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Barb A

 

 

FChristmas Comes to Butler's Crossing

**Please note that the premise for this story comes from the short story by Bret Harte entitled, “How Santa Claus Came to Simpson’s Bar”.  Many thanks to Lacy for the beta!

 

The blond-haired man was cold and wet, as he limped along leading his horse. Rain hurtled down with unrelenting fierceness onto his soiled winter coat and water droplets pelted his unprotected face and head. The horse was in no better shape, for it too had a definitive hitch in its gait as it wearily followed its owner. They had been trying a shortcut to get back to home and hearth on this auspicious eve, where a newly found father and brother awaited, but man and horse had come to an unceremonious parting of the ways after the animal had gone down in a quagmire of deep mud. He was, in usual circumstance, a very handy rider, but nonetheless had been tossed aside by the horse like so much cordwood, and pitched head over foot into a ditch hidden within the darkness. They had eventually been reunited, amid much cursing and flailing of both limbs and hooves, only to find themselves well and goodly lost on the impossible trail that led up from Ironton.  

The tiniest of illuminations shined through a break in the fir trees, and like a lighthouse beacon to a capsizing boat, it drew both man and animal to its glow. Something lay up ahead that promised both warmth and shelter.  Sensing a change in fortune, the beast eagerly nudged its owner’s shoulder with a heavy, wet nose. Acquiescing to the insistent butt of his mount’s head, the man led it through the trees and downpour to the small, welcoming beam of light.  

An odd assortment of occupants from Butler’s Crossing had gathered together in Jonesy’s small store this rainy night. To call it a store would have been kind, for it was actually an amalgamation of dry goods, meeting room and saloon. Jonesy, the proud owner of said establishment was thin and wiry with a consumptive cough that shook his bony shoulders from time to time. His apron ties wrapped not once but thrice around his scant frame as he sparingly poured out drinks for those bodies haphazardly arranged around his sputtering pot-bellied stove.

Nestled amongst several bolts of cloth was Parson, a grizzled man with half-glasses perched on the end of his bulbous red nose. Parson, who never met a glass of whiskey he couldn’t drink, was not exactly a man of the cloth in the liturgical way but did have a peculiar propensity for spouting the scripture when drunk. And he had been speaking in the biblical sense fairly frequently as the calendar page turned towards the New Year.

One-Eyed Mike sat off to the right; his fat fingers folded around a tumbler perched on the top of his ample belly, all smacking lips and smiles while he savored the last vestiges of corn whiskey in his glass and nipped a cracker or two from the barrel beside him. Those close to him knew that it had been an errant piece of stone, thrown from a flume, which had cost him his eyesight. An old rumor in the town related a different tale, that Mike had lost his eye in a shoot out with a desperado intent on robbing his claim. The latter story and the black patch he wore made him a rakish figure amongst the spare populace of Butler’s Crossing so he insisted on perpetuating the myth.  

The door to the shanty burst open and Hardesty or “Old Paw” as some were prone to call him, stepped over the threshold and into the rather gloomy affair. Hardesty had come west many years ago to find his bonanza and instead wound up at the Crossing, poor as a beggar but rich beyond compare.  

“Shet the damned door, Hardesty!” growled Jonesy. “Yer lettin’ in the wet!”

“Sorry, fellers. Mariah is kickin’ up the rain somethin’ fierce tonight.”

One-Eyed Mike roused from his slouch against the straining chair seat and heaved himself up to turn back the filmy grey curtain from the window. “Ain’t she jist though? Ain’t fit for man nor beast with all thet rain and sech. I vouchsafe thet it’ll be snow afore too long. Hear tell they had a ragin’ blizzard up at Black Butte last week.”

Parson raised a hand, "The Good Book says, ‘I will send you rain in its season, and the ground will yield its crops and the trees of the field their fruit.’"

Jonesy slapped his hand down on the counter. “First, there ain’t no need to start runnin’ the gospel mill in here and second, it seems like He could have done a bit more plannin’ on when and where to send the rain.” And thus began the Great Debate amongst them, for these chosen sons of Butler’s Crossing had only a few topics of discourse most nights, speculation on where the next gold strike would occur and the two types of weather found in the Crossing--wet and dry.

