, Ezra,” he crooned softly, not wanting to disturb him from his sleep.  He grimaced as heavy eyelids fluttered and weary orbs searched his face.  “Go back to sleep, Ezra.”  He bit his lower lip, suppressing the smile when the gambler complied with the order.  He snorted. “Wish you obeyed me like that all the time.” 

Larabee couldn’t keep his eyes from crossing to the boy.  It had been an effort to persuade Toby that Chris would tend Ezra and he didn’t need to remain awake.  And he wasn’t convinced that he’d actually waylaid the boy’s doubt, but at least the child was now sleeping.  He turned his calloused hand over and lightly touched the centre of his palm; the corners of his lips curled slightly as he recalled Toby’s small hand that had slipped inside his.  He curled his fingers downwards and attempted to replay the sensation.  It was something that Adam had done so often; a small gesture that represented a steel band wrapped around his heart.  In another lifetime, a different little blond-headed boy would have claimed his time.  And Larabee would have been a different man if only his family had survived.  But now… he sighed, shaking the weary thoughts from his mind.  Now, it was only a distant memory.  With both his wife and son destroyed in a blaze, he could no longer take comfort in those simple gestures as he once had.  And then, there were Mary and Billy. 

Chris absently lifted the drying cloth and dunked it in a bowl of icy water.  He paused; a disquieting tremor ran down his spine.  He lifted his head to find Standish watching him intently.  The normal lucidity was absent, but Ezra studied him with an assessing gaze.  Chris pressed the cloth to the fevered gambler’s face, anxious to break the contact Ezra had established.  He swallowed the lump in his throat and fixed his expression.  How much had Standish seen?  How much would the gambler remember?  How long had Standish been watching him?  Had he betrayed his feelings in a way Ezra could read the truth? 

Ezra lifted his hand and pushed the cloth off his face.  Larabee wouldn’t meet his gaze and even turned his back.  He sighed, not feeling particularly well, and uncertain of the emotions he’d witnessed on Chris’ face.  Not that the gunman would open up to him and discuss any problems he had – that right was reserved for Buck or Vin.  And it would never be attributed to him.  The Southerner swallowed; his dry raw throat screamed for relief.  Thirsty.  With Larabee holding his posture, his back facing the conman, Ezra searched the shack for a water container.  Once finding its location he set about retrieving it. 

“WHAT ARE YOU DOING?” Chris demanded, shoving Ezra to the floor and pressing a hand to his chest until he was flat on his back.  

Ezra raised both eyebrows, taken aback by the physical restraint.  He opened his mouth, stunned into rigidity.  He frowned, grimacing at the rough treatment he’d received, but couldn’t bring the words to his throat.  


“What?” he shouted, and, forgetting about Toby’s deafness, darted a worried glance at the child to ensure he’d not woken the boy.  Realizing his mistake, he continued to question the gambler.  “What do you want?” Chris spread both hands wide, palms up.  He knew he was terse in the way he questioned the sick man, but he was struggling to come to terms with events in his life and didn’t need any reminders from the Southerner about how he was handling them.  He got enough of that from Buck. 

Ezra continued to stare in bewilderment, not giving anything away. 

Chris growled, throwing his hands into the air with impatience.  He spun on his feet, searching the direction Ezra had been looking in.  His shoulders sagged a fraction seeing the canteen by the gambler’s saddlebags.  He picked it up and held it aloft.  “This what you were after?” 

Standish dropped his gaze to the water container and automatically licked his lips. His head swam.  It would be easier to go back to sleep than play twenty questions with Larabee.  He closed his eyes, weary of all the turmoil that was rampant in the cabin. 

“OH NO YOU DON’T!” Chris insisted, abruptly pulling the Southerner forward and sitting him upright, lightly slapping his face.  “Drink,” he commanded, lifting the canteen to Ezra’s lips.  Most of the water dribbled down his chin, and Chris shook the gambler firmly, dragging him backwards so he was seated against the wall.  He tried again, this time Ezra brought his hand up to support the container.  As his eyes drooped, Chris pushed against his shoulder, startling the gambler.  “Drink some more, then you can go back to sleep.” 

