Topic #15: 'Tis the Season
||A Friendly Gesture by: Debbie
Night by: Raye
||Tis the Season.... by: JB H
|A Christmas Carol
Sweetwater Style by: Cathy
||The Perfect Gift by: Karen
(A/N: Inspired by the song “The Christmas Shoes” from NewSong.)
“Lou?” Receiving no response, Buck reached out to touch her shoulder. “Lou?”
Totally lost in her own thoughts, Lou jumped at the touch. “What?”
Buck looked into her troubled eyes, then smiled sadly. “They were fighting again, weren’t they?”
Lou sighed and nodded. These days it was highly unusual for a single day to go by without Kid and Jimmy arguing over the war. Jimmy had just announced the week before that he would be leaving after the holidays to join the Union troops. Meanwhile, Kid was still agonizing over his own decision on whether to return to Virginia. “Makes it real hard to get in the Christmas spirit.”
“Yeah, I know,” Buck agreed. It hurt to see two friends hurting not only themselves, but also the others around them. There just didn’t seem to be much common ground that anyone could find for Jimmy and Kid to stand together on. Combined with the end of the Pony Express, the deaths of Ike and Noah, Cody’s departure with the Army, Jesse’s decision to join his brother’s gang of violent raiders, and the fact that Teaspoon, Polly, and Rachel were all still considering heading for their southern roots . . . well, he wasn’t really in the holiday mood either. Everything was changing, and it didn’t seem to be for the better.
They stood together in an uneasy silence for a few moments before Lou finally shrugged. “Well, guess we better finish getting these supplies for Polly and Rachel if we want to have Christmas dinner.”
Buck nodded in agreement. It was the afternoon of December 22, and the two women had announced plans for a big day of baking the next day, followed by the promise of a fabulous feast for Christmas Eve. Hopefully all arguments could be put on hold, at least for that one night.
The way things were looking, it might be the last time they were all together.
They conferred briefly over the list, then moved off to separate areas of the general store. Buck headed for the spices – and that was when he saw him.
The boy looked to be about eight or nine. His reddish-brown hair was long and tangled, his clothes tattered and too small for his fast-growing body. He stood in the corner where Tompkins stocked clothing items, and his eyes were fixed on the shelf that held a selection of shoes. Slowly, tentatively, he reached out . . .
“Hey there! Don’t touch that!” Tompkins’ angry voice broke the silence that had seemed to exist in that corner. The shopkeeper strode over to the corner, grabbing the boy’s arm. “Your hands are filthy.”
The boy shrank back in the face of the anger, but then he straightened his shoulders and pointed at the box. “Please, sir. I want to buy those shoes. For my mother.”
Tompkins and Buck both looked to where the boy was pointing. The box contained a pair of fancy dance slippers. They were red, with fancy flowers embroidered on the top, and shiny beads sewn into the flowers. “You want to buy those?” Tompkins asked.
“For my mother,” the boy repeated, nodding his head earnestly. “She likes pretty things, and she doesn’t have any since we had to move.” His eyes turned sad as he looked at the shoes again. “Mama’s real sick,” he said softly. “Papa says there’s not much time before the angels come for her.”
That even caused Tompkins to hesitate for a moment. But then he eyed the boy skeptically. “Those are fancy shoes, boy. You got any money?”
The boy nodded, excited again. “I been helping Mr. Collins,” he said, “and I saved every penny.” He went to the counter and began to dig in his pockets, pulling out coins. When he finished he turned back to Tompkins. “Is that enough?”
Tompkins went to the counter. It didn’t take long to count the boy’s fortune. “That’s only thirty-eight cents,” he said. “That ain’t enough.”
The boy looked crestfallen. Mr. Collins had only one small job left for him after Christmas. “Mr. Collins will pay me a nickel to bring the empty feed bags back to town after Christmas,” he said softly. “I’ll bring you the nickel.”
Tompkins shook his head and gathered up the coins. “That still ain’t enough for those shoes,” he said. He dropped the coins into the boy’s trembling hands.
The boy just stood there for a moment, his lower lip trembling. He took one more longing look at the shoes, then he bolted for the door.
“Mr. Tompkins, that little boy’s mother is dying,” Lou said. She, too, had been drawn to the drama playing out in the corner.
“Look, I’m sorry about that,” Tompkins answered. “But that don’t mean I can sell things at a loss. I got people to pay too, you know!”
Movement at the front window caught Buck’s attention and he looked over, seeing the boy with his face pressed against the glass. “How much are the shoes?” he asked, his eyes still locked on the window.
“Never shoulda bought them things in the first place,” Tompkins muttered. “Ain’t like anyone in Rock Creek is gonna need something like that.”
Buck turned to glare at the shopkeeper. “How much?” he demanded. He looked back to the window, but the boy was gone.
Tompkins hesitated. Part of him wanted to reprimand the Indian for his tone of voice – but he found he couldn’t do it. “I paid three dollars,” he finally said, shaking his head at his folly. “I’ll sell them for the same price.” He shook his head again – what was he doing offering to sell something at no profit? Still, the words had come out of his mouth.
Buck reached into his pocket and pulled out three dollars. He slapped the money on the counter, then reached for the shoebox. “Lou, can you handle the supplies alone?”
“Go,” she answered, nodding. “I’ll just make two trips.”
Buck started for the door, but then he stopped near the fabrics. He reached for a spool of red ribbon and pulled out a length, using his knife to cut it. “Add this to the bill’” he told Tompkins. He paused just long enough to tie the ribbon around the box before heading out of the store.
He looked up and down the street, finally spotting his quarry. The boy was trudging slowly out of town to the west, his head hanging down, sadness in every step.
Buck watched for a moment, then made his decision. He sprinted toward the station. It would only take him a couple of minutes to saddle his horse. Then he could catch up with the boy, and together they would deliver the Christmas shoes.
Eli walked slowly, each step seeming like a major effort. His feet felt heavy – but not nearly as heavy as his heart. He’d worked so hard for Mr. Collins. Oh, he knew it hadn’t been for very long. He’d only seen the shoes a couple of weeks earlier, and then he’d still had the problem of finding someone with work for an eight, almost nine-year-old boy. And he didn’t have any idea how prices in the store worked. Still, he’d had such hope that he could get the pretty shoes for mama.
Now she’d have to go to the angels without those shoes, and without the pretty things she’d had back in Missouri – before the bad men had come and burned their house. His lip trembled again, and he could feel tears in his eyes. But he couldn’t cry – papa said they had to be strong for mama, and each other.
His hand went to his pocket where the coins jingled. At least he could give the money to papa, because there was never enough money to pay for food, and his little brother and sisters were so hungry. Hopefully thirty-eight cents, plus that nickel after Christmas, would buy some food, even if it didn’t buy shoes.
He was concentrating so hard on his thoughts, he never heard the horse coming up behind him.
Eli jumped at the sound of the voice. He looked up, seeing the man who had been at the store – the man who had seen him almost cry in the store. He really didn’t want to talk to anyone, but his mama had always taught him to be polite. “Hi.”
“Got far to go?” Buck asked.
Eli shrugged. “Not that far.”
“Well, I could give you a ride,” Buck offered. When the boy still hesitated, he smiled and reached down his hand. "My name is Buck Cross. I used to ride for the Pony Express here. Now I help the Marshal, and run the station for the stagecoach."
A real Pony Express rider? That was exciting! Eli reached his hand up, just like he’d seen papa do many times meeting people. “I’m Eli Stern.”
“Pleased to meet you, Eli,” Buck said as they shook hands. “Maybe I could give you a ride home?” he offered again. The boy seemed to hesitate, so Buck held out his other hand with the box. “I have something for you to give your mama.”
Eli’s eyes went wide. That looked like . . . “The shoes?” he whispered.
Buck nodded. “I think you’re right. Your mama will love them.”
Eli felt his lip start to quiver again. He dug into his pocket. “All I gots is thirty-eight cents, mister.” He remembered that was the number the shopkeeper had said.
“I don’t want your money, Eli,” Buck answered. “This is a gift from me, to you, to your mama.” He reached his hand down again.
Eli didn’t know what to say at all. So he mutely reached for the man’s hand and let himself be pulled up onto the horse. And then they headed home.
They rounded a bend in the road a good two miles out of town, and then Eli pointed the way up a narrow trail to the north. Buck guided the horse up over a small rise just off the road – and stopped short at the top.
In the clearing below there was a wagon, tipped toward one side with a broken wheel barely supporting one corner. Just beyond, there was a tiny shack, with grass stuffed into cracks and a blanket hanging over one broken window. There were a number of these small shacks in the area, built by mining companies looking for wealth. But eastern Nebraska didn’t have the big gold deposits, and the shacks had been abandoned for years.
Buck urged the horse forward again and they rode up close to the shack. He reached back for Eli’s hand and lowered the boy to the ground, then dismounted himself. Buck handed the box to the little boy and they headed for the door.
The door stuck as Eli tried to open it, so Buck reached out and helped push. It was obviously not hanging straight on the hinges any more. But they got the door open and stepped inside. Then he quickly pushed the door shut to keep at least some of the cold out.
