1

"Sam, looks like we might make it home for Christmas after all," Texas Ranger Lieutenant Jim Blawcyzk remarked to his gelding, Sam. "That's Jude Tobin's horse, along with the boy's who's ridin' with him. Looks like the information we were given back in town is correct; they are holed up in that shack."

The Ranger and his ill-tempered one man horse, a palomino and white splotched paint, were hidden in a cluster of boulders, which sheltered them from view of the cabin. Two horses, still saddled and bridled, were tied to the rail out front. A dim light shone through the cabin's only window, casting its yellowish glow on a thin covering of snow which coated the ground, and smoke curled lazily from the chimney. For nearly three weeks they had been trailing Jude Tobin, who was wanted for bank robbery in three counties, and his young cousin across north Texas. Most of the hunt had taken place during bitterly cold weather, unusually frigid for Texas, even in mid-December. Now, it appeared their search had finally come to an end.

"I'm goin' after 'em, Sam. You wait here until I call you," Jim ordered the horse. Sam nuzzled Jim's shoulder, then dropped his head to the Ranger's hip pocket, begging for one of the ever-present peppermints Jim kept there. Jim chuckled softly, dug in his pocket, pulled out a candy, and gave it to the horse.

"There, satisfied?"

Sam snorted while he happily crunched down on the treat.

Jim lifted his Colt Peacemaker from its holster on his left hip and slid a cartridge into the empty chamber under the hammer, then slid the six-gun back in place. He retightened his gunbelt around the outside of the heavy sheepskin coat he wore as protection against the freezing night air, then pulled his Winchester from its scabbard on his saddle. He levered a bullet into the chamber, then stepped out of the cover of the rocks. He stood behind a thick live oak and leveled the rifle at the cabin window.

"Jude! Jude Tobin!" he called. "Texas Rangers! Throw out your guns and come out of that shack, hands in the air. There's no getting away, so let's not have any gunplay. I'd like to bring you in nice and peaceable-like. There's no point in gettin' yourself killed, 'specially so close to Christmas."

"You can go to blazes, Ranger!" Tobin shouted back. "I ain't turnin' myself in. Only one who's gonna die here today is you."

He punctuated his statement with a single rifle shot, which ricocheted wildly off the rocks behind the Ranger.

"Don't be a fool, Tobin." Jim answered. "You ain't done anything that's a hangin' offense, at least not yet. Kill me and you'll be hunted down like a mangy coyote. You won't stand a chance."

Tobin answered with another bullet.

"Does that answer your question, Ranger?"

"I'm askin' you again to come outta that cabin," Jim replied. "If you're not concerned about yourself, think of that boy in there with you. You wanna see him mebbe get hit by a slug meant for you, or runnin' for the rest of his life?"

"Bobby can take care of himself, Ranger. He'll do just fine."

Again Tobin fired, this bullet driving bark from the oak, a foot over Jim's head.

"You had your chance, Jude," Jim called. He fired three shots through the cabin's window, shattering the glass.

Jude Tobin returned the fire, the still night air now echoing with gunfire and filled with powder smoke as both men blazed away. Jim flinched when one of Tobin's bullets sent splinters into his cheek. When Tobin raised up from behind the windowsill again, Jim took careful aim and fired. Tobin screeched, dropped his rifle, and slumped over the sill. He lay unmoving, then unseen hands dragged him back into the cabin.

"Tobin?" Jim called. "Tobin!"

"Jude's dead, Ranger," a juvenile voice, quaking with fear, called from the cabin. "You killed him."

"Son, come on outta there. I don't want to hurt you," Jim answered. The Ranger was himself sick to his stomach. He never particularly enjoyed killing a man, and had never gotten over it. This close to Christmas made Tobin's death doubly hard to take.

"I can't do that," the boy replied. "You'll shoot me as soon as I do, just like you shot down Jude."

"Son, I didn't want to kill your cousin," Jim said, "He didn't give me any choice. If I hadn't shot him, he'd've done for me. Please, come out of that shack. I promise I won't harm you."

"Jude told me never to trust any lawman," the boy responded, his voice cracking. "He said they'd kill a man first chance they got. I reckon he was right. Jude was my only kin, and now he's dead, just like he said would happen, from a lawman's bullet. If you want me, you'll have to come in and get me."

