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Christmas morning was a little disappointing for Ezra. His "preacher" con had been disappointing here in tiny Cactus Flats. The citizens were of limited means, unable to significantly aid a missionary in need. But today he was heading for another hamlet not far away called Healeyville.

He rolled over in the feather bed, savoring its comforts until he was interrupted by a knock. Two farmers entered.

"Reverend Elijah Stanhope?" asked the taller of the two. He nodded at Ezra's suitcase. "See yer leavin'. We need to ask a favor. It's an emergency."

The shorter man continued. "The Holy Father is ill and can't say Christmas Mass today."

"But I'm not Catholic."

"But you're a reverend and, right now, the only one in town. 'Sides, little Eric can help. He's the altar boy."

Ezra rubbed his face, thoughtfully. Catholics had collection plates...Maybe it wouldn't hurt to try. A service was a service, after all.

When Ezra arrived at the tiny church, it looked like the entire town of Cactus Flats was squeezed inside. It was a testament to adobe construction that the building didn't split its seams.

He moved to the front of the crowd, past large families packed into roughhewn pews. He looked around. Altar. Altar boy. Bible..where was the--oh, there it was.

"My children." Ezra began, "as a visitor to your modest community, and not of your faith, I shall do my best to bring you God's Word on this holiest of days. Please do not let my humble efforts discourage you from donating generously when the collection plate is passed."

Ezra led the Mass with the help of the altar boy. When it was time for the sermon, he paused. The anticipation was palpable. He turned pages in the Bible, trying to look as if he were searching for something while he tried to figure out what to say.

His eyes fell on the page before him. It dawned on him then. He smiled, his gold crown glinting in the candlelight.

"My brothers and sisters, on this very special day...let me share with you the reason we celebrate this day we call Christmas. I will read to you now from...ah...Luke 2."

He began at the beginning and kept reading.

"...And she brought forth her first-born son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn..."

The room was hushed. No one stirred. Ezra's soft Southern drawl reverberated off the adobe walls. He read in a normal tone, but his voice sounded loud to him. It was if he could feel the vibration of each word. He took a deep breath and continued. The stillness made it easier to concentrate on the words. He read with more feeling now, as the words took on real meaning to him.

"...Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men..."

He looked up. Every face, young and old, looked mesmerized. They finished with a Christmas carol. Their voices joined together, filling the room. Ezra swallowed a lump in his throat.

Towards the end of the service, the collection plate was passed. On an impulse, Ezra was surprised to find himself adding to the coffers with the money he'd collected from the town.

After everyone had left, the two farmers walked up to him.

"Are you all right, Reverend?" asked the taller man.

Ezra nodded, wiping his nose with his handkerchief. "Yes...yes." He would never understand what made him do it, but he heard himself say "I'm not really a...a reverend."

They nodded. "We figured that out," said the shorter one.

"Then why didn't you stop me?"

The taller one shrugged. "Folks here needed a Christmas service to heal their souls. But by the look of things, we figured you needed it more than we did."

END


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