The Spirit of Christmas (by Patty W.)

Summary:  A gentle tale for Christmas, with no strong language or violence.
Category:  Laramie
Genre:  Western
Rated:  PG
Word Count:  21,400


 

Forward  By Slim Sherman.

I guess looking back on that Christmas we all remembered it as being real special, for a  whole bunch of reasons. What happened over those few days made us stop in our tracks some and think about the real meaning of Christmas, that’s for sure, and not just all the good food, drink, presents and partying!

Well yeah, we all know the Christmas Story, about Jesus being born into poverty and how His coming was to change the world. We heard it all at our Ma’s knee, I guess;  even ol’ Jess there, who didn’t have the best sort of upbringing, knew all about Christmas and baby Jesus.

But I reckon it’s more than that, you know. It’s all about  the stuff the good Lord taught us in the Scriptures as  well. About how to live a good life, ‘loving thy neighbor’, belief, hope and truth… Well, that’s the way I figure it anyway.

I guess a real important part of Christmas to us at the ranch has always been opening the place up to friends and neighbors; that’s something we really look forward to.

So that’s why we were all real upset when we thought Mort  Corey, Sheriff of Laramie and good friend, wasn’t going to make it over that year. Heck, we sure would have missed him, and as Jess said later, “It just wouldn’t be the same without ol’ Mort an’ his tales — not to mention that bottle of hill whiskey he always brings.” He added that last part quietly, away from Miss Daisy’s hearing!

But he was sure right. Christmas just wouldn’t be the same without a gathering of good friends, old and new, and something else, something real special which I guess you just can’t explain. The Spirit of Christmas.

*****

Mort Corey was not a happy man. He sat at his desk in the Sheriff’s office, looking into space and feeling plumb sick at heart.

Sure it was only fair that Lon, his deputy, had Christmas off this year. Usually he had Thanksgiving, allowing Mort to have Christmas with his buddies at the Sherman Ranch. However, this year they had both worked Thanksgiving, riding posse after the Laramie Bank had been robbed, so they had eventually tossed for it and Lon had won.

Mort sighed again. Well, I guess it’s only fair, he thought; the lad had a wife and young baby, so Mort figured Lon should really be at home with them.

Then, a moment later, the door flew open and he was jerked from his reverie as Slim Sherman and his partner in the ranch and relay business, Jess Harper, suddenly stood before him grinning.

Mort peered up at their eager faces, and despite his gloom, he managed a small smile in return. “So what brings you two to town?” he asked cocking an eyebrow at the friends.

Jess had made himself comfortable on the corner of Mort’s desk, and removing  his hat, ran a hand through his unruly dark locks and said, “Well Mort, we came up to town with Daisy to do some marketing and figured we’d pop in and check you’re ok for next week?”

Mort looked uncomfortable, but hesitated, trying to find the words to explain.

Slim, who was now ensconced in the chair opposite the desk, stretched out his long legs and smiling over at the graying, wiry Sheriff added, “Just a formality, I guess, Mort, seeing as how you’ve shared Christmas with us for as long  as I can remember.”

Mort looked pained at that. “Yep, I have, haven’t I.”

“So?” asked Jess, suddenly picking up on the older man’s less than cheerful persona.

“Well I’ll tell you, Jess, I can’t make it this year. I’m real sorry.” Mort went on to explain the reason.

Slim looked shocked. “Huh?”

Jess was the first to recover. “Well, that’s too bad Mort. We’ll really miss you.”

Later, as  they were rolling along the Laramie road, in the buckboard,  heading for home,  Slim  broke the news to Daisy, their kindly housekeeper, and Mike, the rancher’s young ward.

“Well that’s a real shame,” said Daisy sadly. “Mort is such good company and I do believe he loves coming to us as much as we love having him.”

“It won’t be the same without him,” piped up young Mike, looking upset.

“Well, don’t worry, dear; maybe he can come over to supper another day,” said Daisy placatingly.

“Umm… still won’t be the same, though,” replied the blond youngster, putting into words what everyone else was thinking.

However, eventually, the boy was able to put his disappointment to one side, as all the exciting preparations for Christmas grabbed his attention. He was soon bouncing with excitement at the prospect of all the good times to come.

First on the agenda was Mike’s school Christmas play, which took place in the Laramie church the following Sunday.

Mike had earned the part of Joseph after his triumph the previous summer as Daniel in the Lion’s Den. However, he really wanted to be an ox with a mask and horns. That seemed much more fun than seeking a bed at the inn for his pregnant wife, and then nursing a recalcitrant ‘baby Jesus’, in the guise of his pal Billy’s little sister Bella.

Or ‘Bella the yell-er ’, as Billy had nicknamed his baby sister  and tonight she was really living up to her name and yelling good and loud. However  like a true professional  Mike had soldiered on with his lines, and even supported ‘Mary’ when the strain got to her and she had burst into tears.

Daisy, sitting on the front row between Jess and Slim, was beside herself with worry lest the children should forget their lines  and sat there whispering them softly to herself, while Slim looked on anxiously and Jess tried hard to control his mirth.

Finally Mike’s ordeal was over and the play closed to thunderous applause. The usual Sunday Service continued with a sermon, prayers and carols sung with great enthusiasm by the congregation.

This was to be their main Christmas worship as the Reverend was on a circuit and would be celebrating Christmas Day in Cheyenne, so everyone enjoyed the service tremendously. Even Jess and Slim, who were sometimes rather reluctant church-goers, enjoyed themselves, and in Jess’s case, the fact that his girl Millie was by his side enhanced the experience even more.

After the service, Jess had remained in town with Millie while the others returned to the ranch and he arrived home just before suppertime.

Once they were settled around the dining table and the meal had commenced, Daisy turned questioning eyes on the  young cowboy and asked, “Well Jess, can she? Can Millie come to us for Christmas this year?”

Jess’s head shot up and he beamed across at the elderly woman he regarded as a surrogate Ma, his deep blue eyes twinkling with delight. “Yup, she sure can. She was worried her Ma would be upset, but she says her Ma has that many guests staying over the holiday she’s had to use Millie’s room,  so I reckon we’d be doin’ her Ma a favor  havin’ Mill to stay here with us.”

Daisy hid a smile and remembered the conversation she had had earlier in the year with Mrs. Johnson, Millie’s Ma, and how they had plotted the little white lie at Mrs. Johnson’s guest house over in Cheyenne. The plan was to say that the guest house was very busy, so that Millie wouldn’t feel guilty at leaving her Ma on Christmas day.

“You see, my dear,” Mrs. Johnson had confided over coffee one day when Daisy was visiting, “I know she really wants to be with Jess, but would never tell me. So this way, she can enjoy herself and I will be perfectly happy with my sister and all our paying guests and can see Millie at New Year.”

Daisy had patted her hand and smiling said, “That is very thoughtful of you, my dear.”

Mrs. Johnson had just smiled and said softly, “Well, that’s what Ma’s do, isn’t it? We look out for the young ‘uns, don’t we?” They had exchanged an understanding smile.

Daisy knew that Mrs. Johnson saw precious little of her  daughter anyway, as Millie lived and worked in Laramie, so she realized that the sacrifice was indeed a large one. But Ma’s put  their young ones first, Daisy agreed wholeheartedly.

 Now Slim grinned benignly at his pard. “I just don’t know why you don’t cave in and marry the girl,” he chuckled. “A blind man could see how good you two are together and she’d be living here all the time, not just for Christmas.”

Jess looked decidedly wary at this suggestion. “Well, sure, sure, pard; we’re thinkin’ on it, you know that. We’ve got us a sorta understandin’, but, well, you can’t hurry these things.” Leaping up from the table, he left, saying he was going to check on the livestock.

Daisy and Slim exchanged a resigned smile once he had left.

“Umm… I reckon it’s Miss Millie that’s understanding,” muttered Slim darkly, “I don’t know how she puts up with him.”

However, Daisy just chuckled. “You boys. You’re just as bad. You’ve been seeing Lily for a while now and I can’t hear the sound of a single wedding bell.”

“Yeah… well that’s different; we’ve only been courting seriously for a few months,” Slim said quickly. He then chivvied Mike to get ready for bed and the subject was dropped.

When Jess returned a while later, he went off to settle Mike down for the night and found the boy slightly subdued as he lay in his comfy bed, the patchwork quilt snuggly around him.

“What’s up, Tiger? You’re kinda quiet?”

Mike sighed. “It was that play. It was awful; I felt real bad.”

“So what about all those folks clapping and stomping? Do you think they just felt sorry for you, huh?”

“No, I guess not, but Jess, that baby Bella was awful. And then Mary — that is, Ginny Jones — bawlin’ that way. Heck, it was  just terrible.”

“Now hang on here, Tiger. Baby Jesus was real, right? She son of God, come down to  earth to be a real baby, yeah?”

“Well yeah, I guess so.”

“Well then if he was a real baby, I guess he’d have cried some too. And as for Ginny…  Mary, well women folk get real emotional after havin’ a baby, everyone knows that — cryin’ and takin’ on, so I guess that was real life like.”

“You think?”

“I know, and as for you, well, you were just great. Calmed the baby right down, got her to sleep, didn’t you? Calmed down that Ginny too.”

“Yup, I guess I did,” Mike said, brightening.

“So how did you do that?”asked Jess, looking impressed.

“Well, rockin’ the baby was really easy — I’ve seen Aunt  Daisy do it when  she’s minding Ma Patterson’s little ones — so I knew what to do.”

“And Ginny?”

“Just told her to shut the heck up or I’d whack her one.”

Jess chuckled. “Umm… well, at least it worked, I guess.” Then he looked more serious. “You  did a real good job, Tiger, and you know, I guess what you did in that church, well, it was the most important part  of Christmas, weren’t it?”

“It was?”

“Why sure; that’s what it’s all about — Jesus bein’ born and then all those folks comin’ t0 worship him, those shepherds and Angels and Wise Men an’ all.”

‘“But what about all the other stuff — the tree and special dinner and presents an’ everything? They’re important too, ain’t they, Jess? And all our friends visiting, huh?”

“Well, sure; we’ve had a whole mess of real cold weather and hard work behind us this winter and plenty more to come, and I know we’re all kinda beat. So I figure the good Lord don’t mind too much if we throw off the traces some and party…just as long as we remember the rest of it too.”

“Yeah, I see, and I guess giving presents is a bit like what the Wise Men did and we have a star on the tree. That reminds us of the star they followed, don’t it, Jess?”

“Yup, you’ve got it. Now time to turn in, Mike… or have you forgotten we’re goin’ over to Paradise for a turkey shoot at first light?”

The child’s eyes sparkled in delight. “No, I ain’t forgotten, Jess. I’m asleep already, see?” He cuddled down and closed his eyes tightly.

Jess smiled down at the youngster. “Sure you are.” He laughed, and gently tucking the blanket in, he turned down the night light and quietly left the room.

*****

The turkey shoot went well, and not only  did Jess and Mike return with a huge bird for the pot, but also a brace of pheasants, a small deer and several rabbits for Daisy to lay down in her store.

But that wasn’t all they came back, with as Jess was to explain at supper that night. He’d come back with some news and something that had kinda upset him and the boy too.

“See, it was this way,” Jess explained that evening. “Me and Mike were ridin’ back on the Laramie road, and as we passed the lake, we saw this wagon parked up an’ a family campin’ out there, right by the No Trespassin’ sign,” he said with a grin.

Slim smiled at that too, remembering how that was where the two had first met, all those years ago, with Jess sunning himself by the lake and Traveler hitched to the no trespassing sign.

“So we rode over to see what the problem was, and it seems they’d all been in a real bad way. The Ma had the fever, then the boy and the Pa caught it, and now the baby is sick.”

“Well goodness, dear, they should see Doc Sam,” said Daisy referring to their good friend and physician, Doctor Samuel Baker who had an office in Laramie.

“That’s what I said, but the guy said they were all on the mend; just needed some time and was it ok if they stayed near the lake for the water?”

“Well sure,” said Slim quickly. “You did say it was alright, didn’t you?”

Jess rolled his eyes. “No ,I waved my shot gun at ‘em and told ‘em to git,” he said sarcastically. “After all, that’s what you said to me, ain’t it, pard?”

Slim looked slightly uncomfortable at that, until he saw the twinkle in his friend’s eyes. “Yeah, well, I thought you were a bundle of trouble — and I reckon I was right, wasn’t I, Jess?”

“Yup, guess so,” Jess replied cheerfully. “Anyway their name is Bradley, I think he said. Ma and Pa, young Robbie and a baby girl; she didn’t look too good, but Ma Bradley reckons she’s gettin’ better.”

“Are you sure they’re all right, Jess? Maybe they should see Sam even if they are nearly well?” asked Daisy anxiously, her nurses training coming to the fore as ever.

He just shook his head. “I reckon there ain’t much money there, Daisy. They’ve moved from down in Texas and are on their way to join up with relatives out Rawlins way. But somethin’ ain’t right. I figure they’re poor, real poor; clothes kinda worn and not much stuff in the wagon as far as I could see,” he finished shaking his head sadly.

“Robbie was real friendly,” piped up Mike. “We got on great.” Then more thoughtfully,  he added, “I wonder what they’re doing for Christmas Day?”