"All right, son, if that's the way it has to be," Jim answered. "I'm comin' in after you, but I'm not gonna plug you. Bet a hat on it."

Jim leaned his Winchester against the live oak's trunk, then lifted his heavy Colt from its holster. He was taking a long chance, stepping out into the open, not knowing what the distraught youngster in the cabin might do. A bullet fired by a ten year old would leave a man as dead as any fired by a hardened desperado.

Jim crossed the clearing to the cabin quickly, then edged open the door. He stepped inside, to find a tow-headed ten year old standing there. The boy had a six-gun in his hand, which he held pointed at the Ranger's belly, the barrel leveled two inches below Jim's gunbelt.

"Don't take another step, Ranger," the boy warned. "I'll drill you right through your guts if you do."

Jim took a quick look around the sparsely furnished cabin before answering. Jude Tobin lay face-down and unmoving where the boy had dragged him away from the window. Tobin's rifle was against the wall, out of easy reach.

"Son, put the gun away," Jim ordered. "Just let it drop to the floor."

"You'll shoot me as soon as I do," the boy replied.

"Listen, Bobby. That's your name, isn't it?"

"Yeah."

"Bobby, I'm not gonna shoot you. Here, I'll prove it to you."

Jim slid his Colt back into its holster.

"There, see. I've put my gun away. Now please, you do the same," Jim pleaded.

"I dunno," the boy murmured.

"Son, it's almost Christmas. You don't want to kill a man, especially this time of year. Just let your gun fall."

His attention on the boy, and the gun in his hand, Jim saw movement from the corner of his eye, a second too late. He whirled, grabbing for his gun when Jude Tobin snaked his pistol from underneath his body and fired. Jim staggered when Tobin's bullet slammed low into his ribs. He grabbed his side, jackknifed, and pitched to the floor.

Tobin leapt to his feet, barely giving the downed Ranger a second glance. He shoved his revolver back into his holster, then retrieved his rifle.

"You did great, kid. You sure fooled that Ranger," he praised, with an evil laugh. "C'mon, Let's get outta here."

Bobby stood rooted to the floor, his eyes wide with shock as he stared at Jim, who was lying face-down with blood pooling around his side.

"You. . . you killed him," he stammered.

"It was him or us, kid. Now let's get outta here," Tobin ordered. He shoved the boy toward the door, pushing him outside. They untied their horses, mounted, and galloped away.

2

Sam stamped restlessly and snorted, steam from his nostrils rising into the frigid air. He had heard the gunshots and seen two men get on their horses and gallop away, but there was no sign of Jim. He stamped again, then left the shelter of the rocks. Now he could see Jim through the cabin's open door, lying silent and still. Sam whickered questioningly, but there was no answer from the Ranger.

Sam had no way of knowing just what had happened, that Jim had been shot. All the gelding knew was that whenever he heard the noise of gunfire, then found Jim lying unconscious, something was terribly wrong. He hesitated for a moment, wanting to obey Jim's order to stay until he was called, but somehow instinctively knowing his friend needed help. Finally, he trotted down the slope, stopped at the cabin door, then stepped inside.

Sam snuffed at Jim's neck, then nickered. When he received no response, he nuzzled harder at the back of Jim's head. Still, the Ranger lay silent and motionless. Sam nuzzled him yet again, then, when Jim still didn't respond, clamped his teeth onto the Ranger's shoulder. Slowly the big horse dragged his unconscious rider out of the cabin and into the snow-covered clearing. Jim moaned when his face hit the snow. Sam released his grip on Jim's coat, then put his muzzle to the Ranger's ribs, shoving until he rolled Jim onto his back. Sam then nuzzled insistently at Jim's face, until the Ranger finally groaned, and his eyes flickered open.

"Sam? What're you doin' here?" Jim murmured. "Guess. . . I was played for a. . . sucker. That kid. . . kept me busy while. . . Tobin played possum. . . until he could nail me. I fell. . . for the. . . oldest trick in the book."

Sam nuzzled him again.

"I reckon you're right. I've got to get movin' before I freeze to death. . . if I don't bleed out first," Jim said.

