TIDINGS OF COMFORT AND JOY by Monica M. and Debra M.

Nathan woke up as the early morning rays of sunshine streamed through the curtained window and across the floor he slept on. Rolling on his side to get away from the intrusive light, the young man looked up and over to his friend. Josiah slept soundly on the bed. And soundly did not just describe the depth of Josiah´s sleep but the amount of noise he made with his snoring. Nathan knew he would not be getting back to sleep. But he had slept well, even on the sleeping bag on Josiah´s floor, so he did not mind at all. He actually liked early mornings, sometimes even getting up on Saturdays to join Vin on his run. He could never quite manage the distance Vin did, but he was fairly proud of the fact that he could keep up with the sophomore for a little while.

Besides it was a very special morning, Christmas morning. And the very beauty of the day and all that it signified seemed to hang in the air. It was Nathan´s experience that it was true no matter where he was when he woke up on that morning. And even if the peace was shattered regularly by Josiah´s snoring, it was still there in Nathan´s heart. He stretched a bit, but did not get up from his makeshift bed. He was a guest in Josiah´s house and would feel awkward to be up and about before his host.

So instead, he simply lay quietly and lost himself in his thoughts. He never seemed to have time to just sit and reflect so he saw no reason to waste the opportunity now. His mother and father were working this morning, but would be off later in the evening so that they could have a Christmas dinner. That was why Nathan had eagerly taken Josiah up on his generous offer to spend Christmas eve and morning with his family. He had been surprised when Josiah invited him, and only him, to midnight mass. Nathan was Catholic by his raising, his mother having made sure of that. His father had converted to Catholicism but with his busy schedule had rarely stepped foot in a church except to watch Nathan receive his sacraments. But Josiah was the son of an Episcopalian missionary and minister. When Nathan questioned him about it, Josiah had stated that he would rather become a priest before he followed in his father´s footsteps. Nathan had not completely understood that answer but had decided not to press the matter and as a friend had agreed to go. He was very glad that he had.

It had been some time since he had been to mass himself. But just like waking up on Christmas morning, there was just something extremely peaceful about walking into a church. Nathan was sure it was true of all religions and their places of worship, but he knew only his own experiences at church. He had smiled in fond memory at the young children falling asleep, their heads in their parents laps, as the mass progressed. He remembered a few midnight masses that he did not manage to remain awake throughout. Those were merely hazy memories of being picked up and carried to the car by one or the other of his parents. He wondered how many of those kids last night also pretended to still be asleep when they arrived home so that they could be carried to bed and tucked in.

He had remained awake throughout the mass last night. He was actually attentive and fully participated in the mass. Although it had been quite some time since his last confession so Nathan had not received communion. And he could tell by the ease with which Josiah followed the mass and recited some of the prayers that the older teenager had been to a fair share of masses. Nathan wondered if it had been his grandfather or great grandparents who had given Josiah an interest in the Catholic church in secret. Nathan could not imagine that Bernardo Sanchez would be too pleased if he found out.

And as they had driven home, Josiah had told Nathan as much. When questioned about his particular interest in the Catholic Church, Josiah had answered that he was interested in all the ways that man found to worship and believe in God. He admitted then to Nathan that he had actually visited several different churches of all types of religions and had even studied several cultures that believed in many gods. Nathan had not found the subject as completely enthralling as Josiah obviously did. But he had listened as a friend because he could tell that the subject meant a great deal to Josiah and that he had indeed done a great deal of research.

A few sounds from the kitchen broke Nathan out of his reverie. He listened intently between Josiah´s snoring and could hear voices, Hannah and Bernardo. A soft smile touched his face. He had been so happy to hear that Josiah had spent a nice Thanksgiving with his sister and father, somehow all of them managing to remain civil to one another. And he had been even happier to learn that so far during this Christmas vacation that had still been the case. Josiah told him that he suspected that the majority of Hannah´s friends had been dragged off to visit out of town relatives and that was why she had remained close to home. But he did not care for the reason, he was only happy for the opportunity to spend time with his sister again. And he had not spoken about it to Bernardo either but he supposed his father felt the same way as he was not as harsh or demanding as his children had become accustomed to his being.