“I was just thinking the same,” Slim concurred, glancing across at Daisy.

She looked up and beamed at him and then glanced from Jess to Slim and back. ”Well, why ever don’t you invite them here? Goodness knows there is plenty of room in the bunkhouse and we’ve more than enough food to go around,” she affirmed.

“Yeah, swell,” Mike cried. “And Robbie can share my Christmas candy and play with my toys an’ all!”

“Whoa,” broke in Jess, “are you sure it wouldn’t be too much for you, Daisy?”

“Of course not, dear. We all pitch in over Christmas and I’ll have Millie to help and I expect the mother er…Mrs. Bradley will help too, if she’s well again.”

“OK then.” Jess grinned “I’ll ride over and tell ‘em the good news tomorrow.”

*****

Jess arrived at the camp just before noon, and the little family were sitting around a camp fire, the mother stirring what looked like a pot of watered down beans and there was dry bread on a dish to her side.

Mr. Bradley jumped up at Jess’s arrival and looking anxious said, “Changed your mind,  have you, Mister? Want us off?”

Jess slid down from his mount and wandered over to the little group. “Heck no,” he said quickly. “And it’s Harper, Jess Harper…call me Jess.” He put out a hand to shake.

Bradley took it reluctantly. “Jake …and this is my wife Jenny, and I guess Robbie introduced himself to your boy yesterday,” he said with the glimmer of a smile.

Robbie grinned at Jess and then asked after Mike.

“He’s back at the ranch,” Jess answered. “Got his chores to do and then we’re goin’ off to the woods to fetch a tree back.”

The youngster’s eyes lit up at that. “Gee….swell,” he whispered.

“So what can we do for you?” broke in Jake Bradley, again looking grim.

“Well, that’s why I’m here,” said Jess grinning cheerfully. “We’d all — that is, my partner in the ranch, Slim Sherman, and Mrs. Daisy Cooper our housekeeper, and young Mike of course — well, we’d all like you to join us for Christmas. We’ve a fine bunk house and you can rest up a while, make sure the little one’s fit before you move on,” he finished, casting a glance down to where the pale, tiny baby was sleeping in her crib, close to the fire.

Jake’s face had taken on a stubborn look as Jess was speaking and after a moment he said curtly, “No, no. Thank you, Mister Harper, but we’re just fine here.”

“Pa!” cried Robbie, but was quelled by an icy look from his father.

“Well what’s wrong?” asked Jess looking surprised. “You’d be real welcome.”

“Look Mister, we may be real poor — darn it, you can see that — but I don’t take charity. Now if you don’t mind…” Bradley turned his back on the dark-haired young cowboy and wandered back over to the fire.

“Jake, how can you be so rude,” gasped Jenny, leaping up. “I do apologize, Mister Harper. Please, won’t you sit a while and have some food?”

He smiled at her, feeling sorry for the slight, fragile looking woman. “No, thank you Ma’am; they’re expecting me back shortly.” Then he returned his gaze to where Jake had slumped down by the fire, his whole persona one of hopelessness.

Jess walked over to the tall dark haired, bearded man. Then, turning with his back to Jenny, said very softly, for Jake’s ears only, “If you won’t accept it for yourself, maybe you should think of your family. Don’t they deserve some sorta Christmas? “

“Just leave it, Harper!” snarled the man, his misery suddenly erupting in anger.

Jess understood how he felt. Heck, he was a proud man himself and God knew he’d seen enough of poverty in his life, but his heart bled for the poor sickly wife and the light of hope in the small boy’s eyes when he thought he might have some fun at last.

Jess held his hands up in submission. “Ok, I’m goin’.” He sighed and turning away, jumped up onto his mount.

Then he paused and turned back. “Help yourself to fish from the lake,” he said. “It’s our lake, but I figure the good Lord put the fish in there, so maybe you won’t mind accepting charity from Him?”

The other just looked down, now feeling embarrassed at his churlishness. “I’m sorry,” he muttered.

Jess looked from him to his wife and back. “You change your mind, we’re down the road a way — right hand side, signposted Sherman Ranch and Relay. You’ll all be welcome.” With that, he kneed Traveler on back the way he had come.

*****

Slim wandered over to greet his friend as he slipped down from the saddle and tethered his mount to the hitching rail by the house, before striding up onto the porch and throwing himself down on one of the old chairs.

“So what did they say?” asked Slim slumping down on the other chair his eyes questioning.

“Won’t come,” announced Jess looking annoyed.

“Huh?”

“Said he didn’t take charity.”

“Well, it’s not… Did you tell him?”

“Sure I did,” Jess confirmed feeling angry himself now. “The guy’s just really proud, I guess; well, I reckon I can understand,” he finished flicking a glance over to his friend.

“Umm…but it’s a real shame. Do you think I should ride out and ask them?”

“No, just leave it, Slim. I guess he’s been embarrassed enough for one day. Maybe he’ll see sense. I sure hope so,” Jess muttered, remembering the sickly wife, the poor pale baby that was way too quiet and the light of hope dying in young Robbie’s eyes.

It was later that evening before the subject came up again.

Slim, Jess and Mike had been off to a patch of woodland just beyond the home pasture to chop down a Christmas tree and it was a real beauty. Buck, Jess’s tough old buckskin, had hauled it back and then there was much laughter and some light cussing from Jess as the men struggled to get the large tree planted in an old cider keg before it was carefully carried into the ranch and placed reverently to the right of the fireplace where it stood in all its splendor nearly reaching the ceiling.

“Oh my,” said Daisy bustling in from the kitchen, “every year I think I have never seen such a grand tree and every year they just seem to get better and better!”

“Umm, it’s all that darn rain we had in the spring has made it so green,” said Jess chuckling.

Later there was much banging about and laughter coming from the attic, and after a few minutes, Slim and Mike descended the ladder looking a mite dusty after trawling through all the old Sherman treasures stored up there. They finally returned triumphantly with the box containing the tree decorations.

Mike was bursting with excitement as the lid was carefully removed revealing the trimmings all carefully shrouded in tissue paper.

Some were made of delicate glass which Slim’s Ma had brought over with her from the Old Country, and Daisy was amazed that  they had lasted the journey, not to mention the attention of two lively young boys over  the years — Slim and his kid brother Andy, now back east in college.

Then Slim carefully drew out the homemade decorations, again from his childhood, and also others made by Mike and some beautifully whittled figures of the Holy family, made by Jess.

It was while they were dressing the tree that Mike mentioned the Bradley family. “I guess Robbie will sure love this tree,” he said excitedly.

Slim and Jess exchanged a glance over the child’s blond head before Jess finally replied. “Well I don’t think they can make it, Tiger.”

The youngster looked up quickly. “Huh? Why not? I thought Robbie would like to come over and spend some time?”

“Yeah, well, I guess he would, but, well, his Pa wasn’t so keen.” Jess sighed looking for the right words.

“I guess that maybe Mr. Bradley likes to do things his own way,” said Slim diplomatically.

However that cut no ice with young Mike. “But that’s crazy! They’re stuck out by the lake and it’s getting real cold at night. Heck, aunt Daisy said it would probably snow afore Christmas Day. Gosh I know where I’d rather be. It just don’t make no sense.”

“Doesn’t make any sense,” said Daisy, and Slim automatically, exchanging a smile as they yet again tried in vain to tackle Mike’s grammar.

“Well, that’s what I said,” cried the youngster in frustration. “No sense at all!”

Jess could see how upset the boy was, and hunkering down beside him so that he was on eye level, he tried to explain. “See, Tiger, I guess that young Robbie and his family are kinda poor and well, Mister Bradley feels that if he took us up on our offer, it would be…well, like charity, and he don’t…er, doesn’t want that.”

“But that’s crazy. It’s not charity; it’s just offerin’ friendship, ain’t it, Jess? “

“Sure, sure it is Mike, but I’m afraid Mister Bradley don’t see it that way.”

“But Jess, can’t you talk to him, make him see?”

“I tried Tiger, but he’s a real proud man and well, if a man feels he can’t support his family, give them everything they need — or want — like all the Christmas stuff , I guess he feels bad… real bad about it.”

Mike sighed deeply. “Yeah, I guess I can see that, but even so…”

Then Daisy went into action by suggesting they all have a cup of her special hot cocoa, and the moment passed, but they all knew Mike wouldn’t be side-lined  for long.

*****

It was the following day before Mike formulated his plan.

It had been agreed that Billy, Mike’s best friend, and his Pa would ride by later that day to pick Mike up and take him with them on the family turkey shoot, and just as Mike had figured, they made their way back home past the lake as he had done with Jess previously.

“Er…I’ve got a message for Mister Bradley,” Mike said quickly as they approached the camp. “I won’t be a moment.” He spurred his pony off down to the lake before Billy’s Pa, Mr. Webster, had time to reply.

Mike galloped into the , and jumping down from his , gave  his rehearsed little speech to Mister Bradley before grinning over  at Robbie, and with a cheerful, “See you later,” was up and gone again, riding back up the bank to where  the others were waiting  for him.

“Well you’re certainly looking mighty chipper,” said Mr. Webster when the youngster returned. “Those folks friends of yours then?”

“Sorta,” said Mike enigmatically.

Then glancing over at his friend, Mike said, “Come on, Billy, race you home!” The two made off at speed; Mr. Webster shaking his head in  mock despair and grinning at the youngsters antics, followed on behind.

*****

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, Slim was busy going about the usual yard chores while Jess was in the barn leaning over the stall of his pride and joy, Snow Bird, his silver grey quarter horse and broodmare.

After a while, Slim came in looking slightly irritated. “Any chance of you breaking a sweat today and doing some work?” he asked looking peeved.

Jess ignored his pard’s less-than-friendly attitude and said, “Hey Slim, do you think she’s OK?”

“Huh?”

“Snowy. Does she look alright to you?”

Slim glanced over at where the pretty little mare was pacing about her stall, shaking her mane and looking a little ill at ease. “Umm, she looks a mite spooked. Something upset her? “

“I dunno. Don’t think so.”

After a moment, Jess entered the loose box, and  patting the mare’s flank, gently felt around her swollen belly before straightening up and throwing his pard an anxious glance.

“She ain’t due to give birth until next month, but I reckon the foal has moved down some. Garldarnit, Slim; I think she’s gonna foal early. Her udder’s real full and, well, I’ve just got a feelin’. “

“You and your feelings,” laughed Slim. “She’s not due until the end of January. Gee Jess, the way you fuss that horse. She’s just feeling uncomfortable, that’s all. I guess  you would too carrying all that extra weight in your belly.”

Jess merely frowned and patted the mare again.

“So Jess, are you going to give me a hand mending the corral fence then…huh?”

“Oh keep your hair on; I’m comin’, ain’t I,” came the irritable reply, but Slim merely grinned knowing how fond his buddy was of the pretty, mare always fretting and fussing where she  was concerned.

Thank goodness Millie will be here on the early morning stage tomorrow, Slim thought to himself. That should give ol’ Jess something else to think about. “Come on, pard,” he called as he left the barn. “Christmas Eve is tomorrow and we need to chop extra fire wood for the cook stove too. Miss Daisy’s cooking up a storm already.”

Jess grinned at that and went off cheerfully to find the axe.

*****

The following morning, Millie arrived on the early morning stage as planned, and Mose drew into the yard with the usual panache reserved for the benefit of any pretty lady on board.

Jess ran out of the barn where he had been  keeping a whether eye on Snow Bird, and after pulling the coach door open, helped his girl down before hugging her tightly. Then lifting her up, he swung her around, his deep blue eyes sparkling with mischief.

“Jess… Jess, put me down!” she cried laughing.

“Yeah, put the young lady down and help me with her luggage,” Mose remonstrated, turning and throwing down a valise and various packages, which Jess caught neatly, much to Millie’s relief.

 Then Mose jumped down from the box, his rheumy old eyes peering around him. “So has Miss Daisy got the coffee on then?”

Before Jess could answer, they were joined by Slim and Daisy, the older woman welcoming Millie with a cry of delight. Then the two ladies wandered off arm in arm, busy making plans for the big day, leaving the men folk to fend for themselves.

Slim and Jess grinned, and taking pity on the old timer, they slung their arms around his shoulders and escorted him into the ranch house.

“Come on, Mose, fill your boots,” laughed Jess as he poured coffee and passed a large slice of pie over.

Mose grinned and dug into the largess as the friends sat around the dining table with their coffee watching his obvious enjoyment. After a while, he swallowed the last of his food and wiped his mouth, giving a little sigh of satisfaction. ”So what’s the story about those folk campin’ down by your lake?” he asked after a while.

Slim filled him in, saying the family had permission to camp on Sherman land and also how they’d refused all other offers of help.

Mose shook his head at that and then finally gathered himself together. “Oh well, no peace for the wicked. I’d best be on my way. Merry Christmas all!”

“Same to you, Mose; have a lovely time,” called Daisy from the kitchen.

“See you next week,” added Slim as Jess went out to see him off.

The old timer clapped his arms around himself as they returned to the chilly yard. “Brr… darned wind getting’ up. Shouldn’t be surprised if it don’t snow before the day’s out.”

Jess looked up into the sky and spotted some leaden clouds approaching. “Yup, you’re not wrong there, Mose.” He shivered again.

