A simple conversation between friends was interrupted by a single shrill question. "What are you talking about?"

Minerva had her back to the schoolhouse and indulged herself by making a sour face that had Dara struggling to stifle a laugh.

The younger of the Hickok children looked up at the tight knot of girls standing behind her friend. "The Posada tomorrow night." There had been a lot more to their discussion, but Millie Carter had a way of taking simple things and twisting them more ways than taffy. It was better to say as little as she could and hope Millie and her stupid friends would find something to do far, far away from them.

As Millie sniffed the air imperiously, her curls bounced against her shoulders, tangling in the fancy braid that decorated her bodice. "Oh, that pagan ritual? My mother says things like that should be outlawed in a God-fearing town like ours."

Looking back down at the blue fabric in her lap, Dara tried to ignore the annoying giggles from the other girls, but some people don't like to be ignored. They tried to be more irritating just to get noticed.

"Is that why those Cross boys haven't been in school these last few days?" Millie was searching for just the right button to push. "Not that I miss them in class. My mother says a proper education is wasted on half-breeds and Mexicans."

Dara wondered if now would be a good time for a math lesson, since technically the boys were only a quarter Kiowa, not a half. Minerva saved her from making a small problem a bigger one. "That certainly is one way of thinking. Now if you'll excuse us we have some sewing to do."

Millie's expression soured. "We have a girl that comes and sews for us so we don't have to waste our time on menial tasks or develop calluses on our fingers."

Holding up her end of the hem Dara wondered aloud. "Then you wouldn't want to help us, huh?"

Lifting up her hands as if to ward off the garment itself Millie stepped back and away. "I would rather drink a whole bottle of ink." She whirled around and started back toward the school house, her gaggle of friends walking after her, perfect imitation of her mincing little steps through the light dusting of snow.

Minerva wrinkled her nose at her friend. "I'd pay to see that."

Laughing, Dara put in another stitch. "You're wicked."

Stitching her side of the hem, Minerva feigned a little bit of shock. "And you weren't thinking the same thing?"

Dara knotted her thread and snapped the excess with her teeth. "I was willing to empty my Christmas stocking to pay for my ticket." She reached for the thread and measured off another length. "I'm just happy we won't have to worry about Millie and her silly friends ruining the fun."

"I'm just glad it'll be 'you' in the Posada this year," Minerva sighed. "Last year I had a sneezing fit all the way up through the center of town."

Her shoulders shaking from a sudden fit of giggles, Dara set her knot and started to stitch. "What a way to find out you're allergic to donkeys."

Minerva sighed. "True, but this year all I have to do is serve that delightful hot chocolate and eat."

"Don't forget the candies!" Dara's voice was dreamy as she thought about the sweets at the end of the party. "With so much to look forward to it distracted me from missin' the boys. Between helping Aunt Rosa with the tamales, the boys have been so busy. I heard Uncle Buck say that they finished the piñata last night."

Resettling her spectacles back onto the bridge of her nose, Minerva smiled back at her friend. "Oh, I'll be far away from that until it's broken. I don't think I'd have a hope of hitting it anyway, but I'm certainly looking forward to all that delicious candy."

*** ***

Tadeo plucked at his robes and heaved a dramatic sigh. "Remind me why we have to wear 'these' clothes?"

Dara ignored him as she fed the donkey his treat from her hand. They'd been waiting in the livery for less than half an hour and she was already tired of his voice. Oh, she didn't mind it on any other day, but when he was complaining non-stop it only took a few minutes for enough to be 'enough'.

"Wearing a robe is fine for a girl… or when you're going to sleep at night, but walking through town wearin' somethin' akin to a dress, it's-"

"Tad, if you didn't want to do this," Dara looked at him over her shoulder, "then why are you doin' it?"

