Cowbells Ringing: A Christmas Short Story from Evans County

Chapter One

“Haruto is nowhere to be found. I’m worried sick, Tru,” Katie had tears in her voice.

“I’ll go out again when I finish up here and I’ll see if Carl can ride with me.”

“We’ve got Carl and Young tied up getting ready for tonight. I know the show will go on and all that, but honestly I don’t see how we’ll make it. If Jean hadn’t come in when she did, I don’t know what I would have done. Truvie and Sam have the food under control for the most part, but the sets aren’t finished, the kids still stumble over some of their lines, the high school band sounds terrible. The little children keep losing interest and wandering off the platform. What were we thinking having it at Jumping for Joy rather than at the church?”

“Church is out, Babe. Pastor Tim said it will be at least a week before the leaks from the pipes that froze can be repaired. Probably longer if this storm doesn’t break. I doubt Harry got far, he’s practically a dog and always wanders back. You are NOT making a pet out of the next one. When Tilda Sue delivers, you need to let Doc Mabry handle it, or my mother, or even Shell. You’re just attached because he was born the same time as the twins.”

“I’m afraid he tried to get over to Jumping for Joy and got lost in the storm. He followed you and the kids the last time you rode over. He loves all the attention from the children. Annakat lays down in the stall by him for naps, Tru. We have to find him.”

“I’ve got one more release to process and then I’ll take the truck home through the back from Double J to Circle P like we used to when we were dating.”

“Be careful. It’s still snowing like crazy. Young is hooking up Maudie and Stan to give sleigh rides in the snow.”

“I wouldn’t mind taking a sleigh ride with you, but I don’t want Young along. How’re you feeling?”

“I haven’t been as nauseous today. I don’t get it. I wasn’t sick much at all with the twins.”

“Just take it easy and let the other girls do the work. Jean is here for another week and is great with the twins and helping at Double J. Kristin took over the books. Shell and Lacey have Barbara to help with the program and the bad band will just add character. Truvie’s sisters are in and cooking up a storm. Pastor’s brother Ed will make a great Santa Claus and his wife, Jo Beth, has all the costumes ready according to Mom. It will be fine.”

“We shouldn’t have turned Christmas into a fundraiser. I think we made God angry by trying to raise money on his kid’s birthday. Snowstorm, busted pipes, missing bull, bad band and did I tell you Paul said your aunt’s plane has been delayed again? He’s still waiting at the airport.”

“Good. I hope she goes back to Florida. The fundraiser is a great idea. This is a wonderful time of year for it and a lot of people are coming out from the cities to spend a western Christmas in Evans County because of it. Emily’s B&B is booked solid for the next ten days. Stop worrying. Now let me go so I can finish up and go find your bull.”

“Tru? I love you. I’m sorry I’m such a mess.”

“Honey, baby hormones are just a way of life around here now. Go find my Mom and tell her Dixie just left and should be there in about half an hour. And Katie? I love you more.”

Chapter Two

“It is NEVER this cold in Texas!” Carl shouted as he struggled through the heavy wooden door, heavily laden with another box of Christmas decorations. Snow scattered the floor as he shook his Stetson and pushed the door closed against the wind.

“You say that every year and it doesn’t change a thing. Fact is, it IS this cold in Texas, and we’ll deal with it. Where’s Young?” Deputy Carl Knight’s wife of two years, Shell, brushed more snow from his leather and shearling jacket as she stretched on tiptoe to kiss his rough, wind-reddened cheek.

“He’s hitching Maudie and Stan to the sleigh to test out the snow and see if they’ll pull in it. They don’t care to be cold any more than I do.”

“You got a minute to go over the list with me?”

“If we can do it in the Dining Hall. I’m starving and a cup of coffee sounds real good too.”

“Yeah. I need to sit a minute. Let’s see how’s Truvie’s doing.”

