DISCLAIMERS: This is fanfiction.  No profit involved. If you want to pay me, you’re more than welcome.  This story is based on the television series "The Magnificent Seven". No infringement upon the copyrights held by CBS, MGM, Trilogy Entertainment Group, The Mirisch Corp. or any others involved with that production is intended. 
RATING: PG – some language, not bad though – it is a Christmas story!
SUMMARY: Continuing the Amazon Series – it’s Christmas!
ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS:  Kristen supplied the name of Ezra's horse and Vin’s uses his own.  Thank you to Debby Gerl for her comments and encouragement.  Full Acknowledgements at end.
Feedback: Yes, please! Drop me a note, let me know what you think.
DATE:  December 1, 2001, a bit of housekeeping done on November 19, 2005

A Desk of Fiddles
The Amazon Series - Winner of 2003 Mistresses of Malarkey Best Gen Sequential Fic
Winner of 2004 Mistresses of Malarkey "The Glad Tidings" Award, Best Gen Holiday Fic

By NotTasha... who’s feeling in the Christmas mood 

Part 1:

Winter had settled into Four Corners like a heavy mantle.   The townspeople breathed clouds into the air as they hurried about on their errands, dressed in their wool coats and head-smothering hats, tied up in scarves, garbed in gloves and thick boots.  The day was bright, but the high wispy mares' tails of yesterday had given giving way to lower, thicker clouds, bringing a promise of snow.

The Redbird was only partially full.  Undoubtedly, people would be leaving the business early today and heading home to be close to family before the snow hit at nightfall.   Christmas Eve was never a good business day for a saloon.  Christmas Day was worse.

Sentimental boughs of evergreen decorated the small saloon, along with gold and red glass ornaments, sprigs of holly and lengths of red ribbon.  The winter doors had been installed, and Inez had found a short strip of sleigh bells to hang from the center, so that every entrance or exit was accompanied with a cheerful clangor.  The popping stove and the scent of fresh pine made the saloon all the more enjoyable in that cold weather.

The owner of the saloon sat at his usual table, sipping on a nicely augmented mug of coffee.  He leaned back in his chair, watching the customer traffic.  People were already wandering off toward their homes.  He hoped that the snowfall wouldn't be too crippling.  He decided, if worse came to worst and the biggest blizzard of the century blighted them and the snowdrifts became unmanageable at ground level, customers could enter from the upper story.

Of course, Christmas business was bound to be deplorable.  Everyone had someplace better to be than a saloon on that special day.  The Redbird would be vacant come nightfall and he figured he'd spend the following day alone in the saloon.  He'd probably end up sweeping, ridding the place of the pine needles that were ending up nearly everywhere.  And then, of course, there was mud being tramped in along with the snow.  Well, if he were lucky, maybe the others of his strange band would provide him with some company.  He'd treat them to whatever they wanted -- they were investors after all.

He'd done his best for the saloon.  He'd stopped his spending spree some months ago, intent on actually turning a profit, and the change in policy was making a difference.  His investors were beginning to see a return, and business continued to be good, even though he'd still like to see a few improvements.

Well, some things are just not meant to be, he conceded, looking to the back wall of the saloon, remembering his last attempt at improvement.  It was better, he convinced himself, that he'd stopped trying to better the place.  Nothing need be changed from now on.  Improvements would come at a cost that he could no longer afford.  He had learned that if his investors didn't reap a reward, certainly they'd be lost.

He turned his head as he saw someone approach and smiled warmly.  "Merry Christmas, Nathan," he greeted.  "Care to join me in a cup of coffee?  I believe Inez could find something to add to it that would sufficiently warm your cockles if you are willing."

"I can't believe you did that," Nathan declared, taking a chair at Ezra’s table.

The gambler frowned.  "It's only whiskey, Mr. Jackson."  He held the cup up to his face and breathed in the warm aroma.  "And quite fitting for the coming weather."

"I wasn't taking about that,” Jackson snorted. "I just find it hard to understand how you could take a man's home like you did last night, and so close to Christmas, too."

‘Oh, so that's it,’ Ezra thought as he carefully set the mug on the table.  He twisted the mug around so that the handle was parallel to the edge, then pulled the deed from his pocket.  "I had a most remarkable hand and Mr. Jordan's was wanting.  In any case, he seemed to have had his wits about him as he parted with this piece of paper."  He gestured over the official document.  "It was won quite fairly."

"Yeah," Nathan grumbled, crossing his arms over his chest.  "I bet."

"Bet?"  Ezra chuckled.  Do you care to place that wager?" He raised an eyebrow at the healer.

"Dang it, Ezra," Nathan relied.  "You just can't go takin' what belongs to another man."

"I took nothing.  He freely placed this document into the pot."

Jackson's frown increased.  "Stole a man's home right out from under him.  I seen him just leave town 'cause of the shame you caused him.  Can't see how you can sleep at night after doin' that to a man -- makin' him feel like he had to go."

Ezra sighed deeply.  "My feather bed works wonders for placing me in the arms of Morpheus."

"It wasn't right.  It's Christmas Eve for Christ's sake!"

"Indeed, for His sake," Ezra muttered.  "In any case, this happened yesterday, and the eve of Christmas Eve is hardly Christmas at all."  The gambler gestured, as if wiping away this thought.

"You cheated him out of his house and home."

Ezra took another sip of his coffee, shorter than before and fastidiously settled the mug again.   He gazed at Nathan for a long moment and smiled.  "You will believe as you will," he stated.  "It seems that nothing I do will change that."  He stood abruptly, folding the document and shoving it into his pocket.  "Seein' as how I'm not needed here today, I think I'll go check my new property."  He tipped his hat formally, picked up his gloves and muffler and then pulled on his heavy coat.  "Good day, sir."

Nathan shook his head, watching the gambler button his wool garment.  He had nothing more to say and Standish apparently was done with him.  The gambler left without another word.

Vin watched Ezra's quick departure from his seat at the bar.  The bells tinkled merrily as he opened the heavy winter door.  Standish seemed to brace himself as he stepped from the warmth of his saloon into the cold, and shut the door behind him.

Once the gambler was gone, Vin approached the table where Nathan hunched.  "What was that all about?"  he asked the healer.

"There's just no changin' him," Nathan grumbled.  "I thought he was turnin' the corner and becomin' a better man.  But then he just goes and pulls somethin' like that.  Ted Jordan had a nice little piece of land yesterday.  Today, he's gone off to Ridge City and headin' east 'cause Ezra took it from him."  He gestured in contempt toward the door where Ezra had departed.  "Now he's goin' off to count his winnings."

"Seen Ted sellin' some stuff yesterday." Vin rubbed the back of his neck in contemplation.

"Probably needed to scratch together some money to pay for the ticket."  Nathan watched as Vin turned and headed toward the door.  "Where you goin'?"

"Figure Ez might want some company if he's off to Jordan's old place," Vin said with a shrug.  “It’s a lonely ride.”

"Talk some sense into him," Nathan commanded.  "Or at least some decency."

Vin paused before he got too far.  "Maybe someone should talk to you, too."

Part 2:

Vin caught up with Ezra in the livery where he was tending to his tricky chestnut gelding.  The tracker entered his horse's stall, across from Ezra's, and started bridling Peso.

"And where might you be going, Mr. Tanner?" Ezra didn't raise his head from his work.  "Certainly not a patrol?  I seem to remember that you were free from work for the day." He settled the saddle on Chaucer's back and the horse tried to crush him against the side of the stall.

"Figured I'd come along with you," Vin replied.  "Wanted to see what you won."

Ezra laughed and gestured broadly.  "Come along then. I'm certain my good luck and newfound wealth shall astound us.  I'm a man endowed with a home now."

“You seen that place lately?”  Vin asked slyly.

Ezra rolled his eyes.  “Many times.  In fact, I came along it last week.”

“Probably ain’t changed much since then.”

“But it has, Mr. Tanner.  Before, it belonged to another man. Today, it belongs to me.  That changes everything.”

"Gonna snow," Vin commented as he grabbed the saddle blanket.  "You ready for that?"

Ezra sighed grandly.  "I plan to return before nightfall.  It will take only an hour to reach the Jordan Estate, far less than an hour to perform a satisfactory audit of the premises and then an hour back."  He gave Vin a meaningful glance.  "You predicted the snow wouldn't arrive until nightfall.  We have plenty of time for the round trip."

Vin smiled.  "Things don’t always go as planned, Ezra."

Ezra chuckled, “Of that, I’m well aware.”  He pulled his saddlebags from his tack box, checking to see that they were adequately packed, added his bedroll and then a spare horse blanket.  "One must always be prepared."

Part 3:

Nathan left his table and stood by the window as the two horses stood in the doorway of the livery.  The streets had been steadily emptying and soon everyone would be at home, hunkered down against the coming snow.

Jackson watched the riders turn and enter the street.  The two men didn’t speak as their horses jogged away.  Nathan bowed his head as he watched.  He replayed the last few minutes in his head and sighed.

'Screwed up again,' he thought.  'Sorry, Ez.  Didn’t mean to chase you off.'  He wished he understood the gambler better, wished he knew what made him tick.  The incident with Jordan had annoyed the hell out of him, but maybe he’d been too hard on Standish.

He’d been trying to curb his tongue, not speak so soon to the gambler, to not pop off without thinking it over first.  After the incident with the Redbird investment, he thought they'd come to a better understanding of each other -- apparently not.

Why had Ezra taken Jordan's property?  Why had he behaved so badly?  It wasn't right to take a man's home from him, especially during this time of year.

Still, as the two riders left town, Nathan realized that once again he’d let his mouth run off ahead of his mind.  He’d often accused Ezra of being a smart-ass, speaking up when it would have been better if he remained silent -- but Nathan knew he’d be a hypocrite if he didn’t admit to as much for himself.

He'd accused Ezra of running Jordan out of town, and then he turned around and did it to the gambler.

'It’s Christmas,' Nathan thought as the men disappeared from sight. 'Should have at least let him explain himself.'

And Nathan turned, retracing his steps to the table.

Part 4:

The horses snorted in the sharp weather as they trotted side by side, keeping a quick pace to combat the cold.  Their riders said nothing, enjoying the calm.

Still, when Vin turned to Ezra, he’d see a sad cast to his eyes. Tanner said nothing to him at first, letting them ride together in silence.  There was no need to push it; they had a ways to go yet. Anyway, it wasn't like Ezra to stay quiet for too long; Vin figured he'd only need wait a bit.

