Ezra eyed the man across the poker table from him, smiled and put down his cards. "My, my. Looks like I win again, Mr. Hodgkins."
Matt Hodgkins nodded grimly. It was just Ezra and him. Little by little, the others players had dropped out. JD and Nathan were now standing behind Ezra, their backs to the bar, as they watched the game continue between the two men.
Hodgkins was a dark-haired dirt farmer taking his family from Missouri to California. His kind had no business being in a poker game at all. Seven-Card Stud was a game where the stakes rose quickly and players like him were usually too cash-poor and too unskilled to provide much of a challenge. He, his wife and 10-year-old son limped into town in a wagon that desperately required repairs. The boy was now standing behind Hodgkins, watching impassively.
Ezra eyed the boy. He reminded him of his youthful years, when he had also been in such places, learning his craft by watching players like himself.
"It's been a pleasure-" Ezra began as he scooped up the money.
"Wait." Hodgkins reached into his shirt and removed a worn, leather bundle. He carefully untied it to show Ezra the money inside. "Was gonna buy Christmas presents with this."
Hodgkins turned to his son and spoke quietly. "Now, Micah, we got no choice. There's nothing to go back to in Missouri. Land's sold. We just put all we had into fixing that wagon. We're gonna need more money to get us to California. Things'll be better then. All right?"
Ezra looked at the boy again. It wasn't right, he thought with annoyance. Hodgkins should know better. Ezra could remember a lot of empty Christmases himself as he was shuttled from relative to relative.
Nathan bent down next to Ezra's ear. "Ezra, that's his Christmas money," he whispered urgently.
"Then this game should be over soon," Ezra muttered back.
"C'mon, Ezra. Fold."
"Mr. Jackson," he said softly. "To lose a game against such an obviously inferior opponent would damage my reputation."
Nathan persisted. "Stop thinking of yourself. Fold, damn it!"
Ezra studied his cards. "If the man wants to lose his money, who am I to deny him? Mr. Jackson, your suggestion has been acknowledged. Now shoo."
Nathan shot him a disgusted look and gave up.
With each round, Hodgkins had raised his bet until all his money was in the pot. But the hand went as Ezra expected.
"Fortune does seem to favor me this holiday season." Ezra grinned. "In the spirit of the season, let me treat your charming family to dinner."
Hodgkins grudgingly tipped his hat and left, the boy following.
Nathan was fuming. "What'd you have to go and let him do that for?"
"That was his decision," said Ezra calmly. "Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm going to take some of my hard-earned winnings and replenish my cigars."
About an hour or so later, Nathan saw Ezra talking to Hodgkins. The wagon had been repaired and they were preparing to leave. The boy and his mother climbed onto the wagon seat. Hodgkins was on a horse beside them.
Ezra could see the effect that that losing that Christmas money was having on him. The man had made his choices, now the whole family would have to live with them.
He watched the wagon pull away and head out of town as Nathan walked over to him.
"I don't suppose you gave the man his money back."
In the very back of the wagon, obviously unknown to its occupants, Nathan could just see a pile of brightly wrapped packages. And on top of them was the worn leather bundle, thicker now, and tied with a red ribbon. He stared, open-mouthed.
"Ezra? What did you--"
But Ezra had already disappeared. Just like St. Nicholas.