“That family sure shouldn’t be out in it,” Mose muttered, “not with that little biddy baby an’ all.”

Jess nodded and looked sadly off to the horizon. “I guess you’re right about that too, Mose, but we’ve asked them to stay, and I reckon we can’t force ‘em.”

“Nope, you’re right, son. Darn fool thing, pride….darn fool,” With that, Mose hustled the team out of the yard and up the rise at speed.

When Jess returned to the house, Mike was settled by the roaring fire with his dog Buttons, and Slim was at his desk doing some paper work.

Jess wandered over and leaning on the wall by the desk said softly, “I’m kinda worried about the Bradley family. Think I should ride out and try again?”

However before Slim could reply, Mike came over and grinning up at his hero said, “No need, Jess; they’re coming over tomorrow.”

“Oh they are, are they?” said Jess with a twinkle. After winking at  his pard, he said, “And why do you think that then, Tiger?”

“Because I went and saw them yesterday when I was out with Billy  and his Pa.”

Both men turned to stare at the youngster. “You did?” asked Jess, more seriously this time.

“Yup, I wanted to be sure they’d come and Mister Bradley said they’d be here just after breakfast tomorrow.”

“ So how did you get him to say that?”  asked Slim looking impressed.

The boy looked down and flushed a little before replying. “Well I guess I had to tell a little white lie.”

“Go on,” said Jess in a resigned voice.

Mike flicked a glance over at the dark haired cowboy and finally it all came out in a rush. “Well, it was what you said the other night when you were sayin’ goodnight, about how you and Slim were real beat after a hard winter and how it was OK to party some. Well I said to Mister Bradley as how I was real glad he was coming to stay as I figured you an’ Slim could use a rest, and how we’d really appreciate a little help around the place over Christmas. I guess that was the white lie; I sorta pretended I thought he’d already agreed to come.”

Mike cast them an anxious glance at that and then continued. “Then I said as to how Mrs. Bradley might like to help aunt Daisy out, with her bein’ no spring chicken an’ all…”

Both men were suddenly galvanized into action at that. “Hush,” they whispered in unison whilst casting anxious glances towards the kitchen.

“But it’s only what you said the other day, Jess,” protested the youngster.

“Yeah, but ladies don’t like to hear that kinda stuff, Tiger,” Jess whispered urgently.

“Ok, I’m sorry. But anyway, Mister Bradley said sure he’d come by and help you. Said he’d be glad to kinda pay you back for letting  them camp and take fish from the lake an’ all!”

Slim leaned forwards and ruffled the boys hair. “I reckon we’ve got ourselves a budding diplomat here,” he laughed.

“Huh?” queried Mike looking anxious.

“Means you’re really good at dealing with tricky situations. You’re really tactful…and thoughtful.”

“Oh… that’s ok then,” laughed the boy running off to pet his dog again.

The two cowboys exchanged a grin.

“That’s some kid,” whispered Jess and Slim nodded in agreement.

*****

However Mike’s saintly behavior didn’t last long, and he reverted to being a regular boy once Christmas Eve bedtime rolled around and he  was way too excited to sleep, or even think of turning in.

It was Millie who finally managed to settle him down, and as she emerged from his room sometime later, she grinned at Slim and Jess and said, “Fast asleep!”

“Well heck, how did you manage that?” asked Jess looking impressed. “I thought we we’re gonna have to spike his cocoa with hill whiskey.”

“Jess, shame on you!” came from Daisy as she appeared from the kitchen.

“Just kiddin’,” Jess replied sheepishly.

“So how did you do it, my dear?” asked Daisy looking intrigued.

“Well I just told him what Ma used to tell us — Santa Claus wouldn’t come and fill our stocking unless we were fast asleep.”

Jess wandered over and put a loving arm around her shoulders. “Ain’t she just the best?” he said grinning at his pard. “Real cute and she’s even got Mike tamed. What more could a man want?” He gave her a chaste brotherly kiss on the cheek, in deference to Daisy’s presence,  but the look in  his eyes was far from brotherly.

“Oh  get along  with you, Jess Harper,” Millie said giggling as she went to help Daisy finish off the chores in the kitchen, Jess’ adoring  gaze following her every movement.

Slim watched this with a cheeky grin  on his face. “Yup, she’s sure got you hogtied, pard. Only a matter of time before the banns are read.”

Jess came to his senses quickly,  the soppy grin  on  his face replaced with a look of mock fury. ”Why you!” and he launched himself at Slim, wrestling him  to the ground  and an undignified scuffle ensued, causing  Daisy to pop her head around from the kitchen.

“Boys, boys, we’ve only just got Mike off to sleep!”

“Sorry, Daisy,” came the reply from two rather unrepentant looking cowboys.

It was much later that the Daisy, and finally Slim, turned in, with the wonderful aroma of the turkey cooking in the slow oven of the old cook stove and a mixture  of Christmassy spices emanating from  the kitchen  where Daisy and Millie had been busy baking all day.

The ranch house was looking very festive with the bedecked tree standing sentinel in the corner of the room, casting its magical cozy candle light upon the holly and mistletoe that Mike had added to decorate the old place.

Jess and Millie still sat on the old leather couch, pulled up before the crackling fire, Jess’s arm holding her close beside him, her head resting on his shoulder as she gazed dreamily into the flames. He kissed the top of her head tenderly. You OK? Not missin’ your Ma?”

She looked up at that. “Nope…and anyway, we’ll see her at New Year. No, I’m real happy here with you, honey.”

Jess relaxed and sighed in satisfaction. Life sure was sweet, he thought.

“It’s real special, isn’t it?” Millie whispered after a minute.

“Huh?”

“The night before Christmas. It’s got a kind of special feel to it, you know?”

“Umm,” he said vaguely, before taking her in his arms and kissing her deeply.

Much later they finally parted reluctantly at Miss Daisy’s bedroom door. “See you tomorrow,” Millie whispered.

“Yeah. ‘Night, sweetheart,” Jess replied, before turning to his own room…with a small sigh.

Jess tiptoed into the bedroom, trying not to disturb Slim, and after undressing, slipped into bed and lay there his mind working overtime.

However after lying looking up at the ceiling for a while, Jess finally climbed out again and started to dress quietly.

Slim stirred at this and glancing over grinned at his partner. “Hey what’s up Jess? You getting excited about Santa same as young Mike?”

Jess threw him a pained look. “Oh yeah,  sure,” he said as he buttoned up his shirt and tucked it into his denims before reaching for his vest.

“Well, where are you off to?” asked Slim, sitting up and taking notice now.

“Just gonna check on Snow Bird, if you must know.”

“Now why doesn’t that surprise me,” chuckled Slim before cuddling back down again. “Don’t be long, pard; it’s mighty chilly out in the barn.”

“No, I won’t be.” Jess let himself quietly out of their shared room.

 Jess crossed the yard, and looking up saw the first delicate snowflakes beginning  to fall, grinned to himself. So it was going to be a white Christmas after  all.

Jess was still smiling when he entered the barn quietly, and wandering over to Snow Bird’s stall, held the lantern up to check on his prized horse, the smile on his face slowly fading at what he saw.

She was now pacing around her stall looking  decidedly anxious, and  every now and again she would shake her mane and tail or bend her  neck around and nibble at her  swollen belly.

“Oh no,” Jess whispered to himself. “She can’t be. She can’t be in labor a whole month early.”

Jess considered going to wake up Slim, but then he figured time for that later. It would be a long cold night  and no point  in both of them suffering. Nope, he’d wait and see how things went and call his pard in when, or if, he needed the help.

As it happened, he never did get around to calling Slim in to help him, though.

Jess spent the next hour or so just trying to calm the mare down by talking gently to her and caressing her muzzle, his very presence helping to relax her some at first. But he knew as the labor progressed, she would want to be left alone, and also knew he had to respect that. He would just observe her as she did what she had to, being ready to step in if he was needed.

Then she seemed to become very restless again, pacing and looking at her swollen belly, and once she stared to paw the ground, he knew she needed some space.

“Hey it’s OK, honey,” Jess said softly. “It ain’t like this is the first time you’ve done this Snowy. You’ve gotten two great colts to your name. So how’s about a little filly this time, huh?”

Then after gently caressing her flank and feeling the warm damp sweat there, Jess knew her time was near and reluctantly left the stall.

It was sometime later when she had been down and straining for quite a while that he instinctively knew all was not well. He tore off his shirt before washing thoroughly in icy water from the bucket, then entering the stall examined the fretful mare.

Snow Bird was obviously in some distress, and after a moment, Jess could feel what was wrong and carefully managed to maneuver the foal into a better position, with both forelegs aligned with the birth canal.

 Shortly afterwards, the plucky mare lay on her side, and after several more contractions, finally gave birth to a tiny, but healthy, silver grey filly — ‘the image of her Ma’, Jess was to proudly proclaim later.

Jess watched in awe as Snowy stood and  started nuzzling and licking the new born foal. Then finally the little creature stood up on very wobbly legs and started to suckle from  her mother.

Jess felt like he wanted to jump up and cheer, to shout from the roof tops. A baby was born — a perfect little grey filly!

As Jess watched the enchanting picture of the mare and foal together, his heart leapt with joy. Heck, what a fantastic Christmas present, he suddenly thought.

Once he was sure mother and daughter were doing well, he stretched, feeling  stiff and more than a little tired, and wandered over to the barn door. Flinging  it open and  looking out to the silent moon lit yard, he saw the light dusting of snow giving it a magical appearance.

Jess stood leaning on the barn door and breathed in the icy air, his breath forming a frosty mist in the cold night. Then as he took in the moonlit, snowy scene before him, he was suddenly overwhelmed with a feeling of deep peace and wonder. He glanced back at the little tableau of mare and foal behind him.

So this is what Millie meant, he thought fleetingly. About the night before Christmas being real special — the spirit of Christmas. Then he thought about the wonder he’d just observed and figured whether it was a new born kitten, calf, foal or human, the miracle of birth was just as amazing.

Jess cast his eyes up to the heavens and counted all his blessings. “Thank you, kindly Lord,” he whispered, before marching over to the outdoor pump and washing in the freezing cold water.

Jess rubbed himself dry with a course towel before wandering back to the barn where he quickly pulled on his shirt, suddenly aware of the bitter cold. Then he took a final look at mother and baby, and patting the mare gently, he left her suckling her foal contentedly.

Jess wandered off and sank down into the thick straw of the adjoining empty loose box, too exhausted to return to his bed in the ranch house. He pulled an old horse blanket over and fell into a deep dreamless sleep, in the chilly barn, almost at once.

That was the way Slim and Mike found him early the following morning.

 Mike had run into Slim and Jess’s room at first light and stopped dead in his tracks at the sight of Jess’s empty bed. “Hey Slim,” he said shaking him from a deep slumber. “Slim, wake up! Jess’s gone!”

“Huh? Mike, what in tarnation is the time?” Slim said, yawning and looking blearily around him.

“Early, I guess,” said the youngster, dropping his eyes and looking uncertain.

Then remembering what day it was, the rancher sighed lightly before sitting up and raking a hand through his blond locks. “Merry Christmas, Mike” he said, grinning at the youngster. “Can’t wait to get stuck into the presents, eh?”

Mike nodded vigorously, and then glancing back at Jess’s empty bed, said, “Well yeah, I was gonna open my stocking in here with you guys. So where is Jess?”

Slim finally looked over to the rumpled bed that should be housing his tousle headed, ornery best friend, cussing softly at all the noise. Then he thought back to the previous night. “Heck, he went to check on Snow Bird. I guess he must still be out there.”

Mike ran to the window and looked out as the first rays of dawn started to illuminate the yard with a faint pinkish glow on the snowy ground. “Gee, it sure looks cold out there. You think he’s OK, Slim?”

They locked eyes as they remembered that terrible time up in the old line shack stable when Jess had once nearly frozen to death on a snowy day just like this.

After a minute Slim came to his senses. “Yeah, sure, sure he is, Tiger. It’s not too cold in that old barn of ours, but I figure we’d better go see what he’s up to, huh? “

The child nodded, and once they had thrown some warm clothes on, the pair silently left the ranch, not wishing to disturb the women folk so early.

As soon as they were out in the yard Mike gave a small whoop of pure joy. “Gee, this snow is great, ain’t it, Slim?” he said, happily grinning up at the tall rancher.

“Sure is. I figure you and Robbie can build a snowman if we get a mite more.” With that happy thought, they ran across the yard and went quietly into the barn.

As soon as they entered, Slim spied the lantern still burning, hanging from a beam above Snow Bird’s stall and then they saw it — a beautiful miniature version of Snowy, again sucking vigorously at her mother’s teat, her little tail wagging, showing the diminutive creature’s obvious pleasure.

“Well I’ll be…” said Slim, tipping his hat back and staring at the mare and filly. “Garldarnit, Jess was right all along.”

Mike dragged his sparkling eyes from the scene being played out before him to look around the dimly lit barn. “Hey, where is Jess?”

Slim wandered around and then spotted his buddy laid on his back in the next stall, partially covered by an old horse blanket, the shadow of dark stubble on his lean face, looking very young in repose, his dark wavy hair falling across his forehead and one arm thrown across his eyes. He shook his head, knowing his friend would have spent the whole night in the chilly barn just to be sure his beloved horse and her new offspring were kept safe.