Ezra nodded, already losing his fight to stay awake. 


As the new day dawned the tempest increased, and the safe haven in the storm shuddered under the intensity.  The aging timber groaned with protest and the very foundations of the structure lurched.  Wind whistled through the crevices and threatened the warmth inside by continually chilling the air.  Nobody was comfortable.  Least of all, the scared little boy who couldn’t hear a single sound. 

There was a subdued quality to the Christmas Eve morning and Larabee grew more contemplative as the day passed.  Ezra was trying hard to beat his illness and during times of wakefulness he ‘chatted’ to Toby, reassuring the boy and attempting to keep up his spirits.  But for all his efforts, Standish couldn’t fight the hold and frequently dropped off during the day.  Larabee braved the elements to check on the horses, returning inside covered in snow with an armload of firewood to add to the depleted pile.  He shrugged out of his jacket and fed the fire, enjoying the afterglow after his exposure. 

And so the day passed, a long and tedious monotony.  Chris prepared meals from the supplies from both their packs.  Toby ate hungrily, while Standish barely touched a thing. 


The cabin was bathed in a warm glow from the fire.  Night brought a heavy cape of darkness and although the daylight hours were dismal, the night became eerie and suffocating. 

“The night before Christmas…” Chris mumbled, shaking his head, lost in the mountain of memories.  He recited the familiar verse inwardly, welcoming the warm caress of the words that once played a major role in his life.  Behind closed eyes he could see Adam’s expectant face, feel his arms tighten around his neck while they sat snuggled together in the overstuffed chair by the fire; Sarah standing in the doorway listening.  Adam grinned widely, enjoying the traditional storytelling on the night before Christmas.  Moisture filled his eyes, unable to prolong the contented memory.  He opened his eyes to find both Standish and Toby watching him.  He bit back a curse, jumping to his feet and quickly schooled his features.  “Don’t you have anything better to do?” he snarled at the Southerner. 

Ezra rested his head back on the wall with a thump.  His fever had broken, but it had drained him of all energy and his voice was still out of action.  He couldn’t even articulate a reply in his defence.  He’d witnessed the turmoil that waged war within brooding gunman and could guess at its origin, but he was forced to suffer the reprimand in silence.  He signed a message to Toby and the boy, sitting crossed legged on the floor, started reworking the borrowed cards like the gambler had shown him. 

Watching the two silent companions dismiss him brought forth a frown.  Must be an awfully difficult time for a child to be absent from his parents.  Especially so close to Christmas.  “Did you find out why he’s out here?” 

Ezra lifted his head at the question, a blatant look of surprise on his face.  Ezra thought he wouldn’t hear anything more from the gunman this night after the rebuttal minutes ago.  Remembering the query, Ezra eventually nodded his head. 

“Uh, huh…” Larabee prompted. 

 Standish rolled his eyes.  How did Chris expect him to relate the tale when he couldn’t speak?  He sighed.  

Realising the difficulty Standish would have, Chris waved him off.  “Tell me later.”  There was a long pause before Chris said more.  “Why don’t you tell him Clement Moore’s Christmas story - ‘A Visit from St Nick’…all kids like that?” 

Ezra lifted both eyebrows inquisitively.  He turned both hands up, completely at a loss.  He considered himself well read, but he couldn’t pretend to know of the story that Chris was referring to. 

“You know…’twas the night before Christmas when all through the house…”  

Ezra continued to stare blankly at the gunslinger.  It was part of the verse he’d heard Larabee mutter earlier.  But he didn’t recognise it and again shrugged his shoulders. 

Chris joined them by the fire.  He was stunned to learn Standish didn’t know the verse.  “You don’t know it?” he asked for confirmation.  When Ezra shook his head, Chris groaned.  Didn’t his mother ever read it to him when he was a child?  “Yer not pulling my chain?” Chris queried doubtfully, and the contempt was clear in his tone. 

Ezra’s eyes flared with indignation, the glare turning into a scowl.  If they weren’t closeted together for yet another night in the small enclosure, he would seriously have considered finding alternate accommodation.  Or at least ignoring him for the rest of the night.

