"A Special Christmas"

by
JV04


Logline: Heath and Meg help reunite a desperate mother with her infant girl. Part of the Heath-Meg series

  A week before Christmas, 1898


"My turn, huh?"

"Your turn, Nick" Jarrod and Heath chorused, as they sat in the games room, sharing brotherly company, laughter and a few drinks. Nick missed his shot at the billiard table.

"It was my turn last year?" Nick objected at both the shot and their reminder.

"No, I did it last year," Jarrod, advised like a man who would know his facts.

"The year before then?"

Heath shook his head. "That was me."

"Not me, huh?"

Jarrod and Heath both shook their heads, realizing that the penny after a slow, reluctant descent was finally dropping for their brother, Nick.

"I warn you now, there is no way I am going down the chimney."

"No, Nick." Eldest and youngest brother said, just about hiding their smiles to themselves.

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It was Christmas Eve and Heath, having drawn the team of horses to a halt outside the orphanage, secured the brake on the wagon. His older boys, Junior and Josh clambered down quickly and then helped the little ones to get down safely. Once down on the ground, Matty, Nicholas and James began throwing snowballs at each other, until reminded that they had a job to do before they could play. Heath couldn't blame them for getting excited. It was Christmas Eve and it was snowing, a rarity in the valley that usually enjoyed a temperate winter. A warm smile played across his face as he watched the boys stop their play and gladly began helping their older brothers. He promised himself he would help them build a snowman when they got home.

This was the first year the little ones had helped in what had become a family tradition over they years. Each year, the family would contribute an abundance of food, turkey, vegetables, medicines, blankets, warm clothing, Christmas tree and presents to the orphanage which cared for about fifteen children.

The Barkleys were a rich family and in their fortune made sure they remembered others. Meg and Heath, taught their children to practice at least one act of kindness every day, no matter how small, or how big, even it was to just to forget an argument almost as soon as it began. Of course, it didn't always work, but the children were a kind bunch and both parents were enormously proud of their brood.

Watching their brothers carry the newly cut tree inside, Matty, Nicholas and James, dressed warmly against the cold, stood back to let them pass and then set about taking some of the smaller parcels in, their excitement evident for all to see. Each were excited about what Santa Claus would bring them that year and if they would see him that night. Listening to their childish chatter, Heath could only hope Nick was showing similar enthusiasm. Somehow he thought not.

"Stand still Nick," Jenny rebuked her husband, as she carried out some alterations to the suit that had been worn by all three brothers in what had become another tradition.

"I'm sweltering," Nick protested.

"I'll be done soon. Gosh you are worse trouble than Little Heath," Jenny sighed, eliciting a wounded wail from him when a pin accidentally made contact with flesh."

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Welcoming Heath Barkley and his sons into the orphanage, Father Sanchez was delighted to see them and overjoyed at what they had brought. The orphaned children too were excited at seeing the large tree carried in and waited excitedly for it to be put in its planter so they could quickly begin decorating it with their homemade ornaments. Matty, Nicholas and James helped decorate it too, allowing Heath and Father Sanchez a quiet moment to secrete the presents to a back room out of sight of the children.

"The children will be so pleased," Father Sanchez said taking in all the brightly wrapped parcels, each labeled with an individual's child's name and a special greeting which Meg had been careful to write out. Their conversation continued amiably for the next few minutes. In the main room where the tree was being dressed, the young ones were busy making friends and having fun, whilst Heath jr, was suffering some playful ribbing from Josh because of the calf-eyes he was throwing fifteen year old Becky Mathew's way.

Soon, and somewhat reluctantly for all the children it was time for them to say goodbye and head back home. The boys clambered up in the wagon and Heath bade goodbye to Father Sanchez, secretly smiling as he thought of the gift that he had secreted away for the kindly priest without his knowing.

On the way home the boys sang carols to keep themselves warm and Heath found himself joining in with a slightly croaky, but nonetheless melodic voice. It was a happy afternoon and there was still more to come.

Once home the boys quickly tumbled out of the wagon and ran inside. "Hello my darlings," Meg said welcoming them home and receiving a frosty-lipped cold kiss from each of them as they simultaneously fought quickly to discard their hats, gloves, coats and scarves. "Did you enjoy yourselves?"

