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
“I’m hunry,” EmmyLu whined from her place at the children’s table.
“Can we eat yet?” Ellen asked quietly.
“Pwease, eat! Now!” demanded Noah, banging his wooden fork on the table top.
“I think the children have the right idea,” Teaspoon said. “Why don’t we sit down, finish thanking the Good Lord for this food, and talk while we’re eatin’.”
The rest of the players continued to stare at each other in silent shock.
“Come on,” Teaspoon urged, pounding his crutch on the floor to get everyone’s attention. “Let’s sit down.”
Kid shook his head. “Yes, you’re right. Please,” he added, turning to Harbinger and waving toward the table. “Join us.”
While everyone else was getting seated, Jimmy reached out and grabbed at Kid’s elbow. Kid turned to look at the man he’d been closest to during their Express years, a question in his eyes.
“I’m sorry,” Jimmy said quietly, not quite meeting Kid’s eyes. “I… I guess I shoulda come sooner.”
Kid reached out and pulled Jimmy into yet another hug. “You came when you could, Jimmy. That’s all that matters.” Stepping back and pointing toward the table, he added, “Now, let’s eat!”
Back at the table, Kid uttered a few short words of thanks and then stood to begin carving the turkey. As he sliced through the bird and began laying slices of rich, dark meat on the plates Lou held out to him, he asked, “So, you mind explainin’ yerself, Harbinger?”
“Please, call me Tom,” the young man said, smiling around the room at those gathered for Christmas dinner. “Well, it’s simple really. Old Man Rockefeller died about a year and a half ago. Split his money evenly between all his sons. I was hired by the will’s executor to find the black sheep of the family, one William Rockefeller. Disappeared into the Tennessee mountain country about 18 years ago or so. Headed out on a surveying expedition and was never heard from again.”
“That’s our Pa!” Tucker exclaimed excitedly. “Our oldest brother’s named after him. Will, Jr.”
“Ma always used to talk ‘bout how he come ta town with a bunch of big city yahoos, fell in love with her at first site and never left,” Martha added in a wondering tone of voice. “You’re sayin’ he come from money? And gave it all up fer her?”
“It would appear so,” Tom nodded, accepting a plate piled high with turkey and biscuits. “Assuming you’re his children, Martha and Tucker Rockefeller.” Setting it down in front of him, he sniffed appreciatively. “This looks like the finest meal I’ve had since I crossed the Mississippi River, ma’am.”
Lou smiled a bit uncertainly, still not sure she believed him. In a stern voice, she asked, “So, why’d you go about sayin’ they was wanted back in Box Elder if ya were just tryin’ ta deliver an inheritance?”
“Well, I found I got more attention from folk if they thought I was looking for someone wanted by the law,” Tom said, blushing a little. “Didn’t set right, lying to folks like that, but I was getting pretty desperate. I thought I’d found them back in Cherry Gulch. The banker was real eager to show me where they lived if I’d agree to pay off their mortgage. But by the time we got out there the place was picked clean. Not even a chicken on the place. Damndest thing I ever did see.”
Martha suddenly burst into tears. Lou stood and rushed to her side, Teresa right behind her.
“It’s all right,” she soothed. “You’re safe.”
“But, don’t’ya see,” Martha sobbed. “If only I’d fought a little bit harder that day. Made him wait ‘til the next morning at least,” she added, raising her tear covered face to look up at Lou. “Maybe we wouldn’ta had ta go through all that.”
“Yeah. Or maybe ya’d’ve gone through worse,” Lou said softly. “From what Tucker and you tol’ us ‘bout Hollander, and what Harbinger just said, sounds like he was after yer Pa’s money. It would sure explain why he acted like he did and why he ran when he thought someone was there ta take ya away from him. Even why he treated you like a wife, Martha. To keep you tied to him.”
“But it’s all over now,” Kid added, placing a reassuring hand on the girl’s frail shoulder. “You’re safe. And nobody’s gonna make ya do a thing you don’t want to,” he added firmly, glaring sternly at Harbinger.
“Oh, I’m not here to make anyone do anything,” Tom agreed quickly, nodding vigorously. “I’m just here to let you know how you can access the money your grandfather left you. It’s being held in an account back in New York City. But I just have to wire them to let them know I’ve found you and they’ll send it on out here to the bank of your choice. Except,” he paused a little uncertainly. “You both look a bit young. How old are you?”
“I’m fifteen, sir,” Martha said, sniffling. “And Tucker’s just turned thirteen.”