“Crazy son of a …..” Slim said softly, before reaching down and gently shaking Jess awake. “Hey pard, what are you doing out here? It’s Christmas morning and Mike’s waitin’ on you so he can do some paper rippin’!”

“Wah…. Oh Slim,” Jess said, looking around him in bewilderment, before everything came rushing back to him. “Snowy, the foal… they’re OK?” he asked anxiously pulling himself up to sitting position.

“Sure, pard, see for yourself.” Grabbing his friend’s arm. Slim hauled him up, and the two men wandered over to join Mike, still leaning on the stall admiring the newest addition to the ranch.

“Ain’t she somethin’?” asked Jess his eyes alive with joy. “She’s real small but a tough little thing. I don’t think it’s harmed her any comin’ early.”

“I guess she didn’t want to miss Christmas,” said Mike grinning up at his hero.

Jess smiled back and then ruffling the child’s blond locks, said, “I guess not, Tiger. So come on let’s go in. Sounds like Santa’s been! “

*****

There followed a riotous time while Mike opened his stocking presents, in  front of a roaring fire, as Slim and Jess looked on. Then Daisy and Millie emerged from their room, both ladies looking shocked at Jess’s exhausted and disheveled appearance.

“Why Jess dear, whatever have you been up to? You look like you’ve slept in the barn,” declared Daisy with concern.

“Well that’s probably because I have,” grinned Jess.

“What? I was just joking. Oh Jess, you could have  caught your death out there in this bitter cold,” said the elderly woman, looking even more concerned now.

Then Millie was beside him. “So were you right. Has Snow Bird had her foal?” she asked excitedly.

“Sure has,” Jess replied looking as proud as punch. “A perfect little grey filly, and the image of her Ma.”

“Oh Jess,” Millie squealed in delight, hugging him close and kissing his cheek. Then she withdrew quickly. “I think you need a shave cowboy,” she said her brown eyes full of mischief.

“And a good wash too,” called Daisy as he made for the washstand in his room, the women exchanging an amused glance.

“Yes Ma’am,” Jess called out cheerfully as he went off to do as he was bid.

*****

It was as they were finishing breakfast that there was a loud knock at the front door.

Slim strode over and pulled it open wide revealing Sheriff Mort Corey grinning from ear to ear. “Hi, all. Hope I’m not too early?”

Mike and Jess gathered around but Slim was the first to recover. “Mort! Heck, it’s sure good to see you!”

“Hey, pal, thought you couldn’t make it,” said Jess clapping him on the shoulder and laughing happily.

“Well, let the man in,” called Daisy from the table. “Come along, do — plenty of coffee in the pot. Have you eaten, Mort?”

The Sheriff doffed his hat to Daisy and Millie. “Well that’s what I call a real handsome welcome, Ma’am, and yes I’ve eaten, but a cup of your excellent coffee would sure go down well.”

Jess had noticed the two bottles of whiskey protruding from Mort’s coat pockets, and before the sheriff sat down, he rushed forwards and said quietly, “Shall I, er, take your coat, Mort?”

The Sheriff gave him a broad wink. “Yup, thanks, Jess. Put it somewhere safe, won’t you?”

While Daisy fussed about pouring coffee, Slim and Jess secreted the bottles before joining the others at the table.

Oh, it wasn’t that Miss Daisy was against strong drink as such — Slim knew that — but she did take exception to having bootleg on the premises so the menfolk usually kept it out of her way.

 Jess sat down beside the grey-haired Sheriff. “So what’s the story then, Mort?”

Mort grinned looking around the table. “Well I’ll tell you. See, it turns out that Lon’s in-laws had been invited for Christmas, an’ he only found out yesterday. Next thing I knew, he was in  the office, begging to work the shift. Seems his Ma-in-law is a mite hard to take in large doses.”

The men chuckled at that, but the ladies saw things differently.

“Poor Shirley; isn’t she mad at Lon?” asked Millie.

“Nope, she was fine with it. You see, I said he could have some extra days off after the in-laws have gone home, so him and Shirley are takin’ a little time to go a visitin’ some friends over New Year. She’s real pleased about that, so everyone’s happy!”

“I sure am glad you could make it,” piped up Mike. “And if Robbie comes too, I guess it will be the best Christmas ever!”

“Robbie?” asked Mort raising a questioning eyebrow.

Slim explained and also about Mike’s subterfuge.

“Well ,as long as it works. They sure don’t want to be camping out in that, with a little baby,” said the Sheriff, nodding towards the window where the snow had begun to fall again.

“Umm, I sure hope they come soon,” murmured Mike earnestly.

“Well, I guess we’ve got plenty to do in the meantime,” asserted Slim briskly. “Christmas Day or not,  we still  have a few morning chores to be done. Come on, Mike; stock to feed and the barn to muck out Jess.”

Jess sighed deeply, glancing at the crackling fire and his rocker set temptingly before it. “Ok, I’m comin’,” he finally managed. Then taking pity on young Mike, he said, “You take it easy, Tiger; I’ll do your chores for you today.”

“Oh that’s OK,” chirped the child. “I wanna go out in the snow to feed the chickens and collect the eggs, Jess, really I do!”

Jess and Daisy exchanged a smile.

“Wrap up warm,” Daisy called as the boy ran off for his coat.

“Need some help?” asked Mort, but Daisy cut him short.

“Oh no you don’t, Sheriff. I’m not having all my work force escaping to the yard. So how are you at peeling potatoes?”

Mort winked at Millie. “I’m a dab hand, Ma’am,” he replied graciously before following her into the kitchen.

*****

It was sometime later that the battered old wagon belonging to Jake Bradley slowly made its way into the yard. Slim and Jess came running out of the barn to greet the little family, smiling  up at  the wagon’s occupants.

Jake pulled up the team, and jumping down, stood before Jess, his hat in his hands as he ran his fingers nervously around the brim, his expression troubled. “Er, the boy said as how you might need some help,” he finally growled. “Well, if you do, I’d be real happy to offer  my services.”

Jess’s initial response was to say, heck, it’s Christmas; just come in and lighten up some. But he bit the comment back, realizing how proud this upright, intense young man was. “Well sure, that’s right,” he said. “We could use a hand and maybe you and your family will join us in our Christmas meal later?”

Bradley just nodded dropping his gaze. “Thank you,” he muttered.

Then Slim was introduced, and a moment later, Mike came tearing around the side of the barn and whooped with joy when he saw his new friend up on the wagon. “Hey, Robbie!” he called. Then turning to Jess, he asked, “Can I take Robbie with me to finish feeding the chickens….please?”

Jess cast a look over to Jake. “If it’s OK with his Pa?”

Jake nodded and the boy jumped down and the two youngsters ran off together, laughing and shouting.

“Come on Robbie,” called Mike, “we’ll do the chores and then I’ll show you Snow  Bird’s foal,  just  born this morning!” Robbie looked ecstatic. Yep, Christmas was surely here,  he thought to himself as he followed his new friend.

“Please come on in the house,” said Slim hospitably. “Coffee’s on.” With that, Jess reached up and helped Jenny and the baby down.

“Umm, is there somewhere I can put  the team up?” Jake asked. “They could do with a rub down and I’ve got some food for them.”

“Sure.”

Jess helped him unhitch the team and found them stalls in the barn, before he set to helping to groom and feed the critters, while Slim showed Jenny into the  house.

Then once the task was done, Jake leaned over Snow Bird’s stall admiring the new filly. “They yours?” he asked.

Jess nodded proudly. “Yep. Te filly was born just this morning.”

Jake looked at the foal and then around the barn. “It really is a great place you’ve got here,” he said softly. “You sure are lucky.”

“I guess I am,” said Jess. Then he said quietly, “Wasn’t always this way for me, though.”

Jake turned and gave him his full attention. “No?” he asked looking surprised.

Jess just shook his head. “I had the same sorta start as you, I guess. I’m from Texas, the panhandle.”

Jake gave a faint smile. “I thought I heard a Texas twang. So you had a place down there?”

“Grew up there as a kid. Pa was a share farmer. It weren’t easy back then; had pretty near nuthin’.” Then he chuckled. “First pair of boots I owned was when I signed up to the Confederacy.”

The other really grinned then. “Hey me too!” Then looking intrigued, he asked, “So why did you leave, come up here?”

Jess was silent for a long time. He found it real hard to discuss his past with anyone; he needed to really trust them first. But somehow he felt he had to show he trusted this man, and so after a moment, he finally replied. “Didn’t have much choice. Our place was fired … by the Banister gang. There were seven of us in my family…an’ only three walked out alive. Ma, Pa, the little ‘uns — all dead.”

Jake gave a low whistle. “That’s too bad. I’ve heard tell of the Banisters; they were real evil.”

Jess just nodded. “Anyways I lit out after them, thinkin’ I’d get my revenge.”

“And did you?”

He gave a grim smile at that. “Nope… and a good job too. I was a fast gun, even at fifteen,  but not as fast as I thought I was — and certainly not in their league.”

“So you signed up then?”

“Yeah, as a boy soldier. And then after the war, I went on the drift. Kinda got into bad ways, I guess, bein’ so good with a gun,” he said ruefully.

“Gunslinger?”

Jess nodded. “How’d you know?”

“I heard tell in town how you were a real fast draw, and the way you wear your rig, real low and tied down. Sure sign.”

Jess nodded again and rested his hand on the butt of his Colt.45. “But this gun ain’t,” he said firmly. “I put up my  old gunslinger weapon for good when I came here, and all I use this for now is protection and helpin’ the Sheriff out  now and  again as Deputy.”

“So you been here long?” asked Jake.

“Yeah a while. I’m a partner now. It’s a good life, real good, and I figure I  owe a lot to Slim. He took me in, made a friend of me, and I guess that weren’t so easy back then,” Jess said thoughtfully.

“No?”

“I wasn’t real easy to live with, always hankerin’ after the big open and ridin’ off and gettin’ in trouble. But ol’ Slim there stood by me , helped me out. But  I found it kinda hard to take sometimes, you know?” Jess asked turning deep blue eyes on  Jake.

“Why?”

“Because I’m a real proud man — a lot like you I guess — but I figure back then I didn’t know the difference between friendship and, well,  just a hand out…charity. It took me a long time to realize that — to realize that I was just as important to Slim as he was to me. Once we got that sorted, well, things just got better and better, I guess.”

Jake nodded again, really listening and taking in what his new friend was saying. He seemed lost in thought.

“That’s not to say life’s always easy,” Jess continued. “Ranching’s  hard work around here. Can be back-breakin’ — and heart-breakin’ too, when you lose stock, or the weather beats you.” Then he turned to Jake and grinning said, “But I figure it’s a real good life and I think you’ll like it up in Rawlings. I sure hope so anyways.”

While Jess had been opening up to Jake, Mort had quietly entered the barn to tell them coffee was ready, but had stayed silent as he heard what Jess had been saying. However, now he came forward, and grinning, suggested that Christmas start then and there if all the chores were completed.

Jess grinned across at his old friend. “Sure, Mort. How’s about we crack open some Red Eye to lace the coffee!” Then he turned to Jake. “You coming?” he asked with a raised eyebrow.

Jake threw him a genuine smile. “You bet,” and more quietly, :and thanks, Jess. I figure I needed telling.” With that, the three men marched across the yard to the warm Christmas festivities awaiting them.

*****

A delicious meal was eaten, toasts were made, and presents exchanged, with Daisy even managing to find some little gifts for all their guests too, which Slim noted Jake accepted with humble thanks and no hint of his previous antagonism and talk of ‘charity’.

“I don’t know what you said to him,” Slim whispered to his pard later, but it sure did the trick!”

Robbie was having the whale of a time with Mike, the two boys being of a similar age and finding endless mischief to get up to.

Even Jenny, Robbie’s Ma, who had been very shy and withdrawn at first, came out of her shell and joined in with singing carols after supper, proving to have a beautiful voice. Earlier she had expressed her concerns for baby Beth, as she was still far from well, looking pale and quiet.

“I’ve not been able to feed her too well,” Jenny told Daisy in confidence after she had understood she was a retired nurse. “I think it’s since I was sick myself. She just isn’t getting the nourishment from me.”

Daisy was able to advise her and they started the baby on some of their cow’s milk, fresh that morning, and the youngster slept better than she had in days. Then she   awoke with a smile for all and lay in her crib beneath the huge Christmas tree, staring up at all the colored baubles in delight, chuckling and waving her tiny fists.

Daisy smiled across at this and said, “I do believe she’ll be thriving again after a few days of fresh milk and a nice warm bed in the bunkhouse.”

Jenny looked hopeful, and then cast an anxious glance over to where her husband seemed to be relaxed and enjoying himself for once. “Oh, I do wish we could stay,” she said quietly, “but I don’t know what Jake will say. He doesn’t like to be beholden, you know?”

“I quite understand, my dear, but you just leave Jake to my boys. They’ll make him see sense,” she said with a chuckle. “Don’t you worry about that.”

As it turned out, Jake needed very little persuading that he and his family should stay that night — indeed for a few days– feeling  slightly mellow as he was, after a glass or two of unaccustomed whiskey. Then when he saw the look of delight in his wife’s eyes as she entered the bunkhouse, he knew he had made the right decision to accept this gesture of kindness, as he now saw it, in the spirit in which it was given.