The little ones nodded, whilst Heath jr's sideways look at Josh told his younger brother not to breathe a word about Becky Matthews. Meg looked at the red little noses and rosy cheeks of her chicks and asked them how hot milk and cookies sounded. The older boys declined, as they wanted to get up to their rooms so they could wrap their presents out of sight of their younger siblings. The younger ones nodded eagerly.

"Well, go into the parlor and get warm by the fire and I will bring them into you, alright." All three scampered off, but little James decided he wanted to come back for an extended cuddle and his mother duly obliged.

Outside Heath stabled and saw to the horses. He was just about finished when a noise caught his ears. He listened again but did not hear anything further and so moved towards the door to go back to the house. Just as he did so, the noise was heard again. It seemed to becoming from the wagon which they had used that afternoon. He went to the source and climbed up.

Nothing seemed out of place, except perhaps for the blanket situated far back that one of his boys must have forgotten to take into the orphanage. He went to pick it up and suddenly saw it move. "Now what kind of passenger did we pick up on the way," he said, thinking it must be an animal who had found its way on to the wagon and hitched a ride.

Tentatively he raised the blanket and was amazed by what he found. It was a baby just beginning to wake and stretching its arms and legs. "Now what do we have here?" he said, picking the baby up. It was swaddled and wrapped warmly and had been placed in a bassinet by whoever had put it there. Fully awake the baby began to cry and Heath quickly put it back in the bassinet and got down from the wagon. Then picking the bassinet up, he left to return to the house with his unexpected bundle.

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"Is it baby Jesus?" James asked wide-eyed as he was held in his mother's arms.

"Is it?" Little Nicholas added, his wonderment just as great. "Papa?" he added as he tugged his father's pant leg. "He is a little early, isn't he, Papa? Hes not supposed to be born until tomorrow."

Both Meg and Heath smiled at the innocence of both their son's remarks.

Heath bent down to pick up Little Nicholas in his arms and ruffled Matty's hair who remained silent and staring at the baby. "No sons, it's not baby Jesus. Jesus was born a long time ago. This... Well, I think this is a baby who just needs some looking after for a while."

"Where's its mother?" Matty asked.

"I'm not sure, son," Heath answered.

Matty went up to his mother, "Mama, you can be the baby's mama, can't you? Just like you became mine." Both Heath and Meg were so surprised at their son's question they did not know what to answer.

Upstairs, Meg cradled the baby in her arms. The baby, a little girl, slept on having been fed and changed. "What are we going to do?" she asked Heath. Heath came and sat down by her side. "You thinking we should keep her?"

Meg paused a moment. She was tempted, sorely tempted, but someone had left the baby in the wagon, maybe even the baby's mother. They owed it to the baby to try and find her, to help if they could. Heath smiled in agreement, whilst privately he worried about Meg bonding with the baby too much, knowing she would find it hard to give the child up if she did. "Here," he said, taking the baby from her, "let's put her down and let her sleep." Realizing what he was doing, she nodded. As Heath put the baby down his eyes noticed a piece of paper sticking out from under the blankets.

"What is it?" Meg asked.

"It's a letter," Heath answered opening up the carefully folded piece of paper. "It's addressed to Mr. and Mrs. Heath Barkley."

"Addressed to us? Oh, Heath, what can it mean?" Meg said clutching his arm.

Heath put on his new glasses and studied the letter before reading it out loud to Meg.

Dear Mr. and Mrs. Heath Barkley

By now you will have found my dear, beautiful baby. Her name is Lucy Ann and she was born on November 6th. I was bringing her to the orphanage because I cannot look after her anymore. I tried. Oh Lord, I tried Mr. and Mrs. Barkley. Please believe me when I say I do not want to give my baby up, but I have to, it is for the best. Don't think bad of me because I want what's best for Lucy.

You must be wondering why I left the baby for you to find. Well, I saw Mr. Barkley and his sons arrive at the orphanage this afternoon. I saw how happy your children were and how kindly Mr. Barkley treated them. I watched for several minutes until you all went inside. I continued to the door and went to knock so as to hand my baby over but something told me to leave the baby in the wagon for you both to find.

Mrs. Barkley, I know you have lots of children. You have so much more experience of being a mother than me. If love was all it took to raise a child, I wouldn't think of giving her up. The child has no father, none worth speaking about and none that cares. I beg you to take my Lucy in and love her as your own. I could not bear to leave her in the orphanage now that I have seen your family. I want my baby to know a family like yours, to be part of a family like yours.

