*town crier* Only 23 days left ’til Christmas! *rings loud obnoxious bell*
Behind today’s genre mix-up advent calendar door we find Beau Barnett with his Western-style short story, Christmas Wish. Beau usually dips his toe into the pool of YA romance, but see him kick ass in the world of cowboys and cowbells…
by Beau Barnett
Despite the day being so cold and blustery, almost the entire town of Rhapsody had packed into Main Street. Old Man Lee had been going on for days that an old friend would be in town and that every family with a child would want to meet him. I stood in the cold with my daughter, Lottie, wishing my head would quit pounding from last night’s whiskey. Just when the crowd started getting restless, Old Man Lee walked out of his general store, raised his hands, and asked the murmuring, shivering crowd to quiet down.
“Ladies and gentlemen, I know it’s cold, but I promise if you’ll just bear with me your children are in for a special treat,” he called, his raspy voice carrying easily over the crowding throng. A man at least as old as Lee emerged and stood beside him.
“Look at his beard!” a child squealed in glee. The beard was full and gray. He wore glasses, and his cheeks were as red as a rose from the biting wind. I glanced down at my daughter and ruffled her hair. She hardly noticed, staring wide eyed at the visitor.
“You may be wondering who my friend is,” Lee said. “He’s visiting from a faraway place, where it’s very cold and there’s snow on the ground year round. Boys and girls, line up inside for a chance to tell my friend Nick your heart’s desire for Christmas.”
Most of the folks were visibly angry at the ridiculous reason we had all stood in the cold, and some of them left, dragging their children behind them. With my aching head, I wanted nothing more than to do the same, but little Lottie was so excited I couldn’t bear to disappoint her. I picked her up and carried her inside the store. The line formed quickly and orderly, with most of the kids too mesmerized by the sight of Santa Claus to make a lot of noise. Old Man Lee had set up a chair for Nick to sit in–a child would sit in his lap and tell him what they wanted to get for Christmas. Without fail, when Nick would ask if he or she had been good that year, the child would reply emphatically that they had, often bringing a knowing chuckle from their parents. Nick would laugh, remind them that he liked a jar of milk every now and then, and send the child, smiling from ear to ear and almost glowing in their joy, on their merry way. The excitement on the kids’ faces quickly improved the moods of even the sourest scrooges. The line moved quickly, and soon Lottie went running up to Nick, plopping down in his lap.
“Ho, ho, ho!” the red faced man said. “What’s your name, little girl?”
“L-L-Lottie,” she replied, nervous but smiling.
“That’s a beautiful name, Lottie. What would you like me to bring you for Christmas?”
I stood there, watching as my daughter’s face became serious. “Nick, can I ask you for two things?”
Nick chuckled. “I don’t know, Lottie. Have you been a good girl for your father this year?”
“I think so,” she stammered. “I mean, I hope so.”
“Okay, Lottie. What two things would you like on Christmas morning?”
“It’s not very much, I promise! I just want a game of jacks, and-and-uh, can you keep the second one just between us?”
“Sure I can, Lottie.” She glanced quickly at me before leaning in close and whispering something into Nick’s ear. His smile disappeared, and as she pulled away from his ear his face became grim, even the rosiness in his cheeks disappearing. “Nobody’s ever asked me for that, Lottie. I’ll try, honey,” he looked into my eyes for an instant before adding, simply, “I promise.”
She nodded. “Thank you, Nick,” she said, then she hugged him. The happy smile returned to her face just before she bounded down from his lap and ran over to me, taking my hand. “I can’t believe I got to meet Santa!” she squealed. “Let’s go home, Daddy.” I couldn’t help but be curious about what she had asked for that seemed so important, but, sensing from the way his eyes had met mine, I was sure she wouldn’t tell me anyway.
The next day I went over to Old Man Lee’s general store, to see how much a game of jacks would cost. He had them for a dime. He also had a long brown haired doll that I had seen Lottie eying every time she went in for a piece of candy. Thirty-five cents. Lee must have seen it in my hands because he wandered over.
“Evening, Charlie,” he said.
Tipping my hat, I replied, “G’evening, Mister Lee.”
He ran his hand through his wispy, graying hair. “Little Lottie would love that doll, wouldn’t she?” I nodded, placing it carefully back on the table it was displayed on. “I’ll tell you what. It’s Christmas, and I know how tough things have been for you since your wife died, Charlie. Get her the jacks game she wants, and I’ll throw in the doll. A girl should have a nice Christmas.”
I checked my pockets, but didn’t even have a dime on me. I promised him I’d come back later. He clapped me on the shoulder and nodded.
