A Star to Guide Him Home
This was inspired by Romanse’s picture by the same name. Thanks for the beautiful inspiration.
Ezra shook his head and sniffed one of the cigars that his mother had sent him for Christmas. He planned to share the rest with his six friends as part of their gifts, but for now he lit this one up to enjoy as he watched JD rope the others into decorating the tree they’d dragged into town.
The wind kicked up the dusty, dry dirt of the street, sending it whirling around the six men and other townspeople who were ‘helping’ with the tree. The uncommonly warm weather for December along with the drought they’d been under since early Fall, had left the town covered in a layer of dust. And the poor tree JD had talked Buck into cutting down with him could barely hold onto its needles. It was looking more and more bedraggled as the entertainment progressed.
Ezra puffed on his cigar and stepped off the boardwalk to stroll casually toward the tree trimming party. “I say, Mr. Dunne,” Ezra drawled, drawing the attention of his friends and a few of the townsfolk who recognized his tone. “I thought Christmas trees were supposed to be green and covered in snow…” he waited for JD to turn, then continued, “not goin’ brown and covered in dust,” he finished with a grin, his cigar firmly clenched between his teeth.
“Ezra,” JD said exasperated, “shut up.”
Ezra and several of the others chuckled. JD just went back to helping Buck and Josiah set the tree trunk into the hole they’d dug.
They’d decided to keep the tree well away from any buildings, just in case. As dry as it was, any spark could cause a fire, and burning down the town was not on anyone’s list of things to do on Christmas Eve.
Once the tree was set, everyone started adding decorations. Strips of bright red cloth, donated by Mrs. Potter were draped artistically on the limbs. Sprays of holly were hung and white bows made from a torn up sheet from the hotel were tied to the branches.
Ezra watched as the eight foot tree slowly turned into the town Christmas tree. He smiled and flicked the ash off his cigar. They’d be lucky if all the needles didn’t drop off, or more likely get blown off in this wind. He took a long draw on the cigar and shook his head. Still, everyone was having a good time, and he supposed that was what JD really wanted.
The wind gusted again and blew an ember right off the end of Ezra’s cigar. Ezra watched in morbid fascination as the ember spun up and around, almost dancing on the air before being flung directly into the tree. An involuntary gasp escaped the gambler, but it was overcome by shouts of alarm as one of the branches burst into flames.
The townspeople flew into action, dunking hats, buckets and other containers into the nearest horse troughs then tossing the water on the tree, but the dry pine fed the greedy fire and within minutes the tree was nothing but a smoldering pile of wet ash.
Ezra stood staring at the disaster with his wet hat dripping in his hands.
“Guess we should have banned smoking in town as well as open flames,” Buck said with a shake of his head.
Ezra looked at Buck and opened his mouth to say something, but caught the expression of disappointment on JD’s face and forgot what he was going to say. He ducked his head and just barely managed to squeeze out a soft, “I’m sorry, JD,” past the sudden thickness in his throat before turning and striding toward the saloon.
“It was just an accident,” JD said, gazing at the remains of the tree, not realizing that Ezra had already left. “If it weren’t so dang windy.”
Vin gave a small grin. “’S alright, kid. It was fun while it lasted.”
The others chuckled and nodded their agreement, smiling as they recalled the camaraderie and peace they’d all felt helping decorate the tree.
JD grinned back. “Maybe we could go get another one. We’ve still got time before dark.”
Vin frowned and looked over toward the mountains. “But not before that storm front hits. I think we’ll finally get a break in this dry weather. Probably some snow before nightfall.”
“Shoot, Vin,” Buck said. “It’s warmer than a willin’ wo…”
Nathan cleared his throat and tilted his head meaningfully toward the kids in the crowd.
“Ahhhh,” Buck stammered, “well it’s as warm as a summer day, Vin. It’s not cold enough to snow.” Nathan, Josiah and Chris chuckled at Buck’s quick cover up.
“Will be shortly,” Vin said, eyeing the clouds moving closer by the minute. “Just wait and see.”