The cold made his leg and shoulder ache, new sensations to the intrepid bounty hunter.  He was used to cold nights in the wild country, but his bones were reminding him that they were only recently mended.  He rubbed his shoulder absently, wondering if this was something that would plague him to the end of his days.  Damn shame if that were true.

Happily, he recalled when he'd stepped clear of his splints, leaving the cursed crutch behind.  A few days of limping had given way and he found that he'd recovered nicely from the broken leg. In fact, he'd forgotten about it until the cold had started working at his bones.  He wondered if Ezra's twice-broken arm hurt him, too.

They were nearly to the Jordan property when Vin realized that the conversation wouldn’t start without a prodding.  After another glance at Standish, noting his melancholy expression, Vin spoke, "Nathan shouldn’t ‘ave said what he did.”  He hadn’t heard the conversation, but had a good idea about what had been said.

Ezra furrowed his brow.  “He did nothing outside of expressing his opinion.  He has every right to do so.  And what he said was perfectly true.  I did end up with a man’s home and property.”

“'Spect that part's right.  How'd you do it, Ez?"

"Two pair," Ezra replied, smiling.  “And one of the pairs were twos.”

"And Jordan just put the deed in the pot?"

Ezra cocked his head.  "Apparently he thought his hand could beat mine.  The misinformed fool thought three of a kind would beat my hand."

"Don't three of a kind beat two pair?"

"Not when both pairs are twos."

Vin grinned.  "He give ya any trouble after that?"

"He was disappointed, of course, but I believe he was eager to part with the deed.  He needed to return to Boston to wed the love of his life and enter her family's business.  He could stay no longer so he hoped to double his nest egg in one hand of cards.  Fortunately for me, he ended up losing the deed instead."  Ezra shrugged as he rubbed his arm thoughtfully.  "Poor planning on his part, meant good fortune on mine. Of course, after the sale of his belongings, he had plenty left over for the trip and a well-paid job waiting for him, which is considerably more than I have."

"Seems like he knew what he was doin'.  Made the choice himself."

"Yes," Ezra nodded.  "Anyone who enters a poker game and places his hard-earned wealth into the pot should understand that it will be forfeit if Fortune isn't with him."

"You explain any of that to Nathan?"

"Unfortunately, Mr. Jackson is adverse to learning this fact.  He thinks I should be playin' for fun and returnin' the winnings to their original pockets."  Ezra looked bewildered.  "Now, where would the fun be in that?"

Vin chuckled.  "Can't see it," he responded.

"Unfathomable," Ezra said with a shake of his head that turned into a jerk as Chaucer suddenly lurched forward and skipped a few halting steps, snorting in surprise and pain.

Ezra reined in the startled horse, immediately dismounted and started searching for the cause of this behavior.   He spoke calming words to the chestnut as it whinnied and brought one lame foot up, hopping about as it tried to keep its balance.  “Easy, easy,” the southerner muttered.

Vin was beside Ezra in a moment as the conman carefully felt along the trembling horse's leg.  His face was rapt with concern as his gentle hands felt the bones, ensuring they were sound.  "Quiet now, Chaucer," he soothed as he rested his head against the horse's flank.  "I'll take care of it, old friend."   The frightened horse didn't pull away as Ezra lifted the foot and checked the underside; Chaucer trusted him implicitly to manipulate the pained appendage.  Ezra voice was calm, but Vin could see his friend's anxiety.  “No reason to fear.  You’ll be fine.”  He ran his calming hands along horse’s skin. “Shush now, I'm here.” And the frightened snorting lessened.

Vin strode back a few steps, noting a depression on the earth.  "Must 'ave hit that dip there," the tracker stated.  "Could just be a strain."

Ezra nodded as the horse tried to lean on him.  He patted Chaucer on the side to remind him that his mere frame wouldn't work as a crutch for the big horse.  Still, Chaucer looked as if he expected to crawl into his owner’s arms and be carried.

He led the horse forward, a few halting steps, and watched the movement of the leg carefully.

"Yes, yes," Ezra murmured.  "I think you're right, Vin."  He continued to press his hand against the horse and his voice took on a honeyed tone, "A bit of a strain is all, my friend. You'll be right as rain in no time.  No reason to fear."  Chaucer twisted his ears, listening.

“Let me do something to help, Chaucer,” Standish said.  “This will only take a minute.”  He pulled some cloth out his saddlebags started wrapping the hurt limb.  Vin squatted beside him, assisting with the process.  They passed the bandage back and forth, wrapping the leg and giving it support.  After the process was done, Ezra led the horse forward a few steps further, watching the lame movements as the horse tried to stride along on three legs, pulling the wrapped one up quickly every time it took on any weight.

Ezra’s shoulders drooped as he watched Chaucer lift the leg again.  "I'm dreadfully sorry, my friend, but you'll have a long and uncomfortable walk in store for you." Ezra sighed miserably, running one hand over his face.  "I wish there was something I could do for you, but we must get out of the approaching weather.  We can't stay out tonight and it'll be a long trek home.  Lord, this was a bad idea."

Vin returned to Peso.  "Your new home's pretty near, Ezra.  Jordan had a barn that'll keep ‘im warm."  He mounted and directed the horse toward Standish.

Ezra nodded, his attention still on his hurt steed.  "Yes, yes, thank you, Vin.  I'll continue onward on foot with Chaucer, and you'll return to town.  Let Mr. Larabee know the circumstances and that I'll return sometime tomorrow or the next day if advisable."

Vin shook his head.  "Ain't gonna let you walk that way alone.  Might run into more trouble."  He offered Ezra a hand and after a minute of contemplation, the conman accepted and allowed Tanner to pull him up behind him.

"You gonna catch Chaucer's reins?"  Vin asked as Peso took a few steps to get used to the increased weight.

Ezra shrugged.  “He’ll follow and it’ll save me from dislocating my shoulder again if he decides to balk.”

Chaucer snorted, flattening his ears and pulling his hurt foot up higher to look even more pathetic as he observed his owner on another horse.

"Come along, Chaucer," Ezra called.  "We'll get you to a warm spot for the night.  Come along. You’ll be much happier there, I assure you." He patted Vin on the arm, letting him know that they should get going.

They'd traveled several lengths when Chaucer whinnied mournfully, not moving from where they'd left him.  Vin chuckled, looking at the miserable animal.    One would think the horse was given a death sentence.  His tail was low, his head hung down, his hurt leg tucked up, and he shuddered as if he'd just caught the worst case of influenza ever witnessed in a horse.

A few flakes of snow had begun to fall, swirling in the air above them.

Ezra groaned.  “Looks like the snow came early, Mr. Tanner.  Nightfall is still nearly three hours away.”

Vin shrugged, his shoulders just in front of Ezra’s face.  He half-turned toward him.  “I cain’t always be right,” he responded.

"I suppose,” Ezra replied.  He regarded his horse again, feeling heartsick at seeing him shudder, yet he knew the animal's tricks.  “Chaucer, Come along.  Standing still will only make you colder.  You’ll be warm if you were moving.  We must keep ahead of the snow."

The horse whimpered.

Ezra sighed deeply and reached into his pocket, pulling a bag of peppermints. Instantly, the miserable attitude of the horse disappeared, and a cunning look came to his long face.  Ezra pulled one candy free of the bag and Chaucer quickly covered the distance in a rolling, limping gait.

After the sly horse had gained his prize, Ezra again tapped Vin's arm.  "Let's get going while we can.  The candy will only last so long."

Part 5:

“Ah,” Josiah exhaled as he beat his arms to draw the circulation back into them as he strode into the saloon.  “It is cold work out there today.  Snow’s started too.”

“Already?” Nathan asked.  He had been held ‘hostage’ at the Redbird for the past hour, listening to Mr. Barnett’s long list of ailments.  The local man had just hobbled off, eager to get home and warm his poor old bones.  Nathan was glad to be rid of him.

The place was almost empty.  Nathan glanced out the window to see the softly falling snow.  "Thought it wasn't s'posed to start for a while yet."

"It seems that the Lord wanted snow and wouldn't wait any longer," Josiah commented.

Jackson smiled as he regarded the drifting flakes.  “Pretty, ain’t it?”

“Nothing like a Christmas snow.” Josiah nodded.  “Somethin’ special about it.  I don’t even mind workin' outside at the church in all this beauty.  Gotta get that stair railing done before it gets too dark to see.”  The preacher glanced around the nearly empty saloon.  “I was lookin' for some help…" he said leadingly and smiled at his friend.

Nathan sighed.  "Guess I'm available."

Josiah wrapped an arm around the healer once the man was close enough.  "Glad to have you.  I can use another pair of hands.  Have you seen anyone else around?  I could use another victim.”

“Chris and JD were over at the jail the last I seen of them.  Buck, well, you never know with him.”

“Ah,” Josiah said.  “I believe I can convince Mr. Dunne to join us.  What about the others?  I know a certain gambler that might be coerced…”

Jackson nodded in the direction that Ezra and Vin had taken.  “Vin and Ezra went off on a joy ride.”

Sanchez smiled, jealous.  “Would be a nice time for it.  As long as they get back safe.”

“Should,” Nathan said, frowning.  “If they don’t get into any trouble.”

“Oh Lord,” Sanchez sighed.  “Vin and Ezra -- trouble?  Do you need to even consider that?”

Nathan chuckled as he shook his head.  “They’re just going out to Jordan’s place.  What harm could come of that?”

Part 6:

"Home sweet home," Ezra muttered over Vin's shoulder as Peso kept the pace toward the small collection of buildings.  "Not much to speak of, is it?" Chaucer followed like a lost puppy, stretching his neck toward his owner, looking for more sweets.

They were all covered with a light layer of white, as they moved through the slowly falling snow.

Vin had to admit, although riding double was a bit uncomfortable, it was definitely warmer.  His shoulder had stopped aching and his leg was easier to move.  It wouldn't be so bad a thing if it didn't tire the horse so badly.

They crossed the front of the house, seeing the broken front windows, the damaged porch, and circled around to the back so that they could have access to the barn.   The house looked as if it would fall to pieces if left as it was.  Certainly, the desert would have it in a few untended years.

The two men quickly stepped down from the exhausted blazed black, and Peso sighed in relief.  With a smile, Ezra proffered the last of the peppermints to the animal and he greedily accepted.

"Hell, Ezra," Vin muttered, turning back before he left to examine the barn.  "Why you do that for?"

"I believe your noble steed deserved the treat."  Ezra kindly patted the horse on his head and then scratched him on the forelock.  Chaucer snorted beside them.