“Okay…Okay…” he mollified.  “How about I tell it to you and then you can pass it on to Toby?”  When Ezra agreed, he rubbed his jaw and cleared his throat.  “’Twas the night before Christmas when all through the house, not…” Chris stopped suddenly as Standish tugged on the sleeve of his jacket.  “Sorry,” he grinned, realising Ezra couldn’t relay the story as quickly as he could tell it. 

It was a slow task of retelling the story and Larabee could see Ezra was fading before his eyes.  When they finished, Toby clapped, smiling broadly at Chris and Standish.  In that instant Chris could only see Adam.  It took him a few moments to clear the mist of the past away and see the here and now. 

Toby grinned and the dimpled smile was infectious.  He enjoyed ‘hearing’ the story and was more excited than ever about the following day.  He sought Ezra’s gaze and spelled out his request, and not waiting for an answer starting untying his boots.  He knew Santa would know where to find him, even through this storm.  He wouldn’t be forgotten after all.

“What?” Larabee shouted, he knew Toby wouldn’t be able to hear the harsh tone, but he’d watched the boy pass on some message to Standish and Ezra’s reaction to it was downcast, even disappointment. 

Ezra cast a worried frown to Larabee and was moderately taken aback by the pale and drawn expression he encountered. Toby pulled off his long sock and held it triumphantly aloft, grinning from ear to ear.  He jumped to his feet, one bare while the other was ensconced in a shoe and sock, and sought a place along the rough wall to hang the stocking.  

Ezra shook his head, a wistful smile playing around his mouth as the situation became inevitable.  


Larabee cursed loudly, stamping irately in the narrow room.  It had been a stupid idea; now look at the mess they were going to have to clean up in the morning.  The young deaf boy drifted off to sleep almost instantly after he’d hung the stocking, his bright face grinning from ear to ear.  How different it would be come morning when the stocking turned out empty.  “Hell!”  Chris kicked the shack’s wall and whirled around to resume his stalking.  This was just the kind of thing Larabee had been trying to avoid, but out here he could do nothing to staunch the upcoming tide.  He groaned irritable and grouchy; he hadn’t taken any notice of the gambler for sometime.  He gave a moment’s thought now to Standish, recognising the fact that Ezra would be the one to inform Toby why the stocking remained empty.  “What are you doing?”  Chris asked, hands flared on each hip and elbows pointing outwards. 

Ezra ignored the question, while empting out his saddlebags.  A tin of cigars landed among the items on the floor and his grin widened.  The metal tin was hinged and depicted a steam train on the lid; it would do nicely, he supposed. 

“You gonna stuff the kid’s sock with cigars?” Larabee drawled sarcastically. 

Standish turned a withering gaze on the gunman, and deliberately removed the cigars from the box.  Searching through his possession, he picked up two moderately new pencils and fitted them inside and closed the lid.  

“You got pencils?  Damn it, Ezra!  It’s been hard enough working out what’s going on inside your head, ‘cause you lost yer voice, but damn it all, you could have done made it easier,” he growled heatedly. 

Ezra glowered at Larabee.  He had honestly not given the writing implements a thought.  Especially as he’d not needed to use them when he ‘talked’ with Toby, and initially when Chris had arrived Ezra could still articulate some speech.  Standish raked his hand through his scattered items, and with disgust picked up a letter, written to Ezra from Maude.  There were several pages to the note, but he turned them over, removing one of the pencils from the box he scrawled on the back page.  WHY ARE YOU HERE!!!!  He drew several thick exclamation marks after the terse query and handed the page to Larabee.  There had to be some reason for Chris to be here. 

Chris accepted the note, his sandy brows raised at the abrupt tone revealed in the message.  Other than his personal reasons for wanting to leave Four Corners, he hadn’t given much thought to the impetuousness that drove him from town.  A wave of guilt assailed him, remembering the urgent missive the telegraph operator had entrusted him to deliver to Ezra.  Bowing his head, he dug inside his coat pocket.  “With everything going on, I plumb forgot.  Here…” Chris handed over the wire.  “This came for you….” 