Please Mr. and Mrs. Barkley. Please take my baby in. Know that I love her and will to the day that I die. I did my absolute best for her and that was to give her to you. Don't judge me harshly. It is not easy to give her up, but I will to give her a life.

I am watching her now. I cannot leave her until I know she is safe with her new family. Your family Mr. and Mrs. Barkley. She is Lucy Ann Barkley now.

Heath removed his glasses and put the paper down.

"Is it signed?" Meg asked, tears in her eyes.

"No." Heath said sadly. "I guess she omitted it so she couldn't be traced.

"Heath," Meg said, gripping her husband's arm. "She said she was watching to make sure her baby was safe. Is it possible she could be watching the house now? We have to look!"

Heath nodded, "It's possible. I'll round up some of the hands to carry out a search. If it's possible, we will find her Meg."

"And if we don't?"

Heath didn't answer. Moving towards the door and turning the knob, he turned back to her, "We can't decide anything Meg, until we've exhausted our search and enquiries about the mother."

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As Heath searched the compound and beyond with the ranch hands, Meg rejoined her children downstairs. They were full of questions, eager to know if they were going to keep the baby. Whether she liked it not, Lucy Ann had been firmly adopted by Matty, Nicholas and James. Meg explained to them sensitively that Lucy Ann already had a mother and that they would do everything they could do to try and find her, but in the meantime, little Lucy Ann would be staying with them.

She could sense their young minds trying to understand and sought to distract them from thinking on the matter too deeply. "Now what about you three helping me to decorate the tree, or are you too tired from decorating the one at the orphanage?"

It worked for the moment and three pairs of young hands began dressing the bottom of the tree whilst Meg reached above them to decorate the top. In due course they were joined by Victoria, Rosie and Clara who also joined in with the decorating.

An hour later, Heath came in, looking tired. She looked up in hope, but he shook his head sadly as he took off his jacket and hat. She kissed him and drew him into the room to look at the tree. "Well, isn't that a fine tree!" he exclaimed as he took in the sight before him. Each of his children then began telling him which part they had been responsible for.

Their chatter continued, until Heath excused himself to go upstairs and change as his brothers would be arriving soon with their own families. On his way to the bedroom, he passed by the nursery and looked in on his youngest, twins, George and Anna. Anna was wide awake and held out her arms to be picked up on the sight of her father, whilst George happily slept on. Holding her a little tighter than usual, Heath, thought how desperate Lucy's mother must have been to give up her baby.

Placing Anna on the floor where she played happily amongst some toys, he looked out of the window and the snow-covered ground, resolving to do everything he could do to reunite mother and child.

Downstairs, the family were arriving for the Christmas festivities. Nick was the first to arrive with his wife, Jenny and his four children, Mary 12, Laura, 9, Helen 6, and Little Heath. Kisses, hugs, compliments of the season were exchanged and the decorations admired. The house looked truly beautiful with winter greenery, threaded with trailing ivy and holly, and interspersed with an assortment of red berries, fragrant pinecones and winter flowers, adorning polished surfaces, mantels, chandeliers and woodwork. In the foyer, mistletoe hung enticingly from the ceiling willing all under it to share a kiss.

Heath, washed and changed, came down the stairs carrying a chattering Anna, who was still a little too young to understand what was going on, but whose face beamed at all the people in the house. Reaching the bottom step, he walked over to his sister-in-law and kissed her warmly on the cheek before shaking hands with his brother. Nick, being Nick soon turned this into a brotherly hug.

Amidst talk and laughter they all moved to the Parlor where Victoria Barkley sat in her favorite chair to receive her family. In no time at all she was quickly surrounded by grandchildren. She had twenty-two in all, Jarrod's three boys yet to arrive, and it was some gathering. Heath and Meg took a moment to stand back and take in the scene. Tonight the house would be bursting with children and many of the sleeping arrangements had been rearranged so as to accommodate the extended family.

Nick's three girls would be sharing a room with Victoria, Rosie and Clara, and Little Heath would be sharing with Matty, Nicholas and James, whilst Jarrod's boys would be bunking down in Junior and Josh's room. Cate had somewhat imperiously agreed to vacate her room and share with Leah, so Nick and Jenny could have a room and Thomas had moved into Samuel's room so as to allow Jarrod and Felicity a room of their own. It had taken some doing, but everyone had been accommodated. The only absentees, sadly, would be Audra and her family who weren't able to make home this year from their home in the east.

