Heath stopped his wife as she dashed between kitchen and parlour for the second time. "Slow down," he urged, gathering her up in his arms. "Everything looks wonderful. Stop your worrying."
Meg ran a frustrating hand through her pinned up but slowly unravelling hair. Heath, momentarily mesmerized by the movement, had to stop himself from unravelling the wondrous disarray or reddish-auburn hair further. "Oh Heath," Meg fretted. "There is so much to do. Jarrod arrives back home with Victoria and Audra tonight and this is my first Christmas preparing everything. I'm so worried it will all go badly wrong. And I so want it to be wonderful for everyone... for the children...for you."
"Shush," Heath soothed, mouthing his words into her hair in exchange for breathing in its wonderful scent... "You are doing just fine. The house looks wonderful, the tree magical. Have you noticed the children can't take their eyes of it. I think I will have to drag Sean away or else he'll sleep right in front of it." They both laughed imagining their little boy doing just such a thing. Heath continued to reassure her. "Darling, you are making this very special. You make it special. And in a minute, I promise, Nick and I will report for kitchen duty. We just have a few chores to do outside first, and then we’ll be in to help you. And as to the rest of the family? Just you wait till Mother's eyes take a look at all that you have done. I am so very proud of you. I reckon I'm a lucky man to have you take me on."
Meg, not for the first time, was fully disarmed by the man she was caught up in and wrapped her own arms around his neck letting her fingers dangle the kitchen towel down his back. "It wasn’t such a hardship,” she teased, “or so I found out." She added coquettishly. She loved seeing the magic twinkle in his eyes respond. They really were the most romantic eyes in the world and she had their complete attention. It made her feel special - incredibly special and loved.
"Don't be long." She cautioned, as the pressing time made her break free from his hold. "I have aprons for both you and Nick and literally tons of vegetables for you to prepare for tonight's and tomorrow’s meal.
"Aprons?" Heath’s face suggested it was not such a good idea.
Meg was not put off. "You were chaps when you're with the cattle, don't you?"
"Meg, it's not quite the same." Heath reasoned.
"Be that as it may, you're both wearing one in my kitchen. Now don’t get all pained on me.”
"I'm not your problem. The problem will be Nick. I don't think I have ever seen Nick wear one."
"Well there’s a first time for everything."
Heath kept a deadpan face, then let out a laugh. "This I have to see!"
“Oh you will. You will.” Meg promised.
Heath was still laughing when he donned his fleece jacket, hat and gloves. Collecting the men's bonuses he turned back to his flushed but determined wife. "I'll see you shortly."
Outside, Heath paused on the veranda to watch the falling snow. It was not yet settling on the ground. He pulled up his collar against its bitter feel and hoped the snow would not cause his mother, Jarrod and Audra to remain in town. The door creaked open behind him and six year old Thomas peered out from behind it. "Where ya going, Papa? Can I come with you?" Heath bustled him back in side. "I won't be long. Now get back in side and stay warm." Thomas looked up sleepily. It was not far off his bedtime and Heath was looking forward to reading them their Christmas Eve story. "Go on," Heath encouraged. "I'll be in soon."
Heath pushed his hat down on his head and patted his gloved hands together once more to face the cold. He set off for the bunk house.
As he approached he could see the warm glow of lights and hear the laughter and talk of the men. A fair number had stayed behind this year unable to get home to their own families.
The Barkleys were good employers. The one-room building was furnished with sturdy bunk beds and extra warm bedding. Long tables and benches occupied the centre aisle between the beds. A blazing fire roared in the well-built fireplace, its heat sufficient to heat the whole room and keep everyone warm. The men had gone to the effort of putting up a tree and decorating it. On his bed someone was playing a guitar and singing Christmas carols. A few men were singing along.
A separate building provided washing facilities, a cook house and dining room. There the turkey and vegetables the Barkleys had gifted the men would be cooked and enjoyed.
On reaching the bunk house Heath kicked his boots free of the freshly fallen snow. As he opened the door he was met by raucous laughter as a joke was told by one of the men. Heath only caught the end of it, but what he heard was funny and had him smiling along with the rest of them. He was welcomed warmly, hustled towards the fire and a drink placed in his hand. He recognised it as Frank Hambledon's own brew. For a moment it left him without the power of speech. "Good stuff." He finally rasped. Hambledon with a knowing smile patted his young boss on the back. "It'll put hairs on your chest, lad." Heath peered down his shirt front. "Reckon I got enough of those, Frank. Thing is, will I get my voice back?"