Carl opened the door for Shell between the Main Lodge area and the Dining Hall. The long tables were set with white paper cloths and green wreath centerpieces with globes in the center of each wreath holding red candles. Some of the smaller kids were drawing on the tablecloths under the watchful eye of Katie’s college roommate, Jean. Jean was documenting national parks for some government agency and fortunately, Big Bend, had been her last assignment before the holidays. Once again Shell marveled at how God works things out. Jean’s timely arrival for a visit was certainly a Godsend if not an outright miracle.

Katie was weaker and not feeling as well with this third baby and she’d been under a lot of stress doing the books for Jumping for Joy and arranging the fundraiser. It had been Katie’s idea to auction Christmas vacations at Lacey’s Aunt Emily’s new B&B bringing in money for the kids’ ranch, Aunt Emily and the town. The snowstorm was a surprise but not altogether unpleasant since who didn’t want a white Christmas? Snowstorm yes, blizzard? Well, no. And now Harry, Haruto, was missing. Terrible timing since the state guys were coming out soon to hear Katie’s pitch about the new breeding program.

Truvie, owner of Truvie and Sam’s Diner, in Evansville, was commanding her kitchen like a Marine mess. Good thing most of her volunteers were her sisters. Carl had met Margie before and Chris was Truvie’s twin sister, so that one was easy. Chris’s husband, Jerry had been invaluable. A big rig driver, without his help, most of the supplies wouldn’t have made it out from Evansville to the ranch. Young could drive or ride most anything, but that rig was a mystery. The company that dropped it off in town for the food and supply donations had not provided a driver. God has a way of sending what you need when you need it and not a minute before.

“Truv, could I get a cup of coffee somewhere in here and maybe a piece of pie?”

“Hey there, Handsome, you look like the abominable snowman. Sit down, Hon, we got plenty of both. Lainye, can you grab that and then I think Miss Jo Beth needed you down in the costume room.”

Ah, Lainye, that was the third sister’s name. Everybody had family in and so far, there was plenty of work for all of them. Lacey had said that Emily’s cousin, Glenda, was practically running the front of the B&B by herself while Emily cleaned and cooked. Barbara A. was a singer and was directing the pageant. She was another one of Lacey’s aunts. And Barbara S., Luther’s Mom, was organizing the door prizes and auction items. Lacey’s friend and gift shop mentor, Melody, had been decorating with Lacey like a super elf and had pretty much single handedly coordinated gifts for all the kids. Dixie’s niece, Kristin, was in from Denver and quickly becoming Katie’s right hand with the books and taxes. A nonprofit was proving to be a whole lot of accountability.

Girls from town were all pitching in too. Meaghan and Kim from the Cut ‘N Curl were wrestling the children into haircuts in the makeshift beauty salon they had set up over at the dormitory. Heather was helping Young with the barn animals for the nativity and had proved handy with building the sets too. Carl’s hands were cut to pieces from building and painting the wooden sets, but it would all be worth it tonight. He dreamed of the time his and Shell’s daughter, Randi, would be old enough to participate, but thanked God that Alma and Dixie had a daycare nursery for all the babies well under control. JT and Annakat Price might could have toddled to some role in the pageant, but Randi would have to settle for being Baby Jesus this year.

“You want pecan or pumpkin, Deputy?” Lainye leaned over his shoulder with coffee pot in hand.

“I’ll take the pumpkin with a little whip cream if you’ve got it, Miss Lainye, and could I get a little cream for the coffee? I can drink it black but it’s not my favorite.”

Another burst of cold wind blew in as Young came in the back door rubbing his gloved hands together.

“Alright, Maudie and Stan are set, although I had to do a little sweet talkin’ in Maudie’s ear. She’s a warm weather beast.”

“Never saw a woman you couldn’t sweet talk, Young. Even an old mare,” Shell smiled at her brother-in-law.

“Yeah, well, if anybody sees Peggy Sue Martin here tonight, give me a heads up, so I can beat boots out of here. I don’t need another round of Lacey’s revenge like the fair fiasco.”

“Peggy Sue and her mother have gone to Houston for the holidays. I was over at the bank this morning. You’re safe,” Carl interjected around large bites of pie.