Hardesty interrupted the cacophony of voices. “Fellers, what I came down here for was, well you know it’s Christmas tomorra so thet makes it Christmas Eve tonite. Well I was thinkin’…”

Once more the door slammed open with the wind and bounced against the wall. All three heads swiveled to take in the lone, bedraggled figure silhouetted against the rain.

“Shet the door!”

The stranger hastily complied with the order and braced himself against the astonished looks from the patrons of the store.

Jonesy tipped a chin towards the stranger and began with his usual diplomacy. “Who’re you?”

The stranger looked from one man to the next and shifted his weight in mud-encased boots. “My name is Lancer, Scott Lancer. My horse… ”

“Mister, jist waltz yer plug on over to Jonesy’s barn next door,” the jovial One-Eyed Mike proffered. “Ain’t no lock on it, jist throw’im over in the empty stall to the right. Don’t go left or you’ll be messin’ in Bess’ territory and Gawd knows we don’t want thet struggle tonight. You savvy?”

The stranger’s eyes clouded with confusion for just a moment then he nodded and turned around to enter the elements once again. His bruised, sore animal was bedded down in the snug livery and soon he retired back to the store and assailed its occupants. “That other horse in the barn, what kind…?”

“Ain’t from around here, huh Pard?” Mike broke in and asked as a way of greeting.

“No, my family and I live down by Morro Coyyo.”

“City boy, huh? Thet Morro Coyyo down in the valley? Wal, I don’t care too much fer cities, people are so close, cain’t hear youself think. Here, set down near the stove and take a load off. What’er ya doin’ way up here. Are ya lost?”

“In a way, I came up from Ironton on a shortcut. I was trying to get home a little quicker.”

Jonesy gave the man a glass of whiskey. “You came up from Ironton? Boy, don’t thet beat all! I’d spect you’d a made it except for the damned rain and mud! Bet it seems like thet shortcut ain’t no shortcut right about now.”

Scott looked into his glass and shook his head in affirmation as he settled his lean frame closer to the fire. The voices ebbed and flowed around the difficulties of bad weather in winter and of dubious shortcuts through the mountain.

Finally finding a lag in the conversation, Hardesty looked around at the men gathered by the stove and started in once more. “Fellers, what I wanted to say was, seein’ as how tonight’s Christmas Eve and sech, I want to invite you over fer a little party.”

Silence reigned over the small group and then a chorus of “Sure” and “You bet” rang out from the regulars. Scott Lancer was slapped on the back in turn, “C’mon Pard, yer invited, too.”  

As they made their way to the door, a desperate question was raised by Jonesy. “Hey, wait jist a minnit, Hardesty. Does widder Lavina know about this?”

The group halted immediately at the door and looked to Hardesty for confirmation. The widow Lavina, a big-boned gal from Pennsylvania, had been a catalogue woman whose husband had died in a mining accident a year ago. Lavina, being made of stern stuff, had elected to stay on at Butler’s Crossing taking in odd jobs, and cooking for Hardesty fell into that category. Widowhood had been a freeing experience for Lavina and she had gained a reputation for speaking her mind both vociferously and coarsely. It was with a full measure of trepidation that the question was asked in the first place.

Hardesty hedged, “Wal shore enuf boys, it don’t make no matter who I bring to my own house, now does it?”

Full agreement to that statement came from all corners save the young man. Being new, he thought to hold his vote on the matter. So it occurred that the men, full of hard whiskey and easy bravado, started off towards Hardesty’s cabin through the pounding rain to celebrate Christmas Eve.

Reaching the cabin, its door sprang open and within the dim golden light from the fireplace stood a slight brown-haired girl. The barefoot child was dressed in a too-big flannel shirt that hung down well past her knees and she clutched a worn blanket about her thin shoulders. Nettie had come into Old Paw’s life two years ago when she had been four and her parents, wide-eyed settlers, had tried to make it to the coast, never figuring on a scourge of yellow fever running through the camp. She had clung to Old Paw for survival as if they were natural kin and they had been together ever since. Currently, the grubbiness of her face accentuated an almost scornful look as she surveyed the men in front of her.

