I'll Be Home For Christmas
by Luna Dey
Sixth story in the Second Chances series
Author's Note: After putting our pair through so much trouble, I thought it was time to give them a little break. Thank you to LaraMee for the title collage. I love it!
Back to: Pride And Prejudice
"Mr. Larabee, might I have a moment of your time?"
The blond nodded toward an empty chair and waited for the gambler to sit before offering him a drink. "What's on your mind, Ezra?"
"I find myself facing a bit of a dilemma, and I could use some advice." Emerald eyes filled with hope when he saw Chris look at him in curiosity.
"You're coming to me for advice? You must be desperate," Larabee commented with a half-smile.
"Actually, I need your experience to answer a question or two for me, if you would be inclined to do so," Standish hedged slightly.
"You knew I would be too curious to say no if you put it like that, didn't you?" The gunman sighed and shook his head in mild exasperation.
"I had hoped that would be the outcome." Ezra blushed slightly at being found out so easily.
"What is it you need?"
"You are aware that the Travises extended an invitation for me to join Mary and Billy for a holiday visit," Ezra said, but at the same time raised an eyebrow in question.
"I knew that."
"Mr. Larabee, my past is something I try to keep private, but you have met my mother. I don't think it would take much imagination on your part to deduce what my childhood was like." The southerner fidgeted under the green-eyed gaze of the unofficial leader of their band of peacekeepers.
"I doubt that it was much like a normal upbringing," Chris responded.
"Ah, and there you have hit the proverbial nail on the head. I have no idea what normal is," the gambler confessed. "I need to know what to expect when we go to the Travis'... I have never experienced a traditional family Christmas," he added softly.
"Ezra, that's something that is different from one home to another. I have no idea what to tell you."
"I understand that you would not know exactly what I should expect, but I had hoped you could tell me about some of the normal activities I could possibly encounter."
"You know that I don't pry into your past," Larabee commented. "But, it would help a lot if I knew what Christmas was like for you."
The gambler sighed and considered the request. The only Christmas that had been anything that might remotely resemble normal was the one he got to share with Julia, and by that time she was already too ill to participate in any festivities. They had spent it at home, alone. Julia's parents had sent a nice meal to them, and they had stopped in to see her later that evening. No, he couldn't tell him about Julia. Maybe someday he could, but not yet.
"The only time I had any chance to participate in any aspect of the holiday was if my mother was working a con, and then I was so focused on my part that it was simply another role she expected me to play." The sadness was evident even to his own ears. He really hadn't realized just how much he had missed having the kind of life that other people just took for granted.
"How did you spend Christmas when you weren't trying to con someone?" Chris asked. "Didn't your mother ever do anything to make it special?"
Ezra shook his head and looked down at his hands in his lap. "Mr. Larabee, if I was not assisting with a con, I was left with any distant relation who would tolerate my presence. If none of them would have me, I would sometimes be left with one of mother's friends."
"You didn't get to have Christmas with any of these people either?" The blond could not comprehend how someone could reach Ezra's age and not experience a real Christmas.
"No, not really. On a few occasions I was given a small gift, but my suspicion is that it was more for appearance's sake than any genuine wish to include me in their holiday. Most of the ones I was left with didn't do much to celebrate, but what they did do usually didn't include me." The gambler paused and gathered his thoughts. "Mr. Larabee, I am not seeking sympathy. We have no control over our pasts, but I don't want to do something inappropriate. My position with the Judge is very precarious."
"You'll do all right. You have Evie on your side," Chris said in an effort to reassure the anxious gambler. "Are you sure you want me to tell you? Some people might look at it as an attempt to con the judge into thinking you're a different person than you are."
"Of course I am concerned about how things will look to the Judge, but honestly, he is not my main concern. Billy is." Ezra paused and took a steadying breath. "Since I didn't get to experience Christmas as a child, I have no idea what makes the day so special for children, and I want to be sure that I don't ruin it for Billy. You're the only one of us who has been a father..." He let his voice trail off. It was a tough subject to broach with Chris considering the circumstances, and he hoped he hadn't dug up too many painful memories for the older man.
"What would have made the day special for you when you were Billy's age?" the blond asked.
The gambler frowned as he considered the question. "I would have been happy if my mother had just wanted to spend the day with me," he confessed.
"That's it," Chris acknowledged. "Ezra, Christmas isn't about buying gifts and going to parties. Josiah would be the best one to talk to about the church parts of the holiday, but beyond that, it's about family and friends. Just being there with Mary and Billy is what is important." A flash of grief clouded his eyes as he thought back to the time when he still had his family with him.
"I would like to be able to make it a memorable time for Billy. After the upset he experienced when Mrs. Travis brought him home, I want this to be a happy time for him."
Chris offered Ezra a refill from the bottle he had sitting between them on the table. "All right, I'll tell you some about how Christmas was when I was growing up. Maybe that will help a little."
"Thank you, Mr. Larabee. I would be most appreciative."
Ezra sighed heavily and stared blankly at the array of gift possibilities on the shelves at Mrs. Potter's store. He had given gifts before, but there had been only one other person in his life, until now, that he wanted the perfect gift for. He had no idea what to choose for the Judge and Mrs. Travis. It was tough enough trying to decide what to get for Mary and Billy.
The bell on the door jingled drawing the gambler's attention. He smiled warmly at the young man who entered. "Good afternoon, Mr. Dunne."
"Hey, Ezra." JD practically bounced with excitement.
"You seem in an extraordinarily good mood today," the southerner observed.
"Just got my pay and I want to find a Christmas present for Casey while I still have some money," the younger man replied. "I just don't have any idea what to get her."
"I find myself facing a similar dilemma," Standish admitted. "Only multiplied by four."
"Yeah, I sure don't envy you tryin' to come up with an idea for the Judge."
"The Honorable Judge Travis is only part of the problem. I am also at a loss as to the appropriate gifts for the remaining members of the Travis family," Ezra said with a sigh.
"You mean Mary and Billy, too?" When he saw the gambler nod, he continued. "Don't know about Mary, but Billy should be easy to buy for. All you gotta do is buy something you would have liked when you were his age."
"If only it were that simple, Mr. Dunne. But I had very little time to play as a child; therefore what I would have liked is of little consequence."
The young sheriff looked at the toys on the shelves. There really wasn't much to choose from, but something would surely be suitable. He picked up a nice slingshot but quickly dismissed it as an option. Mary would never approve of it. On the shelf above it, he noticed a small pocketknife. He had been about Billy's age when he got his first one.
"What about this, Ezra?" He held the small knife out to the gambler.
"I really don't believe that Mary would appreciate me giving him something that has the potential to cause injury," Standish responded.
JD nodded his understanding. "Mothers usually don't," he admitted. "It's usually a boy's pa that decides when he's old enough for somethin' like this. But if a boy don't have a pa then sometimes someone else has t' help make sure he gets a chance to grow up."
"I am afraid I don't quite follow you," the southerner responded, his brows knit together in thought.
"Well, like me. I didn't have a pa to make sure Ma let me grow up. If she'd had her way, I would never have touched a real knife, or a gun, or a lot of other things. I was lucky though. The man who was in charge of the stables for the family my ma worked for treated us both like we were his own family. He was the closest thing I had to a real grandfather. Old Tom always made sure I got to do the things a growin' boy should get to do." There was a deep sadness in his voice as he spoke of his mother and Old Tom. Christmas was an especially hard time of the year for him, because it was filled with so many memories of his ma. This year was easier than the last one though. He had friends to share the day with, and he had Casey.
After replacing the knife, he picked up a small burlap bag and heard the telltale click of marbles hitting against each other. JD grinned and emptied a few of the objects into his hands. "Ya know, ya just can't go wrong with marbles. Every boy I ever knew loved to play with marbles."
The two men worked their way through the meager choices that Mrs. Potter had to offer, with JD explaining the pros and cons of each one. Ezra was determined to give Mrs. Potter his business, but there really was so little choice. At last, he decided that he would get some of what he needed from her, and then he would do a little shopping once he got to the Judge's and had a chance to check the larger stores there.
JD had finally decided on a new cane-fishing pole for Casey. He had blushed when he had asked for a length of the pretty red ribbon that he found with the sundries. When he saw Ezra looking at him with one brow raised in question and a knowing smile on his lips, he turn even redder. "Sometimes she has t' dress up, and I thought it would look pretty in her hair," he explained.
"Indeed it will, Mr. Dunne. I think you have made a very wise choice. The red against her dark hair will be quite lovely," the southerner agreed.
Ezra made his way to the ladies' section of the store, still searching for gifts for Mary and Evie. He had settled for the bag of marbles for Billy, but the women were going to be hard to choose for. When he had nearly given up searching, he caught a glimpse of something pale blue and white and twisted around to look through the glass case from a different angle. Finally, he gave up and signaled to Gloria Potter for assistance.
"Whew!" JD said admiringly. "That's really nice, Ezra. I bet Mary would love that."
Ezra smiled wistfully. "It matches the blue in her eyes." He looked back up at Mrs. Potter and grinned, showing his dimples. "Would you wrap this for me please?"
A little more digging and the gambler had found one gift for each of the four he would be spending Christmas with. Just when he thought he had exhausted all the possibilities, his attention was drawn to the shelves of books on one wall. It wasn't a huge selection, but out here where there was little to read for those who liked to indulge in the act, it was a welcome sight. He felt like he knew all the titles of all the books she had for sale, since he regularly checked for any new titles she might have added. What caught his eye today was a new book on the top shelf.
Gloria moved to look over his shoulder to see what he had found. "That is a wonderful book. The stories and rhymes are a lot of fun. The children's father used to read to them every night from a book similar to that and they loved it. It was their special time with him."
Ezra was sold on the book when he first looked at the contents page, but if he hadn't been, Gloria's enthusiasm and the story about Mr. Potter would have convinced him. "With a glowing recommendation like that, how could I possibly leave without making one last purchase?"
A few minutes later, with parcels in hand, the two men parted company. JD headed back toward the boarding house and Ezra went straight to the saloon. When the southerner reached the sanctuary of his room, he made himself comfortable and settled into the rocking chair near the oil lamp and started thumbing through the book he had picked up. As he read he tried to imagine one of his stepfathers or other relatives reading to him, and he found it impossible to summon up the pictures in his mind. But he smiled when the picture of Mr. Potter reading to his children popped into his mind, completely unbidden. He continued to smile as he rocked and read until well past dark.
"Are you certain you have everything you require?" Ezra asked as he lugged the heavy bag of Mary's out onto the boardwalk, while Mary carried the smaller, lighter bag that held Billy's things.
"I can't think of anything else. Why? Do you think I forgot something?" She looked at the expression of disbelief on the gambler's face and realized he had been being sarcastic. "Oh... well, if you don't think I have enough I can go back and add a few more things. I do have some books I could take."