“I want some pie. We can have pie? Truvie said we couldn’t have pie til tonight. He has pie,” Young shot his best grin at Miss Chris thinking she might be a bit softer on him than her twin sister.

“Course you can have some pie, Young. We’ve got plenty. Sit down. You want some coffee too?” Chris was already headed his way with a cup and the coffee pot.

“There you are,” Lacey said as she entered buried under more wreaths. “Young, I need you back up that ladder and tacking up these wreaths Melody made. We’ll auction some of them so be sure they can be seen. Maybe on a beam in front of the lights? Are you eating again? I just gave you a ham sandwich half an hour ago.”

“I gave part of it to Maudie to get her to let me harness her to the sled. And I’m hungrier when it’s this cold.”

“Eats all day long and never gains an ounce,” Truvie said as she set a large piece of pie in front of Young. The diner might go broke if it weren’t for Young and Chase.”

“Where is Chase? We need his giant muscles here too,” Lacy asked.

“Too many fires to turn him loose from the station. Everybody’s burning anything they can find to stay warm.”

Chase Johnson had certainly been a surprise, but a welcome one. He had shown up at Double J, now Jumping for Joy, thinking it was still Harlan Johnson’s ranch. After hearing his story, Shell had called Truett to come out and talk to him and bring Katie. Turns out Katie’s no account birth mother had had another child after she ran off on Harlan and little Katie. No idea who his daddy was, but he had proof he was Marlene Johnson’s son. Apparently, Marlene never did get the glamorous western life she’d romanced about when she’d married Harlan during his rodeo days. Chase was raised in a trailer park while Marlene smoke and drank herself to death and then at 18 he’d joined the United States Army and become a Ranger, like Young Knight had done. He and Young turned out to have a lot of the same interests and Young recruited Chase to work for the new Evans County Fire Department and sent him off for training in Carrollton. Katie was thrilled to have a brother, and truth told, Harlan was pretty happy to share his name with the fine young man. Katie and Truett marveled at how their family kept growing. Chase was happy to have a home and pitched in at both ranches in his off time.

“Goodness gracious, could it get any colder?” Alma Price joined the group at the table with granddaughter, Annakat on her hip.

“Don’t say that or it will. You’re missing a twin. There’s two. I’ve counted them when I’ve pulled them out of the dishwasher.” Carl reached for another cup from the tray of them Margie had brought over and poured Alma a cup of coffee from the pot now on the table. He loved his niece and nephew as much as Baby Randi.

“JT is down for a nap. Anybody seen Dixie yet? She’s bringing more diapers. I wonder how many nursery kids we’ll have tonight?”

Barbara A. came in and sat wearily next to Shell. “We’ll make it, but it won’t be perfect if that dress rehearsal was any indication. Little Catherine can’t walk a straight line to save her life and the door in the doorframe between the nursing home scene and the manger scene keeps sticking. It’s distracting for the actors to keep kicking the bottom of it. What if the frame cracks? Or worse the whole thing topples over? Don’t even mention the music. I was hoping the choir could drown out the band, but no such luck. Has anyone seen Katie?”

“I sent her over to Circle P to rest, although she’s probably looking for that bull calf. She was pale as a sheet and I don’t think she’s kept anything down today.”

“Maybe Shell should check on her, Miss Alma?” Carl looked concerned.

“I can’t possibly leave but my mom could go over if someone drove her.” Shell’s parents, Richard and Diane were visiting and Diane was a retired nurse. “They’re up at the ranch house.”

“I can take her over. I need to go over to Circle P anyway and dig out some of those larger soup pots of yours, Alma.” Sam had a simple but hearty menu of various homemade soups and stews, yeast breads, cornbread and sweet breads, casseroles, gelatin and pasta salads, and many, many pies.

“That would be great, Sam. You know where everything is since you probably used them last.” Alma sat Annakat on the floor where she popped up immediately on her chubby, wobbly legs. “I need to get back down to the nursery.”

