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It was Christmas Eve. Charles Harris, a local rancher, found Chris and Vin sitting outside of the jail.

"Mr. Larabee? I don't know if this is important," said Harris, "but as I was coming into town just now, I saw someone lurking around the Bartholomew twin's house. He looked kinda strange, so I thought you should know."

"Thanks," said Chris. "We'll take a look."

The house was just outside of town, so it didn't take long for them to get there. On the property, there was just the house and a small shed. Chris and Vin looked around but the place appeared deserted.

Then they heard it. A muffled cry from up on the roof.

Chris looked at Vin. "Guess we'd better investigate."

Vin nodded. Suddenly he caught Chris's arm and pointed. "Ain't that Buck's horse over there?"

Beavis stood nearby, grazing.

A ladder was leaning against the house. Chris and Vin climbed on the roof and looked down the chimney. It was Buck all right. He was about two feet from the top of the chimney. And he was stuck but good.

"GET ME OUTTA HERE!"

"We'll gonna get the others," replied Chris. "We'll be back as soon as we can and figure out a way to get you out."

Vin grinned. "Yeah, so stay put." He could hear the muffled curses following him as he scrambled down the ladder.

It wasn't long before all the Seven were on the roof, peering into the chimney.

Ezra smiled. "Mind informing us as to why you chose this circuitous route into the Bartholomews' domicile?"

"I was tryin' to surprise the ladies," came the sheepish response. "St. Nicholas bringin' gifts..." Buck's voice faded as it occurred to him how silly it all sounded now.

"They'd have been surprised, all right," agreed Ezra. "Seeing as how they departed for Ohio two days ago to visit relations there."

There was the sound of movement within the chimney. "But-but-" Buck spluttered. "There was smoke in the chimney yesterday! And this morning!"

"Ah...that was me," said JD. "They asked me to look in on their two cats."

"What?!" Another string of curses floated up the chimney.

Through the layers of soot, Josiah could just make out a red coat Buck was wearing. "Buck, is that the St. Nicholas costume from the church pageant?"

"I was gonna return it!"

Josiah shook his head. "Never mind now."

Chris looked at the others. "Well? How we gonna get 'im out?"

"Pull him out with a rope?" suggested JD.

Vin shook his head. "How would you get it around him? He's stuck tight by the shoulders."

Ezra thought a moment. "The more he struggles in there, the harder it's going to be to extricate him. How about some ether to make him more 'pliable'?"

Nathan shook his head. "He don't have much room to breathe in there as it is, and ether'll slow his breathing even more."

"Well, gentleman," said Chris. "Looks like we'll need to tear open the chimney."

"I'll round up some tools," said JD.

It took a while using hammers and chisels to break apart the chimney enough to get Buck's shoulders freed.

When Buck was finally standing on the ground, the boys got a good look at him. He was covered with soot from head to toe. The ankle-length St. Nicholas robe, trimmed with sooty white-now-gray fur, fell open.

JD gaped at him. "Buck?...Um...Is that a big red bow you're wearin'?"

Buck snapped the robe shut abruptly. He held it tightly closed and glared as if daring everyone to laugh. They tried to hide their amusement, but failed. As the laughter died down, they began heading for their horses.

"Don't fret, Buck," consoled Vin. "You can still surprise the twins."

Buck looked exasperated. "How?"

Chris handed him a brick. "Build 'em a new chimney."

END


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