Ezra Standish sat at his usual table in the saloon, shuffling a deck of cards with unnerving speed and dexterity. It was something he did to keep his fingers nimble, but the repetitive action also soothed him when his thoughts or emotions were troubled. It was the holiday season that was vexing him, of course. He always became a bit unsettled around this time of year. Ezra generally tried to avoid too many blatant reminders of the season, but it was quite difficult when it had him surrounded.
He scanned the room, taking in the Christmas décor. The place was virtually covered in holiday paraphernalia. The fault lay mostly with Mr. Dunne. He had convinced Inez to put up a few festive items. Then she “caught” the holiday spirit as if it were some sort of disease and began to decorate with a passion. Mr. Dunne continued to encourage her feverish endeavors, of course. It had all started with a garland here, a bright bow there, and had quickly become a mélange of decorations. Mr. Wilmington had convinced her to hang mistletoe—for his own romantic purposes, surely. It all went downhill from there.
Mr. Sanchez then supplied a tasteful nativity scene. Mr. Jackson added some little ornaments here and there. Mr. Tanner had mentioned an angel that his mother had always place in the window during the holidays. The very next day, one had amazingly appeared in the saloon (not so amazingly if one were to have seen, as Ezra had, the sly tracker sneak it in late one night). Mary Travis had convinced them that Christmas trees were all the rage in the big cities, so one had to be decorated and displayed in the corner, of course. Even Mr. Larabee had been dragged into the frenzy when he innocently mentioned how they used to hang stockings as children. Now garish red stockings hung behind the bar. It was all a bit overwhelming, but he had to admit it did cheer the place up somewhat. Ezra found that it had even started to grow on him—not that he would ever confess to it. Oh, how Maude would scoff at such sentimentality!
Mother had always delighted in telling him what a sham holiday it was—when priests in gilded churches asked their congregations to give to the poor, hackneyed writers penned atrociously moralistic stories on the giving spirit, and merchants played upon the guilt of the populace in order to sell overpriced toys and baubles. Ezra had often found these things to be true, but there was something else, something intangible and mysterious that seemed to drift through the air at Christmastime. People as a whole actually did seem more generous, friendlier, happier. He felt it, too, despite the sad memories he associated with the holiday season.
When he was a young child they’d celebrated Christmas. Mother never really enjoyed the holiday, however. She said that they couldn’t afford to waste so much on so little. But she endured the season for father’s sake. After father was killed… Ezra didn’t want to think about that. That particular Christmas was a memory he tried to keep far from his thoughts. He gathered up his cards and left the saloon. A brisk walk would help clear his mind.
Nathan sat at a table nursing his drink. He’d just gotten back in town after delivering a baby out at the Holtmeyer place and he was dog-tired. He just shook his head in disbelief when he saw JD burst through the bat wing doors. Where did that boy get his energy? The sheriff worked all day and still bounded around town like a jackrabbit all night. He made a body feel old just watching him.
JD plunked down in the chair next to Nathan. “Everything go okay?”
“Yep. The Holtmeyer’s got themselves a fine, healthy baby boy.”
“That’s great!” JD suddenly became quiet, looking around nervously.
“Something the matter?”
“Just making sure Buck and the others weren’t here. I need to talk to you and I don’t want them listening in.”
“You in trouble, JD?”
“No! Nothing like that. I got a surprise for everybody and I don’t want them to find out about it. I didn’t want to ruin the surprise for you, either, but I need your help.”
“It’s about Josiah’s Christmas present and…”
“I thought we all said we weren’t gonna exchange gifts?”
“I know what we agreed on, but it just doesn’t seem right—Christmas without presents. They don’t have to be nothing fancy. Me and my ma used to make things for each other out of whatever we had laying around. It’s the thought that counts. I don’t need anything from you guys. That ain’t what it’s all about anyway. It just wouldn’t be Christmas without giving something to my family. And you guys are my family now.”
Nathan smiled. What a strange family it was JD was claiming. “What do you need?”
“Well, I know you like to work with wood. I was wondering if I could borrow that set of carving tools you got. I whittled most of the presents, but I don’t have the right knives for some of the fine work. I promise I’ll be extra careful with them.”
“Sure, JD. Come by the clinic later and I’ll have them for you.”
