CHRISTMAS DAY - MORNING

Waking up in a dark room, huddled under a pile of blankets, felt wonderful. Thaddeus kept his eyes closed, concentrating on the sensations of warmth and softness and those tinkling noises. What the . . . he reached over to lift the curtain and peek outside. Sleet was hitting the window, making little thunk thunk sounds. He slid down under the covers again.

The house was quiet. The others would be up earlier than usual, since it was Christmas morning, but probably none were awake as early as he. That was another annoying thing about getting old; he slept less at night, but napped more during the day. His own babies had slept only an hour here, an hour there. He and Therese had been exhausted for years, trying to keep up with their young children's erratic sleep habits. At this late stage in life, he was beginning to understand what "sleeping like a baby" really meant.

The radiators started hissing. It was too dark to see the clock, but he didn't really need it to know the time. It was 5:00am, or pretty near. He lay back and closed his eyes, listening to the radiators and the sleet.

After about ten minutes, the room was much warmer. Coffee was beginning to sound good. Maybe he'd get a pot started, and then he could sit by himself in that enclosed porch behind the kitchen, with the big windows that looked out onto Lake Michigan. It was real fine to sit by himself there at dawn and watch the winter sun slowly pierce the thick woods, until it got higher and shone out on slate-colored waters. The Midwest had a lot of gray days in the winter, when the lake seemed to blend into the horizon, softening into a blur that didn't have any up or down. It was soothing to watch the wind whip up the lake waters, sending white-topped surf into the sand cliffs with a steady rush and roar.

Yeah, sitting in that room with some hot coffee was a good idea, especially since today promised to be busy. He threw the covers back and sat up, taking a quick minute to get his bearings before he reached for the crutches. The leg wasn't hurting much, thankfully. He dressed quickly in his jeans and sweater. No need to put on his Sunday clothes until supper, when things would probably be a lot more formal. He didn't know Terrence and Adelaide that well, but he knew they had plenty of ideas about the proper way things should be done.

When he swung his crutches into the kitchen, he was surprised to see Terrence, fully dressed, pouring himself a cup of coffee. His face must have registered his surprise, because Terrence laughed a little at him.

"I bet you thought you were the only morning person, Jones." He gestured at the table. "Why don't you sit down and let me pour you a cup of joe?"

"Don't mind if I do." He maneuvered himself into a chair and watched Terrence get a second cup.

"Cream?"

"No. Just black." He accepted the cup offered him and held it in his hands, blowing on it a little to cool the liquid.

"I'm afraid I'm spoiled. I have to have cream and sugar in it, or I can't drink it."

Thaddeus took a cautious sip. The liquid was still steaming hot.

"Maybe I'll let this cool down a minute. I don't want to burn my tongue and miss Christmas supper."

Terrence settled down across from him. "Dinner yesterday was wonderful."

"Christmas supper will be even better."

"I have to admit, I doubted Patrick when he praised Kathleen so highly. I'm beginning to think she's even better than he says."

"She's the best there is. We'll all be letting our belts out another notch before New Year's."

There didn't seem to be more to say on that subject. Or any other. The two old men looked at each other for a minute before each ducked his head away. Terrence cleared his throat. Thaddeus looked at him with sympathy. He'd never been good at small talk either.

"So . . . " Terrence cleared his throat once more. "How come you're up so early, on Christmas of all days?"

Thaddeus hid his frown behind his coffee cup. That question probably wasn't meant to be intrusive, but it sure felt that way.

"This is my regular time. I don't need much sleep anymore, not like when I was young. How about you? Are you always up this early?"

"No, not really. I never sleep well in a strange bed, unfortunately."

"Oh. That's too bad." Both men looked at their coffees, as if they'd find something to say there to break this latest awkward lull in conversation.

"So, Jones, you're a regular in this kitchen early each morning?"

"Pretty much. I like to have my coffee out on the porch. I get the house to myself for a little bit."

"A porch? Isn't it cold?"

"It's enclosed. Even got radiators. I like to sit there sometimes in the early morning, watch the sun rise before everybody gets up and things get lively."

"I believe I'd like to see that."

Thaddeus pushed himself up from his chair and reached for the crutches.

"If you'll take the coffees - after you fill 'em up, first – I'll show you."

Terrence filled the cups and followed Thaddeus to the back room. The thick curtains were pulled back. Broad chairs faced windows spattered with sleet and ice, but the room was warm. The men settled themselves comfortably. It was still dark, but there was a hint of the sun emerging, like a dream that faded before the harsh reality of day. Patches of ice floating on the cold lake waters caught the last glint of starlight, and they flickered like giant diamonds as the wind-whipped waves tossed them. The sound of the waves underscored the tinkling ice hitting the windows.

After a few minutes, Terrence twisted in his chair to look at Thaddeus.

"This is amazing. I've spent my whole life in Chicago, and I've never seen the lake like this. I see why you like it here."

"Everybody told me before I came here that the eastern shore of Lake Michigan was a lot nicer than what you see in Chicago. 'Course, it's easier to appreciate when you're sitting in a nice room like this. I wouldn't want to be camping out there right now. It's mighty cold."

