A Christmas Tale

by: Sarah Stodola

NOTES — To picture this story completely, you have to understand a couple of things. The universe most of this happens in is a strange mix between Covington and the Hazzard of later stories. It is not the Hazzard you know, though it is a very real one. It is hilly country, with mostly dirt roads, and the town is small. But the climate, trees, etc. are very much Appalachian, hence the snow, and the farmhouse especially is like the one in those few episodes. (Which really is, by the way, two-story; Bo made that clear in “High Octane” when he talked about “coming down” when he was teasing Daisy and Miss Huntley in the kitchen.) Other details, however, especially about the house interior and community chapel, are unique to this universe and not in the television series at all. Also, a few important points — the boys never got put on probation, the Duke family still runs moonshine, and Rosco’s basset hound Flash is already there. So sit back, open your mind and heart, and come with me into a very complex, very wonderful, very real world. For this, my friends, is a true story, as well as I can tell it. Take it as you will, as fantasy, as not… but it is something that has become very dear to my heart. Our story starts one night in 1998, and 1978, about two weeks before Thanksgiving, and on Christmas Eve…

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I’m dreaming. I have to be. Because I’m not in my room, not in my bed, not even in my own house. I’m somewhere else, somewhere strange yet also strangely familiar. I’m not even certain that I am myself. I feel more than see my surroundings, for I can’t quite see; it’s like everything’s blurred out. It’s… weird, in a way. But beautiful. Not in a physical sense, more emotional, but beautiful is still the best word.

It’s so quiet, the thought comes without my thinking it. So calm, I’m so relaxed. But, what else could I be, here in my home, with my family?

Wait a minute..! Suddenly I realize that I’m *not* really myself, not even in my own world anymore. I’m still a girl, though; young yet adult too. No older than myself, I think… Who am I?! I struggle, fighting against this strange mixture of two sets of thoughts and emotions, feeling almost as though I’m drowning!

Then, suddenly, I slip into this other place entirely, completely losing the one that my own body and mind are in, and with it the brief whirlwind of fear and confusion. Instead, different feelings fill me… and I am suddenly quite content to be where I am.

A CHRISTMAS TALE

Yawning slightly, I open my eyes and look around, a little puzzled. Why would I be confused about this, the place I’ve lived all my life? I must have dropped off into a dream for a moment there. What a weird dream, too! I smile inwardly to myself; the mind can do some funny things sometimes.

I’m home, of course I’m home. Where else would I be on Christmas Eve evening? As a matter of fact, I’m lying on my stomach near the fireplace in the living room. There’s a soft, worn fur rug under me, over the regular carpet. It’s warm in the room, so very comfortable. But I can feel the tinge of cold coming from the window. It’s snowing again outside, gentle flakes leaving wet spots on the glass every once in a while. I wonder idly how much we’ll get this time. It’s been falling off- and-on for the last several days, but never enough to do anything fun in.

I’m not alone here; I’m rarely really alone anywhere, to tell the truth. There is someone lying beside me, a dark-haired young man leaning on his elbows and reading aloud excerpts out of an illustrated guide to local history. It’s a Christmas present, one of the few that were under our tree. We just opened them half an hour ago, and the two of us have been looking over this one together. I glance up from the book under his hands to his face. He glances over at me at the same time, and smiles. Though his expression is simply light and friendly, his eyes are gentle, saying more than his words ever will; he isn’t often inclined to say his emotions out loud. Those eyes are so light blue that they could be called icy, and have on occasion by someone he’s unnerved with that cold threatening stare of his. But right now they’re too soft and warm for me to ever think of ice when I look at him.

Luke. He’s my cousin. But much more like a brother, especially since we’ve grown up together all our lives. I feel safe in his presence. He’ll always protect me, always take care of me. I trust him with my very life, and love him. As he looks back down at the book and points to a picture, commenting on something, I rest my head on his denim jacket-clad shoulder and close my eyes briefly. He’s… my hero, my protector, my friend. I feel like he’s big and strong and brave and will always be there. To put it that way sounds sort of childish, I know, but that’s exactly the way I feel. He’s my white knight who’ll always come to my rescue, my big brother. He is a bit of a paradox at times, though. I mean, I’ve seen him shoot down a deer with perfect accuracy and skin it, and not even flinch at the blood or anything, yet I’ve had him take care of me or carry me, like if I’m hurt or sick, and he’s always so gentle then. He’s a real conniver, a schemer, and maybe a little crazy sometimes, but… it’s hard to put into words, cause he’s just a *really* complex person. He’s my big brother. He protects me, holds me when I’m scared, helps me do things. And I love him.

He’s not the only one here. Another young man is lying on Luke’s other side, chin propped on his hands on the floor. Bo’s dark blue eyes are staring unfocusedly into the fire, not really paying attention to the rest of the world, daydreaming again. His eyes are usually open, free with all his emotions, but sometimes they can be deep and mysterious, and right now is one of those times. Sometimes he seems to live in an imaginary world half the time; even though he has a quick temper and a lot of energy, he does have his quiet side too. His blond hair looks about the same as it did when he got up this morning, tousled after a day of running his hands through it. Of course, what else is new?

Bo and I have a unique relationship, in a way. We’re buddies, best friends. He’s someone I play with, share all my secrets with, and sometimes go a little crazy with. I mean, we’re the ones who’ll race down a dead-end road to see who can jump their car farther across the gully. We’re also the ones who’ll leap into trouble without thinking first, and usually end up getting bailed out by our older cousin. He’s the energetic one who’ll start a snowball fight for no good reason, or a water war in the summer, and I’ll almost always retaliate. We’re also almost twins! I say that because he’s only two days younger than me. My birthday is November 14th, his is the 16th. Weird, but neat, huh? We often share a party on the 15th; as a matter of fact, Uncle Jesse and Luke got a special surprise party together when we turned eighteen just over a month ago. And though his hair is blond and mine brown, we both have the same unusual dark blue eyes. That, combined with our living together and having the same last name, is enough to make out-of-towners think we’re siblings even if they don’t guess we’re twins, and that Luke is our older brother. In a way, they’re closer to the truth than not, because we have grown up that way. But by blood, the three of us are only cousins. Of course, by blood sometimes doesn’t seem to mean much; we’re all just one close-knit family. And I honestly love it.

The entire atmosphere is one of warm peace. I know who I am now, know everything, as though I’d never, briefly, forgotten. My name is Daisy. Daisy Mae Duke. I live in Hazzard County, in northern Georgia, on my Uncle Jesse’s farm. It’s been my home, a home I never want to leave, since before I can remember. I can still smell the turkey we had for dinner, the cinnamony flavor of the cider simmering in its pot on the back of the stove. The light scent of pine from the tree fills the room as well, as does the apple-cinnamon-oatmeal-raisin smell of the cookies baking in the oven. I can feel the dry heat from the fire, feel the softness of the rug under my hands and poking through between my fingers. I see the little colored lights on the tree in the corner glowing softly. It’s somewhat dim in the room, but it’s a cozy, secure kind of dim.

I just feel so warm, so safe, so content. Nothing in the whole wide world is wrong right now. We have each other, we’re here at home together, and that’s all that matters.

Then a familiar voice comes to my ears, one that sparks memories of kindness and firmness, quick anger yet gentleness, all in one. A rush of emotion fills me as I think about it, a love so strong and deep that it almost brings tears to my eyes. I feel like I could never really voice what bubbles up inside of me from time to time. There aren’t words. The best I can do, with all my heart, is, ‘I love you, Uncle Jesse’. Something I can never quite say enough times to the man who rescued me when I lost my parents at a very young age, who took me in and raised me as if I were his own along with the two also-orphaned boys who have become my brothers, who has been both father and mother to us all. I know Bo and Luke feel the same way, though they show it differently. Luke doesn’t usually say anything, just sorta goes over to sit near Uncle Jesse from time to time with a magazine or something, being close without sacrificing his independent male ego. Bo has no such problem with openly showing affection, even though he isn’t that good with words; he just curls up next to our uncle on the couch and leans against him with that bright yet soft smile of his, eyes glowing happily.

“Cookies are done, kids, if you want some.”

Luke looks up, smiling slightly as our uncle comes over to sit near us in his favorite chair after setting the tray of cookies and cider down on a low wooden coffee table. Bo blinks himself out of his dream world to sit up and move closer to the table, snatching two cookies in one hand and a steaming mug with the other. The other two of us finally get up to go over and take our share of the snack too, before he eats it all, then settle on the floor, anticipating what will come next.

I watch Jesse open the old Bible he’s carrying, his callused hands rustling the pages as he searches for the right one. Our livelihood has always been in those hands, hardened by years upon years of farm work. But to three young children, they were and still are always full of love. Not always gentle, though; our almost-father can be rough with us when we disobey him, and we honestly fear his anger more than we do the law. After all, we can always escape from jail. We couldn’t from Uncle Jesse, even though physically it would be possible; we just respect him too much. But we all know that he loves us very deeply, and the feeling is returned wholeheartedly.

I smile, leaning up against Luke again. He shifts position, stretching a bit as he rests back against the arm of Uncle Jesse’s easy chair. I can feel his strength in the movement, the latent power in his muscular build, and relax trustingly in it. Like our uncle, he has his rough side, and can be a little bossy sometimes thanks to his time in the Marines, but Bo and I both look up to him, glad to have him as our leader, even when we do complain, because he always means well. Even though he isn’t one to say how much he cares out loud, his love is proven in how he’s willing to protect us no matter what. Luke has left the country, been to war, and has the strength and fighting skill to literally be able to kill with his bare hands. Yet he’s one of the most careful people I know, and maybe the least likely to get into a fight unless defending a family member or close friend. He has a very long-suffering temper, unlike me and Bo, who tend to blow up easily. He’s really the only one of us, I guess, who’s seen how evil the world can be. And as a result, he’s very protective of us. I think he’d literally die to keep us from being hurt. That thought is kind of scary, really, yet makes me feel so secure, so safe, that I never even imagine him not being there when I need him.

I think he does try to understand his more emotional cousins, though. He really does. He manages pretty well, too, to be honest. I know that guys always have trouble understanding girls, and Bo is… well, Bo is unique. He’s emotionally very open, almost unnaturally so. He’s very young at heart, very trusting, a trait that has gotten him into trouble before. He’s the bright point in all of our lives. Even when something goes wrong and things look mighty dark, he almost always has a joke or lighthearted comment to make. Bo is not a complex person at all, almost the opposite of Luke. You can always tell what he’s thinking or feeling. It just radiates, almost. When he’s teasing, his eyes sparkle and dance. When he’s angry, he storms around like a thundercloud. When he’s gleeful or just really happy about something, he shouts. When he’s hurt or sad, he cries. You can almost look into his eyes and see right through them into exactly what he’s thinking. And Luke, I have to admit, does a pretty darn good job of understanding us both, despite how different from himself we are.