“While most of us are here, let me read the schedule,” Shell picked up the clipboard she had been writing on.

“Barbara S. will be hosting the classroom to the right with all of the door prizes and auction items. People will be invited to peruse that room as they arrive and start placing bids for the silent auction. We’ll dim the lights when everyone should be in their seats.

Pastor Tim will welcome everyone and say a prayer. Then we go straight into the children marching in while the band plays Little Drummer Boy. Jean will lead them down the center aisle and Kim, Kristin and Meaghan will catch strays from the sides and behind. Actors will be backstage and Emily and Glenda will assist them with scripts and costume changes. Lacey and Melody will be helping Jo Beth and Lainye get the costumes on them before the pageant, and then all four will be on the sides and in the aisles to keep the kids on the stage and prompt the ones with stage fright. Barbara A. will be at the lighted podium in the very front. After the pageant, Barbara will lead the adults in Christmas carols while the kids are changed by all available hands back into their regular clothes. I want to save those costumes for next year.

Young, you and Heather are responsible for the nativity animals, getting them in and out and keeping them from wreaking havoc on the platform. I don’t suppose you could make sure they’ve all, you know…gone…before they come in? I know I’m gonna wish we’d just used wooden animals or kids in costumes.

Everyone related to Truvie is on kitchen duty. People will get their food cafeteria style just like the children do every day and Emily, Glenda, Melody and Lacey will be roaming the room with tea, lemonade and coffee. After the kids are dressed and back in here, the older ones will be delivering pie to the tables.

After dinner is the auction and door prizes and Paul will announce all that if he makes it back in time, if not we may have to get Truett or Pastor Tim. Where is Truett anyway?”

When Shell mentioned Truett, Carl scratched at the itchy spot on the back of his neck. That itch was a pretty reliable warning that something was up with Truett. He’d tried calling Truett at the office and on his cell but hadn’t gotten any answer in a couple of hours. Mac McClain was on duty at the station until eight but then he would join his family out here. Deputy Milt Mays was home from the course he’d been taking on forensics at the state lab and had generously offered to man the Sheriff’s station since his family was out of town.

Carl had first noticed the itch back when they were kids and Truett had rode rodeo. Anytime Truett was about to do something dangerous and or stupid to impress Katie, Carl’s neck itched. Later when they were stationed in Afghanistan, Lieutenant Price was prone to taking the risks ahead of his men, and the itch had reliably let Carl know when Truett was over his head and about to get blown up. The last time he’d felt it this strong, was the night Carl ended up killing a man to protect Truett and Katie on this very ranch.

“I haven’t been able to reach him in the last hour or so. Young, you hear from him?” Carl scratched his neck.

“No, I haven’t seen him since I was in town this morning. He was going to release some prisoners early for the holidays and he and Dixie were working on the paperwork with ADA Day.”

“You ever gonna call her Allison?,” Carl grinned at his brother.

“Not until Lacey and I are married and she’s satisfied that I only have eyes for her.”

“Aw, Sugar, you know I trust you.” Lacey planted a kiss on Young’s forehead.

“Yes and I know you nearly drowned me to prove your point last summer.” Young stood up and headed back to main lodge room and his ladder with Lacey right behind him issuing instructions about hanging wreaths.

“Okay, y’all, break time is over. Everybody back to work. Where you headed, Sugar Bear? Katie said something earlier about Truett going to look for Harry on his way home but he should be here by now.” Shell took in Carl’s troubled face.

“It may be nothing or it may be this new scarf you knit me, but I can’t shake the feeling Truett is in some sort of trouble. I’m goin’ out lookin’ for him unless you need me here.”

“No, you go. You won’t be worth two cents until you know he’s okay. But, you take your phone and check in right regular, you hear me? As soon as Young gets those wreaths up, I’ll send him out too.”

“I hear you, Baby. I’ll stay in touch. Listen, if you talk to Katie, don’t mention anything yet, okay? It may be nothing.