He sighed, again, and leaned against one of the posts. "It's my turn. Teo did it last year and this year Mama said I had to." He folded his arms across his chest. "At least he had that Glass girl to walk with, she's pre-" he stopped short and looked down at her with a slightly apologetic expression. "What I meant was-"

Rolling her eyes, Dara waved off his apology. "I've got eyes." It was true. Minerva had grown over the summer and was now nearly three inches taller than Dara. Her grey eyes and ash blonde hair made her something special in a town full of dark-haired people. Sure, Millie was proud of her hair, but the color of her curls always seemed to be yellow rather than something natural. "Anyway, it'll only be the better part of an hour once we start and you'll be leading Bull so you can imagine you've got Minerva on the back of him if you'd like."

"Hey now," he held up his hands in surrender, "I never said-" It only took him a moment to realize that she was laughing at him. "Fine. You can laugh at me all you want. It's Bull that has to carry you around town tonight."

Dara looked out the front door and gave her own little sigh. The sun was just about to sink below the horizon… it was almost time to start. She turned back around. "You know-" The livery appeared to be empty. "Tad?"

"Up here."

Looking up at the wall between Bull and the stall that held their other donkey, Bear, she saw him. He'd climbed up somehow and was walking back and forth along the thin wooden divider. "Get down from there!"

He froze mid-step, one leg extended out to the side. "It's just something to pass the time. I won't fall."

She shook her head. "I'm not worried about you, silly." She craned her neck to look at Bear. The animal was backed up against the far wall, the whites of his eyes plainly visible. "You're scaring him."

"Scaring who?" He laughed. "The donkey?" He stepped backward, swinging his leg out to the side before he stepped onto his other foot. "See, I'm just-"

The donkey took exception to the hem of Tad's robe fluttering in his face and latched onto the offending garment with his teeth.

And pulled.

"Hey!" Tad reached down and tried to yank his robe from the donkey's teeth. True to his nature the animal wouldn't let go.

Dara set her hands on her hips and glared at him. "See? I told you to stop."

Tad looked down at her with his own plaintive stare. "That's all well and fine, I'll apologize to him later but right now I need some… help!"

*** ***

Minerva held the piñata in her hands as Teo tossed the rope over the limb of a tree. She let go of the piñata as he raised it up into the air. She watched the ribbons flutter in the breeze and smiled as it spun slightly over her head. "Looks like everything's in order."

Teo tied off the rope and straightened, looking away down the street.

"I think I can already taste your mother's pan dulce buns."

He nodded and adjusted his coat against the wind.

"Minnie? Teo? Are they coming yet?"

Minerva turned around and waved at Dara's mother. Standing in the doorway of the restaurant in her pinner apron the livery owner looked just as much at home with flour on her hands as she did with a curry brush. "Not yet, but the sun's just going down. They should be on their way in a few minutes." Lifting her chin, Louise searched the end of the street herself. "I guess you're right. I'm probably just worrying over nothing." She smiled at the two. "I guess I'd best head back inside. You'll let us know when you see something?"

Teo nodded and turned back to the street, folding her arms across his chest. Waiting.

Minerva wasn't content to wait in silence. "Dara and I barely finished the hem on Mary's gown this afternoon, but we got her dressed up and ready over an hour ago." She looked sideways at Teo, his dark eyes trained on the end of the street. "When I left her at the livery Tad was talking her ear off."

Maybe it was her imagination but it seemed to her at the corners of his mouth tightened up just the littlest bit.

*** ***

Rosa Cross helped Minerva ladle out the hot chocolate drinks and hand them to the assembled guests. The small gathering was made up of the Cross family's closest friends in Rock Creek.

Stepping up to the table was Polly Hunter, her green cape lightly spotted with snowflakes. "What a wonderful party, Rosa."

Pressing a mug into Polly's hands, Rosa gave her a little smile. "Gracias, Polly." A little sigh escaped her lips. "And as soon as it's over I think I'll sleep for a week." She caught sight of a black hat capping long white hair. "Here comes Papa."

Teaspoon Hunter hustled up to the table and took a hot mug from Minerva's hands with a wink and a "Thank you kindly, Minnie."

He turned to his daughter and shook his head while laughter shook his belly. "You won't believe what's comin' up the street."

Wiping her hands off on her apron, Rosa moved around the table to stand beside her father. They were soon joined by the rest of the guests, Buck and Jimmy moving up to stand with their wives as the children gathered together at the front of the yard. At the end of the street a crowd was following a donkey.

