The First Christmas


by Patricia Henry





PROLOGUE: ďDecember 17Ē

"Ainít it a beaut?" 

"Youíd think you were talking about a woman." Slim Sherman pushed his dusty hat off his forehead and leaned towards the window of the general store. His eyes narrowed to slits as he studied the saddle displayed in the window. "I donít know, Jess. It donít look like a working manís saddle."

"Sure it is!" Jess Harperís smile widened.

"And the price!" Slim whistled slow and long. "Where are you coming up with that kind of money? Thatís a mighty hefty price tag Hadleyís got on it."

"Iíve been saving. And in a week, that there saddle is mine."

"Well I sure hope Santa is good to you..."

"Santa ainít got nothing to do with it. Iím the one thatís going to get it. You mark my words Ďcause I ainít wanted nothing as much since...well I canít remember when."

"Well Diamond Jim, letís go inside. I still got some presents to buy for Andy and Jonesy."

Slim was almost through the door before Jess moved away from the storefront window.

"When are you going to buy that saddle, Jess?" Mr. Hadley, the storeowner, greeted.

"Youíll see me next pay day. Say no one elseís has shown an interest in it?"

"Wife says Iím asking too much for that saddle! But I wonít sell it for a penny less, even if it is Christmas. Thatís real silver on that saddle."

"Iíll have the money. Iíve been saving since I first seen it!" Jess assured.

"Well that saddle will make a wonderful Christmas present." Hadley studied the list that Slim had given him.

"It ainít no Christmas present. Itís for me!"

"You must be rich buying yourself a present."

"And who else would I buy for?" Jess turned towards the saddle. "Thatís saddleís got my brand on it. In two weeks itís mine!"

"Just in time for Christmas."

"Donít matter if itís Christmas," Jess argued. "Same as any other day to me."

Hadleyís eyebrows rose but he didnít argue. "Slim, this all you need?" He glanced at the list. "I got some bacon in. Freshly butchered."

Jess looked hopefully at Slim.

"Thanks but not today." Slim pointed as he said, "Mr. Hadley, Iíd like to buy that knife." Slim pulled off his gloves.

Hadley picked up the knife from inside the case and handed it to Slim. "Itís a good one, Slim. Sharp."

"Hope itís not too sharp. Want it for Andy for Christmas."

"Thatíll make a fine present. Be five dollars."

Slim frowned. "Five dollars?"

"Worth every cent. See the design on it. Most of them donít come with that."

Slim hesitated as he turned the knife and inspected both sides.

Mr. Hadley said, "Slim, I got cheaper ones."

"No! I want this Christmas to be special for Andy."

Jess moved to the counter. He leaned against it as he stared at the knife. "Where you getting that kind of money?"

"Jonesy and I talked. Weíre going to cut back on supplies."

"You mean more beans?" Jess complained.

"And Iíve got some money saved."

"I thought you had plans for that money."

"Jess, what I do with my money..."

"Hadley has other knives. "

"Not one like this."

"Why donít you get a cheaper one? That way you can get some things for yourself and get the knife. Andy wouldnít know."

"Well I would! This is his first Christmas since Ma and Pa died. I want to make it as special as I can."

"Well like you say, itís your money, but if it was me..."

"I know. Youíd use it to buy that saddle."

Jess glanced over his shoulder at the saddle. "Mr. Hadley, Iíll be back in a week."

"You just remember that I be closing early."

"How come?"

"Itís Christmas Eve!"

"Donít see why that makes a difference," Jess mumbled before asking, "How late will you be open?"

"Til 3 p.m., and not one second later. My wife likes to open the gifts on Christmas Eve. And if Iím late, I wonít hear the end of it until next Christmas rolls around."

Slim chuckled.

Jess figured out loud, "Last stage will be in around noon. Iíll have time to be here by 3." He said louder, "Youíll see me next week. And Iíll have the money to buy that saddle."

"Iíll take the knife. Mr. Hadley, you still got that frying pan? The one that Jonesy has been eyeing each time he comes in here?" Slim asked.

"If the only supplies weíre buying are beans, donít know why Jonesy needs a new frying pan," Jess observed.

Slimís forehead puckered into a frown.

Hadley nodded. "Slim, youíre in luck. Mrs. Parkins also bought it yesterday. But I still got it. Jonesy looks at it every time he comes in here." The storeowner grabbed the pan from a shelf. He put it down on the counter in front of Slim.

"How much?" Slim asked bluntly.

"Three dollars." Seeing Slimís frown, the storekeeper added, "And thatís a bargain! Theyíre selling the same pan over in Medicine Bow for four. Judge Garth, from Shiloh Ranch, stopped in here a couple of weeks ago and almost bought it for his cook. So youíre getting a bargain, Slim."

"Three dollars! Slim, Jonesyís got pans," Jess pointed out.

"I know. But I also know heís got a hankering for this one. And with it being Christmas..."

"Well itís your money but..."

Slim interrupted, "Donít suppose I could put some money down on it? And pay you in a couple of weeks?"

"Sorry, Slim. Iíd like to help you but you know how many times Iíve been asked to do that? I canít run this store on credit. Iím sorry." Hadley put the pan back on the shelf.

Slim glanced at the money he held. He dug deep into each of his pockets but found only a penny to add to the coins. "The gloves on the list. Take them off. And only give me half the amount of bullets. Add the frying pan to the list."

"Youíre being foolish!" Jess snarled. "Look at those gloves youíre wearing; holes in them. Youíre going to get frost bite if youíre not careful."

"I can do without."

"And how about them coyotes circling the cattle."

"I guess we better make sure each shot counts," Slim replied.

"Slim, I know itís your money; but you wouldnít catch me out working the horses and cattle without a decent pair of gloves. Not in this snow! And you canít afford to lose cattle."

"Slim, you sure?" Hadley asked.

"Iím sure!"

 

CHAPTER ONE: "The Morning of December 24Ē

Slim whistled the entire song then started over again.

"Donít you know another tune? Ouch!" Jess Harper grabbed the towel and dabbed at the cut caused by shaving too close.

"Whereís your Christmas spirit?" Slim asked as he wiped the shaving cream off his chin.

"Well listening to that tune every day ainít helping it any!" Jess snapped. "Morning, noon, and night!" He dried his face then threw out the water from the bowl. "Donít you know another song?!"

"Only Christmas song I can whistle."

"Christmas canít be over soon enough for me!" Jess replied.

As they entered the house, Jess complained, "I swear, does it always get this cold in Wyoming in December?"

"Nope. Sometimes itís colder," Jonesy replied as he placed two dishes of bacon and eggs on the table.

Jess glanced at the older man. Jonesy just turned his back on Jess, as if to dismiss him.

Jess sat down next to Andy.

The young boy used bread to wipe up the egg yolk. "Jess, youíre going with me and Slim to get a Christmas tree ainít you? Slim, you said we could do it today. I got one picked out. We have to do it today! Itís Christmas Eve and..."

"Hold it!" Slim said between chews. "I ainít hardly tasted my food and youíve already got me cutting down a tree."

"But Slim tomorrowís Christmas! And we ainít yet got a tree!"

"Havenít," Slim mumbled then took a sip of coffee.

Andy sighed. "All right, havenít yet got a tree."

"Slim, Andyís right," Jonesy said as he sat down at the table. "If we donít have a tree, Santaís liable not to visit us tonight. And we sure donít want that!"

Jess snickered.

Jonesyís brows furrowed. "Did I say something funny?"

Jess looked up from his plate. "Well Jonesy, donít you think youíre a might old to believe in Santa?"

"No, I donít!" Jonesyís eyes darkened with fury. "You just wait and see! Santa will visit here tonight. Of course with your attitude, you might not get anything from him. And itíll serve you right, too!"

"Well itís wonít be the first time! I ainít never had the pleasure of him visiting me." Seeing the looks passed between Jonesy and Slim, Jess stopped in mid bite. "I say something wrong?"

Slim and Jonesyís eyes dropped off of Jess face. But Andy spoke up, "Jess, you never had a Christmas?"

"Sure, I have! But not like the one youíre planning. There were so many Harpers around that Santa didnít pay us any mind."

"You didnít get any gifts?" Andy persisted. "Even when you were little?"

"Well..." Jess saw the concern in everyoneís eyes. "Now look. It ainít like I was wanting. I mean I had clothes on my back and was fed. What more could I want? ĎSides Santa donít exist."

Jonesy snapped, "Now you listen here. At this house he does! Andy, donít you pay any mind to what Jess says. Santa will visit here tonight."

"Itís all right, Jonesy," Andy said. "I know Santa is just make believe."

"Well this is a fine lot!" Jonesy argued. "And on Christmas Eve too! But for me, I still believe. And when my stocking is filled with presents from Santa and all of yours is empty, donít come begging to me to share my presents with you. ĎCause I wonít!"

"Now wait a minute! I didnít say that I donít believe in Santa," Slim said, a smile tugging at his lips.

"Slim, youíre a grown man," Jess said. "Donít tell me that you still think a man in a red suit comes down your chimney and..."

"What I think is this is the season for miracles. And Santa is kind of like a miracle, I guess."

"Miracles!" Jess shook his head as if he couldnít believe what he was hearing. He stood up, still chewing on the last bite of bacon. "Well ainít no miracle going to get that fence put up and them cows down to better pasture."

"Iím right behind you," Slim said, gulping the last of his coffee.

"What about the Christmas tree?" Andy asked.

Slim started to speak but his eyes caught the look on Jonesyís face. "Iíll tell you what. Jess and me will be back when the stage comes in mid morning. As soon as it leaves, weíll go cut one. Weíll have time before the stage at noon comes in."

"Wait Ďtil you see this tree, Jess!" Andy bragged. "You ainít going to find a better one to cut down!"

Jess finished buttoning his jacket. "Count me out!"

"But Jess, it wonít be the same without you being there," Andy protested.

"You mean it wonít be me cutting down the tree because youíll have to do it. No, Iím heading to town. Slim, Iíll be back in time to help you with the afternoon stage."

Jonesy asked, "Whatís so important that you canít go in another day..."

"Well Jonesy, Iíll tell you. Thereís a saddle in the window of the general store that Iíve had my eye on for some time. I aim to buy it today."

"You mean that fancy saddle? Now what do you need a saddle like that for?"

Jess smiled. "I ainít never had such a fancy saddle, thatís why. And with it being Christmas, Iím going to treat myself."

"But we always have the whole family Ďround when we cut down the tree," Andy argued. "Why even Ma use to go with us. Remember, Slim?"

Slim nodded. "I remember." For a second, Slimís eyes misted.

Jess stopped cold. He looked at Andy. "Andy...I work here but..." He glanced at Slim whose stare seemed to touch his very soul. "If the stage comes in on time..."

"And how often does that happen? Especially in this snow!" Jonesy argued. "Andy, weíll have a good time you, me, and Slim cutting the tree."

Andyís glance at Jess was long.

"Sure we will!" Slim echoed. "And tonight Jess can help us decorate the tree."

The young boy once more looked at Jess. "You will help us decorate the tree tonight, wonít you, Jess?"

Jess glanced at both Slim and Jonesy before saying, "I guess I can help. Though I donít know how much help Iíll be Ďcause I ainít never decorated one before."

"Your folks didnít have a tree either?" Andy asked.

"Usually my Ma decorated it. The rest of us were out working and wouldnít get in from the fields Ďtil late."

"Well donít you decide to stay in town," Jonesy said. "You got a stage to take care of and a tree to decorate. Weíre counting on your help!"

"I said Iíd help," Jess snapped. "Iíll be here!"