He forced himself to sit up, wincing at the sharp pain which tore through his side. Grabbing a stirrup, he pulled himself to his feet. Once upright, he leaned against the big paint for support, gasping for breath. He remained against Sam's side until the nausea and vertigo subsided. Once he felt a bit steadier, Jim dug into his saddlebag for a spare neckerchief. This he folded into a square, then shoved it under his shirt, pressing it against the bullet hole in his side.

"Can't climb on your back. . . without some help, Sam," Jim muttered. He led the horse back to the cluster of boulders. After recovering his rifle and shoving it back into its scabbard, Jim stepped onto one of the lower rocks, then managed to pull himself onto Sam's back.

"Let's get goin', pard. It's a long way to town," Jim said. He heeled Sam into a fast walk. It was thirty miles to the nearest settlement, a full day of hard riding under the best of circumstances. For a gravely wounded man, the trip would be nearly impossible. To add to Jim's misery, he felt the sting of wind-driven sleet pellets in his face as Sam started into motion.

"It's gonna storm somethin' fierce, Sam," Jim said. "This is a real bad blue norther we're facin', bet a hat on it."

Sam snorted when the sleet stung his hide.

"Just keep movin', boy," Jim urged.

The storm rapidly intensified, the sleet soon replaced by thick snowflakes. The wind picked up, and visibility quickly deteriorated. Soon horse and rider were headed into the teeth of the storm. The snow piled up more quickly than Jim thought possible, driven in spots to drifts belly-deep on his horse. Jim rode slumped in the saddle, weakened by cold and loss of blood. The pain in his side settled from a sharp stabbing, to a dull throb, then numbness. The blowing snow accumulated on his heavy coat, and piled high on Sam's thick coat. It forced its way down Jim's collar, soaking him to the skin, while thick icicles formed on Sam's muzzle.

Sam pushed on despite his exhaustion, now forcing his way through a complete whiteout, stumbling when he stepped into a hidden dip in the trail or unseen hole. . . if he was even on a trail at all. In this sea of white, Jim had lost all sense of landmarks or direction. He could only hope Sam was still on course.

The exhausted paint finally halted, trembling, his head hanging low.

"You've got to keep movin', Sam, or we're both finished," Jim urged. He dug his heels into the paint's ribs. Reluctantly, Sam started forward yet again.

"Guess I'm not gonna make it home for Christmas after all," Jim thought. "Sure hate the idea of dyin' out here, not so much for me, but for Julia and Charlie. Don't want to ruin Christmas for them."

Jim realized, if he died in this blizzard, his wife and son would forever remember Christmas as the time when they had lost him. Worse yet, most likely his body would never be found, torn to bits and devoured by scavengers looking for a meal on the snow-covered plain. Julia and Charlie would spend the rest of their lives wondering what had happened to him, how he had died.

Jim lost all sense of time while Sam trudged through the blizzard. For the last half-hour, he had been riding slumped over his horse's neck, his hands wrapped in the paint's thick mane, gripping it tightly in a desperate attempt to stay in the saddle. His efforts proved futile. Jim slid off the horse, landing on his back in a deep snowdrift. Sam halted, turned to nuzzle his rider, then stood in silent vigil over the Ranger.

3

Jim had no idea how long he had been lying there, slowly freezing to death, when he felt someone gently shaking his shoulder. He stirred, and his eyes flickered open. He found himself looking into the face of a middle-aged Mexican.

"Senor, are you awake?" the Mexican asked, in heavily accented English.

"Si. . . si," Jim managed to whisper. "Who. . . how?"

"Shh. . . You must conserve your strength," the Mexican replied. "Who I am does not matter. What is important is getting you to shelter, and a doctor, as quickly as possible."

A bit more aware now, Jim realized the Mexican's gentle brown eyes held the kindest expression he had ever seen.

"Let me help you up," the man urged. "Do not attempt to rise too quickly, or you will surely pass out again. You might also reopen your injury."

He smiled compassionately at the wounded Ranger.

"All right," Jim murmured. In his fogged mind, he doubted highly that this frail-looking man would be able to get him upright, let alone back in the saddle.

"When you are ready, Senor."