The family happily settled, Heath pulled Meg in to the entry hall and under the mistletoe, where they shared a kiss. Anna who was still being held by Heath objected and tried to push their faces apart, causing both her parents to laugh. "Don't knock it, Anna," Heath teased, "From such kisses children are born."

"Yes, well," said Meg, seeing the light appear in her husband's eye, "Before we develop that idea any further, I'll just return Anna to the nursery and me to the kitchen to see if I can help Silas and James. You can return to our guests."

Heath smiled at Meg's temporary victory over him and was about to return to the Parlor when a knock at the door, heralded the arrival of Jarrod and his family.

Outside in the barn, Tildy Clark, watched the two brothers greet each other and the family ushered in. She pulled the worn shawl around her shoulders and wrapped her hands in its ends, willing the threadbare material to give her warmth and sighed, inwardly. "She had been right in her decision. This was were her Lucy Ann belonged." She closed the door. She would rest just a few minutes more and then make her way back to town. Her baby was in safe hands now."

Inside the house, the family dinner was served, eaten and the table cleared. Meg had brought up all her children to appreciate the work Silas and James did for them and not to take it for granted. In no time at all little hands were helping to clear the dishes away, though whether the young ones were a help or a hindrance was hard to say.

"Thank you Silas and James," Meg said as she came down from checking on Lucy Ann to see the last of the dishes being dried and cleared away. Silas beamed a smile that lit up his lined face and returned it to youth again. "Took no time at all, Mrs. Barkley. Not with my little helpers here," he acknowledged gratefully, patting one of the young blond heads of which there were many.

Meg, returned the smile, proud of her children. Their excitement as Christmas day drew ever closer was palpable and she soon realized she would have to do something to help contain it, less they got too excited and didn't sleep. "Didn't sleep, who am I kidding?" she thought, knowing that she and Heath would probably be woken several times during the night with the words, "Is it Christmas yet?"

Roping Jenny and Felicity into help, she gathered the children together around the Christmas tree and with Jarrod accompanying them at the piano she started them all off in a verse of Deck The Halls With Boughs Of Holly. as they danced around the tree. Soon all the adults joined in and the mix of male, female and children's voices could be heard singing throughout the house.

Deck the halls with boughs of holly,
Fa la la la la , la la la la .
Tis the season to be jolly,
Fa la la la la , la la la la .
Don we now our gay apparel,
Fa la la , la la la , la la la .
Troll the ancient Yuletide carol,
Fa la la la la , la la la la .
See the blazing Yule before us,
Fa la la la la , la la la la .
Strike the harp and join the chorus.
Fa la la la la , la la la la .
Follow me in merry measure,
Fa la la la la , la la la la .
While I tell of Yuletide treasure,
Fa la la la la , la la la la.
Fast away the old year passes,
Fa la la la la , la la la la .
Hail the new, ye lads and lasses,
Fa la la la la , la la la la .
Sing we joyous, all together,
Fa la la la la , la la la la .
Heedless of the wind and weather,
Fa la la la la , la la la la .

The carols continued until Silas and James brought in drinks, including warm milk and cookies for the small ones who would soon be off to bed.

Upstairs, Meg had laid out a stocking on each of the children's beds for them to hang up for Santa Claus to fill with all sorts of goodies, whilst downstairs, Nicholas, Matty, James and Little Heath carefully placed a mince pie and a glass of milk on the hearth for Santa and some hay and crisp apples for the reindeer.

Little Heath looked a little confused at the proceedings but was reliably informed by Nicholas that Santa Claus would be hungry and thirsty delivering all the presents that night.

"That's right," young fella, Nick said, eavesdropping on their conversation and scooping his young son up. "And I reckon I know a little fella here who is going to be just as tired if he doesn't get to bed now".

Turning round to his nephews he added, "I reckon Santa Claus is going to be requiring all children in bed and asleep before he can bring all those presents down the chimney."

Nicholas looked at the chimney and the blazing fire underneath. "Won't he get his toes burnt, Uncle Nick?" Nick who was fighting a protesting Little Heath, searched for an answer.