The Bradley’s had opted for an early night, deciding to bed down soon after Mike’s bedtime. Even the adults were feeling tired after the long day and the unaccustomed rich food and drink, and young  Robbie was practically asleep on his feet.

Jess showed them  over to the bunkhouse and flinging the door open , stood back for them to enter. “Why this is a little palace,” said Jenny turning joyful eyes on Jess. “I was expecting an ordinary working men’s bunkhouse.” She cast her eyes around the room, taking in the large double bed with the pretty quilt cover and table with a lamp upon it, already lit and spreading a welcome glow around. The room also held a couple of easy chairs, bookcase with reading matter, two single bunks and even a small stove, now throwing out its heat and making the place warm and comfortable.

“You sure spoil the hired help,” said Jake, grinning over at the dark haired cowboy.

A  shadow crossed Jess’s face for a moment and then he said softly. “Well we did it up for Daisy’s goddaughter, Flora;  she stayed with us once when she was sick.”

Something in the way Jess had said her name alerted Jake and he threw him a compassionate glance. “She must have been a special lady for you to go to all this trouble,” he said softly.

Jess nodded. “Yes… she was,” he replied, his eyes suddenly sad. But then he sighed, and pulling himself together, continued, “I hope you’ll be comfortable. Me and Slim, well, we’re real happy you’re stayin’ a while.”

Jake reached over and took Jess’s hand shaking it warmly. “I’m sure we’ll be just fine. And thanks Jess….for everything, you know?”

“Sure… you bet,” said Jess. “Night all.” He marched back across the yard to the house, whistling softly.

*****

In  the ranch house, the party was still going on and Jess wandered back inside and sat down  on  the couch next  to Millie, slipping an arm around her shoulders.

“They settled ok ?” Millie asked.

“Sure have; they love it,” Jess said grinning at her. “I’m real glad they decided to stay.”

Daisy nodded in agreement from  the other side of the fire. “That little baby needs warmth and good nourishing food as does her Ma, bless them,” she said softly, and they lapsed into silence, considering her words.

They all sat staring into the fire and sipping their drinks for a few moments before Mort turned, and grinning at the company, said, “Well, I’m sure glad I made it over; just wouldn’t have been the same without a trip out here at Christmas.”

“So what were those long-ago Christmases like?” asked Daisy, turning to look at Mort sitting next to her.

“Well I guess I started coming out here after your Ma and Pa had passed on, didn’t I, Slim? Not long  after I moved to Laramie?”

“Yeah. It  was just me Andy and old Jonsey in those days,” said Slim thoughtfully, “a real bachelor house.”

“That’s it. Andy wasn’t not much older than  young Mike, and poor old Jonsey tryin’ to ride shotgun over you both!”

“Poor old Jonsey nothing,” said Slim laughing and remembering his Pa’s good friend who had stepped into the breach to perform all the domestic duties at the ranch when the two brothers had been orphaned.

“Well, his cooking wasn’t up to your standard Miss Daisy, that’s for sure,” chuckled the Sheriff.

“Say, do you remember that darned liniment he used to boil up, figured it would cure any ailment from  hoof rot to backache,” said Jess rolling his eyes.

“What, he used the same stuff on you as the horses?” asked Millie looking  amazed.

“Sure did,” said Slim, “and you just had to get better quick before the smell killed you!”

“Then  you joined them, Jess,” said Mort turning to him. “I guess things were a bit different for you, that first Christmas you landed here after being  on  the drift for so long.”

“Yeah, you could say,” replied Jess suddenly looking uncomfortable.

Slim  thought back to those early days and how Jess had almost pointblank refused to join in with the family traditions of cutting and  dressing the tree and decorating the ranch house. The only thing  he seemed interested in being the turkey shoot.

At first, Slim had been mad at him, wanting him to make an effort for Andy’s sake, and it wasn’t until later that Jess had broken down and admitted he just didn’t know how to act at Christmas because it was barely celebrated in his family home. “It was just another day,” he had said bitterly to Slim back then. “Pa said there was no money for such foolishness and so we just worked the land like any other day.” He brightened then a little as he remembered his much loved mother. “Ma would try and make it special, give us all a good dinner after Pa had cleared off to the saloon. Then she’d give us presents she’d made — a new shirt, that kinda thing.”

Jess had just shrugged then. “It’s just the way it was, you  know,” he had finished quietly and Slim’s heart had bled for  him.

Jess remembered that long  ago conversation, but now his reverie was broken  by Mort.

“So how different?,” persisted the Sheriff, looking interested. “So how do you celebrate Christmas down in Texas then?”

“Mort!” said Slim, casting a concerned glance at his pard.

“It’s OK, Slim,” Jess said quickly. “I guess the answer is you don’t, if you’re dirt poor like I was, Mort.”

There was a hushed silence, but after a moment, Jess grinned over at his friend, to take the sting out of his words, and said “Guess I’ve made up for it since, though, eh!”

“I’m sorry, Jess; I wasn’t thinking,” the Sheriff said looking embarrassed.

Then Millie took Jess’s hand and squeezed it. “Hey cowboy,  I can remember  a real good Christmas down  in Texas. That time you came to mine. Do you remember?”

Jess beamed at her then. “You know, I guess I do. I was about eight and you were seven. It was that year Ma was real sick and Pa farmed all us kids out to family and friends. Gee, that was a swell Christmas,” he said, his eyes shining at  the memory.

Jess and Millie had been friends as long as either of them could remember, and he often said they were just a pair of little ragamuffins — her in her sister’s hand-me-down dresses and him with the seat out of his pants and a runny nose. ‘A couple of shoeless urchins’, as he had described their childhood selves to Slim once.

“But heck we didn’t know we were dirt poor, didn’t know any different, see, and we had fun together, me and Millie and her little brother Tad, goin’ off splashin’ about  in the waterhole and huntin’ rabbits with our slingshots. An’ you know what?” Jess said  laughing, “Young Millie was the best darned shot of all us kids — a real tomboy!”

Looking at her now in the closely fitting red dress that showed off her curvy figure to perfection, her dark hair framing her beautiful heart shaped face and her expressive brown eyes alight with merriment, Jess smiled at the contrast between then and now. Then he thought about their deep friendship, which had finally blossomed into adult love, and marveled at how enduring it was.

Millie threw him a quizzical look. “What are you thinking on, cowboy?”

“Just as to how you’ve changed since we were kids,” Jess said playfully, openly eyeing her perfect, hourglass figure.

“Well I should darned well hope so,” Millie said laughing. “I couldn’t stay that gawky little tomboy forever.”

“I guess not, but you were kinda cute, you know. “

“So tell us,” said Slim smiling at their evident closeness, “what was Christmas like with Millie first time around?”

“Oh pretty much the same as now,” Jess said with a cheeky wink. “Her bossin’ me around and me doin’ as I’m told.”

“Umm, that will be the day,” Millie responded dryly.

Then Jess thought back to that long ago Christmas. He remembered standing by his Ma’s bed and her telling him that he was to stay at the Johnson’s place for the holiday. “Will you be OK, Ma?” he asked, casting a glance over to where his Pa was leaning on the door frame, frowning over at his son.

“You’ll do as you’re told and no darned argument boy!” his Pa growled.

“Ma?” Jess questioned, his deep blue eyes wide with fear, knowing how handy his Pa could be with his fists around Ma.

“It’s alright, Jess; I’ll be fine and Ma Johnson said she’d be real happy to have you. So run along, dear.”

Jess knew that an elderly aunt had taken his sister Francie and the little ones, but had pointblank refused to give house room to Jess or his elder brother, thinking them far too much trouble — and she was probably right, he had thought later, knowing he was no saint and his brother much worse. Anyway, his brother had taken himself off to a friend’s house, just leaving Jess still at home that Christmas Eve.

“Go on, scram,” yelled his father harshly, lashing out and delivering a stinging clip around the ear as young Jess ran out of the room. “An’ you darn well behave yourself too, boy, or you know what’ll happen,” was his parting shot.

It was cold and dark when Jess finally arrived at the Johnson’s shack a mile or so over the ridge from where he lived. He stood outside the warmly lit little cabin, listen to the laughter and happy banter coming from within, a rollercoaster of emotions flooding through him.

Part of him was incredibly angry — at his Ma for being  sick, at his Pa for, heck, just for being his Pa, and even directed at his good friends the Johnson family, having him to stay. The charity case, doing a good turn for his poor downtrodden old Ma. He nearly ran off, the shame and anger  taking over.

But then another part of him wanted to join in, to be a part of this lively, happy loving family that was so different to his own. Wanted to be with his best friend, little Millie, and to laugh with Tad and tease her elder sister Ginny, to relax in the kind loving presence of Ma Johnson, who he knew would spoil him rotten.

 Then there was Millie’s Pa… Gee, Mr. Johnson was a great guy. He was everything his own Pa was not — kind, approachable, sober and hardworking. Sure, the Johnson’s lived in poverty like his own folks, but at least Pa Johnson put food on the table and could provide the basics of a Christmas for his family, mainly because he didn’t drink away every darn cent he earned, like his own Pa did, Jess thought bitterly.

He still stood undecided on the doorstep, hating being this figure of pity, but before he could run off,  the door suddenly swung open and Millie stood there.

“Hey, I was just comin’ to look for you,” she said, her brown eyes laughing up at him. “Heck, what are you doin’ standin’ out here, Jess? It’s freezin’.” Grabbing him by the arm, she pulled him into the warm comfortable place that was home to her and her loving family.

From that moment on, Jess was treated just as one of the family. No big deal; he wasn’t some poor waif or stray landed to be viewed with sympathy, the poor Harper kid. Nope he was just treated in the same rough and tumble way as the other Johnson offspring, his presence viewed matter of factly, just another  family member popped in to celebrate Christmas, and Jess had never forgotten that — his first real Christmas.

He’d bedded down in Tad’s room, and as the boys went off that night, Ma handed them a stocking apiece. Jess looked at her with questioning blue eyes.

“For Santa dear,” Mrs. Johnson said smiling down at him.

“Huh?”

“You put it down at  the bottom of your bed, and Santa comes and puts presents in for you,” said Tad knowledgably. “Heck, I’m only five an’ I know that, Jess,” he said in amazement at his hero’s ignorance.

“Oh, yeah, sure,” said Jess with a look of skepticism far beyond his years. Mr. and Mrs. Johnson exchanged a sad glance over the head of the world-weary boy who knew nothing of the childish joys of Santa Clause and all he represented.

So it was with unbridled excitement that Jess awoke the following morning to find a stocking on the end of his bed stuffed with a largess he found hard to comprehend. Never had he had so many good things just for himself, as any favors, such as they were, always had to be shared between the five children in the Harper household.

From the penny comic sticking out of the top to the bag of nuts in the toe, everything was a pure delight to the young boy and he just couldn’t believe his luck.

But then things just got better and better, from the pancakes with maple syrup at breakfast to the turkey dinner, to the games and  fun and laughter. Every moment of the day was special to the young Jess, but the very best moment came just before bedtime.

Ma Johnson was putting an over-excited Tad to bed, and Ginny and her Pa were poring over a book she had been given, when Millie whispered for Jess to follow her outside.

Once they had made their escape,, they ran over to the barn, and pulling the heavy door open, ran inside. After a moment,  Millie lit a small lantern.

“What are we doin’ over here?” asked Jess. “It’s a mite chilly,” he remarked, noting Millie was wearing a pretty but thin party dress instead of her usual work a day denim dungarees, and wondered if she  was feeling  the cold too.

“Got somethin’ to show you,” she whispered, and turning, she slipped inside one of the stalls. Reaching behind a bale of straw, she returned with a small parcel wrapped in brightly colored paper.

Jess’s face was a picture of concern. “Hey Mill, I ain’t got anythin’ for you. I’m real sorry.”

“Don’t be daft. Didn’t expect anything,” she said stoutly. “Heck, I know as how you’re fixed, Jesse. It’s just been great you being over today.”

“Really?”

“Sure. Now you gonna open it or what?” she asked reverting to her little girl bossiness.

Jess carefully removed the wrapping, revealing a beautifully fashioned little bracelet made from leather thongs weaved together.

“It’s a special friendship bracelet,” Millie said smiling. “I’ve made it for you, and if you wear it, well, it means we’re best friends forever and ever. You want it?” she asked, suddenly shy.

Jess’s eyes were bright with unshed tears. “Sure I do; sure I want it,” he whispered.

She smiled at that, and taking it from his trembling hands, carefully tied the bracelet around his skinny little wrist. “Right, we’re officially best friends forever and ever now,” she exclaimed, “and you can kiss me.”

Jess stood there staring at her for a moment, suddenly realizing how pretty she looked in her party dress her tousled dark curls falling around her shoulders and a becoming flush to her cheeks. Then he leaned forwards, and gently taking her by the shoulders, he kissed her fleetingly on the lips, before pulling quickly back.

Millie beamed at him, now back to her bossy little self. “That was good for a first try,” she said, “very good. But I expect we’ll need to practice — when we’re all grown up, that is.”

