This story takes place during the same time frame as The Mystery in Arizona.

Crisp, clean snow sparkled in the late afternoon sunlight. The world was silent and untouched. Pristine.

It had been a perfect day. A perfectly perfect day, if he were to use the charming, if somewhat convoluted, words of his daughter. Somehow, surrounded by nature, his vision seemed to become clearer and more focused. He felt as if he could see for miles as he drank in the sight of unspoiled nature. The winter air was cold, but not yet stinging. The slight discomfort made him feel alive, and part of the nature around him.

Blessed quiet. No busy city sounds. No cars. No beeping of electronic devices. No voices asking questions only he could answer. Instead, he heard the occasional call of a bird, or a small animal moving in the underbrush. It was a soothing balm. He closed his eyes and savoured the silence, then frowned as he listened to a new bird. It was off-key, and somehow unnatural.

Shaking his head, Matthew Wheeler trained his eyes on a slight movement he had caught in the corner of his field of vision, but he was soon distracted by the continuing song of the bird. It was growing louder, and it sounded vaguely familiar. He cocked his head to the side, and listened even more carefully. If I didn't know better, I'd say that bird was singing Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree, he thought. But that can't be...

“Damn it, Tom!” he exclaimed.

His fellow hunting partner grinned. “Sorry, Matt. Celia's been hitting the Christmas music pretty hard the last few weeks. I can't get the tunes out of my head. I've been singing in the shower, while I'm cleaning the cars-”

“And while you're driving, too,” Matthew reminded him. He looked at his chauffeur pointedly. “Believe me. I know.”

Tom's blue eyes twinkled. “I'm not the only one. I wasn't singing by myself in the limo the other day.”

Matthew shrugged. “You can't start singing that David Bowie/Bing Crosby duet and not expect someone to join in.”

“I thought we were pretty good. Maybe we should quit our jobs and go on tour,” Tom mused.

Matthew snorted. “Tom, that's one business venture I will never finance.”

“Spoil sport,” the dark-haired young man jabbed with good nature.

“Speaking of sport...”

The two men resumed watching for deer, waiting in companionable silence. The snow was bathed in a rosy hue as the sun sank toward the horizon. It was the rugged beauty he enjoyed most, Matthew decided. Though he knew the preserve was a delicate ecosystem, to Matthew, it would always be the perfect embodiment of quiet strength.

All's well with the world, he thought. Crisp weather, sunny skies, bird song... He felt a surge of excitement as a deer cautiously stepped into the clearing. It was beautiful. Matthew readied his gun slowly, his eyes never leaving the target. He was about to take a shot when the deer pricked his ears, apparently listening to the same bird that Matthew could hear. Before Matthew or Tom could fire, the deer was gone.

“Matthew!” Tom exclaimed.

The red-haired man turned away from the spot where the deer had disappeared. “What?”

Tom began to laugh. “So, I take it Mrs. Wheeler has been hitting the Christmas music pretty hard, too?”

Matthew narrowed his eyes. “Only since Thanksgiving. Why do you ask?”

Tom shook his head. “You were whistling Frosty the Snowman.”

Matthew's jaw dropped. “I was not!”

“You certainly were. And you weren't exactly on pitch, either. I'm not entirely sure I want you on my Christmas CD,” Tom mused.

Matthew stared at the younger man in chagrin. “I thought I heard a bird singing...”

“Not unless the bird weighs 180 and wears a winter parka, you didn't.”

Eyes narrowed, Matthew protested, “I do not sing Christmas carols.”

Tom winked. “Whatever you say, Mr. Wheeler, sir.”

Rolling his eyes at Tom's affected deference, Matthew stretched and rubbed at a crick in his neck. “We may as well call it a day. I've probably scared off every deer in the county.”

The two men began packing away their rifles. “Celia will be happy. We're still working on that deer I caught on our honeymoon. She told me flat-out that if I caught another, I was eating it by myself,” Tom admitted.

Matthew's lips twitched. “I still can't believe you got to go hunting on your honeymoon. I went to museums. And concerts.”

Tom's eyes lit with happiness. “Yup. Celia's a keeper, all right.”

When they had removed all evidence of their day-long presence in the preserve, the two men started back to the Manor House on a winding path. The late afternoon sunlight faded quickly, taking the warmth of the day with it. Matthew turned up the collar on his down-filled jacket, and found his thoughts drifting toward the comfort of a roaring fire and a generous dose of brandy.