“Well,” Josiah said, “I suppose we should clean this mess up, otherwise we’ll all be covered in soot as well as dust.” He glanced around at the children and grinned. “I think we should leave the soot to Old Saint Nick, don’t you?”
The kids laughed and nodded and the crowd split up to grab shovels and containers for the ashes.
Chris scratched his head as he shot another glance toward the saloon. He’d have to check on Ezra later if the gambler didn’t join them soon. It really had been a quirk of fate that the ember had landed in the tree. Nobody’s fault. Chris snorted. Sometimes that thick-skinned gambler was too damn sensitive.
Ezra mumbled to himself as he tried to brush the combination of soot and dust from his clothes. He gave his jacket another pat and sighed. It was no use. He’d have to have everything laundered. He dropped the jacket on the bed and went to the window. The rest of the town was still out there lamenting the loss of that stupid tree.
He grimaced. It was just an accident. He hadn’t meant to burn it down. Damn wind. And the look on JD’s face… like someone had shot his horse. Damn.
Ezra turned sharply from the window. It was still early. Maybe he could find another tree. A better tree. He nodded decisively. There was a stand of fir trees up by the pond. It didn’t have to be big, something small enough for one man to bring back. Okay, one man and his horse. But first, he’d need an ax.
The gambler turned to his closet, then changed his mind and grabbed the soot laden jacket from the bed. These clothes already needed to be laundered. No sense in ruining another set. He picked up his hat and grimaced at the slick wetness. “I think not.” He hung it from the bed post and retrieved a tan, flop brimmed hat from the closet. “Not my usual style, but it will do for tree chopping,” Ezra said to himself as he left the room.
Several hours later
Yosemite entered the saloon, pushing the hastily hung winter doors closed against the bitter wind and flurry of snow. Everyone inside looked up to see who had entered then shivered as the draft reached the inner parts of the room. “It’s gotten a mite cold out there,” the liveryman said with a smile. Chuckles of amusement at the vast understatement circled the room.
Chris and five of his friends sat at their usual table playing a languid hand of cards. The gunslinger tossed his cards onto the table. “Fold. I do better when Ezra’s dealing,” he said, sending a teasing glare at Nathan.
“Don’t look at me,” Nathan smiled. “Talk to Lady
“Anyone seen Ezra?” Chris asked rhetorically. He knew they hadn’t cause he’d been with them all afternoon, and he hadn’t seen the gambler since right after the tree went up in flames.
“Nope,” JD said distractedly as he tried to decide whether he should stay in or fold.
Yosemite passed by at that moment. “Last I saw, he was borrowing my ax and saddling Chaucer.”
Chris looked up sharply. “When was that?”
The big man frowned thoughtfully. “Not too long after the fire.”
“Did he come back?” Vin asked urgently.
“Honestly, I don’t know,”
Vin and Chris swore in unison getting the others undivided attention.
“What’s wrong, Chris?” JD asked.
“I think Ezra went out after another tree.”
“What?!” Josiah exclaimed.
“Didn’t he hear Vin’s warning?” Nathan asked.
Buck gnawed worriedly on his lower lip. “I think he’d already left when that came up.” He looked at Chris. “You sure, pard?”
Chris set his jaw, worry making his hazel eyes darker than normal. “Let’s find out. Someone check his room. I’ll check the stable. If Chaucer’s there, we’ll split up and search the town.”
“What if he’s not?” Vin asked.
Chris glared, wishing the true cause of the glare were here to fall under it. “That storm is too dangerous. We’ll just have to wait it out.”
Vin met his gaze and they both left unvoiced the fact that if Ezra didn’t find shelter, they might not find him until the snow thawed.
A little while earlier
Ezra walked around the tree and nodded. This was the one. It wasn’t as tall as its predecessor, but it was perfectly shaped and seemed to have benefited from the nearby water source in that its needles didn’t fall off at the merest touch. He hefted the ax and began the task of cutting the tree down.
Thirty minutes later, he stared at his blistered hands, then looked at the still standing tree. He turned to Chaucer. “Evidently, a well watered tree is a bit sturdier than a dry one.” Ezra sighed. “Ah, well, can’t leave it half chopped down. Not really fair to the poor tree.” He pulled out his handkerchief and wrapped it around one hand then started chopping again.