“Yeah… ok,” murmured Jess warily, “when were grown up…yeah.” Shortly afterwards, they ran back to the house, laughing and pushing as they went, back to being as playful and carefree as a pair of young puppies

*****

“Jess, hey Jess, you in there?” asked Slim, grinning over at his pard.

Jess was finally dragged from his memories. “Huh?”

“Daisy was saying goodnight; she’s turning in, pard.”

Jess immediately jumped up and went over to Daisy’s side, helping her up from her chair. “Thanks for all you’ve done today,” he said sincerely. “The meal was really great.” He gave her a little kiss on her cheek.

“Here, here!” was echoed by the others, and Daisy beamed at them all, her old grey eyes sparkling with pleasure. “Well, you’re all very welcome,” she replied stifling a yawn. “ See you in the morning. Night all.”

Once she had gone, Millie offered to make them all a final coffee before they turned in;  Jess followed her out and stood watching as she busied herself putting the pot on the stove. After a few minutes, he wandered over behind her and snaked his arms around her waist.

She giggled and turned in the circle of his arms, looking up into his deep blue eyes, but when she saw he was looking so serious, she said softly, “You were thinking about that Christmas when we were just  little kids, before, weren’t you?”

He nodded. “I was rememberin’ bein’ in the barn, that friendship bracelet you gave me.”

She smiled at that. “It took me weeks to make it, and I was so worried you’d think it was sissy accepting that kind of a gift, and from a girl as well.”

He shook his head. “Why would I? And from a real pretty girl too.”

“Was I? “

He smiled at that. “You know you were –still are — very.”

“And do you remember…the kiss?”

His eyes twinkled at that and he nodded. “I remember what you said about practicing too.” He leaned forwards and kissed her very tenderly before pulling back and looking deeply into her loving brown eyes. “It was real special for me that time,” he said softly. “Not just us — although I guess that was the best bit — but all of it. I’d never had a Christmas before, not a proper one like that.”

“So you liked it — the stocking and turkey dinner and all?” she asked grinning at him.

He nodded. “Sure that was swell, but the great thing was, well, the way you were with me. You didn’t make me feel like I was to be pitied, like I was some sorta charity case, and your folks made me feel like I was just one of you kids. I’ll never forget your Ma and Pa for doing that for me.”

Millie stared at him for a long time and then said quietly, That’s why it  means so much to you to help the Bradley family isn’t it — because you know how they’re feeling.”

Jess dipped his head at this before looking into her eyes again. “Yeah, I guess that’s it.”

Millie nodded. “You’re a real special man,” she whispered, “you know that? And real special to me too.”

He gave her a broad grin at that. “Oh really? Well, how about we get to practicing that kissin’ again. Might get it perfect if we really work on it.” He chuckled as he leaned in and gently caressed her lips again.

And that was how Slim found them a good while later when he came in to investigate where the promised coffee was, as ‘he and Mort were getting mighty dry, ’ he complained.

It was much later when Millie had finally turned in, unable to keep her eyes open any longer, and the men had got stuck into the hill whiskey, that Mort brought up the subject of the Bradley family again.

“So are they still thinking of trying to make it all the way to Rawlins before the snow’s down proper?” asked Mort looking skeptical.

Although there was still only a fine sprinkling laying, the men all knew that could change overnight, and they could be completely snowed in within a week or so at this time of year.

“Risky,” said Jess sucking in a deep breath, “especially with those little ‘un’s. I sure wouldn’t like to make that journey at this time of year.”

“Umm, would be foolhardy,” the Sheriff agreed.

Then Slim looked thoughtful. “You know old man Dayton could sure do with a hand right now.” He was referring to an elderly neighbor who had recently been widowed and had also suffered a spate of ill health himself.

“I thought young Fred was over?” asked Jess raising a questioning eyebrow, referring to the elderly man’s son.

“Yup, he was due — just for Christmas, though, and then he’s going back East to sell up his business there. Charlie Dayton told me he couldn’t make it back until the spring, though; said he was gonna have to buy help in. Just can’t manage on his own right now,” Mort added.

“So the old man will be in need of a helping hand  until spring then,” said Slim. “And money sure isn’t a problem; he’s rolling in it, so I hear, inherited a fortune from his brother a few years back.”

“Umm, it’s finding  the right kinda help at this time of year, though,” replied  Jess. “I guess everyone around here is busy  with their own spreads and we don’t get many  people passin’ through once the snows down. So all we need to do now is to convince Jake to take the job and stay around until spring.”

“Sounds perfect,” smiled Mort. “That big  old house is plenty large enough for a live-in housekeeper and foreman, and I hear tell he’s real fond of his grandchildren so I guess young Robbie and Beth would be welcome too.”

“Umm,” said Slim,” we just need to convince Jake to take the job now, as Jess says. And that might not be so easy.”

“Oh sure it is,” chuckled Mort, refilling all their glasses. “Just get Jess here on the job; he’ll convince him.”

“I will?” asked Jess, looking more than a little surprised.

“Well, you persuaded him to stay here, didn’t you?”

“No, I guess that was down to Mike,” Jess replied.

“No, pard, Mike got him here; it was you that got him to stay. So how did you do that?” asked Slim, now slurring a little, and looking a mite flushed, the effects of the alcohol beginning to tell on all three men a little now.

Jess shrugged. “Just told him a few home truths.”

Mort smiled at that. “Well, I guess it was a bit more than that, wasn’t it, Jess. You, well, you were real honest with him. Never heard you open up that way to a stranger before.”

“You were listening?” asked Jess, throwing him an accusatory look.

Mort looked embarrassed. “Well yeah, I guess so. I really didn’t mean to, buddy; I came in to tell you coffee was up and well, didn’t wanna butt in, and so I kind of had to wait on you finishing.”

Jess shook his head and took another slug of the strong drink before saying, “Oh, it’s OK, Mort; weren’t nuthin’ you ain’t heard before anyway, I guess.”

Mort knocked his drink back too. “Well that’s mighty handsome of you to see it that way, Jess boy…have another,” he suggested, tipping the bottle before Jess could reply, then filling up his own and Slim’s glasses as well.

The men sat in companionable silence for a while just contemplating the fire. and then Mort turned to Jess and patting his arm said ‘Mighty good thing you did there, though, son, mighty good. Explaining everything to that Jake, like you really understood  how he was feelin’.

 “Oh, yeah, guess I understand how he feels alright,” said Jess in a deadpan voice. “Yep, sure I do. Darn expert on poverty…charity…all that kinda stuff,” he finished with a small hiccup.

“Umm, well anyways, I think it’s real good what you folk have done for that family, helpin’ them out that way,” said Mort, his eyes finally beginning to close. “Really in the Christmas Spirit,” he muttered. “Yup, good ol’ Christmas spirit,” he repeated, before finally dropping off and starting to snore softly.

Jess and Slim exchanged a grin across the recumbent body of their good friend.

“Which kinda spirit do you think he’s talkin’ about now,” asked Jess with a grin. “The real Christmas one –or the one outer that bottle of his? “

Slim sniggered at that. “Both I reckon.” Then stretching, he stood up somewhat unsteadily. “Come on, Jess, help me get him on the couch. Figure it’s time we all turned in. Busy day tomorrow; lots to do.”

“Aw Slim, let a body enjoy the rest of Christmas, will you. before you start moanin’ on about work,” groused Jess as he staggered up and made to help the Sheriff bed down for the night on the old leather couch.

*****

The following morning, Slim was the first to awake, and he sat up in bed and then fell back down again, grabbing his head and groaning softly. “Never again,” he whispered before sitting  up more gingerly, and then  throwing his legs over the side of the bed, sat there waiting for his head to stop spinning. Then he glanced across at his buddy laying  as still as a corpse, a faintly greenish tinge to his pale face, the dark shadow of stubble making him look even worse.

Slim shook his head and gave the ghost of a smile; his pard was not going to be too happy when he awoke. But it had to be done, Slim knew, so after a moment he leaned over and gently shook him awake. “Rise and shine, Jess; chores to get to.”

“Ahhhg,” came the weak response. Jess just pulled the covers over his face.

“Come on, pard, roll out,” insisted Slim more assertively, standing and pulling the covers off.

“Slim, I’m dyin’ here. Umm, no, make that dead. I’m dead; just leave me, huh?”

“Sorry can’t do that,” argued the tall rancher, getting into his stride now and beginning to feeling a little better once he was up and moving around.

Jess muttered a very rude word and started to drag himself up out of bed; he made it as far as sitting on the edge before he dropped his head into his hands, giving a low groan.

“Good. That’s good, pard. Now are you going to get dressed? Daisy’s got the coffee on.”

That faint beacon of light in Jess’s wilderness was enough to stir him to get up and start stumbling around the room looking for his clothes where he had shed them on the floor the previous night.

Slim finally finished washing up and dressing, then turned back to his friend. “Right, I’m going to check on Mort. You OK?”

Jess just threw him a pained look, but as he was now at the washstand shaving. Slim figured he would appear at the breakfast table sooner or later and so left him to it.

When Jess finally staggered out of his room and wandered over to the  table, he was amazed to see Mort putting away bacon, eggs and  biscuits like there was no tomorrow. “Heck Mort, how’d you do it?” he whispered in awe as he took a seat and stared in amazement as the wiry Sheriff finished up his meal and wiped his mouth with a napkin before giving a little sigh of satisfaction.

“Well, I’ll tell you, boy, it’s all in the trainin’. You see, had a drop of hill whiskey in my bottle as a babe — to help me sleep, my old Pappy used to say — and I figure that kinda toughed me up some. “

Daisy caught the last of this conversation as she bustled out of the kitchen with Slim’s breakfast and a cup of coffee for Jess. “Goodness me, Sheriff that doesn’t sound very healthy,” she said looking aghast. “I’m sure that can’t do you much good in the long run.”

Mort turned a grin on the elderly ex-nurse and said, “Well, it doesn’t seem to have  done my old Pappy much , Ma’am; his Pa did the same and he’s still goin’ strong up there in Denver — just turned 90 and thinking on getting hitched again.”

“Oh my goodness me,” Daisy said, chuckling at that. “Well, they certainly seem to make your family of tough stuff, Mort.” Then she cast a glance down at where Jess was staring at Slim’s fry up breakfast with a look of fascinated horror, before he suddenly leapt up from his seat and exited through the back door at high speed.

“Oh dear, is he alright?” asked Daisy gazing after him.

Mort and Slim exchanged an amused glance.

“No… but he will be,” laughed Slim, turning to enjoy his breakfast, suddenly feeling much better. After a while he said, “So where are the others then, Daisy?”

“Well, the Bradleys had their breakfast an hour since, and Jake and Robbie are helping Mike with the chores while Jenny is tending the baby.”

Slim looked concerned. “Heck, I’d better get on out there and help them out then,” he said briskly, swigging the last of his coffee and rising from the table.

“Yup, I’d better be on my way too, Ma’am. Got to relieve young Lon and send him back to the bosom of his family.”

“Hopefully without Ma-in-law,” Mort said as an aside to Slim, with a chuckle.

Then Mort bowed to the elderly lady. “And thank you so much, Miss Daisy. I’ve had the time of my life, and I figure I won’t need feedin’ again until next Christmas,” he laughed patting his stomach as he made his departure.

Slim  joined him at  the door, before turning back to Daisy. “Tell Jess I’m going to take Jake with me to check the stock down in  the south  pasture. Oh yeah and it’s his turn to milk the cow,” he said smirking over at  Daisy. “That’s if he ever makes it back from the outhouse,” he called over his shoulder as he left.

*****

Millie found Jess out in the barn sometime later sitting on the milking stool, his head resting on the house cow’s flank, eyes closed and his hands motionless on the udder.

She walked over and put a gentle hand on his shoulder and he straightened, squinting up at her. “Hey sweetheart, you ok?” he asked.

She smiled at that. “Better than you are, I figure, cowboy. Come on, move over; I’ll do it.”

Jess got shakily to his feet and went and lounged against the wall, watching her as she efficiently started squirting milk into the pail. After a while she was aware of his scrutiny, and finishing off the chore, she put the milk bucket to one side and gazed over at where he still stood, suddenly aware of the light of passion burning in his intense blue eyes.

Jess swallowed and then said very softly “Heck, Millie I love you somethin’ fierce. You know that, dontcha?”

Millie nodded and then just stared at him for a full minute before he opened his arms. She stood up and ran into his warm embrace, feeling his strong arms close around her, holding her so tightly she thought he might never let go. She felt his heart pounding against her own, and could feel him trembling slightly.

Then Jess pulled gently back so that he could look into her eyes and very tenderly ran a finger down her cheek, before pulling her to him again and caressing her hair, her head on his shoulder as she relaxed into his warm embrace once more. “You were always there for me, weren’t you –when we were kids –and you’re still bailing me out even now,” he said with a smile in his voice.

“Well you looked like you needed it,” Millie murmured and sighed softly, just enjoying being in his arms.

Suddenly the peace was shattered by Mike and Robbie crashing into the barn, both of them yelling wildly, clearly very upset.

Jess and Millie leapt apart at this intrusion, looking surprised at the children’s obvious distress. “Hey Tiger, whatever’s  the matter?” asked Jess, looking shocked as he saw the youngster  now had tears rolling down  his cheeks and was struggling to say something.

