Dec. 18th, 1860

    A light blanket of snow dusted the main street of Sweetwater.  It was just enough for the children to make snowballs and give the townsfolk hope of having a “real, old fashioned white Christmas”. Recently the weather had been bitterly cold but with no snow to atone for that. The people bustling about their business smiled and nodded to each other, everyone in a little cheerier mood due to the snow and the impending holiday.
    The one person who did not look so cheery was the young reverend, Thomas Blackwell.  The Sweetwater Community Church was his first assignment and he wanted his first Christmas there to be perfect.  However, he had gotten himself into quite a situation.  He was pondering his dilemma when he accidentally collided into the stationmaster for the Pony Express station.
    “Oh, excuse me, Mr. Hunter. I wasn’t looking where I was going.” The rev. apologized.
    “No damage done, son,” said Teaspoon lightly. “Guess I’m just as much at fault.  Too busy lookin’ in the store windows.  You now, I bet your mind was just on higher things.”
    The pastor shook his head, “Wish I could say it was.  The truth is in my eagerness to be of service to the community…I mean, I found myself committed to two functions…uh, well, Mr. Hunter, the honest truth is I really got myself into a pickle.”
    “What’s troubling you, son?” asked Teaspoon with a straight face but mirthful eyes.  The new preacher wasn’t much older than his boys back at the station.
    “Well, you know that Christmas is coming soon, and I’ll be holding my first Christmas Eve service. I promised the Trustees I’d be at the church until midnight when I will ring the bell as part of the service.”
    “And?” prompted Teaspoon.
    Reverend Blackwell turned a deep shade of red. “And I also promised the Women’s League that I would deliver Christmas packages for some of the needier people in our community that night.”
    “I can see your problem,” the older man nodded. “Trying to be in two places at once.”
    “Yes.  Unfortunately in my eagerness to impress everyone I got a bit, well, carried away with making promises.  I feel like such a fool.”
    Teaspoon smiled at the earnest young man, “Son, you’re just learning how to do this job.  You’re gonna make some mistakes.  But the main thing is your heart is in the right place.  Maybe I can help you out.  I got seven riders at the station and I’m sure a couple of them won’t mind making some special deliveries on Christmas Eve.  I’ll talk to them when I get home.  Why don’t you come on out to supper tonight and we’ll make the arrangements?”
    “Will Miss Shannon mind?” Thomas wondered.  A home cooked meal certainly sounded appealing.
    “Not at all,” Teaspoon said, knowing Emma never refused an extra mouth to feed. “Come around 5:30.”
    The reverend shook Teaspoon’s hand heartily, “Thank you so much for your kindness, Mr. Hunter.”
    “Well, what can I say?  I got the Christmas spirit.  And I’m sure my riders do, too.”

    “No way.”
    “I already got plans that night.”
    “But that’s our only day off.”
    Teaspoon shook his head in disappointment.  This is not what he wanted to hear after explaining the pastor’s situation.  He didn’t understand it; the riders usually had such good hearts.  Of course, they had been working extra hard lately, delivering Christmas letters and packages.  Still, that was no excuse for their attitude.
    “Well then, it looks as if I’m going to have to select a couple of “volunteers””, sighed Teaspoon.  “Cody and Noah, you’re it.”
    “But Teaspoon, it’s Christmas Eve,” Cody protested, even though he knew it would do no good.
    “What better day than to do the Lord’s work?”
    “So we’re the elves, huh?” joked Noah, resigned to doing this task. “Guess we’re gonna need some reindeer and a sleigh.”
    “And if you happen to bump into Santa Claus, be sure to mention where I live,” winked the stationmaster.

    If Teaspoon was looking for a better response from Emma when he told her about the supper invitation, he was looking in the wrong place.
    “The pastor?  To supper?!?  But Mr. Spoon, all we’re having in chicken’ n’ dumplings’.  And my dining room is a mess since I’m re-papering it.”
    “So we’ll have our usual supper and eat it in the bunkhouse,” reasoned Teaspoon.
    “But he’s a man of the cloth!” sputtered Emma.  It was inconceivable to her to serve a pastor anything but the best food on her finest china.
    “Now Emma, where does it say in the Bible that a preacher can’t eat chicken ‘n’ dumplins’  in a bunkhouse?” he countered.
    Emma had to agree she did not recall ever seeing such a passage.  She agreed to cook and serve the meal, but wondered if St. Peter was going to bring this up when she stood at his gate.
    The stationmaster sighed wearily as he headed to the corral.  He’d never been a real regular church go-er, but Christmas was a special time that seemed to bring out the best in him.  He just wished he could say the same for those he worked and lived with.

