Summary: It's been four long years of war and separation. But now the hostilities are over. But Kid's family is still flung to the far corners of the earth and he's feeling guilty he didn't go with them. Will the spirit of the Christmas season help him forget?
McCloud Ranch, near Sweetwater, Wyoming Territory
“It’s Christmas morning!”
“Santa Claus came!”
“Look at that tree!”
The shouts of excited children, their pounding footsteps as they raced past the bedroom door and down the stairs, followed by their squeals of excitement over the decorating she and Kid had down the night before pulled Lou from her slumber. Groaning she rolled over and peeked through her eyelashes toward the bedroom window. Facing east, it was her way of checking the time. The diffused light allowing her to just barely make out the pattern on the calico curtains told her it was dawn, almost.
“Might as well get up and head downstairs,” Kid sighed. “There’s no getting that genie back in its bottle.”
Lou smothered her own groaning laughter while tossing her pillow at Kid’s head for his insane cheerfulness so early in the morning. Crawling out of the bed, she pulled on her wrapper and stepped into the warm house shoes Kid had given her for Christmas last year. Made of softly tanned deerskin on the outside, inside they were lined with the softest of rabbit furs. They made her feel like she was wearing silk slippers every time she put them on. She loved them.
“You better hurry up,” she mock growled at him. “You leave alone with those children for long before I’ve had my coffee and they’re liable to be the main dish at dinner!”
With that parting shot tossed over her shoulder, she stepped out into the hall, almost running over Martha, Tucker at her side, helping her make her way down the hall.
“How are you feeling this morning?” Lou asked, a touch more brightly then she really felt.
“Better, ma’am,” Martha sighed in her deep accent. “Much better.”
“Well, you take your time getting downstairs,” Lou advised. “I’ll make sure the children wait until everyone’s gathered.”
Lou entered the parlor just in time to catch Noah sneaking around the back of the Christmas tree, decorated with homemade pine cone ornaments, strings of popcorn and dozens of candles in special holders, which were not lit at the moment. The toddler held a package wrapped carefully in brown paper in his hands. Lou could see his curious fingers already fiddling with the twine holding the paper closed.
“Oh no you don’t,” she warned sternly, swooping in and gathering the child into her arms with one hand, while removing the package from his grasp with the other. “Not until everyone’s here.” Looking down at the package, she added, “And this one isn’t even for you!”
Noah looked up at his mother, too startled to cry, then snuggled his head into the hollow between her shoulder and collarbone and stuck a thumb into his mouth to suck contentedly. She shook her head, sighing in mock exasperation.
Soon, Tucker and Martha had made it down the stairs and taken seats on the settee. Jeremiah was sitting on the hearth, next to Barnett, While Teresa and Kid helped Lou corral the youngsters.
“Can we do this already?” Kid asked, once the last of the adults had found a seat.
“Please,” Lou smiled, already exhausted.
“Come on,” Kid said, leading the children, like the Pied Piper, over to the hearth. “Jeremiah, mind handing me the stockings?”
Soon, everyone, even the adults, had a stocking in hand. Lou and Kid had worked hard to make sure everybody had something. All the candy sticks had been carefully broken in two so there’d be enough to go around. And, by breaking up the sets she’d spent the last few months knitting, she’d been able to give everyone either a pair of mittens or a scarf. She figured she could work on completing those sets after Christmas was over, but for now at least everyone could enjoy a little Christmas surprise.
Kid had found a way to get a small toy for each of the children. They’d scrimped and saved to buy EmmyLu a storebought doll for Christmas, with a porcelain head and real hair she could comb. But had decided to put her away for the girl’s birthday. Instead, Kid had rushed out to the barn and fashioned two corncob dolls, with cornhusk shawls and dresses. Judging by the way EmmyLu and Ellen immediately retreated to one corner of the room to play with them, the little girls were quite satisfied with their gifts. And Kid had taken the set of six horses he’d carved and painted for Noah and split it in two, half each to Noah and Albert.
For Martha and Tucker they’d found some sets of only slightly used clothes they could give them, a sweater, a coat or heavy shawl, boots. The things they’d need to stay warm through the cold prairie winter but didn’t have.