Ezra chuckled and grinned, showing his dimples. "I do believe your ploy is to break my back so that I can't go slipping off to find a game of chance."
"You promised..." Mary began.
"And I intend to keep my promise. I know how important this trip is to you, but remember we did agree that I could find a game a couple times while we are there. It isn't often that I get into one of the larger towns for a chance at some real competition," the gambler reminded her.
"I wouldn't dream of trying to keep you away from the game tables for the entire time we are there, but you said you would wait until after Christmas. That's all I ask." She paused and considered her next words. "I just don't want to see anyone's Christmas ruined, and losing at cards could cause that to happen to some families if their men don't use some common sense."
The southerner stopped and turned to look at the pretty blonde at his side. "You really are softhearted under that strong, almost ruthless image you have created for yourself."
"The same could be said for you." She smiled at his mild look of shock. "You don't fool me anymore."
"Yes, well... in my line of work the image I present can be what keeps me alive and in one piece," he said, somewhat flustered.
"Under it all you are truly a good and compassionate man; but don't worry, I won't tell on you," Mary commented. She had to laugh at the look of relief that passed over the gambler's face.
The couple stopped next to the stagecoach and handed the bags to the driver who set them on top of the coach with the others. They didn't move to get inside, not wanting to be cooped up any sooner than necessary.
"How long before you are ready to get underway?" Ezra asked.
"'Bout five minutes," the driver replied. "Y'all should go ahead an' load up."
Mary looked around for Billy and saw him a short way down the boardwalk with Chris. "Billy! Time to go!"
"Look what Chris gave me," the boy said excitedly as he skidded to a stop at his mother's side. He held up his hands to show off his treasure. "This one is even better than the last one."
"It's beautiful. Did you tell him thank you?"
"Uh huh," the boy replied, before babbling on. "Now I got two horses and I can play with 'em together."
"That's wonderful." Mary hugged her son to her side and watched the black clad gunman approach. "Thank you, Chris."
Larabee acknowledged her words with a nod. He half-smiled and winked at Billy as he reached out to tousle the boy's hair. "I wanted to give him something for Christmas."
"Time's a wastin' folks. Y'all goin' or stayin'?" the stage driver asked impatiently.
"You three better load up before he leaves without you." Chris nodded toward the driver, while giving him a warning glare that dared the man to even try it. "Come on, Billy; let me help you." He scooped the child up and lifted him into the stage. "You be good."
Ezra stepped forward to help Mary into the stagecoach and then turned back to face Larabee. His expression changed to one of surprise when he looked past the man to see that the rest of the men had joined him.
"We couldn't let ya leave without sayin' good-bye," Vin offered. "You'd best stay outta trouble. Ya won't have us there t' watch yer back."
"I will do my best to heed your advice, Mr. Tanner." He extended his hand to the sharpshooter, who shook it firmly before stepping aside to let the next man say his farewell.
After everyone else had said goodbye, amid much well wishing, hand shaking, and arm slapping, the gambler turned back to their leader. "Thank you, Mr. Larabee. I appreciate all you have done to assist me in preparing for this excursion."
Chris extended his hand and took Ezra's in a firm grip as the two men locked eyes. The southerner let out a small gasp when he looked into the gunman's intense green eyes and once again experienced first-hand the silent communication Chris and Vin shared. It was an unsettling experience and not one he thought he cared to experience on a regular basis.
"Glad I could help," Larabee said. But what Ezra heard was, 'Keep them safe or you'll answer to me.'
The gambler nodded slightly to acknowledge the unspoken warning and moved to take his place beside Mary in the coach. When the stage jerked into motion, Billy scrambled from his seat on the other side of his mother and climbed onto Ezra's lap so he could lean out the window to wave goodbye.
Ezra watched the older woman across from him pull her coat tighter around her and shiver. He got the impression that she probably hadn't ever traveled by stage during the colder months. The woman gasped and eyed him suspiciously when he slipped from his place to reach past her legs for something under her seat. He pulled out an old quilt. "I didn't mean to startle you." He smiled reassuringly as he spread the heavy blanket out over her.
The woman relaxed and looked at him sheepishly. "I had no idea this was under there," she said as she pulled the blanket closer around her. "Thank you. I rode all day yesterday, freezing. The gentleman across from me had a blanket, but I thought he had probably brought it with him."
The southerner frowned. "The man was no gentleman if he left you shivering while he kept himself warm."
"He probably thought, if I was dumb enough not to get out a blanket, then I deserved to be cold," she commented.
"No one deserves to be cold." He glanced over to where Mary leaned against the opposite wall with Billy curled up against her. The two had dozed on and off throughout the day, lulled by the rocking motion of the stage. All three of them had dressed warmly, knowing very well how cold the ride would be, especially with no physical exertion to help keep them warm.
"I haven't ever traveled alone before. My son always brought his family home for Christmas, but after my husband died, he just couldn't face this Christmas there without his father." Her voice quivered slightly, and she took a deep steadying breath before she continued, "It wasn't going to seem right to me either, not having Amos there, so Sam paid for me to come to them this year. Besides, it makes more sense this way. It is easier for one person to make the trip than for six."
"That is true. You and your son must be close for him to have brought the entire family to visit every Christmas, and for you to make this trip alone now."
The woman nodded. "Sam's an only child, and I am afraid Amos and I doted on him too much sometimes. Are you going to visit family?"
"Their family." Ezra nodded toward Mary and Billy.
"That's nice. Won't you get to see your family too?"
"I have no family that will miss me." He felt smaller gloved fingers wrap around his own, and he glanced toward Mary to see her watching him. Carefully, to keep from waking Billy, she shifted around so she could lean against his side, snug in the protective circle of his arm.
"We'd miss you, if you hadn't come with us," Mary said sleepily as she settled her head against his shoulder.
Ezra hugged her closer. A feeling of peace and contentment washed over him, brought on by her simple admission, and he knew there was nowhere on earth that he would rather be than right where he was. Along with that feeling came the realization that at last he knew what home really was. It wasn't a building or a piece of land. It was that place in your heart, that special feeling that only being with the ones you love can create, and as long as you're all together, home is wherever you are.
"Grandpa!" Billy squealed from the window of the stage as it rattled to a halt. The door had barely opened before he jumped out to be caught by Orin Travis.
Ezra stepped down after Billy and turned to offer his hand to Mary to help her down. While she was occupied greeting Evie and the Judge, he turned to offer his assistance to their traveling companion.
"Grandma!" A chorus of children's voices greeted the older woman when she stepped from the stage, and she found herself engulfed by a tangle of small arms all trying to hug her at once.
"Oh, my goodness, how you have all grown. Stand back and let me get a look at you." The four youngsters stepped away slightly while their grandmother hugged each one in turn and fussed over how beautiful, or handsome, he or she had become during the past several months.
Ezra smiled to see her son hug her tightly and then continue to hold her close, both reluctant to let go as they each drew a little strength from the other's presence. He finally tore his attention away from their reunion when he heard someone speaking to him.
"I'll help you with the bags," Orin offered, and he started picking up part of the luggage. "I sent the women and Billy on ahead to get warm."
"Thank you, Judge Travis. I appreciate the assistance." The gambler glanced down the street curiously. "I'll drop my own things off at the hotel since we must pass it on the way, if you don't mind a momentary delay."
"The hotel? Nonsense; you'll be staying with us," the Judge insisted.
"I wouldn't presume to intrude on your family in such a manner," Ezra objected. "But, I am grateful for the thought."
"You are staying with us," Travis repeated. "Evie would be hurt if you refused."
"That wasn´t my intention. I simply did not want to presume too much from the invitation to join Mary and Billy here," Ezra explained. "This has to be awkward for you."
"I won't lie and say it won't seem strange to see them with you instead of Steven. You'd see through that in a heartbeat," Orin confessed. "But, my son is gone, and I still see Mary as a daughter, not simply my grandson's mother. She is too young to end up spending the rest of her life as a widow, and if I'm totally honest with myself, I know that Steven wouldn't have wanted her to grow old alone. It was inevitable that she would move on with her life and become involved with someone."
"But you didn't expect it to be someone like me."
"No, I didn't." The Judge paused a moment to consider his next words. "I know I made things really hard on both of you, but I know now that I have to trust her judgment if I don't want to lose Billy and her completely." He glanced over at the gambler and continued, "I believe that she sees you for who you really are, even those deep, secret parts that you keep hidden from everyone else. She trusts and loves the real Ezra Standish, and she gives neither lightly."
"I know she doesn't, and neither do I," the southerner said. "Mary is a very special woman."
"Yes, she is," the Judge agreed. "I hope someday you will trust Evie and me enough to let us get to know you better."
Evie had been watching for them and opened the door when she saw them. "After you two put the bags upstairs, come on out to the kitchen. I am making a special treat to warm everyone up."
Orin led the way up to the bedrooms and nodded toward the door to the first room. "That room is Evie's and mine. Mary and Billy will be in here." He led the way into a nicely furnished room. "There is a trundle under the bed for Billy, or he can sleep with her. Which of these are theirs?"
"This big one and that smaller one." Ezra indicated the large one he carried and Billy's bag that the Judge had.
"You'll be over here across the hall. I am afraid the room isn't as big as the other one, but the bed is comfortable and there is a chest and a small closet for your things. Billy usually stays in here." Travis sat down the other small valise he had been carrying, while the southerner deposited a second small bag nearby.
"Judge, are you sure about me staying here? I don't want to displace Billy from his customary room, or make you uncomfortable."
"I'm sure, and call me Orin. There are times and places for formality, but here and now isn't one of them. Come on, I'll show you where to put your coat, and then let's go see what Evie has for us."
The rich aroma of chocolate greeted them when they entered the kitchen a few minutes later. The elder Mrs. Travis was just setting the steaming cups on the table.
"I hope you like cocoa, Ezra."
"I love it. I haven't had hot cocoa in years." He picked up his cup and inhaled deeply. After a cautious sip, he wrapped his hands around the warm mug, savoring the warmth against his cold fingers. "Thank you. This is truly a real treat, and thank you for having me in your home."
Evie smiled knowingly. "How much trouble did you give him about staying here?" she asked as she nodded toward her husband.
The gambler blushed. "I fear that I did offer some resistance."
"I thought you would; that is why I had Orin stop at the hotel earlier and tell them not to hold a room for you. I just knew you had wired ahead for a room." The older woman smiled triumphantly.
"You had them give away my room?" Standish asked in amazement. He looked at Mary in question. "Is she always this determined?"
"You haven't seen her get really determined yet," Mary warned.
"I don't call it determined," Orin added. "I call it stubborn."
"And you are going to get to see it in action too," Evie warned her husband. "After everyone finishes their cocoa, I want you all to clear out so I can fix supper. I know all you had was what you packed to eat in the coach and whatever you could get at the hotel last night, so I have a big meal planned."