Chapter Three

“Hey, Mac, it’s Carl. What time did Truett leave the station this afternoon?”

“Hey, Carl. He left right about four. Said he was going to go look for Katie’s cow, Henry?”

“Harry and he’s a bull calf. Did he say where he planned to look?”

“I heard him tell Katie on the phone he thought maybe it had wandered off toward Jumping for Joy so he was going to go the back roads from Double J to Circle P and see if he could intercept him.”

“Those roads are hardly passable. He’s in his truck?”

“Yeah, he was when he left here.”

“Okay man, thanks. If you hear from him, tell him to call.”

“Roger that. See you later.”

Carl disconnected the call and thought about the back roads. He’d make better time on horseback even if it was bitter cold. Casey was more likely to hang onto the road than the squad and the Rover was over at Circle P. He headed for the horse barn just as Young stepped out from the lodge.

“Hey, I’m gonna saddle up Casey and check out some of the back roads and trails over to Circle P. Mac thinks that where Truett headed looking for the bull.”

“Not thrilled about the ridin’ weather, but I’ll saddle Smokey and go with you. That horse can take any terrain I’ve thrown at him and never slip. Most sure-footed horse I’ve ever had. You thinkin’ Truett got his truck stuck?”

“I don’t rightly know what I’m thinkin’ but if that’s what’s happened, we’ll be able to get to him better on horseback.”

The men entered the barn to give Casey and Smokey the bad news they were going for a ride and both were in the saddle twenty minutes later and headed out the main ranch road to the far side of the ranch and the road leading closest to Circle P. Carl led being more familiar with the roads and trails. Both men had flashlights in their hands and grim looks on their faces.

Chapter Four

“How’re you feelin’, Katie? I’m Shell’s mother, Diane. I was a nurse a long time, guess that where Shell got it from. She said you’d had more trouble with this baby than with your twins. Your mother-in-law mentioned you hadn’t kept much food down today.”

“Hi Mrs. Carson. Thank you for checking on me, but I’m feeling better since I rested a bit. How are things over at Jumping for Joy? I hated leaving but my bull is missing and I needed to come home and try one more time to find him before I get dressed for the pageant. Looked like Jean had things under control with the children and Barbara is a professional director. I thought I could do more good here.”

“Everything is going fine. A little pandemonium is normal before these things. It will be fine. Your friend Kristin asked me to remind you to bring the cash box with you. And I would really like to have a little listen to your tummy before you get dressed.”

“Oh, well sure. I know everything is okay though. He’s been awful still and quiet today, maybe he doesn’t like the cold either.”

“He’s got the warmest home in the county right now. Just lie down on your bed and I’ll get my bag.”

Katie did as she was told and as she lay down on the bed where her twins were born, she patted the small mound of boy growing inside her. You okay, big guy? You’ve been awful quiet today. Your Daddy and I are so happy you’ll be here this Spring. You have a brother and sister that are quite the handful, so you need to be big and strong and feisty like your Daddy. Come on Paul Anderson Price. Move for Mama.

“Here we go. I’m just going to lift your shirt a little. This might be cold.”

Diane placed the stethoscope on Katie’s abdomen and was relieved to hear the steady rhythmic beating of the baby’s heart.

“Maybe he’s just resting up for the party. He sounds fine, Katie. That’s one more worry you can let go of. Do you need help changing?”

“Oh no, Ma’am. I got it. Diane? Thank you. I was worried.”

Katie stood to get dressed and Diane excused herself to see if Sam needed any help locating the soup pots. Alma had asked her to grab a couple more coffee carafes from the big ranch kitchen too.

“Katie okay, Miss Diane?” Sam looked expectant.

“She’s just fine. The baby sounds fine, too. I think she’s just overtired.”

“She works too hard. Takes on too much. Katie’s always been a fighter.”

“Well I hope she takes some time off when this thing is over tonight.”

“I wouldn’t bet on that. Got everything you need? I’ll grab Katie and meet you at the truck.”