"Don't you dare spoil ‘im like you done to Chaucer," Vin ordered as he pulled open the barn door.  "Won't be no dealin' with ‘im then."  Still, he had to shake his head in amusement when the sometimes-aggressive black nuzzled Ezra's hands, happily looking for more treats.  He snorted between Ezra's fingers and Chaucer stepped closer, threatening to lean on his owner again, crowding close to look for more candy.  The horses stomped in the light dusting of snow, squeezing closer to the southerner.  He had to fight to get out of the equine huddle to save his life.

The Jordan property was exactly what Ezra expected -- a barren and rundown piece of land.  At least the barn was sound, and would suffice to keep the animals for the night.  There was plenty of straw to bed them, and more than enough hay to feed them.  The pump was reluctant, but it eventually brought forth water to ensure the horses and men would all have enough to last them through the night.

Chaucer and Peso were tended to, wiped down and made comfortable in the barn.   Their owners chose the warmest looking corner and placed the two animals into one large stall.  Vin and Ezra carefully rewrapped Chaucer's leg, replacing the snow-dampened cloths with dry while Chaucer tried to eat his owner's hair.

Vin chuckled, knowing that the sleek chestnut would constantly harass Ezra as long as he was within reach.  It seemed that Chaucer delighted in doing whatever he could to the southerner, but Ezra never raised his voice or his hand against the animal. Usually, when Chaucer resorted to nipping at Ezra's well-coifed hair or expensive clothing, he'd at least get batted away, but the gambler was either too engrossed in his task or allowing the horse more leeway than usual.

Twice, Chaucer knocked Vin's hat off his head and snorted as if in laughter.  The tracker didn't know how Ezra put up with it.

The gelding's leg seemed to be doing well and a little rest would work wonders.  After ensuring the horses would be fine, the tracker and the conman shut up the barn and went to check out the house.

Snow was beginning to accumulate as they crossed the yard.  Already an inch lay on the ground and the pregnant clouds promised more to come.

The house was in much worse shape than the snug barn. Shingles were missing from the roof, leading to speculation that the upper floor was water damaged.  Windows were broken or boarded up.  Wood was missing from the siding.  The back porch was half fallen in.  They stood outside it in silence for a moment until the gambler said under his breath, "A veritable castle."

"It'll keep the snow off," Vin said with a shrug.

Ezra stepped cautiously onto the porch.  It creaked and moaned but the wood didn't break as he moved to the rear door.  He jerked on the knob and the door came flying toward him, totally unhinged.  The loose door almost flattened him, but he managed to catch it before it slammed into his head.  Vin leapt forward and helped him set it aside.

"Lovely," Ezra muttered, dusting himself off.  "This, Mr. Tanner, is the story of my life.   Anything that comes into my hands ends up like this, a ruin.  It's only to be expected that I'd be spending Christmas in such a place."

"Ain't so bad," Vin declared as he stepped inside the dim room.  The windows were only half-boarded, and the diffused afternoon light was enough to illuminate the scene.  Apparently, Jordan had been less than careful as he packed.  Junk littered the place.   Water stains ran down the walls and shattered furniture was strewn everywhere.  The only thing that remained in one piece was the big iron stove that dominated one side of the room.

A layer of frost covered everything.

Ezra sneezed as he stepped forward and groaned at the sight.  "Lord help me if I'm spending the night here."  He sighed as he dropped his saddlebags and canteen on the only clean portion of the floor and then added, "You'd best be going if you want to return home before the storm."

Vin shrugged.  "Don't want to chance it now.  Could be snowin' worse b'fore I make it back."

"I doubt if this residence will prove much warmer than the open air." Ezra breathed out a cloudy plume to emphasize his point.

Vin pulled the door back into place, sealing the opening. "That'll help."

"How in the world did Jordan live here?" Ezra wondered aloud.  "I've seen tidier sties."

"Must not have cared much.  Bet the stove warms the place nice."  He opened the wood stove and found it relatively clean.  After banging on the chimney to ensure it was clear, he declared, "We'll get a fire started and have a right comfortable place t'spend the night."

Ezra nodded, apparently warming to the idea.  "I'll see what I can do about rounding up some more firewood as you tend to that."  He pulled open the other door and out into the rest of the house.

Vin worked at coaxing the stove to work.  There was a good amount of burnable material left on the floor and it only took a few minutes to start a flame.  Ezra returned with an armload of broken cabinet pieces by the time that a reasonable fire had started.

He dropped the debris beside the stove and rubbed hands together.  "It seems that we've procured the most livable room in the entire establishment," he uttered.  "At least the windows are intact here.  The rest are shattered.  I believe we should barricade ourselves in here for the night."  He nodded to the wood he'd just dropped.  "There is more of this throughout the house. We should collect what we can before it gets dark."

It was strange to move through a home with snow blowing in through open windows.  Much of the damage seemed to be recent, an effect of Jordan leaving his home.  The man, apparently, had destroyed anything that he wasn't able to sell off.  Vin had trouble understanding that sort of response.  He'd never had very much in his life and wondered how a man could wreck so much property for no reason whatsoever.  With a little care, this would have been a fine place -- but treated poorly, it had fallen to ruin.

Vin found a crate and started filling it with anything burnable.  Ezra grabbed another armload of broken bits of furniture.  Within a few minutes they had collected all the wood that wasn't nailed down and shut the door that connected the kitchen to the rest of the tumbled-down house.  The room was warming nicely and they had to remove their scarves and gloves before they continued tidying.

Ezra glanced out the window, noting that the sky was already growing dark. The snow continued to accumulate on the ground under the gentle snowfall.

"You should have returned, Mr. Tanner," Ezra muttered.  "Mr. Larabee and the others will be concerned at our disappearance."

"Nate knows where we went," Vin answered.  "Won't be a problem."

Ezra sighed and shook his head.  "I seem to recall that on more than one occasion our absence was noted with alarm."

Vin grinned and slapped Ezra on the shoulder. "Ain't a thing wrong aside from Chaucer gettin' a bit of a pain, and he'll be fine.  We're in about as good as shape as you could hope for."

Ezra nodded.  "Except that we are without a proper supper."

"Yeah," Vin stated.  He picked up a candle that had been found in the garbage and lit it from the stove.  He settled it on a darkening shelf by the window.  "It's Christmas Eve too.  Should be havin' a good supper."  He grabbed the lamp that they'd discovered and found that it still held kerosene.  He lit it using the candle.

"Ah yes, dinner on Christmas Eve should be a festive occasion. Candied yams, cornbread stuffing and pecan pie," Ezra smiled broadly as he leaned against the wall.

"A big ol' Tom turkey and fresh-baked bread!"  Vin declared as he opened his saddlebag.  "Or maybe some roast beef and smashed potatoes."

Ezra added, "And top it off the evening with pumpkin pie."

Vin raised his eyes.  "I thought you said it would be pecan?"

Ezra shrugged.  "I can have both if I'm dreaming, can't I?"

"Yeah, I 'spect," Vin said.  "I’d rather have jelly cake though."  His mouth watered at the though as he rooted through the bag. "'Fraid we'll have to settle for some jerky and this old biscuit."

"How old?" Ezra asked, inclining his head toward the rock-like bread.

"Few days." Vin thought a moment.  "Maybe a week."

"Best wash it down with this."  Ezra pulled his flask from his pocket and the two men divided up the simple meal, washing it down fine Kentucky Whiskey.

Part 7:

Josiah stood back, examining his work.  The stair rail was in place again.  There'd be no losing of parishioners on their way into the church!

He headed up the stairs, gripping the fixed rail and stomped his feet when he reached the top.  He could hear Nathan and JD inside, making everything ready for the Christmas service.  He had the event all planned out in his head, knew the exact readings that would be used, the hymns, and the sermon.  He'd been looking forward to this for months.  It would be a lovely ceremony.

Smiling at the cold night, he couldn't remember feeling happier, more content. He had wandered far and wide in his life and had finally found a home.

"Josiah!" JD called, seeing him at the doorway.  "Got the pews all cleaned up.  They look good and polished.  I think Nate’s got the candles ready.  It's gonna be really nice with all of them lit."  He came out onto the small front porch to stand beside Josiah.

“You both have done a fine job.  I couldn’t have finished it without you.”  Sanchez smiled and draped an arm over the young man's shoulder.  This would be JD's second Christmas since his mother's death.  The preacher was afraid that it would be hard on young Dunne, but he seemed to be enjoying himself immensely.

"Gee, look at how much snow's come down," JD said, nodding to the streets.  "We used to see a whole lot more in Boston though.  Once it'd come up nearly to my chest.  Okay, I was six at the time so it wasn’t all that high.  But maybe we’ll get somethin’ that deep tonight.  Ya think?"

Josiah shrugged.  "One never knows," he replied.

"Sure looks nice."  JD shoved his hands into his pockets.  "This is really turning out to be a great Christmas.  It'll be nice just to spend it with you and all the guys."  He nodded.  "Don't need to be anythin' too exciting or anythin'.  Just the seven of us maybe."

"Sounds right nice," Josiah agreed.

"Yeah," JD nodded and looked out across the snowy town.  The roofs and walkways were all covered in white.  Those few brave souls that moved through the town were bundled and scurrying toward their destinations.  "It looks like Christmas," he said under his breath.

"Sure does," Josiah said and then steered Dunne around.  "Let's get inside before we freeze."

Part 8:

By the time Vin and Ezra had finished their banquet, it was dark.  The snow continued to fall outside the window -- white falling through black into white.  Vin and Ezra looked out the partially boarded window, standing shoulder to shoulder, watching it come down.

Vin had no idea how long they'd stood there.  His back was warm from the fire, and his face grew cold from the weather outside.

"It's beautiful, isn't it?"  Ezra said finally.  "More beautiful than the finest painting.  It holds more poetry than Shakespeare.”  He breathed in deeply.  “I have never quite gotten used to the sight of falling snow, having spent so much of my life in warmer climes.  It seems magical and mysterious to me, portentous of great things."

"Yeah, sure is pretty."  Vin nodded. "Just glad we got a snug place to stay with plenty of wood to keep us."  He leaned against the window-frame, his eyes on the falling white.  "Seems kinda special to have snow at Christmas."

Ezra frowned.  "Somehow Christmas should be more than snow.  I would have preferred to be back in town by now."

"Could 'ave gotten some of those good eats if we made it back."