As he worked his thoughts jumped from topic to topic and due to the sweat, he was working up, he never noticed the drop in temperature or the small flakes that melted as they hit him.
Another twenty minutes later, the little tree toppled onto its side and Ezra let out a cheer. It was then that he noticed the light dusting of snow. It hadn’t started accumulating on the ground yet, but clung to nearby foliage. “We’d better hurry home, Chaucer,” Ezra said rewrapping his hand and wishing he’d brought a second handkerchief. His blisters now had blisters. “I cannot believe what I’ve done to my hands.”
Still, he had a job to complete. He dragged the tree toward his horse and tied a rope around the trunk just above the lowest branches. He then secured the ax to his kit and mounted Chaucer. He looped the rope around the saddle horn and urged the gelding forward.
The wind picked up and the snow started to fall harder. Ezra shivered as the heat from his workout dissipated and the temperature continued to fall. “Crazy weather we’re having, Chaucer. Warm one minute, freezing the next. And me without my winter coat,” he said, pulling the lapels of his red jacket up to help protect his neck. Chaucer whinnied and chewed on his bit.
“None of that, my friend. We’ll be home soon enough. Besides,” Ezra soothed, “it’s too dangerous to go faster, you might hit a slick spot on the road and then where would we be?” He chattered on, more to keep his mind off the quickly building storm than to calm his horse. “It’s not like I can carry you home if you become injured, you know.”
Chaucer bobbed his head and pranced a few steps, his hooves slipping in the thin snow that was beginning to accumulate on the road. Ezra patted the horse on his neck as he slowed and took more cautious steps. “Easy does it, boy. Easy.”
They continued for a few more minutes until suddenly Ezra could hardly see Chaucer’s ears in front of him. “Whoa, boy,” he said, sitting back to bring Chaucer to a stop. Ezra rubbed his hands together and tucked them back under his armpits. He shook his head and a pile of snow fell off his hat into his lap. “We cannot go on in this, Chaucer. I can’t see a thing. We’ll just get lost and f-freeze to death.” He looked around, trying to see through the thickly falling snow. “The question is, where do we find shelter?”
He knew they weren’t far from town, but also knew that there wasn’t much along this stretch of road. Mainly trees. “I wonder if we’ve passed that old pine?” he mused aloud. The tree in question was quite old. Its lower branches were a good five feet from the ground at the trunk, but were so long that they hung down creating a secluded hideaway. It might provide enough protection from the elements to keep them alive. He decided it would be safer to guide Chaucer on foot. The tree he wanted, if they hadn’t already passed it, was about twenty feet off the right side of the road. It would be a miracle if he found it.
Ezra kept his eyes up, searching the white for any darkness. His teeth chattered and he was shaking so hard he could hardly walk, but he continued on knowing that to stop would mean death. Chaucer plodded on, dragging the forgotten tree behind him.
Ezra blinked, now understanding the meaning of snow blindness. There didn’t seem to be any break in the fat, white flakes that alternately fluttered and flurried around him. While it wasn’t quite blizzard-like conditions yet, the wind did whip up suddenly and ferociously at times.
He stopped suddenly and stared off to the right hoping for another brief lull in the snow. He’d have sworn he saw a large dark patch. There! “I th-think we’ve f-f-found it, Chau-cer,” Ezra stuttered with the cold. He turned toward what he hoped was the big pine. A few moments later, with visibility back to zero, he bumped into a low hanging limb.
Ezra pushed it aside and sighed with relief. If this wasn’t the tree he wanted, it would do. The ground beneath the branches was fairly clear of snow and dry. “C-come on, Ch-chaucer. Let’s g-get under c-cover.”
He led the horse through the branches, only realizing the tree he’d cut down was still attached to the saddle when the rope got hung as Chaucer tried to come through. Ezra unlooped the rope from the saddle horn and let the tree lie where it was. He scooted Chaucer over next too the trunk, where the horse would have the most head room and then set about to make the area more comfortable.