Inside the little one-room shack, several faces turned toward the door. Buck saw two little girls, both with reddish brown hair like Eli’s. One he guessed to be about six. Her hair hung limply straight down her back. The dress she wore looked like it would almost be too short for the younger girl. He figured the second girl to be about four. Her hair was done up in lopsided pigtails, she was clad in oversized overalls, and even in the December cold her feet were bare. Beside the girls, a baby sat on the shreds of an old blanket. He wasn’t much of a baby expert, but Buck was sure the child wasn’t a year old yet.
There was movement in the far corner, and Buck turned just in time to see a man stand up from next to a crude cot. At first he thought the man was quite old, but then the other man stepped out where there was more light. He really wasn’t very old, Buck decided – he just was stooped as though carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders.
Eli stepped forward, grabbing the man’s hand. “Papa, this is Buck Cross. He gived me a ride home. And papa, he was a real Pony Express rider!”
“That so?” The man stepped forward, extending his hand. “That was real neighborly,” he said. “I’m Eli Stern.”
Buck reached out to shake the man’s hand. “It was my pleasure. You’ve a fine son.”
“He is a good boy,” Stern agreed. “He tries really hard to help me.”
Before Buck could answer, Eli pushed past his father toward the cot. He knelt by the side and placed the box next to the person lying there. “Mama, I got something for you.”
All eyes turned toward the bed, and Buck stepped forward a bit farther into the room. He could see her then. She was thin, lying almost wraith-like under a well-worn blanket. Her hair might once have been the lustrous red-brown like her children, but now it was dull and stringy, matted with sweat despite the cold, and completely missing in places. He could hear her breathing, rapid, shallow, raspy. But even as he thought to himself that she did indeed look to be near death, she smiled, and for a moment at least there was life in her eyes again as she looked at her son.
“I wanted you to have something pretty, mama,” Eli answered, his voice breaking just a little. “Like before those men burned our house.” He waited a moment, then urged, “Open it mama.”
She reached out with trembling fingers, needing several tries just to get the bow undone. Eli finally helped her open the box, pulling the shoes out. “See, mama – they’s like the ones you liked in the store back home!”
“Oh, Eli,” she whispered. “We ain’t got money for you to be spending on your mama.” But there was no mistaking the look of love and pride as she gazed at the boy.
Eli looked over at Buck. “Mama, I didn’t have enough money. Mr. Buck, he bought them.” He turned back to his mother. “He thought you’d like them too.”
The woman started to cough, and Eli put his arms around her protectively. When the bout finally subsided, she managed to whisper, “They are real pretty, Eli.” She looked over at Buck and tried to smile.
“Why don’t you help your mama try them on,” Stern suggested.
They watched as Eli carefully pulled the covers back from the dying woman’s feet. Ever so gently he took the shoes from the box and placed them on her feet. They were a little large, but it didn’t matter. Eli stood back, admiring the shoes. “They look so pretty on you, mama.”
The woman smiled and held out her arms. Eli let himself be wrapped in a hug as the girls ventured over to stare at the shoes.
Stern watched his family for a moment, then he stepped over close to Buck. “I thank you, sir. I ain’t seen Millie smile like that in a while.”
“I’m glad I could do it,” Buck answered, finding it hard to talk past the lump in his throat. “And it’s just Buck, not sir.”
“I ain’t been able to find work,” Stern continued. “Course, I gotta be here to take care of Millie and the kids, too.” He paused, his own voice breaking. “Millie ain’t got another Christmas,” he whispered. “It’s real nice that she get somethin’ pretty. But I’ll pay you back when I find work.”
Buck just shook his head. “You don’t owe me anything,” he said softly. The plight of the little family, with virtually nothing but themselves, was breaking his heart. “How did you wind up here?”
“We had a little farm in Missouri,” Stern answered. “Nothin’ fancy, but we got a good crop every year. But then Quantrill and his bunch come through, accused us and some others of helping Union troops.” He paused, shaking his head. “We never helped no troops, Union or Confederate. All we wanted was to go on farming our land. But them raiders, they wouldn’t listen. They burned our house, drove us off. We managed to get a wagon and head west with some others, but Millie was already gettin’ sick. And then when the wagon wheel broke, we couldn’t go no farther.” He gestured around at the tiny room. “We was lucky to find this for shelter.”
Buck looked around himself. The room was well less than half the size of the bunkhouse. There was only the one cot, with a few thin blankets scattered on the floor for the others to sleep on. A small cookstove in one corner was lit, with a pot of something bubbling on top, but it gave off virtually no heat into the room. “How long have you been here?”
“Oh, ‘bout two months now,” Stern replied. “We was plannin’ to go farther west, but even if I could’ve got that wheel fixed, Millie weren’t in no shape to travel. Guess we’ll be staying here for the winter, then see what happens in the spring. If’n I can find work, might be we’ll stay. Seems real nice around here.”
Buck just nodded. For all the times he’d ridden by this way, he’d had no idea anyone was here. Of course, they were in a hollow, hidden from view from the road by that hill.
He’d bet no one else knew they were there either.
Buck rode slowly back toward the station, thinking. He thought about Eli, and the how boy’s eyes lit up at being able to give his mother a gift. He thought about the two little girls, Maggie and Beth, forced to grow up much too soon. They’d had to experience the horror of seeing their house burned, and now they had to watch their mother wasting away. He wondered if they were even old enough to understand death.
Millie seemed so stoic in the face of impending death, putting on a brave face for her husband and children. But the smell of death had actually been in the air inside that shack, and he didn’t have to be a medicine man, or a doctor, to know she didn’t have long. He could see in her eyes that she knew that too. Still, she had been able to smile, and enjoy the shoes.
And then there was the baby, Isaac – ‘little Ike’ as Stern called him. Buck recalled looking down as he felt a tug on his pants, and watching as little Ike pulled himself upright. He was learning to stand, not quite ready to take those first steps alone. Steps that his mother wouldn’t live to see.
Ike . . .
The name brought back some of his own pain at losing his friend. But as he thought about Ike, he knew with sudden clarity that Ike would have been the first to want to go out and help someone else. And maybe there was still a way to bring some of the Christmas spirit to himself and his friends.
Eli was the first to hear the sound. It was Christmas Eve, and he was playing on the floor with his sisters while little Ike napped and his father kept vigil at their mother’s bedside. The children had some little figures made of sticks, and they were pretending to be farmers. Their crop was large and ripe, and they were just planning the rich harvest when he heard the horses and the wagon.
Beth heard it too. “Is that Santa?” she whispered, her four-year-old eyes wide.
Maggie shook her head. “Papa said Santa won’t find us this year,” she said sadly.
“Next year we’ll have a house again,” Eli said confidently. “He’ll find us then, Bethie.” But if it wasn’t Santa approaching, he was curious who it might be so he went to the door and opened it, stepping outside.
The moon was only a sliver in the sky, with a single bright star to the north shining through the clouds. In the dim light he could make out some riders and a wagon coming closer. For a moment he got scared, remembering the riders who had come to burn their house. But then one of the riders came forward a little faster, and he recognized the horse . . . “Buck!”
Buck pulled the horse to a stop next to the boy and slid to the ground. “Hello, Eli.” He pointed toward the other people approaching. “I brought some friends, and we came to wish you a Merry Christmas.”
Eli just stood at Buck’s side, staring in wide-eyed wonder as the rest of the party arrived. Then, still without a word, he took the packages Buck handed him and went back to the shack.
Stern looked up from Millie’s side when the door opened again. He was about to chide Eli for going outside without his jacket when he saw other people coming in the door. He recognized Buck right away, but the other folks were strangers.
Eli put his packages on the floor and turned back toward the door. Buck came in next, carrying a big basket. Jimmy followed carrying a small Christmas tree, its branches decorated with popcorn and berries strung together. He grinned as the two little girls approached shyly, each staring in wonder at the tree.
Kid was next to enter, his hands full with a box of plates, cups, and flatware. Lou followed close behind with two big jugs of cider. Rachel came next, balancing trays of cookies and two apple pies.
Stern stood by the bed, shaking his head – where had all these people come from? But the parade wasn’t done yet. Polly walked in, a large, steaming pot in each hand. Teaspoon brought up the rear, carrying a huge covered pan.
While the others busied themselves setting out plates and bread and turkey and all the fixings, Buck walked over to where Stern still stood as though rooted next to the bed. “I hope you don’t mind,” Buck said. “My friends and I wanted to share Christmas with you.”
Stern finally forced himself out of his shock. “I don’t believe it,” he whispered. “I didn’t think I could give my kids Christmas this year.”
Buck smiled. “Well, none of us are exactly rich,” he said. “But we have plenty to share.”
They watched in silence for a few minutes as Jimmy and Teaspoon handed out packages to the delighted children. Maggie and Beth squealed with delight as they unwrapped small dolls and clean, warm socks. Eli just stared in awe at the pocket knife and belt he found in his package. And little Ike decided to just eat his rattle through the paper without bothering to unwrap it.
Stern excused himself and moved into the center of the room, marveling at the smiles on his children’s faces – smiles he hadn’t seen for quite some time. He went around the room, shaking hands with everyone.
Buck heard his name being whispered, and he looked down to find Millie reaching out weakly to him. He grasped her hand, noting with some alarm that she looked much weaker even than two days prior.
“Thank you,” she whispered. Even those two words seemed to take almost more strength than she had left, but she had more to say. “You are a rich man, Buck.”