"A fine meal is important, yes, but the fact that the rest of our companions are there and we are here is somewhat disheartening.  Your company is very agreeable, but it would have been… enjoyable… to spend this holiday with you and all of them.  It would have been… pleasant."  Ezra looked embarrassed and turned away from the window, walking back to the stove.

"Yeah," Vin admitted as he leaned against the partially boarded window.  "It would 'ave been nice.  I ain't had many Christmases that were good ones."  He said the words casually, as if they didn't matter at all.  "Most times since I was a boy, I've been on my own.  Ain't had a really good Christmas since my mama died."  He stared out the window because Ezra wasn't.  "Then I come to live here and it's kinda nice.  Guess I was lookin' forward to tonight.  Might have been the first good Christmas since I was a kid."

"I'm sorry, Vin," the voice came from behind him.  "I had no intention of ruining this special day for you.  It was poor planning on my part and an act of selfishness.  I shouldn't have taken you with me in this endeavor and shouldn’t have continued to pull you along when it went badly.  You shouldn't have ended up stuck here with me."

Vin turned toward Ezra, seeing him standing near the stove, his head down.  "Ya didn’t exactly force me here, Ez.  Seems I invited myself the whole way.”

“Still,” Ezra continued.  “You should be back in Four Corners with the others, enjoying yourself, celebrating as you deserve to," he continued.  "On this blessed night, you shouldn't be confined to a hovel."

"I like the company," Vin stated.  "We got a roof and a fire and some booze.  We're livin' like kings." Vin smiled lopsidedly as Ezra raised his head.  "'Sides, I doubt that they're havin' that much fun back home."

"Why would you say that?" Ezra queried.

Vin laughed.  "Because you know Chris is gonna get a bug up his ass when we don't come back. And when Chris is frettin', ain't no one gonna have any fun."

Part 9:

"Hey," Buck called as he pushed open the Redbird's door and shut it firmly behind him.  A gust of chilled air followed him in, quickly swallowed up by the warmth of the room.  The saloon was nearly vacant.  Nathan and JD were sitting at one table and Inez dusted the bottles behind the bar.

"Hey," Buck cried again.

"Hey, what?" JD called back.

Buck shook the snow from his shoulders.  "Looks like it's letting up.  Ain't gonna get too bad, I think.  At least I could make it here without sinkin' into a drift."  The men had, without speaking a word, decided to spend their Christmas Eve together at the Redbird.  None of them had family to speak of and this saloon was the closest thing they had to a common home.  Buck looked around, enjoying the simple yet regal decorations.  The little touches really did make the place look cheery and he was more than happy to stay here all night with his friends.

JD stood and walked to the dark window, peering out.  "Ain't no drifts out there, Buck.  We got less than a foot of snow on the ground."

"That's why I didn't need to worry," Buck responded.

JD shook his head.  "You're so full of crap."

"Now, JD," Buck waggled a finger at the young man.  "That ain't a way to speak on Christmas Eve.  You're s’posed to be behavin' yourself, else Santa ain't gonna leave you anythin'."

Dunne snorted at Buck's comment, remembering when he was a boy, when such comments might have held some threat on this night – but that was so long ago, long before his mother became so sick, long before she died.  She used to make this season so magical.  She made him believe.

He did his best to ignore Wilmington’s words and said, "Josiah's pretty excited about tomorrow.  We were helpin’ in the church. The rail on the front steps is finally fixed and we got the inside all cleaned and set up. I've never seen so many candles before.  It's gonna be real pretty tomorrow."

Nathan smiled.  "I think Josiah's been looking forward to this all year.  Gonna be a nice service."

As if on cue, the door opened and Josiah strode into the room.  "Brothers!" he cried, "I bring you tidings of great joy!"

Buck clamped an arm around the snow-covered preacher.  "And what might that be, Josiah?"

From out of deep pockets, he drew two large bottles.  "A gift from a grateful member of the flock!  He felt some terrible sin had been forgiven and wanted to thank me for it.  He brought these by just as I was finishing up at the church."

"You been hearin' confessions again, Josiah?" JD queried.

Josiah laughed.  "Not intentionally.  It seems that there are many in this town that wish to unburden themselves to me.  If they want to reward me for bending an ear, I have no problems with that."

Wilmington took one of the bottles and scrutinized the label.  "Scotch, huh?"  He grinned as he looked up at Sanchez.

"Looks like it may be the good stuff."  Josiah turned the second bottle in his hands. "I'm sure Ezra could tell us all the virtues of this particular brand."

The door opened again, and everyone turned, expecting to see the gambler enter, but instead Larabee strode into the saloon, stomping his feet to free his boots of snow.  Instantly, his eyes fastened on the bottles that both Josiah and Buck held.

"Boys," Chris started.  "You plannin' on sharin'?"

Inez was already setting glasses up on the counter.  "Señores," she said in her beautiful accent, "I hope there's enough for me, too?"

Josiah laughed.  "I think we got plenty for all.  Let's get this party started.  Where's Ezra and Vin?  We can't have a celebration without them."

"Ain't seen them since Ezra hauled Vin off to check out his winnings," Nathan supplied.

Buck chuckled.  "You mean the Jordan place?"

"Yeah, he took that poor man's home last night. Ezra went off to gloat over his good luck and brought Vin along to show off," Nathan stated.

Buck and JD laughed, while Josiah and Chris shook their heads.  "Seen him win that last night,” Buck stated.  “Jordan looked a little upset, but…”

“Ain't gonna be much to show off at that place," JD finally stated.  "It was half fallen down when I went past it last."

"Got a nice barn," Chris declared.  "But I think the roof is mostly gone on the house."

"Ezra won it?" Josiah asked, setting the bottles down on a nearby table.  "I can’t quite understand that man.  The two of us rode past that place not long ago and he couldn't stop complaining about what an eyesore it was.  Said that Jordan ought to pull it down and save the desert from the degradation of havin' to host that sorry place."

"I hear that Jordan's gettin' married soon as he gets to Boston," JD supplied eagerly.

"Yeah," Buck agreed.  "And his lady's daddy has a job all set for him.  Ted's gonna be livin' high on the hog from now on."

"Bet he's glad he got rid of that house," JD added.  "Seen him tryin' to find someone to buy and no one would take it."

Nathan looked confused and then sighed, rubbing his forehead.  "Ah dang," he murmured.

"What's wrong, brother?" Josiah prodded.

"Sorta went off on Ezra about that," Nathan conceded.  "Didn't know about the state of that house and all."

"Well, Nate," Buck said.  "You don't ride patrol as much as the rest of us do, so you don't see as much.   Ya don't hang out in the saloon all too often, so you don't hear that much.  Maybe you should check on some of that kinda stuff before you make your comments."  He said it as good-naturedly as he could.

Nathan nodded.  "Yeah," he agreed.  Again he'd been shown that he'd jumped to conclusions too soon.  It was just too easy when it came to the gambler.  The sound of Ezra's voice was enough at times to set off the dark healer.  It was something he'd learned from infancy, to set up his hackles against that southern accent, to despise and second-guess everything he heard in those tones.

Chris didn't need any of this.  He rubbed his forehead, realizing that Ezra and Vin were out after dark and in this snow, in that cold.  That couldn't be good.  Good God, what had happened to them this time?  "When did they go?"

"Just after lunch," Nathan returned.

"Should 'ave been back by now," Buck said, concern in his voice.  "Wouldn't 'ave taken any more than two hours to go there and back.  Probably took ten minutes to look at the place."

"Damn it!" Chris yelled, slamming the palm of his hand against the table.  He glanced back to the doorway, remembering the foot of snow that was already on the ground.

"They're probably fine," Josiah said, trying to sound sure.  "Maybe they decided to spend the night at the house?"

"Can't see Ezra wantin' to stay there of his own free will, Josiah," Buck responded.  "Ain't right that Vin and Ez didn’t come back."

Chris glowered at the boughs of evergreens, the pretty little ornaments, the sleigh bells on the door and the line of glasses across the bar.  Over the past year, nothing but trouble had come when either of those two was missing.  How many times would he have to find them hurt?  Damn it!

What were they doing out there anyway?  Why had they gone off with the threat of snow over them?  He glanced to Nathan and wondered if it had anything to do with the healer’s chagrined expression.

What the hell were either of them doing in Four Corners anyway?  Remaining in a fixed place wasn't good for them.  Ezra, with his cons and his gambling, should have moved on to find fresh fish.  Vin, with that dark bounty hanging over him, should never have put down roots.  Both of them, for their own better health, should have put Four Corners far behind them.  Instead, the fools remained, despite the fact that their present occupations had caused them grief more than once.

Larabee remembered the fear that had caught him when the two had almost burned together, when Ezra had been shot up at Kotter's Ridge, when Standish had been held prisoner and abandoned in that pit, when Vin had suffered from his injuries at Dolby's Crest.  Damn it!  Where the hell were they now?

Outside, the snow had tapered off, but the weather was fiercely cold.  If they were out there -- in that -- they'd be half-frozen by now.  He aimed to find them before it got any further than that.

Larabee spoke, "I'm headed out.  Anyone who wants to join me can meet me in the livery in ten minutes."  He turned briskly, wrapping his coat around him, and flung open the door.

The remaining four stood silently for a second or so longer after the door closed with a jangle.  Inside the saloon, the stove popped merrily, the lamps emitted a cheery glow and everything was warm and inviting.  Outside, the freezing snow covered the landscape.

Josiah picked up the bottles and they all filed out the door after Chris, into the frigid weather.

Inez watched as the door merrily jingled at their departure.  She picked up the glasses and put them away.

Part 10:

The fire crackled in the stove as Vin and Ezra sat side by side beneath the window.  They were warm from the fire and the whiskey, relaxed after the chilly ride.  The gambler tapped his toes together and yawned, accepting the flask back from Vin as the tracker passed it.  Vin could feel the chill beyond the un-insulated wall -- the cold world laid outside.  Within the broken-down house, it was warm and companionable.

The whiskey made its way back to Vin.  The tracker had come to appreciate the expensive tastes of his friend, and made good use of his time with the flask before handing it back again.  He was rather happy, all things considered.   The house wasn’t so bad when regarded with a whisky buzz.

"You gonna sell it?"  Tanner asked, gesturing to the building around them.

Ezra laughed.  "For what price?"

"Dunno.  Maybe you could get $500 for it?"

"Please, if I managed such a feat, the new homeowner, poor man, would take one look at what he'd bought and return in a flash to exact his retribution.  I'd be tarred and feathered, run out of town on a rail, drawn and quartered."  He gestured vaguely.  "Undoubtedly, I'd see some unhappy punishment visited upon me."  He took another sip from the nearly empty flask and handed it to Vin.