Chapter Five

Harlan was driving his wife, Dixie, and Emily and Glenda from the B&B out to the Double J. The roads were miserable and carpooling from town seemed best. Emily didn’t have any business driving in a blizzard. Harlan didn’t know Glenda very well yet, but it sure felt good to be useful again. His two years in the state penitentiary had weakened his spirit but life was better now than he could have ever imagined. God was good. His medical care in the pen had been adequate and his mind was certainly clearer. His heart overflowed with love for his daughter and the family they had joined. Dixie agreeing to marry him was icing on the cake.

His best friend, Sam Hall, Truvie’s husband, was recovering from prostate cancer and so far, so good. Recent tests at Lakeside showed no cancer at all. Another one of God’s miracles. Then there was Paul and Alma. Their wedding had been a quiet affair followed by a cruise to the Bahamas. Maybe he should take Dixie on a cruise? They hadn’t taken a honeymoon yet. Dixie couldn’t get away from the Sheriff’s Station at the time. The six of them had been friends for over fifty years and now their kids and their kids kids were growing up together. God knew the plan all along. Too bad they’d all wasted some time trying to do things their own way, but you can’t stop God’s plan no matter how much you mess it up on your own.

And now his third grandbaby on the way. Katie had discussed the baby’s name with him before deciding. Naming him after Truett, Carl and Young’s biological father was the right thing to do. Paul was a good man, and honorable man. He had agreed with Katie’s decision wholeheartedly. Besides, there would be more children and Harlan was a patient man.

Chapter Six

“Stop! Look right and down. Do you see a shadow?” Young’s voice was excited and urgent.

Carl pulled Casey to a stop, rubbed his eyes and peered through the blinding snow in the direction Young was pointing.

“Yeah, I see it. Can we get down there?”

His words were lost in the wind as Young was already giving Smokey slack rein to lead the way down the steep embankment.

“Take your time, Smoke. You can do it,” he spoke softly in the stallion’s ear, his face buried in Smokey’s snowy mane.

Sure enough, on its side but intact was Truett’s truck, mostly covered in snow and barely visible.

“We need a miracle here, God,” Carl uttered out loud to the stars in the cold, clear sky above. He adjusted his Stetson a little lower on his head and pulled the scarf Shell had knit a little higher on his face as Casey began picking his way carefully following in Smokey’s tracks.

Young was right about Smokey being sure-footed. That horse picked a perfect path down to the wrecked truck for Casey to follow. Young was on foot in a flash and calling out for Truett. Carl dismounted and made his way to the overturned pickup. To his relief, Truett was not inside. Tracks around the truck showed them the direction he had taken through the brush.

“TRUETT? DAMN IT, TRUETT, CAN YOU HEAR ME? CALL OUT!” Carl’s voice had a desperate edge. Not now, Lord, not now.

“I hear a bell. Do you hear a bell?” Young was leading Smokey behind Carl and Casey.

“Katie keeps a bell on that damn bull,” Carl answered.

“This way.” Young headed off down another embankment. “HE’S HERE CARL.”

Chapter Seven

“Looks like a success, Katie,” Pastor Tim reassured the pale, worried Katie. “But it looks like you’ve got more on your mind than this pageant.”

“It’s amazing how everyone has pitched in, Pastor. Your sister and brother-in-law have been wonderful. Ed agreed to read The Night Before Christmas at the end of the program. Jo Beth has been a wizard with props and costumes.”

“And?”

“And, yes. Haruto is missing and I haven’t heard from Truett in hours. Baby Paul is taking a day off from playing soccer against my ribs and bladder and oddly, that worries me more than relieves me. The band can’t find a tune with a fork, and Paul’s not back from Houston yet with Alma’s sister.”

“Oh, Esther. I didn’t think she cared for Texas?”

“She doesn’t. We can’t imagine why she’s visiting. She didn’t even send a card for Paul and Alma’s wedding. She can’t stand Truett.”