Terrence tilted his head quizzically. "Aren't you used to the cold? I mean, Montana and the Rocky Mountains aren't exactly Florida."

"Out west, it's cold, but there's sunshine. The Midwest is cold and cloudy. Feels a lot colder when there ain't no sunlight."

"I guess that's so." Both men turned to look out the windows again.

"So, Jones. Are you settling in?"

"What do you mean by that?" He hoped he didn't sound suspicious. He knew he was a little over-sensitive on the topic of living here, but it didn't seem like he could help it.

"Take it easy. I don't mean anything. I was just wondering, that's all. I've only been to Montana that one time, but that was enough to know it's not like Michigan."

Thaddeus' tense posture relaxed. "No, it isn't."

"How's it working out for you? I mean, you've made a lot of big changes. There's usually a period of adjustment afterwards."

He shrugged uncomfortably. He'd been avoiding this topic, even with himself. "Fair to middlin', I guess. The best part is getting to see Annie and Katie a lot more."

"They do seem very fond of you." Thaddeus heard the wistful note in his voice and remembered how Terrence had tried to embrace both girls, and the look on his face when he saw how they preferred Grandad Jones to Grandfather O'Connor.

"I'm around a lot. They're used to me. They'd be the same with you, if you spent as much time with them as I do."

"I don't know about that. You do things with them that they like doing. Sleigh rides, for example. Hiking in the woods. Not chores, for example."

"Yeah," he acknowledged. "I don't push them to do chores, like I did with my own kids. Chris'd tell you that. Parents lay down the law. Grandparents get to do more of the fun things."

"Aren't you concerned about their schoolwork? About their having some structure to their days, instead of playing all the time?"

"I'm concerned about their happiness."

"Happiness isn't everything. There's preparation for adult life; there's education and moral lessons. There's the groundwork necessary to prepare them for what they'll have to deal with as adults."

"If they know that they're loved and valued, everything else will follow. Or did you have some special education in mind?" Thaddeus' eyes were narrowed and his face was set. That was the look that had sent strong men with big guns back to their mamas and papas, whimpering for protection.

"Of course, of course," Terrence told him, holding up both hands as if in surrender. "Jones, I'm not trying to criticize you. I can see I may have given you that impression, and I'm sorry."

"What are you trying to do then?" His eyes widened as realization hit him. "This is about that boarding school, isn't it? You think you can talk me into pushing Pat and Chris to send the girls away to that fancy school back east you and Adelaide picked out."

"It's a good school. The best, actually." Terrence leaned forward, elbows on knees, intent. "Look, Jones, we all want what's best for Katie and Annie. This school will give them a boost that they can't get at that ridiculous Lab School. They'll get proper education instead of radical ideas that won't serve them well."

Thaddeus looked at his in-law with pity. The man just didn't know when to give up on a lost cause.

"I understand where you're coming from, but" – and this time, Thaddeus held up one hand, to keep Terrence from interrupting – "but, you and me, we ain't the parents. We don't get to make the decisions on what happens to those kids. There is no way on God's green Earth that I'm going to go against what the parents decide. And you shouldn't either, not as long as you want to be welcome in their home."

"Well. I guess we have to agree to disagree, Jones."

"Have it your way." If the senior O'Connors wanted to beat a dead horse, it was none of his business. He turned his attention towards the lake again. Giant fat snowflakes were drifting down. With the wind blowing out of the west, that probably meant a lot of snow was on the way.

"What're you two doin' up so airly?" Both men swiveled at the sound of an unexpected feminine voice. Kathleen stood at the doorway, floured fists on hips.

"We thought we might see Santa Claus flying back to the North Pole," Thaddeus said.

"And did ye?"

"Nope. But I'm not discouraged."

She smiled down at him. He was the dearest man ever.

"Even if you didn't see him, he was here. The parlor is crowded with presents. Maybe even one or two with your name on it. If you were a good boy this year, of course."

"I wasn't always so good when I was young, but I am now. If I'm lucky, Santa's forgotten all about the past." He pushed himself up, gingerly putting weight on the injured leg. Terrence got up, too. "Maybe I'll go see if Santa has a long memory."

"Oh, Mr. Jones. I'm sure Santa Claus knows what a good man you are. Why don't you both relax in the parlor till everyone else is awake? I'll be bringing refreshments in there later, soon as they come out of the oven."

Both old men smiled at the prospect of fresh baking. "You've persuaded me. How about we top off this coffee first, Jones?"

He gestured towards the door with a crutch. "After you."

Even though the heavy curtains were tied back, the parlor was still dark. The only light seemed to be what was reflected off the thick snowflakes that were falling gently outside.

"Hang on, Jones. Let me get a light on first, or you might trip over something." He waited while Terrence put down the cups on the coffee table and turned on lamps.

"You alright, Jones?"

Thaddeus nodded. "Yeah. Just can't believe what I'm seeing." There were so many packages, he could hardly see a path to walk.

"Yeah. It's something, isn't it? Those two young men did a fine job getting everything organized in here." Gaily wrapped boxes were spread under the Christmas tree. Bulging knit stockings hung from the mantel. Near the window, the legs of a sawhorse were visible under a quilt that was draped over mysterious bulges at the top.