Tanner nodded.  "Yeah, I 'spect he'd be a bit unhappy.  You done a lot of things like that in the past though, didn't you?"

Ezra sighed and leaned back, resting his head on the wall. "There are many things in my past that I'm not happy with.  Often, I had performed such endeavors, headless of the consequences, looking only for monetary gain."

"Why don't you anymore?"  Vin took another gulp and handed the flask back to Ezra.  "'Cause you don't want to hurt anyone?"

"Please, Mr. Tanner, you see too much altruism in my actions.  In the past, if I were to perform a con or to cheat someone in some manner or other, I had a perfect protection from their revenge."

"Yeah? Somethin' better than six gunslingers to back you up?"

Ezra stopped with the flask half-lifted to his face.  He took a moment to form his answer. "No, Vin.  My response would have been to leave.  I'd disappear after a successful con, change my name and be gone.  The key to success is to know when to go.  Those that stay must pay a hefty price."

"So, you're bein' a good boy because you don't want to leave?"

Ezra shrugged and completed his aborted drink.  "I suppose that would be correct."

"And because you don't want anythin' to happen to those six gunslingers that'd back you up," Vin added.

Again Ezra shrugged and handed the flask back to Vin. "It would be ill-advised to allow harm to come to them."

Vin tipped the flask back one more time and frowned as he sucked back the last few drops.  "Still," he said.  "Would be nice to have $500."

"A tidy sum," Ezra said with a sigh.  "It's unfortunate that the courts in this country aren't more accommodating.  With that sum you could pay off that price that hangs so precariously over your head, thus silencing their assumptions."

"Don't think it works that way, Ez."

"Regrettable. It would be a wise expenditure."

"What would you get if you had that money?"

Ezra tucked his knees up to his chest and thought a moment, remembering that not long ago a quick $500 would have been a perfect sum.  He almost spoke and then rethought.  "Considering the present situation, I would pay for transportation back to Four Corners and then order a sumptuous meal. That would be a good start."  He rubbed his empty stomach for emphasis.

Vin snorted, slapping the end of the upturned flask as he suspended it over his open mouth. Nothing left. "'Fraid we've come to the end of our Christmas Eve feast."  He gazed out across the room with his head craned back and was surprised to note something on the other side of the room.  "Unless Jordan left us something."

Ezra lifted his arms.  "There's nothing but dismembered furniture."

"You look in the pantry?"

After giving Vin a curious look, Ezra followed Vin's gaze and turned toward the blank wall.  They both stood and walked the short distance to the outline of a door.  It was difficult to see -- the subtle doorway blended well into the woodwork around it.  The low light did little to illuminate the scene.   There was no handle, but they could see where one was once attached.  The floor before the doorway was darker than the rest of the flooring, telling that something had once sat in front of the opening.

Someone, some time ago, had forsaken using the closet, probably deciding that a decent wall was a better thing, and placed a set of shelves or a cabinet before the space. Situated under the stairway, the pantry was too low to use with any ease.  One would have to bend over to get into it.  No hinges were visible -- either they were within the door, or had been removed as well.

"Perhaps," Ezra said, "There are some preserves that haven't been allowed to linger for too long."

"Been shut up for a while," Vin said, noting the less-faded floor.  "Probably nothin' in here we could eat."

"Still," Ezra said, rubbing his hands together.  "It'll be worth opening, if for nothing else, the surprise of discovery!"

Vin pulled a knife from his belt and used it to pry the reluctant opening.  As the door creaked loudly, Ezra grabbed the lamp, prepared to thrust it into the recesses of the low closet.  Excitedly, Vin pulled open the door and the light illuminated what was contained.  They were both baffled to find a pile of blankets entirely blocking their view.

Vin reached out to touch the cloth, and pressed against it.  "Somethin's under this," he said, trying to find a way around the covering.  Ezra raised the lamp to better light the scene, seeing nothing but the swathed shape.

After setting the light nearby, Ezra touched the hidden object, then tentatively knocked on it.  The muffling blankets revealed little, but Ezra's mind began to work.

"What do you think it is?"  Vin asked.

"Your knife, if you please," Ezra requested and then started cutting into the blankets once Vin handed over the tool.  After a slit had been made, Standish pulled back the covering.  What was beneath was smooth and flat and shone slightly in the dim light.  Ezra knocked again and the sound that returned was almost melodious.

Ezra crouched down beside the hidden object.  "It can't be," he muttered.

"What?" Vin asked again.  "What is it?"

"A piano," Ezra replied softly.

"No," Vin said, regarding the shape.  "It ain't big enough, is it?"

"A spinet, I think."  Ezra raised his head and smiled at Vin.  "They're smaller than a standard upright."  He touched the revealed spot, rubbing his hand against the lacquered wood.  "But it can't be."

"Why not?"

"That sort of thing just wouldn't happen to me," Ezra replied.  "I just don't find pianos in the hidden pantries of broken-down houses that fall into my poker winnings."

"First time for everything," Vin said with a grin.  "Let's get it out and we'll see."

They cut away more of the blankets so that they could get a good grip on the thing.  The more that was revealed, the quieter Ezra became, excited as the shape of the spinet was revealed.  With some effort, sweat and determination, they managed to free the wedged instrument, drawing it out of the closet and into the kitchen.

Vin pulled off the rest of the blankets, revealing the piano completely.  It was a pretty little thing, lacquered to a high gloss, hardly dulled by dust.  Vin grinned when the lamp finally revealed the color of the cunning instrument.  "Hey, Ez.  It's red.  Never seen a red piano before."

Ezra circled it slowly as if he wasn't quite sure what to think of it.  "I believe the former owner had some connection to the Orient.  The coloring seems to mimic the décor that I've seen in Chinese establishments." He ran his hand along the top of the low piano as he walked behind it.  He touched the gold accents along the front and then thoughtfully laid his hand on the key cover.  “Someone obviously meant to hide it.  Perhaps they died or went away and never came back."

"Who do you think it belongs to?"

Ezra smiled.  "Me.  Regardless of who put it there, it's mine now. The house and all it contains was transferred to me.”  He shook his head as he said this, as if he couldn’t quite believe it.

Vin pondered.  "This house has changed hands twice that I know of -- probably more before that.  It might have been in there through all of 'em."

Ezra slowly raised the key cover and looked at the pretty ivory and ebony keys.  He touched the keys without using enough pressure to play them.  "It’s a pity that it had to be locked up for so long.  It must be in horrible tune."  He struck a chord and listened to it resound.

Vin shrugged.  "Don't sound bad to me."

Ezra tried another chord, and than ran an arpeggio along the length of the keyboard.  He winced as he struck a few sour notes.  "You're right, Mr. Tanner.  It's in considerably good tune considerin' the fact that no one has touched it for years."

Tanner watched as Ezra played another scale.  "You gonna play somethin’ that sounds like somethin’?"

"Oh, Vin," Ezra said, shaking his head.  "I don't know.  Not every note is true.  This will never do for any serious playing."

"I won't mind.  Don't need it to be serious."

“I really don’t play that well,” Ezra muttered.

“I bet you play real good.”

Ezra’s smiled self-deprecatingly.  “I have a signed letter that states otherwise.”  When Vin looked a question at him, he continued in a low voice.  “I had, at one point in my life, thought I had some musical talent.  I had received no professional training and decided that it was time that I tried to attain some formal education in that arena.”  He looked at his hands.  “I auditioned to enroll in a well-known school, thinking that I might have the skill to attain a place at that college.  It was difficult to gain an audition, but I managed it with a little …subterfuge.  I played Mozart and thought I had completed the piece magnificently.”

He sighed and folded his arms behind him.  “The professor told me that I had best return to the saloon I had sprung from and to no longer darken his fine school with my hack abilities.  He gave me a letter that stated the same so that I wouldn't forget his admonishment.”

Vin frowned.  “That guy was just bein’ a prick, Ez,” he said assuring.  “You don’t need no fat-assed bastard tellin’ you what you can or can’t play.”

“He had an ear for good music,” Ezra said with a sigh.  "He knew what he was talkin' about."

“Well, I got no ear, so it won’t matter to me.  Come on, let’s hear that Moe’s Art music.”

Ezra shrugged, his eyes on the piano.  "I can't play standing up.  This won't do."

Vin shook his head and strode across the kitchen.  He grabbed the crate full of wood and dumped it in a pile near the stove, then set the box on the floor beside Ezra.  "Ain't the most comfortable chair your ass has known, but it will do in a pinch."

Ezra smiled.  "Pinch it might," he said as he gazed at the wood slats.  He'd been outmaneuvered.  He sighed.  It was only Vin here with him and he was sure of the tracker's discretion;  the evening's entertainment would go unmentioned to the others.   Ezra sat down and raised his hands over the keys.  "What do you want to hear?"

Vin laughed.  "Hell, Ezra, I don't know any highfalutin Moe’s Art piano songs. Most of the stuff I know is just what I've picked up in saloons."

"Please," Ezra rolled his eyes.  "I was brought up in saloons.  I've heard more barroom pianists and versions of 'Little Brown Jug' that can be numbered.  I'm sure I could pick out something you'd recognize.  As the professor informed me, saloon music is my deserved fare."

Vin wished he could sock that professor fella in the chin.   It seemed to him that it took a certain amount of courage to perform for that jerk, and maybe the bastard was just jealous of the gambler who didn't come with any professional training.  It seemed to Tanner that Ezra had faced people like that too often in his life.

Tanner turned toward the window, watching the wispy snow that fell in the darkness.  The snow had stopped for the most part, but a few flakes still danced.  They floated down like loose feathers after a pillow fight.   It sure was pretty.  There had to be a good song that'd match the night.

"You know any Christmas songs?" the tracker asked finally.

Ezra smiled, thought a moment and started to play.  The notes undulated like waves as he began the opening bars.  And when the melody began, he sang along:

Oh holy night!
The stars are brightly shining
It is the night of the dear Savior's birth!
Long lay the world in sin and error pining
Till he appear'd and the soul felt its worth.
A thrill of hope the weary world rejoices
For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn!

The music from the little piano filled the room.  When the chorus started, Vin joined in, timidly, quietly.  Hearing his entrance, Ezra played pianissimo to allow the tracker’s soft voice to be heard, and lowered his own.  It seemed as if they whispered the chorus together.