She cried out, “Old Paw! Where have you been?”

“Aw now, Nettie! Why I jist invited some of the boys over fer thet party and got hung up a little.” Quieter still he asked, “Where’s Lavina?”

Before that youngster could squeak an answer, a resounding crash from the kitchen garnered everyone’s attention. “Now Lavina…! You fellers make youselves ta home. Nettie, show’em in.” Hardesty rushed in ahead to allay the storm.

Each man took off his hat and slapped it against thighs or hands save the stranger, who having lost his headgear earlier along the trail, inclined his head ever so slightly at the girl and smiled. Nettie did as instructed and showed the men in to the austere two-room cabin. Prodigious preparations had been made for the party. The wobbly table in front of them contained dried huckleberries along with a large parcel of smoked fish and a smaller one of dried beef. Jonesy had thoughtfully brought along a bottle and he thumped it down loudly next to the foodstuffs. Nettie pointed to a shelf up above the laden table, “Thar’s biscuits up in that tin, but ya might have ta shake’em a little to chase out the weevils.”   

Presently, loud voices from the other room plus a slamming of the back door necessitated a look towards the kitchen. Hardesty returned to the group, a sheepish smile on his countenance. “Looks like Lavina had other plans for the evenin’.”

The brave souls from the Crossing heaved a collective sigh of relief and sat down around the table. A pack of cards was soon produced and the festivities began in earnest.  

After a few rounds were played and the drinks and food portioned out, Nettie reached out a tiny hand and slipped it into Hardesty’s calloused one. “Old Paw, I got a question for you.”

“Wal, shore thing, darlin’ but lets get you to bed fust off,” and Old Paw led the girl to a cot placed behind a thin, patched curtain of bed sheets.   

Nettie, being a wise child and not one to take “no” for an answer cornered her adopted father. “I want to ask you somethin’ about Christmas.”

The inhabitants of that ramshackle cabin did their best not to pay attention to anything coming from beyond that simple door, but it was an impossible feat and eventually every last man turned an ear to the conversation.

“I know all about that one,” she interrupted Old Paw, giving her hand an imperious wave. Parson told me all about Him. I want to know about the other one, called Santy Claus. Lavina told me he comes tonight, too.”

As one, the audience in the anteroom leaned in to hear the answer, cards in hands forgotten.

“Ah, Nettie-girl…uh, shore he comes tonight, too.”

“Old Paw, will Santy Claus come here tonight?” The little voice was so yearning!

Caught unawares by the wonder emanating from that small mouth, the voice that answered was tremulous at best and caught in the throat of the speaker. “Wal, shore he will. Won’t he fellers?” Pulling aside the curtain, he looked to the congregation for support.

The men immediately fell back to their places; all eyes were downcast except for the stranger. He was the only one who met Hardesty’s gaze and a curious light came into his eyes, making them a smoky blue in the lantern-lit cabin.

Hardesty hastily dropped the sheet. “Now hush girl, you go on and get to sleep and let your Old Paw talk with his friends.”

There was a scramble for the door when Hardesty came around the curtain, faint remorse embedded across his wizened features. Jonesy made it to the door first. “Have to lock up the store, thanks fer the party,” was the paltry excuse.

One-Eyed Mike was next, “Have to get home to the Missus.” No one but Hardesty knew that the “missus” had run off with another “mister” over a month ago.

And the last coward out the door was Parson, a fleeting “God Bless” mumbled on his way out of the cabin.

Scott Lancer still sat at the decrepit table, all the while intently staring at the patched sheeting to the makeshift bedroom. “Do you have a horse I can borrow?” he asked very quietly.

Old Paw swung his head up, hope flashing in those rheumy eyes. “Shore do and she’s as solid as any. But where’re you plannin’ on goin’?”

“Ironton.”

“Son, you know that it’s over forty miles there and back.”

“Then I’d better get started.”