“I’m sure God’s got all of this, Katie. Let’s pray a minute, okay? God, we thank you for the miracle of Christ’ birth and the sacrifice of his life for our sins. We ask your blessings on this pageant and these people here tonight. God, we ask especially that you have your hand of protection on Truett right now and bring him home to us safely. In Christ Jesus name we pray, Amen.

Chapter Eight

“That was absolutely perfect! Mistakes and missteps and all!” Emily clapped her hands in delight.

“Well we had plenty of those, but somehow they came out looking planned, even the sour notes.” Barbara A. looked relieved it was over.

“We raised fifty thousand dollars from the auction. That’s unbelievable. Katie and Kristin recounted twice.” Lacey leaned against the doorframe of the kitchen staring out in the snow. There hadn’t been any sign of Young, Carl or Truett. The kitchen was being cleaned and people were gathering in the main hall again to hear a short message from Pastor Tim and the results of the auction and give out the door prizes. Ed and Richard had taken over the microphone duties since Paul hadn’t made it back yet.

“They’ll be fine, Honey,” Truvie slipped an arm around Lacey’s small shoulders.

A tear slipped down Lacey’s cheek but as she turned to wrap her arms around Truvie’s waist, she caught a glimpse of Smokey, Young’s pinto coming around the barn.

“They’re back! Somebody get Katie and Shell!” Lacey took off at a dead run without a thought for coat, hat or gloves.

Young slid from the saddle as the woman who loved him threw herself in his arms.

“Oh mercy, where have you been and what took so long? Where’s Carl and Truett? Did you find Harry? Are you hurt? You have to be freezing.”

“Shh. Shh. I’m fine. Everybody’s fine. Truett’s truck slid off an embankment and rolled but he’s not hurt. He’s riding with Carl and they’re leading Harry on a rope. I rode on ahead.”

“You missed everything. It was wonderful, and terrible. Mostly wonderful. There’s plenty to eat left. Come in. You’re in time for the message.”

“Let me get Smoke settled and I’ll be right in.”

“YOUNG! Where’s Truett and Carl? Katie and Shell hustled toward the barn.

“You two get back inside. Lacey can tell you. They’re fine. We’ll all be in in a minute.”

Just then Carl and Casey came into sight under one of the ranch lights. Truett rode behind him holding Harry’s rope, little bell ringing around Harry’s neck.

“TRUETT!” Katie didn’t seemed burdened by pregnancy at all as she waded through the snow toward the men.

Truett slid off Casey and caught Katie up in his arms.

“Here’s your bull, Kate. Good thing you put that bell on him. His bell ringing led Carl and Young to us. You okay, Honey? I’m all right. Get back inside. Come on.”

Young took Harry’s rope and he and Carl took the horses and little bull into the barn. Truett walked the women back to the welcoming lodge.

“Gave me a fright, Son. Don’t you ever get tired of that?” Alma hugged Truett and handed him JT. Annakat wrapped herself around his frozen jeans.

“Come on in here and let’s get you warmed up. Where’s the other boys? We’ve got plenty of soup left. And coffee, I know you want coffee.” Truvie and crew went into hyper mode bustling about the just cleaned kitchen.

“Give the boy some room, Mama,” Sam smiled at Truett and offered him a towel for the melting snow.

“Eating will have to wait but take the coffee with you. Pastor Tim is about to start.”

Finale

Pastor Tim nodded as the three men and their big extended family took seats in the crowded lodge hall.

“God has answered our prayers and blessed us well this year. Let’s all bow our heads and thank God for the miracle of Christ’s birth and the miracles He continues to perform in our lives daily.”

The End

It’s never really the end is it? Paul and Esther did finally make it to the ranch before the end of the message. Paul gratefully took over the microphone and read to the children gathered on the floor around him. At the very end of the story the back doors opened and a dishevelled Aunt Esther limped in on one stiletto heel leading Harry by his rope. Hair askew, designer suit muddy, she raised the hand with the rope and looked at the assembled gathering. “Does this thing belong to someone? He knocked me over in the yard and I think he licked my head.” Welcome to Texas, Aunt Esther.