Uncle Jesse’s voice comes soft now, mixing with the quiet, beautiful Christmas carols coming from the old radio in the corner as he reads us the Christmas story, a family tradition. I cannot even imagine life without our white-bearded, stern yet kind father figure. Just like Luke and Bo, he’s always been there and always will be. I can’t even remember life before the farm, with my parents; that’s how young I was when they died. *This* is my family, my sole kin. And I’m actually happy with it being that way; I’ve never wished that my life could be different. I listen to the rise and fall of the familiar, comforting voice, closing my eyes and starting to drift. It’s just so warm… and I’m so tired. I yawn, sigh lightly, and relax.

The next, and last, thing I remember is Luke carrying me to bed.

<><>

The next morning, I burrow deep under my down quilt and squeeze my eyes shut when I hear Bo’s voice coming down the hall. Sounds like he’s getting everybody up. That’s normal, and the protests from Luke are also normal. Just a part of everyday life at the Duke farm. Without our little, somewhat silly, I admit, traditions like this one, life might get boring. But as it is, with the four of us half-wild characters all living in one house, there’s no such thing as boring!

I hear my door fling open and brace myself as Bo lands beside me on my bed, just barely missing landing *on* me, and snatches my pillow away. I grumble and pull the quilt over my head, only to have him jump off the bed and haul the covers off. I yelp and shiver briefly as the cool air in my room hits my skin, even through my flannel pajamas.

“Daisy!” he laughs. “I know you’re awake, get up! We’ve got enough snow to play in!”

That gets my attention. I bounce up and out of bed, and run over to the window to look out. Oh, wow! Bo’s right! There’s a good foot of snow, with deep drifts over the pickup and tractor and against the side of the barn. The early morning sun glows and glimmers off the snow crystals, making it look like a winter wonderland. I laugh out loud, my cousin-brother’s simple joy infectious, and spin around to shove him toward the door. “Out! I gotta get dressed.”

After he runs out and I shut the door, I yank my closet door open and grab a light purple sweatshirt off a hanger, and a pair of dark blue jeans off another. I pull the clothes and some socks on quickly, hunting for my belt and finally finding it halfway under the bed, then brush my straight brown hair as quickly as I can and run downstairs, where most of our house is. Only the boys’ room and mine are upstairs; the rest of the second floor is a large attic. Even Uncle Jesse’s bedroom is downstairs, off the living room.

I swing around the corner and veer sharply to the right to avoid the table; our staircase is merely a narrow passageway inside the west wall of the kitchen. Luke’s already there, sipping at a steaming cup of coffee, and he smiles good morning at me. I grin back. With his free hand, he’s pulling on his jacket, a dark green coat of a heavier weight than his normal denim one; his boots are already on. I grab my boots from next to the kitchen door, just as Bo bounds down the stairs after me. My blond cousin grins at both of us.

“Good morning, everybody!” he sings cheerfully, grabbing his dark blue jacket and putting it on quickly before reaching for his own footwear. I have to grin back; not only is his attitude infectious, but he looks funny, hopping a little on one foot as he pulls a boot on the other. He obviously has energy to spare this morning. I notice that he’s wearing the same gold-and-brown plaid shirt and blue jeans that he was yesterday. Luke’s in solid blue, except for his coat. Course, what else is new? That’s his favorite color. I’m not sure I have a favorite color; I like ’em all. My own jacket is tan.

Luke finally sets his mug down, and the three of us head outside together. I laugh out loud as Bo trips on purpose on the porch steps to fall into a drift off to the side, and comes up shaking snow out of his hair and giggling. Luke grins, shakes his head, and aims for the barn.

We’re supposed to be doing chores. Like milking the goat, gathering eggs, and getting some more firewood from the stack the boys cut earlier this summer. But, c’mon, chores have gotta wait when there’s snow to be had!

I close my eyes for a few seconds, breathing in the crisp air. It almost hurts my chest to breathe it in, but not quite. Good and cold; this snow won’t melt today. I run my hand through a cold white drift up against the porch, then scoop some up and form it into a ball with my hands. Looking around, feeling a bit mischievous, I aim for the first person I see — Bo. I cock my pitching arm back and throw. I always have had good aim; I’m right on target, and he drops the wood he was picking up, diving behind the woodpile. He comes up over the top with a barrage of three snowballs thrown in quick succession. One strikes me in the shoulder. Well, now it’s war!

I run, ducking another snowball, and hide behind the big oak tree in the center of the yard. “I’m gonna get ya!” I yell, giggling despite myself.

“You started it!” he yells back, and we both start ducking and throwing in earnest, Duke competitiveness coming to the fore. Neither one of us wants to lose this battle.

“Hey you guys, don’t hit me!” a third voice calls. I peek out from behind my tree, tossing another snowball Bo’s way just to hold him off for a split second, to see Luke heading for the porch with a pail of milk. “Ain’t you supposed to be doing your own chores?”

“Um, yeah,” I start, but then have to dive for cover again from another snowball. I return fire. “Later!”

“Well, it’s your fault if you get in trouble.” But our older cousin pauses, watching our snow war, with a look of almost comical indecision on his face. Finally he sets the milk down on the porch and makes a flying parody of a swan dive into a snowdrift. He comes up all white and laughing. Uncle Jesse pokes his head out the door, looks at all of us, smiles and shakes his head, and comes out to rescue the milk before it gets knocked over. He and it disappear back inside.

Bo sends a couple of snowballs at Luke, and he retaliates. I use the moment of peace on my front to build up my arsenal, then leap out from behind the tree, tossing snow as I go, to dive into the drift that covers the tractor sitting over to the side. I bury myself down deep under the machine and wait.

I don’t have long to wait. I see a pair of jeans coming. That’s all I *can* see, but I know it’s one of the boys. I tense, waiting for just the right moment. Almost… Whoever it is pauses in his careful approach, turns as though looking around.

I pounce, leaping out from under the tractor to hit my victim squarely in the midsection! It’s Luke. We go flying into the snow, and he twists around so he’s lying on his back, mock- glaring up at me. “Daisy!”

“What?” I tease, sitting on his chest with my fists on my hips. He could throw me off easily, but he rarely does, even when I beat up on him a little. Of course, when I do, it’s never on purpose to hurt him; it’s just that we can all get rough when we play.

Uncle Jesse opens the door again. “Boys, Daisy, I need some eggs for the baking!” he calls.

Uh-oh. I forgot. The eggs were my chore. That and feeding the goats and horses their morning grain. I scramble up off my cousin and run for the barn. My feet move from crunching snow to damp, straw-covered dirt just a few steps under the roof. It smells good in here, too, the smell of warm milk, hay, and animals. One of the horses whinnies at me, and I pat him on the neck. “Hi, Caesar. How’re you doing?”

The big gray draft horse snorts and paws the ground in his stall, shaking his lighter gray mane. He wants breakfast, and he wants it now!

“Okay, okay, I’m coming!” I feed him and the other animals, then go into the small area where the chickens lay their eggs. I slip one hand under a hen and find a little pile, small and hard and warm. She clucks nervously at me and cocks a baleful red eye as I pull my hand out from under her soft feathers with her entire clutch of four. I chuckle and stroke her back with my other hand while slipping the eggs into my coat pocket, shaking my head slightly. Only a chicken would try to hatch a brood in December.

I leave the barn with both pockets full of breakable cargo, holding up both hands and calling to any boys that might be laying in wait, “Don’t hit me! I’ve got eggs!”

“Aw!” Bo stands up from behind the woodpile and slaps his leg with one hand in frustration. “Shoot, and I was just gonna get ya too!”

I give him a sassy little smile and toss my hair back. I’m feeling admittedly cocky, so I saunter right past him, not looking back. He wouldn’t dare.

A snowball hits me hard right between the shoulder blades, and I spin around to glare at the culprit. He wasn’t supposed to do that! Bo just giggles. He dared.

“Breakfast!” Uncle Jesse calls from the briefly-opened kitchen window, and we all head for the porch. I make it through the door first, giving my uncle the eggs then taking off my coat. Bo is right behind me, still giggling uncontrollably. I give him an annoyed look, thinking about how easy and tempting it would be to reach out and tickle him in revenge. He’s asking for it.

Luke comes in behind him, something in one hand. He winks at me, putting a finger to his lips for silence, and tiptoes up behind Bo. The blond boy has just hung up his jacket, and Luke suddenly reaches forward, grabs, and dumps a handful of snow down the back of his shirt. Bo yelps, eyes wide in absolute startlement that quickly becomes tinged with anger, and spins on our older cousin, chasing him out of the kitchen through the wide doorway into the living room. A few seconds later, they streak back in, Luke fleeing for the stairs. But he’s grinning, not one bit repentant. I fight to hide a giggle; it *was* funny.

The boys disappear upstairs. The floor sounds like it might cave in. I think they’re making flying leaps up there, and I start laughing. Uncle Jesse sighs and looks at the ceiling. From the look in his eyes, I wonder if he’s looking toward the boys or praying for patience.

“C’mon, you two, cut it out before you tear the house down!”

There’s some more pounding, then Luke comes bounding down the stairs, still smirking. Bo’s still hot on his tail, pulling a dry t-shirt over his head as he comes. “I’m gonna get ya for that!”

Jesse reaches out and catches one boy with each hand as they try to go by. “Calm down and sit down, both of you!”

Still glaring at Luke, Bo slides into his place beside me. “But Uncle Jesse..!”

“No buts. I don’t even want to know what started this. Just sit down.”

Bo shuts up, but is still glaring across the table as we bow our heads to pray over breakfast. When I open my eyes, I grin. It’s my favorite, oatmeal with honey and cream, and all fighting is forgotten for a little while. We’re all hungry, and this meal tastes good. The chase can wait for later.

<><>

It’s after lunch now. Uncle Jesse and I are in the kitchen, talking as we finish up the last of the Christmas baking. He pauses in stirring the batter for a fruitcake to check on the one in the oven. I reach out quietly, behind his back, and dip my finger in the bowl. Uncle Jesse’s fruitcakes taste so good. None of those fake or candied fruits that I’ve seen in the stores in Capitol City; just real fruit, nuts, and raisins, with some spices added in. Even I don’t know the recipe, yet, anyway. It’s our uncle’s secret, just like his shine recipe. And just as famous locally, though not illegal. Good thing too; we make both for other people. It would be hard to have to face revenuer trouble from two sides! I giggle as think about that silly idea, and reach to get another taste of the sweet but not too sweet batter.