The Southerner quickly read the cryptic note.  The message was from his mother, and in effect, informed him that she was desperately short of cash and needed a contribution from him to finance a con.  A mere fourteen hundred dollars - not your everyday Christmas present. Ezra laughed, throwing back his head and clutching his middle – his mirth was silent and had Chris been able to hear it, he would have heard the harsh hysterical quality to the gambler’s response. 

As it was, Chris didn’t understand Ezra’s reaction.  “It was supposed to be important…something wrong?” he pried. 

Remembering his audience, Standish closed his expression.  He wondered if Chris had read the message, but if that was the case, why was he looking so concerned?  He brushed an errant lock of hair off his face and wrote on a second page of Maude’s letter.  Mother, just wishing me a joyous Christmas Day, he wrote.  Larabee seemed to accept the lie. 

Not wanting to expand more on the note or the disappointment he must endure, Ezra returned the pencil to the cigar tin.  He picked up a brown paper bag off the floor and proceeded to poke it and the pencil box down into the toe of the sock. 

“What’s in the packet?”   

Standish sighed deeply, his shoulders heaving with frustration before removing the packet from the stocking and opened it for Chris.  

Larabee curiously inspected the contents, ignoring the gambler’s sullen expression.  “Peppermints?  You gonna be able to handle that ornery horse of yours without them?” he joked, attempting to alleviate the tension.  

Ezra didn’t smile; he was dead on his feet and wanted nothing more than to return to his makeshift bed.  He ignored Larabee without any qualms, repacking his saddlebags and setting them aside.  Then, if lady luck was smiling upon him tonight, perhaps he might greet Morpheus quickly.  


Larabee curiously turned over the letter Ezra had loaned him.  He guiltily glanced at the slumbering conman and back down at the page.  He shouldn’t read Ezra’s mail, but the temptation was too great.  Maybe it would help him understand the gambler some more. 

Dearest Ezra, 

I hope this letter finds you in good health.  I shan’t bother you with my minor inconveniences, as getting older seems to lure one closer to our maker, but one shouldn’t groan about such things.  

I also shall not be available to travel to your dusty burg as you had requested, as I find myself firmly entrenched in a marvellous ploy.   Had you come to your senses earlier, I might have been able to angle you a position in this sweet deal, but as you can’t seem to rid yourself of those tedious lawmen you conspire with, or even manipulate them to your own means, then I find it necessary to plan for my own future.  I’m sure you’ll understand.


As for the yuletide celebration…Ezra when did we ever deem it necessary to interrupt a plan to join the masses in their boring sentimentality?  But must I remind you, there are so many more folks at this time of year just ripe for the plucking and waiting for your God given talents to accrue their fortunes.  Make me proud, Ezra! 


And you would be so proud to discover the pure genius of my scheme.  A certain gentleman friend has become smitten with my aristocratic background and believes, of all things, that he is conning me.  There isn’t a man alive that could best me. 


I hasten to add that should I leave now, that the con would surely dissolve and he is all but on the verge of asking me to marry him.  If I can swindle his funds from him before the nuptials that would be ideal, but should it come down to the line I shall proceed.   Of course, darling, I couldn’t possibly invite you to the wedding, as ‘Dear Frederick’ has no notion that I have a fully-grown son……………….. 

Larabee grimaced on Ezra’s behalf, not wanting to read any further.  How could a mother be so cold?  Chris folded the two pages together, uncomfortable by the revelation.  The informative note gave rise to another thought.  He wondered what the wire had actually held.  And to think he’d had it in his possession for the last few days and hadn’t looked at it.  He didn’t believe Ezra when he said Maude had wished him a happy Christmas, how could that be the case after the letter she had written him?  And the telegraph operator had said the message was urgent.  Chris wondered if Maude was in some sort of trouble and whether Standish was planning how to extricate her from the situation.  Chris wondered if Standish would ask for their help, or just go it alone. And he couldn’t help, but wonder why Ezra had left Four Corners the other day – was he planning on following Maude’s advice and work over one of the nearby towns, but been waylaid only by the blizzard? 

Chris settled against the tired and waning walls, watching the rise and fall of the gambler’s chest while he slept.  Would he ever have answers to any of his questions? 