    Thankfully everyone was in much better spirits by the time the reverend Blackwell arrived at the station.  Perhaps they were getting into the Christmas spirit; perhaps it had something to do with a certain threatening look in Teaspoon’s eyes.
    Thomas was an easy-going, affable young man full of ambition but not pretension, and for those reasons the riders took to him at once.  He was also not a bad looking young man, with crinkly russet-brown colored hair and eyes to match.  It was no wonder that many of the town’s younger ladies had suddenly “got religion” and started attending church regularly.
    After admiring the horses Thomas sat down to dinner with all the residents of the station.
    “Miss Shannon, I’ve not had chicken and dumplings since I left home for college.  They look wonderful,” he beamed.
    “Why thank you.  Will you say the blessing, Pastor Blackwell?”
    “Certainly.  Shall we bow our heads?  Dear Lord, thank you for this food that is set before us and those who I share it with tonight.  We especially ask your blessing tonight for Noah and Cody, who have so graciously volunteered to do your work.  Bless this food to our bodies.  Amen.”
    When everyone opened their eyes they saw before them a very red-faced Cody.  Noah was also blushing, although it was not nearly as obvious, a fact for which he was truly grateful.  Teaspoon was glad the pair at least had enough grace to look humbled.
    “Will you be coming to the Christmas Eve service?” asked Thomas of the group.
    “Of course, we wouldn’t miss it,” Emma answered for them.  The riders knew that she meant it too.
    “Good.  Then I can help Cody and Noah load the wagon after the service.  You two can probably be home by ten.  If I don’t get too long-winded, that is.”
    The others laughed along with Thomas as they sipped their coffee and finished dessert.
    “Thank you for the delicious meal, Miss Shannon,” complimented their guest. “I’m afraid I must be going but I’ve enjoyed my visit very much.”  Thomas stopped short of saying it was nice just to have a regular meal that wasn’t all fancied up for a change.
    “You’re welcome here anytime, Reverend,” Emma smiled. He had put her so at ease that she meant every word.
    Thomas rose from the table to collect his hat and coat, “Well, as they say, see you in church.”

