Disclaimer: This is an uber, so the characters might vaguely remind you of others, but they aren't. They're from my imagination. This story occurs after the story "Fetchin' Cousin Minnie."

Violence: vague past references.

Subtext: Yes. Woven in this particular tale is a romantic non-graphic f/f relationship. If you are under age or this type story is illegal where you live, please don't read it.

Acknowledgement: For She of the world's most radiant smile. [Happy Birthday, Toots!]

******************************************************************************

Willy's Present

By

bsoiree

email: bsoiree@comcast.net

Her pink tongue did a tango around her small lips as the eight-year-old narrowed her eyes watching the thick red wool yarn. Her perpetually cautious look deepened into a grumpy appearance. Willy slowly looped and overlaped the yarn, remembering with difficulty where to place the strand and where to put the needle as she awkwardly moved the work from one needle to the other. Some stitches were loose and others tighter. It took three double ended needles, she was working in a circle and it was hard! But she was doing all right. She had lots of the ribbing done!

She ran a finger along the work and then, her heart near stopped. There was a hole! Her lips tightened. It wasn't the first time. Instantly she knew she'd messed up two rows back and there was only one correction. Her heart sunk. Why was this so danged hard?

"Lordy!” blurted from her mouth. She glanced sheepishly around the big room hoping no one had heard her cursing much like one of her idols did and completely unlike the other, who never swore. The only sound in the room was the crackling of the fire in the fireplace, and she sighed in relief.

She'd be in big trouble if anyone had heard her! Her brown eyes swept toward the cradle. She pulled the rim of the dirty, round-top, western hat that had once been her father's down lower on her forehead. It was big for her but it covered her head plus the two leather thongs that held two tufts of light-brown hair to the side in the back. A loose strand of long hair hung down off her forehead to her cheek. Her nose was long and, like her tanned cheeks, was spreckled with freckles. Everyone said she got her long nose from her father,Shorty, a man as short as his wife, Nell.

The baby's large blue eyes opened but the infant didn't start crying. Giving the cradle a soft push with her foot, Willy saw the small girl's eyes grow sleepy again. She held her knitting inert as she carefully gave several more careful pushes with her foot from her chair. Good! She's goin' back ta sleep.

Willy leaned forward to more painstakingly observe the baby's breathing. This baby didn't cry much and spent a lot of time sleeping. That made Willy suspicious. She had a little brother this baby's size that they'd buried at the cemetery on the hill not long ago. He was sick and then he quit breathing. Her Pa'd started drinking and threatened to hurt her Ma bad that day after the burying. It was horrible! She'd been afraid till the Sheriff came!

She sighed, her normal solemn mask creeping over her face, pushing away the memories. There were a lot of bad memories. Actually she had two little sisters and the tiny brother all buried there. Sometimes they'd been sick and sometimes they'd just quit breathing when they were born. And, always, her Pa got drunk. But then he got drunk all the time anyway. She looked more carefully. Yes, the baby was still breathing. Good!

Happy with the infant's state of affairs, she turned to her knitting once more and examined the hole. "Gods!” she exclaimed with annoyance, furrowing her brow. Again she checked to see if her language would get her in trouble. She wanted to toss the whole thing into the fireplace! But instead she dutifully took it off the needles as Kate had shown her and pulled out the stitches till she got to the hole. Painstakingly she worked the stitches back on the needles counting how many on each, her tongue now working a polka along her lips in time with her supreme effort.

The young girl flicked her pigtails back off her shoulders and wiped her sweaty hands on her long trousers, unusual clothing for a female of any age. Some of the boys in town wore kneepants till they were old enough for trousers. Others wore wornout long trousers passed down from older brothers. But girls wore skirts. Still, in small, struggling frontier towns like theirs, practicality usually won out over fashion unless you were rich.

She remembered when her mother kept all of them, boys and girls, in simple tunic style dresses. They were easy to make and took less material and several mothers did it. But Shorty complained vehemently, so her mother put them in baggy trousers, all but the toddler, so the clothes would last a long time and could then be handed down. They couldn't afford to do anything else. Now Kate had made them all brand new britches.

Willy was glad. She liked trousers better even if the other children in town taunted and teased her. Dresses for boys were fine, but trousers for girls weren't and they would lay in wait to pummel her. But then they could always harass her about her father's drinking, or how poor they were, or how dirty they were. She was glad they didn't live in town any more.

With her bare feet she pulled the basket holding her ball of yarn closer. There were two other colors of balled yarn there, blue and yellow. She'd already decided; she'd add yellow stripes. "Knit one....purl one,” she reminded herself as she carefully worked the first stitches of the next row of ribbing. She'd gotten to the second set when she heard the door and felt the breezy cool air, but didn't dare look up for fear of losing her place.

The reed thin figure of her mother moved inside with the heavy buckets of milk and strained them through a cloth into other buckets as Willy worked the third set. Then Nell moved to the hot wood stove and stirred the contents of a steaming kettle sitting atop. It was her mother's job to cook for the ranch, twenty people every day in the winter, eight of those children. Her mother spent nearly every waking minute before the hot cook stove. Kate said that Nell knew how to stretch pantry fixings into delicious meals better than anyone else she knew.

"Do a good job, now, Willy!” Nell instructed her daughter without looking up. Her mother tended to be stern. She never hugged them. She wasn't the type. But Willy knew she loved them. "Make us proud, girl.” Willy knew the "we” meant Kate and her mother. Kate had been teaching Willy how to knit and had patiently helped the girl each time she'd had trouble. "How's it going?”

"Fine,” Willy answered, not taking her eyes off the yarn. It wasn't going fine! It was slow and difficult and frustrating as could be! And Willy was not the most patient of people. But she didn't consider herself lying exactly. It was something shewanted to do, so that made it fine. Sort of.

"The baby still asleep?”

"Uh,” she looked over at the infant whose eyes remained shut. She was still breathing. "Yes.”

"Dinner's about ready,” her mother replied. "Get the others. We'll be making butter afterward. I want you to operate the dasher.”

"Yes, ma'am,” Willy stuffed her work in her basket with relief and put the balls of yarn on top to hide it. She was glad for the break. She headed to their room with the basket when the front door opened and Don Carlos and Garcia walked in, followed by Alabam.

A loud peal of thunder, like a rumbling series of snares on a bass drum, entered with them. It was followed by bright cymbals of lightning. The men shook the water from their hats and hung them on the nails by the door.

"Stars! Get the boys in,” Nell instructed Willy,"They shouldn't be out in this!”

"Gaine's done got ‘em a'workin' ta the barn,” Alabam informed her. "Theys'll be gittin' along here shortly, Ah ‘spect.” He reached his hand up as he always did and smoothed down the ends of his bushy white mustache so they came to his chin"Good,” Nell mumbled, putting down her wooden spoon and rushing to the pantry to bring out baskets of biscuits she'd baked that morning.

Willy watched the bearded men as they rolled their sleeves and quickly washed up in the basin before heading to the table. Their spurs jangled on the rock floor. These were some of the hands and Willy liked them all. But then, she liked everything about the Sargos Ranch. Always had.

Pausing in the hall doorway, Willy observed the men sitting down at the long table. Don Carlos was Spanish, he said his family had come here from Spain years ago and she loved the way his words sounded when he talked. Garcia was older and walked with a limp. He was from Mexico, spoke mostly English, and she couldn't imagine anyone not liking him. He was the most gentle man she'd ever met! He was painfully bashful and was known to blush easily.

But her Pa hadn't liked him. In fact, Shorty had hated Garcia. She didn't know why. They'd lived in town then, and even when he was sober her Pa'd made disparaging remarks about Garcia and where he'd come from whenever the ranchhand rode into town with the Sheriff.

But she didn't have to worry about any of that with her Pa now, not since that last time in the saloon. Don Carlos laughed and Willy's eyes went to him. His black hair and mustache gleamed in the lamplight as he began telling the others a story in broken English. Everyone was chuckling. She loved their funny tales at mealtimes and remembered hearing people in town remark that the Sheriff's hands lived on the ranch as though they were family. And they did, taking their meals inside, only the hands all slept out in the bunkhouse.

It was said that Don Carlos and Garcia had both worked for the Sheriff for a long, long time. Don Carlos was the ranch foreman but Alabam had worked the longest. His hair was pure white and he was old! He once said he'd been a grown man when he started working for the Sheriff's family clear back in Alabama before they moved to Texas. That was long before the beginning of the War of the Confederacy. She couldn't imagine being that old. She'd been born right here in California not long after that War. She looked at Alabam's wrinkles. Yes, he had to be ancient!

"Putting your knitting away?” a soft voice asked. Willy turned to see Kate, the Sheriff's beautiful blonde cousin, walking slowly in the hall from her room, a youngster dangling from each hand. Bongo, Willy's three-year-old sister, was grasping one of Kate's hands and chattering while the one-year-old, Sarah, was silently holding the other.

Bongo's real name wasn't Bongo, of course. Her name was Henrietta, but when she first started talking, she'd called out "go bong, go bong” everytime she fell down. And she fell often, so everyone began to call her "Bong go Bong” which they later shortened to "Bongo”.

"Yes, I am, ma'am,” Willy replied, adding confidentially, "I'm keepin' it hid.” Her little sister's eyes lit up at that information.

"Good idea! You're a clever girl, Willy. There are a lot of little hands that could create havoc with your work.” Kate raised a brow to Bongo, "Don't forget, Santa's coming, and he knows if you're being good or not and leaving your sister's things alone. Right, Bongo?” she asked.

Bongo nodded her head and put her fingers in her mouth bashfully. "Take your fingers from your mouth, darlin',” Kate reprimanded gently. "Yuk. Dirty hands. Yuk. Let's go wash up.”

Willy swallowed nervously. She had jumbled feelings about the upcoming holiday. They'd always acknowledged Christmas in town with a meal provided from a basket of food given to them by the church. Her mother always tried to make it special, but too often her Pa drank heavily and that could be awful bad. And now they were talking about this Santa fellow coming by, like it should be a wonderful thing. She wondered how wonderful it could be if he could always see when she did something bad.

Willy wondered what her younger brothers were getting to do in the barn. She'd gotten so involved in her knitting that she'd forgotten about them. She loved working in the barn--the sounds, the smells, the animals, and she hated that she hadn't chosen to work there with them and the Sheriff.

A heavy feeling of covetousness at what they were getting to do swept over her and momentarily she questioned the wisdom of learning to knit. She licked her lips and considered. But this was her chance. She was going to make something worth giving--a gift, a wonderful gift, made by her. The only thing was, this gift just had to be perfect!

"I'll help you with it once the little ones are napping,” Kate encouraged. Her warm green eyes smiled on the small girl and soft freckles dotted the natural blush in her peaches and cream cheeks. She was old, at least in her early twenties, but younger than Willy's Ma. Her apron covered a clean calico dress that rustled when she walked. She had a small waist, dainty hands and an iron will if anyone threatened those she cared about. She liked to hug people but she could also be a lot more ferocious than anyone would ever think, as Willy's Pa once found out. Kate, though, never swore and often stopped the Sheriff from doing so.

"C'mon, honey,” Kate urged the one year old, "one-step, two-step. Good.”

Kate was not wearing her bonnet and strands of curly blond hair escaped from the bun she had pinned in the back. It was pretty well held in town that Kate had saved the lives of the two little ones, tiny Deena, now named for the Sheriff's mother, sleeping peacefully in her cradle and little Sarah, named for Kate's mother. They'd been nearly starving and at death's door when she got them. The outlaws had orphaned them and the Sheriff sent them to Kate to raise.

Willy ran into her room and put her basket under the bed she shared with her mother and her young sister. Then she ran back to take Bongo from Kate's care. She'd always taken care of Bongo. Always. No matter how mad her Pa got, she'd always gotten Bongo away before he could hurt her. She lifted the small girl into a chair and pushed it in. Bongo would sit beside her. She'd make sure the little one ate. It was expected of her.

The front door flew open and four young boys aged from four to seven excitedly poured in accompanied by three large, bouncing dogs wildly wagging their tails. Big drops of rain were falling and they'd run as fast as they could to avoid it. Still they were damp and there was the definite scent of wet dog surrounding them, with muddy tracks trailing them in.

"Dennis, Al--all you boys, wash up before you sit down there!” their mother called. "And put those dogs outside!” Her attention immediately went back to the meal she was preparing.

"C'mon fellas,” Willy dashed to the basin. "Get over here and get washed up! Brian, you put them dogs out. Carl, you help!” Dutifully Brian and Carl called the dogs while the other boys went to Willy. She quickly scrubbed their faces with a rag before having them wash their hands, soon followed by the other two sans dogs. Then she pointed out where all four were to sit. Obediently, the boys did as they were told.

Kate watched in amused amazement. Her own brothers would never have taken directions from a female at any age. It would have bruised their male egos to have done sol

"That little un thar's gonna fall,”Alabam called, "better catcher a'fore she do.”

"Bongo!” Willy called to the little girl who was twisting in her chair. Kate reached over and caught the child by the arm as she was falling but Willy got there in time to lift her back up. "You stay put now, you hear!” she scolded the child. Bongo put her fingers in her mouth and merely looked back at her sister contritely.

Suddenly the front door flew open again and the most impressive person Willy had ever seen in her short life stepped inside, spurs jangling to the deep timpani rumbles of thunder that followed from outside. All eyes went to the door, Willy's filled with worship.