"Thatís a promise?" Andy asked.

"You got my word on it!" Jess snapped, not meaning to sound as gruff as he did.

"Come on, Jess, letís get those cattle down. Andy, you better get the ax sharpened. I Ďspect you picked out a big tree," Slim teased.

"Big! Why I bet it wonít even fit through the door," Jonesy added with a smile.

Andy laughed. "Itís not so big that all of us together canít handle it." Andy glanced hopefully at Jess.

"I donít envy you to be cutting down a tree in this wind," Jess said. "It seems to me..."

"Weíll get a tree," Slim said loudly. "Ma kept the decorations in a box in the barn. Andy, you and Jonesy get them out while weíre gone so weíll have them ready. Weíll decorate as soon as we finish supper."

"Which I guess will be beans again," Jess mumbled.

"You just wait until you taste my Christmas dinner."

Jess turned with interest.

Ignoring Jess, Jonesy placed his hand on Andyís shoulder. "Come on, Iíll go help you sharpen the ax. I wouldnít want you to cut your leg off on Christmas Eve!"

"I can do it! I ainít no kid, you know!"

"Donít try to grow up too soon!" Jonesy said.

"Andy, you let Jonesy help you," Slim ordered.

"And the sooner we get the ax sharpened, the sooner I can bake my pie."

"You cooking a pie, Jonesy?" Jess asked as his tongue snaked across his lips with anticipation.

"I knew that would get your attention," Jonesy replied. "Of course Iím cooking a pie! It wouldnít be Christmas without a pie."

"You mean we canít eat it until tomorrow?" Jess snarled.

"Christmas ainít today, is it?"

"It seems to me that we ought to be able to eat a pie on the same day that you cook it!" Jess argued.

"You even try to eat a piece of that pie before Christmas and Iíll..." Jonesy warned.

With a grin, Slim interrupted, "What kind of pie you cooking this year, Jonesy?"

"Jam."

Jessís smile faded. "Jam? My Ma always made apple."

"Well you ate the last of the apples last week, the pears three weeks ago, and the blackberries a month ago. All I got left is quince jam. You even ate all the strawberry jam. So quince it is."

"Merry Christmas," Jess said with distaste then hurried out the door.

Jonesy scowled.

"Iím sure Jess will like your pie," Andy assured. "We all will."

Slim agreed, "Donít you fret about Jess. Once he tastes it, heíll be asking for seconds...even thirds."

"Sure he will," Jonesy said but he sounded as if he didnít believe his own words. "I stretched them apples as far as I could."

"We got to make do," Slim said. "Jess understands that!"

"At least he wonít have beans for Christmas supper," Andy said. "We wonít will we, Jonesy?"

 

CHAPTER TWO: "Noon, December 24"

As Slim and Jess entered the house, Jonesy greeted, "What happened? Thought the stage would get here before you."

Slim tossed his hat on the table as Jess almost fell into the chair by the fire. Slim pulled off his gloves and hung them near the fire. His hands were red from the cold.

Slim replied, "Another fence down. Had to chase cows to Timberís crossing."

"That far?" Jonesy handed each man a cup of steaming coffee.

"Them cows must have been looking for grazing land. They sure traveled," Jess said.

"Well come on. Iíve saved you some stew and..."

The sound of horsesí hooves drew everyoneís attention.

"For once the stage has to be on time!" Jess complained.

"Mose is going to want to eat. So why donít you boys sit and eat then change the horses?" Jonesy suggested.

"Because the stage line doesnít pay me to eat," Slim barked. "It pays me to keep the stage going on time!"

Jonesy started to turn away.

"Iím sorry, Jonesy, but Iím dead tired. And cold. I slipped twice into the creek. My pants leg feels frozen."

"You got wet out in that snow?" Jonesyís face showed his concern. "Youíll be lucky if you donít catch your death of cold. Before you take care of them horses, you get some dry pants on!"

"The wind dried my clothes but I still feel the chill to my bones. Canít seem to shake it!"

"Slim, you better sit by the fire for a spell. At least until youíve chased the chill away. Iíll help Jess with the horses."

"Not with that back of yours," Slim disagreed. "Iíll be all right. I can sit and get warm after the stage leaves."

Andy entered the house with a smile. "Slim, I got the ax sharpened good! Spent most of the morning doing it! Canít wait until that stage pulls out! Weíll cut the tree then, wonít we?"

"Well a promise is a promise and..." Slim replied, half hearted.

"I wouldnít be hankering to be cutting down a tree in weather like this!" Jess said. "And Slim youíre already half frozen..."

"Weíll get a tree after the stage leaves," Slim said loudly "A promise is a promise. And Iím not going back on mine."

Andy lost his smile. "Itís all right, Slim. Iím not a kid any more. If youíre not up to it..."

Slim got to his feet slowly. "I said I would cut down a tree. And I aim to do just that!"

The door of the house opened with a slam to the wall. "What do I have to do to get some service? Change them horses myself?" Mose growled. His face was red from the wind. His hat was covered with a sheet of snow.

"Iím going!" Jess snapped back.

"I should have known. Youíd be in here sitting in front of a warm fire, drinking coffee, while Iím out..."

"Stop your complaining. I said I was going!" Jess moved quickly out the door.

Slim grinned. "Didnít think youíd get the stage through with all that snow."

"Cutterís Pass was closed. I took the old route. Doubt them younger boys driving know it. So this might be the last stage going through for a few days."

"Any passengers?"

"Just one!" Mose turned. "Whereíd he go anyway?" He looked back at Slim. "Some city slicker. Said where he comes from this kind of weather is considered mild."

"Mild?" Jonesy mocked.

"Whereís he from? The North Pole?" Slim chuckled at his own joke as he headed out to the yard. Mose followed but he didnít go further than the porch. "Got hot coffee in here!" he yelled to his passenger.

The passenger followed Mose into the house. His hat was pulled down low on his head. The collar of his coat was pulled up around his neck. Without any acknowledgment to anyone he moved to the fire. Holding his hands towards the flames, he sighed. "Thank you, Iíd like some coffee." As the man turned, Andy gasped.

At the same time, a look of surprise flittered across Jonesyís face. Jonesy handed the man the steaming coffee. Jonesyís eyes never left the manís face. "Say, you wouldnít be from the North Pole would you?"

"North Pole?" The manís chuckle could be heard outside. "No! But Iím told I look like someone who is."

"Mister, youíre the splitting image of every picture Iíve ever seen of Santa Claus," Andy remarked.

"Andy!" Jonesy cried out. "It ainít polite to..."

"Itís all right!" the visitor said, then again chuckled, with several ho-ho-ho.

"My nameís Jonesy. This here is Andy Sherman. He and his brother own the place. And your name?" Jonesy prodded.

"Iím called Nicholas."

Jonesyís eyebrows shot up. "You donít say?

"So Nicholas," Andy began, "where are you traveling to? Laramie?"

"No, Iím going a lot further north. I plan to be home by Christmas Eve."

Slim entered the house. He moved quickly to the fire. "Jess is hitching up the last horse," he mumbled. He shivered. "Them clouds getting full. Liable to burst any minute." Slimís voice trailed off as he stared at the visitor.

"We will be able to travel, wonít we?" Nicholas asked alarmed.

"Weíll make it at least to Laramie," Mose assured, then turned towards Slim, "That is if your ranch hand can finish them horses. I ainít never seen anyone move so slow!"

"Horses changed." Eyeing Mose, Jess stomped his boots in the doorway. Jess entered the house, leaving a puddle of snow.

"About time," Mose replied.

Jess started to speak but Jonesy cut in, "Mose, you and Nicholas best get some food before you go. Iíll make up some sandwiches in case you get stuck out there."

"We wonít get stuck," Mose assured. "I figure the snow wonít fall until at least tonight."

"Oh you do, do you?" Jess questioned, sounding doubtful.

"Now you listen here!" Mose snapped. "Iíve been driving that stage long Ďfore you got here, and I know what Iím talking about. You mark my words. Snow wonít hit until later this evening, maybe not until next morning."

"In which case, the stage line would shut down?" the visitor asked.

"Depends how heavy it falls," Mose explained.

"I had plans to leave Laramie on the afternoon stage."

"I Ďspect itíll leave on time," Mose assured. "Like I said. Snow wonít fall Ďtil this evening."

Jess shook his head as if he couldnít believe what he was hearing.

"I have to be home by Christmas Eve. If I canít take the stage, do you think I can hire a rig once we get to Laramie? Iím very good at driving, if I do say so myself. I can handle a large team." He chuckled as if making a joke. "Canít ride a horse, never could. But driving, why Iíve traveled extensively, can drive any vehicle. Wagon, cart, sleigh..."

"You might just need a sleigh once that snow starts to fall," Jonesy said. "Even now itís going to be some slow traveling."

"That snow can blind you," Mose admitted. "But I know the road to Laramie like the back of my hand. Weíll make it, all right, and in time for you to catch the afternoon stage."

The stage driver sat down and began eating the beans that Jonesy put in front of him. Nicholas ignored the other plate of stew.

"Mister, you better eat."

"You wonít find better than Jonesyís cooking," Mose complemented.

"Thank you, but I think Iíll wait until I get to Laramie. Now about hiring a rig..." Worry pock marked Nicholasís face.

"You can get a rig in Laramie," Slim said. "Though I wouldnít recommend traveling once that snow falls."

"Iím comfortable driving in the snow. Where I come from we have a lot of snow. Iíll be fine. But like Mr. Mose says the afternoon stage may leave on time. In which case Iíll continue on the stage. But either way I canít be stranded in Laramie, not on Christmas Even. I have to get home. Itís very important to me."

Jonesy asked. "So what happens if you donít get home by tonight?"

"Oh grave consequences, Mr. Jonesy. But I will. I have faith. And if Iím not mistaken, youíre a man who believes in miracles too, are you not?"

Jonesy looked taken back. "Iíve seen my fair share."

"But you," the visitor looked at Jess. "I think youíre a man who doesnít."

Jess bit his lip, unsure what to say. "I count on myself, if thatís what youíre asking."

"Cynical donít you think?" the visitor persisted.

"Maybe. Or maybe Iíve just learned that miracles donít happen. You make your own luck."

"But Christmas Eve is the night for miracles. Right, Andy?"

Andy smiled. "I guess."

"Itís the night Santa comes to visit," the visitor added.

"Ma always said that Santa was like a miracle. The way he went from house to house, never being seen."

"And do you still believe in Santa?" the visitor asked.

"Well I ainít no kid," Andy answers.

"So he keeps telling us," Jonesy said.

"You should always believe, even if you canít see it. Faith is powerful, Andy. Thatís why I know Iíll get home in time."

"In time for what?" Jonesy asked.

"Why to deliver presents, of course."

Mose chuckled. "My stage is loaded down with his packages! Mister, you must give to a lot of people."

Nicholas laughed. "I do have a lot of gifts, donít I? Mr. Mose, I suggest we hurry along. I donít want to miss the afternoon stage. Canít disappoint anyone on Christmas Eve, can I?"

"If the stage gets through..." Jess began.

"Have faith!" the visitor said.

"Here, Mose." Jonesy handed the driver a bag of sandwiches. "And I wrapped you a piece of pie. Hot out of the oven."

Mose sniffed the package. "Hmm. Smells good!"

"Put a piece in there for you too," Jonesy said to Nicholas. "Ainít much. Only a jam pie."

"I always have an apple pie at Christmas," the visitor replied. "Itís tradition at my house!"

"Thatís Jessí favorite too," Jonesy acknowledged. "But ran out of apples weeks ago, and I ainít about to pay Hadleyís prices. Last week when I was in there, he wanted twenty dollars a bushel!"