He stayed for a short while, genuinely enjoying their company. He shared a joke of his own. It was a good one and had the men laughing. Before becoming a Barkley he had slept in many a bunkhouse and remembered the camaraderie of such evenings. To a boy on his own it offered a brotherhood and sense of family when none other was available. He liked and respected the men and was liked and respected in return. He handed out the bonuses to the men, extra included for those who had families, and wished them all Happy Christmas.
“You bring those boys of yours out here tomorrow, boss.” Hambledon spoke for the men. “The men here have been working on a Christmas gift for each of them.” Heath was genuinely touched. “I will.” He paused to put back on his hat and jacket. “Now I must be going. Everyone have a good Christmas.”
“You too, boss.” The men chorused.
Before heading back to the house, Heath had one more job to do. He needed to collect the firewood.
Inside the house, Nick started to make himself comfortable. Kicking off his boots, he settled down in an easy chair near the fireplace and picked up a newspaper to read. He would catch up with the news and then have a nice doze before dinner. First to disturb his plans was Sean who along with Thomas had been playing in the playroom next door. The six-year old peeked under the newspaper and climbed up onto his uncle’s lap. “When will Father Christmas come, Uncle Nick?” he asked. “Will he come before I go to bed?” Thomas tugged on his uncle’s arm. “Yes, Uncle Nick. When will he come?”
Warming to their theme, Uncle Nick was in his element. “Well now. Father Christmas doesn’t even set foot outside his house until all the little children are asleep.”
“But how does he know when we’re all asleep,” Sean asked, tucking under his uncle’s arm and bringing it across his front.
“Oh he knows. He’s clever that way.”
“And then he’ll deliver our presents?”
“You bet. Tomorrow morning, they’ll all be there. Wrapped and under the tree. I tell you, it will be something special all right.”
Thomas leaned up to his uncle’s ear. “Don’t tell Papa. But Mama helped Sean and me buy Papa a present. Father Christmas didn’t bring it.”
“I won’t say a thing.” Nick said conspiratorially. “Truth is, I bought your father one myself.”
“You did. What did you get him?”
Nick shuffled in his chair with Sean’s weight on his knee and looked at the two boys. “Well, you’ve got to promise you won’t tell.”
Both boys gave a solemn promise. Nick’s faced beamed at the choice of present he had made. “He’d sent away for the finest fishing rod he could find for his brother. A perfectly weighted instrument he knew his brother would appreciate. He couldn’t wait to see his brother’s face when he opened it. Heath’s old fishing rod had seen better days and numerous repairs. Nick looked forward to furnishing him with not just a new one, but one of supreme craftsmanship and reputation.
Meg came in carrying Cate. "Don't get comfortable, Nick Barkley. I have work for you," she cautioned.
"I just sat down." Nick grumbled.
"I'm just going to put Cate to bed. Heath, will be in soon. He’s just taken the men their bonuses."
Nick knew what that meant. He’d tasted Hambledon’s brew before. Best not to let on to Meg what that entailed.
“Can I at least have five minutes?” Nick pleaded as his sister in law began to climb the stairs.
“You have as long as it takes me to put Cate to bed.”
“That long, huh?” He winked at the boys, knowing Cate’s penchant for taking a long time to settle.
Heath came in through the door and brought the firewood into the Parlour. “You need any help, Heath?” Nick offered weakly.
“I reckon I got it covered.”
Shortly afterwards Meg came downstairs. Nick was dumbstruck.
“She went out like a light.” Meg explained.
“Just my luck.” Nick complained. “Okay, what do I have to do?” Meg led him into the wonders of her kitchen. Heath followed wanting to see his face when he had to don the apron.
“I’m a rancher, Meg! A rancher doesn’t wear aprons. Look, I don’t mind peeling the vegetables but don’t make me wear this.”
“I can’t believe I’m having this discussion again." Meg sighed, exasperated. "Look, it’s a protective garment that’s all. You wear chaps, don’t you? You wear slickers in the rain? You wear a hat to keep the sun and the flies off?”
There wasn’t really much Nick could say. “Okay, okay!” He conceded, putting the apron on. "Now lead me to the vegetables.”
Heath was amazed. “You see,” Meg told him. “It wasn’t a problem at all." She paused to think of the next task, "It’s time for the children to have their bath.”
“Got it all sorted.” Heath answered.
“You have to read them the story too.” Meg reminded him.