“Oh, get out of there,” Uncle Jesse chides me, though gently. He turned around just in time to see my second move for the bowl, and I pull my hand back, smiling guiltily. We can never keep anything from our uncle, even when we try. It’s like he reads our minds. “Wait for it to at least get baked,” he chuckles, waving wordlessly at what I’m supposed to be doing with raised eyebrows.

I lick my finger clean and turn back to putting layers of cookies in a tin, with paper in between so that they won’t stick together. “But it tastes good this way.”

Uncle Jesse just makes a noncommittal sound, and we both lapse into silence as we work on our respective tasks.

The kitchen is warm, and smells good. The sunlight that comes out from the clouds every now and then to throw bright beams through the window brings a cheerful air to the place. I steal a cookie for myself as I pack the top layer and put the lid on the last tin, then I put it on the floor on top of several others, just in time for Bo to come through the doorway and pick them up, carrying them back out to the living room. The boys are wrapping the tins of cookies, and plastic-wrapped loaves of bread and fruitcakes, in colorful paper for gifts. Our family doesn’t really have all that much money, despite an occasional moonshine run. Jesse used to be, and still is, the best shiner around. But since we kids have gotten old enough to get in trouble if we get caught while on a run for him, he doesn’t fire up the old still all that often anymore. When he does, though, it’s kinda fun, sneaking around the woods and outwitting Keller, the local ATF agent. It’s more of a game between us Dukes and him than real seriousness. I don’t think he’d really want us to get caught and put in jail; most of the time, we’re good friends.

But even without the shine money, we are better off than some, so we tend to go on a baking spree every Christmas. Of course, other people do too, as well as sewing and making things out of wood, etc., so it all evens out. Everybody gets something from pretty much everybody else in Hazzard; we’re a small, close- knit community. What makes it even more special is that a lot of the gifts are personal; handmade, not store-bought.

“Why don’t you go help the boys?” Uncle Jesse nods me toward the doorway when he sees I’m done. “These last two fruitcakes are for us. This one in the oven’ll be done real soon now, and I’ll bring some out, how about that?”

“They’ll love it,” I smile, and snatch a small plate of cookies as I leave the kitchen. Truth is, I’ll love it too. It’s just that they’ll eat most of it. I sigh, looking at the ceiling with a mixture of amusement and annoyance. Boys! They eat everything in sight! But, you love ’em. You can’t help it; they’re so funny, and protective too, especially when they’re your cousins. Sometimes it bugs me, when they get in a fight at the Boar’s Nest to defend my honor and I’d rather just back off and forget the whole thing. But I do love them, and I know the way they sometimes hover is because they love me too. I have to admit, there are times when having them around makes me feel a whole lot better about being somewhere rowdy.

Luke wordlessly tosses me a roll of tape as I come through the doorway, and I catch it with one hand, still holding the plate in the other. I put the cookies down on the floor between the boys and where I sit down crosslegged, and they both reach for the plate at the same time. I take another cookie too, and pull a metal pan with a cinnamon bread loaf in it out of the waning pile of unwrapped goodies. I balance the pan on one knee and reach for a smallish piece of red paper to cover it in.

We don’t say much, except to ask each other to pass things, but the silence is comfortable. It’s abruptly broken by Bo’s renewed teasing mood. Actually, maybe not renewed… I don’t think it ever went away. Luke looks up and asks, “Hand me the scissors, will ya?”, and instead of nodding, my two-days-younger cousin holds the item behind him, grinning widely. Luke makes a patient, ‘oh please’ face and leans forward to make a grab for the scissors, but Bo switches hands, grinning even wider and starting to giggle now.

Luke sets his lapful aside and makes a dive for the blond tease, but Bo switches hands again. Luke grabs his wrist, but he doesn’t get a good hold before Bo’s free again, scrambling backwards across the floor with the scissors. Visibly annoyed now, Luke makes a flying leap for him, almost a football tackle from his knees.

Just then, Uncle Jesse comes through the door. His dark blue eyes widen, and he yanks the beginning fight up short like a dog on a leash, using nothing but words. “Bo! Luke! Cut that out before someone gets hurt!”

Both boys obey, and Bo finally hands over the scissors. Luke glares at him, but not hotly. It’s almost like today we just can’t really get mad at each other. Christmas spirit, maybe? I dunno, but it’s a nice thought. We finish up the last couple of gifts, then Uncle Jesse sends us all off, shaking his head.

“Just get on out of here,” he says good-humoredly. “Why don’t you take some things to Cooter and Rosco and Enos in town, then take the rest of the afternoon off. It *is* Christmas.”

We all get up and stretch thankfully. I hug Uncle Jesse before going to get my coat, and both boys do the same, arms briefly around each other’s shoulders as well as they follow me. I have to smile, watching them grin and joke with each other as though the brief fight had never happened. Warmth and happiness rises up inside of me again, until I feel like I must be glowing with it. We really do have so much. Sure, not in the way of money, though we always have just enough, but we have each other’s love, and that’s very special to us all. We also seem to be a very tactile family. Unlike some people who don’t seem to like contact of any sort, we are always touching, whether in a hug or just a fleeting brush of a hand as we pass. It’s almost like… like we’re constantly, even unconsciously, reassuring ourselves that we’re all still here and still okay, or something, though I know that sounds a little silly. Me and Bo are especially that way, but Luke, even though he wouldn’t admit it, does a lot of reaching out when he walks past to brush a hand over my hair, or to ruffle Bo’s. I think that, down deep, somewhere hidden inside, he needs that quick touch and smile just as much as we do.

The boys and I grab our jackets off of the coat hooks on the wall just inside the front door. Then the three of us pick up a gift apiece and run out to the General Lee.

Our General Lee. The fastest and most colorful car in the Tri-Counties. Maybe in all of Georgia. His bright orange coat really shines against the snow when I help Bo pull off the tarp that’s protecting the car from the weather; with the doors welded shut for racing, there’s no such thing as rolling up the windows unless you’re inside. That’s what we have to do when we wash him, one of us getting inside and closing the windows so the others can use the hose.

The last of the tarp, on the top where we’ve rolled it up around the snow on the roof, we now shove off to reveal our proud Rebel flag. The colors there seem to glow, too. I give a quick glance over at my jeep, Dixie. I’m stuck with riding in the General for a while; I forgot to put her in the barn or put a tarp over her last night before the snow, and the open interior is filled with small drifts. I don’t really have any great wish to scrape it all out, either, right now. Maybe I’m being lazy, but who cares? I guess I’ll just have to do a bit of cleanup when it melts. Oh, joy. I’m really *not* looking forward to that.

The slight wind is really cold against my face, in comparison to the heat of indoors, but I quickly grow accustomed to it. Luke wins the brief coin toss between the boys as to who’s going to drive, and Bo holds my package while I slide into the center seat. Then I take both of ours as he jumps in, sandwiching me warmly, securely, between both my cousins. Then Luke starts the engine, which comes to life with a sudden loud roar-growl. No silent car, is our General. He tells his speed and power to the world. Pride rises up in me, as strong as what I would have for one of my cousins. I like my own jeep a lot — she’s *mine*, and a great off-road mover; of course, that’s not to say she isn’t fast too — but even to me the General seems to have a heart.

Uncle Jesse waves goodbye from the porch, and we all wave back, then Luke pulls out of the yard slowly, pushing the soft snow out of the way with the nose of the powerful car. Once we pull onto the main road, he hits the gas. No, don’t worry, not like in the summer. We don’t want to skid if we hit ice. But we’re going as fast as we can safely. It’s good footing for now; the snowplow has been through here. If it hadn’t been, we would be taking the pickup. The General’s not a low-rider, but he’s not built all that high off the ground either.

“Where’re we going first?” Bo asks.

Luke shrugs. “Where do you wanna go first?”

I smile. “Well, I bet Cooter and you two are gonna want to talk. So probably our boys in blue first.”

My older cousin grins. “Well then, to the police station. It’ll be a change to be there when we ain’t stayin’!”

We all share a laugh at that. We’ve been to and from, in and out of, that station so many times that I can’t even count ’em. We’ve even been in and out of the jail! And the ‘out’ part not always legally. Though the ‘in’ part wasn’t always, either. I have to admit, we’re all accomplished jailbreakers. We’re rather proud of it, yet, should we be? Sometimes I wonder. The fact doesn’t seem to hurt our friendship with Enos, the lone deputy, much though. I’m glad… I hide a little shy smile.

We’re coming up to where the road crosses Calamine Creek. Luke swerves slightly so that we’re off the road, but still paralleling it, on the shoulder where the plow truck has still packed the snow down. Bo looks over past me, frowning as though he’s going to ask what Luke’s doing. I have an idea, but I’m not sure it’s safe..! Suddenly, our older cousin puts the accelerator down, grinning tightly and shouting “Yahoo!” as we hit the slight rise of the streambank and take off!

My first, fleeting, thought is that the wooden bridge *is* probably slippery, but that this leap is really born more out of fun than care, cause we could slip when we come back down. But then I push the thoughts away and laugh out loud, enjoying the feeling of being airborne. Luke’s a good driver, and I put my life in his hands, or Bo’s, in this fashion almost every day.

I love jumping! Actually, that’s… not really the word for it. It’s not just a jump; I’ve done little jumps coming over the top of a hill in Dixie, though she doesn’t have the long, wide, low balance to make longer leaps like the General Lee does, and even in the pickup. This is more like… flying. Just plain flying. For a couple, long, seconds, General arcs up, and then levels off, and it almost feels as though we could just keep going in midair rather than coming down. Like he could spread wings… My whole being soars with my heart, and I catch a cry of mixed excitement and joy in my throat before it comes out. Then gravity catches up with our speed, pulling us back to earth. With a bit of a inner reluctant sigh, I brace for the landing.

The snow does make us skid a bit, but not too bad, and it softens the heavy landing. My heart is still up there, though, and as I look at Bo, I can see in his face that it feels the same for him. Flying like that is almost an addictive thing. He catches my eye and grins. I grin back, squeezing his hand.

“Great, huh?”

“Always,” he laughs, tossing his hair back.

Luke glances over at us, laughing, his eyes bright and dancing, but he doesn’t say anything. I lean my head on his shoulder in a quick, fond gesture, and we continue toward town, staying just slow enough to be safe, but no less.

Then I think of something, and start chuckling. Bo and Luke look at me. “Just thought of a song,” I explain.

“What?” my blond near-twin asks.