Fall on your knees
Oh hear the angel voices
Oh night divine
Oh night when Christ was born
Oh night divine,
Oh night, oh night divine

Vin smiled as Ezra lifted his hands and the little piano silenced.  "That's real pretty, Ezra.  That professor guy was full of shit.”

“I can play a serviceable tune, but…”

“I could never do anythin' like that."

"Mr. Tanner, I'm quite aware of your musical abilities."

"I don't got no abilities that way, Ezra."

"Your harmonica?"

Vin reddened.  "Hell, Ezra, it don't take no talent to blow in a harmonica."

"You're quite correct.  Blowing in a harmonica takes no talent whatsoever.  You, on the other hand don’t just blow, you play -- and quite beautifully I might add."

"Really?" Vin asked.  "You think?"

"Certainly.  Now, perhaps you’d honor me and we could perform a duet?"

"What's that?"

"The two of us, playing together.   It will be lovely.  Do you know, 'Oh Little Town of Bethlehem'?"

"I kinda like that one. "  Tanner eagerly pulled his harmonica from his pocket.  He blew out the dust and then started playing.  Ezra waited a few beats, listening to the tracker play, and then joined in with piano and his voice.

O little town of Bethlehem,
How still we see thee lie!
Above thy deep and dreamless sleep
The silent stars go by; 
Yet in thy dark streets shineth
The everlasting Light;
The hopes and fears of all the years
Are met in thee to-night.

Part 11:

They rode single file through the snow, switching positions as they went so that the lead horse wouldn't tire excessively from breaking the way.  Chris led, with Josiah behind him, then Nathan, JD, and Buck bringing up the rear.

They were silent as they traveled  -- not their usual boisterous selves.  The rigors of single-file managed to quell some of their conversation, but the cold forced them into mufflers and the dire situation further quieted them.

Chris tucked his head into his collar.  The freezing weather was biting into him, but he wasn't going to slow down, not now.  Ezra and Vin hadn't returned and the night was too bitter to leave them to themselves. Anything could have happen.  Certainly they would have returned if they were able.

What the hell happened?  Chris’ mind went back over the past year, remembering previous times when he’d lost track of those two… terrible things. He’d almost lost them more than once.  He shuddered.  He wasn’t about to let go of them now.

Never should have let them head off together.  Get those two riding someplace, and all hell will break loose.  Nothing but trouble, the two of them.

Suspicious lumps beneath the snow were scrutinized, little hidden places where someone might hole up were examined, but there was no sign of their two missing friends.

The night was so quiet, so still, as if the entire world had gone home to await Christmas morning.  Not one animal track crossed the snow.  Nothing, outside of them, moved in the darkness.  Were they stupid to be out there now?  Shouldn’t they be back in town, enjoying a meal in a warm and comfortable little saloon?  Out of the dark and the cold and the snow?  No, not while two of his men were missing.

It's Christmas, damn it,' Chris thought as Job shuffled through the snow.   We should be relaxing somewhere.  We should be together, celebrating, having a good time.  Shouldn't be freezing our asses off.  Shouldn't be so damn worried about them.   He shivered, not wanting to think about what had kept his men from coming home.   They shouldn't be out there alone.

Were they cold?  Were they hurt?  God, were they together at least?

If only we could find them.  The moon was hiding more than showing.  The world was dark, even with the reflective ground, and they could see only a short distance.  Certainly the snow would begin falling again soon.  There were no recognizable landmarks to lead them on their quest.   Chris paused, both he and his horse blew clouds in frozen weather. Behind him, the other horses snorted and shuffled.

They had headed out in the general direction of the Jordan place, and tried to follow the same path, using the moon as a guide, but the moon had been fickle.  The clouds closed in again and took away their guide.  They easily could have been thrown off course and be wandering further and further from where Ezra and Vin had gone.

Larabee was beginning to fear that they would become lost in the white winter, that they would have to turn back and abandon their quest, follow their footsteps home without their friends. Go back to a place that was warm and safe.   Leave them to freeze.

"Please," Chris muttered, clenching his hand to his chest.  "Please, just let us find them.  Lead us to them.  Grant me one wish and one wish only -- let them be okay."  He flicked his reins and continued.

Part 12:

"A desk of fiddles," Vin stated as he eagerly leaned against the piano.

"Come again?"

"'A Desk of Fiddles'," Vin stated emphatically and then looked disappointed that Ezra didn’t recognize the words.  "It’s a Christmas song.  I’ve heard it lots of times.”

Ezra shook his head, confused.  “I’ve never heard of it myself.”

“It’s a real nice one.  I think it’s about this guy who finds a bunch of fiddles in his desk at Christmas.  Saint Nick left 'em for him because he was good or somethin’.”

“Fiddles in a desk?  Ah, a Christmas miracle.  Not unlike a spinet in the pantry?”

Vin smiled.  “Yeah, I ‘spect.   Think you've been good enough to get somethin’ like that?"

Ezra rolled his eyes. "Please, Mr. Tanner.  I’m definitely on the 'coal list'."

"If I play a bit, maybe you'll know it."

Ezra nodded his consent and Vin started playing his mouth organ.  Ezra cocked his head as he listened intently, one hand on the top of the red spinet, the other resting on his lap.  Vin played for a short time before Ezra started laughing, just a genteel giggle at first, but it grew quickly.

Vin stopped abruptly, clutching his prized instrument and looking horrified.  "It ain't so bad, is it, Ezra?"

"No, no, It's not that at all."  Standish laughed even harder, leaning forward and pressing his hands against his knees.

"Ain't funny," Vin groused.

The gambler waved his hand, desperately. "Adeste Fideles!" he declared.  "It's Adeste Fideles!"  And turned to the piano again.  He played, singing along:

Adeste fideles laeti triumphantes
Venite, venite in Bethlehem 
Natum videte, regem angelorum 
Venite adoremus, venite adoremus, 
Venite adoremus Dominum.

"'Desk of Fiddles' makes more sense than that," Vin commented, but smiled.

“True.  How in the world did you turn ‘Adeste Fideles’ into ‘A Desk of Fiddles’?”

“Fella that told me the name of it was a Mexican.  Most of his English was all messed up with Spanish.”  Vin shrugged.  "A desk de fid-el-es," he said and then grinned. “Kinda surprisin' I understood 'im at all. What’s it supposed to mean?”

"It's Latin.  There are English words.  Now, if you would begin once more I'll sing them.  I promise to behave myself."  And they played again, together, as Ezra sang:

O come, all ye faithful, joyful and triumphant,
O come ye, O come ye to Bethlehem.
Come and behold Him, born the King of Angels!
O come, let us adore Him, O come, let us adore Him,
O come, let us adore Him, Christ the Lord.

Part 13:

The bitter weather was sapping the energy of the five men.  Chris paused in the still night and flexed his gloved hands.  It was getting hopeless.  They were obviously off course and were never going to find their friends through the featureless landscape in the dark night.

Josiah watched, keeping his eyes on Chris’ back.  Now that the moon was gone, he could see little beside what was right in front of him.  He was so damn cold, but he wasn’t about to give up.  He kept his place in line for several moments as Prophet shifted beneath him. Sanchez took this quiet moment to say a prayer, bowing his head into this collar.  "Please," he murmured, "I know we've been at odds in the past, but if you take care of those men, and keep them safe from this cold, I'll call our argument to a close."

As they stood in a quiet line, the snow began again.  Josiah lifted his head and watched the flakes fall.

After several moments of watching the mesmerizing snowfall, Josiah realized that Chris hadn’t moved onward.  With a flick of the reins, he directed Prophet forward, crunching and squeaking through the snow, and pulled up beside Chris.  Through his scarf he asked, "Do you know where we are?”

Chris looked through the night -- black and white -- and uttered, “No.”

Josiah sighed.  “Should we turn back?”  The words caught in his throat.  'Don’t let us turn back,' he thought.  'Don’t let us turn.'

“No,” Chris replied.

'Thank you,' Josiah thought, and then spoke, “You want me to lead for a while."

Chris nodded and then realized that the movement might have been undetectable through his muffler.  He was about to voice his agreement when the slight wind shifted and suddenly he heard music.

Music?  How could that be?  He turned his head toward it.  The soft tune seemed to be coming from nearby, somewhere out in the falling snow.  He listened, recognizing the melody without being able to identify it. Somehow, it reminded him of happiness, of comfort and home, of Christmas.  Was he going mad?

"What is it, brother?" Josiah asked, seeing the puzzled look on Chris' face.

"Do you hear that?"  Chris asked, pulling the scarf away from his ears.  Certainly, the cold was affecting his mind now.

Nathan and JD were right behind them now.  "Hear what?"  JD asked.  Buck crowded up after them.

Josiah cocked his head as the gentle music reached him.  "A choir of angels?"  he quizzed.  He turned toward the sound, and clucked to Prophet.  The big sorrel strode forward, plowing through the fresh snow.  He continued in this new direction for several minutes, being drawn along by the music.  The sky was black flecked in white, but suddenly, as he drew toward the sound, a faint light appeared.  The glow flickered and settled across the snow, calling him.

"And when the star appeared to them, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy," Josiah said under his breath and dug his heels into his horse's sides.

Prophet plowed through the snow as the music became more evident, recognizable.   Someone was singing.  He smiled as he recognized the voice, as the light came clearer.  Josiah hummed along.

He could hear the other four charging up behind him, their horses snorting in the freezing weather.  They had been so close.  He could make out the black outline of a house.  The light had come from the back side, blocked by the bulk of the building.  Only the faintest glimmer reached them.  The words became intelligible as he rounded the house.

Sing choirs of angels, sing in exhalations;
O sing, all ye citizens of heav'n above.
Glory to God - In the highest glory!

Josiah could distinguish the harmonica and the piano playing within the house, floating out into the crisp night air.

O come, let us adore Him, O come, let us adore Him,
O come, let us adore Him, Christ the Lord. 

He jumped from his saddle as the others stormed up behind him.

Yea, Lord, we greet thee, Born this happy morning;
Jesus, to thee be glory given;
Word of the Father, Now in flesh appearing;

O come, let us adore Him, O come, let us adore Him,

Josiah crunched up the snow-covered wooden stairs and threw back the unhinged door, adding his own booming voice.

O come, let us adore Him, Christ the Lord.

His smile fell only slightly when he realized that the music had instantly stopped and two rather deadly weapons were pointed at him.