 Then glancing over at Robbie, he noted the child also looked white and panicky.

Jess fell to his knees and pulled the boy to him. “Mike, tell me what is it?”

Then he heard Jenny screaming off in the bunkhouse and his eyes widened in shock. “Mike?”

“It’s…its Beth. The baby, Jess…..she’s dead!”

Jess just stared. “Go fetch, Aunt Daisy,” he said briskly, pushing the child gently towards the door.

Then Jess was  galvanized into action and he leapt up and tore out of the barn before sprinting across the yard and bursting into the bunkhouse where he stopped surveying the terrible scene before him.

Jenny was kneeling  beside the baby’s crib, keening, the sound sending shivers down  Jess’s spine. But he finally pulled himself together and  walking over looked down  at the lifeless infant, her little face tinged with a terrible blue color.

“What happened?” he stammered.

Jenny looked up, seeming to barely recognize him. “She was coughing…and coughing. I thought  she was over the sickness,” she whispered “but she had this coughing fit…couldn’t breathe, and then……”

Jess put out a tentative hand and touched the still warm little body and then  something seemed to click in his brain. He was back in that hovel on the panhandle and his little sister was coughing and coughing, laying in her crib. her little face contorted in pain and her lips turning  blue..

His Ma had run in from the yard, and seeing the situation, had hauled the youngster roughly out of her crib and throwing her across her knee proceeded to slap the child on the back.

Jess lifted the child out of the bed, and sitting down, he put her face down on his knee and smacked her hard on her back.

“Jess, for god’s sake what are you doing?” cried Millie, who had followed him in and was now staring in horror at the scene being played out before her.

Jess ignored her and thumped the child on the back firmly again, between the shoulder blades, then finally on the third attempt something shot out of her tiny mouth and rolled across the floor — a bright shiny blue marble.

Almost at once, the baby took a deep breath and started wailing loudly.

The atmosphere was electric as everyone seemed to have been holding their own breath. Suddenly, the drama was over as quickly as it had begun.

Daisy, who had arrived just in time to witness the miracle, saw how traumatized Jenny was, and with Millie’s help, she led the fretful youngsters away to the ranch house kitchen, with the promise of milk and cookies, to give the young mother time to recover.

Daisy raised a questioning eyebrow at Jess before she went, concerned that he could cope with the situation, and he just gave her an almost imperceptible nod as he held the baby close to his chest, gently rubbing her back to try and calm her.

Once they had all left, Jenny sat there in a state of shock, one hand to her mouth, staring at Jess who was still trying to quiet the wailing infant. After a moment, he stood up and passed Beth to her Ma, who sat there rocking her gently until the infant eventually fell asleep and then, almost reverently, she placed her back in her crib.

Jenny stood with her back to Jess, just looking down at the now sleeping child.

After a minute, Jess saw her slender frame shaking, then she was wracked with sobs. He went over, and turning her towards him, took her in his arms. “Hey, it’s ok…it’s ok,” he whispered, gently patting her back and speaking as he would do to Mike after one of his nightmares.

Jenny finally pulled herself together, and looking up into his concerned blue eyes whispered, “I can never…never thank you enough. How did you know what to do?”

He gave her a grim smile at that. “Happened to my little sister once. Gee, it scared the livin’ daylights outer me, but Ma knew just how to deal with it. She smacked her on the back and the chip of apple she’d found came out, just like that ol’ marble did. “

“And she was alright — afterwards I mean?” she asked anxiously.

Jess nodded. “Yup, just fine, so don’t fret none.”

Just then Robbie burst in, still in tears, and ran over to his Mother. “Ma, I’m so, so sorry. I gave her the marble to play with; she liked it and I didn’t realize…I never thought…”

Jenny pulled the child to her. “Hush darlin’, it’s alright; you didn’t mean to harm her, I know that.” She held him  close, whispering words of comfort as Jess turned and left, feeling more than a little emotional himself after the traumatic events of the last hour.

Back in the yard, Jess shivered as a spiteful little wind had gotten up. Then  glancing to the horizon, he saw huge grey storm clouds brewing and realized they were in for snow….and a lot of it by the looks of things, too.

Oh well, he thought to himself, he could postpone his talk with Jake, trying to persuade him to stay around until the better weather was here in the spring. Nope, he figured nobody was goin’ anywhere, for a while at least, and with that happy thought he advanced on  the kitchen  in search  of the coffee pot.

Millie rushed over as he entered. “Are they alright now?” she asked taking his hand.

Jess squeezed it and then wandered over  to the table and helped himself to coffee. “Sure,” he replied. “Beth’s sleepin’….er, like a baby,” he chuckled. “And her Ma is ok now I guess. its little Robbie I feel sorry for;  poor kid, he didn’t mean no harm.”

Mike stood up for his friend, staunchly agreeing. “Sure he didn’t, and that was his best marble too. That’s why he gave it her,” he added.

“Umm, well, you just remember that babies and marbles don’t mix, huh, Tiger?”

“Sure; an’ anyway I don’t really care for babies so much,  you know, Jess,” Mike said confidentially. “I guess I’d  really rather have a foal.”

Millie and Jess exchanged an amused glance over his head, but refrained from replying, and Daisy chuckled as she went off to prepare their mid-day meal.

“So have you got a name for Snowy’s new filly then?” asked Jess, grinning across at the youngster, knowing what a whizz he was at thinking up really good names for the ranch animals.

The boy shook his head. “Nope, not yet. I guess I’ve been kinda busy what with Christmas an’ all, but I’m thinkin’ on it, Jess, and it’s gotta be a real good one for Snow Bird’s foal, what with her bein’ so special.”

However the way things turned out it was going to be a while before any of them could turn their attention to the task of naming the little grey filly, as there were more pressing matters ahead of them.

*****

When dinner had come and gone and there was still no sign of Slim and Jake’s return, the women folk started to get a little anxious.

“Oh Jess dear, could you ride out and look for them?” asked Daisy, peering out of the window at the gentle snowflakes that had been drifting down for the last hour. “I think Jenny is worried, and she really doesn’t need any more troubles after this morning’s little drama,” she said softly, looking over to where the young woman was rocking the baby to sleep, seated by the fire.

“Sure,” Jess said quietly. “I’ll go now. They should have been back a while ago, if they just went to check the stock on the south pasture.” Heck they could have been there and back twice over, hang-over or not, he thought privately.

Then grabbing his coat and hat, he made off for the barn after giving Millie a cheeky wink and a cheerful, “See you all later.”

 Once he arrived at the south pasture, he could see evidence that the stock had been fed and then faint tracks lead across the fields and towards the adjoining land belonging to old Charlie Dayton.

”What the heck are you up to, Slim?” Jess muttered to himself. He wondered if Slim had already broached the subject of a possible job for Jake with old man Dayton and decided that was probably the reason he had gone over with Jake in the first place. Then he cast an eye up to the dense cloud cover and noted that the wind had got up some, and what had been a pleasant ride in a winter wonderland, the flakes drifting lazily down, was fast changing into a cold uncomfortable ride in a potential blizzard.

Jess shivered and then deciding he was closer to the Dayton spread than home, pulled his jacket collar up and his hat down and kneed Traveler off across the vast expanse of white  at a brisk trot, heading for the Dayton Ranch and coffee pot  in that order.

*****

Earlier that day, once the stock had been tended to and checked over, they were about to return for dinner when Slim saw a movement way across the pasture.

On investigating, he realized a couple of Charlie Dayton’s steers had roamed onto Sherman land. So once the fence was checked and mended and the animals returned to Dayton property, Slim decided to ride on and introduce Jake to Charlie, half-hoping that they would hit it off and Charlie might take the young man on for a while, as he and Jess had discussed previously.

After they had been riding for a while, Slim glanced over. “I guess this weather seems to be setting in; kind of puts an end to your idea of moving on doesn’t it? he remarked casually.

Jake looked uncomfortable, and casting an eye up at the storm clouds muttered, “I guess so, but  we sure can’t accept any more of your hospitality, Slim. Don’t want to outstay our welcome, you know,” he said gruffly.

Slim just reassured him that wouldn’t be the case, at which Jake seemed to relax some and Slim smiled inwardly. At least he wasn’t thinking of exposing his little family to the rigors of traveling though a blizzard, he thought thankfully.

On arrival, they reined in their mounts and tethering them in front of the substantial ranch house. Slim walked over and beat loudly on the door, casting a glance around the deserted yard. When there was no answer, he raised an eyebrow.

“That’s kinda funny,” Slim said as Jake joined him on the porch. “Fred, Charlie’s son and his wife and three kids are supposed to be visiting for Christmas, but it all seems sort of quiet, doesn’t it?”

Slim hammered on the door once more and it suddenly creaked open, revealing a dark, chilly room within. “Huh?” exclaimed Slim.

Then turning to peer at his new friend. “There’s something wrong here. Come on, Jake.”

The two men made their way through the large main room, looking uncharacteristically dusty and untidy, with dead ashes in the fireplace and no sign of life.

“Charlie….hey Charlie, you here?” Slim called out, and both men listened as his voice echoed around the large empty house.

Slim carried on down a corridor off the main room where he knew Charlie’s bedroom was located, and calling again, he slowly pushed the door open revealing a fusty room, dimly lit by a small lamp on the nightstand. Then as his eyes got used to the shadowy light, he was just able to make out Charlie Dayton laying in the bed, looking pale and sick, his eyes closed and his breath coming in wheezy gasps.

Slim walked over and sat down carefully on the edge of the bed, placing a hand gently on his friend’s chest he whispered, “Charlie?”

After a moment, the elderly man stirred, and opening his eyes, peered short-sightedly at Slim as he  struggled to sit up. “Wah….who….” and then he collapsed back on the pillow with a bout of coughing.

Slim seeing a tumbler on the nightstand, offered it across, and a few minutes, later Charlie was able to speak, recognize his neighbor and indeed greet him gratefully. “Gee, it’s good to see a friendly face,” he whispered. “It’s been a kinda lonesome Christmas. I felt real sick, so just headed for bed Christmas Eve an’ been here ever since,” he managed before coughing again.

“What’s up,” asked Slim looking concerned. “Do you need Doc Sam to visit?”

“No… no, I’ve got me some medicine from the good doc; just my bronchitis is bad. It’ll be ok in a day or two; don’t fret, Slim.”

“So where are Fred and his family?” asked Slim, looking puzzled.

“Sick. They’re all down with real bad colds. Got me a wire a few days since,” he muttered

“They’ll be OK?” asked Slim looking worried again.

“Sure, sure in a week or so, I figure, but I wired ‘em back, told ‘em not to come over now. They’ll be here in the spring; figure I can wait,” Charlie finished sadly.

Then Slim realized he’d forgotten his manners and introduced Jake, and the three chatted for a while before Slim went off to make some coffee and prepare some food for his good neighbor, leaving Jake to chat to the elderly man.

It was as Slim was making the brew that he heard a knock on the door, and on going to investigate  was surprised to see his pard standing there, looking decidedly cold, wet and miserable.

Jess pushed past his buddy making for the kitchen. “So Charlie got the coffee on then?” he called over his shoulder.

Slim was quick to explain the situation and Jess went off to commiserate with their good neighbor whilst Slim piled food and coffee on a tray to take to the bedroom.

As he entered, Slim was just in time to hear Jess say, “So what about it then, Charlie? You gonna give ol’ Jake here a job to tide you over until your Fred lands home?”

It was a toss-up as to who looked more surprised Charlie or Jake….or possibly Slim, who nearly dropped the tray as he entered the room.

Jess looked from Charlie to Jake and back and then up at Slim. “Well, you have mentioned it, ain’t you, Slim?”

All three merely shook their heads.

“Oops,” said Jess looking a mite sheepish, having been convinced in his own mind as to that was why Slim had visited with Jake.

“So what’s this all about?” asked Charlie after a minute.

“Yeah… what, Jess?” asked Jake looking far from happy.

It was a good hour later, with both Slim and Jess using their most persuasive and diplomatic powers, that Charlie and  Jake finally saw the sense of the arrangement.

“Well it sure would be good to have a woman and kiddies about the place again,” said Charlie honestly. “I reckon I’ve missed the family more than I’d like to admit…and my dear  wife, God rest her soul,” he finished looking distinctly saddened.

Jess turned a hopeful eye on Jake. “Well?” he asked softly. “You can’t move your family in  this,” he said nodding to the bedroom window where the snow was still falling. “It could go on this way for  weeks, an’, well, I guess you’d be doin’ Charlie here a real good turn by stayin’ too.”

“Fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work, young man,” said Charlie persuasively, “and bed and board  for you and your family in the house here, rent free. Only one thing. though.”

“Oh? What’s that?” asked Jake looking worried.

“Your wife treats the place like her  own and those kids of yours fill the place with laughter and fun. It’s been way too quiet around here lately. Deal?” Charlie asked, holding out a tentative hand.

Jake looked over at Jess, who gave him a little nod of encouragement, and then back at Charlie before taking the offered hand and  shaking it firmly. “I’d be real honored to work for you, Mister Dayton, thank you,” he said, his face suddenly splitting into a happy grin. “Thank you kindly.”