“The carol ‘We Three Kings’. Remember that one?”

The boys both nod. “Sure,” Bo replies. “Why?”

“Well, there’s three of us, and we’re bearing gifts.”

It takes a moment to sink in, then Luke quirks a little smile. Bo stares blankly for a moment longer, then grins, laughing. “Yeah!” Taking a deep breath, he launches into the song I just mentioned. Me and Luke join in after only a couple of words. I wince a little to myself. We sound pretty bad. But we’re having fun anyway, and by the end of the last verse, our voices are warming up, starting to show that we really might be a musical family. Which we are. We’re known as the Duke Family Singers locally, along with our friend Cooter.

We finish the next go-round of the song just as we pull into town, ending with a flourish and laughter. There are a couple of cars parked along the streets, but they’re empty. The whole place seems deserted, almost everyone at home with their families. Only the garage has an open sign, Cooter hoping for a bit of business from people getting caught in drifts or sliding because of ice, but I know that the local lawmen are here too. Their job means enough to them not to take the whole day off, though they officially do have the vacation time. Even for Rosco, it matters.

Luke pulls the General to a halt in front of the courthouse, and Bo, unwilling to move for some reason (who knows what, with him), pushes himself back into the seat so I can climb over him. Shrugging, I do, and after I scramble out and pull down my jacket, I take two plates of cookies and bound up the steps.

“Good luck, Daisy!” Bo calls teasingly. I spare a moment to look back and wrinkle my nose at him. Even Rosco wouldn’t chase us on Christmas without Boss around to tell him what to do. And Boss and Lulu are off visiting kin in Alabama.

I pause at the double doors just inside, unsure of whether or not to knock, and finally push my way in. I peer into the booking room to see both sheriff and deputy. Enos Strate is at a table in the corner scribbling down something fast and furious, though I wouldn’t have a clue what, and Sheriff Rosco P. Coltrane is talking to his beloved basset hound, Flash. I love Flash too.

“Enos? Rosco?” I call out softly. Rosco’s head jerks up, and the graying sheriff blinks for a moment before smiling.

“Well, Merry Christmas, Daisy Duke! No trouble today!” he orders in what he thinks is a fierce tone. Hah. He’s an old softy inside; you can hear it every time he speaks to his ‘ ‘velvet-ears’. Or when he’s happy, like today.

“Nope,” I reassure him with a smile, holding up one plate. The sheriff’s eyes light up, and he comes out from behind his desk.

“Whatcha got there?”

We’ve got Enos’ attention now. I can feel his eyes on my back. I try to keep my mind on one conversation at a time. “Just something for you and Flash, Rosco,” I reply, handing him the gift. “Go ahead, open it.”

He tears into the paper like an excited child, grinning when he sees what’s inside. “Jit jit! Thanks! Here, Flash, try one of these.” The hound’s black nose is already quivering even before Rosco rips open the plastic wrap and takes out one colorful sugar cookie. I watch, hiding a grin, as he holds it up out of the dog’s reach and takes about half the cookie in one bite. His eyes light up, and as he swallows, he gives the other half to Flash. “Good, huh?” She just wags her tail, happily chewing and leaving crumbs all over the desk.

Leaving the pair, I finally turn to look at Enos. He’s stood up, but hasn’t come out of his corner really, as if he doesn’t want to bother Rosco. Always polite, unobtrusive; that’s Enos for ya. I walk over, halting about five feet away, and hold out the second plate wordlessly. His hand closes on the other side of it, and his eyes meet mine. I have to hide a shiver as I almost fall into those dark, warm pools, especially when he smiles, a little shyly. I want to tell him to stop acting like the only shy one in the county. I want to tell him other things, too… I always do whenever we meet. But I never do.

You see, I have more than a bit of a crush on Enos. I think he feels the same way about me, but I’m not sure, and if he doesn’t say anything, I won’t either. It’s the one thing I’m really shy about. For all my tomboyish stunts, I guess I really am a romantic at heart, huh? I… if I was a little older than I am, I would say I love him. Maybe I do anyway. Only thing is, I don’t really feel ready to really fall in love and get married, you know? I’m only eighteen, for goodness’ sake! And he’s only just turned twenty.

But still… when he’s ready, when *I’m* ready, I’ll be here, waiting for him.

“Thanks, Daisy,” he finally says, the smile growing a little wider. He takes the plate and looks at it, then sets it down on the edge of the table and undoes the paper neatly. Instead of tearing into it like Rosco, though, he smiles again, a happy, open almost-grin that makes me unconsciously respond in kind. “Really.”

“You’re very welcome, Enos.” I’ve gotta go. I know that. But I linger for a moment, just smiling back, before turning and heading for the door. My hand on it, I turn and wave. “Bye.”

“Bye,” Enos answers. Rosco waves a little absently as he flips through a stack of papers looking for something. Flash just wags, chowing down on another cookie behind his back. I hope the poor girl doesn’t get doggie indigestion by stealing them all. I wave again and leave.

Luke and Bo are both standing outside the General Lee now. The boys both meet my eyes knowingly, but gently, as I come back down to the curb. They know. I haven’t told them, I haven’t told anyone, but they somehow know anyway how I feel about Enos. Luke especially understands. There’s a girl, Anna, that he likes too. But she hardly knows who he is.

“C’mon, guys, let’s go over to Cooter’s,” Luke suggests. Bo and I start off together, and my blond cousin grins down at me, putting an arm around my waist. I do likewise, and grab Luke’s hand with my other, pulling him over closer to us. He laughs a little, his other hand full of Christmas package, and that way we stroll down the street.

We all untangle ourselves as we go through the door into the garage; it’s a one-person opening. It’s easy to spot Cooter — he’s sitting in a chair, leaned back on two legs against the wall, with his eyes shut and Christmas music drifting from the radio on the table next to him. I almost think he’s asleep, but then he raises his head and smiles, dropping his chair back to all fours and standing up with his hands lightly on his hips. “Well, h’lo, all,” he greets us. “What’s that you got there?”

Cooter Davenport is a good friend of ours, as well as the best mechanic for hundreds of miles. Maybe in the whole South, at least in Duke opinion. The few years he has on us don’t really matter much, somehow. He still acts like a kid, and his round, usually beaming face will always be boyish. The garage is cool, with no heater, so he still has his beige down jacket zipped up. Sometimes I feel a little sorry for Cooter; he has no family that I know of, nowhere to go for holidays or celebrations. As a result, we Dukes have sort of adopted him.

“What do you think, Cooter?” Bo teases, snatching the gift from Luke’s hands and hiding it behind his back.

Cooter rocks back on his heels and grins, playing along in that easygoing way he has. “Well now, I daresay that’s not a piece offa the General to get fixed, or I wouldn’t be hearing him purrin’ so nice.” He had obviously noticed our arrival in town, and recognized the car by sound. Only Cooter.

“You got that right,” Luke joins in, hooking his thumbs through his belt and affecting a pose as casual as Cooter’s. He especially is close to our mechanic friend. Maybe because he’s a closer age, three years older than me and Bo at twenty-one. “Second guess?”

“Not any parts from the tractor. Cause it’s winter.”

“Yup. Wanna try for three?” Bo grins. “C’mon, Cooter, guess!”

He eyes all three of us, then breaks out laughing. “What is it?”

Bo holds out the colorfully wrapped package. “Merry Christmas, Cooter!” Luke and I nod agreement.

He whistles as he takes the gift. Handling it as though it were extremely breakable, he sets it down on the stained table, shoving aside the CB set, and watches us out of the corner of his eye as he slowly undoes the paper. He’s trying to keep us in suspense, and I can’t hold back a laugh. He chuckles back.

“Now, it ain’t gonna blow up or anything,” he says as though unsure, still teasing us. Bo shakes his head, grinning as widely as though he were the one receiving something special. Finally Cooter unwraps the loaf of cranberry-nut bread and looks up at us. “Thanks, guys,” he tells us sincerely, eyes glinting with something that might be hidden tears. He tries not to show things like that, but I see them anyway. I walk over and hug him, smiling.

“Why don’t you come over for dinner, Cooter?” I invite. I almost don’t need to; he comes every year for Christmas, as well as Thanksgiving, Easter, 4th of July, and half the days in between. But it’s still something kinda special to actually invite him, and his face lights up.

“Thanks, I will!” Grinning, he stuffs the paper in an already overflowing trash can and scrambles up the ladder to the loft overhead, the bread in one hand. Cooter has a farm, a small place that don’t grow much even though he’s proud to call it his own, but sometimes in the winter he camps out in the garage loft, where he has a bed, an old dresser, and a trunk for odds and ends, among a bunch of other things that I might call junk if they didn’t mean so much to him, like old fenders and license plates. I’ve been up there before; I know what it looks like. He stays here because he doesn’t want to get stuck down in his little hollow. Being snowed in is no laughing matter when you’re the only one who has a tow truck in the county, and it’s locked away in town. Only thing is, the loft isn’t all that warm. I wish there was something we Dukes could do to help.

Luke’s thoughts are obviously similar to mine. “Hey, Cooter?”

“What?” floats down the ladder.

“Why don’t you stay the night at our house? That way you wouldn’t have to drive back in the dark. We’d be glad to have you.”

“Yeah, you can stay in our room,” Bo chimes in. “I can sleep on the floor; I do it often enough anyway.”

Yeah; Bo tends to run on full speed all day, then sack out at night, sometimes even on the living room floor. I add my offer. “Wha’d’ya say, Cooter?”

He comes down slowly, and stands looking at us seriously. I can see he wants to say yes, but his pride is getting in the way. Cooter likes being self-sufficient, not having to rely on anybody. “Guys,” he finally says, “I appreciate it. I’ll think about it.”

Well, at least that’s something. “You are coming for dinner, right?” Bo queries.

The mechanic makes a playful face. “Of course I am. Miss Uncle Jesse’s cookin’? Not in a hundred years, Buddyro.”

Bo laughs. That’s Cooter’s nickname for him. “I wouldn’t either, unless I was on a camping trip with Luke or something.”

“Well, see you later,” Luke smiles at our friend, putting hands on my and Bo’s shoulders and gently nudging us toward the door. “Okay? The roads are good out to the farm; you won’t have to worry.”

Cooter nods. “Gotcha. Bye, guys.”

We all wave, then head outdoors. I look at Luke as we go back down the street toward the General Lee. “Luke? Why’d you send us out?”

“Because I think he kinda wants to be alone for a while,” my older cousin answers quietly. “He doesn’t want to show how much trouble he’s in.”

“Trouble?” That’s Bo.