"Lordy! That thar rain's a'pourin' down!” Gaine Sargos, the Sheriff, declared emphatically. Sparkling blue eyes were dancing with concern and water was dripping from long, black hair. A black Stetson was shaken and hung on a nail. At a little over six feet, the Sheriff was certainly tall in stature and was known to be a faster draw and more accurate shot than anyone else in the state, if not in the entire U.S. But the Sheriff's most amazing feature was not that. No, the most amazing feature was that she was probably the most beautiful woman in the whole of the west!

Long black lashes outlined the most penetratingly spirited azure eyes ever seen. Bronzed high cheek bones, rich full lips, expressive brows, perfect nose and solidly trim figure added finishing touches to this amazing sight.

"Wer gonna hafta hurry, fellers, cause Ah'm a'feared them warshes er gonna fill right up. Don Carlos, some a them steers n' the southern reach could be trapped.” Gaine rolled her sleeves and walked to the basin. She washed quickly and sat in the chair beside her cousin, who was holding small Sarah. "Lordy, Nell! That thar smells right de-licious.”

"Gaine,” Kate said quietly. "The children. Please. Your language.”

"Huh?” Gaine asked. Whadid Ah say? she wondered. Nothing came to mind so she decided she'd ask Kate later. She bowed her head and everyone else followed, "Thanky kindly fer this here food we been gived bah yer kind hand. An we done gives thanks fer all ar many t'uther blessin's, too. Amen. Pass them biscuits, Alabam.” She glanced at Kate's warning look and added, "please.”

"Yep, Ah'l trade ye,” Alabam grinned, running his hand from his bushy mustache to smooth the long ends down. "Pass that thar pitcher a gravy an Ah'l hand ye them biscuits!” He'd stacked six biscuits on his own plate.

Nell bustled around the table, placing large pitchers of gravy mixed with salt pork to pour over their biscuits and large basins of green beans with big pieces of bacon. All the hands dished out colossal portions on their tin plates and shoveled food rapidly into their mouths. Thick, dark coffee was poured for Gaine and the men, but everyone else drank buttermilk.

"Here's what Ah wancha ta do,” Gaine frowned. She chewed her mouthful and swallowed, "Garcia, ya done best head west n' check them gullies back thar fer strays. N' Don Carlos, yus send fellers east n' see if'n ya cain't git them steers headed ‘way from that thar river whar't bends. Water's gonna be a'risin' fast ‘n t'will be floodin' them pockets a'fore ya knows't. Alabam, yus join the rest a' tha fellas n' take the center. Doan let them steers git past ya, now, right er left. Drive ‘em due south ‘n a triangle ‘round them draws, if'n ya kin ta whar't comes out balow n' the lower range. Ya know whar Ah bees a'thinkin', Don Carlos?”

"Yep. I'll see it's done, Gaine.”

"Good. Should be a heap less water thar. But watch fer tha lightnin' goin' up n' over. They's gonna wanna turn tail n' stampede fer shore once't theys bein' driv'd full out n'it!”

Men's heads bobbed in agreement. "Yep,” Alabam agreed. He stuffed his mouth full. It was unusual for Gaine to send Alabam or Garcia out for hard riding. They both had some failings due to age, but it was never talked about. Mostly they worked in the barn and around the house and that was hard enough work. Garcia had become quite talented as a ferrier. But this was an emergency that called for every available hand to be out riding.

"Si, Boss. I'm ready,” Garcia swallowed and was the first to stand. He grabbed his cup and washed down the conclusion of his hasty dinner with the last of his coffee. The others did the same, including Gaine.

"Sorry we ain't doin' yer meal justice, Nell. T'is right tasty. An that bees a fact! T'uther fellas'll be in soon's they kin.” Gaine poured the dregs of her hot coffee into her mouth and put the cup down before turning with long strides to follow the limping Garcia.

"Wait! Where are you going to be, Gaine?” Kate asked. She jiggled Sarah as the small girl in her lap began to fuss.

Gaine looked back. "Oh, uh, Ah'm a'gonna help Garcia in them gullies, then Ah gotta ride ta town. T'is possible tha ole bridge'll give way an' ain't no knowin' who'all maht be a'needin' help"Keep safe,” Kate advised soberly. It was more a demand than a request, although there was pleading in it as well. Her eyes didn't leave her targ".

“Ah will,” Gaine smiled her most radiant smile. “Doan fret none.” She grabbed her slicker and put her hat on her head. Her face sobered, “Ah will be late, howsumever. So doan wait up none.”

Kate raised a brow at that and there was no question in either of their minds that Kate would be sitting right there, waiting, no matter what time Gaine got in.

Kate handed Nell the toddler as she rose to shut the door behind them. She watched the figures in their slickers moving out into the storm. They mounted their horses in a downpour. It was midday and dark as twilight. Their horses hooves beat like maracas as they hustled at a trot through the thin layer of sticky mud in the front yard before breaking into a gallop across the upper pasture, the dogs trailing close behind. It would take all of them to get the job done.

It poured all afternoon and Willy placed herself in a chair before the fire with her knitting needles and project once she'd finished churning the butter. Her mother was washing the buttermilk off the butter and all the children were on the rug that Kate had braided and sewed from rags. All, that is, except the baby asleep in her cradle to the side and Bongo who was napping in the bedroom. Sarah was in her box, placed on the rug before the fire, ready for her nap. Kate sat sewing nearby. Sarah's wooden store box had a folded blanket in the bottom and the small toddler slept in it and often played in it as well.

It had been Brian's job to fill the kindling boxes that morning. He was a year younger than Willy. Alabam filled the big wood bins every day, so they were cosy and dry. It wasn't really that cold, anyway, mostly just stormy and wet. Now Willy's brothers were bored and wrestling on the rug around her, more than once kicking her knitting basket, requiring her to firmly warn them to stop.

A rumble of thunder reverberated in the house. “Are the dogs all right?” Dennis asked Kate. “Can't they come inside?”

The blond looked up from where she was stitching and smiled. “No, they went with the riders. They need them to help.”

“Oh,” Dennis replied. He wished they were in the house with them. They loved playing with the dogs. Many ranch dogs were strictly working dogs, but Gaine's were pets as well. She'd raised them that way, but Kate still didn't let them stay inside unless she and the little ones were in the house alone at night.

“We got to clean the harnesses,” Brian bragged to Willy as he spread out on the rug near her feet.

“Ya got ta work in the tack room?” Willy looked up over her knitting. They'd worked in the tack room? She'd love to work in the tack room.

“Yep, an' we got ta clean the bits,” Dennis chimed in, rolling over and lying beside his brother. The Sheriff showed us how!”

“She did?” now Willy was really sorry she'd spent her time knitting. She could have been out working with the Sheriff. She could see her brothers were enjoying this too much so she added, “Well, cleaning off horse slobber ain't so much.” But they all knew she resented not being there.

“And I got to shake out all the horse blankets,” Carl bragged, dropping himself across the other two boys with a ‘whoomp'. They immediately rolled him off. He laid next to them and looked up at his sister, “Sheriff showed me how to shake ‘em but I figured how to make ‘em snap! Sheriff said we can't never do that round the horses lest we're roundin' 'em up cause it scares ‘em. But in the tack room I got ta do it...once.” Carl had a thing about making things snap. He loved the sound.

“Ya did?” Willy glanced up from her work and paused. She had knitted her way around quite a ways in the ribbing. She looked at the contented boy's faces. She would have liked making the horse blankets snap, too.

“You're ready to stop the ribbing now and start on the next part,” Kate looked over from where she was finishing off the hem of a quilt. It had colorful patches of different colored material, and scrap pieces from their new shirts that Kate had made them were in the quilt, too.

Kate put down her work and moved to Willy. She took the needles from the small girl and did a circle of plain knitting for her. “Like that, now. It should be faster and easier. If you want to add another color, tie a nice tight knot and leave the ends on the inside here. Just make sure each color has the same number of rows each time. Then I'll check them later.”

“Yes, ma'am,” Willy replied. The boys watched as Kate gave Willy a hug. Willy sat perfectly still as Kate wrapped her arms around her and gave a small squeeze.

“You're doing a wonderful job, Willy,” she said cheerfully, before heading back to her sewing.

Willy loved when Kate hugged her. All the children did. She wished her mother would hug her sometimes, but her mother wasn't the type. Willy took her knitting back into her hands and her tongue flicked out to waltz around her lips as she worked. Yes, this plain knitting was lots easier.

“I even got to wipe down the saddles,” Brian bragged. “The others didn't, but I'm older, so I did.” He was not going to let this go.

“The saddles? You got ta touch the saddles?” You had to be old enough to touch the saddles! She was older than Brian. That was really a blow! Willy would love working with tack. She loved the horses. She loved everything about the ranch. But to work with the saddles, that was a very big deal. She furrowed her brows into a heavy frown, sighed deeply and continued working while her brothers rolled around her feet.

“I got to sweep,” little Al added. “Sheriff showed me.”

Willy snorted at that. Anyone could sweep, that was nothing. But to be able to work with the saddles! Why in the world had she chosen to knit?

Seeing his sister was going to continue what she was doing and ignore them, Brian rolled to his back and stared at the ceiling with an innocent gaze, one leg bent and his hands went behind his head. “Then the Sheriff got down the sleigh bells and we each got to shake ‘em.” The coups de grace. He knew that would really get her.

“Oh!” Willy stopped and stared at her brothers, her annoyance supreme. They'd gotten to shake the sleigh bells! She wanted to shake the sleigh bells! It wasn't fair! That was it! The boys had stolen any enjoyment she'd gotten out of working on her gift! And that theft had stolen what was left of any good humor that she'd had that day! She silently lowered her head, scowled, gripped her needles harder and went back to her work, but her thoughts had no honor. She clenched her jaw and continued knitting.

“Jing, jing, jing,” Brian taunted. “That's how they sounded when we shook ‘em, didn't they, fellas?”

The others muttered their agreement, and Willy was afraid she might burst into tears, except that she never let herself cry if she could help it. “I don't care what they sounded like,” she grumbled and continued knitting, giving the ball a jerk to give herself more yarn. Everyone knew that wasn't true.

“Hey, what's that?” Dennis asked, pointing to the edges of a small, flat paper pack held down in the ball under several strands of the yarn.

“That's Willy's,” Kate said, looking over from her sewing. “When she's used enough yarn to loosen the packet completely, whatever's inside is hers and hers alone.”

Swinging her arm down, Willy grabbed the ball and brought it to her lap to examine it. What could be in that small paper pack? It certainly made things more interesting. She found her ill humor fading as her attention focused on the small pack.

“But you must work all the yarn till the package falls away by itself,” Kate warned.

Willy put the ball back in her basket and worked diligently keeping the yarn in a taut line. The tip of her tongue fairly jitterbugged around her lips. The yarn ball had everyone's attention now.

“Hurry,” the boys advised. They moved where they could lie and watch the ball carefully as she worked. Suddenly Willy pulled the last holding strand and the small packet fell into her basket.

“It's free!” Carl called.

Willy put her knitting on the rug and reached into the basket to claim the small packet. Carefully she pulled the sides off the sticky treasure. Inside was a piece of molasses candy. For once her cautious look was gone. Her eyes widened with childish delight. “It's candy!” she called excitedly, her face glittering with the discovery. They hadn't had candy in so long they couldn't remember. “It's candy, Kate!” she said excitedly to the young woman across from her.

“Yes, and it's all yours. You've earned it. You may eat it now.” Kate smiled over at the group. The boys were all sitting up at this point, watching Willy's every move as she trimmed the paper off and peeled the sweet treat into her mouth. “Oh, Lordy, it's good!” Willy preened, smacking her lips before her brothers' rapt attention. All their eyes were on her lips.

“Willy!” Kate admonished. “We don't use that kind of language!”

“Oh, sorry,” Willy hunkered down some, but the candy was so sweet she couldn't help smiling anyway.

“Remember next time,” Kate advised. “We don't swear.”

“Yes, ma'am,” Willy slurpped, shifting the treat to the side of her mouth then back. It was sooo good! “Mmmm,” she said, relishing the boy's envy as much as the treat. Oh yes, this was very sweet, very sweet indeed!

“Kin I have the paper?” Brian asked hopefully. His eyes pleaded and he was almost drooling watching her.

“Uh,” she looked at the small sticky residue left on the paper. She looked at Kate.

“It's yours to do with as you please,” Kate replied, continuing her sewing. “You don't have to share this time.”

Willy held the paper as she mulled it over. She had never been a selfish child. She glanced at the four beseeching faces before her. “All right,” she told them, then cautioned, “But you have to share. One lick each.”

Kate chuckled to herself as the boys each made their one lick last as long as they could. By the time it got to little Al, there was little left but the scent. Yet he seemed pleased enough with that. Willy sat back in her chair, a look of supreme satisfaction on her face, her knitting now in her lap.

“Can we learn to knit?” Brian asked Kate anxiously. “Please?”

“It's not easy,” Kate said seriously. “You have to be old enough.” She looked at the pleading faces.

“How old?” Brian asked.

Kate smiled. “Well, five is a little too young,” she looked sadly at Al and Dennis. Dennis was just five and Al was four. But Carl was six and Brian was seven. The two boys perked up, exchanging a conspiratorial glance.

“And your mother has to approve,” she cautioned.

“Momma,” the two called, leaping up from the rug and rushing to the cooking area behind the long table, “Can we learn to knit? Please?”

