Christmas morning dawned bright and clear, the early sun glinting off the piles of snow that Nathan and the others had shoveled the day before. I heated Amanda's bottle and contemplated some of the decorations that we'd put up after her christening. The boughs of evergreen at the windows smelled wonderful in the warm air. Strong arms slid around me and soft lips kissed the back of my neck.
The mistletoe right above the stove had warned me that Nathan had planned something.
"Good morning, sweet cheeks. Merry Christmas!" He kissed that spot under my ear and I sighed happily before turning to let his lips meet mine.
We kissed slowly with all the joy that had been mine since the hayloft seven months ago, simmering between us. I was the happiest man in the world. Nathan's soft lips finally left mine and quirked upward in the smile that I loved most. "What smells so good, Ezra? Spicy?"
I smiled up at him. " I put cinnamon oil on the candle wicks and in the lamp oil. And the pumpkin pies that I held back are contributing also."
He smiled back and cocked his head. "I think I hear Amanda. Shall we cuddle for a while before getting up to get ready for church?"
Nodding, I checked the bottle of milk and lifted it from the heated water. Wiping it off, I popped on the rubber nipple and tested it against my wrist to make sure it wasn't too hot for our little angel before returning to the bedroom. She was lying on Nathan's chest while he blew little gusts of air to make her laugh. Amanda was the happiest child I'd ever seen and suddenly I had a vision of another child who huddled in the cold dressed in rags.
I shivered all over and slid under the covers, close to my lover and our child. He's always alert to my moods and this time was no exception. "What's wrong, Ezra?"
Kissing him gently, I told him of my fear. "We've got the happiest baby in the world even though it was a tragedy that brought her to us. What of all the other little ones, abandoned because they're not strong or pretty or smart?"
He pushed himself up using the headboard and pillow to brace himself before putting Amanda into my arms so he could pull us both into his embrace. "I've thought of those orphans, too. So many children were left fatherless by the War or abandoned in the cities because a mother couldn't support them. They are the flotsam and jetsam of all societies, even a rich society like America's. We can't rescue them all but our next child may come from just such a predicament."
"I love you, Nathan." I kissed him in gratitude for his not making light of my fears. He always took me seriously even when I'd alarmed him with my dream of bearing our child. We broke apart to breathe and I settled happily in the crook of his arm to feed our daughter. "Our son is just waiting to come to us. He'll be a little older than Amanda, I think."
Nathan nodded and checked her diaper. "Still dry, sweetheart, you're such a good girl. I like the idea of having a son whether he's black or white. If he's white then we can have William Standish to go along with Amanda Jackson."
I chuckled. "That would be very nice indeed, Nathan."
We settled in for a cuddle and I realized that this Christmas would be the very best holiday of my life. I'd told Nathan that he was my greatest gift and I'd meant every word. He'd given me a home and now a daughter to love. He cherished my body, heart and mind, over and over again. I'd never felt so loved ever before in my life.
Amanda cooed in my arms and finished her bottle with a bit of a slurp. Nathan chuckled and took the glass bottle while I brought her up to my shoulder for burping. "Are we ready for the others? I know we have enough dessert."
"Chris said he'd take care of our drinks while Buck and JD are bringing the turkey. Josiah is baking bread at the church and Mother said she would bring the greens." I wondered if she could cook or would just have the hotel make up something. "Vin said he was making his mother's favorite recipe. He wouldn't say what it is but I'm hoping for something southern like pickled okra or something like that."
"Ick, I hate okra." Nathan made a face and Amanda burped at him. "You didn't hear me say that, sweetheart, and if that's what he brings then I'll eat some."
I chuckled. "Slide it onto my plate and I'll eat yours, too."
"You're an angel, Ezra." He kissed me again and Amanda joined in with baby kisses.
In no time at all, we were ready for church. The old leather satchel was Amanda's traveling bed and Nathan carried her while I walked at his other side. We met Mrs. Potter on the way and I offered her my arm since the walks were still a bit slippery. Josiah led a joyful service and we sang hymns before, during and after his sermon. The children's chorus was especially beautiful and I thought how nice it would be when Amanda grew up to sing with them. And yet again, the vision of the little boy huddled in the cold flashed across my eyes.
I shivered and Amanda patted my face with a little smile as if to tell me that it was all right. Perhaps her joyful soul had seen the same vision but she knew something that I did not. I was a trifle distracted by the many best wishes of our neighbors and we slowly made our way home. Nathan took Amanda to put her down for her nap while I laid the table for eight.
That still had the ability to surprise me, that Mother was here . . . for Christmas ... and she wanted to be a part of the celebration. The first knock at the door brought Vin with a big bowl of pickled okra and green beans, followed in rapid succession by the others, all bearing food and gifts. At first the conversation was a little stilted with Mother there but Josiah announced their coming nuptials and that seemed to make everyone relax.
Dinner was superb and we all ate too much, except for Amanda who awoke in time for her applesauce and pabulum. Vin and I did the dishes so we could clear the table for the presents. Big and small, they showed the individuality of each of the seven. Nathan and I had gotten everyone a new hat from the tailor in Sarney. They all had to try them on at once and the different styles fit each of them.