“Yeah.” He sighs. “I overheard Uncle Jesse talking to him on the phone yesterday. Seems like the mortgage payment this month, plus some extra supplies he had to buy, has taken most of his money. He doesn’t have a whole lot for food or anything. Jesse offered to help, but…” He shrugs expressively.

We’re all silent for a few steps, then Bo speaks up. “Why don’t we give him a surprise present? You know, a box of somethin’ to eat or somethin’.”

Luke nods. “Good idea.”

But I have another one. “It’s awful cold in that garage, fellas. I think we oughta help him there, too.”

He nods again, starting to smile. “Yeah. You’re right, Daisy. Look, we got that old electric heater in the barn, right? Well, we could just haul that out, make sure it still works, clean it up a bit, and drop it off at the garage so Cooter don’t know who sent it.”

“Probably oughta do the same with the food,” Bo suggests. “You know how prideful he is. He won’t take charity unless it’s dropped in his lap with no return address on it.”

“It ain’t charity,” I argue. “It’s called an act of love. Besides, it’s Christmas.”

We’re back to our car now. Bo heads for the driver’s side and swings his legs in, sitting on the door. “Well, he’ll see it that way.”

Luke gestures me in. “I know, I know. Let’s head back home and tell Uncle Jesse. We’ll figure something out.”

“We gotta do it before tonight,” I say, sliding through the window and scooting into the middle seat. We’re all involved in the service and pageant at church tonight, in some way or another, and wouldn’t be able to leave. Uncle Jesse is leading the children’s choir, Luke and Bo are going to be playing and singing, and I’m going to help with the distribution of homemade gifts. Our baking will be part of that.

“Yeah, I know. Don’t worry, I’ll think of something. And if I don’t, Uncle Jesse will.”

I don’t see the answer myself, but I nod. “Right.”

Luke nods back, then slides through the car window, the last one of us in. He points ahead. “Let’s go, Bo.”

<><>

We head home and tell Uncle Jesse everything. Sure enough, he agrees with us wholeheartedly. He sits back, rubbing his beard thoughtfully.

“Hmm. Sounds like a problem. You know Cooter; he’s as suspicious as a skunk.”

I sigh, drawing my knees up under my chin. I’m sitting on the hearth, toasting by the fire. I love snow, but I love being able to come in and get warm too. The boys both seem to agree with me; Bo has joined me by the fire, and Luke is fixing everybody hot chocolate.

He comes out from the kitchen, the handles of four mugs looped through the fingers of one hand and a thermos in the other. “I know that, Uncle Jesse. That’s why we need your help.” He sets the cups on the coffee table, fills each one from the thermos, then hands them out carefully so that the cocoa doesn’t spill. I accept mine gratefully, wrapping my fingers around the new source of heat. Luke sits down on the couch after he gives Uncle Jesse his drink. “You see, we have to have him out of the garage in order to get the stuff in. And I figure that the only way to get him out of the garage without him getting suspicious is to get him out doin’ his job.”

I frown slightly. “But it’ll take longer to get there, get everything set up, and get away again than just a twenty-minute tow call. It takes fifteen minutes just to get to town!”

“I know.” He looks straight at Uncle Jesse with those piercing eyes of his. “That’s why I figure one person can’t do it alone. You got any buddies willing to help out with a good- neighbor shuck-n-jive, Uncle Jesse?”

Our uncle smiles slowly, nodding his head. “I bet so. There’s a lotta ridge-runners that owe staying out from behind bars to Cooter. He keeps all their cars runnin’ tip-top, and once he even towed ol’ Henry Ferguson out of a ditch when the revenuers was comin’. I’m sure he’d help.”

“Great!” Bo grins. “I gotcha now, Luke. We’ll get more than one call out, and Cooter will be out for at least an hour!”

“You got it,” Luke nods. “So, you think you could rouse anybody?” he returns his gaze to our uncle.

Uncle Jesse seems to think about it for a moment, then nods and starts to get up. I spring to my feet and run to bring him the telephone before he finishes the move. He smiles almost amusedly as I lay it in his lap. “I could try,” he agrees, picking up the receiver and starting to dial.

We kids crowd around as he reaches one old friend and tells him what we have planned, then calls another, who isn’t home. The third number reaches a man who would love to help, but his truck’s broken down, the fourth, the Henry Ferguson talked about earlier, agrees readily, and the fifth and sixth phone numbers Uncle Jesse can remember offhand also gain eager helpers. Finally Uncle Jesse puts down the phone and grins around at us.

“Well, kids,” he says, “I think Cooter’s gonna wonder what hit him!”

We all laugh.

<><>

It isn’t three hours later that we set our plan into motion. The only reason we waited that long is because it took so long to get the stuff we were gonna put in Cooter’s ‘present’, as we’d started calling it, together. Uncle Jesse got a big summer sausage and a block of cheddar cheese that we’d had stored in the naturally-refrigerated root cellar out, and I baked some homemade bread. We talked about putting some cookies in there, but our normal Christmas baking is too distinctively Duke. We don’t want our friend figuring out who sent the package. Uncle Jesse also found a couple of extra blankets we had sitting around that we weren’t using, and we decided that those would be good in the package, too. That started me thinking, and I managed to find an old sweater of Luke’s in the mending basket that only had one hole in one sleeve. I sewed that up easily, and tossed it in on top of the blankets.

While we two messed with the homey comforts part, Bo and Luke dug the old heater we’d talked about out from under a pile of junk in the barn and got started on fixing it up. It didn’t even work at first, but after a while of tinkering and quiet talk in the middle of the kitchen floor, it purred beautifully. Then I shooed them outside onto the porch to spray-paint it gray; I didn’t want that stuff getting into anything edible. They did bring the heater back in when they were done, though, to dry it by the woodburning stove that we have in a corner of the kitchen, the reason the upstairs stays at least mostly warm. It isn’t as pretty or cozy-feeling as the fireplace, but it actually puts out more heat and therefore is better for a quick-dry. While that sat, Bo found some garland and a couple of wreaths in the back of a closet, where I had brought them home from the Boar’s Nest after last Christmas and promptly forgot they existed. He was so excited about dressing the garage up that no one could tell him no, even though it would take up some precious time. Besides, it would be a fun surprise, I had to admit as I helped him put the contents of three paper bags all into one box.

But finally, everything is done, and we pack it all in the trunk of the General. The pickup would really be less noticeable, to be sure, but the racer’s faster. Then Uncle Jesse gives his waiting buddies a call, and we three cousins are on our way. We keep the CB tuned into the one channel everybody involved in this project is using, channel 23, and somehow Luke, who’s driving, times it just right so that we leave when Cooter responds to the first call, and get into town about the time of the second call.

“We’re doin’ great,” Bo says with a grin, holding up the watch Luke handed him at the beginning of the ride so that he could keep an eye on the time. “Right on the button, Lukas.”

“Good,” our older cousin replies shortly, tempering his tone with a quick smile. “Let’s do what we have to do as quick as we can and get out with time to spare, if at all possible.” He pulls to a gentle, quiet stop in front of the garage, and Bo hops out to open the doors for us to drive inside. Then my blond cousin quickly swings them shut after us, and I scramble out, as does Luke.

“What do we do first?” I ask, trying to contain my excitement. This is fun, pulling this off! And what makes it even better is knowing that we’re helping someone we care about.

“We’ll split up. Daisy, you do the upstairs. I’ll handle the food and heater, and we’ll let Bo here do the decorations.”

“Yahoo!” Bo grins, clapping his hands. The quiet shout echoes how I feel, and probably how Luke does too, though like usual he hides it. But I can see a glint in his eyes; he’s enjoying this as much as we other two are. He pops the latch for the trunk lid, and we get to work with a will.

I carry the blankets and sweater up the ladder to the loft, having a little trouble one-handed but making it nonetheless. Unable to keep from giggling a little to myself, I put my load on a nearby footlocker and start to work stripping the bed and adding the extra blankets, then putting it all back together. Like the boys downstairs, I’m keeping an ear on the CB radio, and so I hear call number three coming in. Uh-oh. That means there’s only one left to go before Cooter comes back, cause Uncle Jesse can’t call in himself for a tow job. Cooter’d wonder why we kids didn’t just pull him out instead. Hurriedly, I finish remaking the bed and throw the sweater across it, then half-slide down the ladder to the floor below.

“I know, I know, we gotta hurry,” Luke nods at my expression. He’s helping Bo tack up garland, standing below his stepladder and untangling the gold-fringed strands. “Hey, help here, will ya? This is the part that’s taking the longest.”

“I ain’t slow!” Bo defends.

Our older cousin just smiles, partly amused but not unkindly so. “I didn’t say you were, I just said that it takes longer to do decorations than set boxes on a table. C’mon, Daisy, grab a hammer.”

I do, as well as a couple of tacks from the small box set on the General’s roof, and eye the garage for the best places to put up the wreaths. “It’s gonna look real nice when we’re done, though.”

“Uh-huh. C’mon, start!”

Making a slight face, I shrug and pick up one of the green circles with a red bow, carrying it over to the door. I grab a chair to stand on, seeing as I can’t reach by myself, and loop it over a nail that was already there. That wasn’t much work. I jump down and run over to get the other wreath, and dart into Cooter’s office to nail it to the wall there. I stand back and judge my work, then grin. Yep, lookin’ good. I run back into the garage. “I’m done. What about you?”

“Almost,” Bo tells me over his shoulder. “I need just one more tack.”

“I got one.” I pull the extra out of my jacket pocket, and stand on tiptoe to hand it up. He grins down at me as he takes it from my fingers, and I step back to watch as he deftly taps it into the wall to pin the long garland and the other end to the wall together where they overlap. There’s about ten feet extra, and Bo pulls out his knife to cut it off, making a smooth, unbroken trail of gently-looping shimmery gold around the garage. I have to admit, however carefree and seemingly careless my blond cousin is, he does have an artistic eye.

“Good, we’re done.” Luke scoops up the extra and jogs back to the General Lee, slamming the trunk lid shut on it. “Let’s go.”

Not a moment too soon, either; the fourth and last call has just come in. I hear Cooter ask the man what in the world is going on with everybody getting stuck in ditches this afternoon, and the reply of, “Huh? That’s funny.”

I cast a quick look around the garage, smiling, feeling warm and lit-up inside. Then I slide through the General’s window and scoot over to the middle seat. Bo’s driving this time. Luke runs to open the doors for us, then shuts them again once we’re through. He makes one of those flying leaps into the car that only the boys can do, saying, “Let’s go!”