“Don't be silly,” their mother replied. “Kate doesn't have time to teach you to knit. Get me the big pot from the pantry. The heavy iron one. It's heavy, be careful with it.”

Al went pouting to Kate, standing close so that the blonde put her arm around the small boy. “What's the matter, honey?” she asked, brushing the hair off his forehead. He nestled up close to her, leaning his head on her shoulder.

“I want some candy, too,” he said, moping.

Kate smiled warmly. “I know you do. But it has to be earned and Willy has earned it this time. You boys did get to work in the tack room, though, didn't you?” The child nodded, his lower lip sticking out. “And Willy was here working the whole time you were there, right?” Again he nodded. “She earned it, honey. I'm sorry. That's the way it works. It was her turn.”

She gave him a hug and he went back to the rug, sitting quietly.

“Momma said ‘no',” Brian frowned as the two came back to the rug and plopped down after running their errand.

“It's all right,” Willy soothed. “If there's ever any more surprises, I'll share the paper.”

“Oh, goody,” Dennis smiled rolling over and running his finger along the edge of the braid in the rug. Their big sister was the best in the world! She always watched out for them.

“See there, in the middle a' the rug?” Willy pointed out. “That's our old trousers and shirts. Kate made ‘em into this rug, didn't ya, Kate?”

Beautiful green eyes looked up from her sewing. “Yes, that's right.”

Dennis pointed and looked up with an expectant look. “Here?”

“Yep,” Willy answered, matter of factly.

“Here?” he asked moving his hand a little further. Al followed his hand.

“Yep,” Willy looked at four-year-old Al, “Those are the very clothes you used to wear when you were little!” It had been all of four months earlier that he'd worn those clothes, but he was impressed with it. His funk seemed to leave and he rolled on the rug with his brothers again.

Willy brought her eyes back to her knitting and glanced at the ball of yarn, just in case she'd missed seeing a paper packet there. But there was none in view yet, so she continued working. She wanted to ask Kate if there were more surprises, but she didn't want to sound greedy so she remained quiet. The boys stayed a long time watching her work, encouraging her and periodically checking the ball, just in case.

The rest of the afternoon went quickly with no more surprises. Kate took the slop pail out to the pigs because it was too wet for the boys to be out. The children could slop the pigs but they weren't to go near the hogs. The hogs were vicious! Kate ran back for the clean pails to do the evening milking. Her hair was soaked when she came in, even with her bonnet and a slicker on. Supper was light, a quiet affair with none of the hands or the Sheriff eating with them. Even after supper the hands didn't come in and Kate checked at the window often.

The baby fussed for a while and Kate fixed her the special formula she used in the glass pocket wet nurse purchased from the town chemist. Once tiny Deena was finished, Kate burped her and checked once more at the window. Nell straightened the kitchen but couldn't clean because she had to keep the food ready for when the hands did make it in.

Willy did her chores, helping her mother as expected then worked on her knitting again before bedtime Not long into the work, she ran across one more wrapped surprise. It was hard to tell who was most excited, Willy or her brothers. The treat was wonderful and the wrapping was enjoyed by the boys. But this time little Bongo got a lick, too. Willy added yellow stripes and felt herself puff with pride when her brothers were amazed at how good the budding sock looked and kept asking her to hold it up for them to see.

Finally some of the vaqueros rushed into the house, dripping wet, just as it was time for the children to go to bed. They were hungry, not having eaten since breakfast. It was windy and dark and the rain was still pouring but the thunder and lightning had pretty much moved on. Willy's brothers went to their room and Willy took Bongo to theirs as the men sat to eat.

Willy helped Bongo with the chamber pot then made sure her small sister had on a didy. The weather was too wild to run out to the outhouse with her. She'd gotten the three-year-old into her night shirt and cap then helped the small child snuggle down in the middle of the bed between where her mother and she slept. Kate had come in and put the finished quilt on their bed. Her mother had objected, but Kate insisted. Willy was glad because her mother was always cold when she was away from the stove. Now she could be warm at night. And the nights were getting colder in these foothills.

Willy crawled in next to Bongo and ran her fingers across the squares of the new quilt. “See, this is the same as your dress and my shirt,” she pointed a square out to the sleepy child. “And here, too.” Bongo's fingers went into her mouth. “This is from our trousers and this here's a scrap left over from the Sheriff's shirt. And this is from Kate's dress.”

Sleep had captured the young Bongo and Willy lay back, listening to the deeply melodious sounds of the men at the table in the other room. The vaqueros often spoke in their own language unless the other hands were there or Kate or their mother asked them questions. She knew her mother would be there, making sure they all got fed that night. Her mother usually went to bed early, but she'd be up late this night till everyone had eaten. And Kate wouldn't go to bed either until the Sheriff was in the house.

The vaqueros reported that the southern steers had pretty much been rounded up and moved successfully, but the herd was pretty antsy. The Sheriff had ridden into town once they got the stragglers moved to a safer spot. But there'd been a small mud slide after Gaine left where Alabam's group was working. They'd be out a long time yet roping and pulling cattle out of muck. Fortunately this was the smaller winter drove or they'd all still be working just to round them up.

Garcia was with those further south riding herd, a hard job at any time, but particularly when the weather made the cattle so nervous and the riders so wet. But at least they weren't fighting a mudslide there. Still, they'd be riding most of the night helping the nighthawks. And Don Carlos was riding between all of them, making sure everything was getting done.

Willy listened to the rain on the roof and thought of the gift she had hidden under the bed. It was turning out so well! And the candy treats! Well, they were phenomenal! She snuggled lower under the extra blanket. It was warm and comfortable and safe here on the ranch. She hoped they wouldn't ever have to leave. Her eyes shut.

Soft light drifted in through the window. Willy eased out of bed wondering what time it was. It seemed late. She pulled out her knitting basket from under their bed. Her mother was still asleep and so was Bongo so she edged back into her warm spot in bed, sitting cross-legged, tenting herself under the covers. She pulled out her work and continued knitting with difficulty in what little light was coming into her small den.

“What are you doing, child?” her mother asked sleepily. Her mother's face and night cap appeared from under the covers over the sleeping figure of Bongo.

“Knitting,” Willy replied softly.

“So early?” her mother grumbled, then looked to the window. The sun was just up and it was later than her mother usually got up. “Stars! It's late! Get dressed and bring in the water, child!” The woman shivered and climbed out of bed. She hadn't gotten to bed till after midnight the night before by the time the last riders that were coming in made it in. Willy crawled out of bed and put her knitting back in the basket. She pushed it under the bed. She had chores to do. Their day was starting.

-***-

“So, you said you'd tell me this morning,” Kate said, turning for Gaine to help her with her corset ties. “What happened in town yesterday?”

“Warn't many folks flooded out, thank the heavens,” Gaine replied taking the strings of Kate's corset in her hands. “Them that war stayed with'n neighbors.” She frowned, "Ah shoulda stayed here ta the ranch 'n helped with'n that thar mud slide."

"You know the town expects you to do your job as Sheriff first. Besides, Don Carlos handled it."

"Yep," she agreed then grumbled, “Ah ain't gonna pull these tight, Katie!” Gaine hated the corset and thought it was detrimental to Kate's health.

“I know, honey, just tie them for me, please,” Kate said softly.

“All right. Enaways, that thar bridge ta town done held, but t'war water a'runnin' o'er't an warn't safe ta cross. Ah rode the north side a' the river quite a spell n' come ta that big ole house a' the Smiths.”

“I've heard the ladies saying there are strange goings on out there,” Kate intimated in a whisper.

“Yep. T'uther day Ah heared from Belle ta the saloon..”

“One of the soiled doves? You talk to them?”

“Uh, yep. Gotta. Bees part a' mah job.” Gaine chuckled but Kate was ominously quiet, “Belle, she bees a'goin' bah “Liberty Belle”. Kinda clever.” Hearing no reply, Gaine continued, “Anaways, she war a'sayin' they'd been losin', uh, bizness, uh, ta the Smiths, but warn't no way ta prove't.”

“Oh, my,” Kate gasped, her hand coming to her mouth. "Business?"

“Yep. Whal, them Smiths war a'flooded out. Shore ‘nuff, them folks war a'standing clean out ‘n the field, a'huddled tagather n' the rain...Mr. an' Mrs. Smith and two young ladies. Ah helped ‘em ta theys' neighbors an' Ah got ta talkin' ta one a' the girls, t'war barely a' age she war. Come ta find out, she said a fine unnamed gentlemans from town done lured her 'way from her wida'd mother an' put her ta the Smiths, a'promisin' her marriage an' such. Ah in-quired several times but she jest warn't gonna say who t'war. She said after she war settled, he tole her she had ta ‘entertain' t'uther fellers that done come out, not jest him.”

“My heavens!” Kate gasped. Her softly spoken words became more enthusiastic, “How awful! Who could this horrid man be?” Her thoughts went to the town "gentlemen", mulling them over from the Mayor down. She took her long calico dress off the wall hook and slipped it on over her head, settling the skirt over her floorlength petticoats and began to button the front.

“From what she done said, Ah'm a'thinkin' t'had ta be Westminster,” Gaine said, strapping on her holster and tieing it to her leg. Her store-bought trousers fit her perfectly and the holster fit at just the right place on her hip, giving her a perfect opportunity to draw easily should the need arise. “Ah heared he done been makin' frequent trips out ta the Smiths.”

“Westminster?" Kate was aghast. He was the mayor's nephew and a Town Council member. "Why, Westminster's courting Maude Field, the mine owner's daughter! She's the apple of her father's eye! Did Westminster break up with her?” Kate stood still, green eyes boring into Gaine's blue orbs, shock registering across her face.

“No. He ain't. Last Ah heared they done gots en-gaged.”

Kate huffed and poured some water from the pitcher into the bowl sitting on the attic chest at the end of their bed. In disgust she began to wash up. Gaine glanced over at the side of the room Kate had turned into a nursery. Both children's sleeping boxes were placed on a trundle bed to keep them off the floor and were draped around with their own mosquito netting hung from a beam in the ceiling as Kate and Gaine had around their bed.

Gaine could see little Sarah beginning to stir. “So, if'n t'is true what that thar young lady done said, t'would shore cause quite a ripple a' sensation ta the town.”

“Well, I would think so! Heavens to Betsy, Gaine, you need to arrest him!” Kate opened the netting, pulling it to the bent nail on the wall that held it during the day. “That poor girl! Good morning, sweetheart,” she smiled at the little girl and got a clean didy and the girl's day clothing before lifting the child's sleep box to their higher bed. “Stay in there, now, darlin'.”

“Arrest him fer what?” Gaine asked aloud, standing to the side watching.

Willy had finished with her room and her brothers' and moved to Kate and Gaine's bedroom door. The last one. She hated this daily chore the most. She put her ear to the wooden door.

“Why, for adultery!” Kate said indignantly in a louder voice. She lifted the baby's sleep box and moved it to their bed. The infant was still asleep. "Would you push the trundle under for me, please?”

“Shore.” Gaine carefully moved the filled chamber pot from under their bed and pushed the shorter bed under their taller one.

“I wonder what adultery is,” Willy muttered to herself. “Must have ta do with gettin' old.” She knocked on the door. “Chamber pots!” she called.

Gaine opened the door and stepped aside. “Shore, c'mon in, Willy. Ah’m a’headin’ ta the barn,” Gaine said stepping out the door past the girl.

“I’ll be out to do the milking as soon as I get these little angels changed,” Kate looked up at Gaine, “And we’ll discuss this further. I’m sure there must be something you can do!”

“Ah doan think sa,” Gaine called on her way down the hall. “Cain’t prove nothin’. An sum thangs ain't 'zactly il-legal.”

“Humpf,” Kate replied. A frown wrinkled her brow. Her path had crossed Westminster’s more than once before. Town Council member or not, Mayor's nephew or not, now that she thought about it, she wouldn’t put any of this past that thirty-something year old despicable excuse for a man who was always fawning round the young girls in town!

Willy carefully lifted the chamber pot and headed to the front door. She hated balancing those things all the way to the outhouse. Sometimes, when the weather was bad and no one was looking, she tossed the contents into the weeds off the path. But she dared not do that today.

She saw Alabam just inside the outhouse door, filling the ashes bucket. The hands had their own outhouse near the bunkhouse, but it was Alabam’s job to keep the ashes buckets filled in both. That and the hopper they used to make soap. Lots of wood ashes went into that.

Willy saw the dark wrinkles under Alabam's eyes and knew he was mighty tired. He’d been riding much of the night in the bad weather and was going to do his morning chores and eat before going to bed. She was glad it had stopped raining. She saw him stop and sneeze and wondered what it would be like to be a wrangler. They worked a lot harder than most people thought but she decided it would be wonderful, nonetheless.

At breakfast, Alabam was taken with a fit of sneezing. Gaine watched him with concern. He was older and shouldn’t have ridden as hard as he did the night before. “Ya’d best git ta bed, Alabam. Ya bees mighty sneezy. Doan wancha gittin’ sick n’ hav’n ta go fetch the Doc.”

Alabam raised his hand but couldn’t answer because he was sneezing.

“There’s a patented nostrum in the pantry,” Kate said, rising, handing little Sarah to Gaine and heading into the storage area. “I saw it there. It’s an old Indian cure, if I remember correctly.” Gaine nodded her head, remembering when the expensive, dollar-a-bottle medicine was purchased from a traveling troupe in Stockton when they were there after a cattle drive.