Deer or no deer, it was a good day, he thought with satisfaction. He gazed with pride at the preserve, his eyes roaming across a large cleared area. Movement in the distant trees caught his attention.

“Do you see that, Tom?” he asked, pointing across the clearing.

All was quiet as the two men peered into the distant trees. “Yes,” Tom said slowly. “I do.”

“It's not a deer,” Matthew said quietly, his eyes trained on the moving figure.

“Maypenny?” Tom asked, but his voice held no conviction.

Matthew turned to him frustration. “I know Maypenny when I see him, and so do you. That isn't Maypenny.”

Tom looked away uncomfortably.

Matthew searched his memory, trying to figure out who could possibly be in the preserve, and why Tom was so reluctant to discuss it. He squinted into the setting sun, trying for a clearer view. Something jiggled in his memory. “Brom?” he asked softly, though it was impossible for the retreating figure to overhear him.

Tom looked at his employer in surprise. “You know Brom?”

Matthew shook his head. “I know of him. You don't honestly think I'm unaware of anyone living on my property, do you?”

Tom blinked. “Well, no, but...”

“Technically, he's a poacher,” Matthew agreed. “Or, at the very least, a squatter.”

“And you don't mind?” Tom asked. His voice was cautious, but not timid, and Matthew had to respect him for it.

“I talked to a few people about him,” he admitted. “And Peter Belden made sure I knew about him.”

Tom smiled. “Told you how harmless he is?”

Matthew's tone was suddenly chilled. “Nobody is harmless.” His voice recovered some warmth as he continued. “But everyone assured me that he has no desire to make trouble, and that he only traps enough to keep himself alive.” He frowned at the figure of the elderly man in a tattered brown coat. “And it looks as if he's not even doing that.”

Tom nodded soberly. “When he's in a pinch, he goes to Mrs. Vanderpoel. She'd like to do more for him, but he has his pride.”

The figure in brown melted into the shadowy depths of the trees. Even after he was out of sight, Matthew could see the stooped, struggling figure in his mind. Had Brom been carrying branches? Matthew frowned. That would mean that his wood supply was low, or completely gone. He felt the bite of the winter evening. The weather was decent at the moment, but it wasn't likely to continue. The coming night would almost assuredly be bitterly cold. Suddenly, it was not enough to allow the elderly man to continue to live in the preserve. Pity swelled his heart. There had to be something he could do.

“Tom,” he said, “we have an errand to run.”

“Sure,” the chauffeur agreed, an amiable smile on his face. “Which vehicle would you like?”

“Oh, I'll take care of the vehicle,” Matthew said, a mysterious smile on his face. “Here's what I need you to do...”

A half-hour later, the two men met again. “Are you serious?” Tom laughed, eyeing Mr. Maypenny's legendary deer tote.

“Can you think of a better way of transporting something through the preserve?” Matthew demanded.

“Okay, okay!” Tom held up his hands in mock surrender, then helped his boss load the contraption with firewood and food staples.

Tom paused, holding a package of meat. “Do you think he'll accept it?” he asked, doubt evident in his voice.

Matthew continued to pile food on top of the wood. “It's Christmas,” he shrugged. “If he's ever going to accept help, now is the time. And, if necessary, I can be quite persuasive.”

Something suspiciously resembling a snort erupted from Tom, and was quickly covered by a cough. “Right. Persuasive,” he agreed, while Matthew eyed him.

“What?” he demanded.

“Nothing!” Tom protested. “It's just that, well, Brom is pretty stubborn.”

Matthew loaded the last of the food. “So am I, Tom. So am I.”

The wind picked up as the two men trudged along the seldom-used path. Even surrounded by trees, the sharp breeze cut through their coats, and threatened to steal their hats. Ever the optimist, Tom pulled his cap down more firmly. “Brisk,” he commented.

Matthew considered the projected frigid overnight low. “I don't know if Brom has enough firewood to last him through the night.” He considered the warm and food-filled home he had left behind, but the image of the stooped figure he had seen made all thought of retreat impossible.

“It's time, Tom,” he said quietly. “Brom has waited long enough.”

Tom nodded, though his eyes drifted to study the clouds. “We're in for some weather,” he warned.