Bo pulls out of town nice and easy so that we don’t attract too much attention, but once we turn off onto the dirt road, he hits the gas and we shoot toward home, laughing about how Cooter will react when he sees the garage.

Uncle Jesse meets us at the door, smiling. “Get it done?” he asks.

“Got it done!” I sing back happily.

“Wait’ll Cooter sees!” Bo giggles from behind me. Luke gives him a glance, but then smiles a little.

“It does look good, Uncle Jesse,” he agrees, leading the way into the house.

“Some cider sounds good, too,” I say, heading for the kitchen. “It’s cold out there!”

Luke joins me at the pot on the stove, waiting for his turn to ladle out some of the hot apple drink. “Yeah, well, it’s better for driving than slush, that’s for sure.”

Bo comes up behind, with Uncle Jesse. “Uh-huh. Looks nicer too. And it’s more fun.” He reaches past me to grab his mug, from the towel on the counter where they’ve all been drying upside-down after being washed from the cocoa.

“Wait your turn!” I scold, slapping his hand back. He gives me a frown, but doesn’t say anything. I fill my cup and back off, turning to go back to the living room and let the boys argue over the pot. I sit down on the hearth, staring off into space, my mind wandering.

“Daisy.”

I look up and smile as Uncle Jesse sits down beside me. “Hey,” I reply softly, leaning my head against his shoulder.

“Whatcha thinkin’ about?”

I shrug a little. “I don’t know. Everything. Just kinda relaxing for the first time today.”

“It has been a busy day,” he agrees with a returned smile and a raised-eyebrows nod. I sigh happily and close my eyes, still smiling.

“Yeah. I just feel like sitting still for a while.”

Uncle Jesse puts an arm around my shoulders and gives me a light hug. I can hear the boys chatting in the kitchen; they’ve settled their dispute and are now talking about who they’re going to take to the New Year’s dance. A form of peace settles over the house, and I feel almost like going to sleep here.

But now isn’t the time. I sit up, brushing my hair back. It’s pretty tangled right now, but I don’t really feel like going upstairs and brushing it. I will before church tonight. “Hey, anybody gone out to feed the birds yet?” It’s a family tradition, in a way; every few days in the winter, we take some grain out to Possum Hollow and get mobbed by a flock of colorful birds. It’s fun, watching them argue and chase each other around for one piece of corn when there’s more than enough on the ground. Sparrows, chickadees, bluejays, cardinals, and others, as well as the occasional gray squirrel or chipmunk. I like just sitting still and seeing how close they’ll come. Once I even saw a deer.

“Not that I know of. You kids have been pretty busy,” Uncle Jesse smiles.

I stand up and stretch. “Then maybe I will.”

“I want to go too!” Bo slides into the room, almost falling when the fur rug in front of the fireplace slips under his feet. But he gets his balance back just in time and straightens, grinning. “Come, on, let’s go!”

“If you stay quiet,” I say firmly. Last year when we had snow, he started a snowball fight that scared all the birds away.

“Sure I will!” He almost looks hurt. “Look, I ain’t always running around.”

I sigh and smile, then shrug. “Fine. C’mon. Is Luke coming?”

“Why not?” our older cousin speaks up, coming from the kitchen a whole lot more sedately than my almost-twin. His stance in the wide doorway is casual, at utter ease, but his light blue eyes shine with almost as much pent-up energy as mine and Bo’s. But I know him; he figures that he has to be the calming effect on us. You know what? He’s probably right. “Let’s go.”

Stretching again, I pick up my jacket from beside me and follow the boys to the door. We get some grain from the barn, then get back into the General Lee to head out again. There’s no rest for the weary… especially when there’s just too much fun to be had to slow down now.

Bo pulls us out fast enough to spit some of the now-packed ice in our yard out behind. But careful despite his wild attitude toward driving, he slows down enough to keep the car under control, and to not let us slide into a ditch, either. That would be embarrassing, to say the least, getting stuck ourselves when we’d been using that idea for a shuck-n-jive all afternoon.

Possum Hollow ain’t too far away, and it doesn’t take long before we’re sitting on the General’s warm hood, parked carefully on the plowed road, not nosing into the snow. Periodically, somebody tosses feed onto the snow for our wildlife visitors, but no one says anything. I’ve moved in to sit between my cousins, comfortably warm and feeling like nothing in the whole world could go wrong right now. I tilt my head back to look up into the gray sky, feeling so peaceful inside… Slowly, I lean over against Luke, trustingly letting his strength support me, and glance over at the setting sun. Today is really something magical… it’s felt that way for the last few days. I almost don’t want it to end.

My mind is brought back to the here-and-now as my older cousin slides his arm around me, tightening briefly in a hug, then he reaches out behind me to squeeze Bo’s shoulder. My blond cousin grins over at him, and suddenly laughing out loud, startling the birds away in a sudden cloud of wings, he rolls backwards, off the General’s hood, to land with a plop in a soft snowdrift. He comes up giggling. Obviously, his nice-and-slow mood is gone. It’s okay though, I decide after a brief moment of anger at his frightening the birds; I’m feeling playful too now. I toss the last couple handfuls of grain out into the hollow, then turn and leap to land on Bo. Luke glances down, looking amused, as the pair of us wrestle around in the snow, yelling and shrieking like little kids. I finally leap up and start to run away, only to trip over my own feet and land face-down in another snowdrift. I hear laughter, and mock-glare up at my near-twin, spitting snow out.

“What’s so funny?” But I can feel laughter bubbling up inside me too, and bite to lip to try to hold it back.

“You are!” he finally manages, almost doubling over in hysterics. Eyeing him, I snap an arm out as fast as a snake strikes, grabbing his leg and pulling it out from under him. Yelping, he lands on his back next to me. Panting, we both lay still for a few seconds, catching our breaths, hearts beating hard from the exertion.

Finally I sit up and smile over at him. “You know what, Bo?” I say, feeling like there’s no better place to be right now than right here.

“What?” he grins, pushing himself up onto his elbows.

I look into his eyes, dark blue meeting equally dark blue. “You’re my very best friend.”

He pauses a minute, then grins. “I know. I feel the same way, Daisy. Except that I love Luke about the same.”

“I love Luke too. Just…” I shrug. “Different. Ya know?”

He thinks about that for a moment, then shakes his head. “Not really. I guess… I guess I’m just halfway between you and Luke. He’s a guy too, so he understands some things you don’t. But you and me really understand each other’s thoughts and feelings sometimes.”

“Yeah.” Without warning, I leap out of my snowdrift to land on top of him. He grabs my arms before I can tickle him, yelping anyway as if I had, and rolls us both over in one quick movement so that he’s pinning me down.

“Don’t tickle me an’ I’ll let you up,” he informs me.

“Hmm.” I pretend to think about that, then break out in a big, silly grin again. “No deal, bro.”

“Then I’ll tickle you!” His fingers are on my stomach before I can shove them away, and laughing helplessly, I kick and twist, trying to get away. But he’s a lot stronger than me, and holds me down easily.

“Luke!!” I finally plead at the top of my lungs. “Help!!!”

“Okay, enough now, both of you,” our older cousin’s voice cuts through, and we both still, breathing hard. I shove at Bo’s chest, and he finally lets me up. I sit up, making a face and brushing my damp hair away from my face. I shudder dramatically with cold just for the effect; I do feel a bit chilled, though. My hands, in the snow for so long, are starting to turn red, and my nose feels about the same way. I’m also kinda wet now, which makes it worse.

“I’m a mess!”

“You both are,” Luke sighs, but he doesn’t even try to hide his smile this time. He reaches down two hands from where he’s now standing near us, and we each grab one to help us up. “Come on. I know you’re havin’ fun, but we really need to get goin’ back home. We all need dinner and a shower, especially you two. We’re going to church tonight, or didja forget?”

“No,” I shake my head. “I didn’t.” But I scoop up a handful of snow and throw it at him, laughing. He ducks, but too late, and makes a face as he brushes at the white patch on his green jacket.

“Settle down, Daisy. And don’t you dare, Bo!” he points a finger to where my other cousin was about to copy my move. Sighing, but then gaining a silly grin, the blond starts for the car.

“Who’s drivin’?”

Luke heads for the driver’s side before Bo can get there. “I am. You’re too much of a nut right now. C’mon, get in.”

Sobering slightly, both of us obey and slide through the other window. But I still feel lighthearted inside… lighthearted but strangely soft and warm toward everybody, especially my family. I guess it’s just part of it being Christmas or something. I lean against Bo and he grins down at me, then I look over at Luke. As though feeling my gaze, he takes his eyes quickly away from the road to smile at both of us, reaching out a hand and laying it on my knee, then Bo’s wrist in silent affection.

The simple gesture makes me feel so good inside. I know he loves us… but I love it when he actually shows it. Smiling to myself, I decide that it’s time the silence be broken. Taking a breath, I start, softly, knowing the boys will join in in a moment, “Silent night, holy night…”

<><>

“All is calm, all is bright…”

I smile as I brush my hair smooth again after using the hair-drier; I was the last one through the shower. I love to hear Luke play and sing, especially when he thinks no one’s around to hear. There’s a presence, a richness, to his voice that isn’t there the rest of the time, no matter how well he does. It’s like he lets all barriers down, stops worrying about whether or not he messes up, and actually ends up doing even better. Or something. Whatever the reason, I love to listen to him.

I hum along quietly as I clip gold barrettes into my hair, in a style that sweeps the front part up and back then lets it fall down the back with the rest. I know it looks really cute on me, so I wear it whenever I want to look especially nice. Backing off from the mirror, I give my reflection an assessing glance, then smile. I turn to pick up my favorite sweater, red with little white snowflakes in a wide band across the middle to match my white turtleneck shirt, off my bed, pulling it over my head carefully so as not to mess up my hair as I go out into the short hall and knock on the next door down. Tonight, even though we’re going to church, we’re all dressing nice, but for the weather. That means lightweight thermal underwear, warm shirts, and new jeans. It’s the only time I go to church not in a dress. Course, it’s the only nighttime service, too. “Hey, Bo, can I come in?” I call.

“C’mon,” comes the reply, and I turn the knob and push the door open, to look into what is simply a rather comfortable mess. The beds are made, but there’s stuff in every corner, banners and posters, mostly of racing, on every wall, and there are clothes lying around here and there. The closet doors are also half- open, only partially hiding a pile of all kinds of stuff. I shake my head.

“Don’t you ever clean this place up?”

“Don’t have the time. Also, who cares?” Bo turns around from the closet, a grin on his face and arms spread wide. “Wha’d’ya think?”

I look close. Really, I do. But finally, I have to shrug. “What?”