Buck looked around the room, taking in the love and laughter there. Even Jimmy and Kid had managed to work together without fighting since he’d told everyone about the Sterns. “I guess maybe I am,” he answered softly.
Millie managed to wiggle one foot just a little – a foot still clad in her fancy shoes. “The shoes are real pretty,” she whispered weakly. “But that there’s the best gift anyone could have given, to see my children laughing one more time.”
Buck squeezed her hand and sat down by her side. He watched with her as Christmas came to them all.
Much later, after much food and singing, the children showed signs of finally wearing out. Polly and Rachel busied themselves with getting the girls and Ike ready for bed – beds made more comfortable by the extra blankets they had brought.
While the others cleaned up, Teaspoon pulled Stern aside. “Mr. Stern, Buck tells me you’re looking for work.”
Stern nodded right away. “Ain’t been able to find nothin,” he said. “Leastwise, not with Millie bein’ so sick and all. But I ain’t afraid o’ hard work!”
“Well, might be there’s something coming open,” Teaspoon said. “The old Pony Express station in town is still gonna be used for changing horses for the stagecoaches and supply wagons. Now, Buck and Jimmy have been handling most of that, and helpin’ me at the Marshal’s office. But Jimmy’s leavin’ soon, and I’m losing another deputy to the army, so I’m gonna need Buck more as a deputy. So, I need someone to handle the station and the horses.”
“You’re offering me the job?” Stern asked. His knees felt shaky.
“Yup,” Teaspoon answered, reaching out a steadying hand as the other man seemed to sway a bit. “Now, it don’t pay all that much, but you can stay in the bunkhouse with Buck. Nothing fancy, but the boys have it fixed up so’s the wind don’t get in. We can work on making a separate section for the girls.”
“It’s too good to be true,” Stern whispered.
Teaspoon grinned and winked. “Well, you ain’t heard Buck snore!”
That finally made Stern laugh. “It’ll be sheer music!” he declared. He looked toward the bed. “I have to tell Millie.”
Teaspoon watched the other man walk to the corner and reach for his wife’s hand, and then he watched as Stern first stiffened and then sank onto the floor next to the bed. It didn’t take much imagination to know that Millie had passed on. He started to walk slowly toward the bed.
Buck had been watching too, and he joined Teaspoon. “I’m so sorry, Eli.”
Stern just nodded, still holding Millie’s now-cold hand. “She seen her kids happy again,” he said slowly. “She said many times that was what she regretted most, that her kids couldn’t be kids. But she seen them laugh . . .” His voice broke and he stopped, leaning his head against her hand.
Buck felt a tug on his pants leg and he looked down to find Beth standing there, her new doll clutched securely in one arm. “Has my mama gone to be an angel?” she whispered in a tiny voice.
Buck reached down to pick her up, then he held her tight. He didn’t know if he believed in angels himself, but if he did, then this little girl, in her innocence, would have to be one herself. “Yes, she has,” he whispered. Beth just stared back at him with her big green eyes for a moment, then she wrapped her arms around his neck and squeezed tight.
The others gathered around, including the other children who had been asleep. Eli walked slowly up to the bed and looked at his mother, who appeared to just be sleeping peacefully. Then he went to the foot of the bed and slowly removed the Christmas shoes. He handed one of them to Maggie, and both children hugged the shoes tight.
Stern finally wiped his tears away and looked over to his children. “Your mama ain’t with us no more, but she ain’t sufferin’ no more neither,” he said softly. “But we had a real good Christmas together, we got these new friends, we got a new place to stay, an’ I got a new job so’s we can stay together, and I can take care of you.” He reached out, taking Maggie and Eli into his arms. “And I know, I just know, your mama’s gonna be watching over us.”
They heard the church bells then, ringing through the clear, still air from town. Ringing in Christmas Day.
The star in the north burned brighter, and somewhere, high above, another angel looked down on Rock Creek and smiled.
The feeling of Christmas was in the air, or at least it was obvious everywhere a person looked. The townspeople had taken it upon themselves to see to it that each door in town was adorned with either a wreath or a shiny, red bow. And some of the business owners had even gone so far as to place a tree in the most prominent window of their establishments.
As Buck rode down the center of the street, he shook his head as he just couldn't get into the feeling of the holiday, as every one around him obviously had. True he had plans for both Christmas Eve, which was today, as well as Christmas Day but they were with the people he saw everyday anyway so it didn't seem all too special to him. It could be that this was a white man's custom and not his own. Then again, he'd grown up with nuns and every year with them and now with his Express family, he'd celebrated the holiday so he was aware of what it meant. Maybe if he had someone to share it with or to do something special for, maybe then it would seem special.
He couldn't blame his family for being excited about this Christmas; it was the first time Kid and Lou would be spending the holiday together as husband and wife. They were hosting dinner this evening at their new ranch and actually couldn't wait until next Christmas when they would have a little one around to spoil with gifts. Buck was thrilled for them when he'd heard the news and was looking forward to becoming an uncle.
On Christmas Day, Rachel would be serving dinner at her house, which was still at the old way station. Even though the Express had closed down, Teaspoon and Rachel had purchased the property and house so it would remain in the family. Buck resided at the old bunkhouse, by himself now, since the other members of the family had left town.
He stopped his horse in front of the schoolhouse and dismounted. Rachel was the head schoolteacher but the enrollment of students had increased so much that the town had added another room onto the building and the school board had given her permission to hire an additional teacher. Miss Grace Lamont was whom Buck was on his way to meet with. Miss Lamont and Rachel's students had performed a sing-along of Christmas carols that morning and Rachel had asked if Buck could do her a favor and get the building back to the order it was in previously.
Buck climbed the stairs and debated whether to knock or just enter. He chose entering and realized his appearance wouldn't be a surprise as he heard bells jingling from where they hung in the center of the door. Since he, Kid and Lou had been there earlier in the day to attend the show, he knew which classroom he was supposed to go to. He walked down the short hallway then paused in the doorway on the right as he watched the sight before him.
Grace Lamont had only been in town for the past two months and Buck had talked to her on more than one occasion but it always seemed so formal. He smiled as he recalled the first time he'd met her, actually it was more of a forced meeting since they literally bumped into each other on the outside steps. They'd laughed and apologized and Buck had helped her pick up the papers she'd been carrying. And from that moment on, Buck Cross found himself infatuated with this woman who didn't seem to want to open up to anyone.
Sure he liked her appearance: the blonde hair she wore swept up into a bun; blue eyes that seemed to twinkle when she smiled or on the rare occassion, laughed; and he had to admit she did fill out her dress just enough to make a man take notice. But what kept coming back to him about her was something from within - she seemed lonely to him, almost like she was afraid to let anyone get close to her. How he wished how could be the person to change that.
"Merry Christmas," Buck called softly from the doorway.
Grace looked up quickly and blushed as she realized he must have been standing there for a few minutes, watching her. "Mr. Cross, Merry Christmas to you, too." She couldn't help but smile whenever she saw him, he was a pleasant man to be around. She walked around the desk to meet him in the middle of the classroom.
"It's Buck," he corrected her. He was never comfortable with being called Mr. Cross. Besides, he hoped to one day be on a more personal level with this woman and wanted to start with the use of first names. "And since we're not in front of your students, is it safe to call you Grace?"
She blushed. "That's fine, Buck," she said, emphasizing his name. "Mrs. Dunne told me she had asked you to come give me a hand getting this place back into shape. I told her I could handle it but she wouldn't hear of me doing it alone." She stepped closer to him and whispered, "I think we've been set up."
Now it was Buck's turn to blush. He'd had the same impression when Rachel had asked him to come over as soon as he could. It wasn't like the desks were going anywhere, plus classes were dismissed for the holidays and wouldn't resume until next week. He had jumped at the chance to help out as soon as Rachel had told him Grace was going to be there.
He didn't want to scare her away so he pretended not to understand what she was talking about. "I'm sure Rachel was only thinking about the schoolhouse." Did that sound as dumb as he thought it did?
Grace furrowed her brow in confusion. Even though she knew she shouldn't, the woman in her was curious to find out what he felt toward her. She'd given him the perfect opening to say something about her not being involved with anyone and he hadn't taken it. She could have sworn she saw a glint in his eye that suggested he knew full well what she was talking about. But she wouldn't ask.
"So where do we start?" Buck asked as he took off his coat and put that plus his hat on her desk.
Grace surveyed the room and making gestures with her hands, told him, "The desks get set up in rows of four in the middle of the room." She moved to grab hold of one of the pieces of furniture but was stopped by two strong hands over her own. She blushed as her eyes surveyed his hands. They were calloused and rough feeling, obviously the hands of a working man but for some reason, they were also gentle to the touch; it felt so nice to have a man come in contact with her, even if it was unintentional. Slowly she raised her eyes to meet his.
Buck's dark eyes met her fair ones and smiling, he said, "I've got this. You can get back to whatever it was you were doing when I came in." He didn't move his hands, instead waiting for her to make the move. She was so close to him, he could smell the sweet soap she used on her hair. It made him want more than anything to take the pins out and let her tresses cascade down around her shoulders and onto her back.