Matthew stopped. “I shouldn't have asked you to come, Tom. Go home to Celia,” he urged. “I'll be fine.”

The young man snorted. “I'd never hear the end of it from Celia if I let you go by yourself.” He grinned. “Besides, I think this is a great opportunity for us to work on our act.”

Matthew briefly pondered Tom's sanity. “We have an act?”

“We will if you can learn to carry a tune.” Tom began humming as they trudged through the snow. “There's always call for new Christmas recordings. We could put together some traditional Christmas carols, throw in a few fun songs, and voila! We'd be set with the newest hit Christmas CD!”

“Oh, we would, would we?” The corner of Matthew's lips twitched as Tom burst into an upbeat version of Silent Night.

“Calypso,” Tom decided. “We should definitely go calypso for Silent Night.”

Matthew cringed as Tom proceeded to do just that. “My ears!” he protested, and pulled his wool hat down over his ears. Muttering something that sounded like, “If you can't beat them, join them,” Matthew began singing along. Between Tom's truly terrible rendition and Matthew's pitch deficiency, the two men effectively rendered the night anything but silent. Singing with gusto, both men ignored the large snowflakes that fell from the charcoal sky. It was only when Tom stopped abruptly that Matthew realized the snow was falling fast and furious.

“What's the problem?” he asked, waiting for Tom to lead the way.

Tom stared into the trees.

“Did we turn left or right during Angels We Have Heard on High?”

Matthew tried to remember. “We took a left fork during The Twelve Days of Christmas. Does that help?”

“Mmm,” was Tom's non-committal response. He continued to study the trees around them.

“Is there a problem, Tom?”

Tom frowned. “It's just that we should have been there by now.” He cocked his head to the side, trying to figure out where he could have gone off-track.

Knowing better than to question another man's sense of direction, Matthew kept silent. While he was master of the boardroom, he knew that his expertise did not extend to the intimate knowledge of the preserve that the Sleepyside native possessed. Just when Matthew was beginning to think that he would be spending the night huddled under a tree, Tom slapped his forehead.

“I know exactly where we are,” the chauffeur said.

“Well?” Matthew prodded, when Tom remained silent. “Is it far?”

Tom looked at his boss sheepishly. “Depends on how you define 'far'.”

Matthew groaned.

“We're on the right path,” Tom said, eager to offer some encouragement. “It'll just take a little longer than I thought to get there.”

It was Matthew's turn to offer a non-committal response. “Mmm.”

The two men walked on, huge snowflakes swirling thickly around them, obscuring their vision and painting their winter hats white. As the wet coldness seeped through his lined jeans, Matthew put one foot doggedly in front of the other. Though he would never admit it, he began to have second thoughts about his plan. Not about the journey. Most worthwhile ventures required a certain degree of hardship. But who was he to offer charity to Brom? Just because he chose to be generous, it did not follow that people had to accept it. Matthew knew full well that if their positions were reversed, he would be reluctant to accept help. But as he thought of the struggling figure he had seen, he knew he had no choice but to offer what he could. And wish that he could do more.

After what seemed an interminable length of time, Tom stopped abruptly, causing Matthew to crash into him. He pointed to a dilapidated building only a few feet in front of them. There was a path, and although it had not been shovelled, there were fresh footprints leading to the door of the cabin. No lights burned, but the rosy glow of a dying fire was evident through the lone window of the building.

Tom glanced back over his shoulder to where Matthew stood. “Are you going to knock, or should I?”

Matthew glanced at the crude door, and wondered if it was sturdy enough to handle a cursory knock. He moved closer, and realized that the cracks between the planks the door was made of were wide enough that he could see the glow of the fire through them. He knocked cautiously.

A moment later he heard a shuffling tread. The door opened an inch and Brom called, “Who is it? Who's there?”

Before Matthew could answer, Tom chimed in with a jolly, “Ho ho ho! Merry Christmas, Brom!”

There was a pause. “Tom Delanoy, you ought to know better,” Brom said, as he opened the door wide. “St. Nicholas Day has come and gone, and Christmas along with it. I may be old, but I still keep a calendar, you know.”

Tom's easy laugh echoed in the quiet clearing. “You got me, Brom. Now, I don't suppose you'd like to invite us in and show us this faulty calendar of yours?”