"Fried chicken?" Billy asked hopefully.
"Of course," his grandmother answered and reached out to tickle him in the ribs, making him squeal with laughter. "One of these days you're going to sprout feathers and learn to cackle."
A little later they all found themselves ostracized from the kitchen despite Mary's insistence on helping with the meal. "You can help tomorrow if you want to, but tonight, you just rest up from the trip."
The evening had been pleasant and uneventful. The meal was excellent and Ezra was amazed to see the volume of food one small boy could consume when it happened to be his grandma's fried chicken and biscuits with milk gravy.
While Mary sat and chatted with Evie, who still refused to let the younger woman help her clean up after dinner, the men retired to the sitting room to talk and have a brandy. Billy crawled up on his grandfather's lap and drifted off to sleep. The long cold trip topped off with warmth, good food, and the deep rumble of Orin's voice as the men talked had overtaken the child within minutes.
Ezra had to admit that he found his own eyes growing heavy, and he struggled to stay awake. A glance at the mantle clock had him listening intently for its telltale ticking, because it surely must have stopped. It was far too early for him to be this tired. He nearly jumped when it began to chime the hour, and he felt he must have answered much too eagerly when Evie suggested that they all get some sleep.
The southerner carried Billy up to Mary's room and waited while she turned down the covers. "I'm going to put him in with me so he'll be warmer," she whispered. When Ezra laid him down, she tugged off his outside clothes and left him in his heavy winter underwear and socks then covered him with the heavy down-filled comforter.
Once her son was settled, she turned back to Ezra. "Thank you, for coming here with me. Billy needs the time with his grandparents, but I couldn't have come and left you there alone." She held up a hand to still the comment she knew was coming. "I know Chris and the others were there, but you know what I mean."
"I can't imagine being there without you for three weeks. It would have seemed like an eternity," he responded softly. Half a step brought him close enough to pull her into his arms. Encouraged by her contented sigh when his lips brushed against the side of her throat, he kissed his way up to her jaw and then across to her lips. She melted into his arms as her body responded to the touch of his lips. Her lips parted, inviting him to deepen the kiss, and he didn't need a second invitation. His hands slid down to cup her bottom and press her firmly against him as he pressed his hardening manhood against her. Suddenly, he broke the kiss and looked first at the sleeping child and then at the open door. He groaned softly as he rested his forehead against hers. "It is going to be a long three weeks."
Mary smiled at him conspiratorially and then whispered close to his ear, her warm breath causing shivers of desire to course through his body, "We'll find a way."
Ezra moaned and gasped from the effect her breath was having on him, combined with her words of promise. Reluctantly, he gave her one last quick kiss and then drew away from her. "Darlin', get some sleep and I'll see you in the morning."
He pulled her door shut behind him and crossed the hall to his own room, glad for the darkness in the hall that hid the state he was in if his hosts happened to catch sight of him. His door clicked shut and he leaned back against it when he made it to the privacy of his room. The ache of his need was so strong that he found himself rubbing his erection through his clothes. Gritting his teeth, he forced himself to take his hand away, and quickly undressed in the chilly room, opting to keep his underclothes on for the warmth they provided.
The bed was cold when he first crawled in it, but quickly warmed from his body heat. His groin still ached for relief and trying to ignore it or turn his mind to other thoughts did no good. Finally, he gave up and snaked one arm out from the warmth of the covers to fish into the pocket of his jacket that he had hung on the bedpost and retrieved his handkerchief. At the same time the other hand was already working itself into the opening in the front of his long underwear to stroke himself. He shivered at the first contact of his cold fingers, but the chill was quickly forgotten when he freed himself from the confines of the garment.
The southerner let his mind drift back to the woman sleeping across the hall and had to stifle a groan when his manhood throbbed in reaction. The heavy blankets made it difficult to move freely, so he tried bending his knees and spreading them slightly to keep the covers out of the way. He could still feel the touch of Mary's lips on his and still taste her in his mouth as he let his hand move him closer to the release he needed. Droplets formed at the tip and were quickly used to lubricate his rigid shaft as one hand pumped at its length and the other hand reached beneath it to fondle his sac as he grew nearer to fulfillment. He was only moments away when he grabbed the handkerchief he had left lying on his stomach and held it over the head of his member to catch his seed as it erupted forth, leaving him shaking and gasping for breath.
After a little time to recover and to put his clothes back in order, he carefully folded the handkerchief, making sure the soiled part was folded to the inside and slipped it under his pillow. He would deal with it in the morning, but for now, he rolled onto his side. "It is going to be a very long three weeks," he whispered to the emptiness of the night and then closed his eyes.
Over the next several days, Ezra found himself dragged to various social events - everything ranging from afternoon teas to parties. He hardly had time to think, let alone find any time to slip away for that last minute shopping he had planned to do. Finally, two days before Christmas, he found himself with a free afternoon.
"Where are you going?" Mary asked when she saw him putting on his coat and gloves. "I thought you would be glad for a chance to stay put today."
"I am, but I have something I need to do. I'll try not to be very long." He kissed her lightly and then hurried out the door before she could question him further.
The wind was brisk and Ezra turned up his collar and pulled his coat tighter to keep the wind off his neck. He walked quickly past the Judge's office, hoping that the older man would be engrossed in his work and wouldn't see him walk by the window. A few doors down he ducked into one of the larger shops in town. He paused a moment to remove his gloves and straighten his coat before moving on into the large room.
He made his way over to the area where the toys were displayed. There probably would have been a better selection if he could have made it here a few days sooner, but there was still a fairly good choice. It was pretty easy to pick out something he was sure Billy would like. Even the Judge and Mrs. Travis had been easier to find something for, and he had picked up some extra handkerchiefs for himself. Now he found himself looking for something else for Mary.
A pair of soft kid gloves caught his eye and he picked them up to look them over. They were fur lined and expertly crafted. These would have even satisfied his mother's need for quality. His only concern was the size. He knew from his own experience that gloves that were too tight did little to keep your hands warm.
The shopkeeper had been watching him and hurried to help him when she saw the doubtful look on his face. "May I help you with something," she asked.
"Perhaps," he said hopefully. "I am considering these as a gift, but I am not sure of the size."
"They would make a wonderful gift," she agreed.
"If I may be somewhat forward, you could help me by letting me see your hands," Ezra suggested.
"Of course, if it will help." She held her hands out in front of her and the southerner lifted one so he could place his own flat against her palm, then he tried curling his fingers around hers to hold her hand like he did Mary's. The shopkeeper ducked her head shyly from the attention, but didn't pull away.
"Thank you. I think your hands are pretty close to the same size as hers. Would you try these on for me?" He held out the gloves to her and watched her slip them on. They fit perfectly. He was sure that they wouldn't be too small for Mary, if anything her hands were slightly smaller than the shopkeeper's. "I'll take them."
"Wonderful! Is there anything else I can help you find?"
Ezra thought over his selections and started to shake his head no but then changed his mind. "Yes, there is one other thing I would like to get."
Half an hour later he clutched the neatly wrapped packages as he fought the wind again on his way back to the Travis' house. Once there he opened the door as quietly as possible and then headed straight for the stairs. He thought he had made it without being seen when he nearly collided with Evie on her way out of her room.
"Ah... so that is where you have been," she said softly. "Mary was a little concerned when you just dashed out like you did." She glanced down the stairs when she heard a noise. "You better get those out of sight. I'll cover for you." Before Ezra had a chance to say anything, she was halfway down the steps
...Silent night, Holy night! Son of God, love's pure light Radiant beams from Thy holy face, with the dawn of redeeming grace, Jesus Lord at thy birth; Jesus Lord at thy birth.
As the carol ended, Ezra smiled. "Ladies, that was beautiful." Love shone clearly in his eyes when he focused on Mary. "How is it that I have never heard you sing before?"
"It has been a long time since I felt like singing," she admitted. "Sometimes I sing to Billy if he can't sleep, but other than that I just hadn't had any reason to."
"You should do it more often," the southerner coaxed. "You have a lovely voice, as do you, Evie," he added.
"For once I have to agree with Ezra," Orin said. "It has been ages since I have heard the two of you sing together. You used to find reasons to sing even without it being a holiday."
Mary blushed at the praise and glanced at Ezra. "It helps when you are happy inside."
"Well, now that you have found your voices again, can we get you to sing another one?" the Judge asked.
"What do you think, Mary?" Evie asked with a wink. "Do you think we should make them join us?"
"I think that would only be fair, don't you?" the young blonde agreed.
"Uhhh... Orin... I think we have been out maneuvered," the gambler observed with a chuckle.
"I gave up trying to stay a step ahead of my wife years ago. I´m not much of a singer as Evie knows, but if they want to torture their ears, I'll join in if you do," the older man challenged.
"I'll sing, if I can choose the song. I am afraid I don't know the words to very many." The southerner looked apologetically at Mary, and silently wished he had had a chance to learn more of the songs Josiah had tried to teach him.
"You start and we'll join in," Evie suggested.
Ezra took a deep breath and started to sing. By the second line, three other voices joined his.
Joy to the world! The Lord is come. Let earth receive her King. Let every heart Prepare Him room And Saints and angels sing And Saints and angels sing And Saints and Saints and angels sing...
Ezra leaned against the doorframe and watched Mary tuck Billy into bed. The child didn't even stir when she pulled his shoes and outer clothes off. It had been a thoroughly enjoyable evening, and the memories created on this night were going to go with him to the next life after he took his last breath in this one. Now that he knew just what he had been missing out on all these years, he didn't plan to ever miss out again.
Mary finished with Billy and joined Ezra at the door. "He's out like a light. I'll leave the door open in case he wakes up, but I think he is down for the night. I'm going to go back downstairs for a while. Are you coming too?"
"Yes. I thought maybe I would see if I could talk Evie out of a piece of pie before turning in." The gambler stepped aside and let Mary go down ahead of him. "So tell me, how is tomorrow night going to top tonight?"
"What do you mean?" Mary asked. "Tomorrow is Christmas Eve."
"I know, but I've never enjoyed an evening more than this one. I just find it hard to imagine that tomorrow can be any better than this."
Evie looked up when she heard the southerner's comment as he came into the kitchen. "Christmas Eve is extra special when there are children in the house," she told him. "We all know the real reason for Christmas and we make sure to celebrate the birth of our Savior, but we can't resist the allure of Santa Claus." She smiled wistfully as she remembered past Christmas Eves. "We used to have such a hard time getting Steven to sleep on Christmas Eve. Orin and I used to tell him one bedtime story after another, but just as soon as we thought he was asleep and tried to slip out of the room he was wide awake again."
Ezra took a seat at the table and listened intently to the older woman. He wondered if his own mother ever had any regrets about the way their lives had been. As hard as he tried, he just couldn't remember a time when she had reminisced like Evie was doing now, with real emotion tingeing her words.