Buck had carved all of us oak napkin holders, each one representing our favorite animal. He's a master with the carving knife and the slumbering cat on my holder was so detailed that I was amazed at his skill. Nathan's dog was a Labrador retriever. Chris' had a fish in mid flip and Vin's wolf head was a small masterpiece. Josiah's bear was alert and JD's horse head looked like his real life counterpart. He'd even carved a deer for himself and a little robin for Amanda. He promised Mother that he'd carve a swan for her.
JD and Josiah had made spirit bracelets for all of us. My soon-to-be father provided the crystals that he'd found in India and carried with him on his travels. A single drop of liquid fire was what the brightly colored stones appeared to be suspended from the narrow leather bands that JD had tooled for us. But Mother's green stone was mounted in a ring of gold and we watched her with baited breath when she first saw it.
I was praying that she would accept it in the spirit that he gave it but even I was surprised by her reaction. She caught her breath and I saw tears in her eyes when she held her hand out mutely for him to put on her left ring finger. His hands were shaking when he slid it on and it flashed with emerald fire when she held it to the light. I blinked hard and looked again. It really was an emerald and a gem of surpassing beauty.
Looking at Amanda's little necklace of braided silk, I saw that her stone was a sapphire and my own green stone was another emerald. Nathan's was a yellow diamond and I was willing to bet all of them were just as valuable. The others didn't seem to know so I kept silent and vowed to take very good care of Amanda's first piece of jewelry.
Chris had gotten everyone a book for Christmas and I thanked him sincerely for the New York Culinary Master Works cookbook that I unwrapped. Both fiction and nonfiction were well represented around the table and everyone looked greatly satisfied by their present. And that just left Vin to pull out a bag of tightly rolled pieces of paper, each of them tied with a red ribbon bow. He looked very nervous when he handed them out and I wondered just what he had made for us.
Nathan unrolled his first and the delighted look on his face made Vin finally smile, too. "It's beautiful, Vin. Did you write it?"
"Yeah, Ezra told me about poetry and Josiah talked about those Japanese poems called, um ... hai- haiku. So I wrote one for everybody." Those shy blue eyes still looked a little uncertain but you could tell he was feeling a touch more confident. "Maude helped me with the spelling."
I glanced at Mother and she just smiled. "I was glad to help, Vin, but the inspiration and beautiful images are entirely yours."
We passed them around the table and I knew that I would treasure mine forever. Amanda's was so perfect that I could have wept. Vin saw into the soul of a person and the short poems of haiku fit each personality to a 't'. I quietly made plans to frame our three so they would be protected from the ravages of time.
Mother announced her gift after all the wrapping papers were cleared away. Everyone froze in shock and the silence stretched until it was almost uncomfortable. Josiah moved closer to her as if to protect her but that wasn't necessary. The relief was almost palpable around the table with Buck leading off with his thanks. The plat map was brought out and soon the table was littered with different pieces of paper.
I'd made a few sketches of what our home might look like and Buck was soon drawing on the back of one of the wrapping sheets how we might connect the houses but still leave us our privacy. I looked around the table and the circle of friends I'd made after so many years of loneliness and was content. I leaned into Nathan's shoulder and his arm came up to cuddle Amanda and me close.
Instead of a supper, we ate our pie and cake about five o'clock before the party broke up and the others left with cheery thanks for our hospitality. It was our first party and it had been a success. Nathan took Amanda in to change her diaper while I puttered around putting things away. The silence was rather nice after all the voices of the afternoon. But Amanda was singing and her siren song pulled me into the bedroom.
"Ezra, are you all right?" Nathan's concerned voice brought me out of my abstraction.
"I'm fine, Nathan, just a little tired after our wonderful Christmas. I think that I might like a cup of chamomile tea to settle my stomach." I wandered back into the kitchen area and put the teakettle on the stove. The pot was still sitting on the drain board where I'd put it after washing it.
"Sweetheart, do we need to cuddle a little?" Nathan's call was hesitant and I smiled at his perceptive thought.
"Yes, I think we do. Are you hungry at all?" I chuckled at his horrified 'no' and even Amanda chortled. The teakettle whistled and I shook some loose chamomile from one of the glass jars that held our different teas into the pot. Assembling a tray, I took it back into the bedroom and joined my lover and our daughter on the bed. Nathan took the tray from me and set it aside while I picked up Amanda.
Her warm, sweet weight was just what I needed and I snuggled closer to Nathan with a sigh of relief. He held us both close and we lay in contented silence until the tea had finished steeping. Once we had our cups, I idly turned the bracelet on my wrist and admired the gleaming green fire. Amanda tried to grab it and put it in her mouth and we chuckled at her pout when I took it out of reach.
"The stones are worth more than we think, aren't they?" Nathan was looking at the golden yellow crystal on his wrist.
"Yes. Mother's stone is a real emerald and a good-sized stone without any flaws that I could see. Amanda's is a sapphire and we'll need to make sure that she doesn't eat it." I tickled her tummy and she giggled at me. "Vin's poems were so beautiful. I want to frame ours."
He chuckled. "All of them?"