The guns were lowered immediately and Josiah swooped into the room, throwing his arms around Vin in a mighty snowy embrace.  "Merry Christmas, Vin!" he bellowed as Chris and the others entered behind him and the stunned tracker tried to get his bearings.  The preacher caught Standish as he stood from his crate behind the piano, looking as if he were trying to find an escape.  "Ezra!" he shouted.

"Mr. Sanchez," Ezra gasped as he was pulled into Josiah's arms.  "Please, I break easily."

"Ezra, Vin," Larabee said, leaning against the open doorway.  "You boys okay?"

"Quite well, Mr. Larabee," Ezra replied as he struggled out of Josiah’s grip and then nodded to the others that crowded in as well.  "Mr. Jackson, Mr. Dunne, Mr. Wilmington -- it's good to see you, but you're letting out the heat."

"I'm so glad we found you," Josiah muttered, grasping hold of Ezra again, grabbing Vin, too, and crunching them both against him.  The two were powerless and were forced to submit to further compression.

"Good to see you both," Nathan declared as he stood in the doorway.  "We were plenty worried about you two."

"As you can see," Ezra responded.  "We're fine."  He gasped as Josiah tightened his hold.  "At least we were."

Buck chuckled and, once the two men were finally freed, he gave Vin a hearty hug as well.  "You two got us pretty worked up.  We didn't know what the hell happened to you."

Vin gave Buck a slap on the shoulder.  "Chaucer came up lame.  Had to stay."

"We're real glad we found you," JD said, grasping Ezra by the arm and giving him a good shake.  His eyes fastened on the red piano, so incongruous in the ruined house.

"Mighty happy to find you guys and get to a place where we can get warm."  Buck shouldered his way in and stood before the stove, pulling off his gloves with his teeth and spreading his hands before it.  "Yeah, this is nice."

"JD, Nathan, Buck." Chris nodded to his friends.  "Why don't you see to the horses.  Put them away in that barn.  Josiah and I'll see to these two."

Buck opened his mouth to protest, but quickly put his gloves back on with an exasperated sigh.  He stepped out the door and joined Nathan and JD.  Vin handed them the lamp and they brought the horses away from the house and toward the nearby barn.  Vin and Ezra quickly fitted the door back into the opening, shivering in the cold for their lack of winter apparel. Inside the house, they were left with candle-light and the glow from the stove.

"Chaucer went lame?" Chris asked, crossing his arms over his chest.  The words were tinged with question, daring Ezra to explain.

"An unfortunate accident," Ezra responded and then frowned, realizing that he should have asked the others to check on the injured animal.

"I've seen that horse go lame before," Chris responded.  "I need to know if this is just another one of his antics, Ezra. You've driven us out of our minds and nearly got us all frozen to death out there.  If this turns out to be just a damn game…"

"It's true," Vin cut in.  "We were almost here when Chaucer hit a hole.  Figured it would be safest for us to just stay put.  It was startin’ to snow."

Chris was about to open his mouth again when Josiah cut him off.  "Let us be joyful that our brothers have been found, completely safe and unharmed."

Larabee nodded and sighed.  His anger about the situation almost got the best of him.  He should be thankful that everyone was safe, not annoyed by it.  He'd been so damn frightened that they were suffering, it was almost a letdown to find them here in this warm house, singing.  "Your horse gonna be okay?"

Ezra smiled tightly.  "Yes, sir.  Our prognosis is that he'll have a complete recovery after a bit of rest."

"Good," Larabee responded.  "Glad to hear it."  He nodded again.  "Looks like we're all spending the night."

"Time to get comfortable," Josiah said, pulling off his heavy jacket and shaking it out.  "Hopefully the weather will allow us to return tomorrow."

"Tomorrow…" Ezra turned a look toward Josiah. "Christmas morning -- You'll miss your morning service."

The preacher smiled.  "I figure that folks will wait for that.  The church will be open to our townspeople all day long.  If they choose to start without me, they're welcome to."  He couldn't stop smiling.  "I'm just so glad to find you both safe.  My prayers have been answered."

Ezra added, "Safe, yes.  But we are a bit hungry."

Chris shook his head and said, "Well, as soon as the boys get back here with the saddlebags, we'll have that problem fixed."

When Ezra raised an eyebrow, Josiah explained.  "Inez sent us out with enough food to feed a small army and I have a little something extra in my bags."

"Ah," Ezra said with a wide smile.  "Then it shall be a merry Christmas after all."

Part 14:

Buck and the others returned after a short time, with saddlebags thrown over their shoulders.

"Hey, Ez," JD said, flinging his snowy coat near the stove.  "Chaucer's lookin' good.  I think he'll be fine."

"Thank you," Ezra responded gratefully.  "I appreciate you taking the time to check on him for me."

"Weren't no trouble," JD responded.

Buck knocked off JD's bowler and ruffled his hair.  "The dang thing tried to give him a haircut, but the pup survived it."

JD easily caught the hat and swiped it at Buck's head.  "He only does that to folks he likes."

"Looks like the barn is fine," Nathan included.  "We made sure all the horses had plenty to eat for the night.  We won't be the only ones feasting."

The men started to unpack their bags, bringing out cloth-wrapped bundles and papered parcels.  The packages of food started to pile up on the heated surface of the stove.

Vin laughed at the mound. “Where'd it all come from?”  He fingered one cold bundle, trying to figure out what was in it.

“Inez got Mary to help her,” Buck explained.  “The ladies went down both sides of the street.  Knocking on every door where there was a light.”

“They got people to give up part of their Christmas suppers so that we all would have somethin’.”  JD grinned.  “We got yams from the Jujes, potatoes from the Greens, bread from the Tulls, turkey, roast beef, ham,” The young man shook his head as he pulled out more of the wrapped meal.  “Just about everything you can imagine.”

“And pies,” Josiah said with a grin to Ezra.  “Pecan from the restaurant, and pumpkin from the Potter’s store.  Plus half a jelly cake from Mary.  They may be a bit smashed but, I believe, just as tasty."

Vin smiled broadly and nodded to Ezra, saying,  “Looks like we got our Christmas wishes.”

“Oh,” the preacher added.  “These too.”  And he pulled the bottles from his bag.  “Don’t have to wait for these to warm.”  He handed one to Ezra.

The gambler sighed as he read the label of single-malt scotch. He smacked his lips and stated,  “Lord, I think I’ve died and gone to heaven.”  As Ezra scrutinized the bottles, Josiah scrutinized the red instrument.

“Where did this piano come from?” the preacher asked.

The bottle distracted Ezra, so Vin answered, “Ain’t just a piano.  It’s a spinet.”

"Spinet?" JD questioned.  "What's a spinet."

Both Vin and Ezra pointed at the only spinet in their midst.

Josiah threw Chris a glance and the gunslinger shook his head.  “Ezra, where’d the damn thing come from?”  he asked.

Ezra chuckled and replied, “Same place as the fiddles.”

Part 15:

The meal was quickly consumed, leaving enough for a satisfactory breakfast.  The seven men stretched out in the kitchen, staking out their spaces, spreading out bedrolls and getting comfortable.   Buck tried to get JD to sleep inside the empty pantry closet, but the young man wasn’t going to be swayed by promises of a ‘private room.’

Larabee watched as Nathan and Ezra talked quietly at one point.  Ezra just nodded and patted the healer on the back as if he was consoling him about something.  Nathan, who'd been rather quiet on the ride, seemed to cheer up after that point.

Everyone joked and ate and drank and enjoyed the meal in that kitchen.  Chris was reminded of another Christmas with his own family.  It was similar, in a way.  This group of men were as familiar as family to him, as close as brothers.  It was good to be with them on Christmas Eve.

Chris sat against the wall.  He smiled, glad to have found Ezra and Vin unharmed, safe and warm and dry.  He couldn’t ask for a better Christmas present.  He glanced at the little piano, wondering how the hell it had ended up here.  It sure had sounded nice.  He recalled how surreal it had been to charge through the darkness, following Josiah through the snow, toward the light, toward the music, to their friends.

Perhaps it was a miracle.  They wouldn't have found the way without the music to guide them.  The music wouldn't have brought them here without the piano.  How in the world had that piano ended up in that closet?  Miracles were allowed on Christmas, weren't they?  Would it take a miracle to get Ezra to play again?  Ezra had been avoiding the instrument since their arrival.

“So, Ezra,” Larabee said with a nod.  “You gonna play that thing?”

“Well,” Ezra muttered.  “I think we’ve had enough of that for tonight.”  The bottles were making their rounds and everyone was warm and happy.  Ezra accepted the bottle from Buck and took another slug.

There's one way to make him play, Larabee decided.  “Vin,” Chris nodded to the tracker.  “Why don’t you get a head start and I’m sure Ezra will catch up.”

Vin shrugged and said, “Sure.”  He glanced at Ezra as the gambler sighed.

'That's right, get to me through him,' Ezra moaned internally.  Outmaneuvered again, he returned to the crate that served as a chair and looked toward Vin.

“Got any ideas on what we should do?" the tracker asked.

Ezra took one more pull on the bottle, before handing it to Nathan.   “Whatever you wish,” he stated.

Nathan took the bottle and drank again.  He was getting nicely tipsy, feeling the warmth that came from being a little drunk, but also from having friends nearby.  He leaned against the piano, watching Ezra.

Tanner thought for a moment and then raised the harmonica to his lips.  The song was easily recognizable and Ezra followed along.  His was the first voice, but soon the other five joined in:

Silent night, holy night,
All is calm, all is bright
Round yon virgin mother and child.
Holy infant so tender and mild,
Sleep in heavenly peace.
Sleep in heavenly peace.

Chris hadn’t raised his voice in song for years.  He could remember those other Christmases, in that other house, with that other family.  His voice almost broke as he recalled Sarah and Adam, sitting together before the fireplace, singing this same song.  It was so long ago, so far way.  He'd thought he was incapable of feeling this content again.

JD remembered his mother and how she’d loved this song.   She had been dying, unable to speak, looking dully at the nothing when he’d last sung 'Silent Night'.  He remembered the joy that seemed to light her face at the sound of his voice.  She'd looked to him and smiled, clasping his hand.

Silent night, holy night,
Shepherds quake at the sight,
Glories stream from heaven afar,
Heavenly hosts sing alleluia;
Christ the Savior, is born!
Christ the Savior, is born! 

Josiah had heard this song many times.  He’d grown up with it; he’d sung it with his father and sister.  He’d loved singing with them.  His father would create a little church out of nothing and every Christmas they’d stand together and raise their voices.  That was before his father had become so distant, so strict, so unbending, before Hanah lost her mind.  It was back when Christmas was a beautiful thing.