It had been a long night already, and still there were many hours left until dawn greeted the new day.  Chris picked up a narrow log of wood, intending on adding it to the fire.  The block was small and the grain even.  He turned it over in his hands, studying it while he reached for another piece to replace this one.  When the fire was stoked to a comfortable roar, Chris set back to his original post; an idea forming that would take little effort to complete.  His mouth turned into a set line and he dug through his saddlebags for the desired equipment.    His mind was kept active while his hands kept busy. 

The raging menace that precipitated their finding shelter had finally come to an end.  Larabee snorted.  He had unknowingly been holding onto the notion that he wouldn’t be able to return to Four Corners due to the weather.  He could have easily shelved the blame, and attributed his no-show because of the elements.  Everyone understood, that one could never predict the whim of the conditions.  He was banking on not having to reflect too deeply his reasons for balking at the prospect, but with the settling winds and the compacted snow, he no longer had that excuse to stay away.  Come morning they would travel home. 

Mary and Billy Travis were expecting him for dinner, and he hadn’t given them any hint beforehand that he wouldn’t be there.  He would be the worst kind of heel not to honour the commitment.  The young widow had gone to extra lengths to include him in their special day, and as for Mary, she was probably just as circumspect about sharing Christmas with him, as he was.  What could it hurt - a large dinner, a contented belly and sharing time with some new friends?  Larabee pursed his lips, his eyes glazing over the gambler’s form.  Wonder if Mary would mind setting one more place for another guest?  His mouth twitched in amusement.  It might not be so bad having an extra person around, and Chris wouldn’t be feeling quite so uncomfortable.  He’d mention it to Mary as soon as they got back.  He shrugged philosophically, Standish had to eat somewhere. 

Chris looked down at the creation in his hands, a satisfied smile ghosted across his mouth.  It felt good shaping a form out of the solid block, creating something new. He set it aside, determined to finish the job he’d challenged himself with.  


Standish woke sluggishly, blinking his eyes gritty from the night’s sleep.  He tilted his head to the side listening for the blizzard beyond the walls, but only silence greeted him.   Christmas morning had arrived; Ezra lay still on his assortment of bed covers attempting to determine who else was awake.  He half sat up, propped on his right elbow.  Toby slept for now; but it wouldn’t be long before the rumbustious boy surfaced from the depths of his bedroll.  The Southerner choked on a chuckle, seeing Chris with his face buried in the dirt and legs tucked high under his chin.  This would be an image to bring forth when Larabee was chewing him out over some slight or other misdemeanours that didn’t accord to the gunman’s high moral standards.  Ezra grinned, flopping back to the blankets. 

He lay staring at the antiquated ceiling wondering how it had come to this.  Ezra wasn’t one to put any faith in the traditionalist customs surrounding the yuletide season, but no matter how much he wanted to deny it, he felt the stirrings of sentimentality creep up upon him.   Watching JD’s growing excitement as the day approached gave him reason to question his own scratchy upbringing, and in a moment of foolhardiness, Ezra had written his mother appealing to her to visit him.  He’d been careful not to mention the Christmas date, and had secretly scoured the merchandise stores for a suitable gift for Maude.  But her letter arrived a week ago, clearly reading between the lines to the intended request.  She had a more lucrative deal then visiting with her son.  And she wouldn’t be visiting him anytime soon - unless she turned up seeking the cash she’d requested of him in her recent wire.  Standish chuckled, Maude had to be wondering why he hadn’t responded to her call for help, but for once it had been beyond his control, only receiving the message late last night.  It would do her good to simmer for a while; it was going to take him a few days to gather the appointed funds in any case. 

Standish rolled on his side, slipping beneath the warm cocoon.  Never, not once in his entire lifetime, had Ezra spent a Christmas day with Maude where he wasn’t expected to play out some con.  His younger years were nothing but disillusionment; Maude always played up the festive season to her advantage - including his, she always pointedly declared.  Everything Maude Standish ever did, was for the benefit of her son.  It had taken most of Ezra’s adult life to fully grasp the fact that Maude conned people only for her betterment.  But by that time, Ezra was guilty of scheming and conning good folks for the same reasons as his tutor.  