Sighing, he seems to deflate, moving across the room to sit down on his bed. “Oh, c’mon, Daisy, don’t tell me you don’t notice anything.”

I frown and walk slowly over, trying to pinpoint something. “Well… You’ve got your new shirt on.” The one I made him for Christmas, a blue-and-green plaid flannel shot through with gold. I loved the fabric the moment I saw it in Capitol City, and knew he would too, so I’d bought it right then and there. It does look nice with his light blue jeans and the gold in his hair. “And you actually discovered the existence of a comb, but that’s nothing new before church.”

“I meant the first one, silly,” he grins, making a slight face at my hint that his hair is nearly always left untamed, the two exceptions being on Sundays and before a date. “I thought you might like to see me in it, ‘specially since you made it yourself.”

I have to smile. “Yeah. Thanks. You like it?”

He nods. “Fits good, thanks.” Then he goes distant for a moment, head cocked slightly and a slight smile on his face as he hears the music coming from downstairs. “Luke’s playin’.”

“I know. I had my door open; I’ve been listening to him.”

“Sounds good. I don’t think he’s gonna have any trouble tonight playing for the kids.”

I give him a funny look. “Ain’t you playing tonight too?”

“Yeah. I’ve been practicing off and on for the past week. But I ain’t as sure of myself as I am of him,” he gives me a slightly nervous smile.

I smile back reassuringly and squeeze his shoulder. “You’ll both do great. I know you; you’re both good musicians.”

He sighs, but his smile does gain a little more confidence. “Thanks. Luke and I do need to warm up together before we go, though. C’mon, let’s go down.” He’s up and moving for the door in the next second, and I follow him out of the room and down the stairs.

Luke is dressed nicely too, in a white shirt with blue jeans that just happen to exactly match the color of his denim jacket, which he also has on. He’s frowning slightly when we walk into the living room, tuning a slightly off-key string to just right. Bo goes over to get his own guitar out of its case in the corner, then sits down on the couch beside our older cousin. I perch on the arm of Uncle Jesse’s favorite easy chair, casting a glance toward his closed bedroom door.

“Okay,” Luke finally says when he’s satisfied with the string, giving the whole set a quick strum then cutting the sound off abruptly by clamping his fingers down over the neck. He glances up, proving that he knew we were there even though he didn’t show it. “You know ‘God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen’ very well yet?”

“Okay enough,” Bo shrugs. “You lead, I’ll fill in.”

“Right.” With a brief, energetic intro, both boys launch into the song, their voices blending to my ears at least almost perfectly. I smile and slide down into the easy chair to sit sideways, just listening, not singing along. There are a few places where one or the other falters, but that’s to be expected when they haven’t been playing together much recently. They’re a good team, though, and I can hear them getting back into each others’ rhythm by the end of the second verse. Together, they finish with a flourish, just as Uncle Jesse comes out of his room, laughing and clapping.

“Well done, well done!”

The boys, both grinning, fake little bows, and I sit up to smile at our uncle. He’s wearing black pants and a tweed jacket, with his brown fedora. “Hey, you look nice, Uncle Jesse!”

He just smiles at me, then gestures. “Well, kids, you ready to go?”

Luke and Bo look at each other, then both nod, standing and heading over to get the cases for their instruments. I stand up too, not tired at all anymore. I think I’m running on my second wind by now. I grab everybody’s coats and hand them out as their owners come to the door, putting mine on last before leaving the warm, bright haven of the farmhouse for the icy breeze of the dark outdoors.

The guitars get well-wrapped in an old blanket and set into the bed of the pickup along with the boxes of stuff we’re going to give out tonight, everything wrapped in a tarp to keep it dry both from the snow coming down and that in the bed. Then we all pile in, Uncle Jesse driving. It’s not as easy a fit as when we were little, but if we don’t mind being in real close quarters we still can fit, and to be honest, we’re just plain used to it. I end up in the middle again, but I don’t mind; I usually do, just cause I’m the smallest. A girl of only five feet, five inches when I’m barefoot, I sometimes feel too small next to the rest of my family, who are all six feet tall or over. Sometimes, I just feel safe. Most of the time, I don’t even think about it.

The Hazzard community church isn’t really in the town proper, though it’s close, just inside the rim of the forest surrounding half the town (the other half looks out on a valley). When we pull up the short dirt lane and into the parking lot, the stained glass windows are glowing like Christmas lights, and the shouts of playful children echo off the trees. The murmur of women’s voices comes from just inside the chapel itself, and a loud male laugh rings out from across the parking lot, where a few of the local teenage boys are standing in a group. Bo watches them for a little bit as we unload the pickup, but doesn’t go to join them.

My cousins head for the front of the sanctuary to practice some more, and after I help Uncle Jesse unload our boxes and say hi to a few of the older ladies, I wander outdoors again since there aren’t enough gifts for me to help sort out yet. Standing on the porch for a few moments, I breathe in deeply the crisp, cold air and eye a few snowflakes that are drifting down lazily from the invisible sky. Is it snowing again? Might be. But, it don’t really matter. I hop down the steps and wander along the side of the building, listening to small groups of friends talking, and smile. I love Christmas, and always have. When I was little, it was the fun of the presents, and playing with all the other kids in the snow on our two weeks off from school, and being in the pageant. As I’ve grown up, I’ve learned to love the feeling of county-wide friendship that this time of year seems to bring, the warmth of doing things with and talking with others near a fire, singing along with whoever picks up a musical instrument and decides to play. But I’ve also learned to enjoy the silence of a snow-covered woods, the peace of being alone with the few small creatures that it would take a trained eye to see. Like that squirrel, there, running up his tree in the light of a window. Or the owl on that branch, with his eyes glowing softly in the dark.

Sighing contentedly, I put my hands in my pockets and stand still under an outdoor light. Another few flakes drift down, landing white on the red of my sweater. I shiver; I left my jacket at home, figuring I’d be warm enough in what I have on. I’d forgotten how much colder it gets when the sun goes down.

“There ya are.”

I turn to see Bo heading for me, plowing through drifts and hopping over a log. None of it slows him down, and he comes up to stand beside me, his breath white in the cold. “Hi,” I reply quietly.

“Whatcha doin’, Daisy?”

I look out again, shrugging. “Just walking. Thinking.”

“Yeah, I know how that is.” He leans back against the side of the chapel, shoving his hands in his jacket pockets and looking up. “It’s snowing.”

“I know.”

He brings his eyes back down to earth to catch mine. “You ain’t very talkative.”

I shrug again, sighing. But I smile. “I guess I just don’t feel much like talking a whole lot. Nothing personal.”

“I know it ain’t.” His light tone tells me that he doesn’t mind my quietness, he’s just curious about it. My cousin looks upward again, then pulls his hands out of his pockets and holds them out to either side as if to capture the snow as he walks away from the building. He drops his hands finally and turns to look at me. “Wanna play?”

I shrug, and think about it. I’m not sure… but that glint in his eye tells me that he’s planning on striking first. I can’t let him do that… so I give my answer by scooping up a double handful of loose snow, not packed into a ball, and dumping it on top of his head as he bends down to get some ammunition of his own.

“Hey!” he yelps, then sweeps his hand up through a drift fast, right at me. I try to duck, but the loose snow scatters, and no matter where I moved, I wouldn’t have been able to avoid it.

Laughing, I return the favor, which starts a brief, fast- moving snow war. But in only a couple of minutes, my hands are starting to feel like ice, and I stuff them into my pockets, shivering.

Bo notices, and drops his handful of snow to come over to me, brushing his hands off on his jeans. Without a word, he takes off his jacket and puts it over my shoulders. It’s warm, having been held next to a body heat higher than my own, that of an energetic young male. I smile up at my cousin before returning his hug. I really do love him so much. I love Luke too, just as much. But Bo is different. He’s my best friend as well as my cousin and brother. I don’t look up to him and trust him without question like I do Luke. I don’t let him order me around, either. We’re equals. But I admit, sometimes an equal in family status can be someone I can depend on for strength or protection.

Together, we start walking back toward the front of the church, and I slip my arms into the sleeves of the coat, putting it on. For a moment by the porch, I look up, watching the ever- heavier snowfall. White projectiles zoom down out of the inky blackness into my face, and I laugh, throwing my arms up above my head as though to defend against them. At my playful gesture, Bo laughs too, batting ineffectually at the snow as if to send it my way. “Hey!” I yell, returning the pretend attack. But the game ends about as quickly as it started, and we bound up the steps to go inside, fleeing from the cold.

The ladies are setting gifts out in the foyer now, counting everything out so that everybody gets something from everybody. There’s about five families, including ours, that do this every year. They’re chatting as they sort, and Mrs. Kinley, a gray- haired grandmotherly woman, looks up at me. “Come on over, Daisy,” she offers with a smile.

I smile back and hesitate, watching Bo walk into the main sanctuary and up the center aisle to where Luke’s still sitting on the steps to the stage, changing a string on his guitar, it looks like. I almost want to go join them, but from the way my blond cousin drops onto the step below Luke’s and stretches his legs out with a casual little laugh at something our older cousin said, it looks like they’re kinda having some time between each other, time that the girl of the family doesn’t need to intrude upon. Besides, I was going to help here anyway. “Okay,” I finally say, going over to sit down and help the other ladies.

After a little bit, Uncle Jesse comes through the door, slapping snow off his hat and shoulders, with a couple of other men. They seem to be talking about farm equipment, and he smiles at me, brushing a hand over my hair as he walks past. I grin up at him, and give another glance into the main room, where I can see Luke and Bo still sitting where they were, but now talking with a couple of other boys, all four throwing glances every once in a while toward the corner where most of the girls my age are sitting together. I smile to myself with a lot of fondness but just a little bit of exasperation too, shaking my head. Boys.

I return my attention to my own project, feeling rather content just to be where I am, and break right into the middle of a conversation about apple pies with an idea for a flakier crust.

<><>

The children look so cute in their costumes, and sing pretty good, too. The boys play so well, and I’m so proud of Luke when he does his solo in the middle of the pageant. Like everyone else, I find myself captivated by the play. I lean against Uncle Jesse in our second-row pew, not saying a word except to sing when it’s time, but letting everything just soak into me. It’s a perfect end to Christmas, I think. I feel like the whole world is… beautiful, right now.

When everything is over and the lights come back up from their dim state, I blink against the brightness and stretch, up till now unaware of how stiff I was. Yawning, I look at Uncle Jesse, then stand up to move out of the pew, grinning and grabbing each of my cousins in a one-armed hug as they come toward me after snapping their instruments inside their cases. “Hey, it sounded great,” I tell them. Luke just smiles and nods, but Bo’s eyes light up with a grin. In their own ways, I can tell they’re both glad for the praise. I let go of them to let a family go past down the aisle, then turn to Uncle Jesse. “What now? We gonna stay for a while, or what?”