Martha started at the gifts spread around her, one hand rubbing the top of her belly in ever more agitated circles.
“I don’t know how to thank you,” she murmured. “We’ll never be able to repay you for all you’ve done for us.”
Lou looked over at her husband’s smiling face as he talked to Tucker and Jeremiah near the hearth. She smiled softly herself, then turned back to Martha. “You already have,” she said gently. “Just by being here.”
“Well,” Teresa said, coming over to join the women, Barnett trailing along behind her. “We’d better get started on that dinner or we won’t be eatin’ it ‘til supper time.”
Lou laughed. That was her sister, impatient as ever.
“Alright, you,” she said. “Let’s get a move on.” Looking at her new brother-in-law, she added, “I suppose this means I’ve got one more pair of hands to help out this year.” Not waiting for an answer, she shook her head and turned toward the kitchen, the sounds of happy laughter, children’s excited voices and the still howling winds of the blizzard blowing outside following her.
“Are you sure about this?”
Teaspoon looked over at Harbinger. Despite the fact he was a greenhorn, and there was no denying that, Teaspoon had already come to realize he was smart as the day was long.
“We’ll be fine,” Teaspoon harrumphed. “Storm ain’t nearly so bad as last night. And we’ve got Buck ta help us find the trail. Ain’t a better tracker in the territory.” He paused and looked over at his boys, who were wrapping up the process of knocking down camp. “’Sides,” he added, “it’s Christmas Day. And we’ve got presents to deliver.”
“That’s right,” Cody added, grinning as he walked up and handed Teaspoon the reins to his horse. “See, we’re somethin’ in the way of Santa Claus this year.”
Tipping his hat at Harbinger, he turned back to help his brothers finish tying the last of their supplies to the back of their saddles.
“Hope you don’t mind,” Teaspoon smiled, pulling himself laboriously up into the saddle. “We can’t get you to Sweetwater today. Only so far’s the McCloud Ranch. It’s just an hour or so out of town, if you want to try to make it on yer own. Or, we can get ya there tomorrow. But, like the boy says, we’ve got an appointment ta make.”
“No problem,” Harbinger said. “It’s not like anyone’s expecting me.”
He, too, mounted his horse, settling into the saddle just as the others rode up to join him and Teaspoon.
“Ready?” Teaspoon asked, a twinkle in his eye.
“Ready,” they chorused.
“Then let’s ride!” Turning their horses away from the sun, they broke into a ground eating westward trot, the pounding hooves of their mounts kicking up fountains of snow as they went.
“Is dinner weady yet?”
Martha turned from where she sat at the kitchen table putting icing decorations on each of the gingerbread men in front of her. They’d used the last of the sugar to make the icing and there would be only one gingerbread man and once ginger snap per person.
“Almost EmmyLu,” she smiled. “Why don’t you see if your Ma is ready for you to set the table.” Moving her gaze to the slightly older Ellen, who stood just behind EmmyLu, and said, “You can help her out, you know. We’re not guests. We need to carry our own weight.”
“Yes, ma’am,” the five-year-old nodded somberly.
“Here, you take these,” EmmyLu said, handing the china plates Emma had given Lou and Kid for their wedding to Ellen. “Be careful. Those are Special Occasion Plates,” she warned seriously. Grabbing up the silverware, she led the way back to the dining table in the parlor.
Martha laughed as she watched the girls go. “She’s so obviously your daughter,” she said to Lou as the older woman backed up to the table, her hands full of the roasted wild turkey she’d just pulled from the oven.
“Isn’t she?” Teresa said, following her sister to the table with a platter of fresh, hot biscuits. “Lou’s gonna have her hands full in a few years.”
“Naw,” Lou said. “I’ll just sic Teaspoon on her.”
“That’s assumin’ Teaspoon survived the war,” Teresa said a bit more soberly.
“It’s Christmas,” Lou said, wiping her hands on her apron. “It’s time to think positively.”
“Well, I’m positively famished,” Kid said from the kitchen door. “Is it about time yet?”
“What was that you were sayin’ ‘bout her bein’ my daughter?” Lou asked the room at large, sending the other women into peals of laughter.