"This is more'n what you see in Marshall Field's windows."

Terrence laughed. "I think we cleared out half of Marshall Field's window displays."

Thaddeus navigated carefully with his crutches through the packages piled everywhere. He settled into his favorite chair with a satisfied sigh. He accepted a cup from Terrence and drank deeply, settling himself further.

Terrence pointed towards the sawhorse with his coffee cup in hand. "I wonder how Santa got that onto his sleigh?"

"He didn't need to. We got our own sleigh here, remember?"

"So you do. I'd forgotten."

"I don't think we'll be taking it out today, though. There'll be too much going on."

"It got used last night, anyway."

Thaddeus sat up straighter. "That's right! Chris took it to go to church. How'd that work out?"

"No medical assistance was necessary. I suppose that means it worked out."

Thaddeus wiped his mouth with one hand, hiding his grin. He and Terrence might not agree on much, but he recognized a kindred spirit of stubbornness. The two of them were probably more alike than either wanted to admit.

"Jones, can you hold down the fort for a bit? I promised Adelaide I'd wake her. She wanted to be here to see everyone open their gifts."

"As long as the only wild Indians you expect at this fort are named Mary Katherine and Anne Elizabeth, I expect I'll be alright."

Terrence gave him a rueful smile. "At least they aren't Apaches."

"I've dealt with Apaches. They might be easier to handle."

"I'm relying on your experience, Jones." To his surprise, Terrence patted him companionably on the shoulder as he left the room. Looked like they were on good terms again, at least for a while. He sipped his coffee and made a face at it. It was lukewarm. He settled back in his chair to wait. It shouldn't be long now.

00000000000000000000000000000000

The radiators clanged loudly, but the shapes under the heavy quilts didn't move. Bed felt too good. Pat rolled over and pulled his wife close to him, and she settled against him with a contented sigh.

"I got an idea," she said. "How about we forget about breakfast and stay here a while longer?"

"On Christmas? You're dreaming. The girls will be in here two minutes after they wake up, begging to open their presents."

"Yeah. You're probably right."

"We should get up and get dressed, before they bust in."

"Yeah, I guess so." Neither moved. They lay still a few moments, enjoying their closeness.

"What time is it?"

Pat glanced at the ticking clock on their nightstand. "Almost 5:30."

"God, it's too early!" Chris groaned. "I want to sleep till noon."

"Don't you want to see what Santa brought you?"

She screwed her eyes tightly shut. "No."

Pat kissed her cheek. "Come on! It's Christmas, spoilsport!" He threw the covers off and hopped out of bed.

"I'll never understand how you can just roll out of bed and be cheerful. It's not natural."

"It's a gift." While he started rummaging through his clothes, he didn't see Chris' face change. Behind him, she put one hand over her mouth, and her eyes opened wide. She got out of bed and pulled on her robe. A wave of heat rolled over her, and she felt nausea rising.

"Be right back," she said, slipping past him.

"Don't hog the bathroom!" he called after her. "I'm going to need it, too."

She ignored him. Once outside the room, she sprinted down the hall, one hand over her mouth, willing the nausea to wait just long enough for her to get to the toilet.

Afterwards, she splashed cold water on her face. Putting both hands on the sink, she pushed herself up and saw her reflection in the mirror. I look almost as bad as I feel, she thought. She took a few deep breaths, trying to stop trembling.

When she came back to the bedroom, Pat was dressed, and he had laid out a dress and stockings for her.

"Nice service," she said.

"I think I heard the pitter-patter of little feet. We're about to be invaded by wild Apaches."

"I can handle these two," Chris said, sitting on the bed and pulling on her clothes. "I've known real Indians all my life."

Pat came over to her and, holding her head gently with both hands, kissed her lightly on the forehead.

"My girl of the golden west." When he released her, he stepped back and, looking at her more closely, frowned.

"Are you feeling alright?"

"Of course!" At his doubtful look, she relented a little. "Well, I am more tired than I thought I'd be. Midnight Mass, followed by the ride home, followed by settling the horses . . . " she shrugged nonchalantly. "I think I only slept three hours."

"Uh huh. Maybe you can grab a nap later. After all the excitement."

She smiled brightly at him. "Good idea. I might do that. After the wild Indians have retreated."

"Better call up the cavalry right now. I think I hear them coming."

Chris glanced at the clock again. "Almost 6:00am. They slept in this year."

"You think they'll ever stop being excited about Christmas?"

"I hope not."

Loud knocking on the bedroom door was underscored by giggles.

"Who's there?" Pat asked.

"It's us!"

"Us who?"

More giggling. "Daddy! Us! We want to open our presents!"

When he opened the door, Annie and Katie stood hopping from one foot to the other in excitement. Both were still in pajamas and robes. Pat put his hands on his hips and mock-frowned at them.

"But you're not even dressed! You can't open presents in your pajamas! It's a rule of Christmas!"

"Your father's right." Chris stood up, ignoring her unsettled stomach. "We've got guests this year. Come on, let's get you into some nice outfits, and then we can go downstairs and see what Santa left us."

"Mama's going to help you get dressed, then you can come downstairs. Deal?"