"I'm sorry. I really shouldn't be going on like this about Steven."
The gambler reached across the table to give Evie's hand a reassuring squeeze. "There is no need to apologize, and please don't stop talking about him on my account. I've been enjoying the stories." He paused and gave her one of his most charming smiles. "Do you suppose I could talk you out of some of that apple pie? And then I would love to hear more about your family Christmases."
It was late when they all headed up to bed. There had been stories from Orin and Evie's childhoods, and many more about when Steven was a child. Mary had added some stories of her own from when she was young, and she even added a couple about Christmas when Billy was little and Steven was still with them. They had tried to find out about his own past holidays, and Ezra had started out being evasive as usual, but after a while he started to open up and tell them a little of what they wanted to know.
Orin and Evie said their goodnights when they all got to the top of the stairs, and they went into their room, closing the door behind them. Ezra walked Mary to her door and cupped her face between his hands to give her a kiss good night. "Thank you."
"For what?" she asked. "You don't need to thank me for a goodnight kiss."
"Thank you for bringing me here. It has been an experience I shall never forget."
Mary slid her arms around his waist and drew him closer to her. "It wouldn't have been Christmas without you with us. I'm glad you're enjoying yourself."
"I am." He wrapped his arms around her shoulders and looked down into her eyes. "There's something else I would enjoy too," he said as he lowered his lips to hers.
A soft moan escaped her when she opened her mouth inviting him to take the kiss deeper, offering herself to him.. She slipped one hand up to curl her fingers in his hair while the other slid under his jacket to caress his back. Her body melted against his and the kiss took on a life all of its own.
The door to the Travis' room opened and Evie started to step back out to go back downstairs and put away the pie she had forgotten and left out on the table. She stopped in her tracks when she saw that the hall was still occupied by the young couple, and that they were too wrapped up in each other to realize that they were no longer alone. Her pulse quickened, as she stood there mesmerized by their kiss. She had seen them kiss before, but always when they knew there was a chance that someone could happen to see them, so they had kept them more subdued. Now, in this moment of unguarded intimacy, she saw the raw passion that existed between them. With an effort, she forced herself to look away and closed the door quietly.
"I thought you were going downstairs," the judge commented from where he sat pulling his boots off.
"I changed my mind," Evie said as she crossed the room to get her nightgown from the hook on the closet door. Her husband's puzzled expression got her to continue. "Ezra and Mary are saying goodnight. I don't want to disturb them."
"Then I'll go," Travis said as he started to get up. "They don't need to be carrying on here under our roof."
"No you won't. Orin, they aren't doing anything wrong; it's just a goodnight kiss."
"If it is just a kiss then why won't you go out of our own door?" This time he did stand and start across the room.
Evie blocked his way. "It is just a kiss, but it is the first totally unguarded moment I've seen, and I don't want to interrupt that." She stepped closer to her husband and wrapped her arms around him. "I didn't think I would ever see Mary really happy again. I wish we had Steven back and it was he that brought that light into her eyes, but we can't and it isn't. No amount of wishing is going to change that, but she's in love and it does my heart good to see her this way."
"I think the part that bothers me is that she seems happier with him than she was with Steven," the judge admitted. "I know they loved each other, but I don't remember ever seeing her look at our son like she does at Ezra."
"She did, but we just weren't really looking for it then. We knew how they felt, and we didn't need to see constant proof of it. I see you watching their every move like you keep expecting one of them to slip up so you can find a reason to not like him again." Evie laid her head on Orin's shoulder and sighed. "Why don't you stop trying to find something wrong and let yourself see the joy that they bring to each other?"
Travis hugged his wife close and lowered his head to capture her lips with his. "Who made you such a fountain of wisdom?" he asked when the kiss ended.
"I learned from the best," she said with a sly smile. "I learned from you."
Ezra's hands followed Mary's spine, one moving upward to cradle the back of her neck, while the other roamed farther down to cup her bottom and press her tighter to him. His lips left her mouth, trailed soft kisses across her jawbone and paused to nuzzle at her ear a moment before continuing down the side of her neck.
A soft moan escaped Mary's lips as her body responded to the familiar touch. Suddenly, the soft moist lips left her neck and she felt herself pushed slightly away, not far enough to seem like a rejection, but enough to make it clear that it was deliberate. She struggled to get her breathing back under control as she searched Ezra's eyes for an explanation.
"Darlin', we have to stop this. This isn't the place, and we both know that Orin and Evie would disapprove." The gambler hated seeing the look of disappointment in Mary's eyes. "We need to control ourselves, even if we don't want to," he added with a wink.
"Yes, you're right, at least for right now, but I happen to know that they are both very sound sleepers," she responded softly.
"Mary..." the southerner said in a coaxing tone. "Are you trying to get me in trouble with the Judge?"
She snuggled up closer to him again and smiled. "No, but I thought you liked to live on the edge."
"The key word there is live, and if I don't behave myself I might not get to do that much longer." His tone was serious but his eyes sparkled with mischief.
"Then I suppose I should keep you at arm's distance the rest of the time we are here," Mary replied stoically, and tried to step back from him.
Ezra tugged her back against him and looked her straight in the eyes. "I said I need to behave myself, not turn into a monk." He claimed her lips with his to make sure she realized just how much he really did want her.
"Ummmm..." she moaned into the kiss and then steeled her resolve when his lips left hers. "Well, if we have to be good, then I should go in my room while I can still manage to pull myself away from you."
"Goodnight." The gambler kissed her lightly and then let go of her. When she turned to look at him after she went into her room and just before she closed the door, he whispered softly, "I love you."
"I love you too." She smiled at him and then reluctantly closed the door.
Ezra looked at the door for a moment and then turned his back. The thought of spending the night alone again wasn't very appealing. At least back in Four Corners they could find some private time, or he could slip up to her room on nights that Billy stayed with the Potters. He was very glad that Billy and the oldest Potter boy were such good friends.
He shrugged out of his jacket and hung it in the closet, and then undressed down to his underwear before quickly climbing into the cold bed. Shivers plagued him for a couple minutes until his body heat started to warm the covers. Once the initial chill had passed his mind was able to focus on another problem, and he groaned.
Not again, he thought. It's just going to have to go away. I am not going to keep doing that. I never had so much trouble controlling myself before. He shifted uncomfortably under the covers, and moaned again when the blankets pressed lightly against his swollen manhood. "Damn!" he complained under his breath. "Two more weeks, that's all I need to get through is two more weeks."
The southerner rolled over with his back to the door and tried to think about something besides the discomfort in his groin. No matter how hard he tried, he couldn't keep his mind away from thoughts of Mary's kisses and the feel of her in his arms. "Ah, hell!" He flipped over on his back and reached under the pillow for the handkerchief he had started keeping there.
"Does that mean you want me to leave?" a soft voice whispered from just inside the door.
"Shhhhh..." Mary shushed him as she moved soundlessly across the wooden floor. She sat on the edge of his bed and leaned down to silence his question with a kiss.
He couldn't help himself. She felt so good and his body was doing his thinking for him by that point. The gambler pulled her down next to him on the narrow bed and rolled to half trap her beneath him as he enticed her mouth open with his tongue. They fought for control of the kiss, neither wanting to relinquish control because they were both so starved for the contact.
Mary pulled herself free just long enough to pull back the covers and crawl under them with Ezra before she pulled him back into another fierce kiss. Trembling fingers fumbled with the buttons at the front of his winter underwear. She needed to touch him, to feel his skin against hers. A stubborn button had her tugging at the fabric in frustration.
The gambler managed to pull one hand away from its explorations of Mary's body to help with the offending button, and then it slipped back down to pull at the hem of her gown. His palm skimmed up the smooth skin of her thigh to her hip and then across to rest on her stomach. All the while they continued the fiery kiss that threatened to consume them.
When Ezra's hand slid downward to cup the mound of her womanhood, they both moaned. The sound brought the gambler to his senses momentarily, and his lips left hers to hover barely and inch above them. "We shouldn't... you shouldn't be here..." he gasped. "What if they hear?"
"They won't, if we're quiet." Mary stretched up to kiss him insistently. "Ezra, I need you. I don't think I can stand two more weeks of having you just a few feet away behind a closed door and not being able to touch you."
"Ohhh... darlin'. Those are my thoughts exactly." He tugged her gown up far enough to bare her completely up past her breasts. "I want this off of you, but I don't think we should take that chance."
She nodded as she worked his underwear over his shoulders and pushed it off his arms. Another tug, with his help, had them down to his knees. "Just make love to me, please!" she begged and urged him to move up over her.
As badly as he needed her, Ezra refused to rush. He leaned lower to trail soft wet kisses down her chest to her breast. His tongue swirled around the taut nipple, and he could feel her tremble when he sucked it into his mouth.
"Ohhh... yes," she whispered, even though she wanted to cry out as the sensations flooded her body.
The gambler released the nipple and teased his way over to the other one, drawing close and then backing off until she grabbed his head and pushed him toward the neglected nub. He chuckled softly as he nipped at the rosy bud and then pulled it into his mouth. Her soft moan was his undoing, and he slipped his hand back down between her legs to massage the soft mound with his palm. When she pressed herself more firmly against his fingers, he gently worked one finger between the folds to tease at the small sensitive nub hidden there. She was wet and ready for him, but he still urged her closer to her own release before he allowed himself to claim her. His rigid shaft throbbed against her belly where it lay trapped between their bodies. The urge to move and use the contact of their bodies to bring him close was almost overwhelming, but still he held back.
"Please!" Mary gasped. Her lips nearly brushed against his ear, allowing her warm breath to tickle him. "Ohhh... please." Her breath was ragged from desire; she clung to him, trying to urge him into completing their coupling.
Ezra removed his hand and pressed against her leg to get her to open them for him. He pressed the head of his engorged shaft against her and she thrust her hips upward, impaling herself on his manhood. His eyes closed and he released a throaty sigh as the ecstasy of feeling himself engulfed inside her overloaded his senses. A few seconds later his need for release urged him to move. They were both so aroused that it didn't take long. When he felt her muscles clamping down around him as her own orgasm surged through her, he lost what small amount of control he still had. A few more thrusts had him filling her with his seed.
They lay entwined in each other's arms, gasping for breath as their bodies recovered from their lovemaking. Ezra reached up to wipe a stray strand of hair away from Mary's eyes and allowed his hand to linger there to caress her face. "I keep thinking that someday I will awaken and discover that this was all a dream, just a fantasy my mind created to torture me." He rested his forehead against hers and sighed. "I don't know what I have done to deserve you."
"Played your cards right?"
"Oh, that was bad." The gambler chuckled softly and kissed the end of her nose playfully. "Here I am trying to be serious and you are making gambler jokes, bad gambler jokes."