The snoring from the bed eased as Josiah rolled over. Nathan again smiled to himself. The older boy would be waking up soon. He already knew how the day would go. They would be expected to attend Bernardo´s Christmas service and Nathan was actually curious to attend that. Afterwards they would have an early Christmas dinner before driving over to see Buck, J.D., and Chris over at Buck´s house. Then, finally, Nathan would return to his own home and have Christmas dinner again with his parents. Or he at least hoped to. He knew that they might be called to stay late that day. But he would not go to bed that night without seeing his parents and having their present exchange.

He and Josiah had exchanged presents when they got back from midnight mass, seeing as it was already technically Christmas morning. They had both laughed incredibly hard when they realized that they had both bought each other gift cards in the same dollar amount. The only difference was that Nathan had purchased his from a book store, since he knew Josiah loved to read but just never knew what the senior had already read. Josiah, on the other hand had bought Nathan a gift card to a music store so that the junior could continue to build his jazz and blues library. Nathan told Josiah that it looked like both of them were getting a bit too practical since the older boy was constantly accusing him of that fault. Josiah had responded that he felt practicality was better than having to stand in long lines after Christmas to try and make a return. And Nathan had not been able to argue with that. Both boys promised to share what they bought with their gift cards, so that the other could know exactly what he had bought him for Christmas.

Hearing Josiah stir some more on the bed, Nathan sat up and called out, “Merry Christmas, Josiah.”

The senior sat up in his bed and smiled down at his best friend. “Merry Christmas, Nate. Did you sleep well?”

“Yeah, I did.” Both boys listened to the sounds coming from the kitchen.

Josiah grinned again. “If we wait a little longer, we can make it in time for breakfast without having to do any of the preparing ourselves.”
Nathan laughed and fell back into his sleeping bag. “Now that sounds like the perfect Christmas morning to me.”

+ + + + + + +

Buck watched thoughtfully as J.D. set out the numerous pieces of hardware and electronic devices to the radio controlled helicopter Jonathan Dunn had sent to Beatrice so that J.D. had a gift from him on Christmas day. Buck had shook his head in amazement at the size of the helicopter and its full miniaturized engine and controls. Lengthwise it was almost the same height as J.D. and Buck figured it must have cost Jonathan several thousand of dollars. And whilst J.D. was awed by the gift, Buck wondered if Jonathan knew the boy would have given that up and more to be spending Christmas with him.

Whilst they had all been worried about J.D´s visit to his step family at Thanksgiving, the young boy had returned to school with mostly positive stories. Whilst the stepmother had remained somewhat aloof, his three young step siblings warmed to him immediately. Especially the two year old girl who spent all of her waking hours following him around wanting either to be carried, read stories to or to play one of her many games. More importantly to J.D, his father did his best to make him feel welcome and even managed to spend time both with him alone and included him in other activities with the younger children. The success of Thanksgiving had Buck wondering if Jonathan would change his mind about taking J.D. with his family to Europe but no changes were made to the arrangements. If J.D. was disappointed about not being with his father this Christmas he either never let it show or he was just as happy being with him and his mom and getting to spend a week with his aunt.

Realizing J.D. would be occupied for the next hour or more as he poured all of his concentration into making the helicopter ready for flight, Buck rose from his seat and went to check on his mom in the kitchen. He grimaced slightly at the huge mess Beatrice had already made as she prepared the Christmas feast. It was their deal when she cooked that he clean up and as he perused the kitchen he already devised ways to get Chris and J.D. to help him with that chore.

Beatrice turned around as she heard him approach. He smiled cheekily at her when he saw remnants of chocolate and flour on her pretty face. She raised her eyebrows at his grin and he affectionately dabbed away the smudges.

