Christmas Eve fell as balmy as April. Perhaps there was a hint of faraway frostiness in the air, but it tingled like seltzer, perfumed faintly with late prairie blossoms and the mesquite grass.
When night came the five or six rooms of the ranch-house were brightly lit. In one room was a Christmas tree, for the Lanes had a boy of three, and a dozen or more guests were expected from the nearer ranches.
At nightfall Madison Lane called aside Jim Belcher and three other cowboys employed on his ranch.
“Now, boys,” said Lane, “keep your eyes open. Walk around the house and watch the road well. All of you know the ‘Frio Kid,’ as they call him now, and if you see him, open fire on him without asking any questions. I’m not afraid of his coming around, but Rosita is. She’s been afraid he’d come in on us every Christmas since we were married. “
The guests had arrived in buckboards and on horseback, and were making themselves comfortable inside.
The evening went along pleasantly. The guests enjoyed and praised Rosita’s excellent supper, and afterward the men scattered in groups about the rooms or on the broad “gallery”, smoking and chatting.
The Christmas tree, or course, delighted the youngsters, and above all were they pleased when Santa Claus himself in magnificent white beard and furs appeared and began to distribute the toys.
“It’s my papa,” announced Billy Sampson, aged six. “I’ve seen him wear ’em before. “
Berkly, a sheepman, an old friend of Lane, stopped Rosita as she was passing by him on the gallery, where he was sitting smoking.
“Well, Mrs. Lane,” said he, “I suppose by this Christmas you’ve gotten over being afraid of that fellow McRoy, haven’t you? Madison and I have talked about it, you know.”
“Very nearly,” said Rosita, smiling, “but I am still nervous sometimes. I shall never forget that awful time when he came so near to killing us. “
“He’s the most cold-hearted villain in the world,” said Berkly. “The citizens all along the border ought to turn out and hunt him down like a wolf. “
“He has committed awful crimes,” said Rosita, “but–I–don’t– know. I think there is a spot of good somewhere in everybody. He was not always bad–that I know. “
Rosita turned into the hallway between the rooms. Santa Claus, in muffling whiskers and furs, was just coming through.
“I heard what you said through the window, Mrs. Lane,” he said. “I was just going down in my pocket for a Christmas present for your husband. But I’ve left one for you, instead. It’s in the room to your right. “
“Oh, thank you, kind Santa Claus,” said Rosita, brightly.