I walked outside and ambled in the direction of home. Walking by the saloon, the one person I didn’t want to see was sitting in a rocking chair just outside the doors. I eyed him warily as I walked by, hoping he wasn’t paying attention. He was. I saw his mouth twist into an ugly smile when he spotted me. His hand went straight to the holster on his hip as he leapt up and hurried towards me. I could smell the alcohol on his breath as he approached.
“Charlie! You got my money?”
“You know I don’t, Billy,” I replied, keeping an eye on the hand over his holster.
“That’s too bad, Charlie.” He yanked the gun out and stuck it up against my chin, the steel so cold it almost burned. “You know I don’t take too kindly to people that ain’t got my money.”
“I just need some time, Billy. You’ll get your money.” I swatted the gun away from my face. He smiled, grabbed me by the shirt and twisted me down to the ground.
“You got three days, Charlie,” he yelled. “150 bucks, or your daughter’ll wake up Christmas morning without a father. Maybe I’ll let you watch me kill her first.”
“I’ll get it,” I said.
He kicked me in the gut, hard. “Just in case you forget,” he spat in my face. He stalked away, laughing. As I struggled to my knees, coughing, he turned and called, “I can’t wait to kill you.”
Christmas Eve was a typically beautiful December morning, though I hardly noticed. I didn’t have the money I owed Billy. I was in the saloon, where a few of the local tough guys often played poker. Of course, Billy was there, too. He threw back a shot of whiskey and called out, “You got my money?”
I swallowed my fear. “Not yet, Billy.” Billy jumped up, his chair falling over, drew his gun, and leveled it at my chest, pulling the hammer back with a click. “You know what that means.” I slowly eased my hand towards my gun, but his eyes settled on my hand just as my fingertips brushed the cold steel. “Don’t even think about it, hotshot,” he growled, jerking his gun. “You know you ain’t quick enough.”
“Billy, stow it. It’s Christmas. He’s going to get your money,” a familiar voice said from behind me. “Put your gun away, nobody’s going to die tonight.”
“And just how is he going to go about doing that, old man?” Billy asked. With Billy distracted, I risked a glance towards the voice. The man from the general store. Nick.
“He’s going to agree right now to do something for me, and when he does, I’m going to pay him the 150 bucks he owes you.”
“How do you know what he owes me?”
“Don’t worry about that, Billy.”
Billy cut his eyes to me. “You got three hours, Charlie. That money ain’t in my hands then, I will shoot you and your daughter both.” He spat on the floor.
“Charlie, come on, let’s talk at Lee’s, where we can have a little privacy,” Nick said, squeezing my shoulder.
My daughter had been telling everyone that would listen the past few days she had met Santa Claus. As I followed him out, I couldn’t help but notice the resemblance was striking. We hurried down the dusty road to Lee’s. I checked a couple of times to see if Billy was following, but I didn’t notice anybody else leave the saloon. There were two sparsely furnished rooms behind the counter where Lee lived. A fire was roaring, and I shrugged off my jacket. I could hear Lee’s belabored snores coming from the other room.
“Mister, I don’t know you. Why are you helping me?” I asked.
“Because I remember what your daughter asked me for,” he replied. “Lottie, wasn’t it?”
“Yes, that’s my angel. What do you want me to do for you?”
Nick smiled, his gray eyes twinkling in the firelight. “You’ve of course heard of the legend of Santa Claus?”
I nodded, and he continued. “Well, it’s not exactly a legend. It’s true. I am he.” My eyes widened in bewilderment at his ridiculous statement. He chuckled, his belly shaking like jelly. “It’s true. Look out the window.” I walked to the window, and pulled back the curtain. In the moonlight sat a sleigh, with eight reindeer attached to it, just like the storybooks said.
“Every year, I hop into my sleigh and deliver toys to all the good boys and girls in the world. I love knowing the joy I bring them. Because I do that, I can’t give my wife, the one person who means more to me than anybody, the one thing she wants for Christmas.”
“What’s that?” I asked.
“She wants to spend Christmas Eve with me. She knows that she can’t; there’s only room for one person in the sleigh. I’m asking you to deliver the gifts to everyone tonight, so that I can spend Christmas Eve with the missus.”
My mouth fell open. “How can I possibly do that, Nick? I’ve never been out of Oklahoma Territory. How in the world am I supposed to get way across the world, anyway? And do it all in one night?”
“The reindeer really do fly, Charlie. They know where to go, and time passes differently when you’re out in the sleigh. No matter how long it takes you, when you get off the sleigh after delivering the last gift, it will be Christmas morning. It’s easy.”