Tom Harbinger gaped at her, looking from her face to her rounded belly and back again. “Fif… fif.. fifteen?”
She raised her chin proudly. “Yes, sir. I got two older brothers. One joined the Army durin’ the War and got killed. That was Will, Jr. The other run off after Ma died. We haven’t heard from him since. It’s just Tucker and me now. Well,” she paused and looked over at the children’s table before adding, “And Albert. But he’s Hollander’s, so I don’t s’pose he counts toward this inheritance.”
“Legally?” Tom shook his head. “No. But at your age you’ll have to have a guardian to watch out for the money to you reach your majority. You have any family left?”
“Maybe,” Martha said uncertainly. Setting her utensils down, she nervously twisted her hands in the fabric of her skits. Looking around the table, she added, her southern accent deepening with emotion, “In my heart you’re all family. I know we ain’t known ya all that long and maybe we ain’t got the right ta make such claims. But ain’t no one treated us as much like family since our Pa died. I know you really had to dig deep to find enough to provide for us, even temporary. And… well, it isn’t like I need to be rich, just be able to put food on the table. Make sure there’s enough to provide for my siblings,” she paused and rubbed a hand over her belly. “And my baby.” Lifting her chin determinedly she finished, “That’s why I want to give the money to y’all. If we can stay here and help you run the ranch, that is. This is a good place. You’re good folk. We could be happy here, if you want us.”
“Oh, darlin’,” Lou smiled, hugging her tightly around the shoulders, even as tears formed in the corners of her own eyes. “I already think of you like a sister. But don’t you think you should at least find out how much money we’re talkin’ ‘bout here before you go givin’ it all away?”
“Uh oh,” Teresa groaned playfully. “Better watch out. That means she’ll be tryin’ ta run yer life before ya got a chance ta live it!”
“Oh, hush yer trap,” Lou smiled.
“Well,” Martha asked, turning to Harbinger. “How much is this inheritance?”
“I don’t know what it’s at by now, what with interest earned over the last year and all,” he averred. “But, when I was hired the amount put into the account was $550,000. Your grandfather was a very rich man.”
Lou and Martha issued twin gasps. Kid’s face blanched white.
“That’s…. that’s more money then there is in all of the Sweetwater Bank,” Jeremiah murmured, awed.
“Honey, you don’t really want to give it all away, do you?” Lou asked, concerned.
Martha shrugged. “One thing I’ve learned, money can make things easier, but if it comes down to it, I’d rather have family than cold cash.”
“Well, we won’t go makin’ any decisions immediately,” Kid said, meeting Lou’s eyes in agreement. “Things might change. You might need that money someday. But, you’re welcome to stay with us as long as you want.”
Lou stood, leaning back against Kid, his arms wrapped tightly around her middle, while she watched her brothers, her children and her newest family members laughing and chattering around the Christmas tree. Cody was stuffing one of the gingersnaps in his mouth, Teaspoon held tightly to a turkey leg he’d been nibbling on all afternoon. Jimmy was needling Buck about something, until Buck winced with discomfort. Then Jimmy was all solicitous concern. Martha and Tucker were laughing and sharing memories of their family with Harbinger, who was telling them what he knew about their father.
Kid sighed and rested his chin on Lou’s shoulder.
“What are you thinking?” Lou asked quietly.
“Remember when we got engaged? That minister said we were blessed? And you said maybe you’d forgotten it for awhile?”
“Well, I think I’m the one what forgot this time around,” Kid said quietly. “All these months worrying about the money to keep the ranch going, wondering what had happened to the others, feeling guilty for not having gone with them, I kind of lost track of what I did have.”
“Nothin’ like family to remind you of what you’ve got,” Teaspoon agreed, having snuck up on them somehow. “And sometimes it’s the family we don’t even know we’ve got that makes the biggest difference. You stoppin’ ta help Martha and Tucker out? That was an act of family. And look at how well that’s turned out? Be not forgetful to entertain strangers: for thereby some have entertained angels unawares*. That’s what this season’s all about. The true spirit of Christmas, the real Gift He gave us that night He was born. The Gift of Love, of Family.”
“You’re right, Teaspoon,” Kid sighed happily. “You’re right.”
“Well damn, son,” Teaspoon hmphed. “Ain’t ya learned yet? I’m always right.”
Merry Christmas! ¡Feliz Cumpleaños! Joyeux Noël! Fröhliche Weihnachten!
*Hebrews 13:2 KJV