Rosa's hand rose to her chest, pressing lightly over her heart. In the few years that they'd been holding the procession of Mary and Joseph in their search for room in Bethlehem it had only been a small gathering of folks that had bothered to pay attention. Some had misunderstood the nature of the celebration, hearing the 'foreign' words and assuming it was some Pagan rite instead of what it really was, honoring the birth of the Christ child.

It warmed her heart to see that this year there were more townsfolk following the progress of the procession. For a moment she worried, her mind considering the other ramifications of the increased numbers. "I'm so glad we made extra food."

Jimmy was the first to laugh, his chuckles turning to a moan as his wife took exception and elbowed him in his middle. "Ow!"

She turned to glare at her husband. "Don't make fun, Rosa's been working on this for days."

"I didn't-" He seemed to reconsider trying to explain, turning to Buck for reassurance before he set his hands on Lou's shoulders and looked into her upturned face. "I think it's best if you see it for yourself. "

Her eyes narrowed slightly as she considered his words, turning her attention to her friend and finding that again she was missing the joke. "I just don't-"

"Look!" Rosa pointed at the approaching figures and Louise struggled to see above the gathering crowd.

Taking out her spectacles, which were now more of a necessity than a costume, she caught sight of the center of the procession heading down the street.

"Well now," Teaspoon began as he slung his arm over his wife's shoulders, "while I am a man that loves tradition… I'm certainly able to enjoy a little…"

"Improvisation?" Buck supplied a guess.

"No," Teaspoon searched inside his head, "not quite right."

"Creativity?" Rosa this time, her voice bright with laughter.

"Not exactly," he responded back and some part of his mind leapt up to grasp the exact word he'd been searching for. "I've got it! Originality!"

He stepped forward to act out the part of the innkeeper, his favorite part of the party.

*** ***

For Dara the event had lost all of its fun and excitement. She didn't mind so much when Tad had scared poor Bear nearly out of his little donkey mind, after all, Bear had always been a little 'odd'. She didn't even mind helping pick what seemed like hundreds of pieces of hay from Tad's robe and his hair. She'd have the pleasure for some time to come of needling him with the memory when it served her. That wasn't the problem.

It was the bellyaching from Tad the entire way from the livery stable to his parent's restaurant.

She was only too happy to hand the lead rope to Teo and melt against her father's side.

"Rough day, sweetheart?" The Marshal gave her a hug and brushed a kiss across her forehead.

"Tad fell and twisted his ankle in the livery," she held up her hand, "please don't ask me how it happened… all you need to know is that I warned him, but he just wouldn't listen."

Buck shook his head and gave his son a significant look.

Tad tried to shrug it off but his bravado fell short, a few feet short of the ground really, because it was Joseph and not Mary that had ridden on the donkey through town.

Minerva took one of Dara's hands and gave it a squeeze. "Leave it to Tad to mess things up when all he had to do was 'walk'."

The injured Joseph glared at the young woman, his eyes narrowing into a hard stare. "Leave it to Minnie to rub it in when all she had to do was-"

"All right now," Teaspoon stepped into the middle of the situation, "it seems like we've just learned an important lesson in the art of warfare and friendships."

Dara looked up at her grandfather with confusion stamped across her features. "What's that?"

"That it's important to help your friends when they're down and need a hand."

"Well," Tad sighed, "I'm already up… so what I need is a hand down."

Rosa smiled up at her husband. "We have a bigger crowd this year, I'll need help bringing out more food."

Jimmy looked down at Dara dressed in her robes as Mary and smiled. "How about we get you somethin' to eat and then you can change out of your robe before you children break open the piñata?"

She brightened instantly. "Oh good, I'm starved!"

Almost, as if on cue, the group gathered to witness the arrival of Mary and Joseph dispersed leaving Joseph sitting sullenly on the back of the donkey, skewering his brother with a look. "Well?"

Teo raised an eyebrow in a perfect imitation of his father. "You fell."