“Well thank goodness that’s settled,” said Jess dryly. “So can we have that darn coffee now, Slim, before it goes cold!”

After coffee, the men tidied up the house some, lit a fire and left old Charlie feeling a lot more comfortable and cheerful, knowing the Bradley family would be around shortly to help him out on the ranch.

*****

They arrived back at the ranch in time for supper and were greeted by the relieved women folk, with Jenny looking especially anxious. As soon as Jake came in, she ran to him and then excused them as she walked him over to the bunkhouse deep in conversation.

They returned just as supper was being served, and the conversation was all about Jake and family moving out to the Dayton ranch the following day.

“I can’t tell you how relieved I am,” Jenny confided in Millie and Daisy later as they were tidying up in the kitchen. “It will be wonderful just being a few miles away from you, Daisy, and Robbie is thrilled; he and young Mike have become such good friends.”

“Well I’m really glad for you, dear; it will be lovely for me to have another woman so close by too,” smiled Daisy.

“We can visit as well,” said Millie happily. “And maybe you’d like to join the women’s group in town….if we ever have a chance to meet,” she said peering out of the kitchen window at the still falling snow.

“I really don’t know what Tom will think if I don’t get back soon,” Millie said, referring to her boss at the saloon. “I should catch the Stage tomorrow, if Mose can get through. Much as I’d rather be here with you all,” she confided smiling over at Daisy and then casting a glance to where Jess was helping clear the table.

Jess brought the dirty dishes in and caught the end of the conversation. “Hey sweetheart, you gotta go?” he asked looking sad and putting the dishes down threw a comforting arm around her.

“Yes, you know I have to, Jess. But I’ll be seeing you at New Year… if Slim can spare you, that is?”

“He’d better,” Jess said, pulling her closer and looking over to where Slim had just entered the kitchen.

“Spare him? Heck Millie you can have him,” Slim laughed. “Well, until after New Year anyways. Then I’ve got plans for him.”

“You have?” asked Jess. raising a wary eyebrow.

“Sure. Fence riding, lumber cutting, barn roof needs mending, and that’s before we even think about building that new lean to….”

“Aw, Slim,” said Jess, throwing him a despairing glance to much laughter from the women folk.

Then suddenly Jake was there, looking deathly serious. “Jess, can we have a word? “

“Sure, buddy,” said Jess, disentangling himself from Millie and looking askance.

“Outside,” said a grim-faced Jake and he walked out of the back door heading for the bunkhouse.

Jess and Slim exchanged a puzzled glance before Jess followed the tall bearded man outside and across the yard.

*****

When they still hadn’t returned an hour later, Slim decided to go over and investigate, and found the two men sitting amicably before the stove, making inroads into one of the remaining bottles of Red Eye.

“Er…everything OK?” asked Slim, glancing from Jess to Jake and back.

“Sure, pard…come an’ join us,” slurred Jess looking quite merry.

“No thanks,” replied the tall rancher, giving the bottle a wary look. “Figure I’ve learnt my lesson… for a while at least,” he added with a rueful grin.

“Oh…er, yeah,  maybe I should go easy, have an early night,” replied Jess peering into his glass as though he had only just realized he was imbibing strong drink…again.

“Yeah, well, that might be a good idea, Jess,” replied Slim rolling his eyes.

Later,  once everyone had turned in, Jess sat on  his bed drinking  a black coffee, which he hoped would somewhat lessen the effects of the strong liquor, when Slim cast him a quizzical   glance. “So what did Jake want then?”

“Huh?”

“Jake. He marched over to the barn with you looking like he was kinda troubled about something?”

“No, I reckon not; just wanted to talk somethin’ over is all.”

“Oh? “

“Umm.” Jess drained his coffee cup, stretched and lay down, pulling  the covers up. ”Gee, I’m beat….” he yawned.

“Jess?”

“What? “

Slim stared over at his good friend and noted he was looking kind of embarrassed. Yup, whatever had passed between the two men…well, Jess sure wasn’t about to share it anytime soon, Slim figured. “Nothing. ‘Night, pard.”

“Night.”

Then soon all that could be heard were gentle snores emanating from their room.

*****

The following morning, Slim and Jake were busy grooming Jake’s horses before hitching them up for the drive over to the Dayton place, when they heard shouts of laughter coming from the yard, and leaving their task in the barn, went out to investigate.

They stood leaning on the barn door and watching as a full scale snowball fight was being played out in the yard, with the two youngsters pelting Jess with snowballs as he retaliated in kind, obviously enjoying the battle just as much as Mike and Robbie.

Jake grinned over at Slim, enjoying the spectacle. “Jess is real good with the young ‘un’s, isn’t he?”

Slim nodded. “I reckon he’s just a big kid himself sometimes,” he chuckled.

“Umm,” said Jake still watching. “From what he was saying the other night, about his childhood Christmases, well it sounds like he didn’t get much chance to be a kid, growing up.”

Slim sobered at that and looked down before replying quietly, “No, I guess you’re right there;  he had it kind of tough as a kid.”

Jake nodded and they watched the  snow fight in  silence for a moment before he turned back to his new friend and  said quietly, “I can’t thank you both enough for all you’ve done for me and the family, what with taking us in and then finding that job for me. I want you to know I really appreciate it.”

“Well you’re sure welcome, and I guess Jess will be glad to hear that too. It was real important to him to try and help you, I know that.”

“Yes, I realize that. And we’ve already talked,” said Jake quickly. “I thanked him properly last night. That’s what I wanted to speak to him about.”

“Ah, ”said Slim, the truth suddenly dawning on him, so that was why Jess had been so evasive the night before; he was typically embarrassed, not wanting a fuss made just because he’d helped out someone less fortunate.

“Yup, and I thanked him for what he did for little Beth too. God help me, if we’d lost her…” Jake said, his voice thick with emotion.

“Just a case of being in the right place at the right time, I guess,” said Slim trying to make light of the situation to calm Jake, seeing how upset he was getting.

“Yeah, that’s what, Jess said,” Jake replied shaking his head. “But if he hadn’t known what to do, acted so quickly, well…” Then he seemed to pull himself together. “Anyway I told him, I will always be in his debt for what he did for my little girl and I’ll never forget it…never.”

Just then a snowball hit Slim full in the face and another caught Jake in the chest.

Slim’s head shot up. “Heck buddy, are we going to stand for that?” he asked Jake, his eyes wide in mock fury.

“I reckon not,” replied Jake looking equally ‘mad’ and the retribution began in earnest.

*****

It was finally the arrival of the early stage that ended the conflict, with Jess and the boys wining hands down, leaving Slim and Jake looking decidedly cold and wet, much to the amusement of Jess. “I may just be a Texas boy, but I figure I’ve gotten one over on you this time, Mister Sherman,” he grinned.

 Ignoring the comment, Slim marched over to the stage with as much dignity as he could muster, looking like a drowned rat, with snow still dripping from his red face, and welcomed Mose. “You made it through, then?”

“Yep. Had old Tom on my back; says he wants the return of his best saloon girl. Business has gone really gone downhill since she’s bin partyin’ out here,” the old timer chuckled.

At that Jess mooched over, the flush of success fading as he realized his girl was about to head home.

Then after Millie had gone, in a flurry of goodbyes, thank yous and a lingering kiss for Jess, the Bradley family were on their way too, and suddenly the yard seemed very quiet and empty.

“Heck, I sure am gonna miss Robbie,” said Mike, peering up at Jess, with sad eyes.

“Well don’t you worry about that. Jake says once they’re settled in, you can go over to play and young Robbie is welcome here anytime too, so cheer up, huh?”

“Gee thanks Jess; you an’ Slim are the best.” The child grinned, throwing  an arm around his hero’s waist.

The two wandered over to the barn to hook up with Slim who was busy grooming the changeover team.

“So you got a name for this young filly yet?” asked Jess as they approached Snow Bird’s stall. “I’m getting’ kinda tired of callin’  her that little critter,” he laughed.

“I sure have!” exclaimed the child as Slim walked over to join them and the three admired the pretty little grey filly.

“Ok let’s hear it,” prompted Slim.

“Well I thought bein’ as how she was born on Christmas I figured it should be a kinda Christmassy name,” the youngster began.

“So what is it? Santa?” guessed Jess with a wink at Slim.

Mike rolled his eyes and threw Jess a disdainful glance. “Nah, that’s a boy’s name.”

“Oh yeah,” said Jess trying to keep a straight face. “That was a kinda dumb idea. So….?”

“Spirit!” said the boy triumphantly.

“Well that’s real good,” said Jess happily. “Suits her perfect, Mike. She sure has got some sprit, seein’ as how she was born real early an’ all. Well, look at  her fit an’ healthy now — a real handful too,” he laughed.

“So what about the Christmassy bit?” asked Slim looking puzzled.

“Well, her full name is ‘Spirit of Christmas,’” said the child proudly.

Both men just nodded and waited for the explanation, which they knew would be forthcoming.

“See you taught me that the spirit of Christmas was all about caring for others, like Jesus taught us. Well, I guess Spirit has really made me think about the Christmas spirit — caring for other folk and animals too. The way you sat up all night with Snowy when she was foaling, that was real carin’, Jess,” he said turning to his hero.

Jess smiled at that. “Go on,” he said gently.

“Then sharing the excitement of her being born with Robbie and all the fun we’ve had together, well, I thought it would be good for us to have something to remember this real special Christmas by. So every time we look at Spirit, we’ll remember this swell time and how we made friends with Robbie an’ his family and how that made it real special for us all — do you see?” Mike asked, casting questioning, innocent eyes on the two cowboys.

Slim just nodded and leaning over squeezed his shoulder warmly, his eyes smiling down at the youngster.

Jess thought back to the time of the little foals birth, the tremendous elation he felt, and  then later looking out onto the snowy moonlit  yard,  the incredible feeling of peace and wonder — and how he had thanked the Lord for all his blessings, really feeling that elusive Christmas Spirit.

Then Jess looked down at the youngster’s face, flushed with enthusiasm, and ruffled his blond locks. “Good choice, Tiger,” he said softly. “That’s a real good choice.”

*****

Epilogue By Slim Sherman

Yup, like I said that sure was a real special Christmas and it wasn’t even over then either.

You see when we took young Mike over to the Dayton  place visiting the following day, Charlie Dayton invited us all around to Christmas dinner  that evening.

“Huh?” said Jess looking bewildered. “Heck  Christmas was done two days ago, Charlie.”

“Nope,  not  in this house it wasn’t,” the elderly man said with a grin. “See, I bought all this food and drink in  for my family  and then  they couldn’t make it and  I didn’t feel any too good… So I guess I  slept my way  through Christmas Day; probably be still abed if  you good folk hadn’t landed to sort me out,” Charlie chuckled.

And so we all sat down to a wonderful spread cooked by Jenny’s fair hand, and  it  was almost  as good as Daisy’s offering… but not quite, of course.

The drink flowed, and then Charlie picked up his fiddle  and we were all a singin’ and dancing, and I guess it didn’t  really  matter  that Christmas Day was over because ‘that ol’ Christmas Spirit was alive and well at the Dayton  place that night.’ as Jess was to say later the following day.

“It’s a funny kinda world, ain’t it, Slim?” Jess said thoughtfully as he paused while cutting logs for the cook stove.

“How so?” I asked

“Well, the Bradley family just turning up on our land and us makin’ friends of them… Well, if we hadn’t done that, I guess old Charlie Dayton would have had to try and manage that place on his own — not to mention missin’ out on Christmas. Funny how one little good turn can kinda grow, you know — make all that other good stuff happen?”

“Umm, not to mention you getting two Christmas dinners,” I said dryly.

“Yeah, well guess there is that too,” Jess chuckled.

So life went on at the ranch as usual, except for Jess’s trip out to Cheyenne for New Year. I guess Daisy and Ma Johnson were kinda hoping for an announcement, but the way I figure it, well, they sure shouldn’t hold their breath where old Jess is concerned. Heck, it isn’t that he doesn’t love Millie to bits — and her likewise — but I guess they both feel the time isn’t right to get hitched yet, and so I reckon we have to respect that.

Spirit just grew and grew, and I figure we were all real happy when Jess decided not to sell her on but keep her as a broodmare along with her Ma, Snow Bird. Mike was real cock-a-hoop with that, especially when Jess turned over the day to day care of the filly to him, teaching him exactly what to do, and the youngster was a real quick learner. Then Jess promised him that he could help halter break her and train her on, when the time was right too, and boy was he excited. That kid sure thrives on responsibility and I figure we’re going to make a real good rancher out of him.

The Bradley family… Well, they  were a  blessing to Charlie Dayton;  sure saw him  out of a tight spot, and likewise he gave  them safe lodgings and good pay for the time they were with him. I figure old Charlie missed them some, too, when they finally went off to settle with Jake’s cousin, just outside of Rawlins. Jake worked real hard, and a few years later was able to buy into the ranch and was a partner for several years before taking over completely when his much older cousin retired and moved back to Texas.

As for Jake, he remembered his promise and never forgot how Jess had saved young Beth’s life that Christmas. A bottle of good whiskey with Jess’s name on it would arrive without fail every year on Christmas Eve, with no note — but we all knew who it was from, and why it was sent.

***End***

Thank you for reading and a very Merry Christmas to one and all!

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