The two kept staring at each other, lost in the other one's eyes, until Grace broke contact. Nervously laughing, she slowly pulled her hands out from under his. "Um, I'll let you get to it then." She quickly turned around and headed back to her desk. She realized she'd been holding her breath and now let it out in short, quick gasps. How could such a simple gesture affect her so deeply? She was a grown woman but suddenly felt like a schoolgirl with her first crush.
Buck watched her walk away. He noticed the sway of her light blue calico dress with each step she took. Her eyes had twinkled when she had laughed, just like he knew they would. How could he know so much about a person but not know anything? If that even made sense, he wasn't sure.
"So, why did Mrs. Dunne ask you to help me? I know she's headed over to the McClouds' house for dinner. They're your friends too ... I've seen you with them in town," she explained. She hoped her voice didn't carry the sadness or even a tinge of jealousy she felt whenever she saw the three friends together. She looked away feeling lonely; she'd never had friends as close as those three appeared to be. She couldn't even imagine what it would be like.
Buck couldn't help but notice the look. Sometimes it was as if she appeared to be lonely but if she didn't want that, then why wouldn't she let anyone get to know her? It was confusing to say the least. "You mean, why aren't I going there with her?" When Grace looked at him and nodded, he continued, "I told them I'd be there later. I see them just about every day, since, in between working as Teaspoon's deputy, I'm also helping Kid get his ranch started. I just didn't see the need to sit around all afternoon talking about nothing in particular."
She watched as he moved a desk into place. His hair fell in front of his shoulders, blocking her view of his face, and she found herself moving around the desk just enough to get a better look at him. She gasped and quickly brought her hand up to her mouth as she realized what she was doing. She couldn't take the chance of having anyone become interested in her. She was too afraid of what might happen to that person, and she knew it could be so much worse than a possible broken heart. Grace liked Buck Cross, she liked him more than she should, and that was why she wouldn't let anything happen to him. He didn't deserve that.
At her gasp, Buck had sharply turned around to see her standing there, staring at him. The thought of that made something stir within him, a feeling he hadn't experienced or let himself experience in a long time. "Are you alright?" he asked as he came closer to her.
Grace found herself backing away in embarrassment at having been caught watching him. She didn't get far as her backside collided with her desk. She nervously played with her bangs and tried to straighten her bun, which by now had strands coming loose from the pins holding it in place.
Her eyes grew wide as Buck reached out a hand and gentle tucked a wisp of soft, blonde hair behind her ear. His fingers lingered just above her neck for a few seconds then he blinked and pulled his hand away.
Both were looking anywhere but at each other, thinking the same thoughts, more than likely. At least Buck hoped that they were. He wanted nothing more than to touch that silky hair again and pull her toward him for a long, lingering kiss. Her heavy breathing seemed to indicate that she wanted the same but before he could make a move, she interrrupted him.
"Well, why don't you leave the desks and go? Christmas is a time to be with family," she said softly. She tried to grin at him but failed. She'd deliberately left her family so now she was alone for the holiday.
"It's also a time to spend with friends," Buck said, not moving from the close proximity he shared with her. "And I'd like to think that's what we are." He watched her closely for her reaction.
She didn't disappoint him as she smiled. "I'd like that very much." She bit her lip for making a huge mistake - she promised herself she wouldn't do this but she was inviting this man into her life. It may be as just friends but who was she kidding? She had feelings for him and was starting to realize it would be very hard to ignore those feelings over time. She nervously giggled and her hands automatically played with her hair again as he smiled back at her. He had such a warm smile, she could get lost in it if she wasn't careful. She suddenly drew her hand back down to her side, fearful he would think she was flirting with him by touching her hair that way. "Now as one friend to another, I'm telling you to leave - go be with your friends and family."
"Come with me," Buck blurted out. "You know Rachel, you've met Teaspoon, and I know you would get along great with Kid and Lou, especially Lou." He was talking so fast, he hoped he was making sense. He hadn't wanted something so strongly as to spend the evening with her.
"I appreciate the offer, Mr. Cross, uh, Buck, but as I told Mrs. Dunne, it's better if I just spend the evening alone. I don't want to intrude on anyone's plans."
"You wouldn't be," Buck began but stopped as she handed him his hat and coat.
"Maybe some other time," Grace said then added, "I hope we can some other time."
Buck smiled at that statement and nodded. "I think that can be arranged." He put on his coat then took hers off the hook by the door and held it open for her.
She gingerly walked to him then turned around to allow him the opportunity to place the garment over her shoulders. She smiled as she felt his hands rest upon her shoulders then briefly find their way down her upper arms. She ducked her head to hide how much she liked the feel of his hands on her body.
Buck didn't want to take his hands off her, wishing her could feel her and not her clothing. Her hands had been so soft to the touch, now he found himself curious about the rest of her. But with the promise of at least a dinner with the new schoolteacher, he let go. He reached to the hook once more but stopped in mid air. "Don't you have a scarf or gloves or anything? It's freezing out and looks like it'll snow anytime now."
As she buttoned her coat, Grace tried to hide another smile. He was concerned for her well being. No man had ever felt that way toward her before and she was glad Buck was the first to feel that way. "Oh, um, in my haste to leave the house this morning, I must have left them behind. I better not do that again, huh?" She laughed nervously, trying to cover up her mistake. Here he was, having already found out, from a previous conversation they'd had, that she had grown up in the territory so she was well aware of how cold the winters could be, and she was telling him she'd forgotten to put them on. She hoped he would buy what she said, she didn't want to appear as if she couldn't take care of herself.
Grace looked away, out of guilt. How could she tell him she'd barely made it out of her father's house with the few items she'd shoved into the carpet bag she'd arrived with? A schoolteacher's salary wasn't much and even with the school board providing the small house she was staying in down the street, she still had to buy food, cooking supplies, and clothing to keep up proper appearances. For now, gloves and a scarf were on the bottom of her necessity list.
Buck accepted her explanation, he had no reason not to. He did stare at her in confusion as Grace suddenly grew quiet as the two of them left the schoolhouse. Buck lingered at the foot of the steps as she locked the door then slowly joined him. The wind whipped the tail of her coat and she found herself wrapping her arms around herself to ward off the chill she felt through the material. She hoped he wouldn't notice because she didn't want it to seem as if she didn't even know how to dress.
"Well," she began as she faced him. "I know you live that way and I live in the opposite direction so I'll just say Merry Christmas, again, and wish you a happy holiday." She gave him a small smile. She'd enjoyed their short time together more than she would have liked and didn't want it to end but knew it had to. Too many strong feelings were surfacing in that schoolhouse and she needed to put some distance between the two of them. She had to keep reminding herself to think of his safety if it was found out she was in Rock Creek.
"You're sure you don't want me to walk you home?" Buck didn't want to leave her.
"I'm sure. It's just around the corner." Grace found herself locked into his eyes again.
"Alright then," Buck sighed reluctantly. "Merry Christmas and I'll see you again soon. Definitely," he added as he turned to leave. He mounted his horse then glanced over his shoulder to watch her walking away, her arms wrapped around herself in an attempt to keep her coat tighter against her body.
When he saw her walk around the corner of the building, he headed in the opposite direction from where she thought he was headed. Having spent just that short time alone with Grace had made Buck realize he wanted to do something nice for her. And since Christmas was the season of giving ... .
Bypassing Tompkins' General Store, he made his way toward the new dress shop in town. He wanted to get her something personal, an item that would always make her think of him when she saw it or used it. He had two things in mind to purchase when he got there and hoped he would be successful.
They were perfect, just what a lady should have. He nodded when the owner asked if he wanted them gift wrapped. She even went so far as to put a festive bow on top of the brown paper. Having paid for the fine items, Buck didn't even regret for a moment that it was the most money he'd spent on someone he hardly knew. Just the thought of giving her something so nice, gave him a warm feeling inside.
This was what he'd been missing from this holiday: he had someone he could do something nice for and it was someone he wanted to please very much. He would put the package in the bunkhouse before heading out to Kid and Lou's. Buck smiled as he looked forward to delivering his gift in the morning. The question was how he would do it; he didn't want to appear like a schoolboy knocking on her door and running, leaving the package in sight on her porch. But he also didn't want her to know it was from him, even though he had a feeling she would figure it out.
* * * * * * * * * *
Christmas morning dawned bright and windy. Grace didn't want to spend the whole day alone so she decided to attend church services. After politely talking with the parents of several of her students, after the mass was over, she slowly made her way down the street, back to her small house. She wondered if the restaurant would be open today. If it was, she could go to dinner later so she wouldn't have to be alone for the rest of the day. It would be hard to sit by herself as she watched families enjoying their time together but at least there would be people around her.
With her arms gripping her coat tighter to her body and her hair blowing in her face, as the weather had released several strands from her bun, she walked with her head down toward her small house. Grace climbed the three steps then stopped short as she noticed something sitting on her porch, just outside her front door.
Stooping down, she retrieved a brown paper package with a bright green bow on it. She turned the package over in her hands then rose and started looking around her, trying to see if she could glimpse who might have dropped it off. Not seeing anyone except other attendees of the church service, she opened her door and went inside, taking the package with her.
Absentmindedly, Grace hung her coat on the hook by the front door then took the package and settled down on the sofa opposite the fireplace. It was drafty in the room but she didn't seem to notice, as her eyes didn't move from the gift in her lap.