"I thought it was pretty good, myself," Mary replied softly as she snuggled against him.
"It was a good effort, darlin'." He wrapped his arms around her and sighed in contentment. "You know we can't go to sleep, don't you?"
"Ummmm... just for a little while?"
"You know how much I love to wake up with you in my arms, but it would not be a pleasant scene if we were caught here together," the southerner said sensibly.
"I know, but I can wish."
The two talked quietly for several minutes until they were both fighting to stay awake. Mary's eyes drifted shut, and Ezra shook her gently to wake her from her doze. "Mary, you should go so you can get some sleep."
"Umm humm," she agreed sleepily and reluctantly crawled out of the bed. "I'll see you in the morning."
Ezra sat up and kissed her tenderly when she leaned down to him and then watched her as she left his room and closed the door. The bed felt so empty and cold without her there with him.
He was never going to get used to mornings. Then again, he wasn't going to get used to going to bed around the time he would usually be starting his night's work. At least he had been getting plenty of sleep.
"Good morning!" Evie greeted him when he entered the kitchen. "Did you sleep well?"
Ezra really hoped he didn't have a guilty expression on his face when he tried to answer. He covered the sudden catch in his voice with a cough. "Excuse me. Yes, I did. Thank you." When Evie set a cup of coffee in front of him, he picked it up quickly to sip the hot brew and forestall the need to say anything else for a few moments. He just couldn't decide if it was his imagination or if the look she was giving him meant she knew what had taken place the night before.
"That's good." She filled a plate with eggs and bacon for him and then got a cup of coffee for herself. "Orin went to the office for a couple of hours. He just can't let a day go by without at least checking in. Billy loves to go to the office so he took him with him since they wouldn't be there too long." She paused to sip her coffee and studied the gambler.
"Where's Mary?" Ezra asked between bites.
"She had a couple last minute errands, so I guess you are stuck with me this morning," she teased.
"My dear Mrs. Travis, I would never consider myself to be stuck with you."
"That was a very sweet thing to say." Evie smiled at the compliment. "Before Mary gets back though, I think we should talk about something."
Ezra froze with his fork halfway to his mouth, which had suddenly gone very dry. He looked back up at his hostess and tried to keep his poker face in place as he responded, "Of course. What would you like to talk about?"
"You look like a kid with his hand caught in the cookie jar," Evie said accusingly. "When are you going to get the idea that you really are welcome here and no one is judging everything you do?"
"I'm sorry. I didn't realize that I had been giving that impression. The Judge and you have been such gracious hosts; no one could have made me feel more welcome than you have." The southerner meant every word he said, but inside he still wondered if she would be so gracious if she knew that he had seriously breached that hospitality last night.
"Relax; all I wanted to talk to you about was tonight. I wanted to know if you needed any help with the gifts and things. I got the impression from our talk last night that you hadn't had much in the way of Christmas celebrations. I just thought you might have some questions or something."
"Yes, I would be most grateful for some assistance. I have gifts but I am afraid I don't know what to do with them." Ezra let the tension drain that had hit suddenly when she said she wanted to talk to him.
"Mary has slipped her gifts into our room, because she'll have to try to keep Billy from waking up once we do get him to sleep. Orin and I will bring those packages downstairs as soon as Mary lets us know he's asleep. If you would like, you can bring your things at the same time, or I can come and get you after we finish with our things." Evie waited for him to consider the options.
"I think after you finish would be better. Three of us milling around out in the hall all at once would be more likely to wake Billy."
"That is my thought too, but I didn't want you to feel like I was putting you off."
"Not at all. I appreciate the offer to help."
Any further conversation was cut off by the sound of a very rambunctious boy as he came barreling into the kitchen followed closely by his grandfather.
"Ezra, look up," Evie said.
The mischievous twinkle in her eyes and the hint of a smile on her lips had him a little wary, but he looked up over his head anyway. Hanging from the center of the doorframe he stood in was a sprig of some kind of greenery. He studied it with a puzzled expression; sure that he was missing the significance of it, and feeling a little dull-witted for not having a clue what it was all about.
"It's mistletoe." The judge came to his rescue with an explanation. "It's a tradition at Christmas. Anyone caught standing under it gets a kiss."
Before the southerner could respond, Evie had closed the short distance between them to give him a kiss on the cheek. He ducked his head and blushed hotly, embarrassed by the gesture but delighted to be included in their tradition. When he recovered and glanced back up to see Evie Travis grinning at him he couldn't help but grin back, showing his dimples and a glint of gold when the light hit his gold tooth. "I do believe that is one tradition that I can definitely enjoy."
"Obviously," Mary teased, "since you are still standing there."
"Ah, well... now that I know what it's for, I thought perhaps if I stood here long enough someone else might grace me with a kiss."
"If you're expecting me to kiss you, you can just forget it." Orin Travis managed to keep such a straight face and serious tone that it took a few moments for his words to sink in.
Evie was the first to laugh and pressed her fingers to her mouth to try to stifle the sound, but it was a hopeless effort. Her laughter infected the others and soon they were all clutching their sides and trying to catch their breath. "I don't know which of you had the funniest expression, you..." she said, pointing to Ezra, "...or you." She wiped at a tear that threatened to spill over and shook her head as she pointed to her husband. "I think you surprised yourself as much as us, and poor Ezra didn't know whether to take you seriously or not."
Mary took pity on the southerner and crossed the room to wrap her arms around him. When Ezra turned his head to look at her, she leaned in to give him a kiss. It was meant to be just a quick peck, but the touch of his lips caused her good intentions to fly out the window.
Reluctantly, Mary ended the kiss and looked toward her son and giggled.
"The time will come when you don't say ewww at the thought of kissing a girl," Ezra told the young boy and gave him a wink.
"Ezra's right," Billy's grandfather said as he scooped the boy up in his arms and made a point of giving Evie a quick kiss with the boy caught between them.
"Yuck!" The child wrinkled his nose as if he had smelled something bad.
The adults all chuckled at the expression on the child's face. "Don't worry, Billy. We don't expect you to start liking that until you're a lot older," the judge assured the boy. "You know, you should be getting to bed, young man. If you want Santa Claus to come, you need to be asleep."
"I don't want to go to bed." The boy was tired but he was fighting sleep. He was too excited to give up easily.
"How about a story, and then you go to bed?" When his grandson agreed, he carried him over to a rocking chair near the fireplace and settled the boy on his lap. Billy leaned against his grandfather's chest and looked up at him expectantly.
Everyone settled down to listen to Orin's story as he told about the first Christmas. The judge patiently answered the child's questions when he asked them, and he had the rapt attention of his entire audience. When the story came to a close it was clear that Billy wasn't about to give in to sleep yet. The adults looked at each other and sighed.
"I have something that you might like," Ezra offered. "If you'll just give me a moment." He made a quick trip up to his room and came back carrying a book.
"Here, why don't you sit here if you're going to read. The light is better." The judge got up, still holding Billy, and moved to another chair.
"Thank you." The gambler settled into the empty seat. "This doesn't begin to compare to the story we just heard, but perhaps you will enjoy it." He smiled at Billy and held the book up for him to see. "There are pictures with the story. Would you like to see them?"
Billy nodded and looked up at his grandfather uncertainly. He wanted to go to Ezra, but he still remembered how his grandfather had acted toward the gambler last time he came to Four Corners. His grandfather had been so angry then, but now he seemed to like Ezra, and the whole situation had Billy confused.
"Go on," the judge told him as he lifted the boy off his lap.
The youngster scrambled onto Ezra's lap and leaned against his chest like he had his grandfather's. He waited patiently while the southerner found the right page and showed him the picture that went along with the title. The smile that lit up the boy's face warmed the gambler's heart, making him glad that he had found the book. He was totally oblivious to the others in the room as he gave his full attention to Billy.
'Twas the Night Before Christmas
or Account of a Visit from St. Nicholas
Major Henry Livingston Jr. (1748-1828)
(previously believed to be by Clement Clarke Moore)
'Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house
Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse;
The stockings were hung by the chimney with care,
In hopes that St. Nicholas soon would be there;
"Saint Nicholas?" Billy looked up puzzled.
"Santa Claus," Ezra explained. "In some parts of the world he is called Saint Nicholas."
The children were nestled all snug in their beds,
While visions of sugar-plums danced in their heads;
And mamma in her 'kerchief, and I in my cap,
Had just settled down for a long winter's nap,
"What's a sugar-plum?"
"A plum is a fruit. They're about this big..." Ezra indicated the approximate size by making a circle with his fingers. "...and a sugar-plum is a plum that has been cooked in a thick sugar syrup and then dried."
"Have you ever tasted one?"
"Indeed I have. They are common around this time of year back east. I still know some people back there who might be persuaded to send us some. Would you like that?"
Billy nodded and rubbed at his eyes sleepily.
When out on the lawn there arose such a clatter,
I sprang from the bed to see what was the matter.
Away to the window I flew like a flash,
Tore open the shutters and threw up the sash.
The moon on the breast of the new-fallen snow
Gave the lustre of mid-day to objects below,
When, what to my wondering eyes should appear,
But a miniature sleigh, and eight tiny reindeer.
"Reindeer?" The boy looked up at Ezra with a puzzled expression.
"I have never actually seen a reindeer, but I have it on good authority that they are real creatures similar to an elk. See there's a picture of the reindeer pulling the sleigh."
"Yeah! You think there's deer that would really pull a sleigh?"
"Well, if not, then Santa Claus wouldn't be able to get here, would he?"
Billy thought on that a moment and then nodded, apparently deciding that it must be true.
With a little old driver, so lively and quick,
I knew in a moment it must be St. Nick.
More rapid than eagles his coursers they came,
And he whistled, and shouted, and called them by name;
"Now, DASHER! now, DANCER! now, PRANCER and VIXEN!
On, COMET! on CUPID! on, DONDER and BLITZEN!
To the top of the porch! to the top of the wall!
Now dash away! dash away! dash away all!"
As dry leaves that before the wild hurricane fly,
When they meet with an obstacle, mount to the sky,
So up to the house-top the coursers they flew,
With the sleigh full of toys, and St. Nicholas too.
"Toys? He's got toys in the sleigh?"
"Yes. See?" The gambler pointed out a picture of the loaded sleigh. "You suppose one of yours is in that sleigh?"
Billy shrugged. "Maybe."
And then, in a twinkling, I heard on the roof
The prancing and pawing of each little hoof.
As I drew in my hand, and was turning around,
Down the chimney St. Nicholas came with a bound.
A pair of wide eyes looked up at him causing Ezra to pause again. "What is it?"
"How do they get on the roof?" The boy stared at the picture of the sleigh and reindeer sitting on a rooftop.
"Why they fly, of course," the gambler said, as if a flying reindeer wasn't at all unusual.