The Mexican slid his hands under Jim's shoulders, pushing him to a seated position. Once that was done he took Jim by the wrists, pulling him to his feet. Jim stood swaying. To Jim's surprise, Sam, his ill-tempered one-man horse, who allowed no one but Jim, or his son Charlie, to come anywhere near him, was standing there calmly, allowing the Mexican to rub his velvety nose. Seeing his rider awake and standing, Sam nickered, and nuzzled Jim's face. Despite his ordeal and exhaustion, somehow Sam was still alive.

"Mister, you're not traveling alone!" Jim exclaimed, when he spotted a huddled figure on a small burro next to Sam. The rider was clearly a woman, who was obviously far along in pregnancy.

"No, I am not," the Mexican confirmed. "Allow me to present my wife."

The woman lifted her veil and smiled at the Ranger, a smile of great beauty and peace.

"Your wife!" Jim exclaimed. "You're out with your wife in this storm, and she's gonna have a baby! What are you man, plumb loco?"

"No, Senor, I assure you I am not. My wife and I are traveling to Bethlehem, the home of my ancestors. We wish to have our child there."

"Bethlehem?" Jim echoed, not quite believing his ears. "That's better'n four hundred miles from here. It's more'n halfway across the state, almost to Texarakana. You'll never make it."

"If it is the Lord's will, we shall complete our journey safely," the Mexican answered. "However, we must not remain here, but need to resume our travels. Let me assist you into the saddle."

"All right."

Jim put his left foot into the stirrup, then the Mexican cupped his hands around Jim's right boot and boosted him onto Sam's back.

"Are you comfortable, Senor?" he asked, once Jim was settled in the saddle.

"I reckon I'm as comfortable as I can be, under the circumstances," Jim answered. His wound, while still aching, did not seem anywhere near as painful as it had been.

"Bueno. Then let us continue on."

The Mexican picked up the burro's lead rope, and pulled him into a walk. Sam trailed meekly behind.

While the blizzard raged on, it seemed to Jim they were in a pocket of calmer air, protected from the worst of the storm. The wind seemed nowhere near as biting, and few snowflakes landed on the Ranger or his horse. Instead of shivering with cold, Jim now felt warm and peaceful inside. Before long, he once again drifted off to sleep.

4

When Jim next awoke, he was no longer on Sam's back. Now, he was lying in a warm bed. His filthy, soaked clothes had been removed, and he was under clean sheets and blankets, with a bandage wrapped around his middle.

"Mister, you're finally awake," a woman said. "Sure glad to see you comin' around."

Jim opened his eyes to see a dyed blonde looking down at him. She was dressed in a low-cut red satin gown, heavy make-up on her face, and her lips coated with bright red lipstick. Alongside her was a man of about sixty, dressed in a dark cotton shirt and trousers, with a string tie around his neck. On the other side of the bed stood a young man wearing a deputy's star.

"Where am I?" Jim questioned.

"You're in Bethlehem, Texas," the woman answered. "I'm Liz Bailey, and this is my husband, Bill."

"Bethlehem?" Jim said.

"Yes, Bethlehem. You're in our hotel, to be more precise. Bill and I own the place. I also run the gambling in our saloon," Liz explained.

"The Mexican!" Jim exclaimed, as memory came rushing back. "Listen, this is important. I was shot and left for dead, then got lost in that blizzard. I was found by a Mexican, who got me back on my horse. His wife was with him, and she was about to give birth. Where are they?"

"This was the last room we had," Bailey answered, "And they insisted you should have it, because you were wounded. I tried to convince them otherwise, that we could care for you just as easily on a sofa in the lobby, but they wouldn't hear of it. I finally convinced them to at least settle in the stable for the night."

"I need to see them, right now!" Jim said. He started to throw back the covers, stopping when he realized he was undressed.

"Can you get me my duds?" he asked.

"They're out being mended and washed, but we should be able to come up with something to fit you," Liz answered. "I'll be back in a jiffy."

"While you're waitin' for Liz to come back with those clothes, Mister, or I guess I should say Ranger, I'd better introduce myself," the lawman said. "I'm deputy Ed Thomas."

"You know I'm a Ranger?" Jim asked.

"Yep. Found your papers in your pocket. Jim Bluh. . . ?"

"Bluh-zhick," Jim helped.