Who would do such a nice thing for her? The only person she could think of was Mrs. Dunne but knew it wasn't her. Rachel had given her a small gift of perfume yesterday afternoon, after the sing-along.
"Well, it's not going to open itself," she told herself out loud, after turning it over in her hands for the tenth time. Carefully taking off the wrapping and bow, she gasped at what was revealed. Laying in her lap was the prettiest scarf and set of gloves she'd ever seen. She gently held them in her hand, they were a bright blue and felt softer than anything she'd ever touched. They were made of chenille yarn so she knew they were expensive.
Grace wrapped the scarf around her neck and as she slipped the gloves on, a conversation from the day before came to her mind. Her gloved hands caressed her cheeks, wishing they were touching someone who was dark and very handsome. She went and opened her door and stood looking in the direction of the schoolhouse.
With a smile on her face, she softy said, "Merry Christmas, Buck Cross, and thank you."
Buck stood on the sidewalk just down the street from her house. He saw her take the package inside then was surprised when she came back out, wearing the items. When he saw the look on her face, he knew she'd figured out who had left the present for her. That look also told him she was pleased he'd given it to her.
As he watched her close the door as she went back inside, he said, "Merry Christmas, Grace Lamont, and you're welcome."
*adding to the Dara Series*December 24th, 1868
The dinner plates had long been cleared and washed and set away, leaving the dining room nearly empty. Sitting up at the table, hunched over in the candlelight was a man determined to mimic Father Christmas, no matter how many times he would utter the immortal words "Ow... ow.... Blast it all to-"
"The strain too much for you, old man?"
Turning a withering glance toward the door, Teaspoon nursed his injured finger in his mouth. After a moment he set his finger into the tail end of his shirt and clamped the fabric around it. "Old man, eh?"
Jimmy kicked some snow from the bottom of his boots and swung the door open. He stepped into the kitchen while he kept a watchful eye on the other man as he pulled out a seat at the table and lowered himself onto it. "Neither of us is gettin' any younger."
A wry smile poured across Teaspoon's face. "Ain't that the truth, boy, ain't that the -"
A long suffering sigh pulled them from their thoughts. "Well then, let's call the undertaker and tell him to get started. It'll take them awhile to get the holes dug down to the proper depth with the snow and ice and-"
"Now..." Teaspoon wagged his finger at Louise, "that's enough from you little miss, I'm still old enough to turn you over my knee."
"Right," she countered, "but how would you get around this 'hellion in the making' you're welcome to it."
Jimmy slipped his hand over the rounded front of her dress and curled his fingers around her waiting hand. "That's no way to be talking about my next son."
Teaspoon saw the glint in Louise's eye and wondered if these two were holding out on him. "You know something I don't, Hickok?"
Drawing Louise's hand closer, Jimmy coerced her a few inches nearer. "I've got a feeling about this one."
"Oh?" Louise leaned her elbow into Jimmy's shoulder. "Funny, you thought Louis was going to be a girl. Look how well that turned out."
Even the candlelight couldn't hide the color that found purchase on his cheeks. "Yes, well... I learn from my mistakes."
Teaspoon's fit of laughter brought Louise to his side, firmly pounding her palm on his back. He tried to wave her off a few times before he caught his breath. "That's enough, darlin'."
She stopped and leaned next to his ear. "I had the same reaction when Mr. Hickok informed me that I was having another boy." Louise straightened and leaned on the back of Teaspoon's chair working out a tight bundle of muscles. She glanced at the clock and her eyes widened when she saw the time. "Are you planning to go to sleep anytime soon?" While she waited for an answer she retied her robe to ease the bunching of the fabric across her swelling form and stifled a yawn. "With all the excitment, I doubt Louis will sleep much past dawn."
Nodding with renewed concentration Teaspoon bend back over the table and picked up his whittling knife. "Well then, Hickok. Take your wife off and tuck her in while I finish this off."
Jimmy picked up a wooden train car and lifted it into the light. "You've gotten better."
Teaspoon tried to shrug off the praise, but both Louise and Jimmy could see the lift of his chin and the puff of air inflating his chest. "It's what I've told you boys from the first. Self improvement is the mark of an intelligent man." Satisfied that he'd made his point, he turned back to his work and squinted at the detail that he'd carved into the train engine. Within moments he was whittling away while a jaunty tune whistled from his lips.
Louise slipped her hand along Jimmy's, linking their fingers together and warming their hands. She gave him a smile as she drew him along behind her toward the door. They moved along the hall past the half opened door where Louis slept and on toward their own. She stepped through first and watched him as he slowly shut the door on the light from the dining room, his eyes looking down into hers.
There was a warm light in his eyes, a look that gave her shivers more than snow ever could. Rising up on tip toe, Louise leaned closer her eyes drifting closed with the heavy weight of sleep and love. Their lips were hovering a scant space away from each other and nearly about to touch when a noise split through the silent night.
"Blast it all to *#^$@!"
I carried it in my pocket
away from prying eyes and curious stares
A little silver locket
that held a wisp of hair
I'd doubt she knew I had it
it wasn't something I'd admit
A dangerous man of the West
won't have something so delicate
But there are always surprises
in our great wide world
Things much more vexin'
than the love of a boy for a girl.
*and if any of you tell a soul that I wrote this... I'll hunt you down like some mangy mutt that filched my steak!*
AN: My sincerest apologies to Mr. Charles Dickens and any of his many fans who might stumble across this story.
“Mr. Tompkins?” The clerk approached her boss timidly. She hadn’t worked in the general store for long but it hadn’t taken long to become well aware of the surly storekeeper’s moods. The moods seemed to be getting worse as the days grew closer to Christmas.
“What now?” Tompkins growled.
“I was wonderin’ if it would be all right for me to leave a bit early this afternoon . . .”
“Do you see the sign on the door?” the man interrupted before she could complete her sentence.
“Yes, sir,” she replied.
“It says the store is open daily from seven a.m. to seven p.m.,” Tompkins read for her as if she was incapable of reading the sign herself. “It does not say ‘We are open for as long as Penelope decides she wants to work.”
“But, Mr. Tompkins,” the girl persisted. “It’s Christmas Eve. We haven’t had a customer since well before noon. Everybody’s home makin’ dinner for tomorrow.”
Tompkins sighed resolutely. “I suppose you’ll not be wantin' to work tomorrow either.”
“On Christmas?” Penelope blurted incredulously.
“Just another day to me.”
“No wonder you don’t have any friends,” the girl murmured.
“What was that?” the man asked sharply.
“I was just thinkin’ that if you was going to be alone anyway,” Penelope covered quickly. “Maybe you’d want to come to my house for Christmas dinner? We don’t have much but we’re always willing to share.”
“Which is probably exactly why you don’t have much,” Tompkins muttered. Seeing the hurt look on the young girl’s face, he relented a bit. “Clean up the shelves where those kids were making a mess earlier and then you can go. But be here bright and early day after tomorrow. And don’t expect to be paid for tomorrow.”
The girl nodded and turned away without another word. As soon as she finished the last chore, she pulled on her coat and left, calling out “Merry Christmas, Mr. Tompkins” as she went.
“Merry Christmas, Miz Shannon,” he heard her say before the door closed behind her.
Tompkins looked up to see Emma Shannon and one of the Pony Express riders standing at the front of the store, shaking the snow off their coats.
“Somethin’ I can do for you?” he asked them.
“Merry Christmas, Mr. Tompkins,” Emma replied. When he failed to return the greeting, she sighed softly. “We’re here to see if you’d be interested in donating to the church Christmas lunch fund. We have several families that are in need this year and all of the merchants are getting together with the church to help give . . .”
“No,” Tompkins interrupted.
“But, Mr. Tompkins,” the rider started. “It’s for a good cause. There are a lot of families that are going to go hungry if people don’t help them.”
“Why should I give my profits to help people who don’t care to help themselves?” Tompkins protested. “If they are so bad off why don’t they get jobs and work for a livin’ like decent folks?”
“It’s not a matter of not wanting to work,” Emma explained. “Take Mr. Horace for example. You know how he hurt himself—“
“Then let him go somewhere else to get help,” the shopkeeper argued. “I didn’t hurt him and I ain’t gonna take care of him now.”
The rider started to retort but Emma stopped him quickly. “Well, if that’s the way you feel, Mr. Tompkins, I’m guessin’ nothin’ we can say will change your mind. Merry Christmas to you anyway.”
She waited for a few seconds to see if he would respond, then finally left the building.
At precisely seven p.m. William Tompkins turned the sign on the door to the side marked “Closed” and muttering about the lack of dedication of today’s youth, proceeded up the stairs to his bedroom.
Tompkins woke with a start. He had just about decided he was dreaming when he heard the noise again—a clanking sound that seemed to be coming from the store.
“So help me,” the storekeeper growled. “It better not be someone breaking into the store!”
Silently he rose from his bed and reached for his pants. Before he left the room, the storekeeper reached into a cabinet beside the door and pulled out a pistol. Cocking the firearm as quietly as possible, he stepped to the top of the stairs, ears straining to place the noise that had awakened him.
Moving quietly down the steps, careful to avoid the creaky fifth tread, Tompkins worked his way into the store. The sound had not been repeated a third time, but the storekeeper was taking no chances.