"Well you know what, Nicholas?"

Nicholas shook his head and waited for his uncle to explain.

"I reckon your father's going to let this one cool down before Santa had to come down it tonight."

"Is that right, Papa?" Nicholas asked his father who was stood not far away.

"What's that son?" Heath replied, his thoughts preoccupied still with Lucy Ann's missing mother.

"Will you put the fire out before Santa has to come down the chimney tonight? If you don't he might decide not to stop with our presents!" Nicholas added, worried.

Heath looked at his brother, aka Santa Claus, and smiled.

Nick, reading his brother's mind, looked at him pleadingly.

"I reckon it's for the best, don't you son,"

Nicholas nodded, quickly relieved for both Santa and his presents, well one present, in particularly. Nicholas had prayed fervently for only one present and that was a pony on which he could learn to ride. He had the name all picked out too, Star! Only thing was, how was Santa going to get Star down the chimney?

Meg and Jenny began ushering their young towards the stairs and up to bed, bringing an end to the conversation. Both knew it would take them some time to settle and bed time stories would take a little longer that night.

"I'll be up in just a minute," Heath indicated to Meg, kissing her on the cheek. "Just going to take one final check around before locking up."

Meg nodded. They had both been thinking the same thoughts all evening.

"I'll join you," Nick said. "I could do with a breath of fresh air."

Meg watched as her little ones said their prayers before getting into bed. They were particularly earnest that night and threw in a couple more just for good measure, before asking God to look after Mama and Papa and all their brothers and sisters, Granny, aunts and uncles, Lucy Ann and the baby's mother.

Meg couldn't help smiling as her boys held their hands together in prayer and knelt down. Little Heath copied his hero, Nicholas, and though he couldn't reach the bed, knelt down along side Nicholas and only got up again when Nicholas did too.

Then rather than get into his own bed, he climbed up into Nicholas' and the two boys snuggled down, receiving a kiss from Meg. "No talking now, go to sleep," she said, knowing that it was a forlorn request. She had a feeling there would be little sleep in this room tonight.

Closing the door, she could hear feet scampering out of bed and opening the door again was met by a surprised Little Heath caught checking if his stocking had been filled yet. Nicholas with his advanced years explained that Santa only visited when they were asleep. Little Heath looked disappointed and was scooped up and put back into bed by Meg. Just then Jenny came into the room from settling her daughters in the room next door.

Seeing the cousins sleeping in the same bed, she could only laugh and think like Meg; that they were going to be in for a long night that night.

Outside, Nick breathed in the cold air and let out a cough as the cold hit the back of his throat.

"You okay?" Heath asked.

"Normally me asking that about you," Nick observed.

"Well wouldn't want you to get ill and miss out on playing Santa tonight." Heath teased.

"Very funny," Nick grumbled, "C'mon let's take a look around."

They walked around the compound, checking on stock, before moving to the bunk-house and checking the hands were alright and no problems had been reported that night.

Moving to the barn, Heath stopped for a few moments to talk to one of the hands.

"Everything okay," Nick asked as he approached them both.

"Seems so," Heath answered.

"Okay, let's get back, it's cold out here," Nick pushed.

Heath was about to set off when he remembered he hadn't checked the barn. "One minute, Nick and I'll be with you," He opened the doors to the barn and circumnavigated it with the help of a lantern to light his way.

"Everything's fine," Nick pushed again. "Come on!"

"Coming Nick," Yet again, Heath was disappointed. He had hoped against hope to find Lucy Ann's mother but had to accept that she was probably miles away by now and determined not to be found. He would find her though. With a heavy heart he began closing the barn doors to walk back to the house. Then he saw it. It was just a shadow at first; a shadow trying to escape being seen. He carefully pushed back the door, not wanting to frighten whoever was there.

"Don't be afraid," he said softly, "I'm Heath Barkley and I just want to help."

Heath was careful to ensure his movements were not threatening and stood perfectly still, hoping his passive stance would draw the young woman out from her hiding place and not scare her away. In the still night air, he could hear her anxious breathing now. She was here, and she was scared. She had not been able to tear herself away from the baby she had left.

It had become personal to Heath. Every time he had thought of this woman during the evening festivities, he had thought of his own mother and imagined how lost and alone she must have felt whilst carrying him, her secret child; a secret from his father and a secret from all that he knew now.