“Ah thunk t’war med'cine used by them crown heads ta France er England,” Alabam coughed out. He’d been with Gaine when the bottle was purchased and he remembered the show that was put on for the assembled group before the peddler went through the crowd selling the miracle medication.

Kate walked out of the pantry reading the label carefully. “No, it’s an old Indian recipe it says. Uh, supposed to help a lot of things...uh, influenza, consumption, fever, coughs.” She handed the corked bottle to Alabam. “You’d better take it. We don’t want you sick, Alabam.”

Alabam coughed out a, “Thanky.” He ran his hand down the ends of his mustach. He’d had this medicine before and was quite partial to it.

"If you want, I'll make you a plaster," Kate suggested.

“And I’ll make you soup for dinner,” Nell added. “Maybe chicken soup.” She looked to Kate who nodded her assent. There were lots of chickens including those Nell and Shorty had owned. Nell'd add soup to the menu of beans and bacon they usually had at dinner or even chipped beef. The fall slaughtering had been done long since and the smokehouse was full of pork and beef. And the tallow from the beef had already been turned into candles. A portion of beef was now kept drying behind the stove. It had been cured and smoked already. Nell would often chip off pieces, but it wouldn’t hurt to have chicken soup if it could help keep Alabam well.

“Momma makes soup when we git sick,” Dennis supplied. “But we ain’t never took none a’ that,” he pointed to the bottle Alabam held.

“Of course, we haven’t,” Willy said knowledgeably, “That’s because it’s just for adultery.”

The children all looked at her and nodded. Willy knew so many things. But the adults all looked at her with startled looks.

“What did you say?” Nell asked, a blush beginning to cover her face. Garcia also had a heated red enfusing his bashful face. He looked away.

“You know, Momma,” Willy explained patiently. “Ya can’t take some medicines till yer old. Ya have ta wait till ya git ta adultery.”

Suddenly the adults at the table burst into laughter. “Ya got the raht idee but tha in-correct word,” Gaine suggested in a kindly fashion. “Ya’s s’posed ta say “till yas gits ta be ‘n adult, not adultery. Means somethin’ a heap differ'nt.”

“What does it mean, then?” Willy asked.

“Never you mind,” her mother advised. “Just don’t use that word again.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Willy answered, puzzled by the whole thing. Kate had used it, and if it was bad, Kate would never have used it.

Kate settled back into her chair and took little Sarah back from Gaine. “Little pitchers have big ears,” she whispered aside to Gaine as the others remained laughing.

“Yep. Wer gonna hafta watch fer that!”

-***-

The days leading up to Christmas were busy and exciting. Alabam felt poorly for a few days but the medicine and plasters and the soup must have worked because he improved steadily. Everyone seemed to have something secret that they were hiding, except the boys. Kate helped Willy’s Momma work extra hard doing lots of extra baking of special foods that were kept wrapped and in the pantry because they didn't have a pie cupboard. One of Gaine's sisters had gotten that in the will when their Pa passed years before. She and her family lived clear in a different territory.

Even with the extra cooking Nell made pot cheese and butter nearly every two or three days, and it was Willy’s job to pump the wooden dasher up and down. She couldn’t work on her knitting till she was done. When they lived in town they never made butter so often. Course there were three milch cows here on the ranch, including their skinny old Bossy and the constant butter making meant they drank lots of buttermilk. Her Momma salted the butter when it was done and put it in large crocks with the other butter Kate had been saving.

With the downturn in the weather, the children tended to migrate to the rug before the fire. There was a certain sense of excitement they had never had before. They had never spent a holiday with such good scents. And, of course, they had never been so worry free. They all went around wide-eyed, deeply inhaling the delicious aromas.

Willy knitted to the heel, which Kate did for her. Then Willy worked her way to the toe. Every spare minute she knitted. Kate helped with the toe and finally her first stocking was done. She proudly showed it to her brothers. They were all very impressed. She’d run across two more small packets of molasses candy, which they’d also found wonderful; one from the ball of yellow yarn. As she’d promised, Willy shared the papers with the others.

One day the Sheriff hitched up her beautiful matched team and she and Kate left Kate’s littlest charge with Nell. They bundled up all Nell’s six children and little Sarah and loaded them into the wagon. The Sheriff drove to the wooded acreage further up into the hills. My, what a fancy team she had! They were the finest in the area!

The nigh gelding threw up his head and whinnied. “That un looks just like its dancin’, don’t it?” Brian said to his sister as they rode along in the back watching the dappled greys stepping along the path.

Willy looked at the animal in question. “No,” she replied knowledgeably, “he’s prancing. He’s a prancer not a dancer.”

Brian looked again. “Yep, you’re right.” His older sister was always right. She knew so many things. And she always watched out for them. And she shared her candy papers. “When we git ta work in the tack room again,” he said quietly, “I’ll come and git ya.”

Willy smiled back at him. He was all right. All her siblings were. Bongo cuddled next to her and she threw her arm around her little sister, snuggling her closer. The higher they went, the cooler it got but she could keep Bongo warm even if the little girl’s coat was little more than a rag.

The Sheriff had an axe and when they got to the edge of the evergreens, she said they needed to find a perfect tree to cut and put inside the house. It was the childrens’ job to search. They would spend some time decorating it when they got it home, Kate added.

They’d never had a tree before, nor had Kate and the Sheriff. But some of the wealthier people in town had, the people Nell had said they must always be polite to because they were the town “qualities”. They remembered looking in the windows of some of the “qualities” houses when they’d lived in town and seeing the trees. And the church had begun to have a tree at Christmas as well.

They made several choices but the Sheriff said they were too big. Then they found the perfect tree. Kate kept the children back as Gaine swung the axe in vigorous sweeps, the strokes ringing sharply in the clear air. The children had to squinch to the sides of the wagon bed in order to get the tree and themselves back in it. Sometimes branches fell over them. It didn’t hurt and it smelled so good! Cheerful, ruddy-faced children poured out of the wagon as soon as the tree was removed back at the house.

Once Garcia and the Sheriff sawed off the end and made a wooden stand, they got it up in the house. It stood clear to the ceiling! They were amazed! It seemed so small out by the other trees. They had to push the long table toward the back of the room in order to fit the tree in by the front window. The cutoff branches were arranged on the mantle by Kate. The house smelled wonderful! Even their Momma thought so.

The Sheriff had collected some old wanted posters from town and she brought them home. They spent hours folding and cutting out beautiful snowflake shapes to put on the tree. They also traced Gaine's Sheriff star and cut those out. They hung them with pieces of thread that Kate doled out cautiously. Every once in a while a criminal’s face would show through the back of the flake or star and they’d point their fingers and pretend to shoot him down. It was a beautiful tree and they decided it was perfect for a Sheriff.

One evening Nell made large batches of popped corn and they all sat stringing it to put on the tree. A lot was eaten as they did so and Gaine told Nell to fix some with butter just for them to eat. That brought a pleased reaction from everyone. Kate looked at the radiant small faces and nudged Gaine. It was good to see Willy without her constant look of wariness. Instead she sat laughing with her siblings. Even Nell smiled.

The second stocking was harder for Willy to work on. There was less incentive and the excitement of other enjoyments like decorating took so much time. Willy had to force herself to sit down and work on it, even knowing she would most likely run across more candies. But every time she saw the Sheriff, she became more determined. She was making stockings for the Sheriff and they were going to be the best pair the Sheriff ever got!

Kate was very busy herself, spending many of the afternoons in her room with the two littlest children with the door shut. That meant that Willy had to watch Bongo while she did her knitting, something that wasn’t that easy to do. And Christmas was coming closer and she was running out of time!

Two days before Christmas, Gaine and Kate left the two little ones in Nell’s care and rode toward town in the wagon. Bouncing on the seat of the buckboard, Kate looked back at their items. “I don’t know, honey." Worry flooded Kate's features, "I've been saving and there’s a good twenty pounds of butter there. They were selling it for twenty-three cents a pound the last time I was in town but Daniel won’t give us near that much for it, of course. Prices have dropped with fewer people able to buy and we'll get less."

Her eyes scanned the items, "And I have no idea what the pot cheese will bring. There's quite a bit of it. Eggs were going for fifteen cents a dozen, probably less now, so we’ll likely get less than a dime. We could only spare an extra dozen. I brought five of our glass cans of crab apples soaked in sorghum. Course there's vinegar and some spices that were added when I put them up. I have no idea what they might bring. And I even put in a couple small crocks of our apple butter.” She looked worriedly at Gaine. “I didn't think we could spare one thing more with so many mouths to feed. Will it be enough, do you think?”

They’d already used all of Gaine’s salary as Sheriff to buy the extra food supplies they’d needed for Nell’s family plus the material Kate had used to make the children new clothes and herself a badly needed coat with a matching one for little Sarah. Nell’s children didn’t eat all that much, but it did require more food stuff nonetheless. And there were other things like bedding. “Do you think we have enough?” Kate asked worriedly.

“Uh, Ah’m not shore, Meggy,” Gaine said. “Ah done got the small raise Ah tole ya ‘bout, but they has been more ‘spenses since’t Nell n’ the childerns come out ta stay n’ that done took’t up a heap a’ it.”

“We have to buy the candy for their stockings. I think the ribbon candies will only cost about a penny’s worth for each child. That's six pennies at least plus some for Sarah, that's seven. We should have enough for that, right?”

“Yep. Should be that, easy, Ah reckon.”

“But we need tobacco for all the men. Can we afford that?”

“Ah hopes sa. Nell bees making special cakes fer all the riders, too.”

“Yes, and she's making those fried apple pies made with dried apples for Christmas dinner. Course, that uses supplies, but we'll just cut back a little later. Uh, we can wait to give each other gifts, honey, if we have to.” She already had hers made for Gaine, but she didn’t want Gaine to worry about getting anything for her.

“Mostly it’s the children,” she continued, “They really need to have a good holiday. They’ve had so many horrible things happen to them this year..and before, even. This needs to be special. I was beginning to think that Willy didn't know how to smile.”

“Yep. Uh, Garcia bees working ta Carl’s gift n’ Alabam’s carvin’ out little Al’s. Ah got a big metal barrel ring from tha’ cooper fer Dennis’ n’ the stick’s near finished bein’ smoothed n’ all. An Ah loaded two cowhides back thar as Ah 'greed, an’ with five pounds a’ that thar butter we kin pay Saul fer Willy’s n’ Brian’s gifts.” Blue eyes twinkled, “An Ah done cut off that old store-bought broom handle ta circles till mah arm near falled off! Replaced't with'n a sturdy branch. Sweeps fine. That thar gift’s near done.”

“Good. We’re nearly ready.”

“Yep. We gotta ‘member ta hold out five a them pounds a butter ta take ta Saul a’fore we goes in tha store. That’s what we done agreed on. Then ever’thin’ else’ll hafta pay fer what’s left.” Blue eyes flicked back to the items in the bed of the wagon. “Ah reckon Ah kin al'ays ask Dan'el fer a little credit if'n we gotta. He ain't en-tranced with no sech idees, howsumever. But we’ll git by, darlin’. Doan worry none. We'll make do, nah matter what done turns out.”

“Yes. And I’ve finished the rag doll for Bongo and nearly have Nell’s gift done. But it would be so wonderful if we could get her some cloth, too. She's very frugal with yardage. And she feels so badly that she can’t dress properly. I’ve made a little scrap doll for Sarah. It’s ready plus a new dress to match her doll’s. The baby will be just as happy with a new sleep dress. She’s too little for playthings. I haven’t had much time to embroider it or anything, though.”

“We’ll git bah, mah sweet Meghan Katherine,” Gaine said softly. “We’ll be jest fahn, darlin’.”

“Yes, we will,” she replied, threading her arm into Gaine’s and pressing her cheek against Gaine's shoulder. “I was hoping to give each child a book someday,” she said wistfully. “When things settle down I'll teach them all to read. They made good progress when I worked with them last summer. They can spell their names, the older ones anyway. But we can’t afford books at all right now.” Then she added seriously, “Maybe next year.”

“Yep.” They rode in silence for a while, soaking in the still grandeur of the countryside and knowing that next year probably wouldn't be any better. Then Gaine asked, “Did ya wanna wait ta share ar gifts? We kin.”

“What do you want to do? I can wait or not. It’s up to you.” Kate batted her eyes at Gaine and it left the tall brunette chuckling.

“Now doan be no vixen, little Missy,” Gaine grinned. “Cupid done already gived mah heart ta ya an ya knows’t. An’ Ah kin be ready, if’n ya kin.”

“You can, huh? All right, we’ll exchange gifts on Christmas, too. And it’s Mrs. Sargos, not Missy!" She whispered, "I married you, don't forget.” But in fact she had offically “married” Gaine’s cousin, Michael, a man with no interest in women who was one of hundreds now "off seeking his fortune"--Michael Sargos, Gaine's fussy cousin she never called Mike.

Kate grinned to herself. She and Gaine had also had a private ceremony for themselves and the ring she wore was from Gaine. But it was Michael that gave her the legal title of Mrs. Sargos and ridded her of her despised father's name as well as keeping the multitude of single men in California from trying to court her. Course, she and Michael had been divorced right away, too, through Michael's partner, the judge, even though divorce was nearly unthinkable in that day and age. Still, few anywhere knew, and she saw no need to discuss her personal situation with anyone but Gaine.