Brom's gaze switched to the red-haired man he had heard about, but never met. He nodded shortly. “Make yourself at home,” he invited, and the irony was not lost on any of the men.

Brom stood aside as the two men entered the cabin. Matthew wasn't sure what he had expected, but he was surprised by the homey simplicity he saw. It was a one-room cabin, complete with the bare necessities of life. Instead of a stove, the large fire place was equipped with various hooks and a pot. Two wooden chairs were drawn against the simple kitchen table. A bed was tucked in a corner close to the fireplace, and a rocking chair was also drawn close to the flames. Threadbare, faded, home-made quilts draped many surfaces.

Brom nodded to the kitchen table. “Pull up a chair,” he invited.

Matthew looked uncertainly at the man he had understood to be painfully shy.

“We don't stand on ceremony here,” Brom said gruffly. “You've come this far, you may as well sit for a spell.” He turned away to rummage through an old, hand-crafted bookcase that had seen better days beside his bed.

Matthew sat down at the table, then watched as Tom pulled the rocking chair closer to the table for Brom. The elderly man joined them almost immediately, setting down a well-worn copy of the Farmer's Almanac. He tapped the book.

“It's the day after Christmas. December 26th. The Feast of Stephen, to be exact.”

“So it is,” Tom agreed. He caught Matthew's eye before proceeding. “Matthew and I were thinking we could celebrate with you. What do you say?”

Matthew couldn't help smiling at the brilliant way Tom was leading the conversation. Tom was a superb mechanic and chauffeur, but his easy nature and sharp mind ensured his success in any venture he pursued. For a brief moment, Matthew caught himself wondering if he should, in fact, back him in his idea to put out a CD. He shook his head to rid it of the ridiculous notion, and listened as Brom replied.

“It would be my pleasure,” Brom said, and began rummaging through the lone cabinet in the kitchen area. “Mrs. Vanderpoel sent some cocoa home with me the other day. I'll heat some water, and--”

“Please, sit down,” Matthew interrupted. “We didn't come empty-handed.” He smiled encouragingly as the older man turned to him. “You just relax, and we'll bring in the food.”

Brom frowned.

“It's the least we can do,” Matthew insisted. “If we're going to drop in on you unexpectedly, it's only right that we bring something for the host.”

Tom nodded. “We'll be right back, Brom.”

As the two men stepped outside and began unloading the deer tote, Matthew commented, “Nicely done.”

Tom handed Matthew a package of meat. “He hasn't accepted it yet,” he warned.

“But he will.”

Tom glanced back at the cabin. “Yes. He will.” He looked at Matthew curiously. “Did you know today is the Feast of Stephen?”

Matthew shook his head. “Heck, no. Did you?”

“Nope,” Tom grinned. “I don't even know what it is. But, if we're lucky, Brom will tell us the story.”

Bearing all manner of food, the two men returned to their host. Brom's eyes widened, and the rocking motion of his chair ceased. He eyed the food suspiciously, then turned a somewhat accusing glance toward Tom.

Tom smiled and settled his load on the table. “Don't look at me! I'm just the pack horse,” he claimed, earning a sharp glance from his boss.

The tension in the room grew as Brom watched Matthew pile more food on the table. “Now, look here--” Brom began, but the stubborn set of Matthew's jaw gave him pause.

Matthew unloaded the last of his items, placing them with deliberate finality. “I don't do anything half-way,” he informed the elderly man, keeping his tone light.

Brom surveyed the bounty spread before him. “I don't want charity,” he said defiantly.

Matthew turned to Tom in exasperation. “I thought you said he was shy. He doesn't sound very shy to me.”

“I never said he was shy.” Tom grinned at Brom. “I said he was stubborn.”

Brom's bark of laughter was a surprise to all three men. “A man's got no call to be shy in his own home,” he said firmly, then glanced guiltily at Matthew Wheeler, owner of the property he called home.

Matthew held his eye steadily. “You're right.” He made a show of inspecting the hand-carved table. “This is beautiful workmanship. Yours?” he asked.

Brom shook his head. “My great-grandfather,” he corrected proudly. “Every stick of furniture in this house is home made. It may not be much to look at anymore, but...”

“On the contrary,” Matthew said. “Instead of looking at a table, I'm seeing history. And tradition.” He ran his hand over the worn surface. “What Tom and I brought, well, it seems kind of pale in comparison. To tell you the truth, I feel pretty cheap.”