"You donít say!" Mose said with awe. "Now who would be fool enough to pay them prices?"

"Down right, robbery I tell you!" Jonesy agreed.

"Donít matter to me, Jonesy," Jess said. "Us not having apple pie."

"Thatís right. ĎCause you donít celebrate Christmas," Jonesy said.

"What are you talking about?" Mose asked. "Everyone celebrates Christmas."

"Not this boy," Jonesy said.

With all eyes on him, Jess argued, "I just said that I ainít had one since I was fifteen and then it werenít much. My Pa did what he could but with so many Harpers there just werenít much to go around. Didnít bother me none. Still donít."

"Hmm," the visitor said thoughtfully. "I would think it would bother a child not to get a present on Christmas Eve from Santa."

"Mister, you calling me a liar?" Jessís back straightened as if a rod was pressed against it.

"Jess!" Slim warned.

"Oh no! Just..." The visitor slapped Jess on the shoulder with affection. "Merry Christmas! I hope this year it will be the best Christmas ever for you."

"Donít expect it to be any different than any other."

"Why youíre with family this year..."

"We ainít related. Iím just Slimís ranch hand. I work here," Jess explained. "Just signed on a few months ago."

"Christmas is a time to be with the people who mean the most to you, donít you agree?"

Jessís face turned into a look of puzzlement. "I guess itís nice to be with family. If you got Ďem."

Slim spoke up, "Well Nicholas, if you do get stuck in Laramie for Christmas, youíre welcome to dine with us. We may not be family. But youíre welcome here."

Nicholas smiled at the tall cowboy. "Your invitation is most kind. But I have to be home!"

"Donít you fret," Mose assured. "Weíll get there in plenty of time for you to catch the afternoon stage. Doubt itíll be on time anyway in this kind of weather."

"Mose, when you get into Laramie, tell Hadley Iíll be in there before three to get that saddle."

"You mean the one you been telling me about for weeks?" Mose asked.

"Thatís the one!"

"I saw it in Hadleyís window last time I was in Laramie. Awful fancy saddle, Jess, for a cowboy like you."

"Iím buying it as a Christmas present."

"For who?"

"For me. Thatís who!"

"Well I ainít never heard so much foolishness. Buying your own Christmas present!"

"I worked hard for that money! And I mean to get that saddle. So you be sure to tell Hadley that Iíll be in there to get that saddle before he closes."

"Now whoíd be fool enough to buy that saddle? Youíre the only one I know who even looks at it. Not with that price tag on it. But if youíre so worried, maybe you better give me your money and Iíll buy it for you when I get to town. You might not make it in if that cloud bursts."

"What makes you think you can get through and I canít!" Jess challenged.

"Cause I got my lucky piece, thatís why." Mose pulled from his pocket a dirty coin.

"That old thing!" Jess mocked.

"Iíll have you know that this here coin got me through worse weather than this."

"Mose, that ainít worth nothing. That coin wouldnít buy you a cup of coffee."

"Shows how much you know," Mose challenged. "Why Hadley offered me a gold piece for it."

"Youíre a fool not to take him up on his offer!"

"Who you calling a fool?" Moseís voice rose in anger.

"All Iím saying is that I would have taken Hadley up on his offer and considered it a miracle that he offered so much!" Jess fired back.

Nicholas urged Mose by saying, "Should we journey before the snow falls harder?"

"Sure thing!" Moss swallowed his coffee in two gulps. "Thank you, Jonesy. Still make the best coffee this side of Medicine Bow."

"Weíre the only relay station this side of Medicine Bow," Jonesy observed.

"Probably why itís the best!" Moss replied with a chuckle. "Jess, you get them horses done right?"

Jessí eyes narrowed, "You saying I canít do my job?"

"Moss, you best be going. That weather might break any time," Slim said quickly.

"All right!" Mose said. "Iím going!"

As Moss headed towards the door, Jonesy invited, "Moss, you going to eat Christmas dinner with us, ainít you?"

"Jonesy, I wouldnít miss one of your Christmas dinners," Moss promised.

"You coming?" Jess asked.

Moss chuckled. "Going to sit right next to you. You going to serve pie ainít you?"

"Jam," Jess answered with no enthusiasm.

"Sorry, it canít be apple, Jess," Jonesy apologized.

"I wonít miss it any," Jess said. "To me Christmas is just another day to me except I donít have to work all day out in that snow! Slim lets me take the day off."

The visitor drew close to Jess. "You might be surprised what Christmas can mean."

Jess glanced warily at the visitor.

The visitor smiled. "Donít ever forget that Christmas is a special day because itís a day of miracles."

"Well if it is, I ainít seen one!" Jess replied.

"Maybe you havenít looked hard enough," the visitor said.

Jessís forehead wrinkled as he glanced with uncertainty at Nicholas.

The visitor smiled. "Merry Christmas everyone, especially you, Jess. Now Mr. Mose, I suggest that we get going before we find ourselves in a snow storm."

"Sure thing," Moss agreed.

As the stage pulled out of the yard, Slim grabbed the ax. "Letís go!" He couldnít stop the shiver that raced through his body as the wind hit him hard.

"You better not, Slim. Youíll catch your death of cold for sure," Jonesy advised. "You get inside. Iíll go with Andy."

Jess grabbed the ax. "Jonesy, not with your bad back. Slim, you get in the house and warm up. Iíll go with Andy."

"What about that saddle?" Slim asked. "Youíre itching to get to town."

"How long can it take to cut down a tree? Iíll still have time to ride to town and get back in time to get the horses changed for the afternoon stage." Jess glanced up at the sky. "I think Mose is right, though donít tell him I said so. The snow will hold off until tonight or even tomorrow morning. Iíll cut down the tree then ride out afterwards."

"You donít have to help us," Slim began.

"I know. Now get on in the house before you do catch your death of cold, which means more work for me," Jess urged. "This shouldnít take long. How long can it take to cut down a tree?"

 

CHAPTER THREE: "Afternoon, December 24"

"What do you mean that you sold it?"

"Now calm down, Jess. I donít want no trouble." The storeowner held out his hands as if to stop Jessí anger.

"Iíve been eyeing that saddle for weeks and you know it. I got the money right here!" Jess plopped down a roll of bills on the counter. "I told you that Iíd be in here today to get it. And here I am!"

"Well youíre too late," Hadley replied. "Someone got here before you."

"Who bought it?"

"I donít know his name."

"What do you mean you donít know his name! You know everyone for miles around here and..."

"It was a passenger on the stage."

"The stage? Thereís only been one stage come through," Jess thought out loud.

"He said that he was a passenger," Hadley said quickly.

"He have a white beard and...?"

"Looked like Santa Claus, he did!" Hadley said with a laugh. "I asked him what he was going to do with a saddle like that and he just chuckled."

"He knew I wanted it. Say the stage ainít pulled out yet, I got half a mind to..."

"Wait a minute!" Sheriff Mort Corey blocked Jessí path to the outside door. "Jess, I havenít seen you look angrier. Now why donít you tell me whatís got you so fired up. I could hear you yelling halfway down the street."

Jessís frown grew larger. "Sheriff, I ainít done nothing wrong."

"Not yet, you havenít. And I want to keep it that way."

Hadley explained, "Jess is hot about me selling that saddle in the window. Someone passing through bought it."

Mort replied, "Heís got a right..."

"Heís got no right! He was at the relay station and heard me say that I was riding in town today to buy that saddle."

"Maybe he didnít know which saddle..."

"Oh he knew all right! Why he donít even know how to ride a horse! Told me so himself. So he donít need a saddle!"

"Well he has a right to buy what he wants as long as he pays for it. And Iím figuring he did?" Mort glanced at the clerk for confirmation.

"Sure did! In gold! No paper money from him. No siree," Hadley said with a smile.

Jess grabbed his bills off the counter. "Well if my money is no good..."

"Now I didnít say that!" Hadley cut in. "Just you donít see as much gold as you use to. Not with the mine shut down a few years back. Tell you what, Jess, I got other saddles, maybe not as fancy..."

"Iíll buy one from the blacksmith if I decide to buy one!"

Hadley shrugged. "Suit yourself. But if you change your mind..."

"I wonít!" Jess stormed out of the store. Mort followed calmly. He found Jess on the boardwalk. Jess was staring at the stage depot. He started to walk across the street but stopped hearing Mortís voice.

"Why donít I buy you a drink?" Mort offered.

Jess glanced back at the stage depot.

"Just got to escort the bankís money to the stage depot. Then I can meet you in the saloon."

"You heading to the stage depot?"

Mort nodded. "Can I buy a drink?"

Looking defeated, Jess nodded.

As soon as Jess entered the saloon, he saw Nicolas sitting at a table. In three angry strides, Jess stood across from Nicholas.

"That was a no account thing to do," Jess snarled.

Surprise etched across Nicholasí face. "What have I done? Please, have a seat. Iíll buy you a drink. Beer? Whiskey?"

"I donít drink with polecats!"

"Jess!" Mort called out as he entered the saloon. Mort moved to Nicholasí table.

"I thought youíd be at the stage depot," Jess said.

"Money ainít ready to take over yet. You going to introduce me to your friend?"

Jess snickered.

"Iím guessing," Mort said, "youíre the fellow who bought the saddle that Jess was eyeing."

The visitor smiled slowly. "Guilty as charged. Jess, I have you to thank as I probably wouldnít have even looked at that saddle but the way you talked about it..."

"How much?"

Nicolas looked taken back. "For the saddle? Why itís not for sale!"

"You donít even own a horse. You said that you donít ride!"

"No, I donít."

"Then why do you want a saddle?Ē

"Letís just say that I think it would make a good Christmas present," Nicholasís eyes seemed to twinkle.

Jess snapped back, "Letís just say you cheated me out of..."

Mort blocked Jess from moving closer to Nicholas. "Now Jess, the man has a right to buy any saddle thatís for sale. And he did offer money for it first." Mort turned and looked at Nicholas. "Canít say I like the way that you went about buying that saddle when you knew full well that Jess was planning on getting it."

"Jess had every opportunity to buy that saddle," Nicholas argued. "From what I know about it from the store owner, that saddleís been for sale for quite some time."

"I had to save money. I watched every penny that I made! And I would have been here today before you Ďcept I cut down a tree! And for what? Some silly holiday that..."

"Christmas isnít silly," the visitor debated. "Itís a time to show goodwill towards your fellow man."

"Like the goodwill you showed me?" Jess parted his legs slightly as his hand dropped to hover over his gun.

"Jess, how about that drink?" Mort asked, his voice low and threatening.

"Jess, I donít want any trouble," Nicholas said with alarm. "Itís almost Christmas. Itís a time for goodwill..."

"Iíll buy that saddle from you," Jess offered, his voice low and deadly. "I can give you a little bit more than you paid for it."

"Iím sorry. But the saddle is not for sale. Now if youíll excuse me, I think the stage is ready to pull out."

Jess didnít move.

"Jess, the man wants to leave," Mort said. The saloon grew quiet, so quiet that breathing seemed loud.

"Iím not a man to be cheated," Jess stated.

"No, youíre not," Nicholas agreed. "Maybe you got the better part of this bargain."

"How do you figure that?"

Nicholas smiled. "Letís call it intuition."

"Letís call it being cheated! Mister, Iíve been saving a long time. Too long to have some city slicker cheat me out of..."

"But I didnít cheat you. I may have outsmarted you. But I think in the long run youíll see that this saddle was better for me than for you."