Soon, the table was set, the food was out and everyone was jostling for a place to sit. There was the big table for the grown-ups and a second, smaller table, set with plain wooden dishes and utensils, for the children.
“Oh,” Martha exclaimed, as Tucker was helping her to her seat. “Ellen must’ve set too many places.”
Lou frowned and turned to look at the table. Quickly counting, she smiled and shook her head. “No, she didn’t.”
“But, there’s only seven of us, not counting the young’uns, and there’s eleven place settings.”
Kid nodded. “Yes. That’s right.”
“The extra are for family,” Lou added.
“You never know when they’ll come home,” Teresa added. “We’re always ready.”
Lou slipped into the chair Kid was holding out for her, then reached up to grab the hand he’d momentarily laid on her shoulder. Looking up into his face as he took his place beside her at the table, she asked, “Would you say Grace?”
He nodded and reached out to take her hand in one of his, Teresa’s in the other. Once everyone around the table had joined the chain of linked hands, Kid closed his eyes and bowed his head.
“Dear Lord,” he began, “we thank You for the chance to come together to celebrate Your birth and for the all the blessings You’ve bestowed upon us. Lord, please help us to remember what we have, the love of a good family in good times and bad, instead of complain’ ‘bout what we ain’t got all the time. We ain’t got much in the way of money, but you have spoiled us with the richness of a love that can only grow.”
Lou squeezed his fingers as his words reached her heart. She was so glad he was feeling better.
“Lord, we do ask that you remember our missing loved ones. We know, that even if they ain’t with us in person, they are in thoughts, even as we--”
A sharp rapping on the front door followed by the sound of a gruff voice yelling out, “Hello, the house!” interrupted the prayer.
Everyone’s heads popped up at the unexpected sound. As the others all looked toward the door, Kid and Lou looked at each other, Lou’s hand shaking as she reached over to grab Kid’s, Kid already shaking his head in denial.
“Do you think?” Lou asked breathlessly.
“It’s just wishful thinkin’,” Kid maintained, trying to keep a grip on his own burgeoning hope, his fingers almost crushing Lou with desperation.
“Anyone home?” the voice called again, as the rapping increased in strength and frequency.
“Um, don’t ya think we oughta go see who it is?” Jeremiah asked.
“I can--” Barnett started to offer, but Kid waved him back into his seat with his free hand.
“No,” he said. “I’ve got it.” Standing, he let go of Lou’s hand reluctantly, slowly set his napkin down next to his plate and moved over to the door. Taking a deep breath to collect himself, he almost hesitantly placed his hand on the door handle and turned it, releasing the latch. Finally pulling it open, he stared in open mouthed shock.
“Well,” Lou asked, rising to her feet in anxiety but unable to see around her much taller husband whose broad frame filled the doorway. “Who is it?”
“Don’t just stand there, boy,” Teaspoon grinned. “Give yer ol’ man a hug! And where’s my girl?”
“What about us?” Cody called.
“Yeah, I’d like a hug, too,” Buck said.
“Only if it’s from Lou,” Jimmy said. “I ain’t gettin’ that close ta Kid. Folks might start talkin’.”
“You…. you came,” Kid sputtered, grinning as he flung himself at his returned family. The others passed him around, even Jimmy, from hug to hug. Then, with growing strength, almost a shout of celebration, he added, “You’re all alive!”
Lou smiled tearfully at the joyful note in Kid’s voice. She hadn’t heard him sound so happy in years, if ever. There’d been a similar note of disbelief, joyous discovery and love in his voice when he’d introduced his brother, Jed, to them all. But even that paled in comparison to what she was seeing now. She stood, watching the reunion, trying to wipe tears from the corners of her eyes without being seen.
“What about the little woman?” Cody asked, pushing past Kid as he hugged Jimmy, for the third time. “I want a hug from her!”
Lou started to back away from Cody, who grinned with devilish mischief in his eyes. But she wasn’t fast enough as he pulled her into his arms and squeezed her for all he was worth.
“Cody,” she gasped, pounding on his shoulder with one fist. “I can’t breathe!”