"Fly? Really?" The youngster was amazed by this revelation. "Wow!"
He was dressed all in fur, from his head to his foot,
And his clothes were all tarnished with ashes and soot;
A bundle of toys he had flung on his back,
And he looked like a peddler just opening his pack.
His eyes -- how they twinkled! his dimples how merry!
His cheeks were like roses, his nose like a cherry!
His droll little mouth was drawn up like a bow,
And the beard of his chin was as white as the snow;
Billy reached out and touched the picture of Santa Claus and smiled. "He looks nice," he said and then stifled a yawn.
"I would say that he is very nice, and he must love children very much."
The stump of a pipe he held tight in his teeth,
And the smoke it encircled his head like a wreath;
He had a broad face and a little round belly,
That shook, when he laughed like a bowlful of jelly.
He was chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf,
And I laughed when I saw him, in spite of myself;
A wink of his eye and a twist of his head,
Soon gave me to know I had nothing to dread;
He spoke not a word, but went straight to his work,
And filled all the stockings; then turned with a jerk,
And laying his finger aside of his nose,
And giving a nod, up the chimney he rose;
He sprang to his sleigh, to his team gave a whistle,
And away they all flew like the down of a thistle.
But I heard him exclaim, ere he drove out of sight,
"HAPPY CHRISTMAS TO ALL, AND TO ALL A GOOD-NIGHT!"
The gambler shifted position carefully so he could look down at the boy. Somewhere during those last verses, Billy had finally lost the battle and had drifted off to sleep. Ezra closed the book and stuck it beside him in the chair so he could hold onto the sleeping child more securely.
"If we give him a few more minutes to get into a deeper sleep, we should be able to get him up to bed without waking him," Mary whispered.
"Just say when," Ezra acknowledged softly. "If it is like any other night he will be out for the night."
"Normally, yes, but this isn't just any other night," Evie added. "It is like he has this built in signal that shouts at him to wake up."
"Ezra, where did you get that story book? I had never heard that one before," Mary asked. "It was wonderful, and I could tell Billy really liked it."
"I was uncertain about whether it would be appropriate after I bought it. You can't imagine how relieved I was to hear that Santa Claus is part of your holiday tradition."
"It was a perfect choice," the elder Mrs. Travis reassured him. "I want to see the pictures you showed to Billy."
Ezra pulled the book back out of the side of the chair and handed it across to the older woman. "The illustrator did a wonderful job."
"I think I'll go up and get ready for bed. Maybe he'll stay asleep if I'm there and have the bed warmed up. Would you bring him up in about ten minutes?" Mary rose from her chair and then paused, waiting for the southerner's reply.
"Thank you." She stopped by the rocking chair long enough to give the gambler a quick kiss and then headed up stairs.
"Orin, why don't you help me make some cocoa? Ezra, after you take him up to Mary, why don't you join us in the kitchen for a bit?" Evie offered. "We'll need to give him time to get into a deep sleep again."
"Thank you, I'd like that," Ezra responded and smiled at his hostess.
"It still beats me how a boy who could sleep through a cyclone can wake up so easily on Christmas Eve," the Judge whispered to his wife on the way out of the room.
"That's easy," Evie answered. "It's the only night of the year that he is listening for Santa Claus."
The room grew quiet after everyone had gone. Only the crackling of the fire and the soft squeak of the rocking chair broke the silence. Billy shifted slightly and sighed in his sleep.
Ezra watched, amazed by the innocence on that young face. It was hard to believe that this was the same youngster who was like a miniature whirlwind when he was awake. He hugged the child closer and closed his eyes in contentment. Had his mother ever felt like this with him? She was his own flesh and blood, but she treated him with less warmth and compassion than she did most strangers. But now, sitting here holding Mary's slumbering son, he felt like he was finally home, and that for the first time he had a family. Billy might not be of his blood, but the gambler found it hard to believe that he could love a child of his own any more than he loved this small boy. After all, he was a part of Mary, and Mary had become the focus of his life.
The southerner glanced at the mantle clock and was surprised to see that he had been sitting there lost in thought for a quarter of an hour. Billy was sound asleep and didn't even stir when the Ezra rose from the chair and made his way up the stairs. The door to Mary's room was open and the lamp was turned down to a dim glow. He moved around to the opposite side of the bed and watched Mary scoot over to make room for her son.
"Can you help me with his clothes?" She started working on the buttons of her boy's shirt, and Ezra removed his boots and loosened his pants and slid them off. He helped turn Billy enough that they could get his arms out of his shirtsleeves and then quickly pulled the covers up over the child while the bed was still warm from his mother's body heat. "Thank you."
"I will see you in the morning," the gambler told the pretty blonde. "Sleep tight."
"I will. Goodnight." Mary raised up slightly to give him a lingering kiss goodnight when he stopped by her side of the bed on the way out of the room. "Try not to be up too late. I guarantee he will be awake at the crack of dawn."
"I will make every effort to heed that advice. Goodnight, darlin'." Ezra left the room and quietly pulled the door shut behind him. He took the steps slowly to keep from making too much noise.
The smell of cocoa greeted him when he entered the kitchen and he smiled. "Evie, you will have me spoiled if you continue to offer me such irresistible treats."
Mrs. Travis giggled and grinned at the younger man. "I don't usually have anyone here to spoil except Orin, so I like to take advantage of the situation when I get someone else here to pamper."
"Did Billy wake up when you took him upstairs?" the Judge asked. "If not, we might be able to get started sooner."
"No, he didn't even bat an eyelash."
"Good! He had a long day, but he was so determined to stay awake. That is part of why I took him with me so early this morning. I was hoping it would make him tired enough to sleep."
"Since he is sleeping so well, I am going to go up and get part of our things while you two finish your cocoa. Ezra, I'll come and help you after Orin and I finish. You can stay down here or wait upstairs, whichever you want to do." Evie didn't even wait for a response before she left the room.
"Does it really take all that much time to prepare things?"
The Judge nodded. "Yes. You'd have to know my wife better to understand. She wants everything just perfect. Everyone has to have a stocking hung on the mantel and stuffed with treats. We always put out some special decorations, and then the gifts have to be set out just so. You'll see."
"Apparently I shall. Is there something I can do to help?" The gambler wanted to see the preparations, since this was his first real Christmas.
"You can help me bring in the wreath and hang it," Travis offered. "I always make sure we have plenty of wood in too, so we don't have to miss out on anything by going out for more in the morning. We try to keep the fire built up pretty good, because it is one time when we all gather around in our robes and nightshirts, or whatever you sleep in." He laughed at the puzzled expression on the younger man's face. "You'll see. It is impossible to look into those blue eyes and tell that child that he has to wait until everyone is dressed to open his Christmas presents. So, it is a very informal time." He paused and looked at the gambler questioningly. "Did you bring a robe? If not, I have one you can use. Evie got me a new one last year for Christmas, but the old one is still serviceable."
"Actually, no. I didn't think to bring one, since I didn't plan to be out of my room without being fully dressed. Especially since I had planned on staying at the hotel." Ezra explained. "I hate to admit it, but I don't even own one."
"I'll get it for you when we get finished. Are you ready?" Orin smiled when his guest nodded and rubbed his hands together in anticipation.
"Where do we start?"
An hour later the sitting room had been transformed. A large wreath made of pine boughs hung over the mantle where five well stuffed stockings hung. The wood box was full for morning, candles were set in their holders, small wooden carvings were set out to depict the nativity, and the Travis' gifts had all been set out on each side of the fireplace.
"I am no authority on this, but isn't there usually a tree?" Ezra asked.
"If we were back east we would have had one, but here they are harder to find. We started making the wreaths, rather than destroying what pine trees there are here. They don't miss a few branches though." Evie stood back to eye her handy work. "All right, now let's get your things brought down here."
At the top of the steps, Orin ducked into his room and came back out a couple minutes later. "Here you go," he said as he handed the younger man his extra robe.
"Thank you. I appreciate the loan of it." The gambler accepted the offered garment and laid it neatly over the chair in his room.
"I am heading to bed. Evie, I'll warm up your side for you." The judge went back to his own room and softly closed the door.
"Now, what all do you have to take down?" Mrs. Travis asked. "Will one trip do, or will we need to make two?"
"I think one should do fine." Standish went to the bottom drawer of the small bureau and started removing packages. He had two each for all four of the Travis' and one extra one for Billy that he left in the drawer for the moment. Later he would slip it into the pocket of the robe so he wouldn't forget it in all the excitement. He wanted to give that one to him personally, so he planned to take it down himself in the morning.
A few minutes later found eight new packages added to the rather impressive stacks near the hearth. Ezra smiled at the sight and sighed, "It's too bad that there is no way to take photographs of events such as these."
"True, but who knows. Someday maybe that will be possible. It wasn't all that long ago that it would have been unheard of for a photographer to come into a town the size of ours, but now they pass through several times a year." Evie stepped closer and slipped a hand through the crook of his arm. "We could stand here and look at this all night, but it isn't going to make it any easier to get up when that child's eyes pop open in the morning. Come on, off to bed with you. Morning will be here way too early."
"I will take your word on it as the voice of experience." He nodded and gestured gallantly for her to take the lead. "After you."
Ezra glanced at his pocket watch before putting out the light. It was after one in the morning already. He chuckled to himself. Back home he would still be at the gaming tables and not planning to leave them anytime soon. Now he could hardly keep his eyes open. It took only a minute to strip out of his street clothes and crawl into the bed. This was one night that he went straight to sleep.
"Ezra! Wake up! He was here, come on." The boy straddled the man in the bed and bounced in his excitement.
"Ummph," the gambler grunted again as the child bounced a little too hard. He reached out to still the over-exuberant boy and buy a moment to get his mind working. "Who was here?"
"Santa Claus! Come on!" Billy scrambled off the bed and grabbed at the covers to try to get Ezra to hurry.
"Ahhh the jolly old man himself made an appearance last night?" Standish took on a serious tone. "Am I the last to arise this morning?"
"Nah. I came to get you first. They all say I have t' wait 'til the sun is up," he said sadly. "But I don't wanna wait."
Ezra glanced out the window over his bed and saw the first hint of dawn in the eastern sky. "It won't be much longer. I have an idea that will help us pass the time until you can wake them." He sat up on the edge of the bed and grabbed the robe the Judge had loaned him.
"What kind of idea?" Billy asked as he sat on the bed beside the gambler.
"How would you like to give your grandparents a special Christmas gift?"
"Yeah! But what can I give 'em?"
"Come with me and I'll show you." Ezra took the boy by the hand and led him quietly down the stairs. "Shhhh... don't wake them yet."
Once downstairs where they could speak a little above a whisper, the southerner squatted down to eye level with the child. "Daylight will get here a lot faster, if we stay busy, so let's surprise your grandparents by having everything ready for them when they get up."