"Seems to me a person who owns a saddle needs to know how to ride a horse. You got no use for it."

"I could say the same for you. Spending your money on such a saddle when all you need is..."

Jessís temper exploded as he shouted, "What I need is that saddle! And I aim to get it!"

"Let it go, Jess!" Mort replied, his hand gripping the butt of his gun. "You donít want trouble on Christmas Eve. Now Iím asking you to step aside so the man can leave peacefully."

Jess still didnít move.

"Iíd sure hate to lock you up on Christmas Eve but I will if you force me. And youíll sit in there until the judge comes by which will be at least two weeks. Iíd sure hate to spend my Christmas locked up in jail. Seems to me Christmas would be a lot more enjoyable at Slimís."

"The sheriff is right, of course. Christmas should be spent at home, not locked up in jail," Nicholas stated.

"Come on, Jess. Let me buy you that drink," Mort urged. "No need fighting. Even if you did, you wouldnít get that saddle. All youíd get is jail time. Come on, letís get a drink. My treat."

Jess stepped aside but his eyes stayed locked on Nicholasís face. Jessí hand still rested on the butt of his gun.

The visitor stood and offered his hand to the sheriff. "Thank you." Mort glanced warily at Jess before shaking hands. Nicholas turned towards Jess. He held out his hand. "Merry Christmas, Jess."

Jess stood as still as a statue.

"I think your stage is leaving," Mort said. "You best hurry. You donít want to miss it."

Slowly Nicholas lowered his hand. "All right, sheriff. Iíll go. Merry Christmas, Jess. I hope itís a good one for you." Then he was gone.

Mort gave a sign of relief. "Now how about that drink?"

"No thanks. Guess Iíll head back to the ranch."

Mort swallowed back his words. For several minutes he stared at Jess as if trying to figure out what to say. "Well tell Slim, Merry Christmas for me."

Jess snickered. "It ainít Christmas yet and Iím already tired of it." Jess left the saloon without a glance back. If he had, he would have seen Mortís look of concern.

Mort followed Jess out of the saloon. The sheriff stood on the boardwalk and watched until Jess rode out of town. He then walked to the stage depot.

"Sheriff, I want to thank you for your help in there," Nicholas said. "That young man has quite a temper."

"My job," Mort mumbled, his voice lacking any warmth.

"Can you believe it!" Mose walked angrily out of the office of the stage line. "We ainít getting paid until after Christmas! Payroll was on the stage coming in. And itís being held up because of the weather. They just sent a telegram! Well this ainít going to buy much," Mose said as he held out a few coins. "Some Christmas!"

"Have faith," Nicholas said. "You have to have faith!"

CHAPTER FOUR: "Late Afternoon, December 24"

Jess was quiet as he worked along side Slim.

"Thereís a spare saddle in the barn, if you want to use it," Slim offered.

"No thanks," Jess mumbled. "This one will hold up for awhile."

Slim looked as if he disagreed but he didnít argue. "I wonder if the afternoon stage will get through?"

"Ainít that bad. I had no trouble getting to Laramie and back."

"Well we might as well get some coffee before it gets here." Slim began whistling the Christmas tune that he had whistled for weeks.

Jess took a deep breath as if to relax himself but he still looked tense.

As they entered the house, both men made a beeline to the fire. Slim grabbed the rifle that hung across the fireplace before easing himself into the chair. He began cleaning the weapon.

"You sure fuss over that rifle," Jess observed. "How come you set such store in that rifle?"

Slim grinned. "Itís my pride and joy! Won this rifle at a turkey shoot. I entered a lot of them contests before I ever got a prize. The only time I ever beat my Pa in the shoot. I thought he might have let me win. But he said no, I won fair and square on my own. My Ma made a cake to celebrate. Why it had three layers! Pa said he was proud of me!" Slim grinned. "Every time I hold this rifle, I think about that day. One of the best days in my life! It was the last time that me and Pa spent the whole day together just having fun. Too bad Andy wonít get to experience that with Pa. I tell you, Jess, this rifle means the world to me. Pa told me a lot of men in the county wanted to win it."

"But you got the prize," Jess said with a half smile as he moved to the tree.

"And I ainít ever seen Pa prouder of me," Slim added.

Jess studied the tree. "It sure fills the corner, donít it?"

"Slim cut a good part of the bottom. Biggest weíve had yet," Jonesy remarked as he handed each man a cup of steaming coffee. "Took all of us a half hour just to get it inside."

"I didnít think that I was ever going to get it cut," Jess complained.

"Iím sorry that you didnít make it until town sooner," Slim apologized.

Jess glanced at Slim then looked away. Slim exchanged looks with Jonesy.

"Maybe Hadley will get another saddle in just like it," Slim suggested.

"Already asked him. Said it took too long for that one to sell."

"Maybe you could order one. You got the money."

"Thought of that too. But Hadley said the price had already gone up in the catalogue. Itíd take me at least two months to get the difference saved and by then itíd probably gone up more."

"I guess if you hadnít stayed to cut down the tree," Andy began.

Jess shrugged. "Whatís done is done. No use frettiní over it." Still anger marred Jessís rugged face.

"Well letís get to decorating this tree," Slim said cheerfully. "Andy, did you find Maís decorations?"

"Sure did!" Andy grabbed a box from the corner and carried it to the tree.

Jess didnít help decorate the Christmas tree but only watched, sipping coffee, his feet stretched out towards the fire. Frequently Andy would glance at him, worry sketched on the young boyís face.

At the sound of horses trotting, Jonesy moved to the window. "Well Iíll be. The stage got through all right. I reckon I better get some more coffee started on the stove. Reckon any passengers will want to be fed too."

As Slim started towards his jacket, Jess stopped him. "Iíll go. Ainít no need for both of us to freeze."

As Jess left the house, Jonesy observed, "He ainít hardly said two words since he got home."

"Heís been in a sour mood thatís for sure," Slim agreed as he threw another log onto the fire.

"Itís my fault," Andy cried out. "I shouldnít have made such a big to do over this tree."

"Jess donít blame anyone except that passenger. So donít you go blaming yourself. How were we to know Nicholas would buy that saddle?" Slim said. "Still donít understand why."

"He may look like Santa but Santa wouldnít be that mean!" Jonesy said.

"Must have had his reasons," Slim remarked. "I best go help, Jess. In the mood heís in, I wouldnít want to see someone cross him. And you know how the drivers like to tease him."

"Good thing, Mose ainít here!" Jonesy observed.

The two passengers who stepped down from the stage were opposites. One was blonde; the other was brunette. Even their outfits were different. The blonde wore a stylish coat while the brunette was dressed in jeans and a worn jacket.

"Hope you got some hot coffee inside?" the blonde asked.

"Sure do!" Slim greeted from the doorway. "Come on in and make yourself at home."

"Iíll do just that." He started walking quickly towards the house.

The brunette cowboy looked around as if sizing up the place. He glanced at Slim. Something about this cowboy caused Slim to feel on edge. Slim finished buttoning his jacket. He started to put on his gloves but they were so ragged that he just tossed them to the ground.

Jess already had one horse unhitched and started walking towards the corral. As Slim stepped off the porch to help Jess, he heard the passengerís exclamation.

"Why Iíll be! Harper!"

Jess froze. Slim watched as the passenger moved towards Jess. The blonde passenger had started inside the cabin but now he stopped and stared.

"Johnny Madrid," Jess greeted as his right hand dropped to rest on the butt of his gun.

Johnny smiled as his eyes roved over Jess, studying him. "Well now, ainít you a sight for sore eyes. Sure never expected to see you again. How long has it been?"

Jess parted his legs slightly. "Laredo wasnít it?"

"Some range war," Johnny said, a smile still playing on his lips.

Jess gave a short nod. "Until them Texas Rangers broke it up."

"That one named Reese busted you in the head if I remember."

"I still got the lump to prove it too," Jess joked.

"You know we never did get to see which one of us was fastest." Johnnyís hand now hovered over his gun as his smile disappeared.

Jess said, "I ainít got no quarrel with you, Johnny."

"Still Iím wondering if you are faster."

The blonde man moved to the hitching post. "Johnny!"

"You stay out of this, Scott. This is between me and Jess."

"Murdoch will have your hide!" Scott threatened.

Johnnyís grin broke out again. "I ainít scared of Murdoch. How about it, Jess? Want to finally find out who is quicker?" Johnny asked as he put several feet between them. Jess positioned himself so the sun wasnít in his eyes.

Slim saw Andy move from the house to the hitching rail. "Andy get inside!"

"But Slim..."

"Now!"

Andy glanced one more time at Jess before he entered the house.

"Whatís going on?" Jonesy asked as he walked out of the house. Seeing the two men face each other in a gunfighterís pose, he stopped. "Slim..."

But Slimís expression showed that he was helpless to stop this gunplay. "Keep Andy inside. And donít let him look out the window. Iím not sure whatís going to happen."

Jonesy quickly followed Slimís orders, slamming the door shut.

"Well Jess? Itís your play," Johnny challenged.

Jess nodded. "I reckon itís time we found out."

The two men stared at each other. They stood in similar positions. Each had his right hand held slightly above his gun.

"Jess!" Slim protested.

But Jess ignored his plea. "Whenever youíre ready."

"Johnny, donít do this!" Scott ordered.

Johnnyís hand suddenly dropped to his gun. Immediately Jess reacted as his own hand raced to his revolver. The quickness of both men left everyone watching breathless. Jess and Johnny were close to being equal in speed. The onlookers waited anxiously for the sound of gunfire, but as the men drew their guns all that was heard was laughter.

Johnny slipped his gun back into his holster. "I had you this time."

"You reckon?" Jess challenged. "ĎCause it looked to me, I would have shot you dead before your finger even got close to the trigger."

The blonde manís face reddened while Slimís face darkened with rage. Andy ran out of the house, passing Slim as the young boy sped to Jess.

"That was something!" Andy praised.

"He was watching?" Slim asked.

"I couldnít stop him," Jonesy said as he stood near Slim.

"Why youíre as fast as Jess," Andy greeted.

"Faster," Johnny clarified.

"You sure?" Jess challenged. "Want to go again?"

Scott grabbed Johnnyís arm and spun him, so they were facing each other. "Have you lost your senses?"

Johnny smiled at his brother. "Scott, I want you to meet Jess Harper. We worked together, say, how longís it been?"

"Two years...no, three," Jess corrected himself. "Near Laredo."

"Until we tangled with those three Texas Rangers," Johnny added with a laugh.

"Mr. Harper," Scott said with such unfriendliness that Jess glanced warily at him. "Johnny, when youíre through playing childish games, I suggest you come inside and get a bite to eat before the stage leaves." Scott walked away.

Slimís expression was as dark as Scottís had been. "And Jess, you need to get those horses changed. The stage needs to leave here in a few minute, so you ainít got time to waste."

As Slim walked away, Johnny whistled. "Your boss?"

Jess nodded before turning to take care of the horses. Johnny and Andy fell in step with him.

"Slimís my brother," Andy clarified.

"Well I know how brothers can be. That was mine."

"Brother?" Jess stopped in his tracks. "You told me that you ainít seen your brother since you were a boy."

"Well I ainít a boy no more," Johnny joked. "Lots changed since Iíve seen you. Iím part owner with my father and Scott of a ranch in California."

Jess eyes narrowed as he studied Johnny. "You own a ranch!"

"Jess, I feel like I discovered the mother lode!"

Jess replied, "So after all these years. You always said youíd kill him after what your Pa did to your Ma."

"Yeah, well...we made peace. I guess I wasnít told the whole truth about my Ma leaving. You ought to see the ranch. Itís some place. And it ainít cold there. Not like it is here."