Kate leaned momentarily against Gaine’s shoulder, but a xylophone-like noise echoed through the clear air and they knew town was over the next few hills. Kate reluctantly withdrew her arm and sat upright. It was the chimes of the church bells that grew louder the closer they came. Without doubt they'd be meeting up with other travelers as they neared.

“Do you think we could go to church on Christmas?”Kate asked pensively.

The question surprised Gaine. Kate had always said that her experiences with churches growing up had been very unpleasant. Her father had not let her attend local Bible groups where she might have had a chance to talk with others without him around. And when they did have a traveling minister preach in their out-of-the-way desert town, more often than not the minister's staunch and fiery teachings had encouraged and abetted Kate’s father, a man of high standing in town, in severely beating his wife and children, which he was inclined to do in any case. Gaine didn't think Kate’d be anxious to drudge up any of those memories.

Still Kate also said she’d received guidance from her mother’s Christian upbringing that helped them get through some of the most difficult times they’d faced with her father.

Gaine mused. It wouldn’t hurt to find out what was being preached at the Barden’s Corner Church. You can learn a lot about a man by studying his wife. She had dealt with the Pastor’s wife and knew her to be a helpful and determined woman, more a true marriage partner. No shrinking violet she. And the Pastor, while a solemn man, had never given Gaine the feeling that he was profoundly intemperate, although he’d done little to stop Shorty’s rampages. His wife had actually been better in that regard.

Gaine's blue eyes suddenly flew wide open, both brows heading for her hairline, “Oh great post holes! Pastor done stopped me n’ asked ‘bout bringin’ ya n’ Nell n’ the childerns ta church come Christmas. It war when Ah got ta town yesterday. But thar war a big fight ta the saloon an Ah had ta go. We din’t git ta jaw really, then Ah plum fergot. Ah meant ta tell ya.”

“Really?”

“Yep. He done mentioned somethin’ ‘bout maybe havin’ some hand-down coats donated fer summa the needy town childerns. Said they’d put ‘em out fer Christmas mornin’ service if’n Ah could git Nell ‘n her childerns thar. Said Ah should talk ta Nell.”

“Coats? Oh, Gaine, they do need coats. Have you looked at what they’re wearing? Goodness, even if they had a coat for one of them it would help. That’s very kind of the church to gather used coats.”

“Yep.”

“We need to ask Nell. I know she’ll be very interested in any coats for the children but she feels so horrible about being seen since she doesn’t have any widow’s wear. All she has is that same faded dress she’s worn for years and years. It's almost falling off her it's so worn. She's really extremely nervous about it. Everybody expects her to be in black and she couldn't even afford to dye her dress. And she’s terrified they’ll all look down on her...and, I think she’s even more afraid they’ll look down on us, too, because we’re with her.”

“Pshaw! We doan care ‘bout none a that!”

“I know we don’t, but everybody else does and she’s very sensitive. And you know how people can be.”

Gaine glanced over. “Yep. But we outta ask ‘er. The childerns does need coats.”

“Yes. And I'd like to go.” Kate looked over at the tall woman beside her. She remembered Gaine telling her how Gaine’s family always went to church when she was little. At least until a fire-and-brimstone preacher had replaced a more moderate voice and had begun preaching that everyone but their members were going straight to hell. Gaine’s mother pulled them all out then and as far as she knew, Gaine'd never been back.

“Mah Momma al’ays said,” Gaine had told Kate when they first met, “that God bees love, n’ ya’d best be right cautious a’ anaone a’usin’ God’s name ta preach hate.” But this Pastor wasn’t a fire and brimstone type, was he?

Kate sighed. They’d take the children if Nell couldn’t. Or they’d all go. However it worked out. “We can go then?”

“Yep,” Gaine replied. The horses rounded the bend where a number of people were headed in their wagons. The bustling town was just across the slick weathered bridge.

-***-

Willy sat at the table knitting. Her mother was standing over the hot stove cooking and the boys were playing on the rug by the fire while Bongo was in bed taking her nap. The boys had scraps of posters and had drawn horse shapes that Kate had cut out for them days before. Now they were building tiny stick corrals and moving the horses around from corral to corral, sometimes jumping them over the rails, sometimes building chutes, sometimes having horse fights and whinneying loudly.

“Momma,” Willy said plaintively. “What if I don’t finish? I don’t think I have time.” Tears filled her eyes and she forced her hands to work as fast as she dared, but it was still painfully slow. There were only two days left!

Her mother looked back at her young daughter putting her all into her task. What a hard life this child had lived in her short lifetime. “Here,” she said stiffly, “stir this pot. I’ll do some of the knitting for you.”

They traded places and worked in silence for a while. Her mother made the needles fly as the stocking grew in length. A small packet dropped out of the red and she put it aside.

She wanted to say something to the girl, but she didn’t really know how to talk to her. This child had kept the children from the rath of their father time after time, had ridden miles to get her aid when she thought for sure that she would die, had held the family together when she wasn’t able to, had hidden the children when her husband drunkenly got a gun deciding to kill them all. What do you say to an eight-year-old who has had to be such an adult?

Willy snuck solemn peeks back at her mother. The knitting was going very quickly now. She stirred the pot and made sure nothing stuck on the bottom. Suddenly it began to thicken. She wasn’t sure what to do. “It’s a’thickenin’,” she said.

“Oh, stars!” her mother put the knitting down. She got up and took over. Willy went back to her needles, but a great deal had been done in the time they’d switched and her hope picked up. Maybe she could make it. She began knitting again, her stitches much looser than her mother’s. It looked a little funny, but Kate could stretch it out and fix it. Kate could fix anything.

Willy continued working while her mother whipped the pot off the stove and added another pot of something else to the hot surface of the cookstove. She opened the bin door and tossed in some kindling from the basket on the floor, mixed the stove pot a couple times and went back to the thickening pot. She added buttermilk and stirred.

The young girl felt herself tense up. Two days left and she hadn’t gotten to the heel yet! Her tongue peeked out from her lips and flitted about like a ballet dancer hopping about a stage. She glanced at the window. It was getting dark! Kate and the Sheriff would be back soon and she’d have to stop for supper! She’d work tonight and that would leave only one day!

“Relax, child,” her mother said, glancing over from the stove. “I’ll help you get finished. You’ll get it done in time.” Her eyes went back to the items she was cooking, then she stopped, folded her apron to grip the oven handle and looked inside. Almost ready.

Willy looked over at her mother with surprise. She was an amazing woman in so many ways. She was small and thin and fragile and hadn’t spent a lot of time smiling. But she had put herself before her drunken husband to protect her children more times than Willy could count. “Get them out, Willy. Run!” she remembered her mother saying more times than she wanted to remember.

But her Pa wasn’t such a bad person when he didn’t drink. He was quiet, mostly, and watched them with eyes that made her wonder what he was thinking. Then he’d just get up and leave. He didn’t yell at them or anything like that, even when they deserved it. Not when he didn’t drink, anyway.

Willy felt herself relax. Her mother was going to help her. “Thank you, Momma,” she said.

“You’re welcome, girl,” her mother replied.

“I love you, Momma,” Willy added in a whisper to the woman's back.

Her mother turned a wistful look her way. “I love you, too, child,” she replied in a voice softer than she’d ever heard her mother use before. She let Willy stay up later than usual that night to get some knitting done and her mother had worked on it some after Willy went to bed.

The day before Christmas everyone seemed to head to their own areas. The boys bundled up and went outside and played with the cheerful dogs. Willy spent most of the day knitting and her mother joined her every chance she got. Early in the morning they decided to do the heel and turn the corner to the toe even if it wasn’t quite as long as the first stocking.

“The Sheriff won’t notice,” her mother told her. She took her mother’s word for it. Her mother did the heel then Willy worked furiously and before the afternoon was finished, Willy had only the toe to finish. Her mother showed her how and Willy did the work. Finally, the last stocking was completed and it was off the three needles! Willy was beside herself with joy and her mother gave her a hug of happiness as well. Willy shut her eyes and went very still in her mother’s arms. It felt so good.

Her mother stretched each stocking till they looked right. There was an old poster left from their decorating and carefully Willy wrapped the stockings in it, then tied it with a string. She wrote “sharuf” on the outside in charcoal. Her Momma couldn’t read or write, so she couldn’t help her. But Kate had taught them basic sounds that summer and the letters that went with them. They both stood back and looked at the gift under the tree. It was perfect! The tree was beautiful and the present under it was such an exciting thing Willy wasn’t sure she’d last till it got opened!

The boys were called in early as they all had to take baths. The dogs hung around outside the house for a long time hopeful that the children would return to play. Finally they headed to the barn. Nell got out the wash tub for the boys. Willy would get to take her bath when they were done and in bed. Then it would be the adults' turn in the kitchen. The Sheriff had a long tub she used. They hung blankets to give some privacy.

Kate had told the children that they were all to hang one of their stockings on the fireplace so that Santa could come down the chimney during the night and fill them. They only had one pair of socks each so a sock had to be hung once they'd changed into their night clothes. Willy had stuck her head as far as she dared in the chimney but wasn’t at all sure how that Santa fellow was going to pull that trick off. It didn’t look at all like it would be an easy job for a man coming down that chimney!

The boys went to bed excited. Willy hurried with her bath and quickly hung one of her socks and crawled into bed. It seemed more like a dream than anything else, but her mother went along with what Kate had said about Santa so she decided there must be something to it. Bongo was already asleep but it took longer for Willy.

She heard her mother telling Kate that the children should definitely go to church the next day but that she would stay at home and start on the dinner if that was all right. She wanted any child possible to get a new coat, but she didn’t want to bring any disgrace on the Sargos Ranch. No, she’d stay at the ranch, if Kate didn’t mind.

Kate said Nell should do whatever she felt most comfortable doing although they’d be proud to have Nell go with them. Nell declined. The children’s mother worried about what the children could wear there as coats. Then Nell decided that Willy could wear Nell's coat with the sleeves rolled up. She was a small woman. It wouldn’t be that big on the girl. Willy’s old coat could be handed down and so on till they got to little Bongo. Her old coat could be boiled and turned into scrap strips for another braid rug. That way they’d look halfway decent going to church.

Willy listened and thought about that. Someone was going to get a new coat! Hers was getting tight. She was the oldest, so it would probably be her! But maybe some of the boys would get them, too. Maybe they’d all get them! Wouldn't that be something! It was possible. They'd all gotten coats from the church two years ago and now they were snug. Last year there’d been only enough church coats for their neighbor’s children to get them. This year...maybe. It was always a hopeful time for their family.

Then another thought struck Willy and gave her pause. Malcolm and his sister, Philamena had been the bane of her existence when they’d lived in town. They had been horrible to her! Above all the other children, they had been most cruel. They’d taunted her about her raggedy clothes, her father’s drinking, her mother’s black eyes and her dopey brothers. Philamena had pushed her down and called her a tramp, just like her father. They called her “dirty britches” and said Bongo ate dirt when the small child put her hands in her mouth. And they got all the other children to chant “Bongo eats dirt. Bongo eats dirt”.

She hoped it wouldn’t be their coats that they’d get. Then Willy chewed her lip. She knew her mother would be horrified if she had any idea Willy had had such a thought. A coat was a coat. Wherever they got it was a blessing! Willy felt ashamed.

Suddenly she heard a sound much like a tamborine or a spur being shaken. “What’s that?” she wondered, forgetting about the coats. There it was again. No, maybe it was a bell! “What is that?” She crawled out of bed and stuck her head out the hall door into the big room.

“Ah figured ya warn’t ta sleep,” the Sheriff grinned. She was standing by the fireplace where the empty stockings were hanging. She was glistening clean and had on her flannel nightshirt. Kate was in the kitchen in her nightshirt helping her mother clean up from the baths. “Ya’d best hop back ta bed n’ stay thar. Ah thunk Ah done heared Santa flyin’ ‘round out near the roof.”

“Is that what I heard?” Willy asked, her eyes widening.

“Ah figure,” the Sheriff said seriously. “Course, could’a been them little bells he gots on them reindeers that ‘er a’haulin’ ‘em ‘bout. He gots hisself a right smart team, ya know. An’ he bees a good driver. Keeps them reins ta one hand an’ cracks ‘is whip with’n t’uther.”

“Really?”

“So Ah heared,” the Sheriff continued. “Yep, mighta been them hoofes ta the roof makin’ ‘em jingle.” She stopped and listened. “Donner, Ah figure. No, maybe Blitzen. They’s likely the heartiest a’ the team. Ya’d most hear ‘em when thay done hit down. He keeps ‘em ta the wheeler’s spot, ya see. Course, he ain’t gonna stay if’n the childerns ain’t all ta bed. He likes the ‘dults ta be ta bed too, so’s we’s gonna hurry. He’ll git them reindeer off’n that roof like a comet an’ not pay his visit a’tall, if’n ya ain’t ta sleep, so’s ya’d best hop back n’ bed n’ shut yer eyes tight.”

“Good night,” Willy smiled. She scurried back and crawled into bed next to a sleeping Bongo. She had her gift done, her Momma had helped her and hugged her and that Santa fella was on the roof! Sheriff said so. Wait till she told the others she and the Sheriff’d heard him! She shut her eyes, planning to still listen. But before she knew it, she was sound asleep.

There was frost on the ground in the morning and the house was cold! The children all rushed to the big room in their nightclothes to see their stockings with things inside them and some bigger items were on the floor. The adults dressed quickly but didn’t make the children go back and dress.