Weaving through the tables and stacks of canned goods with a skill born of spending much of his days among those tables and stacks, the man searched the single room thoroughly—finding nothing. Finally the only place left to search was the storeroom behind the old wooden counter.
Inhaling noiselessly, Tompkins reached for the doorknob, yanking the door open with a speed that was designed to surprise anyone who might be on the other side.
“Come on out of there!” he ordered sharply.
When no response came, Tompkins backed away from the door to find the lantern he kept under the counter. Staying as far away from the light as possible he struck a match and lit the wick.
The soft yellow glow spread as he adjusted the flame until he was able to see inside the storeroom. Moving with even greater care, the man entered the tiny windowless room—to find no one or nothing that could have been responsible for the noise he had heard.
Shaking his head, Tompkins finally decided the noise must have come from outside the store. Extinguishing the lantern he climbed back up the stairs in the dark.
“There’s no fool like an old fool,” Tompkins muttered as he reached to pull off his pants.
“You should know that better than anyone.”
It was probably a good thing that Tompkins had placed the pistol back in the wardrobe as he entered the room. As it was, he jumped so high and turned so quickly that he stubbed his toe on the side of the bed. His shocked outburst was quickly replaced with a cry of pain as he fell to a sitting position on the bed.
“Dag nab it, Hunter,” Tompkins ranted, cradling his aching appendage in his hands. “What the blue blazes are you doin’ in my bedroom?”
Eyeing the other man more closely, he revised the question. “How exactly did you get into my bedroom anyway?”
“Now that’s somethin’ that really don’t matter all that much,” Teaspoon replied. “What matters is, I’m here to warn you.”
“Warn me?” Tompkins cursed himself silently for putting the pistol away so quickly.
“Yeah, I’ve been sent to warn you that you better change your ways or you’re not gonna like what happens after . . .”
“After what?” the storekeeper demanded.
“After you die,” Teaspoon replied calmly.
“And just how do you know what’s gonna to happen to me after I die?”
“I don’t,” the other man answered. “I just know that everything we do in life is carried with us afterwards.”
For the first time, Tompkins noted that Teaspoon didn’t look like he usually did. Normally the man stood straight, but now he was hunched over, as if weighed down. Standing—mindful of his still throbbing toe—he took a couple of steps closer to where Teaspoon stood.
“What’s that around your neck?” he asked.
“If you’d stop interruptin’, I’d tell you,” Teaspoon reprimanded. “You see, everythin’ we do while we’re alive makes a difference when we die. All the bad things we do wear us down like big ol’ heavy chains. After we die, we gotta wear ‘em until it’s decided that we’ve made up for the bad stuff.”
He pulled open his coat to reveal a length of chain wrapped around his neck. The links were big and obviously heavy.
“What kinda joke are you tryin’ to pull, Hunter?” the storekeeper demanded. “I saw you just this mornin’ and you were as healthy as horse. You tellin’ me you up and died between then and now and you’re comin’ back to warn me to change my ways? I don’t believe it! Now get out of my bedroom and let me get some sleep!”
“Sit down!” Teaspoon ordered sharply.
Tompkins shivered as a sudden icy breath of air wafted over him. He hesitated stubbornly but, seeing the look on the other man’s face, sat carefully on the edge of his bed.
“I was sent here to give you a chance,” Teaspoon said ominously. “I earned these chains I’m wearin’ and I can’t go back and change any of what made any of ‘em. Yours are going to be even bigger and heavier if you don’t do somethin’ now! You still have a chance, so stop bein’ a stubborn ol’ jack ass and take it!”
“What the devil are you talkin’ about?” Tompkins argued. “What kind of chance?”
“I’m not the only one comin’ to see you tonight,” the other man explained. “You’re gonna get three other visitors, one every hour on the hour for the next three hours, and each of ‘em has somethin’ to teach you—if you just pay attention and learn.”
Tompkins grew even angrier at these words. Rising to his feet he all but roared. “You tell anyone comin’ to my room they better be able to duck fast, cuz I’ll shoot ‘em before they get the door open!”
Teaspoon shook his head ruefully. “I kinda hoped you wouldn’t be so danged mulish about this, Tompkins. I’m only here for your own good. You should listen to my warnin’ and to what the others are goin’ to tell you.”
“There’s only one thing wrong with your ‘warning’,” Tompkins sneered. “You ain’t dead.”
Teaspoon smiled mysteriously. “You sure ‘bout that?”
Before the storekeeper could respond, the smile disappeared and the man with it.
Tompkins sat back on the bed for a few seconds then rose swiftly to his feet again and strode to examine the only door to his room. It was locked, as he had locked it when he’d come back from downstairs. Looking around, he assured himself that the windows were all closed tightly.
He had actually bent down to look under the bed when he stopped with a shake of his head. “Must’ve been that beef I had for dinner,” he decided. “I was just dreamin’.”
Looking down at the pants he still wore, he reconsidered. If he was dreaming, he was also walking—and dressing—in his sleep. Almost unconsciously, the storekeeper walked to the wardrobe and pulled out his trusty pistol.
“I’ll deal with Hunter in the mornin’,” he muttered. “But no one else better bother me tonight, unless he wants a bullet in ‘im.”
With that, the man returned to his bed and lay down, still fully clothed. Remembering what Hunter had said about someone else coming every hour for the next three hours, Tompkins was determined to stay awake—just in case. Unfortunately, his body wasn’t ready to cooperate with his brain and he fell asleep almost immediately.
When Tompkins woke for the second time that night, the room was so pitch black that he couldn’t even tell where the door and the windows should have been. He was still trying to see through the gloom when the mantle clock began to chime. Laying quietly, he waited to see what time it was.
To his surprise the bell didn’t stop at two or three as he expected it would. Instead the rhythmic bonging continued until he had counted twelve.
“That’s not possible!” he declared. “It was after midnight when that fool, Hunter, was here.”
The sound of something scuffling near the fireplace made him sit bolt upright, reaching for his pistol. Incredibly the spot where it had been under his pillow was empty.
“It’s over here,” a soft voice informed him.
The sound of a match being struck was followed by an incredible brightness—too much to be coming from a single lantern. Squinting at the sudden light, Tompkins focused on the shape that stood next to the mantle—and recognized it almost immediately.
“What the hell are you doin’ here, Injun?” the storekeeper roared. “I want you out of my home! NOW!”
“Can’t do that,” Buck Cross responded. “I’m here because I have something to show you.”
“What makes you think you got anythin’ I’d want to see?” Tompkins demanded.
“Didn’t Teaspoon tell you?” Buck asked simply. “We’re going to help you before it’s too late.”
Tompkins got to his feet and strode determinedly across the room. He reached out to grab Buck by the shirt, intent on throwing the Indian out of his room anyway he had to. He recoiled in fear when, instead of connecting with the younger man’s shirt, his hand passed completely through the boy’s body. At the same time, he felt the most intense cold he had ever felt in his life.
“What are you?” he gasped, putting as much distance as possible between himself and the specter in front of him. “Some kind of ghost?”
“I prefer the term ‘Spirit Guide’,” Buck responded amicably. “But ghost will do if you would rather use that.”
“How? When?” Tompkins sputtered. He grunted softly as his back came into forceful contact with the bedpost.
Buck shook his head. “We’re not really here to talk about me. We’re here to help you.”
“Why?” Tompkins asked carefully. “What difference does it make to you what happens to me?”
“Not a lot really,” Buck admitted. “But I have a job to do and I’m going to do it, so why don’t you put your boots on and let’s go?”
“Go?” the other man said incredulously. “Go where?”
“To your past, of course.”
Tompkins would never know whether it was fear or curiosity or some combination of both that made him put his boots on and start for the door. He wasn’t sure what he was actually experiencing but, if nothing else, he would get the Indian out of his bedroom.
Buck’s very real hand stopped him before he could reach for the lock. “Not that way,” the Kiowa said pleasantly.
“Then how?” the storekeeper demanded.
Buck took him by the arm and led him towards the window.
“Wait a minute!” Tompkins protested. “We’re on the second floor. And last time I checked neither one of us could fly.”
His companion smiled in gentle understanding. “Just hold onto my arm,” he ordered. “And don’t let go.”
Hesitating, remembering the cold of the last contact with this apparition, Tompkins finally reached out and with the lightest of touches, took the Indian’s arm. Buck smiled again and stepped forward.
Seconds later a very startled William Tompkins stood in front of a large general store. It took him a minute to realize that this was the store where he had spent a good deal of his young life. The store where he had learned everything he knew about marketing—well almost everything. A few things he’d had to learn on his own given that his first employer, a man by the name of Sullivan, had never taught him—like how to be tough with customers who ran up large bills and never paid a penny.
“That’s why old man Sullivan died a poor man,” Tompkins muttered under his breath.
“Wealth can be had in many different forms,” Buck told him as he led them into the building.
The pair stood off to one side as people came and went around them.
“Can’t they see us?” Tompkins asked, fascinated in spite of himself.
“No, they can’t see or hear us,” Buck confirmed.
“Doesn’t really matter. They just can’t.”
The clock on the wall showed only two o’clock when suddenly Mr. Sullivan clapped his hands to get the attention of the two clerks. Tompkins inhaled sharply as he saw his much younger self turn toward his boss, anticipation written plainly across his face.