"Like what?" Billy looked puzzled by the suggestion. At the same time, he was very distracted, letting his eyes wander to the gifts stacked around the hearth and the heavy stockings.
"Follow me." Ezra led him back into the kitchen where he lit the lamp and pulled out a chair. After taking a seat and drawing the boy a little closer, he spoke in conspiratorial tones. "If they don't have to start the fires and light the lamps and candles they will be able to get straight to the business of opening gifts, won't they?"
The youngster's eyes lit up when he understood what the gambler had in mind. "Yeah! 'Cause we don't ever take time for breakfast first."
"That would be a special gift for them wouldn't it? For them to be able to get up and not have those chores to do before they can enjoy Christmas with you?" He was trying to calm the boy down enough to get him to wait until daybreak, but inside he wanted to go wake everyone up too.
"Then let's get this one going first then do the fireplace in the sitting room."
The two worked quietly laying the fire in the cook stove, which would also double as a heat stove for the kitchen. A little later they had a nice fire built up in the fireplace and all the candles were lit. Ezra peeked outside and saw it was much lighter out, but it still wasn't quite late enough to be considered daylight out there. "Why don't you sit here with me for a few more minutes before you go wake everyone up?"
Neither of them had heard Mary creeping down the steps to peek into the room. She stood back smiling as she watched her two men sneaking around to surprise Evie and Orin.
Billy climbed up on Ezra's lap and sighed. "How much longer?"
"Not too much. Something has me puzzled though?"
"What?" The boy looked up at him innocently.
"How did Santa Claus get that sleigh and all those reindeer on the roof without any of us hearing him?" The southerner raised a brow in question and waited for Billy to explain it.
Billy smiled and his eyes twinkled with mischief. "I think I heard 'em," he said in an exaggerated whisper.
"Really?" Ezra grew wide-eyed and gasped. "What did they sound like?"
"They did a lot of walkin' around. Sometimes they sounded like they were right outside the door," Billy replied, obviously awed by the experience.
"What did you do?"
"I shut my eyes real tight so it would look like I was asleep," he confided and then giggled.
"That was a very wise thing to do," Ezra agreed. "Apparently your ruse worked."
"You fooled him," the southerner elaborated and hugged the boy affectionately. Ezra felt rather than heard the heavy sigh that escaped the small body, and he glanced toward the window again and sighed right along with him. "What do you think they would do if they were awakened a little early?"
"Don't know," Billy answered and rested his head on the gambler's chest. "It's takin' forever."
Mary could sense where this was heading and decided now was the right time go back up to bed so her son could have the fun of waking her. She moved as quickly as she could and still avoid making any noise.
"Well, I say, let's wake them up." Ezra smiled and winked and leaned close to whisper to the child. "I think it's taking forever too."
"Yea!" Billy bolted for the stairs and sounded like a small herd of buffalo pounding up the steps. The sound of a door being flung open was quickly followed with, "Mama, wake up. It's Christmas!"
The gambler grinned to himself when he heard more stomping and another door opening. He could just imagine the scene in that second room. He had been awakened in a lot of ways in his life but this morning had been the first time he woke up with a five-year-old sitting on his chest. In his mind, he could visualize the same thing happening to Judge Travis.
"Grandpa! Wake up!"
"Billy! You scared me... Ummmph... stop bouncing."
"But Grandpa, it's Christmas. Come on, get up!"
"It isn't daylight yet."
"But it's close enough, and Ezra is tired of waitin' too."
"Oh he is, is he?"
A squeal and hysterical giggles told Ezra that Billy had just met his match. All you had to do was hit just the right ticklish spot and the youngster nearly turned inside out squirming and laughing.
"Orin, if you make him wet the bed, you can change the sheets," Evie warned him.
"I think she means it," the judge commented. "Maybe we better just go on downstairs."
"Not without me you aren't," Evie teased. "I know you two. You'll dive into the presents and Mary and I will miss seeing you open them."
"Then we´d better hurry, or they won't be able to wait," Mary chimed in from where she stood in the doorway. "Billy, did you go wake Ezra?"
"Uh huh, he's already downstairs. He helped me fix a special Christmas present for Grandma and Grandpa. Come on and see."
The sound of shuffling feet and, finally, footsteps descending the stairs had the gambler watching the door into the sitting room with great anticipation. When the quartet reached the bottom of the stairs and then stepped into the sitting room they stopped in their tracks. The room was warm and cozy, a cheery fire burned in the fireplace, and the candles and lamps gave the room a soft glow. The whole room seemed to embrace you when you stepped inside.
"You like it?" Billy smiled at his grandparents and his mother. "Ezra helped me, so you wouldn't have chores to do when you got up."
Evie scooped her grandson into her arms and hugged him tightly. "Honey, this is wonderful. Thank you! This is a perfect Christmas present." Her gaze still traveled over the room and she paused to smile brightly at Ezra.
The Judge leaned in to give his grandson a quick kiss on the cheek, and he grinned at the blush it caused. "This is the first Christmas I can remember that everything was ready and waiting when we got up. You couldn't have found anything that would have pleased me more."
Billy grinned from ear to ear, basking in the praise. But it didn't take long for him to remember that he had gifts waiting to be unwrapped. "Can we open presents now?"
"You bet we can." The judge took his customary seat and waited for the ladies to take charge. "Do you want to sit with me?" He saw the indecision in the boy's eyes and realized that he wanted to go to Ezra, just like he used to do with Steven. "You don't have to, if you want to sit with someone else."
It took only a few seconds for the child to scramble up on the southerner's lap and then turn to watch his mother and grandmother. He fidgeted anxiously while they picked through the packages for the first ones to give out.
"Goodness! I can't believe so many of these are for Billy." She looked at her grandson seriously. "You couldn't have been that good this year, could you?"
"Yes I was. I didn't get in trouble at all." When his mother looked at him with that one look of hers that told him he'd better tell the truth, he amended his claim. "Not much, anyway."
"Well, if it wasn't much trouble, I guess maybe you do deserve all these." Evie handed the first one to Billy and waited for him to open it. She didn't have to wait long. He made quick work of untying the string around it and peeling back the paper.
"Wow, lookit!" He held his treasure out for them all to see and twisted around to see if Ezra was looking. "It's a top. Jimmy's got one, but he wouldn't let me play with it."
"Now you have one of your own," Mary pointed out. "Here's another one that says to Billy, from Grandpa."
The women mixed in passing out some gifts to the adults. It had always been their tradition to pass them out one or two at a time so everyone could enjoy seeing what everyone else received. They knew it was a little hard for Billy to wait for his next gift, but they also knew that doing it this way prolonged the whole event, and had him even more excited when the next one was handed to him.
The gambler looked at the package in his hands and swallowed the lump in his throat.
"Ain't you gonna open it?" Billy asked.
"Yes. I think I might need some help though. Will you help me with the strings?" The southerner held the package closer so the young boy could pull the ties loose, and open the flaps of paper.
He couldn't help but grin when he saw what was inside. "Mary, thank you, darlin'. This is one thing I can always use." He held up the three boxes of Faro playing cards and winked at Mary. "You would be amazed at how fast I can wear out a deck of these."
"No, I wouldn't. I've seen first hand how tattered they get." The young blonde smiled warmly and then handed out the next package. "Orin, this one is for you. It's from Ezra."
The judge looked at the package in surprise. "Why thank you, Ezra." He made a show of opening the package and smiled when he saw its contents. "How did you know I was wanting one of these?"
"I hazarded a guess," the gambler replied. "I noticed the old one was a bit worn."
"Thank you. This is really nice. Evie, take a look at this." He held it out for his wife to see. "I had made up my mind to get a new watch fob and chain after the holidays. This one I have has seen better days. I'll keep it for the sentimental value of it, but it has had so many links break that I have been afraid I would end up losing my watch."
"That is nice," Evie agreed. She took a seat near her husband and set a package on her lap. "I think it is Mary's or my turn now. Why don't you open one, dear?"
"All right. How about this one?" Mary picked up the one closest to her and sat down to open it. "Oh, Ezra. They're beautiful!" She ran her fingers over the soft gloves before pulling one on. "And they fit! Thank you." Her chair was near enough to his that she could lean in close for a kiss.
All four adults looked at the boy and laughed.
"What about you, Evie?" the gambler asked.
"I already have one picked out," she said with a huge grin. It took only moments to open the wrapping and when she saw what was inside she was momentarily speechless. "Orin, this is so extravagant. I've seen this same perfume in some of the shops but I wouldn't even hint at wanting it. How did you know?"
"I can't take all the credit. Mrs. Potter helped me," he confessed.
"Yes. I picked it up when we were in Four Corners. After I got it, I decided it wasn't a good time to give it to you. I didn't want you to think I was trying to buy your favor," the Judge explained. "So, I have kept it hidden all this time, just for this occasion."
"That is so sweet. I don't think you will ever cease to amaze me. Just when I think I have you figured out you do something totally new." The elder Mrs. Travis rose from her chair and went to hug her husband.
The morning continued in that manner, taking turns opening gifts until only two remained, one for Mary and the one Ezra had in his pocket. Mary's hand flew to her open mouth when she opened her last package from Ezra. "I love it. Look..." she showed off her last gift. "I love cameos and I don't think I have ever seen one with this shade of blue in the background." Her mouth dropped open again and she looked at Ezra in surprise. "It will match my blue dress perfectly."
"It matches your eyes even better. I saw it and I knew it had to have been made just for you." The southerner reached out to take her hand and give it a squeeze, sparing Billy the horror of having them kiss each other while they leaned across him again.
"Well, that looks like that's all of them," Evie said as she started to get up to pick up the wrappings. Some of it could be saved and put to a new use, but most of it would go into the fire.
"There is one more gift to give, if I may." Ezra reached into his pocket and pulled out the last small package. "I saved this one for last." He handed it to Billy and watched the boy's eyes light up at the thought of having one more gift to open.
Inside the paper was a small carved box. Billy turned it over in his hands and finally looked up at Ezra with a puzzled expression.
"The box opens."
"Oh." Billy said, and struggled to get the lid off. "WOW!" His eyes grew as big as saucers when he looked inside. "Look, Mama!"
"Ezra!" Mary looked at the gambler like he had lost his mind. But when he signaled her to wait, she held back what she wanted to say.
"I saved this for last because I didn't want you to be distracted by other unopened gifts. It is important that you really listen to me. There are rules that go along with this," he said and tapped the small pocketknife Billy held. "And if you don't follow the rules, either your mother or I will take this and put it away until you are old enough to be more responsible. Do you understand?"
"Good. Now the first rule is that you must remember this is not a toy. A knife is a tool, and in some situations it can be a weapon. Because it can be harmful if it isn't handled right, you must be extra careful. Understood?"
"Uh huh." Billy nodded solemnly.