"Blawcyzk," Thomas continued. "I wired to Austin and found out you were trailin' Jude Tobin."

"That's right, but he plugged me and got away," Jim answered.

"He didn't get far," Thomas replied. "I got an answer from Austin, sayin' Tobin had turned himself in at Sweetwater. Evidently the boy who was travelin' with him convinced Tobin to give himself up. Tobin's in jail, and the boy is safe with the Sweetwater marshal and his wife." "Well I'll be," Jim exclaimed.

"Austin also said they'd let your wife know you were all right, and would be home soon as you can," Thomas continued.

"Thanks, deputy. That's a real load off my mind."

"Glad to be of help," Thomas answered.

"Wish your wife would hurry back with those clothes, Bailey," Jim said.

"Here I am right now, Ranger. Try these on for size."

Liz placed a shirt, jeans, socks, and boots at the bottom of the bed.

"We'll give you a minute," she said. "We'll wait out in the hallway for you."

"All right," Jim answered.

As soon as the threesome departed, Jim threw back the covers and swung his legs over the edge of the mattress. He shrugged into the shirt, pulled on the jeans, and tugged on the boots. They were a bit tight, but would do for the night.

Jim stood up, surprised when he felt no sense of dizziness or weakness, then crossed the room and stepped into the hall.

"Take me to see that Mexican and his wife," he ordered.

"This way, Ranger."

Bailey, Liz, and Thomas led him down the hall, through the lobby, and out the front door. Instead of a raging blizzard, this night was calm and clear, with a full moon brightly illuminating the town. While it was still cold, the air no longer had its bitter bite.

They turned down an alley alongside the hotel, to a small stable at its rear. Thomas slid open the door, standing aside to let Jim enter first.

In the first stall was the Mexican and his wife, who were gazing with love at their newborn son. The infant had been wrapped in a blanket, and was peacefully sleeping in a hay-filled manger. Sam was standing outside the stall, his head hanging over the wall while he softly nickered at the child.

"She gave birth to her first-born, a son, wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid Him in a manger, because there was no room for them at the inn," Jim whispered.

"What?" Bailey asked.

"Just like in the Scriptures," Jim answered. "What day is this?"

"Why, it's December 25th, Christmas Day," Liz answered.

"Of course," Jim whispered.

From the stall, the Mexican looked up, fixing Jim with those kindly eyes.

"Ranger, I see you are up and doing better," he said. "I am glad to know that."

"And I see your wife has had her baby," Jim replied. "I asked before, but you did not answer, so I'm asking again for your name."

"Of course," the Mexican agreed. "I am Jose. My wife is Maria, and our son will be named Jesus."

He used the Spanish pronunciation, "Hay-Sus", for the baby's name.

"Jesus, Mary, and Joseph. It had to be," Jim whispered.

"You will be heading home to your own family now, Ranger, no?" Jose questioned.

"To my own family, si," Jim answered. "I wish to thank you for all you have done for me. If you hadn't stopped to help, I would have died out there in that blizzard. You also gave up your room for me. I somehow have the feelin' you're behind Jude Tobin turnin' himself in, too."

"The Good Lord has His ways, which many times are not for us to understand," Jose answered.

"Indeed," Jim replied, then yawned.

"Jose, Maria, I am going to get some more rest. I will see you again before I leave."

"Of course," Jose answered. "For tonight, even though you will not be departing until morning, I will say Vaya con Dios."

"Muchas Gracias, Jose, and may the Lord bless you and your family."

"Gracias, Ranger."

Too overcome with wonder and emotion, Jim and the others said nothing on their way back to the hotel. They bade each other good night in the lobby, then Jim returned to his room. He pulled off the borrowed boots and slid under the covers.

I'm gonna miss Midnight Mass this year, and I won't be home for Christmas after all, Jim thought. But Julia and Charlie know I'm safe and will be on the way home soon. And boy howdy, have I got a Christmas story to tell when I get there. Bet a hat on it.

Jim drifted off to sleep saying his evening prayers.

**************************

Jim Griffin is the author of a series of Jim Blawcyzk Texas Ranger novels. They are available directly through the author's website, jamesjgriffin.net, Amazon.com, BarnesandNoble.com and many other online booksellers, or by ordering at your favorite bookstore.
CONTENTS

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