Shrugging, Tad tried to brush it off. "it wasn't my fault their donkey's are skittish animals that like to eat silly robes." To illustrate his point he plucked at the cloth, lifting it up so that his brother could see the damage that Bear had done to his robe. A large rend in the cloth made a window wide enough to see the soft breeches Tad wore beneath his robes. "The beast yanked me down and-"

"Down from where?"

Tad narrowed his eyes into a glare. "Never mind, just help me get down."

Teo's grin was slow… his wit was lethal. "Maybe."

*** ***

Dara took the plate from her father and tried not to pout. "It's ruined… the whole thing was ruined."

He handed her a fork and ushered her toward a chair. "I'm sure it wasn't as bad as you think."

Flopping down into the chair she speared the tamale as if it was likely to try to run. "Mary just walked Joseph down the street to the Inn… how much worse could it get?"

Minerva held out a mug and laughed at Dara's hopeful look. "Take it, it's Champurrado."

Setting her plate on her lap, Dara took the cup in both hands and breathed in the delicious scent of chocolate, cinnamon and sugar. "This might make the whole thing worth it after all."

Shaking his head, Jimmy chuckled quietly at her dramatic pronouncement. "Well, you girls enjoy the food. I believe Buck needs help setting up the piñata. So make sure you eat some supper before we get to the candy, you hear?"

Dara smiled up at him, a slight mustache of chocolate on her upper lip. "Yes, Papa."

"Yes, Mr. Hickok." Minerva nodded her head.

*** ***

By the time the party had reached the height of its merriment, Tad was about ready to head on home, if he could walk.

It had hurt his pride something awful that he'd had to ride through town on the back of a donkey, a little slip of a girl leading the way. It had hurt even more when his brother had nearly carried him through the party to a chair near the festivities. His mother and aunt and fussed and fretted over him, carrying him food and drink and setting up a chair so he could prop up his foot.

His mood darkened as the night went on and soon he wasn't fit for company, even his family began to stay away.

"I wonder if this isn't the right time to tell you, 'I told you so.'"

Tad folded his arms across his chest and pursed his lips together. He lifted his chin to look away from Dara and focused at the crowd gathered to break open the piñata.

Dara pulled up a chair and sat down next to him. "I couldn't just leave you there in the livery."

He turned slightly in the chair away from her.

"And really," she sighed, "you're lucky I even got you up on Bull's back, you probably outweigh me by half."

Tad huffed, a sound more outrage than disbelief. "I'm not 'that' heavy."

Dara grinned. "At least that got you talking." She sighed. "I was worried for a minute I was trying to chastise the wrong brother." She nudged him with an elbow. "I'm sorry you're upset, Tad, but I didn't really expect to be leadin' you down Main Street either, so can we just… I dunno… have some fun for the rest of the party?"

"How can I have fun?" He nodded at his ankle and sighed. "I have to sit here and everyone else gets to have the fun."

Louis ambled up, one hand holding a plate another holding a chair. He set it down nearby and set himself down in it. "Sorry I missed the procession. I had a few errands to do for the telegraph office."

Teo carried two chairs, one in each hand, and Minerva followed up behind him with a tray of mugs and platter of pan dulce buns which Dara took off of her hands with a smile. Setting the platter on her lap Dara lifted one of the buns and waved it at Tad. "Hungry?"

He sniffed at the air, less aloof by the minute. He was weakening and everyone knew it. They drew him in. Little comments here, passing platters of food right under his nose, asking for jokes and stories and before he knew it, Tad was laughing right along with the rest of the group.

Teaspoon sidled up to his daughter and laid an arm down over her shoulders pulling her gently up against his side. "Looks like you have a huge success on your hands."

Rosa pressed her hands to her cheeks and let out a sigh. The area around the restaurant was filled with people. Old friends… and new. She smiled and looked at her father; both of their faces alight with pride. "Yes, yes… this year's celebration has been the best yet."

He looked over at his grandchildren as they laughed and talked amongst themselves and enjoyed each other's company. "Yeah, I'd say so."

Author's Note: thanks to Liz M for the beta on most of the story... yeah, I was late with the ending and didn't have time to get it all read through.. so as always my mistakes :D

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