Author's Note: Just a little Christmas fun here. Enjoy!

24 December 1868

Music: I Saw Mama Kissin' Santa Claus

"Kid, we could use your help out here," Standing Woman smiled, half desperately, around the kitchen door.

"Just a moment," Kid muttered, slowly straightening from his stooped position in front of the open oven, a tray of gingerbread cookies held carefully in his begloved hands. Setting the tray on the kitchen table, Kid removed the oven mitts and slapped them against his thigh. "Now, how can I help you?"

"The children are asking you to tell that Santa Claus story again."

"Santa Claus, hmm?" Kid laughed. He'd first recited the old poem for the Cross children four years ago, on their very first Christmas together. Buck's youngsters had fallen in love with the jolly old elf and now demanded the story every year, regular as clockwork.

"Go on!" Dawn Star urged. "I'll take care of the cookies."

Kid nodded, smiled and disappeared through the door and down the hall. He paused in the doorway to the family room, just taking in the scene of domestic bliss before him.

Buck was in front of the fireplace, helping his two eldest, nine year old Shining Star and six year old Sleeps A Lot, pop popcorn. Kid shook his head as he watched. He'd never seen a boy live up, or was it down?, to his name more than Sleeps A Lot. At times Kid wondered if he were really Cody's son! Buck and both children were eating more of the popcorn than was making it into the bowl, and laughing the entire time.

Kid's eyes moved on to the rocker in the corner. There, Standing Woman had taken a seat and was gently rocking her newborn daughter, North Star, while crooning a tune under her breath. Next to Standing Woman two more infants, nine month old Jedediah Hunter McCloud and Dawn Star's one year old daughter Laughs A Lot, snoozed in a pair of identical cradles along the wall. Every once in a while Standing Woman would gently push one of the cradles with her foot to keep it swaying.

As if saving the best for last, Kid let his roving gaze come to rest on Lou. In the last few years, her figure had ripened with pregnancies, developing the bosoms she'd once feared she'd never get, much to both their delight. She'd also grown her hair out. Now, it hung in a tightly braided dark brown rope down her back. Kid's countenance softened as he watched her, sitting near the Christmas tree in a crosslegged position on the floor. She was teaching their eldest, two and a half year old Jamie, as well as Standing Woman's four year old son Shines Brightly and Dawn Star's three year old Wiggle Girl, how to string together what little popcorn they could scavange from Buck and his crew with a needle and thread. Several completed strands of popcorn lay on the floor around Lou and the pre-schoolers, waiting to be wrapped around the tree.

Everywhere Kid looked people, his family, were laughing, chattering and generally having a good time. He cleared his throat and everyone paused to look in his direction. Kid said nothing, just lifted an eyebrow in question.

Shining Star shoved the popcorn popper she was holding into her father's hands and rushed over to Kid, the rest of the children on her heels.

"Uncle Kid! Uncle Kid! Pa!" came the excited calls.

Bending over to pick up the two youngest mobile children, Jamie and Wiggle Girl, Kid balanced one on each hip.

"And just what can I do for you fine folk this Christmas Eve?" he teased.

"Santy Claus!" Jamie yelled in Kid's ear, causing the man to wince a little.

"Sing the Christmas Song," begged Sleeps A Lot, using the Cross family's term for the poem.

"The one with the big elf and the 'deer," added Shines Brightly.

"Pwease," begged Wiggle Girl quietly.

"Well, I don't know," Kid smiled as he moved slowly, so as not to step on the children clustered around his feet, toward where Lou still sat near the tree smiling up at him. "I may need a little help. Can't rightly remember how it starts."

Even as Kid lowered himself to the floor next to Lou, the children began shouting out lines from the favored poem. Wiggle Girl softly patted her hand against Kid's chest to get his attention.

"Yes?"

"T'wa... t'wa... t'was the night befow Chwistmas," she offered.