"Aw, Daddy, do we have to?" pleaded Katie.

"Yes, you have to. We have company, remember? We can't have you running around in your jammies. You're not babies anymore."

"Come on, you two," Chris ushered the children out. "Get some coffee going, will you, honey?"

"Will do."

After dressing, Pat was halfway down the hall, outside the door to his parents' guest room, when he came to an abrupt stop. Should he knock or shouldn't he? They'd probably be upset if they weren't there to see their granddaughters open presents. As he was poised with his hand raised, his father opened the door.

"Dad! You're up early." He looked past his father's shoulder to see his mother standing behind him, also fully dressed.

"Already been downstairs to have coffee with Jones," Terrence said. "We don't want to miss seeing Annie and Katie open their presents."

"That's why I stopped by. Chris is getting them dressed. They'll be ripping and roaring through the parlor in no time."

"It's a good thing we'll be there then," Adelaide said. "They're getting to the age where ripping and roaring is inappropriate behavior, even on Christmas morning."

Father and son exchanged a discreet eye roll.

"Well," Terrence said, "Shall we go downstairs?"

The group found Thaddeus sitting quietly in his chair, leaning forward with his elbows on his knees, hands folded, staring out the window. He was so still, Pat stopped and stared for a moment – was his father-in-law breathing? But Thaddeus turned and greeted the newcomers with a quiet nod.

"Happy Christmas, Thaddeus," Adelaide said. "You're up early."

"Happy Christmas to you, too. I'm always up early. Old habits die hard."

"They do indeed," Terrence agreed. "I'm still as excited by this holiday as I was when I was a child. Although we didn't have all this. It was a different era."

Adelaide settled on the couch, with Terrence next to her. Their eyes swept the room, taking in the gaily-wrapped packages, the soft lighting filtered through the stained-glass lampshades, and the sweet aroma of the evergreen, its branches hanging low with the weight of glass ornaments and cranberry garlands.

"No, it wasn't, was it, Dad?" Pat said. "You were a little more restrained."

"Times change, son. And economic circumstances change. When you were a boy, I was trying to get established as a stockbroker. Money was tighter in the early days. Now that our circumstances are better, your mother and I like to share our good fortune with our family."

"For instance, like paying for a good school that you can't afford just yet." Adelaide added.

"Oh for God's sake, mother! Will you just stop? They're going to the Lab School, and that's it. I will not send my children off to some boarding school. Period. End of story. They're staying with their parents, where they belong."

"Don't use that tone of voice with your mother, Patrick," Terrence said. "Have you forgotten who she is?"

"Have you forgotten whose home this is?" Pat responded, his voice sharp and rising. "Or whose children you're talking about?"

"That's enough." Thaddeus' quiet voice cut through the tension. Startled, everyone turned to look at him.

"The subject is closed. The decision's been made. There won't be any more discussion on this subject. Is that clear?" All three O'Connors nodded, their mouths hanging slightly open with surprise. None of them had seen quiet, soft-spoken Thaddeus Jones take command before.

"Good." Thaddeus was satisfied. Sometimes, you just had to lay down the law.

In the sudden silence, everyone heard Chris, Annie and Katie coming down the hall, their excited voices getting louder.

"Happy Christmas, everyone!" Chris stood in the doorway with two stunned little girls.

"It sure is a lot, isn't it? Where are we going to start?"

"How about starting with giving your old Grandad Jones a hug?" Thaddeus spread his arms wide, and the children rushed over to hug him. He kissed them both on their foreheads, then turned them gently to face the senior O'Connors.

"How about giving your other grandparents a nice hug?" Dutifully, they threaded their way around the coffee table and allowed themselves to be pulled close by their paternal grandparents.

"That's better," Terrence said. "Now step back and let me get a good look at you." He frowned a bit, mock-serious. "Yes, it's true. You are the two prettiest girls I have seen in a long, long time."

"And such pretty dresses, too," Adelaide interjected. "Very nice choice, Christine."

"Thank you, Adelaide."

"Mommy, can we open our presents?"

"Yes, Katie. But remember, not everything here is for you. Who knows, there might even be something here for me and your father!"

"One or two things," Pat chuckled. "Where should we start?"

Annie pointed at the sawhorse, with its mysterious shapes covered by a quilt. "That one!"

"I'm curious, too," Chris said. "That's a mysterious lump. Let's see what's under the quilt."

Annie and Katie both tugged on the covering quilt, but it got caught on something. Chris lifted the quilt up, so the girls could pull it off.

Everyone gasped when they saw what was revealed. Three saddles straddled the beam of the saw horse, two small ones stacked and a larger one next to them.

"Oh Daddy!" Chris breathed. "Did you do this?" Annie, standing next to her, reached out a tentative hand and gently stroked the brown leather. Katie's big eyes seemed to get even bigger. "Are these for us?" she asked.

"Sure are, pumpkin. Since you'll be riding more, you should have your own saddles. Can't have my girls on anything that won't fit them. Do you like them?"

"I love them." An impish grin crossed Chris' face. "There's part of me that wants to try them out right now."

"Don't. Weather's too bad to go for a ride."

"Are you sure about that?" Pat asked. "You probably rode in worse weather than this, back in Montana."