Gaine built a fire and Nell started one in the kitchen stove. Don Carlos, Garcia and Alabam all came over to join them, followed by three of the other riders who would stay for breakfast then replace the other riders. Nell poured them coffee and the adults all sat back and watched each child rummage in their sock to find wrapped ribbon candies! Three whole pieces! They”d never had such a treat! With wide eyes they planned when they would eat each and every piece.

Bongo and little Sarah had rag dolls in their socks. They were soft and each one had the same color of hair and eyes as their new owner did.

Al got a carved wooden horse on a board with wheels that he could pull around with a twine. It even had a simple leather saddle on it that you could take off and put on again! It was like nothing he had ever seen before! He pulled it all around the big room making whineying sounds.

Dennis got a big hoop and a special stick with his name on it to make it roll. He was so excited he tried to roll it in the house, but his Momma made him wait till he could go outside. He was happy to pop one of his candies in his mouth and watch the others. Carl had a short, hand-plaited leather whip that he was quickly able to make snap over and over and over. He wasn’t to actually touch anything with it. He readily agreed. He was as happy as any boy could be!

But the best gifts of all went to Brian and Willy. They each had a brand new pair of tall leather ranch boots like the riders wore, just a little bigger than their feet! They sat on the rug and instantly pulled the boots on! It was the most wonderful gift they had ever received! They marched around the room trying very hard to walk like big ranch owners. The noise they made on the rock floor! It was heaven on earth!

Baby Deena had a new dress with just a little embroidery on it. She gurgled in her cradle but seemed unimpressed with the dress.

On the mantle was a gift for all the children. They each moved around it as they took it to the rug and pulled the paper off. It was a checkerboard with black and red round wooden checkers kept in a drawstring bag!

“Ya knows how ta play?” Gaine asked.

“Yes!” they all chorused in joy. They’d watched the old men in the merchantile when they sat around the pickle barrel and played checkers. They all knew how the game went.

“You’ve got to share, now,” Kate warned. “You mustn’t fight over it.”

“We ain’t gonna,” Willy replied proudly. “Are we?”

“No,” they replied angelically. Willy smiled. She’d make sure of it.

Under the tree were gifts for all the fellas-their own kind of tobacco in hand-made string-drawn pouches just the right size to keep in their large shirt pockets and small individual holiday fruit cakes Nell’s Momma had always called “Poor Man’s Fruitcake”. Nell had never forgotten how to make it. It was almost like a cinnamon and raison cake, delicious and not nearly as sweet as some recipes.

Garcia blushed but produced his well-used pipe and filled it. He took an ember from the fireplace and placed it on the bowl. He sucked on the stem before puffing out a cloud of smoke. He sat back on his chair, the comforting smell of the pipe smoke filling the area. Alabam opened his pouch and offered to let Don Carlos tear off a portion in an absolute display of friendliness.

"Have a chaw?" he asked, before realizing that Don Carlos had a pouch of his own. He chuckled then looked at Kate's warning brow. There was no spittoon in the house. He would not be spitting inside. Don Carlos patted his shoulder as they both quietly put their pouches in their pockets for later use out by the corral. Two of the other riders used their tobacco to roll cigarettes that they lit up. Usually Kate liked them to smoke outside, but she said nothing this Christmas morning. They were carefull to flick their ashes into the fireplace.

Nell opened a package holding a warm, hand-knitted black sweater. She almost cried when she saw it. Another second package held just enough black material for her to make a thrifty widow’s dress. She could be a proper lady after all! She didn’t know what to say. Tears flooded her eyes but Kate just moved over, hugged her and said, “You’re welcome. We appreciate everything you do for us, Nell.”

Gaine opened the package from Kate to find a hand-made blue shirt that matched her eyes. It was of a style most wranglers were beginning to wear. It was beautifully embroidered on the shoulders and was very fancy. The tall brunette was thrilled and announced that she was going to wear it to church that very morning.

Kate opened a note that asked her to look on the porch. When she did she found under a canvas cover, a bedroom dresser freshly made and smelling of newly worked wood. The hands carried it in and placed it in their bedroom. Kate stood with her hands to her heart, looking this beautifully simple piece of furniture over. She had wanted a dresser for ages it seemed but didn’t think they’d be able to afford it for a long time yet.

Finally, other than the other rider's tobacco and fruit cakes, there was only one gift left...Willy’s present for the Sheriff. Gaine went to the tree and withdrew the package. A soft smile came across her face as everyone watched her lift it up. Willy held her breath and thought her heart might stop. Carefully the string was untied and the package was opened. Gaine’s blue eyes lit with pleasure and she held the stockings up for all to see. Kate started everyone applauding. Willy felt her chest fill with pride.

“Ah gotta wear them thar stockin’s,” the Sheriff said, and sat right on the rug with the children and pulled off her boots. “Lordy, thay shore does look warm. Ah doan believe Ah’v never had sech a fahn pair a stockin’s afore n’ mah whole life! Lookit them grand socks, fellers!”

The grizzled features of the weathered riders developed into mellowed looks of approval that no one in town would have believed possible of such hardened wranglers. "Good job, Willy," one muttered. "Si. Bueno!" drifted from their lips. "Yer one lucky rider, boss."

Gaine pulled off her mended blue store-bought stockings and pulled on her new red and yellow striped pair. They were loose at the top but she made no mention. She held out her feet and wiggled her toes and Willy thought she might faint right away with pleasure. The Sheriff liked her gift and even the riders liked them!

The eight-year-old's smile stretched from ear to ear. She exchanged a conspiratorial look with her mother. “Momma helped me,” she admitted. “And Kate did, too. They did the heels, uh, and showed me...”

“Ah figure ya done the bulk a the job!” The Sheriff ruffled her uncombed light brown hair, “An’ mah feets be ‘bout as good took care a’ as eny feets kin be!” She pulled her boots on over them and stood up to stamp around a little. “Yep! Downright perfect! They bees mighty warm! Thanky, Willy. T’is the best present ever!”

With hearts aglow from the morning, they ate a hearty breakfast and the riders went out to relieve the nighthawks. Gaine, Kate and the children had to hurry to finish their chores before heading to church. Nell used water to comb each child’s hair and she nervously straightened their clothes as they wiggled about. The excitement of the morning seemed at a fever pitch. The children could hardly wait to get home and play with their new toys. Nell told them they had to leave everything at the ranch, including their candy.

Nell worried. The whole congregation was going to be watching her children today. “Be very, very good. Don’t jiggle or fuss during the service and remember to say ‘thank you’ afterward. Be extra polite to the “qualities”. They run this town and they expect their due. Make me proud.”

“Yes, Momma,” they chorused. Nell rolled up the sleeves on her own old worn coat and bundled Willy into it. She gave each child their older siblings’ coat and wiped them off as best she could with a damp rag. The children piled into the back of the buckboard, their old hats tied on their heads, some with pieces of rags. The dogs danced around the wagon, hopeful that they’d be taken, too. But Gaine sent them to the porch where they waited mournfully with Nell.

Across the pasture they saw the relieved nighthawks riding in to get their breakfast and their own gifts from under the tree.

Gaine had had the fellas put straw in the bed of the wagon so the ride was easier. Sitting in the back, everyone admired Willy and Brian’s new boots. The others could hardly wait for them to grow out of them! Willy told about how she and the Sheriff heard Santa on the roof. Envy reined supreme.

On the bench Gaine sat in her new shirt, buckskin jacket and clean black trousers. She wore her black Stetson and had on her sixshooter and her star. The Sheriff’s job didn’t stop because it was Christmas. In fact, she would have to check the saloons after church to make sure everything was under control before they came back home.

Kate was in her newest dress and wore the new wool cloak she’d made herself earlier in the fall. Little Sarah had on her small child’s coat Kate had made to match. And they both wore bonnets. The baby wore her best dress and bonnet and was wrapped snuggly in a double blanket. An old buffalo robe was put in the back for all the children to snuggle under.

The beautifully matched team pulled the buckboard away from the ranch and over the rolling hills. As they neared town, other wagons began to crowd the roads. They got into line as they finally approached the bridge. They heard the chimes of the church bells calling the people to church. The gong of the bells was much louder as they moved into the filled yard behind the church and all the children put their hands over their ears.

It took a while for Gaine to find a place to leave her team and wagon, it was so crowded. Many of the townsfolk, ranchers and farmers were there. A fairly large crowd stood outside in the churchyard and down onto the boardwalk chatting. Their eyes had gone to the Sheriff, Kate and the children as they pulled into the lot. Many admired the beautiful team of horses Gaine had.

Before they’d even stopped, a number of the men from Gaine’s posse came to assist her, greeting her profusely. They helped with the horses and others helped Kate and the youngsters from the wagon. These were the men whose lives had been in Gaine’s hands. They all had come home safely because of her skill after they ran up against the desperate outlaws that had terrorized their area.

Kate had the children leave their hats in the wagon bed and quickly licked her hand to tidy up each child’s tresses while still holding baby Deena. Willy held both Bongo’s hand and little Sarah’s. Bongo held her doll in her other hand. She’d refused to leave it at home.

“These can’t be those scrawny orphans from the Rocking Star Ranch!” Bernard exclaimed, looking at the baby and little Sarah. That was the ranch the outlaws had hit, killing the tiny girls' parents and their three-year-old brother. “I thought they’d be on cemetery hill by now for sure. Why those two little babies were half dead when they brought ‘em into town! Now they’re healthy as little ponies!”

“Yep,” Gaine replied, “Kate done saved their lifes.” She lifted Sarah into her arms.

“She sure did!” the man replied. “I seen 'em when they first got here. Honey, look at these two. You’d never know they were the same children.” Kate smiled while Bernard’s wife also took that opportunity to look over Deena and Sarah. The sheep rancher and his wife rarely got into town and hadn’t heard how well the little ones were doing.

Slowly Gaine and Kate made their way from one posse member’s family to another, shaking hands with each person. “Ya’all ramembers Nell’s childerns,” Gaine would say, “They’s a livin’ ta the ranch,” and everyone would greet the children politely. Willy was not used to being treated with any respect and reminded her siblings in side whispers to be very polite. They stayed huddled together as much as possible.

“Gaine, Kate!” Etta called. She and her husband, Wilbur, walked over to greet them. Etta was a large, bosomy, middle-aged woman with a no-nonsense bonnet framing a placid expression. Wilbur's long hair, peppered liberally with grey, flowed beneath his wide-brimmed hat. The furrows in his deep-lined face hid none of the kindness displayed there. “Did you have a good Christmas?” Etta asked the children as they stood waiting for the Sheriff who was still talking with one of her men. The children all nodded.

“So far,” Kate replied nervously, seeing some town members whispering to each other as they stood to the side. They seemed almost annoyed that Gaine and Kate should be getting so welcome a reception.”

Etta chuckled. “I understand. Listen, sit with us inside, all right?”

Kate exhaled in relief. “Thanks, Etta. We’d love to.” Etta and her husband ran the cafe. But Etta also held a Town Council position soley procured for her by Gaine. The town would not have had a woman in such a position at all had Gaine not "insisted". The Mayor claimed the Sheriff had "blackmailed" them, which always brought a grin to Gaine's face. It was an anomoly, but their town was finding a woman like Etta could be very good at organizing town finances, which they sorely needed done.

“You’re amongst friends,” Etta smiled and looked around. “Mostly,” she leaned to Kate in confidence, “That small group behind you can always find something to complain about, even on Christmas. Just ignore them.”

“Uh huh,” Kate replied. “Where’s your boys?” Etta and Wilbur had three teenage boys left at home from the large family they'd raised.

Etta smiled. “They’re over talking to the Nelsons. They say they’re friends with the brothers, but it’s really the girls they're fancying.” She raised her brows and rolled her eyes and Kate laughed in reply.

Gaine walked over with Sarah in her arms. She glanced back at her posse members. “Theys good folks n’ this here town, Etta,” she said. Even if'n many be sheep herders, Gaine thought to herself. Cattle ranchers and sheep herders often clashed. Sheep tended to strip the range land leaving it unuseable for longer periods of time and too often the herders wanted to fence areas off. And more and more sheep herders seemed to be coming into the area every year. But so far they all got along with Gaine, so no range wars were imminent.

“Yes, there are. But isn’t it interesting that for all the goodness you see in people here, no one but you helped protect Nell and the children all those times they needed help?" Etta's brow raised, "And no one else offered them shelter when they were about to be evicted from that old shack by a mine owner who easily could have afforded to give them some charity?”

“Now Etta, Wilbur an’ yer boys tried ta pratect ‘em as Ah recollect. An pertectin' folks bees mah job. An the t'uther, well, the ranch done gots four bedrooms." Blue eyes smiled at the older woman, "Mah Daddy done built it big ‘nuff fer two fam’lies. An we done needed a housekeeper.”

“You know there’s more expense than that, Gaine,” Etta said with a raised brow. “We’ve raised a large family and know about such things. And we all know there's scores of women and children wandering as beggars or worse on big town streets. Seems to me there’s those that claim to believe in goodness and those that practice it. And whether they’re in this church crowd or not makes no difference as to who's a'doin' which.”

“Well, we ain't a big town. An' a ranch done bees n’ easier place ta git by n’ bad times 'n eny place ta town.” Gaine slowly moved beside Kate as she carried baby Deena and edged them toward the church doors. Willy held Bongo’s hand and the boys followed behind, staying close to their sister. The children’s day had been wonderful so far and they tried to ignore some of the scowling faces in the crowd.