“Need a hand?” he asked.

“No,” she replied immediately.

He looked over her shoulder to see she had been preparing a turkey. He gaze fell on her worriedly.

“You´re going to try and cook a turkey?”

“Yes!” she replied indignantly.

“Mom,” he said carefully. “Don´t you think you should have tried something .... you know... easier?”

She frowned before shooting him one of her mini glares and he held up his hands in mock surrender. She turned away and he watched silently as she inserted the huge bird into a large brown paper bag, then placed it on the broiling tray and crossed the room and put the whole thing into the oven.

“What´s with the bag?” he asked curiously.

“Just wait and see,” she replied enigmatically.

Buck sighed and decided prudently to change the subject.

“When does Gage arrive?”

“He said he´ll arrive in time for the Christmas dinner,” she replied.

Buck nodded before grabbing himself a drink from the fridge and leaning back on one of the tables. Beatrice moved around the kitchen glancing at her only son a few times before she announced.

“He´s going to be staying here a few days.”

Buck almost choked on his drink and looked at his mother in surprise.

“You never let them stay here,” he reminded her gently.

She paused in her task and wiped her hands on her apron before she came to stand before him.

“I know,” she replied. “I think its time I tried something more ....” she added struggling for the word.

“Serious?” Buck supplied with an amused smile.

She fidgeted before she nodded. “Not a word I´m comfortable with,” she admitted.

Buck bent down until he could lock eyes with her. “You´ll do fine, Mom,” he told her sincerely and kissed her cheek.

Beatrice smiled adoringly up at her son before she gathered him into a squeezy hug. Buck laughed as he tried to regain his footing then return the embrace. The doorbell rang and they parted.

Buck greeted Chris and Clint at the door and took them straight into the lounge to where J.D. was still putting together his helicopter. On hearing all the many different males voices Beatrice checked to ensure the oven was the right temperature before she left the kitchen to greet Clint and Chris whom she felt were like part of her family.

As she approached she smiled playfully as she saw where Clint stood as he watched J.D. explain the intricacies of his helicopter to Chris and Buck. Moving to his side she surpised him by encircling her hands around his neck and twisting him, she placed a full kiss on his lips. She stepped back and smiled smugly as his astonishment grew. She let out a cheeky laugh as her eyes flicked upwards to the mistletoe above his head.

“Gotcha,” she boasted her eyes twinkling with mischief.

Clint´s eyes first followed her gaze to the hanging mistletoe then he raised his eyebrows at her clear challenge. And a Larabee can never ignore a challenge. Smirking he snaked out a arm and encircling her waist drew her towards him. He then bent down and kissed her deeply ending the kiss with a low dip before he brought her back to her feet.

“Touche!” Beatrice giggled before they both realized the sudden silence and turned to face the three teenagers. Clint and Beatrice laughed aloud to see J.D. gaping at them, his precious helicopter for the moment completely forgotten.

Beatrice strode over and embraced Chris. “Merry Christmas, Chris,” she said warmly.

“Merry Christmas, Beatrice,” Chris replied as he returned the hug briefly.

“Want something to drink, Clint,” Beatrice asked as she turned back toward him.

“Coffee thanks,” the older Larabee replied. “I´m still waking up,” he added with a grin.

Beatrice raised an enquiring eyebrow at him before she smiled and sauntered back to the kitchen. Clint watched her cocky walk back to the kitchen with genuine affection. The woman was always full of surprises and even for as long as he had known her he still didn´t know what to expect from her. Still her playfulness heralded the return to her usual self and that pleased him. She had been having a difficult time after the ordeal of Buck´s kidnapping at Halloween and he had spent many evenings with her talking through how she felt. Trying to help her conquer her fears and offer his support.

Turning back around, he discovered the three teenagers were still staring at him. He shrugged at them with a look that intimated ‘she started it´. Suddenly from the kitchen Beatrice let out a “Oh damn!”