“Thanks, Nathan! You’re a real life-saver. I need to do some carving on the cross I’m making for Josiah, and the kaleidoscope I’m fixing for Ezra, and…”
Nathan didn’t hear the rest of what JD said. He was thinking on JD’s present for Ezra. “JD?” How was he going to bring it up? “You know Ezra’s kind of particular about the things he owns. He and his ma have some real fine clothes and jewelry and such. I bet Ezra’s been all over this country and seen all sorts of amazing, expensive things. That kind of high-living gives a body what Ezra calls “discriminating” taste.”
“What are you trying to say, Nathan? That he won’t like my present?”
“Calm down, JD. All I’m saying is…maybe you shouldn’t get your hopes up. He’s used to all sorts of fancy stuff. Homemade gifts… I don’t know. I just don’t want you to get your feelings hurt, is all.”
“I know you don’t like him all that much, but he ain’t like that! Money doesn’t mean everything to him. I wish you could see that.” JD left in a huff.
Nathan sighed. That went well. For what it was worth, he hoped he was wrong.
Christmas Day (a week later)
“Hey, Ez! I see you’re finally up and about.”
“How astute of you to notice, Mr. Wilmington. It was through no decision on my part, I assure you. The sounds of merriment drifting up the stairs to my room were enough to rouse Morpheus himself from the Land of Sleep. What, may I ask, is the cause of all this commotion?”
Josiah clapped him on the back a little too enthusiastically. “It’s Christmas Day, Son.”
“Ah, yes. Christmas. How delightful. And is there some law I am unaware of that states that everyone must rise with the sun on this particular occasion?”
“No law. Just a tradition of sorts.”
“I’ve never been one to follow tradition.”
“Now’s as good a time as any to start. Come on! Where’s that Christmas spirit?”
“I believe it’s still enjoying the comforts of my feather pillow. Perhaps I should go back and see if I can find it…” Ezra turned to go.
Josiah grabbed his in a firm grip. “Oh, no, you don’t. Our young sheriff has something he’s been itching to share with us all. We were only waiting for you to join us.”
Josiah guided Ezra over to a table where the others had already congregated. Ezra wondered what they could possibly be doing on Christmas Day that required his presence.
When they were all seated, JD started talking. He was slightly nervous and it was evident in the sound of his voice. He hung his head and took a deep breath. “Guys. I know we said we weren’t gonna exchange gifts, but…” He got up and walked around behind the bar, pulling out several brightly-wrapped presents. “I’m sorry. I just couldn’t help myself. I know you guys didn’t get me anything. That’s okay! But this is my first Christmas without my ma and we always gave each other presents—even when we didn’t have any money. I couldn’t just not get you anything! You’re my friends…family. I just wanted to… You know?”
Buck cuffed him good-naturedly on the back of the head. “Yeah, Kid. I think we know.”
JD looked at his friends. He let out a sigh of relief when he saw that they weren’t angry. He started handing out his presents with a holiday cheerfulness only seen in the very young at heart. Even Chris seemed relaxed and pleasant in the presence of JD’s enthusiasm.
Ezra was stunned when JD handed him a long, cylindrical gift wrapped in gold-colored paper. He quickly recovered his equilibrium. Of course Mr. Dunne would give him some token if he were also giving to the others. He was a generally thoughtful young man who wouldn’t deliberately slight or embarrass Ezra by leaving him out in such an obvious fashion. It was probably some small, meaningless object that Mr. Dunne could easily part with on the gambler’s behalf. Ezra would be gracious and say his “thank you’s” no matter what it turned out to be. A part of him was touched at the idea of receiving a gift at all. Even his own mother didn’t feel the need to celebrate any holiday that required spending money on others. He hadn’t received a Christmas present from her since… Well, it had been a long time. He didn’t like to dwell on the particulars.
Ezra glanced at the others, noticing that they had already unwrapped each of their presents. It would be rude of him to put it off any longer. He carefully peeled the paper, refusing to follow Mr. Wilmington’s uncouth manner of ripping it off with whoops of glee.
Ezra was completely surprised by what he found. Never in his wildest dreams had he expected what lay before him.
“I made it myself, Ezra. It sure took a while, but it was fun. My ma and I used to make things out of wood together all the time before she got sick.”
It was… He didn’t have the words.
He choked back unfamiliar feelings that threatened to well up to the surface, forcing himself to admire the craftsmanship of the object rather than the memories it stirred within him.
Ezra glided his hand over the surface of the kaleidoscope. It had been thoroughly sanded and was smooth to the touch. The wood gleamed from its golden-brown finish. The tube appeared to have been made from a hollowed out piece of a tree branch. It even had moveable parts! And where on earth had the young man obtained colored bits of glass? Their town sheriff had been hiding his light under a bushel. He was a lot more clever and creative than they’d all given him credit for.