Man and beast eyed each other balefully in Jonesy’s darkened stable. Bess. Such an innocuous name for a horse, and it belied not only the big animal’s immense strength but its capriciousness as well, for the horse was already starting to paw the dirt and blow through her nostrils at the stranger standing in the barn. Remembering what Hardesty had related to him so helpfully back at the cabin, “And can she jump…Gawd, but she can jump!” Scott took the words at face value and thought of them as perhaps a warning rather than a proclamation of the horse’s better qualities. He took a long, hard look at the roving, wild eyes of Bess, gathered the reins and his courage, then leapt aboard the saddle.

Bess did some fair leaping of her own at the same time, for the man had not quite gained his seat when he found himself and the horse both airborne. Once all four hooves had hit the ground and the rider had been slammed back to the saddle, the beast took off at a rush down the rutted street that divided Butler’s Crossing.

It had finally stopped raining as the duo hurtled towards Ironton through the sloppy mess that made up the trail. Winking stars peeked out from behind the storm clouds and the bright moon seemingly bid his self-appointed mission good portent.

And he flew over the mountain, fighting the unruly Bess with every foot of ground covered. The horse understood urgency but not necessarily direction and it took dogged determination from the rider to keep the animal aimed to the right path. It was at a low point, just when he started to question the sanity of beginning this midnight ride, did he spot the fluttering lights of Ironton.

Onward he galloped into town, seesawing reins until the horse came to a complete and utter stop. Head down and blowing hard, Bess had been tamed at last. The man landed heavily to the ground, legs fairly shaking with the effort of keeping upright, for in truth, he was just as done in as his horse. Gamely, he looked around and found the general store dark and closed up tight. Hope plummeted, but he was not a man to be trifled with after such a rugged ride and he pounded on the door with a great fist until a light was seen from within. 

The sleepy, irate owner threw open the door in a fit of pique. The sight on his doorstep had him stepping back and reaching for a shotgun but his hand was stayed by the earnest light in the stranger’s eyes and a hasty explanation of his all-important undertaking. Items were quickly purchased and placed in a burlap sack; the most important package of all was wrapped in oilskin. The shopkeeper looked on as the man vaulted upon his horse and turned northward, then shook his head in wonderment as he snapped the door shut and pinched out the light.

Clouds had covered the moon again and snow was in the air, coldness nipped at the man’s face and gloved hands. He pushed the horse harder on through the pass and then it happened that the great Bess took a misstep and floundered briefly on the treacherous trail. Spooked by the sudden loss of ground beneath her hooves, she bunched her haunches and jumped. Scott clung to the matted neck and mud-slick saddle but at last began an inexorable slide off the back of the horse. His precious cargo, for that is what it had become, was flung amongst the thrashing hooves and sucking mire. 

The horse finally reached solid ground and stood, sides heaving from the effort. She stamped impatiently, chewed on the bit and blew great white clouds from snorting nostrils while looking down at the man on the ground beside her. Scott was thoughtful as he regained his own footing and quickly retrieved the sullied parcel. He shakily sought out the reins and looked up briefly to the darkened heavens for support before mounting just one time more.

Thin streaks of daybreak broke through the horizon as soft, fat snowflakes floated to the ground. Butler’s Crossing had been reached!

A soft rap brought Hardesty to the door. Old Paw beheld the young man standing on his porch, looking mud splattered and wobbly. The pouch was brought forth and opened to reveal a few brightly-colored but, alas, crumpled and dirtied trinkets. Oh, how cruel to have ridden so long for this!

Then the other package was remembered, the one that had been carefully tucked away into a saddlebag. Hardesty unwrapped the oilskin and withdrew a stuffed bear; the kind of toy a little girl may have yearned for but never received. Old Paw looked in surprise at the man before him and turned to retreat to the bedside of that little miss.  

“No! Don’t wake her!” exclaimed Scott. “Just put it on the table for when she gets up. Tell her it’s from…Santy Claus.”

Hardesty smiled then, the tears glistening at his eyes threatened to dampen his nightshirt. He hugged the bear to his chest and pumped the stranger’s hand. Christmas had truly come to Butler’s Crossing.

.

~end~
Dec 07

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