Sighing Clint made his way warily to the kitchen.

Once alone J.D. looked to Buck for answers but the junior had turned to his oldest friend.

“Now that was scary,” he joked, while Chris smirked.

Not getting the answers he wanted, J.D. returned to his helicopter.

+ + + + + + +

Beatrice took a deep breath as she arranged the cooked turkey on the serving plate. She was uncustomarily nervous. Cooking had never been something she was good at yet she did enjoy cooking for those she loved. Especially at Christmas. But when Gage turned up with his mother unexpectedly in tow an hour ago she now had ‘performance´ jitters. Now she dearly hoped those cooking lessons she had taken to surprise everyone also impressed Gage´s mother.

She ran her eye over everything once more and look up startled when Clint walked into the kitchen.

“Everything alright?” he asked tentatively.

“Yes, yes,” Beatrice replied quickly. “Does it look ok?” she added looking at him imploringly.

Clint ran his eye over the turkey and side dishes that included stuffing, mashed potatoes, corn, a greenbean casserole and rolls. He was impressed and he let her know. She nodded and breathed in deeply. She looked jumpy so Clint decided to distract her.

“Never expected the mother huh?”

“Noooo,” Beatrice replied emphatically.

“You know what this means don´t you?” he asked with a crooked smile.

What?” she frowned.

“Oh come on, Bea,” he replied using her shortened name. He got away with that more now. She had given up trying to correct him. “He brought his mother to meet you,” he continued stressing his words clearly.

“And?” she prompted crossing her arms.

Clint smiled wickedly and began to hum the wedding march. Beatrice´s face dropped in horror before she thumped her hand onto his chest.

“Now that is just cruel, Clint Larabee,” she pouted while he struggled to control his laughter.

“It´s not funny,” she protested. “Now I have THAT worry in my head.”

“Yes, but now you´re not worried about whether or nor Mrs. Morrissey will enjoy your cooking,” he responded logically.

Her eyes narrowed and she contemplated him, unable to fault his logic. So she tried another tact. “And why is it that you´re thinking of weddings? Just what are your intentions regarding this Cynthia?” she asked him.

His face went blank and he turned quickly and picked up the plate with the turkey on it. “I´ll take this one in shall I?” he said quickly as he exited the room.

Beatrice continued to plot as she picked up two other dishes and followed Clint. It was definitely time for her to meet this Cynthia.

The others had already gathered at the table and Beatrice quickly delivered her dishes and went back for the others before seating herself.

At the other end of the table Clint began carving the turkey. He had to admit it did look good. He only hoped it tasted that way as well. Within minutes everyone was eating. After a few mouthfuls J.D. looked across the table to Chris and Buck with an accusatory glance. All week he had been warned about Beatrice´s cooking and how bad it was only to discover that they had only been teasing him.

“Wonderful meal, Ms. Wilmington,” J.D. praised loudly.

“Oh yes, Dear,” Mrs. Morrissey added to his left. “Just lovely.”

Beatrice blushed under the many compliments and received a teasing wink from Clint before the table settled into noisy banter and conversation.

Half an hour later the doorbell rang again and smiling sweetly Beatrice asked Clint to answer it. Clint rubbed his stomach as he crossed the living areas to reach the front door. He didn´t know how she had done it but the meal had been delicious and he felt quite contented.

Opening the door, all that changed.

“What are you doing here?” the words escaped his lips before he could prevent them.

“Merry Christmas to you too, Officer Larabee,” Ezra replied as he stood on the doorstep, a most angelic expression adorning his visage.

Chagrined, Clint stepped aside to let him in and muttered a brief “Merry Christmas” before he asked his original question again.

“Mother let me have time off for good behavior,” the southerner replied politely. “And I decided to spend it here,” he added with a dimpled grin.

“Good behavior?” Clint asked in disbelief as Ezra took off his coat and hung it on the coat stand.