In sheer craftsmanship, it could not compare to the many elaborate and ornate kaleidoscopes Ezra had seen in extravagant stores in San Francisco, but JD had put his heart and soul into it, making it a personal gift that had incalculable value to someone who hadn’t received a Christmas present since he was a young child, let alone one given with such thought and care.
Ezra could do nothing but stare at it. Something so simple and yet… For one horrible moment Ezra was struck with the image of another Christmas present laying broken on the floor, a rainbow of glass pieces scattered around him. His heart was pounding furiously.
“Ezra? What’s wrong? Don’t you like it?”
Ezra looked up to see JD staring at him. The others were crowded around the table, expectant looks on their faces. He suddenly felt very claustrophobic. The gambler jumped up from the table and pushed past JD and the others, hurrying up to his room, the kaleidoscope still clutched in his hand.
JD’s shoulders slumped. Nathan was right. “I…I guess I better get back to the jail.”
Josiah laid a comforting hand on his shoulder. “Now, Son. There’s no need to rush off. Stay and have a few drinks.”
“Nah. I know we only got a couple of drunks locked up in the jail right now, but somebody’s gotta watch them. See ya later.” JD left the saloon with a weight to his steps that hadn’t been there earlier when he’d passed out all his gifts.
Nathan shook his head. “I can’t believe Ezra did that. JD’s been running around here for weeks full of the Christmas spirit and then that gambler’s got to go and crush it in just a few minutes. It ain’t JD’s fault he had to give out home-made gifts ‘cause he don’t have money like Ezra and his ma. I know that kaleidoscope he made ain’t like some fancy one’s Ezra’s probably owned in his life, but he could’ve at least pretended he liked it.”
Vin’s eyes were still fixed on the stairs. “How ya know he didn’t like it?”
Buck couldn’t believe Vin was defending Ezra. “Come on, Vin! You saw that look on his face. He was wearing that phony blank face he puts on when he’s trying to con somebody.”
“Don’t think it was the same face. Didn’t ya look at his eyes? You kin always tell what he’s feelin’ from his eyes. Seemed kind of lost for a minute there ta me. Maybe it meant more than ya think.”
“Not unless it had gold hidden inside. You know Ezra don’t care about nothin’ but money.”
“That ain’t true and you know it, Nathan! Maybe the two of ya forgot all the things he done around here he didn’t get paid for. Maybe ya forgot all the times we sat here just jawin’ like friends when we all coulda been somewhere else—‘specially him. Reckon bein’ somewhere else sounds like a fine idea ‘bout now.” Vin looked each man in the eye before he slowly got up from the table to leave. He never even finished his beer.
Buck slammed his beer down on the table. “I still don’t think it’s right, the way he acted. The kid’s been working so hard to make a nice Christmas around here and I just don’t think it’s right.” Buck stood up.
Chris grimaced. “Where ya goin’, Buck?”
“I’m gonna have me a talk with Ezra.”
“You JD’s father now? Are you going to fight all his battles for him? Stay out of it, Buck. It’s none of your business.”
“JD’s my friend and I’m makin’ it my business.” Buck made a beeline for the stairs. Chris could only shake his head.
Josiah gulped down the last of his whiskey. “Brother Buck is certainly a man of passionate convictions.”
“If you mean he acts without thinking, you’re right. He’s a good man to have at your back in a fight, but most times he’s the one who started it.”
“Ah, but then things are never dull with Buck around, are they?”
Chris smirked. “No they’re not.”
Buck pounded up the stairs and burst into Ezra’s room without even knocking. “I wanna know what you think you’re…” Buck’s voice trailed off when he saw Ezra’s face. His eyes were hollow and red from unshed tears. He looked like a little boy whose heart had been broken. Buck felt all his anger whoosh out of him like air from a popped balloon. “Aw, Ez. What’s the matter?”
Ezra sat on the edge of his bed, a piece of silk cloth in his hands. Something lay rolled up in the cloth. Buck came over to see what he was holding.
Buck was confused. “Whatcha got there, Pard? It’s all broken.”
“It was a kaleidoscope.”
“No. Not the one JD gave me. My father gave me this one. I have the colored glass in a little pouch in my dressing table.”
“Musta been pretty special, huh?”
“It was the last present he ever gave me.”
Now Buck felt like a heel. JD’s present probably made Ezra think of his dead pa. “You wanna talk about it?”
“I…I don’t think so.”