I nodded and reached an arm to the side table for the three rolls of paper. "They are all so true to each of us."
"Read Amanda's." He took her and laid her on his chest so she could hear his heartbeat.
"Bright laughter singing.
Loving hands reach to touch.
Baby kisses heal."
Amanda sang to us and I smiled at how well our tracker had seen into her joyful soul.
"Now yours." Nathan patted her back and smiled at me.
"Dancing lights of green.
Sparkling in the hot noon sun.
Jade sparks into fire."
"Vin sees truly." He said quietly and I nodded.
"He's so quiet that you forget sometimes that he's watching and listening to everything around him. He caught you perfectly." I picked up the last slip.
"Wise eyes see the pain.
Warmth and tenderness are his.
Steady hands that heal."
Nathan blushed a little while I smiled at him. "He's got a way with words all right."
I chuckled and yawned. "One of these days maybe he'll be a famous poet and we'll all be proud that we knew him when."
"I'm proud of all of us right now. They took your mother's gift pretty well, considering what a shock it was." He cuddled me a little closer and I closed my eyes for just a moment, laying my head on his shoulder and breathing his spicy scent deep into my lungs.
When I woke up, we were lying facing each other with Amanda tucked between us still sleeping. Nathan was watching us both and he leaned in a little to kiss me. It wasn't passionate but soothing and I let him seep into my very pores. We feasted on each other gently until Amanda awoke with a start.
It wasn't that late so we got up and snacked on some of Josiah's bread while Amanda drank another bottle of milk. A day full of emotion, I mused, but one that had truly been the blessing that this holy day was supposed to be. A day for love and family, I thought to myself, my eyes resting on my lover and our daughter, one that I would remember for the rest of my life.
And just then, a thought came to me about a gift that we might be able to give Vin and Chris. "Nathan, do you think that Mr. DuBois might look into that old murder charge that still hangs over Vin's head? I hate to think of he and Chris having to worry every day about some bounty hunter coming to find him."
"Or worse," Nathan frowned a little, "shooting first and asking questions later."
"Yes, indeed, that would be a tragedy." I shuddered. "We are a family now and I don't wish to lose any of our members."
"Why don't you sit down tomorrow and write to him, Ezra?" Nathan finished burping Amanda who promptly fell asleep between one breath and the next. He chuckled soundlessly and laid her into her cradle after checking her diaper. We quietly got ready for bed and he drew me into his arms the moment we settled under the covers. "Even if it cost a little something, we could pool our resources with the others. The Pinkertons don't charge that much."
I smiled at him and hugged him closer. "They are quite moderate in their fees and their reputation is very good. I think that Mr. DuBois would be amenable to taking on this investigation."
"If you're the one who asks him, he will be." Nathan's tones were faintly disgruntled and I hid a smile against his tasty nipple. The Pinkerton agent had been an intelligent, handsome man with great charm. But he could never compare to my Nathan.
I soon demonstrated to my lover his complete and utter possession of my heart.
"David, the oddest thing." I finished reading the early morning post. "Do you remember the men I told you about in that small town in the west?"
"The beautiful young man with the colored lover?" He said over his shoulder while he worked on his latest canvas.
"Yes, he's writing to hire me to clear up an old murder charge against one of his band of brothers. The scruffy hunter, Vin Tanner, has an outstanding warrant in the Territories."
My lover turned his blue eyes to me and smiled. "You've been wanting to go back there ever since the holidays."
I chuckled and thought back to the odd little town and the amazing men who guarded her. "There is something intriguing about the whole setup there. If you could see the love that shines from them, the way that I did, you'd understand. Even though I wanted to come home in the worst way, I had the urge to stay and see what Christmas would bring to them all."
"Or just to Ezra?" My psychic lover laid down his paintbrush and circled the table to sit on my lap. Wrapping his arms around me, he kissed me slowly until all thoughts fled. Mapping my face with his warm lips, he reminded me of the reason why I'd wanted to come home so badly.
Sitting back a little, he quirked an eyebrow at me and I remembered his question. "Not just to Ezra but to Nathan and little Amanda and even the formidable Maude. They are all so vivid in my memory that I'm curious to see how they go on. Perhaps you'd like to come with me?"
"You're taking the case?" David asked me with a smile.
"I'll telegraph Allan Pinkerton tomorrow." I knew that he'd probably say yes. His fondness for the west dated back to his arresting the Reno brothers in 1868.
"Then I will indeed accompany you so I can meet these amazing men that have you so fascinated." David kissed me gently before going back to his painting.
I smiled fondly at him and reached an arm for my stationery to answer Ezra's letter. I enjoyed a challenge and this investigation looked to be an interesting one. I believed enough in my own abilities that I firmly expected to find the truth. And perhaps David's imagination would be so sparked by the unique family he would meet that he might be inspired to paint them. A family portrait of Amanda, Ezra and Nathan would be something that they could pass down to succeeding generations.
Whatever happened, I could hardly wait to again see the men who had so captured my imagination. Something in me was drawn to their quiet caring and ability to create a family out of such disparate personalities. Perhaps David and I would be inspired by their example to start a family of our own.
Setting ink to paper, I took their case.
The end for now