“See, I always knew I’d take your breath away someday,” he joked, even as Buck shouldered him aside to get his own hug.
Even as the small family absorbed her into the revolving round of seemingly continuous hugs and grins and slaps on the back, the others watched the reunion in awe.
“Are… are these the people those extra plates are for?” Tucker asked, curiously.
“Yes,” Teresa nodded, leaning her head against Barnett’s shoulder, letting her own tears of joy fall unashamedly. “I…. I can’t believe they’re all still alive
“Alive and kickin’,” Teaspoon said, using his crutch to lever his way through the door to Lou’s side. Looking back over his shoulder, he added insouciantly, “Well, mostly, anyways.”
“Oh, Teaspoon,” Lou said, misty-eyed, as he pulled her tight to his chest. “It’s sooooo good to see you. But,” she paused, to pull back as she felt him start to wobble a little, “what happened?”
“Ran afoul of a Union bullet,” he shrugged. “Ain’t of no account. I get along jest fine. What about you? How’s my gal, doin’?”
“Better, now,” she breathed, smiling up at him.
“We didn’t come empty-handed, neither,” Buck said.
“Yeah, I think Emma emptied the cupboard,” Cody added, as he stepped back out through the front door to collect an armful of presents.
“And what she didn’t send, we brought along just in case,” Jimmy finished, as he added a bag full of wrapped gifts to the pile.
“Oh,” Lou gasped, overwhelmed and speechless, as Teaspoon pulled her close into his side again, resting on her more than his crutch.. “Oh my.”
“But, food first,” Teaspoon grinned. “Smells good in here. What’cha got fer us, Lou?” he asked, rubbing his hands together gleefully. Turning to the others, he added, “Remember how nervous we all was the first time she cooked fer us, after the weddin’ and honeymoon? Thought fer sure it’d be worse’n Jimmy’s porridge. But it was heavenly fine. Better than Rachel and Emma’s cookin’ put tagether. I been dreamin’ ‘bout that meal fer four long years, boys! So hurry up. I wanta eat!”
“Aw, Teaspoon,” Cody groaned. “Don’t ya ever think ‘bout anythin’ but yer stomach?”
Everyone burst into belly laughs as Cody looked around the room at his family and asked indignantly, “What?!?”
Everyone was so caught up in the reunion, that no one noticed the last man through the door. Until Lou, her arm still wrapped around Teaspoon’s waist to support him, said, “Well, come on and sit down. We were just prayin’ over the food. It ain’t fancy, but there’s plenty to go around.”
As Lou turned with Teaspoon to help him toward the table the others were already pulling chairs up to, Martha asked, “But, who’s that man? The one against the wall? There’s only four extra plates. He makes five.”
Teaspoon realized he’d forgotten something and turned to introduce the other member of their party, a man no one else had noticed yet, so caught up had they all been in the reunion.
“Ever’body, this here’s Tom Harbinger,” he pointed to a man Lou recognized the second she looked into his face. She started to gasp, but swallowed the uneven breath even as Teaspoon continued. “We rescued him from the storm and are gonna help him find his way to Sweetwater. He’s a Pinkerton. Lookin’ fer a couple kids from out Tennessee-way.”
“That’s…that’s the man what made Hollander so scared,” Tucker sputtered.
“What?” Lou asked, whipping around to look from Tucker to Martha to Harbinger. “What are you talkin’ ‘bout?”
“Remember, I tol’ ya me and Hollander saw this man come inta the pub and start askin’ after Martha and me? And Hollander skedaddled us out of town that night? Well, this is him.”
“What’s your name son?” Harbinger asked eagerly, pulling off his hat.
Lou pulled away from Teaspoon, taking a moment to make sure he was balanced on his own, then stepped forward, placing herself like a shield between the newcomer and the children she’d come to consider members of her extended family.
Hands crossed over her chest, she demanded, “Hold it right there, mister. Who are you? Why have you been askin’ after these children? And what are you doin’ all the way out here if yer from Tennessee? You followin’ them or somethin’? You better not be up ta anythin’. My husband’s the marshal ‘round here and he’s perfectly capable of makin’ sure ya spend the rest of the year behind bars.”