"Only because we had to. You don't have to today. Plenty of time to use them this summer."

"They look very handsome, Jones. But you said they're fitted? Won't they outgrow them?"

"Eventually, they will. I ordered them a little bigger than they need right now, so they can grow into them. When they're grown more, we'll get something that fits better. If they don't end up riding bareback."

"Just like I did. These are wonderful gifts, Daddy, thank you so much. We'll use these a lot, won't we, girls? Tell your grandfather 'thank you.'"

"It's hard to believe, but Santa was very generous with us this year." Pat reached over to the stockings that hung from the mantel. "Why don't you take a look in these? In fact, there's a stocking for everyone." He went around the room, distributing each person's stocking. Everyone took out the items, ooh'ing and ahh'ing as they withdrew the contents. There were oranges, woolen socks, a variety of candies and chocolate bars, and a baseball, which drew some puzzling looks.

"Now this is interesting." Pat tried juggling his baseball and failed. "We don't have quite enough people for a team, but we might see if we can find some kids in the area. "

"The baseball is from your father and I," said Adelaide. "Tell them, dear."

"We've purchased season tickets for the Chicago Cubs baseball team this summer. We've got a box right along the first base line, and we want all of you to come and enjoy a game anytime."

"Dad, that's very generous! Thank you! What do you think, girls? Are you ready for some baseball?"

Katie didn't look very interested, but Annie's eyes lit up.

"Your father told us you liked to watch baseball, sweetheart," Terrence said. "Your grandmother and I thought it would be a nice thing to do as a family."

"And it's a wonderful new baseball park," Adelaide added. "Wrigley Field isn't even ten years old. It's completely modern."

"Thank you," Chris told them. "This is a very thoughtful gift. We're always looking for new things to do as a family."

"That's what we were thinking, too," Adelaide said. "Something we could all do together. And, Thaddeus, don't think for a minute that you are excused. Pat has told us that you played baseball in a summer league. We thought you especially would enjoy seeing a professional team."

"Absolutely right. Besides, the Cubs are going places. They won the World Series in '07 and '08. It can't be long until they bring home another championship."

Thaddeus was holding tight onto his baseball. "I'd like that very much, Terrence. Yeah, I played some, but never serious. Just for fun."

"Wrigley Field is nothing but fun," Terrence said. "It's a beautiful park. But let's move on. We still have lots of presents to open! If you two young ladies don't get started, I may have to get down on the floor and help you."

Laughing, Pat got down on one knee. "That's all the encouragement they need. How about starting with these packages right here, Katie?" Soon, the two children were opening gifts, while their father and mother tried to slow them down, carefully folding the wrapping paper for re-use. There were dresses, shoes, books, dolls, a tea set, a doll carriage, and more. Thaddeus wasn't surprised to see the girls' gratitude was more polite than truly appreciative. He wondered if these two little tomboys would ever look at the doll carriage after today. It seemed to him than the senior O'Connors were buying the things they thought their granddaughters should like, rather than what they did like.

"These two will be the best-dressed, best-equipped children in Hyde Park," Chris said, as she arranged the clothes neatly. "You're too generous. Really."

"Nothing's too good for these two, Christine," Terrence told her. "Besides, it's a grandparent's job to spoil their grandchildren. As Jones here reminded me, you and Pat get the hard work. We're concentrating on the fun."

"They haven't seen our present yet," Pat added. "This is from us, darling girls." He handed each girl an identical small box. Not sated yet by the pile of Christmas gifts, they tore open the boxes. Each girl withdrew a long leather leash with a collar at the end. Each looked confused.

"Don't you understand? Annie? Mary Kate?" Two blond heads shook in a no gesture.

"What have you two been asking for since you first saw this house?"

"Horses," Annie answered.

"Besides that."

Annie shrieked with joy. "Are we getting a dog?"

"Are we, Daddy? Are we?" Katie asked, equally excited.

"Yes! And not just one. Two dogs!"

Before he could react, Pat was knocked backwards by both his daughters jumping on him and hugging his neck. He rolled onto his back, holding them, all of them laughing.

"You're not getting them today! Calm down!"

"When are we getting them, Daddy? When can we see them?"

Pat released them and pushed himself up. "Not till springtime. You get to pick two puppies from the breeder in Detroit."

"What kind of dogs?" Thaddeus asked, curious.

"German Shepherds."

"We're getting a German?" Katie wondered.

"No, honey, not a German! A German Shepherd! Come on! You know! You like Rin Tin Tin, don't you?" Pat asked his daughters. Both nodded. "Rin Tin Tin is a German Shepherd dog. They'll look like him when they grow up. Won't that be great?"

Chris was grinning. "I can hardly wait myself. Remember how many dogs we had at home, Daddy?"

"A lot. And you snuck them in the house and let them sleep with you, no matter how many times your mother and I told you not to do that. This one" – he pointed to Christine – "was always bringing strays home. Injured birds, lost rabbits, even a couple baby foxes once."

"Which you made me put back in the woods."

"I did. Wild animals need to stay wild. But I let you keep most of the dogs."

"Yes, you did. After I begged and begged and begged some more."