"All right, there are some things for you to keep in mind." Ezra held his hand up and ticked off the rules on his fingers as he said them. "You are not to have the blades open except when you are actually using it. Don't cut or carve on anything that belongs to someone else without their permission, and you are not to let anyone play with it." Ezra maintained eye contact with the boy and tried to sound stern.
"I won't. I promise."
"One more thing. I don't want you to use it until we get back home," the gambler insisted.
"Why?" The boy cocked his head and looked at the gambler.
"I want you to have Mr. Larabee show you the proper way to handle and care for it."
"You think Chris would show me how to carve like he does?" Billy asked hopefully.
"He might, if you ask him," Ezra offered. "Just don't forget, if your mother or I decide that you are not behaving responsibly, your mother is to take the knife and put it away until she decides you are old enough to have it back."
The boy looked at the small pocketknife and then over at his mother. He had no doubt that his mother would do just that, and if she did, it would be a long time before he got it back. "I won't forget." He turned soft blue eyes back to his mother and held up his treasure for her to see. "Wanna see it?"
"I can see it; it's very nice. You will be very careful with it, won't you?" She sighed when she saw her son nod emphatically. "Don't forget to tell Ezra thank you."
"Thank you!" Billy twisted around in the gambler's lap and hugged him tightly around the neck.
After a moment to recover from his surprise, Ezra wrapped his arms around the child to return the hug. "You are most welcome." For a moment he hadn't thought that he would be able to say anything around the lump in his throat.
"Mary, why don't you help me get some breakfast going?" Evie asked the younger woman. "Billy, if you come with us, I'll fix you each a leftover biscuit to hold you over 'til breakfast is ready. It'll take a little while for the stove to heat up, and I don't want you all to starve while you wait," she said with a wink.
The southerner looked at the boy on his lap and grinned, and the youngster giggled and clamped his hand over his mouth in an effort to keep from giving away their secret. Ezra leaned closer and whispered in the young one's ear, "Why don't you go with them, then later you can tell me how they reacted."
Billy slid to his feet and hurried to his grandmother's side. "Come on, Grandma, I'm hungry." Grabbing the older woman's hand he tugged her after him toward the kitchen.
After the others were out of the room, the Judge took the chance to talk to the younger man. "Ezra, you did a good thing for Billy. He needs the influence of a man in his life. Mary means well, but she would keep him away from a lot of things growing boys need."
"I don't believe that she is too happy with me right now," the southerner said with a sigh. "I think perhaps I might have overstepped myself."
"Don't worry about Mary. I'll have a talk with her. I remember when I gave Steven his first pocketknife; he was just about Billy's age, and I gave him a similar set of rules." Orin looked puzzled. "Somehow you seem to know just the right things to do with Billy. That surprises me after the type of childhood that I imagine you had."
"I am at a loss for an explanation, other than that I do enjoy being around children," Ezra confessed. "For some reason most of them seem to like me too."
"I've noticed that. You know, it seems like children have a way of seeing through the image to the heart of a person," Travis mused. "You just have a natural way with them."
The gambler ducked his head and blushed in embarrassment at the praise. "Thank you, Orin. I hope that I can continue to do right by him." He looked back up to meet the Judge's eyes before he continued. "I would never knowingly do something that might prove harmful to your grandson. I don't believe I could love him more if he were my own."
"I admit that I had my doubts," Travis confessed. "But, after watching you with him this past week, those doubts have been laid to rest. Ezra, I'm sorry for how I treated you when I came to Four Corners last time. I've always been one to try to avoid judging someone without all the facts, but I didn't give you a chance, and I was wrong."
"You have no reason to apologize to me, because I had given you no reason to trust me with your family. The one you should apologize to is Mary," Ezra said. "But this is an experience that I never thought I would have in this lifetime."
"What experience is that?"
"Hearing a federal judge apologize to me. I might not feel that it was necessary, but I will always remember it," the southerner replied sincerely. "Thank you."
"It was necessary, and you're right, I do need to talk to Mary too. I should have trusted her judgment. She has never been one to jump into something with her eyes closed. It was just hard for me to accept that she saw more in you than I could see," Orin admitted. "If I accepted that, then I would have had to acknowledge that I was wrong about you, and that just wasn't something I was prepared to do."
"Ezra!" Billy called out to the gambler as he came back through the door and headed straight for him. "We surprised 'em! Grandma said we are spoilin' her."
"Then I take it that the ladies were pleased with the second part of the morning surprise."
"Uh huh, and they said they'd still give us biscuits to hold us until they get breakfast ready." The boy's grin was infectious as he recounted the events in the kitchen.
"Hallelujah! I'm starving," the judge said, and gave Ezra a wink on the sly. "I don't know about you two, but my belly button is rubbing against my backbone."
Ezra looked at the stack of gifts on his bed and shook his head. There had never been a time when he had felt so much at home during a holiday. The Travises had been such gracious hosts and it hadn't taken more than a couple days after he arrived for them to warm up to him and make him feel truly welcome. That in itself would have been one of the best Christmas gifts he could have ever hoped for, but added to that he found himself the recipient of several material gifts. The wonder of them was that they were given by people who really wanted to include him, not by people who felt like they had no choice in the matter. At first, they might have felt a little pressured by the fact that he was here with Mary and they couldn't simply ignore him, but he had no doubt that now the gifts had been freely given and that made them all the more special to him.
The gambler sat on the edge of the narrow bed and picked up each item in turn. The Travises had been very generous and had given him a warm knitted wool cap and a winter scarf. The deep, rich brown would work well with his tan coat. Evie had made them herself and she had laughed to see his puzzled expression. She told him she knew he was very fashion conscious. But, she thought while he was out riding patrol on those really cold days that they might come in very handy to keep his ears and neck warm. Ezra put the cap and scarf on to see how they felt and smiled. He would definitely wear them on patrol, and he would remember that Evie had made them just for him.
The Judge had given him a box of fine cigars. Apparently he remembered that Ezra liked to indulge in one when he played cards. The southerner opened the lid to the box and lifted one out. The aroma, when he passed it under his nose, brought back memories of the south and the tobacco plantations he had visited. There were no finer cigars made in the States than those made in the Virginias and the Carolinas.
Mary had given him a splendid cravat that would be perfect with the red brocade vest he liked to wear. She had said the deep red and the touch of gold in it brought out the hint of red in his hair. He had never really thought about it, but someone had once told him that his hair had a touch of red in it if the sun hit it just right. It was strange how you noticed those kinds of things when you loved someone, just like he noticed the slight flecks of gold in Mary's blue eyes.
Ezra was sure that the Judge and Mary must have gotten their heads together about gift choices. He let his fingers run over the surface of the silver cigar case she had given to him. It was just large enough to hold four cigars and still fit in his inside jacket pocket. After another deep whiff of the cigars, he filled the case so it would be ready for the next day.
The one gift that he treasured the most from the assortment on the bed was the three packs of faro cards. It wasn't the cards themselves that were so special, but it was what they represented. Mary accepted him just as he was, and she didn't intend to try to turn him away from his profession. Despite all of his faults and tarnished image, she loved him, and that love was the most precious gift of all.
"Come in." The sound of a soft knock on the door pulled him back from his musings.
Mary slipped inside and chuckled when she saw him sitting on the bed with his wool cap on and its matching scarf wrapped around his neck. The cigar box was still open where he had filled the case, and he was holding a box of the cards and absently caressing the package with his thumb. "Enjoying yourself?"
Ezra reddened and nodded. "I was just thinking. I suppose you could say I was making some memories. This has been a day I want to remember in as much detail as possible, because it was our first Christmas together."
"I wish everyone else could see this side of you. You are such a softy, but you always keep that part of you hidden." She moved to sit next to him and hugged him close. "I love you."
"I love you more."
Ezra held out his hand to the Judge and clasped the older man's hand firmly. "I want to thank you again for inviting me to share your holiday. I enjoyed every minute of the visit."
"We were glad to have you. You're welcome here anytime you happen to be in town." Orin returned the handshake with equal vigor.
"And remember, I'll be very upset with you if you don't stay with us when you're here," Evie added, and stepped forward to give the gambler a goodbye hug.
"I'll be sure to remember that. Thank you." He returned the hug and then stepped back to allow Mary to say her goodbyes.
The trip back to Four Corners was uneventful. They were the only ones on the stage and they had bundled Billy up in some of the blankets and let him nap on the opposite seat while they cuddled together on their side.
Ezra had mixed feelings about the return home. On one hand, the time they had spent with the Travises had been wonderful, and he hated to see it end. But on the other hand he would be glad to get back to the normal routine, and he had to admit that he missed the other six peacekeepers. The fact that he had become so attached to these men surprised him as much as falling in love with Mary had. He had made it such a point to remain a loner and now he had friends and a woman he loved and who filled his every waking and dreaming moment. His life just couldn't get much better than this.
The stage rolled into town around mid-afternoon, and Ezra was surprised to see the other peacekeepers come out to meet it. It seemed that no matter where each one happened to be he had been watching for it. Chris was the first one there and grabbed the box that served as a step and set it on the ground before he opened the door for them.
"Chris!" Billy launched himself out the door, catching Larabee by surprise. "Guess what I got for Christmas!"
"A grizzly bear?"
"No," the boy giggled. "Lookit. Ezra got me a pocketknife."
"That's a nice one. What are you going to do with it?" the blond asked. "You know you have to be really careful with it, don't you?"
"Uh huh, and Ezra made me promise to ask you t' show me how to use it. Would you teach me to carve like you do?"
"Sure, I will, if your mother doesn't care." Chris glanced over at Mary with one brow cocked in question.
"I would really appreciate it if you would teach him to handle it properly."
"Consider it done. So, did you all have a good trip?" Larabee asked. "The town seemed pretty empty with all of you gone."
"I think we all agree on that." Nathan grinned at them and winked at the gambler. "I didn't have no one to give a hard time to."
"Well, then it is good that we returned when we did." Standish recognized the teasing for what it was and smiled at the healer. "It wouldn't do for you to get out of practice."
"Ezra," Mary said as she slipped in beside him. "I am going on home. Will you be over later?"
"I'll come now and bring your bags."
"No, Ezra, let me do that for you. I think Chris has something he wants to talk to you about," Josiah offered.
"Billy, why don't you go help your mother, and after supper tonight I'll show you some things about how to handle that new knife." The man in black tousled the boy's hair and winked at him.
"Is there something wrong?" Mary looked from one to the other, but she couldn't tell anything by any of their expressions. "Ezra?"
"It's all right, darlin'. I'll be over after I talk to Mr. Larabee." He watched as she followed Josiah and stopped to glance back in concern before forcing herself to go on.
"Now, if I might ask, what is so important that it required my immediate attention?" The question had no more than left his mouth when he wished he hadn't asked it.
"Ezra! My darlin' boy, you're finally back!"
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