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"Come on, people!" Matt Shepherd called, heading for the exit of their hotel suite. They might be in Colorado for some cold weather training, but there were times that training had to give way to the realities of the season.

After a burst of commotion his four teammates scrambled after him. Outside they split up, Matt and Margo heading for the sleek black Corvette while the other three crowded into Benny Ray's bright red pick-up. Matt waved for Benny Ray to follow him, then pulled out.

Half an hour later the top secret covert operations team arrived at a local mall. Climbing from the two vehicles, the team regrouped at the rear of Matt's Vette for a final check.

"Okay, everyone set?" the handsome ex-major asked, trying to stamp down some of the snow under his feet so it didn't soak into his shoes.

Hunched against the cold, the rest of the team quickly checked their gear. "I'm good to go," Benny Ray said with a nervous glance at the rambling two story building that looked like a ski lodge on steroids.

"Same here," Chance acknowledged.

"Into the breach," C.J. nodded.

Margo smiled. "I'm always ready," she said, then amended quickly, "to shop."

"All right, here's the plan," Matt explained. "We'll split up, entering from different directions so we don't cross paths. Find your target, secure it, and meet back at the food court in--" He checked his watch. "Two hours?"

Four heads nodded.

"Let's do it," he said and they headed off on their current mission -- Christmas shopping.

* * *

Nearing the north entrance Benny Ray slowed, fishing into his pocket for whatever change he had. The elderly black man who stood, ringing his bell noted the gesture and grinned his encouragement. Benny Ray stopped at the red kettle, depositing the change.

"Thank you," the old man said. "And Merry Christmas."

"Merry Christmas to you, too," Benny Ray said, noticing the man's bare hands. "Don't you have some gloves?" he asked in his soft southern drawl. "It's freezin' out here."

The old man grinned and shook his head. "Nope, wore my last pair out a couple of weeks ago."

The soldier took a step towards the smoky glass door, then stopped. Tugging off his well-worn leather gloves, he turned and held them out to the man. "Here you go," he said. "Maybe these'll help."

The old man's eyes rounded and he glanced from the gloves to Benny Ray and back again. "You sure?" he asked. "It's awful cold and you're going to need them."

"I'm sure," Benny Ray insisted, taking a half-step closer. Reaching out, the old man accepted the proffered gift and quickly slipped them on.

The soft sigh that escaped the man's lips was all the thanks Benny Ray needed. He grinned. "Merry Christmas, friend."

The old man, his eyes bright, nodded. "It is indeed. God bless you, son," he said as the soldier disappeared into the mall.

* * *

Two hours later the team met at the food court, each one clutching an assortment of bags stuffed with gifts. Benny Ray in particular carried a larger load than the others.

"What'd you do, mate?" C.J. asked, "buy out a couple of stores?"

"Kids, C.J.," Benny Ray replied. "Three kids."

The others nodded and chuckled. Piling the bags carefully so they could be protected from prying eyes, each of the five secured their lunch and brought it back to the corner table they occupied. Meals eaten, they collected their booty and headed for the exit. As they neared Benny Ray slowed, saying, "I got one more thing I have to do. I'll meet y'all at the truck in a few."

"Just don't get lost," Matt warned. "We might never find you."

The sniper grinned. "I'll do my best, Boss." Turning, he headed for the far end of the mall where he'd entered.

* * *

The old man was still standing next to his red kettle, ringing his bell. Benny Ray reached into one of the bags he carried and pulled out a small box, then pushed the door open and stepped outside.

"Uh, excuse me, sir," he said, getting the old man's attention.

The black eyes lit up. "Ah, I see you've got quite a haul there," he said, then chuckled.

"Yep," was Benny Ray's only reply. He nodded at the man's glove-clad hands. "Mind if I have my gloves back?" he asked.

The startled, disappointed expression on the old man's face was quickly hidden as his head dipped. "Uh. . . sure," he said huskily, pulling them off. Without looking up, he handed them back.

Benny Ray snagged the gloves between two fingers and pressed the box into the man's palm at the same time.

The old man's head jerked up as his fingers closed on the carton. "What's this?" he asked.

"These gloves are gettin' a little old," was all Benny Ray said as he headed for the parking lot. "You take care now."

The old man watched the soldier for a moment, then looked down and opened the lid. His eyes widened and he breathed softly, "Well, I'll be. . ." A pair of new fleece-lined leather gloves sat inside. He looked up, intending to call the young man back, but he was nowhere in sight.

With a soft chuckle and a shake of his head, he removed the gloves from the box and pulled them on. Tossing the box into the garbage can nearby, he shook his head. Maybe the spirit of Christmas was alive and well after all. He smiled and tipped his hat at the two young women who passed his kettle, ringing his bell with renewed vigor.

The End

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