"I do believe you're right, young lady." Kid smiled broadly as he felt Lou snuggle up against him, resting one hand and her chin on his shoulder, her breath tickling his ear. Her other hand came to rest against Jamie's back as he settled against his father. The other children gathered close, leaning in with bated breath and eyes shining with excitement.

"T'was the night before Christmas, and all through the house," Kid began the annual recitation of the Christmas poem he'd memorized at his mother's knee as a child. It had always meant Christmas to him, and he was glad to see it had come to mean as much to these children.

**********

"And to all, a good night," Kid finished his performance, with all the children chorusing the last lines along with him.

"All right," Dawn Star said in a firm tone. "It's time for all you young'uns to head for bed."

Another tradition the Cross and McCloud families had started was to all spend the night together at the Big House, as they'd come to call the Cross home, on holidays. The tradition dated back to their first year on the ranch, when the Big House had been the only house and they'd all lived there together. Polly, Rachel, Janusz and the children would join them the next day for Christmas dinner.

As the older children grabbed the hands of the younger ones to lead them off to bed, six year old Sleeps A Lot paused to tug on Lou's sleeve.

"Yes?" she asked.

"Is the Santa Elf really real?" he asked.

Lou turned startled eyes to her husband, not sure how to answer the question. Standing Woman came to her rescue.

"Is love real? Kindness? Generosity?" she asked. Sleeps A Lot nodded, as did the other children who were paying avid attention to the conversation. "What about the wind?"

"Yes," he said. "It's real."

"Where do they come from?"

"Ma'heo'o, The Great Spirit."

"Santa Claus is just the *wasicus' way of trying to put love, kindness and generosity into words they can understand. He represents all the best about this season and how we should act toward each other all the time."

"But, is he real? Does he really come down our chimney and leave presents for us?"

"He's as real as you want him ta be, darlin'," Lou added.

"Now, off to bed with you lot," Buck said firmly. "Or there won't be any presents come mornin', from Santa or anyone else!"

Under that threat, the children scampered off with groans and smiles, headed for their beds. The three former Expess riders watched them go, until the last child had disappeared up the stairs.

"Did you get it?" Buck asked anxiously.

Lou nodded. "It's in the barn."

"Everything's all set for the mornin'," Kid agreed with a smile.

**********

Lou hummed the tune to Silent Night as she moved slowly around the family room, setting things in place for the day's festivities. She couldn't wait to give Kid his present this year. It was his favorite, she knew. A broad smile crossed her face. She tried to wipe it off with one hand, but bits and pieces remained around the edges of her eyes and lips.

"So what's got you up and cheerful this early in the mornin', Miss Slugabed," a sly voice whispered into her ear even as a pair of red clad arms that ended in white gloves circled her waist, pulling her tight against a broad, hard chest.

"Oh," she simpered, turning in his arms to wrap her own around his neck, slipping them under the long, white hairs of his wig and fake beard. "I thought I'd do something nice to make up for how naughty I've been this year."

"Is that so?" A pair of beautiful blue eyes twinkled out at her from under the pointed red cap. "Your deed must be awful nice, then."

"I think you'll approve," she grinned up at him, pausing for a long moment to draw out the suspense. Then, she leaned up on her tip toes to whisper in his ear, "But it's gonna take me another six months or so to finish it."

As she pulled back, she grinned at the puzzled gaze he leveled at her. But she said nothing, simply watching the wheels turning in his head until the last gear snapped into place and comprehension dawned. He stiffened in her arms in uncertain, yet pleased, shock.

"You mean?"

She nodded her head, grabbing his white gloved hand and pressing it against her still flat belly.

"Yahoo!" he shouted, tossing his cap into the air, paying no attention to where it landed. He already had his hands full pulling Lou off her feet and into a deep, intense kiss.

The couple was too caught up in each other and their celebration to notice a toddler's little face peaking around the corner. His eyes widened at the sight before h9im. His lower lip started to tremble. Tears started coursing down his cheeks. With a gasped sob, he toddled back down the hall as fast as his little legs would take him, a fist stuffed in his mouth.