“Might help some. My ma was murdered. I don’t know if you knew that. For a long time I didn’t talk about her ta anybody. And I wouldn’t let anybody else talk about her, either. It ate up at me for a long time. Sarah, Chris’s wife, she saw that. Got me to talkin’ about her little by little. Pretty soon it didn’t hurt so much anymore.
We’re friends, Ezra. I’m sorry if I haven’t been a better one to ya. You deserve a good friend.”
For a long time Ezra sat, saying nothing. Buck got up to leave. He had his hand on the door when the gambler’s quiet voice stopped him.
“Do you think… Do you think that I’ve done him a disservice by not speaking of him?”
“Maybe. But it ain’t something you can’t fix.”
An hour later Buck came down the stairs, shaking his head. Nathan was dying to know what went on up there. “Did you get him straightened out, Buck?”
“Ya know, Nathan, I think we’ve all been listening a bit too much to the things you say about Ezra. Maybe you should just talk to the man sometime instead of always jumping to conclusions. I’m ashamed to admit I was doing it, too. I’m gonna try harder not to. Might be a good idea for you to listen to him once in a while. By the way, he really likes JD’s gift.” Buck left a stunned Nathan at the table as he went to get JD. Ezra and JD needed to have a little chat.
Buck’s words warmed Josiah’s heart. Now if only Nathan took his advice.
A few minutes later, Buck returned, practically dragging JD behind him. Vin had also decided to come back to the saloon. JD came over to where Chris was seated. “Buck said you wanted to see me, Chris?”
Chris shot daggers at Buck. “Uh, yes. It’s about the prisoners, JD.”
While JD and Chris talked, Buck snuck away to get Ezra.
Ten minutes later, Buck and Ezra descended the stairs. To most people, Ezra seemed as calm and cool a customer as you might meet. But to a few of his observant friends, he looked a might unsettled.
JD saw him and rose from his chair with every intention of leaving.
“Mr. Dunne, please wait. Buck has informed me that you are under the mistaken impression that I do not like the present you gave me.”
JD couldn’t look him in the eye. “You don’t have to pretend you like it. I understand. I know it’s not real fancy or anything, but I couldn’t afford to buy you something really nice. I’m sorry.” JD turned to walk away.
Ezra gently grabbed his arm. “Mr. Dunne…JD. Why are you apologizing to me? You’ve done nothing wrong.”
“It’s not good enough. It’s…”
“Not good enough? It is perhaps, one of the finest items in my possession. Thank you, JD.” In an uncharacteristic gesture, Ezra hugged the younger man in thanks, trying to convey just how much the gift meant to him.
JD stared at him, looking for the lie.
“JD. Have I ever lied to you?”
JD shook his head.
“Then why do you believe I am now? For some strange reason, I find it almost impossible to lie to you. There’s something about you that demands honesty. I am not pretending to like your gift. It is exquisite. And I will treasure it always.”
“Then why..? Nathan said you wouldn’t like it because it wouldn’t be as nice or as expensive as some of the things you and your rich ma picked up traveling around. Then you opened it and left without saying anything. I thought…”
“You thought that Mr. Jackson was correct in his assessment of the situation. Perhaps you shouldn’t always listen to Nathan’s assertions regarding my person. He often makes erroneous assumptions based on his own personal experience without knowing anything of me or my background.”
“Nathan isn’t always right.”
Nathan opened his mouth to say something in his defense, but Chris silenced him with a shake of his head. He wanted to see how this played out.
Ezra sighed. “Your gift took me off guard, JD. In all the world, I never expected that particular item.”
“What’s wrong with kaleidoscopes?”
“Nothing’s wrong with them, per se. It’s just… Have a seat, please. I need to explain.” They sat down at a table. The others were at adjacent tables—far enough away to give Ezra some space, but close enough to listen in.
Ezra stared at his hands. He usually had no difficulty finding words to express himself, but when it came to matter of a personal nature… “My father wasn’t perfect, but he was a great man—at least in the eyes of his son. His name was Patrick Standish and he loved his son very much. And his son loved him more than anything. Contrary to popular belief…” He glanced at Nathan seated at the next table. “…I do not come from a privileged background. My father had been a professional gambler before I was born, but a brutal incarceration coupled with impending fatherhood compelled him to reconsider his career choices. He took Maude, who was nearly ready to give birth to me, and they returned to his father’s farm in Georgia. Mother was horrified to give up the city life for a rural one, but she loved him enough to at least try. When his father died, he inherited the farm.