The two men and the boy started walking to the corral. Jess opened the gate and the horse raced inside, kicking up slush. Jess tossed hay into the ring and the horse began to eat eagerly.

As Jess led two horses towards the stage, he said, "So you own a ranch instead of working for one."

"Can you believe it?" Johnny grinned. "Me? A ranch owner?"

"It is a little hard to swallow. Johnny Madrid, a ranch owner!" Jess replied.

"Now itís Johnny Lancer." Seeing confusion etched on Jessís face, Johnny added, "I took my País last name."

"So now you have a family." Jess smiled. "Iím glad for you, Johnny."

"So am I! Gunslinging ainít got that long of a life span. Say, Jess, what about you? This looks like a good place to put down roots."

"I guess it beats living by the gun."

"You donít sound so sure."

Andy frowned. "Of course, Jess is sure! Heís a good hand too. Just ask Slim and Jonesy."

"Well you know how gunslinging is. Once a gunslinger..." Jess shrugged.

"But you ainít a gunslinger any more," Andy argued. "Jess works this ranch with us."

"More like for you," Jess clarified. "Slim hired me on a few months ago. This is the longest Iíve signed on at any place."

"You like it?" Johnny asked.

"Well I babysit cows in the snow, and change horses while everyone else gets a hot cup of coffee and..."

Johnny cut in, "I do that kind of work. Ainít the easiest life. Still I canít say that I miss working as a gunslinger. I bet you feel the same way."

"Well itís been different working on a ranch without being hired for my gun." Jess said as he hitched the horses to the stage and unhitched the next pair.

"So youíre putting down roots too?" Johnny inquired. "Like Iím doing."

Jess shrugged. "Ainít sure. I told Slim this job might not be permanent."

Andyís frown grew.

"You know my fatherís ranch is in California."

"So you said. What are you doing in Wyoming?"

"Selling cattle; the armyís buying. Weíre bringing them through in a month. You know, Jess, we could use a good hand."

"You mean a gun hand?"

"No. I mean a ranch hand. Murdoch donít hold with my old ways. You best know that if you sign on."

"Sign on?" Andy echoed. "Why Jess canít do that! We need him here! Heís part of this outfit."

"Easy kid, " Johnny said, "itís only an offer. Up to Jess if he takes it. Jess, weíre leaving town tomorrow. Ainít going to make it home by Christmas. Can you believe that my old man gets sentimental about the holiday? Insisted that the whole family be together. I said itís just one day, but Murdoch wouldnít listen. So weíre meeting him in Medicine Bow. Heís got an old friend that has a spread there, called Shiloh. Seems this rancher and Murdoch go way back. His friend used to be a judge and once defended Murdoch. Guess I ainít the only Lancer to have a past."

"Weíre going to have a Christmas too!" Andy said with excitement. "Jonesy is cooking a pie and..."

Jess nudged Andy. "He ainít interested in what weíre eating."

Johnny said, "Jess, youíd like our ranch. No snow like you have here. Just miles of sweet grass, and Murdoch pays top wage. If you decide you want the job, Iíll pay for a ticket for you to ride back with us. Weíre traveling tomorrow. Plan to arrive in Medicine Bow by noon. Then the next day on to California. I know Judge Garth wouldnít mind putting you up. Why you could share Christmas dinner with us. I hear the Judge has got a pretty daughter. Of course I got first dibs on her. What do you say tomorrow..."

"Tomorrowís Christmas so Jess canít leave," began Andy.

"Andy, Iíll do my own speaking," Jess said. "Why donít you go let Slim know that the horses will be ready in about ten minutes."

Andy turned and walked away but several times he glanced over his shoulder at the two men talking, their heads bent close together.

When Johnny finally entered the house, he apologized, "I sure hope that I didnít cause Jess any grief. We were just having some fun."

"You call a gunfight having some fun?" Jonesy argued. "Why if one of those guns had gone off..."

"Not to mention we got a kid here," Slim added.

"What kid?" Andy questioned. "I ainít no kid."

"Donít say ainít," Jonesy stated.

"Why not? Jess says it!"

"It ainít proper thatís why," Slim answered. "Now go help Jess with them horses. These folks are going to want to get to Laramie before the snow hits. The stage is already going be delayed in leaving Ďcause of his shenanigans. Thought heíd have them horses done by now. "

Andy bit his lip with frustration but he followed Slimís orders.

"I guess thatís my fault too," Johnny acknowledged. "Jess and me got to talking about the good old days."

"You mean when he hired his gun out?" Slim asked.

Johnnyís smile disappeared. "Yeah, I guess, thatís what I mean. Me and Jess rode together for the same outfit."

Scott glanced from one man to the other. "My brother and I are now part owners of a ranch in California; The Lancer Ranch."

Slim nodded. "Iíve heard of it. Big spread."

Johnny nodded. "I offered Jess a job."

A frown appeared on Slimís face. "Oh? Did he take you up on your offer?"

"Not yet. Said heíd think about it."

Slim looked down at his food but he didnít eat. It was as if he had lost his appetite.

Jonesy dropped the plate of biscuits hard on the table. He eyed Johnny with disdain.

Scott bit into a biscuit. "I have to say that I didnít think anyone made better biscuits than our cook, Maria, but you, Mr. Jonesy, you take the prize."

Jonesy finally smiled, but he lost his smile hearing Johnny speak.

"Youíre kind of hard on Jess, donít you think?" Johnny asked.

The room grew silent except for the crackling of the logs burning.

Slim began, "How I run my ranch..."

"Jess ainít a man to be trifled with," Johnny warned.

"I think I know Jess."

"We fought side by side in a range war. You get to know a man good when you do that. But I got to say that I ainít sure that many men know Jess."

Slim replied, "Mr. Lancer, I consider myself Jessís friend. Not just his boss."

Johnny looked up from plate. He smiled. "Johnny. Most people call me Johnny."

Scottís lips puckered tight as if trying to hold his words back.

"And I didnít mean any offense," Johnny said. "It just appeared that he was doing all the work and getting your wrath at the same time. Donít seem too friendly to me."

Disapproval marred Slimís features.

Scott suddenly stood. "Mr. Sherman, thank you for the hospitality. Jonesy, the food could rival what Iíve eaten in San Francisco. It was that good! Wish the other relay stations offered this good of fare. Johnny, itís time we left."

Slim never looked as Scott. His eyes remained on Johnny.

Johnny didnít move. He only stared back at Slim.

"Johnny, letís go," Scott repeated.

"Iím still eating," Johnny said as he bit into the biscuit.

"Now!" Scottís whisper seemed to fill the room.

Johnny took one more bite, chewed slowly, then took a large swallow of coffee. "Reckon, Iím done," he said with a smile as he stood up.

Johnny was the first passenger to leave the house. He handed Jess a biscuit. "Brought you one. I see why you stay. Heís a good cook."

Jess grinned. "Good to see you, Johnny." The men shook hands.

Johnny said, "You remember my offer." Johnny glanced over his shoulder at Slim, who was leaning against the house. Though Slim was talking to Scott, his eyes were on Jess and Johnny. "The stage leaves Laramie at noon."

"I appreciate the offer."

"Itís a good job," Johnny said.

Scott neared his brother, slapping him affectionately on the shoulder. "Letís go."

Both men climbed into the stage as the driver sat down in the wagon seat.

Johnny added as he stuck his face out the window, "And remember Murdoch pays top wage. Doubt if Sherman here does."

Slim started for the stage, but the stage pulled out before Slim reached it. Andy moved close to Jess.

Andy said, "You ainít leaving are you? Itís almost Christmas and..."

Jess mumbled, "You know I said Iíd try this, but I never made a promise to stay on forever."

"But you got to stay at least through Christmas!"

"Why? You think if I leave then Santa ainítí going to know where to send my gifts?" Jess teased.

"I done told you that Santa donít have nothing to do with me."

Andy turned on his heels and walked away, heading towards the house.

"Now whatís got into him?" Jess asked. "I was just teasing him." He looked taken back seeing the look on Slimís face. "Something wrong?"

Slim warned, "You ever pull something like that again, drawing for fun on a man..."

"Youíll fire me?" Jess shot back.

"Youíve had something in your craw ever since we started talking about Christmas. Just Ďcause Christmas donít mean nothing to you, donít spoil it for Andy."

"Seems to me itís time that Andy learned there ainít no Santa Claus, and no Christmas miracle; just hard work and usually hard times. You ainít got the money to give him a good Christmas and you know it! You should be spending money on hay and gloves for yourself and things we need. Instead youíre buying presents on things we can do without, but youíre going on about Santa and presents. What are going to say when Andy gets up on Christmas morning and sees there ainít much there? How you going to explain Santa and Christmas miracles then? I know how heíll feel. ĎCause I heard about Santa when I was little, and itís a poor feeling to see that your stocking is empty."

"Jess, I know it was hard for you being on your own and you were still a boy but..."

"I done just fine."

"By being a gunslinger? With the likes of the kind that just left."

"What you got against Johnny? Heís a successful rancher. Or is it me that you got a problem with?"

"You both could have been killed! That ainít a way to have fun! You ainít a boy, Jess. Youíre a man!"

"Weíre too good a shootist to get hurt! You forgetting I earned my way by being a crack shot?"

"You want to go back to being a gunslinger, you go right ahead. But donít do it around Andy, or youíll have me to tangle with!"

"You know for two cents Iíd move on. And where would you be? Jonesy canít help you! Not with that bad back of his. Seems to me if youíd quit riding me roughshod and..."

"Roughshod! You know how many times you take a break to get a cup of coffee!" Slim sighed deeply. "I donít figure that Iíve been hard on you."

Jess glanced down at his feet as he mumbled, "Guess you should know. Johnny offered me a job in California."

"He told me."

Jessís eyes shot to Slimís face. "Maybe itís best if I take him up on his offer."

Slim looked away from Jess. His face showed that he was wrestling with his thoughts. Finally he said, "Well itís your choice, and I wonít ask you to stay on if youíre set on working somewhere else. ĎSides I canít pay what he can. Iíve heard of the Lancer spread. Theyíre a big outfit. If youíd been working for them, then you probably could have bought that saddle sooner."

Jess still didnít look directly at Slim. "It ainít like I promised Iíd stay. I told you that when you hired me on. You knew I was a drifter."

"Youíre right on that."

"I mean...I appreciate you giving me the work."

For a minute, neither man spoke. Slim broke the silence, "Your mind is made up?"

Jess hesitated slightly before nodding.

"All right, Jess, but can I ask a favor?"

Jess gave a slight nod.

"Can you stay on at least through Christmas? Youíre right. Andy ainít going to get much. And with this being the first year that Ma and Pa ainít here...well I know it would mean a lot to him if you were here. Andyís counting on all of us spending Christmas together."

Jess looked guilty. "Johnny is leaving on Christmas day and offered to buy me a ticket if I took him up on his offer."

"I see. Well I guess itís settled then."

Jess nodded. "I guess it is."

"The bank wonít be closed Ďtil five. Iíll need to ride in so I can pay you what I owe you."

"No need. I know how tired you are. You can send it to me."

"No! You deserve to be paid. I always pay my debts. ĎSides I owe the blacksmith some money and I promised to pay him today. Tell Andy and Jonesy, Iíll be back shortly. And Jess, how about not telling Andy youíre leaving. Let him at least enjoy Christmas Eve."

"I wonít leave until morning. Iíll tell Andy then."

"After he opens his presents. That way he can enjoy part of Christmas day, at least."