There wasn’t even an ounce of curiosity about the con Maude was involved in, although he couldn’t refuse to send the money.  For some reason he felt honoured that she’d thought of him to come to her aid.  Perhaps Ezra would send his mother the gift he’d bought along with the money, he mused slyly.  That was sure to get a reaction.  His lips curled upward into a smile as he drifted off to sleep. 

When he woke next, it was to the excitement of Toby shaking him.  He hadn’t expected to resume his sleep and was surprised to find that he’d dropped off so quickly.  Standish sat in the folds, crossing his legs so Toby could empty out the stocking on the end of his blanket.  He glanced apprehensively at the looming gunslinger hovering by the door.  Did Toby wake Larabee, or had Chris woken naturally?  Ezra assumed by his clear eyes and finger combed hair that the older man had been awake for at least a while. 

The Southerner turned his attention to the eight-year-old and worried if it had been appropriate, having put something in that ugly brown sock after Toby had gone to bed.  But the sheer look of enthrallment on the young Merrill boy’s face was answer enough.  The boy hadn’t really expected to find the stocking filled.  Probably wouldn’t have if he’d been home with his family.  But would he like the gifts Ezra found?  Toby had probably written a list of some description requesting any number of things…would he be too disappointed with the meagre offerings of a gambler’s leftovers? 

Toby threaded his hand down the knitted sock, grabbing his hand into a fist and pulling it free.  Standish held his breath, waiting almost with the same anticipation as Toby did.  

His mouth opened widely and a new sparkle lit his brown eyes.  Toby opened the tin box and clapped his hands, carefully picking up the writing implements.  He spun on his backside and showed Larabee who’d been watching from the doorway, but had not come any closer. 

“Reckon he likes ‘em,” Larabee spoke softly. 

“Yes,” Standish agreed with a coarse and gruff croak, nodding his head and smiling.  He sighed, letting go of the long breath.  

Toby delved inside the sock again, retrieving the bag of peppermints.  As quickly as the packet was opened, he tossed the sweet to the back of his mouth, grinning around the bulge in his cheeks.  And once more, the boy dipped into the woollen sock and to Ezra’s befuddlement drew forth a wooden horse.  The boy was completely happy and returned with his bundle to examine each more carefully. 

Standish flashed emerald green eyes at the gunman, knowing it had been his contribution to Toby’s present.  Thank you, he mouthed, not quite able to bring forth the necessary sounds. 

Larabee shrugged.  “Hell, don’t go thanking me.  Must have been St. Nick come visiting after all.” 

Standish rolled his eyes, a relaxed smile turning the corners of his lips. 

“You ready to ride this morning?” 

Standish nodded and automatically clenched his fist, and knocking midair.  

Larabee acknowledged the gambler’s response.  The smile played over his lips, and there was nothing he could do to restrain it.  Standish had been using the knocking motion quite frequently with Toby, and Chris finally understood the simply sign.  He mimicked the Southerner’s hand movements, repeating the actions.  “This means, Yes?” 

Standish grinned widely, nudging Toby to look up at the gunslinger.  They both replied together, signing back at Larabee. 


“Got company,” Larabee called, jerking the reins hard and pulling the black gelding to a stand still.  

Ezra glanced up; in the distance he could make out spots on the horizon.  He rubbed Toby’s head fondly.  “Trouble?” 

They were too far away for Chris to say one way or another; he just shrugged.  He clicked his tongue between his teeth.  “Keep Toby safe, and stay behind me.” 

Standish repositioned the boy so he sat behind, and followed Chris.  As the two groups closed in, it became apparent whom the others were - the remaining peacekeepers from Four Corners, minus Nathan, who was already visiting at the Seminole Village.  “They’ve come looking…for you,” the Southerner chuckled hoarsely.  

“Yeah… hate ta burst yer bubble, but Vin knew I was coming after you.”  Chris grinned at the gambler’s flustered reaction. 


“Want to make a bet?” 

Standish checked the range of the approaching riders.  “The stakes being?” 