"Mommy, can we let the dogs sleep with us like your dogs slept with you?"

"This must be one of those 'do as I say, don't do as I did', moments you warned me about, Daddy. We'll worry about the puppies when they're here, sweetheart. Meantime, I think we have some more presents to open. In fact. . . " she reached over their heads to a smaller box almost obscured by the array of toys. "Why don't you give this one to your Grandpa Jones?"

The package was a little awkward for Katie to handle, but she held it to her chest with both arms and gave it to Thaddeus." This is for you, Grandpa."

"Why, thank you, sweetheart." He held the package to his ear and shook it. "Should I try to guess what it is, or should I just open it?"

"Open it."

"How about you help me with that?" Thaddeus let the box rest in his lap while Katie carefully removed the wrapping paper.

"What is that, Grandpa?"

Thaddeus took out a wooden box and opened it. He stared at the contents wordlessly, then lifted his gaze to Chris. When she remembered that moment in years to come, she would swear that she had seen tears in his eyes.

"Tools, honey. Beautiful tools."

Pat answered his parents' unspoken questions. "Woodworking and carving tools. You may not know it, mother and dad, but this man is a master carver and woodworker. He's made sculptures that belong in the Art Institute of Chicago." He turned towards Thaddeus. "Chris and I thought a better set of tools was in order, since she says the ones you have date back to the year one."

"They do indeed," Chris agreed. "You made beautiful things with the old ones, Daddy, but we figured you'd enjoy using a better set." He was still silent, staring at the box and gently stroking the burnished tools it contained. "Do you like them?"

He looked up at her and Pat then. "I do. I do indeed. Thank you. This is a fine gift." The familiar grin creased his face. "Guess this means I'll have to get busy!"

"Yes, it does. It'll keep you busy while your leg recovers. Besides, you know what Mama used to say. 'Idle hands are the devil's workshop.'"

"Well," Thaddeus said, coughing a little. "Thank you, Pat and Chris." Annie stepped over to examine the tools, a serious expression on her face. "What do you think of this, sweetheart? Isn't this fine?"

She nodded, still serious. "Will you teach me how to carve, Grandad?"

"Woodworking isn't really something young ladies do," Adelaide said. "That's for boys."

Annie's little chin jutted out. "My mama and daddy always say I can do anything if I set my mind to it, so I can do carving if I want to. Isn't that right, daddy?"

Pat held his breath, conscious of the heightened emotions surrounding him; Thaddeus concerned, Chris amused, Annie stubborn, Katie watchful, and his parents gathering breath for instruction on how girls should act. Anything he said was sure to get him into trouble with someone.

"Who's ready for scones, fresh from the oven, with lots of butter?"

Used to reading the smallest change on someone's face, Thaddeus almost laughed at the intense relief that spread over Pat's at the welcome interruption. At the doorway, Adam held a tray crowded with an array of fragrant scones.

"I hope we're not disturbing you," the polite Adam said. "Kathleen's busy in the kitchen, and asked Dan and I to help out. He's right behind me with the coffee service."

"Let's clear a spot on the coffee table, shall we? Mother, Dad, how about something delicious?" Debates about girls' roles in society were forgotten while pastries were buttered and distributed on delicate bone china. While everyone's attention was on the scones, Thaddeus pulled Annie close and whispered in her ear.

"We'll figure it out later, alright, pumpkin? You and me." She rested her head on his shoulder and whispered back to him.

"I love you, Grandpa."

"Love you too." He kissed her forehead, and she snuggled closer.

Across the table, Adelaide and Terrence balanced plates on their laps.

"I thought you kept the good china at home, Christine," Adelaide remarked. "Won't you use it more in the city?"

"We intend to entertain here as well. And we thought, why not break it in – if you'll excuse the expression – for the holidays, since you two were coming."

"That's very thoughtful, Christine," Terrence remarked. "We're happy to see that you're finally using your wedding china."

Pat saw the implied insult register with Chris. For a brief moment, he held his breath, praying that his wife's sensitivity wouldn't result in a sharp retort.

"We didn't like to use it much when the girls were small. Now that they're older, I think the china has a better chance to survive. A lot of Chicago people have summer homes here, so we expect to be using it often." Chris caught Pat's swift, appreciative glance. She was trying hard to make Christmas pleasant for him, and he loved her all the more for it.

"We do love the china, Mother. In fact, I think we're using it for dinner today, aren't we?" Chris flashed a smile at him.

"If you promise not to break it, dear."

"Anybody ready for coffee?" Dan pushed the coffee cart into the room. The ornate silver urn it held glittered with reflected light.

"Now that's a sight for tired eyes," Terence said. "Jones and I had some coffee early this morning, but it's worn off. I'm ready for fresh. Aren't you, Jones?"

"Always."

"Funny thing," Pat went on. "We kept the good stuff packed away for safety for so long, I'd even forgotten we have this coffee carafe. Sure glad we pulled it out for today."

"Oh son, what am I ever going to do with you?" Adelaide said, her face creased by an affectionate smile.

"What? What did I do now?"

"You don't remember the coffee carafe because you've never seen it until today. That service is our gift to you and Christine."