Ezra kicked the thick layer of pine needles around, pushing them up against the trunk and out toward the end of the branches to build up a small dam to help keep the snow from drifting in. It also created a clearing for a fire. He didn’t have any stones, so he dug a small pit between the exposed roots of the old tree. He gathered a handful of dry needles and some dead branches then pulled out his matches, grateful that he still had some on him.
Soon the area and Ezra were much warmer. He took some time to make Chaucer more comfortable, loosening the saddle, but leaving it on for the warmth. “Sorry, old man, I didn’t come prepared for camping,” he said, rubbing the long nose that butted against his chest. “All I have is this rather sad apple that was hiding in the bottom of the saddle bag.” He cut it into four pieces and gave two to Chaucer. After taking a bite of one himself, Ezra grimaced and offered the other two pieces to the horse as well. “I can see you are not very discriminating when it comes to food, Chaucer. Ah, well, I suppose you do need to keep up your strength. Let’s hope the snow stops soon so that we can make our way home.”
Josiah stared out the window of the saloon. It was late, almost and the snow finally seemed to be stopping. He sighed. Ezra would most likely be stuck where ever he was for the night. Josiah prayed he’d found a place to get out of the cold.
Nathan set a cup of coffee on the table in front of Josiah. “Some way to spend Christmas Eve,” he said softly. Josiah turned a confused look at the healer. Nathan smiled slightly. “Worrying ourselves to death over that crazy gambler.”
One corner of Josiah’s mouth lifted in a wry smile. He looked over at their regular table and lifted his chin in that direction. “Who would have thought the bunch of us would get so close so quick?”
Nathan nodded. “Yeah.” He took a sip of his own coffee and looked out the window. “You think he’s okay?” he asked his voice full of worry.
Josiah’s gaze followed Nathan’s. “All we can do is pray.”
Ezra jerked awake and flung his arm out to active his derringer rig. His eyes darted around and he sighed as he realized it had just been Chaucer nudging him. “I was quite comfortable, sir,” he grumbled giving the horse a soft pat on the nose. “Why did you wake me?” He stood up, careful not to bump his head on the branches, and stretched. The fire was still going, banked down to keep it from sparking, but still enough to keep the small space quite toasty.
Ezra moved over to the spot where they’d entered their little den. The branches were further apart there and he could see the sky. He could see the sky! It wasn’t snowing anymore. Ezra pushed through the branches and high stepped out into the several feet of snow that had accumulated on the ground and drifted up against the tree’s branches. The sky above was black, dotted with brilliant white stars.
“It’s late. Maybe even Christmas day already,” he said to himself. Ezra sighed as he scanned the sky. More clouds loomed over the mountains, and although it was calm now, he feared another storm. “We’d better head home, Chaucer. I don’t want to spend Christmas day, or longer out here, no matter how comfortable it is.”
He hurriedly put out the fire covering it with snow and dirt until he was sure it was out, then he tightened the saddle girth and buttoned his red jacket. Ezra frowned as he recalled a way he might stay a bit warmer. The pine needles would not be comfortable, but warmth was more important. He grabbed a handful and started to stuff them into his jacket. The first batch fell through and he grunted. Ezra thought for a moment then removed his belt from his pants and secured it around his waist on the outside of his jacket. He knelt by the trunk of the tree and stuffed pine needles into his jacket, the belt keeping them from falling out. Finally, he stood up and closed the last few buttons. He patted his chest finding that the needles weren’t all that prickly after all and then chuckled at the bulges they made.
“Someone might mistake me for the Jolly Fat Man himself,” he mused as he led Chaucer out from under the tree. He stumbled against a white mound, the motion dislodging the snow and uncovering the tree he’d cut down. Ezra nibbled his lower lip. “Well, I suppose I shouldn’t go home empty handed after this adventure.” He led Chaucer out a ways from the big pine and then went back to turn the cut tree around and gather the rope. He looped it around the saddle horn once again, took Chaucer’s reins and started walking.
“Come on, boy. It’s almost Christmas and I could use a nice warm drink. Maybe some hot pie,” he said wistfully.