Heath Barkley would not be without his family now. Truly he had never known such happiness as he felt now, but it seemed to him that he had lived his life in two parts; a son to his Mama, when she was all he knew, and later a son to his father's wife, with brothers and a sister and all that being part of a family entailed. Over the years he had become a blend of the two sons, never forgetting the unconditional love, or need for both mothers, each important, each influential to his life. It could have been so easy for Heath and Meg to adopt Lucy Ann. Their hearts were large and ready to love, just as it had been with Matty. Then, Meg had been unhesitant when Heath had brought back the waif from New York and she was unhesitant now, but in their hearts both knew that mother and baby needed to be reunited, for both their sakes. Heath's own upbringing was testament to that.

"Heath! You coming?" Nick's deep bellow punched the silent air and he heard the woman gasp and cower further into the darkness.

"It's alright," Heath reassured the woman. "That's just my older brother, he means no harm. None of us mean any harm. We just want to help you. You're Lucy Ann's mother, aren't you?" He waited for a reply and receiving none, continued cautiously, keeping his voice soft and low. "You must be worried about her, but she's fine. My wife's been looking after her. Fed, warm and tucked up in a crib. I'm sure you would like to see her. Let me take you to her."

Nick who, having entered the barn and ready to take issue with his dawdling brother, listened in the background. Unsure what was going on he allowed himself to be guided by Heath's low tone and soft words and kept silent, not breathing a word.

"I can't." A thin voice replied. It sounded desperately tired.

"Yes, you can," Heath encouraged. "Just step out of the shadows. I can take you to her then,"

"If I see her, I'll be afraid I won't be able to let her go again." the voice continued.

Heath was about to say something, when he heard her fall to the floor.

"Nick! Help me get her into the house!" Heath shouted. Immediately, Nick was at his brother's side.

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An hour later, Meg came down to the Parlor.

"How is she?" Heath asked.

"Sleeping. She's clearly not been eating and she was so cold when you brought her in. Her clothes were so threadbare. I hate to think how she has been surviving until now, on her own and with a young baby. Oh Heath! What if you hadn't found her? She could have died in this cold!"

Heath immediately comforted Meg,. "Well we did find her. And what's more we'll help her get back on her feet so that she can look after Lucy Ann. Should I get the doctor, do you think?"

Meg shook her head, "No. I don't think that will be necessary. Sleep, warmth and food is what she needs more than anything. That and to know that her baby is close."

"Well, she'll get all of those right here," Heath reassured Meg again.

Meg fell into her husband's embrace and rested her head against his shoulder. "I'm so glad you found her, Heath."

"So am I. So am I." Heath responded, again thinking about his mother.

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"Okay. Which room is next? Nick asked, his face perspiring under the white beard of his Santa Claus outfit.

Heath dug deep into the sack and pulled out small presents for Matty's, Nicholas', James' and Little Heath's stockings.

"Matty and Nicholas' room." He answered. "And be sure to drink the milk and eat the cookies they have put in the hearth. They put an extra one out for you in their room."

Nick who hated milk, pulled a face. It would be the third glass he had downed that evening.

"Okay, here goes. Let's get in and out quick before they wake. Then you can pour me a proper drink."

Both brothers opened the door, which gave out an unforgiving groan as it opened to a certain point, and with soft footfalls, they padded inside.

"You do Matty and James and I'll do Nicholas and Little Heath's," Nick suggested. Heath nodded, knowing this was the trickiest of rooms that they had done so far, for Little Nicholas was a notoriously light sleeper.

Quickly, they fumbled with small goodies and treats of fruit, nuts, brightly colored candy canes and small coins, stuffing them into the stockings hung at the bottom of the beds. "Santa!" An excited young voice suddenly shouted out. Immediately, Heath ducked to the floor so as not to be seen whilst Nick's jaw dropped, as slowly his head came up to meet that of his son, Little Heath.

"Santa!" Little Heath shouted again, his face a mixture of excitement and curiosity at the man with a white fluffy beard and a red suit in front of him. He went to tug at the inviting whispers of beard hanging down from the man's face, causing Nick to act quickly to protect his identity.