Brom stared at his benefactor, then at the pile of food that seemed to grow larger with each passing moment. His hesitation provided the opening Tom needed.

“I'd like to hear more about this Feast of Stephen,” he said, casually sorting through the food to find a brick of cheese and a loaf of bread. “I don't suppose it involves No-ma-ka-ta?”

Brom snorted and passed a knife to Tom. “Hardly.” He stared into space, barely noticing when Tom opened a package of cured meat and added it to the meal he was preparing. In a low, halting voice, he murmured:

The wren, the wren, the king of all birds,
On St. Stephen's Day was caught in the furze,
Up with the kettle and down with the pan,
Give us some money to bury the wren.

He shook his head. “Other than the fact that St. Stephen was a martyr, that's about all I remember. I never paid much attention to it, though. I prefer my stories to have happy endings.” He looked down to find a plate filled with meat, cheese, and bread set before him. Matthew and Tom had similar fare.

Brom spoke a quiet blessing over the food. With a mixture of resignation and anticipation, he sampled the food. Matthew breathed a sigh of relief when Brom ate healthily, savouring each mouthful.

The three men ate steadily, but barely made a dent in the simple fare covering the table. When they could eat no more, they pushed back their chairs from the table and sat in companionable silence. Though they were all too full to move, Brom made a half-hearted offer to prepare tea.

Matthew roused himself from his food-induced stupor and shook his head. Reaching beneath his chair, he said, “Don't bother. I've got a little something right here.” He fumbled until his fingers closed around cold glass. He triumphantly held up a bottle filled with amber liquid.

Brom whistled under his breath. “Hard to argue with brandy.”

Tom nodded seriously. “Especially when it's medicinal.”

Matthew raised an eyebrow.

“What? It's cold outside! I'm pretty sure that's when you're supposed to have brandy,” Tom said with a charming grin.

Brom raised his glass. “Works for me.”

The three men sampled the strong drink, and the only sound was mutual sighs of contentment. It was with genuine regret that Matthew stood. “Thank you for your hospitality, Brom, but it's time we were heading out.”

Brom stood slowly. “It was my pleasure.” He shook Matthew's hand firmly. “I hope you'll come again. Only next time, I'll do the cooking.”

“See?” Tom nudged Matthew. “Stubborn. Not shy.”

Matthew held Brom's eyes. “A man's got no call to be shy in his own home.”

With a nod of assent, Brom bade his guests farewell.

Matthew and Tom stepped back out into the cold night. The snow still swirled thickly, and the frigid temperature was a rude shock. As before, Tom pulled his cap down firmly and strode into the night, whistling. Matthew followed close behind on the narrow path. Tom's tune carried clearly in the crisp night air, and Matthew found that he recalled the lyrics.

Therefore Christian men be sure, wealth or rank possessing,
Ye who now will bless the poor shall yourselves find blessing.

Matthew thought of Brom's heart-wrenching poverty, and quiet dignity. Though Matthew had been involved in charity for most of his life, there had been something intensely different about sharing a meal with Brom. Something that satisfied in a way hands-off donations never had.

His voice rose as he joined Tom in song.

Author's Notes:

  1. Thank you to Mary N (Dianafan) for editing, designing graphics, and taking care of all things web-site related. You rock!
  2. Thanks to my dad, also for editing. A parent's job is never done. ; )
  3. Thank you to Vivian, who now hosts the Catfish Princess. I love my new home!
  4. Good King Wenceslas is one of my favourite Christmas carols. So much so, in fact, that this year I actually got around to memorizing all five verses of it. And forced those around me to memorize them as well. : ) Lyrics can be found here.
  5. Brom is right. St. Stephen's Day, or The Feast of Stephen, is December 26th. More information can be found here.
  6. David Bowie and Bing Crosby did, indeed, record a duet. I do not own the rights to it. Will Matthew and Tom get around to recording their own CD? We can only hope not.
  7. Brom is often described as shy. In this story, though, he absolutely refused to be shy. Apparently, stubbornness trumps shyness. Who knew?
  8. Characters from the Trixie Belden series, including Matthew Wheeler, Tom Delanoy, and old Brom, are the property of Random House, and are used without permission, but with great respect and affection.  I am making no profit from their use!
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