It was still cold and it didn’t take long in the snow for
Ezra’s clothes to get wet. He’d taken several falls, tripping over covered
objects in the path. He wasn’t even sure he was on the road, although he was
pretty sure he was headed toward
Ezra shivered and rubbed his hands up and down his arms hoping to cause enough friction to warm up. It was useless, so he tucked his hands back into his armpits and continued forward. He’d draped Chaucer’s reins over the horse’s neck some time ago and just trusted the loyal animal to follow. The herd instinct was strong and Chaucer didn’t want to be alone in the cold. He followed his master, dragging the tree behind him.
Ezra knew the old pine was only a couple miles outside of town, but trudging through the snow, wet and cold, he was beginning to wonder if they’d ever make it home. The snowfall had changed the landscape, covering familiar landmarks and the cold was taking its toll on the gamblers wits.
He blinked and looked up. How much farther? Am I going the right way? He blinked again, frozen eyelashes sticking together when his eyes closed. Ezra rubbed his eyes. Which way? He dropped his chin and hugged his arms close to his chest, the pinch of the pine needles unheeded in his search for any bit of warmth. Lord, I just want to be home. And warm. Chaucer whinnied. Poor Chaucer. He doesn’t even have his winter coat. The unseasonably warm weather had prevented its growth. Chaucer nudged him in the back, causing Ezra to stumble a step.
“B-b-be p-patient, I’m t-trying to d-decide which way t-to go,” Ezra stammered. He looked up again and blinked. A star in the sky caught his attention. It was so large and bright it seemed he might be able to reach out and touch it. He pulled his hand back when he realized what he’d done. “S-silly, Ezra. Your m-mind is f-f-freezing over.” He glanced over his shoulder. “C-come along, Ch-chaucer,” he said as he started to walk again, unconsciously following the star.
Vin looked at the others gathered around the table. Chris, Buck and JD slouched in their chairs, nursing cups of cold coffee. Josiah and Nathan sat over by the window just staring out into the night.
“We should get some sleep,” Vin said, not moving from his own slouched position. The six of them were the only ones left in the saloon this early on Christmas morning.
Chris nodded, but no one moved.
Suddenly Nathan sat up and leaned toward the window. Josiah followed suit and let out a whoop as he and Nathan jumped up and raced for the doors. The others were just a few steps behind.
The sight on the street brought them all stumbling to a stop.
A snow covered man led an equally snow covered horse down the middle of the street. Something fluffy dragged about ten feet behind the horse.
“Ezra?” Josiah called taking a step forward.
The man’s head remained bowed, snow slipping from the brim of his slouch hat occasionally. The horse stopped at the sound and raised his tired head. He nickered and the man stopped and turned.
“C-c-come along, Ch-chaucer. M-m-must g-g-get home,” he said softly before turning and continuing on his path.
“Ezra!” Josiah said with relief. He went to the gambler and caught him by the shoulders. Ezra struggled to get away.
“No… g-g-gotta g-get home,” he stammered, not understanding what was obstructing his way. “F-follow…”
“Ezra, you’re home. It’s okay,” Josiah said, his words echoed by the others.
“s-star… f-follow,” Ezra whispered, his struggles weakening.
“He’s freezing,” Nathan said. “Let’s get him inside.”
“I’ll take care of Chaucer,” JD offered.
“He’ll appreciate that, JD,” Vin said.
“What’s that?” Buck asked, going to the thing Chaucer was dragging. He knocked some of the snow off. “Damn.” He looked up at the others. “It’s a tree.”
“Shit,” Chris cursed softly. “Get that fool inside and warmed up.” He shook his head as Buck unhitched the rope from the saddle and let JD lead Chaucer to the livery.
“What should I do with the tree?” he asked.
“Burn it for all I care,” Chris growled. “Damn fool could’ve died for that stupid tree,” he mumbled following the others into the saloon.
Buck frowned at Chris’s back and then down at the tree. He sighed and then grinned. “Hey, JD,” he called, jogging after the young sheriff.
Vin set the tray he carried on the small table by Ezra’s bed. “How’s he doing?” he asked Nathan.
The healer looked up with a smile. “He’ll be okay. Just cold and tired.”