Nathan stood beside the piano, watching the southerner’s hands move across the keys.  He could clearly recall the night when he’d sung this song for the first time as a free man, standing in an open field with so many other emancipated slaves after the war.  They’d sung it openly, loudly, stumbling along as the words came to them, finally understanding the peace of the song.

Buck smiled, watching his friends as he added his voice.   He’d seen an awful lot in his life – good and bad.  He’d sung this song in wartime, as the canons were quieted for one night.  He’d sung it in good times, with Chris’ family, with friends, and with his mother on that usually calm night of the year.  This, he had to admit, was one of the best times.

Silent night, holy night,
Son of God, love's pure light
Radiant beams from thy holy face,
With the dawn of redeeming grace,
Jesus, Lord, at thy birth.
Jesus, Lord, at thy birth.

The song concluded as Ezra recalled how many Christmases he’d spent alone.  Winnings were sparse on Christmas and he’d passed many a holiday wandering empty streets, looking through dark shop windows and noting the smoke that rose from chimneys where families were gathered.  Other Yuletides had been spent with relatives who didn't want him, where he was nothing more than another mouth to feed.  This time, it was different.

Vin pulled the harmonica from his lips and smiled at his friends.  A peace seemed to settle on them as they gazed about at nothing in particular.  The tracker couldn’t remember feeling so calm and comfortable before.  It had been ages since he felt so happy, since Christmas seemed so real.   It hadn't been like this since his mother held him, and whispered about all the magic and wonders the world contained.

Outside the snow continued, a gentle white fall that filled the night.  Outside it was cold and stark, bitter and black.  Inside the kitchen of the tumbled home, it was warm and comforting.  In the quiet that followed the song, Ezra pulled his hands from the keys and Vin smiled as he lowered his harmonica.

It was Christmas.  Without even seeing a pocket watch, they knew that they had passed from one day to another.

“Merry Christmas, brothers,” Josiah rumbled.  “God bless us all.”

Part 16:

“Hey, Ez,” Vin said as he walked past the poker table.  Ezra responded by inclining his head, but his attention did not leave the game.  The tracker walked across the saloon and ended up at the bar, where Inez served him a beer without waiting for the order.

Vin watched the game as bets were raised and a paper left Ezra’s pocket, thrown into the center of the table instead of cash.  The others added more money and cards were drawn.  A young man sitting opposite from the conman hooted with glee as he raked in the pot.

The stranger held the paper aloft and laughed, gloating at the gambler as he stuffed his winnings into his pocket.

“Leaving so soon?” Ezra inquired as the man stood.

The young man looked frightened for a moment and then muttered.  “It’s New Year’s Eve.  The missus is gonna want me home.”  He pulled the paper he’d won out of his pocket and grinned.  “Now we got a real home too, not just a hotel room!”  He settled his hat and pulled on its brim. “No hard feelin’s, right?”

The gambler smiled.  “None whatsoever.   I bet only what I could afford to lose.” The man nodded again and quickly turned and left the room.

The other players at the table took their leave and Ezra remained, shuffling the cards until Vin came to stand beside him.

“Lost your home, huh?”  Vin started.

Ezra sighed theatrically.  “Things like that just slip through my fingers.”

“Too bad.  It could ‘ave been a nice place.”

Ezra responded, “Yes, with too much sweat and effort.  I prefer to live with less trouble.” And he gestured to his saloon. "This, I feel, is my home."

"Glad of it," Buck added, sidling up to the table and giving Ezra a slap on the shoulder.  "Gives us a place to call home, too."

Chris nodded at Buck's comment.  Yes, it was good to have a home -- this town, this place were his home now.

The seven had left the farmhouse after finishing their breakfast of leftovers on Christmas morning.  Chaucer had improved enough to walk home, but not enough to carry a rider, so Ezra had been passed among the others as an added passenger.  The snow had fallen to a depth of about two feet.  Progress had been slow and cold.

It wasn't long before the men decided that an extra passenger was a good thing in such a situation, making the trip a little less bone chilling.  Ezra became their somewhat reluctant blanket.

The ride home had been a companionable way to begin their Christmas. Once they arrived in town and and sufficiently warmed themselves, Josiah performed a lovely church service, attended by nearly everyone in town.   They completed their day as guests at a feast set up by Mary, Inez, Nettie Wells and Mrs. Potter.  They'd eaten until they nearly burst.

Chaucer improved and showed no further signs of his injury.  He was already back to his usual antics, eager to cause trouble whenever he saw benefit in it.

The piano was retrieved two days after their return, using a large sled that easily crossed the snow.  The red spinet was whisked to the Redbird Saloon.  It fit in perfectly.  Ezra had to admit that it suited his saloon better than the huge and overly ornate piano that had caught his eye in Shaffer's parlor.  Yes, he'd decided.  Things had turned out well in the long run.

He'd done his best to retune the piano after its frosty trip, but a professional piano tuner would have to be called for to completely correct it.  He'd organized the various saloons in town and had scheduled a tuner to arrive with the New Year.  "It'll be a boon to everyone," Ezra had stated.  "We'll share the cost of his travel and the entire town will be relieved of one massive headache."

Ezra never played it while patrons were about.  “I wouldn’t want anyone to get ideas,” Ezra had explained.  “I have far too many other duties in this town.  I can’t add saloon pianist to the list.”  Still, it was sad to see it sitting silent.  Standish had hired a man out of Ridge City to be the Redbird’s pianist, but Fletcher Bowman wouldn’t be able to move to Four Corners until the snow cleared.  Until Bowman and the tuner arrived, the piano had sat mostly quiet.

The saloon was currently empty, except for the regulators and Inez.  Most people had wandered off early.   The Christmas snow had made the streets difficult to pass and little commerce had been accomplished over the past week.  People were once again returning to their homes, to spend New Years Eve with family and those that they loved.

Josiah leaned against the piano, nursing a brew, watching his friends.  Yes, he thought.  This was a nice place to spend a holiday.  Funny, after all this time and all the places he had seen, a little saloon, this town,  would become a home to him.  Well, he thought, it isn't the place really -- it's the people.

He cleared his throat and said, “I think we’ve discovered the secret of how your piano ended up in that closet, Ezra.” He nodded to Nathan to include him.

“What?” JD put it.  “It wasn’t Santa Claus?”

“I thought you said it had something to do with fiddles,” Buck said with a wink and a grin.   They still didn't understand exactly what that meant, but Vin and Ezra seemed to believe that some secret message was hidden in that cock-and-bull story about some fiddles in a desk.  They'd both grin and shake their heads if the phrase was mentioned, but neither divulged anything.

The preacher sighed and looked to Nathan for help, who only shrugged helplessly.  “It seems,” Sanchez began,  “That the house belonged to a man named MacLeary some years ago.  He was a sea merchant who used to sail to China.  Come back with all sorts of stuff, both large and small.   I spoke to Jed Green.  He remembers seein’ that piano at MacLeary’s place.”

“Ah-ha!” Buck said with a nod.  “But that doesn’t explain how it ended up in the pantry closet.”

“Seems that MacLeary lost his mind after livin’ in this area a few years,” Nathan explained.

“Imagine that,” Ezra replied with a sarcastic grin.

“Took to hoardin’ things, hidin’ stuff, too.”  Nathan indicated the piano.  “Probably hid it sometime before he died.”

JD frowned, preferring the mystery.  “How’d he die?” he asked.

Nathan shrugged.  “Guess he just died in that house.  Didn’t take care of himself proper.”

“Lovely,” Ezra muttered.  “At least I won’t be haunted by the lunatic.  The house is no longer my concern.  I like to think of that residence as mere packaging for a certain Christmas present.”  And he nodded to the red spinet.

“Looks right nice there,” Vin commented.  "Looks like it belongs."

"Yes," Ezra agreed.  "It does indeed.  Now, if only the snow would become more manageable, perhaps we'll be able to put it into full use."

“Maybe, you could play somethin’ since it’s so quiet?” Vin suggested.  “Won’t no one know but us.”  He nodded to the others of their group.  “You won’t have to worry about no one troubling you for another song.”

Ezra harrumphed.

“Yeah, Ez,” JD said as he stood.  “Just one?  It’s not like we’re askin’ all the time.”

“Come on,” Buck included.  “I’d like to hear another.  I nearly broke my ass gettin’ yer damn piano here.  I think we all deserve to hear somethin'.”

"I think we earned it," Chris said, nodding.

“Very well, very well.” Ezra stood and sauntered to the little red piano.  "Something appropriate, I think, considering the date," he said over his shoulder and then started playing, singing along.

Should auld acquaintance be forgot
and never brought to mind?

JD and Buck instantly joined in.  Wilmington threw his arm over JD’s shoulder, and then the other over Josiah’s.  Sanchez and Jackson started in as well.  Nathan rested a hand on Ezra's shoulder.

Should auld acquaintance be forgot
and days of Auld Lang Syne.

Chris was silent for a moment longer and then added his voice, followed finally by Vin, whose quiet tone was almost swallowed up by the others

For Auld Lang Syne, my dear,
for Auld Lang Syne, 

Out on the streets of Four Corners, a gentle snow had begun again.  The New Year was almost upon them.  The past year was filled with many things, but the best of all was that they had come together, that they had stayed together.

The year that awaited them was filled with wonder.  And together, the seven of them, were eager to face it.

we'll take a cup of kindness yet
for Auld Lang Syne. 

The End – by NotTasha

On to the next story .... On the Shores of Lake Titicaca

What do you think of that?
comments and suggestions .

Oh Holy Night:
(Cantique de Noël) Words: Cappeau de Roquemaure, English text by John S. Dwight; Music: Adolphe Charles Adam (1803-1856)
Oh Little Town of Bethlehem:
Text: Phillips Brooks (1835-93), Bethlehem, Christmas Day 1866
Oh Come, All Ye Faithful: Text: Adeste Fideles (a.k.a. A Desk of Fiddles), unknown early 18th century French author first source in John Francis Wade's Cantus Diversi pro Dominicis et Festis per anum, Lancashire 1751, first published in Evening Offices of the Church, 1760 translation by Frederick Oakeley(1802-1880), 1841; first published in Murray's Hymnal, 1852
Silent Night:
Text: Joseph Mohr, 1818 translation by John Freeman Young (1820-1885) STILLE NACHT: Franz Xaver Gruber, 1818
Auld Lang Syne: Scottish traditional collected "from an old man's singing" by Robert Burns, 1788
Luke 1:11
Matthew 2:10 

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