“Got it, too.” Heath looked over at Nick and the mountain of vegetables and smiled. “You reckon I can leave him to it?”
“It would be a brave man, who would try.” Meg reasoned.
“Maybe I’m not that brave,” Heath joked. “I’ll get the boys into a bath, read them a story and be down. Twins okay?”
She nodded. “Look in on them before you come down. But they’re fed and changed and should sleep through.”
Heath went into the parlour to gather his oldest twins. “Is Father Christmas coming?” They both chorused. “Soon,” Heath advised. “Come on, you need a bath and then you can hang your stockings up.”
Heath let them run onto the bathroom and stopped off in their room to gather nightclothes, slippers and dressing gowns.
Bath time proved a fun time. Heath generally got soaked. Tonight was no exception as both boys took delight in splashing him. Eventually, he had to call a halt to their fun and gathered each one up in a big fluffy towel and towelled them dry. They both smelt of soap and their hair stuck up on end. Heath got them into their night clothes and robes and combed their hair which would soon dry by the fire.
He cleaned up in the bathroom and followed them into their room. “Stocking, Papa! Stockings!” Heath went into his and Meg’s room and pulled out two long thick socks from his own drawer. “Here you are!” he said, returning to the boy’s bedroom where he helped them secure them to the end of the bed. The boys excitedly called for their story. Heath checked the drying of their hair and let them snuggle in the same bed. He then got out the storybook he had been keeping for them and began to tell them the story that had been told to him in his youth by his own mama.
Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house
Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse.
The stockings were hung by the chimney with care,
In hopes that St Nicholas soon would be there.
The children were nestled all snug in their beds,
While visions of sugar-plums danced in their heads.
And mamma in her ‘kerchief, and I in my cap,
Had just settled our brains for a long winter’s nap.
When out on the lawn there arose such a clatter,
I sprang from the bed to see what was the matter.
Away to the window I flew like a flash,
Tore open the shutters and threw up the sash.
The moon on the breast of the new-fallen snow
Gave the lustre of mid-day to objects below.
When, what to my wondering eyes should appear,
But a miniature sleigh, and eight tinny reindeer.
With a little old driver, so lively and quick,
I knew in a moment it must be St Nick.
More rapid than eagles his coursers they came,
And he whistled, and shouted, and called them by name!
"Now Dasher! now, Dancer! now, Prancer and Vixen!
On, Comet! On, Cupid! on, on Donner and Blitzen!
To the top of the porch! to the top of the wall!
Now dash away! Dash away! Dash away all!"
As dry leaves that before the wild hurricane fly,
When they meet with an obstacle, mount to the sky.
So up to the house-top the coursers they flew,
With the sleigh full of Toys, and St Nicholas too.
And then, in a twinkling, I heard on the roof
The prancing and pawing of each little hoof.
As I drew in my head, and was turning around,
Down the chimney St Nicholas came with a bound.
He was dressed all in fur, from his head to his foot,
And his clothes were all tarnished with ashes and soot.
A bundle of Toys he had flung on his back,
And he looked like a peddler, just opening his pack.
His eyes-how they twinkled! his dimples how merry!
His cheeks were like roses, his nose like a cherry!
His droll little mouth was drawn up like a bow,
And the beard of his chin was as white as the snow.
The stump of a pipe he held tight in his teeth,
And the smoke it encircled his head like a wreath.
He had a broad face and a little round belly,
That shook when he laughed, like a bowlful of jelly!
He was chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf,
And I laughed when I saw him, in spite of myself!
A wink of his eye and a twist of his head,
Soon gave me to know I had nothing to dread.
He spoke not a word, but went straight to his work,
And filled all the stockings, then turned with a jerk.
And laying his finger aside of his nose,
And giving a nod, up the chimney he rose!
He sprang to his sleigh, to his team gave a whistle,
“Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good-night.” Sean and Thomas chorused.
And away they all flew like the down of a thistle.
But I heard him exclaim, ‘ere he drove out of sight,
"Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good-night!"
“Don’t forget to leave carrots out for the reindeer.”
The boys yawned. As much as they wanted to stay awake, their little bodies wouldn’t let them. Heath checked they were dry and warm and kissed them goodnight. They were asleep as his kiss dropped to their foreheads.
Downstairs, he reported for duty and sat down with Nick at the table to begin peeling the vegetables. They sat like two soldiers up on a charge and on potato duty. Meg looked at her little army. She smiled, feeling once again in charge. Christmas was back on schedule and everything was going to be just fine.