Chris grinned wryly, shaking his head.  Always the gambler.

“Chris.  Ezra.” 

“Vin.  Boys,” Larabee greeted. 

Standish nodded his welcome, knowing his voice had improved some, but if he didn’t allow it to rest it would take longer to return. 

“Merry Christmas, Brothers,” Josiah boomed cheerfully. 

“Yeah!” Dunne chimed in.  “Isn’t this just so great!” he waved his arms around to encompass the white landscape.  “Look at all the snow!” 

“Plenty of that,” Tanner drawled unimpressed. 

Sanchez sidled along side Ezra’s mount.  “This Toby Merrill? His parents have been tearing up a storm since they came in to town the other night – been mighty worried.” 

The boy pressed tightly against Ezra’s back, staring fearfully at the large preacher.  Ezra signed a message to Toby to tell him these four men were friends. 

Chris answered, also explaining what had transpired over the past few days and where they held up together in the abandoned shack, not forgetting to add at the end that the boy couldn’t hear and the gambler currently was without speech. 

Wilmington barked with laughter, doubling over the saddle horn.  “Now that would have been fun!  Not having to listen to all those five dollar words of his,” he related to Chris. 

“Droll, very droll, Mr. Wilmington,” Standish answered in a scathing tone. 

Buck did a double take, and burst into another fit of laughter.  “Guess it’s coming back, huh, stud?” the ladies’ man slapped Chris on the back in commiseration.  “‘Spose ya didn’t get as much peace and quiet as you’d a liked.” 

“Can it, Buck,” Larabee grunted, sharing a sympathetic grin to the Southerner. 

“You planning on coming all the way into town?” Vin pressed the gunman. 

“Sure,” Larabee responded quickly.  “Got a dinner waiting for me,” he grinned and kicked his spurs into the gelding’s flanks.  


Larabee paused on the threshold of the saloon, studying the lone occupant surrounded by the gloom.  He fingered the gift in his hand and decided to pocket it for the moment.  Ezra shuffled the deck of cards, but seemed lost in concentration, his mind wandering.  Chris pushed open the swinging doors and cleared his throat.  “Ezra.” 

Standish paused the manipulation of the deck and looked up.  “Mr. Larabee?” 

The gunman didn’t wait for an invitation and joined Ezra at his table.  He interlocked his fingers on the table and searched for the right words. 

Ezra sensed uncertainty surrounding Chris and wondered at the cause.  “Shouldn’t you be… otherwise engaged?” 

“I’ve been there – goin’ back soon.”  

“Ah,” Standish nodded, feigning understanding. 

“Thought, seeing as how you ain’t doing anything…and Tanner and JD have gone to Nettie’s place, Josiah went to see his sister…and Buck is God only knows where…Well the thing is…Mary and Billy don’t mind…and there’s plenty of grub….” 

Ezra opened and closed his mouth several times, a deep frown etched over his brow.  “Huh?” he asked. 

“Come have dinner with us.” 


Chris watched the emotions flutter across his face, as if he was struggling within himself to come to a decision.  He smiled inwardly, and taking a risk played his next hand.  Chris placed the small gift on the table and pushed it in front of the Southerner.  “Here.  Would have given this to you this morning, but I needed to do some more work on it to finish it.” 

Ezra’s eyes widened.  Larabee was gifting him with a present?  It had to be some sort of joke.  He looked past the gunman, searching out the room for the others ready to jump out at him and ridicule him.  He wouldn’t open himself to that sort of treatment.  But he couldn’t detect any movement behind Larabee or hear any snickering.  He bit his lower lip, curious but cautious.  He sank back in the chair, not willing to touch the package, but staring at it dubiously. 

Larabee was stunned by Ezra’s reaction.  He was viewing the present as if he’d never been given one before and didn’t know what to do with it.  It was a revelation that was probably closer to the truth than Chris wanted to investigate.  More so after reading Maude’s letter.  “It ain’t gonna jump out an’ bite ya.” 

“What is it?” 

“Guess you’ll just have ta open it to find out,” Chris grinned. 

“Why?  Why would you do this?” Standish asked suspiciously. 