The Mayor and his wife were talking with Mr. Altenman and his wife. All were in their holiday finery, the men wearing top hats and capes and the women wearing fancy cloaks and fashionable bonnets. Both men were members of the Town Council. They did not glance over as Gaine and Kate passed with their small covey.

“The Council’s going to start taking bids on the new bridge,” Etta remarked quietly to Gaine.

“Make shore they done hires fellas from here ta work!” Gaine replied softly. “Ar folks done needs the work right bad. Doan matter who bees boss, but tha workmens gotta be ar’n.” The group stopped for a minute, blocked by another small group that had moved in their way.

“You know they don’t listen to me, Gaine. They think of me as a bookkeeper, not a member of the Council, so you’d better be there when they discuss it, because I think the Mayor has some out-of-town friend of his in mind.” Then she whispered, “I don’t think he thinks I’ll find any kickback, if he does that. And maybe I won’t. But I’ll sure be scrutinizing every purchase and every salary.”

“Ya let me know when tha meetin' tis, 'n Ah’l be thar,” Gaine remarked. “An maybe Ah’l bring a batch a’ them posse fellers ‘long. Theys all helped git this here town the financin’ fer that thar bridge’. Ah’m shore they’d ‘spect the townsfolk ta profit from it.”

“That would be wonderful,” Etta smiled back. “The Council’ll try and send you out of town, though. You know that.”

Gaine looked back at the Mayor and grinned. “Yep. Theys kin try.”

Kate noticed that the same sour group from earlier had also been slowly moving behind them and had gained some new members. They were now stopped very close nearby. One woman whose hair style and fancy hat betokened an elegant taste, took out a beautiful hand fan, a present no doubt, and opened it to speak behind it to her neighbor. Her voice, however, traveled easily to Kate and Gaine.

“Why in the world would our Sheriff tie herself down with tramps and ragamuffins like that? We expect more from a city official!” The lady’s hard eyes showed over the top of the lovely painting on the fan while the new red tassel hung below her hand. “And where’s their mother? I heard she wasn’t even wearing black.”

“Disgraceful!” the man beside her replied, rolling adjudging eyes their way. "Shows no respect at all for a man who graced her as husband and the father of his children! Utterly despicable!"

Kate looked back to see the woman and her gentleman friend skirted by Westminster, his bride to be and another couple with several well-dressed youngsters. The fiancee appeared to be friendly enough but the rest all looked at Kate and Gaine as though they had unripened lemons stuck in their mouths.

Kate’s quick temper took over. “Good morning!” she smiled back in the small group’s direction. “I see you are overtaken with Christian love and charity this blessed Christmas morning!” A number of other people looked over, startled at the harsh tone of her words.

Oh, Murder! Gaine thought to herself. “Easy, Kate,” she said aloud softly. “Jest ignore ‘em.”

“Humpf,” Kate replied. “Come along, darlings,” she said loudly to the youngsters, “we’re going to hear a Christmas sermon, most likely about the birth of love in the world! A fitting topic not everyone has heard about it seems!” She moved around the group in front and headed for the church door, Gaine and the others scurrying at her heel.

“Well, I never....” the lady with the fan remarked.

Etta chuckled to herself, but wiped the smile from her face since she had a certain standing in the community that required her neutrality. Being the only woman ever to be on the Town Council had its responsibilities.

“Ahha!” old man Roger Pickwick exclaimed with delight from where he was standing on the boardwalk. He struck his cane with energy on the boards. “She’s a pip, that little blonde Minnie! Just like in the olden days! She’ll put ya in yer place, if ya don’t watch yer p’s and q’s! She ain’t afraid ta tell ya what she's thinkin'! Ahha!” He shook his cane at the small group of startled participants.

Unfortunately, the old man had always had Kate confused with Gaine’s cousin Minnie whose family had lived at the ranch when Gaine was a young girl. Minnie and Gaine had raised a good deal of trouble together as youngsters. And Roger was one of several townsfolk who still referred to Kate as Cousin Minnie, even though Kate asked them repeatedly to please call her Kate. And Gaine called her “Meghan” as often as she did “Kate.” It was all too confusing for the old man.

“Come along, Roger,” Wilbur called to the old fellow. “We’re going in.”

“Oh, yes indeed,” the old man called back, hurrying to follow his friends.

Once inside, Nell’s family’s neighbors from town, Mabel and her husband, waved congenially from one of the pews close to the front where their family filled the long bench. “Merry Christmas,” they mouthed. “Good to see you!” They were regular attendees and they were also in difficult financial straits, as many people, particularly workers, seemed to be these days. The panic of '73 had carried ruin throughout the land. President Grant tried his best but now, two years later, folks were still trying to crawl out of a country-wide economic hole. Gaine wondered if Mabel’s children would also be getting coats.

“Where’s Nell?” Mabel mouthed and Kate mouthed back, “Couldn’t make it.” Mabel nodded in understanding.

Willy looked down Mabel’s row and saw Billy, their ten year old, looking back at her with a smile. She liked Billy. He always stood up for her and her brothers, and they’d all climbed the tree behind his house together many times. If she missed anything in town, it was her friendship with Billy.

The Sheriff’s eyes went to the side of the alter in front where a Christmas tree had been placed and decorated with candles. Under it in a semi-circle were stacked children’s used winter coats in various degrees of wear. Some had been sent by train, packed in large barrels by their church back east, one of the posse members had told Gaine, and the rest were donations from people here in town.

Etta, Wilbur and Roger, Gaine and Kate and the children filled their row completely. They sat, the baby beginning to fuss. Kate jiggled her softly.

Willy looked across the row and saw Malcolm’s cold eyes glaring back at her. She casually stretched her feet out and swung them slightly to make sure he saw her new boots. It worked. He saw them and his eyes widened before a sneer came to his mouth. His shoes were clean and freshly polished but were not new, and they were not boots. He was wearing kneepants with long stockings and short shoes. Apparently his family hadn't thought him old enough yet to have boots and long trousers.

Willy pretended not to see him. She swung her legs and pulled Bongo onto her lap, giving everyone else more room The small girl nestled against her sister and sucked on her fingers, her doll held in her other hand’s grip.

When Willy looked back she saw Philomena’s haughty gaze. She was wearing a brand new coat and Willy’s heart sunk. She was the child in town closest to Willy’s size. She fervently hoped she would not get Philomena’s old coat. She wondered how evil it was to not want anything that had belonged to Philomena.

Besides, Philomena’s mother’s style went firmly to the frilly, feminine side for her daughter’s fashion, something the boys wouldn’t want to wear. What would she do, if she got the girl’s old coat? She could manage to wear it, of course, but how could she hand such a coat down when it was time? The boys wouldn’t want to wear it and they’d be teased mercilessly when they had to!

She’d keep her own, she decided, that’s what she’d do...the one Brian was wearing. But she remembered her mother’s words. Philomena’s parents were “qualities,” the important people in the town according to Nell. They were the people that required constant respect. Willy crossed her fingers and wished with all her might that she wouldn't get Philomena’s coat! Mabel’s Betsy was just a little taller than she even if she was younger. Maybe Betsy’d get it.

Kate decided that she would have to change little Deena before the service began or the baby would fuss through the whole thing. Taking a clean didy and the pouch in which to place the old, she carried the child to the back where people in their Christmas finest were beginning to file in and fill the pews in earnest. She was stopped by several people politely welcoming her before the pianist began playing introductive music.

“Thank you,” she smiled. “I must get the baby changed, please forgive me.”

“My dear,” she heard a familiar voice as she turned to head to the anteroom in the back, “have you met Mrs. Sargos, the Sheriff’s cousin?”

“Why no, I haven’t,” a feminine voice replied. Kate looked up to see a young woman and Westminster before her, the young woman's hand on his folded arm. The girl was the mine owner's daughter and no more than eighteen. Westminster was in his thirties. Westminster introduced them and Kate gave a polite reply. The girl was not a comely woman by any means, but her face was guiless and honest. She seemed far too nice a person for the likes of Westminster. Her stylish fur hat and coat left no doubt of her baron father’s success at the town’s copper mine.

“I was just explaining that you had married the Sheriff’s cousin. I am right about that?” Westminster’s roving eyes raked Kate’s body.

“Yes, that’s correct,” Kate smiled, jiggling the baby, whose blue eyes now moved to those around her.

“We never see your husband, my dear. I wanted to make sure I got that correct.” He smiled his snakeoil smile. “Since we never see any of you from the ranch here at church,” Westminster continued, “May I assume that you brought Shorty’s,” he paused to sniff, “little gutter rats for the express purpose of getting coats.”

“Westminster! That was rude, dearest!” his bride-to-be admonished.

“I was just teasing, darling,” he replied with a snicker, giving a sharp look Kate’s way. Westminster had experienced several upsets at Kate’s hand and had come close to being shot by the Sheriff. There was no love lost in his heart for anyone from the Sargos Ranch. And they weren’t any too fond of him either.

His fiance smiled, “It is Christmas, after all, a good time for young children to get needed winter wear.” She continued, “I’m sure Mrs. Sargos and the Sheriff are here to enjoy the Christmas service, as are we.”

“Please, call me Kate,” Kate felt herself tense but she smiled sweetly, a touch of guilt running over her as she jiggled the baby. If she were inclined to answer, she would have to admit she was here as much for the children to get coats as for the service.

“Oh, please do call me Maud, then,” the girl replied amicably.

“Well, my dear,” Westminster patted his young fiance’s hand condescendingly, “considering that we attend every week for the full well-being and benefit of our divine souls, and Kate and the Sheriff never attend at all, we surely would be correct in assuming their values are not, shall we say, as laudable as ours. But then, a Sheriff’s job by its very nature must oblige one to put oneself in jeopardy of risking one’s immortal soul at every turn.”

“I can’t imagine a woman wanting to be Sheriff,” Maude said, obviously being honest in her opinion.

Kate cleared her throat. “She’s very talented at it. You know, Christmas is such a joyful time,” she smiled. “Time for family and friends and not speaking of risking one’s soul. Although I can’t help wondering, Westminster, have you introduced your fiance to your guest at the Smith residence?” Instant shock crossed his face as Kate shifted her view to the fiance, “Has Westminster taken you or your father out to visit his dear friend at the Smith farm yet, Maud?” she asked the girl. “You absolutely must insist that he do so!”

Westminster’s face paled to a deep pasty white and he clamped his hand over his fiance’s hand where it rested on his arm. “Hurry, dearest, we’re going to miss the service. We cannot miss a Christmas service!” He directed her quickly away from Kate. “I have no idea what she was babbling about,” echoed back to Kate. “I know no one at the Smith’s. She’s quite deluded!” Kate wanted to laugh.

“So nice to have made your acquaintance,” Kate called politely to the departing couple. “Perhaps we’ll speak more later.” She saw the fiance cast a quick look back. Then Kate hurried to change the baby, knowing full well that Westminster would not let his fiance near her again.

The service was just beginning when she returned. In truth, it was a memorable though long sermon and Kate enjoyed it, since small Deena slept through it and Kate was able to hear what was said. Sarah, however, was a little rake, laughing and waving and cooing, enjoying the crowd behind them as Gaine shifted the fifteen-month-old from shoulder to shoulder. The small girl also managed to get in some good pulls of Gaine’s long, black hair to the delight of the crowd behind, making the tall beauty grimace more than once and struggle to pry little hands loose.

The other children managed to sit without shuffling around too much. Finally the time arrived. The pastor was going to call children’s names and they were to come up and receive a coat.

Willy held her breath. They started with the youngest, so one of Mabel’s children went up assisted by one of their older children. Willy refused to look at Philomena. The next was also one of Mabel’s but the following was Bongo’s name. Willy went up with her, letting her boots hit the floor loud enough with each step so that all the children might see that she was wearing new boots. She helped Bongo on with the coat, had her say “thank you” then returned to the pew with Bongo’s old coat on her arm.

Many of the people in the crowd did not approve of the fact that Willy was wearing trousers, but she’d worn them since her mother switched them all years before, except Bongo, of course, who’d always worn baby dresses. Some of the adults frowned at Willy as she returned to her seat, but she ignored them. She had new boots and they were wonderful! Besides, who could they complain to? The Sheriff was wearing trousers.

A few other children from other families were called up then it was just Mabel’s children and Nell’s. Willy had Brian help her other brothers when they went up. He also stomped his feet on the church floor to show off his new boots but the audience smiled at his antics. The boys all came back with large smiles on their faces and new coats on their backs. Their old raggedy coats hung over their arms.

Finally it was Willy’s turn and she took a deep breath and rose from the pew. Slowly she walked up front. The coat on top was not Philomena’s old one. She crossed her fingers. The Pastor smiled and pulled a coat from under the top one. She knew immediately. It was Philomena’s old coat. It was a fancy pointed cassaque fitted for a girl, with a tier just below the waist that fluffed out like a thick, short skirt. Willy’s heart sunk but she smiled politely and managed to say “thank you,” before heading back.

“Don’t you want to try it on?” the Pastor asked.

“No, thank you,” Willy replied hurrying back down to her row. Philomena was grinning pompously and Willy wanted to slug her in the face. Kate looked down and saw that Willy was not putting the coat on. She looked at the coat style and instantly knew why. “Pass it to me,” she whispered down to Willy. Willy quickly passed the coat to Kate, relieved not to have to hold it one second longer.