“Most assuredly, Officer Larabee,” Ezra replied with the utmost sincerity before he passed Clint and headed for the source of the noisy talking that could only be Buck and J.D.

“Oh joy!” Clint breathed to himself as he closed the door and followed the young boy back to the dining room. Clint saw his own surprise at Ezra´s arrival mirrored in his son´s eyes but from the reactions from Buck and J.D. it was apparent they had been expecting him

Ezra was greeted warmly by Beatrice. “You´re just in time for dessert, Ezra, please sit down,” she told him and then proceeded to introduce Gage and his mother.

After dessert and coffee they all spread out in the lounge room. Chris and Buck exchanged knowing looks as Ezra´s eyes glinted with avarice as J.D. eagerly showed him the gifts he had received. The fine boned fingers held the palm pilot securely and almost possessively as J.D. explained all its functions. In fact J.D. had a hard time getting Ezra interested in his helicopter until J.D. mentioned it could carry a payload.

“Payload?” the southerner queried, his sage green eyes alight with instantaneous interest.

“Yes,” J.D. replied. “You know like a video camera or something similar.”

“Or something similar,” Ezra repeated eagerly until his tone drew the attention of both Clint and Chris. His face went immediately passive under the scrutiny and he smiled faintly when both Larabees shot him warning looks.

Ezra was saved from any verbal accompaniment to those looks by another ring of the doorbell. Knowing who was expected, J.D. jumped up and rushed to the door. As Josiah and Nathan entered the home they were bombarded with both endless questions and a diatribe of his own day by the youngest member of their group.

After greeting and talking a little to the adults, the teenagers then all drew together and talked amongst themselves about the various Christmases and plans for the holidays, until J.D. blurted, “It´s a shame Vin´s not here.”

They all went silent, musing the absence of the seventh member of their group in their own ways, until Buck spoke.

“Maybe he can´t be here, J.D. but we can do the next best thing.”

With that Buck herded them all into his mom´s office and study. They all gathered around the large desk as Chris recited the numbers and Buck punched in the numbers on the speaker phone.

+ + + + + + +

Vin felt himself being watched again and instinctively looked sideways. The young girl erupted into another big smile that showed off her braced teeth. He smiled softly which only had her blinking big wide eyes back at him. Vin sighed inwardly and looked over to Henry and Betty, hoping one of them would ask something of him so that he may escape the room and the girl´s avid attention.

Betty and Henry had invited their neighbors to Christmas dinner. Recently widowed, Nettie Wells and her young niece had graciously accepted the invitation to spend Christmas day at the Van Owen ranch. Vin had immediately warmed to Mrs. Wells. She was down to earth and outspoken but very generous and caring woman who had become very close friends with Betty. Her twelve year old niece Casey was the typical pig-tailed tomboy and Vin did like the girl. He just felt embarrassed by the open adoration she showered on him.
He was contemplating escaping for a brief time to the barn to check on the foal when the phone rang.

“I´ll get it,” Vin said quickly already rising from the couch and moving across the room.

Reaching the wall phone in the kitchen, he picked it up and said hello. He grinned immediately as his friends all started talking at once. Within ten seconds it was like being in a room with all of them. J.D. and Buck started ribbing one another. Nathan tried to talk over them and ask Vin how his Christmas was going while he could hear Ezra adding fuel to Buck and J.D.´s bickering. Vin began chuckling at the barrage of noise until, as expected Chris raised his voice above all the others silencing them and organized a turn each for them to speak.

In the first pause, Vin took the opportunity to speak. “Hey cowboy,” he teased. “Having a nice quiet Christmas?”

He barely heard the low growl of response but he could readily picture the blond´s unimpressed look. Knowing J.D. was bursting to talk, Chris indicated for him to go first and the others followed in turn sharing all their various news. Twenty minutes later it was back to J.D. again and the young boy asked the Texan what he got for Christmas.

“A Winchester hunting rifle,” Vin replied with a small measure of pride.