Chris playfully punched her husband on the arm. "Ever alert, that's my man." She turned to her in-laws. "Even if he didn't notice, I did. It is a beautiful service. I can hardly wait to use it for all the guests we'll have in this house. It's a perfect match for the china."

"We hoped you'd think so." Adelaide raised her coffee cup in a toast. "May it bring warmth and joy to all your functions."

Dan served coffee to the adults and cold milk to the children while Adam made sure everyone had food. Finally, they took some for themselves and sat down on the floor.

"What a beautiful Christmas you have here," Dan said, sitting cross-legged. "Dr. O'Connor, Mrs. O'Connor, thank you so much again for inviting us here for the holidays."

"You're very welcome, boys. And if you think we've forgotten you, think again." Pat got up and, crossing over to the Christmas tree, pulled out two small boxes, giving one to each surprised young man.

"Oh no, Dr. O'Connor, this is too much," Adam protested. "We can't accept gifts, when you've already given us the gift of your hospitality."

"Too late! My wife and I enjoy gift-giving. You boys wouldn't deny us our pleasure, would you? In our own home?"

Adam and Dan exchanged glances. "Well, sir, since you put it that way. . . " Opening the boxes, each had a set of fine ball-point pens, engraved with his name.

"Dr. O'Connor," Adam breathed, "These are beautiful."

"And useful, I hope."

"Yes sir." They took the pens out from the cases and held them, as if they were some precious, breakable item, getting the balance of them. Thaddeus thought they held the pens as he might've held his favorite Colt, enjoying the weight and the feel of it in his hand. They were the tools of their trade, just as the Colt had been his. They'd probably tell him that the pen was mightier than the sword, but he figured a well-maintained shooting iron was mightiest of all. He didn't think he'd mention that fact right this minute, though.

"You can use those when you interview my father-in-law, right? He's going to tell you all about his life in the Old West." Thaddeus frowned. He wasn't sure what he liked least, being reminded that he'd promised to talk honestly to these would-be historians, or being classified as part of the Old West. It made him sound older than the hills, as old and forgotten as those big dinosaur bones that people kept digging up in Montana.

"Yes, sir," Dan agreed. "We can hardly wait to start. And with these, we can be sure we'll get every word written accurately, especially with shorthand."

"That's great, isn't it, Thaddeus?" Pat asked. "Getting a chance to have all your stories recorded accurately for posterity."

"Yeah. It's great."

"Don't be like that, Daddy! It'll be fun. You'll see."

"If you say so, Chris."

"Adam, Dan, if my father gives you any trouble, come talk to me. I'll bring him around."

"Come on, Chris!" Thaddeus protested. "That's not fair. I never went back on my word in my life, and I ain't about to do it now."

"I'm sorry, Daddy. I didn't mean it like that. I know you're a man of your word."

"Well," Pat said, "I think we've got through most everything. Or have we?"

"There is something else," Thaddeus said. "Dan, you got those things I asked you to bring?"

Dan jumped up. "I almost forgot! Yes, in the cabinet of the coffee cart." He took out two identically-wrapped packages. "Here they are, sir."

"Give them to Terrence and Pat, will you?"

The two O'Connor men took off the wrapping paper to reveal two photographs in carved and painted wood frames. Pat gave a long, low whistle.

"This is beautiful, Thaddeus. Where is it?"

"The falls of the Yellowstone River. And the other one, that's the big geyser they call Old Faithful. I thought you might like something of Yellowstone for your offices."

"This is an amazing photo, Jones. Thank you. I will definitely put this in my office."

"Glad you like them. My son Joshua took them."

"Did he really, Daddy?" Chris got up to examine each picture in turn. "Wow. I didn't realize he'd gotten this good."

"He's planning to make a photo book of Yellowstone."

"Did you make these frames, Thaddeus?"

"Yeah, Pat, I did. With the old tools."

Terrence ran his hand along the smooth wood of the frame. "Pat wasn't exaggerating. A professional couldn't do better. I can't imagine how you do it."

"Well, first you get a whole lot of wood, so you have plenty extra when you don't measure right the first couple times you cut."

"I've got one more package here, Mr. Jones."

"Thanks, Adam. Glad I could rely on you. Can you give that to Mrs. O'Connor? Not my daughter. She already got her gift."

Adelaide balanced the oddly-shaped package gently. "Why, Thaddeus, how generous of you. You certainly didn't have to do this."

"I hope you like it, Adelaide. Just a little something I made. I aim to do better from now on, since I got these new tools to try out."

"Now I am excited. But I don't know if I can open this all by myself. Mary Kate, do you think you can help me?"

"Yes, Grandma!" She nearly leaped over the detritus of boxes and wrapping paper that littered the floor. Adelaide held the package, while she untied the ribbon that enclosed it. The external paper fell away, revealing a layer of quilt batting that had to be unwound.

"Oh my. . . " Thaddeus wasn't sure to be pleased or worried at her reaction. It was the first time he'd seen Adelaide lost for words.

"That's a pretty bird."

"It is indeed, Mary Kate." Adelaide held the bird high, so that everyone could see the carved hummingbird, standing on one leg on a log base. The rich brown wood was intricately detailed and lifelike.