"Santa! Santa!" Little Heath, shouted again, jumping up and down on the bed. The little chap was beside himself with excitement at seeing Santa Claus in his bedroom. Nick who had been reluctant to say anything lest his voice gave him away, found he had to speak or else risk Little Heath waking up his cousins.

"Ho! Ho! Ho!" he finally said, attempting to mask his voice by pitching it at a point between singing and talking, though at first he achieved an almost falsetto sound which surprised Little Heath even more.

"Ho! Ho! Ho!" he attempted again, this time achieving a much deeper tone,one plucked right from his boots. "Well, if it isn't Little Heath! Shouldn't you be asleep, young man?"

Little Heath stopped in his tracks, amazed and a little scared that Santa knew his name and that he'd been caught out but quickly got over his shock when Santa smiled kindly at him. Then to Nick's horror his son began dancing around on the bed managing to wake Nicholas in the process.

Nicholas wasn't sure if it was the right foot catching him on the ear that woke him up, or the left foot on the return, but the squashing of his face into his pillow as Little Heath, unsteadied by his bouncing around fell down and sat on his face, sealed it.

"Little Heath!" Nicholas' muffled voice could be heard complaining, as he attempted to emerge from under Little Heath's bottom which remained firmly planted on his face.

"Santa! Santa!" Little Heath exclaimed to Nicholas, oblivious to his cousin's plight. Nick sought to rescue his little nephew from further assault and pulled Little Heath off his cousin and up into Santa's arms.

Immediately, a delighted Little Heath's chubby hands reached out for Santa's beard and again, Nick was in a whisker of having his identity revealed. Quickly, he pulled his son's hand down and sat down on the bed with Little Heath on his knee.

Rescued and seeing who was in his room, Nicholas quickly forgot nearly being flattened by Little Heath and shouted with excitement, "Santa! Santa! Ooh, you came!" His voice trembled with awe as he knelt on the bed, his eyes wide and unblinking and his jaw dropping at the sight before him. "Ooh! Santa you came," he said again and again, his face completely in shock.

Nick couldn't help be affected by the boys' reaction and smiled under his beard. The thought occurred to him that never again would there be a time like this moment; two little boys seeing and believing Santa Claus had come into their bedroom to leave presents for them to open on Christmas morning. Far from resenting the role he was now playing, he considered it a gift to witness the wonderment and happiness of Nicholas and Little Heath and began to relax into the role of Santa, playing it to the maximum so as not to disappoint the boys.

Despite all the noise the boys had made, James and Matty slept on. Nicholas wanted to wake them up, but Santa suggested he let his brothers continue to sleep. He wasn't sure he could keep up this pretence for all four of them and considered it safer to just have Little Heath and Nicholas know of his visit.

Heath who had ducked to the floor as soon as Little Heath had woken up, slithered like a snake from his exposed position to under Nicholas' bed. As his eyes struggled to get use to the dark, his nose detected a familiar canine smell that told him he was not alone.

Turning his head slowly to the left he came face to face with Max the dog. Master and dog stared at each other for several moments, before Max realized he was in the dog house, having been caught upstairs again. Seeing his master's stern face, Max cowered and covered his head with his paws, peeking an occasional look to see what Heath would do.

Well, what could Heath do? He couldn't reveal his presence in the room and he couldn't rebuke Max, much as he wanted to do. And that paw thing! Max was such an actor! And so, he just lay there and glared at his disobedient hound.

"So boys, have you both been good?" Nick asked. Both boys nodded earnestly, not wanting to miss out on their presents. Hearing this, Heath made to object, but was stopped by the presence of Max and his situation.

"But," Nicholas said and then suddenly stopped.

"But what, Nicholas?" Nick asked.

"You better know,I wasn't good last week, Santa," Nicholas said with typical honesty.

Heath's ears perked up and he listened intently from under the bed.

"Why, what happened last week, Nicholas?" Nick asked, just as interested.

Nicholas, took a deep breath and then began his confession, little realizing who he was speaking to, or who was listening secretly under the bed.

"Well it all began when Uncle Nick and Aunty Jenny came to visit with my cousins, Mary, Laura and Helen, and of course, Little Heath here," Nicholas stated. Nick resisted a smile, knowing he was Uncle Nick. "Well that was nice of them," he commented. Nicholas readily agreed, "Oh yes, it was. I always like seeing Little Heath. We're best friends, you know?"