Sullivan walked over to the door and turned the card announcing that the store was closed so that it was visible to any potential customer. Then, smiling broadly, the old man walked to the door that Tompkins knew led to his own quarters and gestured for the boys to join him.
“I had forgotten about this,” Tompkins whispered. “He always had a party on Christmas Eve . . . most of the time half the town came.”
He caught his breath a second time as the door to the room opened and a young girl walked in. Dressed in a blue dress that accented both her coloring and figure, the girl moved easily about greeting people as she made her way to stand beside his younger self.
“Sally,” the older Tompkins murmured. “I met her at one of these Christmas parties. I knew I loved her from the minute she said hello, but I didn’t think I was good enough to court her.”
“She thought otherwise,” Buck countered. “You were married the following year.”
“On Christmas Eve,” his companion agreed. “We always considered Christmas our special day.”
“We have to go,” Buck told him.
“Wait, can’t we stay—just for a while?” Tompkins pleaded. “I want to watch some more!”
“No,” the Kiowa answered simply. “We have other places to go.”
After a moment contemplating a rebellious stand, the man sighed and took hold of his guide’s sleeve once again.
“I remember this place!” Tompkins cried as they stopped at a small house. “Sally and I lived here after Jenny was born.”
“You were pretty happy here,” Buck commented. “Had a good life then.”
“Can we go inside?” The man pulled away and started for the door.
“Not enough time,” the spirit replied, pulling him back to the window instead.
Looking inside, Tompkins watched as another of his past selves helped Sally decorate a rather scraggly tree.
“I wish I could’ve found somethin’ better,” the man inside lamented. “This side is almost flat.”
“This tree is just fine,” Sally told him with a smile. “As soon as we get the decorations up, you’ll not even notice.”
Reaching inside a box, she carefully lifted a hand-crafted angel. “Jenny?” she called softly. “Do you want to put the angel on the tree?”
A small child, perhaps four or five years of age, ran across the room. The younger Tompkins lifted his giggling daughter high in the air and helped her place the angel on the highest branch.
Outside, the older man hid his face to wipe a tear from his eye.
“No need being ashamed of feeling something, Mr. Tompkins,” Buck told him quietly. “But we have to go now.”
“No, I want to stay!” Tompkins protested. “This was the happiest time of my life. We were plannin’ to move West the next year.” His tone changed to one more bitter. “Too bad we just didn’t stay where we were!”
“It’s all in the past now,” Buck said. “Nothing can be done to change what happened.”
Their next stop was equally familiar to Tompkins. He pulled away from Buck at that point and started to back away from the scene in front of him. After only a single step he wasn’t able to move any further.
“What’s the matter, Mr. Tompkins?” Buck asked. “This is just another day in your life.”
“Not just another day!” Tompkins exclaimed. “This was the Christmas after Jenny and Sally were taken by the heathens. The day I . . . “
“The day you decided Christmas wasn’t worth acknowledging,” Buck finished for him.
“It wasn’t!” the other man cried. “I had lost everything that meant anything to me! Nothing meant anything to me anymore.”
“That’s kinda obvious,” Buck replied as he turned to face the scene before them.
A very drunk William Tompkins lay passed out on the floor, a bottle of whiskey and a broken angel lay on the floor beside him.
Buck waited a few minutes longer, giving his companion the time to remember, then, putting the other man’s hand on his sleeve, they moved on.
The pair had returned to Tompkins’ bedroom and the man was now sitting on his bed once again.
“I’m leaving,” Buck said. “I’ve shown you all I have to show you.”
“Is it over now?”
“Hardly,” the Kiowa replied with a short laugh. “You’ve got two more people coming to visit you tonight.”
“Can’t they both come at the same time?” Tompkins pleaded. “I’m tired and I really want to go to sleep.”
“Sorry, we do it the way it has to be done.”
On that note, Buck turned to blow out the lantern, leaving Tompkins alone in the dark. The shopkeeper struggled to stay awake but lost the battle and was soon deeply asleep.
“You gonna sleep the day away?”
The voice was far too cheerful for a man who had had as little sleep as Tompkins had. Blearily opening his eyes, he stared at the boy who stood before him. He wore a long flowing coat and had what looked to be a wreath on top of his head. In his hands he held a huge box covered with ribbons and bows of all colors.
“Cody?” the man gasped.
The boy laughed. “If it makes it easier for you, you can call me Cody, I guess,” he replied.
“What are you doin’ here?” Tompkins asked. “Who are you supposed to be.
“You mean you can’t tell?” Cody replied. “I mean, here I go to the effort of gettin’ the bows and the ribbon just so you’ll be able to tell. You disappoint me.”
“I don’t get it,” the storekeeper said.
“It’s a present, see,” Cody explained patiently. “A Christmas present.” Noting that the other man still wore a confused look, he sighed and finally answered. “I’m the spirit of Christmas present.”
“I don’t need no one to show me what Christmas is goin’ to be like,” Tompkins said wearily. “It’s goin’ to be like every other Christmas.”
“Yours just might be,” Cody agreed. “But there are others I gotta show you. Come on, you might as well get up and get it over with.”
Glaring at him angrily, the man rose once again to his feet and reached out to take the spirit’s sleeve. “Why not?” he muttered. “This is all a dream anyway.”
“Wanna bet?” Cody said grinning from ear to ear.
Their first stop was the church. From where he stood, Tompkins could see Emma and Sam Cain and many of the other merchants preparing baskets of food and gifts.
“So they got the money they needed after all,” he murmured.
“Not really,” Cody said. “They’re making do with what they had though. Everyone’s gonna get something even if it isn’t much.”
They followed Sam as he gathered up several of the baskets and put them in the back of a wagon. Cody sat on the back of the wagon and motioned for Tompkins to join him. A few minutes later Sam pulled away from the church and started for the edge of town.
“Who lives here?” Tompkins asked quietly.
“You don’t have to whisper, you know?” Cody responded. “They can’t hear us.”
“All right,” the man said in a louder voice. “Whose place is this? I didn’t think anyone lived here.”
“The Horace family moved in here after he hurt his leg,” Cody told him. “They couldn’t keep the farm goin’ and the bank had to foreclose on his mortgage. The family tried, but the kids just aren’t big enough to help.”
As they watched four young children came running from the house, calling to Sam as they ran.
“Merry Christmas!” Sam called in return, jumping down to pull two of the bigger baskets from the stack in the back of the wagon.
“Come see our tree, Marshal!” the older of the children prodded.
“I’ll be right there!”
“Sam! It’s good to see you,” Mrs. Horace called as she rushed to help the man with the baskets. “I don’t know how to thank you and the others for being so kind to us this year.”
“No thanks needed, Mary,” Sam told her firmly. “Next year you can be the one to help.”
“You betcha!” a man’s voice said from the door. Tompkins noted the crutch the man was using—and he noted the lack of color in the man’s face.
“Malcolm, you get back in that house and sit yourself down!” his wife ordered. “Me and Sam will take care of things.”
“She’s pretty bossy these days,” Horace laughed, ducking to avoid the swat his wife aimed at him.
Tompkins and Cody followed the trio back into the single room. In the corner the children were gathered proudly around the scruffiest tree Tompkins had ever seen.
“I cut it down myself!” the oldest boy said proudly. “Ain’t it grand?”
“It truly is grand,” Sam agreed.
The boy puffed up even prouder than before. Sam watched a few seconds longer then turned to leave.
“I have other deliveries to make,” he explained.
“Well you come back here when you’re done and we’ll have some good hot coffee waiting for you,” Mrs. Horace told him.
“You just bet I will,” Sam replied. “Merry Christmas, everyone!”
Tompkins started to follow him out, but Cody’s hand stopped him. “We’re staying here for a bit.”
“Sure was nice of them folks in town to help us out like this,” Mary Horace was saying.
“I wish they didn’t have to,” her husband countered.
“So do I, Malcolm,” Mary agreed. “But it’s for the children.”
The couple stood watching the youngsters ooh and ah over the gifts that had been included in the baskets.
“It’s amazing,” Tompkins whispered.
“What is?” Cody asked.
“They just got charity and yet . . . “
“And yet?” the rider prompted.
“And yet they don’t seem to be bothered by it at all,” Tompkins finished.
“That’s because they know it wasn’t done out of pity,” Cody explained patiently. “It was done because that’s the way things’re done this time of year. Neighbors help neighbors. It could’ve been anyone. This year it was the Horaces.”
They watched a few minutes longer. “Come on,” Cody said suddenly. “We’ve got another stop to make.”
The house they stopped at next was only a bit less shabby than the one they had just left. Cody led the way into the larger of the two rooms. An elderly couple was seated in front of a fireplace, huddled together for a bit more warmth. As Tompkins watched the old man broke out in a fit of coughing that sounded almost as if he would be losing his lungs.
“Who are they?” the shopkeeper asked.
Before Cody could answer, Penelope came in carrying an armful of wood that she used to stoke the fire.
“There we go,” she said brightly. “That should warm you up in no time, Pa.”
She checked the pot that hung near the fire and smiled broadly. “This soup’ll fix you up real good too.”
“Wish I could’a gone hunting,” the old man wheezed. “I could’a got us something better for Christmas dinner.”
“Now don’t you go worryin’ yourself about that, Pa,” Penelope reprimanded gently. “We got us a place to stay, warm food and each other. That’s more than enough.”