“Oh Good Lord,” Ezra spoke up first.

“Have you tried it yet? Are you any good?” Buck got in next.

“Henry says I have a natural ability,” Vin reported back to them which was actually only one of the many praises Henry had for him. After breakfast Henry had taken Vin target shooting while Betty prepared the Christmas dinner. The lanky teenager had hit the target with his first shot and only improved his aim after that.

“You Texans are full of it!” Buck teased.

“Anytime you want to compare skill Bucklin, you just let me know,” Vin teased back.

Buck laughed aloud as Chris shook his head adamantly.

Suddenly Casey appeared from behind Vin and startled him. “Who y´all talking to Vin?” she asked.

Vin quickly spoke down the phone. “Hang on a sec.” Muffling the receiver he turned to Casey and explained.

“I´m talking with friends from school.”

“Oh,” she replied. “Betty said to tell you we´re serving up Aunt Nettie´s pie.”

“Ok thanks. I´ll be right there,” he replied and looked at her pointedly until she reluctantly left him alone.

“Sorry,” he mumbled as he returned to the phone call.

“Heeeey Vin,” Buck asked. “Who´s the girl?”

Vin rolled his eyes as Buck guffawed. “She´s just a kid, Buck. A neighbor,” Vin stressed clearly.

“Well does she have an older sister?” Buck replied.

“Shut up, Buck,” the Texan heard Nathan chide.

“What?” Buck protested. “It´s an important question!”

Vin laughed when all them yelled at the tall Junior to shut up. When he finally got a chance he mentioned regretfully that he had to go and after a series of long farewells and good wishes he finally managed to hang up the phone. Vin smiled to himself as he realized as much as he loved coming home to Betty and Henry, he surely did miss his friends

+ + + + + + +

With about an hour´s daylight left and with the boys becoming boisterous, Beatrice declared it was time to ‘take the club outside´. Ezra hung back, quite happy to stay inside in the warmth. But Clint shoved a coat and hat at the southerner and with an evil grin shooed him outside with the others.

Ezra scowled as the door closed firmly behind him. Stepping out into the snow covered backyard, he became wary when he saw Buck and J.D. making snowballs. The southerner quickly bent down and grabbing a handful of snow armed himself and looked at his options for the closest cover.

Buck shot Nathan a conspiratorial wink and the junior nudged Josiah. In unison the four turned and all threw their snowballs at Chris. Ezra laughed aloud as the blond was hit all at once. He sent out a menacing glare but it only sent the others diving for more snow. Chris managed to get one away, hitting Buck in the back as the tall teenager turned to deflect the hit. By then the four had thrown another barrage. Using the opportunity Ezra moved forward and expertly threw his snowball, hitting Chris in the upper arm. Immediately a cool green stare was directed at him. Ezra grinned.

Picking up two snowballs at a time Chris began to fight back. With his deadly accurate pitching arm, Buck and J.D. were soon running and ducking for cover. Josiah tried for one more throw but got nailed in the chest before he could raise his arm.

From his vantage point at the huge windows, Clint sipped at his coffee as he watched proudly as his son held his own despite being outnumbered five to one. Beatrice came up beside him.

“Have they ganged up on Chris again?” she asked.

“Yep,” Clint replied.

Beatriced tsked. “Don´t they ever learn?” she grinned.

“Never,” he laughed.

Beatrice glanced up at Clint and her heart filled with warmth and joy to see both father and son enjoying Christmas day with all of their extended family.

“Merry Christmas, Clint,” Beatrice said softly and fervently as she slipped her hand around his arm and gave it a comforting squeeze.

Clint looked sideways and smiled affectionately and gratefully at Beatrice.

“Merry Christmas, Bea,” he replied warmly and together they watched happily as the snowball fight began in earnest.

May the joy of Christmas be in your hearts and homes.
Comments to:
Debbie and Monica

Continues in Dates, Dares and Danger