"No, I didn't know," Nick replied as Santa. "You're not friends with the girls then?"

Nicholas looked aghast, "But Santa, they're girls!" he said as if that were explanation enough, and truthfully from a six year old boy, it was.

"Well," Nicholas continued, somewhat dramatically. Underneath the bed Heath recognized his son's tone and instantly knew this was going to be a very long story. He prepared to get comfortable.

"Well," Nicholas began again, forgetting he had said it once, "It was nice seeing Uncle Nick and Aunt Jenny but when they got to talking all grown up things,"

"Grown up things, huh?" Nick mimicked, being very careful not to smile.

"Yeah, grown up things," Nicholas continued. "Well, we all went off to play. The girls went upstairs to the attic and Little Heath and I went to play with Max. Max is our dog, but Papa doesn't like him."

"You're Papa doesn't like him? Why is that?"

"Well, you see, Papa tells Max to do something and Max, well, he likes to do it a different way. Papa gets angry with Max an awful lot. I think Max gets on Papa's nerves."

"His nerves, huh? Your Papa gets a bit testy, does he? A bit bad-tempered?"

Nicholas shook his head, "Only with Max, but Max likes Papa, he really does?"

Listening to this under the bed, Heath could only glare at Max, who took on an innocent look.

Nick laughed under his beard, knowing his brother was listening to all that was being said.

"So your Papa's not mean and crotchety, then?" He had to bite his lip when Heath jabbed him sharply in the leg.

Nicholas looked surprised and gave a spontaneous reply. "Oh no, Papa is the best father in the world! You'd like my Papa, Santa, you really would. Why he takes me riding and fishing with him and tells me stories and plays games with me and..."

"I think I get the picture, young man. You're proud of your father, aren't you? And you love him very much,"

"Sure do. I want to be just like him when I grow up. I look like my father, you know," Nicholas said proudly, "So I am a little bit there and I grew another inch this year and so one day I will be as tall as him too!"

"Well, I can see how you will be, young man," Nick said, vastly amused and finding Nicholas's view of life irresistible. "So tell me young man, what happened when you, Little Heath and Max went out to play?"

"Well, Little Heath and I were playing with Max when Little Heath needed to run into the house and find Aunt Jenny as he had to use the bathroom. He has to do that quite a lot you know, on account of him being so young."

From those words alone, Nick recognized his son.

"And?" Nick said encouraging Nicholas go to on for the story seemed entirely innocent so far.

"Well, Little Heath don't normally take too long if you know what I mean and I expected him to come back and play, but he didn't come back, so I went into the house to look for him."

Nick was intrigued, because as far as he knew Little Heath hadn't gone missing any time during that visit.

"I couldn't find him in any of the rooms downstairs and so went upstairs to see if he was still in the bathroom."

"And was he?"

"No, so then I went and found Aunt Jenny and she told me he had gone upstairs to the attic with Laura and Helen who were playing up there."

"So what did you do?"

"I went up after them, Santa. Little Heath is my best friend, not theirs'." Nicholas said indignantly. "And besides they're..."

"Don't tell me," Nick interrupted, "They're girls!"

"Exactly!" Nicholas replied, gratified to find Santa understood.

"And so did you find him?"

"I did. And do you know what Santa?"

Nick shook his head.

"The girls were only dressing up in Mama's old dresses and hats!"

"Well that was okay, wasn't it? Nick argued, "I mean they're girls, aren't they, that's what they do."

"But Santa!" Nicholas exclaimed, "They had dressed Little Heath up as a girl! And not only that, Santa, they were serving him pretend tea out of their doll's tea set too!"

"A girl! Tea! Little Heath!" Now it was Santa doing the objecting. Heath underneath the bed could imagine his brother's face on learning his only son had been dressed up as a girl and by his own daughters too. His mirth threatened to reveal his presence because he was finding it so hard not to laugh. He could fair feel the bed shake with Nick's own indignation and was sure the man was going to explode.

"Well, Santa," Nicholas continued, "There was no way I could let them do that to Little Heath, was there?"

Santa was in full agreement, Little Heath, on the other hand was oblivious to all that was going on and only interested in whether Santa had brought him his present.

And so what did you do?" Nick said, quickly trying to gain control, ready in an instant to forgive any action Nicholas took to defend Little Heath from this feminine attack.

"Well I ..........."

...Continued