"All right, Slim." Jess started to hold out his hand to shake hands, but Slim turned and mounted his horse. He rode away from the ranch without once looking back.

 

CHAPTER FIVE: Christmas Eve

Jonesy lit the candles on the tree.

"It sure is pretty," Andy said. "Almost as pretty as when Ma use to decorate it. What do you think, Jess? You ever seen a prettier tree?"

Jess looked at the tree. "Well I ainít seen many, but youíre right, itís awful pretty."

Jonesy studied the tree. "It does give you a warm feeling, donít it?"

"Sorry, I couldnít finish with the decorating," Slim apologized.

Jonesy asked, "Slim, you never did say where you rode off to this afternoon?"

Slim replied, "Why Jonesy I just went to do some chores and to check on the cattle."

"Sure were gone a long time," Jonesy observed. "Ainít like you to be gone long on Christmas Eve. Not with me cooking cookies."

Andy bit into the sugar cookie. "Jonesy, these cookies are good but they donít taste like Ma use to make them. You do something different?"

"Why thatís your Maís recipe! I found it and followed the directions," Jonesy argued.

"Maybe youíre so use to cooking beans that you donít know how to cook anything else," Jess kidded.

"You just wait until tomorrow! Why my Christmas supper is going to have you asking for seconds, even thirds!" Jonesy promised.

Jess looked uncomfortable.

Andy didnít notice. He said, "Sure is different without Ma and Pa. Iím glad youíre here, Jess."

"Me? Why?"

"ĎCause it wouldnít seem like Christmas without you. Weíre all here. Together. Thatís awful nice."

Jess glanced at Slim, who gave a slight negative nod. "Weíre usually together for every meal," Jess argued. "Donít see how it being Christmas makes it special from any other meal. ĎCept if weíre lucky we might not have beans to eat."

Jonesy scowled.

Andy spoke up, "But Christmas is special, ainít it, Slim?"

Slim nodded.

Andy added, "Ma use to say itís not so much the food as the people youíre eating with. I guess thatís what makes Christmas so special, is the people. Itís kind of like Sunday. You ainít working as hard. Youíre just enjoying being together."

Jess began, "Andy..."

"Jonesy, how about something to drink?" Slim cut in. "You got any cider?"

"Or something stronger," Jess echoed.

"You sick?" Jonesy asked.

"No," Jess said.

"Well whiskey ainít drunk in this house except..."

"For medicinal purposes," Jess finished. "I know. Just thought youíd make an exception on Christmas Eve."

"Well you thought wrong," Jonesy replied. "And I ainít making an exception on Christmas either. Andy, come help me."

Andy reluctantly left his place by the fire.

"You said that you wouldnít tell Andy you were leaving," Slim whispered.

"I wasnít going to!" Jess said. "But heís making it hard talking the way he is about what weíre going to do tomorrow."

"Andy thinks of you as part of this family."

"I donít know why. Iím just the hired help."

"Thatís what you think?"

"You pay me to work, donít you? What else would you call it?"

Andy hurried in the room, holding the cups as if they were a treasure. "Slim, guess what! Jonesy got some chocolate in town. Hereís a cup for both of you!"

Jess grinned. "Why I ainít had chocolate since...I donít know when."

"Merry Christmas, Jess!" Andy cried out with a grin.

"Merry Christmas, tiger," Jess replied, a smile tugging at his lips.

"You know, Slim, this might prove to be a good Christmas yet even if Ma and Pa ainít here. Donít you think?"

"I hope so," Slim said. "Now you best get to bed. Tomorrow is Christmas and Santa ainít going to leave presents if youíre wide awake..."

"Oh I donít believe in Santa."

"What?" Jonesy said with anger. "Why you say something like that and old Santa might just pass by this house. How would you feel waking up to no presents?"

"Jonesy, Slim buys the presents for my stocking. I know that."

"Oh I do, do I?" Slim disagreed. "And where would I be getting the money from? No, itís Santa who brings you presents. Though Jonesy might just be right about him forgetting you this year with that attitude."

Andy shook his head as if he couldnít believe his ears. "Jess, at least you and me know that Santa donít exist. They think Iím still a kid but I ainít. Good night, Jess." Andy held out his hand, offering to shake hands.

Jess pulled him close and gave him a hug. "You ainít that grownup...least ways not yet!"

Andy laughed.

"Now get a good nightís sleep."

Andy grabbed another cookie before heading to bed.

As Andy shut his bedroom door, Jonesy sighed. "Didnít want to say anything, but that poor boy is missing his parents. He was crying in the barn. Thought no one heard him but I heard him tell his horse. Slim, I hope you did get him gifts that heíll like."

"I got what I could afford, and I know he needs long johns and a bandana. I donít know how he gets his so dirty that you canít get it cleaned."

"You mean you just bought him essentials?"

"No! But I couldnít get him much. Jonesy, we might have to buy some hay this year. And if the stage quits running Ďcause of this snow then we wonít get paid until it starts up again."

If Jonesy had any sympathy, he didnít show it. Instead he entered Andyís bedroom.

"Slim, you donít have to pay me," Jess offered.

Slim handed him the money. "Itís yours. Go on! Take it! You earned it."

Hearing Jonesy, Jess put the money quickly into his pocket.

Entering the room, Jonesy said with a laugh, "Well he ainít too old for a bedtime story, and guess what he wanted to hear; a Christmas one. Didnít get halfway through before he was out like a light. I knew he would be. Letís get his presents under the tree."

It took only seconds to place the presents under the branches. Jonesy looked disappointed.

"I got him a knife," Slim said as he added one more present. "He ought to like that."

Jonesy frowned more. "Slim, you sure..."

"Andyís right. He is growing up."

"Jess, you can teach him to whittle. He set store to that whistle you made him," Jonesy said.

Jess paled.

"You feeling all right?" Jonesy asked quickly.

Jess nodded.

Jonesy put two small packages in the stocking that hung by the chimney. "Wonít be much from Santa. Just some sugar."

"And I got him a peppermint stick," Slim added as he put the candy into the stocking. "Guess it ainít much, is it?"

Jonesy glanced at Jess, who just sat in the chair. "Slim, you did your best. I know money is tight."

CHAPTER SIX : "Early Morn, Christmas Day"

It wasnít yet dawn, when Andy urged Jess out of the bed. "Come on. Everyoneís already up."

"It ainít light yet! I donít get up this early to tend to the cattle!"

"But itís Christmas!"

With eyes half closed, Jess stumbled to the main part of the house.

With his elbow, Jonesy stabbed Jess.

"What the..."

"You were wrong!" Jonesy said.

"About what?" Jess questioned.

"Santa did come," Jonesy replied. "Andy, you better see what he brought you. I know Iím curious."

Slim handed Jess a cup of hot coffee. "This ought to perk you up some."

"Go on, Andy! What did Santa bring you? I bet it was something nice," Jonesy encouraged.

Andy reached into the stocking. A smile touched his face. As Andy started to taste the peppermint stick, Jonesy warned, "Not until weíve had breakfast!"

"Uh, Andy," Slim began, "I know last year Santa brought you two peppermint sticks and this year you only got one. It ainít Ďcause youíve been bad. Well..."

"Slim, you donít have to explain," Andy cut in. "This year he brought me some sugar. He didnít last year. I tell you, I think Iím very lucky to get such treats. Wherever Santa is, I hope he knows how grateful I am and happy to get both a peppermint stick and sugar. Just what I was hoping to get. Donít know how Santa knew thatís exactly what I wanted." Andy turned and winked at Jess.

"Well who goes first?" Slim asked.

"I say Jonesy!" Andy said with excitement.

"All right!" Jonesy agreed. "Donít mind if I do."

Andy eagerly looked under the tree. He pulled from under a long branch a small package. The package was wrapped in plain brown paper. "Here, Jonesy. This is from me."

Jonesy shook the package. "Well it donít rattle! Wonder what it is?"

"Well open it!" Andy encouraged.

The old man tore off the wrapping. "Andy, this is just what I was hoping to get!"

"You really like it?"

"Like it! Why I canít think of anything else Iíd rather get." He held up the suspenders. "Thank you."

Slim handed Jonesy a bigger package. "This is from me."

Jonesy opened the package and gasped. "Slim, this must have cost you..."

"Never you mind. You like it donít you?"

Jonesy seldom smiled; but a grin spread from ear to ear on the old manís face. "This is best pan I own. Thank you, Slim. And you know what? Iím going to use it to rustle us up some flapjacks for breakfast."

Both Slim and Andy exchanged smiles, then glanced at Jess.

"Well," Slim said quickly. "Who goes next?"

"You!" Andy searched under the tree. "Here! This is from me."

"Thank you," Slim said as he opened the package. "Just what I needed."

"Slim, I donít know how you manage to get your bandana so dirty. I figured you could use one."

Jess and Slim exchanged surprise glances.

Jonesy handed Slim a package. "Hope you like it."

Slim nodded. "Iím sure I will." He opened the box. "Now how did you know I could use a shirt?"

"You forgetting who mends yours? Youíre down to one."

All looked at Jess. He said nothing.

"All right, Andy! Youíre next," Jonesy said as he handed the young boy a present.

Andy tore into the gift. "A shirt."

"You needed one too," Jonesy said.

"I sure do! Thank you, Jonesy," Andy said.

Slim handed Andy a box. Andy quickly opened it. Andyís smile wavered slightly as he held up the bandana and long johns. "Just what I needed. Thanks, Slim."

Slim handed him another box.

Andy glanced quickly at Jess.

"Uh thatís from me too," Slim said.

"You? Oh, I thought...Well thanks, Slim." Andy opened the box and gasped with delight. "Look, Jess! A knife! Now you can teach me to whittle."

"Well donít be pestering Jess today. He can show you tomorrow," Jonesy added.

Jess swallowed with nervousness.

"You be careful with that knife!" Slim warned.

"Thanks, Slim!" The smile on Andyís face showed how happy he was with the gift.

Slim and Jonesy glanced at Jess but he only sat in the chair, sipping his coffee. His shirt dangled open.

His hair was not combed. Dark stubble covered his chin

"Jess, youíre next!" Andy said with excitement.

Shock broke out on Jessís face. "Me?"

"Here." Andy handed Jess a package.

"Andy, you shouldnít."

"Donít know why not. Youíre part of this outfit. Well arenít you going to open it?"

Jess touched the paper as if he had never seen a gift. "Sure!" He opened the box and stared at what was inside.

Andy said quickly, "I know your bandana gets as dirty as Slimís. Hope you like it."

"I do! I really do! Thanks, Andy, for remembering me."

"This is from me," Jonesy said a little gruff.

Jess looked startled. "You got me a gift too?"

"Sure! Well donít just stare at it! Open it!"

Jess opened the package. A look of surprise crossed Jessís face. "Thanks, Jonesy." Jess fingered the material.

"Well I mend your shirts as much as I mend Slimís. So I know you needed one too."

Slim handed Jess a package. "Merry Christmas, Jess."

"Slim..." Jess started to protest.

"Go on, open it!" Slim said eagerly.

Jess tore off the paper and opened the box.

"I uh...brought that when I thought you were getting the saddle."

Jess held the reins. "Theyíre nice. Real nice."

"I reckon you can still use them," Slim said. "Though they are a bit fancy."

"Ho! Ho! Ho!" The loud cry mixed with the sound of sleigh bells brought a smile to Slimís face.

"Well looks like Santa is back," Slim said with a slow grin.

"Ho! Ho! Ho!" Again the sound of laughter was mixed with sleigh bells. The door flew open with a bang. Standing in the doorway was Mose with a huge sack slung over his shoulder.