A clatter of footsteps on the stairs announced the arrival of the other children, awakened by the earlier shout. In their excitement, they trampled right past the fretful toddler like a herd of stampeding buffalo. They never noticed the teary eyed child.

"What's wrong, little man?" Buck asked, coming to a stop in front of Jamie. Standing Woman and Dawn Star continued past them, following the children down the hall and into the family room.

The little boy sucked in a gasping breath and help up both arms.

"Unka Buck!" he demanded.

"Come on, then," Buck said, smiling softly as he gathered the child to him. Jamie sniffled and buried his head in Buck's shoulder.

"What say we go see what all the commotion is about," Buck suggested, already moving toward the family room.

"Santa! Santa!" A chorus of joyful cheers greeted Buck and Jamie was they walked through the door.

"Ho, ho, ho," laughed the man dressed in a bright red suit and tall, shiny black boots. He was standing next to the fireplace now hung with stockings filled to overflowing. "Merry Christmas!"

Turning to dig into the busting-out-at-the-seams burlap bag on the floor next to him, he muttered, "Now, let's seeā€¦ I do believe I have something in here for you boys and girls."

A moment later he popped back up with a gaily wrapped gift in each hand. With shouted names, "Shining Star!" "Sleeps A Lot!", he started passing out the presents. Soon the room was filled with a blizzard of tossed colored pieces of papers, shouts of gleeful surprise and smiles of joys.

"Looks like I've got one more gift here," the man in red said, walking toward Buck and Jamie, still standing in the door. "Says it's for a Jamie McCloud. That must be you, young man. I hear you've been a very good little boy this year."

He came to a stop right in front of Buck and Jamie, the gift held out. Jamie looked at him from behind a fringe of dark brown hair. Then he suddenly reached out and shoved the present away.

"No," he mumbled. "Naughty!" He buried his face again in Buck's shoulder.

Buck's bewildered eyes rose to meet an equally confused pair of blue orbs. The two shrugged and looked back at the upset boy.

"What's wrong, Jamie?" Buck asked. "You haven't been naughty since bedtime, have you?"

The boy shook his head without lifting it, refusing to say another word. Buck shifted the child in his arms so he could raise the boy's chin and look him in the eyes., "You know you can tell Uncle Buck anything. So, out with it, young man! What's wrong?"

After a moment's hard thought, Jamie reached up and pulled Buck's head down to his.

"Don' wan' Ma ta live at Nowth Powl," he whispered in Buck's ear.

With an even more bemused frown, Buck asked, "What makes you think yer Ma's movin' to the North Pole?"

"I saw her kissin' Santy Cwaus," Jamie wailed. "'Neath the mistew-toe!"

Buck threw back his head and gave his deep, belly laugh with a grin that split his face from ear to ear. Turning to the man in red, he held a protesting Jamie toward him. "I think you've got some explainin' ta do, Santa Claus!"

Kid pulled the fake beard down below his own chin as he wrapped his two large hands around his struggling son's body. "Hey! Hey!" he crooned to the upset child. "I don't want Ma movin' ta the North Pole, either."

At the sight fo his father's bared face, Jamie crowed with teary eyed delight and flung himself at Kid, shouting, "Pa!"

"That's right, my boy," he laughed. "And the only place Ma's goin' is home with you, me and Baby Jed tonight."

Kid walked toward Lou, who was seated in the rocker feeding Jed. The tall man in the red suit spoke soothingly to Jamie with every step. As he sank to the floor at Lou's feet, Kid whispered one last thing in Jamie's ear.

The toddler stood up and, flinging his little arms wide, shouted at the top of his lungs, "Mewwy Chwistmas to all. And to all, a Good Night!"

Author's Note: This story is dedicated to all those who said I could do it! You know who you are. Thanks!

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