Larabee shrugged.  “Figured you’d like getting somethin’, seein’ as how you gave your stuff away to Toby.” 

Standish continued to frown.  “Hardly a comparison.  And I…I don’t have…” 

“Just open it, Ezra!  Wasn’t expecting anything in return.” 

The gambler slowly picked up the package and untied the string.  The paper pealed away to reveal the wooden craving inside.  “It’s a…Falcon?” he questioned incredulously.  At Larabee’s nod, Standish gingerly inspected the gift; almost afraid the gunman would change his mind and take it back.  “It’s exquisite!”   The bird stood approximately four inches tall with both wings extended upward, but not together, its head turned slightly to one side.  The talons poised in ready anticipation of strike, as though the bird was closing rapidly to the ground to capture its prey.  It was certainly more intricate than the horse Larabee had whittled for Toby.  It was a work of art and one he’d forever treasure. 

“That mean you like it?” 

“Lord, yes!” he enthused.  He’d never received anything similar, or so personal.  He gulped almost afraid to speak.  “Why a falcon?”

Chris shrugged.  “Had to pick somethin’…figured Vin’s more of an eagle…so that made you the falcon.” 

“You made Vin an eagle?”  That would be worth seeing, he mused. 

Larabee growled.  “Hell, you go telling him I said that and then I’m gonna have ta make him one.  Now, are you coming to dinner?” 

 “It was very generous to invite me…” 

“No buts.  You’ll be doing both Mary and me a favour by comin’.” 

“How so?” 

“You get to fill in all the awkward spots.”  Chris was relieved when Ezra threw back his head and burst into laughter. 

“You want me to act… as a chaperone?” 

“You coming or not,” Chris growled. 

“I thought young Billy would have filled that role adequately.” 

Embarrassed, Chris refused to respond to Standish’s banter.  “Reckon you would have liked having a special dinner, sharing it with friends, but if you got more important things to do…”  There was a long pause before Ezra said anything.  

Chris considered them friends?  How had he missed that?  He lightly touched the wooden object; it had to have taken a large amount of time to carve the detail on the falcon; Chris had to have spent most of the night working on it.  His pulse leaped in his throat, could he do this?  Would it be so wrong to embark on the celebrations that had been denied him all his life?  His mother would certainly not approve.  But she wasn’t here, and had no way of knowing what the gambler was contemplating.   And it would be agreeable, just once, to know how the other half celebrates Christmas Day.  “What time?” 

Larabee pushed back the chair with a full-blown smile on his face.  “May as well go over there now.  They’re probably wondering why it’s taken me this long to return.”

Ezra rose more slowly from the table, taking his gift from the wrappings and placing it inside his pocket.  Had his acceptance been a fait de complait?  Good God…surely he wasn’t becoming predictable?  “Um…should I bring something?” 

“Nope…just yerself.”  Chris pushed the gambler to the entrance and gave a two-fingered salute to the barman behind the counter.  He would close the saloon now that his only customer had left and go home to his family.  

When the two lawmen stepped out onto the broadwalk, Chris patted the shorter man on the shoulder.  “You gonna teach Toby’s parents how to sign?” 

Standish shook his head in consternation.  He had been astounded to learn, neither of the boy’s parents could ‘speak’ to Toby.  It had been an aunt who had shown the young deaf child how to sign, but all his instructions had ceased when the family moved west a few months ago.  And the parents had never learned.  Toby had not been able to successfully communicate with any of his family that entire time.  He ran away, hoping to ease the burden of Christmas on his parents, not understanding that his parents loved him even though they couldn’t talk to him.  “They have requested some tuition.  Josiah offered his services also.” 

“Think you can teach me?” 

Ezra stopped abruptly.  “Why on earth would you want to?” 

“Could be useful,” Larabee countered.  

“Josiah knows how to sign also.”  Why would Larabee want Ezra to teach him, when Sanchez was available? 

“Well good.  But I didn’t ask Josiah, I asked you.  Could make it your Christmas present to me,” he winked. 

After a considerable pause, Ezra responded with a smile.  “Then consider yourself gifted.” 

The End!  

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Authors' Notes:-