"Did I fool you to thinking I was Santa a come calling?" Mose moved into the room.

Jess shut the door quickly. "No, we thought it was coyote in pain!"

Mose chuckled then opened his sack. "Letís just see what Santa left on your doorstep." He handed out presents to Slim, Jonesy, and Andy.

"Seems I forgot someone."

Jess grimaced .

Mose chuckled as he moved to Jess. "Well have you been a good boy this year?"

Jess frowned. "Mose, you ainít Santa!"

"No, but I come bearing gifts," He handed Jess the sack. "Merry Christmas, Jess."

"Whatís this?"

"Donít you know what a present is?"

"Of course I do!"

"Well look inside."

"You canít give me a present Ďcause I didnít get you anything." Jessís face reddened as his glance included the others.

"Donít matter. Go on. Look inside." Mose urged. "Unless you scared to."

"I ainít scared! Probably some joke. Probably got some animal thatís going jump out at me."

Mose chuckled.

"Stop your cackling," Jess ordered as he cautiously looked into the sack. He drew in his breath sharply. "How did you get these?"

Andy tried to peek into the sack. "What did Mose get you?"

Jess pulled out several apples. "Must be a..."

"Bushel," Mose said. "Jonesy, you think you can whip up an apple pie for Christmas?"

"You just watch me! Iíll have it ready for Christmas dinner!" He glanced at Jess. "Whatís wrong? You said you liked apple pie."

Jess looked worried. "Mose, I know how expensive apples are! How did you get that much money?"

Mose swayed on his feet at being the center of attention. "Oh hog wash! It werenít nothing."

"Mose, you didnít rob..."

Moseís face reddened. "I ainít never stole a thing in my life! So donít go thinking that I did! I got them apples from Hadley fair and square. Now I thought youíd be pleased getting them apples. For Christmas dinner, Jonesy always makes our favorites. I thought it would only be right if he made yours too."

"I am pleased," Jess said quickly. "Truly I am. But I know how much Hadley charges for apples. Mose, you usually donít even have two nickels to rub together and..."

"Well if you have to know, I bargained for them."

"Bargained for them! With what? You ainít got nothing. The only valuable thing you own is..." Jess stopped. "Mose, whereís your lucky piece?"

"Just never you mind."

"You sold it, didnít you? You finally let Hadley buy it."

"What do I need with a lucky piece? Donít need to rely on luck when I got good friends like the bunch of you. Why I Ďspect Iím the luckiest man alive. Now enough with this. Letís have some breakfast!"

"Wait a minute, Mose. You havenít opened our present." Andy handed him a package.

"We all chipped in," Jonesy added.

Guilt shone on Jessís face for he knew that he hadnít contributed.

Mose opened the gift with the eagerness of a young child. "My, oh my!" he exclaimed with a huge grin. He held up the scarf. "This ought to keep me warm on these snowy days."

"Look deeper, Mose," Andy said.

Mose pulled out a bandana. His grin widened. "And this will keep the dust out of my mouth. Couldnítía got nicer gifts. Thanks, boys." He looked at everyone including Jess. Jessís eyes dodged Moseís glance.

"What do you say that I get them flapjacks a cooking?" Jonesy started for the kitchen.

"Flapjacks!" Mose said with eagerness. "Now youíre talking!"

"Wait a minute! Seems thereís one more gift under the tree." Slim pointed at something large hidden under a blanket.

"Now how could I have missed seeing that? I wonder who that could be for?" Jonesy asked with such innocence that he sounded guilty.

Mose read the tag, "To Jess from Santa."

A look of puzzlement spread across Jessís face. "To me from Santa?" he repeated.

"You better open it," Slim said.

"Come on, Jess." Andy pulled on Jessís arm. "Donít you want to see what Santa brought you?"

"What kind of joke..."

"Come on, Jess!" Andy pulled harder on Jessís arm.

Jess moved slowly towards the gift. "If this is a joke..." The words died in his throat as he pulled off the cloth. He looked from Slim to Andy to Jonesy. All three were smiling.

Mose chuckled. "Thatís a hum dinger! That surely is!"

Jess asked Slim. "Whereíd you get the money to..."

"Why do you think itís from me?" Slim asked. "It says on the tag to Jess from Santa. Maybe heís making up for all the times he slighted you."

Jess just stood looking at the saddle. It was hard to read his face.

Slim suddenly looked worried. "I know it ainít as fancy as the one you wanted," Slim said. "But the leather is soft. And itís got some silver on it."

Jess still didnít speak.

Slim looked more worried.

"I know itís not a new saddle, but it ainít been used much and..."

"I ainít never had a gift like this," Jess said as he touched the saddle as if it was gold.

Slim finally grinned with relief.

"And you thought Santa didnít exist," Jonesy added with a smile. "Now ainít you ashamed?"

Jess turned and looked at Slim. "How could you afford this? This must have cost..." His eyes caught the empty space above the fireplace. "Whereís your rifle?"

Slim stammered, "Itís probably around here somewhere."

"You always keep it above the fireplace. You sold it, didnít you? To buy this?"

Slimís eyes dropped off of Jessís face. "The eyepiece wasnít right. So what do I need with a rifle that doesnít shoot straight?"

"You need it about as much as I need this fancy saddle. I donít understand. Why would you...why would all of you give me gifts? Why would you do that for me? You could have used the money for something you needed, but you bought me presents. Why?"

Andyís face formed a look of puzzlement. "Same reason we buy each other presents. Jess, youíre a part of this outfit. As much as anyone is."

"Thatís right," Jonesy said. "You ainít been here long but it wouldnít seem the same without you."

"I didnít tell them, Jess. Maybe now is the time," Slim urged.

"Tell us what?" Jonesy asked.

"Well I told Slim...that is..." Jess suddenly grabbed the saddle and started towards the door.

"Where you going?" Jonesy called out.

"I got to see someone in town," Jess said before leaving the house.

Slim grabbed his jacket. "Iíll be right back."

He caught up to Jess in the barn. Jess was saddling his horse. "So you are heading into town."

"Yeah." Jess mounted his horse in one easy jump. "Johnny said heíd leave by noon."

"Donít you think you ought to tell them leaving? You at least owe them..."

"I know what I owe them, and you too." Jess struggled to say the word, "Thanks!" He glanced at the house. "I wish I could stay but... I...I got to go!" Jess was gone, spurring his horse, galloping despite the icy road.

 

CHAPTER SEVEN : "Afternoon, December 25"

The day turned to afternoon. Slim poked at the fire, stirring up the embers.

"He ainít coming back," Andy mumbled.

Slim bit his lip, dodging Andyís eyes.

"Itís true, ainít it? I know his friend offered him a job. Jess seemed interested."

Slim replied, "Jess told me that he needed to leave today at noon if he took him up on the offer. When he rode out of here, he said he was going to see Johnny Lancer."

"Well I reckon he did take him up on the offer all right. That explains why heís not here. I think weíve waited Christmas dinner long enough." Jonesy headed for the kitchen.

"I ainít hungry," Andy mumbled.

Jonesy turned. "Since when are you not hungry? Youíre always hungry!"

Slim said, "Andy, you know that Jess never promised that heíd stay on. He said that heíd give it a try."

"He could have told us goodbye."

"Andyís right," Jonesy agreed. "He just rode out of here as if..."

"As if we meant nothing to him," Andy finished for him.

"Maybe Jess didnít have the words," Mose said.

"Hog wash!" Jonesy spit the words out. "He ainít shy about speaking up. Werenít shy about taking that saddle either."

"Didnít take our gifts. Guess he didnít think much of them," Andy said.

"Jess always did travel light," Slim defended.

"Donít defend him, Slim!" Jonesy said. "You took a chance on him. We all did. Guess we were wrong."

Andy stared down at his knife. "I thought Jess would stay longer. Guess he wonít be teaching me how to whittle."

"Andy, what do you say I teach you how to whittle?" Mose asked. "I might not be as good as Jess. But whittling will get your appetite a going."

"No thanks, Mose."

The sound of a horse approaching the house drew everyoneís attention. Andy raced to the window. "Itís Jess!"

"Well Iíll be!" Jonesy said. "I got some things to say to that boy!"

As Jess opened the door, he was met with frowns from everyone.

"Why the gloom?" Jess asked.

Jonesy slammed the plate down hard on the table. "Letís eat."

"You mean you ainít eaten yet? Why itís near 4 p.m."

"If it was up to me," Jonesy began but Slim spoke up, silencing the old man. "We donít eat until everyoneís here. Not at Christmas. Guess we can eat now."

"Not so fast!" Jess argued. "I got something to say first."

"You got something to say! Well let me tell you..." Jonesy began.

"Jonesy, let Jess have his say," Andy cut in.

Jonesy pressed his lips together so hard that his face puckered.

"That saddle you got for me, well I sold it."

"Sold it!" Andy cried out.

"I worked half the night softening that leather!" Jonesy added.

"Hold it! Jess has a right to do with that saddle as he sees fit," Slim said but he looked angry.

"No, he donít!" Jonesy argued. "You paid a good deal for it. More than you should have. Jess, I guess you didnít want have to pay the extra expense to take it with you to California. Ainít you supposed to be on a stage heading there now?"

Jess glanced at Slim. "You told them?"

"Before you lit out here, you said you had to get to town before noon to see Lancer. I figured you werenít coming back."

"Yet you didnít eat."

"I guess we were all kind of hoping for a Christmas miracle that you would stay on."

Jess tossed a roll of bills on the table. "I got a good deal for that saddle. Johnny Lancer bought it. He was the only one I knew of that would have the money on Christmas to buy the saddle."

"Why Jess?" Slim asked. "You ainít talked about nothing else. I know the saddle was used and not as fancy as the one you wanted..."

"Itís better than the one I wanted!" Jess said. "I ainít never got that nice a gift, not for any occasion. But the money I got for it will pay for the next two mortgages and some groceries besides beans."

"But you wanted a saddle," Andy persisted. "Thatís all you talked about."

Jess smiled. "I thought I did, but I guess I got something better. Being part of an outfit. At other places, I was the hired help. But here...well like you said Iím part of the outfit. And I reckon thatís the best Christmas present that anyone could get."

Moseís face puckered. "I donít quite understand..."

Andy rushed to Jess and bear-hugged him. "I do! It means Jess ainít leaving! Heís staying on!"

"I got something for you. For all of you!" Jess opened his saddlebags. He handed Andy a small gift.

Andy tore into the wrapping.

"I figured you would need something to carry that knife in," Jess said. "You can hang it on your belt. And hereís a stone to keep that knife sharp. And hereís a couple of licorice sticks. Hadley was sold out of the peppermint!"

Jess tossed Mose sack of tobacco. "Mose, hereís the tobacco that youíre always hankering for."

Mose laughed.

"Aw, stop your cackling," Jess complained but with a smile.

"Slim, this is for you."

Slim opened the package. He held up the gloves. "I needed this! Thank you, Jess!"

"And Jonesy, I got this for you." Jess handed him a book.

Jonesyís eye narrowed as he read, "Cookbook. Say, are you complaining about my cooking?"

Jessís said with an innocent look, "Not me!" As Jonesy started towards the kitchen, Jess whispered to Slim, "And it ainít got a bean recipe in it. I checked!"

Slim laughed. "Letís eat."

"Got one more present."

"What did you do? Buy out the store," Slim kidded. Slim then grew serious, "I reckon you used a lot of the money you saved."

"Oh present this ainít from me!" Jess argued. He handed a big sized package to Slim. "Says to Slim from Santa. Surprised you didnít see it leaning against the wall."