"If I didn't know better, I'd think it was about to fly away. Oh Thaddeus, this is magnificent. You are truly an artist."

"May I see that, dear?" Terrence handled the hummingbird reverently, as if it was as delicate as the bone china.

Pat pushed himself up from the floor, hands on thighs, and peered closely at the sculpture.

"That is a fine, fine, piece of work." He gave his father-in-law a thumb's-up. "I better get my order in soon. Once Mother's friends see this, you'll have a lot of orders for more. She goes bird-watching with her friends, you know."

"I did hear about that from someone, that she liked going out to look at birds in the summer. Figured she might like to see one in the winter, too."

"How long have you been doing this sort of thing, Jones?"

Thaddeus shrugged. "Oh, I don't know. Probably since the first time I over-wintered in Wyoming. You're snowed in for months. Kept me from getting cabin fever or shooting some people."

"I hope you didn't shoot too many people, Jones," Terrence remarked, smiling. Thaddeus responded with the same good humor.

"Only winged the ones who deserved it. It was the Old West, after all."

"Well, I for one am certainly glad you turned to woodworking instead of shooting people, no matter how richly they may have deserved it," Adelaide said, laughing along with the men. "This is such a thoughtful gift. I am going to treasure this."

"Glad you like it."

"I think we've got through everything, haven't we?" Chris stood up, smoothing her skirt. "Shall we start organizing here? We have a lot to put away."

"Why don't I help you, Christine? All four of us ladies can sort this out, can't we?"

"You bet we can. In fact . . . " she paused to think. "Adelaide, would you mind getting started without me? I'd like to check in with Kathleen about supper. I shouldn't be long."

"Of course not!" Rather than being put out, Adelaide seemed happy to be asked. She reached out to both girls and hugged them, drawing them close to her. They didn't resist. "I can depend on you to help me get through this, can't I?" Two blonde heads nodded.

"We'll help you put everything away, Mrs. O'Connor." Dan said.

"You can start with the food and coffee cart, then. We'll get started with the gifts." Chris passed her cup and plate to him.

"Chris, you barely touched your scone!" Pat said. "Aren't you hungry?"

"No, I don't have much appetite this morning. Too tired and excited to eat, I guess."

"She didn't inherit that from me," Thaddeus said, pushing himself up, both hands on the arms of the chair. "I don't like to miss a meal." Katie passed the crutches to him. "Thank you, sweetheart."

"No, Daddy, you're infamous! Mama used to give him his 'honey-do' list in the morning, and he'd say, 'before breakfast?' Like he couldn't believe it."

"Yep. Breakfast is important. So's lunch and supper, for that matter."

"So I better make sure supper is done right, hadn't I?"

"A friend of mine used to say, you got to have faith. And if you're gonna have faith in anyone, have faith in Kathleen to make a wonderful Christmas supper."

Terrence rose slowly, groaning a little. "Stiff as a board. Old age is not for sissies." He stretched his arms above his head. "Since we seem to have a little time, how about some cribbage, son?"

"Great idea, Dad. Thaddeus, you in?"

"If we don't have enough hands for poker, cribbage works for me. But I need to make a stop first. Meet you in half an hour, in the game room?"

"It's a date."

Thaddeus leaned on his crutches, moving forward carefully, as Pat and his father preceded him out into the hallway. At the door, he stopped and turned around, taking a long look at the parlor. Adelaide was on her knees with her grandchildren, patiently working with them to pick up trash. Adam and Dan had the cart and tray almost fully loaded, ready to go back to the kitchen, where Kathleen was sure to put them to work. Outside, fat snowflakes continued to fall. Shrubs and the branches of trees hung low with the heavy snow. If someone had asked him to put together his idea of a perfect Christmas morning, this was how it would look. Unnoticed, he pivoted again and went back upstairs. A short nap was what he needed now. Maybe he'd worried too much about this celebration with Pat's family and with strangers. Although there'd been a little bit of tension, things seemed to be calming down.

Then he remembered – Reverend Spencer would be coming tomorrow. The fear of revealing his past rose again in his chest, making his traitorous heart pound. Memories of that whole episode with Briggs crowded into his head. He really didn't want to revisit that, but it looked like that would happen anyway. Nothing he could do about it but face up to it. He figured it couldn't be any worse than standing in that dusty street, gun hand poised, face to face with that killer Briggs, wondering which of them would lay bleeding on the ground in the next minute. Back then, he'd had Heyes close by, where he always was, supporting him, watching his back, no matter what boneheaded move Kid Curry was making. He could always count on Heyes to be there, until the time he wasn't there, and would never be again.

Well. That's how life was. You got to face things yourself, even – especially – the things you wish you could avoid. Best thing to do was to take things as they came, same as he'd always done. As he sat down heavily on his bed, carelessly dropping the crutches to the floor, he remembered something else from that time. Him and Heyes and Spencer, at that table in the saloon, and Heyes talking about how he was a people's philosopher, whatever the hell that was. Maybe Heyes was right after all. One day at a time, one thing at a time. That's how life was. He'd deal with Spencer when he came. Meantime, a quick nap. He was asleep almost as soon as his head hit the pillow.