I considered his request, as well as the ridiculousness of the story he weaved. For some reason, I believed this stranger truly was Santa Claus. I slowly nodded. “Thank you, Nick.”
He waved it away. “It’s my job to make children happy. This will make Lottie happy. Thank you for making my wife happy this Christmas. Now take this to Billy, then get some rest, you’ve got a long night ahead of you. Be here at midnight.” He handed me fifteen ten dollar bills. I nodded my thanks.
Billy was, to say the least, surprised when I walked into the saloon and threw the money on the table in front of him. He snatched it from the table and counted it. Satisfied, he lifted his eyes up to my own, glowering. “Merry Christmas, Charlie. I was looking forward to killing you.”
“Leave me and my family alone, Billy. Merry Christmas.” I stormed out of the saloon, and walked the short distance home.
When I left to meet Nick, it had begun to snow lightly, a white dusting covering the road. He was waiting outside the store.
“The bag of toys is loaded in the sleigh,” he said as I approached. “It should be smooth sailing from here.”
“How are you going to make it to your wife?”
Placing his finger on the side of his nose, he winked. A strange green light engulfed him, causing me to shield my eyes. After a few seconds, the light vanished. Though Nick disappeared with the light, I could hear his now familiar voice surround me. “Santa has his ways, Charlie. Ho, ho ho! Merry Christmas!”
Not knowing what else to do, I meandered around the back of the store. The sleigh and reindeer were in the same spot they had been earlier that evening. I climbed into the sleigh, waiting for something to happen. Nothing did. As soon as I thought to pick up the reins, the sleigh took off like a flash, flying into the night. It was as easy as I had been promised. The reindeer knew exactly where to go. At each house, the door would just open as I approached it, and every time I reached into the bag of toys, I couldn’t help but choose the perfect ones for each child. The occasional home left a glass of milk, which I would drink quickly.
As I made my final approach back to Rhapsody, bag of toys empty, I realized I had been everywhere in the world. From a strange place called Greenland that was covered in ice, to a beautiful land called Iceland, to China and Japan, dropping off toys in the homes of good children in the world–except for my precious Lottie. The reindeer were intent on landing behind Old Man Lee’s and wouldn’t listen at all to my commands to stop by my house. After landing, I sat in the sleigh for a moment, despairing for my daughter. Not knowing what else to do, I clambered out of the sleigh. As soon as my feet hit the snow covered ground, the strange green light appeared, and out of it stepped Nick.
“Everything go ok?” he asked. I nodded. “Good. I didn’t forget about Lottie, Charlie. I wanted you to be able to give her gift to her yourself.” He handed me the very game of jacks and doll I had been looking at a few days before.
I took his hand and shook it. “Thank you, Nick. What did she ask for?”
“She wanted you to wake up Christmas morning and feel like eating breakfast with her instead of sleeping away half the day after drinking at the saloon all night. She worries about you getting into trouble, and doesn’t want to upset you.”
“That’s all?” I asked, incredulous. “She could have just asked me to do that. I would love that. When I got mixed up in that mess with Billy, I didn’t know how I was going to be able to pay him. The whiskey made me not worry about it so much.”
I couldn’t believe how much of a monster I had been. My precious daughter deserved so much more. I promised myself I’d be the man she deserved, starting immediately.
The old man chuckled. “Well, with Billy taken care of, now you can concentrate on being a good father to her.” I nodded, knowing that he was absolutely right. He saw that I understood, and held out his hand. I clasped it. “Merry Christmas, Charlie.”
“Thank you. Merry Christmas, Santa.”
He put his finger to his nose and winked again. He was gone.
A couple of hours later, I was cooking a little breakfast when Lottie came bounding out of her bedroom. “Merry Christmas, Sleepyhead. How many eggs do you want?”
She beamed. “You’re making breakfast, Daddy?” She ran up to me and threw her arms around me in a hug. “Merry Christmas, Daddy. I love you. Thank you.”
I bent down and kissed her on the top of her had. “Merry Christmas, Lot. I love you, too. Don’t thank me, honey…thank Santa.” I pointed at two small wrapped presents on the table. “Those are for you.”
The joy on her face as she opened her gifts and saw the doll and the jacks made it the best Christmas of my life.
“Daddy, look!” she exclaimed, pointing out the window. “It’s snowing!” We hurried outside. She gathered some snow and launched it at me, hitting me square in the face. As I raised my eyes skyward and laughed, I swear I heard Nick’s voice bellow, “Ho, ho, ho! Merry Christmas, Charlie!”