Slimís eyebrow raised.

"Well go on! Open it!" Jess encouraged. "Donít you want to see what Santa brought you?"

Slim opened the present. A look of joy fluttered across Slimís face.

Jess said, "It took me awhile to find out who you sold the rifle too, and when I did...well, the blacksmith werenít exactly in a selling mood. Took me a might longer to convince him than I thought it would be best if he were in a selling mood."

Slim noticed the purple bruise forming on Jessís chin. Slim fondled the rifle as if he was stroking a lover. He placed it on its mount above the fireplace.

"Now Iíll put supper on the table," Jonesy said with a huge smile.

"Speaking of supper, Iím starved!" Jess said.

"Thought you might have eaten with the Lancers."

Jess shook his head no. "Took me a might longer than I thought. I tell you Mr. Hadley wasnít very happy when I pulled him away from his Christmas meal."

The knock on the door caused Jonesy to mumbled, "After all the gifts from Santa today, I wouldnít be surprised if that was Santa himself."

Mort Corey entered the house. "Eveniní."

"Mort," Slim greeted. "What brings you out so late?"

"I hear Jess paid a visit to town."

Jessís stare dropped to the floor.

"Hadley wasnít pleased about your visit," Mort said.

"I reckon he wouldnít be," Jess agreed.

"He said you did pay for everything."

Jess nodded.

"Jess, you spent a lot of money according to Hadley."

"I come by it honestly."

"Jess has been saving for a long spell," Slim said..

"Since when is it a crime to spend your own money?" Jonesy added.

"You boys are acting like a bear protecting her cubs," Mort observed.

"Look sheriff, itís Christmas," Jess said, "if youíre going to arrest me, couldnít I at least ride in tomorrow and turn myself in? Iíd like to spend tonight here with my..." Jess swallowed his words.

Mort smiled. "Iím not here to arrest anyone." Mort disappeared just for a few seconds. The sheriff entered the house carrying a saddle. He tossed it on the chair. "Jess, this is yours."

Everyone in the room looked shocked.

"Why thatís the saddle that Hadley was selling, ainít it, Jess?" Mose asked.

"I donít understand," Jess said. "It was sold to Nicholas."

"I canít say I understand either," Mort replied. "All I know is that he asked me to bring this to you on Christmas Day."

"But why would he do that?"

"I asked him but he just said it was important for people to have faith, even in Santa."

"Seems Santa has been leaving presents all day long around here," Slim said.

"He didnít say anything else?" Jess asked.

"As the stage pulled out, he leaned out the window and just hollered Merry Christmas to all and to all a goodnight!"

"Well maybe Santa does exist," Slim said.

"I guess every time we give a present to someone, Santa is seen," Jess said, then asked, "Slim, you reckon I can have the day off tomorrow?"

Slim nodded. "Should be all right. I donít think any stages will be coming through, and if they are, Andy can help me. Whatís so important..."

"I want to ride to Medicine Bow. Johnny is staying at the Shiloh Ranch near there."

"Say, youíre not changing your mind about staying, are you?" Jonesy asked.

Jess said, "I want to see if Johnny would trade saddles with me."

"Jess, that saddle ainít as nice as this one," Slim remarked.

"To me, the saddle I sold Johnny is much better than this one. Itís the best present I ever got. So Iíd like to keep it if I can."

Mort grinned. "Well all the fuss raised over this saddle and now you want to get rid of it. Someday youíll have to tell me what all did go on around here. I best be getting back. Merry Christmas to all of you."

"Wonít you join us for supper?" Slim asked. "We got plenty!"

"You boys ainít eaten yet?"

Mose frowned. "If we wait much longer, Iím going to think itís breakfast."

Jess laughed, slapping Mose on the back. "Come on, you old coyote. Iím going sit right next to you.""

"Mort, weíre having chicken and dumplings," Jonesy informed.

"And apple pie," Jess added.

Mortís tongue snaked across his lips. "Well, itís been awhile since I ate. And to tell you the truth, Jonesy is a lot better cook than my wife! Though donít repeat what I just said, or Iím liable to be eating my own cooking! Chicken and dumplings and apple pie sounds mighty good. Thank you, Slim, Iíll accept your invitation."

As Mort joined everyone at the table, Jess began whistling the Christmas tune that Slim had whistled every day for a month.

Slim said, "I thought you didnít want to listen to that."

"Are you kidding? Whatís Christmas without music?" Jess asked with a grin. Once more Jess began whistling the Christmas song.

Andy joined in the whistling, then Mort, then Slim, then Mose, and finally Jonesy. Twice the song was whistled before laughter was heard.

As Jess started to stab the meat with his fork, Jonesy said, "Letís say grace."

All bowed their heads. "Thank you for this meal, and thank you for this family. Though I donít know what theyíd do without me! And especially thank you for Santa and a Christmas miracle. I told them miracles happen! But did they listen to me? No sir! They didnít!"

"Amen!" Slim said loudly.

The chorus of Amens followed. Dishes were passed as the men ate with gusto.

"Whatís that?" Jess slid the paper closer to him to read.

"Oh Slim had an idea to give these to any passengers traveling through today, but only had one stage come through."

"Sorry I wasnít here to help you with the horses," Jess apologized.

"I helped," Andy acknowledged. "I can do a manís work. After all I ainít a..."

"Kid," Jess, Slim, and Jonesy all said at one time.

Jonesy added, "Slim did give one of them to the passenger. Silliest idea I ever saw!"

"I got to agree, seems foolish to me," Jess stated. "Why not just say the words?"

"Well that passenger sure seemed taken with the idea. What was his name? Hallmark?" Slim asked.

"He seemed to like the notion of giving a paper with a greeting on it."

"Now thatís the kind of ideas that will get you nowhere," Jonesy said. "You mark my words on that!"

"I reckon youíre right." Slim tossed the piece of paper aside. But the words could still be read, "Merry Christmas from the Sherman Ranch."

 

EPILOGUE: "Late Night, December 25"

The fire crackled. Nicholas didnít notice as he leaned back in the rocker. His eyes drooped with tiredness.

The woman smiled at him. "I think this yearís party was the best yet for the orphanage."

Nicholas nodded. "Some of the younger ones actually believed I was Santa. They told me so!" He chuckled.

"No wonder with that beard you grew. It makes you look so different that you use to." She cocked her head to the side. "You do resemble Santa. I must say if I didnít know who you were, I wouldnít recognize you."

"No one recognized me in Laramie."

She sat up straight. A look of alarm raced across her face. "You were in Laramie! Was that wise?"

"As you just pointed out, with this beard I donít look myself. Besides there are many new faces."

"Still..." she protested.

"I was only there a short time, just long enough to change stages, but I did visit the general store. Herb Jackson doesnít own it any more. You remember that young man who use to wait on us in the store? Hadley was his name."

"The one who had trouble adding?" She laughed loudly.

"Well he owns the store now."

Her face showed her surprise. "I wonder what happened to Mr. Jackson."

"He left shortly after the mine closed, according to Hadley. Said it was hard for people to pay their bills. Do you know how many peopleís lives were affected by the mine closing?"

"I thought you no longer blamed yourself."

"Not for the mine closing. Iíve long ago reconciled that I did all I could do to save that mine, but I never forgave myself for what I did to my partners and the miners."

"But youíve done so much good since then! For the orphans. They wouldnít have had a Christmas without you. What the town here gives is so little. But you...you gave them a Christmas that they will remember. You saw the smiles when they opened their presents!"

Nicholas looked at the woman as if seeing her for the first time. "Weíve changed, havenít we?"

She nodded. "In so many ways. I became a nun, and you went from Scrooge to Santa Claus."

"Still I wonder if I should return the gold that I still have."

"Itís been too many years."

"I shouldnít have run out on my partners when the mine was going under. To hide gold, steal money..." He shook his head with sadness.

"But youíve become another person. A better person."

"Ah yes. Iíve become Santa Claus, at least to these orphans."

"And without that money, they would have no Christmas. You donít spend that money on yourself. You never buy anything for yourself except what is needed. It all goes to helping these orphans."

"Not all. I bought a gift for a young cowboy in Laramie," he confessed.

"You did? What kind of gift?"

"Oh, the boy wanted a saddle. Granted, it was a beautiful saddle and the price showed it. Reminded me of the saddle that I bought myself during the mineís first year."

Her eyebrow raised. "You bought so many things then. I barely remember a saddle except didnít it have silver on it? Lots and lots of silver?"

"Oh yes! I had to have the best! And thatís what this cowboy wanted; a fancy saddle. He reminded me of myself, the way I was back then. So I thought that I would teach him a lesson that I wish someone had taught me when I was his age."

"What kind of lesson?"

"About the kindness of others. Because without the goodwill of our fellow man, what do we have?"

"Only ourselves," she replied. "Only ourselves."

*********************************************

Miles away, another fire crackled. Long ago Mort Corey had left the relay station, heading back towards Laramie. Mose had ridden out too, heading towards a friendís house to spread more Christmas cheer. Andy and Jonesy had gone to bed. The candles on the tree had been extinguished. Though the hour was late, Slim and Jess still sat in front of the fire.

"You think Jonesy will notice?" Jess took a sip from a cup containing amber liquid.

"We could always tell him that weíre sick," Slim said with a laugh then drank a huge gulp of the whiskey. "What do you say we play a game of checkers before we call it a night?"

"Sure!"

The men moved quickly to the table, placing the board in front of them.

"I might even let you beat me this time just because itís Christmas," Slim said.

"Wonít be Christmas for long. In a few hours, weíll be back out in that snow herding them cattle."

Jess looked at Slim. "And I wouldnít have it any other way."

Slim started the game by moving a checker on the board. For several minutes the men played.

"King me! Thatís another king for me!" Slim said with a grin. "Now I got you cornered. How you going to get out of this one?"

Jess studied the board for several minutes. "When I was six, my Pa almost lost his spread. Werenít much to begin with. More rocks than crops."

Slim watched Jess. But Jess never looked up from the board.

Jess continued, "I can still remember that night. Christmas Eve, it was. The sheriff came out. Would have evicted us except Ma convinced him to wait at least until after Christmas."

"Did your Pa get the money?"

Jess nodded. "Though Iím not sure how. Was some cattle thieving back in them days." Jess took a deep breath before the words burst from him in a rush, "I remember saying to my Pa that Santa could bring us the money if we asked him. My Pa explained then and there that there werenít no Santa Claus."

"Six years old is young to have a dream die," Slim said.

Jess looked up at the tall cowboy. "I never asked about Santa again. We had Christmas but usually it meant a good meal if times were good. Sometimes, but not too often, a tree that Ma put red ribbons on, but only if us boys cut it. After that year, Pa didnít take to Christmas like some do. He always said look out for yourself Ďcause nobody else will. I think Maís begging to the sheriff shamed him. ĎSides we lived from hand to mouth most years so werenít a lot to spend except on essentials."

"Iím glad youíre staying on, Jess."

Jess grinned. "Andy was right. Christmas is special. I guess I didnít know until today just how special Christmas can be. You reckon weíll have beans tomorrow?"

Slim laughed. "Not if Jonesy uses that cookbook of yours." Slim moved the checker. "I won."

Jess leaned back in his chair and drained his glass. His tongue snaked across his lips to get the last drop of the liquor.

"Guess we best get to bed," Slim said. "Wonít be long to sunrise."

"One more game? I kind of hate to see this day end."

Slim nodded. "One more game."

Outside the moon shone bright. And for a second, had Jess and Slim looked, they would have seen a shooting star fly across the sky.

 

THE END






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