Life was hard. We were not destitute, mind you, but we were far from financially secure. Father and mother occasionally played cards in town for extra funds, but they were careful not to take too much or anger anyone. Since they lived in the area, it wouldn’t do to make trouble with the neighbors.
One winter father and I were in town for supplies when I spied a beautiful kaleidoscope in a store window. It had been made in St. Louis.” Ezra’s eyes took on a faraway look as he remembered how smooth and shiny it was, how mesmerizing the different patterns were that the bits of glass made when he turned it. The shop owner had let him hold it and look through it. “I tried not to let father see how much I wanted it. We couldn’t afford such a thing and I knew it. Father was more observant than I gave him credit for, however. He’d noticed my interest and decided to find a way to purchase the kaleidoscope. He began playing in town more and saving as much as he could. Several days before Christmas, he went back to the store and bought it for me. He asked that it be delivered on Christmas Day in order to properly surprise me.” Ezra looked out the saloon window. For several minutes he was silent.
He looked up to see Josiah’s worried eyes fixed upon him. The others were all now seated around the table. He’d been so engrossed in his story that he hadn’t even notice. Ezra sighed inwardly. It didn’t matter really. Perhaps this would help clear the air between him and JD.
Vin’s manner was deliberately casual. “So yer pa got ya a kaleidoscope?”
“Musta busted his buttons seein’ his boy’s eyes when ya opened yer present.”
“He never got to see me open it, Vin. He was…he was attacked and beaten to death by three murderous snakes he’d played poker with earlier that day. They’d lost a substantial amount of money to him and wanted to take it back. To their dismay he no longer had it. He’d spent it on my present and something for mother.”
“Merciful Heaven.” The evil of the world never ceased to surprise Josiah, no matter how much he’d seen in his lifetime. At times, the senselessness of it all made him worry for the future of mankind.
Vin could see that wasn’t all to the story. Maybe Ezra should talk about it. “What happened to the kaleidoscope?”
“It was delivered as arranged. It and mother’s gift arrived on Christmas Day while we were in mourning. Mother was so furious with him for being so foolish and for leaving her. And although she never said the words, I believe she also blamed me to some degree. It was there in the cold way she looked at me and spoke to me after she found out why he’d been robbed.
When she saw the kaleidoscope, she became so enraged that she threw it against the wall, breaking it beyond repair.” He remembered the look on her face as she turned to him, smashing it into the wall beside his head. That was the first and only time Maude had ever shown any inclination to violence towards him. The wood splintered, the lenses shattered, and hundreds of brightly-colored pieced of glass scattered across the floor. Maude ran from the room, never mentioning his father’s name again. Ezra sat in the middle of those tiny bits of glass, hating himself for being so selfish and swearing he would never want something so much again. Those were feelings he’d kept private for so long, locked away with the memories of his father. Maude was wrong to pretend he’d never existed. And Ezra had been wrong to let her anger make him afraid to remember. It still hurt to talk about him, but not nearly as much as he thought it would. Perhaps the old adage of “a burden shared is halved” held some validity after all.
After several minutes, Ezra finally became aware that the others were all hanging on his every word. He saw only concern and encouragement on their faces. JD was always insisting that the seven of them weren’t just friends—they were family. Family. A home. A place to belong. He was finally starting to see a glimmer of that for himself. Perhaps in time…
Ezra’s father often told him that Christmas was about family. JD’s mother had obviously impressed the same upon her son. It was a lesson his own mother had striven to expel from him. Ezra was glad she hadn’t completely succeeded.
The others were honored that Ezra was willing to share such private memories with them. It helped them understand why he sometimes acted like he did. JD felt bad that his gift had upset Ezra. “If…if you don’t want it, I’ll make you something else. I didn’t know it would bring up bad memories for you.”
“It did at first, JD, but I think in the long run it was better to remember. I don’t want to forget anymore. Does that make any sense?”
“I guess. So you really want to keep it?”
“At first I wasn’t sure. But I am now. Yes, I want to keep it. More than you could possibly imagine.”
Buck slapped him on the shoulder. “Well, alright.”
Ezra’s story of his father turned into many anecdotes about the man who’d meant so much to him. The others were inspired to share stories of their childhood Christmases and loved ones long gone, as well. Through the night that Christmas, a new family shared many memories, good and bad, of the people who shaped the men they became.
1) For my own dad who died earlier this year. The tree is lit, the presents wrapped. Our first Christmas without you. I’ll never forget all the weird presents you bought me over the years. But I guess they suited you. They suited me, too. It just won’t be the same. Love you.