He turns his head from where he was smiling goodbye to a friend to look down at me. “No, sweetheart, I don’t think so. It did all my talkin’ earlier, and I think it’s just time to go home.” He checks his pocket watch. “It’s almost ten.” I try to hide another yawn, and he smiles as he tucks the watch away again. “See? You kids have been mighty busy today; you need to get to bed.”

Bo takes a deep breath and lets it out, then nods, agreeing with that sentiment. Then he smiles suddenly, pointing toward the back of the church. “Hey, it’s Cooter! C’mon, let’s go talk to him!”

He and Luke start off at a quick pace, and giving Uncle Jesse’s hand a quick tug, I follow. “Hey, Cooter!” I greet our friend. “I thought you were gonna come over for dinner. What happened?”

He shrugs, looking a little embarrassed. “Yeah, I know I said I would, but I figured you guys had done enough for me already in one day.”

Bo blinks. “Wha’d’ya mean, Cooter?”

The mechanic gives us all a half-scolding look. “Oh, c’mon, I figured out your shuck-n-jive hours ago.” He laughs a little. “It was a pretty good one, I’ll tell ya that, getting all those old ridge-runners out gettin’ stuck so I’d have to stay away from the garage for a while.”

I realize that my mouth is hanging open, and close it self- consciously. “But… what… how did you know it was us?!” I finally manage to stammer.

Cooter gives me that ‘do-you-think-I’m-stupid?’ look of his. “I wondered what was going on this afternoon. When I got back to the garage, I knew why all those tow jobs came up at once. From there, it was just a matter of puttin’ facts together. One,” he counts them off on his fingers, “all those guys were ridge- runners, which meant that another ridge-runner was involved. Two, there was a girl involved from the bread and the bed and stuff. Three, it was somebody that liked me a lot. Four…” He pauses dramatically. “Only the Dukes are ridge-runners, have a girl in the family, are that close to me and knew of my financial problems, and can pull off that kind of shuck-n-jive.”

Luke quirks a little smile. “Guilty as charged, I guess.” But then he points a finger directly at our friend. “But you ain’t givin’ that stuff back. It’s our Christmas gift, Cooter. You’re our friend, and we’ll do whatever we can to help. And I don’t care if you got too much pride in you to let anybody do anything for you. We Dukes care about you too much to let you go without, no matter how much stubborn pride you got. Dukes can be just as stubborn as Davenports, or more, and you know it. If you’re gonna say no to help, then we’ll help you behind your back.” It’s a practical speech for Luke, which seems to startle Cooter more than anything. Whenever my older cousin says that much all at one time, and it’s not sung to music, it means that something’s really important to him. And Cooter knows it as much as I do.

“I wasn’t gonna try to give it back,” he finally says, a bit to my surprise. Cause I know Cooter. “I was gonna say thanks. Thanks for being enough my friends to help me even though I didn’t want it. An’ what makes it even more special is that I know it weren’t just cause it’s Christmas. Cause I know you’d do it for me anytime.” He hesitates. “Thanks, y’all,” he finally says, sincerely.

I feel a smile break out over my face. I feel so good inside… I step forward and hug our friend. “We love you, Cooter. Honest we do.” I kiss him on the cheek quickly, then step back to stand between my cousins. Cooter smiles almost shyly, as though embarrassed.

“Aw, c’mon, cut the mushy stuff,” he finally pretends to growl. I fight not to laugh; I know how soft-hearted the rough- and-tough mechanic is underneath. Then he looks over my head, and I turn to see that Uncle Jesse has come up behind me. “Jesse,” he nods respectful acknowledgment.

My uncle nods back in a friendly fashion, smiling. “We do care, Cooter. Now,” he points just like Luke had, and it’s obvious where my older cousin picked the gesture up, “why didn’t you show up for dinner? We even had a place set for ya.”

Cooter shrugs, still looking a bit embarrassed but now for a different reason. “I figured you Dukes had done enough for me.”

“There’s never enough you can do for a friend. Now, we’re invitin’ you to lunch tomorrow. And you better show up or I’ll have the boys here drag you over in the General Lee.”

I can’t hold back a giggle at that. Bo laughs too, and Luke chuckles. “He’s right, ya know,” he nodded. “We will, won’t we, Bo?”

“Yep,” my blond almost-twin nods smugly, the hand that’s not wrapped around the handle of his guitar case on his hip. “We will.”

Cooter laughs out loud. “Okay, okay, I get the picture. I’ll be there.”

“Promise this time?” I demand mock-fiercely.

The mechanic steps back, hands up as if to defend himself. “Okay, okay! I swear I’ll be there tomorrow, on my honor!”

“Okay,” I nod, then break down in a grin again, reaching out to grab his hand and pull him into a hug. Bo grabs him the moment I let go, then Uncle Jesse squeezes his shoulder, and Luke shakes his hand with a warm smile that says much more than the action. Cooter’s looking not quite embarrassed, now… but the expression’s sorta similar. He’s glad to be the center of so much love, but not so sure he wants this display to be in public.

“I gotta go, guys,” he says, stepping backwards. “Thanks again, I’ll come for lunch tomorrow, and I gotta go get some sleep.” With a final wave, he turns and walks out of the chapel.

He’s not the only one thinking about sleep. I find myself yawning, suddenly feeling very tired, and I know that the second wind I’ve been living on all evening is just about to run out. I look up at Uncle Jesse, and he nods, recognizing my expression after having raised three children from a very young age.

“Okay, kids,” he says. “Time for us to go home too. Luke,” he hands him the keys to the pickup, “you boys go ahead and get the truck warmed up, since it’s so cold. Daisy and I will get our stuff.”

“Right, Uncle Jesse.” Luke and Bo leave together out the side door, not talking but still portraying a picture, to someone who knows them well, of two people very at-ease and familiar with each other, so much so that they’re able to communicate without saying a word. I’ve seen them do it, too; it’s really something.

Our uncle leads the way to the foyer, and I follow. We chat very briefly with the two ladies there keeping an eye on who gets what, then pick up the four colorfully-wrapped packages with our name on them (two flattish boxes, one square one, and one very obvious basket, if you’re curious) and head outside into the now somewhat heavy snowfall. It really is a silent night tonight, I marvel as we walk across the white parking lot. The snow deadens all sound, and everything feels so… so… peaceful. Like that very first Christmas must have, I think to myself with a smile.

The pickup’s engine is idling, sure enough, and the boys hop out, crunching over through the snow to help wrap the gifts in the protective, waterproof tarp in the back along with the guitars. Then Uncle Jesse goes around to the driver’s side, and we all climb in the other side. Bo is the last, me sitting between Uncle Jesse and Luke. We all wriggle around a little until we get our own space in the cramped cab, then Uncle Jesse pulls us carefully out of the parking lot and onto the road. We pass through town, and onto the dirt road heading home.

I yawn and lean my head on Luke’s shoulder, closing my eyes. He and Bo start talking, but I ignore whatever the topic might be, tuning out the world until their voices become a soft, soothing drone. I yawn again and snuggle into my older cousin, feeling tired, peaceful, and content. I’m even warm, because I’ve still got Bo’s jacket even though I offered to give it back earlier before the service; he said he wasn’t feeling that cold and that I should keep it. Luke’s shoulder makes a nice pillow; it’s hard with muscle, but that same strength makes me feel safe and makes me relax completely, and it’s comfortable just because it’s him.

I yawn yet again and let my last, tight-held grip on consciousness go, knowing that when I wake up, home will be waiting with warm fire and soft bed. Tomorrow will be another day for fun, trouble, whatever might come. In Hazzard, we rarely think about tomorrow; life changes too fast.

But some things stay the same no matter what. Like home, and friends, and family. And Christmas. With that happy thought, I slip into blackness, utterly content just to be who, where, and when I am.

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I slide peacefully into wakefulness, for a moment wondering if we’re home yet. But then a different world rises up to meet me. I see a ceiling with a glow-in-the-dark solar system mobile hanging down, I hear soft snoring from my younger brother. I sit up suddenly, feeling strangely, forlornly lost, and sweep the curtain hanging over the window beside my bed aside. The bright light of a full moon fills the room. For a moment, I think I see snow on the ground outside, and catch my breath, but then that vision fades as well, and only a dry, chaparral hill remains.

I let the curtain fall and lay back down, trying to sort through alien yet now so very familiar thoughts and feelings. That dream, cause that’s what it must have been, still feels so real… and a deep longing swells up inside of me, so strong I feel like crying out in confusion. It’s like my home isn’t home anymore, like I don’t belong here even though I love my family very much. I almost cry, I feel so lost. I frown slightly to myself. It’s still so very real; almost like it wasn’t a dream, but more like… more like I went someplace. Someplace just as real as my own world… despite how impossible that sounds, it feels true.

And I love that world, love those people, differently and deeper now than I loved them before. I see, *feel*, Hazzard differently than I ever have before. Before, it was a TV show that I liked a whole lot. Now, it’s a world, people, that I greatly *love*, a place and people that are as real and complex to me as anybody in my own town that I could name. Maybe more so, considering how I feel about some people I know. And in a way, they’ll always be with me, in my memory, in my heart… and on paper or screen. Because now I know that I not only *can* write stories about them, I almost *have* to! I have to show my friends on the Internet the new facets that I can now perceive to Bo, Luke, and Daisy, to bring out fresh, different, maybe even surprising sides to their personalities. I’m starting to get excited now; I can’t wait to share the people I’ve seen with everybody!

The lonely feeling abates, and I turn over, blinking silent tears of mixed sadness and joy away and drawing a deep, shuddering breath. I have to go back to sleep… and the fact that it’s two o’clock, as the clock on my bedstand says, is catching up with me. Slowly, my eyelids slide closed, and my heart seems to drift out to touch another’s, one full of brightly burning life-fire but gentle warmth too. The contact calms me, and for a moment I’m filled with wonder. Is it a residue of imagination… or is it real, perhaps another universe that I have been a part of for a short time? Anything is possible, I know; Daisy and her cousins and friends might be real people somewhere. Or they might not. But whichever way, they will always be real in my heart, and that’s enough. So with a smile on my face and my very being seeming to float close to another’s, I slip into a sleep somehow more peaceful than any I’ve known in a long time.

Whatever happened this night, whatever happens in the future… I know that I will never be the same.

*And to this day… I’m not.*

THE END..?

 

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