    Christmas Eve day dawned clear and bright but by the time the residents of the Pony Express station had made it to church, it had started to snow lightly.
    “It’s gonna get worse, I can feel it in my bones,” predicted Teaspoon as the riders clamored out of the wagon and into the church yard.  He bent down to rub a sore spot in his ankle where he had once been wounded, otherwise known as his barometer.
    “Don’t feel that bad to me,” countered Jimmy. “Heck, it ain’t even that cold, Teaspoon.”
    The stationmaster did not reply as they were already in the narthex of the church.
    Reverend Thomas certainly outdid himself in the matter of the Christmas Eve service.  The sanctuary had been decorated; the hymns beautiful and the message short but heart-felt.  The children who played out the nativity were not exactly perfect but their miscues added certain innocence to the evening. The service ended with everyone singing “Silent Night” with only candles lighting the church.
    By the time everyone had praised the young pastor and said they good-byes, it was not such a silent night.  The wind had picked up considerably and had started to howl.
    “Sure you fellows want to start out tonight?” Thomas asked Noah and Cody as he helped them load the wagon. “I suppose we could wait until after…”
    “Nah, these kids need their Christmas presents,” decided Cody.
    “Yeah, Reverend, we’ve delivered the mail in worse weather,” agreed Noah.
    Thomas was a bit relieved to hear their answer, “Well, thank you again.  God be with you.”
    As Cody and Noah started off in the wagon the snow began to fall a little harder and the wind showed no signs of dying down.  The night was cloudy but there was a faint crescent moon that shone through the dark sky.
    “Reckon you’re glad Emma got use these new red flannel long-johns?” Cody grinned.  The long-johns were a standing joke in the bunkhouse.  They were really hideously ugly things but Emma had not been able to resist a bargain.  Their one redeeming quality was warmth and so they were serving their purpose tonight.
    Following a crude map made for them by Thomas, the two riders eventually made it to the designated farms outside Sweetwater.  They were delighted to see the children’s faces light up and received so many “thank yous” that they were beginning to feel like two real-life St. Nick’s.  However, when Noah and Cody were about a ½ mile from the last farm on their list they could tell that a blizzard would be on it’s way before long.
    “You think we should head back, Noah?” asked Cody as they surveyed the snow.
    “No.  We’re closer to the last farm than we are to the station anyway,” Noah decided. “Guess Teaspoon’s leg predicted right tonight.”
    “Well then, let’s hurry,” Cody shivered, loosening the reigns. “Maybe these folks will offer us some coffee.”
    Even though it was less than a quarter mile to the next farm, the two riders were half-frozen by the time they arrived in the yard.  The temperature was dropping rapidly. 
    A pleasant looking man appeared from the doorway of his cabin, “What’re you doin’ out on a night like this?”
    When Cody and Noah explained their errand, he invited them to go inside the cabin while he put the horse in the barn. They waved in appreciation.
    Cody and Noah weren’t sure whether to knock or not so they just lightly tapped on the door before pushing it open, “Excuse me?”
    “Come in out of that cold,” a woman greeted them.  She had auburn hair that she wore in one simple braid and grey-green eyes. “I’m Elizabeth Brewster.  That was my husband William.  Let me help you with your coats.”
    As the riders stripped off their hats, gloves scarves and coats they suddenly became aware of three new pairs of eyes spying on them.  A girl who appeared to be near eight or nine was a near copy of her mother, while a younger boy had a shock of bright-red hair and a look of mischief on his face.  The eldest girl held in her arms a baby girl who was already a blue-eyed blonde charmer.
    “Thank you, ma’am,” said Cody. “This is Noah Dixon and I’m William Cody, but since that’s your husband’s name too, just call me Cody.  We ride for the Pony Express.”
    “Yes, I know.  My son, Josiah, there, just loves the Pony Express.  If we go to town we always have to stop along the road by Miss Shannon’s so he can see you do a hand-off.  But what are you doing way out here?”
    By this time Mr. Brewster had arrived back from the barn and explained the situation.  He also introduced his children, Sarah, Josiah and baby Katie.
    “Can I get you gentlemen anything to eat? Some coffee?” offered Elizabeth.
    “Well, we really need to be heading back to the station,” Noah hesitated.
    “You boys can’t ride back in this blizzard!” declared William. “If it didn’t kill you it surely would the horses.”
    “Teaspoon wouldn’t like that,” said Cody.  Maybe he would get some food after all.  He could tell that a batch of cookies had been made recently by the pleasant aroma in the small house.
    “You can be our guests for the night.  There’s not much room but it’s warm and cozy,” invited Elizabeth.
    “We certainly appreciate your offer,” Noah thanked them. “Hope we’re not puttin’ you out none.”
    “Nonsense,” Elizabeth assured them. “William, you get these children off to bed and then we’ll get our guests settled.
    “I want to see Santa Claus!” protested Josiah, his lower lip protruding.
    “You can see what he brings you in the morning,” said William firmly. “Now scoot!”
    As William put the children to bed in a room off to the side, Elizabeth again tempted the riders with an offer of Christmas cookies and hot cocoa.  This time neither declined, and when William returned the four adults sat around the table to chat.
    “The children left these out for Santa,” explained Elizabeth, referring to the plate of cookies. “And it looks like it will be two Santas eating them.”
    “We sure do appreciate you coming all this way,” said William. “We get by pretty well but there’s not a lot left over for the extras.”
    Noah swallowed his bite of sugar cookie, “Well sir, the toy drive was the new preacher’s.  We’re just the delivery team.”
    “He’s a good fella, that Blackwell,” agreed William. “We try to make it to church when the whether is good. Didn’t want to risk it tonight.”
    “I don’t blame you,” said Cody who happened to be looking out the window at the swirling snow.
    “Well, those children will be up early tomorrow to look in their stockings so we’d better turn in,” Elizabeth suggested.  She found some quilts and began to fashion a makeshift bed on the floor in front of the stove. “William will keep the fire going tonight so don’t be scared if you hear him prowling around.”
    “Thank you both for your kindness,” said Cody sincerely. “Not everyone would take in two strangers.”
    “I heard a saying somewhere about it being bad luck to turn away strangers at Christmas,” William chuckled. “And in our case it would have been right.  See you in the morning.”