“You work too hard, Penny,” her mother said quietly. “We don’t know what we’d do without you.”
“Stop your worryin’ about that too, Ma,” the girl responded. “I can’t think of anywhere I’d rather be.”
Tompkins looked around. The house was barely standing. He could hear the wind whistling through the cracks in the walls. Here and there bits of cloth were stuffed in the larger cracks but they did little to keep out the cold.
“How can anyone live like this?” he muttered.
“It’s all they have,” Cody replied simply. “Didn’t you ever wonder why Penny works for you?”
“It never really mattered,” Tompkins told him. “I needed help, she did her job. I figured she just wanted extra money.”
“Would it have made a difference to you if you had known?”
“Probably not,” the storekeeper admitted. “Not much really makes a difference anymore.”
“You’re beginning to see why we’ve been comin’ to see you tonight,” Cody said with a smile.
Suddenly they were back in Tompkins’ bedroom.
“Well, I’ve done all I can,” Cody explained. “Hopefully you’ve learned enough.”
“So who’s next?” the other man asked.
“You’ll just have to wait and see,” the rider answered as he faded from view.
This time Tompkins was able to stay awake until his next visitor arrived.
“How are you supposed to help me?” Tompkins challenged. “You can’t even talk!”
Ike simply held out his arm. With a sigh the older man took hold—and was taken immediately back to Penelope’s house.
“We’ve already been here!” the storekeeper argued. “I know all about her and her sick parents.”
Ike shook his head, then pointed down the path to the figure trudging wearily towards the house. Penelope looked years older than she had when he’d last seen her. There was no bounce in her step as there had been when she left the store just—was it only yesterday or had it been longer.
“Who are you?” Tompkins demanded as he turned to face Ike once more. “Is this still 1861?”
The mute shook his head a second time.
“Oh, I get it now,” Tompkins said as the thought came to him. “The injun showed me my past, Cody showed me the present and now you’re here to show me my future right?”
This time he received a nod of agreement.
“So why did you bring me back here? What’s changed?”
Once again Ike pointed at Penelope. The pair watched as she mounted the steps and slowly opened the door.
Her mother looked up from her seat by the fireplace. “Penny!” she exclaimed before being wracked by a cough. “I wasn’t expecting you home until later,” the woman continued once she was able.
“I wanted to be home with you, Ma,” Penelope replied. “So I asked Mister Barston for the afternoon off. He said it was okay . . . but I have to go back this evening”
“Barston?” Tompkins said. “She’s working for Barston now? That don’t make no sense.”
Ike held out his hand to show a few coins.
“She did it for the money?” Tompkins guessed. At Ike’s nod, he continued. “But why? I know I didn’t pay her a lot but it was better work than being a barmaid—or whatever Barston has her doin’.”
A gesture directed him back to the scene before them.
“I don’t like you workin’ in that place!” Penelope’s mother was saying.
“I know, Ma,” Penelope agreed. “And I don’t like workin’ there neither. But I have to. At least until we get the doc paid off. Once I make the last payment, I’ll quit Barston’s and you and me are gonna move south where you can be warm all the time.”
“Pay off the doc?” Tompkins questioned. “What happened?”
Ike waved him to silence by pointing to the empty chair beside Penelope’s mother.
Penelope was looking at the same chair. She didn’t make a sound but a tear slid down her cheek.
“I miss him so, Ma,” she whispered.
“So do I, Penny,” her mother agreed. “But it was his time.” She coughed again before continuing. “Just like it’s gonna be my time real soon.”
“NO! Ma, don’t say that!” her daughter protested. “I’ll have the bill all paid up by next month. Then we’ll move south like we planned.”
Tompkins turned to say something to Ike when without warning the house disappeared. Instead he found they were standing in front of the general store. The shopkeeper stepped forward to read the words printed on a sign that hung on the door.
Closed until further notice.
“What’s this supposed to mean?” he demanded. “Who put that there?”
Ike shook his head sadly. As he did, a group of women passed them by.
“I sure do hope they find someone to buy Tompkins’ place soon,” the woman was saying. “It’s an awful long way to go to Willow Springs or Bridger for supplies.”
“I hear Sam and some of the other merchants are still lookin’ to see if old Tompkins had any relatives,” a second woman said. “If they don’t find anyone, I hear they are thinking of opening the store themselves.”
“Might as well,” the first woman replied. “At least someone would get some use of the things he had in stock.”
“What is this?” Tompkins roared. “What do they mean ‘find’ someone to buy my store? I ain’t thinkin’ of selling it.”
Ike remained motionless.
“You know,” the third woman said quietly. “No matter what we thought of William Tompkins, no one deserved what happened to him.”
The second woman shuddered. “Of course he didn’t, God rest his soul.”
As the trio moved on, the full meaning of what they were saying finally hit Tompkins. Turning to Ike, the man reached out to grab him by the shirt.
“What do they mean?” he cried. “What happened to me?”
He looked down to find that they were now standing in the cemetery. A freshly dug grave was just in front of them. Recoiling away from the headstone the storekeeper turned once again to his guide.
“NO!” he exclaimed. “It can’t be!”
Ike nodded solemnly.
Tompkins found himself drawn to the marker against his will. At the top someone had carved the date and his name. Underneath that lettering he saw someone had written something else. He moved closer to read the words.
“Killed by his own greed.”
“NO!” he screamed again.
The echo of his scream reverberated off the walls of his bedroom as William Tompkins sat bolt upright in his bed—his warm, though disheveled, bed.
Looking around he fully expected to find Ike or one of the others waiting for him. Instead he discovered he was completely alone. As he turned to climb from his bed, he heard the thud of something hitting the floor. Reaching down he picked up the offending article.
“That’s the last time I read Dickens in bed!” he declared, tossing the book onto the table.
As they left the Jorgenson's home, Ike couldn't help but steal a glance at buck. He had watched Buck as Teaspoon told the story about Mary, Joseph, and Jesus, and noticed that Buck was listening attentively. Buck had never been that interested in the story before. Ike wished there was some way to give Buck at least one good Christmas. He knew that everyone else had a least one good memory of Christmas to hold on to. He wanted that same feeling for Buck. He had been planning on getting Buck something special, but all this business with Hap had gotten in the way. There wasn't time now to get a special gift. Besides, he didn't even know what to get Buck despite the fact they were best friends. Ike really didn't know much more than anyone else did about Buck's life before. All he knew was that it had been hard. At this thought, Ike smiled to himself - what did he mean thinking "had been"; it still was. That's why he had wanted to make this Christmas special. It was the first one Buck was going to spend with anyhing close to a loving family. Ike urged his mount forward to catch up with Buck. As he pulled along side he asked, *You alright?*
Buck smiled, "I'm fine. Why?"
*Just wondered,* answered Ike.
"The fact that it's Christmas Eve wouldn't have anything to do with your concern, would it?" Buck asked with a slight smile.
*What makes you say that?* Ike asked.
"Every year you get real worried about me at Christmas. I still haven't figured out why," Buck said shaking his head. "It's just another day."
*No," said Ike. *It's a special day!*
"To some people, maybe," Buck said.
*I saw you listening to Teaspoon,* Ike said. *Didn't you believe any of it?*
"I don't know," said Buck. "It's a nice story, but a bit hard for me to accept completely." He sighed. "I wish I could believe like you do, I just can't. It's so different from what I was taught."
*That's alright," said Ike. *The fact that you're willing to think about it means something. I remember a time when you didn't even want to listen to anything about the Christian God or beliefs.*
"That was before," said Buck with a grin.
*Before what?* Ike asked.
"Before you gave me a reason to want to believe in your god," Buck answered.
*What?!* Ike asked pulling his horse up short.
Buck turned his mount around to go back and face Ike.
He stopped when He was along side Ike. "Every year that I've known you you've tried to make sure my Christmas was nice. You've tried to give me the "perfect gift" even when we were at the mission and the nuns told us not to exchange gifts because it wasn't fair for some to receive more than the others. Remember?"
"Then, when we left, you would keep trying to find that "perfect" something, but we some how manaed to not have the money when this time of year cam around. I think now I may have done some things to bring that about on purpose because I was worried that if I didn't celebrate in the right way, you'd get mad and leave. . ."
*I wouldn't have gotten mad,* Ike interrupted.
"I know that now," Buck continued. "I probably knew it then, but I was not used to having people stand by me." He laughed, "Who am I trying to kid? I'm still surprised whe it happens."
Ike grinned. * That's understandable.*
Buck smiled back and nodded. "This year is different," he said. "This year I understand why you enjoy this season so much; I know what it is you've been trying to tell me and help me find. Having a family to share it with makes a difference, and it makes me want to believe like you and the others do." Buck stopped speaking and turned to watch the disappearing shaped of the other riders, Teaspoon, and Rachael. He watched them vanish around the bend in the road, and then looked back at Ike. He smiled, "I think you may have finally given me that "perfect gift" after all."
*I didn't give you anything yet. I haven't had time to get anything,* Ike said with a stunned look.
"Yes, you have," replied Buck as he nudged his horse forward in order to turn around and follow the others. "You gave me a family that cares about me," he added as he rode by.
Ike smiled as he urged his own mount forward. He was glad Buck felt that way too. After all, Christmas was all about family.