Kate looked over the coat. It was a very well made, expensive coat in almost new condition. And, she couldn’t help wondering if, perhaps, the Pastor had some well-intentioned meaning to try and guide Willy to becoming more feminine by making that selection for her. Surely he was aware that such directions never worked. Besides, their family had no opportunity for such choices. They had to hand clothing down. Nell’s financial situation demanded it.

As soon as the service was over she took the baby and the coat and rushed to Mabel’s side. “Would your Betsy like to trade coats?” Kate asked. Mabel looked at the coat. It was a much better value than the one given Betsy. “I don’t want to seem ungrateful, but Willy has to pass this down after she’s outgrown it, and...” Kate shot a glance at all Willy’s brothers.

Betsy stood watching hopefully. It was Philomena’s old coat and she wanted to be like Philomena in every way. “Of course,” Mabel smiled. She understood all too well how that worked. Fortunately, her husband had a job at the mine working long, hard hours although he made only a frugal living, so they still had to hand down clothing. Their next child down from Betsy was a girl.

“We’d be happy to trade.” Betsy’s face lit up like a lantern and the trade was made. Kate walked back to where the Sheriff was talking with several families from town. “Here,” she handed the coat to Willy, “You have to be able to hand it down to the boys when it's time,” Kate whispered.

Willy looked at the new coat. It had no particular style. It was a regular child’s sack coat, not nearly in as good a shape as Philomena’s had been but it looked like heaven to her! She slipped off her mother’s coat and put on the new one. It was perfect, a little big, but perfect! A large smile spread across her face. Kate took Nell’s old coat and Willy took Bongo’s hand once more, grabbing Bongo’s old coat to carry while the small child held her doll.

They worked their way to the back where the Pastor and his wife were standing by the door greeting everyone as they left. Ahead of them were Philomena’s family. The girl’s mother was proudly bragging to the Pastor about Philomena’s learning to knit. “Why she knitted a washing cloth all by herself!” Both parents smiled proudly at their pampered young daughter.

“Congratulations,” the Pastor told the girl, whose own new coat was a very fashionable girl’s coat with attached cape made of very fine cashmere. “It’s an important time when a young girl learns to knit! It shows she’s growing up.”

Philomena smiled arrogantly. “Thank you, Pastor.”

The family stepped away but stayed in the crowd near the Pastor’s wife’s elbow as Gaine and Kate moved to give their regards. “Merra Christmas, Pastor...ma’am,” Gaine said, removing her hat to both. “Great service!”

“Merry Christmas and thank you for coming, Sheriff. And thank you for bringing Nell’s children. Is Nell all right?”

“Uh, yep. She warn’t able ta make it. Someun had ta stay ta see ta the ranch. She sends ‘er deepest thanks fer them coats the childerns got. They shorely done needed ‘em.”

“We’re glad they’ll be warm this winter,” he smiled courteously.

“What a beautiful shirt, Sheriff!” the Pastor’s wife inserted. “Is it new?”

“Yep!” Gaine looked back at Kate. “War made bah Kate.” She pulled her jacket open as much as she could while still holding Sarah. “T’is right won’erful, ain’t it!”

“Yes, it is, indeed!” the Pastor’s wife exclaimed, looking more carefully at the beautiful embroidery. “Beautiful work!”

Gaine spoke confidentially, “An’ Ah gotta tells ya, what ya DOAN see on me bees mighty comf’table, s’well.” She rocked back on her heels for a minute with a pleased expression on her face.

“Excuse me?” the Pastor’s wife’s brow flew to her hairline and she blinked her eyes and kept them from searching anywhere on Gaine’s beautiful tall body. Had Kate made the Sheriff new underwear? Stars! One NEVER spoke of such things! But wouldn’t it be just like the Sheriff to do so! She could be so disarming! And on Christmas morning with a packed church looking on!

Gaine chuckled, reading her thoughts, “Ah war rafferin’ tah mah stockin’s a’ course. Ah’m a’wearin’ the warmest, most comf’table wool socks this side a’ the Mississipp!” Gaine beamed brightly. Her white teeth glittered and her blue eyes danced. She flashed her smile at the Pastor and his wife then back at Kate and the children behind her. “Ain’t that true, fellas?”

“Uh huh. They’re real purty sock’ins,” Brian inserted, “Red n' yeller stripes!”

“Yep,” Gaine agreed. "Stripes, even!"

Both the Pastor and his wife exhaled a little in relief. “How wonderful. And did Kate knit those for you, too?” the Pastor asked politely, smiling back at Kate. Then his eye lit on Willy and the coat she was wearing and his smile turned to a puzzled frown. It was not the one he’d chosen for her.

“No!” Gaine turned back to where Willy was standing quietly in line. “Theys war a gift from Willy thar! She jest up n’ decided she’d knit some stockin’s, an bah jiggers, if she ain't got the job done!”

“Willy is learning to knit?” the Pastor asked. That was progress if the girl was learning to do some handiwork. All of Philomena’s family now had their sharp attention on Gaine and Willy.

Gaine smiled, “Ah wun't say she war jest a’larnin’! Ah'd say she a’ready done it! She done knitted two warm sockin's an' Ah’m a’wearin’ ‘em. Why, Ah done sat through that whole more'n two hours n’ mah feet din’t git cold once’t! Ain’t ta many kin say that!”

The Parson’s wife chuckled, “No, the church does tend to be drafty.”

“My Momma helped a lot,” Willy inserted shyly, “and Kate, too. I don't know how to do heels yet.”

"She done the grizzlies' share," Gaine preened. "Two full stockin's! Warm as a parlor stove, they is!"

“Well, congratulations, Willy!” the Pastor replied. “That is a feat when you can tackle a complete pair of stockings on your first try!”

“That’s a good ‘un, Pastor,” Gaine chuckled, nudging the man on the arm. His normally solemn face looked perplexed. “A feat! Ah gits it. That war right clever. Thanky a’gin fer ever’thin’. We gotta git. T’is a long ways back ta the ranch an’ Ah gotta check them saloons a’fore we go. Merra Christmas!”

“Oh,” the Paster grabbed Gaine’s arm and pulled her closer. His voice dropped in volume, “Uh, some of the fellas put Pender in one of the new jail cells last night. He was, uh, laying in the street outside the saloon.”

Pender was a young mine worker no older than sixteen. The saloons didn't serve anyone younger than thirteen, and Pender had been working and drinking since that age. Now he had a problem handling the whiskey he always drank to excess when he'd earned enough money. He was a good worker when he sobered up, though, and the mine always allowed him to go back on the job.

The town had been able to build a brand new jail complete with two cells and room for Gaine’s desk and chair with the reward money brought in by the capture of the outlaws by her and her posse. It was Gaine’s habit to leave the jail unlocked and the key ring hanging on the nail inside when she wasn’t in town, unless there was a criminal locked up.

“We shore ain’t gonna have no drunkards a’lolligaggin’ in ar streets,” Gaine said firmly. “Not here n’ Barden’s Corner. So’s, thanky.”

“He might be sober by now,” the Pastor replied.

“Good. Ahl git ‘im out a thar a’fore Ah have mah, uh, fam’ly waitin’ thar fer me. Then we’re a headin’ home.”

The Pastor’s voice became almost a whisper, “We, uh, need to speak later about another problem...uh, the Smith house that was flooded. Uh, I think we’ll need to do...something...about that situation.”

Gaine’s brow furrowed. “Yep. Ah got ‘em ta they’s neighbors. But they’s prob’ly moved back in, now tha river’s done gone down.”

“Uh, well, uh, I was thinking in other terms.”

Gaine nodded. “Well, doan know what we kin do, legal like, if'n Ah’m a’gettin yer meanin’. But we’ll jaw on’t later.”

“Yes, later,” the Pastor smiled as Gaine stepped away.

Kate moved up to the Pastor and leaned in while she shook his hand. “A wonderful sermon, Pastor. And thank you so much for the children’s coats. They’re a true blessing and I know Nell will be forever thankful! I hope you aren’t offended, but the children have to hand their coats down as they outgrow them, so I thought it best to have Willy trade with Mabel’s girl. We so appreciate everything you’ve done. Oh, and, uh, about the, uh, Smith's." Her face formed an angelic smile, "Don't worry. I have a hunch there’ll be some changes made there very soon.”

Westminster'll have that girl moved out of there in a heartbeat, Kate thought to herself. Hopefully he’ll send her back home, that dirty dog! Once his fiance mentions the Smiths to her father, that wily old man'll have them checked out immediately. And everyone knew how ruthless such wealthy barons could be, particularly when it involved the apple of their eye. Westminster's fiance's father was surely of that ilk and Westminster knew it.

The Pastor stepped back in amazement. What was Kate saying? And what did this innocent young woman know about the Smith situation? Gaine knowing was one thing. She was the Sheriff and a hardened woman. But Kate?

Kate smiled primly before having the children each politely say “thank you” as they filed past. Then she hurried them along.

The Pastor's eyes fluttered in momentary bewilderment. Those folks from the Sargos Ranch could certainly keep one off balance! He'd heard that as a pioneer family, Gaine's people were one of the first families to settle in these hills and were now one of the last large horse and cattle ranches in a growing sheepherding area. Their riders were nearly all vaqueros--Mexican, Spanish and Indian, and most of them had stayed on at the ranch with Gaine's blessing long past their prime work years--like family, for heaven's sake. He shook his head. The whole group seemed immune to problems brought by man, weather or economy and one could never imagine what any one of them might say at any given moment!

"She's a pip, ain't she?!" old Roger enthused to the Pastor as he moved behind the children to shake the preacher's hand. The old man tapped his cane enthusiastically on the church floor, "Yessir! Jest like in the olden days! Them two little girls were holy terrors in my day!" He chuckled to himself, "And they're still a'raisin' Cain today! T'ain't lettin' our town polyticians get away with nothin'!" He laughed heartily then whispered, "Not that them nabobs ain't tryin' hard enough, ya understand!"

"Uh, yes. Merry Christmas, Roger," the Pastor mumbled, shifting his gaze to the Sargos group heading to their wagon while again being loyally assisted by most of the men from Gaine's posse. The Sargos folks were unique, that was certain. Goodness, this was a cattle rancher that had sheepherders willing to follow her into any situation! Talk about unique!

The drive home was warm and comfortable. Little Deena fussed, though, and Kate said she was probably hungry. Sarah fell asleep in Willy’s arms and Bongo leaned against her sister and also fell asleep. Willy couldn't quit grinning. The boys laid back and watched the sky, a piece of straw in their mouths, even little Al. They talked in excited whispers about playing checkers or making a whip snap or rolling a hoop when they got home and said which piece of candy they'd eat first. Kate looked back then touched Gaine’s arm with a smile. Gaine glanced at the bucolic scene. Everyone was happy but the hungry baby.

Willy looked out at the landscape as they headed for home. The land sloped and rolled as they travelled the road by the stream till the ribbon of water curved majestically and lost itself in the next sweep of hillside trees while their path veered and moved up and over the oak spattered hills.

She loved this part of the world. She loved the ranch. And she couldn’t remember a day in her life when she had been happier. Her mother would have a special beef dinner ready at home, she still had two pieces of her ribbon candy to eat yet and one piece of dark molasses candy, too. She liked her new coat and loved her boots. But most of all....

She thought of the day before when she and her mother'd worked together on her present and how her mother had hugged her. She couldn't remember when that had ever happened before. She could still feel it. That was really good. Really, really good. And the people at church were all so impressed that she’d knitted socks for the Sheriff. Even Philomena had been taken aback by it.

She plucked a piece of straw and put it in her mouth. She'd learn to knit heels. Then maybe she’d knit a pair of socks for Brian and maybe another pair for herself. Then they wouldn’t have to jam wanted poster scraps in the toes of their new boots. No, she’d do the pair for Brian first.

Her thoughts ran to the Sheriff, the most beautiful, most important woman in the world, and how she’d boasted of wearing the red and yellow hand-knitted socks Willy had made for her. It had filled the small girl with such a feeling of accomplishment and pride. Nothing could outdo that pleasure. Not even her new boots and all the candy in all the jars at the general store. She glanced at the Sheriff's smile as she drove the team home. No, that feeling, THAT, was the very best thing of all!

I reckon the Pastor was right, what he was saying up there, Willy mused contentedly, it really is better givin’ than receivin’. She wondered if he had knitted somebody special some stockings. He didn't seem the type to knit really. But he must have, or he wouldn’t have known about it.

The hills melted away behind them and the familiar long adobe ranch house appeared in the distance on a hilltop nestled in a small grove of trees. Two columns of fragrant wood smoke curled contentedly upward, one from the kitchen stove and one from the big room's chimney. Horses pranced in the corrals in front of the house with cattle lowing in the pasture beyond. The barely distinct form of Garcia near the corral pulling a horse's shoe could be seen. Three barking dogs ran between the outbuildings joyously announcing the wagon's approach. Willy's heart swelled. This was home now, the most wondrous place in the whole world! And this Christmas had been more wonderful than anything she could ever have imagined!

The End

All 78 words [or "forms of"] were listed and underlined, i.e. Bongo's for bongos, hustled for hustle, etc. etc. Didn't say they couldn't be that way. Unfortunately, I must have underlined one word twice, but I can't find which one or I'd correct it. Anyway, they're all there.

Return to the Contest page

Return to the Academy