“Nice family, ain’t they?” asked Noah as he and Cody settled on the pile of quilts.
    “Yeah. We’re lucky this is the last place we stopped.  Not everyone would be so generous,” agreed Cody. “Lookin’ at them kinda makes me think about having my own family some day.”
    “You want kids?” Noah sounded surprised.
    “Yeah, I think I do,” Cody answered thoughtfully.
    “Well, you gotta get a girl to look your direction first,” Noah teasingly reminded him. “Come on, let’s get some sleep.”
    Noah fell asleep fast and hard but Cody remained awake for a while.  Yes, he thought, some day he would like to settle down and have a family.  In the meantime though, he was happy to be single and having a good time looking for the right girl.
    Cody wasn’t sure exactly when he fell asleep but he woke up to an odd whimpering sound.  He looked at Noah, who was sleeping like a log.  Finally his gaze fell on Elizabeth who was pacing the small room with the fussy baby.
    “Is she okay, ma’am?” he asked, knowing Noah wouldn’t be disturbed. Cody had seen the man sleep through powerful thunderstorms.
    “Just a little fussy tonight,” she sighed. “Must be the wind.  Usually Katie is a great little sleeper.  Sometimes this helps.  I’m sorry if I woke you.”
    “It’s nothing,” he assured her.  For a few minutes Cody watched as the young mother paced back and forth, jiggling, rocking and anything else she could think of to try and soothe her charge.  Even in the dark room he noticed she looked exhausted.  A peculiar thought entered Cody’s head. “Would you like me to give it a try?”
    Without hesitation Elizabeth handed her baby over to Cody.  She would try anything at this point.  As Cody lifted the little one so that her head rested on his shoulder he felt a certain little thrill go through him.  He hadn’t ever really held a baby before and hadn’t known the delight of a small satin cheek pressed against his.  A gentle pats on the back, a few paces and Katie was asleep.
    “That’s amazing!” Elizabeth exclaimed in a whisper.  Cody was fairly amazed, too.  He had only intended to give the young mother’s arms a rest.  He had no idea it would actually work!  He could only smile rather helplessly at her.
    “Thank you,” she said, scooping Elizabeth back into her own arms. “You’ve just given me a wonderful Christmas present.”
    Cody’s arms felt rather empty as Elizabeth turned to go towards her own room.
    Just as the Spencers had predicted, Sarah and Josiah were up early to peek in their stockings.  Baby Katie slept through the commotion, recovering from her late night. In her stocking Sarah discovered a new doll, a candy cane and a dime.  Josiah also received candy and a dime, along with a set of wooden blocks.  Under the tree were new scarves and mittens for them, knitted lovingly by Elizabeth in her rare spare hours.  The children enjoyed showing off their gifts to Noah and Cody.
    “What did Katie get, Mama?” Sarah was concerned.
    “Well now, we happened to bump into Santa Claus last night on our way here,” began Noah. “And he said that he heard baby Katie needed some baby things, like diapers and a new blanket and a rattle.  Is that right?”
    “Yes!” Josiah nearly shouted.
    “Well then that’s just what Santa brought her,” Noah reassured the children.
    “Looks like the blizzard is over,” observed William as he looked out the window. “Ah yes, it’s going to be a nice day now.  The sun is even out. Later we can go out and have a snowball fight.  What do you think, children?”
    “I think this has been the best Christmas ever!” exclaimed the usually reserved Sarah.
    Cody looked around the room.  They were snug, but well-fed, warm and happy.  He hadn’t wanted to take this job of delivering presents but now he was glad he had been able to bring them a little bit of happiness. In return, he had experienced the kindness and generosity of complete strangers. Heck, he was even glad they were forced to spend the night.  He felt….Christmassy!.
    “You know what, Noah?  I think I agree with Sarah.  This is the best Christmas ever.”

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