“Yeah?” Vin replied with a smirk. “Then why are you sittin’ up here worrying over him?”
Nathan snorted. “Habit, I guess.” He leaned back in the chair, stretched and then yawned. The sun had only been up for a little while. The gambler had been fast asleep since they carried him up to his bed. “He’s lucky. His hands and feet will be a bit sore and stiff for a bit, but he won’t lose any of them.”
Vin nodded. “Good thing he remembered that old trick. You coulda just about knocked me over when all those pine needles fell out of his jacket.” He shared a grin with Nathan.
“Yep, the man is full of surprises,” Nathan added.
“You see what Buck and JD are up to out there?”
Vin tilted his head toward the window and Nathan stood and moved over to see. Down the street, close to the spot where the original tree had stood, was a smaller tree. Buck and JD had found some rather interesting ornaments. There were brightly colored bows, reminiscent of some of Buck’s bandannas. More holly had been picked and spread over the boughs. There were other objects interspersed amongst the bows and holly, but from this distance, Nathan couldn’t tell what they were. He could see what appeared to be an angel at the top of the tree.
He turned and looked to Vin for an explanation.
The sharpshooter grinned. “They went around to everyone before the sun was up asking for donations. There’s toys from the kids, some cookie cutters, a couple of horse shoes, a set of spurs, and Mary donated some paper that Josiah folded into these little birds.”
Nathan smiled at the awed joy on Vin’s face.
“The angel on top is Emily Potter’s doll with a pair of paper wings attached,” Vin said, staring through the window at the town’s tree. “Everybody wanted to pitch in.”
“That’s real nice,” Nathan said. He moved away from the window and checked out the tray Vin had brought up with him. Breakfast smelled good. “I think Ezra’ll be happy that they appreciate his efforts.”
“I’ll be happier if ya’ll’d let me sleep in peace,” a soft, hoarse drawl came from the bed.
“Ezra?” Vin asked.
“None other.” Ezra pulled the blankets up over his head trying to absorb as much warmth as possible.
“Let me take a look at you, Ezra,” Nathan said, tugging at the covers.
“Let me be!” Ezra demanded, snatching the blanket out of Nathan’s hands. “It’s cold. You’re lettin’ all my warm out.”
Vin and Nathan shared a look and then burst out laughing at Ezra’s petulant demand.
“Well, we can’t have that, can we?” Nathan chuckled.
“Go away, wake me when it’s Spring,” Ezra’s muffled voice came from under the blanket.
“Can’t do that, Ez,” Vin said with a grin. “It’s Christmas and your presence is required downstairs.”
“They’re under the bed,” the muffled reply came. “Take them and leave me to my WARM bed.”
Nathan blinked then laughed again. “You and your ‘presents,’ Ezra. That cold must have addled your brain.”
Vin chuckled at the incoherent grumbles from the bed.
Both Vin and Nathan stepped back in surprise when Ezra suddenly sat up, tossing the blanket aside.
“Chaucer!” he exclaimed, throwing his legs off the side of the bed. He tried to stand too quickly and was only saved from a hard landing on the floor by Nathan and Vin’s quick reflexes.
“Whoa, there, Ezra,” Nathan said. “You gotta take it easy.”
“Chaucer’s fine, Ez,” Vin assured. “JD took care of him. You don’t really think we’d leave that ornery horse of yours out in the snow all night, do you?”
They helped him back into bed as Ezra shook his head. “No, no, of course not. I’m just not thinking straight.” He shivered and Nathan pushed him down and pulled the blanket up around his shoulders. “Thank you,” Ezra whispered, his eyes closing.
Vin shook his head. “I’ll be right back. Gonna get those bricks we’ve been heating downstairs.”
Nathan nodded his agreement and laid his hand on Ezra’s forehead. He was still a bit cold, but getting better.
Josiah came in followed by Chris. “Vin said he woke up,” the preacher said hopefully.
“For a few minutes. He’s still pretty weak though.”
“It’s the day for miracles,” Josiah said, relieved.
Chris grunted and went to lean against the wall by the window. Buck and JD had been joined by others, kids and adults alike. Now that the tree seemed to be finished, he watched the snowball fight that had started outside. “He’s just lucky he made his way back.”
“Not luck,” a Southern drawl mumbled, “followed the star.”
“What was that, Ezra?” Josiah asked leaning closer.
“I followed the star,” Ezra replied, rubbing his face, then tucking his hands back under the blankets. “It was so bright…” he whispered.
Vin interrupted as he came back with an armful. “Here, stick these under the blankets with him,” he urged.
Nathan grabbed one of the towels and felt the hot brick inside. The towel provided enough protection to keep from burning, but still allowed the heat of the brick through. He lifted the blanket earning a yelp of indignation from Ezra, and then a sigh as the gambler curled around the heat of the brick. Nathan and the others chuckled. “There’s three more, Ezra.”
The blanket lifted, causing more laughter and three more bricks to be deposited beneath it.
“Aaahhhh,” Ezra sighed. He opened his tired eyes and looked around the room. “Are there perchance any more?”
Vin grinned and shook his head fondly. “I’ll see what I can do, pard.” He left the room chuckling.
“What did you mean, Ezra?” Josiah asked. “What star?”
Ezra blinked and tried to recall what they’d been talking about. He really wasn’t quite up to snuff yet. “We were able to get to that old pine on the north road and wait out the storm. When the snow stopped, I figured we should get home in case another storm was on its way. Unfortunately, I was ill-equipped for the cold and soon found myself wandering aimlessly. That’s when I noticed it…” he paused, completely missing the looks the other men shared when he called the town ‘home.’
“It was the biggest, brightest star I’ve ever seen,” he
said, his voice full of awe. “I’d wager it rivaled the Star over
“Truly a Christmas miracle,” Josiah said softly.
Buck and JD rushed into the room at that moment, followed by an amused Vin.
“Ezra!” JD exclaimed. “You’ve gotta come see your tree. Everybody helped decorate it. We all donated something, even Chris.”
Larabee huffed and rubbed at his nose to hide a smile.
“It’s quite a sight, Hoss,” Buck added. “You feeling up to getting out of bed yet?”
Ezra chuckled. “Maybe in a while, Buck. I’m still a bit chilled.”
“Oh, well, that’s understandable,” Buck grinned. “I tried to get Nathan to let you have a bed warmer, but he said no.”
“What!” Nathan cried. “I did not, I just said Ezra wouldn’t want to wake up with a woman he didn’t know cuddled up next to him.”
The others laughed as Buck shrugged. “I tried, Ez. Still think you would’ve recovered faster.”
Ezra choked. “Well, ah, thank you, Buck, for your kind thoughts.” He sent a flash of gratitude Nathan’s way for protecting him from Buck’s idea of help.
“Well,” Vin drawled slyly, “I guess you got out of having to go downstairs to share your presence and… your presents.”
Nathan laughed while the others shared confused looks.
Ezra’s blush was quite vivid against his still cool skin. “I… uh…”
Nathan came to his rescue again. “Why don’t we exchange gifts up here? We can go get ours and bring them back, maybe even bring some breakfast for everyone.” He looked at Ezra. “That okay? Then you can keep warming up, you still aren’t back to normal.”
Ezra nodded as the others agreed and departed to gather their gifts. Chris paused at the door, the last one to leave. He met Ezra’s eyes for a moment before he spoke. “We’re glad you made it home, Ezra. Wouldn’t be the same without you.”
Ezra’s eyes widened in surprise and he swallowed a sudden lump in his throat. All he could do was nod in response before Chris continued, “Be right back,” and left the room.
The gambler blinked hard a few times and scooted back down under the blankets. The hot bricks felt good against his too cool skin, but the warmth in his heart from Chris’s words did more to dispel the chill than a raging bonfire.
Strange to think he’d found a home amongst these six very different men. He smiled. A home and a family. I can thank my lucky stars I decided to stop here that day. Ezra chuckled. Maybe there really are lucky stars. Or at least one.
The sound of JD and Buck arguing playfully as they came up the stairs interrupted Ezra’s internal rumblings. He grinned. Six lucky stars, he decided. Six stars to guide me home.
Feedback is appreciated. JudyL